Theories and models of and for online learning
First Monday

Theories and models of and for online learning by Caroline Haythornthwaite, Bertram C. Bruce, Richard Andrews, Michelle M. Kazmer, Rae-Anne Montague, and Christina Preston

For many years, discussion of online learning, or e–learning, has been pre–occupied with the practice of teaching online and the debate about whether being online is ‘as good as’ being offline. The authors contributing to this paper see this past as an incubation period for the emergence of new teaching and learning practices. We see changes in teaching and learning emerging from the nexus of a changing landscape of information and communication technologies, an active and motivated teaching corps that has worked to derive new approaches to teaching, an equally active and motivated learning corps that has contributed as much to how to teach online as they have to how to learn while online, with others, and away from a campus setting. We see the need for, and the emergence of, new theories and models of and for the online learning environment, addressing learning in its ICT context, considering both formal and informal learning, individual and community learning, and new practices arising from technology use in the service of learning. This paper presents six theoretical perspectives on learning in ICT contexts, and is an invitation to others to bring theoretical models to the fore to enhance our understanding of new learning contexts.


Living technology (Bertram C. Bruce)
Co–evolution of technology and learning practices (Richard Andrews)
Technology and tie formation: Social and technical foundations for latent ties (Caroline Haythornthwaite)
Community–embedded learning (Michelle M. Kazmer)
The learner–leader model (Rae–Anne Montague)
Braided learning: Promoting active professionals in education (Christina Preston)




A major transformation is happening that has some worried and others delighted – this major transformation is the rapid and pervasive adoption and diffusion of online learning or e–learning. Whether for formal degree completion or personal development, individuals and their communities are going online in increasing numbers to learn, teach each other, and create their own communities of inquiry. In wholly online environments and in hybrid, on and off–line contexts, new technologies are giving rise to new educational and learning practices, and the new environments are engendering new behaviors. Although treated as created yesterday, online learning is now about 17 years old [1] and, in many cases, builds on years of success in distance education (Thompson, 2007), and on computers in teaching (e.g., the PLATO system, In those 17 online years, teachers have been preoccupied with how to teach in the new online setting, and now there are conferences, journals, books, and degrees that address how to teach online. Administrators, students and employers have been preoccupied with whether online is ‘as good as’ offline, and many studies have addressed this topic, largely coming to a draw on which is better (see for example, Russell, 2001).

The authors contributing to this paper see something different emerging from this 17–year incubation period. We see changes in teaching and learning emerging from the nexus of a changing landscape of information and communication technologies, an active and motivated teaching corps that has worked to derive new approaches to teaching, an equally active and motivated learning corps that has contributed as much to how to teach online as they have to how to learn while online, with others, and away from a campus setting. These three components operate against the backdrop of continuous societal change in online practice, including the massive growth in online resources available via the Internet, and the foreground of minimal change in academic practice. Bricks–and–mortar colleges are presented as the one best way to attain an education; online learners would disagree. Online learners would point out that there is no college where they live, that driving two or more hours to the nearest college takes away from hours they could spend learning and/or with family. Online learners would tell you about their lifelong ambition to attain the degree they are pursuing, and how taking it online makes it possible to combine work and learning. As members of classes, and as members of online communities, they would tell of being proactive in their learning, engaged with others, sharing social and emotional experiences, belonging to a community, gaining and sharing learning with others in their on and offline embedding contexts, and learning to be a online citizen.

The authors of this paper have all been working with and researching online learning for most of its lifetime. We combine expertise in examining teaching, learning, and social interaction online in degree–granting and professional development environments. We share a common focus on practice – emergent practice – occurring at the intersection of teaching, learning and ICT use, affecting and affected by social change, community practice, and individual meaning–making around technology and online social interaction.

Our experiences lead us to see the need for a different tack to achieve forward motion. We see the need for, and the emergence of, new theories and models of and for the online learning environment, addressing learning in its ICT context, considering both formal and informal learning, individual and community learning, and new practices arising from technology use in the service of learning.

This paper presents six theoretical perspectives on learning in ICT contexts, and is an invitation to others to bring theoretical models to the fore to enhance our understanding of new learning contexts. The theories and models presented here address:

  • Living technologies (Bruce)
  • Co–evolution of technology and learning practices (Andrews)
  • Technology and social tie formation (Haythornthwaite)
  • Community–embedded learning (Kazmer)
  • Learner–leaders (Montague)
  • Braided learning (Preston)

The following section briefly introduces the transformative effects of ICT that affect learning before turning the text over to each author to present their own learning theories and models.

Transformative effects

The kind of technology effects that are creating the new ground for learning derive largely from the impact of computer media on communication. As many researchers have articulated (e.g., Culnan and Markus, 1987; Wellman, et al., 1996; Haythornthwaite and Nielsen, 2006; Herring, 2002; Sproull and Kiesler, 1991), computer–mediated communication (CMC) changes the exposure of individuals to the group as well as the immediacy of group characteristics to the individual. Anonymity and invisibility of physical attributes, local setting, distractions and side activities deprive others of non–verbal sources of information, but also provide cover for individuals who may then feel freer to contribute and to experience a more level playing field. The group or audience is also anonymized. The physical appearance of individuals and of the group, including dress, gaze, seating arrangement and number, are not apparent to individual speakers. Also invisible is the distribution in geographic space; cues are not present in the online space that show where individuals are currently situated (home, office, coffee shop), and where in the world they are located. During most online learning sessions, all that is seen via CMC is text and perhaps a list of identifiers for the people online. Cues about personality, background, engagement, and location all come through the exchange of text. Hence the emphasis in many discussions of online teaching and learning about encouraging participation, gaining collaboration and sustaining presence (Garrison and Anderson, 2003; Haythornthwaite, et al., 2000; Swan, et al., 2006).

As well as anonymity, another major transformative effect of CMC is its persistence (particularly explored by Thomas Erickson and Susan Herring regarding ‘persistent conversation’, see Texts entered in CMC exchanges remain present for others to read now or later, in sequence or out of sequence, as part of the current learning event or retrieved long after discussion has ended. In online learning, conversational text persists, remaining as a record, retained and accessible for at least the span of the learning activity, and possibly for longer depending on the practices of each community and institution. As for other online communities, these texts, and the online environment where they are created and retained, act as a living repository for the experience and expertise of the group. They contain evidence of identity – individual and communal – and of purpose. These texts enact the ‘mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire of actions’ that denote a community of practice (Wenger, 1998). In online learning environments, these characteristics adhere as much to the practice of being an online group as they do to the learning purpose and to the profession, interest or hobby that comprises the learning content. Such online practices arise locally, but, with the current growth of online communication in general, they also derive from norms emerging about online practice, such as the use of smilies and short message text (for more on emergence of practices in online and distributed groups, see DeSanctis and Poole, 1994; Orlikowski, 2002; for more on online communities, see Baym, 2000; Kendall, 2002; Haythornthwaite, 2007; Jones, 1995; Kiesler, 1997; Wellman, et al., 1996).

A third transformative effect bears on the locus of engagement. Distributed participants divide their attention between local and remote constituencies. A parent at home, learning online, may have simultaneous responsibility for managing children’s interactions; an employee at the office may choose to retreat from local work obligations, or they may engage more substantially with work that is synergistic with their learning. At home, individuals may juggle access to and space for computers, while at work they may need to negotiate for time and permission to use computer resources. All add learning as the ‘third shift’ (Kramarae, 2001) and a new social world (Haythornthwaite and Kazmer, 2002). Being off–campus means each individual negotiates and reformulates their learning place and time in their local setting, and across settings such as home, work, and community (Bruce, 2004; Crook, 2002). Who is available for support, help, and common inquiry is centralized online, but decentralized offline. This change is revealing new configurations to learning, including enhanced engagement with the local community (Kazmer, 2007), and enhanced exchange of experiences among students (Montague, 2006).

These technical effects are leading the transformations evident in the practices of learners and others who engage online. Learners are increasingly taking part in the learning process. By creating, directing and sharing their own learning experiences, online learners are beginning to create a new standard for learning practices, changing the way education is and can be practiced. Certainly some of this sounds utopian, that learners are taking charge of their own learning processes, but that is precisely what is happening in environments that provide the scope to enhance learner experiences with teachers stepping back but not out of the picture. Prominent in this view are Garrison and Anderson’s (2003) ideas of social, teaching and cognitive presence, as well as the many calls for participation, engagement, and collaboration, as in the field of computer–supported collaborative learning (CSCL; Koschmann, 1996; Miyake, 2007), and treatment of the online learner as a member of a community of practice (Thorpe, 2002; Stuckey, 2006).

