A balanced complaint

I caught part of a BBC2 documentary, Trump’s America a Newsnight Special, last night and was appalled by what I saw.

From my armchair I tweeted, and it seems a few people saw my tweets but they didn’t seem to make much of a difference except that I probably felt a bit better for having tweeted, as part of the general head-shaking in this post-election period. Tweeting was marginally better than laughing at Have I Got News for you? but still pretty passive.

Frances Bell's tweets about Newsnight documentary
Frances Bell’s tweets about Newsnight documentary

Today I plan to watch the whole documentary on iPlayer (sorry that won’t be available to all of you). Then this morning on Facebook, I noticed that George Roberts was making a complaint to the BBC about an item on the Today radio programme.

As a tiny step towards action, I compiled my first ever complaint to the BBC, and I have included the text of it below the video.

“Last night I watched the segment of the Newsnight Documentary where Emily Maitlis interviewed Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the editor in chief of the American Spectator, R Emmett Tyrrell. Emily did her best to raise the issue of Donald Trump’s racism with both interviewees. Chimamanda was articulate and addressed the points that Emily raised but Emmett Tyrrell was an embarrassment to watch. He rambled, tried to compare KKK with the Knights of St Columba to justify why we need not be concerned about Trump being supported by them, rejected Chimamanda’s valid point on why oppressed people may vote for oppressors. He clearly forgot, or couldn’t cope with the strangeness to him of, Chimamanda’s name at one point. He rejected what he interpreted as Chimamanda’s use of false consciousness as ‘Marxist’ and completely failed to address what she said about his inability to define racism.
My complaint is about the decision to include Emmett Tyrrell in this segment. Was it for reasons of ‘balance’? Surely you could have found a Trump supporter capable of reasoned argument. Even if no such person exists, you could have found someone who didn’t necessarily agree with her to listen and respond to Chimamanda. How fortunate you were to have her on the show, and her contribution was diminished by the presence of someone unsuited to documentary debate.
Please could you tell me:
why Tyrell was invited?
Is there a policy in place that requires balance at the expense of the quality of the exploration of issue?
What role does an interviewer play in choice of interviewees? ”

Whilst I was compiling my complaint, I saw that someone had posted a youtube video of the subject of my complaint which allows me to share it with those who can’t get iplayer. I contributed to the Facebook thread with this comment

My Facebook Comment
My Facebook Comment

I won’t reproduce the conversation from the semi-private space of Facebook but happy for others involved to comment here. I mentioned my guess about a white male as that was relevant to the original post. One response to me was strange. Whilst decrying people looking everywhere for someone to blame for the Trump, he appeared (in his response to  me a white woman) to blame the demographic of white women for Clinton not being elected.  What I have learned from painful reflection on my own white privilege has strengthened my feminism.

So here is what I think:

Any black or brown person who reads this post is perfectly entitled to ignore or mock my thoughts and actions. They can, but don’t have to, point out any inevitable misconceptions that stem from my white privilege because it isn’t their responsibility to educate me – I have to do that for myself. Black and brown Americans have every right to be angry about the way others voted, the Democrats for failing to deliver and the (in)actions of others, not least because it is the black and brown people who will most affected by this electoral result.

But what I learned from watching Chimamanda when she told Emmett Tyrell that he had no right to define racism, is that I don’t have to take being told by a white man that the demographic of white women prevented Hillary Clinton being elected. Because a white man being angry at white women for this is sexist.  I don’t feel anger at his comments – I’m grateful that he helped to improve my complaint, and my resolve to learn and take action (that goes beyond social media).

I will let you know of any outcome of the complaint in the comments, so subscribe to the post if you are interested. This is a tiny piece of activity but one thing that my network has shown me this week is that we need to work together and support others, particularly those who are disproportionately damaged by an outcome they voted against.

Thanks to something George Roberts said on Facebook about another BBC programme, I actually got my act together to make a formal complaint. Check out the page if you feel moved to complain about BBC programmes in future.

