Monday, 3 February 2014

Poor Models in E-learning Research and Social Justice

In a passage in Diana Laurillard’s book on “Learning as a Design Science”, she states:

“The promise of learning technologies is that they appear to provide what the theorists are calling for. Because they are interactive, communicative, user-controlled technologies, they fit well with the requirement for social-constructisit, active learning. They have had little critique from educational design theorists. On the other hand, the empirical work on what is actually happening in education now that technology is widespread has shown that the reality falls far short of the promise."

She then goes on to cite various studies which indicate causes for this 'falling short'. These include Larry Cuban's study which pointed to:
  1. Teachers have too little time to find and evaluate software
  2. They do not have appropriate training and development opportunities
  3. It is too soon – we need decades to learn how to use new technology
  4. Educational institutions are organized around traditional practices
Hardly any rocket science there. She goes on to echo these findings by stating:
"While we cannot expect that a revolution in the quality and effectiveness of education will necessarily result from the wider use of technology, we should expect the education system to be able to discover how to exploit its potential more effectively. It has to be teachers and lecturers who lead the way on this. No-one else can do it. But they need much more support than they are getting."
The odd thing about all this is that at no point is it suggested that the theories might be wrong. This is curious state of affairs, particularly with learning characterised as a “design science” (what’s that, exactly?); after all most scientists on encountering results that fail to meet their theory would consider changing their theory! In education (it's unfair just to single out Laurillard in this) we don't do this; instead we cast blame on social factors which act like 'noise' in interrupting the perfect realisation of the theoretical model.

Education isn't alone in the social sciences in behaving like this. Economics is the most notorious example of being wedded to theories which are clearly deficient: econometric abstractions explain nothing of social life, yet it is virtually impossible to get an economics paper published unless it's got some ridiculous equation in it (despite the fact that the greatest economists of the 20th century - Keynes and Hayek - used very little maths, and Hayek was scathing about formalism).

The equivalent of econometrics in education is what we might call 'modellism' - that is, the rigid, uncritical attachment to models of how things should ideally work in the face of evidence which cannot be explained by the model and modelled predictions which fail to materialise. Everything suggests that the model (whichever one it is) cannot possibly be right. Yet, the model is never revised.

Modellism is dangerous. It is modellism which sits behind the UK government's policy making in Higher Education. It is modellism which underpins the view of University managers as they close departments, sack older (expensive) staff, employ (cheap) 'young blood' lecturers,  issue threats to Unions, aggressively attack legitimate strike action with financial penalties that only serve to demoralise people further, load timetables to breaking point, root out all forms of dissent and call the police onto the campus (see Michael Chessum's excellent piece in The Guardian today: The model, in this case, is crude behaviourism. It doesn't work, but so long as managers believe it does, it will destabilise individual institutions and the rest of the education system with it. [An interesting example is contained in Douglas Carswell's extraordinary tweet today:]

Laurillard's "Conversation Model" which she borrowed from Gordon Pask seems innocuous enough. But her own modellism cannot allow her to think that the model is wrong. So blindly she (and everyone who follows her) continues to tread empty ground while the political battlefield of education moves on and bad ambitious people who don't think much take advantage of the confusion of the educationalists.

Pask's model is wrong because it is a 'billiard ball' model of conversation. Each utterance has a determinate causal effect on the state of both the teacher and the student (for a deeper explanation, see There is no space for intuition, joy, love, humour - all of the qualities which indicate really powerful conversations. But these absences suit those with behaviourist intentions!

The fundamental question in education is "what are the needs of society and how might they be addressed through the meeting the learning needs of individuals?" The need of our society is equity. We need empathic, loving and caring education - all the qualities which lie outside Pask's model.

So we must critique our models. We must be more scientific. We must seek to explain what happens, and not simply tweak our practices ignoring what happens. And we must accept our share of responsibility for the terrible state of Higher Education management and put our critical faculties to proper political and scientific use.

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