‘…it’s through participation in communities that deep learning occurs. People don’t learn to become physicists by memorizing formulas; rather it’s the implicit practices that matter most. Indeed, knowing only the explicit, mouthing the formulas, is exactly what gives an outsider away. Insiders know more. By coming to inhabit the relevant community, they get to know not just the “standard” answers, but the real questions, sensibilities, and aesthetics, and why they matter.’
BROWN, J. S. Learning in the digital age. In: DEVLIN, M., LARSON, R. & MEYERSON, J., eds. The Internet and the university: 2001 Forum, 2001 Boulder, CO. EDUCAUSE, 71-86.
With the news that the collaborative crowdsourcing project Constitution UK (led by the Institute of Public Affairs and Learning Technology and Innovation at the LSE) has been awarded the 2016 Campus Technology Teaching and Learning Innovator award, it seemed an appropriate time to reflect on what was truly an amazing project that reshaped how people engage and learn in an online environment. It challenged the traditional pedagogical approaches of many open programmes like MOOCs by engaging in learning that came through being a citizen of the crowd. It was an active role for the community, where they created and owned the learning space, supported how it grew and welcomes new participants each week and collectively debated some of the most critical issues faced by a democratic society in a fiercely engaged, participatory and open way.
This is a challenging task, one in which the internet is often criticizing for making harder, with writers like Habermas (2006) noting that whilst the internet has revitalized grassroots activism, it has equally allowed it to be fragmented into tiny publics. Along with a whole swathe of writers (like Castells and Bruns) he challenged the capability of the internet to generate ‘ideal speech’, a prerequisite for a participatory democracy. In 1990 Habermas identified three criteria for what he believed constituted ideal speech, summarized here by Neuman, Bimber and Hindman (2011);
1. Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse;
2. Everyone is allowed to express their attitudes, desires and needs and to introduce or question any assertion whatever; and,
3. No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising the rights as laid down in (1) and (2) above
NEUMAN, W. R., BIMBER, B. & HINDMAN, M. 2011. The Internet and four dimensions of citizenship. In: SHAPIRO, R. & JACOBS, L. (eds.) The Oxford handbook of American public opinion and the media. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The Constitution UK project was underpinned by the idea that truly democratic approach to participation and learning comes from an engaged community participating in open debate, ideating and solving problems collectively and democratically and owning the safe space for these interactions to occur. Further, that learning can come from this process through problem solving, peer engagement and making and sharing, melding both a constructivist and connectivist pedagogy through social media. It was a truly open community that encouraged all citizens to participate, it encouraged debate on controversial (and less controversial!) issues and it grew in size week after week, which was the exact opposite of the pattern of engagement of most other online programmes. And yes, of course it was fragmented, that is one of the most powerful reasons it worked. Fragmentation is not a curse, it allows people to form and develop expertise. However most critically, there needs to be a way to bring these micro-expertises together, share them, aggregate them, challenge their relevance and re-make them into a bigger whole. For us, this process was crowdsourcing using social media.
One of the most exciting aspects of the project for me was the capacity of an online learning experience to make and shape an effective learning community. Most online experiences are plagued by the inability of the programme to leverage the community of learners in order to deliver a transformative, disruptive or inspirational experience. Week 1 engagements are often dominated by a lot of people shouting and almost no-one listening;
Hi, I am Steve. I can’t wait to study on this course. I am so excited about the idea of talking to other people about shoe repair.
Hola, I’m Valerie. Shoe repair has been my passion since I was a four-year-old playing cobbler. This course is perfect, can’t wait to chat.
Is anyone out there? My name is Nicholas and I have collected shoes for nearly 30 years; would you believe it? Really want to engage and talk with other shoe repair fans.
What are the chances that Valerie, Steve and Nicholas responded to each other on the platform, or to the twenty thousand others who entered in week 1? Community is something that people crave from a university learning experience. Being part of a learning community (as opposed to a community of learners) can be in equal parts empowering, frightening, challenging and inspiring. But what happens when the community ascends from simply a collective of asynchronous, one-way communications to being able to crowd-source knowledge and solve problems? When that community can leverage the power of the massive and through technology can span location, engage in social behaviours and create and share knowledge? It is at that point it becomes truly transformative. Community learning experiences build on the social aspects of learning; collaboration, collective assessment and engagement, group work etc. and transform them through collegiality, shared experiences and co-operative expertise.
In this age of internet shaming, twitter fights, racial hatred and abuse being played out through the relative anonymity of social media and discourse being reduced to mindless insult and blatant lies, that the need for an inclusive community has never been greater. Constitution UK built such a community. It embraced the views of over 1500 people on controversial topics such as the monarchy, human rights, citizenship, democracy and yes, the role of Europe. The community argued, debated, disagreed, came together, refined and voted. The community learnt from each other with over 80% of the ‘learners’ agreeing that they learnt something through the project, many learning from their interactions with other community members. What was fascinating was that whilst inside this community, inclusivity and civility predominantly drove engagement, outside when the debate spilt into Facebook the exact opposite occurred. When a call for participation in the project was put on Facebook and which expressly identified the need for greater female participation in the democratic discourse and in parliament (in part to address our own gender bias within the project), a misogynistic argument ensued in the comments, tainted with sexist vitriol, misinformed hate speech and implied threats of violence against women and their ‘sympathizers’.
Why did Facebook breed such behaviors? Behaviours that are counter to everything that the project and its community stood for? This for me is the complexity of learning through social media. It is a messy space, shaped by both the ability to throw stones anonymously and in equal parts represent yourself more accurately than you ever could face to face. It is a chaotic space where rules are designed to eliminate only the most heinous or puritanical of behaviours. It is also one of the most emancipatory of spaces, where identity can be constructed in a way that allows the parts of you that are frequently hidden, repressed or unable to be expressed, freedom and given a voice. Constitution UK used a social media platform designed to support and encourage ideation, democracy and collective decision-making (called Crowdicity). We had a light touch in terms of registration (name and email address). But through a well- designed process of moderator engagement, guerilla interventions from our academics, well-planned topics and a set of mutually agreed ‘rules’ and behaviours, we avoided all of the negative and dark sides of social media engagement. We produced over one million words of debate, thousands of ideas and an agreed written constitution of 8000 words.
‘Social media has facilitated a complex, co-created and immediate form of learning response, where content and openness challenge the closed, structured nature of modern higher education. Social media has had significant impacts on the way learners connect with people and with the knowledge they require in order to learn across a variety of contexts. Social media support more than user interactivity, they support the development and application of user-generated content, collaborative learning, network formation, critical inquiry, relationship building, information literacy, dynamic searching and reflection.’
BRYANT, PETER (2015) Disrupting how we ‘do’ on-line learning through social media: a case study of the crowdsourcing the UK constitution project. In: 14th European Conference on e-Learning, 29-30 October 2015, University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield
So, why did our community gel together and become such an inclusive, positive, engaged and productive one? In part it drew from the capability of social media to deliver space for sociable conversation and engagement similar to face-to-face (Prybus 2015), whilst allowing for the blurring of social and professional practices. Whilst civic debate and participation have moved to on-line platforms, the capacity of traditional tools of civic engagement to keep up is constantly challenged. For example, most opinion polling is conducted via telephone, which does not actively engage a significant proportion of the voting population who communicate exclusively online with Clark (2015) reporting;
Phone polling used to be regarded as less biased, but Sturgis cautions: “Many households are increasingly reluctant to pick up their landline, and a growing proportion of young people in particular rely exclusively on mobile phones”. There is no exhaustive database of mobile numbers to draw on, and there is no consensus among the pollsters on a comprehensive and cost-effective way to factor mobiles into the mix. Social media are contested spaces in terms of digital citizenship, with debates around inclusiveness, access and the digital divide made alongside those that support social media transforming democracy through engaging disenfranchised socio-demographic communities (Ellison & Orchard-Webb 2014 and Merien et al 2010 for example).
Whereas voter turnout, party membership and other more institutionalised forms of political engagement are caught in a downward spiral, innovative ways of civic engagement seem to be on the rise in most liberal democracies (Merien, Hooghe and Quintelier 2010, p.187).
There is no doubt social media spaces for democracy can be troubling, anti-social and even violent. The opportunity for anonymity and sometimes consequence-less abuse and bullying mean that much of the academic and tabloid debate is centered on ‘stranger danger’ and how to avoid the conflicts that sometimes take over social media sites. And equally how easy it is for the rest of the community to fall silent when this behaviour is happening. For many this why social media is not seen seen a legitimate site for civic engagement (McCosker and Johns (2014). They go onto to argue that;
This approach ignores the productive potential of even aggressive and conflict-ridden exchanges to provide new opportunities for young people in particular to make claims and take responsibility as citizens, in ways that embrace what Hartley (2012) describes as the right to act up and the ‘right to dance’
McCosker, Anthony, and Amelia Johns. “Contested publics: Racist rants, bystander action and social media acts of citizenship.” Media International Australia 151.1 (2014): 66-72.
So, back to the question I posed earlier, why did Constitution UK avoid these pitfalls (yet be exposed to them on Facebook). There are a couple of answers to that question. The first was that we placed the solution of a problem as a central part of the pedagogical approach. This was not a cyclical debate, that allowed people to have their say and bugger off. There was an end to the means. It was a problem that the community agreed needed to be solved, which started with the need for a constitution in the first instance, right through to how much of the European ideal should be included. Collective problem solution is at the very heart of our approach to online learning. Many MOOCs use problem solution as an intrinsic individual motivator for participation (I have a problem that needs to be solved so I will do a course; career, interest, gap etc.). Constitution UK built the problem into the fabric of the activity. Ideation, intervention, debate and agreement were all just tools that sought to collectively solve the problem. Sure, have your say, but know that what you say should help solve the problem not just be laid out there like billboard on a highway.
Stephen Brookfield (1994) talks about the dark side of critical reflection and identifies impostership as one of the key barriers to accepting that your engagement and interactions are real and valued and that you are not an imposter of a fake in the discourse. One of the common behavior on social media is the sense of impostership not as negative feeling but as a behaviour driving anonymous abuse, trolling and the use of identity as shield for anti-social behaviour (see Amy Binns somewhat troubling piece from 2013 Facebook’s Ugly Sisters: Anonymity and Abuse on Formspring and Ask.fm. Media Education Research Journal)
No-one felt like an imposter on Constitution UK. This was a discipline field that at best is considered dense and sometimes arcane. It relies on a deep interest in history, civics, law and human rights. Constitutions are written for the people, but rarely by them. It would be easy to feel like an imposter writing a document like it will never matter and is a bit like playing a game of Risk, without real consequences. Constitution UK mattered. It allowed people not normally allowed into the debate to generate ideas, opinions and clauses. It transformed our little corner of civic engagement from the superficial to the participatory. Rarely would you be able as an engaged citizen to see a bill as it is drafted, debate it, refine it and then vote on it. In the main, democracy often comes down to a single mark on a piece of paper, the Brexit referendum was a complex set of questions, reduced to a dichotomous question and divisive rhetoric. Whist the issues in Constitution UK were complex, the debates and ideas were not reductionist. The platform allowed for people to use, develop and challenge theirs and the community’s expertise, draw on the bodies of knowledge from within practice and the academy and make decisions about solving the problem at hand.
A social media community is far more than Facebook and Twitter. Social media explore innovative pedagogical practices like making, ideation, creation, critique, sociality, connected practice, crowd-sourcing, entrepreneurship, digital citizenship, media making, identity, politics and policy. And that is just the start. The communities that form on social media are equally fleeting as they are lasting, large as they are intimate, collaborative as they individual. They support lurkers, talkers, loudmouths, itinerants and learners. But they equally support learning, explicit and tacit and expected and unexpected. Crowdsourcing and community formation through social media is not a ‘trend’, nor is it ‘new’. The days where digital citizenship and on-line learning are predicated on broadcast pedagogies, telling us how to think and vote are numbered. Equally, we will come to rue the day where we as a society declared that the era of the expert is over. A community that is made up of experts, emerging experts, novices and those members seeking to gain expertise through engagement is a force far more powerful than a populist, nationalist uninformed movement. Constitution UK was such a community. There were experts, but they didn’t dictate in any way what we were thinking. There were novices, people who had never engaged in higher education or with an august institution like the LSE. There were people who were advocates for civic engagement but had never thought about a constitution. And they all came together. It was civil, it was polite but most of all, it was where learning happened, collectively and within an engaged community. It was free, it was open, it grew and grew over 14 weeks and it was massive. Steve, Nicholas and Valerie never felt that their voice was screaming into the void. They felt they wrote a constitution for their country. And it doesn’t get more powerful than that.
To find out more about the project, have a read of our blog post http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lti/constitution-uk/
or watch our videos about the project;