A Scholar's View of Networking

    1. Network Communications in Theory
      1. Socially Shared Cognition
      2. Organizational Learning
      3. Planned Change
    2. Network Communications in Practice
      1. Research and Development
      2. Conferencing and Collaboration
      3. Education and Training
    3. References


This is the Web-based version of the article, "Conducting Network-Oriented Research on the Internet" published in Internetwork magazine (c)1996 Paul David Henry and Gene De Libero. Revised (with updated references and online article links) and available on http://www.programhouse.com/asvon2.html (c)2002-2007 Paul David Henry

Few would dispute the notion that computer networks potentially offer a robust means of communication and interaction. With the digital convergence of traditional media such as print, audio, and video, they are rapidly subsuming the familiar functions of mail, telephone, and television. But what opportunities for learning will occur with the continuing growth of networks and their use by individuals and organizations? Network scholars and practitioners have been considering this question for several years. And what they have learned may provide a foundation for anyone who wants to successfully use this new medium for communications, collaboration, and learning.

In a typically scholarly approach, let's begin by defining a few terms to put this topic into perspective. For example, networking is a term that is variously used to describe a systematic connection between things. In the fields of computer science and information technology, it means using networks to connect computers. In business and the social sciences, it often refers to strategic relationships between people that satisfy personal and professional goals (Agre, 1994). While doing research for the book, Strategic Networking (Henry and De Libero, 1995), we discovered how important it is to consider both meanings. That can be summed up as follows: unless computer networks (the things we make) are used strategically to achieve our goals and objectives, we may connect people, but not always with those goals. Thus, we use the term networking for what people do with the computer networks.

In this article, we will look at how internetworks, in connecting computers, also connect people. And in connecting people, internetworks also let people share their ideas. These ideas are exchanged in interactions directly between people and between people and the artifacts (data and program files, Web pages, mail and newsgroup archives, conference logs, etc.) they make available on networks. We believe that this is the greatest benefit of internetworking: communications between people widely distributed over time and space and among varying interests and backgrounds. We refer to this as network communications and use this term as inclusive of all types of communications between people over local and wide area networks and the Internet. However, some scholars distinguish this further by emphasizing the difference between LAN, WAN, and the Internet and by the types of communications by various services (December, 1996; Morris and Ogan, 1996).

At the heart of our research and that of many other scholars and expert practitioners of network communications is the desire to tap this powerful medium for learning. When people access internetworks to gather information for personal or organizational use, this information can be transformed into knowledge that helps them achieve their goals. In this way, individuals and organizations themselves are being transformed in their use of internetworks as a powerful learning and teaching resource.

Network Communications in Theory

Let's define another term: who are scholars? From the perspective of network-based learning, we are all scholars. Through our use of networks to gather information, we continuously interact and build knowledge through learning and teaching, though not always assuming clear-cut roles of student and teacher, nor occupying the physical settings of schools. And in an era when the strategic use of information is the primary task of many workers, the definition of scholarship as financial reward for study seems equally suitable. Using the resources and expertise found on the Internet and network applications to communicate can provide a rich environment for learning and teaching. Several theories from the social sciences have become useful in helping scholars and practitioners understand and exploit network-based learning.

Socially Shared Cognition

One field of study that has a close connection with computers and networks for learning is cognitive science, a discipline that examines how people think and learn. Socially shared cognition (also known as distributed cognition or shared understanding) is a specialty within this discipline that examines how we use communication, interaction, and artifacts we create from these activities to situate knowledge and learning in the environment rather than solely within our minds.

Donald Norman, a leading cognitive scientist, expressed the notion of augmenting what we know and can remember in his use of the phrase "knowledge in the mind and knowledge in the world" (Norman, 1988). Knowledge in the world is something we intentionally create through our social interaction and through artifacts that we create and use. Norman describes how pilots place labels (speed bugs) on flight instruments to externally record critical speeds. And we need to look no further than the post-its we place on or near computers to recognize how strategically placed lists and notes help augment our knowledge in the world. Norman sums up the benefits as follows: "knowledge in the head is subject to the limits posed by memory and attention; knowledge in the world reminds people" (Norman, 1992).

Many scholars note that this external knowledge-building can extend into our activities and artifacts on computer networks. One use of shared understanding occurs in the area of computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) in which collaborating individuals carry out tasks over computer networks using e-mail, conferencing, and other services (Hunt, 1992).

However, it's important to acknowledge that network communications are not in themselves structured enough to facilitate higher-order learning. Many cognitive scientists feel that the learning process and environment must be structured for knowledge-building rather than only knowledge-representation as is true of "tool" applications such as word-processing, presentation graphics, or even e-mail (Scardamalia and Bereiter, 1993; Acker, 1995). Networks can facilitate rich interaction with artifacts such as articles, simulations, etc. and other people (cooperative learning with other students, expertise through online mentors, etc.). However, unless these learning activities are structured in a way that learners actively test knowledge through theory-building and problem-solving, the technology will only facilitate communications, but not learning.

