Sunday, 31 August 2014

Something and (K)nothing: The knotty problem of shared constraint and project functionalism in the ITEC Project

The ITEC project, which is nearing completion, is probably one of the last large-scale government-funded (EU) e-learning projects that we will see. The era for this kind of thing has gone, and indeed ITEC provides plenty of evidence as to why it has gone. There are many good things that ITEC has done: it has raised awareness of technology across Europe; it has allowed many teachers to experiment with different kinds of pedagogy (particularly inquiry-based, classroom flipping, etc). But against its own ambition to create a technological infrastructure to support 'the classroom of the future', ITEC (like so many other projects before it) has failed. What can we learn from this?

One approach to exploring ITEC is to consider the mindset of those who conceived the project who believed that the ITEC technical interventions would work. Against the nay-sayers, people would point to the adoption of the VLE in education, or the rise of email and mobile phones to say that technology really can change individual practices and social structures. New 'interaction rituals', as Randall Collins calls them, can arise in a new technological context. This is what ITEC sought.

That raises a question about the conditions under which new interaction rituals can establish themselves. Any new technical intervention is introduced to people with a declaration: "this is a new technology for x". This declaration is what Searle calls a 'status function'. Searle argues that the entities of the social world, institutions, objects, textbooks, teachers, schools, etc are all status functions. He argues that it is the declaration of a status function which, if the person  making it has sufficient 'deontic power' then that status function will be binding within the context within which it is made.

Searle's idea is powerful and has far-reaching consequences. However, when a status function is made about a new technology, it is unclear where the deontic power lies. Consequently the extent to which most technological status functions don't appear to have any long-term effect, whilst a few do is not directly explained by Searle's theory. Adoption occurs at the point where there is broad social agreement that the status function is indeed valid (which is the case now for mobile phones, email and social software). However, any new status function is made in the context of many other established status functions within a society. Typically technologies aim to disrupt established interaction rituals involving other kinds of object, practice and institutional structure. Additionally, every  status function, as well as being a statement about what is what in context c, is also a statement about what is not what: in other words, a status function makes a distinction between what counts as x, and what doesn't. Status functions are both positive in affirming an object, and negative in declaring a constraint.

Given that status functions declare constraints, it would not be surprising to see different status functions competing with each other, or contradicting each other: each being each others' constraints. The status functions "I am the master" and "You are a slave" presents a simple example of where one status function is constrained by the other. The master requires the slave to acquiescence; the slave is constrained by the boss in a way which is not advantageous, yet feels compelled to reinforce the boss's power. Fear leads them to be unable to consider life away from the boss's demands. Indeed, in this case, it is fear both instilled by the boss and bearing upon the boss which holds the contradictory relationship between them in place. The stability of such a master-slave relationship may be seen as a basic 'institution': without relationships of mutual reinforcing constraint of this kind every human institution from the family to the firm would flounder.

Technological status functions produce similar patterns of mutual constraint. The assertion, usually by technology corporations, of the status of objects demands the acquiescence of users, whose emerging ritualised patterns of practice entail fears in breaking rituals which further entail the use of the tools about which the status functions are made. The reality of technologies is held in place by knots. But how did the knots get tied in the first place?

In social life, the status functions that each of us lives with comprise highly complex webs of mutual constraint. This makes the intervention of a status function in a pre-existing web of status functions particularly challenging. It is the inability to counteract the forces prevalent in existing status functions that most technologies fail. To say there is "nothing in it for me to use technology x" is to say that existing commitments demand the maintenance of practices which would be unnecessarily disrupted by a new technology. However, in order to understand how it is that some status functions actually do succeed in transforming the knots that people live within, it is important to understand the forces that keep the knots tied together. Since every status function is also a declaration of constraint, and that successful knots are patterns of mutual constraint, the role of shared constraints among the different stakeholders who are implicated in upholding the status of a state of affairs. Through an analysis of constraint, and particularly through a consideration of the relationship between constraint and redundancy, an understanding of the dynamics that distinguish instances of adoption with non-adoption can be explored. In this study, instances of non-adoption are most informative, and since this has been the principal characteristic of the ITEC project, it makes an excellent case-study for examination.

