Posts Tagged ‘networked learning’


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

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

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

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

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

Downes writes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


‘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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The question in the title of this post was raised by Caroline Haythornthwaite in her keynote presentation for the Networked Learning Conference 2016. Metaphor became a theme which ran through the conference, following this opening keynote.

Caroline Haythornthwaite

I found this a difficult presentation to follow at the time. It was very densely packed with information, delivered fast and the slides contain a lot of text, so I am grateful to Caroline for immediately posting the link to her presentation, giving us an opportunity to go through it all again. https://haythorn.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/haythornthwaite_nlc2016-pptx.pdf

Caroline discussed many metaphors for networked learning including new ones that might help us reconsider where we are and where we are going next in terms of networked learning. By the end of her presentation after she had taken us through a whirlwind of many possibilities, she asked the question (Slide 52), ‘What are the implications for networked learning if we use metaphors that relate to new working conditions?’ e.g. Gig learning and Uber learning.

Caroline H 2

A quick search on Google suggests that the implications might be that we see more posts like this ‘5 skills of the Gig Economy’ by Joseph Aoun.

Metaphors are powerful, even essential to our understanding. Iain McGilchrist in his book on how the left and right hemispheres of the brain influence how we perceive the world around us, has written:

Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life. (McGilchrist, 2009, p.115)

Metaphors help us to think differently, see alternative perspectives and ‘unflatten’ our thinking (Sousanis, 2015). An example of a metaphor used by both Caroline (Slide 4) and Nick Sousanis (p.18 in his book) and taken from Lakoff and Johnson is reframing ‘argument as a dance rather than war’.

Caroline H 3

In my own recent work, with Frances Bell and Mariana Funes (2016, p.80) we have written that metaphors need to be treated with caution.

Lakoff (1992) points out that metaphors are asymmetric and partial and Morgan (1997) writes of metaphors, “in creating ways of seeing they tend to create ways of not seeing” (p. 348). Metaphors shape the way we see and the way we act, they enact a particular view and can be “self-fulfilling prophecies” (Lakoff & Johnson, 2008, p. 132).

By using the Gig metaphor to create a list of skills, what skills do we exclude? What do we fail to see?

These questions about the pros and cons of metaphor relates to another theme that ran through the conference; the meaning of ‘open’. I hope to think about this in more depth in a further post, but Richard Edward’s work (referenced in Sian Bayne’s keynote and her presentation with Jen Ross) discusses the relationship between openness and closedness (Edwards, 2015). He writes:

….all forms of openness entail forms of closed-ness and that it is only through certain closings that certain openings become possible and vice versa (p.3)

So in any form of discussion about new metaphors it will be necessary to consider the limitations of the metaphor. These are complex issues. Roy Williams (@dustcube on Twitter), who was not at the conference but who has seen Caroline’s presentation, wonders if we avoid engaging sufficiently with complexity because it is too much for us; we are like people who are hungry for ideas, but keep walking quickly past the chocolate-ideas shop, because we think they might be ‘too rich’ for us.

Roy metaphor

I would have liked to have spent a bit more time in the chocolate shop, maybe with a workshop (or similar) after Caroline’s keynote to play and experiment ‘with possible metaphors to guide us on the way forward’ in these changing times (Haythornthwaite, 2016).


Bayne, S. (2016). Campus Codespaces for Networked Learning. (Keynote May 10, 2016, 10th Networked Learning Conference)

Edwards, R. (2015). Knowledge infrastructures and the inscrutability of openness in education. Learning, Media and Technology, (June), 1–14. doi:10.1080/17439884.2015.1006131

Haythornthwaite, C. (2016). New Metaphors for Networked Learning. (Keynote May 10, 2016, 10th Networked Learning Conference)

Mackness, J., Bell, F., & Funes, M. (2016). The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 32(1), 78–91. doi:10.14742/ajet.v0i0.2486

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven, London: Yale University Press

Sousanis, N. (2015). Unflattening. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press

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Tomorrow (Tuesday) Jutta Pauschenwein (@jupidu) and I will give a presentation at the Networked Learning Conference 2016 in Lancaster about the work we have done together using a visualisation tool, Footprints of Emergence, to try and understand more about how learners and course designers experience the relationship between structure and agency in a MOOC.

We have been working with the Footprints of Emergence framework for a number of years. The framework was developed in collaboration with Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau in 2012 and over succeeding years we have published papers and run workshops about it – even one at Lancaster University a few years ago.  I included references to our papers in my last post – Presenting at the 10th Networked Learning Conference, Lancaster.  Jutta has used the framework extensively with learners and teachers at her institution in Graz, Austria.

The Footprints of Emergence drawing tool requires users to reflect deeply on 25 characteristics of open learning environments (factors), which are organised into four clusters.

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Learners consider how prescribed or emergent their experience was in relation to each of the factors and indicate this by placing a point on the relevant line on the template. This process results in a ‘footprint’.

Here are some examples of footprints which we have collected over the years on our open wiki – http://footprints-of-emergence.wikispaces.com/home

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Footprints have been drawn not only by learners, but by teachers, designers and researchers, both for formal and informal learning experiences. Jutta, for example, has recently travelled extensively in Argentina and Chile and used the footprints to reflect on her emergent learning experience of travelling alone. See https://zmldidaktik.wordpress.com/2016/02/21/reflecting-emergent-traveling-experiences/

In this research Jutta used the Footprints of Emergence framework to help her design a MOOC – Competences of Global Collaboration –  and then asked the MOOC participants to draw footprints as part of the final evaluation process. Our paper has now been published on the Networked Learning site, as have all the papers. See http://www.networkedlearningconference.org.uk/abstracts/mackness.htm

Later this morning we will head over to Lancaster for the start of the conference at midday. Amazingly for this part of the world the sun is shining and there is not a cloud in the sky. Jutta and I have had a great weekend together in the sun, talking about footprints and a whole host of other things. Here is Jutta’s post about this – https://zmldidaktik.wordpress.com/2016/05/08/emergent-learning-in-the-lake-district/ 

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The second Networked Learning Conference 2016 Hotseat was a much quieter affair than the first, but none the worse for that. The topic, facilitated by Sonia Livingstone was – Boundaries and Limits of Networked and Connected Learning 

Sonia posted 4 topics for us to discuss:

  1. Experience of networked and connected learning, their boundaries and limits
  2. Limits to connectivity – how much of it do we (students, teachers) really want, and what are the demonstrable benefits?
  3. Risks of connectivity and what kinds of privacy or control or independence could be lost if everything is connected
  4. Educators’ roles: should we as educators respect students’ concerns to limit or bound learning networks, or should we strive to overcome them?

Experience of networked and connected learning, their boundaries and limits

Discussion in this thread was wide ranging. Sonia’s research is into 13-14 year old young people’s networks and how they manage connections between home, school, their community and elsewhere. She has found that there is some resistance from teachers, parents and students, who want to maintain boundaries and that connections across home and school can become ‘classed’ leading to inequality in learning experiences.

There was discussion about the need to balance connected learning (dialogue and collaboration) with individual or independent learning (silence and contemplation). Too much connectedness is not conducive to learning. Participation can be experienced as suffocation. Private, off-grid, solitude and contemplation are key factors in learning and disconnection is a part of learning that needs to be rediscovered. Identity is an issue.

By the end of the thread we were no nearer determining how students can take control of their learning in and out of school in formal and informal learning.

Limits to connectivity – how much of it do we (students, teachers) really want, and what are the demonstrable benefits?

The point was made that technically there are no limits to connectivity, although physically connectivity can be variable according to bandwidth and geography. The manipulation of Facebook, Twitter and Google in controlling what we see can limit connectivity and digital literacy should include critical questioning of platforms and assumptions. Sonia’s research has revealed that younger people are more willing to change platforms than older people and younger people are more willing to use adblocker software. It was suggested that building digital connections across the age range would be beneficial.

Risks of connectivity and what kinds of privacy or control or independence could be lost if everything is connected

The question was raised of whether (with increasing visibility and traceability online), privacy is any longer possible. This led to consideration of the role of surveillance and monitoring and some discussion of Jose van Dijck’s book The Culture of Connectivity. I spent some time reading around this and writing my contribution to the discussion, but made the mistake of writing it in Word and then copying and pasting it into the forum. To my dismay it copied as an image which meant that none of the links worked – so I am attaching it here. Post about Jose Van Dijck’s work . The point made by van Dijck and Sonia, which was significant for this discussion, is that there is a difference between connectedness and connectivity. Connectedness is social participation. Connectivity is mediated by systems platforms.

Sonia pointed out that in their connections and connectivity young people are at risk of a double whammy of surveillance. In connectedness they are at risk of surveillance from teachers and parents; in connectivity they are at risk of surveillance from the state. I suspect we are all at risk in these ways, not just the young.

Further risks of connectivity were thought to be risks from unknown default settings and terms of use and the risk of context collapse when people try to maintain connectedness in different online spaces.

Mariana Funes pointed us to Dave Egger’s novel ‘The Circle’ and Michael Harris’ book – ‘The end of absence. Reclaiming what we’ve lost in a world of constant connection.’ These books address the question of what would be lost if everything is connected – the loss of lack, the loss of absence and the loss of a non-performative life.

Educators’ roles: should we as educators respect students’ concerns to limit or bound learning networks, or should we strive to overcome them?

This question was not really taken up and discussed other than to say that the answer would be dependent on resolving the tension between learning agency and autonomy, and the teacher’s need to intervene. It will be a matter of progression, topic and context, but learners need uncertainty to become radical sceptics.


The next Hotseat dates are: December 6-12, 2015 

Facilitator Steve Wright: What have the ANTs ever done for us? Packing your cases to follow the actors….


Selected references and further reading

Livingstone, S. & Sefton-Green, J. (2016, in press). The Class. Living and learning in the digital age. Nyu Press

Livingstone, S. (2015, June 11th) How the ordinary experiences of young people are being affected by networked technologies [Blog post] Retrieved from:http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/how-the-ordinary-experiences-of-young-people-are-being-affected-by-networked-technologies/

Livingstone, Sonia (2014) What does good content look like?: developing great online content for kids. In: Whitaker , Lynn, (ed.) The Children’s Media Yearbook 2014. The Children’s Media Foundation , Milton Keynes, UK, pp. 66-71. ISBN 9780957551824

An Agenda for Research and Design, A research synthesis report of the Connected Learning Research Network. Retrieved from http://dmlhub.net/wp-content/uploads/files/Connected_Learning_report.pdf

Connected Learning. An Agenda for Research and Design. http://dmlhub.net/publications/connected-learning-agenda-for-research-and-design/

Loveless, A. & Williamson, B. (2013). Learning Identities in a Digital Age: Rethinking creativity, education and technology. Routledge

Strathern, M. (1996) Cutting the Network. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute,Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 517-535. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3034901

Light, B. (2014). Disconnecting with social networking sites. Palgrave Macmillan

Mejias, U. A. (2013). Off the Network. https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/pdf/off-the-network

Michael Harris (2014) The End of Absence. Reclaiming what we lost in a world of constant connection

Dave Eggers (2013). The Circle. http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/blog/post/the-circle-totally-transparent

Jose van Djick – Social Media and the Culture of Connectivity – https://youtu.be/x-mdi63Zk58

Facebook told by Belgian court to stop tracking non-users http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-34765937

Barry Wellman (2002).  “Little Boxes, Glocalization, and Networked Individualism.” Pp. 11-25 in Digital Cities II: Computational and Sociological Approaches, edited by Makoto Tanabe, Peter van den Besselaar, and Toru Ishida. Berlin: Springer-Verlag http://calchong.tripod.com/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/LittleBoxes.pdf

Implementing pbl online as a collaborative learning strategy for teachers: the cole https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256476854_IMPLEMENTING_PBL_ONLINE_AS_A_COLLABORATIVE_LEARNING_STRATEGY_FOR_TEACHERS_THE_COLE

Jaap Bosman (2015. Nov 7. Blog post) Connecting and StillWeb https://connectiv.wordpress.com/2015/11/07/connecting-and-stillweb/

Caulfield, M. (2015. Oct 17th. Blog post) The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral http://hapgood.us/2015/10/17/the-garden-and-the-stream-a-technopastoral/

Claxton, M. (1998). Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less. Fourth Estate; New Ed edition

Bohmian Dialogue – http://www.david-bohm.net/dialogue/dialogue_proposal.html

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The second Networked Learning Conference Hotseat starts on Sunday 8th November and will run until the 14th. This time it is facilitated by Sonia Livingstone, a Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics, who has found in her research with 13-14 year old young people in which she follows their networks at home, school and elsewhere, online and offline, that they are concerned about increased connection between home, school and elsewhere, wishing to maintain boundaries. She introduces and says more about her work in her Welcome message in the Hotseat.

Sonia then goes on to ask 3 questions, giving each a separate thread.

  1. My questions for this hot seat are about the limits to connectivity – how much of it do we (students, teachers) really want, and what are the demonstrable benefits?
  2. What are the risks of connectivity and what kinds of privacy or control or independence could be lost if everything is connected?
  3. Should we as educators respect students’ concerns to limit or bound learning networks, or should we strive to overcome them?

Some reading to inform this discussion

Livingstone, S. & Sefton-Green, J. (2016, in press). The Class. Living and learning in the digital age. Nyu Press

An Agenda for Research and Design, A research synthesis report of the Connected Learning Research Network. Retrieved from http://dmlhub.net/wp-content/uploads/files/Connected_Learning_report.pdf

Loveless, A. & Williamson, B. (2013). Learning Identities in a Digital Age: Rethinking creativity, education and technology. Routledge

Strathern, M. (1996) Cutting the Network. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute,Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 517-535. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3034901

Livingstone, S. (2015, June 11th) How the ordinary experiences of young people are being affected by networked technologies [Blog post] Retrieved from: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/how-the-ordinary-experiences-of-young-people-are-being-affected-by-networked-technologies/

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I’m not sure where April went. I didn’t blog once during the entire month. Looking back I can see it was a month of de-cluttering and disconnecting.

De-cluttering has taken the shape of a massive purge on our house, which we have lived in for 30 years. The de-cluttering is almost finished – only the outhouses to do. I have been quite ruthless and hope I won’t regret it. 500 books have gone to charity and ten years worth of teaching notes have gone to the tip. It has felt quite cathartic. I would like to feel that I could walk out of here one day to the next with the minimum of hassle and with no need to look back. I would like to think that I am not defined by my possessions.

I have also felt the need to de-clutter mentally and this has entailed a degree of disconnecting, which I suppose is one reason for the lack of blogging.

I have thought a lot about the Divided Brain course  that I went on in March, where Iain McGilchrist’s seminars focused on the different world views of the left and right hemispheres, and what we are missing when the left hemisphere dominates at the expense of the right hemisphere. On the course we discussed the role of technology and machines in this, so I have thought quite a bit about how much I want to be online, how much I want to connect, with whom and what, and how much I want to disconnect, from whom and what.

I have also increasingly thought about the balance of public and private in my life. My preference is to be private, which creates a bit of tension with some aspects of openness. I find myself questioning the extent to which this blog post is public/private. I realize that despite being supportive of openness, I am selectively open.

With respect to disconnection, I have been discussing this very topic with my friend and research colleague Frances Bell, for a paper we are preparing for the Networked Learning Conference 2016. This is a ‘fun’ venture, as we are working with Catherine Cronin, Laura Gogia and Jeffrey Keefer, to get together a symposium of papers related to Networked, Connected and Open Learning. I am also working with my Austrian friend and colleague Jutta Pauschenwein to prepare a paper for the conference. Both projects are currently at the ‘messy’, ‘where are we headed?’ stage. The call for papers for the Networked Learning Conference is here.

April has also found me working on a project in Blackboard, with people I haven’t worked with for a long time, so lots of trips down memory lane and face-to-face meetings, which is a refreshing change for me. It is at least ten years since I worked on Blackboard – so in all respects a bit of a blast from the past. This must be a reconnection after a disconnection and it is interesting to work in a closed space after so many years of working in the open. It raises for me all the issues related to balancing open and closed, private and public, connected and disconnected.

Finally, April has seen my bike come out of the workshop. We had some glorious weather in the middle of the month, which resulted in quite a number of rides. A favourite is a 15 mile ride round trip which takes us to a nearby estuary town, with a wonderful ice-cream shop, and back – and enough hills on route to get the heart rate up. Our longest trip this month has been 37 miles, again along the estuary with a great little café stop for lunch. After so many dark winter months, it is liberating to be out on the road again – reconnecting with the beautiful countryside in which I live.

Cycling Spring 2015 (4)

            Cycling Spring 2015 (2)Cycling Spring 2015 (3)

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The second topic (unit) of the ccourses MOOC (Connected Courses. Active Co-Learning in Higher Ed) is Trust and Network Fluency .


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Each unit in ccourses lasts for two weeks. For me this is good. For those who want to do a lot of reading – and there are plenty of resources listed on the ccourses site – then there is time to do this. For those, who simply want to interact with others, or think about the topic and reflect on it, this is also good. Reflection takes time as we can see from Mariana’s blog post in which she reflects deeply on trust, privacy and interaction in networked environments. It is a great post and has prompted me to respond, but also to add some of my own thoughts.

What happens when trust breaks down in online relationships? At the very worst level your life or career can be destroyed as in the case of Kathy Sierra – but even at the level of just one relationship the damage can be irreparable. (See Kevin Hodgson’s blog post).

Perhaps the answer is not to assume that trust in an online environment is a possibility. In a post a few years ago Stephen Downes wrote of person to person trust

We don’t trust each other (and we shouldn’t). Spam, viruses and phishing are the most manifest cases of this sort of breach of trust. Consequently, we have attempted to create walls around ourselves – spam filters, social network buddy lists, so-not-call registries. We seek control over the flow of information into and out of our systems through technology over which we have less and less control (because of the needs of the other forms of ‘trust’).

He concludes that

….. for the network to work, we must all give up control – but at a measured pace, in step with each other, to avoid one element of the other abusing this greater openness

Give up control. Keep in step with each other. Is that possible?

In our research into emergent learning, trust is one of the factors we consider to be essential for emergent learning in open learning environments. We discuss it in terms of the tension between competitive self-interest and mutual respect, support and growth.

Perhaps it’s competitive self-interest that we must give up, rather than control. Competitive self-interest can lead to voices that are ‘too loud’ in the online environment. Mariana writes about the ‘silencing’ effect that some online personalities can have, either through overt harassment or simply by being over-present and dominating every conversation.

How do you cope with the person who is not overtly harassing, not a troll, but whose voice is too loud in the online environment, given that people’s perceptions of what constitute a loud voice differ? This is something I used to discuss with teaching colleagues in the past when we were just beginning to run online courses. i.e. how present should we be as online tutors and what should we do about the over-present dominating student. Gilly Salmon describes this type of student/online learner as ‘The Stag’ and suggests giving them a job to do, which keeps them busy enough to prevent them from ‘spamming’ their fellow students. But not all dominant voices online are students. What of those everyday users of the internet who are trolls or who are simply always ‘in your face’; then the only alternative response is to walk away, as Kathy Sierra has done, or ‘unfollow’ or ‘block’ i.e. to disconnect.

But where does this leave the development of skills of systemic dialogue that Mariana talks about?

The more choices to be ‘public’ one makes, the more likely one will find people who disagree with one’s world view and are unable to engage meaningfully with disagreement. The open web does not come with a built in facilitator to teach people the skills of systemic dialogue.

We need more meaningful dialogue and less shallow answers.

Trust should not have to mean always agreeing with each other and establishing cozy echo chambers. In fact quite the opposite. The people I trust the most both on and offline are those I can speak my mind to and who will engage with me in what I perceive to be meaningful dialogue. They do not have to agree with me, but neither do they attack me. There is as I mentioned above, mutual respect, support and growth.

I have a lot of sympathy with Dave Snowden’s comment that he made in a talk to the Change11 MOOC and which I recorded on my blog at the time

Negative stories carry more learning than positive stories. Appreciative Inquiry is often unethical and used in inappropriate contexts; it tells people what stories they are allowed to tell.  Open space is also like this in that it rewards consensus and punishes dissent. Anyone who survives in an open space does so because the only people there are those who listen – everyone else votes with their feet.

So trust in the online environment is a complex issue. It should not be taken lightly.

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