Monday, 25 May 2015

Education in a Global Context: Some reflections on Russian educational philosophy and Cybernetics

I'm in Vladivostok at the Far Eastern Federal University, where I am giving a keynote on "Educational Cybernetics" at a conference, and also talking with staff at the University about work in educational technology (including the Personal Learning Environment), methodology and the Triple Helix innovation model of University-Industry-Government relations. This is a real adventure, and one which is making me think about the importance of education in international relations and economic development.

Vladivostok is unusual because it is fundamentally a European city in the Far East. Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul are within a couple of hours flying time. There are a remarkable number of young Russian Chinese-speakers here. At a time when the relations between Russia and the West are under some scrutiny and strain, it is good to be reminded of the importance and the depth of Russia's relations with the East.

I have also been reminded of the significance of Russian educational thinking and its influence on the way we think about educational technology today. On the plane here I was reading Leontief's "Activity, Consciousness and Personality" - the main text which first describes 'activity theory'. At the heart of Leontief's thinking was an approach to consciousness, and this in turn derived from the ideas of Vygotsky. The significance of Vygotsky and Leontief's interest in consciousness is that psychological issues of perception are probably the least well-developed aspects of Marxism. Activity theory appears as a way of addressing this within the Marxist context. This means that Leontief has a toolkit for thinking about human action which connects psychology with sociology, organisation and political struggle. More importantly, it situates the Marxist approach against the West's best effort in reconciling psychology with sociology and organisation: cybernetics.

What Leontief says about cybernetics is particularly fascinating:
"The significance of cybernetics for the study of mechanisms of sensory reflection taken from this aspect appears indisputable. We must not forget, however, that general cybernetics, giving a description of the processes of regulation, turns away from their concrete nature. For this reason in almost every field there arises a question of the proper application of cybernetics. It is known, for instance, how complicated the question is when social processes are considered." (p32)
This is important to me because later this week I will present about the Triple Helix model. This is a cybernetic model of evolutionary economics which attempts to explain technological development through a lens which passes from biological foundations, communication to socio-economic organisation. The Triple Helix is fascinating not because it has answers to fundamentally intractable problems in economics, but because it raises very powerful questions about information, communication and agency. What would Leontief say about this? I suspect he would say "Where's the politics? Where's the ethics? Where are real people?"

I would have to agree with him in asking these questions. So now that models like the Triple Helix are gaining traction around the world (particularly in Far Eastern economies), maybe its time to explore the history of Russian economic and social thought as a way of counterbalancing some of the functionalist tendencies of cybernetic ideas. I'm sure there are some fascinating theoretical and cultural connections to be made!

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