Connection not Content

A Blog for MOOCs and Other Animals

Visualising Connectivist Networks

with 5 comments

I originally developed the Comment Collector as a ‘scraper’ program for scanning the RSS feeds of blogs in connectivist MOOCs in order to generate brief summarised versions of participant posts and their comments. The idea was to provide quick and constantly updated impressions of current MOOC activity (see ‘Pages’ menu above for details). I ran the Comment Collector twice daily for periods during several MOOCs with encouragement from participants and facilitators. The Collector amasses a considerable amount of data during the course of a MOOC and this raises possibilities for visualisation of the network formed by connections between the authors of blog posts and those who comment on them. Twitter networks have been visualised in a variety of forms, notably by Aras Bozkurt and Martin Hawksey and with some modification the networks formed by blogs and their commenters can be visualised in similar ways.

I have written a Python program for experimenting with blog and comment visualisation. The data generated by the Comment Collector is used to produce formatted output for display using the excellent Gephi network visualisation and exploration software . The example below illustrates visualisation of a network created by posts and comments from 70 WordPress and Blogger blogs based on an OPML file kindly supplied by Laura Gibbs . This visualisation corresponds to the last 10 days of the Rhizomatic Learning course (Rhizo15).


Click on image to enlarge

Key Features

Names and Numbers – The real names of all blog post authors and commenters have been replaced by numerical labels – blog authors from 0 to 70, others from 71.

Nodes and connections – each node represents either a blog (yellow) with at least one post published in the time interval, or a commenter (pink or yellow). A black line connecting a commenter to a blog represents comments made by the commenter on that blog. The more comments, the thicker is the connecting line and the arrow head pointing at the blog’s node. A loop to and from the same blog node indicates comments by a blog author on their own blog.

Node Size – The size of a node is proportional to the number of connections made by the node – ie the total number of comments to or from the node.

Examples – Commenter 88 (top right) comments on blog 31. The thick connecting line and arrow head indicates several comments (actually 5).

Commenters 5, 11, 82 and 83 comment on blog 48 (left hand side). The thin lines indicate a small number of comments (actually 1 each). Although 11 denotes a blog (< 71), the node is coloured pink as no posts were made by 11 during the time interval. The absence of a loop on 48 indicates no comments made by the blog author on his or her own blog.

The cluster around blog 40 (bottom left) represent blogs that have posted during the time interval but have not made or received comments. Their nodes appear yellow with no connections.


Scope – Data was collected only from WordPress and Blogger blogs with posts carrying the rhizo15 hashtag. These two popular platforms account for the majority of blogs but several other forms of social media (Twitter, Google plus, Facebook etc) were also used in Rhizo15 and are common in connectivist networks.

Names of Participants – Accurate visualisation depends on accurate identification of names, particularly the names of commenters. If Fred Blogs is a blog author his blog’s RSS feed will probably output his name consistently as, ‘Fred Blogs’ but Fred is more likely to be inconsistent when commenting on other blogs, perhaps as ‘fred blogs’ or ‘FredBlogs’. This can be dealt with by eliminating white space and upper case so that all names reduce to the form, ‘fredblogs’ but resolving ambiguities resulting from ‘Fred_Blogs’, ‘fred B’ or just ‘Fred’ is not straightforward. If there is no ambiguity a look-up table can map ‘Fred’ or Fred’s other known aliases to ‘fredblogs’ but in general, the inconsistent use of names by commenters is a problem with no easy solution.

Lost Comments – The Comment Collector normally downloaded RSS feeds every 12 hours but, very occasionally, a post attracting a large numbers of comments immediately after a collection resulted in some new comments being replaced in the feed by later comments before the next collection time. Checking the accuracy of blog postings and comments with the original posts (rather than the RSS feeds) is a lengthy and time-consuming task. It has not been done rigorously!

Visualisation over Longer Periods

Less detailed but more comprehensive visualisations can be obtained by aggregating data over longer time intervals. The visualisation below (same format as above) corresponds to the last 5 weeks of Rhizo15. It involves posts from 49 blogs and 148 blog authors and commenters.


Click on image to enlarge

The concentration of the most active bloggers and commenters in the central part of the network and the extent of their connections with each other and with the wider network is very evident. Less connected blogs are located on the periphery and several connect with different clusters of commenters who have no other connections. The four disconnected nodes on the left represent blogs with new posts but without outgoing or incoming comments during the time interval.


My interest in the visualisation of connectivist networks has mainly been in the programming and the creation of objective data that could throw some light on how such networks form and develop. The visualisations above are examples of what might be achieved but are not definitive in any way. Features such as the number of connections per blog or the the number of comments connecting a commenter to the same blog could be visualised differently, or maybe not at all in favour of other more meaningful measures. How visualisations should be presented and interpreted depends on many factors and I’ve only begun to look at Social Network Analysis. I did try a modularity program available in Gephi that attempts to separate the nodes of a network into distinct communities – with little success suggesting that Rhizo15 is a good example of a well-distributed connectivist network!

There are certainly dangers of jumping to highly subjective or even judgemental conclusions when it comes to interpreting blog and comment visualisation. For example, bloggers who are unresponsive to comments on their own posts are not necessarily being inconsiderate. Receiving no comments on a post is not necessarily a reflection on its quality or content. There are also wider issues concerning privacy. Although the underlying data is publicly available, detailed revelations about the posting and commenting habits of MOOC participants could be considered inappropriate and tantamount to snooping. This is one reason why participants’ names in the rhizo15 visualisations were anonymised (although I’ll supply any interested participants with their own number on request).

