Collectives, Networks and Groups in Social Software for E-Learning – Paper Summary

The following is a summary of Jon Dron and Terry Anderson’s  2009 article, ‘Collective, Networks and Groups in Social Software for E-learning’. Access to this article can be obtained through subscription or use remote access through your library using the following link.


A number of writers have identified (and argued about) the importance of either the group or the network as a significant player when social software is used for e-learning. This paper examines the two competing perspectives of network and group and identifies that there are, in fact, three distinct dynamics of the ‘Many’ in social software, which are characterised here as the group, the network and the collective. The paper explores the consequences of this perspective, observing that each has both strengths and weaknesses in different contexts and when used for different applications. A model for the development of e-learning tools and processes is proposed that makes best use of each mode of interaction.

defining the group

  • ‘Groups are cohesive and often have formal lines of authority and roles.’
  • ‘Group consist of individuals who see themselves as part of the group.’
  • ‘Groups are often structured around particular tasks or activities.’
  • ‘Groups are more or less tightly knit teams of individuals who are committed to each other and usually a tasks or tasks.’
  • ‘Groups often feel a need to meet face-to-face or at least in real time audio or video conferencing.’ -using LMS or VLEs
  • Groups use tools such as ‘threaded discussions, email lists and wikis.’
  • Groups are personal ‘everyone knows your name.’
  • ‘[G]roups go through stages of introduction, growth, production and eventual demise (formin’ stormin’ performin’)’
  • According to Garrison & Anderson (2003) ‘high performing and valued e-learning groups actively create social, cognitive and teaching presence.’
  • Groups in education are usually bound by time (synchronous and asynchronous time commitment).  The task/s are often ‘paced’ by an external source who also serves to ‘inspire and support’ the group in their endeavours.

defining the network

  • ‘Individuals join Networks to associate with others of like interest or vocation.’
  • Networks enable people to identify and contribute ideas and information to a collective of like-minds, usually around a topic subject.
  • Networks connected otherwise separated individuals.  The individual may however not be aware of the full extend of the collective network.
  • ‘The shape of the network is emergent, not designed.’
  • Networked groupings include; syndicated blogs, LinkedIn, Elgg and/or Facebook.
  • Member of the network share only a ‘marginal sense of commitment to teach other, but are typically induced to contribute to the network as a means to increase their own personal reputation and to collectively create a resources that has greater value than individual or group contribution and perspective’ (Zark 2006).
  • ‘Networks are fluid and generative.  Each individual is typically a member of many networks, some of which are blended with F2F contact.’
  • Networks allow for ‘open access and exit and free flow of conversation.’
  • The Matthew Principle – ‘Jesus had special knowledge (the Gnosis) that was not to be shared but was exclusive to a special network of disciples and supporters.’ – ‘powerful benefits to those within the network accrued through access to the discourse of its members.’

Defining the collective

  • ‘Collectives are aggregations, sets formed of the actions of individuals who primarily see themselves as neither a part of a group nor connected through a network.
  • ‘[S]hape of the collective is emergent, not designed.’
  • Collective behaviours include; ‘tag cloud, the ordering of results n Google, recommendations of collaborative filters or social navigation in various social systems based on prior use, evaluation of other stigmergic indicators.’
  • Way to distinguish the collective from group and network – its does not ‘require a commitment of the Many.’
  • ‘Collectives are useful when seeking recommendations…identifying trends or seeking most popular or commonplace answers to specific questions.’
  • The Matthew Principle – popular sites appear on Google’s first page of results.  Most people rarely look past this first page in their search, so these pages are likely to remain the most popular even those other sites may possess equal or even better information in response to the search.
  • 89% of consumers use the collective’s recommendations when purchasing online.
  • Contributors to the collective are generally ‘motivated by personal recognition, creative drive and altruistic sense of contribution.’

Applying the models

  • ‘Most individuals make use of all three organisational models and social software tool sets are used to facilitate each.

Table 1: Forms of communication in social software

Table 1

Teaching and learning implications

Table 2

  • ‘There is an abundance of literature related to collaborative tools for groups, that remain a vital component of any educational process using social software. However, they often embody hierarchies and structural constraints that mean they lend themselves best to traditional, formal learning activities and systems.’

Figure 1

Strategies for use

  • See article for specific list of strategies and recommendations for building groups, networks and the collective within organisations.


  • ‘To gain the greatest benefits from social software it is important to understand the different dynamics of different tools and the different contexts in which they may be used.’


Dron, J. & Anderson, T. (2007). Collectives, Networks and Groups in Social Software for E-Learning. In T. Bastiaens & S. Carliner (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education 2007 (pp. 2460-2467). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.




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