Consensus and community in the distributed web

The topic for this week in the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC is Community. I struggled last week to understand how the concept of ‘Recognition’ was being interpreted in relation to the distributed web, and I suspect I am going to struggle this week to understand how the concept of community will be interpreted.

In his Synopsis for the week Stephen Downes writes that recent times have seen us shift from an idea of community based on sameness, to a time when society has difficulty agreeing on basic facts and truths. A whole blog post could be written about just this, but I will move on.

Stephen sees community formation, in this day and age of the distributed web, as dependent on decision making and consensus. Consensus is no mean feat, but is essential if we are to counteract the influence of ‘bad actors’ who distribute false information and fake news. A critical mass of society must check and agree on what information we can trust or not trust. In an interesting article by Preethi Kasireddy- How Does Distributed Consensus Work? – decision making and consensus at the level of algorithms is discussed and it is clear that artificial intelligence will have an increasing role to play in determining what we trust and how we perceive truth. But for now we will stick to a more familiar environment in which we can observe how decision-making to achieve consensus is achieved, by real people rather than robots.

This week Stephen’s conversation was with Pete Forsyth, Editor in Chief of the Signpost, a community newspaper covering Wikipedia and the Wikimedia movement.  Their discussion covered what we mean by community and consensus in relation to how ‘Wikipedia approaches questions like managing fake news, reaching consensus, and managing content‘.

I’m not sure that a discussion of how Wikipedia reaches consensus is comparable to reaching consensus on the distributed web, since Wikipedia is built on a centralised platform, but it is a platform used by tens of thousands of people across the world, and therefore provides a good basis for exploring how consensus works across large numbers. According to Wikipedia’s own site an average of 561 new articles are written every day and Wikipedia develops at a rate of over 1.8 edits per second, with editing being carried out by about 10% of users. As of August 2018, about 1000 pages are deleted from Wikipedia each day.

How is this consensus achieved?  What can we learn from Wikipedia about how to trust that the information we are reading is ‘the truth’? These are some of the thoughts shared by Pete Forsyth.

  • Wikipedia does not trust in people. There is no mechanism for establishing the authority of the writer in Wikipedia. It trusts in facts.
  • Facts must be checked and backed up by sources. (Although this wasn’t mentioned, I think Mike Caulfield’s Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers – is worth remembering here).
  • Trust should always be rooted in understanding. It’s important to check the history and discussion forums in Wikipedia.
  • Wikipedia defines a reliable source as being independent of the topic.
  • Trustworthiness of sources is on a gradient. Exceptional claims require exceptional sources.
  • Wikipedia prefers consensus to democracy, i.e. decisions are not reached by voting but by consent, which does not necessarily mean agreement.
  • Wikipedia promotes individuals as decision makers.
  • Wikipedia is edited according to Be Bold, Revert and Discuss principles.
  • A record of every edit in kept in the page history.
  • Open process, open access and transparency are strongly held core values in Wikipedia.
  • Wikipedia software is designed to focus on creating a space for interaction and keep the software out of the way.
  • Wikipedia provides guidelines for interaction and editing.

Here is a video recording of the whole discussion.

For me the questions that remain are, is Wikipedia a community and what is a community?

Wikipedia is a community for some people – probably for the 10% using it who actually contribute to it, rather than simply use it, although on the Wikipedia page about the community, the community in the larger sense is defined as including: all casual and/or anonymous editors, ideological supporters, current readers and even potential readers of all the language versions of Wikipedia-the-encyclopedia.

My prior understanding of a community is more in line with their narrower definition: the community –  is that group of contributors who create an identity (either a user account, or a frequently-used anonymous IP), and who communicate with other contributors.

This is a better fit with my knowledge of Etienne Wenger’s work on communities of practice.  I mentioned this briefly in a comment that I made on Laura Ritchie’s blog post, where I wrote that in Wenger’s terms a community of practice exhibits the dimensions of mutual engagement, shared repertoire and joint enterprise. Laura identifies her orchestra as a community, which seems to fit with how Etienne Wenger sees a community.

In his blog post Kevin Hodgson wonders whether a community is the same thing as a network or affinity space. I have heard Etienne Wenger say that all communities are networks, but not all networks are communities (see p.19 in this publication).

I also noted when watching the video that Pete Forsyth described community as ‘an amorphous concept of affiliation’.

And Stephen in a comment on Laura’s post writes about ‘natural as opposed to organised communities’. I will copy his whole comment here as I think in it we have the essence of how we are to understand community during this week of the course, and for considering how community might be thought of on the distributed web:

When we look at (what I’ll call) natural communities (as opposed to organized communities) they have two major features: lack of trust, and lack of mutual engagement, shared repertoire and joint enterprise.

Think of your average city. There may be a lot of what we call ‘trust’ (eg. people stopping at stop signs) but in nearly all cases there’s also an enforcement mechanism, because we don’t actually trust people (eg. to actually stop).

Similarly, while in a city we can talk about engagement, repertoire and enterprise (and we should) in most cases there is no engagement, repertoire and enterprise that is _common_ to everybody in the city. Cities are polyglot, factional, disjointed. Yet, still – they are communities.

The challenge (indeed, maybe even the challenge of our times) is how to understand and improve communities where people are *not* engaged in the same enterprise as everyone else.

From all this I am beginning to think that the word ‘community’ has too much associated history to be useful when considering how to communicate, interact, make decisions and reach consensus on the distributed web. It leads to a set of expectations that may not be useful in this context. On the Wikipedia page about community is written: The essence of community is encoded in the word itself: come-ye-into-unity. That’s a lovely way to describe community as I have always understood it. But my understanding of this week’s topic is that we no longer want or need unity. Instead, we need consensus on what is true.

I don’t believe that the traditional idea of community or a community of practice will be lost. We will all interact in communities of one sort or another; Laura in her orchestra, Kevin in his classroom, me in the village where I live, and so on. But we will probably need to think differently about community when considering what information we can trust, and what is true, on the distributed web. A new way of thinking about it may become more obvious the more we interact on the distributed web.

The idea of a distributed Wikipedia was briefly discussed by Stephen and Pete, with reference to Ward Cunningham’s Federated Wiki. In 2014, I explored the potential of FedWiki with a few others. It is a wiki with no centralised space i.e. each person has their own site, from which they can link to other people’s sites and select or reject edits of their own pages. Looking back at my blog posts, I see that I found it intriguing but not easy – a bit like this course, which seems to challenge a lot of my prior understanding about learning on the web.

Mike Caulfield described Fed Wiki as a ‘neighbourhood’, not a community, nor a network. Would this be a better word than ‘community’ and if not what would? I think a different word would help with the change of mindset needed to understand all this.

Resources

How Does Distributed Consensus Work?
Preethi Kasireddy, Medium, 2018/12/05
The brief basics of distributed systems and consensus. Nakamoto Consensus is truly an innovation that has allowed a whole new wave of researchers, scientists, developers, and engineers to continue breaking new ground in consensus protocol research.

What is Blockchain?
Lucas Mostazo, YouTube, 2018/12/03
Blockchain explained in plain English Understanding how blockchain works and identifying myths about its powers are the first steps to developing blockchain technologies.

Education Blockchain Market Map
Stephen’s Web ~ OLDaily, 2018/12/05
HolonIQ, Nov 30, 2018 Though dated last June this market map appeared in my inbox from Holon only today. It reports five sectors of the education blockchain market: credentials and certifications (the largest by far), peer-to-peer ecosystems, payments, knowledge and marketplace. The website describes each briefly and links to some representative startups. The site reports, “Blockchain’s significant potential in education – from powering efficiency to collapsing costs or disrupting the current system – is becoming clearer to technologists, educationalists and governments alike.”

Consensus decision-making
Wikipedia, 2018/12/04
Consensus decision-making is an alternative to commonly practiced group decision-making processes. Robert’s Rules of Order, for instance, is a guide book used by many organizations. This book allows the structuring of debate and passage of proposals that can be approved through majority vote. It does not emphasize the goal of full agreement. Critics of such a process believe that it can involve adversarial debate and the formation of competing factions. These dynamics may harm group member relationships and undermine the ability of a group to cooperatively implement a contentious decision. Consensus decision-making attempts to address the beliefs of such problems.

Wikipedia:Consensus
Wikipedia, 2018/12/04
Decisions on Wikipedia are primarily made by consensus, which is accepted as the best method to achieve Wikipedia’s goals, i.e., the five pillars. Consensus on Wikipedia does not mean unanimity (which is ideal but not always achievable), neither is it the result of a vote. Decision making and reaching consensus involve an effort to incorporate all editors’ legitimate concerns, while respecting Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines.

How Wikipedia dodged public outcry plaguing social media platforms
Pete Forsyth, LinkedIn, 2018/12/05
Wikipedia has problematic users and its share of controversies, but as web platforms have taken center stage in recent months, Wikipedia hasn’t been drawn into the fray. Why aren’t we hearing more about the site’s governance model, or its approach to harassment, bullying? Why isn’t there a clamor for Wikipedia to ease up on data collection? At the core, Wikipedia’s design and governance are rooted in carefully articulated values and policies, which underlie all decisions. Two specific aspects of Wikipedia innoculate it from some of the sharpest critiques endured by other platforms.

Hacking History: Redressing Gender Inequities on Wikipedia Through an Editathon
Nina Hood, Allison Littlejohn, International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 2018/12/05
This article explores the “experiences of nine participants of an editathon at the University of Edinburgh on the topic of the Edinburgh Seven, who were the first women to attend medical school in 19th century United Kingdom.” The authors argue “it was through the act of moving from consumer to contributor and becoming part of the community of editors, that participants could not only more fully understand issues of bias and structural inequities on Wikipedia, but also actively challenge and address these issues.” It makes me think of the slogan: “no knowing without doing.”

Wiki Strategies. Making Sense of Collaborative Communities – https://wikistrategies.net/

How does the ModPo MOOC enable or create a community?

In this final week of the third iteration of the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC – Al Filreis (the MOOC convener) has asked ModPo participants how the ModPo community works:

I am now here in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, and will be presenting about ModPo at a conference here. The conference is called “Building Massive Open Online Communities,” and the organizers of the conference believe that ModPo is an instance of a so-called “MOOC” that does indeed make a learning community possible—indeed perhaps even necessary to the success of the course.

I want your help in presenting to the people here about the ModPo community. How does it work? What would you like to say to the people here at this conference about the way we’ve conducted ourselves as an online community of learners? What are some advantages, in your experience, of the collaborative and interactive approach?

This is an interesting question. The evidence suggests that ModPo has formed a community of practice very successfully.

Etienne Wenger in his book Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity has written about the formation and work of communities of practice in detail, and on his website writes: In a nutshell ……

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

This is true of ModPo – there is plenty of ‘passion for poetry’ in the forums and webinars, in the Facebook group and even on Twitter.

Here is a recent video of current ModPo students talking about their experience.

This video provides a flavour of the diversity of the community and the shared passion for poetry and for ModPo.

In Wenger’s terms ModPo is a community of practice as opposed to simply a community. ModPo participants (community members) gather together around the domain of poetry and share their practices. In the forums, there are shared interpretations of the poems introduced in the course, shared writing, shared poems, shared readings, shared close readings and shared cultural experiences. Sharing, social interaction and social learning are at the heart of the success of ModPo. Everyone’s contribution is welcome, from novice to expert, and there is a real sense that it is possible, for those who want to, to move from the periphery of the community along a trajectory of increasing competence to the centre of the community. It is also perfectly acceptable to remain as a legitimate peripheral participant. I myself feel very comfortable in this latter location.

Etienne Wenger, also in his book, explains that there are three dimensions of practice in a community:

  • Mutual engagement (engaged diversity, doing things together, relationships, social complexity, community maintenance)
  • A joint enterprise (negotiated enterprise, mutual accountability, interpretations, rhythms, local response)
  • Shared repertoire (stories, artifacts, styles, tools, actions, discourses, concepts, historical events)

Shared history is an important aspect of a community of practice and in ModPo this is evidenced by people returning each year to do the course and through the course materials remaining open during the year. The history of the Kelly Writer’s House, from where the course is run has also been shared with ModPo participants.

This sense of place in ModPo is one of its unique features. ModPo participants are invited to enter this space, either physically or virtually each week and join the ModPo team and teaching assistants for discussion. The place and space feel immediate and real and I think are instrumental in forging a sense of community and belonging.

