Communities, networks, and education

Jon Mason

Department of Vocational Education and Training, Faculty of Education,
The University of Melbourne, Swanston Street, Parkville, Vic. 3052, Australia

This paper is an overview of my PhD research proposal. It is concerned with investigating evolving notions and expressions of community and networks in the context of educational culture which is engaged in the process of discovering the opportunities and challenges presented by Communications and Information Technologies (CITs). Parallel to this is the task of identifying key elements or threads that might be common to a wide diversity of educational "electronic communities". The research is further focused on a theme of "the changing paradigm", particularly within higher education, which runs through and across technological, organisational and academic domains. One perspective on this is articulated by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne Alan Gilbert when he argued in his keynote speech in November 1996 at The Virtual University? Symposium:

... the first step to survival is to ensure that the information superhighway runs through every great campus, and the second is to ensure that the riches it brings are in turn enriched in a real learning community.

The notion of "learning community" is one that will therefore form a locus for this research. In pursuing this, many so-called online learning communities will be analysed in terms of their creation and stated mission, development and methods for determining their effectiveness or otherwise. Following, in particular the theoretical model of Tiffin and Rajasingham, a range of case-studies will be presented. However, at this early stage of the research and for the purposes of WWW7, the primary case-study is concerned with the development of Education Network Australia (EdNA). EdNA is a government-sponsored "meta-network" launched in Australia in 1997 primarily as an online Information Directory Service — although its beginnings were some two years earlier, when it was conceived more in terms of connectivity and infrastructure. In its current (early) stage of development its foundations have firmed as a framework geared toward fostering collaboration and co-operation throughout the various Australian education and training sectors — that is, schools, vocational education and training, adult and community education, and higher education. In order to develop, it has had to adopt principles of exclusion (as well as inclusion) in order to provide only "quality" online educational resources for its constituency. In this process, identity is a key success factor.

Community; Networks; Identity; EdNA

1. Introduction

The purpose of the study is to identify key elements or threads that might be common to a wide diversity of "electronic communities" operating within educational contexts. Such communities can express themselves as an outcome of extending the forum for interaction of an existing co-located community or workgroup, or more typically, as a self-sustaining "virtual" association existing across geographical, cultural, and timezone boundaries.

Why this focus?
Communications and Information Technologies (CITs) can be enabling tools which provide opportunities for communication and interaction which have not hitherto been possible. It does not follow, however, that these tools are intrinsically enabling and, in fact, evidence suggests that contrary scenarios proliferate. [2,11] Notwithstanding this constraint, CITs have been, and are, fundamental to the emergence and development of so-called "electronic communities", "virtual communities", online "learning communities," and other associated collaborative and co-operative activities which occur in online environments (with "online" being used here in its broad and common usage to include both synchronous and asynchronous computer networks). The communications cultures evolving with usage of these technologies are unprecedented and in educational settings pose transformative challenges to the established pedagogical and organisational cultures [4]. Thus, analysis of these cultures will likely result in the "discovery" of a range of new practices being implemented in response and may further assist in the formulation of educational paradigms appropriate to them.

In the 1990s, concepts of "globalisation", "lifelong learning", and "just-in-time training" have become commonplace. These concepts are just a small set of an ever increasing lexicon associated with transition into the "information age" or "knowledge age" heralded by the "digital revolution". At one extreme "the media" hypes up this process. It is itself fueled by its own vested interests in meeting this challenge, a challenge presented foremost by the "convergence" of digital technologies used in mass media distribution, telecommunications, computing, and, to some degree, education itself. At another extreme can be identified a paralysis or sluggishness in cultural response within higher education, both academically and organisationally, despite the surplus of "visionary" rhetoric. Thus, this study must also closely monitor the evolution of concepts concerning "community" in the delivery of online education and services.

Of course, hand-in-hand with the evolution of language associated with these changes is the evolution of socio-cultural organisation. "Lifelong learning" and "just-in-time training" have become marketable slogans in an era where higher education is increasingly a mass market and a highly competitive proposition. Thus, notions of professional development as a process conducted in short bursts of intense professional learning that in turn punctuate longer cycles of "business as usual" in the workplace are also in question. This seems to be particularly so for educators: it is commonplace commentary that the balance in core activity of an educator is shifting from the "sage on the stage" to the "guide on the side".

2. Research/conceptual context

It is intended that appropriate theoretical/conceptual frameworks are researched and tested for their validity. Those that form the conceptual context for this investigation all intermesh to some degree. The primary sources forming the basis for this investigation include those of Berge and Collins [1], Castells [2], Tiffin and Rajasingham [14], Rheingold [12], Snyder [13], and Harasim et al. [6]. It is also anticipated that as the research proceeds the implied theoretical synthesis will need to be flexible so as to accommodate the rapid evolution of CITs and the educational communities and cultures which are adopting them.

While the Internet is clearly the Meta-Network of all meta-networks it is identitification with a particular community which can make an electronic network truly value-added and conducive toward collaboration. In the case of EdNA, it is the education and training communities of Australia which serve to define the identity of the network — or more accurately, this meta-network since it brings together, and endeavours to promote collaboration across, several other large regional networks.

3. Research questions

From the literature survey (which includes ongoing access to online resources) a number of research questions have emerged — they are listed below in order of relevance, with the first two being fundamental:

4. Research methods

In any PhD-related study semantics certainly demand that definitions are clarified. For example, depending from which vantage one looks from, a "community of networks" could also be viewed as a "network of communities". This blurring of semantics, however, also seems to be a feature of the object of study. Following on from this and the questions outlined above there are also certain intrinsic difficulties concerning rigorous methodological study of the subject. This is certainly a common caveat for academic papers presented at IT-related conferences (e.g., see Roger Clarke's paper at CAUSE 97).

A diversity of university domains and "communities of practitioners" are investigated:

5. EdNA: a case-study

Education Network Australia (EdNA) is an initiative of the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments together with key stakeholders from the Education and Training sector within Australia. It has been established to provide value-added online services to this community and as a means of optimizing the potential for communications and information technology in education and training.

Since its original conception in 1995 EdNA has undergone a number of significant changes that reveal a sustained response to technological development that is concerned with facilitating collaboration. Originally, EdNA was conceived as a physical network with emphasis being placed on infrastructure development and connectivity, particularly for the schools and Vocational Education and Training (VET) communities (AARNet, the Australian Academic and Research Network already being well-established for Universities). As Internet usage in Australia has increased over the last few years, EdNA has developed to its current form as a national framework for collaboration between all sectors of the Australian education and training community. A key component of this endeavour is the building of a value-added Directory Service that aims to point only to quality content.

To achieve this a number of consultative groups have been established, aimed at both facilitating the more general process of collaboration on the use of CITs as well as on the establishment and development of the EdNA Directory Service. Sectoral advisory groups provide input into the development of EdNA from each sector's perspective and to exchange information and ideas about the use of CITs in education.

While this framework is also likely to lead to significant cost savings by avoiding excessive duplication and overlap, this is not necessarily the main opportunity or unstated agenda. There is much more to networks than economics! While it may be true that the EdNA initiative could be construed as having a strong economic appeal, particularly to government stakeholders, this is not the only agenda or implication. Yes, it is very true that there is a decline in public funding of higher education worldwide and governments are scrutinizing university management more closely. But with this there are also other features of the so-called "global" economy — or what some commentators prefer to describe as a trend toward an "Informational Economy" [2] or a "Network Economy" [10]. Diminishing resources may be the downside but as the networks develop so do the opportunities and the economic rules. In this scenario new forces of competition are unleashed. But the nodes are not isolated — it is the connections and the potential for collaboration that will be the lifeblood of this new paradigm. As Kelly puts it:

The grand irony of our times is that the era of computers is over. All the major consequences of standalone computers have already taken place. Computers have speeded up our lives a bit, and that's it. In contrast, all the most promising technologies making their debut now are chiefly due to communication between computers — that is, to connections rather than computations. And since communication is the basis of culture, fiddling at this level is indeed momentous. Information's critical rearrangement is the widespread, relentless act of connecting everything to everything else. We are now engaged in a grand scheme to augment, amplify, enhance, and extend the relationships between all beings and all objects. That is why the Network Economy is a big deal. [10, p. 140]

Although it must be re-stated that this has taken some years to evolve, it is clear that EdNA has now established an organisational framework and vision for collaboration with respect to the utilisation and development of online services in educational contexts within Australia. Currently, the EdNA Directory Service is a combination of "push" and "pull" online services where both high quality catalogued online information resources are made easily accessible as are a wide range of discussion groups also hosted. However, while these foundations are in place their durability and effectiveness as value-added services for the education and training communities is yet to be tested. Ongoing participation by a number of communities, which vary both in scope and scale, will be the measure of future success. Without doubt, the evolution of EdNA will provide a rich resource for research on determining critical success factors or impediments concerning online culture. For example, the pursuit of collaboration, might have a "wholesome" or "civic" connotation — but given the turbulence throughout education it can also be seen as an expression of a survival instinct.

Other developments around the globe also parallel the EdNA initiative: in the UK, the Department of Education and Employment also launched in 1997 a discussion paper, "Connecting the Learning Society: National Grid for Learning" as part of a consultation process leading toward implementation in early 1998 [8]. In North America, EDUCOM has merged with CAUSE and released a metadata specification specifically for the education community [9].

6. Implications/conclusions

From a technological perspective the term "convergence" has clear meaning in the digital age. However, it is identified early in this research that convergence operates within and across other domains and has particular implication in organisational change.

It is likely that through the proposed research, unique socio-cultural activities associated with electronic communities will be revealed. This expected outcome is not unreasonable given that such a relationship between technology and culture has been a common theme throughout human history.

Two of the central goals of EdNA — fostering co-operation and collaboration within and across the education and training sectors of Australia — are elements common and to some extent necessary in online learning communities. But behind this pursuit of collaboration there is likely to be revealed a number of contributing forces — not the least of which is an expression of a survival instinct.

Acknowledgements: I wish to acknowledge the support and interest in this study of my supervisor, Dr Kar-Tin Lee, of the Dept of Vocational Education and Training, the University of Melbourne and also all those active in the development EdNA.


[1] Berge, Z. and Collins, M., Computer Mediated Communication and the Online Classroom. Hampton Press, NJ, 1996.

[2] Castells, M., The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Vol. I –- The Rise of the Network Society. Blackwell, Oxford, 1997.

[3] Clarke, R., Encouraging cyber culture, 1997,

[4] Dolence, M. and Norris, D., Transforming Higher Education: A Vision for Learning in the 21st Century. Society for College and University Planning, Ann Arbor, 1995.

[5] Gilbert, A., The virtual and the real in the virtual university, Keynote Speech presented at The Virtual University? Symposium, The University of Melbourne, 1996,

[6] Harasim, L., Hiltz, S., Teles, L. and Turoff, M., Learning Networks: A Field to Teaching and Learning Online. MIT Press, Cambridge, 1995.

[7] Education Network Australia,

[8] National Grid for Learning (UK),


[10] Kelly, K., New rules for the new economy: twelve dependable principles for thriving in a turbulent world, Wired, pp. 140–144, 186–197, September 1997.

[11] Mason, J. and Hart, G., Computer mediated communications: alleviator or alienator?, presented at CAUSE in Australasia '97, Melbourne, April 14–16, 1997, pp. 387–394.

[12] Rheingold, H., The virtual community, Minerva, 1993; also online at:

[13] Snyder, I. Hypertext – The Electronic Labyrinth, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1996.

[14] Tiffin, J. and Rajasingham, L., In Search of the Virtual Class, Routledge, London, 1995.