Projects and Status Functions

A project is basically a set of status declarations. The first and most important being the declaration:
"This is project"
Then there are the objects of the project. In ITEC the objects of the project (as set out in the project plan) entail declarations like:
"This is learning scenario (a broad description of educational activity)"
"This is a widget store (a  repository of tools)"
"This is a widget (a tool)"
"This is a widget (tool) for doing "
"This is learning activity"
"This is a "composer" (a way of recording configurations of activities and tools)"
"This is a 'people and events' database (a kind of for schools)"
"This is a learning shell (basically a container for educational activities, people and tools - e.g. a VLE)"
"This is an evaluation questionnaire"
"This is a national coordinator of ITEC activities in your country"
ITEC is focused on schools and what happens in the classroom. Teachers are the principal target for the above status declarations. Teachers, in most schools, already inhabit a world of status declarations from various sources:

"This is the headteacher of your school"
"These are the professional expectations for your performance"
"These are the children you are responsible for"
"These are their parents"
"These are the expectations the children's parents have of their children"
"These are the league tables of your school (if they have them)"
"These are the assessments the children will have to pass"
"This is your timetable"
"This is the curriculum"

It is not difficult to see that these two sets of status declarations may conflict with each other. Individual teachers, project officials, national coordinators, software developers, etc. have to make choices about their actions. Each status declaration presents an aspect of constraint against which choices must be negotiated: whilst each declaration makes a statement of the positive existence of a thing (headteachers, widgets, evaluation questionnaires) they simultaneously declare an absence - what isn't a headteacher, widget, evaluation questionnaire, and so on. A status function is a distinction as the declaration of a boundary.

Within each stakeholder, there are unarticulated status functions: the things people might want to say, or declare in the future, but don't yet have the position, evidence, or so on, to articulate their own status functions. Here we might consider:
"This is my ambition"
"These are the needs of my family"
"These are the people I love"
"These are the things that matter"
"This is my strategy"
"This is the domain over which I have control"
"This is the domain over which I want control"
"This is the domain over which I can do nothing"
A project seeks to harmonise its status declarations with the existing status declarations that already exist within the setting in which it wants to intervene. Given that the potential for conflict between the expectations of different stakeholders, any project might hope that it establishes a dynamic between the inner wishes of individual stakeholders, the existing professional responsibilities of those stakeholders, and the innovations suggested by the project. In other words, it hopes that the intervention of the project creates a closed-loop between three constraints whereby the new innovations are established and held in place because of:
  • The dynamic between individual ambition and professional constraint
  • The dynamic between professional constraint project interventions
  • The dynamic between project interventions and individual ambition
We can imagine a situation presented through the metaphor of a trefoil knot. Each declaration is a constraint for the other, but each constraint holds the others in place.

In the imagined situation of a bid, or a design plan, it will be hoped that the Trefoil knot situation is produced in implementation: should this happen, then the technological adoption is achieved. Unfortunately, reality isn't like this. In reality, the professional constraints of teachers dominate and project interventions tend to get ignored.  The education system tends not to change. So what is the difference between the real situation and the imagined situation where adoption is gained? Under what conditions might engagement occur? How do people react when it doesn't?

The constraints between project managers, software developers and national coordinators

The imagined knots of what the project hopes to achieve tend to mask the real knots that already exist within the project itself. The ITEC project makes many status declarations about entities other than software. In particular, there are different types of participant within the project: different roles, responsibilities, and so on. For example, there are those who are in charge of pedagogy, there are those who are doing software development and there are those who are trying to manage it together. Each group of stakeholders bring different constraints, and each group of stakeholders will be enmeshed in their own knots relating to their professional practice and so on. For example, the pedagogical partners know that the status declarations they are responsible for maintaining are those which state:
"This is a learning scenario"
"This is a learning scenario design activity"
"These are pedagogical trends which constrain the design of activities"
"This is the pedagogical discourse with which to make an intervention"
Whilst at the same time, there are other status functions which lie outside the project which will be of concern to anyone involved in pedagogical research:
"This is the educational discourse"
"These are the important journals to publish work"
"These are the deliverables that must be achieved"
"This is the budget"
"These are the people who are involved"
"These are colleagues with whom it would be good to make connection"
Beyond this, there will also be individual strategic, unarticulated status functions which will affect the relationship with the others. Having said this, it may not be the case that each of the constraints surrounding the different status functions will constrain each other. In particular, even within the project teams, it is difficult to identify the shared constraints which hold everything together which can work to maintain all the different status functions which are declared.

