A Conversation about Community in the Distributed web

This image created by Kevin Hodgson, a participant in the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC, as Stephen Downes said on Twitter, ‘basically completes the Task for week 8’.

For an interactive version of this image see: https://www.thinglink.com/fullscreen/1129211585894547458

The final discussion about the topic of community in the E-Learning 3.0 course centred on a Google Hangout discussion between Stephen Downes and Roland Legrand. The Hangout was open to anyone and there were a few people, including myself, in the chat, but only Roland Legrand in the Hangout with Stephen. This worked really well, allowing the conversation between them to develop and dig deeper into some interesting ideas. I can recommend watching the video recording, as their discussion helps to clarify some of the issues we have been struggling with in relation to this topic on community in the distributed web.

The discussion started with a review of how the week’s task had been experienced. Stephen had asked participants to create a community through consensus, without giving us any indication of how to do this, or what else to do, and ideally without using a centralised space. Laura Ritchie, Kevin Hodgson  and Roland put forward proposals on how to do this and ultimately we went with Roland’s initial suggestion, whilst also taking account of Laura and Kevin’s thoughts. Stephen pointed out in the Hangout that had the course attracted a larger number of participants the task would have been more difficult, because there would have been more proposals and people would have organised into groups. How then would we have chosen which community to join (the task stipulated only one community)? How do you solve consensus generally?

Roland thought that his proposal only required minimal commitment from participants, but Stephen thought that it could have been even more minimal. Whilst we all (those who participated) reflected on our course experience in our individual blogs, Stephen suggested that all we had needed to do was to provide evidence that we were there, maybe by posting the #el30 hashtag and stating that anyone who posted this was a member of the community. By making the task performative (writing a blog post) did it become exclusive? Roland questioned how posting a hashtag would work. Wouldn’t people be too dispersed?  He asked, ‘Why even talk about community?’

For Stephen (and see his summary for the week for further thoughts on this) the concept of community is important in the context of truth and facts. How do we know we belong to a community? This relates to how do we know a fact is a fact? And how do we know which facts to believe? How do we meet each other to discuss this?

Roland suggested that we need empathy and openness beyond the facts, because when faced with alternative facts our identities are threatened. The first thing people need is to feel recognised and safe. His question was, if we want people to meet each other to discuss alternative facts and perspectives, won’t the distributed web make things more difficult? Stephen agreed that lot of things are harder on the distributed web. It’s easier to build and work on a centralised platform, but as Stephen pointed out, we are already living in a world where information is distributed. For him centralised to decentralised is six of one and half a dozen of the other. He also pointed out that the decentralised web flourishes in the financial community and that there is no empathy in this community.

Roland questioned whether there is a planetary community and thought that the idea of a planet-wide lack of empathy was a bleak vision. He wondered whether we are too negative about it all, saying that humanity is more peaceful today than ever before, and most people can be trusted. But, as Stephen said, whilst most people the world over are ‘good’ there remain bad actors. We have to build resistance to bad actors and that’s why making things harder, through blockchain, encryption and managing our own data, might be a good thing. But Roland suggested that encryption and managing our own data might also be bad for security. Stephen agreed that there is tension between openness and privacy, and that a balance is needed.

They then went on to discuss whether we could set up some sort of community/forum to continue to discuss these complex ideas and whether this space should be open or closed, on a centralized platform or on the distributed web. Roland is keen to continue the discussion.

From my perspective the community topic has been very challenging, causing me to question my understanding of what we mean by community on the distributed web, and the role that trust, truth and consensus play in the formation of community on the distributed web. I have not come to any firm conclusions yet about how all the ideas fit together and why they are significant. But as I have mentioned in a previous post, I think it may be necessary to rethink the language we use when discussing how community is formed in the distributed web. A verse from the King James Bible comes to mind.

Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.

Many thanks to Stephen and Roland for a fascinating discussion.

Trust, Truth, Consensus and Community on the distributed web

The seventh topic in the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC  has been Community. I have invested quite a bit of my time over the years learning about community – or more specifically communities of practice. I have been a founder member of a community (ELESIG which is still going strong) and a facilitator/moderator in a community (CPsquare – which no longer functions as a community, but relationships still remain – see image below). I have attended courses on CoPs to dig deeper into the theory behind them (BEtreat workshops ), published three research papers about communities of practice and have written numerous blog posts. (I should add a page to my blog about this). I thought I had a reasonable understanding of what it means to be a member of a community, but this week has made me doubt this understanding.  Why?I have been asking myself this question for quite a few days now, and today it occurred to me is that it is a language problem. The way in which language related to community is being used in this course about the distributed web, i.e. what we mean by community, consensus, trust and truth in the distributed web, is not how I have previously understood it.

