Trust and security in open networks

The second topic (unit) of the ccourses MOOC (Connected Courses. Active Co-Learning in Higher Ed) is Trust and Network Fluency .


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Each unit in ccourses lasts for two weeks. For me this is good. For those who want to do a lot of reading – and there are plenty of resources listed on the ccourses site – then there is time to do this. For those, who simply want to interact with others, or think about the topic and reflect on it, this is also good. Reflection takes time as we can see from Mariana’s blog post in which she reflects deeply on trust, privacy and interaction in networked environments. It is a great post and has prompted me to respond, but also to add some of my own thoughts.

What happens when trust breaks down in online relationships? At the very worst level your life or career can be destroyed as in the case of Kathy Sierra – but even at the level of just one relationship the damage can be irreparable. (See Kevin Hodgson’s blog post).

Perhaps the answer is not to assume that trust in an online environment is a possibility. In a post a few years ago Stephen Downes wrote of person to person trust

We don’t trust each other (and we shouldn’t). Spam, viruses and phishing are the most manifest cases of this sort of breach of trust. Consequently, we have attempted to create walls around ourselves – spam filters, social network buddy lists, so-not-call registries. We seek control over the flow of information into and out of our systems through technology over which we have less and less control (because of the needs of the other forms of ‘trust’).

He concludes that

….. for the network to work, we must all give up control – but at a measured pace, in step with each other, to avoid one element of the other abusing this greater openness

Give up control. Keep in step with each other. Is that possible?

In our research into emergent learning, trust is one of the factors we consider to be essential for emergent learning in open learning environments. We discuss it in terms of the tension between competitive self-interest and mutual respect, support and growth.

Perhaps it’s competitive self-interest that we must give up, rather than control. Competitive self-interest can lead to voices that are ‘too loud’ in the online environment. Mariana writes about the ‘silencing’ effect that some online personalities can have, either through overt harassment or simply by being over-present and dominating every conversation.

How do you cope with the person who is not overtly harassing, not a troll, but whose voice is too loud in the online environment, given that people’s perceptions of what constitute a loud voice differ? This is something I used to discuss with teaching colleagues in the past when we were just beginning to run online courses. i.e. how present should we be as online tutors and what should we do about the over-present dominating student. Gilly Salmon describes this type of student/online learner as ‘The Stag’ and suggests giving them a job to do, which keeps them busy enough to prevent them from ‘spamming’ their fellow students. But not all dominant voices online are students. What of those everyday users of the internet who are trolls or who are simply always ‘in your face’; then the only alternative response is to walk away, as Kathy Sierra has done, or ‘unfollow’ or ‘block’ i.e. to disconnect.

But where does this leave the development of skills of systemic dialogue that Mariana talks about?

The more choices to be ‘public’ one makes, the more likely one will find people who disagree with one’s world view and are unable to engage meaningfully with disagreement. The open web does not come with a built in facilitator to teach people the skills of systemic dialogue.

We need more meaningful dialogue and less shallow answers.

Trust should not have to mean always agreeing with each other and establishing cozy echo chambers. In fact quite the opposite. The people I trust the most both on and offline are those I can speak my mind to and who will engage with me in what I perceive to be meaningful dialogue. They do not have to agree with me, but neither do they attack me. There is as I mentioned above, mutual respect, support and growth.

I have a lot of sympathy with Dave Snowden’s comment that he made in a talk to the Change11 MOOC and which I recorded on my blog at the time

Negative stories carry more learning than positive stories. Appreciative Inquiry is often unethical and used in inappropriate contexts; it tells people what stories they are allowed to tell.  Open space is also like this in that it rewards consensus and punishes dissent. Anyone who survives in an open space does so because the only people there are those who listen – everyone else votes with their feet.

So trust in the online environment is a complex issue. It should not be taken lightly.

8 thoughts on “Trust and security in open networks

  1. kjaxon October 9, 2014 / 10:42 pm

    Thank you for this post Jenny. I can’t tell you how helpful it is that you pulled so many resources and others’ posts together here, as I was just about to work on my own blog in light of the week’s events.

    I am deeply moved by the women who are speaking out in the last few weeks, including Kathy Sierra, Julie Pagano, and Anita Sarkeesian. What strikes me about all the stories is that the safeguards we might consider to protect these women (and all of us) are exactly the “fixes” that challenge the potential of the open web. How do we balance the potential and pitfalls? Normally, I might say that you have to work on institutional structures and systems, not people, to make important change. But in these cases, I truly want the platform(s) to remain open and the people to learn and change and be better humans.