New models and theories

At the same time as this transformation is taking place, many retain an idea of online learning that is fed by old notions of individuals sitting alone at computers, interacting only with a programmed tutor, learning out of context, lacking contact and engagement with real people. While tutoring systems exist, and in some contexts online learning does mean following through a tutorial program, the kind of online learning being promoted and enacted in educational institutions, communities of practice, and online groups and communities are based on principles of collaboration, dialog and conversation, active structuring of learning, and open sharing of resources and experiences. This kind of online learning appears under the names asynchronous learning networks (ALN; Harasim, et al., 1995; Hiltz and Goldman, 2005; Swan, 2005), computer–supported collaborative learning (CSCL; Koschmann, 1996; Koschmann, et al., 2002; Miyake, 2007), and, more recently, e–learning (Andrews and Haythornthwaite, 2007; Haythornthwaite and Kazmer, 2004; Lea and Nicoll, 2002; Land and Bayne, 2005).

Theoretical approaches guiding these efforts cluster at the collaborative, constructivist and cognitivist end of the spectrum – encouraging active participation and contribution by learners – and carrying principles of adult learning (andragogy; Knowles, 1984; Bransford, et al., 1999) graduate learning (Gullahorn, 2003), and expert learning (Scardamalia and Bereiter, 1996) to e–learners of all ages and stages. To date, however, much of the focus on online learning has been on guiding interactions in the online environment, effectively continuing the notion of isolation of learners (albeit now isolated with other online learners), even if not continuing the notion of passivity. Moreover, while there is consideration of the role of technology in online learning, this is too often confined to choices about learning management systems. What is only minimally explored is the role of technology as a constituent in e–learning practice (e.g., examining what online learning technologies afford for learning; e.g., Robins, 2004) and as part of an e–learning activity system (Engeström, et al., 1999; Russell, 2002). The emphasis on teaching has also overshadowed consideration of embedding contexts, giving sporadic attention to institutional actions, the embedding context for teachers (e.g., Hiltz and Turoff, 2005; Lankspear, et al., 2002; Noble, 1998) and learners (Crook, 2002); home and work contexts for learners (e.g., Kramarae, 2001; Haythornthwaite and Kazmer, 2002); the online context as a place of community rather than just of instructional learning (e.g., connecting to the literature on online community noted above; Haythornthwaite, et al., 2000; Renninger and Shumar, 2002; Barab, et al., 2004), and the impacts of decontextualizing place from educational space (Cornford and Pollock, 2002; Crook, 2002; Lankspear, et al., 2002).

These areas of consideration demonstrate how the activity system of online learning, including its technologies, people, institutions, purposes and embedding contexts, is a complex assemblage, resting on the interactions of multiple factors in multiple contexts. Planning and design can only go so far in predicting and guiding outcomes. Teachers and program directors can initiate or direct certain actions, but the configurations which emerge depend on how these are taken up and enacted.

The contributions that follow each address themes of emergence, complexity, and embedding contexts, providing models relating to online learning that address these configurations as continuously emergent, with technology and practices co–evolving as parts of a living, active system. Emergence appears as a theme in the models’ treatments of configurations of technology and practice, of learning and its context, and of norms of social interaction and participation. The models below by Andrews, Bruce, and Haythornthwaite address evolving and emergent effects of technology and learning practices; Bruce, Kazmer, Montague, and Preston address the enmeshing of learners with their contexts and communities; Kazmer, Montague, and Preston address emergent roles for learners and emergent practices in online interactions. Complexity is addressed regarding the multiplexity of people, tasks, texts, technologies, and settings, including multiple learning contexts (Kazmer), multiple technologies and relationships (Haythornthwaite), and multi–threaded, ‘braided’ conversations (Preston). Kazmer, Montague and Preston provide synergistic models of the learner experience that attend to interactions stimulated by the embedding contexts of online and offline settings.

In what follows, each author presents a brief piece on their model, and with pointers to where other work of theirs can be found. We present these as a beginning to further discussion of emergent, embedding, and complex interactions of technology and practice in the service of online learning.



Living technology (Bertram C. Bruce)

Living organisms grow throughout their individual lives; they change in response to their physical environments as well as to communities comprising other organisms; and species change over generations as individuals are differentially successful reproducing (see three senses of wholeness in Bruce, in press). These three characteristics are in fact key to the very definition of “living things.” We think of that definition as we distinguish organisms from inert matter, or from constructed things, such as computers.

My computer is not alive. Yes, it may act at times in a way that I describe as helpful or at other times as cantankerous. Although I may have an opinion of it (sometimes an unprintable one), I know that it has no opinion of me. If it breaks, it can’t repair itself; it has no community; and it will never have a family. This conception is fundamental to computer training and information literacy programs. We say “it’s just a machine,” “it does only what you tell it to do,” “it’s just 1’s and 0’s.” It is not alive.

Seeing the computer as not–alive makes abundant sense, and yet that view leads to some unproductive, if not dangerous, conceptions. First, we see the computer as incapable of growth. Yet, in many ways the computer grows every day. It incorporates new software, usually at our command, but sometime automatically, or in the case of malware, in ways we never intended. Its operation as a mediator of the Web grows continuously as the Web itself grows. Seeing it as a fixed, non–living object leads us to minimize our own role as active (re–)creator of the computer.

Second, we see the computer as independent of its ecology. That leads us to think we have a single well–defined device, which operates by prescribed procedures. In fact, even a non–networked computer depends for its operation on a complex information ecology (Nardi and O’Day, 1999). And once a computer is networked it cannot be understood as independent of a system of relations with other technologies.

Third, we see the computer ahistorically. That leads us to conceive its use as free from cultural practices, including our own. We see it then as value–neutral, and therefore as factual, rather than as a text composed in a particular place and time. These implications of seeing the computer as not–alive are so ingrained that it may be difficult to imagine an alternative, unless we enter a sci–fi realm of biological computing, cyborgs, and androids. What could it mean today to think of the computer more as we think of living things?

Roland Barthes (1974) might deem a computer to be a writerly text, one which locates the reader as a site for the production of meaning. In doing this, users reinterpret, adapt, and reinvent technologies (Eglash, et al., 2004). Thus, regardless of how well resources have been collected and organized, curricula have been designed, or even training delivered, the power of the reader/user to appropriate the system in ways that make sense within a local context should not be underestimated. Accordingly, how well a technology meets needs depends on how it is designed, distributed, interpreted, and re–created through use (Bruce and Hogan, 1997). See Merkel (2002), for an excellent study of technology use in low–resource communities and the many disjunctions between the designs of well–meaning developers and the circumstances of community members.

In her dissertation research, Xiaohui (Christine) Wang (2003) showed how children collaborated in a first–grade classroom. The teacher had allocated five minutes for each child at the computer. On their own, children developed a system in which one child used the left half of the keyboard, a second used the right half, and a third used the mouse. Thus, they managed to get 15 minutes each at the computer, while achieving greater success in navigation or game–playing, than any would have alone. The meaning of the applications, the children’s use of time and space while interacting with the computer, and the learning that occurred were only in part determined by the hardware and software design. A similar re–interpretation and re–design of the human–computer system is repeated in many contexts and nearly always underestimated by developers (see Twidale, 2003, for similar examples involving adult use).

The children in Xiaohui’s study were very pragmatic in the sense of making the technology work to meet real human needs, accommodate to users, and reflect its situatedness in time, place, and social world. They also demonstrated a good example of a more technical sense of pragmatic technology. This is a conception of technology from pragmatist theory, especially that of John Dewey, in which technology is the means for resolving a problematic situation. Dewey’s definition sees technologies as both means of action and forms of understanding (Bruce, 1999, 2003; Dewey, 1938; Hickman, 1990). In this example, the children acted to solve a problem, manifested their understanding of the situation, and in so doing created a technology. Using the biological metaphor, we could say that the computer grew as it adapted to a new environment.

This is a constructivist view of technology itself, which is helpful for understanding divergent or unintended uses. It also helps in understanding whose problem is being addressed as technology practices emerge. Technologies can then be conceived as the thing we get when we extract meaning from experience. The tie of technology to lived experience is central to its aliveness.

Viewing technologies as alive calls for different approaches to design, interpretation, use and evaluation (Bruce and Hogan, 1997). We can no longer think of them as fixed, easily isolable, inert objects. One approach is situated evaluation, a framework for understanding innovation and change (Bruce, et al., 1993), which emphasizes contrastive analysis and seeks to explore differences in use across settings (ecologies). It assumes that the object of study is neither the innovation alone nor its effects, but rather, the living realization of the innovation – the innovation–in–use. It produces hypotheses supported by detailed analyses of actual practices, which make possible informed plans for use and change of innovations (Bruce and Rubin, 1993).

