Tuesday, 12 August 2014

EdTech, Oughts and Crosses

I'm currently writing a book about EdTech called (at the moment) "Education and Information". It exists in fairly richly-sketched chapters at the moment, which I'm gradually bringing to the point where I'm happy enough to open it up to other people. So - what the hell - I'll bung it on my blog! What follows is still sketchy (not least, lacking references) - but hopefully slightly readable....

EdTech is a discourse of advocacy of social change through technological transformation of education. In common with much educational discourse, EdTech is replete with 'oughts', and consequently is always vulnerable to the critique of those positivist ethicists who argue that is and ought are radically separable. I find this interesting because whilst he is credited with originating the doctrine of the is-ought gap, David Hume in introducing the problem of deriving an ought from an is, really presents a critique of ethical thinking which is particularly pertinent to educational thinking and to EdTech. Hume doesn't say whether getting to ought from is is possible or not: Smith argues in “What is a Person?” that the attribution of the is-ought gap to Hume is due to the misreading of him by the logical positivists who came long after and had their own agenda). In fact, Hume’s critique amounts to a complaint about the ‘paradigm switching’ involved in making ethical arguments.

Hume says:
“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason”
In Burrell and Morgan’s terminology, Hume is indicating a paradigm-switch between a functionalist viewpoint and a critical one.

Edcational ‘oughts’ start with Plato “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”, or (rather similarly) Comenius, “a musician does not strike his lyre a blow with his fist because it produces a discordant sound; but setting to work on scientific principles, he tunes it and gets it into order. Just such a skilful and sympathetic treatment is necessary to instil love of learning into our pupils”. The perennial problem in education is to determine the reasoning behind these statements in a way which articulates something deeper about the nature of the society wherein such statements need not be made. Behind every such statement of ‘moral guidance’ in education is a fear about the consequences in the society should that guidance be ignored. The deep issue is to articulate the relationship between interventions – whether in the form of technologies in education, or in the form of ethical advice of Plato or Comenius and the intended social change which is envisaged. To get to grips with this, we have to begin with an account of what we understand by ‘social change’ in the first place before considering how the paradigm-switching of the “arguments of advocacy” found in the EdTech literature as well in ancient guidance on education, relates to the transformation of social structures.

Technological Advocacy, Education and Social Change

In understanding social change and technology, it is useful to start with a description of the different conditions under which social structures are transformed. In his study “What is a Person?”, Christian Smith identified a number of conditions for changes to social structures. His list is:
·       "Social change occurs when new relationships between different groups are initiated and when old relationships are weakened or terminated."
·       "Social change occurs when the categories of understanding of prevailing social structures change. For example, social structures change when people no longer think in terms of “lords, peasants and knights and imagine life instead in terms of burghers, citizens, traders and entrepreneurs”"
·       "Social structures change when sustaining material resources are significantly reduced (and sometimes when then are increased). Political structures, in particular, become vulnerable with a reduction in material resources."
·       "Social structures change when material objects that instantiate and express social structures (like, for example, church buildings, pubs or post-offices) fall into disrepair or become irrelevant."
·       "Social structures change in response to changes in moral and normative beliefs in the practices, procedures, rules and laws those belies underwrite."
·       "Social structures change when enough of their participants simply – for whatever reason –    stop sanctioning noncompliance, deviance and rebellion."
·       "Social structures change when new or newly mobilized systems of communication decrease the intractability of coordinated interactions."
·       "Social structures change as a result of disruptions of normal reiterated body practices and collective activity patterns… The doing by some people of unexpected things with their bodies can exert significant causal forces of social structural change."

In each example of social changes that Smith provides, both education and technology are implicated. There appears to be some ground for asking whether, in terms of ‘engines for social change’ technology and education are inseparable, or even equivalent. New relationships, for example, are fostered by education and by communications technologies. Education teaches categories of understanding and creates the conditions for critique and debate, whilst technologies undermine existing categories and cause new ones to be invented. Technologies form a fundamental part of the material resources around which society organises itself (and of which education inculcates usage), and technologies as well as ideas undermine existing material structures. In terms of moral categories, education again creates a space for debate, but the forces that challenge and drive the debate are more often than not technological in important aspects. And the ritualised, iterated body practices (the kind of thing that Randall Collins has recently written about) adapt around emerging tech-cultures and practices – which education is so often slow to pick up on.

However, education employs technology to achieve its ends and technologies demand knowledge and understanding which is deemed to be the domain of education. Perhaps more importantly the practices of education are determined by political policy (in a democracy, mandated by popular vote), whereas (as Ulrich Beck has argued) technological development pursues an internal logic related to rationalism, historicism and determinism: “Technological change is legitimated social change without political legitimation”. The fundamental issue which is exposed by asking whether technology and education are the same is one the political determination of society. To ask questions about technology or education is to ask questions about how we live and the society we might want to live in.

Neither education nor technology presents absolute categories for inspection. Only education, it seems however, really presents itself as a political category; technology pursues its own internal logic largely without political debate – and when technology ‘troubles’ society (in matters, for example, of censorship) the emerging debate is fought on a kind of Platonic educational platform rather than one explicitly technological (rather like Plato insisting on the goodness of particular kinds of music). Personal judgement, individual history and experience of education, political preferences and aesthetic disposition all play a role in determining one individual’s position regarding education. Each individual demarcates the limits of what they deem admissible within the category of education (just as they might demarcate what they think is admissible as art). Each proposal for educational development (including those which involve technology) are framed by limits which have their ontogeny in personal histories, and which are rarely explicitly stated. Every limit of understanding education is ultimately vulnerable to critique and challenge. Every discipline establishes limits of its understanding of education. The education ‘debate’ suffers from an inability to express clearly the limits of those who make a claim to determine its future.

Paradigms of Thought

Burrell and Morgan’s situating of the 19th and 20th century sociological tradition within four paradigms is useful when thinking about the framing of educational thought. They made a distinction between the subjective and the objective, and between the sociology of regulation and the sociology of ‘radical change’ situating mainstream intellectual efforts across the spectrum: Interpretive (phenomenological), Radical Humanist, radical structuralist (constructivist) and Functionalist is thus presented within four ‘paradigms’ of sociological thought which Burrell and Morgan argue have been applied in various ways to organisational analysis. Although much discussed and critiqued, the paradigm idea finds resonance with other authors. Notably, Badiou has presented his analysis of Western philosophy as a related tripartite division of Marxism, phenomenology/existentialism and Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy. In considering paradigms as a way of examining limits of thought in education and technology, I do not intend to reinforce the idea of concrete discursive ‘schools’ – which, after all, says rather more about sociological discourse than it does about the way people think about concrete problems like education. Rather, I’m going to suggest that the paradigm view is at least helpful in marking out the way individuals work with their limits of understanding of education, making arguments for educational reform or technological innovation. 

The multi-perspectival nature of education means that there is ample opportunity for jumping out of one paradigm into another. Educational practice are inseparable from the political context institutions, the socio-economic context of societies and the experiential aspects of individuals and their personal histories. No aspect of education exists independently of any other. However much one might consider an academic problem from the focused critique of one paradigm or another, the political context of the academy frequently interrupts. Yet it is not unusual to find scholars creating a radical separation between their work, their professional position and status and their personal experience. Sometime the interruptions cannot be ignored: when the department is closed for lack of students or funding, or when scholars find themselves in ideological battles with colleagues which owe rather more to personal histories and experiences than to reasoned debate. The difficulties and (sometimes) disinterest of students too can present to scholars issues which lie outside their discipline, but which are inescapably entwined with it. Rarely do scholars make the connections between the disconnects between their discursive practice and their practice as teachers. Perhaps the greatest evidence for this is the fact that few serious scholars have taken the disruptions of technology or managerialism within their institutions as challenges to their own discursive practice.

EdTech itself has suffered something of a fall from grace in recent times. Once responsible for encouraging people to engage in new ways with the issues of teaching and learning supported by technology and generous government funding, after results that were less than what had been promised, the funding was stopped. The academic discursive practices which had been focused on learning and technology suddenly were faced with thinking about politics and funding. The components of this mix of feelings and experiences are experiential and individual (worries about the future, crisis of professional identity), critical concerns and objections to the direction being taken, and analytical both in terms of the creation of new coping strategies and in the proposal of new strategies for coping with the situation. Yet each dimension is interconnected.

Different paradigms can be identified by their champions. Who would be most concerned for the powerless teacher being manipulated by politicians than Karl Marx? The Critical Theory which grew from Marx’s ideas is responsive to broader social objectives, questions about political power and the entailments of policy. Beyond Marx himself, the Critical tradition includes such figures as Marcuse, Fromm, Adorno, and Freire. Who would be most concerned with the inner life of teachers and learners in their struggles with the situation of education? Experiential thinking belongs to a philosophical tradition beginning with Brentano, Freud, Schutz and Husserl which exposes a mode of thinking which is deeply reflective. Experiential thinking is a deep inquiry into epistemological issues of learning, and its origins may be traced to the epistemological work of Kant (sometimes referred to as ‘correlationism’), but more recently it refers to the work of people like Piaget and Vygotsky (although Vygotsky identifies most strongly with a critical Marxist perspective). Who would be most concerned for the identification of solutions to the problems of education, even solutions to the struggles of teachers and learners to adapt to policy? The kind of solution-seeking which might have inspired political interference in the first place belongs to behaviourist psychologists, sociologists who assert the conditioning power of institutions over individuals (Durkheim for example), or large-scale social systems thinkers such as Talcott Parsons or Niklass Luhmann. 

In the experience of anyone involved in education, there exists a basic relationship between a person and a problem identified through the making of distinctions. It is this distinction-making process which I will characterise as the identification of a ‘limit’. The multi-perspectival nature of education means that most situations present conflicting limits. It is because of the conflict between limit descriptions from different perspectives that rather than state limits explicitly, they tend to be approached from a variety of different perspectives.

The limits of Functionalism

There is no better illustration of the concept of a limit that in thinking about functionalism, from those who might identify with its methods and ambitions, and those who might oppose them. There are limits on both sides and these limits so often demarcate the battle lines of political and economic argument grounded in vastly different individual experiences. This particular limit is already drawn within the school curriculum from early childhood. Most broadly, it is the limit that is experienced between the sciences and the humanities. It is the limit that exists between the maths lesson and the music lesson. It exists between approaches to assessment from the exam to the inquiry-based project. The contemporary dominance of functionalism denotes the limits that define the reaction against it. The limits of functionalism and the limits of those who oppose it are defined by the winners and losers at the hands of functionalism. In contemporary management, functionalism tends to get lumped together with managerialism. It is functionalism which is responsible for targets, performance metrics, greed, capitalism, and so on. But from our perspective here, these are just ordinary people dealing with the problems that life throws at them in a way which they believe to be sensible.

Functionalism tends to be demarcated by a pragmatic approach which privileges rational description which is easily codified and communicated, and which by necessity, tends to wash over rich details of particulars in favour of broad abstract descriptions of universals. Much technological development has a tendency towards functionalism. Educational technology in particular has been framed by the regulative and pragmatic mindset of the functionalist perspective. However, functionalism is not a necessary condition for technical development: complex technological developments can be seen in the design and production of artefacts which do not appear to have teleological significance in the same way as much educational technology - musical instruments are an excellent example, whose purpose lies beyond the performance of a ‘function’. Pragmatism comes at a cost: functionalism is often driven by impatience with the nebulous, and a preference for the concrete. It tends to exclude more than it includes. The limits of functionalism are the limits of the actual.

Functionalism dominates thinking about education as ‘instrumental’ for economic gain: it can be seen as largely responsible for the current trend towards the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) agenda in primary school. The limits of functionalism are not only the result of cultural conditioning: the distinction between functionalism and its opponents reproduce themselves across different cultures throughout history. The limit between functionalism and its opponents is indeed inscribed in educational culture, yet this culture reflects something deeper within human ontogeny.

Functionalism’s prowess rests in a capacity to coordinate human action with teleology. The power of scientific advance rests on the creation of explanations around which society can be ordered. Here Burrell and Morgan’s paradigms may be compared with Kuhn’s paradigms. Functionalism displays a particular relation between logic and reality whereby individuals with sufficient mastery of analytical skill and social judgement could find themselves coordinating armies, institutions and nations. The limits of functionalism rest at the limit of the power relations between individuals caught up in this dynamic. Human coordination and goal-directedness may be clearly articulated, and even when there are differences of opinion as to whether they are good goals or not, the power of the arguments may still carry along a coalition of interested parties, not all of whom may agree to the fine detail of what is latent behind the scenes. Analytical propositions depend on pure reason for their articulation, even when aspect of the reasoned argument are not as strong as they might appear to be. Even within the social sciences, the impact of the computer in so-called qualitative research suggests here too that functionalism’s basic premises dominate. Within social theories which are themselves careful to avoid determinism nevertheless embrace teleology as a fundamental mechanism of human self-organisation.

The functionalist view is a product of enlightenment thought. Hume’s theory of causation, around which enlightenment proceeded, turned the scientific world upside-down. The technological world predetermines thinking about goals and teleology which is not eternal. Functionalism’s limit is, to a large extent, a limit that is applied to rationalism. Yet, even for the super-rational Greeks, functionalist ideas would only account for part of intellectual life: rationality co-existed with the irrational regime of ritual and the divine madnesses of the muses. Some commentators argue that the rationality of modernity is in fact a reaction to the archaic roots of civilisation – for Bataille, it is deeply linked to the taboo; for Veblen (who thinks similarly) it is related to the archaic ritualistic roots of society.

Functionalism’s ambitions to impose its limits on the way that education is conducted are everywhere and typify many attempts to intervene with technology in education. Examples of reasoned argument in the application of technology to education have traversed a landscape of approaches ranging from talk of the ‘arrangement of services’, interoperability ,artificial intelligence and other the semantic web which have demanded a technico-rational approach. It is clear that certain types of people are attracted to these formulations. One of the basic characteristics of engagement at this technical level is a lack of critique of ontological foundations for a proposal: practical and operational challenges take precedence and rather than articulate deeper rationale for technical interventions, and intellectual endeavour is targeted toward the production of a ‘functional specification’. Processes of functional decomposition are also processes of social atomisation. The rationale seeks to maximise organisation of resources, and to fund efforts to design and build solutions to technical problems, whether they be problems of interoperability, or problems of resource management at scale. These advantages are significant and distinguish analytical approaches as being often genuinely collaborate, as opposed to critical or phenomenological approaches which tend to locate themselves around ‘key thinkers’.

The limits of Marxist Critique

Functionalism exists as an entity largely because it is named by its critics. The critics of functionalism see it from the perspective of their own limits: indeed, the limits of the functionalist are determined by other people. But the limit boundary that determines the marker between those who operate to benefit from technology and those who are subject to technology and the inequalities which that can bring introduces new limits. The limits of Marxist critique rests in the blindness to idealism but from a different perspective and to the broader understanding of the efficacy of critique and its coordinating power.

The Marxist sees the problems of education as fundamentally social, not psychological. Yet, in so doing, the Marxist runs the risk of a kind of social idealism. For Popper, the Marxist discourse is one where the emphasis on materiality and social progress and the idea of progress ultimately (like functionalism itself) admits no real people. The dangers of not admitting real people is that a disconnect between rhetoric and reality can set in, whereby emancipation is talked about, but the realisation of any plan results in oppression. As with many kinds of opposition, the Marxist paradigm’s opposition to functionalism often presents two perspectives on the same limit.  When faced with the managerialist’s diktats, technologies and performance indicators, the Marxist can only be challenged to say “what would you do?” – only for a different set of technologies, diktats and protocols to be suggested in their place. Alternatively, the Marxist might throw their hands up and say that “nothing is possible as long as we are in capitalism”.

Critical and Marxist thinking can be analytical in different ways from the functionalist. Whilst the managerial ‘guruism’ of the functionalist is avoided, a kind of ‘critical guruism’ can take its place. The nature of limits means that each critical perspective is framed by those things around it to which it reacts to. A good example of this is the application of critical thinking to the educational system itself, and the recommendations for things which might be done to it. Within the critical tradition there are many great educational thinkers including Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, Augusto Boal and Ira Shoh. In each case, there is a carefully articulated critique about the ‘nature of education’ and an argument about how education should change. For Illich, education is a pathological enterprise whose relation to society as a ‘component’ should be overturned, where education should be seen as intergral to the conduct of social life. Friere’s position is similar, although more practical. His ontology begins with the challenges of social life and the ways in which real political challenges can be leveraged for pedagogical benefit. The relationship between learning and emotion is highlighted. Other thinkers of the Left including Pierre Bourdieu, Basil Bernstein highlight the enculturation effects that education has on students and social systems in general. Their position rests on a critique of the role of social class (Bourdieu) or language (Bernstein) in the emergence of educational structures in society. More recently, deeper ontological critiques have emerged, citing Critical Realism, Speculative Realism and other forms of ontological inquiry as a basis for rethinking the relationship between schools, colleges and universities and the societies they operate within.

The limits of phenomenology and Existentialism

The pursuit of both sociologically-oriented idealism and functionalist idealism and its real consequences becomes the focus for the identifying a different set of limits concerned with inspecting feelings, reactions, intentions, and experiences.  The nature of subjectivity, experience is a fundamental part of any ontological investigation. Here, the phenomenologist’s limit is to skirt with solipsism: it is to say “what else  beyond experience is there?” This is turn can lead to a failure to recognise those things which are shared, those things where the political and social relate to the phenomenological.

Some sociologists schooled in phenomenology were keenly aware of this problem. Alfred Schutz, whose career was dedicated to the exploration of the gap between what he believed to be the profound insights of Husserl, also felt that the social was absent from Husserl’s account. He intended to bridge this gap with an account of experience which was grounded in the sociology of Max Weber. Theories of both Piaget and Vygotsky highlight the processes of cognitive adaptation to stimulus where even the cognition of the environment is dependent on such processes. Given that the can be such scepticism about the nature of reality, how is such a reality knowable? The solipsistic limit of phenomenology is evidenced in the radical constructivism of Ernst Von Glasersfeld.

The most significant influence of phenomenology has been on educational research methodology. Whilst functionalism has been supported the making of interventions, and Marxist critique has generally sought to oppose functionalist hubris, phenomenological inquiry has steered a methodological programme of attempting to map practical intervention with experiential “evidence”. A programme of phenomenological inquiry where multiple perspectives which are necessarily individual are sought and a process of coordination between those perspective is entered into in the hope of agreeing local norms and conditions, with knowledge claims strictly limited to the observing groups. Over many years, methodological inquiries have been conducted along these lines, with new methods like Grounded theory becoming very popular in the identification and coordination of different perspectives and analysis. Such measures have also had an effect in the domain of management, where soft system analysis similarly has sought to articulate different points of view. Yet phenomenology has survived on the back of its exploitation by functionalists: evidence-based policy really becoming policy-based evidence. It is the methodological application of phenomenology where the analytical approach holds. Methodologies like grounded theory see experience as a scientific object with genera and species identified through processes of phenomenological ‘bracketing’. 

The interaction of Limits

When limits move, social structures change. Smith’s articulation of changes to social structure are another way of discussing the way that the limits of individuals may change. Through political pressure, or through technological development, or through changes in fashion and social norms, what was once seen as a barrier between acceptability and fear moves. The shifting of limits provides a way of accounting for social change over time. The reproduction and transformation of social structure through agency is a reconfiguration of social order such that the limits of different agents and their relations with one another are transformed. In an academic career, one may start as a phenomenologist (expressing one set of obligations and commitments to a group) and end up a Marxist (expressing a different set of commitments to a different group). However, within a confusing discourse, limits are experienced from different perspectives without really knowing from which perspective knowledge comes.

It is easy to characterise this process in an abstract way: limits expose the identity of the individual: their enthusiasms, passions, identity and fears. These in turn reflect the relations between people: obligations, commitments, rights. Perhaps rather, it is the encounter with the limits of an individual that others discover them. What is apparent in print is very different from what is apparent in person; the dynamics of text-based exchanges are very different from the dynamics of face-to-face exchange. Those paradigms and limits so far discussed relate to aspects of thinking as it is represented in academic thinking; they are precisely the limits of the abstract: the Marxist vs the phenomenologist. Fears and enthusiasms are at the root of where these limits lie. The academic whose reputation has been established through a particular paradigmatic viewpoint, who sees professional fear in themselves being shifted from that viewpoint to another. But this is not simply a matter of the limit of discourse, or the limit of a set of ideas or a perspective. Something in the academic psyche led them to the point that they felt comfortable with a particular way of looking at things: something which probably has its roots in childhood led them to this point. The point here is that limits are not just established through the interaction of discursive paradigms: they are the product of personal histories – of patterns of engaging with the world.

The means of expressing oneself, the means by which limits are revealed are largely technological. The playing with the channels of communication, the means and organisation of communication pokes and provokes limits in ways which challenge existing limits: both education and technology exist in the in-between domain – where the experience of them subtly move limits whilst challenging the individual to assert their position with regard to it. Technologies are at the heart of this. When we talk about education and technology in education, we are not talking about defined discourse: they are invitations to ways of thinking which expose the gamut of individual limits.

The academic journey may well take one from functionalism to Marxism as a limit boundary becomes more clearly articulated from a different paradigm. Limits have much more to do with personal identities: they are exposed variously through advocacy or defence. In matters to do with education and technology, declarations of elevated status of new tools or procedures are made. In recent years, new objects and processes have been elevated in this way by various powerful groups: Virtual Learning Environments, Learning Outcomes, Student loans, CATS points, Competencies, E-portfolios, and so on. It is not long before some of these new declarations are accepted, or begrudged by the educational establishment. However, at their inception, any declaration of status will meet opposition to the functionalism – that limit which identifies in technologies solutions to problems which are themselves viewed through the lens of functionalism (and which are themselves often the product of technologies) – which is established through discourse and the rational support of the efficacy of artefacts. Critique and opposition to any functionalist position is met with counter-critical arguments. For example, in countering arguments about instrumentalising education through Virtual Learning Environments, counter-critical arguments point at the inadequacies of the status-quo, mobilising critical arguments in defence of a functionalist one. Behind the attempt to find evidence to support a functionalist overview, or the drive to ‘solve’ an issue, defending itself against critique, lies personal experience itself, together with phenomenologically-grounded descriptions of the defence of that experience. Limits are approached from different sides of an argument: power and technology all play their part in the process of establishing a new tool or practice.

This is inseparable from the individual’s limit: the managerialist’s confidence in logical solutions, the technologist’s euphoria over a new kind of technology; the critic’s passionate striving for the ‘good society’, the phenomenological quest for rational insight into the workings of the mind. Education involves many people with many kinds of limits. Each has some understanding of the others’ limits. Each tunes into the other to defend their own position. Certain positions belonging to functionalism appear to hold sway: the economic necessities of education, the gaining of higher learning, and so on. The status of procedures and pedagogies appears to take second place to the status of objects and software: those things which can be easily pointed to and people mobilised around. When particular procedures and protocols are then used as a vehicle to make new kinds of status declaration, from a variety of perspectives, then this creates the conditions for the guru.

Technology, Education and the Traversal of Limits

To talk about the traversal of limits is to talk about the conditions for social change. Material changes, political challenge, changes to individual relationships and profound artistic and emotional experiences can each be a motivation for travelling across or moving limits. Returning to Smith’s description of the conditions for social change, in each instance it is possible to redescribe the conditions in terms of the limits of individuals, with those limits resulting from particular configurations of social structure. For example, the difference between old and new relationships occurs as the constraints which held communication practices with a particular social group (and away from another) weaken. Many narratives around the integration of previously ostracised social groups could be used to support this. Where were the limits which once caused racial segregation, or excluded women from political processes? Something, over time, happens to the feelings of individuals who at one point would see a clear boundary between acceptable and unacceptable social engagement, and at a later point in time, that particular boundary appears to have disappeared (or moved). Of course, ‘categories of understanding’ are part of this process (Smith’s second point).That might lead to the conclusion that discourse is, fundamentally, at the root of the construction of limit. Yet discourse configures itself around the expectations of individuals, and expectations themselves will be formed against the backdrop of limits. Expectations too can help understand the impact of material factors in the ways that individuals experience limit. The impact of material scarcity on the perception has powers of limitation which extend beyond those limits imposed or structured around a discourse: material limits are ostensively defined and codified in discourse, and material limits of food or shelter evoke immediate and primeval responses which are limited by biological structures. Similarly, the vestiges of what was once a material limit, but which no longer counts as such, becomes a different kind of limit inspiring other kinds of discourse – particularly those forms of narrative which account for historical change and social progress. The limits of morality clearly shift – witness the transformation in attitudes to sex in the West. Limits appear related to normativity is indicated by mass movements of protest, and there is little doubt that normativity includes new practices with technologies – particularly the new forms of communication ushered in by social media. Finally, the deep articulation of human communication transcends discourse: the reiterated body practices (for example, the staring at mobile phones on the train) create their own set of expectations.

Having said this, such a redescription – whilst it simplifies (perhaps it flattens) the instances of social change that Smith describes – it doesn’t explain what happens when individuals cross or move a limit. The encounter with limits is visceral: its principal response is fear. At what point does a fearful response yield to one where fear is overcome? To argue that the overcoming of a limit is an automatic social structural process would be to deflate human agency to the point of determinism. Every human limit is overcome through the agency of another human being. Indeed, it is precisely the moment of moving limits which we associate with the processes of teaching and learning. The question is, What sits behind the motivation of that agency? What sits behind the desire to change oneself and the desire to change other people?
In order to deal with this question, it is first important to clarify the relationship between those limits which emerge through discourse and those limits which are entailed through matter. Actor Network Theorists and Socio-Materialists argue that the powers and properties of matter have agency. In his articulation of the entwining of matter and humans, Latour needs to make a move whereby all aspects of social structures participate in an equal way in the processes of reproduction and transformation of social structures. Whilst it is the case (as Smith says) that restrictions or abundance in material resource have an effect on the perception of limit, material resources, robots, roads and buildings each exist by virtue of social processes which assert their significance: what Searle calls a ‘status function’. The allocation of material resources such as food, shelter and money exist through power structures which are also related to status functions (this food is not for x but for y). Behind material artefacts lie declarations of status which implicate not only the causal powers of those artefacts on those who encounter them, but also the power of the individuals making the status declarations. In other words, agency is specifically human: it is not a life-force which somehow unites an entwining of the material and the human.  
The deep question then is, What are the grounds for agency? If we are to argue (with…) that ethics must sit at the root of agency, then we are caught in the limits of the ethical – and the ways in which ethical narratives are constructed in discourse. If we are to argue that love is at the root of agency, where love is separable from ethics, then we must encounter the limits of love and the different ways in which love might manifest.  If we are to argue that emancipation is at the root of agency, and that agency is most fundamentally politically-motivated, we must consider the limits of the political and particularly those aspects of political life which can ride roughshod over concerns of human love and sometimes ethics. If we are to argue that aesthetics and the pursuit of the beautiful lies at the heart of agency, then we have to consider the limits of the perception of the beautiful. But still, the discoveries of the physical sciences present another perspective: the agency is fundamentally concerned with the pursuit of scientific truth. Yet here, we must follow the discourse of the philosophy of science and inquire into the nature of the limits of scientists, their methods and the separability of their knowledge from other limits. Here, perhaps, there is a clue as to an answer we might give to the question “what sits behind agency?” The pursuit of scientific truth entails engagements with other limits: those to do with politics, those to do with love and security, those to do with art and beauty. agency is, fundamentally, caught between each of these limits: the limits of love, the limits of the beautiful, the limits of emancipation and the limits of science. Agency is caught in the interaction of limits in ways which are palpable and in many cases obvious. It is the love affair which leads to the writing of the symphony, or the scientific discovery which reframes an attitude to politics, or the TV documentary which changes social behaviour or the disability which reframes an approach to science, or the oppression which binds communities together.
Travelling across a limit is a process of interaction between different kinds of limit and this in turn must entail an interaction between different kinds of people, objects and social structures. Physical travelling is but one aspect of this. But essential to the picture of travelling across a limit is awareness of an ‘absolute’ through the processes of interaction. Everything that happens to an individual challenges limits in the light of a perceived “truth” which exists somewhere beyond a particular limit at a particular time. It is unlikely that truth in this sense is relative. Were it so, then those aspects which we associate with each of the factors listed: political emancipation, scientific advancement, artistic expression and human love, would be impossible. The continual being-in-flux of knowledge and ideas about education, religion, science, love, politics and so on is not an indication of the absence of the absolute. It is rather the reverse: the continual being-in-flux of the interaction between love, science, politics and art is testament to an absolute truth that holds the flux together.
Education is the domain where the flux of being is most apparent. It is the education discourse that demonstrates the interplay of limits. Paradigm switches in education are indicative of the spaces between awareness of the absolute and awareness of present limits. Seen at best, technologies present new ways of exploring material limits and in the process serve to expose limits of understanding and stimulate critical inspection: technologies can grant permission to think about education. However, technologies are themselves the result of status functions made through power structures within society. Technological implementation may reinforce limits of understanding rather than cause travel across limits. This may be particularly true in cases where technologies reinforce a functionalist paradigm to which those subjected are already reacting against.

The phenomenon of paradigm-switching by those advocating technologies in education may be seen as a means of shoring-up a status declaration which in turn is intended as an assertion of limits on other people (like, for example, the withholding of material resources, or the imposing of new practices) with the intention of establishing social change in a particular desired direction. The weakness of the paradigm-closure position then becomes apparent: such acts are politically-motivated and rarely produce the desired consequences. Under conditions of oppression, new forms of expression eventually arise (although not usually after a protracted battle), which will explore other aspects of limit: the binding of communities through solidarity, the discovery of subversive forms of artistic expression or the pursuit of new methodological practices to challenge the functionalist orthodoxy of the policies being implemented. Yet this latter aspect is the most challenging and asks the deepest questions not only about how we reason about education, but how education is coordinated in society. The question of the governance of education is a question concerning the possibility of naturalistic inquiry within education.

The Possibility of Educational Naturalism

The inability to establish coherent empirical methodologies which coordinate consensus-driven focus on theory-practice gaps in education leaves a void into which political expedience and managerialist interventions – each bolstered by new technologies and evidence-driven (for which read ‘policy-driven’) defences present themselves. Paradigm-switching is convenient license to replace clarity with ‘spin’ and assert technologically-mediated social change in the name of scientistic ‘progress’ which nullifies critique. The possibility of a coordinated attempt to address theory-practice gaps rests on the possibility of objective judgements about social structures. Whilst it has become fashionable to challenge objectivity in the social sciences, the existence of social institutions, textbooks, vice-chancellors, prime ministers, teachers, secretaries of state for education, exam results, certificates and curricula is generally accepted beyond the solipsistic realms of radical scepticism. Given the existence of such aspects of education, it is sensible to ask how they are structured and constituted in relation to one another. In essence this is a way of describing a ‘social order’ of education. Furthermore, new structures and assertions about the “reality” of new software applications, professional practices, institutional positions, awards and sanctions will each of them change the relations between the entities of the education system. We possess theories about the structures of the education system, about the relations between its parts, about the constitution of those parts and the structural shifts that we expect to see in the light of our interventions. We are also capable of recording the structures of education in terms of networks of rights, responsibilities, obligations, commitments and duties within the system. Yet the effort to compare theoretical understanding of the social order of education with the reality of the social order isn’t there.

