Transactional distance and new media literacies

Moore’s theory of transactional distance describes the communications and psychological gulf between learner and teacher in a distance education setting. The theory was formulated in a correspondence era of distance learning and matured in an era where discussion forums and virtual learning environments reduced transactional distance in a closed-group setting that enabled interactions akin to those in a traditional classroom. In recent years the growth of social networking and social interest sites has led to social forms that fit less easily in these traditional formal models of teaching and learning. When the “teacher” is distributed through the network or is an anonymous agent in a set or is an emergent actor formed by collective intelligence, transactional distance becomes a more complex variable. Evolved social literacies are mutated by new social forms and require us to establish new or modified ways of thinking about learning and teaching. In this missive we explore the notion of transactional distance and the kinds of social literacy that are required for or that emerge from network, set, and collective modes of social engagement. We discuss issues such as preferential attachment, confirmation bias, and trust and describe social literacies needed to cope with them.

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Political Polarization & Media Habits | Pew Research Center's Journalism Project

The Pew Research Center is responsible for some of the most fascinating and well-conducted research about America and Americans today. In this study, they looked at the relationships between political learnings (conservative vs liberal) and media. It is packed with fascinating details: a lot of the media have picked up on the rather limited range of news channels consumed by those with strong conservative leanings, the polarized trust of many news outlets, and so on. This is not surprising because anything that makes claims about you or your competitors will likely excite interest. But what most fascinates me is the way that social media (Facebook in particular, the generality and ubiquity of which tends to make it a more popular source for news than most other social media, at least in general) contribute to the polarizing effect. Notably, Conservatives tend to see fewer dissenting voices among their feeds. This is not surprising because, though self-reportedly more likely to come across dissenting views,  liberals show a greater tendency to defriend people who express conservative views. The self-organizing network effect caused by this double whammy makes for some dangerous filter bubbles, especially if the main alternative sources of news for American conservatives then appear to be Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

The trust spectrum is interesting, especially at the extremes. Buzzfeed is trusted by no one, while the Wall Street Journal is trusted by all four of its remaining subscribers. I’d say that it is mighty useful to have a news source that you absolutely do not trust: there’s nothing better to hone your critical faculties. It is most dangerous to trust any media source because it dulls sensibility to stuff and nonsense. At least when you expect limited reliability you are aware of alternative perspectives and the possibility that you are hearing lies, filtered truths and biases.

One of the benefits of old fashioned newspapers, even those with notable biases, is that serendipity always played a role when reading them. Now, with the best of intentions, we get more of the news we explicitly want. When we visit pages, we tend to get recommendations for more of the same (the Landing is ‘guilty’ of this too – we offer recommended content that may be similar whenever you view a page). This is great if you are a learner investigating a topic, not so great if you are hoping to get a well-rounded view of the world. I’m pleased that some people are taking heed of these problems and, rather than reinforcing filter bubbles, they are deliberately bursting them. The Random App (Apple only, sadly) is a good example of a concerted approach to this, mixing random stuff with things that we explicitly express an interest in. We need more of this. It is possible to restore a bit of sane diversity manually: for instance, I get a lot of my news via Pulse, which I have configured with well over 100 feeds, some of which are chosen because they match my interests and leanings, but a lot of which are chosen precisely because they don’t. Crowds are brilliant to learn from if and only if they are sufficiently diverse. 


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Dining with an overweight person makes you eat more

It looks like one mechanism for the already observed spread of obesity through social networks may be extremely simple: people tend to eat more when dining with people who are fatter. Thanks to an ingeniously simple experimental design, this paper shows that it’s not due to any difference in the fatter people’s behaviour. It’s solely due to their size. Interesting.

The study deliberately used eating companions for the study, making this a clear network effect in which people are influenced by those with whom they share a reciprocal connection. I’d be intrigued to discover whether it would make any difference if the fatter people (wearing body prostheses) were simply strangers sitting in the same restaurant, not eating together. I’d hypothesise that the effect would still show up, probably more weakly, but that it might be proportional to the number of people who appeared to be obese. In fact, I am guessing it would probably be more complex than that: for instance, that we might be more influenced by those that we thought were more like us or that we took more of a shine to. If so, this would be more of a set than a network effect. It would be not unlike flocking behaviour in birds: until quite recently it was thought that birds flocked due to a simple network effect that spread from neighbour to neighbour but, as it turns out, they are simply counting the birds nearby that are behaving in a particular way, and going with the majority. Memes may work the same way.