We don’t need to anthropomorphize when we conceive technologies as we conceive living things. We simply need to recognize that above a minimal complexity level, a technology grows throughout its life. Like a living organism it changes in response to its ecology; and its “species” changes over generations. Viewing technologies in this way can help us understand them better and use them more effectively.



Co–evolution of technology and learning practices (Richard Andrews)

The introduction to Andrews and Haythornthwaite (2007) sets out the author’s model for future research for and about e-learning: one in which the relationship between new technologies and learning is considered as reciprocal and co–evolutionary. In other words, the relationship is not seen as causal or one–way as is conventionally the case, with assumptions that ICT has a causal impact on learning; rather, new technologies and learning are seen to develop alongside each other. In summary, the model looked like this:


Figure 1: Co-evolutionary model for e-learning research
Figure 1: Co–evolutionary model for e–learning research.


The vertical axes of ICT and learning represent changes to the state–of–play in each area in time; the horizontal axes represent reciprocal and symbiotic relationships between the areas. Diagonal axes indicate residual and/or predictive relationships between ICT and learning. The model is thus suitable for ‘snapshots’ of the relationship between ICT and learning (horizontally), and also for staged, longitudinal studies (vertically). It is useful for such studies about online learning and communities of practice, but can also be used for such research, as a tool for mapping the design of new e–learning resources and programs. For brevity’s sake, I call this model a co–evolutionary model for e–learning research. For example, the development of wikis in Web 2.0 technologies allows for an interactive and dialogic revision by a number of people of a text that might be lodged on a Web site. Further development of interactive technologies on the technologies side, and/or of learning practices in the co–editing of a common text on the learning side, might (most likely, will) create further possibilities in due course.

In the present section, I focus on one aspect of the model: the question of what kinds of e–communities are created by online or e–learning. Learning communities – like the one suggested in the previous paragraph on the revision of a common text via a wiki – are important because learning takes places not just individually, but within a group.

Two points need to made about the model and about these questions before further discussion. First, a number of questions appear on the ICT side of the model in the figure above. These questions are not primarily technological in nature. Information and communication technologies enter existing communities and create new communities on the basis of accessibility. If a person of whatever age does not have a mobile phone or an iPod or access to a computer at home, he or she cannot take part in the communities that are enabled by those technologies. If he/she has one or more of these kinds of hardware, he/she will be able to participate in some aspects of these communities. Second, if, as Rogoff (1990) suggests, learning is an effect of community, we need to know more about the nature of that effect, its parameters and its quality in e–communities. Her formulation suggests that the very act of being part of a community has a direct or indirect impact on the learning that will take place as a result of such participation. My own gloss on Rogoff’s point for the purposes of understanding e–learning is that her phrase should be revised to ‘learning is an effect of the interaction of a number of communities’.

An e–community suggests a group of people who have come together via ICT technologies at a particular point in time to learn with and from each other. The community is engendered and sustained through a common purpose: learning. It may be a time–limited community. Learning itself can be characterized as learning independently within that community, e.g. by listening in to others’ conversations, by processing ideas and material ‘internally’; by re–configurations of existing patterns of knowledge; by acting as a node within that community; by engaging in explicit and recordable verbal and (other media) exchanges and thus acting out an observable dialogic interaction; by memorizing – and by any combination of these activities. It is more than an effect of community as there will be more than one community operating; and learning is more than a ‘read–off’ or naturally occurring result of the communication that the communities engage in.

The fact that more than one community is operating in online learning and e–learning at any one time is one of the key features of learning in the twenty–first century. Ito (2005) suggests that the younger generation of mobile–phone/MP3 users is adept at moving between hardware and information seamlessly; and of keeping several channels of communication and information open at the same time, while concurrently operating in the ‘real’ world of social interaction according to (often unspoken) rules of etiquette. Indeed, the very management of information and resources from different sources, and in different formats, plus the re–shaping of them for particular purposes (steering clear of plagiarism and other forms of appropriation) is an art that could be described as active learning in itself. Learning, in this sense, is a matter of attention, composition and re–composition. The learning is embodied and manifested in the process and the product of re–shaping.

Such re–shaping happens to a degree in any form of learning. A philosophy student cogitating for two or three hours on a particular conundrum or problem in his or her field is doing so, perhaps with minimal information and communication tools at his or her disposal. In interactive online or e–learning, however, the learning in manifested in the text and texture of the exchange. It is distributed or shared. It also takes place at the individual and community level, and in the interaction between those two levels of operation; and in the four sectors of operation: real world formal education communities; real world informal learning communities; via conventional media for learning; and via multimodal communication. The zones from independent thought to distributed learning and on to the communities that support and validate that learning, along with the four sectors mentioned above, can be depicted thus:


Figure 2: Communities of learning and the individual learner

Figure 2: Communities of learning and the individual learner.


In the above diagram, the learner is positioned at the centre of the model. He or she transforms and re–shapes information and other material to take forward his or her own learning. He/she can do so independently and without much reference to or engagement with others; or he/she can operate in the zone of mediated, communication–based (dialogic) exchange, which is spoken, textual, visual, auditory or a combination of these. These forms of communication are in turn embedded, validated and tested and/or applied within social contexts. In terms of communities of learning, there are four sectors depicted: each of them represents different forms of community existing alongside each other, with permeable boundaries.

Although the above model sets out how the different communities of learning stand in relation to each other, and how learning might be an effect of a number of different communities of practice and engagement, it does not take account of how the communities might interact for the individual learner nor of the quality of learning. Each of these requires a separate paper. As far as the interaction between communities of learning is concerned, case studies will need to follow individual learners on their passage through various ‘units’ (formal and/or informal) of learning. With regard to the quality of learning, further investigation will be a matter of determining the quality of attention (cf. Lanham’s, 1993, notion of the ‘economics of attention’) and re–shaping (together constituting ‘thought’) in the act of learning.



Technology and tie formation: Social and technical foundations for latent ties (Caroline Haythornthwaite)

Online learning classes present a model of time–limited, zero–history groups. Students come together, work in a semblance of cooperation for a semester, occasionally produce joint work, and disperse. Although some students may know each other beforehand – for example, when the online class is embedded in a sequence associated with a whole program – in most cases students will be meeting for the first time, spending time finding out about each others’ knowledge, abilities and personalities. They must, in social network terms, do the work of turning non–existent ties into weak ties (acquaintances, fellow class members), and, for some, turning these weak ties into strong ties (close friends, collaborators). In this short piece I want to highlight the role of technology in this tie formation procedure, and in particular to describe a theory of media and ties based on my social network studies of online environments.

By now everyone is familiar with the concept of ‘social software’, and how technologies such as Facebook and MySpace provide a means for weak–tie formation. But what is the theoretical positioning of such media? How does what happens with those media relate to what’s happening in online learning? When a class is convened in Second Life or in any of the many asynchronous learning environments rather than a physical classroom, what have these settings set in place? Beyond bridging across time and space, what is the impact when bridging across people of having discussion online rather than face–to–face?

For the last 15 years I’ve been studying online environments, primarily from a social network perspective. These studies have shown that media connect people differently according to the strength of the tie between them. Weakly tied pairs know each other only through the mandated media (e.g., scheduled meetings on or offline), but strongly tied pairs know and work with each other through many means (bulletin boards + chat + e–mail + phone). In face–to–face settings, the ‘mandated’ medium can be the physical classroom or building (precipitating contact in hallway encounters). Online, the medium can be a chat tool used for synchronous classes, or a class–wide bulletin board mandated for topic discussion. In each environment examined, those maintaining weak ties sustain their tie through only one medium, and it is always the mandated, unavoidable, medium. Those in strong ties also use this mandated medium but add other media to their repertoire; in particular they add media that afford private, person–to–person contact (e.g., e–mail, phone). Just as strong ties have been shown to engage in multiple kinds of interaction with each other (relational multiplexity) and to include intimacy and self–disclosure in those interactions, these studies found that strongly tied pairs also use multiple media (media multiplexity) and include means that afford intimate communication (Haythornthwaite and Wellman, 1998).

Finding that weakly tied pairs are bound only by a medium established by others suggests that this medium lays the foundation for weak ties. But, since there are no ties before the medium is established, I have suggested that such a medium creates a latent tie structure, i.e., a structure on which ties are technically possible but have not yet been socially activated. Using these media, and posting to the medium rather than to other individuals, provides visibility and awareness of all class members, which then affords weak tie formation. The mandated media provide a substrate of connection among class members. Media such as asynchronous bulletin boards or synchronous chat provide visibility of all class members and an easy way to get to see and know others, at least at a weak level. Although this idea holds equally well for face–to–face as online classes, the more equal participation possible in online venues, where turn–taking is eliminated, attention is not limited by overlap in time, and class discussion can stretch across weeks, makes visibility of all class members possible. Constraints such as the one to three hour time limit on lectures, the fixed location of seating, the differentiation between front and back of the room, the dominance of individual classroom talkers, and the limited reach of office hour discussion can be side–stepped online, with dramatic impact on the visibility, presence, and presentation of individual class members.

