Saturday, 19 March 2016

@Telegram, Raspberry Pi, Block Chains and Educational Transactions

@Audreywatters is collecting some interesting stuff on block chain at the moment. I think one of the fundamental objections to Block Chain is that it is claimed that education is not transactional. Perhaps this assertion is made without thinking too much about what a 'transaction' is, or that it is as simple as 'buying and selling' (as in BitCoin) and that education is clearly more than that. But in economics, although buying and selling are the classic transactions, at a deeper level, they are quite mysterious intersubjective things. Von Mises and Hayek's focus on 'Catallactics' - the science of exchange - becomes very important here, I think. If Block Chains are about transactions, that means they are about catallaxy. Now what does that mean?? Perhaps we should distinguish between a kind of "potlatch catallaxy" and the "market catallaxy" that Hayek focused on. I think potlatch is at the heart of educational transactions: when education works, it is about giving.

The value of the block chain discussion is that we start to see transactions everywhere in education. I recently created a Raspberry-pi/Arduino-driven registration system for some medical students at Liverpool University. They are employed by the health authority, who want twice-daily reports on their attendance. My hardware uses an NFC reader to scan their student cards, store it in a database (on the Pi) and provide the data on a simple web interface which the course administrator can query.

The student waving their card in front of the device is a kind of transaction: a statement "I'm here. I comply with the regulations." This transaction is of course the prelude to what the student ought to be doing next - listening attentively and learning how to be a medic (well, that's what we hope!). The students wanted some visual feedback from my registration scanner (at the moment it only beeps). I was thinking about interesting ways of doing this when I stumbled across the Telegram app (see https://telegram.org/).

Telegram is different. It's a communication app a bit like WhatsApp, but it makes itself highly configurable - both on its front-end (so you can create custom interfaces) and (most interestingly) at the back-end. Most powerfully, in the back-end you can program Bots. Bots can communicate with Telegram clients, and can be integrated with all kinds of devices. So, I thought, "let's get the register scanner to send a personalised message to Telegram when the students scan in". I'm working on this now... but having played with the Telegram API, wrestled with SSL certificates (it works through SSL), I'm now very excited about how the transaction of registering could be integrated with all kinds of other transactions - for example, the students' engagement with their e-portfolios, or real-time class tools like Socrative, or other physical devices. Or with each other. With Bot we can play games. It's possible to create group activities where individual students have to seek out other students to work on a problem together, or groups have to break apart, intermingle, go to different locations, collect data, interact with artefacts, and so on. Suddenly the combination of the ability to track transactions combined with the ability to capture different kinds of engagement in different kinds of environmental setting makes possible coordinations of learning across a range of environments which simply hasn't been possible until now. It's what the Alternative Reality Gaming people were aiming for - what things like Blast Theory's wonderful Ivy4ever (http://www.blasttheory.co.uk/projects/ivy4evr/) did using text messaging.

I think sophisticated transaction handling can create new forms of conviviality which do not depend on heavy-handed and unsophisticated management of the educational cohort. Given the mess that some managements are making of education at the moment, and the fact that the transactions they engage in have little to do with learning (what's this about, for example?  http://www.theboltonnews.co.uk/news/14255310.University_hits_back_at_claims_it_is_one_of__UK___s_least_transparent_/) I wonder at the possibility of replacing the whole of lot of them with computers. We certainly use computers in a very bad way in education: they should be used to automate management, not amplify existing practices.

And of course, there's really cool stuff we can do. My engagement with telegram came from this from Nick Johnstone (http://widdersh.in/controlling-sonic-pi-from-vim-or-anywhere-else/). This is why we should not give up on technology! The requirement is (as ever) for a combination of sensitivity, humility, creativity and reason - with some carefully considered political steering.

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