Should we apply Ostrom’s design principles to online learning communities?

Getting ready for a second session of Howard Rheingold’s course Toward a Literacy of Cooperation. Today we’ll study Elinor Ostrom, the American political economist who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

As is explained on The Cooperation Commons, Ostrom found that groups that are able to organize and govern their behavior successfully are marked by the following design principles:

1. Group boundaries are clearly defined.
2. Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions.
3. Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules.
4. The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.
5. A system for monitoring member’s behavior exists; the community members themselves undertake this monitoring.
6. A graduated system of sanctions is used.
7. Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.
8. For CPRs that are parts of larger systems: appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

What interests me is that those rules could be used for the management (or facilitation) of online learning communities. Most of the time rules for online learning communities have already been established by the organizers of the platform, but it would be interesting to let the community somehow devise rules and monitor them.

How would that work with large online learning communities? One of the problems would be the boundaries of the group and the monitoring of behavior: can we really identify members (not necessarily by ‘real names’ but by online reputation and persistent avatar identity?).

It seems being part of a group, working together durably so that issues of reputation become relevant, enhances reciprocity and cooperation. I guess that is also the way communities of practice work.

However, how close-knit a group has to be? Is antagonism with other groups desirable because it probably even increases this intra-group cooperation? Is it not a bit suffocating to belong to a community of practice which tries to uphold a certain tradition, a hierarchy of members? (E.g. a group of media professionals, ‘accepting’ student journalists in order to ‘teach’ them the proper principles of journalism – with the best intentions and probably good results… )

The question (and I don’t have the answers yet) I ask myself is whether we can go beyond communities of practice. In the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 the learning&teaching experience is based on the connectivist philosophy/practice. This is what Wikipedia says about one particular aspect of connectivism:

One aspect of connectivism is the use of a network with nodes and connections as a central metaphor for learning. In this metaphor, a node is anything that can be connected to another node within a network such as an organisation: information, data, feelings, images. Connectivism sees learning as the process of creating connections and developing a network. Not all connections are of equal strength in this metaphor; in fact, many connections may be quite weak.

So connectivism is allowing for weak ties, which often turn out to be quite interesting, as those nodes may provide new insights from other perspectives, even though they are not high-level members of some formal or informal group hierarchy.

There is also a price to be paid for the connectivist approach: could there be a higher risk that the principles of cooperation and reciprocity are lost in a connectivist approach? That we’d all end up as lurkers, not contributing anything and just attending silently several meetings or courses, without really engaging ourselves? (In this sense, lurkers would be ‘free riders‘).

In fact, I think there’s not much of a problem. Lurkers do not contribute to the discussion, but they are not harmful as ‘consuming knowledge’ is non-rivalry: the knowledge available for all does not diminish because some people listen without intervening actively.

It appears that even in the absence of “the real possibility” of punishment for non-cooperation people act as if that possibility somehow functions – so lurkers should be given the benefit of the doubt: maybe that mysterious push to contribute will manifest itself once they start attending sessions on a regular basis.

But maybe the problem is not so much ‘free riders’, but participants who contribute negatively. In the case of trolls monitoring and gradually sanctioning can help. But often the problem is not so clear-cut: what if one wants an in-depth discussion, and too many participants add just noise – without really transgressing the boundaries of civil discourse?

Typically learning communities ask their members to do some required and/or recommended reading, so as to ensure at least a minimal common background. While this may be common practice for academically inspired communities, it’s much less self-evident for newspaper discussion groups for instance.

An interesting experiment for media could be to organize discussion groups for specific topics, with the aim to learn stuff or to formulate solutions for certain problems, enabling the members to define rules and expectations, to monitor and sanction the behavior of participants. Such groups would use synchronous (web conferencing, virtual meetings…) and asyncrhonous (forums) communication tools and/or a blogging platform. Gradually more challenging tools could be introduced such as collaborative mindmapping and wikis.