Organizational Learning

Another field of study that can shed light on our collective use of networks is organizational learning, This social science discipline examines processes such as knowledge acquisition, information distribution and interpretation, and other types of learning that occur within organizations. With increased global competition and rightsizing of their resources, organizations are becoming acutely aware of the need to create a culture of learning through the use of information systems and computer networks (Balasubramanian, V. (1996).

Although it takes more time and investment, many companies are creating an indigenous culture of collaboration and learning within the organization through explicit rewards and participation of their employees. The Internet can be tapped in these programs as a rich base of interaction and information that can provide information on-demand and continuous learning.

Planned Change

The other major field of study that can shed light on our use of computer networks is found within the planned change specialty among sociologists. Many researchers have found that successfully implementing new technology such as computer networks and network communications requires a change in the organizational culture and in the attitudes and roles of its members.

Organizations that adopt distributed information systems through the Internet and/or intranets must also tackle the challenges involved in a re-distribution of power. This is especially critical when moving from highly-centralized information systems where a core of high-level decision-makers and information systems elite have traditionally governed access.

Whether it's establishing workgroup collaboration in business, or implementing computers and networks in school or at home, unless the corresponding changes in the organizational culture and the roles of those involved are an integral part of the planning, these innovations are likely to fail (Giacquinta, Bauer, and Levin, 1993). Planned change that is evolutionary and participatory (to some degree) rather than top-down can help improve adoption and use.

Another critical issue in successful implementation of new technology is achieving a critical mass (Morris and Ogan, 1996). In the early days of the Internet, the use of e-mail technology was available but not always used because online colleagues were not sure if their correspondents with e-mail addresses would check their electronic mailboxes. Beyond achieving a base of online users, the notion of universal service is also important. Unless enough people have access to global internetworks and common applications, the extent of communications and its associated learning and teaching will be limited to the privileged and the few (Anderson, Bilkson, Law, and Mitchell, 1995). Limited access reduces the diversity and extent of information and interaction, making us all part of the "information poor."

Network Communications in Practice

Scholars and scholarly uses of computer networks can be found in the many individuals and organizations who have successfully exploited the Internet and intranets for communications.

Research and Development

Timely dissemination of research information among academic researchers was a primary objective in funding the internetworking that became known as the Internet. The linking of university networks and the emergence of services and applications such as e-mail, newsgroups and later the World Wide Web provided a rich environment for scholarly communications. Besides point to point e-mail communications between scholars at each step in their work (contacting colleagues, developing ideas, gathering support, conducting research, and publishing results), multi-point communications of scholarly mailing lists, newsgroups, and Web sites constitute a significant part of the shared and stored knowledge on the Internet.

Government-agencies have to trim their research budgets and find news ways to increase productivity. Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico manages and conducts research programs for the Department of Energy. With about 8,500 people in laboratories from New Mexico and northern California to test facilities in Nevada and Hawaii, their intranet was designed to share research and administrative information through the creation of departmental home pages that can be accessed by anyone in the organization.

Businesses are also taping the widely-available Web server and client applications to use for internal communications within their private intranets. For example, 3M used its intranet to publish its corporate economists' quarterly reports for use by its employees.

In the rapidly changing and highly competitive field of semiconductors, National Semiconductor helped engineers stay abreast through an internal web site called "Community of Practice." As an intranet using Web software on their private network, it offers a highly secure forum from which engineers can share confidential research and development data with their colleagues.

Olivetti used an intranet to create what they call a "virtual laboratory." It linked the company's research laboratories allowing researchers to access product development information, discuss research in dedicated discussion areas, and coordinate project management and procurement efforts.

The Internet and intranets offer two unique benefits for publishing. One is that publishers can produce information on demand that can also be easily updated. The other benefit is that anyone can assume the role of publisher. An outcome of that means that everyone can be both producer and consumer of information, profoundly changing the traditional roles of publishers and their readers.

The consequences of this change in technology are not merely historical, but social. As witnessed by searching or surfing the Web, many individuals are publishing artifacts of their personal and professional knowledge for anyone who visits their site to see and share (see examples in the Links to Learning table). Teachers are creating online syllabi with course materials and excerpted readings for their students and others. Scholars, both in and outside of academia, are sharing their expertise through the words, images, and sounds of networked multimedia. And by including annotated hypertext links on their Web pages, they are also sharing their knowledge through the associations they make to other sources of information.

Of course, publishers of newspapers, magazines and books are not waiting on the sidelines despite their concerns over the use of this new medium and the threat they perceive it has to traditional print publishing. Many of these publications now have online versions that are fully equivalent in content, or provide a limited version or subscriber-based access.

