Saturday, 26 May 2018

Individuation and Higher Learning in Vladivostok (Paper for the Philosophy of Higher Education Conference)

Of all the things I am doing at the moment, a radical educational experiment in Russia has been by far the best. Weirdly, myself and Seb Fiedler have had to travel to the other side of the planet to do something different. I'm going to San Francisco in a couple of weeks for a conference on biosemiotics, but it struck me that in the 60s, to do something radical, people went to California to escape the stiffness of the establishment. Now, the establishment is definitely in California (it's defined by California!)... so we fly 14 hours in the other direction... to Vladivostok! Not as warm in climate, but just as warm in terms of the people there. And when I think of the trouble that Russians have to go to to get a visa to come and see me in the UK (they have to fly 9 hours from Vladivostok to Moscow), it puts my 10 hour flight to San Francisco in perspective.

It's taken a while for me to articulate what the plan was in Russia. As I've written before, it's a course on systems thinking, but really, we are aiming to use technology to oil the connections between the inner world of learners and the outer world of communication. It's pretty much what psychotherapists do. Which leads me to think that Higher Learning is really about "Individuation" in a Jungian sense.

My 18-year old daughter, who is eschewing university (at least for now) in disgust at it simply being "more school for which we have the privilege of paying" (she's quite right),  has been pointing to the rise in mental health problems at University. "But they're doing this to their students!" She may be right. But we don't understand how or why. Except that I think it's got something to do with talking and listening.

The technological explosion of the last few years has exposed us to vastly increased variety in sensual stimulation which reaches our minds, but the experience of increased variety is rarely talked about. Instead we may talk about Trump or cute kittens and giggle, but never talk about what is actually happening to us. So a lot is going in and not enough is being intelligently exchanged in discourse to maintain a balance between the inner psychodynamic mechanism and social mechanisms. Internet porn is probably the most obvious example of where this is happening, but really it's everything from fake news to constant social media checking. AI may help alleviate the problem by facilitating deeper human connections between people, or it may exacerbate it. Either way, we have to wake up to what is happening, because AI is going to make it bigger.

The human result is unmanaged uncertainty in the psychodynamic process - which is a recipe for varieties of psychological problems. This Russian course is constructed to use the rich stimulation of the web - particularly in terms of the vast array of resources from all subjects - to get people talking about deeper mechanisms underpinning life and experience. It's a bit like an updated version of Marion Milner's "A Life of One's Own". From a technological point of view, it's simple. From a human perspective, it's been fascinating and rewarding.

Uncertainty, Objects and Technology in Education: Inverting the relation between content, process and conversation in a complex world

Mark William Johnson, University of Liverpool
Sebastian H.D. Fiedler, University of Hamburg, 
Svetlana Rodriguez Arciniegas, Far Eastern Federal University 
Maria Kirilina, Far Eastern Federal University


Computer technology has changed education and the world in a remark- ably short time and nobody seems to be certain exactly what’s just happened. There has been an increase in uncertainty in educational practice as people try to decide on what tools to use, confusion about institutional purpose coupled with managerialism, metricisation and financialisation which has left scholars of higher education expressing concern about the state of universities and higher learning (Brown 2010; Collini 2017; Barnett 1990). In the face of market de- mands, university has become more like school. Defenses of ‘higher learning’ to provide necessary ‘unsettling’(Barnett 1990) through presenting ‘troublesome knowledge’(Meyer and Land 2006) giving students ‘epistemic access’ (Morrow 2009), or providing opportunities for personal transformation or individuation (Mezirow 1991) do not appear to have had mainstream impact on pedagogic practice. Such distinctions themselves raise questions about the status of the ancient academy in the face of a new world of communications technology which works in very different ways to the university’s slow rhythms, and students appear unwilling to be ‘troubled’ once they see themselves as customers. This is not the first time in history when humans have been faced with technical changes that render existing social structures no longer fit for purpose. The computer and its communication networks have disrupted the most basic foun- dation of human activity: the way we talk to each other. Our institutions of higher education have yet to find an effective way of reorganising themselves in response.

We present an argument based on information-theoretical analysis concerning the relationship between uncertainty in education and technological development. We argue that technological development creates uncertainty in the environment of existing institutions, and that social change which sometimes follows technological development is a reaction to this increasing uncertainty. We contend that the institution of education is in a positive feedback loop with environmental uncertainty, which it is exacerbating with its current use of tech- nology. This position, we argue, distinguishes itself from technological determinist arguments about the social effects of technology, whilst also avoiding the often equally problematic social constructivist position (Feenberg and Callon 2010; Smith 2010). Technology does not determine social change, but creates uncer- tainty by increasing the variety of options for acting.

According to the information theory of Shannon (Shannon and Weaver 1949) an increase in the number of options increases the maximum entropy of choice, so the selection problem of choosing a particular option to pursue becomes more difficult. Institutions - and the people within them - have to adapt to this increased uncertainty: some- times by attenuating the technological possibilities (i.e. with new regulations to banish particular technologies), or sometimes by exploiting some aspects of a technology to reinforce existing institutional structures (e.g. the LMS’s ampli- fication of the classroom). Recent developments in higher education have seen both of these reactions.

While the ancient academy developed its structures to manage a once stable environment of uncertainty concerning science and knowledge, the technologically- driven explosion of uncertainty renders its structures ineffective. In a sea of uncertainty, psychoanalytical and sociological work suggests that intersubjec- tive engagement through conversation can still provide effective management of personal uncertainty through what Schutz calls the ‘pure we-relation’ (Schutz 1974), Luhmann calls ‘double-contingency’ (Luhmann 1996) and Freudian psy- choanalysis characterises as a ‘talking therapy’ (Freud 2016). The ‘tuning-in’ to the inner-worlds of each other through conversation remains the most powerful mechanism to address uncertainty at the interface between the psyche and in the social environment. Such a personalisation of uncertainty management how- ever, presents challenges to formal structures and practices in education which are tied to curricula and rigid assessment schemes.

The search for new ways of exploiting technology in organised learning con- versations which do not contribute to the uncertainty feedback-loop is urgent since the pace of technologically-driven uncertainty is not going to slow. We report on an experiment at the Far Eastern Federal University in Russia where technical artefacts have been used in conjunction with activity coordination tools and flexible assessment strategies to put learner intersubjective engage- ment centre-stage and create a virtuous cycle between what we call, following Luhmann (Luhmann 1996), the management of ‘psychic uncertainty’ and ‘social uncertainty’.

Figure 1 shows a schematic diagram drawing on the cybernetics of Stafford Beer (Beer 1995) of the experiment’s uncertainty management approach, where each individual ‘self’ or ‘Ego’ has both structure and uncertainty (contained in the large lower box) which are kept in balance by a process which is similar to Freud’s concept of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ process (Ehrenzweig 1968). This psychic uncertainty, which we relate to the Freudian ‘Id’, is managed by a meta- system (at the top): in this case, the individual’s ‘Superego’. The metasystem helps to determine communicative utterances, assisted by the presence of me- diating technological artefacts. A virtuous cycle is theoretically possible where effective management of psychic uncertainty leads to powerful communications which in turn benefit psychic processes.

In the experiment, technological artefacts (videos, pictures) other objects (shells, rocks, trash, artworks) and visiting experts (artists) were mashed-up in unusual combinations to stimulate conversation through coordinated activities. The process is designed to reflect the lived experience of exposure to a rich variety of online phenomena, but to bring the psychodynamic effects of this into conscious experience and conversation. We report on the results of a 3-day pilot with 30 participants.
In conclusion, we argue that the full force of technology’s threat to education and society has yet to be felt. The nature of this threat is not automation of hu- man action; the threat lies in the pathological reaction of human institutions to uncertainty created by new technology. A good society manages its uncertainty. The conversational inversion of uncertainty management of the kind we report presents an opportunity to explore the ways technological artifacts - whether videos, AI, or Virtual Reality - can be used to drive a virtuous personal and convivial uncertainty management process.


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