Trust and security in open networks

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.

The Messiness of Rhizomatic Learning – Words Steal My Intent

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Week 2 of Dave Cormier’s open online course – Rhizomatic Learning – the community is the curriculum –  is at end, and what a messy week it has been.

Helen Crump has called it chaotic. I, and I’m sure others, can recognise this sentiment – but for me it has been ‘messy’ rather than ‘chaotic’. ‘Chaotic’ implies ‘out of control’ which I don’t think it has been – but, judging from blog posts and Facebook activity, the focus for many this week has not been on the suggested topic – ‘Enforcing Independence’  –  but on perceived divisions within the community. For me, this is what has made it feel so ‘messy’.

These perceived divisions relate to academics vs non-academics and theorists vs pragmatists and discussion around this was sparked off by a Facebook comment made by Maddie which I have quoted below.

I find it ironic that people talk about their qualifications and researches and their ability to read and understand critical theory when that is not the aim of this uncourse at all. As long as everyone “gets” the generic meaning of it, all is well and we progress as a community. How everyone reaches to the end is immaterial. If you get the theory without reading it, you have cheated brilliantly.

Furthermore, I would like to assert my independence and state that I am not an academic and yet wish to be part of this uncourse. Does that make me “Un-qualified” to take it up? If we are to question the very foundation of the education system and try to change it so as to include one and all in a whole big community, then it shouldn’t matter whether I am a phd or a college drop out, should it? This is how a rhizome breaks.

This comment was a response to a post made by Cath Ellis who encouraged us to engage with the theory behind rhizomatic learning, principally the work of Deleuze and Guattari in their book – A Thousand Plateaus . Intense discussion ensued (83 comments on Maddie’s Facebook post the last time I looked) and to my great surprise the academics/theorists appeared to ‘back off’, with many apologies for not being appropriately inclusive in the tone of their discussion.

In relation to this there have been a number of comments related to ‘community’.

Jaap Bosman questions whether participants of a MOOC are a group and therefore is there a need for group roles (e.g. Belbin’s team roles). He asks

‘If the participants of a mooc are (part of) rhizome, group roles are life functions of the rhizome? Does a healthy cMOOC need ‘group roles’?

Ary Aranguiz in her blog post – A Jagged little pill  – writes

‘I think the most important skill we need for true community building, if we genuinely believe in creating thriving networks, is to not minimize, or dismiss what someone has to say.’

Terry Elliott writes that he ‘ain’t feeling it’  and that he doesn’t feel ‘invited’. ‘What do the adjectives ‘rhizomatic’ and ‘deep’ add to the abstract noun ‘learning’.  What distinguishes those pairs of words from my run-of-the-mill word, just ‘learning’  he asks.

Sandra Sinfield  in her blog post writes that MOOCs have ‘reinforced the need to bring the human back into the physical classroom’. And

Lots of wrestling in FB this week with what could be argued to be an essential ‘issue’ with MOOCs – they are open – free – out there… surely this is thus egalitarian learning at its very best? But no – some are still silenced – some are still feeling the pain of not being good enough – that ‘fish out of water’ feeling that is the experience of so many non-traditional students in the traditional classroom.

We have some strategies that work here to overcome this: say hello – be welcoming – comment – reply – extend a welcoming hand to other students. In doing this we ARE the community, all of us, everyone who does this friendly human thing in this strange and potentially impersonal world.

Interestingly I spent some time yesterday listening to Manuel DeLanda’s Introduction to Gilles Deleuze  in which he discusses Deleuze’s ‘Theory of non-human expressivity’. Deleuze warned against living only in the small provincial world of humanity, closing ourselves into ourselves and being ‘all too human’. He recommended that we ‘break from our human straight-jackets’. I am still trying to understand what all this means, but I think it does relate to a discussion about communities and networks.

In my reflections on this week’s messiness and the possible causes for it – not that messiness per se is a bad thing in the learning process – I have wondered whether it not so much ‘learning’ that we need to do in relation to this course, but ‘unlearning’. (I was interested in this post about unlearning that I came across yesterday – not related to this course ).

I have been wondering whether we need to unlearn our assumptions about communities and groups in relation to rhizomatic learning. Despite the fact that the course title is Rhizomatic Learning – the Community is the Curriculum – can we assume that rhizomatic learning equates to community and/or group learning? For me ‘network’ or something similar might work better.  The advantages and disadvantages of groups and networks have been very well covered in the work of Stephen Downes. See this post  Groups Vs Networks: The Class Struggle Continues.

The differences between communities and networks has also been discussed by Wenger et al. in their publication – Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework – in which they write (p.9):

We prefer to think of community and network as two aspects of social structures in which learning takes place.

The network aspect refers to the set of relationships, personal interactions, and connections among participants who have personal reasons to connect. It is viewed as a set of nodes and links with affordances for learning, such as information flows, helpful linkages, joint problem solving, and knowledge creation.

The community aspect refers to the development of a shared identity around a topic or set of challenges. It represents a collective intention—however tacit and distributed—to steward a domain of knowledge and to sustain learning about it.

In addition, by chance Stephen Downes has posted in OLDaily (Jan 25th) a link   to a post about inappropriate conversation in MOOC discussion forums.  See the post Everything in Moderation  Carl Straumsheim, Inside Higher Ed, January 25, 2014, and Stephen Downes’ comment in OL Daily. We are fortunate in #rhizo14 that discussion has not descended to these levels – due, I am sure, in no small part to Dave’s modelling of appropriate behaviour – but Stephen Downes’ solution to this problem, which he has mentioned many times before, is to use distributed aggregated discussions, i.e. to dispense with discussion forums. By doing this within a network structure, participants can follow their own rhizomatic paths through a network, discussing whatever they wish with whoever they wish. If they stumble across a conversation that is not for them, they simply leave and follow another path. Eventually people with similar interests find each other. In a network, unlike a group or community, we don’t all have to know each other or have similar interests. There is no academic vs non-academic, theorist vs pragamatist. We simply occupy different spaces. There is diversity, autonomy, connectedness and openness – the basic pedagogical principles of a network.

To finish off this rather long post (there has been a lot to think about this week), Maddie, who sparked all this off, has come back and written  ….

Did I do it on purpose? No. Did I wish to make jabs at privileged people? No. Did I project such an outbreak? No.

I think perhaps her initial post wouldn’t have cause such a ‘stir’ had we all been working according to network rather than community/group principles, but her follow-up comments also raise the issue of the role of language in online communication.

There are some in this course who are really interested in the link between language and identity, for example Emily who writes in her blog post ‘Ode to marginalia

I guess, that all identity and learning is language, so it’s interesting and useful to know about language and bring theory in even when it’s opposed…

I think it’s also useful to be constantly aware of the possible consequences of language and writing. I think this example below, which I will end this post with, illustrates the point 🙂

Kevin invited us to ‘Steal his poem’ and remix it.

So I decided to create a mesostic from his poem, a form of remixing that I learned about in the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC (ModPo) last year – and, using the spine REMIX in Kevin’s poem  as shown here:

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blow me down – this is what I got (although the X has been dropped in the spine),

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Is this the cause of the messiness in Week 2 of  #rhizo14.

Blogs: Resonance and online relations

Lilia Efimova on her blog – http://blog.mathemagenic.com/ – seems also to be asking questions about how and why some relationships can be formed, developed and sustained in  blogs. She asks the question: What exactly helps to establish and maintain personal relations via blogging? and suggests that one answer to this question might be in the frequency of communication and in the use of multi-channels of communication.

Some research that I’ve recently been involved in suggests that it’s a bit more than this – and that the strongest ties are formed between people who not only communicate frequently via different channels, but also are engaged in collaboration around a joint activity. My experience is that once this activity stops, then the ties weaken.

Lilia suggests that the relation between a pair of people includes three dimensions of connection: affinity, commitment and attention. I am intrigued at her point that affinity is achieved through activities of social bonding – touching, eating and drinking together. This has come at a time when I have increasingly noticed how many people on Facebook, in their blogs etc. tell us about their recent meal. But I wonder if this is a spill over from forum online socialisation activities (designed by tutors) which are often used to encourage participants to get to know each other through describing their favourite meal or retiring to the virtual cafe to socialise. It’s difficult to know whether this is really a characteristic of affinity or a norm of online socialisation.

Commitment is described by Lilia as being  manifested through the effort of reading others’ weblogs, repeated interaction and maintaining your own presence via weblogs and other channels. I see commitment as something a bit larger than this – I prefer the word ‘reciprocity’, which also takes commitment, but requires some ‘giving back’. I’m not sure though whether most bloggers would agree. My feeling is that blogging can often be a one-way form of communication – from blogger to ‘out there’.

What I’m interested in is how blog relationships might be different to relationships formed through other media – how and why these blogging connections are made, and whether bloggers have specific characteristics that enable them to make these relationships via their blogs.

Thanks to Lilia for her post.

Network or community?

This question keep cropping up for me. Could this course be considered a community? In some ways it must be.

  • We are all gathered around a domain – connectivism,
  • We are all sharing practice  – Are we? Is what we are doing sharing practice? Even for those who are sharing, is it sharing practice?
  •  And we are learning through social interaction. Well some of us obviously are, but equally I suspect there are many who are not.

So could this be called a community? It doesn’t feel like a community to me. Network seems a better word. Is there a difference? Does it matter? If there is a difference, how does that affect the learning process?

Little Boxes, Glocalization, and Networked Individualism

Here is the abstract of an interesting article by Barry Wellman

Much thinking about digital cities is in terms of community groups. Yet, the world is composed of social networks and not of groups. This papertraces how communities have changed from densely-knit “Little Boxes” (densely-knit, linking people door-to-door) to “Glocalized” networks (sparselyknitbut with clusters, linking households both locally and globally) to“Networked Individualism” (sparsely -knit, linking individuals with little regardto space). The transformation affects design considerations for computer systems that would support digital cities.

This has set me thinking about whether it is possible to have a ‘community’ with the notion of networked individualism. According to some research done by Wellman – ‘the more people that are online, the less their sense of belonging to an online community.’ That feels a bit like this course.

He also writes – ‘With fuzzy network boundaries, individual autonomy and agency become more important, as each person becomes the responsible operator of her own personal network’.

Some questions arising from this are:

  • To what extent are we responsible for other people’s learning as well as our own?
  • Will networked learning lead to increased individual feelings of isolation?