Security, identity, voice, opportunity and agency on the distributed web

The topic for the final week of the E-Learning 3.0 course is Agency. Agency is one of those words that, if you work in education, is very familiar, but when it comes down to it, are we clear about what it means? Off the top of my head I would associate choice with the word agency, i.e. learners have the freedom and ability to make choices about their learning. Looking up definitions of the word agency reveals explanations related to business and organisations, but a search for agency in education resulted in the following two definitions:

Agency is the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative—the opposite of helplessness. Young people with high levels of agency do not respond passively to their circumstances; they tend to seek meaning and act with purpose to achieve the conditions they desire in their own and others’ lives.

In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and their decisions.

The first definition relates closely to the work being done by Silvia Baldiris, who works with the Fundación Universitaria Tecnológico Comfenalco (Colombia) and Universidad Internacional de la Rioja (Spain), and Jutta Treviranus, Director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC) and professor at OCAD University in Toronto. I found their conversation with Stephen Downes this week, very thought-provoking and surprisingly moving, so I think I can understand why and how Stephen’s recent trip to Colombia resulted in him creating a video about what peace means to him.

Silvia and Jutta talked about how they are working to give vulnerable young people in Colombia, who have different and diverse learning needs from the norm, and are therefore marginalised by the education system, opportunities for finding their voice and identity, through shared storytelling. They described the success of the work they have done thus far and their aspirations for future work. It is well worth listening to the recording of their video for details of their work.

I am not going to write any more about it here;  a very good account of their discussion, which covers all the main points has already been posted by Roland Legrand – Diversity, Data and Storytelling  and you can find out more about their very impressive work from the resources listed at the end of this post.

Once again Stephen posted a very helpful Synopsis at the beginning of this topic on agency. This prompted the following thoughts/questions which I will insert (in blue font) into Stephen’s text (in italics).

Each of the major developments in the internet – from the client-server model to platform-based interoperability to web3-based consensus networks – has been accompanied by a shift in agency. The relative standing of the individual with respect to community, institutions, and governments was shifted, for better or worse.

What do we mean by agency in this context?  Do we mean choice and if so can too much choice be confusing? What examples do we have of ‘the relative standing of the individual with respect to community, institutions, and governments’ being shifted for better or worse. Is agency a myth?

Each stage in technological development is inspired by social, political and economic aspirations, and understanding the next generation of learning and technology requires understanding the forces that shaped them. So we close our enquiry with a consideration of issues related to power and control, to peace and prosperity, to hopes and dreams.

This brings up questions around technological determinism. To what extent are social, political and economic aspirations inspired by technological development? What are the forces that will shape the next generation of learning and technology? Is it true that more agency on the distributed web will mean more power for learners, or will power continue to be concentrated in the few that know how to manage distributed learning and understand how to use it?

McLuhan said that technology is a projection of ourselves into the community, so we need to consider how human capacities are advanced and amplified in a distributed and interconnected learning environment. Our senses are amplified by virtual and augmented reality, our cognitive capacities extended by machine vision and artificial intelligence, and our economic and social agency is represented by our bots and agents.

We are the content – the content is us. This includes all aspects of us. How do we ensure that what we project to the world is what we want to project, both as teachers and learners? As content and media become more sophisticated and more autonomous, how do we bind these to our personal cultural and ethical frameworks we want to preserve and protect?

Does projection of ourselves into the community also come with risk – risk to our data and identities? Agency will only be a reality if people know how to do this safely. Power will be in the hands of those who know.

These are tied to four key elements of the new technological framework: security, identity, voice and opportunity. What we learn, and what makes learning successful, depends on why we learn. These in turn are determined by these four elements, and these four elements are in turn the elements that consensus-based decentralized communities are designed to augment.

Is there a hierarchical relationship between these four key elements, i.e. security must be in place before identity and then voice can be realised, and opportunity with agency rely on security, identity and voice being safeguarded. Security, identity and voice will enable the confidence needed to take advantage of opportunity, exercise agency and make safe choices. Is agency a lottery?

Learning therefore demands more than just the transmission or creation of knowledge – it requires the development of a capacity to define and instantiate each of these four elements for ourselves. Our tools for learning will need to emphasize and promote individual agency as much as they need to develop the tools and capacities needed to support social, political and economic development.

Is this referring to technological tools?

It is difficult to imagine a world in which education is not solely about knowledge and skills. But as we transform our understanding of learners from social and economic units to fully realized developers and sustainers of the community as a whole, it becomes clear that education must focus on the tools and capacities for agency along with the knowledge, culture and skills that sustain them.

I find these last two paragraphs don’t quite fit with my experience, in which learning has always been more than just transmission or the creation of knowledge. I have always understood learning to be the process through which learners learn to become the person they want to be. So yes learning is about much more than acquiring knowledge and skills, but it always has been, and yes we want learners to have agency and take control of their learning, but we always have. So what can the distributed web and the latest technological developments offer to make this a reality in everyone’s educational experience?

What Peace Means to Me
 Dec 20, 2018 video The only path toward peace and freedom from authoritarianism is the path that leads toward the creation and maintenance of the civil society. The just society. The caring society.

The Three Dimensions of Inclusive Design
GitHub, 2018/12/18
The three dimensions of the framework are:

  • Recognize, respect, and design for human uniqueness and variability.
  • Use inclusive, open & transparent processes, and co-design with people who have a diversity of perspectives, including people that can’t use or have difficulty using the current designs.
  • Realize that you are designing in a complex adaptive system.

You can edit this work on GitHub. Web: [Direct Link]

Social Justice Repair Kit
Inclusive Design Research Centre, 2018/12/18
The goal of the Social Justice Repair Kit project is to support youth at risk who have learning differences to re-engage in education through an inclusively designed social justice platform that integrates authentic project-based learning. For youth with identified and unidentified learning differences, the Kit will add inclusive design supports to remove barriers to participation.Web: [Direct Link]

Contando el valor de la diversidad!
Cuentalo, 2018/12/18
These stories serve as a reference to other people who identify themselves in them and who discover in them similarities with their own life story, which in some cases may turn out to be unfavorable, however, in this discovery, possible methods of coping are identified that allow resolving or resignifying adverse situations optimistically. Web: [Direct Link]

Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers
u Hong, Scott E. Page, PNAS, 2018/12/18
“We find that when selecting a problem-solving team from a diverse population of intelligent agents, a team of randomly selected agents outperforms a team comprised of the best-performing agents.” See also Problem Solving by Heterogeneous Agents, by the same authors. Web: [Direct Link]

Learning to be creative on and off the distributed web

Backwaters, Kerala (* see note below)

Although the final week of the E-Learning 3.0 course is almost over, I haven’t yet finished thinking about the penultimate week on Experience.

The guest speaker for this week was Amy Burvall.  I really enjoyed her conversation with Stephen Downes. The recording is below.

Amy is a creativity expert, who tries to ‘make’ something every day. She believes in remix as a culture, transparency of work and multi-media work and has a website and many videos to prove it.  She has published a creativity handbook for teachers, which has recipes for creative thinking and has been designed to be remixable. Teachers are encouraged to take a prompt, work with it and share it with a given hashtag. Interestingly, Amy said that a community was growing around this hashtag, which is what Stephen thought could happen around the #el30 hashtag for this course, when the topic focussed on community.

Stephen sees creativity as pattern recognition and Amy suggested that creativity is being able to see juxtapositions and relationships that others don’t. Both these ideas fit with my experience.

Amy also believes that constraints help creativity and that learners should be encouraged to articulate why they made what they made. I’m not sure about this. Whilst I can see the value of articulating learning processes for the learner, a part of me says that a work of ‘art’ should be able to speak for itself, and doesn’t need to be accompanied by the artist’s explanation, but I think it depends on what the work of art is. A question has just entered my head – Is art that is created online, using technical tools, always conceptual art?  This question feels significant to me, but at the moment I can’t put my finger on why.

For Amy a computer can create art, but she asks where is the backstory that touches her heart and makes the emotional connection. I think this is why she feels that learners should be encouraged to explain their art. She says we are craving experience rather than stuff and agrees with Stephen that the creation of the content is part of the content. I can see that the creation of content is part of the content and that art should touch the heart and make an emotional connection, but I am still not convinced that this needs articulating.

Serendipitously in the same week that I listened to Amy’s conversation with Stephen, I listened to a podcast of a conversation between John Cleese and Iain McGilchrist (the first night podcast), who also talked about creativity, but in different terms.

They started by bemoaning the fact that creativity for comedians is being constrained by political correctness and that they can no longer make fun of people. (John Cleese stressed that this should be in an affectionate, not in a nasty way.) For John Cleese, all humour is about human imperfection, and is needed because we are not good at laughing at ourselves. All humour is critical. You have to be creative to be a comic.

In their conversation they touched on a number of ideas which overlapped with Stephen and Amy’s conversation, as well as coming at it from a different perspective. Some of the points they made were:

  • Creativity is mainly stopping doing things. We have to allow space for new ideas. (I have heard McGilchrist talk about this before – Exploring the Divided Brain. Creativity, Paradox and Negation.)
  • Artists let go and let things happen.
  • Creativity is non-intellectual and unconscious.
  • Moments of insight come out of the blue.
  • You can’t create to a schedule.
  • The moment you have an idea, allow the creative idea time. A new born idea needs time to grow.
  • Creative artists know how to play and take longer to make their minds up. It’s a healthy habit not to give snap answers.
  • There’s wisdom in I’ll just sleep on it.

Amy Burvall also talked about negative capability and living with ambiguity and uncertainty. She said creativity is a way of being, a way of approaching the world. We should live like an artist, dance as though nobody’s watching, and kill that internal editor! I think John Cleese and Iain McGilchrist would agree.

Stephen has provided some great resources for this topic which I am copying here as I still have to catch up on quite a few of them.

I can again particularly recommend his summary Feature Article.

*Note about the photo: Backwaters Kerala. This is my current location for the next three weeks, which also explains why I am a week behind on the course!


Feature Article E-Learning 3.0, Part 8 – Experience, Dec 20, 2018.
The challenge for educators and for society in general will be in managing and accepting the transition from emphasizing ‘what people learn’ to ‘how people learn’. Like the creative process itself, what’s important is not what is created – it could be anything from a cake to a cathedral – but rather how it is created. It is the history, process and provenance of the creation that gives it meaning, relevance, and ultimately, truth.

How to Be an Artist
Jerry Saltz, Vulture, 2018/12/12
Good advice that could be applied not only to art but to anything (substitute ‘research scientist’ for ‘artist’ and you get the same useful tips): “How do you get from there to making real art, great art? There’s no special way; everyone has their own path. Yet, over the years, I’ve found myself giving the same bits of advice. Most of them were simply gleaned from looking at art, then looking some more. Others from listening to artists talk about their work and their struggles. (Everyone’s a narcissist.) I’ve even stolen a couple from my wife.”

“We are a global community of millions who come together each day to create their own entertainment: unique, live, unpredictable, never-to-be repeated experiences created by the magical interactions of the many. With chat built into every stream, you don’t just watch on Twitch, you’re a part of the show.”

Fostering Creativity
Amy Burvall, YouTube, 2018/12/12
Amy Burvall offers a series of pink Post-It notes talking about aspects and properties of creativity – running from ‘remix’ to ‘messy’ to ‘constraint’. Web: [Direct Link]

Openness to Experience and Creative Achievement
Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific American, 2018/12/12
Openness to experience– the drive for cognitive exploration of inner and outer experience– is the personality trait most consistently associated with creativity. Web: [Direct Link]

Stephen’s Web: Creativity
Stephen Downes, Stephen’s Web, 2018/12/13
I’ve covered the topic of creativity quite a bit over the years. This is a listing of the posts I’ve written referring to different resources on creativity. There’s a lot to pick and choose from. Web: [Direct Link]

The Sources of Innovation and Creativity
Karlyn Adams, National Center on Education and the Economy, 2018/12/14
The following pages represent a comprehensive summary of current research and theory on the sources of innovation and creativity, both in individuals and organizations.  Based on the recurring concepts in the existing literature, the paper concludes with some recommendations for how education systems can best foster these attributes in students.

#getsmART: Lessons from the Artists
Amy Burvall, YouTube, 2018/12/16
What insights can we gain from studying the lives and creative processes of famous artists? Thinking like an artist means being porous, pushing past, and playing. This talk was given (in a slightly different form ) at TEDxWestVancouverED. Web: [Direct Link]

Crushing It with Creativity- The Virtual Summit EU keynote
Amy Burvall, Slideshare, 2018/12/16 Web: [Direct Link]

Amy Burvall, AmusED, 2018/12/16
All of Amy Burvall’s posts on creativity. See also: Amy Burvall’s website. Web: [Direct Link]

E-Learning 3.0 Experience

The task for this penultimate week of the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC on the topic of Experience is:

Here is my submission

This is the musical accompaniment for the verses below. Please sing along.

For the introduction to this week’s topic, see Stephen Downes’ Synopsis.

I posted my initial response to this text in a previous post – Creativity and Experience on the Distributed Web.

See also Kevin Hodgson’s post for one example of how to respond to this task. Stephen wrote: “Here’s a good example of the sort of thing you could create, by Kevin Hodgson (who apparently also studied mind reading as he completed this Task before it was posted).

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:

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.

Creativity and experience on the distributed web

The topic for the penultimate week in the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC is ‘Experience’. We haven’t really started discussing this yet, but Stephen Downes, who is running this course, has posted a Synopsis to get us going. I am copying this below, with some initial thoughts/responses/questions inserted into his text in blue font. Stephen’s text is in italics.

“It is a truism that we learn from experience, and yet creating a role for experience in learning has been one of the most difficult problems in education.

When I think of experience in relation to learning the first thing that comes to mind is ‘field trips’. One my earliest strong memories is of a week-long field trip to Seahouses (Northumberland, UK) for my ‘A’ level Biology course. The week was spent gathering data on the beach and then recording it in a whole variety of ways in the evenings. I have had many such experiences in my ‘learning life’. My understanding of why these experiences are important and different is that they are ‘embodied’ and elicit an emotional response to a given topic. A photo of a Water Boatman on a pond-life chart might help you to recognise it, but won’t have the same impact as actually lifting one from the pond in your net, so that you can study it live under the microscope (in pond water of course!). My experience is that educators have to believe in the value of hands-on experience for it to be included in a curriculum.

But it is also a truism that we don’t always learn from experience. Some learners can make the same mistakes over and over again.

And so much of education continues to rely on indirect methods depending on knowledge transfer – reading, lectures, videos – rather than hands-on practice and knowledge creation.

This is true and I think stems from a belief that it is the ‘content to be covered’ that is important and there is ever more content; therefore time is short. Hands-on experience, for example field trips, take time. Just last week a friend was running a management game for a group of MSc students. The game takes a week to complete. Students are required to work in teams to solve simulated ‘real-world’ problems. In previous years the students have described this game as the most valuable learning experience of their course, but next year the game will be cut from the course. There is no time!

The emergence of the web, YouTube, Web 2.0 and social media was a great step forward, assigning a role for creativity in the learning experience. But experience, ultimately, requires an openness that media platforms were unable to provide.

The importance of creativity has long been recognised and the loss of emphasis on this in the curriculum (here in the UK) has long been a subject of concern. I remember in 1999 how stimulating it was to go to a conference on the newly published report – All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education. Ken Robinson who chaired the publication of this document has been pushing for more creativity in the curriculum ever since. But there is increasing evidence that creativity in the curriculum is being squeezed out. This theme was taken up by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie when she awarded this year’s Turner Prize to Charlotte Prodger. The lack of creativity in the curriculum remains a concern.

Source of image

New technology is beginning to combine the ability of teachers and role models to model and demonstrate successful practice and the need for learners to practice and reflect on their learning in that environment. Content distribution networks and live streaming are transforming real-world events into hands-on learning experiences.

This is a course about the distributed web and so, of course, we are thinking about how the distributed web can promote hands-on learning experience. Hopefully this will not be confined to experiences through our screens, but will also promote experience of the real live world, as opposed to the virtual world.

A good example of this is the live-streaming platform Twitch and especially games like Fortnight, in which players become spectators, and back again, over and over. And using applications like xSplit or Open Broadcaster Software individuals can make their experiences part of the learning experience shared by others.

I have never played computer games, so I don’t know how individuals make their experience part of the learning experience shared by others works in these contexts. What would be the equivalent off the internet?

It is a model in which the creation of the content becomes a part of the content itself.

I interpret this to mean sharing the working processes that lead to content.

We see this with the recent self-shredding art by Banksy or the inside look at how the single-scene time-lapse sequence in Kidding was filmed. Some artists have made working openly part of the act – Deadmau5, for example, showing how electronic music is produced. Being able to see and experience how something is created is a key step on the way to becoming a creator oneself, and becoming a creator, in turn, becomes a key part of the learning experience.

Isn’t this what mathematicians, for example, have always done? Even small children in schools are encouraged to show their ‘workings’ – how they have arrived at a result. And artists frequently do this with their sketchbooks, but the difference is explained by Stephen below. We now have the possibility of creative activities becoming distributed and democratized. This has reminded me of Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, but I don’t think this is quite what Stephen has in mind. Whilst the choir is distributed it is not democratized, in the sense that each singer cannot edit the final piece, but can only contribute to it. 

The difference between previous iterations of learning technology and that which we are experiencing with E-Learning 3.0 is that these creative activities become distributed and democratized. Just as multiple authors can edit Wikipedia articles or work on code in GitHub, participatory learning media enables learners to interact creatively without management or direction; the outcome is a consensus determined not by voting but by participation. Experience in learning changes the relation between teacher and student from one of persuasion (and even coercion) to one of creativity, co-work, and construction.

I’m wondering what effect this will have on an individual’s creative ability. If we take painters, for example, there are very, very few artists who work collaboratively on a painting. Off the top of my head I can think of the Singh Twins and Gilbert and George. Most painters create their work individually, even if they employ teams of people to produce their ideas. How will the fine arts change if they become a result of consensus. What will happen to ‘genius’?

Workplaces, and especially distributed workplaces, are beginning to create self-organizing consensus-based co-production networks. Early awkward and exploitative platform-based efforts such as Uber and Airbnb are giving way to more sophisticated and equitable network alternatives such as Steam, Koumbit and Medium.

Will consensus lead to a ‘dumbing down’ and loss of creativity, or to a different kind of creativity, or to increased creativity? And to what extent will this creativity be a result of embodied experience? What type of experience will it result from?

These are just some initial thoughts at the start of this topic.

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

Source of images

Stages of development of a community of practice  –

Fake News, Wikipedia and Blockchain (Truth and Consensus) –

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.