Language, Politics and #OER17

1984, Politics and the English Language, vintage Orwell reissues from Random Penguin, Foyles, St Pancras, Camden, London, UK
Vintage Orwell

This blog post started life as a comment on Martin Weller’s post about language and how it affects behaviour and thoughts in Edtech. The comment mysteriously disappeared as I posted it so I thought that I would repost it here and link from Martin’s post. The title of the post “Let’s think inside the box“ made me think about Blackboxing .
Whilst I agreed with many of the ideas in the post, Martin’s statement “But this post isn’t about politics” stopped me short.  I wondered what those of us thinking of making a submission to OER17  would make of this. I have been puzzling for a few weeks about what politics can mean in the context of  “The Politics of Open” theme for OER17, and I guess that others may be doing so too. I think that the concept of politics being broad and interpreted in different contexts will make for a great conference that enriches our understanding of Open Educational Practices and Resources.
So I would like to encourage Martin to think about how his post could be about politics and ‘fit’  OER17 – maybe even rework it as a submission 🙂 I was grateful to him for getting me to think about politics and language and my Scholar Google search turned up 2 corking resources.

  1. Orwell, G., 2005. Politics and the English Language. English, (December 1945), pp.1–9. Available at: https://www.homeworkmarket.com/sites/default/files/qx/15/05/19/04/politics_and_the_english_language_orwell.pdf
  2. Chomsky, N., 1984. Politics and Language. In Language and Politics. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=1lCwP-RNExkC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=471&f=false (search for 471)

My subject discipline was Information Systems (that bears some parallels to Edtech) and in our teaching, we included social and organisational aspects as well the technological ones. Ethics, gender and power were definitely on the curriculum. When we think about education and/or technology without considering the politics – global, national, organisational, personal, interpersonal – we are filtering our understanding and it’s no wonder that our noble aspirations don’t always work out as we would hope. This is why I think the OER17 theme is so exciting – it can help us expand our thinking and our practice.

So it’s back to writing my submission.

It depends – Contexts for copyright, patents and licensing #OER17

Patent Suction - Image taken from page 119 of 'Beeton's Christmas Annual, British Library
Patent Suction – Image taken from page 119 of ‘Beeton’s Christmas Annual, British Library

Reading posts on variations of Creative Commons licensing by Alan Levine, Doug Belshaw ,  and  Maha Bali really made me think about our practices of licensing, copyrighting and attributing creative works, particularly of what we share as ‘knowledge’. Alan describes the various CC licenses he has used for his photos on Flickr, and the trials and tribulations he encounters in trying to apply CC0 to all of his images on Flickr. I had to check what CC0 was:

Once the creator or a subsequent owner of a work applies CC0 to a work, the work is no longer his or hers in any meaningful sense under copyright law. Anyone can then use the work in any way and for any purpose, including commercial purposes, subject to other laws and the rights others may have in the work or how the work is used. Think of CC0 as the “no rights reserved” option.Creative Commons FAQ

Doug Belshaw explains why he has applied CC0 to all of his work (including his doctoral thesis) that is under his control. Maha Bali, whilst acknowledging that CC licenses can be ignored, reveals how her approach to licence choice is contextual.

Thinking about my own practice, I publish this blog as CC BY-NC  and try to publish my research writing in Open Access journals. Having said that, the last two articles I wrote with colleagues as I was retiring were published in closed journals, since those were the most beneficial for my co-authors still subject, unlike myself, to the Research Excellence Framework. So my approach to copyright and licensing is also contextual. If asked do you publish openly? my answer would have to be – Yes, but it depends.

I am always interested in looking at historical accounts to try to understand innovation. Bijker(1995) was one of my teaching resources, with the story of the emergence of the popular style of the bicycle being a good classroom story to explore. Audrey Watters has argued powerfully that 21st Century ‘innovators’ in Educational Technology ignore/distort history in an attempt to big up their products and services.

Then I remembered reading about 19th century industrial innovations that relied on sharing rather than protection and secrecy. In looking for this, I didn’t find my original reading but instead found a very interesting article about the Cornish Pumping Engine (Nuvolari 2004). Nuvolari contrasts the ‘heroic narrative’ where individuals are credited with inventions with ‘collective invention’, an incremental approach where the contributions of individuals can remain anonymous.  For example, we all ‘know’ that James Watt invented the ‘modern’ steam engine  that helped to bring about the Industrial Revolution. Nuvolari’s case study examines what happened in Cornwall, a remote area of England, in the 19th century mining industry which had memories of a bad experience in the last quarter of the 18th century with the more fuel-efficient patented Watt steam engines, needed to address flooding in their mines. The business model that Boulton & Watt established with Cornish mine adventurers was royalties based on hypothetical fuel efficencies of the Watt engine as compared with the earlier Newcomen engine. This model was unsatisfactory to the mine adventurers not only for business and economic reasons but also because Boulton and Watt’s refusal to license the design prevented Cornish engineers from improving the engines to suit local circumstances. Watt’s patent hampered engine innovation in Cornwall (and elsewhere) and the 19th century started with a dearth of progress.

This situation lasted until 1811, when a group of mine “captains” (mine managers) decided to begin the publication of a monthly journal reporting the salient technical characteristics, the operating procedures and the performance of each engine. The explicit intention was twofold. First the publication would permit the rapid individuation and diffusion of best-practice techniques.
Secondly, it would create a climate of competition among the engineers entrusted with the different pumping engines, with favourable effects on the rate of technical progress.

Lean’s Engine Reporter continued until 1904 and was accompanied by a steady improvement in the thermodynamic efficency of Cornish engines. Cornish adventurers were driven by pragmatism rather than an ideological attachment to open knowledge. I can recommend reading Nuvolari’s case study as it questions the standard historical account of the ‘golden boys’ role in the Industrial Revolution and the role of patents in stimulating innovation, and draws attention instead to innovation’s incremental, anonymous reality that occurred in a variety of social, geographical, legal and economic circumstances.

 Monument to Boulton, Watt and Murdoch Outside the Birmingham House of Sport (formerly the Register Office) on Broad Street stands the statue of Boulton, Watt and Murdoch, nicknamed 'The Golden Boys' or 'The Carpet Salesmen'. It is the work of William Bloye, formerly head of sculpture at Birmingham School of Art and was unveiled in 1956, although preliminary designs were drawn up in 1938. The three men pioneered the industrial revolution in late 18th century England. James Watt's improvements to the steam engine and William Murdoch's invention of gas lighting have made them famous throughout the world. Matthew Boulton, entrepreneur and industrialist, harnessed their talents in a company that made everything from tableware and copper coinage to steam engines.
Fathers of Technology – monument to Boulton, Watt and Murdoch by Francesco Falciani CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Nuvolari also hints at the central nature of patents with frequency increasing with proximity to the Patents Office.

So what have I learned?

I have already started to think about the personal is political in relation to Open Educational Practice, and have long observed (from my gendered lens) restricted narratives and dialogues even within open educational communities , see this post from 2011. Cornish mine adventurers had pragmatic reasons for challenging patents and promoting competition between engineers, and will no doubt have operated within class structures. If we want to promote Open Education that challenges structural inequalities of class, gender and race, we need to acknowledge these inequalities and be alert to where heroic narratives obscure structure inequalities in the cause of ‘innovation’ and profit.


Bijker, W. (1995) Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change, Inside Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, MIT Press, [online] Available from: http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/students/envs_5110/bijker.pdf.

Nuvolari, A. (2004) ‘Collective invention during the British Industrial Revolution: the case of the Cornish pumping engine’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 28(3), pp. 347–363, [online] Available from: http://cms.tm.tue.nl/Ecis/Files/papers/wp2004/eciswp103.pdf  .

Watters, A. (2015) ‘The Invented History of “The Factory Model of Education”’, EducationFuturism.com, [online] Available from: https://educationfuturism.com/the-invented-history-of-the-factory-model-of-education-a069ae3d1e99#.9jht3gp0c (Accessed 19 October 2016).

Personal is Political – a frame for thinking about Open Educational Practice

The OER17 Call for Contributions is about to be released but we already know something the theme of the 2017 conference, entitled The Politics of Open, chaired by Josie Fraser and Alek Tarkowski. OER16 was my first OER conference and I loved its friendly atmosphere, and of course I learned a lot too.  The theme and chairs of OER17 were announced at the end of OER16, and I was thrilled at the boldness of the topic.  From what I know of the OER community, we will rise to the challenge.

I have been thinking for some time about the topic of my own submission to OER17, and in preparation for writing it, I started to think of the different flavours of ‘political’ that are important to Open Educational Practice (a concept explored so well by Catherine Cronin, in her 2016 keynote).  The theme of the conference is broad enough to welcome many different perspectives in policy, organisational and societal contexts, and is sure to include fun too.

My first thought was about openness in politics, and I found http://openpolitics.org.uk/ , and from there to http://www.rebootdemocracy.org/ . I wonder if there will be submissions  that are specifically about political systems but it’s not really where I think I can best contribute.  The conference themes include policy and practice in local and wider contexts, organisational politics, and issues of equality  and participation.  I think my contribution will look at digital literacies but I am starting by looking at how I can frame my thinking.

I am interested in approaches to openness that are contextual, and don’t expect openness to automatically remove existing structural inequalities. For the Networked Learning Conference this year, my contribution to a symposium with Catherine Cronin and Laura Gogia included this digital story that hopefully illustrates my approach.

A Door Half Closed from Frances Bell on Vimeo.

As I develop my abstract for OER17, my challenge is to present my ideas in a meaningful way for the audience (assuming it gets accepted). The phrase ‘the personal is political’ popped into my mind and I decided to refresh my memory of what it meant.  Carol Hanish wrote an article originally published in 1970 in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s  Liberation. Carol’s article was  renamed by the book editors as “The Personal Is Political”, and it has had widespread traction over the last 46 years. Reflecting in 2006, Carol said

It challenged the old anti-woman line that used spiritual, psychological, metaphysical, and pseudo-historical explanations for women’s oppression with a real, materialist analysis for why women do what we do. ” from 2006 Introduction

A materialist analysis of Open Educational Practice seems important to me, revealing lived experiences and informing possible collective responses,  beyond an idea that the political is personal. I am still homing in on my specific topic for my abstract but I feel sure that the feminist perspective of ‘the personal is political’ can help me explore the politics of Open Educational Practice.

I’d love any feedback or discussion of this.


Hanisch, C. (2006, original article 1970) ‘The Personal Is Political’, Carol Hanish.org, (January), pp. 1–5, [online] Available from: http://www.carolhanisch.org/CHwritings/PersonalisPol.pdf.

Check out:

Twitter – conference hashtag #OER17, Chairs @josiefraser, @atarkowski , Conference Committee list https://twitter.com/josiefraser/lists/team-oer17

Web site https://oer17.oerconf.org/

Women making social media work for good causes

On International Women’s Day I would like to highlight the work of three women doing good with the help of social media and those who participate.

Kate Granger is a witty and engaging woman doctor who has used her experience of being a patient with terminal cancer to launch a campaign that has made life better for thousands of patients worldwide. Watch the video of Kate telling her own story.  You can see the impact of the #hellomynameis campaign at http://hellomynameis.org.uk/  and Kate in operation at @GrangerKate.

I met Cristina Vasilica when she was a student at the University of Salford where she is now a lecturer and PhD student in the College of Health and Social Care. She is still in my networks, and so I have seen the good work she does at the Greater Manchester Kidney Information Network (http://gmkin.org.uk/ ) at Facebook as part of her PhD. As it’s a closed group I can’t link to it but if you are from Greater Manchester and could contribute/ benefit, please contact them via the web site or at @gmkin on Twitter.  You can find out more about her PhD work here – she is doing practical good and contributing to knowledge.

I came across Lou Mycroft on an online course last year, and she has introduced me to an area and philosophy of education that I knew little of before – social purpose education.  Lou works as a teacher educator at Northern College but it isn’t just her student teachers who can learn with and from her – you can too.  She is generous in sharing and the TeachNorthern web site is stuffed with goodies and is a jumping off point for even more. Visit the site, follow her on Twitter at @lounorthern

It’s no coincidence that all three of these women are great learners and teachers.

Nobody asked you, sir she said

My first ever memory of a ‘feminist’ reaction was to this nursery rhyme

“WHERE are you going, my pretty maid?”
“I am going a-milking, sir,” she said.
“May I go with you, my pretty maid?”
“You ’re kindly welcome, sir,” she said.
“What is your father, my pretty maid?”         5
“My father ’s a farmer, sir,” she said.
“What is your fortune, my pretty maid?”
“My face is my fortune, sir,” she said.
“Then I won’t marry you, my pretty maid.”
“Nobody asked you, sir,” she said.

On the one hand I liked the attitude displayed in the last line, but on the other hand I reacted badly to the thought that my face was my fortune. The memory of my reaction was submerged and only revived by coming across the rhyme when I bought a book of nursery rhymes to sing and say to my own children. I remember the rhyme being sung but I don’t think it was sung to me by my parents – the cultural conditioning that wealth counts and women’s bodies are part of a socio-economic market was broader and embedded in school and media.

I had heard of bell hooks but never read her so Teaching to Transgress is a revelation to me. I couldn’t and wouldn’t claim to identify with her experience of education as a black woman: white privilege is a big difference between our experiences. When she spoke of the contrast between segregated and desegregated education, it reminded me of the re-evaluation I made of my single-sex secondary school education after starting to teach in a co-educational secondary school about ten years later. There were more safe spaces for women to learn in my schooling than I could ensure for the women I was teaching.

So going back to the rhyme, this got me wondering  what others had made of the rhyme and its messages. So I googled it.

There were quite a few painful videos of people using the rhyme for learning of the English language but also a couple of gems that I will share with you.

