PHD Thesis: Achieving self-organisation in network-based learning environments (2002)

Link to my thesis

This thesis is an investigation into how to exploit the unique features of computer networks (notably the Internet) to support self-organising groups of adult learners.

The structures of systems influence the behaviour of their parts whilst those structures are in turn influenced by their parts’ interactions. Effects of structural hierarchies in popular systems of education may lead to poor learning experiences for some students. An alternative way of organising such systems is to decentralise control and to allow a structure to emerge from the combined actions of learners: a self-organised learning environment.

The functionality of a teacher often has the largest effect on the dynamics of an educational system. This is therefore a good place to concentrate efforts to encourage emergent structures to develop in adult education. The thesis attempts to classify of what that functionality consists, abstracting the roles a teacher may perform.

The Internet (especially the World Wide Web) has more of a network than a hierarchical structure and, being a virtual space, provides relatively virgin ground on which a less centralised model of educational organisation might develop. The thesis considers how self-organised learning may arise in existing Internet-based environments. It identifies a key weakness of existing systems to adequately address the varied and ever-changing needs of learners.

A number of studies performed as part of this investigation centre on the construction of a series of software products explicitly aimed at enabling the self-organisation of learners. They achieve this through the adaptation and evolution of metadata at different structural levels, thereby dynamically adapting to learners’ needs as those needs develop.

The thesis concludes with a set of guiding principles for those seeking to build self- organisation into learning environments.


I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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