Boundary Pushing Using Digital Networks

By Terry Anderson, Professor Emeritus, Athabasca University, Canada

Human survival and evolution makes extensive use of boundaries. Boundaries allow us to structure and to feel control and mastery of a safe subset of our environment – that which we call home. The protective walls of the walls of the housing compound, the moat and oaken doors of the castle and the campus gate not only provide safety but also serve to demarcate and define our spaces. Boundaries are instruments to filter what or who is allowed to enter but as an unfortunate side-effect impair easy exit. In higher education boundaries serve to create a refuge for scholarship, a place where ideas and ideals –even those not shared by political leadership or majority opinion can exist and be developed. But boundaries also serve to exclude – to shut out the dangerous and heretical ideas and those people from whom we wish to exclude our privilege. While protecting us they also restrain the free flow of ideas and knowledge, thus creating a comfortable and known space, while containing our experience of the unknown.

Recent communications technologies however take little heed of campus walls. This capacity to use technology (print and post) was exploited over 150 years ago by distance educators. The boundary of physical space was breached by these educators as importantly temporal bounds were relaxed. From the students’ perspective, time could be shifted as well as place to account for work pressures or family responsibilities, however neither campus nor distance provision could quite wean itself from rigid, often semester length terms of the calendar cycles of campus life. Thus, the distance education/online environment increased access, while still retaining many of the familiar social structures of campus education, as it evolved.

Despite the breach of geographic boundary and partial freedom from temporal schedules, postsecondary education continues to use its social boundary to support the priorities and privilege of existing social order by sustaining a hidden curriculum – those “unstated norms, values, and beliefs embedded in and transmitted to students through the underlying rules that structure the routines and social relationships” p. 26 (Giroux, 1983). In his later work Giroux (1992) expanded his call for critical reform within campus to expand the work of education to broader society and to use the real world, rather than the sanctuary of campus as the primary context for learning. The development of digital networks upon which personal, professional and social networks flourish afford opportunities for a vast expansion of high education experience and impact. This paper provides rationale and a case study example of efforts to realize the potential of network infused teaching and learning.

It is now both affordable and practical to design new and exciting networking experiences for university students and teachers. These can include a wide variety of intercultural or e-service learning activities in which students get to meet and work with students living and learning far outside the campus walls (Goertzen & Greenleaf, 2016). Teachers can retrieve, create, share and curate a host of multi-media Open Educator resources from online textbooks, to immersive learning games. As importantly they can develop their open teaching and open scholarship practice (Weller, de los Arcos, Farrow, Pitt, & McAndrew, 2015) (Ehlers, 2011) such that producing, sharing, evaluating and curating open spaces and resources – thus expanding their realm of scholarship and teaching beyond any single campus. We also see examples of education extending activities and presence on commercial networks such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Perhaps more exiting our efforts to develop open LMS systems that link through to widely distributed sets of personal networks and resources that each can create and maintain. Further, teachers have an opportunity to engage in both online and campus based professional networks that can provide advice, inspiration and collegial support for teachers – thus allowing them to persevere and grow as professional educators (Matzat, 2013). Students (of all ages) have an opportunity to formally enroll in MOOCs, work through tutorials on a host of topics, enter into scholarly and professional conversations and expand their learning community far beyond the campus walls.

Despite all this availability and possibility lies the hard fact that most teachers fail to even exploit the more social tools (eg blogs, WIKIs, shared photo spaces, recommendation systems) available in (and of course outside) their Learning Management Systems. Instead the greatest usage of these tools are for gradebooks, assignment management and distribution of print content (O’Rourke, Rooney, & Boylan, 2015). This failure to effectively use these tools as boundary-spanning learning opportunities has a number of reasons entangled with a broad range of technology adoption issues.

But there are also questions of digital competency. People do not adopt technologies until they have perceived benefit and as importantly have self-efficacy to believe that their efforts to innovate using these technologies will be successful and enhance both their teaching and learners’ experiences. In the remainder of this paper, I talk about about an application that have been developing for the past seven years at Athabasca University – a public, Open University in Canada which though 100% online offers courses in both paced and continuous registration/unpaced modes. Finally I look more closing at the components of network literacy.

