Monday 29 July 2019

Recursive Pedagogy, Systems thinking and Personal Learning Environments

Most of us are learning most of what we know, what we can do, what we use on an everyday basis, what we talk about to friends and colleagues, online. Not sat in lectures, gaining certificates, or sitting exams. Those things (the formal stuff) can provide 'passports' for doing new things, gaining trust in professional colleagues, getting a new job. But it is not where the learning is really happening any more. The extent to which this is a dramatic change in the way society organises its internal conversations is remarkably underestimated. Instead, institutions have sought to establish the realm of 'online learning' as a kind of niche - commodifying it, declaring scarcity around it, creating a market. This isn't true of just educational institutions of course. Social media corporations saw a different kind of marketing opportunity: to harness the desire to learn online into a kind of game which would continually manipulate and disorient individuals in the hope that they might buy stuff they didn't want, or vote for people who weren't good for them. But the basic fact remains: most of us are learning most of what we know online.

That means machines are shaping us. One senses that our sense of self is increasingly constituted by machines. I wonder if the slightly paranoid reactionaries who worry about the power of digital 'platforms' are really anxious about an assault on what they see as 'agency' and 'self' by corporations. But are we so sure about the nature of self or agency in the first place? Are we being naive to suppose autonomous agents acting in an environment of machines? Wasn't the constitution of self always trans-personal? Wasn't it always trans-personal-mechanical? The deeper soul-searching that needs to be done is a search for the individual in world of machines. Some might say this is Latour's project - but seeing 'agency' everywhere is not helpful (what does it mean, exactly?). Rather more, we should look to Gilbert Simondon, Luhmann, Kittler, and a few others. There's also a biological side to the argument which situates 'self' and consciousness with cells and evolutionary history, not brains. That too is important. It's a perspective which also carries a warning: that the assertion of agency, autonomy and self against the machine is an error in thinking which produces in its wake bad decision, ecological catastrophe and the kind of corporate madness which our platform reactionaries complain about in the first place!

Having said this, we then need to think about 'personal' learning in a context where the 'personal' is constituted by its mechanical and social environment. Machine learning gives us an insight into a way of thinking about 'personal' learning. Deep down, it means 'system awareness': to see ourselves as part of a system which constitutes us being aware of a system. It's recursive.

Some people object to the word 'system', thinking that it (again) denies 'agency'. Ask them to define what they mean by agency, and we end up confused. So its useful to be a bit clearer about 'system'. Here's my definition:

To think of 'systems' is a thought that accepts that the world is produced by thought.

This is why I'm a cybernetician. I think this is critically important. To deny that thought produces the world is to set thought against those things which constitute it. When thought is set against that which constitutes it, it becomes destructive of those things it denies: the planet, society, love.

So what of learning? What of learning online? What of personal learning?

It's about seeing our learning as a recursive process too. To study something is to study the machines through which we learn something. It may be that the machine learning revolution will make this more apparent, for the machines increasingly operate in the same kind of way that our consciousness operates in learning the stuff that is taught by the machines. It's about closing the reflexive loop.

So what about all that stuff about certificates, trust, passports, etc? It seems likely to me that closing the reflexive loop will produce new ways of codifying what we know: a kind of meta-codification of knowledge and skill. Against this, the institutional stamp of authority will look as old-fashioned as the wax seal. 

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