Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Spectre of Social Engineering in E-Learning: Part II--Curriculum and Trojan Horses

Making sure that educators teach learners how to think and not what to think is important in the "brick and mortar" school but it is even more important in E-Learning because of the power of social media and the reach of the web, it is very easy for learners to be manipulated into one way of thinking about things. One interesting detail concerning this is that this is counter-productive because it in fact stifles innovative thinking and open collaboration.

Area of Concern #2: Curriculum Initiatives or Trojan Horses?
According to the story of the fall of the ancient city of Troy taken from Virgil's epic poem called "The Aeneid", the covert strategy employed by the Greeks was for the Greeks to present the Trojans with a gift of submission that looked intriguing enough to raise their curiosity. As the story goes, the  hollow Trojan Horse was brought within the city gates as a prize of victory over the Greeks but what they didn't know of  was the 9 Greek warriors who were hiding inside waiting to strike. The rest is history.

Credit: PBS

 Many curriculum initiatives that have been adopted by the education sector in many countries looked good on the outside but critical thinking on the part of stake holders in education was absent. Important questions that needed to be asked were not asked of these curriculum initiatives. Some of the important questions that should have been asked were:
  • Who is driving this change?
  • Do the motives that they claim in public for the change match up with what they have said in the past? Do they represent one facet of society and its interests or do they represent all people regardless of their socioeconomic status and political affiliations?
  • Who stands to gain from its adoption and who loses out?
  • What research is it based on and has the research been vetted by a cross section of stakeholders in education rather than one specialized group?
  • Who funded the research, the public test trials and if funded by private corporations, what are their goals and mission as a business organization?
In 2016, there are a number of controversial curriculum change initiatives in North America that need to be looked at in terms of the questions above. In Ontario, Canada, two such initiatives deal with: sex education curriculum changes in the Elementary level and Discovery Math. In the United States, the Common Core curriculum and the No Child left Behind initiatives are two in which a divide has formed. If you apply even some of the questions above to these initiatives some interesting patterns take shape. The education "closet" is full of education initiatives that failed the people but enriched the people pushing the initiatives in many ways.

What Do These Social Engineering Exploits Look Like?

 Obviously, if we feel that the education of young people is being used to manipulate their thinking and discourages critical thought on their part, then we need to know what to look for and more importantly we need to educate them to recognize these techniques of persuasion and counter them. Here are some warnings or red flags that learners should be engaged to watch out for and challenge:

  1. Use of Emotional Trigger Words: In our societies, words have impact on the behaviour of others. With the use of social media, a whole new level or dimension is added to communication between people. However, one of the social engineering techniques designed to dismiss another person's point of view and discourage open and honest debate is to use emotional trigger words that essentially says that the speaker does not need to hear any arguments that might provide evidence to get them to think about their point of view. All they have to do is use the trigger word and debate is shut down. Trigger words in education that have been used uncritically and frequently erroneously are words such as: bullying, misogynist, racist, and a variety of terms based on the concept of the psychological term "phobia". It is not the fact that people who exhibit what these terms describe do exist. They most certainly do! What is contended is the validity with which they are used and the fact that rather than provide compelling, verifiable evidence to support a point of view, the label is thrown out at the opposing individual in order to silence and censor healthy debate on the issue.
  2. Manipulation Through Selection Bias: When learners are presented with information to read in regards to an issue, is there an equitable balance of information supporting both sides of the issue or is it skewed towards one side only? If it is skewed to only one side only then it becomes quite apparent that an attempt is being made to uncritically accept one point of view on an issue BUT this may not be apparent to the learner unless he or she has had guided  opportunities to identify it for what it is. This type of manipulation through selection bias can even give the appearance of being legitimate by presenting and exaggerating the claims of information on the opposing side to make this point of view seem absurd when compared to the manipulator's point of view.
  3. Lying With Statistics: Statistics when presented in a powerful way can cause the learner to have an emotional response which leads to action. However, statistics can also be used to lie to the learner. Very often statistics are used to imply cause and effect relationships when in reality the relationship is correlational in nature. As a simple example, if you see a dramatic ad on television that shows someone in a white lab coat and a stethoscope around his or her neck  telling you: "9 out of 10 doctors choose Anacin for fast pain relief!" A learner might be convinced that this medication must be the best since 9 out 10 doctors choose it. There is much that is left up to the learner to assume that may not be a valid assumption at all about this ad.


 Social Engineering and E-Learning

When it comes to E-Learning, we are faced with a much higher potential for social engineering to be used to manipulate what people should learn and think. The problems that arise are largely due to the nature of the Internet and the World Wide Web. The Internet has some of these characteristics:
  • The Internet is open to anyone who has a computer and access to an online service. This means that regardless of whether a person has expertise in a particular field or not, if they feel strongly enough about an issue, they can publish what may look like compelling and knowledgeable arguments in support of one side when in fact there is no valid foundation for what they are saying. They can use multimedia to make what they publish look official and flashy but the whole thing could be a mirage of falsehoods causing people to make decisions that are premature or faulty.
  • Due to the fact of the global reach of the Internet and the fact that every day millions of people are on the web, something can be published, then tweeted, re-tweeted and shared on Facebook that could be a serious collection of misinformation. What you have is the "telephone game" except on a global scale.
  • If we use E-Learning, then because of this environment, there is a repertoire  of new skillsets that learners must be mentored on that revolve around how we learn how to learn in an online environment. Critical thinking skills take on a whole new priority when working in an online environment where bodily "tells" indicating an attempt to manipulate are not visible except perhaps in Skype or Google Hangout sessions. Even then, such tells could be explained away as transmission anomalies. 

Most educators would say that we address this type of manipulation with our classes BUT the question that needs to be asked is:

"Are you as an educator aware of your own biases and how they can be implied to learners in the way that you present ideas and in instruction? Do you separate your personal biases out of what you teach and proceed in an objective and equitable manner?"

For example, if you are for freely available abortion, are you able to with integrity in place to objectively select strong argumentation for both sides and mentor students on how to objectively using critical thinking tools, evaluate and draw conclusions for both sides of the issue?

 E-Learning is becoming a center stage means for life long learning but it is not without its pitfalls. Most of the pitfalls are more about human nature than the technology that is used. Educators and trainers in the learning culture of business organizations need to take the time to educate learners how to learn in a new environment such as the online world. It is one of  the "basics" that needs to be a priority if we want to have learning that enriches the quality of life for all people.

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