Results Filter Bubble Workshop at #ALTC

So, that was a very inspiring trip, especially to get back some focus on my personal research.  The very best part of course, was meeting the many new and interesting people – so thank you so much for the conversations, #altc community! This post is on the results of the workshop “How do you break your Filter Bubble?” on the topic of Filter bubbles and Personal Learning Networks that I held at ALTC.  I’m going to write a more detailed reflection on the conference itself, so look out for that post very soon.
This was a very lively workshop. I know you shouldn’t say that as the organiser, but when I submitted the idea, I mainly wanted to start a debate on the filter bubble (or the term “echo chamber” – as I learnt – is more generally used in the UK) and the problems it poses for learning and personal learning networks. It seems that this topic speaks to many as I had some interesting reflections and conversations on it, before and during the workshop. During the workshop we had 9 participants and decided to split up into 2 groups. Below I have tried to report the results of the discussion on each of the points, and added some of my commentary in italics.

Some general notes

I learnt that the filter bubble need not necessarily be something negative, as it provides comfort, and a safe space to articulate your views, without fear of being attacked for them. So there is certainly a need for the filter bubble in some cases. The issues comes when your filter bubble intervenes with your learning or real view on the world.
Because isn’t the nature of learning, that you need to be out of your comfort zone, so that you learn? 

On Diversity in a Personal Learning Networks

The determinants of diversity in PLNs was the issue that drew most discussion, as it was deemed by many that diversity is difficult to label.
Some determinants noted were things like : education, class, aggression, funding, ease of access, interests, advertising revenue, cultural perspectives/aspirations and government intrusion into services, and chances of serendipity. The core understanding was that “ideas were different from people.
Also, sometimes the effects of filtering can also bring unexpected/non-deliberate diversity in your bubble.  e.g. because you choose to follow people with whom you only share one well-defined interest (for example, a hobby), you might actually get in touch with people who have diverse views from yours.
It was also noted that filter bubbles are not necessarily online phenomena, but also offline/in real life, we have systems that reduce the connections we can make. The items that make up diversity in these two areas are illustrated here.

I was very glad to read the quite wide range of determinants that were noted down. I would invite the participants to comment further on them and maybe explain them in more detail as a comment to this post. What amused me about the discussion was the fact that this discussion again showed the limitations of our technologies. Although it seemed artificial to pinpoint what could be a determinant of diversity in your network, ultimately technology does exactly that, as it has only uses limited types of measures and data available to take decisions on what to show you, the user.

On discovering that you are in a filter bubble

The participants agreed that most often we notice that we are in a filter bubble after getting a shock of some sort. Many shared their experiences on the discovery of 2016’s Brexit vote and the 2016 US Elections, and how “they had not seen it coming”.
It is interesting, that we seem to find out we are in a filter bubble when something unexpected happens – that does not fit in with what you think the world looks like. I wonder if we need this kind of ‘shock’ effect, to start re-assessing our understanding, but also to review the limitations of our perspective (and the things that determine our perspectives). This reminds me of concepts of breakdown and rebuilding and negotiating understanding (   

So what can we do about it?

Our Behaviour

How can we deal with filter bubble?
  • listen to multiple sources
  • be curious
  • look for serendipity
  • seek/look for/follow other points of view – in a safe way (e.g. through private browsing)
  • consider using second accounts
  • re-skin your bubble (this is very intriguing – any explanations/elaboration from the workshop participants?)
How can we teach our students to deal with their filter bubble?
  • train digital literacies
  • teach students to evaluate credibility
  • take them on “guided tours” outside the safe spaces of the VLE/LMS/etc. Work with them in the open spaces of social media, but provide support through collaborative reflection, giving context, etc.
Core message: “I can gain most from my PLN WHEN I triangulate against others”

Technical Wishes

Here are some ideas the participants came up with for technical support that could help users with their filter bubbles.
These tools & instruments can help me manage my PLN effectively:
  • Option to pay to not be included. if you aren’t paying, then you are the product.
  • “Challenge me” button
  • Avoiding paid-for adverts
  • “Be someone else for the day” button – change your gender in your filter bubble
  • “Forget me temporarily” button
  • Try new things/new perspectives
  • Random search button “I feel lucky”
  • Awareness and how it works
  • Comparing my search results with someone else’s or the results obtained when I’m not logged into the browser on a different network
  • Missing information you would choose to accept (*comparison to peer; *presented different information)

The debate does not end here: please do add your comments/thoughts/opinions/ideas below!


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Attending #ALTC – Workshop on the Filter Bubble

This week I’m attending the ALT Conference in Liverpool. It’s a conference I have been looking forward to attend for years now, and especially with the line-up of keynotes this year (Peter Goodyear, Sian Bayne and Bonnie Stewart), my expectations are sky-high.

I will be giving a workshop on Wednesday afternoon on breaking your Filter Bubble ([1749] – 15.00-16.30 in Elisabeth Gidney I(2)). I chose this topic (apart from the fact that it makes for a catchy title) because I think it is essential that we understand this phenomenon well, to remedy it, in order to save one of the best inventions of the last decades: social media and the online social network. (here’s a very good opinion piece by Paul Mason on this topic)

In many ways, the filter bubble is just a technical consequence of the problem of (information) abundance. Having too much information or content, creates the need to filter and keep ‘relevant’ information. What relevant means, can be debated. Computer scientists use known facts or behaviour of the user to determine what relevance means. The quest to offer relevant information to users goes so far, that it actually creates a cocoon or an echo chamber around the user.

There are many things that can be questioned here: for one, the strategy described above may work for some types of information (such as movies or kids’ toys), but why do we assume it will work for people, organisations or experiences? Another is that the only relation that is sought out is one of similarity – but this is not always the relation that is most relevant (here’s some of my earlier work, where I argue that for learning, we’re actually looking for dissimilar things:

I’m particularly interested in looking at the issue of the Filter Bubble from the perspective of your Personal Learning Network(PLN) (a social network that you design intentionally to support your learning). There is a general consensus that to avoid filter bubbles, we need more diversity in our social media feeds – but what determines diversity here, especially in a PLN?

The central question I want to discuss at the workshop is: “What is diversity in a PLN determined by?”


by Bill Watterson


I want to work towards two concrete outcomes:

  1. a Code of Conduct for online learners, with guidelines to prevent their PLN from becoming a bubble. This outcome needs to complete the following sentences:
    • a) “Your PLN will be most useful WHEN”
    • b) “I can gain most from my PLN WHEN”
  2. a list of desired social media values and functionalities that can prevent filter bubbles. How can we avoid falling into a “small world” context? This outcome creates the following list.
    • a) “These tools & instruments can help me manage my PLN effectively”

To make the most of the workshop it self, I would like to gather some of your feedback on topics and questions that you think we should discuss during the workshop.

The guiding questions that I want to use are centred around things that we can change in our own behaviour, and also things that social media and other technologies need to enable us to do. Some guiding questions to discuss here are:

Our behaviour

  • How do we actively maintain diversity in our PLNs?
  • How do we notice that we are in a filter bubble?
  • What are the actions we can undertake to get out of a filter bubble?
  • What is the role of social media in this?
  • To what extent are social media a cause of filter bubbles?
  • To what extent is the filter bubble a consequence of our own behaviour?

Desired Technological Features

  • What are the values/guiding principles currently underlying social technologies (social media, Twitter, FB, Google search, etc.)
  • How can social media be changed to help us in preventing filter bubbles?
  • Social media – in theory – can bring us in touch with anyone in the world. How do we re-capture this promise of social media?
  • Many companies react to the filter bubble by giving users more ‘control’ over their news feeds. Is ‘control’ the way to go? What is ‘control’?

Are there any questions that you would like to add to this list of topics? Things that you would like us to discuss? Please add them below in the comments section.
This workshop is aimed at educators, researchers and social media users in general.


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Science communication #scicom #wecom #komnaarbuiten

Yesterday I attended Kom naar Buiten, a day on science communication organised by VLIR-UOS (the department of the Flemish Interuniversity Council, focussed on development cooperation). The day brought together scientists from different disciplines and press officers and science journalists from different media. It was a very interesting day, where I met people from quite different backgrounds and interests in this field.

What everyone seems to agree on though, is that science communication is necessary – certainly more of it is needed! However, what the purpose of it is and how it can be done, is up for discussion.

Here are some practical tips that I picked up across the day

(note: these are tips for going to mass media – but they may be applicable for other target groups/ non-researchers in general):

  • Katleen Bracke (VRT) explained what her work looks like. It was quite unexpected to hear that science journalists in the broadcast media (and maybe print media is similar) have less than a minute (45sec to be exact!) to convince their editors of the news value of an item. Keeping that in mind, it is clear that when scientists approach the media with something interesting, they need to be able to explain in one sentence, why the news is important, why its relevant and why we should give our attention to it.
  • Hetty Helsmoortel referred to the key concepts of  Content (why does it matter?) Clarity (explain it in simple terms) and Charisma (explain it with passion).  Her tips: tell a story, do not restrict yourself to your own research and dare to step out of your comfort zone.
  • Think of oneliner messages that people should take away from your input (Ann Dooms)
  • It is important to think about when you communicate (after publication, but not too often) (Tim Nawrot)
  • Convey your passion for the topic (Herwig Leirs)
  • It’s ok to be incomplete (in academic terms) – find a balance between giving insight into the research but not going too much in the details.
  • Link up with what is in the news and it’s ok to use buzzwords (they draw attention of the science journalist, the deciding editors and the public)
  • When writing a press release, add quotes and mimic the writing style of a newspaper article. This increases the likelihood that your text is taken on as is (with minimal editing). (In this way, you can have more control over how your work is presented in the media).
  • If the media call you for reactions, it will happen in the first 24 hours after the press release. When they do, be available, be prepared with your message and bring on the enthusiasm.

science communication

Some reflections from my side:

Throughout the day I kept thinking of what the value of communicating about your research in the mass media is. I guess it is an issue of what you want to do as an academic and what you want the target audience to take away.