Non-profit organizations and government agencies have embraced Internet publishing as a cost-effective way to reduce costs of traditional printing. And in the same manner, businesses large and small are providing online information not only of commercial interest such as marketing, sales, corporate recruiting, but also of historical and social interest; information that would not have traditionally appeared in their external communications.

By doing so, these organizations are acknowledging a new paradigm for communicating with current or prospective customers: building relationships through value-added information. For example, this information may be of an educational nature that characterizes an organization's history, such as on the Genentech site, or provides an e-learning portal to understanding complex, networking technology, such as on the Cisco site, or it may provide critical information of a social nature such as listings of emergency relief and support groups on the Red Cross site.

Using the Web for internal communications is especially helpful for large, globally-distributed corporations such as the pharmaceutical firm of Eli Lilly & Company that develops, manufactures and sells pharmaceutical products in 120 countries and has 30,700 employees worldwide. Getting current information about research, marketing, and other developments helps them stay abreast of opportunities and critical information often arising from other locations around the world.

Through interactive languages such as Java, Web publishing has been changing from a presentational model associated with the print era to a more highly interactive model associated with computer programming. Using this more interactive model, Web pages can present each individual who returns to a site with a dynamically-updated, customized display that acknowledges the user's specific interests. This can take the form of a pre-arranged transaction, presenting information about a product, or providing other information and links of interest to that user.

Conferencing and Collaboration

Conferencing is a vital activity. It provides the opportunity to meet face-to-face with other scholars, researchers, and professionals, attend conference sessions that demonstrate the latest R&D, and publish work in conference proceedings. However, given the increasing work schedule and travel restrictions, there clearly needs to be alternatives to attending conferences in person.

Until recently opportunities for real-time conferencing were limited to high-ticket audiovideo conferencing systems, but several Internet-based services and applications hold the promise of providing alternatives:

  • Instant Messaging Applications: ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger
  • Multimedia Conferencing: Windows' built-in NetMeeting provides text, audio, video, whiteboard, and file transfer tools, but there are other conferencing clients you can use, including ICUII and iVisit
  • Audio and Video Streaming: using popular applications, such as RealAudio servers and players.

Web-based conferencing and communications are increasingly being used by businesses who recognize the value using the Internet or more commmonly, an intranet to hold meetings. For example, researchers and other employees at Genentech are using Web-based newsgroups and bulletin boards to tap local and global expertise in the rapidly-changing field of biotechnology.

An educational conference video-streaming service is provided by the Ready2Net Web site at California State University, Monterey Bay. They provide both live events as well as an archive of previous Web casts that are available for viewing using RealPlayer.

Web pages on corporate sites (both intranet and Internet) are being enhanced to include real-time conferencing. This is accomplished through multimedia conferencing "plug-ins" to Web browsers, the use of JavaScript and Java for scripted interaction, or the use of third-party applications that use Web technology to provide multimedia conferencing.

Despite the many benefits of the Internet or intranets for online conferencing, several researchers have expressed a need for more attention to be paid to the social aspects of group interaction in a medium where many social cues (body language, a full view of the setting, etc.) are not fully present. This can effect the degree of trust that people have in sharing and revealing more personal information (Maes, 1994). Interface design that imposes less structure on users by using software agents that operate under user control may make the use of the application more natural and may help improve trust in systems and the use of information.

Education and Training

There is an academic tradition of providing network-based education through virtual universities (Hutchison, 1995; Acker, 1995), but these were initially found mostly in Europe. American schools initially developed their own style of distance learning along the lines of mail-based correspondence courses and teleconferencing as extensions of traditional schools, especially where accreditation was required.

Many instructors are using local networks and the Internet to to support their face-to-face courses and seminars by using blended or hybrid e-learning. Providing Web sites with descriptions and reading lists, e-mail and newsgroup discussions and other activities can augment the traditional classroom or training room curriculum in productive ways that allow more time for planning and communication with students.

Coinciding with the movement to blend traditional courses in K-12 education and colleges, is the growth of online-only courses offered by:

With businesses facing global competition and rapidly-changing technology with fewer workers and trimmed budgets, on-demand training has become critical to survival. As a rich resource of information and expertise, the Internet or intranets can be tapped by organizations for localized, on-demand training for employees whether at work, in the field, or at home. And with careful planning, collaborative learning partnerships can be established between two or more organizations (Wheeler, Valacich, Alavi, and Vogel, 1995).

In sum, this new medium offers us an unprecedented opportunity accompanied by a significant challenge. Internetworks and network communications can provide a foundation for learning, but implementing organizational strategies is often a daunting task. If we consider the insights offered by network scholars and the examples provided by successful practitioners, we can create more flexible and productive paths to learning. For on the `Net, we are all scholars sharing a journey of discovery.


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