The complete theory – which I refer to as latent tie theory – holds that establishing a group–wide medium creates latent ties from which weak ties may build. Where such a group–wide medium already exists, a change in this medium recasts weak ties, both disrupting existing ties which have only been maintained because the medium has made such casual interpersonal connection easy, and creating new latent ties which may then become new weak tie connections. While a major reconfiguring is expected for weak ties, such a change in medium is likely to have minimal impact on strong ties. Strongly tied individuals not only have more reason to make the effort to continue their connection and are likely to work together to do so, they also tend to use more media already, and thus can continue their connection via other means. (For more on latent tie theory and the studies behind it, see Haythornthwaite, 2001, 2002a, 2002b, 2005).

Although any group–wide means of contact, from a simple e–mail list to a traditional classroom setting, can potentially effect a latent tie structure, only one that is used by all participants can actually provide the social structure that enacts a complete network. Thus, while technology provides part of the equation, there is an equally important social component of participation that matters. In the time–limited, zero–history context of classes, it is the instructor who must bootstrap student visibility – by choosing one medium for group–wide interaction, and stimulating, cajoling and mandating online presence. In many grassroots initiatives, it takes little to bootstrap such action, with voluntary participants rapidly making their presence known and visible online. Friendster, MySpace, etc. seem to suddenly appear and provide the latent tie structure on which weak ties are being created, and indeed on which weak tie counts are often the goal (Donath and boyd, 2004). However, those who have worked with non–voluntary groups, and/or have tried to stimulate equal participation in classroom discussion, can only wistfully wish that their classes exhibited the kind of prolific interaction depicted for those online spaces. In reality, even these now popular social software sites had to start and build up a critical mass of participants. Time–limited groups cannot wait for critical mass to form itself, but need authorities beyond group members who can intervene to get interaction and network formation going.

Latent tie theory helps explain the role of different kinds of media and different kinds of social implementations accompanying such media. It draws attention to the role of the instructor, manager, and administrator in providing and following through on directing use of particular media for class or group–wide contact. Without such direction, without some kind of social impetus, the medium is likely to remain unused and unable to sustain a social network. The theory also predicts that where such media already exist, change will have its greatest impact on current and future weak ties connections. Thus, when implementing innovative information and communication technologies, consideration needs to be given equally to both what the technology enables and what it disables in terms of access to resources, exposure to others, and formation of social ties.



Community–embedded learning (Michelle M. Kazmer)

Community–embedded learning (CEL) is both a theory about learning in distributed contexts and an approach to pedagogy. It addresses the way in which knowledge is built and applied by learners who stay in their home settings while taking online courses (Kazmer, 2005a). It takes into account the way this knowledge is used, distributed, and adjusted in relation to ties students already have to their communities, family and friends, and members of clubs, social, civic and volunteer groups (Kazmer and Haythornthwaite, 2001). Community–embedded learners are embedded in work as well as social communities, often employed in jobs that are related to the academic degree they are earning online. When students come together online to learn, they bring with them and share each remote workplace. As each workplace becomes a part of the learning community, there is also the potential for it to be shaped by that community. Students not only bring their workplace into the online class, but also bring what they learn in their courses into the community that they know well and that knows them. Taken together, these conditions define the concept I have named community–embedded learning, or CEL (Kazmer, 2005a).

The idea of embeddedness derives from Granovetter (1985) who developed the concept to explain the relationship between economic action and social structure. Embeddedness acknowledges that humans are “closely embedded in networks of interpersonal relations” (p. 504) that provide a social context for their actions. Embeddedness acknowledges that decisions are contingent on local conditions and occur within changing networks of social relations rather than being influenced by an unchanging “generalized morality” (p. 493). This idea of embeddedness serves as the underpinning to the association between online learning and social structure described here.

Before continuing it is necessary to clarify terminology. In discussions of e–learning it is often unclear whether “community” refers to a local physical community (sometimes referred to as the geo–community) or to an online (virtual) community of learners (Barab, et al., 2004; Haythornthwaite and Kazmer, 2004; Renninger and Shumar, 2002). In order to be clear here, two different terms will be used to distinguish between off and online worlds. Community will be used to refer to communities local to the student, and social world (from Strauss, 1978) will be used to refer to the shared online engagement that exists with other online learners. In both arenas students engage in meaningful, lasting relationships, sharing ideas, working together, and supporting each other to reach their goals. The distinction is not one of offline versus online, because where formerly the distinction between offline and online might have separated the two arenas, now members of local communities are as apt to be contacted online as face–to–face. Thus, the distinction is not technical. Further, there need be no intentional interaction between arenas: while the related “community–centered” model of learning (Bransford, et al., 2000; Swan, 2005) addresses deliberate involvement between learner and community, CEL requires no deliberate action, and instead recognizes the inevitable and unavoidable – but potentially enriching – co–mingling of arenas of learning and life.

What is unique about students in such settings is the way they occupy a hybrid space “which comprises both physical and virtual space, and in action is framed simultaneously by the physical space, the virtual space, and the relationship between the two” (Harrison and Dourish, 1996, p. 72). In CEL, each student is embedded in and communicating with members of a proximate local setting with its physical limitations and cultural norms while simultaneously engaging in an e–learning setting online (Fuller and Soderlund, 2002; Kazmer, 2005b).

Community–embedded learning knowledge transfers

The framework of CEL is established via the transfers of knowledge that occur between social world members (e–learners) and the local community. Five major types of transfer have been identified in community–embedded learning (Kazmer, 2005a):

  • Knowledge from the community to the social world: From their community–embedded positions, individual learners provide knowledge and information to classmates and to the e–learning social world in general.
  • Knowledge from the course to the workplace: Students take course content, and their collaboratively built knowledge, and apply this to the workplaces in which they are embedded.
  • Knowledge from the course to the home community: Individual learners bring learning from specific courses, and knowledge shared in the social world as a whole, into home, social, educational, civic, and other non-work activities.
  • Contacts from the social world to the home community: Students develop weak tie connections through indirect contacts shared from community to community through the e–learning social world (Granovetter, 1973).
  • Connections from institution to institution: CEL provides institutions of higher learning with opportunities to build relationships with distant communities and other institutions in ways not possible before (see also Brown, 2002).

In keeping with other views of the benefits of collaborative learning, these five types of transfer occur when students interact frequently with one another and with their teachers using various technologies to communicate one–to–one and in groups, rather than when being provided information from a distance (Anderson, 2003). For CEL to achieve its potential, learning needs to be active and collaborative, with knowledge co–constructed from course materials, student experiences, and shared interpretations of situation and material.

Implications for e–learning

A CEL perspective draws our attention to important implications of e–learning, including the role of friendship networks, creation of collaborative knowledge, issues about assessment and evaluation, and the relation with embedding contexts.

Friendships. E–learners make friends in the online learning social world, friendships that are maintained using multiple communication media. As the friendships turn into professional networks, they continue to rely on a variety of communications media to provide access to existing relationship ties (Kazmer, 2006, 2007; Nardi, et al., 2002). E–learners have the potential for large, distributed professional networks to support them long-term through varied work tasks and career moves.

Collaborative Knowledge. Community–embedded students build collaborative knowledge in addition to learning the basic materials delivered in class (e.g., by readings and lectures). Students bring their own knowledge, share it with others, combine it with the course materials and the opinions of others, and come away with more knowledge than if each individual had worked solely with the course materials. However, it is important to ensure through assessment and evaluation that individual students can later apply the knowledge independently.

Assessment. Given the changed nature of the relationship between learner and community, and among learners, short– and long–term learning outcomes for community–embedded learners should be measured in part through application, rather than measuring knowledge abstractly. However, assessing applied student performance can be a problem because it calls on employers to take on the task of academic assessment, and because creating objective measures of applied learning is difficult (Andresen, et al., 2000; Kazmer, 2005a).

Embedding contexts. Community–embedded learners may face difficulties because they are using their workplaces as extensions of the classroom. Traditional students taking a practicum or internship are allowed leeway for mistakes and are expected to learn as they go. An embedded learner being paid full wages to do a job may not enjoy the tolerance for error or the explicit instructional support provided in structured experiential learning situations (Granovetter, 1985, p. 490). On the other hand, workplaces benefit when new knowledge is applied in the workplace; clients, co–workers, and the community can benefit from innovations and improvements in professional practice. E–learners may also encounter resistance to change in their local communities when new practices violate standards of expected behavior (Granovetter, 1985, p. 498) and organizations resist things “not invented here” (Katz and Allen, 1988). Community members or co–workers may distrust “academic” ideas brought into their environment even if they trust the student who is their co–worker (Granovetter, 1985, p. 491). This distrust can be compounded by e–learning because of doubts about the effectiveness or quality of online education. On the other hand, a general resistance to change, no matter what the basis, can provide a necessary and useful inertia to prevent change being implemented for its own sake.

Lack of change. Although a CEL student may benefit from the synergy of online interaction and local practice, some who stay in familiar environments while they learn online miss the opportunity to experience new physical and geographical places and to examine their home environments from a distant perspective (Hearn and Scott, 1998). While they gain from interacting with other e–learners from various settings, they do not gain perspective from time away from home, or from living in the academic environment or in a new town. Some may even experience pressure to focus their learning on the needs of the local community rather than the broad variety of concepts offered by taking full advantage of academic offerings (see Wilson and Bagley, 1999). However, not all can participate in educational opportunities if they have to leave jobs or families, and students who stay put continue to benefit their communities as they continue to provide services and support. While engaged with their community they can focus their academic choices toward local community and enhance local practice


This brief overview presents some of the essentials of CEL, a new perspective on online learners and their relations with embedding local communities and online learning social worlds. As e–learning develops and spreads, the role of local communities will become both more interesting and more relevant to e-learning both as a base for learning practice, and for theoretical understanding of new learning processes.



The learner–leader model (Rae–Anne Montague)

The learner–leader model highlights the role of students as participants in their own learning, but also in the learning of others. While the model was developed from observation of graduate student education, the learning interactions discussed here are likely to appear and flourish in any collaborative learning setting. In brief, the learner–leader model sees students as active participants in a learning community, not only bringing experiences to the learning community but also leading its direction. They engage in an emergent and iterative process of leading and learning by providing and receiving information, experiences, and opinions to and from fellow students (and others). Moreover, this leadership begins to be demonstrated beyond the learning community. In the same way as for community–embedded learning discussed above, students take their online learning and apply it in their embedding community; the learner–leader model emphasizes the leadership role in such contexts, and how learners lead new directions in their communities as a result of their learning experiences.

Graduate learning and collaboration

Graduate education, like adult learning, is not a “simple extension of coursework beyond the bachelor’s degree” (Gullahorn, 2003, p. 204). It entails affective and social growth as well as cognition, the acquisition of a new socially–based identity (Van Maanen and Schein, 1979), and experience toward becoming a member of a new community (Anderson and Swazey, 1998).

Students’ active involvement in the learning and discovery process is promoted by faculty mentoring and frequent interaction between faculty and students as well as among students in structured and informal settings. Together, the faculty and students form a graduate community of scholars that enhances learning and discovery as well as personal growth and professional socialization. (Gullahorn, 2003, p. 204)

Effective teaching practice in graduate education reflects these needs, particularly those of interaction. As McKeachie, et al. (1986, p. 63) explain,

[T]he best answer to the question ‘What is the most effective method of teaching?’ is that it depends on the goal, the student, the content, and the teacher. But the next best answer is ‘Students teaching other students.’ There is a wealth of evidence that peer teaching is extremely effective for a wide range of goals, content, and students of different levels and personalities.

Interaction and sharing of ideas are central to the notion of collaborative learning (and also to community–embedded learning (Kazmer, above), and braided learning (Preston, below)). Equally important is that learners take responsibility for their learning and interaction: “individual accountability is the key to ensuring that all groups’ members are in fact strengthened by learning cooperatively” (Johnson and Johnson, 1991, p. 58). This kind of active, responsible interdependence is also emphasized in professional realms, and thus, where graduate education promotes this kind of learning it also provides effective experience for professional life. Although some still doubt the effectiveness of online learning, it potentially provides more interaction than traditional classrooms, including support through the many modalities available, from synchronous chat to asynchronous bulletin boards and e–mail. Yet, this will not be fully achieved without emphasizing collaboration in such settings, e.g., through class associated group work, or through extracurricular opportunities to participate in student organizations or within community forums.

Learning and leading in online learning

The learner–leader model was developed from extended study of a highly interactive, multimodal (synchronous plus asynchronous plus brief residential) graduate program in library and information science (LIS; for details of the study, see Montague, 2006). The program, known as LEEP (Library Education Experimental Program), is a program option at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. In LEEP, students complete the entire degree online, primarily supported through live lectures sessions that involve broadcast of audio and class materials and synchronous chat for interaction with the teaching faculty and with other students, class–related bulletin board discussions during the week, and community–wide bulletin boards for a variety of topics (for more on this program, see Haythornthwaite and Kazmer, 2004).

Students enter this degree program as talented and curious individuals, with experiences in LIS, technology, academics and research, teaching and youth work, administration, communication, service, and international/intercultural contexts. Incoming students’ prior experiences learning and leading offer much potential capacity for engagement in this new context. Within the program, students act as both givers and receivers of encouragement, perspectives, information, and questions. LEEP students deem sharing facets of diversity – particularly dimensions of geography, age, and parental status – as beneficial to learning. Students thus are both willing to give (lead) and receive (learn) from other students.

Within this context of ongoing support and interaction, students reveal they draw upon much of their pre–existing knowledge base as part of LEEP activities. In terms of collective engagement, as givers and receivers, students have ample opportunities to exchange information and create learning. Students’ comments reveal the presence of an underlying competency based on service orientation plus communication. This seems to be the basis of leadership development in LEEP, which is manifest in supporting others’ adaptation and adoption.

As part of their experiences in LEEP, students encounter challenges, which may be considered counterforces. These include individually and collectively based issues. Some students struggle to manage intra–program responsibilities — in particular those related to time and group projects — in combination with other roles. In the context of the learning environment, which is filled with largely positive forces, these types of struggles are often considered as opportunities to develop new competencies and build understanding.

Leading beyond school

In LEEP, learning extends beyond classroom and program boundaries. As part of program exit surveys, students provided varied examples of how they shared their learning in professional settings. Statements illustrating a range of beyond school applications (perspective, action, attitude) are presented below:

  • It’s making me look at the work that I do differently.
  • I have been able to translate the experiences that LEEP has given me to the work that I am doing with an online reference service.
  • I think that as students we need to keep that enthusiasm and carry it back and kinda rub a little bit of it off on the others. Light a fire.

Summary of learner–leaders in LEEP

Within this online learning environment, students have ample opportunities to share encouragement, perspectives, information, and questions. They “find their voice” and apply it to “coconstruct knowledge and to share classroom authority” (Smith, 2005, pp. 192–193).

Learning and leading is supported and facilitated by existing and emerging community structures (e.g., pedagogical and curricular models, technologies and technology support, access to ample library resources, etc.). Here, a sense of community is promoted and continually reinforced. Students build academic, professional, and technical knowledge simultaneously. At first there is a shift into unfamiliar circumstances. Then, an authentic, multifaceted experience similar to an apprenticeship emerges where there are opportunities “for interaction with practicing professionals, and the acquisition of the attitudes, norms, and ‘expert thinking’ that define true professional practice” (Anderson, 2001, p. 16).

Towards the end of their programs, students perceived increased levels of competency related to a variety of general professional and LIS–specific areas. In an environment concerned with developing leadership, there are many forces at work. Leaders rely on many kinds of learning as well as abilities to function across varied levels of complexity. For example, Gardner (1993, p. x) emphasizes learning to develop intelligence as “the ability to solve problems, or to create products, that are valued within one or more cultural settings.” According to Brown (2000), this may be facilitated in Web–based learning communities where multiple intelligences emphasizing professional norms are developed. A multimodal model facilitates growth within individual learners and throughout the community. Here, many factors integrally contribute to the development of the learning environment, in particular, as described in this study, the constituents. Participant–based action has the potential to meet existing needs while also adapting to emerging needs. Unified forces lead to synergetic advancement.

West (1993, p. 105) offers a useful metaphor for considering these sorts of individual and collective transformations in the context of leadership development.

The interplay of individuality and unity is not one of uniformity and unanimity imposed from above but rather of conflict among diverse groups that reach a dynamic consensus subject to questioning and criticism. As with a soloist in a jazz quartet, quintet, or band, individuality is promoted in order to sustain and increase the creative tension within the group – a tension that yields higher levels of performance to achieve the aim of the collective project.

As in this example, when transformations occur, individual sensitivities shift toward collective sensibilities. Capacities are extended and new opportunities emerge. Within a multimodal learning context, such as LEEP, when a similar merger occurs, students are presented with many potential opportunities, and the time and space to learn and lead and lead and learn.