This article links women’s social and economic valuation to what they have done to their bodies. Laurie Essig’s  research into cosmetic surgery helped her to identify what she called “the subprime mortgage crisis of the body”.  Cosmetic surgery as a business in USA grew by 465% in the first decade of the 21st Century and 85% of its costs are financed by borrowing.  Business was not damaged by the financial downturn.  Essig found that some women were opting for cosmetic surgery in an effort to become more employable or more lovable, and financing  it by remortgaging their homes.

Another site uses an 18th century example “There is long tradition of suffusing the female countenance with the woman’s moral record”  that links forward to what bell hooks and Anita Sarkeesian have to say.

Anita Sarkeesian’s videos made for interesting if slightly chilling viewing. I played with Lego in the late 50s/ early 60s and it never occurred to me that Lego was just for boys. The difference that I noticed when my own children started playing with it was the trend towards sets that were a bit like airfoil kits with ‘instructions’.  Viewing the videos has made me think about the links with marketing – maybe product development is tending towards identifiable products that can be marketed in place of components like the original Lego bricks that had to serve as roof tiles, furniture, whatever was in the child’s imagination.  Every generation inscribes the ‘place’ of men, of women, of black and brown and white people in its cultural practices and artefacts but in an age of mass and connected media, the technology that enables Anita Sarkeesian to create and share her ideas also enables the vicious push back she experiences from those whose blindfolds are threatened.  It also enabled Lori Day to track down the girl from the 1981 ad.

Then and now


Laurie Essig, American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection, Beacon Press, Boston, 2011.

Between Athenians and Visigoths: what lies between polar positions in public discourse online


“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (variously attributed – Google it)


Travels of badger - Ancient Agora of Athens with the Temple of Hephaestus


The Visigoth versus the Roman


In his graduation speech, Neil Postman characterised two groups from history, the Athenians and the Visigoths, each of which has since disappeared but has left their mark on subsequent cultures. For Postman, they were ideas, around which we could express values: Athenians exalted knowledge and the quest for it; while Visigoths placed themselves at the centre of the universe with no sense of community. We can see that the Athenians are the ‘goodies’ and the Visigoths are the ‘baddies’. http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2009/06/athenians-and-visigoths-neil-postmans-graduation-speech/

We could observe that Athenians and Visigoths are evident in our face to face and online worlds, as Postman suggested, but this dichotomy obscures a more complex reality.  On a forum in the late 1990s, I shared the thought that the world could be divided into two types of people, those who thought that the world could be divided into two types of people and those who didn’t. I have since discovered that this isn’t an original observation but that’s no obstacle to applying the concept http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/02/07/two-classes/.

When the Athenians/ Visigoths goodies/baddies is used as a dualism to categorise people, we can lose the opportunity to explore ideas and behaviours that might be changed (in ourselves and in others).  If we were trying to understand Gamergate, then we could characterise Anita Sarkeesian as an Athenian exploring the tropes of women within games, and the anonymous people issuing death threats as Visigoths. Already, this could be a problem because people who had some (possibly valid) critique of Sarkeesian’s work might be polarised by my valorisation of her as an Athenian. Those who persist in seeing Gamergate as about ethical practice in gaming journalism would feel misrepresented. What interests me is what lies between the two extremes: We could use Athenians and Visigoths as a duality to explore the behaviours of people who are not at one extreme or another but that is personalising the issues rather looking at the behaviours. It seems to me to be pretty clear cut that people online issuing death threats should be investigated and prosecuted, and I would not waste my time trying to reason with them. It’s much less clear how to respond to behaviours such as deliberate false claims, accidental misunderstanding (I do this frequently) and misreporting that I see daily on traditional and social media.

Debates can quickly become polarised especially on short-form media like Twitter. Andy Baion analysed tweets from a 72 hour period to visualise acitivity on #gamergate on Twitter.

Each point is a single person in the #Gamergate universe, the lines connect who they follow, Andy Baion

He concluded that “Roughly 90–95% take a clear side either in favor or against Gamergate.” https://medium.com/message/72-hours-of-gamergate-e00513f7cf5d

Although #gamergate was not the only site of discussion about the issue, my observation from my search and from my slice of the Internet (inevitably skewed) confirmed that dialogue as Buber meant it was rare

where each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them”.

Curious about who was aware of gamergate and more general hating against women online, on 15 October, I polled some of my more connected Facebook contacts:

“Dear FB contacts with an interest in things technical/ gaming, I am interested in what might have appeared in your socmed stream in the last 10 days – Ada Lovelace Day, Brianna Wu death threats, Kathy Sierra leaving Twitter, Anita Sarkeesian threatened with gun massacre at Utah State University? http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-29616197

The response was interesting – there was very little awareness of most of these, with a few exceptions. I think the responses might be a bit different now that some of these issues have hit mainstream media but it does seem that neither social nor traditional media can be relied on to surface important stories quickly. Two contacts held a respectful and insightful exchange about #gamergate that certainly added to my understanding.  Another commented later

 “the reason why I as a bystander don’t tend to get involved in the debate is mainly because of the polarising language of those who challenge the harassment. It’s commonly that any white, CIS-gendered, middle-aged (gamer) male tends to get lumped in with the dickheads. I mean fine, if people want to do that, but then that means I’m not going to engage with either camp.” (he does not want to be named as he doesn’t want to be drawn into the debate)

So fierce exchanges can be taking place in separate echo chambers; or we may be unaware of issues because of the limitations of our networks and of traditional media; or we may be unwilling to engage with topics for various reasons.  Noelle-Neumann came up with the theory of the spiral of silence to explain the growth and spread of public opinion, and characterises the media as muting the minority in the spiral http://www.afirstlook.com/docs/spiral.pdf.  A recent Pew Internet report on research into discussion of Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of widespread government surveillance of Americans’ phone and email records confirms the Spiral of Silence, with people being less likely to discuss the issue on social media than they were in person http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/08/26/social-media-and-the-spiral-of-silence/

Kate Bowles speaks of the difficulties of practicing generosity under pressure to take sides “Where we end up with this demand to take a stand, I think, is that our interactions with others become a constant, and exhausting, requirement to show ourselves as good before we speak. Even one of the most beautiful and courageous political interventions that I’ve seen all year couches itself in this way: which side are you on, friend, which side are you on? But if we accept this practice of camp loyalty as the minimum standard for being worth listening to, and no other, I think we’re also running some risks as these standards have to be expressed in terms of the grossest possible generalisation to work at all. And this means that we are already prepared to relinquish what is particular and complicated about any interaction between two people.” http://musicfordeckchairs.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/not-done-yet/


I think that polarisation might to contribute to ‘bystander’ behaviour of those whose views lie between the poles in a given debate.  In a previous post, I pondered some strategies for

  • We can look at how we can understand and appreciate the experiences of others by really listening
  • We can take a break like Kathy Sierra and Julie Pagano have done
  • We can challenge hostile and malignant cultures by
    • mocking them like #ghcmanwatch did
    • or when a grave injustice has occurred by campaigns like #justiceforLB



Increasing the diversity of our networks and the quality of the media that shape our opinions might help but we need collective approaches too I think.  But this presents its own challenges. The communities to which we are drawn can be in tension with the need for diversity as they will tend to promote conformity unless we are vigilant. I think we need to resist thinking of others as Visigoths and ourselves as Athenians, and acknowledge more complex combinations of Visigoth  and Athenian behaviours.

Homophily, Intersectionality and Institutional Cultures as played out on Social Media

This has been a bad week for trust and humanity on the Interwebz. First Kathy Sierra left Twitter for reasons she gives in this article (having already been driven off social media and public engagements in 2007), then Julie Pagano who describes how she became a tech feminist killjoy from working in the tech industry.

Wikipedia defines a troll as “a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a serious and respected organisation that defends the Internet as a platform for free speech. There is a culture, visible but not universal in some gaming communities, technical forums and the tech community in general that is voluble about its defence of Internet free speech, seeing it as under threat from any attempt to curb what many of us might see as pathological behaviours.  In this culture, the word troll is used ambiguously, suggesting playfulness and defending anything that is done to combat those who are seen to challenge free speech.  This article, from its own particular slant , suggests a political link to free speech “To conservatives and right-leaning libertarians, it’s a welcome pushback against left-wing cultural diktat, particularly in the area of gender politics.”

EFF’s defence of anonymity is admirable when considered as a means of enabling whistle-blowers, say, but anonymity is experienced differently when short-lived anonymous Twitter accounts post obscene images and threats to their chosen targets.  Internet culture can be a culture of truth/ lies, right/wrong – no shades within the discourse, and some see trolling as a necessary part of free speech online.

“The trolls are the immune system of the internet, and if you have the immune system ganging up on you, then you need to fight back or give up, according to whether they are right or you are right.” Commenter on Kathy Sierra’s article in Wired

There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence of women being abused online but social media may be exposing an existing epidemic rather than causing that abuse.  It’s tempting to see a gender split between male trolls and women victims but it’s much more complicated than that. There are trolls and victims of all genders and races, and ‘trolling’ is subjective – the same post being perceived very differently by different people.

For me, the death threats and intimidation that Kathy Sierra experienced were criminal harassment and such harassment should be pursued vigorously under the laws of the country in which it happened. But this extreme behaviour exists in the context of online networks where apparently rational people can disbelieve the existence of threats, or even condone them as being justifiable when the recipient is seen as challenging Internet free speech/ in favour of censorship (even when they haven’t ).

cathysierra When I searched for posts aimed at Kathy Sierra’s Twitter account, I came across these amongst the last sent to her stream.


I was struck by two aspects: first the characterisation of Kathy Sierra as a passive-aggressive troll; and secondly, the patronising way in which she was advised how to behave online.  The author of those tweets expressed himself in a rational manner, not appearing to be the sort of person who would harass anyone online.  But it seems to me that in the circles around the extreme harassers are rational people with strong views on freedom who lend support to the less rational who carry out the vile harassment.











What stories like Julie Pagano’s tell us is that this is a reflection of tech work culture played out in offices and online. Around this tech culture is yet another circle of ‘male allies’ whose existence I became aware of through #gchmanwatch, where a panel of ‘male allies’ lectured women on how to solve gender problems in the workplace – with no opportunity for questions.  I can recommend the viewing the storify for a rich view of what went on.


The silenced audience amused themselves by completing a bingo card with phrases the male allies used in their speeches.

The thing that it is supposed to come with freedom, responsibility, may help shed some light on what is going here. If the culture in which you live your life online tells you that it’s OK if harassment is collateral damage in the cause of freedom of speech on the Internet, then you are wanting that freedom without responsibility.  You may claim that you are not directly responsible. If you are a leader in technology who tells yourself that you are helping to solve gender discrimination in the workplace by telling women how to behave differently, then you are ducking your responsibility.

Homophily is the principle that a contact between similar people occurs at a higher rate than among dissimilar people. On the Internet, (Alstyne & Brynjolfsson, 2004) characterised this as voluntary balkanisation with a loss of shared experiences that was damaging to the development of both democratic societies and de-centralised organisations.

So the same Internet that promised freedom and a Global Village is the one where we allow ourselves to reinforce our views by hanging around with people who think like us, and over time we lose trust in people who might think slightly differently. Surely we can do better than this?

I have been thinking recently about the (lack of )diversity in my own Twitter network, and I captured some of the ideas sparked by others in a storify that I concluded with

“But it is a good question – when we network across multiple channels how can we maintain the tension between diversity and drowning? If we pick “really great people” to connect to we are subject to their (lack of) diversity and to the Spiral of Silence.”

Maybe we can employ intersectionality that Wikipedia defines as “the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination.”  So when we think about tech culture, we don’t just think about in terms of gender but also class, race and other categories. I am a practical person, and I am trying to extend my Twitter network to include people whose struggles I understand less well.

My last example is of institutional appropriation of social media and the ethics of anonymous monitoring. Sara Ryan blogged the experiences of her 18 year old son, who had learning disabilities, and was admitted to an Assessment Centre, where he later died, having had an epileptic seizure when unattended in the bath (fuller account here). An independent report found his death to have been preventable and Sara has been using social media to campaign for #justiceforLB.

Last week, Sara discovered that, despite assurances to the contrary from the Chair of the Health Board, her blog had been monitored and a briefing issued that seemed to be aimed at damage limitation and media management. Two worrying issues emerge from the briefing: first that monitoring of the blog revealed Sara’s concerns about the dangers of her son fitting unattended but were ignored; and secondly that the Trust saw itself as the victim of ‘trolling’ on Twitter.

I think that all of these examples show the balkanisation of social, organisational and extra-organisational cultures mediated through face to face and Internet communication.  The question is – what can we do about it?

  • We can look at how we can understand and appreciate the experiences of others by really listening
  • We can take a break like Kathy Sierra and Julie Pagano have done
  • We can challenge hostile and malignant cultures by mocking them like #ghcmanwatch did or when a grave injustice has occurred by campaigns like #justiceforLB

Note: These are complex ideas and this post is my first attempt to work through them. I welcome factual corrections/ constructive criticism


Thanks to:

Richard Hall for reminding me of the importance of love and the importance of producing our world collectively – you can watch/listen to his professorial inaugural at http://www.richard-hall.org/2014/10/09/on-my-inaugural/

My dear friends Jenny Mackness and Mariana Funes who have helped me think about the ethics of online learning and being and how things might be different
Trust and security in open networks

Victoria (best wishes with that PhD) who wrote a great post about trolling

My great Twitter network who help me reflect, look near and far, and cheer me up when I get grumpy

Alstyne, M. Van, & Brynjolfsson, E. (2004). Global Village or Cyber-Balkans ? Modeling and Measuring the Integration of Electronic Communities. Management Science, 1–37.

Knowledge Transfer: old wine in new bottles or how many contentious statements can I make in one blog post?

Punning wine

Punning Wine By Mike Knell

(includes edited content from a comment I made to Stephen Downes blog post)

I have been watching a ‘debate’ unfold over the weekend with increasing mystification.  I even posted a couple of comments but I didn’t really feel that there was much idea exchange taking place. If you want to check it out, George Siemens has some useful links here .

For me the first old wine in new bottles (itself a fairly stale metaphor but I love the picture)  is the idea of a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) – I thought that open fora and ‘free’ courses had been around for a  long time for example WebHeads in Action since 1997, open learning environments have been under discussion since mid 1990s at least (though open learning variously defined) e.g. http://carbon.ucdenver.edu/~bwilson/wils95 and I am sure (though I can’t find links at present) there have been free courses online (e.g. in HTML) since mid 1990s too.  Don’t get me wrong the recent crop of MOOCs has generated a lot of interest and experimentation but this will be more informed if they acknowledge their heritage.

The second old wine in new bottles is the terminology and paradigm debate.  Quite a lot of the talk was about the meaning of learning, knowledge and even the term ‘knowledge transfer’.  This one really made me smile, as the term ‘Knowledge Transfer’ has a fairly well-defined meaning in UK HE, as it refers to a funded graduate recruitment scheme where businesses, graduates and academic work in partnership to transfer knowledge between them – very contextual and processy, unlike knowledge transfer as item of ‘knowledge’ passing from sender to receiver . The knowledge transfer being discussed this weekend sounded more like ‘transmission mode learning’  about which acres of text have been written, and clearly linked back to earlier work on communication, explained and critiqued rather well here in the transmission mode of communication.

This critique also neatly demonstrates how a model originating from a viewpoint different from one’s own can still be useful (up to a point) in one’s own meaning-making.  I am very interested in how those to whom ‘learning’ means something different can still have a productive and meaningful dialogue. I think participants would have to start by trying to explain what the word means to them and then listen to what others have to say. It would also help participants (especially given the context of openness) to enter the dialogue with the possibility of changing their minds even if only in a small way.  Maybe what is important about theories of learning and knowledge is what they mean to learners and teachers, as we personally theorise the world around us. Since that can often be in a social context we need to get the knack of sharing theories in dialogue. I have observed over a long period (and on CCK08 in particular) that teachers use theories in a very pragmatic way (connectivism being a good example), sometimes thinking about transmission modes of learning, other times using constructivism and in our digitally-saturated environment, turning to connectivism to help them practice and reflect.  I spent a short time as a Maths teacher in school and saw the twin disadvantages of knowing your times tables without understanding how they were constructed and vice versa, whereas what practice of numeracy requires both that you know your times tables and understand what they mean.  This may be achieved by combining rote learning and discovery learning.

The last point I wanted to make was about the general tetchy tone of some of the contributions (notable exception being @dkernohan 😉 ) Stephen Downes using the term nonsense and David Wiley identifying a comment as the ‘snob’ response. Just what is this ?  are the writers claiming ‘truth’? ownership of ideas or concepts like MOOCs?  This seemed to me to a very ‘masculine’ debate (OK that’s my interpretation) both in terms of style and inclusivity.  I would playfully prescribe that the main contenders in this weekend’s debate assign themselves an OOC on Belenky’s Womens Ways of Knowing, since Belenky’s work challenged and grew out of Perry’s Model of Intellectual Development which emerged from a very restricted sample of white  middleclass male MBA students and was then generalised to others.

So here is my contention:

that if we want to grow and explore concepts like informal learning online, MOOCs and OERs for the benefit of all, we need to involve all – men, women, young, old, from different philosophical and religious perspectives, from countries all over the world, and acknowledge the contributions of earlier scholars.

Now that isn’t going to be easy, inclusivity never is, but I don’t think this recent ‘debate’ has contributed much – however good some of the individual contributions were, the whole left a sour taste, in my mouth at least.