Journalists/bloggers would be facilitators of the interactions and would help introducing the tools. This is one of the major lessons I learn by participating in the Digital Awakening course (#nmfs_f11): how tools have to do with augmenting our humanity.

As became clear during this week’s discussion of Augmenting Human Intellect (Doug Engelbart), introducing a new tool such as a computer (or a portable, a smartphone or tablet) requires careful consideration of the many ways in which a new tool can change our practices. All too often people use new tools with the mindset of a previous phase: using a desktop as a typewriter, a portable as a desktop etc. The same applies for online social tools: social networks risk being used as just the continuation of the office or pub conversation, while they could also empower people to reach out and explore new possibilities. So maybe that’s yet another thing to take into account when designing online learning communities.

Is abundance a myth? The Original Affluent Society and Social Media

I stumbled upon the theme of “abundance” in the Toward a Literacy of Cooperation course (#cooplit) and the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 (see previous posts on this blog about both courses) – and I have some issues with the underlying idea that our advanced societies and technology fundamentally alter the situation of humankind from problems of scarcity into issues regarding abundance. In the MOOC there is a discussion of A Pedagogy of Abundance, a meditation by education technology professor Martin Weller on how researchers and teachers are confronted with the avalanche of available content (and of course, this is something happening in many other activities such as news media, music industry etc). In the Social Media Classroom of the #cooplit Kathy Gill posted about Cooperation, Competition and Power:

At its core, however, I believe that zero-sum thinking reflects a dance for power in a world where resources are limited. But today’s economy is moving towards unlimited, not limited, resources. That’s what digitization does to information — it breaks the scarcity barrier. Pre-digital, if I wanted to read “the newspaper” — then you, my partner, could not read it at the same time (unless you read over my shoulder). That’s gone. Ditto for movies and music. And then there is the co-creation that Howard talked about today — wikipedia, SETI at home. Lots of examples in Tapscott’s Wikinomics. Perhaps cooperation is something that humans can achieve only when they have moved to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In the U.S., at least, systemic cooperation will require a major cultural shift inside and outside of institutions. And a new definition of “success” that does not rely on wielding “power” over others.

Of course, there is much truth in what Weller and Gill say. But still I’m not so sure we come from a situation defined by scarcity and move to an era of abundance, enabling us to freely cooperate and to stop fighting each other. Howard Rheingold in a comment on Gill’s post gives examples of zero-sum situations such as scarcity of water, but I think there is more. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins articulated the theory of the original affluent society, saying that hunter-gatherers often had far more leisure time than people in contemporary societies. It seems industrialized countries are very good in maintaining a feeling of scarcity, however rich they may be in absolute terms. The structure of desire and the never-ending game of shifting reputation signifiers cause scarcity and competition to stay very important aspects of these societies. This is true – I think – when we think about classical aspects of the consumption society, but maybe also when we think about social media production. What about the effects of shifting reputation signifiers on the competition on social networks? The emergence of new metrics such as the Klout influence index? The time people invest in polishing their online reputation and image, not to mention the work involved in dealing with the noise on the social networks? Which means that maybe, in order to change the nature of often destructive competitions, we’ll need to change the structure of the game. In very (too) general terms I suspect this is related with the production of meaning and with fundamental issues such as how we define what is means to have a good life. It means we should practice the capability of “letting go” of the stream of updates, blogposts and alerts. I guess this has to do what Douglas Rushkoff discusses in Program or be Programmed. He advocates programming, not just blogging in the boxes provided by the big corporations.

How real-time collaborative mindmapping ended up being mind-amplifying

Should we give up things in courses because we need time to teach new media? It was a question on Twitter, in the #nmfs_f11 stream of the Digital Awakening course.

I think we don’t need to give up anything at all. It just boils down to doing what you already did, but on public platforms. Taking notes on a blog, bookmarking on a social platform, collaborative mindmapping, reaching out for ideas and help on social networks. As Howard Rheingold would say, new media are mind-amplifiers.

The three online courses I participate in as a student (see previous posts) all use some combination of blogs, social networks, social bookmarks, wiki and chat sessions. I’m getting the feeling (the hope?) this will become “the new normal”.

This picture of the latest session in Second Life of participants in the Digital Awakening course (#nmfs_f11) shows our virtual discussion space, a mindmap and other media, while the participants of course also blog and tweet.

course participants in second life

In Toward a Literacy of Communication, (#cooplit) the course facilitated by Howard Rheingold, we use collaborative mindmaps, working on them in real-time using the webconferencing tool Blackboard Collaborate (previously Elluminate). One clever aspect is that one sees in real-time how the map changes, but we cannot see which participant changes what – I have the feeling this helps people to experiment because they don’t have to fear ‘losing face’. It’s a very intense experience: working on a very rapidly changing map, structuring parts of the course as it unfolds and adding additional insights by the participants.

webconferencing session in progress

While in Second Life I more felt like sharing a space with the other participants – allowing for more informal meetings before and after the discussion – we did not (yet?) have a very intense group-mindmapping experience in that virtual world.

One of the texts we’re studying in the Digital Awakening course is The Computers as a Communication Device (1968) by J.C.R. Licklider.

His arguments for online communities, computer-assisted meetings and his thoughts about working collaboratively on the same screen are still very relevant today. It’s disappointing that these habits are not yet commonplace in many smaller and medium-sized organizations and companies.

In Toward a Literacy of Cooperation, we talked about game theory (prisoner’s dilemma, assurance game, chicken game…) and the notion of zero-sum game. People have this idea that life is a primarily a competition where one person’s gain is another’s loss. In reality there are plenty of examples of non-zero sum games, where collaboration makes all participants better off.

But non-zero sum does not necessarily mean “we all win”. As author Robert Wright explains, it can also mean we all lose. The same technology and learning practices which promise to better mankind, can also be used for destructive planning, especially in conjunction with nuclear, biochemical, biotech or nanotech technology:

Which means that our efforts are also moral issues. The visionary work of people such as Vannevar Bush and J.C.F. Licklider seems to be inspired by the fact that they realized we would have to make sense of a very complex, dangerous and rapidly changing world. Making sense of it, finding solutions and implementing them, needs a kind of augmented or amplified humanity.

Often the disruptive changes we study develop so rapidly that the usual scholarly research publication systems are getting behind. In yet another course, the Massive Open Online Course #Change11, Professor Martin Weller explained how the digital, open and networked world is changing scholarly research (while also provoking tensions in the academic communities).

Historically, we humans had to recognize the humanity of others in the context of a certain class in city-states, then broaden this to bigger entities such as what we call today nations, expanding to whole continental regions and finally arriving at a planetary scale. This recognition of the humanity of humans everywhere will hopefully be expressed and realized through the need for cooperation.

In this context experiencing the real-time collaborative making of a mind map by a bunch of course participants dispersed over the planet (Europe, North America, Australia) was a mind-amplifying experience in itself.

Roland Legrand

The quest for openness (and financing) by academics and media

At the Journalism Masterclass IHECS in Eghezée (Belgium) I talked about a social media production flow for the newsroom. It boils down to publishing, as it happens, the “making of” an article, a video, an audio document or an infographic . So journalists do what they usually do: asking for ideas, planning interviews, hunting and gathering stuff on the web, but instead of keeping all that raw material private, they would rather publish it via blog posts. When the article or whatever is “finally” published, it’s not the end, but it can be the beginning of a new round of comments and chat sessions, maybe new and augmented versions. What it means is that the mindset of the journalist shifts toward the open newsroom.

In the meantime, at the Massive Open Online Course #Change11 we’re in week 3 and Martin Weller is facilitating this week’s topic, Digital Scholarship. It’s about ‘changes in academic practice as a result of new technology’:

His book The Digital Scholar was published by Bloomsbury, but is available as a free open access book, under a Creative Commons license.

