Tag Archive | knowledge

exam revision: epistemology and ontology

Some brief summaries for the DT840 exam in research methods and skills. I am revising the secondary literature and OU course material as discussed on 4th and 8th August.

Ontological and epistemological positions provide fundamental aspects of research as they concern the philosophical questions what counts as reality and how beings come into being as well as what constitutes knowledge and how knowledge comes to be established. Two core positions can be distinguished in either area: positivist and constructionist.

  • positivist ontology: the world is ‘out there’, it operates in a systematic and lawful manner, discrete and observable events, reality is separate from human meaning-making;
  • constructionist ontology: assumes the world we can study is a semiotic world of meanings, represented in signs and symbols, language is central to this position;
  • positivist epistemology: knowledge can only be gained by gathering facts in a systematic and objective manner, predominantly by the experimental method and by testing of hypotheses in order to gradually build laws. The aim is to refine them and achieve applicability on a universal level;
  • constructionist epistemology: knowledge is constructed rather than discovered, it is a representation of the ‘real world’ and interpreted by the researcher. Knowledge is subject to time-space configurations and a means of power (e.g. doctors as ‘architects of medical knowledge’). Scientists and their institutions shape the production of knowledge by their choices and values.

These positions significantly shape research designs and methodologies.

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Crowd-sourcing responsibility: Google and the Italian bullies’ video

Today’s news, covering the Google content trial’s delay, made me connect my current notions on ethics to the wider issues of responsibility in the virtual world. The BBC (Technology) reported that the continuing court case against Google Italy could “have major ramifications for content providers around the globe”. Posted in 2006, shortly before Google acquired YouTube, a video was published, “which showed a teenager with Down’s Syndrome being bullied”. Accused of “defamation and violating privacy”, the prosecutors want to see the four Google executives being charged (up to three years in prison) for not engaging enough monitoring staff and lack of content-filtering devices in place.

Basically, I agree with the Italian prosecutors in that last point. However, arguing that Google, YouTube or Dailymotion should be obliged to seek consent of all those appearing in a video is a step in the wrong direction. Rather than stifling social media sites with bureaucratic measures and creating new problems resulting in problems such as:

  • defining what constitutes consent and who can give consent
  • verifying authenticity of consenting parties
  • ensuring successful follow up of consent when changes have been made to a video

it would be time to think about users who produce and consume (produsers, following Axel Bruns) as involved, responsible, and potentially proactive audiences. Their practices of consuming and distributing content by options such as ‘favourite’, ‘share’ etc. are not given and static, but are socially constructed and hence, they can be shaped and re-constructed. In fact, they should be developed with the users (supposed a learning user is the one imagined by corporations and regulatory bodies), rather than against them.

The kind of protectionist politics informing the debate around the Italian court case echo approaches based on censorship and responsibilities, placed in the hands of a limited number of profit-making organisations rather than the 21st century communities of users. Crowd-sourcing has many faces, one of those is to harness the power of the communities and engage them in the dynamic processes of reviewing, critiquing, and reporting/suggesting changes or removals. Yet, unless the facilities are provided, little will happen in this regard.

I wished corporations would come up with more innovative ideas and helped to expand the notion of citizenship. The least promising option is full broadcast rights applied to social media, resulting most likely in a new wave of passive consumers. Hence, rather than continuing to favour and expanding an ideology of a welfare state policing its territory and society, it would be a lot more beneficial and sustainable to develop a stronger sense of responsibility, citizenship and connectivity in online space that impacts upon offline settings. For instance:

  • obligatory pop-up tutorials (brief, relevant and in plain language – similar to plagiarism statement we use as students at The Open University when submitting papers online)
  • an extended and meaningful Q’n’A section: it is not sufficient to provide a REPORT button and suggest that’s all that can be done – complaint processes must be transparent and efficient
  • citizens who face a lack of resources when reporting crime in real life will have little trust in online processes aiming at regulation: duality rather than outsourcing is required
  • an ethical turn – driven by corporations who understand that profit and ethics belong together as ignoring these repercussions, social ills can be tackled in concerted efforts rather than technology-based workarounds
  • governments present role-models, they need to do their homework: bullying (as well as other crimes) start in real life, where they need to be taken seriously. Online practices can change and make a contribution towards changes of offline/real life social practices (including reduction of neglect, ignorance, and apathy).

Internet freedom comes in a package with responsibility, I believe, and we cannot assume there is a universal sense of inherent responsibility adopted by each user who uploads or watches videos. But we can work towards stronger ethics, responsibility and citizenship. And we can start understanding that less simplified regulation would be beneficial beyond the one individual instance when the upload was prevented – otherwise, the bullying, the filming, and distribution of such content will continue, by other means, in other ways – it would be a lot less visible and less traceable, though.

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It’s not intuitive: the case for online education

In mid-April Howard Rheingold wrote about 21st Century Literacies, I remembered his post when I came across a tweet linking to a comment on The Chronicle of Higher Education made by Elayne Clift (a college and university lecturer since 1987). Her first experiences with the virtual classroom made me wonder whether those who have been engaging with online practices and communities over the past decades tend to take for granted that new users find intuitively their way and resort to best practices. By instinct, so to speak.

While online collaboration tools such as FirstClass, Moodle, Wikis and Social Networking Sites have been celebrated increasingly as the way forward for public and private enterprises, those who are left behind are not only those who are trapped in the digital divide. Clift gave five reasons why online teaching resulted in an ‘I’ll never do it again’ – and I doubt the reasons are actually ‘technophobia’ or being ‘plain old-fashioned’ as she had suspected. The reasons she gave were:

  • Anonymity and the lack of physical elements involved in f2f interaction as major obstacle,

  • ‘lack of immediacy’ resulted from her viewpoint in a poor quality of education,

  • ‘distance learning’ involves credit being granted for independent work rather than based on a structured curriculum that had ‘theories and key thinkers’ at its heart – a minus, she finds.

  • Online courses would be too big.

  • There would be no way to help students to ‘develop better writing and critical thinking skills or to foster original ideas’.

  • Finally, Clift concluded that ‘online teaching can be very punishing’ and she felt she had devoted a lot more time – as she attempted to be available online 24/7 – but no compensation was offered.

I felt sorry for her and the students – online learning (involving the teacher as learning agent) can be a lot better than this. It strikes me that someone so experienced in teaching obviously made little attempt to take a more structured approach towards a new cognitive experience. So what went wrong?

Studying – and teaching – in an online environment such as The Open University is not an intuitively available experience. Marking (including commenting) schemes, moderating discussion groups (and resolving online conflicts), stimulating and regulating debate (discuss! – is not sufficient) are practices that need training and improve with experience. Neither students nor teachers need to be constantly available -I think many people learned this when we started using email, years ago. Or even further back, in the days when the telephone was the one device that brought distant people together, with nothing but the voice to interpret, intruding with a blaring ring people’s domestic sphere, at any time. How dare you – moral panics, also then.

Clearly, there is a considerable amount of emotional labour required and involved in online communication and teaching, but then, text-based communication is only one way to interact. There is VoIP with Skype and other providers for IM or video calls. Yet, also here, the big silence can strike. Someone you talk to may misinterpret nearly everything, or say nothing at all. I had lecturers who kept there messages so brief it was rude beyond abrupt – and useless in terms of constructive feedback. And they would never make an effort and go beyond this minimalist talk nor would they use any social networking sites.

Yet I have also had fantastic lecturers who made an enormous effort in helping me to improve my writing and analytical skills. Some had impressive skills in terms of providing me with constructive feedback, they also managed to structure the study load defined by the faculty in so far as they offered additional readings for those who were hungry for more food for thought. Independent work and in-depth knowledge of theoretical frameworks have been pretty much in balance, ever since my second undergraduate year, hence, Clift’s experience may have been fairly different under different conditions.

Being able to communicate clearly, express emotions, doubts and impressions clearly – we all have seen *grins*, *blushing*, LOL as placeholders for invisible body language – is key to successful and satisfying computer-mediated communication (CMC). Choose your own, if this kind of lingo is not age-appropriate for you. There are no hard and fast rules but then this applies to real life too, right.

Dealing with one’s own uncertainties and the ghost called ‘imagined audience’ may have been at stake in Clift’s case, in addition to poor institutional planning. As Rheingold pointed out ‘digital culture depends to a very large degree on what we know, learn, and teach each other’, indicating it is a 2-way process. Acquisition of such skills and knowledge takes a cognitive journey that would entail to discuss learning in online settings with students themselves; yet, this in turn is based on the notion of the teacher as a learner and poses a potential risk to their hierarchical position.

New objectifications, alienations and dynamics are at play; with an infrastructure that can be very empowering but is not intuitively available to us just because we are experts in some field called education and have reached a certain age and status, I hope Clift will get another chance to try online teaching – leaving her with much more positive experiences.

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Born Digital – get the critical questioning upgrade

In Digital First Diana Kimball at Harvard University recently discussed the extent of tech-savvyness which teenagers born in the digital era actually possess. It related straight to the conversation I have had with jayprich on adult internet sceptics.

Diana argued that “most Digital Natives don’t treat cruising the Internet as an activity in itself. It’s a tool you use when you want to do something else. What sets Digital Natives apart is their willingness to go to the Internet first—when they have a question, when they want to do something cool, when they want to find someone to hang out with”. As much as I can agree with that in the specific North-American context, I see a different picture elsewhere: for instance by looking at African countries. In September 2008 the number of internet users in Ghana was still below 3 percent of the nation’s population which counts more than 20 million individuals.

Digital Natives are first of all a generation marked by their parents’ economic [as well as social and cultural] capital which has translated into a number of smart choices, resulting in what Max Weber coined life chances. Access to knowledge, being involved in knowledge production and being able to identify relevant information in order to make informed choices is what produces and reproduces better life chances.

A great illustration of cultural capital is Brian Donovan’s excerpt of Woody Allen’s Manhattan:

Acquiring an iPhone, for instance, requires economic capital which translates into symbolic capital as it currently holds a certain status, that in turn may well pay off in social capital as it could help to connect with people online as well as offline (Pierre Bourdieu’s famous work ‘Distinctions’ spring to mind, though). Now having an iPhone does not necessarily mean you know how to smartly harness and exploit the online worlds: you may browse the internet, filter, and come up with hundreds of thousands of results on Google. Even middle-aged professionals manage to do that these days – it’s all so user-friendly and intuitive, isn’t it… Yet, I argue it is the critical thinking, the questioning mind which is actually what sets people apart.

Personally, I am intrigued by the widespread lack of critical questioning when it comes to authorship, production of knowledge and distribution of allegedly authoritative knowledge. There is quite a number of people whom I call Wikipedia-fetishists who are a) unaware of the cultural contexts which inform Wikipedia sites (one of the most striking examples is the material available around November 11 in German Wikipedia versus the English sites) b) take for granted what has been published there because it sounds all pretty convincing – and is in line with other sources of authoritative knowledge c) use search engines mainly in their native language and don’t know that there is google.it, google.fi, google.de, google.co.uk to name only a few.

Now, going first to the internet may also be a step done out of convenience. As the internet is a universe on a massive scale providing information by ‘official’ experts as well as various shades of self-declared experts researching any topic in depth is getting ever more difficult. Which is probably a good thing: it’s challenging and it requires skills. These research skills combined with a critically questioning mind is exactly what will set apart the Generation Digital User from the Generation Born Digital. It may also may make us think about the chronology-based and hierarchy-informed meaning of the word ‘generation’.

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the future: billions of social media users – what is actually really changing?

The voices which claim that new tools equal new perceptions, change would be everywhere – dramatic, revolutionary – are getting ever louder, it seems. Creating technology and the use of new tools are undoubtedly offering enormous potential. We may create new and multiple selves, we can connect ourselves with a myriad of others in unprecendented ways and we can harness our imagination in more efficient ways than ever before.

Yet, these dynamics are multiplied and amplified by the flows of information which are subject to our social, economic and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986). While in these days of massive economic downturn the calls for expanding the digital infrastructure and reducing the digital divide within industrialised nations remain audible, the number of those who critically debate the use of such celebrated tools by users other than teenagers, educational institions and coporations are still fairly small. Is there an assumption that the ways of using new social media are inherent in the techne (Boellstorff, 2008 )  itself?

Are we assuming that there is a universal approach towards connecting and sharing online as we are all driven by the desire to share and connect? Are we all driven by the desire to share and connect, we need to ask first. I find that, similar to television and radio for instance, the way individuals use new social media and the perspective they choose – consciously? – to make sense of it varies considerably. National background, social class, gender – but to a lesser extent also age and perhaps even marital status – make the difference.

Feeling powerless, lacking clear guidance and being highly sceptic of the usefullness lead to questions such as: What am I supposed to do there? How much time am I supposed to spent ‘in there’? How many more social networking sites and social bookmarking systems am I supposed to use? Passive resistance and a sense of being pressured into virtual being seem to dominate among those who choose to rather not participate in ‘the hype’. The many resisting half-hearted users seem to be widely neglected in those enthusiastic debates and deserve more attention if we aim at an increased understanding of virtual worlds and well-being in the online and offline contexts. Aren’t those who actually feel very uncomfortable with new social media at risk to make the least of the chances and choices available due to their low level of explorative engagement but yet shape actively and perhaps significantly the discourses offline?

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you’ve got power: bloggers and microbloggers set the pace

On 18 December Vietnam approved new blogging restrictions that aim at regulating bloggers’ content which the government deems sensitive or inappropriate. National providers are requested to report and remove posts which

  • undermine national security,
  • incite violence or crime,
  • disclose state secrets,
  • or include inaccurate information that could damage the reputation of individuals and organizations.

The booming blogosphere which is growing fast into an alternative newsroom has provided a wakeup call to the government which is resorting to drastic measures of censorship. State-controlled media in a communist state is no longer the only source of information with bloggers seizing power and spreading what is perceived as harmful. The language itself is subject to regulations which encourage bloggers to write in ‘clean and healthy Vietnamese’.

Outside Vietnam, traditional media is getting increasingly under pressure. The Financial Times titled on 22 December: ‘Plane crash geek Twitters from burning Denver aircraft, Philippe Naughton’. Real-time citizen journalism also played a significant role in the recent Mumbai attacks when users posted the events in 140 character messages into the online sphere. Twitter had come under attack for providing terrorists at the scene with information about the situation.

Giving away some of the power traditional or state-owned media used to hold is still widely perceived as inviting anarchism and social chaos. Societies and governments are going through the very challenging processes of getting used to listening to their people’s views – who’ve got a lot to say, it turns out. How to control this? When and what exactly is to be controlled? By whom? Currently, there are still far too many in control who are non-users of the new social media, those who neither blog, wiki, facebook or twitter. In short: those who actually do not have any expertise in the very field they want to regulate so desparately.

Successful ‘control’, i.e. such that is neither patronising nor does it trigger instant resistance but is adapted by users as enabling and empowering, may rather come from peers than in the traditional top-down manner. After all, bloggers and microbloggers are technically already able to remove messages and exercise self-moderation if required. Instilling a sense of responsible information-sharing while learning to produce quality content is the actual challenge at stake. Yet, with all the shifts in external control and regulation a review of internal mechanisms is to me the more realistic and sustainable approach: self-reflection and self-evaluation of one’s own contribution strengthen the sense of ownership and third party assessment. It is not just citizens who need to learn how to engage and publish with responsibility – it is also governments who need to learn to take their citizens seriously and work in collaboration with them on information-sharing in a globalised world.

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currency exchange: let’s pay in comments

With the British Pound being at a pitiful low rate against the Euro – it’s near parity – I think it’s a good moment to bridge finance and blogging. Comments count as currency in the blogosphere. Given the comments are useful and the reader has taken the time to read through the post, beyond the first two sentences.
In a world where time is a very scarce good, it seems commenting on someone else’s blogpost is not exactly the most rewarding thing to do. So why bother? Why engage in the tiresome – and often also emotional – labour of producing content?
Chrysten Dybenko argued in June this year that only 1% of the active population would ever produce content, no matter if blog, wiki or comments on a site. Now, in January 2008 there were 59 million Facebook users which have more than doubled within the year: according to Facebook there are currently 140 million active users. All these people (individual or collective agents) produce content and demand attention. In my online sphere I see more than 1 in 100 Facebook users commenting on each others’ activities with status updates being the easiest to spot. On Twitter the rate is certainly even higher – but on blogs? That’s indeed a different story. Because the content and comment production is also more time consuming and less spontaneous?

Comments are the one core ingredient that make blogging a lot more of a dialogical activity. There is no point in telling the invisible or imagined audiences what wonderful things you think without getting any feedback. Yet, it’s exactly what many corporations still do on their top-down style websites but if you are not one of the anxious producers you are keen on hearing what readers think.

Or what your readers ‘out there’ produce on their sites. That’s what trackbacks and pingbacks are good for. That’s what produces social capital. But the one thing I am truly keen on is cultural capital. It’s the critical question that indicates someone has thought through and beyond the stuff you offered. And spotted the weaknesses. Or the strengths. And gave you food for thought. Something to come back to and make it better. That’s the material that you take with you from your online world into the offline world. That makes you post something like an answer. Online. Or talk back, offline – and to someone who does not even know you are a blogger. Bring the thoughts and comments back into different contexts. Generate new ideas.

The hybrid places where online and offline merge and we notice that what we give and get online may have an impact on our identities much bigger than many are willing to admit. And it seems, our identities are rather merged phenomenon than fragmentations…

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