    Love the questions you pose, particularly around systematic dialogue. Thank you for the thoughtful insights.


    Julie’s blogs:

    Anita’s (@femfreq) talk from the XOXO Fest a few weeks ago is here:

  2. jennymackness October 10, 2014 / 8:56 pm

    Kim – thank you for your comment and for the links. I really like the point you make about the balance between safeguards and openness.

    “…the safeguards we might consider to protect these women (and all of us) are exactly the “fixes” that challenge the potential of the open web. How do we balance the potential and pitfalls?”

    Ultimately I think that what has to change is people. It won’t happen at institutional or systems level. But how to get enough people to ‘force’ the change? I just don’t know.

  3. mdvfunes October 11, 2014 / 5:16 pm

    Thank you for taking time to read and responding in such a comprehensive post. Scanning through the comments I see all the things that have been absent in certain contexts the last few days: courtesy, common sense, safeguards, code of conduct, balance or lack of it…Here is Kathy:

    “It turned out he wasn’t outraged about my work. His rage was because, in his mind, my work didn’t deserve the attention.”

    Kim speaks to the need for balance between safeguards and openness – I find her reference to ‘these women’ jars but understand her intent to be one of protecting the ‘potential of the open web’.

    Jaap highlights the need for relationship building alongside other constructs.

    You respond with “how to get enough people to ‘force’ the change?”

    I wonder if the oppositional nature of our conversations about gender, style preferences, what deserves attention and what does not – is not the ‘thing’ that needs to change?

    I took your question for a walk and here is what I brought back:

    There is a reason why I get paid good money to teach process facilitation skills to educators and to facilitate dysfunctional groups. The skills involved are not self-evident and do not come naturally to most of us humans.

    Safeguarding the potential of the open web is one thing, running ‘courses’ on it is another.

    When I facilitate groups, I am often asked to run workshops on ‘self-facilitation’. These are workshops that teach a group of people how to run a learning group without a formal facilitator. This is done to save money and after I have spent some time modelling the behaviours that build what Pedler and Boydell call the ‘freedom to learn’ in a group. They further say that this is very a challenging task that requires trust building. So far I am talking about physical life.

    If I map above to my experience in cMOOCs so far I wonder if the problem is with the C. A course implies a teacher. An online open experience speaks to using the ‘potential of the open web’. I wonder if we get into trouble when we speak of a course and what that implies – partly a duty of care in the part of the person ‘running’ the course. If the frame is ‘learning on the open web’ then preserving its affordances matters more?

    It occurred to me if a way to design good online learning experiences might not be to create a self-facilitation bootcamp, in the way in DS106 we have a ‘technology bootcamp’?

    This might offer a space to ‘teach’ what is required of us as a learning group to build ‘freedom to learn’? I hope we can explore these ideas together and may be create something?

    The quote with which you end your post is stark,

    “Anyone who survives in an open space does so because the only people there are those who listen – everyone else votes with their feet.”

    and suggest some important avenues for research to me. Thanks for getting my brain cells going today.

  4. jennymackness October 13, 2014 / 11:59 am

    Hi Mariana – thanks for these thoughtful comments. They remind me that in the early days of cMOOCs before xMOOCs came on the scene, we used to discuss whether it was helpful to think of MOOCs as courses –

    This was because of the same problems that you are highlighting. The word ‘course’ in the traditional sense, brings with it certain expectations. Online courses are nothing new and predated MOOCs by years. Many of us, including me, taught/facilitated on courses designed to teach others how to teach and learn online, how to recognise and manage different behaviours, how to promote constructive criticism and collaborative knowledge creation and so on. This was many years before the advent of MOOCs.

    MOOCs calling themselves ‘courses’ set up some of these expectations, even though it was never the intention of the original cMOOCs to be thought of in terms of teachers and learners – in the traditional sense. And, of course, xMOOCs are courses in this traditional sense and for those people who have recently come on the MOOC scene and are participating in x and cMOOCs it wouldn’t be surprising if they are receiving some very mixed messages about what they can expect from these ‘courses’.

    I think it’s a pity that recent connectivist MOOCs have gone down the ‘community building’ route, as I think this exacerbates the mixed messages. I don’t remember the word ‘community’ ever being used in the original cMOOCs. The original idea was to learn through networks.

    I am definitely not anti online communities. I have been a member of some wonderful online communities for many, many years – but these communities have no alignment with the word ‘course’ and as Etienne Wenger has said – Whilst all communities are networks, not all networks are communities.

    So I think both words ‘course’ and ‘community’ can be problematic in relation to MOOCs.

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