Academics, as journalists, want to have impact. New media often give more impact than scholarly publications alone. Weller then talks about openness:

(…) ‘digital scholarship’ is really a shorthand for digital, networked and open. Arguably it is the last component that is most significant. Openness in practice – whether it is sharing ideas via blogs, open courses, open educational resources, open access publishing or open data – is becoming a default approach for many academics (and this course is an example). This has profound implications on practice, business models, identity and the role of sectors, which we are only beginning to appreciate.

Impact and openness, the big themes not only for scientific publications, but also for the media in general. Of course there are tensions:

Tension – there exists a tension currently between the undoubted potential of many digital scholarship approaches and the context which it resides within. So we simultaneously have pockets of marvellous innovation, and at the same time, a markedly conservative, resistant attitude from many institutions, which is often manifest in the how digital scholarship is recognised or encouraged.

Journalists and bloggers can only rejoice about openness by scholars. However, there is a challenge here for traditional media: the journalist with her privileged access to scientists is no longer the inevitable go-between. For instance in economics academics are very active on blogs and even – gasp! – on Twitter. Journalists (and bloggers) of course can provide context and curation.

But while journalists and scientists want more impact and are increasingly in favor of openness, what does this mean for the business models? Opening the newsrooms, labs and universities for free? How will we finance those activities? It’s a question for media and institutions of learning and research alike.

Comparing online courses: Change11, NMFS_F11 and Toward A Literacy of Cooperation

Tomorrow I’ll give a presentation at a journalism masterclass in Belgium, MasterClass IHECS 2011 – with Open Newsroom – at Eghezée (or just #MC11). The class is facilitated by Damien Van Achter. These last few months I’ve been thinking about a social media production flow for bloggers and journalists, updating regularly my presentation Conversation tools for information professionals on Prezi.


I use Prezi because it’s not a production flow which follows some fixed sequence of steps. It’s more like a rhizome-like processus (like the horizontal stem of a plant) which inspired the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Also, Prezi allows me to have a conversation with the participants, rather than giving a classical presentation. It’s also more in line with the Connectivism idea which is the theoretical underpinning of the Massive Online Open Course Change11 I participate in.

Three courses

I will not limit the conversation to the “conversation tools”. These days I’m participating in various online courses: the Massive Open Online Course #Change11 and Awakening the Digital Imagination (#nmfs_f11). I also registered for a third course, facilitated by Howard Rheingold, Toward a literacy of cooperation:

A six week course using asynchronous forums, blogs, wikis, mindmaps, social bookmarks, synchronous audio, video, chat, and Twitter to introduce the fundamentals of an interdisciplinary study of cooperation: social dilemmas, institutions for collective action, the commons, evolution of cooperation, technologies of cooperation, and cooperative arrangements in biology from cells to ecosystems.

The three courses are content-wise rather different. MOOC is about learning styles and tools, the Digital Imagination studies foundational&inspiring texts about new media. At the same time these courses are “new media in action” and they use different formats and philosophies. The MOOC is very much participant-directed, open and flexible, the Digital Awakening is more syllabus-based, Rheingold’s course is highly directed by the organizer even though Howard made it clear that he wants us to form a learning community.

Why talk about these courses at a journalism class? Because for me journalism and blogging is a kind of learning. A lot of what educators do, and especially the massive open online formats, can be compared with media practice. So the tools and formats they use, as also the issues about business models, are very similar. If learning involves writing blog posts (in the three courses), making video, designing a game maybe, then we should no longer limit the relevance of education theories and practices to schools and universities.

This is a very preliminary wiki mindmap (yes, you can modify and add things) comparing the three courses. Use the icons to enlarge, zoom and edit the map:

Read also: Deconstructing learning through social media: virtual seminar, MOOC and OpenCourseware

Lessons in new media: don’t forget the old, simple stuff

Lessons in new media: don’t forget the old, simple stuff

Interesting experience at the Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) #change11 during this week’s live session. One of the main lessons: do not underestimate simple tools.

First, the presentation by professor Zoraini’s project of implementing mobile technology in Open University Malaysia. It demonstrated how using good old sms helped motivating and guiding the students.

