Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Learning Design, Social Ontology and Unintended Functionalism in the ITEC Project

The ITEC project is a large-scale European project which has sought to transform pedagogical practice in 1000 classrooms across Europe over 4 years. The project has involved pedagogical design through the creation of learning scenarios, and technological design in the creation of a number of tools to facilitate innovative practice across the many different contexts of the project. Whilst the learning scenarios have provided an opportunity to explore different pedagogies, usage of the toolsets has been low. Using evaluation data from the project, an analysis is presented which draws on Searle’s concept of ‘status functions’ to explain anomalies between the declarations of status of the objects of the project (tools and scenarios), stated opinions about tools and scenarios, and evidence of actual usage of tools and scenarios. The declarations of status are compared to a consideration of the constraints within which project stakeholders were operating. In the web of contradictions between the status of objects and practices, and the constraints of stakeholders, we identify an emergent process of “project functionalism” which evolves as a minimal set of conditions which stakeholders agree to in order to maintain a basic commitment to the project that doesn’t interfere with other commitments of their professional lives. We ask whether this emergent functionalism it might be avoided, and whether it is a feature of learning design initiatives more generally.


The ITEC project set out to establish an ambitious technological infrastructure which would support both the execution and coordination of innovative pedagogy. Aiming to bring technological and pedagogical innovations closer to-hand for teachers across Europe, ITEC has sought to transform the context of teaching and learning in the hope that the agency of teachers would follow. Inspired both by the discourse on Learning Design (Koper, 2004; Laurillard, 2012) and by thinking about new opportunities for personalisation of learning through initiatives like the Personal Learning Environment (Johnson and Liber, 2008), ITEC’s vision encompassed greater personalisation and technological control by learners, coordinated with an infrastructure which would facilitate large-scale piloting and evaluation of educational ‘scenarios’. Whilst it has raised awareness of technology across Europe, allowing many teachers to experiment with different kinds of pedagogy (particularly inquiry-based, classroom flipping, etc), measured against its ambition to create a sustainable technological infrastructure to support 'the classroom of the future', ITEC (like so many other projects before it) has largely failed.

The focus here is on comparing the ITEC vision of “transformed teaching and learning” with its reality, investigating and explaining the difference between hypothesised social transformation and actual events. It is argued that phenomena which emerge in projects like ITEC are of significance for any attempt to intervene with new pedagogical schema, tools for encouraging pedagogical design, attempts to analytically determine learning needs, or attempts to reproduce formal education using technology. So often it seems the articulated visions of project teams appear as ‘naked emperors’ to those whom they wish to change. ITEC allows us to ask: “Why does this happen?”; “What might we do about it?”; “What actually happens when there is adoption of a technology and how is learning technology different?” To do this, I argue that an approach to social reality is required, and to this end, Searle’s (2010) recent work on ‘Status functions’ is used as a way of characterising and distinguishing the different aspects of the reality of projects, schools, technologies, and (most importantly) social status.

Searle’s ‘Status functions’ and Social Ontology
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 and objects are all manifested as status functions held together through mechanisms of ‘collective intentionality’ within the social world. In education, we might add to this list of entities: textbooks, teachers, schools, timetables, curricula, league tables and learning technologies. Searle argues that it is the declaration of a status function which, if the person making it has sufficient 'deontic power' (the power to declare a status function which is acknowledged through collective intentionality) then that status function will be binding within the context within which it is made.

Searle's idea has far-reaching consequences, enabling him to consider not only the reality of objects, but human rights, armed forces, money, nation states, gender identity and so on. I will not explore these further reaches here. However, status functions are made about technology. Who makes the declaration “This is a technology for x”? The power to make such declarations rests variously with technical designers, pedagogical designers, project teams, occasionally teachers, and often managers.  Many status functions about technologies or pedagogies fail to carry sufficient deontic power necessary to establish the appropriate mechanisms of collective intentionality for them to be maintained. Consequently, the technology dies. Occasionally, a declaration is made such that the deontic power behind it is sufficient for there to be broad social agreement that the status function is indeed valid (which is the case now for mobile phones, email and social software).

