Saturday, 19 July 2014

Some Reflections on the #pleconf and 'cool technology' : What Software or Hardware isn't Social?

I very much enjoyed the #pleconf in Tallinn. I wish I had attended these conferences in the past, but I sense that this year’s conference has brought a kind of sobriety around the educational idealism (which I gather typified earlier conferences) and which has surrounded the PLE more generally up to this point. Sobriety contains elements of disappointment, realism and a kind of ‘growing up’: I think e-learning in general is having to ’grow up’ – which means thinking harder. I suspect for some participants, the conversations this year have been too philosophical (although we were treated to a demonstration of a superb inquiry-based learning tool called “wespot” – – great to see new cool tools!), the questions “what do we mean by ‘learning’? ‘environment’? ‘personal’?” are inescapable and demanding: it is not difficult to point to the deficiency of any attempt to answer them.

My personal realisation at the conference is the sense in which the PLE has become so closely associated to social software tools: the birth of the PLE was roughly synchronous with the birth of Facebook, Twitter, etc. We may need to rethink this. At the PLE’s inception, social software was cool, innovative, exciting and generally unknown in the wider population. Now social software is rather old, everyone knows about (even if they don’t use it), and not particularly exciting. The question is whether the PLE became associated with social software because social software was cool and exciting when the PLE was born, or whether there was something intrinsically important about “social” software irrespective of its one-time “coolness”. Up to this point, the PLE (and the MOOC) has seized upon something intrinsic in social software, identifying in the analytics and connections of online discussion some deeper psychological import. I think this was a mistake, and has resulted in the PLE becoming associated with an ‘idea of learning’ which is constrained, reified and fundamentally indefensible in the light of real human experience.

What software (or indeed, hardware) isn’t social? There’s no question in my mind that the Oculus Rift causes powerful social interactions – it’s just that not all of them are amenable to data analysis (which probably makes them more powerful!). What about Flappy Bird? What about 360-degree video cameras like What about amazing Ableton Live? What about R? One way or another there are networks of practice evolving around new cool things that manifest in various ways in online social networks (Facebook, Twitter), developer networks (GitHub, SourceForge), academic networks (journals), blogs, etc, etc. If there is (as @srmpbi argued for at the conference) a socio-material entanglement going on, to draw the boundary of the PLE simply around social software and text exchanges and to ignore the new ‘cool stuff’ as somehow not ‘personal’ seems short-sighted.

Looking back, I don’t think the PLE was really about "social" software as we have come to understand it; it was about “cool technology”. What made social software appear important was the fact that it was cool and exciting; what gives the PLE a problem now is that social software is no longer exciting nor particularly cool. But what makes something ‘cool’? Here is where I think the real essence of the PLE lies. When people discover or make something cool and exciting, their instinct is to ‘give’ it to other people. The euphoria of the early PLE was the euphoria of ‘giving’. As Marcel Mauss, Claude Levi-Strauss, Roger Caillois, George Bataille and others have studied, ‘giving’ is of fundamental human significance - it unites economics, love, war, art, religion, sex and play: those things we repeatedly see throughout human history in all cultures. So much of technological activity has the form of the ‘potlatch’ (see and there is a curious logic to it. What seems to emerge, through a complex variety of social mechanisms, are enhancements to social status: I do something cool and ‘give’ it on YouTube; an audience finds it, likes it, expects more; the social relation between myself and my audience – which incorporates both rights and commitments begins to become a formal recognition of status (which I can put on a CV); by continuing to uphold the commitments and obligations, status can be enhanced further, and so on.

The question for the PLE concerns how the ‘giving with regard to technology’ relates to the acts of giving within educational institutions (the best professors always ‘give’), and the giving of everyday life. In particular, the question concerns the nature of the ‘new’ and the ‘cool’ and the ways that individuals make their way through the world through the giving of novelty. The priority is to embrace and understand emerging technology, and to avoid getting trapped in what was once new and cool, but now isn’t. 


Tom said...

Thanks for the interesting post, but I would like to disagree with several of the ideas that you express here, and hopefully open up some debate.

I was involved in some of the early debates around PLEs, and at the time the debates were not about technology, but about the ownership and control of learning and teaching. There was much discussion around the VLE (LMS) being owned and controlled by the university (or college or school) and that this disenfranchised the learner. The PLE was a way of giving control to the learner. A wide variety of tools and forms of engagement were being discussed, largely based on social tools as there was (and I think still is) a strong (if not always well articulated) social constructivist approach to learning underlying most of the PLE enthusiasts approach.

Secondly, I think that you need to be more careful about what is social software (or hardware). Almost any technology can be used socially, but it is about what the key affordances are. Social networking tools are clearly social (the clue is in the name). Some tools are not, such as text editors, but can be used socially (either by posting the results or by cloud hosting and sharing). Others have social elements (powerpoint is essentially a broadcast technology rather than a social technology, though one could argue that by posting on Slideshare there can be discussion, and equally there may be social elements in a presentation - but usually by deviating from the slides.

Finally, I am very worried by your comments on coolness, which remind me of the VLE is dead type discussions. VLEs are clearly not dead, and it is at the point at which technology becomes normal (stops being cool?) that it is widely productive. It also seems to be at this point that many learning technologists lose interest in it and want to move onto the next technology.

So, I think the priority is exactly the opposite of what you suggest in the last paragraph ("The priority is to embrace and understand emerging technology, and to avoid getting trapped in what was once new and cool, but now isn’t."). The priority is to work with what users want, and especially to help users to make the most effective use of the technologies that they are already using; with the understanding that this will grow organically as they adopt other technologies.

Frances Bell said...

I have always imagined PLEs to include all sorts of technologies and artefacts. But not only technologies - also the social connections that enable people to play their rich role in our networks. I wonder if we explored the concept of PLEs in the pre-digital age that we might have a better basis for understanding PLEs in the digital age. A sort of thought experiment in the PLE of letters, books, meetings, classes, pub conversations, etc.
This ties in with some of Tom's comments. What I have called 'provider-centric' approaches distract us into looking at stuff like VLEs provided by formal education rather than thinking about what learners do and need. Competent learners (eg those who can effortlessly exploit MOOC goodies) can construct their PLEs without too much difficulty. Others of us may need support in using MOOCs, constructing PLE and networking within it. And helpful people, teachers, mentors, friends are key I think. So this is an extreme version of the 'no longer cool' technologies that Tom mentions but it does help to focus attention on the then and now of technologies.

Mark Johnson said...

Tom, you are right that the “locus of control of learning” idea was key to the PLE. Oleg and I wrote about this using a cybernetic model to characterise this (see I have to say that both of us had a slight worry that we were missing something – but it was very hard to identify: it was somewhere in the issue raised in the paper about the difference between the “active life” and the “contemplative life”. Nobody really seemed that interested – the PLE was storming ahead regardless on the back of Facebook and doing the ‘down with the VLE’ thing on the way (which we didn’t approve of).

Now it’s easier to be clear about the deficiencies – partly because the social software mania has died down a bit. The real problem was that we were not clear about the distinction between “education” and “learning”. Moreover, we reified learning and personal organisation into models and built technologies around the models. We aren’t alone in e-learning (and education generally) in doing this – but it’s a bad idea. Basically, it’s like pouring concrete into a metaphysical mould only to allow institutions (both educational and technological) to say to everyone “this is what learning is – all you have to do is use tools in such-and-such a way to gain it.” It’s all a bit like medieval indulgences.

What is learning? How can we possibly say? How can it be inspected? What do we mean by ‘control’? (is it the ‘vita activa’? – what about the ‘vita contemplativa’?) What is assessment? Is it about learning? What about certification?

In Tallinn I asked participants to arrange a series of words on an axis which ran from “irrational” to “rational”. The words were: Love, Learning, Textbooks, Timetable, Death, Curriculum, Sex, Religion, University, God, Certification, Governance, Assessment, Dreams, Politics. It’s worth trying. The point is that there are things which we can and must be extremely rational about in education, and there are things that we cannot be rational about, or which we would be unwise to be rational about. Universities obfuscate their function with talk of learning and they draw attention away from the practical, concrete things that go on – some of which, frankly, are on the boundary between the ill-judged and the downright corrupt. It really matters that we are critical, sharp and vocal. Metaphysics just gets in the way.

With regard to ‘cool stuff’, to say something is ‘cool’ is to make a kind of ‘status declaration’ about the thing in question. What are the networks of support for such declarations? The PLE discourse contained a series of status declarations (and the ‘VLE is dead’ stuff was a series of ‘status demotion declarations’). What’s going on here? I now think ‘giving’ (of new tools, techniques, etc) lies at the heart of it: Potlatch is well-studied by anthropologists. I suspect the whole discourse of ‘locus of control’ as being a kind of educational technology potlatch. If it’s true, then potlatch matters, and so, by extension, does ‘cool stuff’.

When Illich talks about ‘learning webs’ he is really addressing the boundary between society and education - a boundary which schooling (of all kinds, including MOOCs) sets about maintaining as a means to upholding its own validity. When he talks of heightening "the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring." he is addressing the fundamental entwining between the educational and the social. The PLE was about the experience of learning with tools, and how new tools might bridge the gap between education and society. The gap has got bigger. The reason, I think, is a misguided focus on the metaphysics of learning, and not enough on the concrete realities of education and politics.

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Frances,

If we are to talk about the 'then and now' of technologies, it's important to be clear exactly what we mean with the term 'technology'. Like much of e-learning, what is gained in thinking and experimenting with the digital is seldom 'viable implementation', but instead 'critical illumination'. Digital technology often has the character of a torch to shine on the dark uninspected corners of ancient practices.

We cannot inspect in detail the intellectual life of those who lived before us. The best we can get are glimpses with things like Milton's 'commonplace book' in the British Library (see But like our computers today, such documents are merely traces of conscious existence.

The experience of tools, MOOCs, books, VLEs, classes and pub conversations is not constitutive of learning processes. It merely punctuates living. New ideas, skilled performances or transformative agency appears to emerge through particular patterns of punctuation under certain conditions.

Perhaps the real question here is "what does it mean to be helpful?"