Dave Snowden made a number of provocative statements in his presentation to Week 17 of ChangeMooc, but ‘open space leads to consensus’ and ‘consensus is rewarded, dissent is punished’ were two that caught my attention.
As with all such statements, they have to be taken in context. He was arguing that spaces that lead to consensus are a constraint on innovation and creativity and that more conflict and processes such as Ritual Dissent, where people are literally harangued for their ideas, are needed in today’s education system. He denounced what he called ‘fluffy bunny’ approaches to learning and even suggested that good facilitation could be counter-productive.
So – what should we make of all this.
In some ways it is easy to understand and have some sympathy for these ideas. Open space (and it’s important to remember that he was not talking about ‘openness’) allows people to come and go as the please into the learning network or environment.
So would it be fair to say that the people who stay are those who can find like-minded people and ideas of mutual interest in the environment and feel reasonably comfortable there? We don’t often find out much about the reasons why many people don’t stay, but it could be that those are the people with alternative perspectives who either try and fail to ‘rock the boat’ (dissent), or just don’t have the patience to engage in ‘dissent’/posting counter-arguments, or for one reason or another can’t cope with the environment.
Are dissenters punished? My experience in Moocs (where most of my experience with open space has occurred) is that they can be, particularly if they make strongly dissenting posts. Usually the punishment is subtle. Dissenters are ignored. Or sometimes the dissenter receives a volley of angry posts and may even be openly asked to stop dissenting; these dissenters may be labelled as ‘trolls’ as happened in CCK08
A strong dissenting post into an online environment may be accepted if there is already a consensus that the dissenting person is ‘OK’ or has some authority and a respected reputation, as in the case of Stephen Downes and George Siemens, for example, and even Dave Snowden himself. For those not in this position of authority, any dissenting comment is often made tentatively, apologetically or politely, in the knowledge that it could be completely ignored or receive a lot of flak. On the whole, people don’t seem to know a lot about how to constructively handle conflict or dissent in open online spaces, so that we can learn from this and avoid group think.
So does this mean that ‘open space’ leads to consensus and if it does, is that a problem? We have to remember that Dave Snowden’s context for his work is in areas such as counter-terrorism and highly complex situations, where innovation and creativity, rather than consensus, is essential for effective decision making. But the open space offered by the net and open courses such as Moocs, allows those of us who are not learning in such highly complex situations to encounter a greater diversity of alternative perspectives than might otherwise be the case. That is the point of Moocs, along with learning from these alternative perspectives through interaction and having the autonomy to vote with your feet (i.e. walk away) if you so wish.
I would suggest that if we see consensus as a problem (and it may or may not be according to the context), then it is not the ‘open space’ itself that is the problem. Rather it is knowing how to engage constructively with alternative perspectives, such that this engagement will lead to learning and higher levels of innovation and creativity. I don’t see an engagement with alternative perspectives as necessarily requiring dissent or conflict, but rather requiring ‘openness’ – an open environment, open resources and an openness of mind, self and spirit.