To Be Virtual or Not to Be: That is Not the Question

Today’s newspapers have wonderfully conflicting stories. One story is about Ministers of Parliament (MPs) in the UK being angry over their ‘virtual parliament’ coming to an end.* The other story is the opposite, about the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, facing criticism from his Cabinet because they are continuing to meet via online video conferencing rather than getting together for face-to-face cabinet meetings.** These are fascinating debates to follow, especially in the added context of US debates over the US Supreme Court, and Congress, particularly some committees, meeting online and in hybrid forms. They are complex, multi-layered debates that will have consequences not only for judicial and legislative processes but also their outcomes. And we all have opinions about it. 

Photo from FT article by George Parker

Before mentioning the role of the coronavirus pandemic, I would like to make one simple point. It is generally supported from decades of research on electronic meetings focused on the costs and benefits of meeting via such options as text-only online, voice-only (phone calls or conferencing), video conferencing, or face-to-face. Obviously, if an information task involves only the transfer of information, then simply using text-based online media, like an email, is the most efficient approach and may have no consequence on the outcome. However, if the task involves negotiation, bargaining, or other interpersonal judgements, then it would be better to use media with more ‘social presence’.*** Face-to-face, in-person meetings have the highest level of social presence, other things equal, followed by video conferencing, followed by only text-based telecommunications. Arguably, any transfer of information is in some part a negotiation, such as ‘please listen’, and some in person meetings, such as a teacher speaking in a large lecture hall can have little social presence. That said, some information tasks are relatively more focused on negotiation, such as arriving at a group decision or judgement. If you are simply giving or receiving information, it is more efficient to use online media. If negotiating or making a judgement, particularly as a group, it is better to meet face to face. 

However, this last call depends on your status in the group. If you are the leader or most influential in the group, it is better (for you) to meet face-to-face, as this will enable you to best assert your authority. If you are less influential in the group meeting, it might well be better for you to meet online, as text- or voice-only such as a phone call can have a leveling effect, making it more difficult for those at a higher status to dominate the discussion. The choice of medium is complicated as it could have redistributive versus pareto-optimal implications. Whatever you decide, some might be better off and others worse off. 

With these issues in mind, the best resolution I’ve found came out of a study of that organizations that concluded it was geography that still mattered the most.**** It was most efficient to be where you need to be for face-to-face communication. For example, back office operations at a bank do not need to be in a central city because it is only important to enable those in the back office to communicate well with one another. They can be located outside of a high-rent district in the city to a more remote back office. In contrast, the top management of a bank would need to have good communication with executives at different businesses, law firms, accounting firms, and so forth, creating an argument for them to be located in the city – where face to face communication will be enabled with other executives. You should try to locate where you most need to have face-to-face communication and rely more on online media for remote communication for less critical information and communication tasks. 

Therefore, the key question is not whether to use online or face-to-face communication, but where you should be in order to facilitate face-to-face communication with the most critical people you are meeting with. Here is where the problems arise for politicians, legislators, and (possibly) judges. Should they be closer to their constituents, their colleagues, the leaders of their party, the defendant, the media, or their staff. 

The coronavirus pandemic simplified this calculus, as they were required to stay at home and use online media. As the lock downs ease, the experience with working online might lead some to wish to remain online, but the interests of most politicians, including parliamentarians and members of congress will be to be many places at once in order to work with many different kinds of actors critical to their role in politics and government. In this situation, online media will help people to be where they most need to be at any given time to meet face-to-face with the most critical groups. 

Sounds simple, but it is not. Ideally, this understanding should lead legislatures and parliaments and executives to enable their colleagues to have options. Tell them: “Be where you should to have the most important conversations you can have today – to be present in the most critical meetings.” Use online media to follow, contribute to, and otherwise participate in activities that are less critical. You might well need to be left alone to write, of example. In some respects, these issues might lie in part behind moves to ‘hybrid’ virtual legislatures, and ‘hybrid’ online teaching options, so that some activities can be moved online, and some remain face-to-face. But choices need to be more fine-grained and flexible than most hybrid models appear to be. 

I’ve glossed over many issues but hope to have moved some people away from wondering which is better: virtual or real face-to-face communication. That is not the right question. 

References

*Sebastian Payne, (2020), ‘Anger among MPs over end of ‘virtual parliament’’, Financial Times, Wednesday 3 June: 2. 

**George Parker, (2020), ‘Unrest as Johnson’s ‘Potemkin cabinet no longer takes decisions’’, Financial Times, 3 June: 

*** Social presence, and its relationship to different communication media, emerged from some terrific experiments conducted and reported by Short, J., Williams, E., and Christie, B. (1976), The Social Psychology of Telecommunications (London: John Wiley and Sons). 

****Goddard, J., and Richardson, R., (1996), ‘Why Geography Will Still Matter: What Jobs Go Where?’, pp. 197-214 in Dutton, W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities. (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 

Publication of A Research Agenda for Digital Politics

A Research Agenda for Digital Politics 

The publication of my most recent edited book, A Research Agenda for Digital Politics, is available in hardback and electronic forms at: https://www.e-elgar.com/shop/gbp/a-research-agenda-for-digital-politics-9781789903089.html From this site you can look inside the book to review the preface, list of contributors, the table of contents, and my introduction, which includes an outline of the book. In addition, the first chapter by Professor Andrew Chadwick, entitled ‘Four Challenges for the Future of Digital Politics Research’, is free to read on the digital platform Elgaronline, where you will also find the books’ DOI: https://www.elgaronline.com/view/edcoll/9781789903089/9781789903089.xml

Finally, a short leaflet is available on the site, with comments on the book from Professors W. Lance Bennett, Michael X. Delli Carpini, and Laura DeNardis. I was not aware of these comments, with one exception, until today – so I am truly grateful to such stellar figures in the field for contributing their views on this volume.  

Digital politics has been a burgeoning field for years, but with the approach of elections in the US and around the world in the context of a pandemic, Brexit, and breaking cold wars, it could not be more pertinent than today. If you are considering texts for your (online) courses in political communication, media and politics, Internet studies, or digital politics, do take a look at the range and quality of perspectives offered by the contributors to this new book. Provide yourself and your students with valuable insights on issues framed for high quality research. 

List of Contributors:

Nick Anstead, London School of Economics and Political Science; Jay G. Blumler, University of Leeds and University of Maryland; Andrew Chadwick, Loughborough University; Stephen Coleman, University of Leeds; Alexi Drew, King’s College London and Charles University, Prague; Elizabeth Dubois, University of Ottawa; Laleah Fernandez, Michigan State University; Heather Ford, University of Technology Sydney; M. I. Franklin, Goldsmiths, University of London; Paolo Gerbaudo, King’s College London; Dave Karpf, George Washington University;  Leah Lievrouw, University of California, Los Angeles; Wan-Ying Lin, City University of Hong Kong; Florian Martin-Bariteau, University of Ottawa; Declan McDowell-Naylor, Cardiff University; Giles Moss, University of Leeds; Ben O’Loughlin, Royal Holloway, University of London; Patrícia Rossini, University of Liverpool; Volker Schneider, University of Konstanz; Lone Sorensen, University of Huddersfield; Scott Wright, University of Melbourne; Xinzhi Zhang, Hong Kong Baptist University. 

Stop Professionalizing Our Internet

In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, with so many organizations and activities moving online, I’ve seen a remarkable push to ‘professionalize’ [for want of a better word] everything online. You might think that is a good thing, but to me, it is undermining, if not destroying, the free and open culture of the Internet. For example, I can sit down and draft a blog and post it in seconds without fear with the hope that a few people besides myself might enjoy it. It’s fun to share ideas and issues.

Increasingly I hear colleagues talking about doing an event online in a more ‘professional’ way. They want high production value, even though they are shooting a talk, not a major motion picture, or an interview for a major news channel. They need all the organisational trappings, corporate logos, and branding down to the right font. 

Of course, I whine, protest, and argue that it is okay to relax a bit online – it can be more ‘Internety’ and that is fine – that is what is special about the Internet and social media. But that does not translate well for those trying to move their professional organizations, meetings, marketing, outreach, courses, and more onto the Internet – and they are bulldozing the culture of the Internet as they do. 

I also see the consequences of this transition in my inbox. Email is increasingly dominated by messages from institutions, organizations, campaigns, candidates, and news organizations dressed in all their corporate style guides. Instead of a serious letter sent by snail mail on corporate letterhead, I get more emails with the image of a serious letter on corporate letterhead attached. It is like telemarketing has moved onto the Internet big time, giving me so much to delete before reading. 

This invasion of professionalism into all the nooks and crannies of the Internet brings to mind the late John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence. Every year I gain more respect for his vision in his 1996 ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, which you can read here: https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence If he were alive today, he would be so disappointed.

Is this just me, or do others see this trend?

How People Look for Information about Politics

The following lists papers and work in progress flowing from our research, which began at MSU, and was funded by Google Inc., on how people get access to information about politics. It was launched when I was director of the Quello Center at Michigan State University, but continues with me and colleagues at Quello and other universities in the US, UK and Canada. Funding covered the cost of the surveys – online surveys of 14000 Internet users in seven nations, but yielded a broad set of outputs. Your comments, criticisms, are welcomed. It was called the Quello Search Project.

Quello Search Project Papers

6 May 2020

Opinion and Outreach Papers to Wider Audiences

Dutton, W. H. (2017), ‘Fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles: Underresearched and overhyped’, The Conversation, 5 May: https://theconversation.com/fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-underresearched-and-overhyped-76688

This post was republished on a variety of platforms, including Salon, Inforrm.org, mediablasfactcheck, BillDutton.me, Observer.com, Quello.msu.com, USAToday.com, Techniamerica, pubexec

Dutton, W. H. (2017), Bubblebusters: Countering Fake News, Filter Bubbles and Echo Chambers, NESTA.org.uk, 15 June. 

