PhD by Publication – Selection of Papers

In her book, PhD by Published Work, Susan Smith writes that one of the disadvantages of this route to a PHD is that ‘it is tricky to retrospectively shoe-horn diverse papers into a post hoc theme’ (p.34).

This statement seems to suggest that researchers jump from project to project that have no direct links between them. Maybe this is the case for researchers, associated with universities, who may have to work on projects which are not their principal area of interest, either because these projects bring in funding, or because papers from these projects will contribute to their University’s research excellence framework (REF). I can see that this might lead to diverse papers that are difficult to pull together, but neither of these constraints applied to me, since I have always worked as an independent researcher.

Despite this, it wasn’t immediately apparent to me which papers I should select for this PhD by Publication or what the focus of my supporting statement should be. I think there were at least three possible routes I could have gone down, depending on which and how many papers I selected for submission and which papers I left out. As Ian McGilchrist says on p.133 of his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World:

It is not just that what we find determines the nature of attention we accord to it, but that the attention we pay to anything also determines what it is we find.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in order to select papers, I first had to refresh my memory about these publications. Once a paper has been published I tend not to go back and reread it multiple times, but instead move on to the next research project. Although I knew the general gist of all the papers, I didn’t remember all the detail. So I started by working on a mini literature review of my own papers, critiquing them, summarising them, checking the number of citations and how and where the work has been disseminated. Looking back at my journal, I can see that I didn’t find this process particularly easy. It was time consuming and my first summaries were streams of consciousness rather than summaries. Ultimately, I ended up with the summaries of the papers I selected that are in Appendix 3 of the thesis – Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017.

To decide on which papers to select, I used Matthias Melcher’s Think Tool, which allows you to enter text into a mapping tool and look for links between the entered texts.

Since 2009, I have published 20 papers and one book chapter. I entered the Abstracts of all these publications into the Think Tool and as a result was able to create 6 groups of papers and identify cross-paper themes.

Interrelationships between all publications by group and keyword. (Figure 1 in the thesis, on p.16)

I blogged about this process at the time – A new mapping tool: useful for research purposes. From this process it became clear to me that whilst a large body of work was related to emergent learning, and I could have focussed solely on that, in fact even those papers resulted from participation in MOOCs and a deep interest in how learning occurs in these open environments at the level of the individual learner. I felt there was only one group of papers that diverged from this and that was the group that looks at whether and how learning design can be influenced by an embodied view of the world and a view of perception and action as enactive perception using all the senses, but even these papers originated from an interest in the design of learning environments.

Having decided on which groups to focus on there still remained the question of how many papers to select. For Lancaster University, there was no advice on the number of papers to be submitted other than that the material submitted must be “sufficiently extensive as to provide convincing evidence that the research constitutes a substantial contribution to knowledge or scholarship.” At this stage I went into the department to look at the PhDs by Published Work already awarded, to discover that there had only been three since 1999 (1999, 2003, 2010) and each of these was awarded to a member of staff in the department, who submitted 9, 11 and 10 published works respectively together with a supporting statement of around 40 pages, although I have seen other examples from Lancaster University considerably shorter than this. Ultimately, I submitted 13 papers and a supporting statement of 101 pages. I mention this not to suggest that the number of pages is in any way significant, but just to illustrate that it seems that at Lancaster University there is a wide variety of practice. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the case across universities. The uncertainty associated with this was not easy to work with, but on the other hand seemed to mirror the unpredictable learning environments I have researched, where I have worked with no externally imposed rules or expectations.

Throughout this process I felt I was working in the same way I have always worked, i.e. working it out as I went along, and letting the process and structure emerge. One of my ‘critical friends’ who gave me feedback on the thesis after I had submitted but before the viva thought that my important work was related to the ‘Footprints of Emergence’ framework and emergent learning rather than the empirical papers and I think that my colleague Roy Williams, probably thinks the same, although he hasn’t said this. But the analysis of my papers, using Matthias Melcher’s Think Tool,  revealed my ‘golden thread’ (as Susan Smith calls it) to be ‘learners’ experiences in cMOOCs’, so that is what I focussed on.

