Wednesday, 24 July 2013


In the Whitworth Gallery this lunchtime (catch it before it closes for a year of building work!) I was particularly struck by the wallpaper exhibition. The Whitworth is famous for its wallpaper  collection, but this time I found myself looking at it differently. Data redundancy is nowhere more explicit than wallpaper! Indeed, the connection between data redundancy and something 'not being there': after all, wallpaper is (by definition) background, not foreground. It's backgroundness appears dependent on the redundancy of its patterning.
What is in the 'mood' that wallpaper is intended to create? Is it some kind of frame within which things can happen? Is there some kind of expectation that is established? 

The things which are meaningful exist in front of the wallpaper, but the wallpaper might contribute to their meaningfulness. If meaning is expectation, and expectation is prolonged by redundancy, then wallpaper serves a prolonging function. I might even suggest that it has a kind of 'catalytic' effect on thought as expectations are entertained. 

Why are some places inspirational? Is that to do with their patterning? Libraries have this effect on me. There is much patterning in the never-ending stacks of books. But an individual book might catch my attention and become meaningful: I become full of expectation. Is the prolonging of that expectation served by the patterning and regularity of the other books?

Maybe the redundancy of wallpaper makes the making of redundancy more likely. It is the making of new redundancies that is fundamental to the kind of inner story-telling of intellectual life. Weak students struggle to create new redundancies, not to absorb new concepts. 

Computer interfaces are remarkably redundancy-free. Ironically, it is computer 'wallpaper' that is the most redundant part of them. I always preferred command lines to graphical windows. I now think it was for this reason: there is more redundancy in the command line: redundancy in the letters, redundancy in the typing, etc. I stare at this interface. Edit box. Text. There are buttons: submit, save, preview, close, compose, html. I look at 'tabs': Inbox, RStudio, Google, etc... Where is my mind? Where is my expectation? What is to maintain my expectation in the absence of any redundancy on the screen?

I keep saying these sentences to myself. And that one. That's where the redundancy is. In my head. But I have to hold on to it. The computer seems to always want to take the redundancy away and commit it to a single entity...

Monday, 22 July 2013

Competency, Data Redundancy and Data Mining in the TRAILER project

I'm playing with YouTube's API at the moment as part of a paper I'm writing for the TRAILER project. TRAILER has created some rather ungainly tools for collecting information about informal learning. However, it has forced people to use these tools for at least one day (as part of 'user training'), and despite the fact that (frankly) a day was enough for most people in terms of using the tools, a significant amount of data was collected. Basically, users were asked to find resources on the internet that they felt reflected their own skills, and to tag them as indicators of their skills.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most people tagged videos. From an extremely long list of competencies ("competency" is a classic piece of Eurotwaddle which has resulted in very very long lists of pretty useless information! - Rabelais would love it!!) the user must select terms which describe how the resource reflects their skill. It's hardly surprising that there was little interest in continuing the torture. But nothing we do online these days is without some kind of consequences, and I'm interested what might be revealed about us through this simple activity.

There are some interesting situations. If the competency that I choose for a resource is in some way unexpected or surprising, that is more interesting than if the competency I choose is consistent with the general expected reaction to the video. How can I know the general expected reaction? Well, we can do some data mining on the video resource to analyse comments, descriptions, related content, etc. So the YouTube API becomes useful. Basically, if the entropy of the competency term is low in relation to the entropy pattern of the analysis, there is little of interest. If it is high, then something unusual is going on. So that's the first interesting thing... We have a way of saying "so-and-so is weird!"

There are deeper comparisons to be made here. Because a surprising competency may itself be mined, and a comparison done concerning the common information content between the mined competency term and the mined video data. But this isn't so interesting unless the user goes on to select another resource.

When they do that, a similar process can take place, but additionally, if the competency term is different, a comparison can be made between the common information content between a previous resource/competency match and subsequent ones. It is not inconceivable that patterns of information transfer might be discernible from this process.

Typically, in a process of online engagement, we hone-in on things. Our first submissions are not as good as later submissions. In these cases of learning, we would expect to see information transfer from previous taggings and subsequent taggings: terms with low entropy in earlier submissions will take more prominance in later submissions. This would reflect an increasing ability to predict the fit between one's idea of a competency and the match with a resource. Having reached a peak, the information transfer will die-off once the pairing between resource and competency has been satisfactorily established. If no extra information can be added by selecting a competency, then there is no sense in doing it.

But what's really going on here?

When we do data mining, what usually happens is that key terms are identified. The rest is noise. In fact the rest is redundant. What I think is that 'key terms' are reflections of 'expectations' set up by a resource (a video, a piece of text). These "expectations" determine the theme: they help us to predict the course of the action. Ultimately, they help us determine what things mean.

I also think that expectations are "prolonged" in some way. Our expectations do not change with every new piece of information, with every new moment in a video. But what keeps them active? I think the answer to this is "redundancy". The 'filler' is essential to the maintaining of the meaning of what is happening. We might remove the 'filler' to save time or computer memory, but we do so to invite other humans to reinvent the filler for themselves.

A competency statement is a highly compressed piece of information usually completely free of redundancy. In articulating how they might meet a competency, a learner has to create redundancy around the competency statement. In normal life (outside the European Commission) we call this a "story". A video is an entity with high redundancy which is an example of someone else's "story". In claiming someone else's story, a learner is effectively trying to superimpose a 'compression' of that story as their competency claim. Their compression is open to interpretation. That means that others may see this and recreate their own redundancy (story) around it (possibly compressing the meta-narrative of the learner's use of these particular tools!).

