Saturday, 19 September 2020

Technology's Future in Education

Looking at the EdTech landscape right now, in the light on the Coronavirus pandemic, it seems that things have settled-down to an established set of tools, where "the future" is mapped-out by the as-yet-to-be-proven technologies of AI and big data. Certainly that is how the doom-sayer critiques of edtech appear to see it. But history often doesn't work out in the way that we imagine, and we've been certain about the way things will work out in the past, only to be surprised by what actually happens.

There are some early indicators among the current crop of technologies that things may change radically once more. The first indicator is the re-emergence of an old tussle between centralised systems like content management systems, and decentralised document distribution systems. 

Many institutions have been refreshing their Virtual Learning Environments, and perhaps the biggest surprise in this "refresh" is quite how little has changed in 20 years. The VLE is really a content management system that manages people, content and activities together. As a centralised management system, it provides students with very little that they can do for themselves: all the functionality is focused on the management of students and the allocation of resources. For this reason, the UK name "Virtual Learning Environment" is at least less misleading than the US "Learning Management System". But in truth, these systems are neither "learning environments" nor systems for "learning management". They are administration systems which help keep track of the transactions of learning. 

 But at the same time as institutions have been refreshing the VLE, they have also invested in Microsoft Teams for real-time virtual classrooms. Now, Microsoft have an interesting history in groupware, where they have experimented with CMS systems, and with document distribution systems. Their Microsoft Office Groove system from about 2007 allowed for the peer-to-peer sharing of documents both online and offline, although they abandoned this when they put their weight behind Sharepoint. 

But it seems that the document distribution model is back with Teams, and particularly with the Teams Class Notebook. The Teams Class Notebook is a document distribution system where the OneNote notebook is divided into sections, some of which are solely controlled by teachers, some of which are controlled by individual learners, and some which can be edited as shared documents in real-time (like GoogleDocs). Teachers can create resources and "push" them out to learners, so that learners then take ownership of the documents, can customise them and organise them to suit their own purposes. Teams uses its messaging infrastructure to drive the communication and coordination process between all the student notebooks so that the teacher can keep track of what everyone is doing.   

It's rather reminiscent of Liber and Olivier's Colloquia VLE from the late 90s, where documents and activities were distributed through emailed zipped IMS Content Packages. Teams does the same thing, but has replaced email with their technology, and the Content Packages with the OneNote file specification. 

However, there are some advantages that Colloquia had over the current Teams Class Notebook. Being completely peer-to-peer meant that students could create their own groups and classes and distribute resources independently of the teacher. In Teams, this wouldn't be easy to do as things stand (everyone would have to be a "teacher") - but it is something that I'm sure people will experiment with. And then there is the issue that Teams is tightly integrated into the institution's IT infrastructure, and that including people from outside the organisation presents a large number of barriers. 

My guess is that Teams Class Notebook will inspire people to think differently about technology once more - we don't need big Content Management Systems for Education; we need distribution mechanisms which can be coordinated by teachers and learners. That's important not just for education. The CMS model dominates almost all web platforms - Facebook is the classic example. But if Facebook worked as a document distribution model, it would be very different. 

The difference, I believe, may lie in the way that individuals taking control of their own resources can promote the making of personal meaning and connections between things. At the moment, our meaning-making processes are beholden to algorithms presenting new stuff to us all the time, often trying to sell us stuff. But if we could share documents by distributing them and accepting distributed documents from people we trust then making our own connections within our personal collections can deepen the way in which we process information and think about the world. 

I wouldn't be surprised to see some kind of convergence between new forms of edTech and new forms of Social Software in the coming years. Institutions of education are going to have to adapt to this stuff. If the making of personal connections and personal meaning becomes the focus rather than simply "swimming in information", then the central question will become "What do institutions do to help individuals make sense of their technical environment?" Is AI going to help there? I doubt it - at least not in the Golem-like way we currently conceive of it.  

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Beyond the USS Pension Fund Collapse

There is a certain air of relief in UK universities that they have students - albeit a much reduced intake from overseas. However, nobody is relaxed about the future. The UK higher education system is oscillating like Tacoma Bridge: it is experiencing violent shocks both internally and externally (this has been happening since before the pandemic), and it is reacting to each of these shocks in a way that reveals that both our institutional structures and our compass are broken. 

The latest shock is the unsurprising revelation that the USS pension scheme - already in trouble - is now in such trouble that anyone looking at it might reach the conclusion "is it worth it? do we quit and invest money elsewhere?" That's very dangerous for a pension scheme. It's difficult to know the larger-scale effects of this, but it is almost certain to make working in HE in the UK unattractive.

There is no question that the marketised universities have exploited labour - particularly of temporary/hourly-paid staff. The union response to this, compacted by the pension issue, may be come to be seen as a warning for what is about to come. Although I had very mixed feelings about the strikes, when we stop listening to each other (which was one of the factors that led to it), serious trouble is always around the corner.

In the  final analysis, the question to ask when things seem to be shaking themselves to bits, is What's it all about?, Why do send our kids to university? The conventional wisdom (if you can call it that) among many management teams has been "we're businesses - it's about making money". This attitude, promoted by government, is directly responsible for the extent to which things risk falling apart now. It will be seen to be a classic case of the dangers of having a poorly inspected ontology. More importantly, it will be seen to be a warning that no senior manager of Higher Education can afford not to understand the importance of a grasp of the deep reality of education (how many managers even understand what "ontology" means?). Unfortunately, both sides in the industrial action suffered the same problem. 

A grasp of the deep realities of education requires thought and reflection. It requires a university to think about what a university is. This task is exactly the same as finding (or refinding) one's compass. Having said this, the lack of reflection has resulted from deeply embedded political interference in universities which has pushed them towards a market model. It has also jeopardised the personal security that all of us hope for towards the later stages of life.

A deep reflection on the realities of education cannot now exclude technology. Technology, in many ways, occupies much of the same territory as education: communication, collaboration, coordination of intellectual activity, construction, etc. Like universities, its ontology is poorly understood, but tech firms are not universities. Because they really are businesses, they have been seduced by marketised universities as opportunities to make large sums of cash. But at its root, technology is simple and (to a large extent) free. What has been missing are the dispositions to engage with it creatively and intellectually. While the pandemic has brought much crashing down, this creative and intellectual engagement with technology has been transformed, and things will not be the same again. It is noticeable that much of that creative technological engagement has featured retired professors, who - thanks to their generous pensions - can afford to make valuable contributions.

In many ways - although it certainly doesn't feel like it - our present crisis is caused by an embarrassment of  riches.  Our problem is not only deciding which way to go when there are so many options, but in remembering why we are travelling. To make universities rich? No. To pass on sufficient wisdom, memory, foresight and capability to the next generation so that they can negotiate the future? That must be it, mustn't it? So the possible collapse of the pension fund doesn't just indicate an immediate (or impending) loss of cash. It indicates that our values were misplaced. 

Universities must be viable and effective. To do so, their members - students, teachers, managers, must feel secure and able to think creatively, believing what they do is meaningful and makes the most of their intellectual talents. Right now, nobody feels secure in universities - partly because we are all - of whatever political persuasion, influenced by the illusions of market capitalism. This risks causing a debilitating intellectual malaise which will exacerbate the crisis. That is most likely to manifest in more industrial action. 

This is the point where intellectual authority is required - so desperately lacking from the present government. Only "health and quiet breathing" can create the unity between a deep understanding of the social necessity for higher education, the nature of technology, and the viable institutional model which can nurture and sustain it.

Friday, 4 September 2020

More on the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association: What online learning was meant to be!

 We've just finished the 4th week of the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association conference... It feels like a marathon - but what an amazing set of talks! You can see them all here: Overall, over 60 people have attended from all over the world - which is a number of attendees not seen since ANPA was founded in Cambridge 41 years ago. 

The level of depth of engagement, the level of mutual listening to one another, the variety of the presentations, it's all been extraordinary. Everyone says how amazing the impact of the technology is on the discourse. This is what online learning should always have been! We missed it because the community making the noise in online learning were the online educators - and they were not the most important people. 

In universities, the important people have always been the intellectual experts and deep thinkers within their own disciplines. The best of them would always think beyond their disciplines and listen to everything - and we've got many of the best of them in ANPA. It's also worth saying that because of the marketisation of education, these people have been oppressed within the university. Talking about the foundations of physics, or the connection between biology and consciousness became harder and harder in a transaction-driven system that was focused on certifying students and making money. The problem is that  all that transactional stuff is bloody boring. 

Covid is producing many changes, not least in the fact that the elders are now on Zoom. But more importantly, the closure of the campus has exposed the transactional nature of university learning as deeply deficient. Intellectual depth and real interpersonal connection will be essential for the university's survival in the future. As I've argued previously (and about to publish in Postdigital Science and Education), the transaction-driven model of marketised education relied on the campus to soften the blow of the outcome-driven educational process. The campus was a kind of biological surrogate.

With the campus gone (and yes, another lockdown is likely, isn't it?), a new balance must be struck. 

John Torday's presentation to ANPA provides what I think is an explanatory framework for what is happening to us. Our epigenetic environment has been transformed by Covid-19. Now is the time to rethink the biological foundations of our learning theory - particularly in the light of technology. It is, fundamentally, to rethink Piaget's genetic epistemology and Papert's constructivism (which drew heavily on Piaget)

My presentation was connected to this. I talked about "ontological theatre" of cybernetics (and Pask's involvement in ANPA has been a revelation to me), and the connection to David Bohm's idea that theory was a "theatre of the mind", and to think about what happens when minds come together.

This was Bohm's vision of a scientific dialogue: a tuning-in together of many brains operating thought together. It was also Stafford Beer's idea of "many brains thinking as one brain". My talk took in fractals, anticipation, a doodling program which I wrote, Rachmaninov's Corelli Variations and John Cage. It was fun!

But there have been so many talks - all of which will now receive new audiences for years to come. Mike McCulloch's propulsion mechanism explained with "information loss" was perhaps the most astonishing, but there were so many others, including beautiful artistic images from John Hyatt and Lynnclaire Dennis, or Andrew Crompton designing dice, or David McGoveran's wonderful overview of ANPA history in the US, or striking mathematical work drawing on quaternions from Doug Matzke and Mike Manthey.

And there's another 2 weeks to go!

Friday, 14 August 2020

An Online Space for Operating Thought

The most exciting thing that has happened since the lockdown is the reorganisation of intellectual engagement among scholars from all kinds of disciplines. When everyone, of all ages, was stuck at home in front of their computers, all over the world, it became easy to say "let's meet up in zoom and talk about all those things which we never got to discuss properly in the 20 minute slots in conferences". There are a number of groups now operating, and they need to be catalogued. I would mention John Williamson's QuiCycle for discussion around  physics (, and the "Important Things Group" featuring the encounter between physics and biology, courtesy of John Torday and Peter Rowlands, and many others. Now I have been organising the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association (ANPA) conference online along similar lines - one presentation per day, lots of space for discussion:

We have reached the end of the first week of ANPA, and I have found it richly rewarding. We have had profound presentations by Peter Rowlands, Mike Horner, Louis Kauffman and Dino Buzzetti. More importantly, all these presentations have been revolving around a single idea which relates back to Peter Rowland's seminal contribution to quantum mechanics, and Lou Kauffman's beautiful topology which draws on cybernetics and Spencer-Brown's Laws of Form. More impressive still is the fact that, as Dino Buzzetti and Mike Horner reminded us, these current ideas are closely related to the original ideas that caused ANPA to be formed 41 years ago,  alongside Margaret Masterman's Cambridge Language Research Unit. A key figure was Gordon Pask, who not only contributed to the theory but also made a machine (this helps explain how Pask's thought extended from education to consciousness and physics). 

I was wondering what Pask would have made of our zoom conference. Perhaps he would have suggested richer shared spaces for activity other than the conference chat. But at the same time, I don't think anyone who has built on Pask's work in educational technology has really considered the situation of eminent thinkers really coming together through technology, thinking together through that technology, and thinking together about a common set of ideas. 

I'll say something about Dino Buzzetti's presentation in a future post, but this point about thinking together was most evident in Lou Kauffman's presentation. It was beautiful partly because of its theatre. David Bohm always argued that "theory" was a kind of "theatre" - the words have the same etymological root. There is a process that occurs in the interplay between pictures, words, logic and structure whereby the interference between those parameters mixes with the interferences of everyone else's constructions of those parameters, to reproduce these structures in other minds. Bohm called this process "dialogue" and says that its purpose is to "operate thought". Thought, he said, is a bit like a machine, and we have to learn how to use it, which we can only do by coming together like this. 

Lou used beautiful hand-drawn equations and diagrams to illustrate his point that the point was nothing. And perhaps its nothing which is the result of all those interference patterns. Or it's nothing that permeates the patterning of those interference patterns. Either way, it seems if we want to see "wholes", we should look for "holes".


Wednesday, 12 August 2020

The Exams Crisis: The Establishment Crumbles from Society's Children Upwards

Coronavirus is exposing the poverty of understanding of what really matters in society. If education  has been seen to be a priority at all, it is because the function of school in "keeping the kids off the streets" has been prioritised (behind lots of bluster about "learning"). 

In its ongoing development, like any organic entity, a society must exercise ways of making distinctions about things. Most of all, it must make distinctions about its own components as old components die, and new ones are born. Societies are autopoietic. Unfortunately, the ways that society conceives of its components, its structures, its purpose are determined by the established "components", most of whom have a vested interest in sticking to the old ways of making distinctions, and the old ways of structuring things.  Education is the vehicle by which nothing changes: it is supremely resistant to the demand for change, however much the world changes. While "Innovation" might be thought of as an engine for change, in fact this is education's immune system. But it's ok - because the world doesn't change too much.

Well, you can guess what's coming. 

It's not just societies that are autopoietic. People are too. Each of us, as biological entities is continually regenerating our cells in order to maintain our viable functioning in a changing environment. This is where what we call "learning" is happening. For the most part, the most important environmental phenomenon to which we have to adapt is our cultural environment - the world of jobs, money, mortgages, etc. This cultural environment sits on a substrate of the natural world which is biological and physical, but for the most part, the substrate is ignored by those busy with maintaining the culture milieu and making lots of money. 

Ignoring things is dangerous. Universities used to take the natural environment far more seriously than they do now. Fundamental inquiries into nature drove the scientific revolution. But today, nature is merely a "subject", some words on the curriculum, alongside all the other words like "accountancy" and "architecture". Its boxed-off, compartmentalised, separate. But this is the lie from where the ignorance comes.  

Our children are our natural inheritance. Their biology will come to dominate the cultural milieu when we are dead. Because of the rigidness of our thinking about our societal components, we are killing the very resource that offers hope for the future. It's as if we can't help ourselves - and that is one of the most frightening things about coronavirus - the threat of positive feedback in the biological and social system.

This isn't about kids getting into medical school or not, or kids getting grades they were awarded for exams that weren't taken terribly seriously by anyone. It's about how we conceive of the components and organisation of society, and how we create the conditions for development of its ongoing functioning. Everything that is called "Establishment" stems from the selection processes which operate on children in school. Everything is programmed for conservation of a rigid way of doing things, and this conservative impulse gets stronger the more uncertain the world gets. A number of Tory politicians (including the PM)  are saying that we need more exams. This is precisely the phenomenon of ramped-up conservatism in the light of increased uncertainty - positive feedback. 

We may be close to a breaking point. Just as the intense heat of the last few days is finally giving way to thunder and rain, so the anger of young people against a political class which is clearly incompetent may lead to a breath of fresh air. This anger has an existential and biological root, which doesn't just speak for the individual, but for the species. 

Who gets to be a doctor or a teacher? Who gets to be an artist or a thinker?  Who doesn't want to go to university? Who wants to serve in cafes or design space rockets? 

The answer must be: anyone who wants to. Equally, nobody should have to get the mental health problems, eating disorders or suicide attempts. 

Society then must organise itself to make this happen, and what it will take will be a fundamental rethinking of the relationship between nature - including the nature of our biology as sentient organisms - and culture, as the world of language and the speech acts that give us money, presidents, corporations and football matches. 

But this can only happen if society finds a new way to think about itself. It needs a language to express its use of language, in the context of the language it uses to describe its biology, physiology, and the material contents of the planet and the universe. A way of understanding the way we build things, and a way of understanding how we can build things differently. 

The establishment is crumbling. We need a meta-language to escape the trap of positive feedback which will otherwise finish us all off.  

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Alternative Natural Philosophy Association Online

The Alternative Natural Philosophy Association is a scholarly society which began in Cambridge 41 years ago, established by Ted Bastin (see, Frederick Parker-Rhodes (see, Clive Kilmister (see, David McGoveran (see, John Amson and H. Pierre-Noyes (see . Whilst the academic background of its founders lay in theoretical physics - and one particular theory called the "combinatorial hierarchy" (see dominated the early meetings - the intellectual ambition was always much broader than physics. Figures on the periphery of ANPA included Gordon Pask (Bastin worked extensively with Pask) and David Bohm (Basil Hiley, Bohm's collaborator in London, sometimes attended ANPA), and Roger Penrose (who collaborated on a book with Bastin about quantum theory).

This is Bastin, Kilminster and McGoveran discussing the combinatorial hierarchy in December 1992:

I got involved with ANPA 4 years ago, invited by physicist Peter Rowlands who I met at Liverpool university. I had been involved with the American Society for Cybernetics, and realised Peter and I knew some of the same people. I had got to know people through cybernetics, and he through physics. My meeting Peter occurred because I asked Loet Leydesdorff if he knew of anybody who was doing anything around anticipatory systems in Liverpool. Loet sent me a conference proceedings which mentioned Daniel Dubois (who work in anticipatory systems in seminal), and Peter Rowlands from Liverpool. Loet had worked with Daniel in developing anticipatory systems in the social sciences, and Peter (it turned out) knew Daniel well. And then the pieces started falling together. Peter also knew Louis Kauffman very well, who is one of the leading figures in cybernetics.

Last year, ANPA took place in Liverpool University, following a conference on Laws of Form, which is a mathematical theory which is closely related to approaches to physics. This year ANPA is online, hosted courtesy of Liverpool's Zoom account, and I'm organising it. Normally, this is a conference lasting a week. This year, I thought that nobody wants to spend all day staring at Zoom, so we could do one presentation per day, for a number of weeks - more like a festival than a conference. We started yesterday, with a presentation on the history of ANPA from Mike Horner, followed by a discussion where some of the older members of ANPA shared their memories and thoughts. For anyone interested in the history of ANPA, this is an excellent introduction.


It worked well, barring the usual technical glitches of Zoom. 

There's something very important happening with this online stuff. It would have been difficult to convince many academics to put up with online engagement before the pandemic. Now everyone's online - and more than that, people who haven't seen each other for decades because of difficulties travelling are not only meeting up and sharing memories and ideas, but creating a video resource which will exist for future generations.  

These kinds of discussions used to happen in universities (although ANPA was always a bit esoteric). But today, even in Cambridge, discussions of this nature won't be found. All universities, without exception, are now businesses. The academics have gone in search of a new forum for exploring deep ideas - and it is online. My betting is that students will follow in the fullness of time.

In the phase of development in online learning since the web, the focus was very much on teaching and learning rather than disciplinary scholarly engagement. I wonder if this led to some errors of thinking which require deeper inspection that is only possible with the kind of scholarship that manifests in things like ANPA. Educational research, by and large, provides only a very pale representation of scholarly thought about consciousness, communication and learning. If we want to get closer, we need to talk to the people looking at nature from the deepest perspectives. 

When their discussions start to embrace the technology which we have had for 20 years or so, and they make their deliberations available to everyone else, there is an opportunity not only to move things forwards in education, but to rethink how we organise intellectual engagement and academic apprenticeship more generally: the very things that universities are there to do. 

The ANPA programme is available here:

It is open to anyone, so if you would like to come, please contact me and I'll send you the Zoom link.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Luhmann and Biology

Niklas Luhmann's social systems theory is one of the most impressive achievements in the social sciences in the second half of the 20th century. Widely appreciated and mainstream in Germany and across mainland Europe, it remains far less well-known in the Anglo-Saxon world, beyond the realms of systems theorists who knew about Luhmann's hinterland, cybernetics, Maturana, etc. 

Loet Leydesdorff is about to publish a new book detailing the intellectual relationships that Luhmann had with Habermas and the intellectual elite in the 60s and 70s. This history is important because its not just our institutions that are in a mess at the moment, but our disciplines - not least, sociology. 

For those who want to critique Luhmann, his dependence first on the biological cybernetics of Maturana and Varela is a cause to claim "biological reductionism", or his later fascination with Spencer-Brown as a kind of sophistry which doesn't convince Leydesdorff.  It's remarkable that despite these criticisms, and indeed the criticism by Maturana that Luhmannn had misappropriated his theory, that Luhmann is the only figure from mainstream cybernetics to have had a major transformative impact on a discipline, with important work drawing on it - from Kittler's media theory (again, pretty much unknown to Anglo-Saxon media departments) to Yuk Hui's recent and brilliant "Recursivity and Contingency" which is spreading around the world. People reading Hui will learn about Ashby, Maturana, Von Foerster, Simondon, etc from this. 

Luhmann, like Stafford Beer, grounded his theory in biology. Autopoietic theory said that organisms maintain their structure by reproducing their components. Luhmann said that communications and discourses were the same. His project was to detail the mechanisms of reproduction in the discourses of economics, law, education, art and so on. It was a biological metaphor applied to a historical sociological analysis. Leydesdorff has impressively (but sometime impenetrably) operationalised this. By going back to Luhmann's intellectual foundations in phenomenology (Husserl, Schutz, Parsons), and drawing this together with biological work that Maturana didn't consider in detail (Robert Rosen, Daniel Dubois) and information theory (Shannon), Leydesdorff has created powerful analytical techniques for analysing discourses and identifying the mechanisms of autopoiesis by looking for "anticipatory systems" in the imprint of communications.   

At the heart of Leydesdorff's techniques has been the analysis of "mutual redundancy" - something which I have played a part in too. Redundancy is so useful and powerful because it exists at all levels of communication, from cellular organisation to language. The technologies that allow us to make comparisons between different levels of analysis are becoming more available. Leydesdorff was able to exploit the internet to make measurements of discourses. But now we have so much more - physiological data is available to anyone with a FitBit or an Apple watch, and more sophisticated techniques for analysing other facets of communication like prosody, body movement, etc are all becoming easier to operate. 

These physiological data points throw the spotlight back on Luhmann's drawing on Maturana. What is the relation between cell-talk and people talk? Cell learning and organisation and people learning and organisation? More to the point, people are aggregates of cells which have a history both in the ontogeny of the person, and in the phylogeny of the species. 

We know that developmental history is fundamental to present behaviour and learning. We know that developmental history was informed by environmental conditions. We're not clear about exactly how this works. How should our education policy progress if it turns out that (as we suspect) the history of environmental conditions are inseparable from individual development. Poverty, austerity, unemployment, stress, etc will all contribute to developmental problems - an uneven playing field which serves nobody well.   

Eugenics is generally considered a dirty word even in right-wing educational thinking. But it permeates a lot of educational thinking on the right and the left. The idea that individual merit and achievement is purely down to individual "effort" - Blair's "meritocracy" (which he never saw the irony in) is implicitly eugenic. It is implicit in the awful video that UniversitiesUK sent out that I commented on in my previous post. 

It is gaps in our theory which lead to this. The grasp of environment and history in the understanding of educational development is urgent if we are to make things better in education. In a sense the theoretical project is an extension of Piaget's "genetic epistemology" - but we've got to look beyond manifest biological structures and more towards their ontogeny and phylogeny. Mass education is about as old as the last pandemic. Perhaps it's about time we used the anniversary (and the current pandemic) positively.