Monday, 16 October 2017

A Transdisciplinary Synthesis for Educational Technology Theory

I've been very critical of the current state of theory in educational technology. When comparing the theoretical and scientific work on learning and technology today with that of the 1970s, it doesn't look very good.

A lot of today's e-learning academics are happy to promote rhetoric about what we should and shouldn't do (social media, yeah! open access, yeah! learning analyics, yawn!), but are silent when addressing the really difficult questions about learning, consciousness, society, institutions, technology and systems.

Part of the problem is an unwarranted consensus about educational theory being "established": Critical pedagogy, constructivism, open education, etc have all become 'real' things (ironically in the case of constructivism), alongside more pernicious real things like "modules" and "learning outcomes". Their effect is to provide an anchor for education academics. Each hides numerous implicit ontological assumptions which are never critiqued. On more than one occasion, I have attempted to challenge people who ought to know better with questions like "but what do you mean by..." and then I'm met with silence. I think this is indicative of professional insecurity rather than a general ignorance of the fundamental questions. There's plenty of insecurity out there.

I want to change this - but to change it means to escape the educational consensus. We have to do what the originators of our current consensus (Piaget, Vygotsky, von Glasersfeld, Freire) did - engage in a truly interdisciplinary inquiry which engages at the forefront of current scientific, political, philosophical, technological and artistic knowledge.

What is happening in physics today which is relevant to learning? What is happening in biology? What about philosophy? Or maths? Or logic? Or systems? Or the arts?

This isn't just a trawl for new theory. We need a new accommodation between theory and experiment. Our empirical foundation in education is dreadful - "8 out of 10 learners preferred..." We must do better.
In any empirical enterprise we need:

  • A logic for expressing what we think might happen
  • A means of measuring what actually happens
  • A method for restructuring our logic in the light of experience.

Our logic depends fundamentally on mathematics. At the forefront of pure mathematics are inquiries about complex topologies, explored through techniques like category theory. In maths today, the very issue of "categorisation" is a question - perhaps the central question which is exercising minds. So what of our categories of "education" or "learning"? At the heart of these investigations is the pursuit of better ways of understanding recursion (our categories about most things - and certainly education - are recursive).

On measurement, perhaps we should look to the physicists exploring the properties of quantum mechanical systems, where their focus is on the measurement of uncertainty, symmetry and contingency. After all, it is these systems which will form the basis of our next generation of computers. Or we could look to biologists who are examining the ways in which cells organise themselves in their environment. At the forefront of research, the physicists and the biologists may be looking at the same thing, and often with similar tools taken from information theory.

Finally, what of our method for adjusting our knowledge? This goes to the heart of a technological and organisational question. To change what we know is to change our structure. Where does the structure of an individual's knowledge end and the structure of the society in which the individual exists begin? Doing science entails social structural change. Doing uncertain science - which seems to be what we now need to do - entails doing this continuously. Our hierarchical social structures of education and science do not provide sufficient flexibility. Only heterarchical structures will be able to absorb the variety of the environment in which they operate. In its favour, OER is heterarchical.

What we have now in education is not scientific, but scientistic. Stupid applications of technology in education like Learning Analytics adopt the pretence of science to give it kudos. The stupidity is upheld (and exacerbated) by institutional hierarchy. We need to move on all three fronts: the logical, the empirical and the structural. But it is the structural which, currently, is our biggest problem - but one that can't be addressed without the other two.

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