Networked authorship as a site of learning

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

The co-creation of knowledge is, I think, represented in the idea of networked authorship. It’s a term that works very well for me, though it is not widely used as far as I can tell.

It was Matt Johnston at Coventry University who asked me if I was familiar with the idea a few years ago. I had been talking to him about his Box of Books method for a case study I produced in my book Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education.
Matt talks about this project in an article he wrote for Hybrid Pedagogy. He discusses the book-based generative events he facilitated in over 30 cities globally and says, “From the outset of the Photobook Club, it was clear to me that in order to promote truly open and community-driven discourse and expression, my own authorial role would need to be either reduced or distributed.” Matt’s position is not one of feigning modesty for effect, but a matter of pedagogic realisation and principle.

Both the idea of book as passive artefact and the role of teacher as instructor are disrupted in the idea of networked authorship. The book, in the social context of the book club becomes a medium for interrogation and exchange. Like the comments on a blog, it is the thinking and conversation that it facilitates, socially and individually, that is important. In this case, the teacher’s role is minimal and certainly not dominant. For Matt, he had the idea of the book as a stimulus; one that could connect thinking amongst club members and, through the international postal system, a notebook of comments that travelled with the books, and Facebook Groups, he facilitated a slow discourse as the book box travelled the world. Because the selected books in the box were about the work of luminary photographers, conversation focused on exploring interpretations of image and this allowed conversations to be more open to possibilities. Ideas of ‘ownership’ over conversation and the knowledge it can generate become more feasible. I am not sure how well a dense academic text might work in this situation without access to greater teacher facilitation.

This points to the idea of co-ownership or distributed ownership; an idea that is risky but full of potential pedagogically. The analogue nature of the book box is important for me because it demonstrates that the significance of ‘network’ is not that it is digital, but that it is primarily facilitated through human interaction and exchange around common interests.

“The distribution of authorship encourages responsibility and a more genuine sort of meritocracy, but it also allows projects to be shifted and shaped in ways in which the original author could never have foreseen. My project became something much bigger than it had first set out to be. As a practical note, however, this networked authorship can morph into undesired areas and quickly become cumbersome, thus I found it helpful to create a short, and purposefully broad, project statement to refer back to on regular occasions in order to ground the work.”

Incorporating collaborative writing as a form of networked authorship

Recently I ran a workshop which involved collaborative writing. We needed to bring together a wide range of ideas into a structured form. This required negotiation of the knowledge exposed during several activities – moving from divergence and generation towards a convergence and synthesis of thinking. So, as I have done many times since the emergence of Writely in 2005 (before it became Google Docs), I set up a series of pages for the group to write up key ideas using my C is for Course-focused Practice framework.

In short, it worked really well, but it surprised me that only one or two people in this group of educators had come across the idea of collaborative writing. They did not immediately grasp the pedagogic value of writing as a largely negotiated process. Some people put their names at the top of ‘their’ page and this struck me as odd. It was only then that I realised ideas about collaborative writing and co-ownership were unfamiliar to them. Collaborative writing is an archetypal form of active learning, being social and person-centred, where the learning value comes from the flow of detailed negotiation as ideas are considered and joint commitments to ideas and the way they are communicated are made.

In this workshop, all this was apt given that our focus has been developing ideas around co-operative pedagogy, considering co-poduction, co-creation and connective learning. Only the day before we had spent some time considering learning and teaching ecologies while reflecting on the use of a learning walk as a space for learning. In both cases the opportunity, and challenge, comes from recognising ways in which we can accommodate and value diverse thinking.

But networked authorship is about much more than the idea of collaborative writing using a tool like Google Docs or Microsoft Word 365. It is more than being democratic or being a team – it is about generating ideas as an emergent collective mind in ways that reveal insight that could not be discovered by an individual. Networked authorship is about generating knowledge from contributions so that the knowledge is novel and greater than the sum of its parts. This perfectly reflects assemblage theory (DeLanda, 2016) and aligns to the principles of co-production.

Matt says, “I have consistently encouraged autonomy and self-governance throughout the Photobook Club.” This idea of authorship relating to assuming authority is, I think, where our interest lies. It is about empowerment – not empowerment given, but empowerment discovered. It is about learning as self-determination within a social context.

The idea also reflects distributed cognition (Hutchins, 1995) – the idea that knowledge resides across a network and can be accessed to (in)form new knowledge. The ‘teacher’s role is also redefined in networked authorship because it is centred on an idea of knowledge that cannot reside with a single person – that is the point. Knowledge is found to be a dynamic concept. As Matt says, “each community ultimately shapes how this space is seen and used.” Knowledge is a unique outcome of communal consideration, not of individuals within a community. Again, this epitomises assemblage theory (DeLanda, 2016).

Callahan (2013) discusses distributed authorship as a feminist scholarship “…that touts openness and accessibility through the tools of digital technology while simultaneously featuring an ever-growing concentration of wealth and control over resources.” It is fraught with difficulties.

Networked authorship threatens academia which, despite its appreciation of collaboration and team work, struggles with assessing and accrediting co-authored work in which the output is greater than the sum of its parts. If, for example, we see pedagogic value in networked authorship, can we conceived of a form of networked assessment? In a successful networked creation, the author is impossible to identify. Further, in networked endeavours it is the originality that comes from a collective voice that is valued. This is much more fitting for the times in which we live where sole authors and lone geniuses are increasingly anachronistic. Rather than denying this or passively resigning ourselves to this different paradigm, how can we reify the collective thought  in higher education?

Biggs (2020) points us towards ideas of diffused authorship and Latour’s concept of Actor Network Theory (2005). He notes the close relationship between agency and authorship. However, while ANT acknowledges and is interested in the role of non-human actants, it is not where my interest lies. For me, networked authorship is intriguing because it more closely reflects a non-hierarchical world of navigation and negotiation for the common good. In this way it is a fitting area for pedagogic innovation and one that seems to have greater authentic value than the legacy pedagogies and systems we have inherited. Technologies are certainly part of this, and increasingly so, but I think the greater and more immediate challenge is for us as academics to reconceptualise our practices to incorporate learning as a process of connected authorship.


Biggs, S. (2010). Authorship and agency in networked environments. Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice (ELMCIP). Online at

Callahan, V. (2013). Toward networked feminist scholarship: Mindful media, participatory learning, and distributed authorship in the digital economy. Cinema Journal, Fall 2013, 53(1), pp.156-163.

Delanda, M., (2016). Assemblage theory. Edinburgh University Press.

Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the wild. MIT Press.

Latour, B (2005). Reassembling the social: an introduction to Actor Network Theory.
Oxford University Press.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
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