Saturday, 7 September 2013

The rapidly changing world of discussion forums

In late 2011 I wrote this blog about my attempts to hold open discussion about issues in the Middle East.

Six days ago I returned to the TED forum on linkedin (now an unofficial forum but still with over 300,000 members) to discuss the Syrian crisis.

Two years ago the TED forum was far more open than most as it lacked the option for anonymity which seemed to protect vicious and opinionated contributors on other forums and free, high quality discussion did take place over many weeks.  However attempting to host a discussion there still brought severe personal and cyber-attacks and the eventual disappearance of the discussion has still never been explained. 

This time it's very different.  After six days there are 94 comments from 18 participants.  There are no signs of the personal attacks which used to be common place and we seem to have lost the contributors who refused to look at evidence.

I'm stunned.  I think it's worth noting the contrast.

In parallel with this I think it's worth also noting the that some of our politicians are now embracing social media in their passions for improving the quality of the decisions they make, engaging us in our democracy and improving its transparency.  I'd like to recommend the facebook page of Tim Farron MP as being an excellent example which readers might like to explore.  Many other politicians are making genuine and valiant attempts in this direction (and their skills in using social media for consultation and transparency are improving rapidly) and still more are being influenced by and are engaging with their better informed peers. 

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Chatting to Michael Gove? You decide

The Rt. Hon. Graham Stuart MP
Chair of the Education Select Committee
                                                                  12th March 2013

Dear Graham,
As you prepare for your discussions with Michael Gove tomorrow you might find the insights contained in this letter useful.  I’m a specialist in online discussion forums (I run workshops and give advice on how to make them work well and I’m an FRSA researching and writing on mass online discussion and 21st century enlightenment). I’m also a lecturer in education and have particular expertise in education discussion forums.

You may remember that I first contacted you in the early days of this government during the Ofsted enquiry because I had been trying to explore positive ways forward for Ofsted on the TES discussion forum.  I had been very shocked to find that when I did this I was immediately subjected to severe cyberbullying, the systematic deletion of my posts, other inappropriate moderator intervention and substantial personal attacks which went beyond that forum and were clearly designed to discredit me so to a level where my opinion would be meaningless.  I was concerned that your enquiry would struggle to reach the quality of conclusion it should have attained as constructive debate appeared to be being actively prevented.  My MP, Tony Cunningham, persuaded you to view some of the issues on the forum with him.  TES rejected my offers to help them improve their discussion forums and have instead chosen to threaten me with legal action and ban me from their sites.

You may also remember that I raised specific concerns about Ofsted at the Westminster Education Forum you spoke at after that review.  You advised me to speak to the Ofsted directorate about these issues.  Richard Brooks (the director present) readily accepted this request in  public, however his attitude was completely different when I followed this up.  I found that there was no place where I could have intelligent discussion about the future of Ofsted.  

In response to this I started to work hard on developing small education discussion forums which were run by individuals for the purpose of free speech.  The first major progress was made on where there are many such forums and there is no anonymity.  It was, for example, possible to systematically explore the intellectual foundations and the practical rationale for Michael Gove’s reforms and to discover that they were not robust.  Eventually it became possible to transfer this quality of discussion onto a forum where anonymity was allowed.  That forum was the ‘Local Schools Network’ which is lightly and impartially moderated by four labour campaigners. 

It was interesting to see key characters around Gove participating in this forum.  They simply couldn’t cope with the quality of discussion and found their ignorance exposed by the high quality participants and impartial moderation.   

During Easter Recess last year a new character suddenly appeared on the Local Schools Network forum under the pseudonym of ‘Ricky Tarr’.  Ricky Tarr could access any information on education at lightning speed.  He always knew Michael Gove’s views precisely and thought them entirely rational.  He never had to qualify his descriptions of them with caveats such as ‘I think’ he means.  This was a very different behaviour pattern to all other posters.  Despite careful observation I never found any reason to suspect that this was anyone other than Michael Gove.  We chatted at length for many months before he posted that he somebody called ‘Rick’ from the DFE and disappeared.  His posts were at first abusive and derogatory but they rapidly improved because on a properly moderated forum such behaviour only discredits the poster.  Here is a link to just one of the many conversations I and others had with ‘Ricky Tarr’ on the Local Schools Network. 

I was eventually able to properly explore the issues associated with Ofsted in the properly moderated forums and, together with expert regulators from outside education and the Liberal Democrats, have been able to develop the policy insights I’d been unable to attain while conversation was prevented.  

It became much more difficult to ‘manage’ cyberspace during 2011, the year of the Arab Spring.  This happened because ordinary people became hyperconnected and were able to converse in real time through multiple devices.  They also became empowered with platforms which enabled them to set up and moderate their own discussions. 

The world is changing very rapidly.  At present I can’t see it changing in favour of those who wish to control the thoughts and views of others.  We seem, thankfully, to be moving rapidly in the other direction.  We need to prepare to positively manage the consequences of this.  In state education there is further to move than in many areas of society.

I hope this letter is of some use to you and you committee.  Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any further questions or if I can help you in any other way.

Yours sincerely,

Rebecca Hanson  MA(cantab.), MEd, FRSA

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The digital champions manifesto

Just a link to the insightful blog of the same name by Matt Stratton:

Saturday, 17 November 2012

21st Century Enlightenment: Mass Online Discussion

Is 21st century enlightenment needed?

If the 18th Century (the scientific enlightenment) was a time when men put aside superstition focused instead on logic and science, why do we need enlightenment now?

Have we not pushed back the boundaries of science more rapidly in the 20th century than ever before?  Have we returned to an age of superstition and abandoned logic?

Yes, 21st century enlightenment is needed.  Here’s why.

Insight into the difference between the scientific enlightenment and the second half of the 20th Century comes when we start to study the individual scientists (or natural philosophers) of the scientific enlightenment.  They were polymaths and they were deeply observational.  These two features of their personalities were natural bedfellows.

In the second half of the 20th century our leading scientists and thinkers seemed to lose these two capacities. They became highly compartmentalised.  Their work often involved developing and extending the work of others.  It did not generally flow from their own observations or instincts.  The distance between their lives and their scientific work widened and few made regular links between the two.  Often the conclusions they had reached precluded them seeing the reality in front of them.  It could be said, perhaps, that not only did they reject the notion that ‘God does not play dice’ but they also lost the sense of why that statement might be believed. Some believed both that ‘God did play dice’ and that ‘God did not play dice’ in different areas of their lives.  Few struggled openly with the clash between observation and scientific analysis.

I believe that being deeply in touch with their own observational powers drives academically inclined people to become polymaths.

In order to understand large bodies of knowledge as a whole or to confidently analyse large complex systems, we need people who can think scientifically about their observations in many subjects.  We lack sufficient quantity and quality of these people and it is through nurturing these combinations of skills more effectively that society can become more enlightened.

What’s the catalyst of enlightenment?

The 18th century saw the development of relatively cheap, rapid and reliable postal services across Europe.  And so we had a sudden sharing of ideas.  People could write to others about their interests and respond to their enquiries with further explanations or deeper thinking. 

Writing about their ideas challenges the thinker to properly explain their logic and observations and when they do this they come to understand them more clearly and can think more deeply. The input of others can push the thinker on.  It becomes possible for natural polymaths to pursue their diverse interests in a constructivist way by questioning the experts, rather than by trying to assimilate deposited bodies of literature.

Of course letters were not the only way of communicating.  But the rise of the postal service in Europe added significantly to what was already possible and it explains why there was a rapid spurt in the rate of pan-European (in effect global) knowledge.  Without that mechanism enlightenment existed only in individuals or geographically proximate groups. 

I think enlightenment is contagious.  We are inspired by the examples of others.  Without those examples and insights many are unaware there is anything to aspire to.

Why is 21st century enlightenment an attainable goal?

The linked trends towards open sourcing and open online discussion make 21st century enlightenment a relevant and realistic goal. 

Through mass online discussion (forums, social networks, comments on articles and blogs and so on) people can rapidly acquire new skills and insights to become polymaths.  Mass online discussion gives each individual the right to express their views on any topic and through doing so they can begin to deepen their insights.  As others ask them questions their understanding of their subject grows.  When questioning other contributors the individual behaves instinctively and learns to ‘own their knowledge’ – developing and honing it to make it ever more authentic to them.  They are rarely acquiring a body of knowledge specified by someone else.

There is another essential feature of the process of communication through mass online discussion which must not be ignored and that is the process of ‘honing the character of individual’.  Mass online discussion is both a tool for personal development, along the lines of the Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem ‘If’, and a mechanism by which the character of the individual is exposed, sometimes in a painfully raw way. 

In ordinary life those around us can judge our reactions to comments about different topics by watching our body language.  We can avoid some topics and comfortably live with our ‘elephants in the room’.  Mass online discussion denudes us of these rights to a comfort zone.  I often describe the dynamics of discussion forums as being like attending a dinner party where everyone (including yourself) is suddenly rendered deeply autistic.  For some it is terrifying but for others it is liberating. It becomes obvious which of us can rapidly put aside all the ideas and conclusions we previously held dear and move on and which of use cannot:
“and lose and start again at  you beginnings, And never breathe a word about your loss”
How many of us have been challenged to the core our beings in forums and have had the chance to hone our skills in our certainty of our own perception:
“If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you”
I could continue on this theme here but instead I will post the poem to the end of this document for you to ponder.

