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