Open Networked Learning: Challenges and Opportunities

The next iteration of the online course Open Networked Learning is beginning next week. As a past participant, co-facilitator and presenter, I have been involved in different ways with this wonderful open learning opportunity for academics teaching in higher education since 2016. During this time, the landscape of open networked learning has continued to change at a rapid pace, and so this blog is my reflection of the current context in which we are learning together, and the challenges and opportunities this presents.

*Please note that this post is written from my own perspective, and is my own reflection. Everyone will have different points of view, and I look forward to discussing these with you, and learning from these different perspectives.

I am writing this post in the days following the submission of my PhD thesis, which explores the experience of teachers who engage with personal learning networks for professional learning. Therefore my perspective is informed by a background in theoretical concepts of networked learning, connectivism and connected learning, and a familiarity with informal professional learning for educational practitioners. This lens influences how I view the current context of open networked learning. I am also influenced by my geographical location. Although I am honoured to have friends, mentors and peers living and working all over the world, I am currently based in Brisbane Australia. Here we are not bound by the General Data Protection Regulation by which Europeans abide, although I am aware of some of its implications, and as a citizen of the world wide web I have observed the changing terms and conditions on many social media and other networked platforms in which I inhabit.

The current context

Image NeuPaddy Sourced from the Public Domain

The current context of open networked learning is in constant motion, much like the ocean. Never still, never resting, the waves ebb and flow, as different platforms come and go, legislation and policy impacts upon usage, scandals erupt and discoveries are made. Social media impacts and influences our socio-political experiences, artificial intelligence, and machine learning loom large and our everyday lives are informed by algorithms that humans no longer completely understand. It is almost impossible to describe the current context beyond the immediate hour and day.

Yet despite the doom and gloom, I see our current context as a glass half full. I was heartened by this talk by Jaron Lanier, who believes it is still possible for us to achieve a:

world of “peak social media.” What would that be like? It would mean when you get on, you can get really useful, authoritative medical advice instead of cranks. It could mean when you want to get factual information, there’s not a bunch of weird, paranoid conspiracy theories. We can imagine this wonderful other possibility.

Our current context may not be “peak social media” however I believe that if we develop critical digital literacies, by interacting through open courses such as Open Networked Learning, and encourage our students to do the same, there is amazing potential for all of us. We are at a point in history where for the first time, we can connect and share regardless of our geographical or temporal boundaries – what an amazing thing! So what challenges and opportunities do we face in embracing this opportunity? I’d like to address the challenges first, so that I can end this blog post on a high point!

Challenges for open networked learning

Firstly – the challenge of equity and the digital divide

Whether the digital divide is based on physical, skill or usage access, many of us take for granted the everyday use of technology to get online. Even in first world countries such as Australia the digital divide exists, as

Instead of a digital economy designed for everyone, we appear to have created a highly stratified internet, where the distribution of resources and opportunities online reflects Australia’s larger social and economic inequalities. (Thomas, Wilson & Park, 2018)

Globally, while technology and internet access grows, it is not something which can be assumed. While for many of us it seems as though access to the internet is ‘free’ and more information and educational resources are being shared openly than ever before, there are significant barriers for many individuals which must be addressed. The dream of the MOOC as a possible provider for universal higher education is becoming unstuck. Is the answer in Blockchain? (I’m not convinced yet) or do we keep working towards finding a sustainable model for open education and open resources. I am with the latter!

Secondly – the challenge of polarization

It seems like our society is becoming more fractured than ever. Whether divisions are political, economic or social, we are seeing increased polarization. This situation is described and explained in a fabulous podcast by The Guardian called Poles Apart. It features the University of Oxford’s Professor of Social Psychology, Miles Hewstone, and Professor Robb Willer from Stanford University, discussing how we might have come to this point, and what might possibly draw this chasm closed. The podcast suggests that while social media and the internet are not solely responsible for polarisation, the disinhibition anonymous publication to the internet allows, along with the capacity to tailor ones social network to reflect ones own beliefs and ideas are both possibly contributors. Although research has not found that internet access correlates with polarization, it does seem as though being able to surround oneself with like-minded people can strengthen this tendency. Education and exposure to a wide range of views and perspectives is essential for empathy and connection between those holding different values and opinions to be able to respect each other – and therefore it is vital that we teach about echo chambers and filter bubbles, and actively seek a range of opinions and experiences frequently. Educators must extend their own digital literacies, so that they are able to take actions such as bringing back the hyperlink  and encourage engagement in projects such as Antigonish 2.0.