On reflection and given the open structure of the PhD by Publication, I can see that in different circumstances at a different time, I might have selected a different set of papers and ended up with a different thesis. Now there’s a thought! But I’m not going to test out this idea  🙂

Why do a PhD by Publication?

Why do a PhD at all?

I have considered this question many times since I completed my MA in 1997 when I was asked by the awarding University department to continue to do a PhD. I declined. My job at the time was demanding and the MA, despite having really enjoyed it, had been a strain on me and my family’s patience! But a PhD was always in the back of my mind. In 2010, I considered it again and rejected the idea once more . During these years, I continued to work as an independent researcher with a variety of colleagues, producing a number of papers. At the end of 2015 I didn’t have any more research projects planned, so my mind turned again to the possibility of doing a PhD. It seemed it was a niggle that just wouldn’t go away. My eldest son sent me an email saying, ‘For goodness sake Mum, you’ve been talking about it for years – just get on with it.’

Source of image 

(I didn’t discover this book until after I had submitted, but I wish I had discovered it earlier)

There are many reasons for doing a PhD. I have friends who have completed or are working on research PhDs, i.e. they research a topic of personal interest for three or more years, or taught PhDs, where six taught and assessed modules are completed over the first two years, before embarking on a shorter thesis which takes two years or more. Reasons seem to be a combination of personal interest in the chosen topic and career incentives/ambitions and from what I have seen the award of a PhD can lead to new career opportunities. My reasons did not relate to my career, but they did relate to changing personal circumstances.

I have recently reached my eighth decade (70 as of last November to be precise) so a PhD as a career move was not relevant for me. In fact, it might mark the end of my research career. I haven’t decided yet. I needed to do it for myself. Although I knew that it was possible to do a PhD by publication, I thought I probably wasn’t eligible. Many Universities will only take members of staff to do a PhD by Publication.   When I went to Lancaster University in January 2016 to enquire about doing a PhD, I went with the intention of starting a full research PhD. It was Professor Paul Ashwin, Head of Department, who ultimately became my supervisor, who asked me why I wasn’t considering a PhD by Publication. Interestingly the Educational Research Department at Lancaster University, which has awarded my PhD, has no mention of a PhD by Publication on its website , but Paul found out for me that I was eligible at Lancaster University to do this, since I am an alumna (my MA) and I worked for nine years for an associated institution.

I didn’t fully realise until well into my PhD that this was the perfect route for me. Not only was it a wonderful act of retrospective coherence, a pulling together of eight years’ work, but it also came at just the right time and only cost me £600, which now that I am rarely paid for work I do and am living off my pension, was an important consideration. On reflection, although this was not a consideration at the time, it was also important that it didn’t take as long (18 months in total); at my age time is short and I have a lot of things on my bucket list to fit in 🙂

So what did I have to do for this PhD?

PhDs by publication in the UK don’t seem to be very common – and I am not talking about the kind of PhD which is assessed by the papers that are written and published as part of the PhD study. That kind of PhD seems quite common in some countries in Europe and in Canada. My PhD by Publication was different. It involved drawing on existing published papers and making the case for a contribution to the body of knowledge in the field studied (in my case – learners’ experiences in connectivist MOOCs). This act of retrospective coherence was particularly apt for me, since a lot of my research has been into exploring how emergent learning occurs in complex adaptive systems – namely open online learning environments.

Different universities have different requirements both for entry and for the thesis submission, for a PhD by Publication. In my case the application was as much work as the thesis submission, although that was partly my own choice as I decided to try and do most of the work (i.e. the Literature Review and mapping analysis of papers) upfront, leaving me less to do after acceptance.

The application requirements for Lancaster University were as follows:

  • a list of the publications to be submitted: these may include refereed articles, authored chapters, authored books, and edited works. They may not include course readers, internally published material or unpublished seminar/conference papers, and 
  • a supporting paper: this should summarise each publication submitted, outline their interrelationship, give a critical review of the current state of knowledge and research in the applicant’s field and indicate how his or her work has contributed to the field.  It should also comment on the standing of any journals and the reception of the publications as indicated by citations and reviews

In relation to the length of the submission, there are no set word limits for the supporting paper which should accompany the submitted publications. The supporting paper must cover all the areas outlined in section 53(b) of the criteria (bullet points above) and the material submitted must be “sufficiently extensive as to provide convincing evidence that the research constitutes a substantial contribution to knowledge or scholarship.”  

