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What do connections do?

I’ve been thinking more about connections over the past several years than I have about networks. That might seem like an odd thing to say since networks and connections are obviously related. Networks though are bigger, aggregated, more formidable to control and understand than individual connections. While it is helpful to see a social network analysis of learner interaction in a course, it doesn’t necessarily give either the educators or the students the type of information that they need to understand what they need to do differently (or more of).

Connections are individual units of control – networks are the larger patterns that those connections create.

Let me provide a simple example. This past week, Udacity announced a new partnership with Pearson:

Today, we’re excited to announce a partnership with Pearson VUE, a worldwide provider of testing services. Students may still complete a Udacity class on our website as they always have. And now, students wishing to pursue our official credential and be part of our job placement program should also take an additional final exam in a Pearson testing center. There are over 4000 centers in more than 170 countries.
Again, this is strictly optional and only for students who want to participate in our job placement program or be considered for our official credential. The testing centers allow students to show off what they’ve learned in an environment that ensures academic honesty.

This can hardly be described as a network, but a connection has been formed that may have significant long term impact. In itself, this connection has limited power. But if you take a look at the potential implications – emerging pedagogical models (MOOCs) being validated by existing testing procedures – it becomes apparent that Udacity and Pearson both win in the short term, but Udacity loses long term while Pearson wins. Udacity is recognized as an innovative model of learning in the future, but, in order to gain legitimacy, decides that a connection to the established testing system is more important than blazing a new trail. This connection serves to reinforce the existing educational model rather than to continue the path of creating a new one. As Udacity creates similar connections to other education companies and organization, it quickly becomes apparent that the network being created is one of validation and lockin, rather than innovation and a new vision for learning. You can’t do much innovation if your point of departure is blocked by existing testing and assessment models.

Anyway, I presented to SUNY last week on What do connections do – the presentation/slides are below (note slides 16, 18, 38, 44 click through to videos). My argument in that presentation – i.e. that “the integrator rules” – is exactly what is demonstrated by the Udacity/Pearson partnership.


  1. George. Another way of looking at things in this instance is that Udacity is playing for time by piggybacking on Pearson while it works out how to handle the certification challenge. For this reason I think your winning/losing point is a bit tenuous, certainly in this particular instance. All the best, Seb

    Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Permalink
  2. Hi George – I was wondering, have you ever looked at the integrative learning stuff out there, and connected it to connectivism? I only ask because integrative learning has quite a bit of steam behind it here in the States, and there is some nice overlap.

    On your point in this post, I like that you highlight that network both empower and constrain. Calcified institutions might be seen as places not networked, but in fact they are highly networked — they are networked in such a tight way it becomes very difficult to make new connections.

    In some way, mature institutions are like mature minds — victims of our efficiency. Jonah Leher’s book (which, yeah, it’s Leher, but) collects some interesting research on creativity in older people, and the ones that are able to maintain creativity at an older age are the ones that put themselves in unfamiliar areas — areas where they are not allowed to fall back on their old connections — mental or otherwise.

    But what happens, usually, is the worth you bring to the table as a 150 year old institution or 50 year old individual is your connections. That’s your competitive advantage. Throwing connections away (or rather, deciding not to fall back on them) to keep limber is difficult, risky, and from some standpoint maybe a really bad move. On days I think we will never change the system this is my worry — we are wired too precisely for what we are doing now…

    Monday, June 4, 2012 at 6:10 am | Permalink
  3. Dawn Worley wrote:


    The network between Pearson and Udacity can also be described by Slide 31. If Pearson provides all of the testing, a failure in Pearson’s “network” could suspend testing and push back credentials. If Udacity is a pioneer in MOOCs, then it makes sense that their testing system should also be innovative. Thanks for sharing.

    Thursday, June 14, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink