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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.

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