Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Difficulty of Talking about Experience and the turning of Education into an Expectation of Functionality

Experiences can be difficult to talk about. Right now, the experience of imminent unemployment I’m finding extremely difficult to talk about. Experience is recursive: the experience of finding experiences difficult to talk about is also an experience. I find that experience a bit easier to talk about. At deeper levels of recursion things become more abstract: there is an increase in the degree of emotional detachment. So I can write this blog post (which evolves into the beginning of a paper!) because I am able to be analytical, to look at the experience of my experience and my emotions. Emotions get in the way of talking about experiences - and particularly talking about feelings: words get lost in tears and anger.

Among close friends and family thankfully there is rarely a need to articulate precisely how we feel. Human beings are adept at intuiting the experiences of each other even when those experiences are not verbalised. Were it not for this fact, human communication would be devoid of the empathy, compassion, shared understanding and insight that underpins all social relationships, and without which we would no doubt have destroyed ourselves long ago. In fact, I doubt communication would be possible at all. I'm reminded of Karen Armstrong's TED Talk where she gave a moving account of the meeting between King Priam and Achilles when Priam pleaded for the return of his son Hector’s body: the two kings looked into each other’s eyes and wept. Experience communicates: she made the audience cry. (see

Exactly how this happens is a question that underpins debates about educational practice (It is the same question which relates to the way that music communicates, about which I’ve written recently) This debate about communication has political implications which bear upon the way education is organised. And yet, theoretical accounts for the communication of experience are deficient and incomplete. The incompleteness of the theory and the application of half-baked ideas about experience are connected in a complex web of relationships at different levels of the education system which, on the one hand, mandate certain practices as being in the interests of good 'learning experience' whilst overlooking the theoretical struggles which underpin practical recommendations. Gaps between theory and practice have intensified in recent years because of increasing economic pressure within education, and the the particular concern for providing evidence for the "goodness" of learning experiences as a means of institutional comparison, market dynamics and quality control. As education has become 'marketised', so distinctions concerning the encounter with educational processes have become conflated with other aspects of experience - particularly the experience with technologies. At the extreme end of this is an increasing inability to distinguish the experience of a good education from the experience of a good car or a good washing machine. The increasing role of technology in education has made a confused situation worse: increasing metricisation leads to bad decisions and (dare I say it) the closure of educational research departments! Husserl worried about this kind of thing over 100 years ago: he called it the “mathematicisation of nature”.

Here, however, I want to unpick the dimensions of experience in education. The relationships between deep theoretical understanding of experience - which belongs to the domain of phenomenology - and the practical manifestations of theory which have given rise to sociological methods, policies, metrics, targets and technologies within education is highly complex. How is it that 'evidence' came to dominate the policy landscape in education and elsewhere? How is it that "Learning Outcomes" became the principal index of educational coordination and assessment? Why is it that the degree of inspection of student experience continues to increase, whilst the educational processes students are subject to becomes increasingly rigid and bureaucratic? How has our experience of technology affected our experience of education?

Technology and Experience

Educational experience appears only partially like the experience of new washing machine. The expectations one might have of a washing machine do not change as one lives with the machine, although one might develop new expectations as the technology improves. Technology codifies an expectation of function. Whilst there are many aspects of education which codify expectations like this (timetables, lectures, textbooks, assessments, etc), the educational situation is fluid and its outcomes rich and unpredictable. We enter education in the hope that our expectations of ourselves may become clearer or even be transformed in ways which we cannot yet imagine. The leap of faith in education is different from the expectation that one's clothes will emerge from a washing machine clean. However, there is a dimension of technological experience which overlaps with educational experience. This is the experience of those technologies which assist or transform the communicative activities which underpin education.

Whilst the washing machines and cars codify expectations of functionality, money codifies expectations of economic exchange, communication technologies codify (and transform) expectations about the possibilities of communication. The internet is only the latest of these technologies. Human history is replete with key moments in the transformation of the possibility of communication: languages, alphabets, writing, printing, recording, radio, the telephone and the TV each mark stages along the way in the transformation of the expectation of possibilities of communication. At each stage, transformation in the possibilities of communication ushers in the possibility of educational transformation through new forms of communication.