Braided learning: Promoting active professionals in education (Christina Preston)

Braided learning is a theory that has emerged from the observation of modes of online learning as the MirandaNet community of professionals has matured in digital competence. The MirandaNet Fellowship is a professional organization of educators, researchers, policy makers, and developers of software and hardware who have a uniting conviction that teaching and learning can be transformed by the use of digital technologies. Established in 1992, the Fellows began their association online in 1994. Over the last 12+ years, MirandaNet has developed into a mature, online community of practice (Preston, 1999, 2005). This history reveals a three–dimensional process of learning and practice which entails coming to understand and participate in a creative, progressive ‘braiding’ of text, opinions, and ideas. These processes reveal how learning by professionals, for the purpose of strengthening both the profession and individual understanding, unfolds in the online context.

There are three identifiable stages in the process professionals in MirandaNet adopt and practice in their professional, online, learning. In the first stage the community engages in creating a braided text online that supports diversity and change of opinions. Some members act as e–facilitators or braiders who help to shape the argument, provide interim summaries and change the direction of the discussion (Preston, 2002; Preston and Holmes, 2002; Cuthell, 2005). These are stored along with forum discussions and teachers’ case studies in the MirandaNet Braided E–journal (Preston and Cuthell, 2000–2006). In the second stage, braiders demonstrate meta–learning by constructing braided artifacts, which re–interpret the online debate in different styles for different audiences, e.g., newsletters for their local communities and reports for their school senior management team. In the third stage, accomplished fellows take the initiative to set up working parties to explore a subject in more depth. At this point the participants become active professionals, using collaborative knowledge to build new theories and policies that will impact their profession in the longer term (Preston, 2007).

The following draws the elements of this braided learning process together in more detail through an exploration of MirandaNet practice.

A community of practice as a nucleus of learning

This concept of a Community of Practice (CoP) is key to understanding how braided learning works online. The term CoPs was coined by Lave and Wenger (1991) with acknowledgement that it refers to a human process of working and learning together that has been operating for centuries (e.g., as in medieval craft guilds). However, newly explored in a socio–cultural context, the concept provides a useful perspective on knowing, learning and knowledge building in professional life, and has been particularly useful for online contexts for focusing attention on the interests and practices that keep communities together rather than just the geographical co–location (see also Wenger, 1998; and the sections in this paper by Kazmer, and by Montague).

MirandaNet is such a community of practice. It has been described by researchers as a CoP “with an active and passionate core” (Stuckey, 2006, p. 66), and in a UNESCO report as a successful CoP that effects change in teaching and learning worldwide, using digital access to provide a platform for the disenfranchised:

Such collaborative problem solving is important to many ICT teacher educators, who have relatively little access to technical support or to view new developments. Exchange visits between countries have strengthened community members’ resolve. The exchange of information is two way, as it flows from the wealthy to the less well resourced and back again. (Resta, 2002, p. 29)

MirandaNet’s CoP is founded on voluntary, informal participation, and active, directed learners. Members decide on their learning agenda rather than waiting passively to be taught from a curriculum decided by others. This active learning accords with Sachs’ (2003) belief that educators, like doctors, should be active professionals closely involved in the development of policy and practice (MacGilchrist, et al., 1997). In MirandaNet, this active practice moves further out into the community as educators in the more mature stage of their collaborative, braided learning come to influence professional policy and create theories and policies of their own.

Staged models of learning

Braided learning joins other models and research that describe stages in online learning (e.g., Salmon, 2000, 2002; Haythornthwaite, Kazmer, Robins and Shoemaker, 2000) and/or group dynamics, but differs in representing a community that is not delimited by the need to complete a course, write a final exam, or deliver a product. Braided learning does have in common with these models stages relating to access, motivation and socialization in joining the community, exchange of information and experience relevant to the joint venture, development of joint practice, and development of shared meaning. In particular, Braided Learning is grounded in Salmon’s seminal five–stage model for online learning, developed in relation to business courses (see Salmon’s stages address:

  • Individual access and motivation to use computer–mediated communication
  • Online socialization and formulation of online identities
  • Information exchange among learners relevant to the courses
  • Knowledge construction through collaborative discussion and interaction
  • Development of meta–thinking and application of knowledge and online skills to learners’ goals and purposes that are often exam related.

Observation of MirandaNet practice shows that both individual members, and the CoP as a whole, progress through stages of access, motivation and online socialisation, information exchange, and collaborative knowledge and meta–knowledge building. Braided learning processes begin to appear when members engage with MirandaNet, revealing who they are. As a community, the relevance of such disclosures was recognized after a few years, and profiles for members, which would now be called blogs, were introduced in 1999. They continue in the information exchange stage when members begin to publish their case studies and articles in MirandaNet’s e–journals. The CoP as a whole began to see and benefit from this kind of publication in 1999. Although braided learning begins in these stages, its most important contributions come in the stage of collaborative knowledge building. Thus, Braided Learning as a theory of learning practice most significantly addresses the way in which knowledge is jointly construction through online texts created by and for their fellow CoP members. In MirandaNet, this kind of learning has been observed since 2000, when the community had gained a mature capacity to use the listserv to enrich their professional learning.

Braided learning stages

Stage One: Braided text
The first evidence of Braided Learning is the appearance of braided text. Debates can be started by any member on any subject relevant to the group. In these braided digital exchanges, members interweave their comments, judgments and evidence to create shared insights, which have influence on current professional thinking, formally or informally. (Text is the primary medium of exchange in MirandaNet as it provides a means that is accessible to as many users as possible; it is possible that, in the future, communities may see braiding occurring in use of other means of communication).

This dynamic process of braiding depends on trust between the participants, plus humour and passion; it builds over years with knowledge of past exchanges that cannot be communicated easily to the outsider. This kind of online closed publication can support contradictions and disagreements. Conflicts are not necessarily smoothed over or resolved in the pursuit of greater understanding. Nor is the style homogenised, as it might be in a more public presentation. Individual approaches can be recognised which is not possible in official publications or reports.

This stage of building a collaborative online text is a form of learning by collaborative knowledge building. Members learn by participating in this jointly owned braided text, and by observing the process. There is evidence of learning when particular participants post about their increase in knowledge on the topic or about a change of opinion as a result of the online debate. The validity of the text depends on the full membership of the e–community having immediate input to the debate online.

Braiding, in the form of posting evidence of learning, is of key importance to this CoP. Without posting about learning, i.e., without reflection on what has been gained from online discussion, the texts remain undistinguished and no more collaborative than a question and answer forum. Braiding is important as more than an image; weaving individual threads of text together makes a stronger knowledge fabric, one that represents, and creates the representation of the community as a whole.

Learning to braid text
In MirandaNet senior Fellows contribute by promoting braiding. They run courses for learner–braiders in order to enrich the group discussion. Others volunteer for this role either because they have the confidence as senior members or they have a natural talent for understanding how braiding is done and when the skill is needed. Braiders may show their meta–learning by changing the direction of the debate or bringing it back to the subject; they may summarise the debate at various stages to remind the participants what has happened or draw out the conclusions signaling the end of the period of online collaborative knowledge construction. These braiders also encourage reluctant discussants to explore their theme further, calm the agitated and revitalise areas of discussion by clever questions that suggest they know less than they actually do — all good teaching techniques. The difference is that the braider cannot see the participants and must, therefore, be more sensitive to other clues. The braiding helps to clarify aspects of the e–community vision on a particular topic and increase a sense of participation and ownership.

Stage Two: Braided artifacts
The second stage of braided learning is associated with Salmon’s fifth stage of development. In this stage braiders reinterpret text for a variety of purposes, creating a braided artifact. MirandaNet braiders create these texts for those outside their CoP, reaching a wide range of audiences depending on the circumstances of the braider. Such artifacts are also often summarised for the MirandaNet online newsletter and archive, which means they also reach and act as example for the CoP members as well.

Stage Three: Influencing and making policy
There is a third stage of learning in which the braiders, individually or in groups, learn to use the braided artifacts that express the meta–thinking of the group to have influence over the policies which affect them professionally locally, nationally and internationally. The speed of creation and the international outreach of MirandaNet braided artifacts have group authority that is enhanced by the reach of digital technologies, and the permanence of the online archives.

Some artifacts have been used as the basis of an article in the educational technologies section of a national newspaper. For example, a synthesis of a debate about the reasons for a sudden reduction in the numbers of regional advisers in digital technology in England was reported in the U.K. Guardian newspaper. Other artifacts have been used by teachers in reports written to influence the decisions of senior managers. For example, an ICT coordinator summarised the advice he was given about social software on school networks to inform the head teacher who was threatening to close down these network services. Another artifact was sent to the government in response to a request for contributions to a consultative document on e–learning (Department for Education and Skills (U.K.), 2003). Since members come from 43 countries these patterns are repeated internationally.