This is about as far from intentional communication as it can get – it’s not even a behaviour that is being copied here but some imagined and possibly inaccurate belief about someone’s past behaviour – and yet the effects may be quite profound and, spread through a society, might have massive large scale effects that spread over into many different aspects of many people’s lives, affecting everything from population health to the economy. It’s one of the reasons that schools and universities are a good idea, quite apart from, and independently of, any intentional teaching that might or might not be having an effect. When you see people around you behaving in a particular way, you are more likely to behave similarly. If it seems normal to be actively learning, there’s a much greater chance that you will do so too. Behaviours (even imagined ones) are highly infectious.

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Teaching Crowds: Learning and Social Media

The free PDF preview of the new book by me and Terry Anderson is now available from the AU Press website. It is a complete and unabridged version of the paper book. It’s excellent value!

The book is about both how to teach crowds and how crowds can teach us, particularly at a distance and especially with the aid of social software.

For the sake of your health we do not recommend trying to read the whole thing in PDF format unless you have a very big and high resolution tablet or e-reader, or are unusually comfortable reading from a computer screen, but the PDF file is not a bad way to get a flavour of the thing, skip-read it, and/or to find or copy passages within it. You can also download individual chapters and sections if you wish. 

The paper and epub versions should be available for sale at the end of September, 2014, at a very reasonable price. 

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Three glimpses of a fascinating future

I’d normally post these three links as separate bookmarks but each, which have popped up in the last few days, share a common theme that is worth noting:

In this, a neural network made out of the brain cells of a rat is trained to fly a flight simulator.

In this, signals are transmitted directly from one brain to another, using non-invasive technologies (well – if you can call a large cap covered in sensors and cables ‘non-invasive’!)

This reports on a DARPA neuromodulation/neuroaugmentation project to embed tiny electronic devices in brains to (amongst other things) cure brain diseases and conditions, augment brain function and interface with the outside world (including, presumably, other brains). This article contains an awesome paragraph:

“What makes all of this so much more interesting is the fact that, unlike all the other systems of the body, which tend to reject implants, the nervous system is incorporative—meaning it’s almost custom-designed to handle these technologies. In other words, the nervous system is like your desktop computer— as long as you have the right cables, you can hook up just about any peripheral device you want.”

I’m both hugely excited and deeply nervous about these developments and others like them. This is serious brain hacking. Artificial intelligence is nothing like as interesting as augmented intelligence and these experiments show different ways this is beginning to happen. It’s a glimpse into an awe-inspiring future where such things gain sophistication and ubiquity. The potential for brain cracking, manipulation, neuro-digital divides, identity breakdown, privacy intrusion, large-scale population monitoring and control, spying, mass-insanity and so on is huge and scary, as is the potential for things to go horribly wrong in so many new and extraordinary ways. But I would be one of the first to sign up for things like augmenting my feeble brain with the knowledge of billions (and maybe giving some of my knowledge back in return), getting to see the world through someone else’s eyes or even just being able to communicate instantly, silently and unambiguously with loved ones wherever they might be. This is transhumanity writ large, a cyborg future where anything might happen. Smartphones, televisions, the web, social media, all the visible trappings of our information and communication technologies that we know now, might very suddenly become amusing antiques, laughably quaint, redundant and irrelevant. A world wide web of humans and machines (biological and otherwise), making global consciousness (of a kind, at least) a reality. It is hard but fascinating to imagine what the future of learning and knowledge might be in the kind of super-connected scenario that this implies. At the very least, it would disrupt our educational systems beyond anything that has ever come before! From the huge to the trivial, everything would change. What would networked humans (not metaphorically, not through symbolic intermediaries, but literally, in real time) be like? What would it be like to be part of that network? In what new ways would we know one another, how would are attitudes to one another change? Where would our identities begin and end? What would happen if we connected our pets? What would be the effects of a large solar flare that wiped out electronic devices and communication once we had grown used to it all? Everything blurs, everything connects. So very, very cool. So very, very frightening.

Social Media and the 'Spiral of Silence'

Fascinating but flawed Pew report finding that people are not inclined to share controversial views (at least about Edward Snowden) on social media, and far less so than when talking face-to-face. Moreover, this carries over into face-to-face interactions. The ‘spiral of silence’ in the title is to do with how social media habits become social habits in our physical lives. It’s an evocative phrase that suggests harm is being caused. At least, that is how it is presented and how the press are reporting on it. I’m not convinced. Not at all.

