Reforming Education with Social Networks — Interview with Alan J. Daly

In this episode of the Masters of Data podcast, I speak with Alan J. Daly about the idea of Educational and Social Networks and their impact in our lives (and particularly, the lives of children). Alan is Professor and Chair of Education Studies at the University of California — San Diego. He is also the author of a new book Social Network Theory and Educational Change. Dr. Daly has been researching and writing about how social networks — relationships between people — affect how successful educational reforms are. Educators and administrators are often unaware of how important their own social networks are to whether crucial reforms succeed or languish. Just like so many other interviews on this podcast, this conversation with Dr. Daly also comes back to the idea that you can’t be successful with data alone. Rather, you need to understand how data and humans intersect. Alan sits down with me to discuss these topics, and review how relationships can be much more impactful in our lives than many people realize.

As we kick things off, Alan shares how the concept of relationships has changed his life in a very real way. As he shares, “I grew up a poor kid, and I never intended to go to college, it wasn’t on my radar, and my grandmother, who actually worked in education…knew that education could potentially be the great equalizer for me.” He continues, “She actually introduced me to a guy that had gone to college and I was in this garden, picking weeds…and talking with him and he saw something in me. And he saw some potential in me. And that relationship changed the course of my life. And relationships are incredibly important, and that’s what led me to where I am.” This reality of the power of social networks and relationships has had a tremendous impact in Alan’s life even until this day. In fact, it was so impactful that he has inevitably dedicated his life to education research and reform, especially around underprivileged and marginalized children.

But it’s not just enough to be impacted by an experience like this, rather there has to be the additional step of taking the theory of the meaningfulness of relationships and applying it to real life. There has to be the adaptation of the social network theory and its impact. As Alan says, “I just noticed that relationships really mattered. And I also noticed in my work that this idea about the quality of our relationships is really important…My Ph.D. [work] is actually looking at leadership and trust.” Because leadership and trust are so vital for relationships, it speaks to the need for quality relationships in our lives in order to have a positive impact.

This idea is highlighted in an example Alan shares about research done by Joseph Moreno in 1932 about the Hudson Camp for Girls. The camp had a notorious issue of having girls running away. Moreno showed this was a result of social influence by the other girls at the camp. The translation is that there is a tremendous social impact in our lives caused by the people we surround ourselves with. But how does this translate to the larger idea of data and how it can be used to bring about change? As Alan notes, “[The] network graphs that we use in our work…represents the quality of the relationships [so] you can start assessing the quality. But…it’s all built on graph theory, so you get this great underlying set of metrics and numbers.” This data then, when combined with an understanding of the impact and influence of relationships, can be used to bring about real change.

Large social network (190,000 folks) from Twitter users commenting on a large scale educational policy over the course of 18 months (

And this idea of taking the data and using it to impact change is something we discuss at length during their conversation. So what does it take to bring and create change? “As we think about change…we really [have] to understand that any change you want to do, any innovation we want to do, is always layered on top of an existing base state of relationships. And that existing base state of relationships may well determine the uptake, the depth, the speed at which your change wants to take place”, Alan identifies. This idea is essential. In other words, if it seems that change is slow, it may not be due to the quality of the idea but more a reflection of the quality of the relationships of the people involved — something Alan’s research and work are dedicated at learning more about. Specifically he looks to see, “What does it take and what’s the kind of data that we want to collect to help us make good decisions.”

While we got to discuss many other fascinating things, we wrapped up with some things Alan has seen in his research that has been a surprise to him. His answer is very concise. “I expected, I think, networks to change more than they actually change. So one of the pushbacks we often get is that when you gather this data, you’re gathering a point in time. You’re capturing somebody’s set of interactions at a particular point in time. But one of the things I noticed is that in some places…the sets of relationships that people identify remain actually pretty constant. But it turns out that relationships, while they do change over time, actually there’s some robustness to the relationships that once people establish these patterns of interaction with people, they tend to retain these patterns of interaction with people.”

This goes to show that the relationships we build and invest over years in have enormous impacts on the work we do today.

Outbound Links & Resources Mentioned

This episode page on the Masters of Data podcast and on iTunes

Learn more about Dr. Alan Daly:

Learn more about #CommonCore project:

Learn more about Alan’s book Social Network Theory and Educational Change:

Learn more about Dr. Jacob Moreno and his research surrounding the Hudson Camp for Girls:

Learn more about Dr. Mark Granovetter and his work The Strength of Weak Ties:

Key Takeaways

  • Relationships are incredibly important and can change the course of our lives.
  • Pastor’s Quadrant is the intersection of really good theory and empirical work with direct applicability that’s going to make a difference in the world.
  • The quality of our relationships matters and leadership and trust are essential elements to having quality relationships.
  • One relationship, one connection and the quantity of that tie, has the power to open up a new network for us.
  • The Social Network Theory is about looking and examining the kind of social structure and social infrastructure we have in our own lives.
  • In 1932, researcher Joseph Moreno published one of the first sociograms with the Hudson Camp for Girls was in upstate New York which had an issue with students running away and what he found in the end is that the runaway behavior was socially influenced.
  • Relational interactions are core to the work through education. This work is really about people systems. Applying the concept in education is necessary if we are fundamentally committed to making the educational experiences for traditionally marginalized kids better.
  • In educational change, we generally are focused on the human capital element. We think that most things are a knowledge problem, and so we apply knowledge and technical fixes to take care of them. And we don’t pay as much attention to the social capital element.
  • As we think about change, we really have to understand that any change or innovation we want to do, is always layered on top of an existing base state of relationships. And that existing base state of relationships may well determine the uptake, the depth, the speed at which your change wants to take place.
  • If change does not take place, in fact, it may have nothing to do with the idea and everything to do with whether or not the relationships are there to uptake this change or this innovation.
  • When we design policies and we design systems, somehow we forget what’s most obvious and what’s most intuitive to us as human beings-relationships.
  • When people think about change in systems, they think that it has to be some kind of massive overhaul but really small micro experiences and micro-interactions that we have that can fundamentally change systems and change the kinds of relationships that we have. And it’s just kind of small-focused work, that makes a really big difference.
  • The concept of social filter bubbles in your own social circle is what we refer to as homophily; you have some set of values or similarities to the people that are in your own social bubble. And you have an idea what they’re about and what they stand for.