Returning to Etienne Wenger’s social learning theory, he describes four components of learning in a community of practice, which are all evident in ModPo

  • Learning as doing (practice) – in ModPo doing is related to writing (assignments and peer reviews), close reading the poems, discussion and social interaction in the forums
  • Learning as experience (meaning) – in ModPo learning is a shared experience which is negotiated between community members
  • Learning as belonging (community) – in ModPo, for those who want it, it is possible to become a member of a world-wide community of poets and those who are passionate about poetry
  • Learning as becoming (identity) – in ModPo, the very nature of the domain (poetry) and the personalized close readings inevitably have implications for personal identity development.

Finally, a community is not static, but dynamic. It has been interesting to see how ModPo has evolved and continues to grow as a community. Each year new members are welcomed and this year there seems to have been increased recognition that 30,000+ people cannot effectively communicate with each, but need to congregate in smaller groups. Study groups are encouraged and this year one of the community teaching assistants (Laura Cushing) took it upon herself to create a list of the study groups that were springing up around the world, so that participants could easily locate those in their geographical areas and arrange to meet face-to-face to socialize, share close readings and their passion for poetry.

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 14.51.09San Francisco Meet Up (Source of photo: ModPo course site)

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 14.51.39Prague Meet Up (Source of photo: ModPo course site)

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 14.51.24Washington DC Meet Up (Source of photo: ModPo course site)

So there is plenty of evidence that the ModPo MOOC has created a community of practice around the course. I haven’t specifically answered all Al Filreis’ questions, but hopefully this post provides a sense of some of the ways in which ModPo has done this. I could write more, but I think that’s enough for now.

Inspiring students through research-based education

Research-based education was the focus of a one day conference at University College London  (UCL)-  this week (Thurs 3 April).

UCL ranks 4th in the world for research, but according to the Provost, in his introductory presentation, needs to do better in the National Student Survey, i.e. the student satisfaction ratings. The Provost’s strategy for bringing about this improvement is to make UCL a world leader in research-based learning.

The conference was principally for UCL staff, i.e. a teaching and learning conference, but there were also some ‘visitors’, attending from other institutions such as the Institute of Education and other Universities. I was attending to run a workshop with my colleague Elpida Makriyannis in which we wanted to promote discussion about readiness for research-based learning in participant specific contexts around such questions as What is research? What is teaching? What is a research community? What is research-based teaching? What is research-based learning?

UCL Presentation

At least one presentation during the day made reference to the Healey matrix (see image below and click on it to enlarge) and there were some excellent presentations, which demonstrated how different aspects of this model are being implemented within different disciplines and programmes across the University

Healey Matrix

Source of Figures: Healey, M. (2005). Linking research and teaching: exploring disciplinary spaces and the role of inquiry-based learning.

Despite the excellent practice demonstrated by many at UCL, from the workshop that we ran, it seems that a common understanding of research-based learning is difficult to achieve. Ideas such as negotiated outcomes, student autonomy, collaborative learning and student/staff integrated research communities all need much unpicking and discussion – to make meaning through dialogue and working across boundaries.

For an institution that is recognized for its excellence in research, it may be difficult for some to make the cultural shift to the student-centered approach that will be needed to become a global leader in research-based learning. Hasok Chang, who used to work at UCL, but now works at the University of Cambridge, has written that practices which promote the use of graduate slaves, graduate seminars and promoting the budding genius will not turn an undergraduate class into a professional research community. For him learning is not merely practice in preparation for something else that is ‘real’, but requires a community of students and experts in which the research needs to be authentic.

So Etienne Wenger was a good choice for the keynote.  He talked about research-based education from the perspective of social learning theory.  (See tweets here). Etienne explained that you cannot separate knowing from the social community in which competence is defined. Learning and meaning-making is part of the becoming of the person. Students need meaningful experiences of engagement with the world. Are our institutions helping students with meaning making, which is where the focus should be, or are they focused on curriculum? Access to information is unproblematic. Access to who you are in the world of a landscape of practices, is the problem.

So engaging students in research is a social practice. It needs to be social to demystify it, to locate it in a landscape of practice and to apply it to other aspects of life.

Etienne Knowledgeability

 Photo taken by Elpida Makriyannis

This has significant implications for the ways in which students and their tutors interact with each – teach each other and learn from each other. These ideas about community, identity, negotiating meaning, student autonomy and so on, are not covered by the Healey matrix. Whilst models such as the Healey matrix certainly clarify the different types of research processes that students can be engaged in, perhaps they are a second step. Perhaps the first step is to understand what we mean by student-centred learning, identity development in landscapes of practice and research communities of practice.