Our most recent example is of course the internet. In the early 1970s, selected politicians, artists and academics were exposed to a new kind of communicative transformation. Their interactions on the early ARPANET network are recorded and reveal the interface between a new codified means of communicating through technology with an awakening of the possibilities for transforming the world through new educational experiences. The original transcripts of their engagements are online. Even in the constrained typescript of the interactions, the sense of excitement is palpable, as can be seen from this encounter between Ronald Reagan (then Governor of California, Belgian poet Marcel Broodthaers, and Palestinian philosopher Edward Said):
RONALD REAGAN: Wouldnt you rather pick up the phone and call.
RONALD REAGAN: All this damned typing.
EDWARD SAID: Yes I would but if it were to be cheap and inexpensive.
RONALD REAGAN: Free. Well who pays for it in the end though.
MARCEL BROODTHAERS: The people of course.
RONALD REAGAN: You mean taxes.
MARCEL BROODTHAERS: I assume you are in a military communication centre like me. Both of you.
EDWARD SAID: But for a young man or woman in Sri Lanka this might help them voice their ideas to people like a university professor from Michigan or an architect from Bahia.
EDWARD SAID: The rich should pay.

Broodthaers and Said saw the potential - particularly for education. It was in education that the transformation of possibilities of communication would have their most powerful effect. Said, however, also saw the dangers: later on they exchange their views about education:
MARCEL BROODTHAERS: Students I think could benefit from this greatly.
EDWARD SAID: Yes I can imagine.
MARCEL BROODTHAERS: Vast networks of students.
EDWARD SAID: Networks. What does that mean really.
MARCEL BROODTHAERS: Youth must be provided with the means to grasp this opportunity.
RONALD REAGAN: Sounds a bit out of control to me.
EDWARD SAID: Sounds suspicious.
MARCEL BROODTHAERS: The young will grasp its potential in a way we couldnt imagine.
RONALD REAGAN: I dont doubt that.
MARCEL BROODTHAERS: You agree with me Ronald.
EDWARD SAID: And what will it lead to Marcel. Other networks with more power will already have control.

Reagan was a cynic but also saw the potential: for him, the transformation in the possibilities of communication would mean that private enterprise, not state support would deliver control in ‘networks with more power’ and lead the way with the technology. In the end, confirming Said’s fears, he was right.

By the late 1990s, the palpable excitement of early ARPANET became mainstream. The web amplified the voices of those who could set up their own web servers. The richness of the communicative experiences shared online vastly exceeded the expectations of the early ARPANET users. Today we are told that social software and personal technology mean that the freedom to communicate and express oneself online is available to everyone. Each new online development, from Blogs to Youtube, Federated Wikis to the Oculus Rift, Email to Twitter, represent another shift in the expectation of the possibilities of communication. Each new TechCrunch "disruptive" technology basically attempts to offer a transformation in the possibilities of communicating. However, not all possibilities are viable, and yet, rather like education, only the experience of attempting to transform one’s communicative practices with a new tool can reveal if it’s any good or not.

The boundary between the experiences of communication technologies and experiences of education become blurred in a way in which the boundary between the experience of a washing machine and education is not. Education and communication technologies both change our views on the possibilities of communication. Education changes possibilities of communicating by equipping us with new skilled performances; technology changes possibilities of communicating through amplifying certain capabilities such as broadcasting video or text. This transformation of the possibilities of communicating makes the distinction between using technology, living and learning very difficult to distinguish: they appear to be different aspects on the same phenomenon. Meanwhile, institutions of education have developed by providing technologies for communication: Email, Virtual learning environments, E-portfolio systems have joined interactive systems for the library, online resources, timetables, finance, and so on. Alongside this transformation of the institution by technology, there has been a reassessment of the relationship between learning and communicating. At the extreme end of this reassessment has come the constructivist mantra, “Learning IS communicating”, and with it various initiatives for ‘Personal Learning Environments’, ‘E-portfolio’ and "Digital Literacy" as ways of integrating general communication technologies (and general communication) with the acquisition of the skilled performances demanded by the institutional assessment regimes. This has been accompanied by scepticism about the value of formal learning: ascribing the contents of a ‘course’ as a ‘cause’ of learning has been attacked. In the Personal Learning Environment, an alternative description emerged of learning as a process of adaptation to toolkits, whereby the integration of disparate elements of knowledge with the ability to coordinate the experiences of everyday life led to the idea that institutions should focus on facilitating access to personalised toolkits and providing flexible forms of assessment rather than designing formal curricula.

