Networked Learning 2016: Do we need new metaphors?

The question in the title of this post was raised by Caroline Haythornthwaite in her keynote presentation for the Networked Learning Conference 2016. Metaphor became a theme which ran through the conference, following this opening keynote.

Caroline Haythornthwaite

I found this a difficult presentation to follow at the time. It was very densely packed with information, delivered fast and the slides contain a lot of text, so I am grateful to Caroline for immediately posting the link to her presentation, giving us an opportunity to go through it all again.

Caroline discussed many metaphors for networked learning including new ones that might help us reconsider where we are and where we are going next in terms of networked learning. By the end of her presentation after she had taken us through a whirlwind of many possibilities, she asked the question (Slide 52), ‘What are the implications for networked learning if we use metaphors that relate to new working conditions?’ e.g. Gig learning and Uber learning.

Caroline H 2

A quick search on Google suggests that the implications might be that we see more posts like this ‘5 skills of the Gig Economy’ by Joseph Aoun.

Metaphors are powerful, even essential to our understanding. Iain McGilchrist in his book on how the left and right hemispheres of the brain influence how we perceive the world around us, has written:

Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life. (McGilchrist, 2009, p.115)

Metaphors help us to think differently, see alternative perspectives and ‘unflatten’ our thinking (Sousanis, 2015). An example of a metaphor used by both Caroline (Slide 4) and Nick Sousanis (p.18 in his book) and taken from Lakoff and Johnson is reframing ‘argument as a dance rather than war’.

Caroline H 3

In my own recent work, with Frances Bell and Mariana Funes (2016, p.80) we have written that metaphors need to be treated with caution.

Lakoff (1992) points out that metaphors are asymmetric and partial and Morgan (1997) writes of metaphors, “in creating ways of seeing they tend to create ways of not seeing” (p. 348). Metaphors shape the way we see and the way we act, they enact a particular view and can be “self-fulfilling prophecies” (Lakoff & Johnson, 2008, p. 132).

By using the Gig metaphor to create a list of skills, what skills do we exclude? What do we fail to see?

These questions about the pros and cons of metaphor relates to another theme that ran through the conference; the meaning of ‘open’. I hope to think about this in more depth in a further post, but Richard Edward’s work (referenced in Sian Bayne’s keynote and her presentation with Jen Ross) discusses the relationship between openness and closedness (Edwards, 2015). He writes:

….all forms of openness entail forms of closed-ness and that it is only through certain closings that certain openings become possible and vice versa (p.3)

So in any form of discussion about new metaphors it will be necessary to consider the limitations of the metaphor. These are complex issues. Roy Williams (@dustcube on Twitter), who was not at the conference but who has seen Caroline’s presentation, wonders if we avoid engaging sufficiently with complexity because it is too much for us; we are like people who are hungry for ideas, but keep walking quickly past the chocolate-ideas shop, because we think they might be ‘too rich’ for us.

Roy metaphor

I would have liked to have spent a bit more time in the chocolate shop, maybe with a workshop (or similar) after Caroline’s keynote to play and experiment ‘with possible metaphors to guide us on the way forward’ in these changing times (Haythornthwaite, 2016).


Bayne, S. (2016). Campus Codespaces for Networked Learning. (Keynote May 10, 2016, 10th Networked Learning Conference)

Edwards, R. (2015). Knowledge infrastructures and the inscrutability of openness in education. Learning, Media and Technology, (June), 1–14. doi:10.1080/17439884.2015.1006131

Haythornthwaite, C. (2016). New Metaphors for Networked Learning. (Keynote May 10, 2016, 10th Networked Learning Conference)

Mackness, J., Bell, F., & Funes, M. (2016). The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 32(1), 78–91. doi:10.14742/ajet.v0i0.2486

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven, London: Yale University Press

Sousanis, N. (2015). Unflattening. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press

6 thoughts on “Networked Learning 2016: Do we need new metaphors?

  1. @mdvfunes May 13, 2016 / 7:29 am

    I enjoy reading other people’s understanding of embodied cognition and its relevance to our day to day interactions. Mark Johnson said somewhere that their work is at once obvious and deeply profound. We are so embedded in understanding the abstract in terms of the concrete that most people cannot see there are alternative ways of seeing; hence they dismiss the work.

    In their work on how even maths is metaphorical in nature, I marvelled at their gift to see below the surface of words. It has given me a great respect for the small cues in language that speak of this hidden realm. Yet, as you say, just talking about this does not help us embody change. I used to run workshops to teach people how to ‘see’ in this new way as my PhD was about that. It was a joy to see the discovery process and the change in the quality of conversation when a new way of structuring their inner world was tested….

    Without the experiential, often this work on metaphorical understanding stays at the level of the quaint; like ‘did you know the Eskimo have x number of words for snow?’ With metaphor it would be ‘did you know that the whole of social life is structured with the ‘time is money’ metaphor?’ No more than dinner conversation until we try to embody something else.

    We do need different metaphors for how we do life, not just education in my view. How we do the inner work required to embody these in our dialogue is quite another story….thanks for this post, so clear.

  2. jennymackness May 13, 2016 / 9:13 am

    Many thanks Mariana for your comment. I agree that we also need the experiential. I think that often in conferences this is given lower priority or that may simply be my perception. Do we need more workshops at conferences?

    There was some discussion about the relationship between theory and practice at the conference. The Networked Learning Conference has a reputation for high quality papers which do not shy away from theory. A number of people said that they liked the conference because of this emphasis on theory, but the point was also raised that maybe practice-based papers should be given more space (my words and interpretation!).

    My own paper that I wrote with Jutta Pauschenwein was practice-based, and when submitting I did wonder whether it would be accepted because of the emphasis on practice instead of theory.

    There was also some discussion at the end of the conference about possible ways forward for the Networked Learning community – hence Caroline’s keynote. Maybe there will be some discussion about how to get beyond the words and move towards a more embodied, experiential way of learning and discussing theory and practice 🙂

    Hope this makes sense. Thinking off the top of my head here!

  3. Heli May 16, 2016 / 12:16 pm

    I want to tell that I’ve begun to read yours and Jutta’s post during NLC2016 and I enjoy.
    THIS post is so heavy, densely packed that I must come back many times. Something is happening in my mind, thanks for your work

  4. jennymackness May 16, 2016 / 4:04 pm

    Hi Heli – thanks so much for leaving a comment here. I had noticed you following the Networked Learning Conference on Twitter, so it’s good to see you here.

    Yes – there was a lot in Caroline’s keynote and, of course, metaphors are never straightforward, so it’s not surprising that you have revisited these ideas. I have only scratched the surface myself.

    Hope all is well with you Heli.


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