Online Social Mores

If there has been a thing that as been fundamental in teaching other people how to moderate an online community, it has been talking about social mores. It is an ancient word, and I only know about it because I studied at such a traditional university like Leiden University. However, it is very fundamental.

So, first of all some theory about communities. David McMillan talked about how to define communities, pinpointing  the important elements of the sense of any community, online or not, as membership, personal investment, social norms, trade and a shared social connection through symbols and storytelling . Watch this video for some more background. Howard Rheingold defined this for the online environment, with his famous definition that defines a social contract online. Want to learn more? Check out my free online workshop “Build Your Online Community”. The summary? You don’t have a community unless you have some norms that people agree to.

Now, having covered the academic basics, can we move to the fundamentals? In all places where we interact as a community, we need to reinforce our social mores, which in effect are our norms & values. That means, yes, defending academic free speech. It also means being stern when there are violations of the academic methodology. You are out of turn when you use logical fallacies for instance. In a pub we would throw beer at you, but in the digital space that tends to ruin your laptop. Hence online community guidelines, or social media codes, or what have you. They simply translate old mores to new ones that can be implemented online.

Is it normal for teachers or management to check if people stay within boundaries? Yes, absolutely. That is not infringing on your rights, it is only checking them for validity. We do that all the time. If you have a student stending up during your campus lecture, sprouting nonsense and calling names, you’d have the janitor remove them, and rightly so, for disrupting education. The same is true for similar instances at campus, whether that is during a lecture, or during a more grey scaled whats app group clearly associated with the university and people are made to feel uncomfortable in an unacceptable way. Mores apply everywhere where the community is.

Doxing and other Troll accidents

I have written and published about this often, but trolling is no laughing matter, no matter how amused we can be about it (especially if our teenagers do it and we recognize ourselves in it). Whether the motive is just a prank or something more sinister it is never a walk in the park for the victim to start with. In fact, it can cause PTSD, just like a real life violent incident can cause trauma. Sadly often it is women that are the target, but not exclusively. Racism, Homophobia, Ableism, etc. are also frequently evident.

The cause of the PTSD? As research in neuropsychology shows, strong negativity triggers our Fight & Flight response. It doesn’t matter if it is online or real life. That means that extreme negative reactions in any online environment lead to a downward spiral where people are reacting with even more vehemence or try to hide, sometimes literally by locking their social media accounts. You can see a whole online community go down in a matter of hours. Yes, Twitter and Facebook can be that dangerous.

Extreme examples not only include strongly worded messages in social media or email, but a phenomena called doxing: stalking the victim with messages at their real life home or work addresses, sending them prank gifts, trying to hack their accounts, sending emergency services to their doorstep. Really? Yes, really. Like many bad habits online it sadly orginally hails from the gaming community, where in online games opponents started pranking each other to distract them and so win a game.

After GamerGate the methods of the gaming world have been turned on the rest of us, in the last 5 years or so, including methods that the Alt Right employs. I am not going to dive into a full explanation of that, including the US political situation, as there is ample research demonstrating this. However, we still need to deal with the effects of this in our own environment.

So, really, what can we DO about it? How do we create environments that are safe for employees and students of Dutch universities?

First, support the victims. Reach out to them, reassure them of your support. Just like Ineke Sluiter, president of KNAW wrote in her keynote at the Leiden Dies. Simply the recognition of the issue behind the scenes is a start that is a warm bath.

Second, make sure the victims are safe and remain safe by offering extra resources, for instance by providing monitoring of their email & social media accounts as a filter (only the serious reactions actually get through), practical support from the janitor at their workplace, legal advice, offering psychological & social support services etc.

Third, in any non-public space of the workplace provide moderation of the online space, and make sure that is backed up by a code. Yes, house rules help. They redefine the social contract participants feel, and moderators can refer to it when taking actions to uphold them.

Fourth, for public spaces like social media, where employees or students are attacked for their status as being part of an academic environment, also give guidance on what is normal and what isn’t, what you expect all members of the community to do. Setting norms, or social mores, is extremely powerful and defines a community.

If you want to talk about any of these isses or solutions, please reach out to me in the comments or through email (t.de.bie@sea.leidenuniv.nl).

Vote Tanja for Dienstraad SEA

After some hurdles I am now officially a candidate for the Employee Council or Dienstraad of SOZ/SEA. This council represents the interests and welfare of staff members and promotes, to the best of their ability, openness, transparency and consultation within SOZ/SEA.

Why do you want to join the Employee Council?

I want to make a difference. As part of my work I’ve built a very wide network within the university, and I would like all SEA employees to benefit from that in the (digital) transformational changes that are before us. I strongly believe in diversity, inclusion and sustainability, and the benefits that would bring to all employees of Leiden University.

What do you want to accomplish in the Employee Council?

While I have a wide experience in promoting staff wellness, I would like to work in particular on inclusion and sustainability within SEA. I am thinking concretely about things like:

  • Thinking deep and well about all our digital events and all our communication. Is it accessible to everybody? Is there a sign language translator? Do we subtitle things? Is an English version available? Do presentations follow guidelines on font and colours? Is everybody represented at SEA? Do you count as well?
  • Connecting different parts of SEA, and breaking closed circles by working on shared projects. What can we mean for each other, and how can we bring inclusion and sustainability further?
  • How can we contribute to inclusion and sustainability of Leiden University as SEA in concrete ways. For instance: how can we create green spaces in and outside SEA buildings both to promote staff & student wellness and in a larger sense reduce the carbon footprint of the university.? What can we do to green other parts of our ways of working like travelling less and consuming sustainably ?
  • How can we reduce work pressure and increase staff enjoyment, for instance by increasing agile workmethods & digitalisation and decreasing bureaucracy so we can be more flexible in reacting to opportunities and challenges.

Who are you and what are your experiences?

My name is Tanja de Bie, and I’ve been working with the Centre for Innovation since 2013. My portfolio includes online learning, community management, social media and digital platforms. Before moving to CFI,  I worked at the Bestuursbureau at what is now SAZ, which gave me an unique insight on how Leiden University operates, as well as a very wide network in all faculties. This past crisis year I have concentrated on knowledge transfer of the tips & tricks of online learning to teachers and support staff. I have also been exploring how to better run digital events. Me and my team organize (online) workshops and other digital events. I have also helped launch the Sustainability Network in Teams by supporting LUGO with coaching, and am currently working on the peer to peer network Teaching@Science, an initiative of SEEDS, the teacher support desk of the faculty of Science. I am embedded at SEEDS for two days a week. I am also a member of the Digital Accessibility working group.

I studied history at Leiden, and later moved to healthcare management in home care, before returning to my alma mater. I have hands on experience in quality care, team coaching and care planning. I also have a (hobby) background in roleplaying games and online resource communities on that subject., which I often find useful in my work. I have a passion for gardening and green spaces, and was one of the initiators of the Mindful Garden @ Schouwburgstraat The Hague,  part of the De-Mystifying Mindfulness Course of Leiden University.

You can read more about me on my personal page in this blog.

What are your values?

This is what I stand for:

  • Diversity and Inclusion  (gender, ethnicity, sexuality, ability)
  • Sustainability (individually, but also systemic)
  • Deep listening & empathy
  • Collaboration & helping each other
  • Positivity

The past informs the future: 8 years of Education Innovation

It started with a January mail of the director of Academical Affairs, sharing with his team the top ten most important people in Higher Ed of 2012, which included the Khan Academy. I shared a TED Talk of the Khan Academy with the team. The ICTO programme manager was drawn by the algorythmn in several more videos and found Daphne Koller, founder of Coursera and was intrigued by the potential.

Important? Yes, because serendipty is a strong force in education innovation, as is collaboration. Following this online exploration there was a skype call with the very accessible professor Koller of Stanford, and the request to all members of Academical Affairs to follow a couple of MOOCs and share our experiences. I personally followed the Gamification MOOC of professor Kevin Werbach of the Wharton School of Business, among royalty of MOOC stars. We all reported back. It was fun, exciting and new. We had no idea how this could be useful. There were no deliverables. No reports. Yet the ICTO manager decided on this basis to work with the Centre for Innovation on a small pilot.

That summer Leiden launched its own MOOC, after agreeing to a partnership with Coursera. We reached 40K students, and it made national newspaper headlines. My personal contribution was moderating the forums with that first MOOC on EU Law, having some free time on my hands. Already that fall, I was sitting down with prof Bakker and his assistant Jeanine de Roy-van Zuidewijn about a shared vision on community guidelines for a Terrorism course and a moderating team. Eventually this collaboration landed me a full time job at the Centre for Innovation in 2015 both as a project coordinator and more importantly the resident expert on platforms, moderation and community management. I still hold those expertise hats and they have served us well in the pandemic year of 2020.

So what have I learned in those 8 years that could help us going forward into 2021 and further?

  1. It is never clear beforehand how certain explorations will benefit the university. Instead genuine curiosity and willingness to be open to anything are beneficial in the long run to our alma mater. Out of 5 pilots, 4 might die, and 1 might be brilliant for further exploration. Any pilot might build out to a major programme and become influential.
  2. Do not let contracts and task descriptions limit you. Willingness by the bureaucracy to be flexibible how to interpret my tasks (from management assistant, to moderator, to project lead) helped transition the team from pilot to more structral positions. The only caution: be sure to introduce equity when determining new fuctions. It should free people, not introduce new injustices.
  3. Fail Fast. I never learned more than from when things went wrong, just doing stuff even if I wasn’t 100% certain how. The Centre for Innovation provides an environment where you dive into a project, just doing it , and allowing projects to be adjusted and updated as you find them. Made a mistake? Great, evaluate it, learn from it. No wagging fingers, provided you stayed within some boundaries.
  4. From a minimal viable product, through several iterations to a better product. Sounds Agile, but it is also known as the core of quality assurance: Plan Do Check Act or the Cirkle of Deming. Instead of waiting to get the full picture (which may never be gained), jumping in and start learning from practice. Pushing forward to improve quality is the way to go.
  5. The future is so bright, I gotta wear shades. It is completely unknown where education innovation will take us next. It is, however, no doubt very exciting.

Let’s stop with Innovation Bullshit Bingo

I have personally worked in education innovation since 2013 and even before was no stranger to strategic discussions on higher education as a board member of the Leiden Studentunion among other things. My speciality has become education innovation through digital technology. The year of the MOOC. The death of the MOOC. The rediscovery of the MOOC, I have seen it all.

So you would think I am very much in favour of thought leadership on:

  • throwing post-its at every problem, quick design sessions without depth, cheap agile references
  • disruption of Higher Ed through digital technology, with the destruction of universities as we know them imminent
  • solving any workforce or scaling issue of education by going digital, now more than ever
  • providing free online education to all because we already paid for this through taxes

You would be wrong. All those concepts are mainly empty, re-used to fit very particular strategic meanings of the person wielding them (such as budget cuts, or receiving attention in strategy meetings), and seldom for the general quality of education. It is neither teacher nor student centered. It is very clear that both of them want, above all, human contact and if at all possible face to face real contact.

The bottomline is: online or blended learning does not reduce teacher-student time needs, it just reshapes it. In fact, when you start to apply digital technologies you will have to invest time and energy to get it going before it becomes a way of life. It takes very deliberate design of every aspect of learning, including informal social contacts.

It is not all bleak. There are people who actually match evidence based, data driven insights with talent and in true co-creation with teachers creating education that really bring quality to a next level. I am sincere when I say I believe in blended learning, XR for learning and the concept of life long learning, and the way that digital technology helps that along, as a tool, not a goal. Centre for Innovation of Leiden University is one of those places were we genuinely and earnestly work on those themes for the greater good. I have not lost my faith in that.

However, I think that some innovators take the easy way out by just blabbering their thought leadership in the direction of what those in power want to hear, when it is not what higher education needs. It is very persuasive to think technology will solve all the ills of society, that it will reduce cost AND be a positive benefit at the same time. Win-win, what is not to like? Except that it is bullshit. The data is not there. Well designed online learning costs aprox 6-9 months of development and continued upkeep for years on end.

That doesn’t stop it from being a temptation for politicians and their assistants, and you keep seeing attempts at floating “a new normal where innovation solves everything”. Well, no. Not even if you write it into numerous columns in national newspapers. Real innovation takes hard work, with your feet in the clay of actual education, standing side by side with teachers.

You have the innovation bullshit bingo players, and then you have people with actual talent. It pays to mind the difference when deciding to follow up on their advice.