The same is true of the other partners in the project. Technical partners are responsible for declarations of particular technologies:

"This is a widget"
"This is a widget store"
"This is a shell"
"This is a composer"
"This is a people and events coordinator"
"This is a training session"
"This is the software discourse to make an intervention"

Project managers must make declarations including:
"This is a completed deliverable""This is a budget"
"This is a change to project direction"
For each of these statements to hold, there has to be similarly a knot where the declarations of pedagogy partners are constraints for the declarations of software developers and consistent with the declarations of project managers. An idealised knot emerges which contextualises the way that the project makes its declarations to ministries and schools. However, the ideal knot with its status declarations does not reflect the reality either of the project team or the groups with whom the project seeks to make an intervention.

The dominant constraint is the meeting of the  project deliverables, and the status functions which apply to that constraint evolve and move to ensure that project success is achieved at the expense of success on the ground.

The emergence of project-functionalism as the binding force of a project (and its consequent powerlessness)

The concerns of those interested in pedagogical innovation in the classroom are not the same as those whose concern is the development of technology. The knots that each individual will experience will be different in terms of the discourses they are trying to satisfy, the ways that they manoeuvre their actions in the project, the goals and ambitions that they harbour and the actions that they then take.
Yet, each of them is funded and bound to a contract whereby funding can be withdrawn unless they cooperate with the endeavour. However, cooperation is difficult since there are many barriers in the way of solving a problem which may or may not exist.

Inevitably, the meeting of the contractual bargain with the project funder is the principal aim of the members of the project. The list of deliverables and the list of things to be achieved in the project so as to honour the bargain is the most important thing. Not meeting these targets is generally seen as a universal constraint. Around meeting these criteria, there can be seen to be common cause and sense in addressing the project deliverables. Coordination occurs through commonalities in redundancies in the expectations of individuals across the different strands of the project. However, the extent to which this constraint impacts on the other constraints involved in the project is negotiable.

The status function of “this is a widget”, “this is a widget store” is presented as a particular technological status function which doesn’t have any grounding in the reality of teachers. However, the status function "This is a widget training session" does at acquire support of teachers. Acquiescence with the latter status function is a trade-off for teachers, who are happy to be removed from their classrooms to take part in widget testing, but where there is little evidence of them doing any more with the widgets.

This can also explain the discrepancy between the evaluation responses of teachers to the questionnaire and the evidence from web-hits on the widget store, and so on. Acquiescing with a questionnaire and giving a judgement on their widget usage depends on the nature of the way that they experience the constraints of the project, and the way that they deal with the constraints that care placed on them professionally. The dominant constraint is the meeting of the project deliverables, and the status functions which apply to that constraint evolve and move to ensure that project success is achieved at the expense of success on the ground.

What arises in this situation is a kind of project functionalism, where the instruments of the Commission become the principal declarations of the members of the project team. The management question is the one that binds everyone together, not the difficult questions of dealing with the things the project set out to change. Is there any way to avoid project functionalism? Are there recommendations for changing the way we deal with projects?

Why project functionalism and not project critique or project phenomenology?

With projects targeted towards the production of concrete deliverables, and these deliverables related to the organisation of activities, project functionalism will always be the grounding force that steers the project towards outcomes. How might a project be organised that didn’t do this? 

A project that seeks intervention in a domain usually usually has little understanding of the domain before it begins.  ITEC is notable for the number of status declarations it made in its bid document before it began. Projects should make as few status declarations as they can before they begin, but instead seek to identify the status declarations and the dynamics which hold them in place in the domain within which they seek to make intervention. In understanding the pre-existing status declarations, the common constraints which hold existing status functions together can be identified. It isn’t enough to simply examine the functions of people within the school environment. It is important to understand their motivations, the problems they face, the binds they are in, and the ambitions they have.

If projects became like the situation they seek to change then they too would exhibit the same constraints as the thing they seek to change. If mutual constraint is the driving force that determines the success of adoption of new tools and practices, then those interventions which are full of redundancies and constraint may be more effective than those which are deterministic in their approach. In this way, artistic interventions can sometimes have a greater impact, since such interventions are characterised by the universality of the constraints they present. Projects could make particular use of games and art as ways of facilitating change within the environment. Art and games are ways in which universal redundancies can be made: they are effectively status functions of ‘nothing’; most of what they declare is absent and consequently the absences affect stakeholders universally.

...Maybe in this way critique and experience can be built in to the project processes from the beginning. 

No comments: