The power of networks

The study of networks is an emerging area of enquiry within education research in the United Kingdom. Increasingly, educational researchers, practitioners and policy-makers are plugging in to the potential of both internet based professional networks, and offline professional networks, in pursuit of better teaching and learning outcomes, professional development and overall systematic improvement.

Drawing from relevant research and observing the UK quality code for higher education, this article has categorized three avenues in which the power of networks in education can be observed in Europe and around the world; namely 1) a deepening of the learning and engagement among students and adults at varying levels of education in the uk; 2) an enhancement of professional capital; 3) its positive impact on whole-system improvement.

What is a network?

At its core, a network is a group or system of interconnected people or things. Networking therefor essentially means making connections as Harvard University published here. Networks and interconnection are coterminous concepts that both signify belonging. This sense of belonging can be observed in students from the same institution that attend on campus classes and those that take up distance learning courses in the UK remotely. Effective networks are inclusive spaces that have the potential to promote equality, diversity, participation, and support by virtue of their nebulous power structures and interconnectivity.

Twitter is an example of a digital network. Hashtags serve as meta-data tags that allow users across the globe to take part in collective conversations that cut spatial and temporal dimensions, diminish hierarchies, and include voices that stretch across age, gender and ethnicity.

1) Effective networks deepen the learning and engagement of students and adults

Networks are not just a euphemism for social media; at World Leading Schools Association (WLSA) we connect schools and people across the globe in both online and offline spaces(distance learning). We have a global network of secondary schools in which we connect students and teachers to one another through Youtube educational webinars/conferences, events, and programs, as well as an online learning platform called Spark. What distinguishes these interactions from typical school partnerships is their emphasis on sustained relationships rather than once-off interactions.

The interconnection of people and the diminished hierarchies in these online learning spaces is inspiring to witness. Students from the United Kingdom and across the globe draw on their own experiential and cultural capacities to participate in dynamic cross-continental teams. They connect outwardly by learning from each other while re-experiencing their own cultural identities through their immersion in cultural variance. Effective networks offer heightened experiential learning opportunities that, outside of the course content, result in the development of strong relationships of trust, more intuitive communication, and deeper cultural sensitivity.

2) Networks enhance professional capital

A collaborative culture in education optimizes the educational performance of learning communities by virtue of access to a multitude of knowledge and support.

In a chapter from the book Presumed Incompetent II, Meredith D. Clark recounts her experience of using social media as a source of community. On Twitter, Black academics were able to come together and talk about their experiences, share information, and support one another in their professional development through posts called tweets.

At WLSA we have formed a College Admission Network (CAN) as we recognize this fundamental relationship between professional development and support. CAN works closely with college admissions counselors to demystify the college admissions process for students. The result is that networks become a key driver of change in educational contexts due to knowledge access, cyclical learning, and support.

3) Networks are a positive force in whole-system improvement

Moolenaar and Daly aptly comment, “As educationalists we have to consider the relational links between and among educators at different levels of the system in an effort to better understand the role of relationships in teaching, learning and educational change”. The value of collaborative and networked relationships in education can be thread from micro localized contexts to the wider macro lens. This is shown through Education in Emergencies literature which explicitly recognizes the role of education in nation building and social cohesion in conflict and post-conflict zones. Collaborative education allows us to improve pedagogy, praxis and systems through continuous cyclical learning, knowledge sharing, deepened cultural sensitivity and intuitive communication.

While efforts at improving educational systems commonly consists of technical fixes and accountability measures, the social aspects of reform are often undertheorized due to their unquantifiability. However, there is much to support the notion that sustained and regular shared-learning experiences among students, schools and educators are integral aspects of re-development and social cohesion within societies and global contexts.

The power of networks is a long-held truth, but its immense developmental and transformational properties are only just being theorized in education spaces. WLSA is an organization of various interconnected online and offline academic networks of both students and teachers, our work is a testament to the unquantified power and potential of networks to transform both the emotional intelligence and professional development of learners. Guiding us is an assertion that “seeing the world through other people’s eyes” can have a profound impact on social transformation.

Clark, M.D., 2020. Social Media as a Source for Developing Community. Presumed Incompetent II: Race, Class, Power, and Resistance of Women in Academia, p.269.

de Lima, J.Á. Thinking more deeply about networks in education. J Educ Change 11, 1–21 (2010).

Díaz-Gibson, J., Zaragoza, M., Daly, A., Mayayo, J. and Romaní, J., 2016. Networked leadership in Educational Collaborative Networks. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 45(6), pp.1040-1059.

Duffy, G. and Gallagher, T., 2017. Shared Education in contested spaces: How collaborative networks improve communities and schools. Journal of Educational Change, 18(1), pp.107-134.

Jordi Díaz-Gibson, Mireia Civís-Zaragoza & Joan Guàrdia-Olmos (2014) Strengthening education through collaborative networks: leading the cultural change, School Leadership & Management, 34:2, 179-200, DOI: 10.1080/13632434.2013.856296

Moolenaar, N. and Daly, A., 2012. Social Networks in Education: Exploring the Social Side of the Reform Equation. American Journal of Education, 119(1), pp.1-6.

Rincón-Gallardo, S. and Fullan, M. (2016), “Essential features of effective networks in education”, Journal of Professional Capital and Community, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 5-22.