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?

Resources
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]

Identity from the perspective of authentication

In this video Stephen Downes, convener of the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC explains that in the future our safety and security online will be managed through the use of identification keys. We will each have a private key and a public key, which we will plug into our computers instead of signing on with a password.

Source of  image –  Yubico.com

In the future everyone will be logging in like this and passwords will become a thing of the past.

Why do we need two keys? This is to ensure maximum security and encryption.  The two keys act like a two-way security system. We can think of our private key as our ‘key’ and our public key as the ‘lock’, i.e. the one won’t work without the other. You can only get through the door if you have the right key and the right lock.

So, an example found on Quora  explains how you can use private and public keys to send and receive encrypted messages like this:

Robert wants to send Katie a file. Robert would request Katie’s public key to encrypt the file and then encrypt it with her public key. Robert would then send the file to Katie. Katie would then decrypt the file with her private key.

In this way, Katie’s public key is only used to encrypt but can never be used to decrypt, keeping the data safe. And Katie can only decrypt the data with her private key and would never exposes her private key to anyone, keeping her private key safe. (Source: https://www.quora.com/profile/Ken-Mafli-1)

Stephen in his video (starting at about 7.00 minutes in) explains this in more detail and makes it very clear that a signature on the sent encrypted message would be needed to make it absolutely secure, otherwise you couldn’t be sure who had the public key. The point is to be able to prove who you say you are and keep your communications online safe, without the use of passwords. Your digital identity (based on your identity graph/s) becomes your public key, which is unique to you, and your private key keeps you safe.

Stephen believes that in ten years’ time this is how we will all be accessing the internet. I wonder how straightforward this will be for the average user. I will be in my 80s in 10 years’ time. Will this make it easier for me and people like me, or, as Stephen asks elsewhere on the E-Learning 3.0 course site,

“Will we be lost in the sea of possibilities, unable to navigate through the complexities of defining for ourselves who we are, or will we be able to forge new connections, creating a community of interwoven communities online and in our homes?”

Hopefully there will be more courses like this one which will help us to keep abreast of developments and where we are headed.

This is only a brief summary of the key points in Stephen’s video, as I see them. You need to watch the 25 minute video to get a more complete picture.

And have a look at the Resources – provided by Stephen which I have copied below:

FIDO U2F
Yubico, 2018/11/15

As explained on the Yubico website, “U2F is an open authentication standard that enables internet users to securely access any number of online services with one single security key instantly and with no drivers or client software needed.  FIDO2 is the latest generation of the U2F protocol.”

Public-key cryptography
Wikipedia, 2018/11/15

Public-key cryptography, or asymmetric cryptography, is any cryptographic system that uses pairs of keys: public keys which may be disseminated widely, and private keys which are known only to the owner. This accomplishes two functions: authentication, where the public key verifies that a holder of the paired private key sent the message, and encryption, where only the paired private key holder can decrypt the message encrypted with the public key.

Keybase.io – Downes
Stephen DownesKeybase, 2018/11/15

This is my Keybase page. Here’s what Keybase says about itself: “Keybase is a new and free security app for mobile phones and computers. For the geeks among us: it’s open source and powered by public-key cryptography. Keybase is for anyone. Imagine a Slack for the whole world, except end-to-end encrypted across all your devices. Or a Team Dropbox where the server can’t leak your files or be hacked.” See also (very technical) Keybase for Everyone. And Keybase writing to the blockchain.