Any new status function is made in the context of many other established status functions within a society, institution or other social group. Typically technologies aim to disrupt established rituals of practice (what Collins (2004) has described as “interaction ritual chains”) 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 the 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: a ‘double bind’ situation (Bateson, 1972). The master requires the slave to acquiesce; 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', where the mutual constraining patterns of double-binds characterise life in families, schools, universities, churches or corporations – indeed, mutual constraint appears a pre-requisite for the existence of any kind of institution.

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 daily reality of technologies is held in place by knots in the status functions which relate declarations of technological function with existing webs of social interaction and existing status functions. In social life, the status functions that each of us lives with comprise highly complex webs of mutual constraint: the intervention of a status function in a pre-existing web of status functions is 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.

The initial declared ambitions for the ITEC Project

Most projects include 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 meetup.com 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 for 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 about a boundary.

Within each stakeholder, there are what might be called “unarticulated” status functions – what HarrĂ© refers to as an inner ‘storyline’ (HarrĂ© andLangehove, 2002): 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 and care for"
·       "These are the things that matter to me"
·       "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 and project interventions
·       The dynamic between project interventions and individual ambition

The mutually constraining dynamics between these may be represented in many ways and mathematical techniques like Category Theory (Lawvere and Shanuel, 1991; Badiou, 2014) provide a mechanism for articulating an ordering of constraining forces. At its simplest form, we can imagine a situation presented through the metaphor of a Trefoil knot (Kauffman, 1995). Each declaration is a constraint for the other, but each constraint holds the others in place:

The metaphor of the knot is useful because when trying to understand the intentions of a bidding team which makes status functions as part of their bid (as in ITEC’s status function), it will be hoped that these declared status functions produce social change precisely because they are successful in tying new knots in the lived experience of teachers and learners: should this happen, then the technological adoption is achieved. Unfortunately, reality isn't like this. The professional constraints of teachers dominate and project interventions tend to get ignored and 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?

Stakeholder evaluation and action

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 all. 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 - many of 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 Misfit between the Pedagogical Partners and the Technical Development of the Widget Store

Technical partners are responsible for declarations of particular technologies (widgets, etc), whilst 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 example of the kind of knots that fail to get tied are the knots between developers and ‘national coordinators’. The developers asked the national coordinators “How does the widget store fit with the overall vision/philosophy of education in your country?” In response, national coordinators in one participant country expressed the view that:
“The teachers involved in the iTec project are pretty well-skilled in the use of technology so the widget store is another source of tools among others they still have available. So to make the widget store more attractive we introduced it as tool to include their own content into the shell, and to share it with other iTEC teachers who are using shells as well.”

It is interesting that the statement, whilst effectively presenting the case that the Widget Store was surplus to requirements, upheld another technological status function of the project, the Shell. Shells are more broadly defined that widgets (practically anything can count as a shell!), and so the commitment to shells over widgets was a way of maintaining commitment to the broad status functions of the project whilst rejecting one of the technologies.

A more positive statement in response to the same question came from another country’s education ministry:
“In terms of the vision of education here, there is definitely a change in education relating the teachers training and expectations of them regarding using 21 century skills. – especially using technology. There is a very big education program of adapting the educating system to the 21st century with emphasis on using technology – therefore in terms of vision and philosophy – the widget store definitely fits the education system”

In effect, this questionnaire response reproduces the project’s own rhetoric without any firm commitment to the technologies. This may be another strategy for maintaining commitment to the project whilst avoiding specific technology commitments which would have interfered with daily practice. Even when responses are a little more blunt, there remains some degree of strategic negotiation of the status functions of the project:

“For 13-15 yr old age group it doesn’t really fit with the curriculum. It has been used across a number of subject areas.”

