Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Educational Content and Quantum Physics

One the most difficult issues to understand in education is the role of content and its relation to conversation. There are the material aspects of content - physical books, e-books, webpages, interactive apps and tools... What's the difference? There are the many different ways in which teachers can coordinate conversations around the content. And there are the fundamental differences between disciplines. Tools like Maple or Matlab are great for getting students to do virtual empirical work in Maths or Physics. But in sociology and philosophy?

The phenomenology of these tools is radically different. It's not simply about the rather shallow view on "affordances" which was popular a few years ago. It's a much deeper ecological process (which perhaps is where Gibson's original work on affordance should - but didn't - lead us). We can say books afford "flicking through" but in effect that is to reduce the richness of experience into a function. The problem is that the systems designers, with their functionalist bent, will then try to reproduce the function in another form. We only have as many functions as we can give names to them. Yet each function is implicitly dependent on any other function, and on aspects of the phenomenology which we cannot articulate.

I'm thinking about books a lot at the moment partly because I've been learning quantum mechanics using Leonard Susskind's "Theoretical Minimum" (see book in conjunction with the videos of his lectures he gave at Stanford. This is the first time I've found any kind of MOOC-like experience actually worth it: A book + online lectures. Of course the objection would be that it is so expensive and resource-hungry to produce a book that this isn't practical unless you are famous like Susskind. But this isn't true any longer.

Book printing machines are extraordinary things. Combined with high quality typesetting using Latex-based tools like Overleaf, the results are as good as anything that Penguin can produce for Susskind. And it's cheap - with most of the self-publishers, the equivalent of Susskind's book could be less than the £9.99 charged by Penguin. All universities can now do the Open University thing at a fraction of the cost.

But what about conversation? In my case, my interest in Quantum Physics is being driven by a conversation with one of the physicists in Liverpool about the use of ideas of 'entanglement' in the social sciences (i.e. sociomaterial stuff, Latour, Barad, etc). Without wanting to "do a Sokal" (, it does seem that quantum theoretical terms are being used without deep understanding of what they refer to. Equally, it may be the case that the physics and its mathematical techniques does indeed reflect a wider reality which is already known to our common sense. I think both propositions may be true, and that one way of exploring it is to make a deep and clear connection between the physicists and the social scientists.

Might I pursue the interest in Susskind without my physicist friend? Maybe... but there'll always a be a conversation I will have somewhere where I can process this stuff. But it may not be online.

That is the crucial point - that conversations about matters of curiosity do not necessarily happen online. The current online education model saw that conversation had to happen online because otherwise the education could not be coordinated. But with a good book, and a set of video resources, we can do our own coordination independently of any central authority.

The reason why the online education model forced conversation into forums was I think because it confused learning conversation with assessment processes. In order to assess learners, obviously there has to be some record of the transactions between learners and teachers which reveals their understanding. It might also indicate to teachers new kinds of interventions which might be necessary to steer student learning in particular ways. But if the learning is left to self-organisation processes, and free choice is given to use a variety of different resources (books, webpages, etc), then what needs to be focused on is a flexible and reliable method of tracking (or assessing) development.

But it's not as simple as separating assessment from learning. Assessment is a key moment of learning - it is the moment when somebody else reveals their understanding in relation to the learner's revealing of understanding. That is a key aspect of conversation. In formal education, it can also be a formal transaction - particularly where marks are involved.

This is perhaps where the interaction with online content can be developed. Could it be an explicitly formal interaction of exchanging different understandings of things, and passing judgements about each others' understanding? In the emerging world of learning analytics, there is already something like this going on - but its lack of focus and theoretical clarity are resulting in exacerbating the confusion rather than deepening understanding. 


Simon Leonard said...

I am always intrigued by your thoughts on conversation, Mark.

I do wonder what the difference between content and conversation is. If we think about the idea of the expanded mind following the likes of Andy Clark and Edwin Hutchins, then perhaps ‘content’ and conversation are a similar thing. I get this sense when I read of your experience with a book and the online lectures. It seems to me you are using the ‘affordances’ of the two mediums to ‘coordinate’ your own conversation with Susskind. Once we learned through conversation alone – be it in words or gestures. Now we use our ability to use technologies of all sorts to expand not only our own minds, as Clark would have it, but also our ability to converse.

This sits well with a Vygotskian notion of learning – of the integration or socialisation into the practices of a community of knowers and/or doers. Charles Crook’s work on this is interesting, arguing that there is a need for greater focus on the joint activity within the zone of proximal development, and subsequently that there is a need in the management and evaluation of computer supported learning for a greater focus on the broader context of classroom discourse.
For me the key question here is that of saliency – and particularly how do we manage the conversations that students have such that they discern what is most salient. As you describe, the approaches we have taken - driven by the readily available affordances of the technology at hand – have been a blunt way of doing this.

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Simon,

It's worth remembering that the root of the word conversation is "con-versare" - to "turn together".. ie. It's a dance!

There may be sense in which we dance with books, or dance with our idea of the author. We certainly dance with music (which is also content).

I don't find affordance helpful when thinking about this. It's too static. Instead at one moment I am presented with one possibility, and at another I might have many other possibilities. At the same time I am not dancing with Susskind himself, but with my idea of Susskind. Equally right now I am not dancing with you, but with my idea of you.

On the whole I find dancing with e-learning content a bit like dancing with a robot. It doesn't give the freedom even that the book does. It tries to lead, but has no feeling for the job, no human touch.

I agree about Vygotsky - but what is the ZPD if it isn't the space when the dance can occur? A more interesting question I find is, what *really* is the ZPD and how does it translate to a non face-to-face situation? I think Crook's wrong - it's much more complex than joint activity (what does that mean?) We're in the realm of the difference between a "pure we-relation" (as Schutz put it) and the non face-to-face "world of contemporaries". It's a question about how we tune-in to the inner worlds of each other...