Thursday, 10 April 2014

What is Value in Educational Technology?

I wrote my PhD about Value in Educational Technology 3 years ago. I described value (rather fancifully) as being like "a fabric which wraps around practice". In studying a number of different interventions in educational technology (I effectively gathered together findings from a number of projects I'd been involved in - my PhD was by publication), I considered the ways in which people communicated about what was "good", what became fashionable, what got funded, etc. I created a cybernetic model which focused on communications. There was, it seemed to me, to be a strong case to argue that value could be assessed as a kind of normative framework of conversation: certain things got talked about; as they got talked about, so they got funded; as they got funded, so personal egos became tied up with particular positions in the discourse; despite results being inconclusive, vested interests and egos saw to it that more funds were allocated - partly because things being inconclusive leads to them being talked about... that is until the whole thing went 'pop!'

Among the theoretical frameworks for looking at feedback between personal agency and communication, the theory of Niklass Luhmann is one of the most comprehensive. I still think Luhmann's emphasis on supra-individual communication as a way of accounting for agency is important - not least as a challenge to psychology (which is a more dismal science than economics in my opinion!), but there is a problem. I now see that my position in the PhD was essentially linguistically reductive. There were no real people; just communicating agents (I'm glad my examiners didn't pick this up!). Whilst the "values" of individuals may be situated in this framework of communication,  can you really talk about value in isolation from a concrete person? My journey since my PhD has been to realise that you can't.

So the question about value becomes a question about the constitution of an individual. I think Christian Smith's recent book "What is a person?" is an excellent starting point. But the deep question is, it seems to me, to be in finding new opportunities for empirical justification of the virtue of the real person. Social policy, education policy, university managements are all disastrous at the moment because we've lost sight of virtue. Common sense tells us that there is plenty of evidence this is the case and that its effects are palpable. But an empirical foundation for those judgements seems to elude us. Performance metrics only make the problem worse.

The interesting theoretical question is that Luhmann's 'people' formed out of the coordinations of communications, or the coordinations of coordinations of communications. It's all connecting stuff - deterministically causal. But I think (beyond my PhD) that persons and their values arise in the gaps between communications. It's not in the information we exchange, but in the redundancy we create, and in the ways those redundancies overlap. Attachments, love, caring for each other are all forms of redundancy (think how our minds turn continually around another person we love). It's from there that value arises. And indeed, in the models of normative value judgement that I examined in my PhD, the dominance of particular communications (say about e-portfolio or Learning Design), it is the redundancy of those communications which seems to do the business.

Value as "a fabric which wraps around practice" may still apply. But we must look closer to see what the fabric is made of and what its properties are.


Martti Puttonen said...

How to succintly to elaborate an individual's human actions in her daily rhytmics in a way that pertain all kinds of virtue emergences? I think and have researched by means of psychological conceptualizations that there is a practitioner' researcher' path to go beyond "dismal psychologies" in maintaining the real issue of a stratified human person. In that elaboration all kinds of human values and virtues, some of these real virtues come comparable with DCR dielectical modes about reality.

Bast Martti Puttonen

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Martti,

Good to hear from you and I hope you are well. I agree that a practice-based view is most sensible. The problem I have is that I don't really know (or can't say - which may be different!) what a value is, or (for that matter) a virtue...

best wishes,