The obvious findings


That people are reluctant to stir controversies on social media is not surprising. Most general-purpose social networking systems (which is the subset of social media that the researchers were looking at) indiscriminately connect us and our posts with everyone in our online social network on a given system. This is quite unlike face-to-face converstations where we are intimately aware of our audience and always addressing a smaller subset of the whole, so of course we are aware that some of our audience may not appreciate or care about those opinions. We therefore tend to express them more circumspectly on social media than we do in places where we can better control who we are talking with. This is especially true now that most of us have learned that things are easily misinterpreted online when expressed as text. Moreover, face-to-face, there is little chance that our comments may be happened upon by people some time in the future who are not yet even in our network. This particular problem equally affects social networking systems like the Landing or Google + that make a big point of the ability of members to selectively choose the circles of individuals with whom they share. Given the diversity of the audience and permanence of the result,  it is natural not only to wish not to offend or spark and argument, but also to not want to appear dumb, and to have that dumbness on (semi) permanent record. Face to face, we can correct ourselves when shown to be fools, and no one thinks the less of us but, online, our original foolishness has the same archival permanence as our correction. It is perfectly reasonable to be wary. Furthermore, the the particular issue that Pew chose to investigate (Snowden’s revelations) is far from neutral to the questions they were asking. Thinking about the Snowden/NSA case would likely encourage subjects to focus on the other shadier and malevolent people that might be looking at their posts without their consent or knowledge, not to mention on concerns about privacy on social media in general. Given the nature of the controversy, the survey questions give a reminder that opinions expressed on the subject online might well be used against us. The fact that the study relied upon self-reporting therefore makes it less reliable than it might have been about a less Internet-related topic.

Where it gets interesting

So far so obvious. However, the study goes further. The findings appear to show that social media users are more sensitive to the opinions and beliefs of others, both online and off, and are reluctant to share beliefs that differ from those of social media contacts offline as well as on. This is interesting. The study goes on to say that:

“This suggests a spiral of silence might spill over from online contexts to in-person contexts, though our data cannot definitively demonstrate this causation. It also might mean that the broad awareness social media users have of their networks might make them more hesitant to speak up because they are especially tuned into the opinions of those around them.” 

So, the suggestion is that engagement in social media sensitizes us to others in what might be seen as quite positive ways – social media users care more about what other people think. The downside of this is the fact that we are therefore less likely to challenge things that we see as wrong, less inclined to express dissent, and this may have deep unforeseen consequences for society as a whole. In effect, social media are making us all a little more Canadian! Well, maybe. The researchers laudably note that they cannot demonstrate this causation though, unfortunately and with far less good conscience, they put ‘spiral of silence’ into the title, suggesting that this is what they have actually found and making sensationalist headlines considerably more likely. Bad move.   

There is another interpretation.

I was surprised to discover that “an internet user is 1.63 times more likely to have obtained even a little news on the Snowden-NSA revelations from radio and television than a non-internet user.” So, not only are Internet users more sociable than non-users in real life, they also pay more attention to broadcast sources. This is particularly true of Twitter and Instagram users (3.67 and 4.02 times more likely than a non Internet user, respectively) and less true (though still true) of Pinterest and LinkedIn users.

Though it does discuss possible reasons for inter-media differences, the report does not provide much speculation on the reasons for the internet-user/non-user divide. I speculate (in Devil’s advocate mode) that it might be because it is increasingly hard to find people that are not Internet users, especially in America where this survey was conducted. In this particular case only 456 of 1801 participants were not Internet users, which is surprisingly high at around 25%, but still sufficiently small to make one suspicious. In a good number of cases the reasons for not being Internet-connected are undoubtedly economic, which in itself makes for a demographic that is far from representative. Also, there is probably some significant skewing due to the fact that those who intentionally (whether through fear or deliberate action) divorce themselves from the world of the Internet, even though they could afford it, may have a different attitude to electronic media in general. Either way, this is not comparing like with like. As an overall demographic, non-Internet users are likely becoming increasingly unusual and non-representative of the population as a whole, so perhaps willingness to discuss political hot potatoes is sympomatic of the same thing or things that prevent them from engaging online in the first place. It might well be that what we see on social media has always been the norm and that the skewing in this case is simply revealing that those who do not use the Internet are, on average, different, and they always have been. Maybe they care less what others think or feel. Or maybe their being offline proves that they are more critically atuned. Maybe (and very likely) the topic chosen is one that reinforces and confirms their deep suspicion of the Internet, about which they feel strongly enough both to avoid it and to make their feelings known to others. Whatever, the chances are that there are some common differences.