Etienne Research-based Educatiton

Photo taken by Elpida Makriyannis

References

Chang, H. (2005). Turning an undergraduate class into a professional research community. Teaching in Higher Education, 10(3), pp.387–394.

Healey, M., Jordan, F. & Short, C. (2002). The student experience of teaching, research and consultancy. Available at: http://trnexus.edu.au/uploads/downloads/TR Questionnaire.pdf

Healey, M. (2005). Linking research and teaching: exploring disciplinary spaces and the role of inquiry-based learning.  In Barnett, R (ed). Reshaping the University: New Relationships between Research, Scholarship and Teaching. McGraw Hill / Open University Press, pp.67-78. Available at:  http://www.delta.wisc.edu/Events/BBB Balance Healey.pdf 

Healey, M. & Jenkins, A. (2009) Developing undergraduate research and inquiry.  Summary by: Dr Laura Hodsdon (June 2009). Available at: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/documents/EvidenceNet/Summaries/healeym_jenkinsa_jun09_developing_ug_research_and_inquiry_summary.pdf

Professor Mick Healey website. Publications and Resources. Available at: http://www.mickhealey.co.uk/recent-publications

Reinmann, G. (2013).  Forschendes Lernen oder Bildung durch Wissenschaft. Available at: http://gabi-reinmann.de/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Vortrag_Okt13_ZU.pdf

UCL Teaching and Learning Portal.  Research-based learning case studies. Available at: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/teaching-learning/case-studies/research-based-learning

University of Leeds. Research-based Learning website. Available at: http://curriculum.leeds.ac.uk/rbl 

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Building open communities

Sylvia Currie who manages the SCoPE community at BC Campus spoke to FSLT13   last week on her work as a community facilitator and organizer.

The title of her talk is intriguing, because in some senses communities of practice could be regarded as closed rather than open, in that traditionally they have had clear boundaries. For example, in 2007, Engestrom wrote of the costs of a community of practice as follows:

  • A community of practice is a fairly well-bounded local entity which has clear boundaries and membership criteria.
  • A community of practice has a single center of supreme skill and authority, typically embodied in the master.
  • A community of practice is characterized mainly by centripetal movement from the periphery toward the center, from novice to master, from marginal to fully legitimate participation;opposite centrifugal movement may occur but is not  foundational.

But things have moved on since those early days of communities of practice. Sylvia points out that the term ‘open’ can have different meanings.

Open means many things

Etienne Wenger acknowledges this change in openness in his more recent work on  ‘landscapes of practice’ where he discusses how we are members of different communities of practice and situated in multiple landscapes.

The human world can be viewed as a huge collection of communities of practice – some very prominent and recognized, others hardly visible. Our learning can then be understood as a trajectory through this landscape of practices: entering some communities, being invited or rejected, remaining visitors, crossing boundaries, being stuck, and moving on. In such a landscape, both the core of communities of practice and their boundaries offer opportunities for learning.

He has suggested that learning is often most profitable at the boundaries between different communities, recognizing that community boundaries are permeable.

The SCoPE community is ‘open’ in many senses of the word and Sylvia has recognized that ‘openness’ changes things and requires a different approach in terms of facilitation.

Open does change things

 

Here is the recording of the session:

And here is a link to the complete recording in Blackboard Collaborate, including the chat and an example, in the second half of the session, of how to manage group work in a synchronous online session. Sylvia points out that this is not without risks, so not everything worked out, but if no-one took these risks then where would be the progress?

Sylvia’s talk reflected her wealth of experience (more than 20 years) of community facilitation and her commitment to open sharing of her expertise.

Reference

Engeström, Y. (2007). From communities of practice to mycorrhizae. In J. Hughes, N. Jewson & L. Unwin (Eds.), Communities of practice: Critical perspectives. London: Routledge.

Practical benefits of studying the biological evolution of cooperation

Questions that we have been asked to focus on this week in Howard Rheingold’s class – Towards a Literacy of Cooperation are:

1. Are there practical benefits of studying the biological evolution of cooperation?  To what extent does it provide insights that convert into theories and practices that can be used in formal or informal communities and organizations?

2. What other heuristics can we extract from the material and use as simple rules of thumb for extending cooperative interactions in the world?

