Diversity is hard

complexity

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.’

but

‘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.

References

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

Describing open learning environments and emergent learning

Recent work on developing our framework for describing emergent learning (see Footprints of Emergence   and Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0 ) has been taxing our powers of description. By we, I mean my colleague Roy Williams and me. The work of Paul Cilliers has been helpful (see below)

How can we have confidence in the footprints, when the footprint (a graphic description of a learning experience), if individually drawn, depicts an interpretation of the learning experience based on subjective personal reflection on that experience, and the scoring factors themselves can be open to personal interpretation?

This ongoing work in seeking to describe and clarify what we mean by emergent and prescribed learning is progressing on our open wiki ‘Footprints of Emergence’. There has been quite a bit of interest in this public wiki with upwards of 50 unique daily visitors, which is very encouraging.

In particular we have been very interested in the work that a colleague from Austria – Jutta Pauschenwein, (FH JOANNEUM, University of Applied Sciences, Graz, ZML – Innovative Learning Scenarios) has been doing in relation to using the framework we have developed. Jutta has written a number of blog posts about this, but here is the most recent one written in English – Footprints for “Emerging Learning” – Variety of a creative method of reflection.

This work of Jutta’s (and her team) and of others who have drawn footprints of their courses or learning experiences, and shared them with us on our wiki has motivated us to further discuss our understanding of the factors we use for scoring the footprints and describing learning experiences. It has become increasingly clear that each footprint is unique to the individual who is drawing it and that if footprints of the same course are drawn by different people, they will be different. Does this invalidate the process or the framework? Our answer is ‘No’. Each person’s learning experience, and perspective on that learning process, is unique to them.  The value of the framework is, we hope, in providing a mechanism for articulating that experience, and in the discussion around this articulation.

Now it could be argued that this is simply an excuse for vagueness and of course this argument needs to be taken seriously. Any research or discussion of learning should be rigorous, and we hope that in our efforts to clarify the meaning/description of the factors that we use in our framework, we will be adding to the rigour of the research.

However, we are also aware that all learning is context dependent and in particular, that the open, emergent learning that we are seeking to describe takes place in complex systems, where there are no straightforward right or wrong answers.

Particularly helpful in explaining our position on this is the work of Paul Cilliers and in particular his article – Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism

Cilliers, P. (2005). Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism. Theory, Culture & Society, 22(5), pp.255–267. Available at: http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/22/5.toc

Cilliers writes that we should not underestimate the complexity of much of what we try to understand. It is difficult in complex systems to get agreement on meaning. He urges researchers to be ‘modest’ (not weak, but responsible) in the claims they make, because knowledge is always provisional, always contingent and contextual and the context has to be interpreted. My experience is that it is difficult to maintain a ‘modest’ stance in the face of requests for ‘the answer’.

Cilliers explains that in describing complex systems we have to reduce the complexity, which is what we have been struggling with in our framework. To reduce the complexity we have to leave some things out. In our framework we use 25 factors to describe prescribed and emergent learning and we have, more than once, had the discussion about where we draw the line, because our discussions often raise the possibility of adding another factor. The problem is that what is left out influences the description as much as what is left in.

Cilliers writes that complexity is messy and all frameworks are compromised to some extent.

‘There is no stepping outside of complexity (we are finite beings), thus there is no framework for frameworks. We choose our frameworks.’ (p.259)

‘To talk about the complex world as if it can be understood is clearly a contradiction of another kind and this is a contradiction with ethical implications.’ (p.261)

Cilliers has so perfectly described the issues we are wrestling with in the work we are doing in attempting to better understand open learning environments and emergent learning.

With the advent of MOOCs and a huge surge of interest in open, distant and online learning, how can we best describe learners’ experiences in these and more traditional environments? How can learners make sense of and articulate their own experiences? How how can we design environments which will help learners to work in messy complex systems?