On Not Worth Printing I read a skeptical reaction, asking for objective measures, other than student satisfaction, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the sms technology.

In my humble opinion, it would be great to have those additional insights, but I think that the participants’ satisfaction is a very important issue.

Web conferencing

My reflection has not only to do with the content of the presentation, but also with the tools we used. We started out using the open-source web conferencing software bigbluebutton for distance education. Unfortunately, the more than 60 participants made the poor thing crash and burn.

Good old Twitter was being used as a backchannel, and so we learned that there was another venue we could use in the amazing cyberspace:, yet another web conferencing thingie. Thanks to diligent retweeting, quite some participants made it to that ‘place’.

However, some experienced audio problems and asked for help, using the chat-module of the web conferencing tool. They were saved by a simulcast on (EdTechTalk).

Looking at the MOOC-course, a maze of venues, platforms and tools, I think that one of the most popular pieces of it is the Daily Newsletter, aggregating coming events, blog posts, discussion threads and comments.

Second Life

I also started my other course, Awakening the Digital Imagination: A Networked Faculty-Staff Development Seminar. This live session took place in Second Life. One might say that this is a higher level of complexity: using an avatar in a 3D virtual world. However, we kept the technicalities very simple: avatars sitting around a campfire, using voice and text chat. It worked perfectly well – we discussed the text As We May Think (Vannevar Bush). Call be a Second Life fanboy, but I still prefer the immersiveness of the virtual world experience above the ordinary web conferencing tools.

meeting in second life

One has the very real feeling of sharing a same space, of being embodied. People socialize before, after and during the conversation. I have the feeling the whole experience leads to much deeper connections. We have a group blog for the Second Life participants and there is an infohub for the project at large.

My conclusion: even at the frontiers of new media simple text-based tools help a lot to keep things organized and people motivated. Do not neglect newsletters, Twitter-messages, chat modules or even sms!

Read also: Deconstructing learning through social media
The group blog virtualworldnmfsfall11

Deconstructing learning through social media: virtual seminar, MOOC and OpenCourseware

I’m about to start a wild experiment in learning, by participating in various online courses, using various social media platforms. I have various objectives:
– to experience what learning could mean in this century and what it tells us about the changes in society and in the economy.
– to gain a deeper understanding in the philosophical underpinnings of new media.
– to become more creative, by better understanding what’s “new” about new media.
– to experiment with ways to combine various social media for online learning processes in the broadest sense of the word “learning”.

I’m not an educator working in a school or university, but a financial blogger/journalist/newspaper community manager. I’m already using Twitter, blogs, curating tools and chat systems to interact with our community. This, in my opinion, is a form of online learning and I hope to develop new practices inspired by the courses I’ll participate in during this Fall.

New Media Studies

The course which seems more “philosophical” is Awakening the Digital Imagination: A Networked Faculty-Staff Development Seminar coordinated by Professor Gardner Campbell, Virginia Tech.

The course runs almost every week from September 12 through December 2. There is a syllabus, The New Media Reader (MIT Press, 2003) and we’ll work on various platforms such as Twitter, Flickr and… Second Life. The project in Second Life is being facilitated by Liz Dorland, Washington University (Chimera Cosmos in Second Life) and by Robin Heyden, Heyden Ty (Spiral Theas in Second Life) and the infohub and group blog are up and running.

This week we’ll discuss Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think“. The first week the participants discussed Inventing the Medium by Janet H. Murray, the Introduction of The New Media Reader and watched this video:

The video says “the Machine is Us/ing Us”. While using the web we’re teaching the Machine, which learns from our billions of daily online actions. The Machine is not just connecting data, it’s connecting people. In that sense one could dream of an exponentially increasing worldwide intelligence, which eventually becomes self-learning (the Technological Singularity discussion). It reminds us of the optimism of engineers, who realize that our world and our survival become ever more complicated. However, engineers are optimistic: complexity is a problem which can be tackled. Computers and networks change Thought itself, and enable it to tackle the big challenges of our time.