This post was republished on the Nesta site and readie.eu. Bill plans to update and repost this blog on his own site.  

Dubois, E., and Blank, G. (2018), The Myth of the Echo Chamber, The Conversation, March: https://theconversation.com/the-myth-of-the-echo-chamber-92544

Presentations of the Project Report

The project report has been presented at a wide variety of venues. A blog about Bill’s presentations is available here: http://quello.msu.edu/the-director-presents-in-europe-on-our-quello-search-project/Presentations include:

  • Summaries of our report/project were presented to academic, industry and policy communities in Britain (London, Oxford); Germany (Hamburg, Berlin, Munich); Italy (Rome); Belgium (Brussels); Spain (Madrid); China (Beijing); and the US (Arlington, Boston), and most recently in Mexico (Mexico City).
  • An overview of our Report was part of a three-hour workshop on research around echo chambers, filter bubbles and social media organized for a preconference workshop for the Social Media and Society Conference, Toronto, Canada https://socialmediaandsociety.org/ July 28-30, 2017. It included Bill, Elizabeth, and Craig.  

Papers Completed or in Progress

The following is a list of papers that further develop and deepen particular themes and issues of our project report. They have been completed or are in progress, categorized here by the indicative list of paper topics promised by the team: 

  1. Overview: A critical overview of the project findings for a policy journal, such as the Internet Policy Review, or Information Communication and Society

Dutton, W. H., Reisdorf, B. C., Blank, G., Dubois, E., and Fernandez, L. (2019), ‘The Internet and Access to Information About Politics: Searching Through Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Disinformation’, pp. 228-247 in Graham, M., and Dutton, W. H. (eds), Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Earlier version: Dutton, W.H., Reisdorf, B.C., Blank, G., and Dubois, E. (2017), ‘Search and Politics: A Cross-National Survey’, paper presented at the TPRC #45 held at George Mason University in Arlington Virginia, September 7-9, 2017.

Dubois, E., and Blank, G. (2018). ‘The echo chamber is overstated: the moderating effect of political interest and diverse media’. Information, Communication & Society, 21(5), 729-745. 

Dutton, W. H. (2018), ‘Networked Publics: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives on Big Policy Issues’, Internet Policy Review, 15 May: https://policyreview.info/articles/analysis/networked-publics-multi-disciplinary-perspectives-big-policy-issues   

  • Vulnerables: Work identifying the Internet users most vulnerable to fake news and echo chambers. This paper would build on the findings to suggest interventions, such as around digital media literacy to address these risks.

Dutton, W. H., and Fernandez, L. (2018/19), ‘How Susceptible Are Internet Users?’, InterMEDIA, December/January 2018/19 46(4): 36-40. 

Earlier version: Dutton, W. H., and Fernandez, L. (2018), ‘Fake News, Echo Chambers, and Filter Bubbles: Nudging the Vulnerable’, presentation at the International Communication Association meeting in Prague, Czech Republic on 24 May 2018.

Reisdorf, B. presented work on ‘Skills, Usage Types and political opinion formation’, an invited talk at Harvard Kennedy School, Oct 19, 2017 [Bibi (presenting) work with Grant]

Blank, G., and Reisdorf, B. (2018), ‘Internet Activity, Skills, and Political Opinion Formation: A New Public Sphere?’, presentation at the International Communication Association meeting in Prague, Czech Republic on 24 May 2018.

  • Trust: A study focused on trust in different sources of information about politics and policy for a political communication journal, such as the International Journal of Communication.

Cotter, K.  & Reisdorf, B.C. (2020). Algorithmic knowledge gaps: Education and experience as co-determinants. International Journal of Communication, 14(1). Online First.

Dubois, E., Minaeian, S., Paquet-Labelle, A. and Beaudry, S. (2020), Who to Trust on Social Media: How Opinion Leaders and Seekers Avoid Disinformation and Echo Chambers, Social Media + Society, April-June: 1-13. 

Reisdorf, B.C. & Blank, G. (forthcoming). Algorithmic Literacy and Platform Trust, pp. forthcoming in Hargittai, E. (Ed.). Handbook of Digital Inequality. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Previously presented: Reisdorf, B.C. & Blank, G. (2018), ‘Algorithmic literacy and platform trust’, paper to be presented at the 2018 American Sociological Association annual meeting, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 11 August.

  • Cross-national Comparison: A cross-national comparative analysis of search, seeking to explain cross-national differences, for an Internet and society journal, such as Information, Communication and Society (iCS), or New Media and Society

Blank, G., Dubois, E., Dutton, W.H., Fernandez, L., and Reisdorf, B.C. presented a panel entitled ‘Personalization, Politics, and Policy: Cross-National Perspectives’ at ICA Conference 2018 in Prague, Czech Republic.

Dubois, E. (forthcoming), ‘Spiral of Silence/Two Step Flow: How Social Support/Pressure and Political Opinion’, under preparation for a journal.

  • Search: A study of the role of search in our evolving media ecology. One of the unique strengths of this project is that it contextualized search in the environment of the entire range of media. The dataset asks respondents about activity on six offline and seven online media, including search, plus nine social media. What is the role of search in this broad ecology of online and offline media? Are people who have complex media habits less likely to fall into echo chambers? 

Robertson, C. (2017), ‘Are all search results created equal? An exploration of filter bubbles and source diversity in Google search results’, presented at a symposium entitled Journalism and the Search for Truth in an Age of Social Media at Boston University, April 23-25.

Blank, G. (2017), ‘Search and politics: The uses and impacts of search in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the United States’. Presentation at the Google display at the Almadalen conference in Sweden on 3 July.

Blank, G. and Dubois, E. (2017), ‘Echo chambers and media engagement with politics’, presentation at the Social Informatics 2017 conference in Oxford on 13 September.

Blank, G. and Dubois, E. (2018), ‘Echo Chambers and the Impact of Media Diversity: Political Opinion Formation and Government Policy’, paper presented at the General Online Research Conference, Düsseldorf, Germany on 1 March.

Blank, G., and Dubois, E. (2018), ‘Is the echo chamber overstated? Findings from seven countries’, presentation at the Düsseldorf University, Institute for Internet and Democracy Conference, Düsseldorf, Germany on 5 July. 

  • Populism: An analysis of the role of search and the Internet in populist attitudes. How is populism related to search? Is the Internet and search supporting the rise of individuals with more confidence in their knowledge of policy, and supportive of more popular control? Are populists more likely to be in an echo chamber than those less in line with populist viewpoints?

Dutton, W. H. and Robertson, C. T. (forthcoming), ‘The Role of Filter Bubbles and Echo Chambers in the Rise of Populism: Disentangling Polarization and Civic Empowerment in the Digital Age’ in Howard Tumber and Silvio Waisbord (eds), The Routledge Companion to Media Misinformation and Populism. New York: Routledge, pp. forthcoming.

  • Fact Checking: Checking Information via Search: Who, When, Why? Between 41 percent (UK) and 57 percent (Italy) of respondents say they check information using search “often” or “very often”. Who are those who double-check sources?

Robertson, C.T. (under review). Who checks? Identifying predictors of online verification behaviors in the United States and Europe.

  • Democracy: An analysis of democratic digital inequalities that would examine how education and motivation are related to searching for and sharing political news. Is there a gap in the way that people from different educational backgrounds search for and share political news, and if so, does this affect how they shape their political opinions?

Dutton, W. H. (2020 forthcoming) (ed), Digital Politics. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Dutton, W. H. (In Progress), The Fifth Estate: The Political Dynamics of Empowering Networked Individuals. Book under contract with OUP, New York: Oxford University Press, with 1-2 chapters on QSP. 

Blank, G. (2018), ‘Democracy and Technology’, Grant will spoke at the Google display at the SuomiAreena conference on 16 July in Pori, Finland.

Reisdorf, B. C., Blank, G., and Dutton, W. H. (2019), ‘Internet Cultures and Digital Inequalities’, pp. 80-95 in Graham, M., and Dutton, W. H. (eds), Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Previously presented: Blank, G., Reisdorf, B., and Dutton, W. H. (2018), ‘Internet Cultures and Digital Inequalities’, presentation at the Digital Inclusion Policy and Research Conference, London, 21-22 June.

Social Distancing Can Travel Online

Social Distancing Can Travel Online

So much has been said about how online chats, email and conferencing are filling the void left by social distancing, I thought it would be worth sending a word of caution.

Courtesy Arthur Asa Berger

Communication online is not a real substitute for person-to-person face-to-face communication. It is most often a complement. That is, people generally communicate online with those they communicate with offline. It reinforces face-to-face communication. For example, when you worry that your kids come home from school and spend all their time online with virtual friends, you are probably wrong. They are most likely continuing conversations with kids they talk to at school. So old fears about people being online too much leading to social isolation, are usually overblown. The most connected individuals online tend to be the most connected off-line.  

Another example is from work. In the 1970s, communication engineers pushed teleconferencing and video conferencing as a substitute for travel. It was more efficient and environmentally friendly, so why travel to exchange information. It did not work. Instead of what Jack Nilles and his colleagues* called T3, ‘telecommunication-transportation-tradeoffs’, researchers found telecommunication enhanced travel – you would communicate online with people you were going to meet and then communicate after you meet. Telecommunication was a complement, not a substitute.

Of course, people meet new people online, most obviously through the use of online dating or social media, and this is very significant. It reconfigures who you know, not simply how often you communicate with them.** You can extend networks online with individuals who share your interests, for example. The frequent point is where else would you meet others interested in extreme ironing. However, most online communication is with those you speak to in everyday life and work. 

The combination of roles attributed to online media are powerful in reinforcing and extending social networks. But in the wake of the pandemic and social distancing, what will be the effect on online social networks? Will social media simply fill the void and compensate for the loss of face-to-face communication? Think of how Zoom, used for video communication among distributed groups, has grown from 10 million to 300 million users in a matter of weeks. So maybe, but I have my doubts. 

Depending on how long social distancing continues, I expect that online communication will continue to follow and reinforce offline communication. That is, it will shrink and become far more local. That is what the empirical relationship between on- and off-line communication would tell me. But what about personal experience?

In the short term, I see more of my neighbors, as I clap for the NHS, or walk my dog, or exercise in my neighborhood. And I am more often online with neighbors, such as in a WhatsApp group to ensure that anyone in need of food or other help can get help from a neighbor. Already, my local community has become more important online. 

But online, I can see my overall social network becoming less vibrant. It is proportionately filled more with advertising, political campaign messages, and government alerts, and less by personal messages from friends. Having moved several times during my career, I can watch my online network diminishing with those from the place I’ve left and growing from the place to which I’ve moved. Geography matters in part because it reduces off-line communication. 

Maybe I am wrong. Times and contexts change such that telecommunication might become a substitute rather than a complement to travel, but I don’t see evidence yet. That said, my bottom line is not to be pessimistic, but also not to be complacent about your social networks. 

This may only be a message to myself but think about it. You may well need to be proactive and serious about keeping in touch with friends and family in order to keep your network vital to your life and work. If you let it move with the comings and goings of emails and conference calls, your online life is likely to become less meaningful and vibrant. Social isolation will translate to more online isolation, unless you actively work to ensure this does not happen. You may be communicating more with friends online early in this period of social distancing, but that will pass unless you make a concerted and sustained effort. 

*Nilles, J., Carlson, F. R. , Jr., Gray, P., and Hanneman, G. J. (1976), The Telecommunications Transportation Tradeoff: Options for Tomorrow. New York: John Wiley & Sons. 

**Dutton, W. H. (1999), Society on the Line. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Also, Dutton, W. H. (2005), ‘Continuity or Transformation? Pp. 13-24 in Dutton, W. H., Kahin, B., O’Callaghan, R., and Wyckoff, A. W. (eds), Transforming Enterprise: The Economic and Social Implications of Information Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. 

Courtesy Arthur Asa Berger

Libraries without Buildings

What is a library if the building is closed?

One response to the coronavirus pandemic has been the closing of libraries around the world. In light of these closures, Don Means – @donmeans – of Gigbit Libraries (GLN) , has been holding weekly video conferences or Webinars on ‘What is a library if the building is closed?’, with support from the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), The Internet Society, and the Partnership for Public Access.

I’ve sat in on a couple of these sessions and have found them uplifting. You can see librarians thinking creatively about how to continue providing the world access to public information, despite these closures. For many, the Internet has been the answer. The focus has been on extending Wifi access to their local communities, whether by leaving it on (many libraries turned their Wifi off when the building was not open, just as they would turn off the lights) so that people could get access in parking lot hot spots or elsewhere outside the building, or extending access in other ways, such as through line of sight microwave towers (one example was on a grain storage bin) to local schools and institutions. 

There is little or no handwringing over the closures. Instead, the closures seem to have fostered creative discussions among a community of librarians. They view access to public information as an essential service and emphasize among themselves that they are in a people or information service rather than a book business.

Of course, another service that can be provided online is free access to information. I was impressed and surprised when I saw some of the oldest public libraries in Britain that they were called Free Public Libraries. Chethams is one of the oldest. The early libraries were private, in households, not open free to the public. So the key function of libraries has long been to provide free access to information, just as university libraries enable their students to gain free access to proprietary journals and books. This is still a mission, and an increasingly important mission, as more information is being walled off behind paywalls.

So how can they create a place that has the sense of belonging of a traditional library, and access to public information, when the building is closed. By hearing from librarians around the world, who are developing responses to this existential crisis of the library, I am sure they will come up with a range of best practices. There will not be any single model, given the many different contexts of libraries, but there will be many for particular communities to build upon. In one session, Nicole Umayam presented on state efforts in Arizona and Dr Nkem Osigwe spoke on developments in a number of African libraries.

I grew up wandering through libraries much like I surf through the Internet today, but it will be hard if not impossible for the Internet or conferencing to replicate the feeling of being in a library. I still get goosebumps in many libraries, any yet I spend so much more time online than looking for information in any building. Just like access to the Internet is causing (or should cause) teachers to rethink what they do in the classroom, maybe it will lead librarians to think more about what they use their buildings for, when they do reopen. What can we not do as well online as in a local public library? Surely it is something about building a stronger sense of community.

Social Distancing Education

Social Distancing Education: Questions Abound over Online Courses

One major response to social distancing in light of the Coronavirus has been a rapid move of schools and universities to online education. To many, this is a stopgap measure that will end when guidance on social distancing ends. To others, this was an innovation long waiting to happen that should alter the future of education at many levels – moving online teaching from the periphery to the core of educational institutions. 

I can understand why so many are convinced this change will be successful. Nearly all faculty and students use the Internet and related digital media in their everyday life and work, so it is not as major of a transition as it would have been in earlier times. Also, informal learning – outside formal institutions – has worked well online, with many routinely seeking advice or instructions on YouTube and other platforms. Moreover, the tools exist in the form of online platforms for course delivery. Many training courses and some university courses are already delivered online and many institutions are using these platforms today. Do they simply need to be scaled up to accommodate more students? Has it taken this pandemic to push conservative institutions and faculty into the obviously more efficient future of education? 

However, as one of many who has followed the development of online and distance education for decades, I worry that many of my colleagues are not aware of the serious difficulties that lie ahead. 

Since 1974, I had been studying and writing about computer-mediated communication and began studying innovations in online education with the rise of the Internet. In the midst of the dotcom bubble, 2000-2001, I was the faculty senate president at a major US university and worked with the administration to take our university into the future of higher education. I worked with colleagues to organize a forum on online education and edited collection, entitled Digital Academe: The New Media and Institutions of Higher Education and Learning (2002).* It was dedicated to Michael Young, the founder of the Open University. I was very optimistic at that time, but even by the time this book was published, the problems were becoming more apparent. 

Here are some of the issues to consider:

  • The rapid transition in response to the pandemic is pushing many educators and students into the use of tools and techniques that they did not choose and have not been trained to use. For instance, you can already see some of the teething problems with the problem of zoom-bombing. 
  • The tools and platforms do indeed exist but they are not up to speed with the platforms used by most Internet users. They are relatively slow and clunky and more limited, such as with the use of video, or accessing the wider Internet, depending on the particular platform.
  • We don’t really know how to do online education in a way that is successful in motivating and holding students. The dropout rate of students in many online courses is unacceptably high. This is not to say that individual faculty think they know how to teach online – many sincerely believe they do. But the track-record of online courses has not seen the successful patterns of many other online innovations, such as shopping. To the contrary, many who have taught online have realized that it is far more difficult to teach online and even then the outcomes are not as satisfying to teachers or students. 
  • So much of education is not simply the transfer of information. We can transfer information very well online, and online materials are being substituted for books and articles, but there are other processes that might be even more significant. These include social comparison with other students, learning from peers, and the social presence of the teacher, who can recognise an exceptional or a failing student and help them earlier and more effectively. 
  • We really don’t have a business model or let’s say the business model of traditional educational institutions does not accommodate online education. Online courses need teams to deliver them well, when traditional teaching can be handled well by individuals. Already you are seeing students asking for reductions in their tuition payments. There will be some students who will pay whatever it costs to get a degree from a prestigious institution, but then we are moving into the territory of selling credentials, rather than teaching. 

Today, possibly because of the lessons learned over the past two decades, I am more skeptical than in the dotcom bubble, despite advances in technology. I expect that the transition will be far more difficult in the short run than many institutions expect, and very problematic indeed to sustain in the longer run.

One possibility is that serious innovation might result from tens of thousands of teachers experimenting with online teaching. We should work hard to capture best practice, what works, and what might even begin to diffuse among teachers locally or globally. If there is a breakthrough in the techniques, equipment, or practices of online education, let’s capture it.

That said, I have also written about what I called ‘innovation amnesia’, which referred to the way everyone tends to forget the history of information and communication technologies, and therefore, many try to reinvent the same innovations time and again. This is good in that as time changes, the context might be more favorable and supportive to innovations that failed in the past. Early innovations in video communication were in 1974, with PicturePhone!

With respect to online learning, we shall see. I hope I am as wrong today, as I was 20 years ago. 

References

*Dutton, W. H. and Loader, B. D. (2002) (eds.), Digital Academe: New Media and Institutions in Higher Education and Learning, London: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.

**Dutton, W. H. (1995), ‘Driving into the Future of Communications? Check the Rear View Mirror,’ in Emmott, S. (ed.), Information Superhighways: Multimedia Users and Futures, London: Academic Press, 79-102. 

Zoom-bombing the Future of Education

Zoom-bombing the Future of Education

by Bill Dutton and Arnau Erola based on their discussions with Louise Axon, Mary Bispham, Patricia Esteve-Gonzalez, and Marcel Stolz

In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, schools and universities across the globe have moved to online education as a substitute rather than a complement for campus-based instruction. While this mode of online learning may be time-limited and is expected to return to campuses and classroom settings once the Covid-19 outbreak subsides, this period could also be an important watershed for the future of education. Put simply, with thousands of courses and classrooms going online, this could usher in key innovations in the technologies and practices of teaching and learning online in ways that change the future of education. 

