Wednesday, 10 June 2015

What's the point of Critique of Education? Or why the wish for the one-handed Educationalist...

Ronald Reagan joked that he wished for a one-handed economist because "all my economists say 'on the one hand... on the other...'" Modern politicians care little for multi-handedness and yet the one-armed economists that Reagan surrounded himself with did a lot of damage to the economy. A similar political problem afflicts education. The politician's demand for simple solutions which often appear as little more than whims renders the many-handed and many-headed process of educational critique almost powerless. And yet the academic literature on education is full of critique. The debate over what education is for, what universities ought to be (but aren't), what is and isn't effective learning, what is and isn't effective learning technology, teaching practice, assessment methods or curriculum organisation have entertained scholars of education for centuries. Education academics will pick apart policies and innovations after they have arrived on the statute book declaring them to be in the interests of one privileged group or another and yet - irrespective of the merits of their argument - the target of their critique, the education system as determined by politicians, tends to be unchanged by critical attack. Social reproduction seems as much a function of the education system today as it seemed to Pierre Bourdieu's 1960s France; language remains as much a critical barrier which separates those students who study at elite institutions (ironically gaining powers of critique) and those who don't as it seemed to Basil Bernstein; vocational education remains education "for other peoples' children" as Alison Wolf observed in the early 2000s. Meanwhile comprehensive and mixed ability education is on the back foot, assailed by both right and left-wing (nominally!) governments, student satisfaction surveys make pleas for 'troublesome knowledge' difficult to defend to university marketing departments, and universities become ever more corporate. Moreover, the writing of critique enlists even those academics critical of the system into the very same system at the expense of those who are in the direct firing line of educational inequality. Radical academics play the "radical academic game" in such a way that they still manage to draw a salary from the University – itself increasingly a sign of privilege. The evidence is everywhere: soaring tuition fees, the fragmentation of the education sector, despotic vice-chancellors on huge salaries and governing councils stuffed full of corporate executives with little understanding of academic life (or even an active scepticism about it).

The rise and development of educational technology provides a powerful case-study in the powerlessness of critique. In recent years, plenty has been written about the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) - about who it serves, what it's for, why it does and doesn't work, why it might or might not be able to address the critical problems of education (for example, cost or flexibility). The problem is, simple questions like "Who are MOOCs for?" produces very complicated answers. We know that the vast majority of learners who pick them up drop them within a couple of weeks; that the few who complete them, and the many who drop them, have little need of extra education themselves; that curiosity as to "how I might run my own MOOC" is a motivator among those who explore them. On the face of it, MOOCs are for learners: yet the number of learners (many of whom already have degrees) willing to stay the course would make it not seem worth the effort. Despite this, the effort and expense of establishing MOOCs is justified to institutions: it represents the latest incarnation of a great project to transform education with technology, making it freely available to all. So who is it for? Various business models for this display of philanthropy have been speculated upon each of which situates the interested parties in the investment. For example, MOOCs are institutional marketing; MOOCs provide opportunities for data gathering about learner preferences; MOOCs benefit individual academics who raise their personal status by placing courses online. The question of “Who are MOOCs for?” or even the broader question “Who is online education for?” raises a broader analytic difficulty of determining the relationship between technology and power relations in education. Whilst technology presents itself as an emancipatory force in education, countless examples show how rhetoric of emancipation hides threats to emancipation through corporate domination, alienation, instrumentalisation and deskilling.

Educational technology’s ambition to make everything ‘freely available’ has been driven by a confused rhetoric. Firstly there is "education is broken" discourse described recently by Weller: technology was to come to the rescue of bored students imprisoned by an outdated system. Secondly, there were arguments about cost and the lack of necessity for the campus. Then there were arguments about shifting the locus of control for learning from the institution to the individual. Then there were arguments about efficiency and use of resources and efficient business process within the institution. The arguments slip from radical Marxism to Thatcherite corporatism almost imperceptibly. From open courses to open resources, from open tools to open access journals initiatives which have been characterised by Steve Fuller as a "nothing more but nothing less than a consumerist revolt: academic style” 

Fuller’s accusation is uncomfortable for the many champions of openness for whom the very idea that they represent a consumerist agenda is anathema to fundamental political motivations. There is little doubting that the internet has brought access to academic resources within easy reach of everyone: Wikipedia represents a revolution in the closed-practices of publishers which has forced a rethink of their business models, even if the reactionary criticisms of Wikipedia, its authors and its users, have at least some grain of truth. But ask “who is Wikipedia for?” and the apparently clear answer ("for its users") gradually gives way to more nuanced arguments. The founding principle of any wiki is that users control the means of production. Yet Wikipedia searches which are made through internet search engines provide search corporations with rich data about their users. Search for free resources provides a way of identifying markets for revenue-generating resources and activities which can then be more closely targeted. This may not be Wikipedia’s fault, but it is an indication of the tangled web of interests that dominate the internet.

The Wikipedia problem highlights a deeper problem for critical thinking about educational technology. For the Marxist to ask “who is it for?” and then to ask “who has control over the means of production?” entails an inquiry into human relations with material resources. Having identified these relations, and unpicked issues of control, labour, profit, wages and ultimately the social stratifications of class and political struggle provides the critical basis for challenging the status quo and transforming the system. However, this task is easier with the tangible commodities and means of production of textile mills and steel production than it is with slippery educational technology. Technologies masquerading as tools of emancipation providing control over the means of production the people mask largely uninspected corporate power structures behind the scenes. However much today's social software 'gives' to users, it extracts far more in terms of information about those users. Technology's “unseen hand” ultimately represents the interests of the elite high-tech corporatists. Critique of this is hardly new and pre-dates computers: Marcuse’s ‘one-dimensional man’ castigated the technological drive of communism as much as that of capitalism; Horkheimer worried that technology would render people incapable of political action; Fromm concerned himself with the pathology of “cybernetic man” where human individuality is lost to a kind of ‘wisdom of crowds’ (witness our current obsession with ‘crowd-sourcing’). However, despite these critiques, there has been little progress in realising a more critical and political grasp of technology. Even Wikileaks and Edward Snowden have done little to shake addictions to social software. Innovations in social media are now seen in such a way that exploitation of user data (and user labour) is seen as an inevitable consequence that provides a working business model for entrepreneurs.

The critical attack is an inquiry into the fundamental nature of existence and social order in the natural world. Critique is an ontological inquiry. Marx's critique of human relations with nature revealed the root causes of social ill and political struggle. Yet Marx’s materialism is challenged by the fundamental question about the materiality of communications technologies. Wikipedia, MOOCs, open educational resources, and so on, are in the final analysis merely lights on a screen. How can we grasp the ontology of that? Yet Marx's critique concerned itself with the assumptions of the capitalist about the nature of the world. Behind the lights on the screen, there lie social assertions about the nature of learning and social reality which can be inspected. For example there are:
  1. Assumptions about learning (as biological adaptation, as conversation, etc)
  2. Assumptions about communication (as the exchange of messages)
  3. Assumptions about communities (as networks of communication)
  4. Assumptions about "functional equivalence" between communication technologies and other means of achieving ends
  5. Assumptions about the separability of elements: the so-called "mereological fallacy" which divides whole things into components.

In each case, we might ask “Let’s say learning is biological adaptation as described by Piaget, or communities are networks of communication as described by Downes and Siemens. What would the world look like if this were universally true?” Sufficient rigour and honesty would reveal the modelled world to be very different from the real world. Yet the assumptions listed, even if they are critiqued by educational scholars, are hardly thought about by those who engage in educational practices with or without technologies on a daily basis. The inquiry into the nature of education falls on the deaf ears of politicians preferring one-handed educationalists. Yet this inquiry goes to the heart of scientific knowledge.

Causes, Knowledge and Foundations in Education research

In common with the rest of the social sciences, the study of education sits in an uneasy relationship to the philosophy of science that, ever since David Hume, has rested on "regular successions of events" as the criterion for the construction of scientific theory. From Hume's simple idea stemmed not only the primacy of scientific method, but also the sociological positivism inspired by Comte's desire to discover event regularities in the social world (Comte originally wanted to call his nascent sociology "Social Physics"). Regularity theory became associated with an approach to closed-system experiments that emphasised the objective nature of empirical knowledge and objectivism in the social sciences took the form of statistically-oriented methodological practices. The necessity for regularities blurred the distinction between methods and events. One has only to think about the method-blindness behind the problems of questionnaires and surveys in producing "evidence" for social facts: the asking of questions, the answering of questions, the statistical flattening of responses all can produce an abstract regularity, but one that is generated between the object under scrutiny and the method of inquiry. 

One approach to dealing with the poverty of knowledge and method in the social sciences has come from an attack on Hume by Roy Bhaskar, Rom Harre and others. They argue that the regularity theory cannot be right since knowledge constructed in closed system experiments remains valid in open-systems. How else could it be that we can use calculations gained through closed-system experiments and then send rockets to the moon? This would mean that Hume was wrong about causes, and that in fact scientists don't construct them, they discover them (as Aristotle had supposed). Bhaskar's work dealt with the nature of causes arguing that what was discovered were mechanisms and that mechanisms operated in different but inter-connected ways in the physical and social worlds (what Bhaskar calls the intransitive and transitive domains). The interesting point here is that Bhaskar's approach suggested that there were discoverable mechanisms in the social world (in the transitive domain) which connected deep down with the mechanisms of the physical world about which scientists know quite well already. This was not to say there are event regularities in the social world (clearly there are not), but partially regular successions of events (which there often are) could help social scientists understand the dynamics of the social world which could in turn lead to better polity. More importantly, it was to articulate an approach to ontology that developed and enriched Marx's critique with a methodological critique which opened the door to a deeper naturalistic inquiry into the social sciences.

Partial regularities in education can be instructive and Bhaskar's approach encourages researchers to speculate on possible mechanisms which might be responsible for them. However, educational theorists (and everyone else involved in education) are only able to observe changes in the capabilities of learners over time and distributions of capabilities across a sample: actual learning processes cannot be seen but can only be speculated upon. Yet speculated mechanisms of learning processes cannot be tested. Neither can observed changes be attributed to particular interventions: there are no independent variables in education. For all the strengths of Bhaskar's critique of Hume and his renewed approach to Marxist ontology, speculations about mechanisms which cannot be tested can only result in the building of new shaky foundations to knowledge. More recent critics have drawn attention to this foundationalism in the social sciences, its pathologies and ways in which attachment to foundations can be loosened.

Understanding the role of foundations in educational thought can help to unpick the tangible problems of the powerlessness of critique. Reagan's wish for the one-handed economist was a wish for unproblematic foundations. From the political perspective, the shallowest foundations can be the most resilient. In education, the cry for "evidence-based" approaches is a masked cry for one-handed educationalists bearing dividers like Blake's Urizen. At the same time, speculations about learning processes which are unprovable can be expedient for politicians wishing to sound as if they understand something about education. In this way, constructivism has established itself as an educational mantra which has had the effect of closing down further investigations and speculations about learning processes, teacher experimentation and (more importantly) educational organisation.

Science, Foundations and the Critique of Educational Constructivism

Constructivist thinking has dominated educational discourse since the 1960s. The materiality of education, its institutions and practices, lost out to the speculative immateriality of “learning”. From Piaget’s ‘genetic epistemology’, Von Glasersfeld’s ‘radical constructivism’, Augstien’s “learning conversations” to Pask’s conversation theory, the principal focus of educational theory has been on knowledge produced as a result of a foundationalist mechanisms. Recent developments in educational technology with the developments of the MOOC and the VLE ground themselves in pre-existing constructivist educational theories. Much of this thinking has been socially progressive in that it challenges the traditional power-relations between teachers and learners, with constructivist pedagogies privileging conversation, experiential learning and shared activities. They provide a platform for critiquing didactic practice which promotes the ‘sage on the stage’ teacher and ‘information transfer’ models of learning. By its very nature as an intellectual inquiry, constructivism engages minds and bodies in conversation, activity and exploration and the effects, when implemented by a skilled teacher, can be transformative.

As a speculation about learning, constructivism cannot be falsified. Constructivist foundationalism establishes the causes for learning as lying inherent in the dynamics of conversation. The central bone of contention within the discourse is the precise nature of the causal mechanisms on the one hand, and the relationship between causation and natural necessity on the other. When varieties of constructivism emerge in educational technology (for example, the recent vogue for connectionism which underpinned the MOOC) defence rests on the supposition of actually existing causal mechanisms which connect individual subjectivity, whilst failing to critique the supposition of their own existence. If there has been an ‘anti-ontological’ move within constructivism, it has been driven by two forces: on the one hand, a sense of fear that engagement with ontology might undermine constructivism’s experientially-grounded opposition to instructionalism and didacticism. On the other hand, constructivism’s emphasis on conversation has tended to “flatten” the discourse such that distinctions between ethics, politics, knowledge and action which are fundamental to ontological thinking become intractable within constructivism’s discourse which tends to retreat towards varieties of relativism. A critical approach to this involves the inspection of the foundations behind the constructivist project (or the roots of the constructivist ontology); secondly it involves identifying the materialist dimension behind constructivism’s assertions: fundamentally, that for all the assertions of constructivism behind MOOCs or VLEs, the platforms themselves have a material existence coupled with a set of power relations all of which have causal impacts on the lives and experiences of learners and teachers.

The Naturalistic environment of education and the tendency towards Shallow Foundations

Teachers in Universities may be academic specialists in their individual disciplines, but few have specialised knowledge of the academic study of education itself: Education, as Everett Hughes noted in the 1930s, "is very bad at examining itself”. The everyday life within Universities, like everyday life in other ways, revolves around routines and rituals within the workplace. Timetables and modules to be taught, assignments and essays to mark, student problems to be dealt with: each creates tensions within individuals which require the social contact within discourse to unburden itself. As with any form of employment, the fundamental objective is to remain in employment, to remain being able to support one’s family, and so on. If the conditions can be created where the critique of education challenges employment, then fear will prevent the critique developing. Within universities, as the management has increasingly become separate from the scholarly activity, as academic performance is measured by publication statistics, fear culture takes over and the rituals of academic life compensate for the existential terror of becoming unemployable. As Durkheim was probably first to identify, adherence to the ritual of academic practice is also acquiescence to a social order. Critique of the material substrate of education requires an awareness of the rituals academics are caught in, and the necessity to step outside it – but if such a critique threatens livelihoods, academics will be unlikely to engage with it.

It is within this context that academic judgements about scholarship, academic colleagues, students, management and so on are made. Each individual will have different circumstances and a different life history. Consequently, different opinions about educational issues will form. These differences unfold in the deliberative committees of the departments and the broader university, its academic board, the senate and the University council. Given this diversity and difficulty in establishing any kind of consensus, it is perhaps remarkable that anything positive can occur. Yet improvements to academic performance, student experience, and so on can occur through careful observation and critique. For example, the ways in which disability and individual differences are catered for today is generally superior to what it was 20 years ago. The system organises itself better to deal with individual differences of all kinds.

Theoretical arguments frequently get bogged-down in difficult vocabulary, and this is vocabulary few teachers would engage with. Teachers make judgements about their learners continuously. The reasons for teacher judgements are complex: for example, it might be due to cultural reproduction – whether through mechanisms of Bourdieu, or through Bernstein’s linguistic deficit. Each explanation for the natural attitude of teachers to learners masks the fact that there are regularities in teacher’s engagements with students, that individual teachers will acquire habits for engaging with their students, that habitual and routinized aspects of communication underpin socialised behaviour in the classroom and in the staffroom. This means that whilst there are not regularities as there are regularities within scientific experiments, there are routines and rituals which serve to ground judgements in a very similar way to those which ground the establishment of knowledge in the physical sciences.

The ritualised environment for education also creates barriers for critical debate because within the ritualised environment lie educational diktats from government and other agencies which demand attention and compliance. This is the shared environment of education for teachers and for learners. Habits are established in complex relationships at many different levels. New policies introduce new kinds of instruments: typically targets are set, and the social system within which the defensible judgement was identified is changed to include other work. 'Evidence-based policy' is the result. This helps to explain why the critical attack of ontological shallowness regarding evidence-based policy has had little effect. "Evidence" creates a shared environment within which judgements can be made. All observers exist within a social context participate in the situation, and each - from students to teachers to ministers - constitute parts of mechanisms of reproduction and transformation of social rules, the reproduction of rights and responsibilities of different stakeholders and different role players. Ministers, like the rest of us, have their ideas about education deeply informed by their own experience of it. These ideas present different conceptions of the causal mechanisms involved in the education system.

Grounds for Decision

Decisions are declarations of intent: the taking of a decision is an attempt to determine a course of action or the direction of events. The taking of a decision demands that there is some expectation that the act of deciding, or declaring the decision, will actually have the effect that is intended. This means that decisions entail some appreciation of the social and material properties of the environment within which the decision is made. In other words, the context of a decision shapes it, or rather, constrains it. Education is a case-in-point where the naturalistic environment of education, the environment of the rituals of University life, the nature of other people, their personal being and professional practice, the nature of learners and their capabilities, and so on are all factors which bear upon the making of decisions by teachers. In order to understand the nature of decision in education, it is necessary to grasp the conditions within which decisions are made. The constraints within the education system exist at many levels in both concrete and material form (for example, classroom, blackboard, textbooks) and in social form through the normative regulative practices of teachers, professional expectations and so on. Furthermore, within the stratified power relations of Universities, there are different constraints operating on different actors: the constraints operating on managers are constraints imposed by government policy, the constraints operating on teachers are constraints imposed by managements and the constraints operating on learners are constraints imposed by teachers.

Decisions have real consequences, which in turn produce new constraints. Bad decisions result in constraints which disempower individuals, rendering them incapable of making decisions for themselves. The pathologies of university education reveal this most powerfully: teachers aim to create conditions which empower students to make their own decisions, yet the constraints of learning outcomes, assessment schedules and curriculum mean that learners are effectively funnelled into a game of box-ticking which alienates both them and their teachers from authentic self-discovery and empowerment. Whilst university aims to establish the conditions for scholarship, research, the preservation and development of knowledge, decisions from government ministers down create an environment which heavily constrains the agency of teachers and students to produce outputs that are easily measurable: whether they are degree certificates, journal citations, research funding, teaching hours or student satisfaction scores.

An easy way of thinking about constraint is to imagine what it is that people worry about in their professional practice. There are always aspects of threat in the environment that will cause individuals to fear for their jobs, and further to fear for the security of the people they love. In the time of Marx, threats were direct and material: no food and no shelter was not an uncommon fate for the working class. In most modern democracies such destitution is rare, although individuals will fear it as a consequence of being unable to pay the mortgage. However, loss of employment is at the end of a ‘chain of fear’ which has links that reach into the fabric of everyday practice and decision-making within the University. Whilst loss of employment can entail material loss (not to have no shelter, but certainly to lose one’s own shelter and with it a sense of dignity), the root of fear higher up the chain concerns information. Quite simply, if the performance statistics don’t look good, there is a threat of redundancy. And there are a variety of performance statistics to look out for. Anything from poor student satisfaction ratings, poor student achievement, no publications, no PhD, no research funding, poor recruitment on modules, or no modules to teach each work as a kind of academic ‘black spot’. As with all targets, the simple solution is to make the statistics look as best as they can: students that would once have failed miraculously pass (passing on the problem to other academic staff to deal with), students who wouldn’t have been admitted are admitted, PhDs are enrolled on internally with no time for scholarship and a motivation of fear for their completion, competition for external project funding becomes insanely intense leading inevitably to strategies for reducing that complexity that usually favours ‘usual suspects’ and publishers recognise the desperation of academics for publication by attempting to exploit it with offers of ‘paid-for’ publication.

What drives decision-making in these circumstances is not a deep consideration of reality and personal self-determination, but rather a self-organising mechanism of maintaining balance with the various (and conflicting) sources of information. What emerges in the University is a technocratic apparatus for manipulating information, the dangers of which were apparent to Marxist scholars many years ago. Horkheimer, for example, argued in 1949 that:
“the individual's self-preservation presupposes his adjustment to the requirements for the preservation of the system. He no longer has room to evade the system. And just as the process of rationalization is no longer the result of the anonymous forces of the market, but is decided in the consciousness of a planning minority, so the mass of subjects must deliberately adjust themselves: the subject must, so to speak, devote all his energies to being 'in and of the movement of things' in the terms of the pragmatistic definition.”

Horkheimer’s insight arose from inspection of the technocratic apparatus of Nazi Germany and how the decision-making process in the world of information gradually disempowered and dehumanised an entire society. Horkheimer’s critique, and that of the other philosophers in the Frankfurt school, made a connection between the material and ideational context of decision-making wherein pathologies arose and the ideas that individuals had. From Marx’s materialist dialectic, there emerges a critical inspection concerning the way the world is thought about.

The way the world is thought about depends on the information that individuals have access to, and the meaning that individuals attach to information. If information concerning retention of students shows regular patterns according to a particular course or a particular member of staff, then it would be hard to imagine action not being taken against that particular course, or against that member of staff. As Meillassoux has observed, even in the physical sciences, Humean regularities can be seen as informational: a regularity is a confirmation of an expectation. Reframing Hume’s regularity theory helps to resituate his approach to scientific knowledge in the light of the reasoning within complex information-rich social enterprises like education. Informational regularities acquire the power of concrete empirical regularities in establishing the grounds for collective decisions. However, given the causal impact of decisions, and the constraining power they have on subsequent decisions, the need to understand the role of information as a constraining force, and the background to apparent informational regularities emerges as an important safety net to ensure that informational regularities don’t participate in a managerial positive-feedback situation.

In other words, the issue about the nature of information, the inquiry into its causal constraining power on decision sits as the basis of decision-making within educational institutions. The information constrains decision to the point that technologies which garner information from various sources start to feed themselves. Von Foerster argued in the early 1970s that
“we have, hopefully only temporarily, relinquished our responsibility to ask for a technology that will solve existent problems. Instead we have allowed existent technology to create problems it can solve.”
Is Von Foerster here saying that Horkheimer was right? The political debate over what kind of world we want to live in is clearly tied up with the destiny of technology. Von Foerster is not alone in highlighting the political deficit in technological advance. Illich expressed the wish “to focus on the new electronic management devices as a technical change of the human environment which, to be benign, must remain under political (and not exclusively expert) control." Feenberg similarly argues that “Technology can deliver more than one type of technological civilization. We have not yet exhausted its democratic potential”. And yet, despite a chorus of pleas for the politicisation and democratisation of technological development from scholars of technology, we continue to sleepwalk in a surveillance society, managed by information. Why?

Information and Decision

The lack of effectiveness of critical debate about technology is not necessarily a sign that the arguments are wrong, but rather a sign that something is missing in the understanding of the world where carefully considered academic critique is imagined to have political effects. The problem centres around an assumed power of abstract foundational knowledge and the power of educational mechanisms for the transmission of that knowledge into the everyday living attitudes and behaviours of people. The central paradox is that the political problem is an educational problem, whilst the articulation of the political problem in academic discourse upholds an educational pathology that neutralises the effect of the critique. Starting from the standpoint of the constraining factors behind decisions, we should first examine the decisions that are constrained by pronouncements about the nature of technology and society: who is affected by them? Who are they for? Why should they listen?

In addressing these questions, the role of information as a constraining force bearing upon decisions can be analysed. In the immediate case, academic pronouncements about technology and about education affect decisions within the academy: as journal articles are published, information about publications helps to make jobs more secure. The information that is produced as communications within the academic community turns into metrics of academic performance. Consequently, powerful arguments benefit the person making them. Collective decisions within universities occur with common points of reference in a shared environment. Abstract ideas alone are part of this, but more powerful (and more generic) is the information contained in citation statistics, indicators of impact, esteem indicators, and so on which together create a powerful set of referents that ground decisions about what to publish, what to fund (by research funders), what to bid for, and so on. 

Related to this phenomenon is the surprising power of the shallow foundationalism of evidence-based policy. The ‘evidence-base’ is an attempt to established a defensible shared object in the environment, which, despite its intellectual poverty can nevertheless carry considerable weight in political circles. Ideas and evidence can easily become “articles of faith” within particular communities then creates the conditions for shared action. The status of certain practices in the social sciences also bear out the causal power of the creation of the shared environment. Econometrics, for example, creates mathematical objects within the economic discourse which woefully misrepresent economic reality, and yet remains firmly embedded within the economic discourse. There are of course critical challenges to this, but they too (ultimately) have to play the same game. Lawson argues that his critical abstractions serve “to individuate one or more aspects, components, or attributes and their relationships in order to understand them better” but the risk is of forgetting that abstractions require teaching if decisions are going to be effective. Abstractions serve not the objectification of the world but rather create a framework for collective action: they provide the shared world wherein understanding can be generated. Abstract descriptions of reality cannot in themselves account for the necessity for learning about those abstractions, shared understanding and collective action – all of which are necessary if a mechanistic description is to have a transformative effect in the world. Understanding, it seems, is overrated: Von Foerster ruefully remarked
“The more profound the problem ignored, the greater the chances of fame and success”

Technologies are a special case of ‘shared environment’ because they manifest themselves in their concepts, their functions and in their materiality. They act as coordinators of discourse – objects around which concepts turn. Educational technologies are particularly important in this regard: the artefacts of e-portfolio, the Virtual Learning Environment, the Personal Learning Environment have together been subject to many funding calls, thousands of journal articles, conferences, and so on. The mass capital value of a technological artefact of this sort can be calculated. Much of the discourse around these tools extends far beyond the material reality of the technologies themselves: having read about Personal Learning Environment, E-portfolios, and so on, the reality can be somewhat deflating! Yet somehow, the creation of new pieces of software and hardware configure new expectations of possible communications: new ways to communicate through the tools, and new ways to communicate about the tools.

The phenomenological dimension of this – that dimension which concerns our experiences – not just of tools, but of the discourse about tools – is something which I will deal with in the next chapter where I consider technologies as codifications of expectations about communications. At the same time, the dominance of technological concepts whose funding and monitoring is easy to manage tends to take precedence over whether particular ‘easily managed’ projects will be successful. For example, significant funds have been expended in ‘curatorial’ projects: projects to establish bodies of resources, despite evidence that resource banks are under-used. In contributing to a shared environment technologies in education connect the social organisation of education with social structures and individual histories become entangled with discourse, abstract concepts, measurements and other aspect of the shared environment. The result is a situation where Von Foerster’s law appears to be correct: the shortest and quickest route to the shared environment is the one that carries the prevailing political power.

Injustice and boredom in education

There are of course conditions where profound ideas articulated in the right way can have a powerfully transformative social effects. Under conditions of mass injustice and hardship, abstract ideas which cut through to the causes of collective injustice can be the source of a political movement. These were the conditions within which Marx’s critique operated: a shared environment of injustice and a new story that everyone could believe. It is how campaigns for women’s rights, anti-racism, gay rights, and other liberal programmes have established themselves. The problem with education and technology is that it doesn’t starve people, or force them to work. Technologies do not directly enslave people or chain them to desks. For the most part, people enter into education and engage with technologies of their own free will. The experience of education and technology is not one of manifest injustice; if anything, it is one of boredom. Whilst being bored is not the same as starving and being at risk of dying, it is a way of manipulating people and neutralising opposition. Horkheimer worried that technocracy renders people politically inert.

For Marx, boredom was a manifestation of alienation. In education we see a radical split between the needs of human beings and their society and the actual functions performed by the education system. Where education ought to wake people up, it puts them to sleep. The four forms of alienation that Marx describes (1844) fit directly into contemporary educational experience.
  • the alienation of the worker from the work he/she produces.
  • alienation from working itself, where working becomes meaningless, mundane.
  • alienation of the worker from him/herself as a producer.
  • alienation of the worker from other workers.
Alienation in education concerns all its stakeholders: teachers, students and managers: each person is engaged in what Graeber calls a "bullshit job".

The problem of alienation is a problem of conflicting information. Messages at different levels of organisation contradict one another whilst any attempt to identify the contradictory dynamics is prohibited: this is what Bateson called a Double-bind. It produces precisely the kind of state of powerlessness and apathy that Horkheimer identified. Learners and teachers are unable to critique the assessment processes that they are forced to submit to, all the time feeling that their deep inquiries cannot be addressed by the education that is presented to them, at the same time as being told that their education is the path to enlightenment. The shallow foundationalism within education manifests as a double-bind simply by proclaiming itself to be foundational when it is apparent that it cannot possibly account for the whole phenomenon of education, whilst by virtue of it being unprovable, precludes the possibility of critique. The fundamental in-betweenness of people within which information sits forms a swamp from which foundations emerge. This is not to argue against foundations, but rather to appreciate the dynamics by which foundations emerge, and the ways in which they might be effectively challenged, developed and discarded.

Metrics, in-betweenness and Critique

Constructivism provides an example of how foundations, even when they are shallow, can be important in the development of progressive thinking. Constructivism's emphasis on activity and conversation helped codify some of the best practices of teachers: those practices more concerned with listening, activity, participation, discovery and inquiry. However, the apparent success of constructivist educational practices in the hands of skilled teachers does not mean that the successful practice of teachers does not indicate the correctness of constructivism. There has, unfortunately, been a deep need to believe that constructivism is the answer to effective educational practice. In believing educational practice had been ‘solved’ through constructivist theory created deep problems at other levels of education which now make the task of educational critique very difficult. The problems of asserting constructivism as a foundation of education:
  • ruled out the possibility that other theoretical explanations were possible, thus eliminating the need for pedagogical experimentation;
  • led to a codification of teaching activity with teaching performance measurable by management;
  • separated pedagogical practice from academic management within the university, effectively insulating management from criticism that managerial actions had pedagogical consequences;
  • created the conditions for metricising teaching performance through learning outcomes, assessment criteria and other devices;
  • created the conditions for the assertion that technological interventions in education were ‘functionally equivalent’ to face-to-face interaction because they both adhered to constructivist philosophy
  • created the conditions within which surveillance of teaching practice and technocratic means of organisation became more powerful
  • distracted attention from those aspects of the material environment of education which open to critique – notably, management power, casualization of staff, salary differentials, and so on.
  • Created the conditions within which teaching practices could be promoted by management which were conservative in nature, with the intention of fulfilling the obligations of statistics, of those upheld as the best examples of ‘constructivist’ teaching.

In effect, with spurious educational foundations, teachers were simply to instantiate teaching practices which were consistent with the theory. In other words, given a grounding in pedagogical theory, educational practice simply had to be managed.

So here we have the central problem: that a foundational assertion about learning created an environment where experimentation in education took second place. The world of online education is full of this sort of thing: Moodle, for example, was presented as an environment for ‘constructivist’ learning, by virtue of being a way in which conversations could be managed. E-Portfolio was constructivist because it allowed individuals to construct their own stories. PLEs were constructivist because they presented learners with the ability to manage their own tools. Constructivism became allied to a much more general and relativistic concept of 'assemblage'.

The fundamental contradiction lies in the fact that constructivism is about relationships, whilst assessment considers individual performances (whether of teachers or learners). While there are relationships between teachers and learners, there are also relationships between teachers and managers, between managers and government, and between government and society. Leaving aside foundational assertions about learning, focus shifts back onto the material constitution of the learning environment, its power relations, and some aspects of clear injustice and corruption which begin to surface.

Naturalism without Foundations

Teaching and learning are critical experiments. During these experiments, human experiences and emotions are the only guides we have as to whether our experiments are successful or not. Quite often, success is not visible from the outside, or rather what is interpreted as success by an outside observer is not what is felt by the person subject to the experiment. The experiential world of teachers and managers is very different from the experiential world of learners – particularly those from very different social backgrounds to their teachers. Bourdieu was right in articulating who had the power in these situations: that educational practice becomes a tool of oppression simply because the shared environment of teachers has been made tangible, whereas the experience of learners remains intangible. In the absence of concrete injustice, there is not only alienation and boredom, but expectations which are easily manipulated by mass media (including the internet) which too represent the interests of the elite.

The fundamental problem is that it is the individual’s performance that is measured, never their relationships. As Vygotsky realised, evaluation of the effectiveness of education depends on the recognition that learning occurs in a supportive context. The critical challenge is to understand the nature of that context and the power relations that constitute it. Educational radicals like Paulo Freire turned this upside-down: understanding the context was the means to engendering learning itself - that education was fundamentally emancipatory in addressing the constraints of the environment. Such approaches entail a more ecological approach to education - one that recognises the rich relationships inherent in the situation of education between all its stakeholders.

The lack of impact of educational critique rests on failing to address the underlying nature of the context of education, whilst an educational foundationalism situated in constructivism withdrew attention from the social and material context placing emphasis on the agency of teachers and learners. The approach to addressing the deep critical challenge is to accept the social and material realities of university education today. Given that:
  • Students now place themselves in astronomical debt to attend university
  • Vice-chancellors and other senior staff pay themselves large salaries exceeding those of national leaders
  • Universities are engaged in an arms-race of new capital building projects funded by student loans
  • There is increasing casualization of academic labour supported by technologies which are said to be ‘functionally equivalent’ to more traditional and expensive practices
  • Demand for degree certificates defies their effectiveness in helping graduates gain employment
  • Managers run universities as corporations accountable to governors who are largely business-people
  • Academics, managers and students crave the status of association with elite Universities
  • Managers manage academics on the basis of statistical performance indicators based on publication and citation
  • Publishers and funding agencies become the principal vehicle whereby academics maintain their status and job security
  • Publishers pursue strategies for maintaining knowledge
  • There is some evidence of institutional corruption
  • none of the above would be possible if stakeholders at all levels of the system didn’t support it at some level
...there is a need to unpick the dynamics that contribute to this situation, and to re-examine assumptions about the nature of reality which themselves have participated in the emergence of these problems. It is my contention that information is at the heart of these mechanisms.

The various critical charges addressed at the modern development of education including commodification, corporatisation, managerialism, causalisation and exploitation of staff, mis-selling, cronyism, and the capitalisation of student debt have at their heart fundamental issues concerning belief, aspiration, status, capital and economic exchange and within each of these must be information about potential benefits of education which generates its demand; it is information concerning teaching practice which creates the conditions for casualisation; it is information about the corporate success of education as a business which pacifies business-oriented governors and justifies high corporate salaries; it is misinformation about the benefits of education that drive artificially-maintain demand for education even from those who are unlikely to benefit from it. The modern information environment of education contributes to the maintenance of power structures and decision-making processes which are unequitable. At a different level, however, it is also information, which sits behind processes of cognition and development, the yearning for freedom, and the mechanisms whereby alienation arises in all the stakeholders of education. It is in reconciling these diverse and conflicting information dynamics that an effective critique of education must address itself.

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