But the process of assigning a competency statement to a resource is also a way of trying to articulate the 'expectation' contained within that resource. But competencies don't relate to resources; they relate to people!! Seeking to associate a competency to a resource is a process of seeking to articulate one's own expectation of oneself. The demand is very ambitious: we ask people to identify what is meaningful in their lives. No wonder they struggle to do it. In fact, in many cases something else goes on: learners seek to articulate their expectations of the system they are using!

This is where the ungainliness of the tools can be important. Computer interfaces tend to be redundancy-free. It is for the user to create their narratives through an interface. When users are introduced to a system, they are also introduced to the system designer's narrative. The designer's narrative frames the meaning of the tools and the expectation of the users. Within those expectations the designer will introduce the expectations of competencies, each of which might have its own narrative which the designer is unlikely to know (only the designers of the competencies will know that!). The user will generate their own redundancies (stories) about the expectations of the system and the use of the tools, but this narrative will be disconnected from the narrative they are challenged to write about how they meet particular competencies.

In the system, a competency is claimed against a resource. The resource has 'expectations' and 'redundancies'; the competency is 'expectation', but it can be mined to show it also has redundancy. Between these patterns of expectations and redundancies, the learner must find their own redundancies around the expectations of the competency statement. But this is the hardest thing of all: in the process, they may well come to their own understanding of what the competency statement expectation is.

The process of generating redundancy is a process of creativity. The difference between the highly competent learners and less competent learners is the difference not in their ability to claim competencies, but in their ability to generate redundancies.

I'm hoping (perhaps vainly) that fiddling with big data APIs like YouTube, there might be a way of scaffolding the generation of redundancies through the kind of processes that TRAILER is trying to encourage... But might the disconnect between the "narrative of the system" and the "narrative of the purpose of the system" always get in the way? To what extent is this a bigger problem in our techno-educational institutions?

Saturday, 20 July 2013

A Non-Dual Computer (or getting away from the separation between processing and storage in the Von Neumann Architecture)

Our idea of a computer is the idea of a machine based on Von Neumann architecture. Computers have memory and instructions for reading and processing data in memory which is indexed in some way. A computer contains an essential separation between memory and processing. The idea of 'workable' computer, even with new technologies like quantum computing, is very much about achieving a Von Neumann architecture. With that we know we are looking at a (faster) computer. Some cognitive psychologists, in looking at this idea of a computer, think that we human beings are also computers: we have memory (short and long-term) separated from neuronal processing in some way. Many other psychologists (more thoughtful ones!) think this is silly - but it has a powerful hold on the popular imagination - and more importantly - on funding councils. It is an idea difficult to challenge because computers are tangible artifacts in the world and they are clearly useful: their apparent utility has a mesmerising effect on all of us.

There are many reasons for thinking that there are workable alternatives to Von Neumann. Not least that we haven't found it in nature (despite the psychologists assertions). In the superimposition of Von Neumann onto human behaviour, more questions have emerged than answers - questions which scholastic philosophers have better responses to than modern-day psychology. Memory, in particular, is an elusive concept.

So what if there isn't a distinction between processing and memory? What if memory and processing is effectively the same thing? To think about this, the essential concepts that I've been using are 'structure' and 'action'. Both processing and memory are "structurally determined". What this means is that a form, which is a structure, determines action. Insofar as action can change structure and is determined by structure, the structure itself can be seen to be memory: a record of state. Memory doesn't have to be 'read' because it causally impacts on action because it constitutes structure.

Let's say that a structure is formed by a series of 'recursions'. Action, in this sense, is a process of selection from a number of possibilities. The possibility which is selected may be (for the sake of argument) that part of the structure which has the deepest level of recursion. For action to impact on structure, then the consequences of an act are to create the conditions for structural change. This in turn changes the possible actions that might be taken next.

One more thing to say about this is that obviously actions are not chosen at random, and structures do not grow at random. Structures grow to acquire form - a process which demands continual action and the continual reproduction of the conditions for growth. The context within which a structure grows is a context of other structures. It makes sense that the consequences of action are to affect the circumstances of structural change is other structures, which in turn will act and transform structures. What this means is that at root in the processes of growth may be a process of "communication". At least, this is my thinking, and the those involved in the fast-emerging body of work around "biosemiotics".

Let's look at this in a very simple way: So a structure may be represented by a series of strings:
The longest of  these strings (0334223463635) represents the deepest level of recursion of a particular possibility of action (or a "strategy"). Because that strategy has the deepest level of recursion, it will (in my model) be selected. All the other strings represent strategies which cannot be thought through to such a deep level. Beyond a certain point something is forgotten. Consequently, those strategies are not chosen. Importantly, the forgetting in the growth processes of those strategies determines the choice of the 'longest' strategy.

The consequences of an action are to produce the conditions for growth of either this or another structure. Let's say that an action produces a substance coded with the imprint of that strand (0334223463635) which, if it encounters another structure with similar strands will cause that structure to grow, which will in turn act, which will in turn cause more substances coded with this particular code. Here we have a feedback mechanism leading to the uncontrolled growth of a particular "strategy". Another way of saying that is that each structure increasingly is able to anticipate the communications of the other structures. The anticipation is encoded in their own structures. But just as in biological growth, there is no reason why particular structural conditions might determine larger-scale transformations and patterns in the production of catalytic substances which cause growth to emerge in particular ways over time.

So here, structure, anticipation, memory are tied up with each other. But in what way is this a computer?

The issue that faces us in answering this question is the issue I raised at the beginning: we think of a computer as a Von Neumann computer. With the separation between memory and processing, there is a further separation between human beings and machines: machines are extensions of human agency, like hammers. A non-dual computer adopts a non-dual integration of human beings. The structural emergence of the non-dual machine results from communications; the human being can become part of those communications. What this means, in fact, is that the human being becomes a level in the recursive patterning of growth of the machine. Human being become part of the processes of growth and the emergence of actions and decisions. The principal goal of this relationship is harmony, insight, play, interactivity. The objective is that decisions taken in the context of non-dual machines are decisions whose coherence with organic patterns have been playfully, convivially and harmoniously explored.