Let’s start with trust.

Trust is thought to be an essential component of communities of practice. In their book (p.8) Digital Habitats, Wenger, White and Smith write:

‘Learning together depends on the quality of relationships of trust and mutual engagement that members develop with each other, a productive management of community boundaries, and the ability of some to take leadership and to play various roles in moving the inquiry forward’

And in Wenger, McDermott and Snyder’s book, Cultivating Communities of Practice  (p.85) they have written:

The trust community members need is not simply the result of a decision to trust each other personally. It emerges from understanding each other. As one oil reservoir engineer observed, “Sometimes you can share an insight that is so useful it saves a well from going down, but you don’t save a well at the first meeting.”

In other words, communities take time to develop, which is also depicted by the diagram above.

But in the conversation that Stephen had with Pete Forsyth they both agreed that the internet is a trust-less environment. In his post on ‘The Problem of Trust’, Vitalik Buterin has written:

If you were to ask the average cryptocurrency or blockchain enthusiast what the key single fundamental advantage of the technology is, there is a high chance that they will give you one particular predictable answer: it does not require trust.

This suggests that trust either functions differently or doesn’t exist at all on the distributed web. Stephen and Pete both believe that trust is an aspect of community. So both trust and community on the distributed web, in their terms, seem to mean something different to Wenger et al.’s understanding of it.

Pete Forsyth suggested that in Wikipedia (which I have written about in a previous post) we put our trust in facts and not in people. I can accept that on the distributed web it probably makes more sense to understand trust in these terms. That’s not to say that there won’t be trust between people, but perhaps we don’t need this on the distributed web. So the meaning of trust might be more limited term on the distributed web?

But what about community?

In a draft document he has shared with us (I have typed draft in bold, so that we can acknowledge that it might change), Stephen distinguishes between what he calls ‘natural’ communities as opposed to ‘organised’ communities of the type discussed by Wenger and his colleagues. He describes natural communities, e.g. ‘your average city’, as lacking in trust, where there are enforcement mechanisms, because we don’t trust people to obey the law or rules. ‘Cities are polyglot, factional, disjointed. Yet, still – they are communities’, he writes. I have yet to be convinced by the idea that a city is a community.

I believe that there can be and are communities within cities, but that cities are not communities. I agree with the author of this post about ‘What does community mean?’ where s/he has written: ‘just living near each other, as in a suburban neighborhood, doesn’t mean you’re in community.’ (The rest of the post is also interesting). ‘Neighbourhood’ may be a more appropriate term for a city, as Mike Caulfield suggested for FedWiki – which could be described as a decentralized distributed wiki (see my previous post for further discussion) and ‘network’ may be more appropriate for the distributed web.

But there is a reason for Stephen’s focus on community this week, which seems to be that working on the distributed web requires consensus; consensus to agree on what information can be trusted to be true. How do we achieve this consensus on the distributed web where there is no ‘leader’ and no ‘common ground’? Stephen believes that we do this through community and that community is consensus.

My question is, do we have to have community for consensus on the distributed web?  Unless I have completely misunderstood this, the evidence from Preethi Kasireddy’s post How does distributed consensus work? would seem to suggest that the answer is ‘No’, unless we are attributing the word ‘community’ to non-human actors. I have a horrid feeling that I have completely misunderstood all this, but from where I am standing, the word ‘community’ being used in this context just does not fit with any of my prior understanding.

In relation to achieving consensus on the distributed web about what information we can trust, we are told by Waggoner et al. that there are many consensus methodologies, to the point where they have written a paper questioning whether there is a consensus on consensus methodology.  From this article we can see that many researchers are working on how to achieve consensus in relation to the trust we can put in facts on the distributed web.

But what about in society? What are the consequences of a consensus driven society which relies on agreement. As John Kay wrote way back in 2007 in his article ‘Science is the pursuit of truth, not consensus’, ‘Consensus finds a way through conflicting opinions and interests’. (The Financial Times has blocked me from posting a link to this article. You will need to ‘trust’ me that this is what he wrote!) Kay seems to suggest that consensus is often arrived at, at the expense of truth. If this is so, should we ‘trust’ in the ‘truths’ arrived at by consensus?

In his article: Fake News, Wikipedia and Blockchain (Truth and Consensus), Arthur Charpentier seems to suggest that the words we use matter. He writes:

This plurality of words, and the absence of a reference word, is not unlike the philosophy conveyed by crypto-currencies: instead of a centralised mode of governance (validation, certification), it is a global validation by a network, a consensus, which will prevail. Have we changed our definition of what truth is?

This resonates with me because this week I have been asking myself similar questions. What does community mean in relation to the distributed web? Can community function on the distributed web? Do trust, community and consensus take on different meanings on the distributed web? Perhaps we need to go back to what these words mean and whether they have taken on different meanings for use in discussion about the distributed web.

Stephen Downes’ summary of this topic – Community – Summary of the topic

https://el30.mooc.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=68638

Source of images

Stages of development of a community of practice  – https://www.slideshare.net/richard.claassens/communities-of-practice-stages-of-development-388654

Fake News, Wikipedia and Blockchain (Truth and Consensus) – https://freakonometrics.hypotheses.org/52608

My experiences of the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC to date

First a bit of background

The task for this week in the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC is related to the topic of Community in the distributed web.

This is the task as created by Stephen Downes:

As a community, create an assignment the completion of which denotes being a member of the community. For the purposes of this task, there can only be one community. For each participant, your being a member of the community completes the task.

And this additional text was posted in one of the daily newsletters:

This week’s task is deliberately open-ended. It requires the formation of a community, but only one community, with tangible evidence of consensus. How to do this? How to even get started? That’s the challenge…

Some people may ask, “What’s the point?” Well, as we discussed in this week’s conversation (also in this newsletter) it’s a challenge to create consensus without deferring to an authority – a trusted source, if you will. In a course like this, that’s usually the instructor. But not this time. This is – on a small scale – the same problem we have on a larger scale. How do we create consensus with no common ground?

This task is challenging on several fronts. Can a community be created at all? What is there are competing communities? How many participants can the community actually encompass? How do people join at all? The conditions for succeeding in this assignment are very simple – be a member of that community. But the manner in which this is to be accomplished is not clear at all.

Roland Legrand quickly proposed how we might complete this task. I could immediately see that this would work and accepted. This is what he proposed:

I suggest we all post about our experiences in this course. It would be a short or long piece about the content, the way it’s being organized, the way the learners did or did not interact with each other or how we reacted in blog posts and on social media.
Such a post seems like a natural thing to do, there are no good or bad posts, yet it would affirm our being together in this thing – #el30.

There have been some alternative suggestions and, as yet, no evidence of real consensus, but I am going to follow Wikipedia’s advice to ‘Be Bold’ and just go ahead with this. This doesn’t mean to say that I am not open to other suggestions. If the consensus becomes clearer and shifts to somewhere else, it wouldn’t be impossible for me to shift too. Roland’s suggestion makes for a useful task, whether or not there is consensus about it. So here is my contribution.

My experiences of this course

When I saw the course advertised, I wasn’t sure if it would be for me. The topics looked too ‘ed tech’. I am not an educational technologist, and whilst I am not debilitatingly technophobic, my technical skills leave a lot to be desired. To be honest, I am just not sufficiently interested. I tend to develop technical skills as and when I need them, but of course I realise that not having good technical skills means that there’s a lot I am not aware of.

I have been surprised at how interesting I have found this course, despite the heavy emphasis on ‘tech’ stuff, which I doubt I will ever use, not because it’s not useful, but because of the stage of life I am at, i.e. retired. (Maybe that’s an erroneous assumption and it certainly won’t apply more widely to other retired people). The glimpses into what the future might hold in relation to learning are fascinating, and there are many associated philosophical questions about the nature of teaching and learning, and why we are interacting on the distributed web at all, which have kept me engaged. (When I am not working on this I am delving into more philosophical topics about the meaning of life etc., something that I haven’t had time to do until now.)

There has only been one point in the course, so far, when I lost motivation – and that was last week. The topic was ‘Recognition’.  I have been a teacher all my working life, and have experience of all phases of education, i.e. from very young children in Reception classes to post-graduates in Higher Education. I have always been troubled by the emphasis on extrinsic rewards as opposed to intrinsic motivation. As such, the emphasis on the award of badges last week sapped my energy a bit, even though I could see that it fits in a course about the distributed web. All the other topics have been great, and I particularly enjoyed the week on Identity, and the fact that I was able to enter into some deeper and broader discussions with a few participants about ideas such as ‘betweenness’, that are of particular interest to me at the moment.

Design of the course

I like the course design and the fact that Stephen Downes ‘walks the talk’ and has been true to his educational philosophy as expounded in his theory of connectivism.

Although there is a course site, where information relating to the course is aggregated, participants have been encouraged to engage from their blogs.  Interaction also takes place on Twitter (#el30) and to a lesser degree on Mastodon. If there is activity elsewhere I am not aware of it. The point is that participants exercise their autonomy in choosing how they want to participate. I have always preferred working on MOOCs from my blog. It is calmer and more manageable than discussion forums, although there are no discussion forums in this course. Twitter is useful for quick access to information, but I rarely use it for discussion. Interaction on blogs requires more effort, which is difficult to sustain over a long period of time, but for me, both the writing of and commenting on blogs leads to deeper learning. It can also be difficult to keep a track of blogs, but one of the first tasks in the course was to aggregate all the blogs’ RSS feeds into a reader of our choice (I use Feedly). This has made it easier.

In this course, each topic is introduced with a Synopsis and some initial readings. The Synopsis for each week has been there from the start of the course, which means we do not have to wait for them and can move ahead if we wish. These are very helpful advance organisers.

The weekly video conversations with invited guests are always interesting. One or two have been a bit too technical for me, but I have learned something from them all. Stephen also creates a video at the end of each week as a summary, as well as providing a written summary, which he openly drafts on a Google Doc so that we can each contribute if we wish. I see this as exemplifying what we should expect from open online teaching practice.

I have surprised myself by enjoying the weekly tasks. They have focussed attention on the key concepts of the given topic and the doing of them has, for me, resulted in learning and increased clarity about the subject. I have succeeded in completing most of the tasks, with one notable exception. I feel I should be able to complete this task and might go back to it. I would be able to complete it, if I knew a bit more html, but I am not going to ask someone to do this for me. That would rather defeat the object.

I have not completed all the reading, and some of the resources, e.g. those about Blockchain, Jupyter notebooks etc., have gone right over the top of my head. But at least I am aware that they exist and what the significance of them might be.

Things I have really appreciated so far

I am grateful to Stephen for being so willing to openly share his knowledge, experience and expertise. He has also been willing to share his practice, letting us see how he works things out as he goes along. This fits with his belief that the role of the teacher is to model and demonstrate.

It has been intriguing to see the course being written as we go along. This is so unlike my own way of working. I am always planned well in advance. It must take a great deal of confidence in your own expertise to be able to work it out as you go along and in response to participants’ contributions.

I have also appreciated course participants’ thought-provoking blog posts. I don’t know how many people are ‘observing’ this course from the side-lines, but there are only a few fully participating. This suits me. I prefer the ‘front porch’ discussions to the ‘market place’ as Matthias Melcher once described it.

Stephen has commented (and I can no longer find the comment!) that in this course we are working at the ‘leading edge’ of developments in E-Learning. This is what I have so enjoyed, whilst at the same time finding it challenging. The last time I had this feeling was in 2008, in CCK08 The Connectivism & Connective Knowledge Course (the first MOOC of this type).

I could probably write more, but this seems quite enough for now, and I’m sure we will be asked to write something similar at the end of the course. For now, I’m leaving this here as a draft. If this is the task we all agree to, I might edit it. If another task is agreed then so be it; I can still leave this here as a record of how I have experienced this course up to now.

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/

Rhizo 14: Emerging Ambiguities and Issues

This is the fourth and final post in a series which outlines the thinking and planning Frances Bell and Jenny Mackness have been doing in preparation for our presentation – The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Teaching and Learning in a MOOC – for the ALTMOOCSIG conference on Friday 27th June.

The first post was – The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Teaching and Learning in a MOOC 

The second post was – Making Sense of the Rhizome Metaphor for Teaching and Learning

The third post was – Principles of Rhizomatic Thinking

This final post will cover some of the issues that are emerging from our research data.

 

Rhizo 14: Emerging ambiguities and issues

 Slide 6 (Source of image: Tom Friedman. Open Black Box : http://eyelevel.si.edu/2007/06/sculpture-as-an.html )

We are still in the process of analysing our data, but on the basis the work we have done so far we were able to send these statements out to survey respondents who agreed to an email interview:

  • The rhizome is a useful metaphor for learning but it does not add anything significantly new to our current understanding of teaching and learning.
  • The use of the rhizome as a metaphor for designing teaching and learning has a positive impact on the role of the teacher.
  • The rhizome metaphor is sufficient to describe networked learning, but insufficient to describe learning in a community.
  • The rhizome is an adequate but incomplete metaphor for explaining how we learn.
  • The metaphor of the rhizome works well for social learning, but less well for knowledge creation.
  • Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas were not relevant to learning in Rhizo14

The statements exemplify some of the emerging alternative perspectives on the learner experience of the Rhizo14 MOOC.

We haven’t done enough analysis of our data yet to come to any conclusions, but here are some tentative initial questions, findings and discussion. We do not have any answers to these questions. We simply raise them and open them for discussion.

  1. The role of the convenor. What is the role of the convener in a course which tries to apply D &G’s rhizomatic principles? Is it possible to have no centre?

Here are the alternative perspectives of two survey respondents.

Our words, our images, our diagrams were what drove the learning for ourselves and for others in the course. Where the conversations went did not start from a single centre and move in an ordered fashion from there; they started wherever we started, and moved wherever those involved wanted them to move. As a result, there were numerous conversations happening at the same time, going in different directions, linking up to others if we made the links happen. 

I could see many people getting enthusiastic and falling in love with the community like “we are something, we are the best in world. Others are stupid and not creative but we are great. Dave is the King and it is fine to get attention from him.” I define this groupthink and emotional drifting. Someone called it a congregation around dc

Is a course, which necessarily means there is a course convener, the right environment for exploring and modelling rhizomatic learning?

  1. The operation of power in Rhizo14 and its relation to striated and smooth spaces for state and nomadic thought

“Only thought is capable of inventing the fiction of a State that is universal by right”, they insist, “[only thought is] capable of elevating the State to the level of de jure universality” (Holland, 2013, p.45)

D & G talk about smooth and striated space. Striated space is structured and organised and can be the home of ‘state thought’, whereas in smooth space there are no fixed points or boundaries. Many of Rhizo14’s provocative prompts seemed to be designed to help participants challenge state thought/ arborescence in education. We are curious to explore how nomadic thought was enabled and constrained by the few structuring devices (activities and technologies) present in Rhizo14.

Although rhizomatic nomadic thought may seem more at home in smooth space, it may not have that luxury. There may have been more striated space in Rhizo14 than you would expect in a course about rhizomatic learning. This also relates to thinking about the rhizome as achieving ‘felt-like’ status, which Holland (2013) equates to ‘smooth space’.

Holland writes (p.38) that ‘any rhizomatic element has the potential to connect with any other element’ . He compares felt to the warp and woof (weft) of fabric. Early analysis suggests that Rhizo14 didn’t achieve felt-like status (i.e. a smooth space). There was not enough ‘omni-directionality’.

‘Rhizomatic elements co-exist with one another, but without structure (e.g. felt). Any structure or unity is imposed as an extra dimension  .… and as an effect of power on the dimensions of co-existence of the rhizome itself, whose self-organization requires no added dimensions: structuration or unification, by contrast, occurs as the result of “over-coding” by a signifier…..’ (Holland, p.39)

The potential ambiguity between Dave Cormier’s role as convenor (with his expressed desire to moderate communication) and his wish to be de-centred within Rhizo14 may have been realised in confusion and challenge by some participants, and defence of him by others. There is some evidence of this in the data we collected. A possible explanation could be that Rhizo14 ended up being ‘over-coded’ with Dave Cormier as the signifier and members of the dominant Facebook Group as signifiers, thus working against decentring. This is the one of the issues we hope to explore with Dave Cormier himself to enrich our understanding.

  1. The Community: Is the idea of community compatible with D & G’s principles of rhizomatic thinking? In Rhizo14 is the community an example of territorialisation? D & G write about the necessity of territorialisation, but say it should only be relatively temporary.

Community is not a word that features strongly in D & G’s A Thousand Plateaus, but they do write:

There is no ideal speaker-listener, any more than there is a homogeneous linguistic community. ( D&G, A Thousand Plateaus, p.7)

On the same page, they also write:

There is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language within a political multiplicity.

And Holland explains this with:

‘Even on its own plane, discourse as rhizome is “an essentially heterogeneous reality” [p.7 in D&G’s book] – a “throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages,” Deleuze and Guattari assert, with “no mother tongue” [7]. The appearance of a standard language is instead the result of a power-takeover by one language among many, necessarily in connection with yet other factors, most notably political and demographic ones.’ ( Holland, E.W., 2013, Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, Bloomsbury, p.39)

The question we, as researchers, are considering is whether the notion of community works against rhizomatic thinking principles, but we haven’t got any further than this at the moment. Does a community lead to a standard language and a power take-over? One interesting aspect of community within Rhizo14 is that although Dave Cormier drew on his existing network to attract participants to the MOOC, there was no pre-existing Rhizo14 community, and so part of the early ‘work’ of Rhizo14 was community formation.

As Dave Cormier said:

In discussions with the excellent Vanessa Gennarelli from P2PU she suggested that I focus the course around challenging questions. It occurred to me that if i took my content and my finely crafted ‘unravelling’ out of the way I might just get the kind of engagement that could encourage the formation of community. http://davecormier.com/edblog/2014/04/01/explaining-rhizo14-to-oscar/

This is an interesting issue that we hope to explore further.

  1. The community is the curriculum

This begs the question – what was the curriculum? As is evident from the first quote from a survey respondent under point 1 above, there were some participants who believed that the curriculum was created by the community. We have evidence that participants learned ‘how to MOOC’, ‘how to make connections with like-minded people’, and ‘how to think differently about their existing educational philosophy’, but as mentioned in a previous blog post, only a handful survey respondents referred to D&G’s work in their understanding of the rhizome as a metaphor for learning and teaching.

As well as minimising the content he provided, Dave had already affirmed the need for learners to create content. Participants from DS106, EDCMOOC, and CLMOOC 2013 would already have experienced a MOOC where ‘making’ was a key focus for community/ course participation. The ‘Arts and Crafts tent’ was popular, a participant-driven approach, and can be seen in the many multimedia artefacts tagged #rhizo14, but not everyone wanted to do this. One of the ways in which curriculum could be perceived is by the content generated by learners, and the diversity of content from poems to wordy blog posts and a lot of remixes in multimedia in Rhizo14.

As one email interview respondent has written:

I do not quite understand how the community designs and negotiates its own curriculum community. We need more studies and references to describe the processes of negotiation that go on within a community that enable it to design their own curriculum.

And finally, the same respondent wrote:

I have a feeling that this metaphor needs to be connected more to pedagogical issues arising from educational research. 

Which neatly brings us to the end of our presentation and emphasises that we still have more questions than answers and, as we have mentioned before, far more thoughts and discussion topics than we have room for here, or time for in our presentation.

Slide 7

(Source of image: Tobias Øhrstrøm Learning from a potato: http://www.iaacblog.com/maa2013-2014-advanced-architecture-concepts/2013/11/learning-from-a-potato/ )

If you have any thoughts/questions about this series of posts, we would welcome your comments on our blogs, or by email:

  • jenny.mackness@btopenworld.com
  • frabell@gmail.com

 

References

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus, University of Minnesota Press.

Holland, E.W. (2013). Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Bloomsbury

 

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The Messiness of Rhizomatic Learning – Words Steal My Intent

rhizo Screen_Shot_2013-09-17_at_8.51.41_PM

Week 2 of Dave Cormier’s open online course – Rhizomatic Learning – the community is the curriculum –  is at end, and what a messy week it has been.

Helen Crump has called it chaotic. I, and I’m sure others, can recognise this sentiment – but for me it has been ‘messy’ rather than ‘chaotic’. ‘Chaotic’ implies ‘out of control’ which I don’t think it has been – but, judging from blog posts and Facebook activity, the focus for many this week has not been on the suggested topic – ‘Enforcing Independence’  –  but on perceived divisions within the community. For me, this is what has made it feel so ‘messy’.

These perceived divisions relate to academics vs non-academics and theorists vs pragmatists and discussion around this was sparked off by a Facebook comment made by Maddie which I have quoted below.

I find it ironic that people talk about their qualifications and researches and their ability to read and understand critical theory when that is not the aim of this uncourse at all. As long as everyone “gets” the generic meaning of it, all is well and we progress as a community. How everyone reaches to the end is immaterial. If you get the theory without reading it, you have cheated brilliantly.

Furthermore, I would like to assert my independence and state that I am not an academic and yet wish to be part of this uncourse. Does that make me “Un-qualified” to take it up? If we are to question the very foundation of the education system and try to change it so as to include one and all in a whole big community, then it shouldn’t matter whether I am a phd or a college drop out, should it? This is how a rhizome breaks.

This comment was a response to a post made by Cath Ellis who encouraged us to engage with the theory behind rhizomatic learning, principally the work of Deleuze and Guattari in their book – A Thousand Plateaus . Intense discussion ensued (83 comments on Maddie’s Facebook post the last time I looked) and to my great surprise the academics/theorists appeared to ‘back off’, with many apologies for not being appropriately inclusive in the tone of their discussion.

In relation to this there have been a number of comments related to ‘community’.

Jaap Bosman questions whether participants of a MOOC are a group and therefore is there a need for group roles (e.g. Belbin’s team roles). He asks

‘If the participants of a mooc are (part of) rhizome, group roles are life functions of the rhizome? Does a healthy cMOOC need ‘group roles’?

Ary Aranguiz in her blog post – A Jagged little pill  – writes

‘I think the most important skill we need for true community building, if we genuinely believe in creating thriving networks, is to not minimize, or dismiss what someone has to say.’

Terry Elliott writes that he ‘ain’t feeling it’  and that he doesn’t feel ‘invited’. ‘What do the adjectives ‘rhizomatic’ and ‘deep’ add to the abstract noun ‘learning’.  What distinguishes those pairs of words from my run-of-the-mill word, just ‘learning’  he asks.

Sandra Sinfield  in her blog post writes that MOOCs have ‘reinforced the need to bring the human back into the physical classroom’. And

Lots of wrestling in FB this week with what could be argued to be an essential ‘issue’ with MOOCs – they are open – free – out there… surely this is thus egalitarian learning at its very best? But no – some are still silenced – some are still feeling the pain of not being good enough – that ‘fish out of water’ feeling that is the experience of so many non-traditional students in the traditional classroom.

We have some strategies that work here to overcome this: say hello – be welcoming – comment – reply – extend a welcoming hand to other students. In doing this we ARE the community, all of us, everyone who does this friendly human thing in this strange and potentially impersonal world.

Interestingly I spent some time yesterday listening to Manuel DeLanda’s Introduction to Gilles Deleuze  in which he discusses Deleuze’s ‘Theory of non-human expressivity’. Deleuze warned against living only in the small provincial world of humanity, closing ourselves into ourselves and being ‘all too human’. He recommended that we ‘break from our human straight-jackets’. I am still trying to understand what all this means, but I think it does relate to a discussion about communities and networks.

In my reflections on this week’s messiness and the possible causes for it – not that messiness per se is a bad thing in the learning process – I have wondered whether it not so much ‘learning’ that we need to do in relation to this course, but ‘unlearning’. (I was interested in this post about unlearning that I came across yesterday – not related to this course ).

I have been wondering whether we need to unlearn our assumptions about communities and groups in relation to rhizomatic learning. Despite the fact that the course title is Rhizomatic Learning – the Community is the Curriculum – can we assume that rhizomatic learning equates to community and/or group learning? For me ‘network’ or something similar might work better.  The advantages and disadvantages of groups and networks have been very well covered in the work of Stephen Downes. See this post  Groups Vs Networks: The Class Struggle Continues.

The differences between communities and networks has also been discussed by Wenger et al. in their publication – Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework – in which they write (p.9):

We prefer to think of community and network as two aspects of social structures in which learning takes place.

The network aspect refers to the set of relationships, personal interactions, and connections among participants who have personal reasons to connect. It is viewed as a set of nodes and links with affordances for learning, such as information flows, helpful linkages, joint problem solving, and knowledge creation.

The community aspect refers to the development of a shared identity around a topic or set of challenges. It represents a collective intention—however tacit and distributed—to steward a domain of knowledge and to sustain learning about it.

In addition, by chance Stephen Downes has posted in OLDaily (Jan 25th) a link   to a post about inappropriate conversation in MOOC discussion forums.  See the post Everything in Moderation  Carl Straumsheim, Inside Higher Ed, January 25, 2014, and Stephen Downes’ comment in OL Daily. We are fortunate in #rhizo14 that discussion has not descended to these levels – due, I am sure, in no small part to Dave’s modelling of appropriate behaviour – but Stephen Downes’ solution to this problem, which he has mentioned many times before, is to use distributed aggregated discussions, i.e. to dispense with discussion forums. By doing this within a network structure, participants can follow their own rhizomatic paths through a network, discussing whatever they wish with whoever they wish. If they stumble across a conversation that is not for them, they simply leave and follow another path. Eventually people with similar interests find each other. In a network, unlike a group or community, we don’t all have to know each other or have similar interests. There is no academic vs non-academic, theorist vs pragamatist. We simply occupy different spaces. There is diversity, autonomy, connectedness and openness – the basic pedagogical principles of a network.

To finish off this rather long post (there has been a lot to think about this week), Maddie, who sparked all this off, has come back and written  ….

Did I do it on purpose? No. Did I wish to make jabs at privileged people? No. Did I project such an outbreak? No.

I think perhaps her initial post wouldn’t have cause such a ‘stir’ had we all been working according to network rather than community/group principles, but her follow-up comments also raise the issue of the role of language in online communication.

There are some in this course who are really interested in the link between language and identity, for example Emily who writes in her blog post ‘Ode to marginalia

I guess, that all identity and learning is language, so it’s interesting and useful to know about language and bring theory in even when it’s opposed…

I think it’s also useful to be constantly aware of the possible consequences of language and writing. I think this example below, which I will end this post with, illustrates the point 🙂

Kevin invited us to ‘Steal his poem’ and remix it.

So I decided to create a mesostic from his poem, a form of remixing that I learned about in the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC (ModPo) last year – and, using the spine REMIX in Kevin’s poem  as shown here:

Screen Shot 2014-01-26 at 14.52.06

blow me down – this is what I got (although the X has been dropped in the spine),

Screen Shot 2014-01-26 at 18.40.37

Is this the cause of the messiness in Week 2 of  #rhizo14.

The Community is the Curriculum in #rhizo14

As happened in CCK08 (the first MOOC in 2008), it seems that ‘the kids have taken control of the classroom’ in this second week of Dave Cormier’s open online course Rhizomatic Learning – The Community is the Curriculum . The topic this week is ‘enforced independence’ and here is Dave’s introduction:

I have been standing back, observing, watching, waiting, to see what directions people take in response to the idea of ‘enforcing independence’.

Simon Ensor summed up how I feel this week, when he posted this on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 09.59.43

I particularly like the line ‘So long as the mists envelop you, be still’. On the whole, for me, there isn’t enough ‘stillness’ in social media environments. And I can also relate to the first line. My own expression has always been ‘When in doubt, don’t!’ So rushing off down rhizomatic paths isn’t really my style – but it has been fascinating to watch the paths that are being created and followed this week.

Unlike ‘cheating is learning’ (last week’s topic), ‘enforcing independence’  has been summarily dismissed as a viable idea by some. Arca says “Independence cannot be enforced. End.”  There is obviously a discussion to be had around independence as an important idea in association with pedagogy, but I’m not sure about the possibility of ‘enforcing’ independence. I might come back to that discussion in another post.

For now I am reflecting on Dave’s introductory video where he said that the word ‘course’ in association with #rhizo14 does have meaning, i.e. it is a course (not a free for all), that he is directing, not in the sense of a conductor with a set sheet of music, but in the sense of directing towards a certain type of conversation. I wonder what type of conversation Dave envisaged for this week – because it is going all over the place. For example:

Sarah HoneyChurch organised a live synchronous session last night for European/African participants  – but I’m not sure if the session was about social bonding or something more substantial.

Cath Ellis has tried to steer discussion towards actually reading Deleuze and Guattari’s work and bemoans the fact that many of us are engaging in discussion without having read the seminal text. She suggests reading the first 25 pages/introduction and has posted some links to documents in Facebook, to get us going. Not everyone is keen to do this reading. Maha Bali presents an alternative perspective.

Maha Bali is also interested in researching the different forms of community interaction and its effects on learning in‪#‎rhizo14‬ and has put out a call for collaborators in the Facebook group.

Penny Bentley is interested in the question ‘How does Rhizomatic Learning add to/enhance Connectivism? (also on Facebook).

The discussion around ‘cheating as learning’ continues, with a number of people still concerned about the ethics of rhizomatic learning.

Frances Bell thinks we are in danger of “Falling into the tendency to think about rhizomatic learning within formal educational contexts” and is interested in power in rhizomatic learning environments

Keith Hamon is interested in the relationship between ethical behaviour and boundaries in rhizomatic learning environments.

A number of participants are creating badges for the course and awarding them as and when they feel appropriate.

Many people are interested in how the ideas behind rhizomatic learning relate to their teaching practice.

And there’s more….

All this would suggest that ‘The community is the curriculum’, i.e. the curriculum this week, is being created more by the community than in relation to the week’s topic – which I assume was the intention behind the course design.

But where does that leave Dave as the ‘director’ of conversation? What are the implications for his and our ‘power’ in the course?

And I’m wondering about the word ‘community’ and whether everyone going off along their own rhizomatic paths is conducive to community. For example, will there be a break away ‘theory group’ and if there is would this militate against community? Is it reasonable to talk about rhizomatic learning in relation to community?

I feel the mists descending again!