Moreover, some uses suggest that braiders are not just influencing policy, but are also creating new theories and policies. For instance, sometimes working groups are convened as a result of a braided artifact composed by a member who wants to take the topic further. These working groups then raise funding to explore the subject more thoroughly in research projects. They build face–to–face events into the funding whenever this is viable because collaboration at this level online requires high levels of group understanding and trust. Although young learners may be able to strike up this kind of relationship entirely online, MirandaNet professionals find they still need some social interaction to underpin collaborative theorising. At this point the professionals begin to create policy and theory through their evidence, rather than merely influencing the policies developed by others. At this third and final stage the braiders emerge as active professionals, taking charge of their professional destiny.


The professional network of MirandaNet has, over its lifetime since 1992, grown into a mature community of practice that has its own model of learning and passes that on to new members of the community, and beyond. The textual basis of this community affords visibility of ideas, and creation of braided and reflective texts. The community is able to create interim summaries and repositionings through braided texts and continue these into more refined braided artifacts that reach outside the community. Overall, this community shows a new way of learning – braided learning – that builds on the affordances of digital technology to effect and support a learning community of practice that can engage in the highest levels of collaborative thinking, developing theory and policy. End of article


About the authors

Caroline Haythornthwaite is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Her research focuses on the way computer–mediated interaction supports and affects interaction for learning, community, social networks, information exchange, and the construction of knowledge.

Richard Andrews is a Professor in English at the Institute of Education, University of London. His work focuses on e–learning, literacy, and co–evolutionary processes of technology and learning practices. He co-directed a series of systematic research reviews on the impact of ICT on literacy learning for the EPPI–Centre (Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Coordinating Centre), part of the U.K. government’s drive to develop the research evidence base for education.

Michelle M. Kazmer is Assistant Professor at the College of Information at Florida State University. Her research focuses on social processes in online social worlds. Recent research examined the social world disengaging processes of distance learners and academic researchers, as well as community–embedded online learning.

Bertram C. Bruce is Professor of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. His central interest is in learning, the constructive process whereby individuals and organizations develop as they adapt to new circumstances. This has led to the development of Community Inquiry Laboratories, simultaneously a suite of Web–based tools, a set of communities, and a research project on inquiry.

Rae–Anne Montague is Assistant Dean for Student Affairs at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Her research addresses multimodal education, learning technologies, and diversity. She has written and given many presentations on innovative and effective practice for online and distance education.

Christina Preston is founder and chair of the MirandaNet Fellowship, established in 1992, and an associate of the Centre for Work–Based Learning for Education Professionals (WLE) at the Institute of Education, University of London. She specializes in research and development of programs in information and communications technologies for teachers (



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C. Haythornthwaite, 2007. “Social networks and online community,” In: A. Joinson, K. McKenna, U. Reips and T. Postmes (editors). Oxford handbook of Internet psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 121–136.

C. Haythornthwaite and M.M. Kazmer (editors). 2004. Learning, culture and community in online education: Research and practice. New York: Peter Lang.

C. Haythornthwaite and M.M. Kazmer, 2002. “Bringing the Internet home: Adult distance learners and their Internet, home and work worlds,” In: B. Wellman and C. Haythornthwaite (editors). The Internet in everyday life. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 431–463.

C. Haythornthwaite and A. Nielsen, 2006. “CMC: Revisiting conflicting results,” In: J. Gackenbach (editor). Psychology and the Internet, Second edition. San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, pp. 161–180.

C. Haythornthwaite, M.M. Kazmer, J. Robins, and S. Shoemaker, 2000. “Community development among distance learners: Temporal and technological dimensions,” Journal of Computer–Mediated Communication, volume 6, number 1, at

S.C. Herring, 2002. “Computer–mediated communication on the Internet,” Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, volume 36, pp. 109–168.

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S.R. Hiltz and M. Turoff, 2005. “Education goes digital: The evolution of online learning and the revolution in higher education,” Communications of the ACM, volume 48, number 10, pp. 59–64.

S.R. Hiltz, M. Turoff and L. Harasim, 2007. “Development and philosophy of the field of asynchronous learning networks,” In: R. Andrews and C. Haythornthwaite (editors). Handbook of e–learning research. London: Sage, pp. 55–72.

S.G. Jones, 1995. “Understanding community in the information age,” In: S.G. Jones (editor). CyberSociety: Computer–mediated communication and community. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, pp. 10–35.

M.M. Kazmer, 2007. “Community–embedded learning,” In: R. Andrews and C. Haythornthwaite (editors). Handbook of e–learning research. London: Sage, pp. 311–327.

L. Kendall, 2002. Hanging out in the virtual pub: Masculinities and relationships online. Berkeley: University of California Press.

S. Kiesler (editor), 1997. Culture of the Internet. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

M. Knowles, 1984. Andragogy in action. San Francisco: Jossey–Bass.

T. Koschmann, R. Hall and N. Miyake (editors), 2002. CSCL 2: Carrying forward the conversation. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

C. Kramarae, 2001. The third shift: Women learning online. Washington, D.C.: American Association of University Women.

R. Land and S. Bayne (editors), 2005. Education in cyberspace. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

C. Lankspear, M. Peters and M. Knobel, 2002. “Information, knowledge and learning: Some issues facing epistemology and education in a digital age,” In: M.K. Lea and K. Nicoll (editors). Distributed learning: Social and cultural approaches to practice. London: RoutledgeFalmer, pp. 16–37.

M.R. Lea and K. Nicoll (editors), 2002. Distributed learning: Social and cultural approaches to practice. London: Routledge.

N. Miyake, 2007. “Computer supported collaborative learning,” In: R. Andrews and C. Haythornthwaite (editors). Handbook of e–learning research. London: Sage, pp. 248–265.

R. Montague, 2006. “Riding the waves: A case study of learners and leaders in library and information science education,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, Champaign, Ill.

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W.J. Orlikowski, 2002. “Knowing in practice: Enacting a collective capability in distributed organizing,” Organization Science, volume 13, number 3, pp. 249–273.

A. Renninger and W. Shumar (editors), 2002. Building virtual communities: Learning and change in cyberspace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

D.R. Russell, 2002. “Looking beyond the interface: Activity theory and distributed learning,” In: M.K. Lea and K. Nicoll (editors). Distributed learning: Social and cultural approaches to practice. London: RoutledgeFalmer, pp. 64–82.

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B. Stuckey, 2006. “Cultivating Internet–mediated communities of practice,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wollongong, Sydney.

K. Swan, 2006. “Online collaboration: Introduction to the special issue,” Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, volume 10, number 1 (February), whole issue at:

K. Swan, 2005. “A constructivist model for thinking about learning online,” In: J. Bourne and J.C. Moore (editors). Elements of quality online education: Engaging communities. Needham, Mass.: Sloan Consortium, and at

M.M. Thompson, 2007. “From distance education to elearning,” In: R. Andrews and C. Haythornthwaite (editors). Handbook of e–learning research. London: Sage, pp. 159–178.

M. Thorpe, 2002. “From independent learning to collaborative learning: New communities of practice in open, distance and distributed learning,” In: M.K. Lea and K. Nicoll (editors). Distributed learning: Social and cultural approaches to practice. London: RoutledgeFalmer, pp. 131–151.

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E. Wenger, 1998. Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Living technology (Bertram C. Bruce)

R. Barthes, 1974. S/Z. Originally published in 1970, Paris: Éditions du Seuil; translated by Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang.

B.C. Bruce, in press. “Coffee cups, frogs, and lived experience,” In: P. Anders (editor). Festschrift for Ken and Yetta Goodman. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

B.C. Bruce (editor), 2003. Literacy in the information age: Inquiries into meaning making with new technologies. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association, at

B.C. Bruce, 1999. “Challenges for the evaluation of new information and communication technologies,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, volume 42, number 6, pp. 450–455.

B.C. Bruce and A.P. Bishop, 2002. “Using the Web to support inquiry–based literacy development,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, volume 45, number 8, pp. 706–714.

B.C. Bruce and A. Rubin, 1993. Electronic quills: A situated evaluation of using computers for writing in classrooms. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

B.C. Bruce, J.K. Peyton, and T.W. Batson, (editors), 1993. Network–based classrooms: Promises and realities. New York: Cambridge University Press.

G. DeSanctis and M.S. Poole, 1994. “Capturing the complexity in advanced technology use: Adaptive structuration theory,” Organization Science, volume 5, pp. 121–147.

J. Dewey, 1938. Logic: The theory of inquiry. New York: Henry Holt.

R. Eglash, J. Croissant, G. Di Chiro, and R. Fouché (editors), 2004. Appropriating technology: Vernacular science and social power. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

D. Gauntlett, 1998. “Ten things wrong with the “effects model”,” In: R. Dickinson, R. Harindranath, and O. Linné (editors). Approaches to audiences: A reader. London: Arnold.