However, the success of this venture in online learning could be undermined by a variety of challenges. With dramatic moves to online education and a greater reliance on audio, video and Web conferencing systems, like Zoom, Webex and Skype, have come unexpected challenges. One particular challenge that has risen in prominence is efforts of malicious users to sabotage classrooms and discussions, such as by what has been called Zoom-bombing (Zoombombing). Some have defined it as ‘gate-crashing tactics during public video conference calls’, that often entail the ‘flooding of Zoom calls with disturbing images’. There are a growing number of examples of courses and meetings that have been bombed in such ways. It seems that most ‘Zoombombers’ join illegitimately, by somehow gaining access to the meeting or classroom details. But a student who is actually enrolled in a class could create similar problems. In either case, it is clear that zoom-bombing has become an issue for schools and universities, threatening to undermine the vitality of their teaching and relationships with faculty, students, and alumni of their institutions. 

TheQuint.com

We are involved in research on cybersecurity, and see this as one example in the educational domain, of how central cybersecurity initiatives can be to successfully using the Internet and related social media. We also believe that this problem of the digital gate-crasher and related issues of malicious users can be addressed effectively by a number of actors. As you will see, it is in part, but not only, a cybersecurity problem. It involves training in the use of online media, awareness of risks, and a respect for the civility of discussion in the classroom, meetings, and online discussions. Unfortunately, given how abrupt the shift to online learning has been, given efforts to protect the health of students, staff, faculty, and their networks, there has not been sufficient time to inform and train all faculty and students in the use of what is, to many, a new media. Nor has there been time to explain the benefits as well as the risks, intended and unintended, such as is the case with digital gate-crashers. 

Not a New Phenomenon

From the earliest years of computer-based conferencing systems, issues have arisen over productively managing and leading discussion online. One to many lectures by instructors have been refined dramatically over the years enabling even commercially viable initiatives in online education, such as Ted Talks, which actually began in the early 1980s and have been refined since, as well as live lectures, provided by many schools for at home students. 

But the larger promise of online learning is the technical facility for interaction one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one, and many-to-many. An early, pioneering computer-mediated conferencing system, called ‘The Emergency Management Information System and Reference Index’ (EMISARI) led to one of the first academic studies of the issues involved in what was called ‘computerized conferencing’ in the mid-1970s (Hiltz and Turoff 1978). Since the 1970s, many have studied the effective use of the Internet and related social and digital media in online learning. It would be impossible to review this work here, but suffice it to say, problems with the classroom, and online learning have a long and studied history that can inform and address the issues raised by these new digital gate-crashers.

Actors and Actions

This is not simply a problem for an administrator, or a teacher, as online courses and meetings involve a wide array of actors, each of which have particular as well as some shared responsibilities. Here we identify some of the most central actors and some of the actions they can take to address malicious actors in education’s cyberspace. 

Recommendations 

There are different issues facing different actors in online education. Initially, we focus on the faculty (generally the conference host) side, providing guidance on essential actions that can be taken to diminish the risks of zoom-bombing the future of education. We will then turn to other actors, including students and administrators.

  • Authentication: as far as possible, limit the connection to specific users by only allowing users authenticated with specific credentials, having a valid and unique link, or possessing an access code. Ideally, many want courses to be open to visitors, but the risks of this are apparent unless the moderator is able to eject malicious users, as discussed below. A pre-registration process for attendees  (e.g. via an online ticketing system) could help limit the risk of “trolls” joining while keeping an event open to visitors. 
  • Authorization: limit the technical facilities to which the students or participants in any meeting have access. Keep to the minimum required for the class session. That is, in most circumstances, the instructor should restrict file sharing, chat access, mic holding or video broadcasting if they do not need to use these in the session. This does not prevent students from using chat (interacting with other students) over other media, but it limits disruption of the class. The need to access these resources varies largely depending on the type of classroom, and it is the responsibility of the instructor or host to grant the permissions required.
  • Monitoring: careful monitoring of the connected participants can help avoid unauthorized connections – the gatecrashers, so the course lead should have access to the list of participants and monitor it routinely. In some cases, virtual classrooms can be locked when no more participants are allowed. (See the last bullet point with respect to stolen accounts.)
  • Moderation: in the same way that participants are monitored, their participation in the form of text, voice, video or shared links or files, should be reviewed. This can be a tedious task, particularly with a large class, but it is an advantage of online courses that instructors can monitor student participation, comments, and gain a better sense of their engagement. That said, it can take some time and it might not be possible during the class. 
  • Policies: Each institution should have adequate policies and reporting mechanisms to deal with offensive, violent and threatening behaviour in the classroom, real or virtual. Actions or words that are judged offensive, or otherwise toxic language, should not necessarily exclude a student’s opinions from a class discussion, but the students should be aware of and try to abide by the institution’s standards and policies. It is also helpful if student participants have the facility to report offensive posts, which instructors can then review, delete or discuss with the individual(s) posting them. 
  • Procedures: procedures need to be in place to deal in a timely manner (quickly) with stolen credentials and participants behaving irresponsibly. That could involve removing classroom access for an offending user and their loss of authorization to the specific credentials, as well as processes for generating new ones in case they are needed.

The above recommendations provide general guidance in securing online classrooms without any specifics on the technology used. Some platforms such as Zoom, have published their own guidelines for the administrators of online educational initiatives. But here it is useful to identify some of the responsibilities of other actors.

Students need to understand how the principles of behaviour in the classroom translate into the online, virtual classroom. The Internet is not a ‘Wild West, and the rules and etiquette of the classroom need to be followed for effective and productive use of everyone’s time. Students should have the ability to express their opinions and interpretations of course material, but this would be impossible without following rules of appropriate behaviour and what might be called ‘rules of order’, such as raising your hand, which can be done in the virtual classroom (Dutton 1996). Also, just as it would be wrong to give one’s library card to another person, when credentials or links are provided for enabling authentic students to join a class, it is the student’s responsibility to keep these links to themselves, and not share with individuals not legitimately enrolled. These issues need to be discussed with students and possibly linked to the syllabus of any online course. 

Administrators and top managers also have a responsibility to ensure that faculty and students have access to training on the technologies and best practices of online learning. It is still the case that some students are better equipped in the online setting than their instructors, but instructors can no longer simply avoid the Internet. It is their responsibility to learn how to manage their classroom, and not blame the technology, but it is the institution’s responsibility to ensure that appropriate training is available to those who need it. Finally, administrations need to ensure that IT staff expertise is as accessible as possible to any instructor that needs assistance with managing their online offerings. 

Points of Conclusion and Discussion

On Zoom, and other online learning platforms, instructors may well have more rather than less control of participation in the classroom, even if virtual, such as in easily excluding or muting a participant, but that has its added responsibilities. For example, the classroom is generally viewed as a private space for the instructors and students to interact and learn through candid and open communication about the topics of a course. Some level of toxicity, for example, should not justify expelling a participant. However, this is a serious judgement call for the instructor. Balancing the concerns over freedom of expression, ethical conduct, and a healthy learning environment is a challenge for administrators, students and teachers, but approaches such as those highlighted above are available to manage lectures and discussions in the online environment. Zoom-bombing can be addressed without diminishing online educational initiatives. 

We would greatly welcome your comments or criticisms in addressing this problem. 

References

Dutton, W. H. (1996), ‘Network Rules of Order: Regulating Speech in Public Electronic Fora,’ Media, Culture, and Society, 18 (2), 269-90.

Hiltz, S. R., and Turoff, M. (1978), The Network Nation: Human Communication via Comptuer. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing. 

How the #Infodemic is being Tackled

The fight against conspiracy theories and other fake news about the coronavirus crisis is receiving more help from the social media and other tech platforms, as a number of thought leaders have argued.[1] However, in my opinion, a more important factor has been more successful outreach by governmental, industry, and academic researchers. Too often, the research community has been too complacent about getting the results of their research to opinion leaders and the broader public. Years ago, I argued that too many scientists held a ‘trickle down’ theory of information dissemination.[2] Once they publish their research, their job is done, and others will read and disseminate their findings. 

Even today, too many researchers and scientists are complacent about outreach. They are too focused on publication and communication with their peers and see outreach as someone else’s job. The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated that governments and mainstream, leading researchers, can get their messages out if they work hard to do so. In the UK, the Prime Minister’s TV address, and multiple press conferences have been very useful – the last reaching 27 million viewers in the UK, becoming one of the ‘most watched TV programmes ever’, according to The Guardian.[3] In addition, the government distributed a text message to people across the UK about it rules during the crisis. And leading scientists have been explaining their findings, research, and models to the public, with the support of broadcasters and social media. 

If scientists and other researchers are complacent, they can surrender the conversation to creative and motivated conspiracy theorists and fake news outlets. In the case of Covid-19, it seems to be that a major push by the scientific community of researchers and governmental experts and politicians has shown that reputable sources can be heard over and amongst the crowd of rumors and less authoritative information. Rather than try to censor or suppress social media, we need to step-up efforts by mainstream scientific communities to reach out to the public and political opinion leaders. No more complacency. It should not take a global pandemic crisis to see that this can and should be done.


[1] Marietje Schaake (2020), ‘Now we know Big Tech can tackle the ‘infdemic’ of fake news’, Financial Times, 25 March: p. 23. 

[2] Dutton, W. (1994), ‘Trickle-Down Social Science: A Personal Perspective,’ Social Sciences, 22, 2.

[3] Jim Waterson (2020), ‘Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 address is one of the most-watched TV programmes ever’, The Guardian, 24 March: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/mar/24/boris-johnsons-covid-19-address-is-one-of-most-watched-tv-programmes-ever