The methodological problem is deep-seated within the social sciences. A radical break occurred after the enlightenment between numerical quantification and ordering. In particular, the use of quantification extended beyond its traditional use of accounting for available material resources (how much money does the King have to build the castle, or to fight a war?) to becoming a cypher of social order. The birth of statistics gave social scientists ways in which they believed empirical event regularities could be established in the same way that they were in the physical sciences and defensible accounts of causation could be established as a result. This remains the de-facto practice within not only education research, but many other disciplines including economics, psychology and biology (particularly modern genetics). On top of the mapping between quantification and social structures, probabilistic reasoning provided simple models which could be tested against closed-system human experiments (such as playing games or gambling on the stock-exchange) More recent incarnations of the quantification paradigm include the increasingly popular use of agent-based modelling and the analysis of big data.

The challenge that quantification presents is that it asserts abstract models as cyphers for real structure where the admissible measurement of those structures can only be achieved through quantification. In essence, there are two ‘status functions’ here:
1.       “this is a (conceptual/mathematical/agent-based) model of reality”
2.       “this is a representation of data gathered from looking at social structures”.
These two status functions are either radically divorced where there is no defensible relation between the two, or they are effectively one and the same thing (as is often seen in economics). The question underlying this situation is whether behind the use of numbers for calculation there isn’t a deeper mathematical reasoning which takes relation, order and structure as its foundation rather than quantities. Were such a methodological approach possible, then the two status functions would instead be:
1.       “here is an idea of the structuring of education, and here is how it might change in the light of a new status declaration (i.e. a new technology)”
2.       “here is the apparent structuring of education as determined by the observed social relations between individuals”
The possibility this presents is one of feedback between measurement of structure and articulations of structure presented as theory. The question then concerns the consequences transformations in structure brought about through new status functions.

A structurally-oriented empirical approach would at the very least identify the dramatic changes we have witnessed in higher education, where power has increasingly become centralised to a managerial elite, where evidence of that power is made apparent through the technological status functions which are declared by managers and to which everyone is subjected. The question then concerns the consequent changes to the structural relations between teachers and students, and students and the outside world. Where individual limits are affected by the structural conditions within which teachers, managers and learners operate, what are the effects on the capacity and opportunities learners have for travelling across limits? What are the effects on the agency of teachers in attempting to create the appropriate conditions for learners to travel across limits? Increases in centralised control, fear and oppression within the institution would appear – at least in the short term – to compromise opportunities for personal growth.


This paper has been about the relation between social change and interventions in educational technology. The fundamental concepts introduced have been:
1.       The Paradigm-switch as the mark of a discourse of ‘advocacy’ for social transformation through new practices  (or technologies). The paradigm switch exists because in any form of advocacy (whether it is a campaign for healthy living, or a campaign for better use of the internet), the purpose is to establish the intervention, rather than engage in a critical argument. Typically, this is done from all angles.
2.       The nature of limits in paradigms. Paradigms exist in relation to one another, and academics tend to associate with one paradigm or another in contradistinction to the others. The point of interface between one paradigm and the next is presented as a limit.
3.       The conditions for moving across limits or shifting limits. Limits are dependent on social relations, normative practices, discourses, matter and biology. Understanding the way that limits move is to understand why social structures change. Characterising changes to social structure as shifts in limits entails a consideration of the nature of the agency which causes limits to move, and the motivation behind agency.
4.       Acknowledging the necessity of the absolute in the processes of change in limits emerges from understanding the coexistence of fundamental dimensions within which limits are expressed: particularly those of love, politics, art and science. Agency occurs at the interplay between limits.

5.       In a time of oppression within education, social cohesion, art but most importantly science must counter the assertions of functionalist-dominated managerialism. Engagement with the issue of the split between quantification and ordering lies at the heart of this. New methodologies which privilege order over quantity may help in coordinated action in opposition to managerialism’s oppressive use of technology. 

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