Sunday, 31 July 2011

Commonplacing and Blogging

The British Library currently have John Milton's commonplace book on display. I found the experience of looking at it quite remarkable. Commonplace books are allowably messy, whilst serving an important function in the development and management of an individual's mind. 'Commonplacing' was something promoted in Universities until the early part of this century. The similarities to blogging are striking: but there is an important difference. 
Commonplace books were not usually intended to be public (apart of a few examples in this century (Auden, for example)): they were testimony of a private conversation the author would have with themselves; the physical marks on the page serving as an aide-mémoire of the development of mind.

I have to admit that my blog is very much an 'aide-mémoire': I see how my thinking develops, what happens in the world, what caused certain ideas to arise, what then takes their place, what I have read, etc. My practice with my blog is certainly similar I think to the practice of commonplacing. 

But blogging is public. It's a game that is played for raising one's profile as much as developing one's mind. The development of mind has become something of a 'performance art' in a way that would have seemed very strange to Bacon or Milton. Their public profile would have rested on their published works and their political standing. The process of their mental development, which commonplacing formed a part, was something that served the purpose of their publications and politcal activity.

What seems to have happened is that the processes of mental development are now seen as significant and worthy of public recognition. This may have something to do with education and the need to model the practice of thinking as much as to be an 'expert'. But should all acts relating to mental development be public?

The problem is that the technologies we possess work with searchable texts which can be recalled instantly and (potentially) used in a political way to manipulate the reputations of others at distant moments in the future. I think those who remain resistant to blogging fear this, and in a way, rightly so.

There remains a need for human beings to articulate their innermost thoughts in ways that only they can understand. It may be that the artefacts produced through such an articulation are indeed public, but that the intentions of the maker remain hidden behind their cyphers. Technology gives us fantastically powerful ways of organising things (I could never have been organised enough to keep a proper commonplace book - I would have lost it!). But I have needed my cyphers. Indeed, I would not have blogged in the first place if I hadn't found a way of making them.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Three worlds of education

This isn't my idea. I had a great chat to Oleg in his garden yesterday, and amongst other things, he described the differentiated education system using the metaphor of three worlds. (Not quite Popper, although I'm sure they're related in some way...)

World 1: "I need a degree. Give me content and assessment opportunities as cheaply as possible"
World 2: "I need professional qualifications and development to progress my career. I need something flexible that fits with my work"
World 3: "I want to read, study, think and contribute to knowledge."

Whilst these may be related, it may be that these are conflated in current approaches being adopted by UK universities as they seek to adjust to the changes in student funding. It is likely that a number of Universities will opt for World 1 as the be-all and end-all, possibly with the rhetoric of worlds 2 and 3 but little of the substance. This is dangerous because World 1 is the world technology can probably deliver better than institutions.

There's an interesting comparison between this layering of worlds of education, and new models of funding which are being considered by a few European universities.

Layer 1: free open access with automated self-assessment
Layer 2: assessment charges (roughly equivalent to low-cost fee of world 1)
Layer 3: teaching support in preparation for assessment (roughly equivalent to charges for worlds 2 or 3)

Are the three worlds real? Clearly, the economic changes are meaning that World 1 is becoming a prerequisite for any sort of professional life. To not have a degree will increasingly be like not having school certificates: the basic social filtering processes have moved up a level, and students are required to fund themselves through the final stage.

World 2 probably comes a bit later in life, although for those wanting to join the professions, they will choose world 2 in preference to World 1. It will be more expensive, and consequently open only to those who can afford it.

World 3 is what is often associated with the traditional view of universities. In reality, few undergraduate entrants to higher education are natural academics (often to the dismay of their 'proper academic' teachers!). World 3 is perhaps the most endangered world in many institutions (apart from the elite few), because the reasons for it to exist are very hard to articulate (I think the reasons are about as difficult to articulate as the reasons for the continued existence of the royal family!). Yet, if it didn't exist (world 3, not the royal family!), then neither would Universities in the first place! World 3 is about knowledge and the role of knowledge in civil society. World 3 is about individual intellectual capital, and it feeds worlds 1 and 2.

I think these are useful distinctions, and they challenge us to ask hard questions about the current direction of HE. Universities have typically addressed all three worlds, although they've never really made clear distinctions between them. Not all entrants to Oxford in 1350 wanted to think. Some wanted the 'piece of paper', some may have had particular requirements based on where they had arrived in their life. Medieval writers like Rabelais and Chaucer testify to the fact that it was a very mixed bag!

Sorting the mix properly and ensuring that institutional resources are provisioned in a way where what is provided meets specific individual needs is the essence of the challenge now.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Listening to the Economy: A brief paper for the American Cybernetics Society

Listening to the Economy: The cybernetics of Risk
This paper concerns a cybernetic approach to dealing with an economy in crisis. Cybernetics, as it is applied to the conception of ‘viable systems’ (drawing on Beer) and human attachment and loss (drawing on Bowlby) can provide a framework for the questioning of economic assumptions concerning property, commodities, money, exchange and markets which underpin the conventional economic viewpoint from which nations are experiencing such difficulty in making meaningful distinctions and constructive policy decisions.
Fundamental to our argument is that the conception of humans as viable biological systems relates directly to the sociological work of Beck concerning ‘risk’: ‘risk’ is experienced as anxiety, which in itself can be seen as a systemic reaction of the viable system with regard to its interactions with the environment. Coupled with risk is the reality of ‘loss’ for those caught up in the economic crisis, and in this regard, Bowlby’s control systems view of ‘attachment’ can help to characterise the interpersonal dimensions which have a bearing on mechanisms of individual well-being and anxiety management.
This short paper proceeds by addressing each of the key economic concepts re-articulating them in cybernetic terms. In conclusion, I argue that our ability to listen to the world in which we live depends on the quality of our antennae. The paper suggests that a modelling approach may be brought to bear on the issues relating human experience to economic conditions and that in turn will give us better antennae.