Howard explains:

I chose these questions because so much of this course is theoretical and there ought to be some juicy practical suggests from a group like this in regard to heuristics for encouraging cooperation.

 Question 1

Are there practical benefits of studying the biological evolution of cooperation?  To what extent does it provide insights that convert into theories and practices that can be used in formal or informal communities and organizations?

In considering the first question it seemed to me that it would be easier to answer from the perspective of a specific context, and the context of a community of practice seemed appropriate, given that you might expect plenty of cooperation in such a community, if not collaboration.

By community of practice, I understand this as defined by Etienne Wenger in his 1998 book – where he defines a CoP as having three clearly identifiable characteristics; a domain, a shared practice and a community of members – who participate in the community through mutual engagement, joint enterprise and shared repertoire.

In thinking about what we might learn about cooperation from a community of practice, I have considered the scenario of a long-standing and successful CoP coming under the threat of ‘extinction’, i.e. changing circumstances within the community threaten its continued success.

What can we learn from what we know about biological cooperation that might inform the continued success of this community of practice? The existing conditions within this community, which might support its continued success are:

  • a community history, with memories of past encounters with individual community members
  • members can easily find each other within the community online environment
  • the online environment offers members the chance of future encounters with other members
  • members are ‘nice’ –  there is a culture of willingness to cooperate
  • cooperation in the community is voluntary
  • members are not envious of each other
  • members do not try to be ‘clever’ with each other – they are not ‘tricky’ – they do not introduce ‘noise’ into the community
  • reputation builds through ongoing interaction and reciprocity
  • increased reputation increases the chance of long term success of  cooperating members
  • there is direct benefit to members from the mutualistic sharing of resources, particularly between the core group members, but also from members on the boundary

Challenges to the community in terms of the biology of cooperation are:

A consideration of how the community might be competing for survival – competing against other online environments for members’ time, competing against members’ diverse and dispersed interests and motivations, and possibly membership of other communities.

In biological terms, competition as well as cooperation is necessary for survival. Some questions arising from this are:

  • Does this community pay enough attention to the challenges of competition?
  • Is the community group strong enough/big enough to fend off the pull of other groups/communities?
  • Is there enough ‘social grooming’ in the community?
  • Does Robin Dunbar’s number inform the community’s future success?
  • Is there enough ‘gossip/communication/interaction’ to establish reputation, prestige, trust and norms?
  • Is there a common community understanding of value associated with future outcomes?
  • Is there a role for fairness and punishment in the community?
  • Is the community worth saving in terms of what it can pass on to future generations?

Question 2

Are there simple rules of thumb for extending cooperative interactions in the world?

My response to this, given that I would have to know the context, would be

  • learn from examples in biology
  • consider the relationship between competition and cooperation
  • learn from research
  • consider the context
  • consider history
  • consider the future

For me, it is not possible to be more specific than this without knowing the context.

Finally it’s worth noting here Stephen Downes’ thoughts about this (which might be thought of as rules of thumb)

Stephen has written on his OLDaily newsletter

If Darwinian processes favour successful competitors why does cooperation exist? The answers appear in earnest as soon as you begin to think about it:

  • molecules catalyze each other to higher levels of complexity
  • co-operators benefit from each other through mutual relationships
  • a group which was comprised of cooperators reproduced more effectively
  • people can achieve by collective action what they never could do alone
  • primates pick parasites off each other

Note that none of this resembles collaboration (much less competition). It occurs at a midway point, where there is interaction and exchange, but not a melding into a single unity. Cooperation – not collaboration – is where we should trace the future of learning online.

I am thinking about whether I agree with Stephen about collaboration. I need to think more about when melding into a single unity might be beneficial. Are there examples from biology where this is the case (Lynn Margulis’ work on endosymbiosis springs to mind)  and if so, what can we learn from this?

If this topic interests you and there is not enough information in this post to make sense of this, please refer to

Engestrom, Wenger and Emergent Learning

In a recent great discussion in CPsquare about the changing role of the learning facilitator, Brenda Kaulback posted this video of Yrjo Engestrom being interviewed about his work by Chris Jones

This reminded me of the Networked Learning Conference in Aarlborg 2010, when Engestrom gave a combined keynote (fishbowl style) with Etienne Wenger (See Part 2 flash format).

In revisiting these videos, I have been struck by how much they both have to say about emergent learning, but in different terms.