This appears to be saying the technology has been used across the curriculum and deemed to ‘not fit’. However, the web statistics remain low for access to the tools. This is a statement which acknowledges compliance with the project processes, but rejects the project technologies: again, a way of maintaining a connection with the project without engaging in new practices which might disrupt the status quo. A similar problem of disparity between the low web statistics and positive reports emerges from one national coordinator who said: “[we] have continuously worked with the Widget Store - it is one of the highlights of the iTEC project.”

An indication of the kind of tensions existing when trying to establish the technology was expressed by another participant who said:
“We ask teachers to experiment with the Widget Store because it is a structural part of iTec. The main challenge […] is to ask teachers to experiment with a technology that they are not familiar compared with the ones they already use. The most of the iTec teachers are advanced, so they prefer to use technology they already know (and trust), experimenting more in pedagogy.”

This is to affirm commitment to the pedagogical side of ITEC at the expense of the technological side. Some respondents were more positive, although tending to acknowledge the project rhetoric rather than committing to the actual technology:
“Most teachers said they would like to continue to use the tools after the project, especially if there are more resources”

“When you become familiar with the Widget store, it offers access to a range of valuable/quality resources. It keeps students focussed on what they are doing”

The Widget Store was not the only status declaration of the project, but engagement with it demanded significant disruption to existing practice which most teachers were unwilling or unable to engage with. Technological mis-fitting which was underpinned by one of the key aims of the project produced a situation where rejection by participants was necessary, but had to be done in a way which didn’t damage commitment to the project as a whole. All stakeholders appeared willing to commit to the project goals (the rhetoric) but in a way that would be least disruptive to their existing practice. This raises questions about the reasons for maintaining commitment to the project, but not to the tools. The project without the tools was effectively a set of rhetorical claims of educational innovation, and loose status functions concerning pedagogical scenarios. If these commitments could be maintained, together with engagement in the instruments of the project (evaluation processes, training sessions, etc) then the project could be integrated into the web of status functions that teachers were already immersed. However, this then puts the emphasis on the instruments of the project, and not the specifics of its technological and pedagogical aims. How is it that the management devices which were intended merely to steer the project towards realisation of a technological and pedagogical vision become the principal status functions which unite all the stakeholders?

The emergence of project-functionalism as the binding force of a project

The divergence between the concerns of those interested in pedagogical innovation in the classroom and those whose concern was the development of technology, together with the divergence and inconsistencies in the opinions of the teachers suggests some kind of web of constraints which is in operation. The knots that each individual might experience will be different in terms of the discourses they are connected with, the ways that they manoeuvre their actions in the project, the goals and ambitions that they harbour and the actions that they then take. However, each stakeholder is funded and bound to the contract of the project whereby funding can be withdrawn unless they cooperate with the endeavour. Here a distinction can be made between the lack of commonality in the constraints that bear upon teachers, developers, managers with regard to the status functions that are made about the specific technologies of the project (for example, the widget store), and the common constraints of project funding and contractual obligations which bear upon everyone.

In arguing that the common constraint of project funding carries dominance in the project in the light of failure to establish any of the other status functions, I will argue that overlapping constraints are causal in the establishment of successful status functions. Going further, recent developments in information theory (Shannon and Weaver, 1949; Luhmann, 1995; Leydesdorff et al, in press) suggest that in inter-human communication, such constraints are measurable as ‘redundancies of expectation’ (Leydesdorff) between stakeholders.

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 so as to honour the bargain is the most important feature. 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: in effect, this means that there are common things that people involved will worry about (expect) most. However, the extent to which this constraint impacts on the other constraints  (for example, technology) involved in the project is negotiable.

Expectations about “widgets”, “widget stores” and so on existed within the discursive domain of technology; widgets evoked few expectations in the reality of teachers. However, the status function "This is a widget training session" did find support among teachers – even if they didn’t touch the technology again after the session! Acquiescence with the latter status function can be seen as a trade-off for teachers, who are happy to be removed from their classrooms to take part in widget testing. 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 are 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 irrespective of realising project aspirations.

What arises in this situation is a kind of project functionalism, where the instruments of the funding agency and the project Description Of Work become the principal declarations of the members of the project team. The management question is the one that binds everyone together. Given this, we consider whether project functionalism is a broader problem within interventions in pedagogy and technology, and what might be done to avoid it.
Implications: Learning Design, Functionalism and Social Change
When considering any project which seeks to ‘design learning’ or create tools for changing or coordinating pedagogical practice, the status declarations are not difficult to identify:
·       “This is a design for learning x”
·       “This is a learning activity”
·       “This is a MOOC on quantum physics”
·       “This is a tool for creating learning designs”
·       “These are the learning analytics for the course z”

In classroom practice, pedagogical designs have always been implicitly articulated by teachers and institutions, upheld by institutional and societal declarations of the curriculum, timetables, and so on: eg. “This is a course on Java Programming”. The redundancies of expectation among the stakeholders (learners, teachers, administrators) in this situation universal expectation lie in the fundamental bond of care and concern for student development. Here, there is a distinction between a teacher declaring “This is a course on Java programming” in a face-to-face context, and doing so in an online context, or a context where a declaration is made without any direct connection with those whose acknowledgment of the declaration is essential to its success.

The deep question here is whether the status declarations of the classroom are separable from the context in which they are made. It is the difference between “This is a course on Java programming” and “I am here to help you understand Java programming” and “I am here to help you negotiate the web of status functions you are already immersed in so that you are able to pass this module”. Which of these possible interpretations of “This is a course on Java programming” is the one with the maximum collective intentionality? Which is the one which displays the maximum redundancy of expectation?

Between the different interpretations of the status function of the lesson, something is actively maintained by teachers, learners and institutions. The same applies to declarations like “This is the assignment”, “These are the university regulations” or “This is the curriculum”. When the status function is divorced from the rich dimensions of institutional life and professional practice, they may not function in the way that they appeared to function in the institutional setting. Herein lies the MOOC’s difficulty in identifying the ‘function’ of courses or pedagogic practices in the declarations they appear to make in institutional settings, and attempting to make the declarations of functions away from the context which supports them.

The lesson of the ITEC project is that functionalising declarations of pedagogy, technologies, and classroom organisation leads to functionalism surrounding the management instruments of the project at the expense of the expense of the realisation of the social transformation which was initially intended. When projects make status declarations like “This is a design for learning x” we should inquire into the nature of the web of status functions that the intended audience for the is already immersed.

Most educational projects are targeted on the production of concrete deliverables related to the organisation of activities or production of technologies. These in turn entails status declarations. Project functionalism will emerge where the status declarations do not fit the web of declarations stakeholders already live with. So we might ask whether it is possible for a project to avoid this.
A project that seeks intervention in a domain 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, and these in turn were measures of the project success. Could a project make as few status declarations as possible, but instead seek to identify the existing web of status declarations and the dynamics which hold them in place in the domain? 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 make judgments about the functions of people within the school environment in a bid document. It is important to have a process which seeks to understand their motivations, the problems they face, the binds they are in, and the ambitions they have.
If “collective intentionality” and mutual redundancy of expectation is central to establishing status functions, then it becomes important for projects to approach transformative change in a different way. Instead of attempting to impose status functions, projects could emulate organisational situations they are faced with, mirroring the situation they seek to change, and exploring new possibilities within the same constraints. This would be to maximise the redundancies of expectation between project teams and the intervention situation to create a dynamic of empathy, rather than reinforce the pathology of project status and objectives.


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Luhmann, N (1995) Social Systems Stanford University Press
Shannon, C; Weaver, W (1949) A Mathematical Theory of Communication

1 comment:

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