Posts Tagged ‘diversity’


This week I attended a webinar which focussed on silent learners. Thank you to Martina Emke for drawing this webinar to my attention. The title immediately resonated as recently I have found myself increasingly troubled by the constant noise of the online environment. This has been a growing awareness and I recognise it as a problem since I rely on the open web and my online network for the work I do as an independent education consultant and researcher. This has made me wonder to what extent open learning environments exclude those who find ‘noisy’ environments difficult.

The webinar was run as part of a Nordic Nordplus project, Silent learners – Is lurking working?,  investigating how silent or peripheral learners can be better understood even in courses where participation is the focus. It was organised by NVL Distans  (Nordic Network for Adult Education), EDEN (European Distance and E-learning Network) and the Swedish Network for IT in Higher Education (ITHU). (Source of information)

The webinar was very ably facilitated by Francisca Frenks, Alastair Creelman and Jan Willem Kemper  – more than ‘ably’ in fact. This was probably one of the best webinars I have attended (and over the years I have attended very many). It was extremely well structured and very interactive. I would like to spend a bit of time at the beginning of this post recording how it was run for future reference and as an example of good practice.  There were 72 people in the webinar – quite a big number to manage. Most participants were from Scandinavia, but some were from further afield.

These are the points that I think made it work so well.

  1. There were very good joining instructions and email reminders of the event.
  2. We were invited to log in half an hour early to check our connection. Microphones and videos were not enabled until the end of the webinar, but the opening screen invited us to interact by marking our location on the map and using the chat. Clear instructions were written on the screen and reiterated by the presenters.

The presenters were in the room with their microphones open and welcomed us both verbally and in the chat. Changing the layout of the screen by dragging and dropping boxes was either not enabled or is not a feature of Adobe Connect. If it had been I would have moved the chat to my second monitor – but it was not a problem. What I particularly liked about the whole webinar was that the presenters changed the layout of the screen according to the activities they had planned for us.

  1. After an introduction to the presenting team and the background to this webinar, interaction started almost immediately and we were asked ‘What brings you here? – a nice open, opening question. The chat box was enlarged to help us to follow it more easily.

  1. The focus of the webinar was then explained. Before the webinar we had been asked to watch Susan Cain’s well known video on introverts.
  1. We were told that when discussing silent learners in this webinar the focus would be on learners who are silent by nature rather than silent for other reasons.

  1. In particular the focus was on how silent leaners work in groups. Three questions were posed:
  • How do we recognise learners who are silent by nature?
  • What are their learning needs?
  • How can we empower the silent learner in the group context?

The focus for discussion was therefore made very clear.

  1. We were then asked the questions listed above and asked to respond to them in the chat, but before responding to each question Francisca interviewed Jan Willem, a self-professed ‘silent by nature learner’ about his experience in relation to the question.

  1. What was particularly effective was that we were asked to identify ourselves as a silent learner, a noisy learner, or something in between, by typing in a particular colour.

Finally we were asked to respond to some statements made by silent learners about their experience of group work. These had been collected from interviews conducted by Taru Kekkonen. How would we encourage the silent learners who made these statements to participate in groups? These were the statements:

‘It is simply easier to study independently at my own pace’.

‘I have no need to express myself loud among others’.

‘I hate spontaneous discussions because I don’t know what appropriate is to say’.

‘It is easier to join an online discussion, because the structure is more clear’.

All the questions and statements in the webinar promoted fast and furious typing in the chat box and although I have watched the recording it would take a while to go through it all and determine more fully how silent learners are perceived or perceive themselves.

I thoroughly enjoyed this webinar. The time flew by. Not only was it extremely well run, but also thought provoking.

The main thought I have come away with is to question whether it helps silent learners to focus on them in this way. Jan Willem felt it does, because he feels that there is not enough recognition of what silent learners can offer. For me the danger is that in doing this we may reinforce the view that somehow silent learners are a problem and that we need to solve this problem by enabling them, empowering them, to become a bit noisier. Personally, I don’t think that learners can be empowered by others. They empower themselves, although they can be supported in doing this.

In addition, I don’t believe that silent learners can be identified as a separate group, although they can, as we saw in the webinar, self-identify. Learners will be more or less silent/noisy as individuals and according to the context. Thinking of silent versus noisy is probably not helpful. There will be a spectrum of learners and perhaps diversity is best served by keeping groups as heterogeneous as possible and ensuring that multiple perspectives are always considered.

This webinar attracted a cross-section of silent and noisy learners and many in between and we were invited to identify ourselves as silent, noisy or in between learners. This showed that we were a diverse group, but the discussion focused on silent learners as a separate group. It would be interesting to go back through the chat and analyse whether silent learners are considered to be ‘a problem to be solved’ or whether they are considered to be necessary to a diverse community of learners, even though they are in the minority. Evidently only 20-25% of the population identify themselves as silent learners.

Thank you to Francisca, Alastair and Jan Willem for organizing this excellent and thought-provoking open webinar.

Update 18-03-17

For a more detailed account of the webinar see Alastair’s follow up blog post which also provides links to further information – https://silentlearnersblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/15/webinar-the-power-of-silent-learners-in-a-group-2/

Update 20-03-17

See also Lotte Christoff’s post – A Voice of a ‘Silent Learner’ – https://studyelearning.wordpress.com/2017/03/19/a-voice-of-a-silent-learner/  The post is written in Swedish, but translates well enough to follow the text.

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Source of image

dana boyd has written a post in which she discusses why America is self-segregating and she comes up with a few suggestions such as the role of social media in segregating people into filter bubbles and echo chambers. But a key point she makes is that diversity, which is ‘often touted as highly desirable’ is hard – ‘uncomfortable, emotionally exhausting and downright frustrating’. So instead of using the many online tools we now have at our disposal to become diversely connected, we use them instead to find like-minded people who, as Kirschner wrote in 2015, ‘discuss, confirm, validate and strengthen the group’s position’ (p.622). In doing this we reduce diversity.

(This tendency to try to reduce diversity is not only evident in online networks. It can also be seen in ‘The Big Sort’ and geographical clustering that I mentioned in my last post, i.e. people physically move geographical location to live near those more like themselves.)

More than ten years ago in 2005 in his ‘Introduction to Connective Knowledge’ (revised in 2007) Stephen Downes wrote of diversity as a key principle of ‘knowing’ networks. Downes sees the fostering of diversity as the means to

 ‘counterbalance the tendency toward a cascade phenomenon in the realm of public knowledge’.  

(Information cascades occur when external information obtained from previous participants in an event overrides one’s own private signal, irrespective of the correctness of the former over the latter’ (Wikipedia ). Cascade phenomena can sweep through densely connected networks very rapidly).

Downes writes

the excesses made possible by an unrestrained scale-free network need to be counterbalanced through either one of two mechanisms: either a reduction in the number of connections afforded by the very few, or an increase in the density of the local network for individual entities’.

According to Downes, the only way to avoid information cascades is to ensure multiple viewpoints and alternative perspectives from observers with different sets of prior experiences, world views and interpretations.

Related to this, a couple of years later Downes wrote of the different affordances of groups and networks – Groups vs. Networks: The Class Struggle Begins – saying that a group is about what members have in common, whereas ‘a network is like an ecosystem where there is no requirement that all the entities be the same.’ If we accept this it follows that a group tends towards homogeneity, but a network to heterogeneity (see also my post on the hazards of group work). Diversity is therefore essential to a healthy network.

But what is diversity?  Dictionaries, e.g. Cambridge dictionary, define diversity as being many different types of things or people, ideas or opinions, being included in something. I would add that in addition many different resources are needed to inform these ideas or opinions. In a paper that Carmen Tschofen and I published in 2012, Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience, we also suggested that there is a need to recognise the importance of psychological diversity of online learners, the complexity of their human needs and connections, i.e. that diversity is not just an external manifestation of difference, but also internal to individuals. Each individual is unique. We argued that connectivity needs to be viewed not only in terms of the network but also in terms of individual characteristics and biases, further complicating an understanding of diversity.

But why is diversity ‘desirable’? dana boyd points to more diverse teams outperforming homogeneous teams and claims that diversity increases cognitive development. In my own field of research into learning in open online environments, this point of view is endorsed by the call for more interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and cross global, international working (see for example Haywood, 2016 and Eynon et al., 2016).

However, Cilliers (2010) suggests that there are deeper reasons. These are related to viewing the world in which we live as a complex adaptive system. Complex systems are heterogeneous, asymmetrical and full of non-linear, unpredictable interactions, which means we cannot fully know or control them. Complex environments exhibit the following characteristics (and more!):

  • Distributed knowledge
  • Disequilibrium
  • Adaptive
  • Self-organisation
  • Unpredictable
  • Emergence
  • Connectedness
  • Diversity
  • Openness
  • Co-evolution
  • Interaction
  • Retrospective coherence

Cilliers tells us that diversity is a key characteristic of complex systems and is essential to the richness of the system, because it is difference not sameness that generates meaning.

An abundance of difference is not a convenience, it is a necessity. Complex systems cannot be what they are without it, and we cannot understand them without the making of profuse distinctions. Since the interactions in such systems are non-linear, their complexity cannot be reduced. The removal of relationships, i.e. the reduction of difference in the system, will distort our understanding of such systems. (Cilliers, 2010, p.58)

But this does not mean that ‘anything goes’. To get the most out of diversity and difference, complex systems require boundaries and constraints, negative, enabling constraints, ‘which determine what is not allowed to happen, rather than specifying what does have to happen’ (Williams, Karousou & Mackness, 2011, p.46). There needs to be an effective balance between openness and constraint, structure and agency.

And difference does not mean opposition. Meaningful relationships develop through difference (Cilliers, 2010), but achieving the right amount of difference to support this development, depends on ethical judgement and choice.

To make a responsible judgement—whether it be in law, science or art—would therefore involve at least the following components:

  • Respecting otherness and difference as values in themselves.
  • Gathering as much information on the issue as possible, notwithstanding the fact that it is impossible to gather all the information.
  • Considering as many of the possible consequences of the judgement, notwithstanding the fact that it is impossible to consider all the consequences.
  • Making sure that it is possible to revise the judgement as soon as it becomes clear that it has flaws, whether it be under specific circumstances, or in general. (Cilliers, 1998, p.139)

These points seem as relevant today, if not more so, than when they were written in 1998. Respect for differences and an understanding of diversity is a key ethical rule for complex systems and no amount of retreating into homogeneous groups will help us cope with living in an increasingly complex world.

As Stephen Downes wrote in 2005 when proposing connectivism as a new learning theory appropriate for living and learning in a digitally connected world:

‘Connective knowledge is no magic pill, no simple route to reliability and perhaps even more liable to error because it is so much more clearly dependent on interpretation.’


‘Freedom begins with living free, in sharing freely, in celebrating each other, and in letting others, too, to live free. Freedom begins when we understand of our own biases and our own prejudices; by embracing autonomy and diversity, interaction and openness….’

I agree with dana boyd – diversity is hard, but if as Cilliers (2010, p.56) says, ‘Difference is a necessary condition for meaning’ in a complex world, in order to learn we will need to embrace diversity and maintain, sustain and increase our global networks and connections.


Cilliers, P. (1998). Complexity and postmodernism. Understanding complex systems. London and New York, Routledge

Cilliers, P. (2010). Difference, Identity, and Complexity. Philosophy Today, 54(1), 55–65.

Downes, S. (2007). An Introduction to Connective Knowledge in Hug, Theo (Ed.) (2007): Media, Knowledge & Education – Exploring New Spaces, Relations and Dynamics in Digital Media Ecologies. Proceedings of the International Conference held on June 25-26, 2007. – http://www.downes.ca/post/33034

Eynon, R., Hjoth, I., Yasseri, T., & Gillani, N. (2016). Understanding Communication Patterns in MOOCs: Combining Data Mining and qualitative methods. In S. ElAtia, D. Ipperciel, and O. Zaïane (Eds.), Data Mining and Learning Analytics: Applications in Educational Research, Wiley.

Haywood, J. (2016). Learning from MOOCs: lessons for the future. In E. de Corte, L. Engwall, & U. Teichler (Eds.), From Books to MOOCs? Emerging Models of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, p. 69-80. Oregon: Portland Press Limited.

Kirschner, P. A. (2015) ‘Facebook as learning platform: Argumentation superhighway or dead-end street?’ Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 53, December, pp. 621–625. Elsevier Ltd. [Online] Available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.03.011

Tschofen, C., & Mackness, J. (2012). Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13(1). http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1143

Williams, R., Karousou, R., & Mackness, J. (2011). Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3). http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/883

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OldGlobeMOOC is about to start it’s 4th week (following a week’s break for July 4th celebrations in the US), and the Week 3 assignment peer reviews are in. For me this assessment process is one of the most interesting aspects of this xMOOC. I have thought since the first MOOC in 2008 (CCK08 Connectivism and Connective Knowledge), designed and run by Stephen Downes and George Siemens, that assessment may be the sticking point for MOOCs.

In my last post , I outlined some of the difficulties that OldGlobeMOOC is experiencing with the assessment and peer review process. It seems to me, once again, but this time for an xMOOC, that if MOOCs are going to be sustainable and successful, then the assessment process has to be ‘cracked’ and meaningful.

Some MOOCs have taken the approach of restricting the number of participants who can be assessed. CCK08 did this. I think the number was 25, and FSLT12 and 13 have done this with a similar number – the idea being that  a small number of participants can be assessed by a tutor. FSLT13 offers credit for this:

The course has been recently accredited (10 transferrable academic credits at level 7, postgraduate). FSLT is recognised towards the Oxford Brookes Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education (PCTHE) and Associate Teachers (AT) courses. (http://openbrookes.net/firststeps13/)

But these are cMOOCs.

OldGlobeMOOC has taken a different approach as I described in my last post and I understand from other participants that this is similar to a number of other Coursera MOOCs.  For me this my first xMOOC, but it is not for quite a few OldGlobeMOOC participants, who have taken numerous Coursera courses and in the forums have shared their experience of the peer review process.

I will add my experience to the mix, and just so you know what we are talking about here are links to my assignments with their peer reviews.

Assignment 1 with peer review

Assignment 2 with peer review

Assignment 3 with peer review

If you read these, you will see that the assignments are not very different in their style and level to my blog posts, i.e. they are not academic pieces of work  – rather discussion pieces or personal reflection. And judging by the assignments I have reviewed, other participants’ assignments are of a similar level.

Which brings me to the review process, which I reflected on in my last post, but will add a few things here.

  • The idea is that each participant submits an assignment and peer reviews five assignments for each week, which I have done. If this is not done, i.e. the peer review, then a 20% penalty is incurred.

All students wishing to obtain a Statement of Accomplishment must achieve 7 out of 12 points and submit 5 peer reviews each week. If a student fails to complete the 5 peer reviews, that week’s assignment will incur a 20% penalty.

Despite the fact that I definitely submitted five peer reviews for Assignment 3, I received a 20% penalty and therefore scored 1.6 instead of 2. It’s very easy to know that you have completed the 5 peer reviews, by the way the Coursera system takes you through the 5 assignments allocated for review; and the system confirms for you at the end of the process that you have submitted 5 – so I know that I did. So there’s been a blip in the system somewhere. It’s not a big deal for me, as I’m only doing this to experience the process and because I like the assignments and find the discussions interesting. I am not doing the course for the Certificate – but I do wonder how a blip in the system affects people who are really keen to receive a Statement of Accomplishment.

  • There is no guarantee that you will receive 5 peer reviews. I received five in Week 1, three in Week 2 and four in Week 3. There has been some discussion in the forums about how this might affect the overall system and whether or not you have to review more than 5 assignments to receive 5 reviews.
  • I have no complaints about the quality of most of the peer reviews and so far no one has given me a score of less than 2 – but this peer review for Assignment 3 is indicative of how the game can be played to ensure that you get a Certificate. It made me smile 🙂

peer 2 I’m headed for an airplane so don’t have time to review, and I won’t be back until after evaluation time ends so I’m just giving everyone a 2. 

Aside from this here are some further reflections. The OldGlobeMOOC is a great experience in terms of the diversity of participants. Unfortunately the younger participants, in their teens, who signed up, seem to have fallen out of the discussion forums. This does not mean that they are no longer participating through observation and reading – it’s difficult to know. But I have wondered how an 11 year old might review the assignment of an academic Professor, or how an academic Professor might respond to a learner with special needs, or a very young participant, or someone whose first language is not English, and so on. The assignment submission is anonymous. Do these differences have implications for the equity of the peer review process?

Despite all this I am finding OldGlobeMOOC a fascinating and enjoyable experience and am looking forward to the start of Week 4.


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I am finding OldGlobeMOOC a fascinating experience – quite unlike any other MOOC I have participated in, and my first xMOOC. For me one of the best things about OldGlobe is the diversity of the participant group. All the other MOOCs I have participated in have attracted groups in which similarities can easily be seen, i.e. mostly from academic backgrounds or interested in e-learning technologies.

But OldGlobeMOOC is truly diverse. It has attracted a huge age range from 11 to upper 80s, and people from all continents apart from Antarctica, although as you would expect the American participant presence is, I think, dominant – it would be interesting to see the analytics. But more importantly, it has attracted people from all walks of life and from very different education backgrounds. We have people very knowledgeable about the discipline of gerontology and related health and medical issues, but also very many people who have no subject related background other than we are all ageing and therefore all have a point of view.

This diversity is great. The stories being told in OldGlobe are richly diverse and a privilege to read.

But this diversity brings its own problems in relation to peer assessment of the OldGlobe assignments.

I mentioned in a previous post how the assignments are open to a range of approaches and creativity. Originally I hadn’t intended to complete the assignments, but I was drawn in by the energy and enthusiasm of the OldGlobe community and I’m glad I was.  I have seen examples of participants posting videos of themselves speaking about the assignment question, writing about their own personal experiences, drawing on academic literature, posting links to videos, websites and photos, and drawing on literature and poetry to illustrate their response. A requirement of the assignment process is peer review of 5 assignments and I have reviewed some wonderful submissions. The first assignment I reviewed used this song in response to the question ‘What is ageing?”


But the peer review process is where the wonderful diversity in OldGlobeMOOC creates problems. We have the whole continuum of people from those who have no experience of peer review to people who have worked in Higher Education for years and are very experienced in assessing student assignments and reviewing research articles.

This is a dilemma for OldGlobe, because some participants are getting a bit of a rough deal in terms of their feedback, despite the OldGlobe team urging participants to be generous with their feedback and scoring. For example, one participant has been accused of plagiarism for his/her original submission, another has been accused of plagiarism for using an essay site, even though this was cited as a source, another has received the feedback ‘I don’t get it’ and a mark of zero for an academic piece of work, others have received one line or less in their feedback. It all seems a bit of a lottery. So diversity brings both advantages and disadvantages. How might this dilemma be overcome?

I applaud the OldGlobe team for designing the MOOC to attract such a diversity of participants and for designing the assignment tasks such as they can be completed by anyone from any background. We are all getting older. We all live in a society where we can see people getting older. We all know old people. We all have some thoughts and perspectives about the ageing society. Even an 11 year old can say something about their grandparents and an 89 year old has a wealth of experience to share. We can all read other people’s discussion forum posts and assignments and have a response.

OldGlobe has asked us to answer the following questions when responding

Please type your 100-250 word peer assessment below.

What do you think about this participant’s portfolio item choice to answer this question of the week?
How does this participant’s perspective differ from your point of view?
How is your point of view similar?

I think the whole age range could do this, provided they could understand the submission.

The problem comes with the scoring. Here are the instructions:

Here is the rubric for the assignment. You’ll use this as a guide to complete your own work in the Submission Phase, and as a guide for grading your peers in the Evaluation Phase:

2 points

Assignment is completed with a clear commentary of 250 – 500 words that pertains to the question of the week

1 point

Assignment is completed with some commentary that may or may not pertain to the question of the week

0 points

Assignment is missing an item, a commentary, or both

It seems straightforward, but given the diversity of course participants is so open to misinterpretation or overly subjective interpretation, which some participants seem to have experienced.

For me, the peer review process on the first assignment has been positive. I have really enjoyed reading the submissions I was sent to review. They were not all academic pieces of work, but they had all been thought about and I appreciated the open sharing of experience however articulate or inarticulate that might be.

This MOOC is not for credit. Participants will simply get at Statement of Achievement.

All students wishing to obtain a Statement of Accomplishment must achieve 7 out of 12 points and submit 5 peer reviews each week. If a student fails to complete the 5 peer reviews, that week’s assignment will incur a 20% penalty.

This makes me wonder if we need points at all. I think the feedback is very valuable and I would prefer to call it feedback than peer review, which I think puts the emphasis in a different place.

But perhaps we don’t need the points. Perhaps it’s enough for participants to complete the assignments and 5 peer reviews to receive the Statement of Accomplishment. Of course, using this system, some people will receive the Statement of Accomplishment for exceptional work and some for simply submitting ‘any old thing’. But does that really matter, given that this course is not for Higher Education credit?

If it came to a choice between diversity and peer review – I would go for diversity, and trust that people are participating in the learning environment just as much as they want to and need to for their own purposes.

There is so much of interest in OldGlobeMOOC. As an educator myself I find this tension beween diversity and peer assessment very interesting, quite apart from the fascinating discussions about ageing.

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On reflection #fslt12 was a SmOOC – a small open online course. I suspect that just as the number of Massive Open Online Courses of the Stanford type will proliferate – at least in the short term – so too will SmOOCs.

SmOOCs have a lot going for them, principally in terms of the relationship between size, diversity and openness.

We had 151 people register for FSLT12 and 168 register for the Moodle site.  Canada, USA, South America, Africa, Europe, India, the Far East and Australia were all represented and at the time of writing 60 people have accessed the Moodle site within the last 3 weeks. We haven’t yet examined the data in any detail, so these are just rough estimates and we don’t know how many people accessed the Moodle site as a Guest. We had 28 people add their blog to the course WordPress site, but again we don’t yet know how many people blogged about the course, without aggregating their blog.  12 people completed the assessment activities.

So in my terms, compared to some of the MOOCs I have been involved with, this was a small MOOC.

As a result of this experience, my perception is that in SmOOCs, ‘openness’ is safer. It was interesting to observe this in FSLT12, which was open enough to ensure diversity, but small enough to ensure that ‘cliques’ didn’t form and that there was a very good mix between novice and experienced participants, different ages, disciplines and cultures. This in itself is interesting, as in the early days of MOOCs it was thought that large numbers were required for diversity. I have thought about and discussed this before – see

Mooc principles and course design

Change 11- massiveness and diversity

For me the question remains as to how massive does a MOOC have to be to hit the ‘sweet spot’ of diversity and openness. In 2012 Roy Williams, Sui Fai John Mak and I published a paper about the Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC, where some of these tensions were discussed.

In FSLT12 I was surprised at how much diversity there can be in a much smaller MOOC – and equally surprised at how this did not lead to sub groups or cliques but to an apparent genuine desire to interact with this diversity.  In past MOOCs I have been involved with it has been the different cultures and resources that have offered the diversity, but in this MOOC, although it was enriched by different cultures, it was the mix of experts and novices that worked so well. This was particularly evident in the microteaching activity where both novices and experts engaged, supported and learned from each other. My feeling is that this was made more possible because of the smaller numbers and also because the smaller numbers made the learning spaces (Moodle and Blackboard Collaborate) feel more intimate, supportive and safe.

So I can see that SmOOCs can offer diversity with relatively ‘safe’ opportunities for connectivity, interaction, autonomy and openness, but do they avoid ‘group think’? This is something that I need to think more about.

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