Equally, the fact that there are also differences between people that use different social media might be due to the kinds of socialization the systems support, rather than differences caused by the media themselves. For instance, most of us choose LinkedIn for professional contacts and information, while we use other sites for different kinds of social activity. People are almost certainly more drawn to social media that support how they tend to want to behave than those that don’t, notwithstanding the strong peer pressure and network effects that make some of them join in anyway. And, just because they join them, doesn’t mean that they use each of them for the same purposes. Those of us that use multiple social media tend to use them differently, with different (often overlapping) networks and different intents. Different levels of political debate are likely not caused by the social media and the networks that inhabit them: we choose those networks because of those differences.

I am not suggesting that any of my speculations are better than the conclusions drawn by the researchers or commentators on the research in the International press (that are, not unexpectedly, very selective about the findings they report on). The point is that this research does not appear to prove my speculations false.  I’m almost sure that the researchers are correct in thinking that different social media reinforce different behaviours, that we are affected by norms and behaviours of others on social media, and that our behaviour in social media has an effect on our behaviour in the physical world. It would be exceedingly odd if it did not. But I’m not at all sure that these results show that. To prove that point I think it would be a minimal requirement to at least do a longitudinal study that shows behavioural changes when people engage in new social media, rather than a snapshot of how they behave now in the context of a topic that is deeply relevant to social media use. It is irresponsible to suggest causation where all that has been found is correlation, with very good grounds for suspecting other causal factors play a significant role and the methodology itself introduces bias. That’s a crucial flaw and it’s a pity, because there is plenty of good information in this report and some thought-provoking findings. It does not need a gutter-press friendly veneer.

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On the Design of Social Media for Learning

A paper by me and Terry Anderson that draws ideas about soft and hard technologies and our model of social forms together.

Abstract: This paper presents two conceptual models that we have developed for understanding ways that social media can support learning. One model relates to the “social” aspect of social media, describing the different ways that people can learn with and from each other, in one or more of three social forms: groups, networks and sets. The other model relates to the ‘media’ side of social media, describing how technologies are constructed and the roles that people play in creating and enacting them, treating them in terms of softness and hardness. The two models are complementary: neither provides a complete picture but, in combination, they help to explain how and why different uses of social media may succeed or fail and, as importantly, are intended to help us design learning activities that make most effective use of the technologies. We offer some suggestions as to how media used to support different social forms can be softened and hardened for different kinds of learning applications.

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I’ve completely moved to social media | Scobleizer

So, Robert Scoble has left the blogosphere. I’m not entirely sure in what sense his blog was not an instance of social media but I do know why this bothers me. It’s not just that he no longer owns his own space but that we don’t either. I am certainly not going to use Facebook to follow him – the company has neither his nor my interests in mind. I might catch the odd post via Twitter or Google+, but it will be lost in a sea of other things and won’t grab my attention, and any attempt I might make to organize and control the tide will be susceptible to the whims of the companies that own the sites, who are playing a much too large role in determining what I get to see in my particular filter bubble as it is.

If I’m going to be in a bubble then I want to be the one that makes it. The great thing about blogs is that they are distributed, not centralized, owned by individuals, not organizations. This is not just important to the individuals that they belong to, but to the individuals that read them, subscribe to them, aggregate them, remix them and learn from them. That’s why things like WordPressElgg (that runs this site) and Known (by Ben Werdemuller, who co-developed Elgg) matter more than all the glitzy social silos put together.


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SocialCom 2014

Social Computing & Networking is an IEEE conference for those interested in how computers can affect and support social engagement. It is distinctly biased to the computing end of this spectrum and tends to have a lot of stuff concerned with social network theory and similar issues, but it covers some broader and more human-oriented ground too. The paper submission deadline is August 25th and the conference itself is in Sydney Australia, Dec 3-5 this year.