At a time of economic crisis, the most obvious thing to do is to question our assumptions. Unfortunately, many of those assumptions are seen to be simply too difficult, or worse, simply too 'obvious' to be critiqued: debts must be repaid. In search of powerful questions however, cybernetics can provide different ways of examining lived experience, whilst acknowledging that experience contains ‘property’, ‘money’, ‘markets’ and increasingly ‘services’.
The cybernetics of viable systems (most notably that of Beer (1971)) presents a way in which to conceive of experience within the framework of regulating mechanisms within an environment. Leonard’s presentation of the ‘Personal VSM’ (Leonard, www) provides one way of thinking about this: people must manage the things they have to do through instinctive habitual actions, organising adequate resources so that things get done, monitoring what is actually happening, thinking ahead about what might need to change, and finally considering the various balances between dreaming, coordinating and reacting as part of an expression of individual identity.
Within those individual processes of managing personal viability, there is another aspect of experience, mutually contingent on the first as we engage with things and people around us: we fall in love, have children, buy houses, learn to play the piano, get jobs and look after our parents. Equally, we may lose our jobs, our houses and our loved ones. These may be considered mechanisms of ‘attachment’ to other people as articulated by Bowlby (1958). It is my contention in this paper that they may also be considered as mechanisms of attachment to ‘things’ too.
Emotional life can be considered to exist between the mechanisms of individual viability and mechanisms of attachment: the thrills, joys and losses of ‘being’ somehow relate to attachments to loved ones and things, but equally those emotional responses must logically be determined by some state of (in)ability to manage complexities and maintain viability at particular moments on the part of the individual experiencing them. Drawing on Beck’s (1992) analysis of the experience of modernity, we might say however that beyond those rare instances where new attachments are made (like falling in love) or losses experienced, the practical balance of individual viability is characterised by differing levels of risk, and its associated emotional landscape is characterised by anxiety.
Property and Attachment
Our attachment to material artefacts, other people, intellectual ideas, religious belief, language, culture and personal habits are all considered factors which underpin economic behaviour. From Keynes's 'propensity to consume' (2007) to Sen's (2007) recent work on identity, it seems that the core of our values lies in attaching value to things external to us. In the case of people who we love, one set of economic behaviours arises: the provision of safety and opportunity, for example. In the case of material things, another set of economic behaviours arise: the exchange of goods and services, the management of money. Equally, the ownership of ideas and opinions by individuals can be seen to directly relate to human behaviour that seeks to defend ‘identity’, some of which will be directly economic.

In identifying that such behaviour may relate to personal identity, Sen’s insight into the relationship between identity and violence (Sen, 2007) invites a cybernetic description of the operation of the person as a ‘viable system’ in Beer’s sense. Moreover, if such an insight can show a relationship between viable systems and ‘commodities’ as well as between viable systems and ‘opinions’, then a radical view of ‘property’ can be articulated which provides an alternative to the traditional concepts of commodities, services, value and exchange which have received little attention since Marx, or indeed since the work of Smith (1776) and Locke (1689).

At the root of such a description is the idea that property and identity might be conceived of as being biological. But if the identity of a viable biological system depends on the relationship between that system and ‘commodities’ in the environment, personal opinions and other people, how might the operation of that system be characterised?

Bowlby’s description of mechanisms of attachment might provide a way of characterising this. Bowlby argues that the relationship between mother and child is a feedback mechanism: “"the child's tie to his mother is a product of the activity of a number of behavioural systems that have proximity to mother as a predictable outcome" By citing ‘proximity’, Bowlby argued against the Freudian view of the mother-child relationship which was based on the mother feeding the child. Instead, citing Lorenz’s (1978) work on ‘Imprinting’, Bowlby argued that there had to be a control system operating whereby systems effectively ‘locked-on’ to one another. However, Bowlby stops short of articulating the detail of the mechanisms whereby this might take place. Using Beer’s VSM, it may be possible to suggest a possibility which also addresses the key issue of ‘proximity’.
Beer’s VSM and Mechanisms of Attachment
The Viable System Model articulates a number of regulating mechanisms which maintain different aspects of viability of the system within an environment. From the environment to the viable system there are perturbations to which the mechanisms of the system must react, altering the organisation of the system components. The perturbations from the environment ultimately take the form of sense-perceptions: sounds, smells, caresses, images. Each of these will have a continual impact on the viability of the system. Furthermore, the individual organisational impact of a sense-perception will have some bearing on future sense-perception, with dispositions to certain sensual stimuli continually evolving. Thus the processes of sense-perception may be viewed as being chained from one perception to another in the stream of experience.
Bowlby saw attachment as a mechanism of homeostasis with the environment. By looking at the sensual relationship between the individual and the environment, a mechanism can be described whereby internal homeostasis produces external behaviour in the form of attachment which contributes to the maintenance of internal homeostasis. Given this continual chain of sense-perceptions which are selected on the basis of previous sense perceptions, and the requirement of the individual biological system to maintain its viability, it is conceivable that a particular ‘sensual configuration’, maybe in the form of the mother (or, in Lorenz’s case, in the form of ‘giant eggs’ or wire-frame ‘mothers’) may become the object of focus for the biological system as it has become adaptationally disposed to continue to maintain a proximal relationship to the source of those sense perceptions. At the root of this relationship of attachment therefore, the need for the viable system to become attached in order to maintain its identity can be suggested.
Whilst Bowlby’s focus is on the control systems which relate mother and child, the mechanism described here is focused on the sense perceptions of a biological system, and the need to maintain a sensual (and therefore proximal) relationship with the source of those sense perceptions. In line with Lorenz’s discoveries, a relationship between biological and inanimate objects in the environment might also be suggested within this mechanism.
When individuals become attached to objects there are various words used to describe the relationship and the experience. Amongst these ‘property’ and ‘commodity’ might be listed. In this way, a conception of property may be considered as a biological mechanism and this is in sharp distinction to the classical conception of property originating in the thought of Locke, who conceived of property being connected to the labour of the person who owns a commodity. This labour-mixing theory survived largely intact through the work of Smith and then Marx.
However, a biological view of property sees the sensual relations to an object as fundamental to the process of maintaining the viability and identity of the individual in whom there is an attachment relationship to the object. In other words, the identity of individuals may be seen as being constituted by the sensual relationships they have with those things they are attached to. This however presents a problem, for it then becomes difficult to explain why it is anyone would want to trade an object to which they are attached for another object.
Exchange and Risk
We can consider what happens in the biological viability of a person when property is exchanged. Exchange occurs when property seen from a biological context is transferred from one person to another, and at the end of this process, the individuals concerned have new attachments to new objects and have given up their attachments to their old objects. This might be viewed from the perspective of the loss of an attachment (and consequently the potential loss of identity and viability within the person), and the formation of a new attachment and the reconstitution of identity.
What might be the driver for doing this? Using the VSM, one of the principle regulating mechanisms is what Beer terms System 4. System 4’s job is to consider how the world might change, what new threats might evolve and how the system ought to adapt to survive in a changed world. In addition to this, the other regulating mechanisms of the VSM are continually having to cope with environmental perturbations which can change the operating environment and quickly produce situations which are unmanageable. Amongst these mechanisms, the anxiety of future survival manifests itself in the continual concern of the viable system to develop organisational capacities that will help it survive and maintain its identity in changed circumstances.
Viewed in this way, exchange may be seen as a survival mechanism whereby the system finds ways of relinquishing old attachments providing the consequent loss of sensual perturbations can be compensated for with some new attachment. Such an emphasis on sensual compensation and maintenance of viability provides an alternative to classical economic theories about rational choice.
Money can be seen to be a special case of this sort of mechanism. Money as a generalised means of acquiring new objects of attachment may have its own ‘sensual’ properties and a general capacity to compensate for a wide range of loss of attachments in lieu of an increased capacity to replace them at some point in the future. Beyond this, conventional economic behaviour of consumption and saving can be seen as ways of compensating for the loss of attachments and the accrual of increasing means for sustained viability through the capacity to acquire new objects of attachment as necessary.
But as with simple exchange, behind this behaviour lies the fundamental anxiety that is associated with the risks of modern life, that somehow the objects with which we constitute our identity are impermanent, and their loss deemed a threat to our identity. Viewed in this way, economic behaviour is more ‘systemic’ than rational: it is an attempt to mitigate catastrophic loss in a way which preserves individual identity.
The Biology of Risk
Beck argues that the fundamental economic and social distinctions of modernity concern risk and anxiety rather than the distribution of wealth. In his view, it is the distribution of risks which shows up the marked inequalities between social groups. Those who have access to economic and social capital and who have high levels of education have the means to manage their anxieties in ways in which those who don’t cannot. For “the means to manage anxieties and risks” we might say “the means to manage their identities”. But modern society is providing new ways of managing risks which go beyond attachments to commodities.
In recent years, western economies have focused on services rather than industrial production. Like commodities, services provide “sensual perturbations” to individuals who may well respond with the same attachment behaviours as with commodities and other forms of property. Mobile phone services are a good example. But services are different from commodities in that they are not available for exchange because the capital content of a service is not owned by the service consumer. Services may be instead seen to offer ‘palliative’ risk-management rather than anything with which a more fundamental attachment might be formed.
The biological perspective of property that has been presented here allows us to consider the implications of this and to relate them to current economic trends. Despite the best efforts of many western governments, the gap between the richest in society and the poorest has been steadily increasing. With economic behaviour understood as biological mechanism of attachment based around sensual relations with commodities, an explanation for this may be suggested. This is that traditional means of maintaining viability through the acquisition of commodities with which individuals have attachments is increasingly replaced by the ‘palliative’ effects of services which, whilst they perform a similar function to commodities, do not afford the means of control and exchange to consumers. On the other hand, the providers of services accumulate capital on a global basis and use this capital:
a.     As the basis of their service provision
b.    As a means of removing commodity alternatives which consequently forces consumers to consume their services.
Conclusion: Listening to the economy with better antennae
Our distinctions help us to hear what we hear and do what we do. In this paper, I have elaborated some new distinctions of property based on the attachment relations individuals have to commodities. This has focused on the sensual relations between the viable operations of individuals and the objects and people in the world that surrounds them. In reality, relations between things and people are not only sensual but also linguistic. The elaboration of a linguistic dimension to the mechanisms described would allow for greater refinement in the mechanisms of markets and the political dimensions of the economy.
In the present economic crisis, ‘loss’ is the principle experience for the unfortunate and ‘anxiety’ a mechanism which exists within everyone who sees loss occurring. I have argued that loss is a challenge to personal identity and viability. Economic behaviour can be understood as a means by which individuals acquire capacity to adapt whilst maintaining their identity. But what is happening to western economies can be seen to be directly related to the management of risks and anxiety, where the nature of the means for managing risks available to consumers is changing. Where there were once new commodities to which individuals could form attachments, and consequently exchange them, now there are services which directly address anxieties but without releasing any of their capital for exchange.
An economic crisis is very hostile and alien territory. But survival in hostile and alien territory requires deep listening to understand the nature of that territory. But the listening requires the right sort of antennae. It may be the case that the classical economic view cannot pick up the signals that need to be picked up if we are to steer ourselves from this situation.
Beck, U (1992) The Risk Society
Beer, S (1971) Brain of the Firm, Wiley
Bowlby (1958) Attachment and Loss
Keynes, J.M. (2007) The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money
Leonard, A (www) Personal VSM available online at
Locke, J (1689) Two treatises on Government
Lorenz, K (1978) Behind the Mirror: a  search for a natural history of Human Knowledge
Sen, A (2007) Identity and Violence
Smith, A (1776) The Wealth of Nations