But then again there are these other thinkers, more to be found in the humanities: they talk for tens of years now about the end of the big Ideologies, the end of the big metaphysical stories making sense of it all. Patient deconstruction and analysis show the fallacies, the inconsistencies, the circular reasonings in those stories. Should we confront the supposed cynical smile of the humanities-expert with the optimism of the engineer, or rather deconstruct this opposition? I’ll find out in the weeks to come.


I also registered at the Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) Change, an international, distributed and rhizome-like learning network/experience. I also attended previous, similar editions (the Connectivism courses), often as a lurker, sometimes active. It’s bewildering and mind-blowing, no, mind-amplifying!

The course is facilitated by  Dave CormierGeorge Siemens and Stephen Downes.

Dave Cormier offers this video to explain what we’re up to.


In a post about how to participate it is explained that: “…there is no one central curriculum that every person follows. The learning takes place through the interaction with resources and course participants, not through memorizing content. By selecting your own materials, you create your own unique perspective on the subject matter.”

The interactions take place on various social media platforms, using many tools.


The last part of my program for this fall is studying MIT OpenCourseWare Introduction to Computer Science and Programming (instructors are Prof. Eric Grimson and Prof. John Guttag). The idea is to learn how computer scientists actually think and in that sense the course is about much more than just “learning how to program in Python”.

Interesting to see is how the video, transcripts, reading material can be consulted for free, while direct interaction with the teaching staff is reserved for those who pay the hefty fee for studying at the MIT. This does not mean that using these course materials is devoid from any interaction: OpenStudy provides a platform for collaboration with fellow-users (the platform could also be used for the Change MOOC).

The issue of how to facilitate learning collaboration while also protecting the business model of universities is solved in another way by Stanford University: they’re organizing an Open Class on Artificial Intelligence. Participants will not be able to ask questions directly, but a voting system will select a number of questions which will be answered by the instructors.

That’s one of the fascinating aspects of these courses: we learn how to practice and think in new ways, and while trying to do so it becomes obvious to the participants that the activity of learning itself and the institutions of learning are being confronted with disruptive change.

Gorree: ‘avatars are everywhere. Let’s use them even more!’

Avatars are everywhere nowadays. Not only in fully immersive virtual worlds but also on social networks in Flatland such as Twitter, Facebook etc. They come in many forms and one might even say there have been avatars for centuries, like the heads of kings on coins or of presidents and other important people on paper money.
At the MetaMeets conference in Amsterdam I interviewed Tim Gorree, IT Solution Architect at Nokia, about avatars:

Previous posts about MetaMeets:
MetaMeets:”We are at the beginning
MetaMeets Day 2: “Going beyond virtual worlds, machinima, avatars…
“Kitely asks for some help to get virtual worlds on the web

Kitely asks for some help to get virtual worlds on the web

I’ve been very busy covering the European debt crisis, but now it’s time for something completely different: the future of virtual worlds. At MetaMeets in Amsterdam, almost two weeks ago now, I interviewed some very inspiring people. I’m working on a story for a mainstream audience about virtual worlds, but I’ll publish some stuff now already on this blog.

Ilan Tochner is the founder of Kitely, a company which works on a project allowing users to create their OpenSim-based virtual world as easily as posting a YouTube-video. Just give it a try, it actually works!

Tochner however realizes that also the guests visiting those virtual worlds should have a very smooth, basically one-click kind of experience when entering those environments. He claims it’s possible to build web-based virtual world viewers – all Tochner needs is a little help from his virtual world friends.

I hope he is right about this – it would help tremendously offering a web-based access. People are used to the web, they want frictionless, instantaneous gratification. Every click extra, every hurdle they have to take means that your number of visitors dramatically decreases.

Remember: it’s not about convincing those who are willing to experiment with virtual worlds. It’s about offering some activity which interests a specific audience – an activity which probably has nothing to do with virtual worlds as such, virtual worlds would just be a cool platform. So getting people into your venue should be totally non-geeky and straightforward.