Are blog and comment visualisations useful? There are definite possibilities for research in conjunction with visualisation software such as Gephi. If privacy concerns are properly addressed then visualisation might also have a part to play during a MOOC but exactly how and in what form is an open question – comments and suggestions are welcome!

Written by Gordon Lockhart

March 16, 2016 at 1:51 pm

Posted in Mooc, rhizo15

5 Responses

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  1. So glad to see a post — is mooc-posting a sign of spring? Have you compared blog post/comment visualizations with twitter visualizations. Aras Bokzurt does a lot those. Recently I was looking up articles on traffic and usage patterns for social media vs blog posts. The blog post reading and commenting cycle is often less intense and always much longer.

    Stephen Downes’ #NRC01PL mooc is perhaps his first since Change 11 (unless CFHE came after). I started out trying to keep track but count long ago. Anyway, it’s not quite massive but also experimental in a different way that fits my own interest in independent personal learning. I suspect this one to Beta test his NRC personal learning project on the Open EdX platform. It’s been less active but may be picking up. Some complain about that I don’t mind at all. I’m using a combination of Diigo bookmarking and InoReader to collect and share social media posts, course materials and links — no telling how that would be measured. Although I add some pages manually, it’s sufficiently rss driven to feed itself and refresh content when I don’t.

    I’ve been off on different tangents ~ more collecting and curation, less blogging — and I haven’t done an xMOOC in ages but signed on for an iVersity xMOOC on global labor movements. I wanted to check out Learning to Learn (Coursera I think) with an eye to recommending it to local learners in my community networks but dis-engaged early. I can and should still check it out for that. Jennifer Maddrell is doing one on teaching GED and designing lessons with Open resources. I’m following that one too. That reminds me to share the iBerry link with #openabe.

    Someone posted this on G+ community,


    March 16, 2016 at 7:13 pm

    • Hi Vanessa – not quite spring here yet, 4 deg C this morning! Yes, was inspired by Aras Bozkurt and Martin Hawksey’s work. Visualising Twitter networks has advantages of a single type of node (twitter user) and rigidly defined user names whereas distinguishing between blog and comment nodes complicates things for blog/comment networks as well as the human propensity to sign comments in different ways. Interesting re reading and commenting cycles – too much flashes by too quickly these days!

      I’ve also joined #NRC01PL but am rather flummoxed by it. I’ve recently been on 2 excellent philosophy type xMOOCs with first class expert presentation and facilitation so maybe I’m spoiled or just too lazy for a laid back cMOOC.

      Thanks for sharing iBerry – I need to write something there now I’ve posted the visualisation stuff.

      Gordon Lockhart

      March 17, 2016 at 10:37 am

      • Ha! I spoke of spring too soon — it called forth snow here in NE Colorado.

        Minor variations in platforms and features as well as in enabling them might be another complicating factor in in blog vs twitter. I’m just guessing but WP might weigh in heavier with re-blogs and pingbacks registering as comments when enabled.

        I’m even more all over the place platform hopping. If that digital transgression makes me less countable, so be it. Most of the time, I don’t know where I am either.

        Several notions come to mind about #NRC01PL.

        1) The purpose is training new users as an initial step in setting up their own personal learning networks in specific areas, with an emphasis on work related training. I like the idea and don’t mind being a beta guinea pig.

        2) Over the past few years not hosting them, SD either may not have kept with changes in the genre (can we call it that?) or is deliberating working on a new or hybrid form. I did notice him in xMOOCs — neither commenting nor responding to hails, presumably observing. Or both …. all of the above in some configuration.

        xMOOCs are doing the same sort of thing. Good for both. Bryan Alexander (ed tech consultant and futurist) has some good future-of-education posts on on mooc-deployment.

        It’s probably time for me to revisit some xMOOC upgrades (TNG?) to remap the terrain between them. Have you been spending more time on one platform than another or spreading your time around equally?

        iBerry had slipped my mind until your post recalled it. My first thought was as a resource for Jennifer Maddrell’s (imo well-designed) MOOC on ABE/GED course design, but it also fits well into notion #1 as a learner resource.


        March 18, 2016 at 8:19 pm

      • PS just came across this too displaying a comment thread ~ thought it might intrigue you even if not blog but forum,


        March 19, 2016 at 6:35 am

  2. “Minor variations in platforms and features…” – yes that’s a big problem as get soon into diminishing returns if trying to cater for every possibility or even for only a few outliers that don’t conform to the ‘standards’ set by the really well-used platforms. Thanks for reminding me about the Think Tool. I like the forum demo but I guess all the hard work is done by hand and difficult to automate. I’m not sure how the concept might translate over to blog/comment visualisation but it’s something to think about.

    I’m afraid I haven’t done anything for NRC01PL at all. It seems very different from the CCK MOOCs but maybe this not the point and it will develop and assume a life of its own as connectivist MOOCs are supposed to do. I’m fairly convinced now that leadership presence (call it that) is quite crucial to the success of a MOOC of any type and it doesn’t have to be of the ‘sage on the stage’ directed variety. Rhizo14 & 15 were pretty good examples of very light touch facilitation by Dave Cormier but yet participants were motivated well enough with little sign of the petty squabbling and bad humour that can characterise xMOOC forums.

    I’ve spent about the same time on Edx, FutureLearn and Coursera lately. I think Edx is probably superior but there’s not much in it. They all have the dreaded closed forum where posts can vanish without trace but at least there are now more staff and TAs around to query. Some are remarkably good – very patient and usually much better than the typical ‘expert’ participant!

    Gordon Lockhart

    March 19, 2016 at 8:13 pm

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