Monday, 25 July 2011

Fromm, Extremism and Spontaneity

With the recent terrible events in Norway, it is difficult for formulate any utterance which goes beyond denunciation of the acts of an individual lunatic. It also may be inappropriate to say that this was more than the act of a lunatic (it could aggrandise his actions). But with the deaths of so many young people, it does seem to be appropriate to reflect.

I was struck by this passage from Erich Fromm's "Fear of Freedom" which summed up my reflections on the situation:

"Looked at superficially, people appear to function well enough in economic and social life; yet it would be dangerous to overlook the deep-seated unhappiness behind that comforting veneer. If life loses its meaning because it is not lived, man becomes desperate. People do not die quietly from physical starvation; they do not die quietly from psychic starvation either. If we look only at the economic needs as far as the 'normal' person is concerned, if we do not see the unconscious suffering of the average automatized person, then we fail to see the danger that threatens our culture from its human basis: the readiness to accept any ideology and any leader, if only he promises excitement and offers a political structure and symbols which allegedly give meaning and order to an individual's life. The despair of the human automaton is fertile soil for the political purposes of Fascism." (1942, p220)
Fromm goes on to emphasise the importance of 'spontaneity' and creativity. I wonder in that context about improvisation. But then there are problems here too: mass murder with an automatic weapon could be viewed as a 'spontaneous' (even creative) act (I think of Damien Hirst's insensitive remark that 911 was a 'work of art'). But if those acts are spontaneous, they are also hideous. Fromm is talking about the spontaneity that lives in beauty. That suggests that Wittgenstein was right when he asserted that fundamentally aesthetics was the same as ethics.

It also means that whatever is spontaneous must also be considered - which seems like a contradiction. But the balance is always there to be negotiated. My own balance is shifting... I bought some manuscript paper at the weekend and have begun composing something....

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Educational Technology and Washing Machines

Many technologies that we get used to in our daily lives save us labour: washing machines, vacuum cleaners, cars, telephones, etc. Cynics might even say entertainment technologies save us the labour of entertaining ourselves. Systems thinkers like Marshall McLuhan would (rather than say labour saving) talk about 'extending' human capacity: clothes extend the skin, the car extends the feet, telephones extend the voice, the washing machine extends the scrubbing brush, etc. But many of these are 'hybrid' extensions: it's not just the scrubbing brush that is extended, but also the walk to fetch the water, the effort to heat it, etc...

Does the intenet 'extend' the book? Of course, in place of 'extend', the cybernetician might also say 'amplify'. "The internet amplifies the book" seems a less contentious thing to say. In this way, it is like the telephone. But within this 'amplification' there is also an aspect of 'labour saving'. Illich worries about this sort of amplification because it (in his view) harms the sense of conviviality in society. Consequently, Illich favoured limiting the power of technologies so that convivial labour (which he saw in terms of people working together to achieve common goals) could be maintained.

What about learning? or Teaching? There's some trendy stuff on 'accelerated learning' (see which is tied to the (highly problematic) theory of learning styles which seems to be heading in this direction. The basic view is that 'learning' is about achieving a neural state that is responsible for the skilled performances (linguistic and otherwise) that are associated with other members of society who are recognised to possess knowledge. Somehow the neural state can be engineered in a way more rapid than the methods of achieving it with the traditional 'labour of learning'. The techniques offered are designed to engineer this neural state.

Of course, not all the techniques in themselves are necessarily bad (although some probably are). Some of them might be very effective in their own way (which unfortunately serves to convince the gullible that the underlying philosophy is correct!). The problems lie in the conception of the labour of learning and its relation to human individual and social life: it is as if learning is like washing-up or hoovering.

As an activity, learning is polymorphous. It encompasses almost everything we do, which from one aspect or another can be said to be learning: sleeping, reading, talking, walking, eating, breathing, driving, looking, etc. Interestingly, teaching (as Paul Hirst pointed out) is also polymorphous, but perhaps less so: opening windows, sharpening pencils, walking around, talking, (but not necessarily sleeping (although it has been known!)). Washing-up is not polymorphous: there's a particular class of things that are done when we wash up, and probably little dispute about what is involved. Turning learning into a 'neural engineering' project turns it into a less polymorphous activity: increasingly there is little dispute about what is involved - which I find a little chilling!

Hirst makes the comparison between the polymorphous activity of teaching with that of 'work'. This is interesting because it also raises the issue of 'labour'. Given Arendt's distinction between work and labour, where work is that which reconstructs the nature of political existence (which includes making things, writing books, creating concepts, etc), whereas labour creates nothing of permanence, otherwise serving the biological processes and necessities of human existence. Through this lens, we can see that learning is not labour, but work: it is precisely about recreating the nature of political existence. In this view, teaching is merely the human counterpart of the work of learning.

This helps when we come to think about labour saving and educational technology. Whilst technologies like washing machines are labour-saving, they are not always work-enhancing, although in the case of the washing machine, the liberation from drudgery has a political aspect - particularly if the person who was labouring in washing up was oppressed because of it. But that can only happen if work follows from the liberation from drudgery.

The same might apply when we think about the amplification of books by the internet. However, visiting the library was not really labour, because in going to the library the work of learning was already in action  in the intention. What labour is there for the internet to save? Yet, we can't all go to the library - particularly if you live in Africa or other places far removed from Oxford (or Manchester...). And by being able to read in Africa, the possibility of the work of learning is created and supported where it might not once have been possible.

The internet (and maybe communications technology in general) is work in Arendt's sense: it recreates the nature of political existence. The work of learning that might then sit on it is up to the individuals who engage with it. It may be that the biggest problem we face is lies in the domain of the politics of education, and the pressure for qualifications. At the moment when I learn because I have to get a degree is the moment when the work of learning turns into labour, and indeed that labour can be 'saved' through technology.

Turning work into labour is a problem for our society: it is a simultaneous movement to de-politicise and technologise. And what "biological processes and necessities of human existence" are being met through this 'labour' of learning. Answer: Risk!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Cyber-systemic Thinking in educational Technology (a tribute to Gary Boyd)

I was very sad to discover that Professor Gary Boyd of Concordia University died in May.

I met Gary at the 2010 American Cybernetics Society conference, and was very struck by his remarkable intellect, breadth of reading, gentleness and a common-sense attitude to educational technology which is rare.

Gary was very supportive of my idea to write a book on "Educational Cybernetics" (he was the only other person outside Bolton who described himself as an 'Educational Cybernetician"). He sent me some wonderful slides, which I've posted here. I think they give a sense of his intellectual curiosity and precision of thought.

Gary's summarised his thoughts on educational cybernetics as:
"MY take on it is that basic cybernetic principles are applicable at many levels from micro i.e.instructional design on  up through course and programme design and development to whole institutional and countrywide viable systems development."
And this is how he saw Cyber-Systemic Modelling

He sent me some PDFs of his presentations on Cybernetics and Educational Cybernetics which I've attached below.

I also noted that he wrote a marvellous review for a book on Educational Technology by Lars Qvortrup (who applied Luhmann's thinking to technology, which I am very interested in). Although not a Luhmannite (he said he found it "unpleasant"... but I didn't get a chance to probe him about this!) I think this review gives a sense of what we have just lost: (I've grateful to Terry Anderson for highlighting this)

One of the strange things (and I'm sure Gary would be amused by this) is that when people die, the impetus to re-examine their work and carefully consider their arguments seems somehow more intense. I wonder why that is?

Monday, 18 July 2011

Proximity, Distance and Attachment

One of the key features of Bowlby's attachment theory is the importance it places on 'proximity' (between mother and child, between patient and carer, etc). But citing proximity is not really an explanation - just the identification of an observed pattern.

Understanding proximity is important to understanding learning technology. The experience of being close to people is the most profound experience we have as human beings: closeness is the essence of love. Technology, however, is fundamentally concerned with distance; it deals with the issue of 'closeness' as a an organisational problem (we can't all be physically close to our teachers!), and articulates a range of views where it is not the closeness that counts, but the communications that take place that matters. However, educational technologists have struggled to persuade their colleagues that this is indeed the case!

This isn't just Luddism on the part of those who resist. It is an instinctive reaction that something important is lost when the closeness is lost. The first question regarding this view is: "what might be lost". Those aspects of direct sense (smell, touch, taste) are obviously inaccessible in the case of distance relations. The question we have is "what is the impact of losing these senses?"

Because our tendency is to reduce human engagement (particularly academic engagement) to the logical content of communications (because this is the only part of communication which we can easily rationalise), we don't have the vocabulary to articulate differences in those aspects of proximal communication which may or may not be fundamental to the process: we simply can't discuss it.

Bringing Bowlby's theory into the picture, we might consider the role of those senses, which all depend on proximity, to the processes of attachment. Because as Bowlby tells us attachment is the fundamental feature of the relationship between care-givers and care-receivers. His feedback mechanism identifies proximity as the important factor, but does not consider the essence of proximity and in particular how the senses that are most acute in a proximal situation work with the feedback mechanisms of attachment.

I think we can do better than this, and postulating a sensual as well as a 'rational' channel for communication is a possibly fruitful approach. However, what might this mean? (I remember as a child Simon Groom on Blue Peter advocating 'Smellyvision' as a way of conveying the essence of their cookery demonstrations!). I think that would be a bit silly.  But at the same time, what may well be going on is the multiple descriptions of the world (multiple articulations) from which meaning (which - and here's a thought - might be a synonym for 'attachment'...?) is connoted. It may not matter what form those descriptions take: smell, visual, auditory, haptic... What may matter is that there are a number of them.

So this comes back to the idea that we somehow need to model connotation. The idea that we might be able to model 'meaning' as 'attaching' is very intriguing!

Monday, 11 July 2011

Hirst's "Forms of Knowledge"

Educational philosopher Paul Hirst wrote a paper in 1973 entitled "Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge" (reprinted in Hirst, P (1974) "Knowledge and the Curriculum"). In this he writes that:
"to acquire knowledge is to become aware of experience as structured, organised and made meaningful in some quite specific way, and the varieties of human knowledge constitute the highly developed forms in which man has found this possible. To acquire knowledge is to learn to see, to experience the world in a way otherwise unknown, and thereby to come to have a mind in a fuller sense"
 In rejecting various forms of mentalism and behaviourism, he asserts that
"to have a mind basically involves coming to have experience articulated by means of various conceptual schemata. It is only because man has over millenia objectified and progressively developed these that he has achieved the forms of human knowledge, and the possibility of the development of mind as we know it is open to us today"
In attempting to identify the 'forms of knowledge', Hirst sets about identifying 'distinguising features:

  1. They each involve certain central concepts that are peculiar in character to the form. For example, those of gravity, acceleration, hydrogen and photo-synthesis characteristic of the sciences; number, integral and matrix in mathematics; God, sin and predestination in religion; ought, good and wrong in moral knowledge.
  2. In a given form of knowledge these and other concepts that denote, if perhaps in a very complex way, certain aspects of experience, form a network of possible relationships in which experience can be understood. As a result the form has a distinctive logical structure. For example, the terms and statements of mechanics can be meaningfully related in certain strictly limited ways only, and the same is true of historical explanation.
  3. The form, by virtue of its particular terms and logic, has expressions or statements (possibly answering a distinctive type of question) that in some way or other, however indirect it may be, are testable against experience. This is the case in scientific knowledge, moral knowledge, and in the arts, though in the arts no questions are explicit and the criteria for the tests are only partially expressible in words. Each form, then, has distinctive expressions that are testable against experience in accordance with particular criteria that are peculiar to the form
  4. The forms have developed particular techniques and skills for exploring experience and testing their distinctive expressions, for instance the techniques of the sciences and those of the various literary arts. The result has been the amassing of all the symbolically expressed knowledge that we now have in the art and the sciences. 
However Hirst also points out that "All knowledge involves the use of symbols and the making of judgements in ways that cannot be expressed in words and can only be learnt in a tradition. Thus Polanyi's tacit knowledge is seen in the same light as knowledge of concepts: knowing-how is the same as knowing-that. 
A further classification is introduced to deal with the fact that not all knowledge falls within the remit of 'disciplines'. So he argues that a further classification between 'forms' of knowledge and 'fields' of knowledge:
  1. Distinct disciplines or forms of knowledge (subdivisible): mathematics, physical sciences, human sciences, history, religion, literature and the fine arts, philosophy.
  2. Fields of knowledge: theoretical, practical (these may or may not include elements of moral knowledge)
The quality of Hirst's analysis and thinking puts most thinking in e-learning (particularly noticeable in the recent MOOC debate) to shame. I was struck by the use of his term of 'form' of knowledge, since this was a term I've recently been thinking about too.

However, I don't necessarily agree with Hirst. For his analysis stops short of looking at the ontology of knowledge. And looking at the ontology of knowing, we have to consider the causal efficacy of knowledge and its relationship to being. Hirst seems a bit Cartesian in his emphasis that "coming to know" concerns the "development of mind". Equally, "coming to know" concerns the development of society. 

Critical Realism can help here. In exploring the causal efficacy of knowledge, the disciplinary distinctions he draws attention to break down further in a way which (I think) can help us understand the relationship between knowledge and teaching. Hirst is right to point out the differences between knowledge of mathematics and moral knowledge, but he stops short of saying how they are distinct in their causal mechanisms. Mathematical knowledge does something to mathematicians which is distinct from what theological knowledge does to theologians. What we perceive on encoutering a mathematician or a theologian are the effects of what their knowledge does. And the realm of causal effects and the scope of their mechanisms is distinct in each case. Thus, looking at Hirst's categories, we might discern:
  1. biological mechanisms
  2. psychological mechanisms
  3. social mechanisms
In fact, to be more precise, we will determine the differences between our own biological, psychological and social mechanisms through the effects of the social mechanisms displayed by the knower.

I think (and have argued: see that these differences are detected in four principal areas when encountering a teacher:

  1. In the causal effects of knowledge on the way of being of the knower (personal form of knowledge)
  2. In the causal effects of the esteem and moral judgement of the knower (purpose form of knowledge)
  3. In the causal effects of the presentation of what is known on others (content form of knowledge)
  4. In the causal effects of practices with tools and techniques (tool form of knowledge)
Understanding the nature of education is precisely about understanding the conditions under which knowledge can occur. At the end of  his paper, Hirst quotes Michael Oakeshott:
"As civilised human beings, we are inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognised as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages... Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, nor is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure... Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skills and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognise the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation. And it is this conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance." (Oakeshott: Rationalism in Politics and other essays, 1962, pp 198-9)

For more recent thoughts on this topic, see 

Sunday, 10 July 2011

iTEC, Widgets and Ideal Worlds

I'm currently writing the documentation for our first 'deliverable' in the EU-funded iTEC ( project. Our contribution in Bolton to this large project is to leverage the Wookie Widget server ( into pedagogical practice in schools. In being so pedagogically-focused, iTEC stands out from all the other Wookie-inspired developments (like those funded through the JISC DVLE programme). iTEC identifies that what looks like a very technological issue around interoperability has profound implications on the organisation of education, and particularly the organisation of teaching.

I've commented before on the fact that the ready-to-handness of tools means new ways of conceiving of the organisation of education (see But more deeply than this I think iTEC is an indication of where the TEL (Technologically-Enhanced Learning) endeavour is moving.

In a way, TEL as we've come to understand it, seems dead. It's no longer the domain of a few enthusiastic user groups within institutions. TEL is everywhere, and ubiquity usually indicates imminent death. Our schools, universities and colleges are technologied-up to the eye-balls. Typically, the complaint of the TEL community is now "Ah.. but you're not using it properly!" where 'properly' means "in the way we'd envisaged as a means to transforming the education system". But 10 years ago, most people in TEL would have settled for 'improper use' as a mark of success!

So TEL has changed from the "campaign to use technology in education" to "the campaign to use technology properly in education". But it doesn't know what 'properly' is.

That's where I think iTEC is important.

iTEC combines and connects a number of interventions at different levels in the education system. First, a process of scenario-creation is taking place involving 'pedagogy experts' (that may sound slightly worrying, but it's worth trying...) Then the tooling requirements of scenarios are to be constructed and made available in a form which can be instantiated across many different learning environments. The means by which this is achieved is through the 'interoperability intervention' of Wookie Widgets.

Like a good wedding, there's something a bit 'old hat' about this, and something tantalisingly innovative. The 'old hat' bit is saying to teachers "we've got this wonderful new technology that's going to change your lives"... for which teachers will probably hear "we've got a project and we want you to use this stuff which we've made in addition to the 1001 other things that you're already having to worry about!". We've been there before, so it won't be much of a surprise to see what happens.

But what is 'tantalisingly innovative' is that iTEC is genuinely wanting to get a grip on 'real practice'. What do teachers really do? What tools do they really use? What are the real particular problems they face as they try and do it? If you can provide solutions to those particular problems, what new things might teachers then want to do?

It is this focus on the 'particulars of practice' which I think ultimately will be the real innovation in the project. And I think it's where TEL is going too. For 10 years or more, technologists have idealised teaching practice, prescribing roles for teachers and learners hard-coded in technologies which in reality, people have struggled to engage with. Technologies like Wookie provide interoperability solutions at a micro level which can help learning technologists engage with the real particulars of practice in a way where tiny interoperability solutions that are non-invasive on the practice of teachers can have a transformative effect.

The technical standards that sit behind these initiatives are the key foci of the technical innovation; not the creation of new systems for 'learning' (as in learning design), or 'curriculum design', or 'learner analytics'. These are all behemoths which are founded on idealisations of practice, and which ultimately will meet the needs of few real people (apart from those who thought of them!).

iTEC seems to me to be at the pivot point between a focus on "technical interoperability, human organsation and real practice" and the old-style focus on "large systems based on idealisations about the educational world".

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

MOOCs, Methodology and Nuremberg Funnels

One of the curious things about the recent MOOC debate between Stephen Downes, George Siemens and David Wiley is the fact that it's erupted around an issue of epistemology: whether there is or isn't knowledge 'transfer'. I don't get the impression that either party is advocating a Nuremberg Funnel - the oldest example of crude 'knowledge transfer', so I am left wondering what people are actually arguing about.

The deeper issue seems to be a debate about whether MOOCs, with their implicit constructivist foundations, 'work'. But then, that is a discussion we could have about anything in e-learning: nothing really 'works' in e-learning... or rather everything 'sort-of' works (or doesn't, depending on your point of view). It appears that the battlelines have been drawn not about the sort-of working-or-not of MOOCs, but on the epistemological foundations of their ideology.

That in itself seems strange, and somewhat illogical. But I think it's an indication of a deeper methodological problem we have in e-learning which makes it very difficult to grasp the nettle of things 'sort-of' working. That may be partly because currently used methodologies for evaluation are generally poor. But I think it has more to do with the fact that inevitably, evaluation is at some level political. A MOOC is a political proposition as well as a technological/educational configuration. Behind it sit a whole load of values, mostly of those who've invested time and effort in the idea. How are they to defend the values they believe in? They have to prove the causal efficacy of their underlying theories. That's how we get to "there is no knowledge transfer".

But saying "there is no knowledge transfer" is not a proof of causal efficacy! Nor are the various statements and extra distinctions (neural whatevers!) that are brought in to back it up. None of this is defensible (as indeed, neither is the opposing position).

Standing back from this, I think we really need to think about what 'sort-of' working means, and what we can learn from all of the 'sort-of' working interventions (with their associated values) in learning technology. This requires a different type of methodology and a different philosophical underpinning. It's probably not the only approach, but my own work has used 'Realistic Evaluation' (see with its underpinning in Critical Realist philosophy. This approach asks a simple question of 'sort-of' working things: "given that we see all of these things happening (i.e. works here, doesn't work here, some like it, some don't, etc), what must the world be like?". That's an appeal for what philosophers would call a "transcendental argument". Transcendental arguments in Realistic Evaluation take the form of descriptions of 'causal mechanisms', and the idea is to think of loads of possibilities and test them out.

I like this because it allows me to consider lots of possible theories, and some of them fit better than others. The value in it all lies in the fact that good theories will not only have explanatory power, but will also show predictive power. And predictive power gives us better control... which may be the best we can ever hope for in our efforts to grapple with learning technology!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Positioning and New Media (and how I am feeding back to students)

I've been experimenting for some time with 'feeding back' to students using video. In fact, this practice grew directly out of my experiences of doing this blog, particulary where I use CamStudio to capture me writing using the inking tools in Microsoft Office. I've found that I can 'get through' to students more effectively in this way than by using text; they seem to actually respond to the comments made and develop their work more effectively (which, after all, is the whole point of 'feedback'). Whilst I don't want to say 'everyone should do it', I am interested in why (if it is more effective) video is effective, and how it might work.

My initial thoughts are that there is something more gentle about the video as opposed to text, both in its creation and in its viewing. The writing of text feedback to students is not top of my list of 'favourite aspects of the job', and sometimes the irritation I feel doing the task can seep into the content of what I write. I don't think I'm alone.

So instead, I imagine the student is sat in front of me. I relax. With their work (in Word format) in front of me, with the Word inking tools on, and with CamStudio recording what I do, I read through their text line-by-line, making marks as I do so. I'm very relaxed because I know that sometimes I'll make a mark only to change my mind. I do this in silence (I record my voice later). I can think and really engage with what might be going on with the student. I've even been known to doodle as I do it. CamStudio records the process I go through: it captures boredom, irritation, thoughts, ideas, changes of mind, revisions, recommendations, etc.

I then speed up the video in MovieMaker - because it's far too slow in real-time (I learnt this from doing my improvisations!); and no feedback video should really be longer than 5 minutes. I then record a voice-over which is often surprisingly easy, because I've done all the thinking as I marked-up the document. Job done. I render it and stick in Dropbox for the student.

I've done this a lot now. I have the following reflections on it:

  1. The experience involves a number of different types of communication: speech, visual: in fact, this is very similar to the rich feedback of face-to-face.
  2. The student has some vicarious insight into the experience of reading their own work through the eyes of the teacher.
  3. The teacher, in revealing their experience, is less of an authority figure, and more like another human being who's experience can be inspected.
  4. As a result the general experience is less threatening.

All of those things might be useful, but they don't in themselves explain why these experiences occur.

My sense is that there's something about the way students are 'positioned' by video feedback as opposed to text. Good positioning means empowering the 'social self' (Harre's Self-3). That can be done through creating a context where a greater connection can be made between psychological 'storylines' (intentionality) and illocationary acts. (This I think is the same as the structural coupling between Luhmann's Psychic and Social systems). What's in the 'position' that enables this? Well, I think that openness of the video, the ambiguous nature of its connotative communication (as opposed to the denotative communication of text feedback), the vulnerability that the teacher exposes and the greater empathy that results all can have a systemic explanation which can go some way to accounting for the experience.

But at the bottom of it all, there's something more richly sensual about the whole thing. The rich range of triggers as the video shows the pen passing over the learner's document ("that's my document they're talking about!"), and the voice of the teacher, all do something to the state of the observer. It may be that the route to the connecting of illocutionary acts to storyline (of psychic systems to social systems) lies in this twiddling of the 'sensual knobs' (an unfortunate phrase, but not inaccurate!) in rich communication.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

The purpose of education IS to make a profit! (so what do we now do about it?)

I want to be realistic, not provocative. There isn't a vice-chancellor in the country not looking anxiously at the 'bottom line' and thinking 'how do we survive?', 'how can we be secure?'. This is the situation our economy has brought us to over a long period of time (probably since the 1944 education act). It may not be a great place to be, but it's where we are.

The reaction of many education radicals is denial. In support of their arguments they cite old-fashioned radicalisms of the 1970s: ideas from a different time that barely described the economic conditions of that time, let alone our own.

We need a new economic model, not the rehashing of old-style arguments. We are in a strange place (an economic situation) that nobody understands. We have probably replaced 'wealth' with 'risk' as the principal driver of our economy (as Ulrich Beck would have it) - but what does that mean? How does it work? And how on earth has education appeared as one of the the main industries?

The armour of resistance is better description of our world. Marx knew this of his world: 'changing' follows 'naming'.

Luhmann talks about the way social systems (and education is one) encode communications around key paradoxes (or 'contingency formulae'). But the code changes over time: 'love' in 1650 is not the same as 'love' in 2011; 'law' is not the same... and 'education' is not the same (its paradox Luhmann describes as 'cultivation').

What I think we're staring at is a shift in the coding of education, where 'cultivation' and 'economy' are becoming re-aligned in a fundamental way. Our categories from the French Revolution of 'equality' are consequently being challenged very profoundly. It's hard to conceive of the consequences of this.

But this doesn't feel like a 'blip'. No repeal of legislation will sort it out. It's much bigger and much longer lasting. The way out is a long way off, and some serious thinking about where we've got to is necessary as we struggle through a difficult time. Beck would argue "Modernism has only just got started"

Friday, 1 July 2011

Identity, Property and the Cherry Orchard

In Checkov's Cherry Orchard, when Lubov, the eccentric aristocratic woman who has spent all her money returns to the ancestral home from Paris, she declares her excitement:
"I can't sit still, I'm not in a state to do it. [Jumps up and walks about in great excitement] I'll never survive this happiness.... You can laugh at me; I'm a silly woman.... My dear little cupboard. [Kisses cupboard] My little table."
Towards the end of the play, as she struggles desperately to hang on to her home, she explains:
"I was born here, my father and mother lived here, my grandfather too, I love this house. I couldn't understand my life without that cherry orchard, and if it really must be sold, sell me with it! My son was drowned here...."
The play charts a slow decay of her identity as her possessions gradually disappear, culminating with the sale of the Cherry Orchard.

What fascinates me about this is the extent to which the identities of the characters in the play are defined around the objects that surround them. As the objects change, so they change.. which leaves me wondering about their identity and individuality in isolation from those objects: indeed, this seems to be a major theme of the play.

The only character who seems not to be affected by objects is Trofimov. He is a revolutionary who espouses egolessness and redistribution of property. Yet he is affected by a different sort of 'property relation': his identity is not defined by the objects he relates to (although his 'negative' relation to objects is certainly part of his identity), but by his ownership of 'ideas'. In this way, Trofimov appears as a very similar sort of character to the capitalist Lophakin, whose identity is also not so much to property, but to a different set of ideas: the ideas of money and profit. As idealists, Trofimov and Lophakin are remarkably similar yet at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

But the characters develop as the objects of property develop. Trofimov attracts Lubov's daughter, who falls under his spell, and increasingly she serves to amplify his idealism. Lophakin, in buying the Cherry Orchard stands in a different property relation to the people who he once served, by buying them out. And Lubov is gradually hollowed-out.

The psychology is in those property relations, and the story is told by manipulating them. That would be worth modelling at a deeper level. What are the sensual relations to the house and orchard? (disruptions?) What are the sensual relations that Trofimov has to ideas? (exhortations?) What are the sensual relations that Lophakin has to money? (coercions - particularly at the end of the play). Lophakin's exhortations to develop the site have no effect on Lubov. Lubov meanwhile is forever fanciful and distracted - only the coercion of losing the property in the end has any real effect on her. And the only thing that really gets to Trofimov is when Lubov teases him about his virginity! (a disruption).

I think there may be grounds here for a deeper exploration about the creation of identity through property relations...