Multiple perspectives and contradictory conclusions

Too often in this world the insights which do not perfectly fit with the conclusions reached are lost.  Too often robust conclusions which contradict established scientific patterns crumble away.  When operating well mass online discussion is a powerful medium within which multiple contradictory perceptions can flourish and partial conclusions can be cherished and sustained.

A challenge to weak or self interested elites

Mass online discussion is a great threat to those hierarchies which are managed by force rather than by intellectual right. It has often been the case that those who hold positions of power are the only ones who have sufficient knowledge and insight to reform their own roles.  What happens when they choose not to?  What happens when they do not have sufficiently ability to see the need?  Mass online discussion is a tool which can help others become aware of the problem and a medium within which they can discuss possible ways forward.

As Israeli bombs pound Gaza tonight what are you doing about it?  I’m following the leads from the Facebook page of an Israeli man I’m linked to and I’m joining in the discussions, pointing out the patterns in Israel’s military behaviour, the links between the dates of elections and ‘defensive invasions’ and the online information which claims that the ‘defensive invasions’ of the past were in response to aggression which was deliberately provoked.  I have no hierarchical power and I claim none.  I move freely between discussions and as I go I find the my companions share my mindset which is one which cherishes the collective pursuit of truth.  My only resources are Google translate, what’s available on the internet and, tonight, a respect for Queen’s performance at Live Aid which is shared by my Middle Eastern discussion companions.


Mass online discussion is the most important tool for 21st Century enlightenment. 

'If' by Rudyard Kipling.  

IF you can keep your head when all about you 
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings 
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

An invitation to RSA fellows and also to individuals outside the RSA who would like to work with me

Much has been written at the RSA about 21st century enlightenment and, in particular, on the power of networks as catalysts for enlightenment.  My interest is not in networks, it is in the power of mass online discussion to generate powerful insight and to take people on the journey towards enlightenment.  By mass online discussion I mean online discussion forums and the discussions which follow blog, news articles and so on.

I became a fellow of the RSA because I was hoping to find people who I could work with to rapidly come to express, share develop some of the many insights I have.  I’m interested in taking on the most challenging academic articles but I couldn’t do this alone because while I have the experience of the domain of mass online discussion I do not have the depth of academic experience needed.

I’m interested in writing an engaging and easy to read book about discussion forum culture full of anecdotes and tips on how survive and thrive in forums.  But I couldn’t do this without help and inspiration due to my inexperience in writing, my geographical isolation and the many other pressures on my time.

I’m also open to suggestions. I’d be particularly delighted to be part of projects which explore issues such as how we can formally map the emerging content of mass online discussions so that new joiners can rapidly come to understand what’s already been said or how consultations through mass online discussion can be structured and facilitated to generate maximum insight.

Here’s a little of my background to help you gain some insight into where I am and what I can already do:

By profession I’m a maths teacher who loves working in challenging schools.  This experience has taught me many very relevant skills in coping with feisty forums!  While my children are young I’m lecturing part time in education and I was planning to research and write a PhD on maths education.  I got this far: at which point I realised that it was not actually the content of my PhD which I felt mattered most - instead it was the way in which the original insights it depended on had been generated through mass online discussion.  So I changed direction and decided to devote my time and energy to the study of mass online discussion instead.  Only it’s a subject area which doesn’t exist which makes this rather difficult.

One of my first activities was to write this article with Colin McAllister with whom I moderate a successful international maths and maths education forum.  Colin and I have never met nor even spoken.  We just started writing together on Google shared docs as and when we had time.
If you’re interested in working with me please do get in touch through the RSA, through comments to this blog or through

Since then I’ve contributed to many forums and blog communities, exploring their cultures and how they can be improved and experimenting with different modes of interaction.  My cyberrhetoric blog gives only a small insight into the kinds of things I’ve been doing and thinking:

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Best Discussion on Forums Yet?

The US dept for Education in investing in researching discussion forums in education.

It's lovely being stretched to think in new ways about forums.  In this discussion we've been chatting about how forums challenge the conclusions of top philosophers and psychologies about 'authentic' discussion because they have the ability to 'transcend time and space' and involve many contributors - features of deep conversation which were not easily available in the past.

The discussion is in the 'Education Online Communities of Practice Managers' Network' on and it's called 'Do online discussion forums produce genuine conversation?'