The non-dual computer is the machine of grace: which is probably what makes it all so difficult! But now that the results of the Von Neumann machine have delivered us such bewildering data, the time might be right to refocus on the process of decision and the fundamental nature of 'listening' which is so important to getting things right. It is ironic that the Von Neumann machine always turns out a 'right' answer (logically) but that in our immensely complex data-rich landscape, dreadful and destructive actions seem to result.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Gmail's New 'Tabs', Personalisation and "Intentionality Harvesting"

Maybe I'm just getting suspicious, but I'm beginning to wonder whenever a social media firm offers me new 'facilities' what is really driving the innovation. After all, there is little competition between social network services (Facebook is Facebook, Twitter is twitter), and despite a few attempts to make Facebook like Twitter, or Googlemail like Facebook, there seems little point to tweaking interfaces from a user point of view. In fact, users usually come off worse because they are not in control of the interfaces. The lack of control over the instrumentation is very interesting because this is precisely the point behind the Personal Learning Environment. There we argued that open Service Oriented Architecture could be used (through APIs) to allow users to coordinate their own interfaces. To some extent this is reality in many mobile apps (and Windows 8) which integrates across social platforms. However, for the majority of people, engagement with gmail is through, engagement with Facebook is through, engagement with Twitter is through So changing the instrumentation matters to people - on the whole, I find it irritating.

But in the light of our increasing awareness of the power of analytics, we can also ask "what does Google gain by changing the instrumentation, adding categorisation tabs, etc?" The answer is "quite a lot". Gmail's new 'tabs' allows users to categorise their communication. This is presented to the user as an added organisational facility to help them manage their lives. But surely Google don't feel that people will desert Gmail if it doesn't have 'tabs'? They know people are hooked-in already. So what else is in it to add this feature?

The answer is that this 'user facility' for self-organisation is also means of capturing powerful metadata about personal communication. It may not be that big a deal for the user as to which emails they decide to put under which category, but with the size of Google's userbase, this becomes a powerful piece of metadata which can reveal patterns of usage and personal priorities which can feed directly into their own analytics services for companies and marketing.

Google's business is the prediction of the behaviour of its users. It has found a way of giving 'free' tools which people are attracted to, providing free storage services which are powerful, all as a means to getting people to reveal their intentionality. Google can play with its interfaces and tools as it seeks to 'tune' the data it harvests and the analytic services it provides. This appears to be the dominant business model of the 21st century data company. Amazon are playing a very similar game, as are Twitter and Facebook. The key is to find something that everybody wants (in Amazon's case, books; in Google's, search and storage), and then sell it at low cost (or give it away) as a means to harvesting data on what people like, what they think, etc. It is the commercial colonisation of private life.

My last post was about oppression online. This is it! What is remarkable is that we don't feel it as oppressive. But then again, it wasn't that long ago that we thought that banks were trustworthy. The information bankers are mining our private lives and making profits out them. The online education providers are likely to play a similar game (because it is the only game that appears to make financial sense). We have little choice but to play along: the world is changing in such a way that online engagement with these services is mandatory.

The best we can do now is to not lose sight of what is really happening, and to be ready for the consequences when they finally arrive.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

How are you oppressed online?

The presenting to a learner an online system to learn from is often an oppressive act. It is dressed up as a way of saying "here is a way you can help yourself", but it is also a way of saying "I cannot afford to talk to you individually. Don't bother me and go and do this instead." Much of our information environment has emerged through lack of care. The difference between letter writing and sending an email is more than the difference between media. It is a difference in the nature of concernful action. Lack of concern leads to oppression in the way that real people are replaced with flattening statistics. Decisions taken in the light of information consequently flatten people. So the question "how are you oppressed online?" is an important question.

The difficulty in answering it is a symptom of how much our lives revolve around information and how unaware we have become about its impact on us. Perhaps this isn't new. After all, the role of newspapers in forming 'public opinion' has been well established for at least two centuries.

Information is constraint on behaviour. It doesn't constrain behaviour in the way that material constraints like a lack of food, housing or money might constrain us. But it does constrain us in more subtle ways, leading us to think certain things, and to act in certain ways. When information becomes propaganda, it can be very powerful indeed.

Understanding information as constraint doesn't fit very well with the ethos of social media. Social media communications tend to be represented as a communicative freedom. "No longer do we have to be mere consumers of media: we can contribute to it too!" But this is a bit of a myth.

The issues are complex. The act of contributing to social media is an act subject to informational constraints that would surround any act. The result of an act of contributing to social media is also an act of contributing to  other peoples' informational constraints. There are a number of things we can point to in this process:

  1. social media appears as communicative freedom, but there is little to emancipate people from the constraints they are subject to when posting new data;
  2. social media provides a platform for manipulating mass opinion to act as a 'super constraint' which feeds back on itself (e.g. thousands of people 'like' x on Facebook);
  3. PRISM tells us that social media can inform higher-level powers of key points where strategic interventions may have most effect in constraining behaviour;
  4. PRISM also indicates how the mining of data is a process of converting information into cash through mass analysis producing accurate forecasting services which in turn reveal the most effective intervention points for directing behaviour.
What this means is that the cherished virtue of democratic "freedom of speech" can be controlled without it appearing to be controlled. The way that populist social media was harnessed by military powers in Egypt  is a good and rather tragic example of freedom of speech being easily hoodwinked.

There are some fundamental questions to be asked:
  1. What do we mean by freedom online?
  2. What is the role of education in delivering freedom?
  3. Do we care if we nevertheless feel that we can communicate 'freely'?
In terms of the nature of freedom, I think the fundamental issue is fear. To be free is to act courageously. Absenting fear is either a process of critical reflection or of deep ignorance! Either can work: indeed, both might be necessary. Fears can manifest in ways which are related  to education. An inability to learn something is usually the result of some fear somewhere:  families and the education system itself does most of the work in inculcating these fears. Good teachers will be able to work with the student to find out where the deep problem really is. Bad teachers will reinforce the problem! The difference is that you have to really care to get to the bottom of it.

Paulo Freire was a good teacher. He knew you had to start with the blockages. And the blockages are political. Get the blockages unblocked and learning is revealed not as something abstract, institutionalised and rarified, but as something practical, necessary and liberating. 

On the MOOCs of today, for every act we engage in, we can ask "how am I being manipulated?". Certainly, in any instructional course, it is the teacher's agenda, not mine. My activities are steered towards creating questions which the teacher can answer - not the ones they can't answer. The medium serves to maintain distance from the teacher. No teacher can manage commitment to 10,000 learners. The best one might hope for is that learners develop commitment to each other. But this also rarely happens, even when it is explicitly attempted.

Even in a non-instructional environment, like a blog, is there oppression? "Who gives me these tools?" (I ask as I use Blogger's online editor).  "Why does Blogger they give them to me?" - they do this because they want me to submit my data. "How do they benefit from my data?" My activities online are steered towards generating data that Blogger/Google can exploit. "How do they exploit it?" - we need to look at their technical infrastructure to understand what is now possible. "What are the capabilities of MapReduce, Discrete Wavelet transformations, etc?" - At each step of the way, the forces that bear upon freedom are there to be unpicked. At each step emerges a personal curriculum: the economics of information, the physics of data storage, the mathematics of analysis, the biology of interaction, the psychology of interpretation. "How can I avoid being exploited?" - what emerges through active critique is a kind of "artistry of political engagement". Like the standing man in Taksim Square, the challenge is to find new forms of expression which go under the radar and challenge those who would otherwise control us.

The more I think about this, the more I think we've got education upside-down. Education is about freedom, but manifests itself as oppression. Because we have been led to believe the questions that directly concern our deep freedoms are too difficult (education has told us this), we have grown accustomed to accepting the oppressive form of education as the "only way". Deep down, this is disastrous for science - which, ultimately, is an emancipatory critique. It is why what passes for science is little more than a technocracy of churning the big-data machines of genetic sequencing, social communications or intergalactic observation. Nobody's going to learn to be a scientist doing that!

But where there is oppression, there is an opportunity to help people see that there is oppression and then to overcome it. That is where learning happens. The dominant oppressive forces now are online (at least in the western-style democracies) and exercised through information and technology which nobody understands. 

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Virtue, Vice-Chancellors and Management by Fear

It has been alleged (and denied) that the University of Aberystwyth has a problem with governance, as reported on the BBC today (see
Since new vice chancellor April McMahon took over the role in August 2011, 11 members of staff have been suspended and 13 have had their employment terminated, it has been reported.
Martin Wilding, president of UCU at Aberystwyth, said staff were "literally looking over their shoulder," adding there was a sense they were under "constant surveillance".
Whilst the allegations may be unfounded, there are patterns to the story which look familiar to other stories from other Universities (I wrote about these here: What is alleged by the union is a "dictatorship". On the VC's side, this may be a mark of strong leadership in challenging times: it is not inconceivable that there is virtue not vice in the VC's actions. But the experience of  those on the receiving end is one of fear - or, perhaps as I suggested the other day (see, "terror" as they try to hold on to their jobs. It is this experience - the experience of ordinary staff - which matters in the end whether or not the allegations can be proved or disproved (the power relations involved make proof very hard to find!)

The alleged 'disappearances' sound shocking, but the disappearance of staff is quite common in the corporate world. There are famous examples, like Steve Ballmer's claim to sack one in 15 staff every year (see Fear in corporations can work as a management tactic. Where the primary motive is profit above everything else, and hard work is the way to achieve it, fear can do the trick. But inevitably it will select a particular kind of employee: the ambitious grafters who dig deep for the corporate goals.

There's little doubt that many in government, and some in university management believe this same method of selection of staff through a regime of fear can work in universities. The 'lazy' academics should be rooted out. Only the top-performing research contract-winning, student-pleasing academics should survive. Unfortunately, few of the great academics of the past upon whose laurels the idea of the University rests fit this mould. It's often the 'lazy' ones who do the best work - maybe because they spend most of their time dreaming. Grafting often only get you so far.

What appears to be necessary is an ecological diversity of personality types and talents: dreamers and doers are needed in equal measure. I used to think it was the case that fear itself was inimical to the pursuit of truth and knowledge.  Ironically, however, it can sometimes be the case that oppression creates the conditions for creativity: the genius writers, composers and scientists of the Soviet Union are a classic example, as indeed is the flourishing of theatre in the police-state of England in the 16th century. It may be that the pursuit of truth, knowledge or creativity is driven by the desire to conquer fear, and that a heightened fear may in fact cause greater creativity. (Given this, one might expect some surprising things happening in some universities at the moment!). But whilst fear may stimulate creativity, it can become an "ecological disaster".

Management by fear is dangerous not in the sense that people become frightened, but in the fact that it can destroy the intellectual diversity in the institution. Intellectual life does not take place in individual heads: friendships and networks play a fundamental role in the development of ideas. Fear cuts into the network like a knife, excising inconvenient parts which "don't fit", oblivious to the consequential loss of diversity of communications and emerging lack of trust.

Another deep problem with management by fear is the fact that it inspires a revolutionary reaction by those subjected to it. Whispering campaigns for the downfall of the management team can be as destructive as the management actions themselves. Quickly things can get out-of-control - particularly if the communicative richness is removed. What might be hoped for is not revolution but enlightenment; not violent overthrow but gentle evolution. The reason (and the  hope) for this lies in the fact that management by fear is itself driven by fear in managers. Management under these circumstances simply acts as a mechanism for redistributing risks borne by managers onto the shoulders of ordinary academics. Evolution can occur through the gradual identification and acknowledgement of the root-fears in managers.

This can only be achieved through critical engagement and reasoned argument. This isn't easy because the sources of managerial fear are very complex. My hope is that greater awareness of the social ecology within institutions will eventually lead us to see that management by fear is rather like chopping down rain forests. Seeing this could lead to a re-evaluation of what drove the desire to chop down the "rain forests" of the university in the first place. Eventually the managerial narrative might be changed.

The ecology of institutions is both synchronic and diachronic. There are moments in its diachronic unfolding where the ground must be cleared so that new growth can begin. Such moments might feel very much like a "reign of terror" for those exposed to them. The key is to make sure it doesn't get out-of-control. That is the difference between a virtues of a gardener and a the vices of a vandal.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Why Mashups? Why Mashup Interoperability?

OMDL (Open Mashup Description Language) is a specification for recreating mashups on different platforms. As a technical question, this is hardly problematic. Indeed, it might be one of those ‘no-brainer’ standards where everyone asks "why on earth did nobody do this before?" But I suspect the situation is a bit more complicated with OMDL. Really useful standards like MIDI or HTML require common identification of an interoperability problem with a particular form of content amongst a significantly large constituency of users. With MIDI and HTML it is generally obvious to large numbers of users that there needs to be compliance with technical standards across platforms that interpret the content. So the question with OMDL, as with many other standards in E-learning is "Why Mashups?" (just as the question around e-portfolio standards has been "Why e-portfiolio", and the question around SCORM content-packaging has been "Why Content Packaging?")

In arguing "Why Mashups" we need to be clear about what a Mashup is. The technical description is simple: an aggregation of content on a single page from a variety of sources. A large part of what a mashup does concerns the maximal use of screen space with dynamically sourced data and tools. Typically, the content is graphical, often it comprises tools or widgets. Pageflakes, Netvibes, iGoogle are all examples. Mashups are increasingly possible through the use of object embedding within HTML contexts, so the aggregation of Mashups forms part of process of recombination that is increasingly characteristic of web communications.

Given the general thinking about Mashups as graphical and tool-oriented, some pertinent questions emerge: is an RSS feed a mashup? What about a single tool which combines many sources of data? Generally these technologies are not considered Mashups - certainly in the sense that OMDL considers. OMDL mashups are generally widget-oriented, with tools occupying some graphical space on the screen in a small block. But to see OMDL as a kind of Visual RSS is not far from what it attempts.

But that is the technical description. What about the human experience of the Mashup? In web communications (for example, blogposts) recombination is increasingly providing a means of self-expression. A post may well include an embedded video from YouTube, pictures from other sites, maybe even a tool and some commentary. Collages of content which can be easily created serve to convey complex messages, allowing authors to convey meanings not just through the texts that they write, but through their choices of references and inclusion of content from other places. The way such recombination works in communication is still poorly understood. Yet it has been practised for centuries by artists and poets. It is generally considered that through these means, "connotative" communication (as opposed to "denotative" communication) occurs. Perhaps part of this process is that it provides a means whereby somebody engaging with the communication has a choice of where to begin, or what to take from the assemblage: the video might catch their eye, whilst the commentary might be considered irrelevant, for example. But beyond self-expression, what use is this principle in business and management?

Taking the principle of choice and flexibility of interpretation of the Mashup in different ways, the communication of many different messages on the screen at the same time can provide a way in which many people might see something that they might find interesting (but not necessarily the same thing). The critical issue in management is decision, and decision depends on communication. If there is a mashup with "something for everyone" then potentially there is a context for communication, or something around which a discussion can be coordinated. This becomes more interesting if people are able to engage with the things they are looking at, and the results of their manipulations can be fed back in real-time to everyone else.

This is what we attempted in piloting mashups with a view to establishing a solid case for the value of their interoperability through OMDL. A number of situations have been created using groups of users working with a 'giant mashup' of tools providing information, video, and display of data feedback. The first scenario involved students reflecting on issues of their "employability". On screen were widgets which played videos, asked questions, and displayed results. The "mashup" was not a static entity, but changed as the activities of the participants were coordinated.

Each participant had a device (usually a PC or a tablet, sometimes a phone) which displayed a tool for interaction. The tool displayed to participants changed according to the widgets that were displayed on the screen. The combination of the multi-level visual and auditory stimulus on the screen combined with the common experience of having the tools displayed on their devices change provided the context for discussion and engagement. In the 'employability' scenario, the students were asked to respond in text to questions that were presented through video examples (for example, mock interviews, helping a learner gain confidence in looking for jobs, etc). As they submitted responses to the questions during the video, so their responses were displayed on the screen in number of different ways, including a 'straight' display of results, plus a number of automatic 'groupings' of the data.

Technically this was made possible using the D3 javascript library animations displayed using the Gridster library, with a data back-end that fed data to a variety of the D3 visualisations. The real-time effect of the interactions created rich conversation in the room. Importantly for the students (many of whom were not particularly confident) was the realisation that their experience of employability was not unique, and was in fact shared by many other people. This realisation itself helped to created a safe atmosphere for delving into some of the deep difficulties that students faced.

Feedback from this session was very positive. Students reported that "they felt free to play". A number of students expressed particular interest in the technologies and how they believed the process could improve methods of data collection in their own disciplines.

So is there something in Mashups? Is the thing that is in a mashup something that we might reasonably want to package and reproduce in another context? From the student scenario, there was much interest in the technology. "How can I do this myself?" was a typical question at the end of the session. Being able to say "here is a package which you can import into your own context (Moodle, Rave, etc) and which will reproduce these tools for you" has potential as a response to this. Whether that is more attractive than being told "click on this URL and you'll see the tools" is a fundamental question about user autonomy and ownership of the technology.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The Reign of Terror in Universities

There is a serious problem in the governance of Universities. In many institutions, there have been fundamental changes to expectations of employees. Consequently, many employees find themselves in established roles on high salaries in a ‘market’ where they do not possess the newly-redefined requisite accomplishments and skills that would make them employable in other institutions in the ‘market’. Typically, new accomplishments and skills involve PhDs, ‘REF-able’ publications, project funding, membership of research networks, etc. Such lack does not necessarily reflect a deficiency in their intellectual qualities (the PhD is a very poor indicator of this!!), their ability as teachers or their value to the institution. But these people find themselves trapped – despite the fact that they have always been good at the jobs they were employed to do (e.g. teaching) and the job still needs doing. It’s not just lecturers who are trapped; even Vice-Chancellors can find their careers ‘stalled’ in institutions where they’d rather not be!

But more serious are the social dynamics that are set in motion by these changes. People who are trapped are easy to terrorise by senior managers who are themselves trapped. Bad Vice Chancellors or other senior managers can, if they wish, act like little ‘Robespierres’ instituting a kind of “reign of terror” over the staff – increasingly without fear of being held to account by governors, senate or the unions (I'm grateful to a friend for 'nailing' the French Revolution analogy!). This can be particularly acute when the determinant of managerial success is the production of financial surpluses which can drive draconian downsizing measures. Increasingly a despotic message is given: “I can do what I want with you”. I have heard of incidents where trapped staff are gathered for meetings to be told: “You’re either with me or you can get your coat!” But why is this not a good way to run a University?

The fundamental character of any terror is the flattening of a society to conform to the ideal of an individual. As the process of culling runs its course, and the emergent terrified society fails to meet the expectations of that individual, then further assassinations and draconian interventions take place ultimately emerging from and manifesting themselves as power struggles at the top of the organisation and atrophy in the body of the institution.

This is happening in many Universities – particularly those where there is a high proportion of staff who don’t fit the new market for academics (so are trapped), where resources are squeazed by student recruitment and retention shortfalls and where mechanisms of accountability have been compromised through VC-friendly appointments.

Of course, some might say that an institution of academics who don’t fit the market demand, or whose students couldn’t get anywhere near the requirement for entry to a ‘top’ university shouldn’t be a University. But this is another aspect of the flattening process. Institutions have started to believe the mystical power of their own certification processes, bolstered by an overly close relationship to publishers and cosy peer-review procedures which tend towards to intellectual conservatism. Bill Amos’s recent complaint about ‘big science’ in the Times Higher last week is one example of where problems of conservatism manifest: His citing of James Watson’s remark that “If you are not in a big research group, think about packing your bags to leave science” ought to ring alarm bells.

The idea of the University is increasingly driven by a market-orientated desire for academic celebrity which can attract students, create ‘impact’ and keep the institution high in the league tables. I was asked in a recent job interview “What are you the ‘go-to’ person for in educational technology?” – in other words “how are you famous?”. I was tempted to respond “Had you heard of me before the interview?” to which the answer would have been emphatically “No!” One might then reasonably say “Clearly I'm not that famous then - why should I pretend I am?" What’s this demand for self-aggrandisement about? It’s all very silly.

These things are all symptoms of terror. Deep down it is about what people worry about – Vice Chancellors particularly – and what people do to deal with their fears. The most sensible thing one can do with any fear is to talk to other people about it; the most pathological thing one can do is to act according to it. Even small fears like “we don’t have enough famous academics!” can entail systemic consequences which are potentially disastrous – in the case of “famous” academics, it is to encourage charlatanism. (The charlatan is another kind of pathologically fearful individual).  

What is really needed is critical inquiry. Dealing with fear lies at the heart of this. I think that critical inquiry entails social diversity in institutions. It’s not a popular view – partly because psychology has presented a dominant ‘mentalist’ model of cognition and rational decision which focuses on the individual. But the current terror is an indicator of something bad. It is very real and is clearly accompanying the destruction of social diversity within institutions.

To me this suggests the need for a deep rethink about what we think University is for, the priorities for its constitution, the necessity for maintaining its internal ecology, and its systemic role in the production of wider healthy social ecologies.

Monday, 8 July 2013


The significant contribution of the MOOC to the educational landscape is in adding more diversity. But diversity isn’t everything in ecological terms. One particular species might initially appear to increase diversity, but then proceeds to destroy everything else in its path. For those who fear MOOCs, there is lurking somewhere the thought that the MOOC is like this: that somehow through its sheer ubiquity (despite limited educational success) and commercial hype, the MOOC offering becomes the only offering to the majority, squeezing out alternatives, and leaving exclusive one-to-one education for the privileged few. Some people have decided that MOOCs are weeds!

There are more complex problems when we look at the motivation of those who fear MOOCs and think they should be exterminated. Behind that position lurks a similar unspoken (and sometimes poorly thought-through) vision of how education ought to be. Education ministers are particularly good at this: Michael Gove is a classic case. These people are also people you wouldn’t want "growing" in your garden. What we have there is another kind of weed, but whose ultimate end is the same.