D. Gauntlett, 1995. Moving experiences: Understanding television’s influences and effects. London: John Libbey.

L.A. Hickman, 1990. John Dewey’s pragmatic technology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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C. Merkel, 2002. “Uncovering the hidden literacies of “have–nots”: A study of computer and Internet use in a low–income community,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.

B.A. Nardi and V.L. O’Day, 1999. Information ecologies: Using technology with heart. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

M. Twidale, 2003. “Over–the–shoulder learning,” [Web site with articles], at

X. Wang, 2003. “Constructing a third space at the computer in a first-grade classroom,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.


Co–evolution of technology and learning practices (Richard Andrews)

R. Andrews and C. Haythornthwaite (editors), 2007. “Introduction to e–learning research,” In: R. Andrews and C. Haythornthwaite (editors). Handbook of e–learning research. London: Sage, pp. 1–52.

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M. Ito, in press. “Technologies of the childhood imagination: Yugioh, media mixes and everyday cultural production,” In: J. Karaganis and N. Jeremijenko (editors). Structures of participation in digital cultures. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.


Technology and tie formation: Social and technical foundations for latent ties (Caroline Haythornthwaite)

A. Bregman and C. Haythornthwaite, 2003. “Radicals of presentation: Visibility, relation, and co–presence in persistent conversation,” New Media and Society, volume 5, number 1, pp. 117–140.

J. Donath and d. boyd, 2004. “Public displays of connection,” BT Technology Journal, volume 22, number 4, pp. 71–84, and at

C. Haythornthwaite, 2005. “Social networks and Internet connectivity effects,” Information, Communication and Society, volume 8, number 2, pp. 125–147.

C. Haythornthwaite, 2002. “Strong, weak and latent ties and the impact of new media,” Information Society, volume 18, number 5, pp. 385–401.

C. Haythornthwaite, 2002. “Building social networks via computer networks: Creating and sustaining distributed learning communities,” In: K.A. Renninger and W. Shumar (editors). Building virtual communities: Learning and change in cyberspace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 159–190.

C. Haythornthwaite, 2001. “Exploring multiplexity: Social network structures in a computer–supported distance learning class,” Information Society, volume 17, number 3, pp. 211–226.

C. Haythornthwaite and B. Wellman, 1998. “Work, friendship and media use for information exchange in a networked organization,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science, volume 49, number 12, pp. 1101–1114.<1101::AID-ASI6>3.0.CO;2-Z


Community–embedded learning (Michelle M. Kazmer)

T. Anderson, 2003. “Modes of interaction in distance education: Recent developments and research questions,” In: M.G. Moore and W.G. Anderson (editors). Handbook of distance education. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 129–144.

L. Andresen, D. Boud, and R. Cohen, 2000. “Experience–based learning,” In: G. Foley (editor). Understanding adult education and training. Second edition. Sydney, Australia: Allen and Unwin, pp. 225–239.

S. Barab, 2003. “An introduction to the special issue: Designing for virtual communities in the service of learning,” Information Society, volume 19, pp. 197–201.

S.A. Barab, R. Kling, and J.H. Gray (editors), 2004. Designing for virtual communities in the service of learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

J.D. Bransford, A.L. Brown, and R.R. Cocking (editors), 1999. How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

J.S. Brown, 2002. “Learning in the digital age,” In: M. Devlin, R. Larson, and J. Meyerson (editors). The Internet and the university: 2001 forum. Boulder, Colo.: Forum for the Future of Higher Education and EDUCAUSE, pp. 65–91.

T. Fuller and S. Soderlund, 2002. “Academic practices of virtual learning by interaction,” Futures, volume 34, pp. 745–760.

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S. Harrison and P. Dourish, 1996. “Re–place–ing space: The roles of place and space in collaborative systems,” In: Computer Supported Cooperative Work ‘96. Cambridge, Mass.: ACM, pp. 67–76; draft version at

C. Haythornthwaite and M.M. Kazmer (editors), 2004. Learning, culture and community in online education: Research and practice. New York: Peter Lang.

G. Hearn and D. Scott, 1998. “Students staying home: Questioning the wisdom of a digital future for Australian universities,” Futures, volume 30, pp. 731–737.

R. Katz and T.J. Allen, 1988. “Investigating the not invented here (NIH) syndrome: A look at the performance, tenure, and communication patterns of 50 R&D project groups,” In: M.L. Tushman and W.L. Moore (editors). Readings in the management of innovation. Second edition. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, pp. 293–309.

M.M. Kazmer, 2007. “Beyond C U L8R: Disengaging from online social world,” New Media and Society, volume 9, number 1, pp. 69–96.

M.M. Kazmer, 2006. “Creation and loss of sociotechnical capital among information professionals educated online,” Library and Information Science Research, volume 28, number 2, pp. 172–191.

M.M. Kazmer, 2005a. “Community–embedded learning,” Library Quarterly, volume 75, number 2, pp. 190–212.

M.M. Kazmer, 2005b. “Cats in the classroom: Online learning in hybrid space,” First Monday, volume 10, number 9 (September), at

M.M. Kazmer and C. Haythornthwaite, 2001. “Juggling multiple social worlds: Distance students online and offline,” American Behavioral Scientist, volume 45, number 3, pp. 510–529.

B.A. Nardi, S. Whittaker, and H. Schwarz, 2002. “NetWORKers and their activity in intensional networks,” Computer Supported Cooperative Work, volume 11, pp. 205–242.

A. Renninger and W. Shumar (editors), 2002. Building virtual communities: Learning and change in cyberspace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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V. Wilson and L. Bagley, 1999. “Learning at a distance: The case of the community pharmacist,” International Journal of Lifelong Education, volume 18, number 5, pp. 355–369.


The learner–leader model (Rae–Anne Montague)

M.S. Anderson and J.P. Swazey, 1998. “Reflections on the graduate student experience: An overview,” In: M.S. Anderson (editor). The experience of being in graduate school: An exploration. San Francisco: Jossey–Bass, pp. 3–14.

T. Anderson, 2001. “The hidden curriculum in distance education,” Change, volume 33, number 6, pp. 28–35.

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J. Gullahorn, 2003. “Graduate study,” In: A. DiStefano, K.E. Rudestam, and R.J. Silverman (editors). Encyclopedia of distributed learning. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, pp. 203–207.

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C. West, 1993. Race matters. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press.


Braided learning: Promoting active professionals in education (Christina Preston)

J.P. Cuthell, 2005. Beyond collaborative learning: Communual construction of knowledge in an online environment. paper presented at WEBIST (Web Information Systems and Technologies) International Conference, Miami (26 May), at

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C. Haythornthwaite, M.M. Kazmer, J. Robins, and S. Shoemaker, 2000. “Community development among distance learners: Temporal and technological dimensions,” Journal of Computer–Mediated Communication, volume 6, number 1, at

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C. Preston, in press. “Braided learning: An emerging practice observed in e-communities of practice,” International Journal of Web Based Communities.

C. Preston, 2002. Braided learning: Teachers learning with and for each other. National Interactive Media Association: Learning Together, Tokyo, Japan, NIME.

C. Preston, 1999. “Building online professional development communities for schools, professional associations or LEAs,” In: M. Leask and N. Pachler (editors). Learning to teach using ICT in the secondary school. London: Routledge

C. Preston and J. Cuthell, 2000–2006. Braided Learning E–journal, MirandaNet Fellowship, at

C. Preston and B. Holmes, 2002. “Capturing the online knowledge, building of educator: ICTS, authorship and living design,” paper presented at the ITTE Conference, Dublin, Ireland (17 July).

P. Resta, 2002. Information and communication technologies in teacher education: A planning guide. Paris: UNESCO.

J. Sachs, 2003. The activist teaching profession. Buckingham: Open University Press.

G. Salmon, 2002. E–tivities: The key to active online learning. London: Kogan Page.

G. Salmon, 2000. E–moderating: The key to teaching and learning online. London: Kogan Paul.

B. Stuckey, 2006. “Cultivating Internet–mediated communities of practice,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wollongong, Sydney.

E. Wenger, 1998. Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Editorial history

Paper received 16 May 2007; accepted 8 July 2007.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2007, First Monday.

Copyright ©2007, Caroline Haythornthwaite, Bertram C. Bruce, Richard Andrews, Michelle M. Kazmer, Rae–Anne Montague, Christina Preston.

Theories and models of and for online learning by Caroline Haythornthwaite, Bertram C. Bruce, Richard Andrews, Michelle M. Kazmer, Rae–Anne Montague, and Christina Preston
First Monday, volume 12, number 8 (August 2007),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.