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Diversity is hard

complexity

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dana boyd has written a post in which she discusses why America is self-segregating and she comes up with a few suggestions such as the role of social media in segregating people into filter bubbles and echo chambers. But a key point she makes is that diversity, which is ‘often touted as highly desirable’ is hard – ‘uncomfortable, emotionally exhausting and downright frustrating’. So instead of using the many online tools we now have at our disposal to become diversely connected, we use them instead to find like-minded people who, as Kirschner wrote in 2015, ‘discuss, confirm, validate and strengthen the group’s position’ (p.622). In doing this we reduce diversity.

(This tendency to try to reduce diversity is not only evident in online networks. It can also be seen in ‘The Big Sort’ and geographical clustering that I mentioned in my last post, i.e. people physically move geographical location to live near those more like themselves.)

More than ten years ago in 2005 in his ‘Introduction to Connective Knowledge’ (revised in 2007) Stephen Downes wrote of diversity as a key principle of ‘knowing’ networks. Downes sees the fostering of diversity as the means to

 ‘counterbalance the tendency toward a cascade phenomenon in the realm of public knowledge’.  

(Information cascades occur when external information obtained from previous participants in an event overrides one’s own private signal, irrespective of the correctness of the former over the latter’ (Wikipedia ). Cascade phenomena can sweep through densely connected networks very rapidly).

Downes writes

the excesses made possible by an unrestrained scale-free network need to be counterbalanced through either one of two mechanisms: either a reduction in the number of connections afforded by the very few, or an increase in the density of the local network for individual entities’.

According to Downes, the only way to avoid information cascades is to ensure multiple viewpoints and alternative perspectives from observers with different sets of prior experiences, world views and interpretations.

Related to this, a couple of years later Downes wrote of the different affordances of groups and networks – Groups vs. Networks: The Class Struggle Begins – saying that a group is about what members have in common, whereas ‘a network is like an ecosystem where there is no requirement that all the entities be the same.’ If we accept this it follows that a group tends towards homogeneity, but a network to heterogeneity (see also my post on the hazards of group work). Diversity is therefore essential to a healthy network.

But what is diversity?  Dictionaries, e.g. Cambridge dictionary, define diversity as being many different types of things or people, ideas or opinions, being included in something. I would add that in addition many different resources are needed to inform these ideas or opinions. In a paper that Carmen Tschofen and I published in 2012, Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience, we also suggested that there is a need to recognise the importance of psychological diversity of online learners, the complexity of their human needs and connections, i.e. that diversity is not just an external manifestation of difference, but also internal to individuals. Each individual is unique. We argued that connectivity needs to be viewed not only in terms of the network but also in terms of individual characteristics and biases, further complicating an understanding of diversity.

But why is diversity ‘desirable’? dana boyd points to more diverse teams outperforming homogeneous teams and claims that diversity increases cognitive development. In my own field of research into learning in open online environments, this point of view is endorsed by the call for more interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and cross global, international working (see for example Haywood, 2016 and Eynon et al., 2016).

However, Cilliers (2010) suggests that there are deeper reasons. These are related to viewing the world in which we live as a complex adaptive system. Complex systems are heterogeneous, asymmetrical and full of non-linear, unpredictable interactions, which means we cannot fully know or control them. Complex environments exhibit the following characteristics (and more!):

  • Distributed knowledge
  • Disequilibrium
  • Adaptive
  • Self-organisation
  • Unpredictable
  • Emergence
  • Connectedness
  • Diversity
  • Openness
  • Co-evolution
  • Interaction
  • Retrospective coherence

Cilliers tells us that diversity is a key characteristic of complex systems and is essential to the richness of the system, because it is difference not sameness that generates meaning.

An abundance of difference is not a convenience, it is a necessity. Complex systems cannot be what they are without it, and we cannot understand them without the making of profuse distinctions. Since the interactions in such systems are non-linear, their complexity cannot be reduced. The removal of relationships, i.e. the reduction of difference in the system, will distort our understanding of such systems. (Cilliers, 2010, p.58)

But this does not mean that ‘anything goes’. To get the most out of diversity and difference, complex systems require boundaries and constraints, negative, enabling constraints, ‘which determine what is not allowed to happen, rather than specifying what does have to happen’ (Williams, Karousou & Mackness, 2011, p.46). There needs to be an effective balance between openness and constraint, structure and agency.

And difference does not mean opposition. Meaningful relationships develop through difference (Cilliers, 2010), but achieving the right amount of difference to support this development, depends on ethical judgement and choice.

To make a responsible judgement—whether it be in law, science or art—would therefore involve at least the following components:

  • Respecting otherness and difference as values in themselves.
  • Gathering as much information on the issue as possible, notwithstanding the fact that it is impossible to gather all the information.
  • Considering as many of the possible consequences of the judgement, notwithstanding the fact that it is impossible to consider all the consequences.
  • Making sure that it is possible to revise the judgement as soon as it becomes clear that it has flaws, whether it be under specific circumstances, or in general. (Cilliers, 1998, p.139)

These points seem as relevant today, if not more so, than when they were written in 1998. Respect for differences and an understanding of diversity is a key ethical rule for complex systems and no amount of retreating into homogeneous groups will help us cope with living in an increasingly complex world.

As Stephen Downes wrote in 2005 when proposing connectivism as a new learning theory appropriate for living and learning in a digitally connected world:

‘Connective knowledge is no magic pill, no simple route to reliability and perhaps even more liable to error because it is so much more clearly dependent on interpretation.’

but

‘Freedom begins with living free, in sharing freely, in celebrating each other, and in letting others, too, to live free. Freedom begins when we understand of our own biases and our own prejudices; by embracing autonomy and diversity, interaction and openness….’

I agree with dana boyd – diversity is hard, but if as Cilliers (2010, p.56) says, ‘Difference is a necessary condition for meaning’ in a complex world, in order to learn we will need to embrace diversity and maintain, sustain and increase our global networks and connections.

References

Cilliers, P. (1998). Complexity and postmodernism. Understanding complex systems. London and New York, Routledge

Cilliers, P. (2010). Difference, Identity, and Complexity. Philosophy Today, 54(1), 55–65.

Downes, S. (2007). An Introduction to Connective Knowledge in Hug, Theo (Ed.) (2007): Media, Knowledge & Education – Exploring New Spaces, Relations and Dynamics in Digital Media Ecologies. Proceedings of the International Conference held on June 25-26, 2007. – http://www.downes.ca/post/33034

Eynon, R., Hjoth, I., Yasseri, T., & Gillani, N. (2016). Understanding Communication Patterns in MOOCs: Combining Data Mining and qualitative methods. In S. ElAtia, D. Ipperciel, and O. Zaïane (Eds.), Data Mining and Learning Analytics: Applications in Educational Research, Wiley.

Haywood, J. (2016). Learning from MOOCs: lessons for the future. In E. de Corte, L. Engwall, & U. Teichler (Eds.), From Books to MOOCs? Emerging Models of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, p. 69-80. Oregon: Portland Press Limited.

Kirschner, P. A. (2015) ‘Facebook as learning platform: Argumentation superhighway or dead-end street?’ Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 53, December, pp. 621–625. Elsevier Ltd. [Online] Available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.03.011

Tschofen, C., & Mackness, J. (2012). Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13(1). http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1143

Williams, R., Karousou, R., & Mackness, J. (2011). Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3). http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/883

 

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Every day this week, BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a 45-minute programme at 9.00 am bearing the title ‘The New World’. This is a series of programmes examining the major forces that are changing the world around us. The first programme focused on ‘post-truth’ and bore the title ‘Nothing but the Truth’.

For me this is just the right programme, after all that happened in 2016, including ‘fake news’ allegations surrounding Brexit here in the UK and Trump’s election in the USA, to broadcast at the start of 2017. It pulled together and tried to explain society’s changing relationship with truth. It tried to unpick what we mean by ‘post-truth’ and what it means to live in a ‘post-fact’ world. The programme drew on several research studies and spoke to a number of different scientists, researchers and others. The podcast gives further details of these speakers and can be accessed on the BBC website at Nothing but the Truth although I realise that this won’t necessarily be available to those living outside the UK.

The programme started by telling us that ‘Post-truth’ was the ‘word of the year’ in 2016, when it was added to the Oxford Dictionary.

After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.  (Source of quote)

It suggested that 2016 was the year in which people questioned whether facts matter any more and whether there is any longer a need or role for experts in our society. Post-truth describes the world according liberals and their liberal angst. (See The Fallacy of Post-Truth by Rune Møller Stahl & Bue Rübner Hansen for more on this).

When did we enter this post-fact world? According to Rune Møller Stahl & Bue Rübner Hansen any one of a number of events could have been the cause, but the Radio 4 programme presenter suggested that the first clear instance of there being a lot of information ‘out there’ with no basis in fact was the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Events went on to show that when facts are coloured by ideology it is difficult to change people’s minds. In this case people not only resisted the evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction but also became more convinced that there were – a phenomenon known as the ‘backfire effect’. By developing counter arguments people become more entrenched; they persuade themselves and they rationalize instincts and feelings that they already have after the fact in an act of retrospective justification. They put their feelings first and make the facts fit. They think they are reasoning but are actually rationalizing.

The programme posited that we all have this pre-disposition, i.e. the pre-disposition to selectively accept information which is consistent with our world view and the more proficient we are at analysing data the more we do this; we interrogate the evidence and ‘waterboard’ it until it tells us what we want to hear.

Fact and truth. The programme went on to discuss that there are different kinds of facts. When is a fact not a fact? Take for example the question, ‘Is the UK in the EU?’ This is a straightforward question to answer. It is a fact and a truth that we are currently in the EU. But the question ‘how much does the EU cost the UK?’ may have many answers (many truths and facts) and the question ‘is it good for us to be in the EU?’ is not a question about facts but about values. Fact and truth are not the same thing. Has our relationship with truth changed over time? Truth is more personal and is about how you feel about the world. We are all more or less biased. Areas of life that are not about facts but about values shouldn’t be the monopoly of politicians, intellectuals and self-appointed authorities. No-one knows what it’s like to live your life. We don’t have to trust others to interpret the truth or its relevance for our lives.

Echo chambers. If our relationship with truth has changed over time, why is this so? The Internet has affected us all and changed society. Two-thirds of Americans now get their news from social media and this is an increasing trend in the UK. But we tend to inhabit echo chambers on the Internet. We live in filter bubbles seeing echoes of our own opinions, amplified by social software’s algorithms (e.g. Facebook) which give us more of the same and ensure that we don’t encounter dissenting information.

And this doesn’t only happen on the Internet. Some research from America and in the UK has shown that like-minded people move to live near each other. This is known in America as ‘the big sort’ and studies of psychological geography have linked geographical clustering to personality differences, making the chances of meeting people different from us increasingly slim.

How can we burst the bubbles we live in? How do we get contrary information and alternative perspectives into echo chambers? It seems that we can’t win arguments by throwing in more facts. It’s not an information deficit that we suffer from, but an affinity deficit and a lack of trust. We determine the truth by the people and sources we trust. It’s not that facts don’t matter any more. What is really worrying is the lack of trust underneath this which comes from being exposed to fewer opposing views and which makes it harder to believe the other side has anything to offer.

What was suggested in the programme is that it’s difficult to build trust, but perhaps we could start by trusting ourselves a little less, asking ‘Can I trust how I feel?’ We should be anxious about echo chambers and fitting what we see to maintaining our standing in the group. We should resist forwarding to our echo chamber that article that proves how right we are. Just because we like it doesn’t mean it’s true. We should listen more to people we disagree with and make a habit of doubting what we hear, see and read if only for a short time each day.

Like others (see for example Audrey Watter’s post – Education Technology and the Year of Wishful Thinking) during 2016 I became increasingly aware of the issues raise by this Radio 4 programme, of the echo chambers in which I work and live and the pressure to conform to group ideologies. Alternative perspectives are often not welcomed and as I have personally experienced can be met with at best silence and at worst abuse and ridicule. As an academic and researcher this seems a particularly sorry state of affairs.

az-1

To follow my last post – A-Z of my year – I have been thinking about my reading this year.

Unlike the last one, this A-Z is not a complete list. For some letters of the alphabet there is more than one author. For others, there are none. Nearly all these references relate to my work, but a few are related to personal interests. Only one is a novel.

I have read a lot more than this over the year, many more journal papers and novels, not to mention many blogs. Several of the references listed here are not new to me, i.e. I have not read them for the first time this year. I have included references that stand out as having in some way influenced my thinking this year. The references have, in some cases, also been selected because for one reason or another the author has been significant in my learning this year. For many authors I could have selected more than one paper. Unfortunately, I have had to be selective, so the list doesn’t do justice to all who have influenced me, but it has been interesting to compile.

Here is my list.

A

Ashwin, Paul – Analysing Teaching-Learning Interactions in Higher Education: Accounting for Structure and Agency

B

Baggaley, Jon – MOOC Postscript

Barnett, Ron – A Will to Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty

Bates, Tony – Teaching in a Digital Age

Bayne, Sian & Ross, Jen – The Pedagogy of the Massive Open Online Course: the UK View

Biesta, Gert – The Beautiful Risk of Education

C

Cilliers, Paul – Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism

D

Downes, Stephen – OLDaily  and Half an Hour 

Dwyer, Sonya & Buckle, Jennifer – The Space Between: On Being an Insider-Outsider in Qualitative Research 

E

Edwards, Richard – Knowledge Infrastructures and the Inscrutability of Openness in Education

Esposito, Antonella – Research Ethics in Emerging Forms of Online Learning: Issues Arising from a Hypothetical Study on a MOOC

F

Farrow, Robert – A Framework for the Ethics of Open Education

G

Gourlay, Lesley – Open Education as a ‘Heterotopia of Desire’ 

H

Haythornthwaite, Caroline – Rethinking Learning Spaces: Networks, Structures, and Possibilities for Learning in the Twenty-First Century

K

Knox, Jeremy – Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course 

L

Littlejohn, Allison, et al. – Learning in MOOCs: Motivations and Self-Regulated Learning in MOOCs

M

Marshall, Stephen – Exploring the Ethical Implications of MOOCs

McGilchrist, Iain – The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Melcher, Matthias – Connectivist Think Tool

N

Noddings, Nel – Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education

O

Osberg, Deborah & Biesta, Gert – The Emergent Curriculum: Navigating a Complex Course between Unguided Learning and Planned Enculturation 

P

Polit, Denise & Beck, Cheryl – Generalization in Quantitative and Qualitative Research: Myths and Strategies

R

Raffaghelli, Juliana – Methodological Approaches in MOOC Research: Retracing the Myth of Proteus 

Rolfe, Vivien – A Systematic Review of the Socio-Ethical Aspects of Massive Online Open Courses 

Ross, Jen – Speculative Method in Digital Education Research 

S

Sousanis, Nick – Unflattening

Sharpe, Rhona – 53 Interesting Ways to Support Online Learning

Snowden, David & Boone, Mary – A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making

T

Tschofen, Carmen – first novel completed

U

University of Edinburgh – 2016 Manifesto for Teaching Online

V

Veletsianos, George & Shepherdson, Peter – A Systematic Analysis and Synthesis of the Empirical MOOC Literature Published in 2013-2015 

W

Weller, Martin – The Art of Guerrilla Research  

Wenger, Etienne – Learning, Technology and Community. A Journey of the Self

Williams, Roy – The Resonance Project

A-Z of my year

vegetable-graffiti-letters-a-z

At this time of year my cousin sends me an A-Z of her year on a long slip of bright yellow paper inserted in a Christmas card. It is lovely to receive and in just a minute or so I have a very good idea of what her year has entailed and what her numerous interests are. This is a very good way of quickly reflecting on the year, what has been done, what has been achieved and more importantly what has been valued. It surprises me that I have done more than I would have realised had I not gone through this process.

Here is an A-Z of my 2016

A Anglesey in April

B Bosch (Hieronymus) in The Prado, Madrid

C Cross Bay Walk, Collaborators, Choir

D David Hockney at the Royal Academy, Dulwich Art Gallery

E Exercise

F Friends, Family

G Glass Cutting,  Grids Gestures

H House hunting, Holy Island

I Imposter syndrome

J Jutta visits

K Kielder Water

L Lisa in Durham, Life Drawing

M Madrid, McGilchrist, Materiality of Nothing

N Networked Learning Conference, Northumberland

O Open vs closed

P Pendle Hill, Publishing

Q Questions, more than answers

R Raby Castle, Research

S Seventy – this year’s number, Sheep fold by Andy Goldsworthy

T Tate Modern, Triathlon 

U Universities 

V Volkswagen Transporter

W Westminster Abbey, Writing, Waiting

X  X-rays

Y Year – a good one

Z Zest – for life

This post has been sparked by an article in The Times Higher Education (Dec 8th, 2016) – ‘What does retirement mean for academics’, in which Lincoln Allison, Eric Thomas and Richard Larschan reflect on ‘the next phase’ of scholarly life. Having recently entered my eight decade it is perhaps not surprising that this article caught my attention.

Being this age several of my friends and family are ‘retired’. Some have left work never to think of it again and are now enjoying a life of travel, golf, cooking, gardening or any number of hobbies and interests. Many are fitter than they have been for years. For others ‘academic work lingers’. They continue to supervise students, do some teaching, write books, articles etc. and present at conferences. I fall into this latter category. According to Lincoln Allison this is ‘mad old git syndrome’.

Sir Eric Thomas writes of retirement ‘But let’s agree that while you may do other things in the future, when there is no more full-time work, no more of what has defined you for more than four decades, that is retirement’. ‘Your innings is over’.

I don’t feel that my ‘innings is over’, simply that the nature of my innings is changing. From all this I am clearly a ‘mad old gitesse’.

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Ripley St. Thomas Academy, Lancaster

It has been nearly three years since I wrote a post which considered the question of the role of books in today’s digital world – https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/rhizomatic-learning-knowledge-and-books/ That post led to a surprisingly heated discussion about the value of books and a comment quoting Iain McGilchrist.

 

“Life can certainly have meaning without books, but books cannot have meaning without life. Most of us probably share a belief that life is greatly enriched by them: life goes into books and books go back into life.” (p. 195, The Master and his Emissary)

This week I have watched a BBC documentary that seems to support McGilchrist’s view. The title of the documentary was ‘The School that got Teens Reading’. It caught my attention because it was filmed at a local secondary school, Ripley St Thomas Academy in Lancaster which is purportedly the biggest state school in Lancashire and has received an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted Report. Despite this the Headteacher bemoaned the fact that too many of her teenage pupils could not be persuaded to read a novel. Her attempt to solve this problem was to call in the help of actor and comedian Javonne Prince who owned to having left school at the age of 16 without being able to read properly, but who was introduced to Shakespeare and the power of books in drama school and now believes that discovering books changed his life. The Headteacher gave him three weeks to convert 15 reluctant and resistant teenagers into passionate readers. These pupils were selected because they admitted to not having read a book for the past two years or more.

Needless to say Javonne found he had a tough job on his hands and after a rocky start had to call in the help of two friends, Helen Skelton, a children’s author and TV presenter and Russell Kane, another comedian and actor. Ultimately through the use of a variety of strategies they achieved success, at least in the short-term, with 11 of the pupils. Only time will tell whether these teenagers become long-term passionate readers.

What was interesting were the initial attitudes of these teenagers, who said things like ‘I don’t do reading’, ‘Reading is boring’ and that books are not relevant to their lives. They claim not to have time to read and would prefer to be on Facebook, or watch films on Netflix, TV or YouTube. If they need to know something they Google it on their phones. They like a ‘quick fix’ to any questions they have. A shot of the pupils at the end of the school day in the school grounds showed most of them on their phones. One pupil said, ‘I don’t think I have the attention span to get into the book and understand the character’.

During the documentary reference was made to various pieces of research, clearly selected for the purposes of the documentary and unsubstantiated in any way, but nevertheless interesting and no doubt it would be possible to check on them. The following statements were made:

  • British schools’ teenagers don’t like to read. Reading novels has fallen out of fashion all over the country.
  • Year 10 (14 & 15 years old) reading rates have declined
  • The percentage of 11-17 year olds who don’t read at all has more than doubled in recent years from 13 to 27%
  • Research shows that teenagers who read for the joy of it are much more likely to get a better job as adults.
  • Research shows that teenagers who spend just an hour a day playing on their screens can drop the equivalent of two GCSEs
  • Parents play an important role. Primary school children who are read to every day are more likely to enjoy reading into adult life.
  • Most teenagers spend 4 hours a day online which is double the time of 10 years ago.
  • Reading is one of the best ways to strengthen empathy. Some American psychologists believe that reading literary fiction helps us recognise other people’s emotions and understand how they feel.

Iain McGilchrist has also talked about how children are losing the ability to empathise – https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2015/03/27/the-divided-brain-are-we-actually-alive-iain-mcgilchrist/.

The documentary did not at any time suggest that the problem lay with technology; rather it attempted to make the case for the valuable learning that can come from reading novels. One thing that did come out of the programme is that there is little point in having the whole class read the same book, since each child/teenager has their own unique personality, skills and interests. What was not discussed was why the teenagers were asked to read a hard copy of the same book. If they had used technology (Kindle, phone etc.) they could each have read a book of their choice, but presumably this approach would not fit with the school’s assessment constraints!

Jeremy Knox’s book – Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course. Contaminating the Subject of Global Education was published early this year.  I bought the book soon after it was published but have only this summer got round to reading it.
cover

It’s a pity that this is not an open access e-book, which might have received more immediate attention and discussion. I think it does deserve to be discussed since Knox questions whether MOOCs really have been revolutionary and disruptive saying in the introduction,

‘MOOCs have emerged simply as the latest in a long and established line of educational endeavours premised on the nurturing and refinement of a particular kind of human being: one that thinks in a reasoned way; has a natural capacity for independence; and which shares these exclusive traits with all others assumed to be of the same species’(p.2).

He argues that despite the differences between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, ultimately they both promote humanist assumptions of universalism, essentialism, autonomy and transcendental subjectivity.

The problems with these assumptions are explored through Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the book, in which he develops the following arguments.

The assumption of a universal humanist subject:

  • has been at the heart of the design of MOOCs which emanate from the West, thus resulting in a new form of colonialism, where instead of acquiring geographical territory MOOCs acquire data. Knox calls this ‘data colonialism’ and uses visualisations of the globe and global barriers, with visualisations of global enrolment numbers in MOOCs to support this view.
  • homogenises MOOC participation and ‘[…] forbids internal difference as well as societal difference, and acts to continually close down the possibilities for alternative, immanent relations with the richness and diversity of the world.’ (p.212)

Knox argues that participation in MOOCs is measured through visible activity, retention and completion rates and ‘lurking’ or associated non-visible activity (i.e. difference) is seen as problematic. This view is supported by the number of research outputs that focus on completion and retention rates. ‘[…] ‘lurking’ is made visible only in the form of a negative response to the specific data capture and quantification strategy’ (p.101). Rather than embrace the diversity of MOOC participants a lot of research has focused on categorising participants. Knox sees the attempt to quantify participation as another colonisation practice.

He also sees the promotion of personal learning networks (PLNs) as a promotion of a focus on the individual humanist subject, which seems to be at odds with the open, sharing, networked learning that MOOCs, particularly cMOOCs, aspire to.

‘[…] the PLN seems to reinforce the idea of MOOC education as a self-determining and self-centred endeavour.‘ (p.115)

  • privileges bounded and located place and face-to-face teaching and learning, maintaining institutional elitism and inequality and promoting in/out boundaries and campus envy. Knox uses the very successful MOOC, Modern and Contemporary American Poetry as an example of a MOOC which uses the campus–based location to promote a sense of place.
  • fails to take account of ‘the complex relations between human action and algorithmic execution, resulting in an impoverished grasp of the way MOOC spaces are enacted’ (p.213) and the influence they can have on each other, how they ‘contaminate’ each other. To support this argument he uses examples from the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC (EDCMOOC) which with colleagues from Edinburgh University he helped to design and deliver in partnership with Coursera. He writes of how learning spaces in this MOOC were not stable but produced through movement and transition and ‘the entanglement of human users and non-human algorithms which create contaminated spatial orderings’ (p. 178).

Given my own involvement in MOOCs and MOOC research since 2008 I can see lots of parallels between Knox’s work and my own research. The notion of MOOCs promoting a new form of Western colonialism makes sense to me, as does an ethos of ‘tyranny of participation’ which I first started to think about in 2007 after a discussion with Vivien Hodgson about the paper she was to present with Debra Ferreday at the 2008 Networked Learning Conference.

My research has also highlighted concerns with the homogenising tendency of MOOCs (Tschofen & Mackness, 2012; Mackness & Bell, 2015)

And from recent research with Frances Bell and Mariana Funes (Bell, Mackness & Funes, 2016) I know that social media algorithms can contaminate spatial orderings and that technology is not neutral.

Even the discussion that the ModPo MOOC’s promotion of a sense of place might result in a form of elitism seems a reasonable argument, but it was this argument that made me realise where I stand in relation to Jeremy Knox’s points of view.

I have been a participant in the ModPo MOOC twice and it stands out for me as one of the best and most stimulating MOOCs I have enrolled in. Having had this experience and looking back through Chapter 4 of the book – Housing the MOOC – I find I have 10 different notes in the margins stating that ‘I don’t agree’ or words to that effect. Whilst, when participating in the MOOC, I was aware that the Kelly Writer’s House (the physical space and place from which the ModPo MOOC was filmed) was inaccessible to me in terms of location, not for one minute did I experience this as exclusion. In fact it had the exact opposite effect. I thought that creating such a unique and ‘real’ but virtual sense of place greatly increased my involvement in and positive experience of the course. It was one of the elements of the MOOC that impressed me.

This means of course that in Jeremy Knox’s terms I must be invested in the humanist subject in relation to education. On thinking about this I realise that that is exactly what I am. I believe that first and foremost learning is a human endeavour, one that relates to issues of identity (Wenger, 1998) and a transformation of ‘being’ (Barnett, 2007; Freire, 1970). Currently I am learning ‘to be’ a researcher. This is turning out to be a very long on-going protracted process. I network, collaborate and engage with a wide range of people and technologies and am at least somewhat aware of the effects of algorithms; I know I am not an island. I am influenced by whatever is in my environment, just as whatever is in my environment is influenced by me.

But for me, learning is ultimately about me. I am unique, not in an arrogant sense, but because my experience of learning, the community, the environment, the technology is unique to me. It can be similar to someone else’s experience but not exactly the same. I think this is what Stephen Downes recognises in his work on personal learning networks and in his talk The MOOC of One.

There are paradoxes in the delivery of MOOCs which I think Jeremy Knox has been successful in uncovering. His book is a thought-provoking critique of humanist assumptions surrounding the design and delivery of MOOCs, which I think are well worth engaging with. His concerns related to homogenisation, the tyranny of participation and the influence of social media algorithms on social interaction and learning in MOOCs are very similar to my own.

If you are interested in MOOCs then I can recommend reading this book.

References

Barnett, R. (2007). A will to learn: Being a student in an age of uncertainty. Open University Press.

Bell, F., Mackness, J. & Funes, M. (2016). Participant association and emergent curriculum in a MOOC: Can the community be the curriculum? Research in Learning Technology.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Knox, J. (2016). Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course. Contaminating the Subject of Global Education. Routledge

Mackness, J. & Bell, F. (2015). Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade. Open Praxis. 7(1), p. 25-38

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