Autonomy and accountability

Week 8 of the CCK11 course focussed on power and authority on online networks.

Networked technologies have changed power and authority. This, networked learning has a great deal in common with approaches to learning that focus on personal empowerment and freedom.

The speakers for this week were Frances Bell and Ailsa Haxell. Their session was recorded as was the follow up session by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. Both are well worth viewing/listening to again.

There were many thought provoking ideas in these sessions – but the one that caught my attention was the idea proposed by Ailsa that if knowledge and agency are distributed across the network then accountability must also be distributed. She asked, ‘Am I responsible for the ways that others around me act’ and answered her own question with a ‘Yes’ – there is networked accountability.

Given the activity on my blog for the past two weeks I have found this interesting to think about. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about ‘Attacks on Connectivism’ which to my surprise has attracted a lot of attention and comment. The interesting thing is that this attention and comment is not about me or what I have written, but about Stephen Downes, George Siemens, connectivism and those who have something to say about connectivism as a theory.

If we take the metaphor of blogs being a place where we can invite people to come and sit on our front porch, as opposed to forums which can be viewed more as a market place with lots of hustle and bustle*, then my blog has felt a little more like a market place recently – with a number of people visiting and holding their own discussions.

*(see Mak, Sui, Fai, J., Williams, R. & Mackness, J. (2010). Blogs and Forums as Communication and Learning Tools in a MOOC. In Networked Learning Conference, Aarlborg (pp. 275-284). Retrieved from

All this has been very interesting for me, but I have not felt the need to be involved in further  discussion about this – so to what extent am I accountable for the ideas expressed in the comments made on this particular blog post and does it matter?

I know some of the reasons for this post attracting such a lot of attention. First the ‘jury is still out’ on connectivism as a learning theory and there are plenty of people out there who are following associated discussions. More than this George and Stephen made reference to my blog post. That always results in increased readers on your blog. But mostly it was Twitter. For some reason there were lots of tweets about this post.  Am I accountable for all this? Am I responsible for the ways in which others have reacted to this? If I am, does this mean that the network has some sort of power over me and what I can post on my blog? How does this relate to autonomy, which is a key principle of connectivism?

Week 8 Readings


Establishing a Community Identity

In my last post I was thinking about some of the issues that surround the sustainability of a community. Thanks to Carmen, John and Keith for their thought-provoking comments. I am still thinking about these issues. I understand that communities need time to emerge and that a community culture is such that members are autonomous and can choose to engage from the core or periphery as they wish. My understanding is that as a ‘rule of thumb’, we can expect about 10% of an online community to be active at any one time (see Nancy White’s website) – so does the level of participation need to be carefully monitored?

In a community I am active in, we have asked the community to discuss what the community identity should be and have set up a wiki to do this.  One member has engaged with this and suggested that the purpose of the community should be to exert an influence on the higher and further education sector and therefore the community should maintain its title as a special interest group (SIG) for those interested in e-learner experiences.  On the wiki she has written:

The reason I thought it was worth keeping as a SIG was because, based on our research, we might seek to influence as a group (although where, and when, and how remains moot, as does what might be meant by ‘political’ decisions).  Describing us solely in terms of people who share a concern or passion seems to disenfranchise us of any potential influence.  I don’t think being a SIG stops us from also being a community of practice.

This wiki discussion has made me realise that if we are to think about a community in terms of one which has a political agenda, it must be a very different animal from one which has, for example, a mutual support agenda, which might be how you would describe some ‘parenting’ communities.

It does seem to be critical to determine the purpose of the community if it is to be sustainable. I can now see that I will have to go and read up on how politics and power work in a community of practice.

That can’t be right!

I have finally managed to get into a live session  (today’s Ustream) after missing the last three and it’s amazing how much more connected I feel! There’s a lesson in there somewhere for online learning and learning in networks!

Discussion this week obviously focussed on power, authority and control in networks. I still haven’t mastered keeping up with the chat and the presenters at the same time, and the recording hasn’t yet gone up for me to check this, but at one point, when talking about power, authority and control, Stephen said:

It has nothing to do with what I say and everything to do with what I do.

Now – surely that can’t be completely right.

What I really like about Etienne Wenger’s work on communities of practice is that he always talks in terms of dualities and not in terms of dichotomies. The more I read of his work and the more I listen to him speak (live and in forums), the more it seems to make sense to me not to speak in terms of dichotomies.

So in terms of dualities we would be looking for both elements to be present and trying to ensure balance. So sometimes power, authority and control will be to do with what we say and at others about what we do, and the way in which we exert power, authority and control will be constantly changing according to the circumstances and context.

I am aware of the saying – ‘Actions speak louder than words’ – but I was also very aware when bringing up my children, that I could probably do them far more harm with a few ill-chosen words than I could with inappropriate action.  As I write this – I’m thinking – is this true and am aware that it’s all relative. However, I think what is true, is that its wiser to think in terms of dualities than dichotomies. And this is from the mouth of someone whose husband is still (after 40 years of marriage) telling her to beware of thinking in terms of black and white and to keep looking for shades of grey.

So do power, authority and control, need to be thought of in terms of the balance between instigator and receiver in relation to teacher and learner, parent and child, actor and resistor and so on?

This is another thinking aloud post, I’m afraid. It’s not something I’m going to get a handle on during this course – or maybe even not in a lifetime!

Thinking aloud about power, authority and control

It has been an interesting experience returning from being away (where I have not been online) to a deluge of emails. It has also been interesting to read the range of different responses, from those who thought Stephen made his point well, to those who just thought it was a bit of a laugh, to those who were either irritated, upset or annoyed. And finally it has been interesting to see the number of people who have suddenly turned up in Moodle – myself included. I know that a lot of bloggers are not posting to Moodle (I myself have only made a handful of low-key posts to Moodle), but I had somehow forgotten that there would be a lot of people participating in the course from the periphery, observing rather than interacting.

As an aside – I have been wondering recently how many people of the 2200+ are still engaging and at what levels, i.e. how many post in blogs or Moodle, how many meet in SL and various other locatons, and how many simply log on and read.

My own reaction to being subscribed to the forums, after initial amusement, has been to think about the extent to which Stephen made his point and how effective it was. In one way it was effective – Stephen has the power to set up the Moodle forums in such a way that, if you have subscribed to the course,  you receive an email copy of forum posts whether or not you are reading them – and he demonstrated this power.

But the course isn’t about whether we receive emails or not. It’s about whether we learn. We all received the emails, but how many read them?  And even if we did read them, did we learn very much about power, authority and control in networks? So, although we can see that Stephen did exert his power – a power that can affect the daily work/life of 2200+ people, I’m wondering if he chose the most effective way to model and demonstrate this. I suppose it all depends on whether or not he considers himself to be a teacher in this course. If not, then the ‘quick and dirty’ act that he took, suffices. But if he considers himself to be a teacher then I wonder if a different context might have been more appropriate for learning about power, authority and control in networks. I’m not sure what though!

I do know a lecturer, who when teaching a group of students about the management of change, resistance to change and the change curve, went into the lecture which was about the change curve and told the students with a completely straight face that their assessment had been changed from an assignment to an exam, which would take place later that week. Needless to say the students went through the initial stages of the change curve and learned experientially. Thinking about it now, I suppose this was also a demonstration of power.

As I see it, we had the power to resist the effect of Stephen autosubscribing us to forums in a number of different ways. Quite a few bloggers have mentioned the fact that they filter out these emails. If Stephen hadn’t turned off the function as quickly as he did, I wonder if we would have taken power into our own hands, by simply not posting to the Moodle forums? My life experience tells me that probably not, because it is very difficult to get people who don’t know each other to work as a cohesive group, particularly in a short time. Is this an argument in favour of groups rather than networks?

So did we all have the power to stop being subscribed to the forums and if so why didn’t we exert it more effectively? Did we feel powerless? I suspect this is linked to knowledge – those who are technically savvy  knew how to get round the system. Was it that we didn’t know how to grasp power when we had the opportunity? It was interesting on tonight’s Elluminate call that when Stephen didn’t speak, most people were reluctant to take the mic. Or was it that we couldn’t mobilise ourselves as a group? Does the fact that we are learning in a network rather than a group, mean that we are less likely to be in positions of power?

Returning to the point about whether or not the lesson that Stephen was trying to teach us was appropriate and wisely chosen ……. In this instance Stephen chose to demonstrate status power. If I was concerned about Stephen’s power, I wouldn’t be interested in whether or not his actions could result in my inbox filling up – I’d be much more concerned about the influence he could have on my thinking, i.e. his knowledge power, and whether that influence was appropriate for my learning and development as a human being.

But ultimately, I think I can choose to resist power, however hard that might be.