Engestrom talks about emergent learning in terms of ‘expansive learning’.  At the Networked Learning Conference here are some of the things he said:

‘Learning has to deal increasingly with situations in which the outcomes of learning are not known ahead of time.’

‘Standard learning theories fail to explain processes where learning in radically transformed’.

‘Expansive learning is learning what is not yet there. The object of activity is qualitatively transformed so as to open up a horizon of wider possibilities and new actions.’

Engestrom describes how Gregory Bateson  distinguished learning as

  • Learning 1 – non-conscious, tacit
  • Learning 2 – learning the rules of the game
  • Learning 3 – expansive learning – questioning and deviance, but often thwarted or oppressed, marginalized or silenced. (Watch the video with Chris Jones for details)

For Etienne Wenger, identity in communities of practice, lies at the heart of all learning, i.e. social learning and so a learner needs to be able to learn in a landscape of practices.

‘Each practice in a landscape of practice has some claim to competence/knowledgeability’.

‘Your identity becomes a lived reflection of the landscape as you travel through the world.’

‘Interesting learning (happens) in the interaction between landscapes.’

For me these ideas from Wenger and Engestrom suggest that we cannot predict what that learning might be, so in that sense it will be emergent.

Engestrom also talks about boundary crossing as being risky but important for learning.

‘Working at these boundaries (between multidisciplinary disciplines) can be risky because (you) may end up in no man’s land’ – or as we have discussed in relation to Footprints of Emergence, ‘falling off the edge’ of the learning landscape.

Engestrom says that Level 3 learning  requires very special support and nurturing and like Etienne he talks about having ‘to pay special attention to issues of creating communities within networks’.

All this has implications for designing for emergent learning, although neither Engestrom nor Wenger explicitly mention emergent learning.

Footprints of Emergence in CPsquare

We had a great discussion about our recent paper Footprints of Emergence  in CPsquare’s Research and Dissertations Series of presentations last night. By we I mean, Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau and myself and by CPsquare I mean the community of practice on communities of practice.

We had some technical difficulties in getting connected and we were small in number, but if ever there was proof that ‘small is beautiful’ in terms of quality of discussion, it was in last night’s discussion.

Some interesting points came out of the discussion.

Our footprints (see diagram below) could be interpreted at first glance as ‘flat’ and static – a bit like a map. Our paper explains that the opposite is in fact the case, but a dynamic, evolving, adaptive 3D footprint is very difficult to depict without the correct software. This is something we are looking into, but personally don’t have the skills to develop – maybe I am just speaking for myself 🙂

Example of a Footprint

Each footprint is a ‘snapshot’ in time. This was so well observed and noted by John Smith (Community Steward of CPsquare). ‘Snapshot’ describes it so well.  They are also snapshots from an individual, or specific group perspective. John said ‘emergence is in the eye of the beholder’. So true.

The footprints can be drawn prospectively and/or retrospectively, dependent on the context and purpose and we discussed a variety of ways in which the footprints have already been used and the case studies we have published in the paper.

The footprints are about the balance to be achieved between prescriptive and emergent learning. We are definitely not saying that in any given learning environment ‘emergent’ is right and ‘prescriptive’ is wrong, or vice versa.

It is difficult to determine exactly where on the footprints the points should lie at any point in time. In determining this we are very aware that the very next day, next hour, we might place them differently. The value is in the discussion or thinking about where to place them.

John contributed an interesting perspective from his reading of Barry Boyce and James Gimian, The Rules of Victory: How to Transform Chaos and Conflict–Strategies from The Art of War (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2009).  and thought that ‘the strange produces the conventional and vice versa’ and that many of the metaphors and issues from the book can be brought over to the same issues that we are discussing in relation to emergent learning. We definitely need to explore this further.

And right at the end of the discussion, the issue of ‘awareness’ was raised. As Roy put it … a possible ‘scenario is that as more people draw more footprints, and they become more ‘aware’ of the dynamics, they are less able to interact with (or in) full ‘awareness’.  This takes us into a whole new realm of discussion for me, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops.

But in the meantime – Roy has set up a wiki for further discussion. If you are interested in our footprints framework and would like to contribute a footprint to the wiki, Roy, Simone and I would love to hear from you.

And Roy, Simone and I have decided that our tag for discussions related to this on Twitter, blogs or elsewhere will be #emergentlearning