Thinking about MOOCs and WEEDs (I'll capitalise it - there must be a cool acronym somewhere!) is interesting because the only way we can know a weed is by looking at what it does. Battling it becomes the focus of human intervention in the garden because failure to deal with it repeatedly leads to the destruction of everything else. Weeds have destructive tendencies. This metaphor however precedes the innovation of MOOCs. No serious embedded practice of looking at what a MOOC does has been engaged in (yet). So there is no comparable way of determining whether the innovation of the MOOC is dangerous or not. This is often the case with technology, because our society is being transformed at such a rate that there is little chance for finding out what things do at a deep level. Instead, technology appears to be a fault line at which deeper prejudices are revealed. Technology has this in common with religion. 

Where is the methodologically stable way of looking at the socio-technical garden, or even thinking about what we want? Do we want degrees just like we used to get from the traditional universities?  Do we want new technologies? Do we want democracy and freedom? Do we want economic growth? Do we want innovation? Eternal life? Beauty? Emancipation?

I think the questions of education are best framed in the context of a social ecology. Education gives us strange and often dangerous obsessions: pursuit knowledge, learning, certificates, degrees, publications, growth, innovation, etc. are all signs of the pathologies which can kill competing ideas and destroy the social ecology. Each of them create conflict, difference, misery. But equally, knowledge, learning, degrees and so on form part of the diversity that we are each of us trying to manage.

Each of us knows what it’s like when the social ecology is harmonious. It is the feeling of emancipation, of love and joy when life is ‘right’ – when we are amongst friends, when we are not scared, when we can express ourselves for who we are. Equally each of us  knows when the ecology goes wrong: we are  oppressed, we are fearful, etc. And each of us also knows that there is a dialectical balance between what might appear bad ecologies and good ecologies. The balance may also be ecological. The controlling force, the drive for freedom and emancipation keeps things on track. 

The central issue in the ecology of the online world is its inter-connectedness with the physical world. At the root of this interconnectedness are the artefacts we make (including the computers and the software that they run) and the information which informs the decisions we take. Both artefacts and information appear as constraints on agency: they are the runs and trellises over which we are shaped in our growth. The study of those constraints is the study of the meaningfulness information and artefacts bear for individuals. 

There is a possibility of a naturalistic inquiry into meaningfulness, information, decision and artefacts. There is already much literature on sociomateriality, Actor Network Theory, etc. There is emerging good work on the ontology of information. There remain important deficiencies, but there have also been significant advances. The key to understanding social ecology, and in turn the ecology of online education, is a workable ontology of information. 

My personal view is that this is really an ontology of absence.

Friday, 5 July 2013

My name is Bond, University Bond!

The announcement yesterday of Manchester University's Bond issue (see follows on the heals of Cambridge and De Montfort. No doubt others will follow. Even my own University may follow.

The selling of bonds is one way of raising finance for Universities. What is sold is a debt security where the issuer promises to pay interest on the amount purchased and the principal sum at the time of maturity of the bond. The Manchester bonds mature in 40 years time. Since Universities are long-established institutions (only established religions and nation states are older), the bond option appears a sensible move.

What does this mean in terms of the changes to public funding of education? Why haven't UK universities done this before?

As state-funded institutions, Universities received money from the government, which itself has issued bonds to raise money since the 17th century. In times of high interest rates, the sale of bonds is a typical response to financial crisis. In the current crisis, with low interest rates, the reverse process has been going on: the purchasing of gilts (a form of bond) and other securities has formed an important part of the Bank of England's monetary policy as a way of increasing the liquidity of banks and other financial institutions in the hope this might stimulate lending. Behind the need for all this, however, is the need to cut public expenditure - and part of that is the cut to university funding.

So the sale of sovereign debts that might have paid for Universities by central government has now become the sale of University debt with guarantees of the security of Universities as long-existing institutions.

The security is obviously crucial. Riskier enterprises like companies would instead offer shares in the company. These give the purchaser a stake in ownership, with a say in how the company is run. University Bond purchasers have no vote in the governance of Universities. They are reliant on established methods of governance within those institutions: the senate, the governors, etc.

But the march of Universities in becoming more like corporations, and VCs becoming more like CEOs, raises a question as to the nature of the university, and particularly the idea of the university as corporation as a secure and stable social entity. It really depends on the quality and effectiveness of institutional governance. If governance within a university is tampered with (VC-friendly governors, bureaucratic senate with no teeth, etc) and if there is no means of holding the management to account, then there would be some concern about the long-term stability of the institution.

On the other hand, if Universities sold shares rather than bonds, then purchasers would have voting rights, and this itself would fundamentally change the governance of the institutions. VCs really would be CEOs, answerable to shareholders. The University would pursue policies which were driven by delivering shareholder value.

However, even with bondholders, one measure of accountability is inescapable: the credit-rating agencies. These organisations, which have caused so much havoc during the financial crisis, have become the arbiters of confidence in investments. Rutgers University in New Jersey recently had its bond issue downgraded by Standard and Poor ( a fate whose effects on confidence not just in the value of bonds, but in the worthiness of the institution are as yet unknown.

As with any move in the financial system, what is produced are new risks: risks to purchasers, risks to sellers. One of the risks to the sellers is the increased power they hand over to credit rating agencies. In the corporate world, for at least 30 years now, the pursuance of shareholder value has been the driving force behind corporate activity. With bond issues in institutions like universities, the pursuance of credit rating agency values could have a transformative effect of governance in the university: particularly in the absence of any other controls of accountability within institutions.

The deep problem is that the University's role is to be critical. It is to stand above the world and ask questions. Universities are social regulators. Their role is complementary to government, not subservient to it.  Being subservient to the money markets is clearly dangerous. In a world where Universities will worry about the credit worthiness of the bonds they have sold to keep themselves going, which questions become unaskable?

Wednesday, 3 July 2013


Summer is a time when academics tend to disappear. But in many universities currently undergoing drastic reorganisation disappearances have been a bit more permanent. It's not just the endless offers of voluntary severance (which always attract the wrong people!). Occasionally, things happen very suddenly and somewhat brutally:
"Have you seen so-and-so recently?"
"er.. no.. funny you should mention it..."
"I texted them yesterday - no response - pretty unusual"
"yes, I agree. I wonder what's happened?"
"God, I hope they haven't upset anyone powerful..."
"hmmm. Easy to do at the moment..."
"Upsetting someone powerful" is always a hazard in any employment. But there are times when it becomes quite easy to upset powerful people because they are simply "easily upset". Usually this is because they themselves feeling threatened or out-of-control. That feeds the dictatorial measures which in turn leads to people "falling out" - and then disappearing.

The social dynamics of institutions are complex, and the fallings-out at a high level have repercussions  throughout the enterprise. Just as with economic systems, whilst the powerful believe they can control the system by sheer will and force, they are quickly reminded that underlying it all are more fundamental human concerns of trust and confidence. Managerial fear might cause a rash reflex action that slays a close colleague, but that's really only a sign of the trouble to come. Everyone else asks:
"Blimey -  how could they do that? That guy worked his butt off!"
"You can't trust anything they do now"
"Better get those job applications going then!"
"I haven't been sleeping that well recently.. something's wrong"
"it's like that nursery rhythm..."
"what, 10 green bottles?"
"yeah, that's the one.."
"we're down to about 5 now I reckon.."
That these kind of situations can arise in Universities is deeply unfortunate. Intellectual life, like all facets of healthy social ecologies, depends on trust and confidence. Fearful thinkers think fearful thoughts. Fearful teachers teach badly, on the whole.

Intellectual life is not a solitary occupation. It depends on communities - teachers and students - being able to sit down with each other, to share their thoughts, to feed back to one another - in confidence and trust. Someone wisely pointed out the other day that the etymology of the word "assessment" is "assidere" - to sit beside: conviviality, not individuality, is at its heart. The industrial model of education has presented the image of the academic as functionary: the individual producer of papers, the deliverer of 'education', the seeker of funding, and the driver of innovation. But the belief is groundless: deep down, it rests on indefensible metaphysical assertions about human nature which have got confused with the (equally fallacious) metaphor of industrial production. Education ministers have become adept at dressing up metaphysical assertions as science - with horrible consequences. Where's the science?

The situation is comparable to the abstractions of human creative endeavour that I encountered as I tried to learn to be a composer as an undergraduate. The clever analysts abstracted what they believed to be the essence of the creative craft of a Bach or Beethoven. They created schemas which they then asserted "must have been in the mind" of the artist. It's taken me a long time to realise that this was nonsense. But we have done something very similar to education. It is this fallacious thinking which has produced the managerial fetish and the individualised model of the functional academic that we now have.

We must be careful to think how on earth we managed to get here. Our challenge is to rediscover the nature of healthy social ecology within our institutions.

Monday, 1 July 2013

What Price Personal Learning Environments?

What exactly is a Personal Learning Environment? Most of what has been written about them has been shallow and rather naive - as I have argued before (see In the light of the revelations about the darker side of 'big data' and social software, I am beginning to think that the discussion around the PLE needs to situate itself with the understanding of personal risk.

In the beginning much was written about the 'locus of control' (some of it by me) - about big bad institutions controlling technology that would be better coordinated by learners themselves. What apparently presented itself as 'personal control' of tools and data has gradually emerged as anything but: the user-friendly enticements to freely submit data that can  be 'invested' by giant global concerns and turned into huge profits through analytic services. Free storage is cheap incentive to having your data harvested. But why do I use Blogger to host this blog??

Why indeed do I use Blogger... I got used to it; it works well, is well organised, easily searchable, etc. My career has clearly benefited from this unholy alliance (a number of opportunities have emerged through the blog). But am I in control of it? Do I know what others will do with it? Do I really know how the big data harvesting reveals about me to the corporate suits and (heaven knows) government spooks?

All I can think is that at some point I will have to get my stuff off Blogger (and YouTube). An archive on my own disk will have to be created. But increasingly, that is a big job - and I don't have time. With the current round of redundancies at work, maybe I'll get the opportunity!!

But the value to Blogger of my blog is not just what it tells Google about me, but what it tells Google about others who access my stuff. The network intelligence is a bit scary.

So, given that I am giving so much to forces that I can't control, what price is a Personal Learning Environment?

We can't really talk of a 'trade-off' because we don't know what is being traded. The only reason why online engagement has become professionally important is because the internet corporations have made it that way. "All academics should have blogs" I read the other day... Well, I used to think it was important too. But why? Because we don't trust publishers? But are publishers more evil than Blogger? (Blogger isn't self-publishing - it's just ordinary publishing with no editorial controls).

Equality is what is at stake. And it is the distribution of risk which is the issue. The means of production of risks are determined by:

  • the power of legal teams behind a corporation
  • the access a corporation has to the means to harvest huge amounts of data meaning it can assess risks accurately
  • the userbase and tools which the corporation can (at will) change overnight
How can individuals challenge this hegemony? 

Personal Learning and Personal Learning Environments are not about individualised learning journeys, digital storytelling, personalised inquiry, etc. They are about the fight for autonomy. 

It may be that the fight for autonomy from "big bad institutions" (by comparison to Google, how big or bad are they?) was just the first phase. The real battle will be for autonomy from the internet giants. Taking that as the mission, the PLE starts to look interesting again.

Maybe we need a "whole web catalog"!