The Athabasca Landing ( or see (Dron & Anderson, 2014) was created on the ELGG open access platform to be a networking system – accessible and useful for all members of the University community – including graduates and invited guests. It features a ‘Face-book’ or ‘WeChat’ like set of communications tools and is unlike the LMS in the following ways:

  • The system is very flat, with each student having the same tools and control as the University President
  • It is a secure bounded context, however any user can easily open a window on any contribution so that others (including search engines) can view and if desired comment on the contribution
  • It is persistent and boundary spanning, allow any user to set up a group along any social, discipline or interest line. These groups persist beyond a single semester or year.
  • It is flexible allowing users to customize and decorate their spaces to meet their individual and group needs.
  • It demonstrates and stimulates users to create and contribute to a large variety of networks, groups and sets – thereby increasing their own network capabilities, social presence and building social capital (de Zúñiga, Jung & Valenzuela, S. (2012); Vila & Ribeiro-Soriano (2014).

Despite the availability of this tool set for seven years, we have yet to secure full support from the University to become a ‘production service’ and adoption is hindered by lack of critical mass of users.

Part of this challenge is due to the level of digital competence and confidence of both students and teachers. A number of frameworks have been suggested to measure and to set targets for both teachers and students that insure they are able to maximize benefit from available network resources and connections Ferrari, A. (2012). Recently, Mozilla network released (2017) a set of competencies classified under meta competencies of exploration, creation, connection and protection. (table 1.)


WebSkillsCompetenciesLiteraciesGridTable 1. Digital Literacies (2017) from Mozilla

As each of us scans this list of competencies we can see how far our own skills have developed. More importantly we can ask if our individual classes or our larger programs result in graduates with a set of digital skills that equips them for both creating and breaching boundaries in their personal, academic and professional lives.

To conclude, effective scholarship uses boundaries to create safe and nurturing spaces, but as importantly effective scholarship works beyond boundaries to open spaces that span temporal, geographic, social and economic barriers. Exposure to these opportunities is extremely varied across cultures and social classes, and few of us operate at high levels of network competence. Thus, despite challenges, costs and fears, a key role for higher education to provide safe, yet stimulating exposure to the learning available both within and outside of the formal education context. Creating communities, teachers and students who are comfortable and competent in both bounded and unbounded spaces is our 21st Century learning challenge.


Dron, J., & Anderson, T. (2014). Teaching crowds: Learning and social media. Edmonton, Canada: Athabasca University Press.

Ehlers, U.-D. (2011). Extending the territory: From open educational resources to open educational practices. Journal of Open Flexible and Distance Learning, 15(2), 1-10.

Ferrari, A. (2012). Digital competence in practice: An analysis of frameworks. Sevilla: JRC IPTS.(DOI: 10.2791/82116)

Giroux, H. A. (1983). Theory and resistance in education: A pedagogy for the opposition: JSTOR.

Giroux, H. A. (1992). Border crossings: Cultural workers and the politics of education: Psychology Press.

Goertzen, B. J., & Greenleaf, J. (2016). A Student-Led Approach to eService-Learning: A Case Study on Service Project Effectiveness within a Fieldwork in Leadership Studies Course. The International Journal of Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement, 4(1).

Matzat, U. (2013). Do blended virtual learning communities enhance teachers’ professional development more than purely virtual ones? A large scale empirical comparison. Computers & Education, 60(1), 40-51.

O’Rourke, K., Rooney, P., & Boylan, F. (2015). What’s the use of a VLE? Irish Journal of Academic Practice, 4(1).

Vila, J., & Ribeiro-Soriano, D. (2014). An overview of Web 2.0 social capital: a cross-cultural approach. Service Business, 8(3), 399-404

Weller, M., de los Arcos, B., Farrow, R., Pitt, B., & McAndrew, P. (2015). The impact of OER on teaching and learning practice. Open Praxis, 7(4), 351-361.

de Zúñiga, H., Jung, N., & Valenzuela, S. (2012). Social Media Use for News and Individuals’ Social Capital, Civic Engagement and Political Participation. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 17(3), 319-336.

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