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Communities Vs. Networks: To Which Do You Belong? | The Art of Manliness

I am often surprised at the occasional academic depth, reflectiveness and perspicuity of articles in the Art of Manliness website, which does have a slight tendency to (manly) frivolity much of the time and is as likely to discuss shaving as it is the meaning and value of ritual. This is article is definitely on the academic side and it’s a good read although, as this is an area I am a little familiar with, I do see a few flaws, fuzzy thoughts and shortcuts here and there. The authors Brett & Kate McKay, appear to draw rather heavily on John Taylor Gatto who, in his fine book ‘Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling‘, makes a rather curious distinction between networks, communities and institutions (that are, in his terminology, actually networks). While the book has many strengths and some excellent and powerful points to make, its curious and rather puzzling terminology, that perhaps made a little sense in the early 90s before the study of networks became a significant field, is not one of them. I don’t think this is a great starting point.

The distinction made by the McKays and Gatto between communities and networks is superficially the same as that made by Wenger, Trayner and de Laat, and seems similar to the distinction that Terry Anderson and I (and others, such as Barry Wellman and Stephen Downes) have made between groups and networks. However, the differences appear very early on. For the authors of this post, a community is an organic and autonomous entity made up of families bound together by geography and shared values – in short, they are talking about a community of place, in its traditional village/tribal sense, though they confuse the issue later on by blurring this a little with communities of interest and communities of practice when they exhort us to go and make our own tribes. While a community of this sort is easy to identify, and such communities do tend to share a few common features, the similarities between them are skin deep. Such communities can and do exhibit and encompass a wide variety of social forms, including actual networks, as well as groups and sets, along with clusters of those forms. Empirically, there is no idealized form or pattern that all exhibit – it depends on the context. They can be violent, exclusionary, isolating, and many other things that are far from healthy. While there is value in examining communities of place/practice/interest, they are really a starting point for further investigation, not an endpoint, and certainly not a particular kind of thing to be extolled in its own right.  The McKays (following Gatto to some extent) are using the term ‘community’ as a shorthand for a rose-tinted idealized kind of supportive, nurturing, small-scale society that has probably seldom if ever existed. It’s a thinly veiled ‘good old days’ argument that is based on belief rather than research. Dunbar’s Number doesn’t imply warm cuddly coziness of the sort described here.

Conversely, the McKays’ (and Gatto’s) concept of networks appears much closer to what I would recognize as a hierarchically structured group (in some of its guises) or a group-like set such as a religion or tribe.  The concept is used a bit fuzzily and appears to include sets and nets that result from product marketing as well as more formally organized tribal forms that certainly includes schools and universities, and that I’m guessing should also include religions, cities and nations. For the McKay’s, a network is designed for a purpose, has leaders, is deliberately nurtured, and is to some extent dehumanizing, inasmuch as it is not much concerned with caring and is deliberately divisive along functional/interest lines. The concept is elided with networks of the sort companies try to develop around their products, which is carrying things a bit far and a few miles from what I think Gatto had in mind when he used the term. I think this is a bit of an invented straw man. It is easy to define a kind of social collection that we don’t much like and point to many examples, but I don’t think it helps. It is self-confirming. Moreover, this is not the kind of network most of us mean when we think of networks. A network, for most of us researching in the field, does not have boundaries, nor purposes, nor imposed hierarchies, and is different depending on whose perspective you take: everyone has different networks from everyone else, though we may be share membership of the same groups and sets.  Networks operate through and beyond those idealized communities and, to a large extent, are what drive and bind them. We have strong (very strong) as well as weak ties, and these are as human and personal as they get.  I think that the McKays are actually talking about the difference between intimate bands and designed organizations/institutions here, though it is a bit blurry. Following a little from Dunbar, they are talking about ways that people organize communities when the communities become too large for everyone to know everyone else and so begin to develop organizational strata and foci that are designed (or evolve) to let people live together productively and safely.

While I find the conceptual distinctions fuzzy, the general thinking behind the article is likeable: that we should not exchange our physical communities for a technologized substitute for real human interaction. Such communities of real, supportive people are part of what make us human. As the authors admit, there is great value to be had from larger organizational forms, online communities, and relationships  at a distance, and such things can be a great supplement to, cradle for and sustainer of rich human connections, but that does not mean such things should replace our connections with those around us. Happily, most of the research I have read on the subject suggests that they do not and, if anything, they strengthen traditional bonds of friendship and kinship. 

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