Thirdly – Privacy, identity and digital wellbeing

Linked to the first two challenges, this third challenge is huge, and too complex to address in a single hyperlinked paragraph. The well known saying

“if you don’t pay for the product, you are the product” 

means that for almost all of us, our lives are already being used as a source of profit, as our data is peddled, and who we are is no longer our own business. The interactive documentary Do Not Track is a fascinating and comprehensive treatment of the challenges we face with regard to openly networked technologies, big business and our personal lives. Governments are putting in place legislation to “protect” the individual, but at the same time, asking us to sign away increasing amounts of data for their own purposes. There are no easy answers here. And so as companies spend millions billions of dollars trying to keep us online to wring the dollars out of us, what does this mean for our digital wellbeing? For children who have never known a world without myriad screens, and for teens navigating an already crazy time now further complicated by a whole new frontier? This video sums up that challenge:


After spending so much time writing about the challenges we are facing, it is refreshing to get to the opportunities part of the blog post. The part I get excited about! The part that motivates me to continue studying, learning and working in this area. So you would think that I would have a lot to say about the opportunities before us.

Strangely, I can outline the opportunities we have within the context of open networked learning in just a few words:

Connection, Education, Humanity.

We have the capacity to connect like never before. We have the ability to learn with and from each other through the sharing of information and resources via more channels than we can imagine. We have the opportunity to become more human, and to understand and empathise with each other, to walk in each others’ shoes and see from others’ perspectives in ways never previously experienced.

I have reflected on this blog previously about how I personally have chosen to create positive social networks to contribute to the experience of open networked learning.

Your participation in the Open Networked Learning course signifies that you are taking advantage of this opportunity. As educators, we are in a fortunate position to be able to distribute this opportunity to our students and beyond. If we embrace openness, even in a small way, we can ensure certain barriers to access are reduced, thus helping to overcome some of the polarization that comes from lack of education. Here’s a wonderful interview with Maha Bali on openness in education which sums up this attitude and approach beautifully.

There are many projects online and offline which help to contribute to creating a world of connection, education and humanity.

Why not check out:

The Centre of Humane Technology
Learning Freedom and the Web
Connected Learning
The Global OER Graduate Network
The Open Education Consortium

This post is a point in time post. As I explained at the beginning, things change – fast – in this context, and so what is today, may not be tomorrow.
Thanks also to the Equity Unbound online course and  and   for putting together a wonderful selection of resources, from which I have drawn.

7 thoughts on “Open Networked Learning: Challenges and Opportunities”

  1. I am happy to meet you. Your work sounds fascinating and in line with much of my own open network wanderings and wonderings, particularly around Connected Learning (I am part of the National Writing Project in the US and the CLMOOC tribe, among others).

    Three words from your post surfaced with me: “Connection, Education, Humanity.”

    Take care,

    1. Thank you for getting in touch! I am so glad to hear that my work has resonated with you. I have read a little about the National Writing Project and CLMOOC- and would enjoy speaking with you further!

  2. Inspiring text Kay!
    It´s interesting that we have longer text about the challenges, but maybe your three words actually are three opportunities that are possible to unfold as the challenges.
    I´m trying to curate a story – that if access to information and capacity to communicate are radically different than 10-20 years ago – then education are transformed in its deepest mening. and I think you are dwelling in that story and bringing important corner stones together – connected, education, humanity –
    thanks and keep going – we need you.

    1. Thank you Oskar!
      I am so pleased that you believe my work is important. I too believe that we are in a transformative time for education – it is exciting, challenging and inspiring. We have the potential to create wonderful opportunities for learning and we must continue to keep moving forward, even despite the challenges we face.

      I look forward to continuing this conversation and our journey with you.

  3. Hi KayO, thank you for an interesting text. I am just about to start my journey into ONL202 and therefore try to get a grip on what it is all about. Since I´m in education my self , I recognise your thoughts about the challenges. Really important to have conversations with colleagues and student teachers about ethics, equity (access etc) and how to create inclusive spaces for genuine explorative dialogues to happen that challenge ways of thinking and includes multiple perspectives. I also have a special interest in educational theories (or rather ontoepistemologies and educational philosophies) and therefore enjoyed your presentation of theoretical frameworks for your work and for open networked learning. Looking forward to dive into such parts and see if/how it links not only to social construction but also to new materialist perspectives =) / Susanne

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.