As with the any use of media for communicating, I think it’s important to think about who you are communicating with and what the goal of the communication is. It may therefore be important to identify the target groups and networks of the target groups that you want to reach.

Apart from this, there is a question of the role you want to play in society as an academic. For me that role is one of opinion-making, deepening the content of a discussion, and providing reflection and nuance on your topic. For these issues, I would certainly reach out to the mass media, and I guess this requires a different sort of reputation building as a academic. What I learnt from this event, is that to achieve that goal, you would need to play by the rules of the mass media (including recognising newsworthiness, entertainment-value, etc.), but maintain your quality as a researcher. In fact, I think if you succeed, you would not only make a difference to public opinion, but also, make your research more relevant to societal needs.

And finally, can we hear some more from researchers in the humanities please??? 🙂

(Disclaimer: I did miss the closing session…)

Must read

Saving Science by Daniel Sarewitz

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Open Badges: why use new tools for supporting old (and maybe outdated) formats?

Ever since I participated in Tim Riches’s workshop on Open Badges at the PLE Conference in 2013 (Berlin), I have been fascinated with the seemingly endless possibilities of this instrument.
For the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to get closer to the development of an Open Badge set for recognising intercultural competences acquired through student exchanges (through the GO2B project).

Today, I attended a session on this topic at the Onderwijsdagen, organised by SURF in Rotterdam, where they presented a white paper on how Open Badges could potentially be used in the Dutch educational system. The presentation, but also, the reactions from members of the audience were very enlightening.
Some of my observations:

1. The strength of Open Badges in my view is their simplicity: they give a framework for accrediting well-defined skills and competences, but stay away from dictating the content of these skills and competences. Seen in this way, Open Badges define the process rather than the outcome. And this makes them highly useable for very different fields of application.
2. The value of a Badge is defined by the community it is supported by. Outside this community it may not have much perceived value (but couldn’t you say the same of degrees?)
3. As an instrument, Open Badges are particularly suited to support peer learning and peer feedback/ peer assessment practices. However, this particular strength is not picked up on by many… I wonder why….
4. In the same line of thought: from the learners’ perspective, Open Badges not only help them structure their own learning path, but also teach them to critically look at others’ work and give (constructive) feedback. In other words, these instruments help them self-regulate their own learning and be valued partners in their peers’ learning. I haven’t seen many other scalable practices that do that.

So, in short, my key observation is: why do we not use the opportunities that Open Badges give to push the boundaries of the current educational system, beyond the degree system that we have now?

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Some thoughts on yesterday

I am not afraid, I am not afraid, I am not afraid” – This is what I kept saying to myself in the hour after hearing about the terrorist attacks in Brussels. Being more than 1600 kms away, from my family, my first thoughts were on how to get home as soon as possible. Whereas till then my concerns on this first journey away from my daughter was on “has she eaten?“, “has she slept?” and “I hope she’s not too naughty“, they now turned to “when will I see her?“.

And what irony, that I was travelling to attend a project meeting on developing and acknowledging intercultural competence – the knowledge, skills, attitudes and self-awareness that enable someone to truly understand and acknowledge, tolerate and accept (sometimes fundamentally) different points of view.

With the wonderful panel discussion at the Media and Learning Conference (with Renee Hobs, Rudi VrankxMoad El Boudaati, Divina Frau-Meigs and Karin Heremans) earlier this month, my head was just ringing with thoughts to make sense of reality throughout the journey home. Luckily, I was accompanied by four experienced teachers and expert educators. Here are some of my thoughts after my discussions with them:

  • The feeling of being accepted as part of a community and society is crucial to well-being of individuals and society as a whole. Many young people today do not feel part and this is a problem.
  • Young people also do not have a voice in the current popular media in Europe (as Divina Frau-Meigs explains so well in the panel discussion). With no voice, there is no recognition of their role in society; no debate on their perspectives on our world. Giving them a voice and acknowledging their issues has to part of any solution.
  • There is a tendency to react in panic with “us” and “them“-logic. This may be a natural initial reaction, but it should not inform policies or long-term strategies (on a state-level) nor attitudes, acceptance and tolerance (on an individual level).
  • More and guided intercultural interactions where young people are encouraged to talk about their inhibitions, prejudices and uncertainties in an open manner should take place. In fact, every learner should at some point have the opportunity to reflect on their intercultural skills together with a mentor/ more experienced person. Too often, this happens now through individual initiatives (of teachers, or personal interest) but some learners will not do this naturally, and they should.
  • Understanding that you are shaped by multiple cultures, and have multiple identities is an essential part of becoming intercultural competence (check out the manual created by the IEREST project on this). My note here is that multiple identities are often seen as problematic, whereas they could be (and should be) seen as an opportunity. In current Belgian (and European) society, many young people are shaped by different cultures and so, manage multiple identities. These young people are the ones who will shape our societies in the future. As parents, teachers, educators, government and corporate leaders, we have to support them in having the confidence to take up their roles in society as strong adults – and acknowledge that they are an essential part of our society.

At this moment, I only have the following wish for all our countries:

Where The Mind Is Without Fear (Rabindranath Tagore, 1912 – Bengali original, 1910)

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, My Father, let my country awake.

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