If the application is successful, you would then work with an internal adviser to expand on the supporting paper, so this is not the final submission, basically it’s the starting point in order to ascertain if your work is at the appropriate level, i.e. PhD.

During the PhD I kept a comprehensive journal of all my thinking and progress on a private wiki which I only shared with Matthias Melcher, who was wonderfully critically supportive and encouraging throughout the whole process. What is so amazing about this is that we have never even met face-to-face. Matthias was there at the very start of my research into connectivist MOOCs. We ‘met’ in CCKO8 – the first ever MOOC.

Looking back at my wiki notes I see that I started to think about applying for a PhD in December 2015 and had my first meeting with Paul Ashwin at Lancaster University in January 2016. I submitted my application at the beginning of June 2016 and my thesis (supporting statement) at the beginning of December 2016. My viva was at the end of March 2017 and my final submission with minor revisions in May 2017. These were accepted June 2017. Through most of this time, I worked full time on the PhD.

Now that it is over, my family are proud but relieved that life can finally go back to normal. My eldest son’s response this time was, ‘Well who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!’

PhD by Publication

Today I can christen this mug which was sent to me by my friend and collaborator, Mariana Funes (herself a Dr of long-standing) at the end of March, when I was told by my examiners that I had been awarded a PhD subject to three minor revisions.

This evening I have heard that these revisions have been accepted. Here’s the proof:

I have viewed the revisions to Jenny’s thesis submission suggested by the examiners at her viva on the 30th of March. I can confirm that they have been undertaken thoroughly and the account and justification of her contribution to knowledge is clear. I recommend that she should now be awarded the degree of PhD.

Professor Murray Saunders, Internal Examiner, Lancaster University, UK

I have a lot to reflect on and say about this PhD, principally because it was a PhD by publication – a bit of a different animal. I still have to be formally awarded this PhD by submitting a bound hard copy to Lancaster University (UK) library and attending an award ceremony in December, but given the revisions have been accepted, I now feel I can add PhD to my signature and post my PhD here on my blog.

But most important for me at this stage is to acknowledge my collaborators, without whom this PhD would not have been possible – I will write more of this later – collaboration and PhD aren’t two words that normally go together. So here is a copy of the Acknowledgements section in my submission.


I have been encouraged and supported by many people since I started researching learners’ experiences in MOOCs in 2008. Everyone acknowledged here has played a significant role in the act of retrospective coherence that is this PhD submission.

John Mackness has been a staunch critical friend throughout this process. Matthias Melcher has also, over these years, been hugely supportive, challenging my thinking and broadening my perspectives through ongoing online discussion. Stephen Downes, Mariana Funes, Debbie Simpson and Roy Williams all provided comprehensive and very helpful comments on my final draft. Many thanks to you all.

All my work has been collaborative. I have learned so much from the generosity, friendship and expertise of my collaborators. Special thanks are due to Roy Williams, with whom I have collaborated on many papers, for his unerring courtesy and kindness and for introducing me to new ways of thinking. I am also indebted to all my other collaborators; Frances Bell, Mariana Funes, Karen Guldberg, Simone Gumtau, Regina Karousou, Liz Lovegrove, Sui Fai John Mak, Elpida Makriyannis, Matthias Melcher, Jutta Pauschenwein, George Roberts, Rhona Sharpe, Charlene Tait, Carmen Tschofen and Marion Waite. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with you all. It has been a privilege.

Thank you too to Allison Littlejohn for her timely advice on applying for a PhD by published work and to my supervisor Professor Paul Ashwin for encouraging and supporting my submission for this award and for his astute feedback on my drafts.

Final thanks are due to my External Examiners Professor Sian Bayne and Professor George Veletsianos and to my Internal Examiner, Professor Murray Saunders.

And here is the whole document – Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017

As with all PhDs the process has been a significant learning experience, which I have recorded as I have gone along, starting in December 2015. I will be writing more blog posts about this process as a PhD by publication is still not a very common route to this award and certainly not a PhD for which the papers have been written before applying.


Hand Cycling around Bali

Map of Bali

At the beginning of this month I joined a group of hand cyclists who were raising money for REGAIN  by cycling 320 km around Bali.

Photo by Liz Pardey, Volunteer at Bali Sports Foundation

(click on the photo to see it more clearly)

REGAIN is a charity that aims to support British men and women who have become tetraplegic as a result of a sports injury.  The charity provides many different types of support, but one of its activities is to arrange events which will help to improve the independence of people who have been seriously disabled by a sporting injury. In this case the event was hand-cycling around Bali. REGAIN organised this in conjunction with the Bali Sports Foundation – so we were joined by 7 disabled Indonesian riders. The route was organised by the Bali Sports Foundation.

Whilst I joined this ride in support of REGAIN, I was impressed by the Bali Sports Foundation and the work they are doing to promote sport for the disabled. It was wonderful to witness the stoicism and enthusiasm of the Bali cyclists.

Source of video: Bali Sports Foundation

14 people went to Bali from the UK including four tetraplegics and their carers. It’s interesting to reflect on how facilities for the disabled have improved. 50 years ago, which is when my husband (one of the four tetraplegics) suffered his spinal injury, an event such as this would have been impossible. How things have changed. Whilst facilities for the disabled could still be improved, some places needing more improvement than others, the intrepid tetraplegic can now get out and about as never before, taking on challenges that are daunting for the able-bodied, never mind those with a spinal injury.

Speaking from the perspective of an able-bodied partner of a disabled hand-cyclist, one of the wonderful things about a trip like this is how much you learn, not only about the country you are visiting, but even more from the people you meet and the experiences you share.

The Bali ride was definitely a challenge. Not only did we cycle 320 kms over four days, quite often in heavy traffic, but we also did this in 100 degrees heat. I have never taken in so much daily water; neither have I ever purposely ridden a bike soaking wet to the skin, which was the only way to keep cool. Keeping hydrated was essential for the tetraplegics who easily over-heated. I learned that a spray bottle is useful for cooling down tetraplegics without soaking them too much, but for myself, I simply poured ice cold water all over me! And of course, whilst you might want the best of suntans, Factor 50+ is a must.

Photo by Liz Pardey, Volunteer at Bali Sports Foundation

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about joining a REGAIN event is the friends you make and the amount of support you get, both from the able-bodied riders, but also from the tetraplegics who are always on hand with advice as to the best way of managing such a challenging ride (and life in general). The four tetraplegics on our trip, Dom, Tim, Piers and John, are inspiring, truly amazing people, all of whom meet life head on with humour and courage. And this account would be incomplete without a shout out to Dom, Tim and Piers’ amazing carers/partners, Daniela, Sarah and Erika, who are all equally inspiring.

If you are a hand cyclist looking for a new challenge, maybe these photos will be of interest.

You can also have a look at  Liz Pardey’s photos:!AnfMHZJyMQ0kkn44ueMTtQ1ayI4F. Liz is a volunteer with the Bali Sports Foundation and helped to organise the event.

The power of silent learners


This week I attended a webinar which focussed on silent learners. Thank you to Martina Emke for drawing this webinar to my attention. The title immediately resonated as recently I have found myself increasingly troubled by the constant noise of the online environment. This has been a growing awareness and I recognise it as a problem since I rely on the open web and my online network for the work I do as an independent education consultant and researcher. This has made me wonder to what extent open learning environments exclude those who find ‘noisy’ environments difficult.

The webinar was run as part of a Nordic Nordplus project, Silent learners – Is lurking working?,  investigating how silent or peripheral learners can be better understood even in courses where participation is the focus. It was organised by NVL Distans  (Nordic Network for Adult Education), EDEN (European Distance and E-learning Network) and the Swedish Network for IT in Higher Education (ITHU). (Source of information)

The webinar was very ably facilitated by Francisca Frenks, Alastair Creelman and Jan Willem Kemper  – more than ‘ably’ in fact. This was probably one of the best webinars I have attended (and over the years I have attended very many). It was extremely well structured and very interactive. I would like to spend a bit of time at the beginning of this post recording how it was run for future reference and as an example of good practice.  There were 72 people in the webinar – quite a big number to manage. Most participants were from Scandinavia, but some were from further afield.

These are the points that I think made it work so well.

  1. There were very good joining instructions and email reminders of the event.
  2. We were invited to log in half an hour early to check our connection. Microphones and videos were not enabled until the end of the webinar, but the opening screen invited us to interact by marking our location on the map and using the chat. Clear instructions were written on the screen and reiterated by the presenters.

The presenters were in the room with their microphones open and welcomed us both verbally and in the chat. Changing the layout of the screen by dragging and dropping boxes was either not enabled or is not a feature of Adobe Connect. If it had been I would have moved the chat to my second monitor – but it was not a problem. What I particularly liked about the whole webinar was that the presenters changed the layout of the screen according to the activities they had planned for us.

  1. After an introduction to the presenting team and the background to this webinar, interaction started almost immediately and we were asked ‘What brings you here? – a nice open, opening question. The chat box was enlarged to help us to follow it more easily.

  1. The focus of the webinar was then explained. Before the webinar we had been asked to watch Susan Cain’s well known video on introverts.
  1. We were told that when discussing silent learners in this webinar the focus would be on learners who are silent by nature rather than silent for other reasons.

  1. In particular the focus was on how silent leaners work in groups. Three questions were posed:
  • How do we recognise learners who are silent by nature?
  • What are their learning needs?
  • How can we empower the silent learner in the group context?

The focus for discussion was therefore made very clear.

  1. We were then asked the questions listed above and asked to respond to them in the chat, but before responding to each question Francisca interviewed Jan Willem, a self-professed ‘silent by nature learner’ about his experience in relation to the question.

  1. What was particularly effective was that we were asked to identify ourselves as a silent learner, a noisy learner, or something in between, by typing in a particular colour.

Finally we were asked to respond to some statements made by silent learners about their experience of group work. These had been collected from interviews conducted by Taru Kekkonen. How would we encourage the silent learners who made these statements to participate in groups? These were the statements:

‘It is simply easier to study independently at my own pace’.

‘I have no need to express myself loud among others’.

‘I hate spontaneous discussions because I don’t know what appropriate is to say’.

‘It is easier to join an online discussion, because the structure is more clear’.

All the questions and statements in the webinar promoted fast and furious typing in the chat box and although I have watched the recording it would take a while to go through it all and determine more fully how silent learners are perceived or perceive themselves.

I thoroughly enjoyed this webinar. The time flew by. Not only was it extremely well run, but also thought provoking.

The main thought I have come away with is to question whether it helps silent learners to focus on them in this way. Jan Willem felt it does, because he feels that there is not enough recognition of what silent learners can offer. For me the danger is that in doing this we may reinforce the view that somehow silent learners are a problem and that we need to solve this problem by enabling them, empowering them, to become a bit noisier. Personally, I don’t think that learners can be empowered by others. They empower themselves, although they can be supported in doing this.

In addition, I don’t believe that silent learners can be identified as a separate group, although they can, as we saw in the webinar, self-identify. Learners will be more or less silent/noisy as individuals and according to the context. Thinking of silent versus noisy is probably not helpful. There will be a spectrum of learners and perhaps diversity is best served by keeping groups as heterogeneous as possible and ensuring that multiple perspectives are always considered.

This webinar attracted a cross-section of silent and noisy learners and many in between and we were invited to identify ourselves as silent, noisy or in between learners. This showed that we were a diverse group, but the discussion focused on silent learners as a separate group. It would be interesting to go back through the chat and analyse whether silent learners are considered to be ‘a problem to be solved’ or whether they are considered to be necessary to a diverse community of learners, even though they are in the minority. Evidently only 20-25% of the population identify themselves as silent learners.

Thank you to Francisca, Alastair and Jan Willem for organizing this excellent and thought-provoking open webinar.

Update 18-03-17

For a more detailed account of the webinar see Alastair’s follow up blog post which also provides links to further information –

Update 20-03-17

See also Lotte Christoff’s post – A Voice of a ‘Silent Learner’ –  The post is written in Swedish, but translates well enough to follow the text.

Diversity is hard


Source of image

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.’


‘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.


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. –

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

Tschofen, C., & Mackness, J. (2012). Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13(1).

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).

‘The New World’. Fact and Truth in 2017



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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.