Much of the thinking behind such positions is muddled. Communications technology, and particularly social software presents some aspects of experience which still resemble the washing machine rather than the classroom. In particular, all technologies produce an immediate effect with little risk on the part of the user, whilst at the same time, all technologies (including washing machines) make their experiences available to everyone. Invocations to ‘get involved’ with social software tools, Open Educational Resources or MOOCs usually take the form of “all you need to do is sign-up for an account and try it”. By contrast, whilst there is some immediacy in the experience of a discussion with a leading philosopher as part of a tutorial-driven education in Oxford, this experience is unavailable to most, and it also carries risks (that for example, the philosopher might think you an idiot!). In the same way that one might try-on a new suit, one could try-on the environment for social software, open educational resources, or MOOCs immediately surrounded by many others who cheer on and argue that this is a “new way of learning”. We cannot 'try on' the Oxford philosopher in the same way. Whilst radical voices predicted that increased availability provided by technology would spell the demise of the campus, it appears that the campus is very much alive in this new environment, increasingly expensive, and purveying its technologies (like MOOCs) as a means of marketing itself.

The question behind this is to ask what it means to say, as Roger Brown argues, that education is an 'experience good'. The gap between the availability and immediacy of experience manifests in a gap between formal Higher education and informal technologically-mediated learning. Judgements may be quick with technology, but form slowly in education: after the boring lecture we may determine perhaps many years later that it was in fact brilliant. The experiences of caring, or being cared for, of being nurtured, all of which are fundamental to educational processes are largely excluded in the simple messianic championing of new technologies of communication as a solution to educational problems. At the same time, the worth and value of institutional learning has become reduced to simplistic metrics of codified expectations which one would associate with the washing machine.

The other side of the technological effect on education has been an increasing desire to codify expectations of the functionality of education, thus rendering education as a technology whose functionality may be compared and rational decisions made in the same way that cars or computers may be evaluated. Ironically, the remaking of the institution-as-technology has been driven by technologically-mediated bureaucratic processes and managerial structures which have grounded themselves in methodologies which attempt (or claim) to articulate the experience of education. As Brown points out, quantifying and explaining the value of the experience of higher education has acquired an economic imperative. Institutional learning has become more, not less, popular despite rising fees. Universities will attribute this to their investment in the “student experience” and a greater emphasis on teaching. So what is this "student experience"? Is it an immediate judgement in response to a survey question? Its immediacy means that it cannot capture the 25-year-later re-evaluation. Does it consider the availability of alternative experiences in the way that we might consider different washing machines? Whilst it cannot do this, results from 'experience surveys' produce data from which such comparisons are made - indeed this is why the surveys are conducted, and yet there is no critique of the commensurability of one person's experience with another. The overall effect is to reify judgements grounded in ‘evidence’ upon which policies – either local or national can be formulated. However, "evidence-based policy" is in practice "policy-based evidence". The determination of questions, indeed the methodology of asking and aggregating answers to questions, already carries with it a plan of policy implementation. Whilst characterised as an investigation into the ‘student experience’, nothing new is learnt about experiences, save what can be actioned in a policy agenda which has predetermined triggers established within the measurement methodology.

The driver for evidence-based policy (or policy-based evidence) is the establishment of a ‘market’ in education. Since markets depend on information to support 'consumer choice', the effort to establish reliable information sources for education has led to this plethora of surveys, league tables, and other data including job prospects and salary forecasts which supposedly gives an indication of the ‘quality’ of the experience and outcome learners might expect should they choose an institution. At this point, education becomes like a washing machine: a codification of expectations of functionality. The performance of education can be measured and compared with these codified expectations. Yet the codification of expectations of functionality compromises the possibilities for transforming the expectations of the possibilities of communicating which increase with the development of new skills and learning. This is because the authentic human face-to-face interaction increasingly takes second place to bureaucratic and quasi-legalistic processes of meeting learning outcomes and fulfilling assessments, whilst the 'quality machine' bears down on those who seek to bend (or break) the rules. Inflexibility and fear contribute to the marginalisation of authentic human interaction: the only experiences that count are those that can be immediately articulated and measured as evidence.

So my question is "How has the study of experience, which ought to be enlightening, led to a situation in education which is oppressive and alienating?" In pre-empting an answer to this, I return to my first point: experience is difficult to talk about. Education is a confusing and deeply emotional process. The root of the problem lies in the fact that we have lost the ability and the inclination to sit down with one another and intuit what is going on. Instead, we bury the emotion, by-pass the difficulties of experience, and turn everything into an expectation of functionality.

No comments: