Friday, 13 January 2017

Personal Learning and Political Behaviour: The Utility of a Metagame approach

Computer technology in its various forms has vastly increased the possibilities for communication. This has manifested itself in transformed practices in many areas of life. Publishing, shopping, learning, social coordination, political organisation, artistic expression and entertainment have all been transformed by increasing possibilities. The expansion of the possibilities of communication produces political behaviour within organisations and institutions. The dynamics involved in the interaction between technological possibilities and political behaviour are poorly understood and little studied. As a framework for understanding the transformation of political behaviour, metagame theory presents a coherent framework for reasoning about institutional transformation and decision-making which can sometimes produce irrational outcomes.

Expansion in the number of possibilities for communication does not translate into an expansion of the realisation of all those possibilities in all walks of life. Previous expansions of communicative possibilities (eg. printing) showed how technology is disruptive to existing practices and to social structures which surround those practices. In addressing the challenge of technology, institutional actors engage in strategies for technological implementation which anticipate the actions of individuals and which seek to maintain institutional viability in a changing world. For educational institutions and learners, the process can be seen as one of competing 'games' of education: technology challenges the "old game" of the traditional institution; institutions and individuals seek to find a new game which works better for them. As a game about possible games, the approach lends itself to the "metagame" approach developed by Nigel Howard in the early 1970s, and which he further developed into a theory of political behaviour called "drama theory" which was used with some success in military conflict situations (see

The metagame that institutions have so far played in responding to technology is conservative in the sense that it aims to find new ways of upholding institutional authority in the face of enhanced personal capabilities. The question pursued by institutions is "how can education exploit the technology", rather than "given that we have this technology, what should education be like?" Addressing the first question, the institutional technological responses are limited to delivering content through Learning Management Systems, or the use of e-portfolio tools where students may use mobile tools to submit material for assessment or access their institutional timetables. Effectively, it produces a "stand-off" between the institution and technology. However, technological and political developments continue to change the rules of the game of education. Rising student fees, and the consequent long-term personal debt, stubborn adherence to traditional lecturing, transformation in the practices of scientists, the centrality of the computer in research across all disciplines, and new possibilities for online learning would make it appear that the conservative metagame isn't a viable long-term solution - not least because it establishes paradoxes in the uses of technology in informal and formal learning contexts.

Learners too are pursuing their own metagames with their personal tools and their relations with the formal education system. Sometimes, learner strategies exploit the standoff between personal practices with technology and institutional prohibitions: whilst instant "googling" for information or entertainment through mobile phones in personal life has become a ubiquitous practice, uses of mobile phones in formal education is often banned on the grounds that it is disruptive to formal learning processes like lecturing. Institutional conservatism towards technology has been reinforced by worries about the uses of social media platforms, issues of privacy and data, the phenomena of the "echo chamber" of social media, superficial levels of intellectual engagement, a "cut and paste" mentality, plagiarism and other pathologies.

The drama theory approach explores not only the options individuals have for action, but to explore the possible responses to each possibility, the extent to which certain possibilities for action are constrained, and the extent to which rational strategies can lead to unwinnable situations which then create the conditions for "changing the game" - or ascending to a higher level of the metagame. The political behaviour of individual learners and the political behaviour within institutions in response to technology can be characterised in this way so as to explain some of the current pathologies of institutional education, and to highlight new productive pathways for development. At the heart of the question is the challenge of understanding how the needs of individual learners and the needs of society can be coordinated, and the role that technology and the institutions of education play in this.

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