Saturday, 24 October 2020

Making Online Learning Dance in an International Social Operating System

At the end of the Global Scientific Dialogue course at the Far Eastern Federal University, most of the students I spoke to said that being online didn't really affect their learning - indeed, for some, it was preferable to face-to-face learning. What they liked about the course is basically the same as what students tend to like most about most courses - working with friends, rich conversation, and sharing their enthusiasms for things with others. We tried hard to create this environment of group-work and sharing when we first designed the course 3 years ago for face-to-face delivery. It is quite different online, but this aspect of it has been preserved - and it was very gratifying to hear the reception. The role of the technology in this cannot be overstated - and there is something powerful and new in Microsoft Teams... it feels like an International Social Operating System... but more on that in a second.

If we really believe that conversation is the essence of learning, then the standard practices of much of the face-to-face curriculum cannot remain. Of course not all subjects deliver large lectures with masses of content - music and architecture stand out for me as the best subjects in the university - but far too many still rely on this mode of operation. It suits the teachers, and certainly suits the bums-on-seats managerialists, but doesn't do any favours for the learners. 

The online switch is revealing this more strongly. Global Scientific Dialogue, perhaps rather like music, is focused around tools and developing skills with tools. The content flows through the conversations and activities we get people to engage in as they explore the tools. It is personalised - everyone has their own experience, brings their own experience, and everyone has to make their own connections in developing their ideas. The truth is that this can be organised relatively easily and cheaply if the will is there to do it. 

Among the various noises about online learning during the pandemic has been the repeated claim by so-called experts that online learning is more expensive, more resource intensive, than face-to-face learning. Well - it is if you try to reproduce what you've been doing face-to-face! But why on earth would you want to do that? 

Of course, teachers in institutions are bound by institutional constraints and expectations about learning. But these constraints and expectations have formed around a bad theory of education. If we re-inspect our theory, we will find that the whole thing is much much simpler than the "constructive alignment" ideology, the learning outcomes, the quality measures which all but destroy innovation and creativity, and the assessment regimes that destroy conversations in the name of "academic integrity". The costs of education arise from our belief that these constraints represent what education is (grounded in "evidence" - another fallacy).

I've been incredibly lucky in Russia because I have had the confidence and backing of a senior management team who have been prepared to suspend judgement on things that are very different. In the UK our institutional stiffness in universities is much more deeply ingrained - partly, I think, because the layers of management that enforce it are threatened by the fact that real innovation in education would obviate their roles. The last thing anyone in a position of power wants to hear is an educational approach which simplifies everything to self-organisation and conversation.

But that is it. Being made to work online will make it more and more apparent to an increasingly large number of teachers and learners across the world. We can use the technology to do education and science better and cheaper - it's what the pioneers of educational technology always said from the beginning. We just don't need the layers of management and bureaucracy any more - just something to facilitate it. 

Education, when it's done well, is a dance. I'm really happy to have danced online in Vladivostok with some very talented learners and teachers. From our crazy improvised "orchestra" at the beginning, to the revealing of wonderful and diverse creative talents of learners expressed through our final "carnival" of presentations at the end, and rich conversations with a variety of experts in all kinds of disciplines in our "experts day", Global Scientific Dialogue has been a success and a revelation. The students produced wonderful stuff - highlights include two students - one in Russia, one in China, simultaneously trying to make a Mobius strip and cut it in half to make a trefoil knot, or students sharing their experiences of social media, or wonderful creativity in producing video (which many hadn't done before) and art.  

The technology too has been a revelation: Microsoft Teams is different from any other kind of educational technology we have had - and it is global, having consumed both education and industry over the last 8 months. It is our new international social operating system.  It will be with us for some time. Much as I distrust large tech corporations (they're all crooks, aren't they?), this may be a very good thing to happen to education at this juncture. 

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Universities through the Looking-Glass: what challenges and opportunities does an online, global future for higher education present?

The pandemic for me has brought a period of very intense international collaboration. From weekly meetings with academic friends in the US and Europe, a large-scale online conference run as festival over the summer (, through to working with the Far Eastern Federal University in Russia on a radically different kind of pedagogy online. I'm thinking that as many universities switch their teaching to online-only, and more pessimistic noises are made about a vaccine, what if online becomes a more permanent arrangement? What might it mean? 

I've started to list a few points... 

  • Teachers will get better at it
  • Personal tutoring will really become one of the most important things the university does, and not just a tick-box exercise 
  • Technologies for supporting innovative pedagogy designed to work in the online space will improve. Learning platforms like VLEs will evolve from web-based Content Management Systems into collaborative and cooperative academic relationship management systems
  • New pedagogies and ways of assessment will be developed
  • Many of these new pedagogies will focus more on personalised education - partly because this will be found to be useful for individuals struggling to survive in a profoundly uncertain environment
  • Universities are likely to review the ways they design and approve new programmes to encourage more innovation
  • Many new pedagogies will focus less on content, and more on tools - skills to use new tools will become of paramount importance
  • Global opportunities presented by being online will be exploited: there is no reason not to have contributions to teaching made by professors from all around the world
  • Economic challenges will bring an impetus to cut costs - globalisation will assist this, when rates of pay in universities across the world vary so much, and computer systems are increasingly global, why not have your administration. or even some of your  faculty, based in China? Will new legislation be required to protect jobs?
  • The annual scholarly conference will evolve into more established global scholarly networks which will become active on a more regular basis online. There will be efforts to engage students in these events, and maybe even to establish new kinds of academic apprenticeship
  • Active scholarly networks and platforms which are more open and outward-facing will gradually replace journals as the dominant mechanism for scientific communication
  • Global citizen science, empowered by AI tools, will drive new approaches to research in topics ranging from environmental studies, health, sociology, psychology, physiology, education, management, law and many others.
  • Fundamental science - particularly research into physics and biology - will connect with a more progressive approach to educational practice and theory
  • The arts will be one of the principle beneficiaries of this, as the biological mechanisms underlying creative work and collaboration are better understood as engines of social progress. The obsession with STEM will end as the online world makes the need for the arts even more apparent.


Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Microsoft Teams, Class Notebooks, 200 students and 11 teachers in Vladivostok

I'm currently delivering the 3rd year of the Global Scientific Dialogue course in Vladivostok with wonderful colleagues at the Far Eastern Federal University, led by Elena Suvorova.  We did it first face-to-face in 2018 (see This time it's online and in Microsoft Teams. I have to say, Teams feels like a real advance in educational technology. Yes, it's Microsoft, with all its big corporate evilness. But.. this is a new way of doing teaching and learning, because it is a different kind of technical architecture.  Since my day-job has involved rolling-out Canvas, that might seem a surprising thing to say. Canvas has some strong points (its API!), but it remains a web-based, centralised Content Management System. Which is fine... but it constrains the educational practice around content delivery.

Teams can work a bit like Canvas - you can use its file storage mechanisms to deliver content. And if you try to do this, you would think Canvas is much better because it makes things look prettier. But you'd be missing the point.

The best bits in Teams are the ways that it distributes documents to students (or other team members). Each individual gets their own personal copy of a document, but if you are a teacher, the student's document is also viewable and editable by you as a teacher. This is new. In a content-management system, the system administrator, or the person who "owns" the course, owns the documents (with perhaps a few exceptions). In Teams, the users own their documents.

Perhaps there's not as much user-ownership as I would like, but it's a start. What can we do with this educationally?

Well, first it means that each user-owned document is a vehicle for personal conversation and dialogue with a teacher - or even other learners. In order to take advantage of that, we need a pedagogy which promotes personalised learning.

Global Scientific Dialogue always aimed at personalised learning - the idea was to take students through a set of "rooms" with different activities, tools and objects to get them to reflect on their own learning needs, career wishes, etc. Face-to-face there was lots of post-it notes and flip-chart paper... which was fine (good in fact). But online it's better.

Now the course is focused on "tools". The content of the course, as much as there is any, is themed around using tools and understanding what new tools mean - particularly AI, data analysis tools, simulation tools, creativity tools, etc. There are amazing tools out there, and since everyone is staring at their personal computers, they can download and play with these tools together! That's been a revelation. 

Then we need assignments to get the students to reflect on their experiences, and what they think these tools might mean for the future - particularly in a  post-COVID world (a number of them are studying tourism, or international trade, or other subjects which are vulnerable to severe disruption) 

Teams handles assignments by distributing documents, but tracking the workflow. Basically, it sees an assignment as a transaction which can bounce between a teacher and a learner. Assignments can be set up so that a learner is sent a document containing instructions on what they are to do (this can be a multimedia document of course), and the learner can either edit this document with their response, or attach other documents when they submit their assignment. 

So basically, I divided 200 students into 11 teams, with a teacher overseeing 17-22 students, being able to track the transactions of the assignments between the student and the teachers. 

Into these assignments, students can write, but they can also capture video from their small-group discussions and paste the video into their submissions. They can also download and edit these videos and include other things from the course (for example, AI-generated music or art). 

Face-to-face, the need for small-group activity meant that we needed to divide the students into small classes, each coordinated by a teacher. Online this has proven to be less necessary - we still divide the students for their activities into smaller teams (we have set up 1 main team and 11 small teams), but it is possible to get 200 students actively involved in using tools and experimenting all in one go online. I've made extensive use of Microsoft Forms to break-up delivery, and this is an exercise we did today in using Google's Deep Dream generator... For the first day, we asked the students to bring something "to make a noise", and got them to make a John-Cage like musical happening as a warm-up!

It's running until the end of next week, and we have a special "experts day" to come, alongside sessions on Data processing (I'm doing something with Kaggle), simulation (NetLogo), and knots. But so far so good - particularly for the technology.

What is fascinating me is that the technology presents a different set of constraints around teaching and learning, and with those, new ways of coordinating conversations becomes possible. Of course, I don't want to be tied to Microsoft, but frankly, this is almost a peer-to-peer delivery system which could have a variety of different back-ends as an alternative to Microsoft's - blockchain/IPFS anyone??

Friday, 9 October 2020

Mutual Information, Mutual Redundancy and the Cell

Shannon's measurements of Mutual Information and Mutual Redundancy have the same kind of organic feel to them that was originally displayed in Ashby's homeostat, and many other cybernetic devices. This organic correlation may have application in the design of new kinds of communication networks which operate on a cellular and ecological basis rather than through a "node-arc" model.

Mutual information is clearly defined as the overlap between the entropies of 2 phenomena - the extent to which one entropy can be coordinated with the entropy of the other. Thus it is a measure of the similarities in degrees of disorder between two systems. It turns out that this "similarity in degree of disorder" is particularly useful in calculating the extent that an information source has been transferred to a receiver, which may develop, in time, the capacity to predict the information produced by the source. Thus mutual information can also be considered as a measure of the "transfer" of information.

It's calculation can be simplified to the entropy-of-A +  entropy-of-B - entropy of A and B together.

Most of the time, mutual information in 2 dimensions like this produces a positive result. Indeed, it has been shown that mutual information cannot be negative. Yet, under certain circumstances, using Shannon's equations, it is, and negative values of mutual information have prompted much speculation as to what this means.  

In 3 dimensions, mutual information is more likely to be negative.  

These information-theoretical measurements can be related to three fundamental features of cellular organisation. Mutual information can be considered to represent the degree of self-organisation within a cell. Mutual redundancy concerns the overlap in the pattern of constraint between a cell and its environment. A cell also requires energy from its environment and this can be represented by the extent to its range of possible actions can be expanded through interacting with its environment (it's maximum entropy). 

In information theoretical analysis of economic activity, the three measures of mutual information, mutual redundancy and maximum entropy can be used to measure the level of innovation in an economy. However, this high-level calculation depends on lower-level processes involving groups of individuals within institutions. If the high-level organisation of the economy can be seen as an "organism", then might the low-level communications of individuals within the economy been seen as constituent "cells"?

Examining this from the perspective of education is interesting. Educational "cells" are not individuals. They are conversations involving a number of people (just as cells contain many interacting components)- and conversations display exactly the same features of mutual information, mutual redundancy and maximum entropy. Importantly too, however, is the fact that conversations have a history. The way a conversation develops depends not just on its history, but on the history of its components. The personal biographies of a cell's components will play an important role in the development of a conversation.

When academics talk about this "cell-like" communication structure, it is sometimes related to the structure of terrorist groups like the IRA, or the mafia, or the French Resistance. It is a principal characteristic of a Clandestine Cellular Network (see . Thinking about terrorist groups highlights the importance of a recursive structure in cells: the personal biographies of terrorists and freedom fighters is often tied to emotional trauma in individual histories. The trauma is instrumental in the larger communication cell growing. 

But going deeper still, the "cells" of conversations depend on biology - real cells. These too interact on the same principles - mutual information in their self-organisation; mutual redundancy in their engagement with their environment; maximum entropy in their gaining of energy and information from the environment. These cells too have a history which will determine the direction of their own development: cells have "hysteresis", bearing the marks of previous stages of evolution. 

Information theory is important to this because it provides a way whereby we can ask "are the patterns of organisation - between mutual information, mutual redundancy and maximum entropy - related?" Are the patterns of a cell related to the patterns of a conversation? Are the patterns of a conversation related to the patterns of an economy? 

A mathematical-empirical foundation for asking these questions is important: it allows us to take measurements and make predictions. It allows us to do simulations. It feels like a different kind of science, that takes organisation, history and communication together at multiple levels, and across phenomena. My interest in this is to explore new ways in which these equations can lead to a re-formation of educational structures using technology.

Sunday, 4 October 2020

A Dialogical Cell Machine

I want to develop the ideas from yesterday's post about cells and networks with a closer look at cells and what a different kind of communication technology might look like that privileged cellular dynamics over individual ego. The question I left with yesterday is "What does the cell do?". I think John Torday's evolutionary biology and his First Principles of Physiology gives us a clear answer to this:

  1. A cell creates order within itself: it works against entropy, in the way Schrodinger describes
  2. A cell maintains stability with an ambiguous environment: it maintains homeostasis
  3. A cell gains energy from its environment: biologically, it gains energy through chemiosmosis, although multi-cellular organisms gain energy through digestion, photosynthesis, etc...
These principles apply at all levels of biological organisation - from cells to institutions.

Thinking about a "dialogical cell" - that is a conversation comprising a group of people, or a community, negentropy represents the ways in which people in the group organise themselves. Businesses, for example, organise themselves in functionally-differentiated units such as "accounts", "production", "marketing", etc. Academic societies organise themselves around topics and functions. This order arises through selection of particular communications - the "mutual information" of an organisation. Cognate terms serve as ways of indicating how things are organised. 

The maintenance of stability with an ambiguous environment requires that whatever happens inside a cell must represent itself to the outside environment in such a way that the cell can find a niche to survive in. Academic societies, for example, are related to one another in the topics they discuss. Each produce publications and public pronouncements of what they are doing. In so doing, they attract attention from other cells, and gain in sources of energy and support. They also contribute to the environmental conditions for their own survival - creating public communications which in time serve as an invitation to others to contribute to their survival. Such communications are rather like the "receptors" on the cell surface. 

I'm inclined to think of these external engagements as being the equivalent of an epigenetic mechanism. While the DNA of a cell might be represented by its internal organisational machinery - and a process of mutual information - the external engagement amounts to the production of epigenetic marks and the mutual redundancy between these marks and the environment producing an autocatalytic environment for the growth of the cell and the organism.  

It's a bit like a spider spinning a web - which is also a good example of redundancy. This external behaviour creates a niche for the spider, as well as transforming the environment for other organisms. That's what publications and other external communications do for dialogic cells.

In terms of energy, dialogic cells are populated by people who gain energy in other ways. However, the really important source of energy for any dialogue is new information - differences that make a difference, as Bateson would put it. Diversity in the environment of a cell is essential to the cell's survival. This is probably the biggest failing in current social networks - differences are attenuated. If there is no energy through difference, then cells are likely to eat themselves or each other. Which is pretty much what we see online. 

That's quite abstract. What about practical techy stuff? What's the functional spec for a dialogical cell machine?

What we need are:
  1. A mechanism for identifying mutual information as an organisation tool within a cell
  2. A mechanism for assisting the production of redundancy by the cell to its environment
  3. A mechanism for organising a dialogical cell such that it maximises the difference of its environment from which it can gain energy to grow
Obviously dialogue itself can identify mutual information. I saw this in the dialogues that occurred throughout the recent ANPA conference ( For example, Doug Matzke had produced a fascinating python program for doing geometric algebra, and Lou Kauffman noted the similarity between Matzke's approach and Peter Rowland's physics - "Maybe we should can put this together..." That's fine, but perhaps we can do more. In most videoed conversations now, we can produce transcripts very easily, and those transcripts can be analysed for mutual information, and references followed-up automatically, producing further mutual information. We should try this. Such analysis can be a catalyst to new forms of internal organisation in a dialogue, and it can also provide ways of managing large cells such that they might decide to split off and explore specific areas (mitosis/meiosis).

The epigenetic mechanism is more interesting because it requires some kind of system for processing and producing redundancies which might relate to external communications. What tools do we have for processing redundancy? That is precisely what machine learning does! Fed with information about internal dialogue and external dialogue, machine learning can identify external signals and generate new signals based on what is happening within the internal dialogue cell. The epigenetic mechanism is an anticipatory system. 

Left to its own devices, such a machine-learning driven mechanism will lead to confirmation bias. So a balance must be struck between the internal organisational processes and the external processes. Sometimes the epigenetic processes must generate unusual information as a way of attracting new kinds of cells from the environment. This can only happen by considering what the internal processes are doing and whether the homeostasis is "too stable". There must be a higher-level steering mechanism balancing mutual information with mutual redundancy, self-organisation and autocatalysis. 

What does all this feel like?

We start a discussion on Zoom (say). It's transcribed an analysed. New references are discovered, invitations sent out (the beginnings of epigenesis) and the discussion expands. Over time, each discussion is analysed and the result made available to its members. As internal organisational choices are made, so the analysis also identifies (through machine learning) the underlying patterns of the discussion, uses this to analyse the communications environment, and starts to support the generation of related documents (blog posts, etc), videos, etc, which are published to the outside world. Some of these attract new members... as the discussion develops, internally, the cell divides into related but separate discussions. 

I don't think this is Facebook - although there's plenty I haven't thought about yet.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Escaping the Ego Machine: Rethinking Systems Architecture for Educational Technology

I had an interesting discussion with a friend earlier this week about creating an online space for dialogue about education. The default technical solutions to this all look the same - they are all content management systems in various forms, where "personalisation" is provided in the form of tailoring the presented content to individuals based on their activities. 

Educational platforms like VLEs do not have the sophistication of Facebook's personalisation algorithms, although of course there is a lot of effort going in to trying to make this work. They are cruder CMS systems, displaying content according to particular organisational groups - e.g. modules, classes, programmes, etc. 

But saying all these systems are the same is to say that their basic architecture is the same: there is a server which acts as a repository of stuff contributed by teachers and (sometimes) students. Access to the system is controlled by an individual's account - their username and password. Activities too are tied to the individual. Although some systems allow for group activities in various ways, such group activity is really a different coordination of individual people, and a different presentation of content. 

But what is happening here? When we talk about "content" we are basically talking about "documents". A web-page is a document, a personalised feed in Facebook is a document, an assignment is a document... Who controls the documents when they're on the platform? 

This blog post is a document which I am writing and clearly I control what it says. Most blog posts are not collaborative efforts, they are individual and personal. When individuals publish things, they are mined for whatever information Google might find useful to sell stuff to other individuals. Obviously I have no control over this.

A lot of social media feels like an "Ego machine" - my thoughts, my documents, my desires feed a market of other individuals' thoughts, documents, desires. But to what extent is it an ego machine because of the systems architecture upon which it sits? If we didn't have servers and personal accounts, could it be different?

The question can be represented visually. The "ego machine" model can be represented as a set of interconnected nodes - individuals - with lines representing communicative acts of some sort. This is a "network model" shown below on the left. But social relationships in real life feel more like a cellular model, shown on the right. Cells are not individuals, they are "dialogues" or "codes of communication" - they might even be "communities of practice" - although I would want to dig into that loaded term...

What social media platforms have done is to overlay a "network model" of communication - which, after all was the simplest architecture for computers - onto a cellular model. The problem is that this excludes the detail of what happens in individual cells. 

Cells are not "nodes". They are active processes with a boundary that separates an "environment" which is negotiated and separated from a set of "internal operations". The collective action of the processes engaging in the environment and the processes maintaining internal states is to maintain the boundary - i.e. to maintain homeostasis with the environment. 

Seeing cells as processes with an inside, an outside, and a boundary presents a set of powerful questions which must be addressed. What are the internal processes doing? What are the external processes (those which engage the environment) doing? What happens at the boundary? More powerfully, these questions can be asked of all cells - including those that constitute the natural world. In the light of this, the network diagrams of social media look very one-dimensional - and I think this is reflected in our experience of the technology. 

Once we start asking questions about cells - whether its questions about cells of communication, or cells in our bodies, questions about "ego" take a back seat. We don't know the locus of consciousness and self - but we do know that it sits on a biological substrate, and that this biological substrate is cellular. We can also point to homologies in cellular processes at different levels of organisation. So the homology between cancer and the pathologies of confirmation bias and the corruption of a political system are telling, or the homology between epigenetic mechanisms at a cellular level, and our communicative practice online are also very powerful.

Moreover, once ego takes a back seat, focus falls not on the viability of individual cells, but on the coherence of the whole. 

That is where our technology needs to take us. I don't think a centralised server-based architecture can deliver this. We need something else. Documents can now be created collaboratively and used as vehicles for dialogue. This is opening the way for individuals to become "inter-mediaries" in document production, rather than authors. Distributing documents for diverse collaborative production is something that Microsoft Teams does very well - which is interesting - but then this technology works on a different technical principle to the  CMS. Can a coordination between different groups producing different documents be created so that some groups can naturally split (mitosis/meiosis) or die (apoptosis), all the time maintaining the coherence of the whole? These are the questions we really need to think about if we are to set ourselves straight for the future. 

Saturday, 19 September 2020

Technology's Future in Education

Looking at the EdTech landscape right now, in the light on the Coronavirus pandemic, it seems that things have settled-down to an established set of tools, where "the future" is mapped-out by the as-yet-to-be-proven technologies of AI and big data. Certainly that is how the doom-sayer critiques of edtech appear to see it. But history often doesn't work out in the way that we imagine, and we've been certain about the way things will work out in the past, only to be surprised by what actually happens.

There are some early indicators among the current crop of technologies that things may change radically once more. The first indicator is the re-emergence of an old tussle between centralised systems like content management systems, and decentralised document distribution systems. 

Many institutions have been refreshing their Virtual Learning Environments, and perhaps the biggest surprise in this "refresh" is quite how little has changed in 20 years. The VLE is really a content management system that manages people, content and activities together. As a centralised management system, it provides students with very little that they can do for themselves: all the functionality is focused on the management of students and the allocation of resources. For this reason, the UK name "Virtual Learning Environment" is at least less misleading than the US "Learning Management System". But in truth, these systems are neither "learning environments" nor systems for "learning management". They are administration systems which help keep track of the transactions of learning. 

 But at the same time as institutions have been refreshing the VLE, they have also invested in Microsoft Teams for real-time virtual classrooms. Now, Microsoft have an interesting history in groupware, where they have experimented with CMS systems, and with document distribution systems. Their Microsoft Office Groove system from about 2007 allowed for the peer-to-peer sharing of documents both online and offline, although they abandoned this when they put their weight behind Sharepoint. 

But it seems that the document distribution model is back with Teams, and particularly with the Teams Class Notebook. The Teams Class Notebook is a document distribution system where the OneNote notebook is divided into sections, some of which are solely controlled by teachers, some of which are controlled by individual learners, and some which can be edited as shared documents in real-time (like GoogleDocs). Teachers can create resources and "push" them out to learners, so that learners then take ownership of the documents, can customise them and organise them to suit their own purposes. Teams uses its messaging infrastructure to drive the communication and coordination process between all the student notebooks so that the teacher can keep track of what everyone is doing.   

It's rather reminiscent of Liber and Olivier's Colloquia VLE from the late 90s, where documents and activities were distributed through emailed zipped IMS Content Packages. Teams does the same thing, but has replaced email with their technology, and the Content Packages with the OneNote file specification. 

However, there are some advantages that Colloquia had over the current Teams Class Notebook. Being completely peer-to-peer meant that students could create their own groups and classes and distribute resources independently of the teacher. In Teams, this wouldn't be easy to do as things stand (everyone would have to be a "teacher") - but it is something that I'm sure people will experiment with. And then there is the issue that Teams is tightly integrated into the institution's IT infrastructure, and that including people from outside the organisation presents a large number of barriers. 

My guess is that Teams Class Notebook will inspire people to think differently about technology once more - we don't need big Content Management Systems for Education; we need distribution mechanisms which can be coordinated by teachers and learners. That's important not just for education. The CMS model dominates almost all web platforms - Facebook is the classic example. But if Facebook worked as a document distribution model, it would be very different. 

The difference, I believe, may lie in the way that individuals taking control of their own resources can promote the making of personal meaning and connections between things. At the moment, our meaning-making processes are beholden to algorithms presenting new stuff to us all the time, often trying to sell us stuff. But if we could share documents by distributing them and accepting distributed documents from people we trust then making our own connections within our personal collections can deepen the way in which we process information and think about the world. 

I wouldn't be surprised to see some kind of convergence between new forms of edTech and new forms of Social Software in the coming years. Institutions of education are going to have to adapt to this stuff. If the making of personal connections and personal meaning becomes the focus rather than simply "swimming in information", then the central question will become "What do institutions do to help individuals make sense of their technical environment?" Is AI going to help there? I doubt it - at least not in the Golem-like way we currently conceive of it.  

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Beyond the USS Pension Fund Collapse

There is a certain air of relief in UK universities that they have students - albeit a much reduced intake from overseas. However, nobody is relaxed about the future. The UK higher education system is oscillating like Tacoma Bridge: it is experiencing violent shocks both internally and externally (this has been happening since before the pandemic), and it is reacting to each of these shocks in a way that reveals that both our institutional structures and our compass are broken. 

The latest shock is the unsurprising revelation that the USS pension scheme - already in trouble - is now in such trouble that anyone looking at it might reach the conclusion "is it worth it? do we quit and invest money elsewhere?" That's very dangerous for a pension scheme. It's difficult to know the larger-scale effects of this, but it is almost certain to make working in HE in the UK unattractive.

There is no question that the marketised universities have exploited labour - particularly of temporary/hourly-paid staff. The union response to this, compacted by the pension issue, may be come to be seen as a warning for what is about to come. Although I had very mixed feelings about the strikes, when we stop listening to each other (which was one of the factors that led to it), serious trouble is always around the corner.

In the  final analysis, the question to ask when things seem to be shaking themselves to bits, is What's it all about?, Why do send our kids to university? The conventional wisdom (if you can call it that) among many management teams has been "we're businesses - it's about making money". This attitude, promoted by government, is directly responsible for the extent to which things risk falling apart now. It will be seen to be a classic case of the dangers of having a poorly inspected ontology. More importantly, it will be seen to be a warning that no senior manager of Higher Education can afford not to understand the importance of a grasp of the deep reality of education (how many managers even understand what "ontology" means?). Unfortunately, both sides in the industrial action suffered the same problem. 

A grasp of the deep realities of education requires thought and reflection. It requires a university to think about what a university is. This task is exactly the same as finding (or refinding) one's compass. Having said this, the lack of reflection has resulted from deeply embedded political interference in universities which has pushed them towards a market model. It has also jeopardised the personal security that all of us hope for towards the later stages of life.

A deep reflection on the realities of education cannot now exclude technology. Technology, in many ways, occupies much of the same territory as education: communication, collaboration, coordination of intellectual activity, construction, etc. Like universities, its ontology is poorly understood, but tech firms are not universities. Because they really are businesses, they have been seduced by marketised universities as opportunities to make large sums of cash. But at its root, technology is simple and (to a large extent) free. What has been missing are the dispositions to engage with it creatively and intellectually. While the pandemic has brought much crashing down, this creative and intellectual engagement with technology has been transformed, and things will not be the same again. It is noticeable that much of that creative technological engagement has featured retired professors, who - thanks to their generous pensions - can afford to make valuable contributions.

In many ways - although it certainly doesn't feel like it - our present crisis is caused by an embarrassment of  riches.  Our problem is not only deciding which way to go when there are so many options, but in remembering why we are travelling. To make universities rich? No. To pass on sufficient wisdom, memory, foresight and capability to the next generation so that they can negotiate the future? That must be it, mustn't it? So the possible collapse of the pension fund doesn't just indicate an immediate (or impending) loss of cash. It indicates that our values were misplaced. 

Universities must be viable and effective. To do so, their members - students, teachers, managers, must feel secure and able to think creatively, believing what they do is meaningful and makes the most of their intellectual talents. Right now, nobody feels secure in universities - partly because we are all - of whatever political persuasion, influenced by the illusions of market capitalism. This risks causing a debilitating intellectual malaise which will exacerbate the crisis. That is most likely to manifest in more industrial action. 

This is the point where intellectual authority is required - so desperately lacking from the present government. Only "health and quiet breathing" can create the unity between a deep understanding of the social necessity for higher education, the nature of technology, and the viable institutional model which can nurture and sustain it.

Friday, 4 September 2020

More on the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association: What online learning was meant to be!

 We've just finished the 4th week of the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association conference... It feels like a marathon - but what an amazing set of talks! You can see them all here: Overall, over 60 people have attended from all over the world - which is a number of attendees not seen since ANPA was founded in Cambridge 41 years ago. 

The level of depth of engagement, the level of mutual listening to one another, the variety of the presentations, it's all been extraordinary. Everyone says how amazing the impact of the technology is on the discourse. This is what online learning should always have been! We missed it because the community making the noise in online learning were the online educators - and they were not the most important people. 

In universities, the important people have always been the intellectual experts and deep thinkers within their own disciplines. The best of them would always think beyond their disciplines and listen to everything - and we've got many of the best of them in ANPA. It's also worth saying that because of the marketisation of education, these people have been oppressed within the university. Talking about the foundations of physics, or the connection between biology and consciousness became harder and harder in a transaction-driven system that was focused on certifying students and making money. The problem is that  all that transactional stuff is bloody boring. 

Covid is producing many changes, not least in the fact that the elders are now on Zoom. But more importantly, the closure of the campus has exposed the transactional nature of university learning as deeply deficient. Intellectual depth and real interpersonal connection will be essential for the university's survival in the future. As I've argued previously (and about to publish in Postdigital Science and Education), the transaction-driven model of marketised education relied on the campus to soften the blow of the outcome-driven educational process. The campus was a kind of biological surrogate.

With the campus gone (and yes, another lockdown is likely, isn't it?), a new balance must be struck. 

John Torday's presentation to ANPA provides what I think is an explanatory framework for what is happening to us. Our epigenetic environment has been transformed by Covid-19. Now is the time to rethink the biological foundations of our learning theory - particularly in the light of technology. It is, fundamentally, to rethink Piaget's genetic epistemology and Papert's constructivism (which drew heavily on Piaget)

My presentation was connected to this. I talked about "ontological theatre" of cybernetics (and Pask's involvement in ANPA has been a revelation to me), and the connection to David Bohm's idea that theory was a "theatre of the mind", and to think about what happens when minds come together.

This was Bohm's vision of a scientific dialogue: a tuning-in together of many brains operating thought together. It was also Stafford Beer's idea of "many brains thinking as one brain". My talk took in fractals, anticipation, a doodling program which I wrote, Rachmaninov's Corelli Variations and John Cage. It was fun!

But there have been so many talks - all of which will now receive new audiences for years to come. Mike McCulloch's propulsion mechanism explained with "information loss" was perhaps the most astonishing, but there were so many others, including beautiful artistic images from John Hyatt and Lynnclaire Dennis, or Andrew Crompton designing dice, or David McGoveran's wonderful overview of ANPA history in the US, or striking mathematical work drawing on quaternions from Doug Matzke and Mike Manthey.

And there's another 2 weeks to go!

Friday, 14 August 2020

An Online Space for Operating Thought

The most exciting thing that has happened since the lockdown is the reorganisation of intellectual engagement among scholars from all kinds of disciplines. When everyone, of all ages, was stuck at home in front of their computers, all over the world, it became easy to say "let's meet up in zoom and talk about all those things which we never got to discuss properly in the 20 minute slots in conferences". There are a number of groups now operating, and they need to be catalogued. I would mention John Williamson's QuiCycle for discussion around  physics (, and the "Important Things Group" featuring the encounter between physics and biology, courtesy of John Torday and Peter Rowlands, and many others. Now I have been organising the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association (ANPA) conference online along similar lines - one presentation per day, lots of space for discussion:

We have reached the end of the first week of ANPA, and I have found it richly rewarding. We have had profound presentations by Peter Rowlands, Mike Horner, Louis Kauffman and Dino Buzzetti. More importantly, all these presentations have been revolving around a single idea which relates back to Peter Rowland's seminal contribution to quantum mechanics, and Lou Kauffman's beautiful topology which draws on cybernetics and Spencer-Brown's Laws of Form. More impressive still is the fact that, as Dino Buzzetti and Mike Horner reminded us, these current ideas are closely related to the original ideas that caused ANPA to be formed 41 years ago,  alongside Margaret Masterman's Cambridge Language Research Unit. A key figure was Gordon Pask, who not only contributed to the theory but also made a machine (this helps explain how Pask's thought extended from education to consciousness and physics). 

I was wondering what Pask would have made of our zoom conference. Perhaps he would have suggested richer shared spaces for activity other than the conference chat. But at the same time, I don't think anyone who has built on Pask's work in educational technology has really considered the situation of eminent thinkers really coming together through technology, thinking together through that technology, and thinking together about a common set of ideas. 

I'll say something about Dino Buzzetti's presentation in a future post, but this point about thinking together was most evident in Lou Kauffman's presentation. It was beautiful partly because of its theatre. David Bohm always argued that "theory" was a kind of "theatre" - the words have the same etymological root. There is a process that occurs in the interplay between pictures, words, logic and structure whereby the interference between those parameters mixes with the interferences of everyone else's constructions of those parameters, to reproduce these structures in other minds. Bohm called this process "dialogue" and says that its purpose is to "operate thought". Thought, he said, is a bit like a machine, and we have to learn how to use it, which we can only do by coming together like this. 

Lou used beautiful hand-drawn equations and diagrams to illustrate his point that the point was nothing. And perhaps its nothing which is the result of all those interference patterns. Or it's nothing that permeates the patterning of those interference patterns. Either way, it seems if we want to see "wholes", we should look for "holes".


Wednesday, 12 August 2020

The Exams Crisis: The Establishment Crumbles from Society's Children Upwards

Coronavirus is exposing the poverty of understanding of what really matters in society. If education  has been seen to be a priority at all, it is because the function of school in "keeping the kids off the streets" has been prioritised (behind lots of bluster about "learning"). 

In its ongoing development, like any organic entity, a society must exercise ways of making distinctions about things. Most of all, it must make distinctions about its own components as old components die, and new ones are born. Societies are autopoietic. Unfortunately, the ways that society conceives of its components, its structures, its purpose are determined by the established "components", most of whom have a vested interest in sticking to the old ways of making distinctions, and the old ways of structuring things.  Education is the vehicle by which nothing changes: it is supremely resistant to the demand for change, however much the world changes. While "Innovation" might be thought of as an engine for change, in fact this is education's immune system. But it's ok - because the world doesn't change too much.

Well, you can guess what's coming. 

It's not just societies that are autopoietic. People are too. Each of us, as biological entities is continually regenerating our cells in order to maintain our viable functioning in a changing environment. This is where what we call "learning" is happening. For the most part, the most important environmental phenomenon to which we have to adapt is our cultural environment - the world of jobs, money, mortgages, etc. This cultural environment sits on a substrate of the natural world which is biological and physical, but for the most part, the substrate is ignored by those busy with maintaining the culture milieu and making lots of money. 

Ignoring things is dangerous. Universities used to take the natural environment far more seriously than they do now. Fundamental inquiries into nature drove the scientific revolution. But today, nature is merely a "subject", some words on the curriculum, alongside all the other words like "accountancy" and "architecture". Its boxed-off, compartmentalised, separate. But this is the lie from where the ignorance comes.  

Our children are our natural inheritance. Their biology will come to dominate the cultural milieu when we are dead. Because of the rigidness of our thinking about our societal components, we are killing the very resource that offers hope for the future. It's as if we can't help ourselves - and that is one of the most frightening things about coronavirus - the threat of positive feedback in the biological and social system.

This isn't about kids getting into medical school or not, or kids getting grades they were awarded for exams that weren't taken terribly seriously by anyone. It's about how we conceive of the components and organisation of society, and how we create the conditions for development of its ongoing functioning. Everything that is called "Establishment" stems from the selection processes which operate on children in school. Everything is programmed for conservation of a rigid way of doing things, and this conservative impulse gets stronger the more uncertain the world gets. A number of Tory politicians (including the PM)  are saying that we need more exams. This is precisely the phenomenon of ramped-up conservatism in the light of increased uncertainty - positive feedback. 

We may be close to a breaking point. Just as the intense heat of the last few days is finally giving way to thunder and rain, so the anger of young people against a political class which is clearly incompetent may lead to a breath of fresh air. This anger has an existential and biological root, which doesn't just speak for the individual, but for the species. 

Who gets to be a doctor or a teacher? Who gets to be an artist or a thinker?  Who doesn't want to go to university? Who wants to serve in cafes or design space rockets? 

The answer must be: anyone who wants to. Equally, nobody should have to get the mental health problems, eating disorders or suicide attempts. 

Society then must organise itself to make this happen, and what it will take will be a fundamental rethinking of the relationship between nature - including the nature of our biology as sentient organisms - and culture, as the world of language and the speech acts that give us money, presidents, corporations and football matches. 

But this can only happen if society finds a new way to think about itself. It needs a language to express its use of language, in the context of the language it uses to describe its biology, physiology, and the material contents of the planet and the universe. A way of understanding the way we build things, and a way of understanding how we can build things differently. 

The establishment is crumbling. We need a meta-language to escape the trap of positive feedback which will otherwise finish us all off.  

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Alternative Natural Philosophy Association Online

The Alternative Natural Philosophy Association is a scholarly society which began in Cambridge 41 years ago, established by Ted Bastin (see, Frederick Parker-Rhodes (see, Clive Kilmister (see, David McGoveran (see, John Amson and H. Pierre-Noyes (see . Whilst the academic background of its founders lay in theoretical physics - and one particular theory called the "combinatorial hierarchy" (see dominated the early meetings - the intellectual ambition was always much broader than physics. Figures on the periphery of ANPA included Gordon Pask (Bastin worked extensively with Pask) and David Bohm (Basil Hiley, Bohm's collaborator in London, sometimes attended ANPA), and Roger Penrose (who collaborated on a book with Bastin about quantum theory).

This is Bastin, Kilminster and McGoveran discussing the combinatorial hierarchy in December 1992:

I got involved with ANPA 4 years ago, invited by physicist Peter Rowlands who I met at Liverpool university. I had been involved with the American Society for Cybernetics, and realised Peter and I knew some of the same people. I had got to know people through cybernetics, and he through physics. My meeting Peter occurred because I asked Loet Leydesdorff if he knew of anybody who was doing anything around anticipatory systems in Liverpool. Loet sent me a conference proceedings which mentioned Daniel Dubois (who work in anticipatory systems in seminal), and Peter Rowlands from Liverpool. Loet had worked with Daniel in developing anticipatory systems in the social sciences, and Peter (it turned out) knew Daniel well. And then the pieces started falling together. Peter also knew Louis Kauffman very well, who is one of the leading figures in cybernetics.

Last year, ANPA took place in Liverpool University, following a conference on Laws of Form, which is a mathematical theory which is closely related to approaches to physics. This year ANPA is online, hosted courtesy of Liverpool's Zoom account, and I'm organising it. Normally, this is a conference lasting a week. This year, I thought that nobody wants to spend all day staring at Zoom, so we could do one presentation per day, for a number of weeks - more like a festival than a conference. We started yesterday, with a presentation on the history of ANPA from Mike Horner, followed by a discussion where some of the older members of ANPA shared their memories and thoughts. For anyone interested in the history of ANPA, this is an excellent introduction.


It worked well, barring the usual technical glitches of Zoom. 

There's something very important happening with this online stuff. It would have been difficult to convince many academics to put up with online engagement before the pandemic. Now everyone's online - and more than that, people who haven't seen each other for decades because of difficulties travelling are not only meeting up and sharing memories and ideas, but creating a video resource which will exist for future generations.  

These kinds of discussions used to happen in universities (although ANPA was always a bit esoteric). But today, even in Cambridge, discussions of this nature won't be found. All universities, without exception, are now businesses. The academics have gone in search of a new forum for exploring deep ideas - and it is online. My betting is that students will follow in the fullness of time.

In the phase of development in online learning since the web, the focus was very much on teaching and learning rather than disciplinary scholarly engagement. I wonder if this led to some errors of thinking which require deeper inspection that is only possible with the kind of scholarship that manifests in things like ANPA. Educational research, by and large, provides only a very pale representation of scholarly thought about consciousness, communication and learning. If we want to get closer, we need to talk to the people looking at nature from the deepest perspectives. 

When their discussions start to embrace the technology which we have had for 20 years or so, and they make their deliberations available to everyone else, there is an opportunity not only to move things forwards in education, but to rethink how we organise intellectual engagement and academic apprenticeship more generally: the very things that universities are there to do. 

The ANPA programme is available here:

It is open to anyone, so if you would like to come, please contact me and I'll send you the Zoom link.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Luhmann and Biology

Niklas Luhmann's social systems theory is one of the most impressive achievements in the social sciences in the second half of the 20th century. Widely appreciated and mainstream in Germany and across mainland Europe, it remains far less well-known in the Anglo-Saxon world, beyond the realms of systems theorists who knew about Luhmann's hinterland, cybernetics, Maturana, etc. 

Loet Leydesdorff is about to publish a new book detailing the intellectual relationships that Luhmann had with Habermas and the intellectual elite in the 60s and 70s. This history is important because its not just our institutions that are in a mess at the moment, but our disciplines - not least, sociology. 

For those who want to critique Luhmann, his dependence first on the biological cybernetics of Maturana and Varela is a cause to claim "biological reductionism", or his later fascination with Spencer-Brown as a kind of sophistry which doesn't convince Leydesdorff.  It's remarkable that despite these criticisms, and indeed the criticism by Maturana that Luhmannn had misappropriated his theory, that Luhmann is the only figure from mainstream cybernetics to have had a major transformative impact on a discipline, with important work drawing on it - from Kittler's media theory (again, pretty much unknown to Anglo-Saxon media departments) to Yuk Hui's recent and brilliant "Recursivity and Contingency" which is spreading around the world. People reading Hui will learn about Ashby, Maturana, Von Foerster, Simondon, etc from this. 

Luhmann, like Stafford Beer, grounded his theory in biology. Autopoietic theory said that organisms maintain their structure by reproducing their components. Luhmann said that communications and discourses were the same. His project was to detail the mechanisms of reproduction in the discourses of economics, law, education, art and so on. It was a biological metaphor applied to a historical sociological analysis. Leydesdorff has impressively (but sometime impenetrably) operationalised this. By going back to Luhmann's intellectual foundations in phenomenology (Husserl, Schutz, Parsons), and drawing this together with biological work that Maturana didn't consider in detail (Robert Rosen, Daniel Dubois) and information theory (Shannon), Leydesdorff has created powerful analytical techniques for analysing discourses and identifying the mechanisms of autopoiesis by looking for "anticipatory systems" in the imprint of communications.   

At the heart of Leydesdorff's techniques has been the analysis of "mutual redundancy" - something which I have played a part in too. Redundancy is so useful and powerful because it exists at all levels of communication, from cellular organisation to language. The technologies that allow us to make comparisons between different levels of analysis are becoming more available. Leydesdorff was able to exploit the internet to make measurements of discourses. But now we have so much more - physiological data is available to anyone with a FitBit or an Apple watch, and more sophisticated techniques for analysing other facets of communication like prosody, body movement, etc are all becoming easier to operate. 

These physiological data points throw the spotlight back on Luhmann's drawing on Maturana. What is the relation between cell-talk and people talk? Cell learning and organisation and people learning and organisation? More to the point, people are aggregates of cells which have a history both in the ontogeny of the person, and in the phylogeny of the species. 

We know that developmental history is fundamental to present behaviour and learning. We know that developmental history was informed by environmental conditions. We're not clear about exactly how this works. How should our education policy progress if it turns out that (as we suspect) the history of environmental conditions are inseparable from individual development. Poverty, austerity, unemployment, stress, etc will all contribute to developmental problems - an uneven playing field which serves nobody well.   

Eugenics is generally considered a dirty word even in right-wing educational thinking. But it permeates a lot of educational thinking on the right and the left. The idea that individual merit and achievement is purely down to individual "effort" - Blair's "meritocracy" (which he never saw the irony in) is implicitly eugenic. It is implicit in the awful video that UniversitiesUK sent out that I commented on in my previous post. 

It is gaps in our theory which lead to this. The grasp of environment and history in the understanding of educational development is urgent if we are to make things better in education. In a sense the theoretical project is an extension of Piaget's "genetic epistemology" - but we've got to look beyond manifest biological structures and more towards their ontogeny and phylogeny. Mass education is about as old as the last pandemic. Perhaps it's about time we used the anniversary (and the current pandemic) positively. 

Friday, 7 August 2020

Taking Stock of Epigenetics and Universities

I've had some nice things happen recently, including publication of a paper with Loet Leydesdorff on musical communication and anticipatory systems in the journal Systems Research and Behavioural Science. The techniques I developed in this music paper have also been used in another paper which is getting published in the journal Interactive Learning Environments extending work on anticipatory systems into studying learning conversations and concept formation (work which I did in Russia - it would have been impossible to do in the UK). After having not published very much since my book last year (which I keep meaning to revisit but never get the time), it's quite nice to have two papers in good journals published at once. 

My day job is not academic. Like many working in educational technology, we tend to spend our time chasing problems in systems that are designed by corporations, herding staff into new (sometimes uncomfortable) practices, dealing with the political can of worms that has become institutional IT, and now with the added intensity of COVID, there is no time to think. Which is a bad thing in a university. 

It seems that in modern universities (particularly in the market-obsessed UK) thinking is regarded as inessential - something of a luxury. It's more important to "deliver" than to think. Good staff, under pressure to deliver, will know that delivery without thought is madness, and will spend much of their own time (unpaid) doing the thinking work, often in isolation. It will exhaust them as they then try to deliver something meaningful on top. It will exhaust them more that nobody around them actually sees the importance of thinking, or acknowledges that this is so critical and requires time and space. 

I suppose my deep question here (which I ask when I do have time to think) is "Why have we become so stupid?" My answer to this is that Universities have convinced themselves that the environment they operate in is entirely cultural - it's a world of the "knowledge economy" and "markets", learning outcomes, institutional brands and certificates (ironically, this is what Loet Leydesdorff's work has concerned itself with!). COVID has shocked us all because it has reminded us of the fundamental importance of the natural environment - not just the world around us, but our own biology. As evolutionary biologist Simon Conway Morris wrote "First there were bacteria, now there is New York"

Stupidity comes from failing to understand one's environment.

We are biological organisms. We are not technical systems. Our biological constitution right down to the microbiome really matters. Many think the microbiome is deeply connected to our thinking and educational processes, but at the very least thought and consciousness sits on a biological substrate. We are at the beginning of discovering the extent of the connection between the microbiome, thought and consciousness as COVID transforms the natural environment of education. 

The simple fact is that the epigenetic landscape of the campus - the biological markers which affect the ongoing development of each of us - is different from the epigenetic landscape of online learning. Ironically, this can help explain why and how universities have become somewhat thoughtless places. In many ways educational practices have become increasingly transactional over the last 20 years, whilst universities have spent their increasing income on new buildings - coffee bars, sports halls, students accommodation, learning spaces. It's as if the somewhat cold transactional processes of education for which the institution charged increasingly large fees needed to be compensated for with new spaces which were more biologically connected (and epigenetically rich) to make the transactional stuff bearable. Disneyland operates on a similar principle: generate enough oxytocin in the place, and nobody will complain about queuing for hours to buy a burger for $20. 

Take the campus away - what happens? We're left with the cold transactional stuff administered by learning platforms, but no compensation. That's not going to work. The experience will be similar this account of a person who was living in a plush new flat in Battersea during lockdown:

The complex included restaurants, spas and bars. But when all those closed down because of the pandemic, the reality of her environment dawned on her.

"I spent seven weeks isolated there and realised that I absolutely hated it," she told the BBC. When you take away all the amenities that these developments advertise, then you realise you're just living in a glass box. It was a ghost town. It was just very soul-destroying living in this enormous development with no life going on."

That's the difference a change to the epigenetic environment makes. Education is meant to nourish the soul - but if the only soul nourishment took place in the campus bars and clubs (and the actual education was cold and transactional), then we're heading for trouble.

As if to underline the point and the folly of the educational establishment in believing they can ignore the biological environment, this rather shocking student-blaming video appeared from UniversitiesUK, promoting universities and exhorting students to cough-up, study online, and "stay strong":

The professoriate have, however, been reorganising themselves online. My "Important things group" (I ought to think of a better name) continues to meet (this is now week 13), discussing epigenetics (thanks to John Torday from UCLA) and physics (thanks to Peter Rowlands and his important nilpotent quantum mechanics). There are important contributions from Marc Pierson with his insights into systems theory, Richard Heiberger from Temple University with his brilliant insights into statistics, Andrew Crompton's  (Liverpool) polymathery, Steve Watson's insights into education (Cambridge), Elizabeth Maitland's (Liverpool) work in management, Vinca Bigo's work on meditation (Kedge Management School, Marseille), Kerry Turner's knowledge of General Systems Theory and Sebastian Fiedler from Nurtingen and Geislingen University who brings insights into educational technology and psychology. 

As biological organisms, we need to think. Universities were formed as places for thinking. The deep thinking is now happening online. 

Does deep thought produce epigenetic markers which promote a confluence of ideas which is enjoyable and rewarding to participate in? My experience of comparing mindless managerial zoom meetings with this zoom meeting suggests to me that it does. Exploring the physiology, communication, environment, epigenetics, and technological activity seems to me to be an important research opportunity. 

Monday, 3 August 2020

Why Nothing Matters

We tend not to aspire to amount to nothing! To conceive of nothing as the absence the present, of time, space, my dinner, etc, is of course not new – all religions postulate an afterlife in this way. But to conceive of present nature as being nothing, amounting to nothing, is much harder for us to bear. We all want to probe the:
“frontiers where we are learning, and our desire for knowledge burns. They are in the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, at the origins of the cosmos, in the nature of time, in the phenomenon of black holes, and in the workings of our own thought processes.” (Carlo Rovelli)
So we start from us, here now, and we look back and speculate about origins. Somehow, it seems to help how we feel about ourselves. But our journey from our present state back to past is reasoning after the fact of our own evolution. Evolution itself has its own logic, but this logic is obscured from us. 

All scientists are a bit like a Neanderthal cave dweller, who (as Rovelli discusses) mapped antelope tracks in the snow. They understood the existential threats of starvation and predation. Antelope tracks are essentially negative, nothing – they are the absence of snow or earth. With the benefits of intelligence and observation of this “nothing”, our forebears could eat, fight predators, and we are here. Even Raquel Welch survived! Without this, none of them would have survived, and we wouldn’t be here.  

Today, we understand the existential threats to our survival as a species on this planet. Where are the antelope tracks we need to map and understand now so that we survive? Where is the imprint of nothing from which we can organize ourselves into effective collective action for survival? These imprints of nothing lie in our biology, our language, our institutions, our economies, and in the relation between our cells and their evolutionary development from the beginning of time. 

Where perhaps we might have once seen a distinction between the "scientific" Neanderthal analysing tracks and the "artistic" Neanderthal telling stories about the tracks, now our looking for tracks looks to see those tracks both in the scientific marks of cellular communication, and in the linguistic marks of our language as we make stories, music and other forms of human activity - all the imprints of nothing produce a bigger map, which we need to follow.  

When we go looking for the imprint of nothing, we see a pattern which connects our human world of language and culture, to a biological substrate of cells and communication, disease and health, to a quantum world where established theories of quantum mechanics allow for confirmation that this indeed is an “antelope”, whose journey across time we need build new kinds of maps for, and whose journey into the future can be determined by our collective intelligent action.

This is what me and a few colleagues from different universities across the world have been doing online for some weeks now. This last week, there was a powerful discussion which started about nothing and energy, and gradually evolved into a discussion about physiological monitoring, fitness trackers, etc. Is there something there? 

Is there nothing there? might be a better question. 

Saturday, 18 July 2020

Important Things and Education

The discussion in the online "encounter group" between physics, biology, management, art and systems which I've been running for the last few weeks (we've been going for 10 weeks now), is something which I've longed for in education for years. It's no good talking about education just with educationalists - their discourse, like all discourses, play the games of disciplinary politics where some things are easily discussed, and other things are impossible to discuss. Only when we actually have people representing different disciplines having a conversation about important things that something special happens. But as Whitehead once said, if you want to know where the next scientific advance is coming from, look at what people are not talking about.

One of the group members remarked to me later that they were surprised that a leading biologist, physicist and social scientists were actually having a conversation which kept on going, and people keep on coming back. This week the conversation started talking about poetry and music, and quickly moved on to biology and Peter Rowlands's nilpotent quantum mechanics.

I think it is the nilpotent which is the glue, and the fact that John Torday has a theory of epigenetics which directly relates to the nilpotent has meant that a new conversation has opened. And that's exciting. 

Monday, 6 July 2020

Is Learning Unified?

A common criticism of education research is that there is no coherent theory of education. There are lots of specialised theories, mini-theories, practical rules, and a few macro-theories, but no coherent scheme within which they all hang together. Among the macro theories, constructivism serves the purpose of effectively explaining this unhappy situation away: because theory, like knowledge, is constructed there can be no single overarching process unifying learning.

The question of the unity of learning is related the much discussed question of the unity of consciousness (see Consciousness too suffers the same fate - there are obviously lots of processes going on in consciousness. Is it simply a happy accident that they all come together to produce my thoughts and actions, or is there some hidden mechanism that we will one day discover which ties the whole thing together. Because, it does seem that somehow the whole is tied together.

If we could take all the parameters of learning, alongside some guiding principle of how they might be connected, would we uncover a "unity of learning"?

This is something that has been lurking at the back of my "Important Things Group" which continues to meet online. This week's discussion ranged from the pathology of institutions to the nature of energy.

I wonder if the situation in education is a bit like the situation in chemistry before Mendeleev. There were obviously lots of differences between matter - different substances had different properties. But there was no way of unifying the way we spoke of those different substances - no way of relating things that looked completely different from one perspective, so that the deep connections not only between completely different things, but between those things and everything else could be made.

More importantly, because Mendeleev had an idea as to what the connecting principle might be, he could identify where those known substances fitted in his scheme, and (more importantly) where there might be substances that are not yet known that might fit in the gaps. The proof of what might be considered a "unity thesis" in chemistry came when he could fill the gaps.

So what are the parameters of learning? Communication, or conversation, seems to be an obvious one to start with. Of course, communication itself is not a single thing - it is a process. But it is a process with a pattern. It can generate order (in cybernetic terms, it reduces entropy) in understanding. It produces utterances, writings, videos, etc in the environment - it generates information. And it cannot do anything unless the living system which communicates has the energy to communicate.

Is the biological substrate of communication a parameter in learning? It must be, surely. So what is the pattern of the biological substrate? It turns out, this is homologous to the human conversation. Cells create order in their internal organisation and with each other. Cells create signals - proteins (information) - which they put into the environment of other cells.  And cells cannot do anything without energy, which they absorb through a process called chemiosmosis.

So we have two processes here which look very similar: one at a biological level, the other at a communicative/educational level. And they are connected.

Now the trick is to look for a pattern which unites the three basic parameters that have been described - negentropy, information and chemiosmosis. In Mendeleev's periodic table, atomic mass and reactivity were the fundamental variables he used to organise the varied phenomena of substances. The logic of reactivity was determined by a basic understanding of the need to balance chemical equations. If we look at the parameters of learning from the perspective of negentropy, signals and chemiosmosis, then is there a way of conceiving how these parameters might "balance", and how each item might "react" with others?

To do this, we need a more fundamental description of the parameters of learning than cells. We need to look at Quantum Mechanics. In Dirac's equation of quantum mechanics, there are 4 expressions which taken together detemine the behaviour of subatomic particles like electron, determining  (among other things) the Pauli exclusion principle which is the reason why electrons organise themselves into shells in the first place.

How does Dirac's equation work? It turns out that the sum total of all the parameters that it describes in the universe is zero. This is hardly a surprise, since Newton's 3rd law of motion also means that the total force in the universe must be zero. More surprisingly is the fact that Einstein's equation of mass energy and momentum can also be expressed as zero in the same way.

Zero may be the key.

So is zero the thing which provides the unity of learning? The attractiveness of thinking this is that if one analysed the parameters that we know about, and found that it didn't quite make zero, we would know that there must be some parameters which we had not properly considered. Effectively the parameters of learning form a kind of "group structure" which rotates according to the different degrees of elements of learning, and as they do, they leave gaps which reveal parameters that we hadn't thought about.

I want to pursue this a lot further, but it does resonate with me in some fundamental ways. Not least that the discovery of gaps, and the prediction of the parameters which might fill those gaps, seems to be a fundamental part of the process of teaching. Just as much as it was a fundamental part of the process Mendeleev went through as he probed his periodic table... 

Friday, 26 June 2020

Dialogue Jam in Vladivostok and the Connection to Global Online Research

I've long been an advocate of formative feedback through video (I was doing it over 10 years ago - 10 years ago, it took quite a lot of effort to do - but it was still worth it because students watched the videos and gained a lot more from this than they would have done if I'd just written it. Now this kind of practice has got a lot easier.

The global takeover of institutional groupware by Microsoft may be seen as an important moment for institutions. Microsoft Teams and Stream will shortly become institutionally ubiquitous in the same way that Word and Excel are today. The Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok invested in Teams a few months back, and my work with teachers there this week has fully exploited its potential. The Global Scientific Dialogue course which I was preparing them for involves lots of video communications - both synchronously and asychronously. Over the course of this last week, the asynchronous video communications were much more interesting that the synchronous stuff.

One teacher - a biologist - made a video of her comparing two documents about systems and organisation, revealing that she had been introduced years earlier to Wiener's book on cybernetics (this was an exercise that I'd asked them to do as part of the course). I didn't know about her familiarity with Wiener, but through a combination of auto-translated captions and video feedback I was able to make some contributions to her journey.  What's so important about this kind of feedback is that the listening that takes place is very careful - on both sides. We play-back and listen to each  other far more attentively than one would otherwise do.

I had a similar experience with another teacher/student, who initially said that they thought that online learning could be no good because there was no smell or touch. I initially thought this was a bit reactionary, but then I recalled conversations about epigenetics that I've been having with Prof. John Torday, and reminded myself that the epigenetic markers (some of which will produce smell) are indeed formative in biological (and by extension, cognitive) development. This is not to say that there can't be compensating factors - but perhaps these compensating factors lie in a deeper and more personal engagement which itself can produce other kinds of epigenetic marks.

This raises the whole issue of deeper connections and what else is happening online - particularly in the wake of the pandemic. Everyone is at their computer. So people can install all kinds of new tools - AI tools (in Russia, I used a few mobile AI apps), tools for video making, tools for analysis and visualisation (we used deep dream), programming, etc. And increasingly we see tool-driven education with things like Kaggle. Tools are more important than content now, and provide the focus for discussion and learning.

On Thursday, the physics/biology discussion group met and we discussed a provisional idea of a "periodic table of biology". This was one of the most animated and exciting discussions we have yet had in the group - ranging from cell signalling to quantum theory at one end, and yoga and meditation at the other.

All of these things are now online. They are not in closed rooms along dusty corridors in buildings. They are on YouTube and GitHub. And the kind of meta-discussion which I was having with my students in Vladivostok could equally be connected with the discussions that scientists and sociologists/psychologists are having in the discussion group. The technology is capturing conversation, and creating the opportunities for meta-conversation - and increasingly this is happening at the periphery of the traditional institution.

This is not to say that traditional institutions aren't important. But it is saying that the world of academia - and the practice of scholars - is changing very fast, and universities are slow-moving bureaucracies. It is not the first time in the history of Universities that this has happened. The Vladivostok experiment is a way of opening-out education to this new world of scientific dialogue and ubiquity of tools. The Russians can do it because they are not (quite) so beholden to the constraints of a market logic which is strangling universities in the West. The Chinese are also experimenting, and we should expect more radical experiments to come as they both hold on to more of their own students (so they don't go overseas - which will put Western Universities under financial stress), and they recruit teachers from the West. 

Conversation itself, in this form, can be "content". This is not content in the way we traditionally conceive it - it's not books and papers. It is a living system of human interactions between people who are thinking at the frontiers of science. Making the connections between students and these conversations is becoming increasingly feasible, just as making connections across the world and across languages is also becoming feasible (look how the translation tools in YouTube and Word provide enough information for communication to take place). Barriers are coming down.

If I was 18, this is what I would want to be involved in. I wouldn't want a load of assessments to gain points to get a certificate which won't deliver the job that it promised when I enrolled. I would want connection to the best minds around and find out how they talk, and to learn how I can join in the discussion. That is the new academic apprenticeship - the technology might have just cut out a whole load of irrelevant barriers.  

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Meta-Dialogue at the Far Eastern Federal University

On Monday at 6am I'm leading a small group of Russian teachers at the Far Eastern Federal University in a preparatory course for the next iteration of the Global Scientific Dialogue course which is now in its 3rd year. I've said many times how much I have appreciated the openness and creativity of my Russian friends, which has often been in stark contrast to the rigid market-oriented constraints of the Anglo-Saxon HE system. We need difference - and I don't believe difference is going to come from the ideology of Anglo-Saxon HE.

Global Scientific Dialogue was always envisaged as a vehicle for driving conversation between students and teachers. It was really inspired by the work of physicist David Bohm, who realised that the fundamental problems of science were not in the content matter of science - they were in the way scientists talk to each other. It was bad in Bohm's time. With the naked marketisation of the knowledge economy and the gamification of academic publishing, things are much worse now. The course also drew on work on conversation from cybernetics (Gordon Pask), phenomenology (Alfred Schutz, Edmund Husserl), sociology (Niklas Luhmann, Loet Leydesdorff), mathematics (George Spencer-Brown, Lou Kauffman), philosophy of technology (Gilbert Simondon), biology (John Torday), and physics (Peter Rowlands). I've also been happy that the approach is aligned to other developments in dialogic education such as Rupert Wegerif's work in Cambridge (see The starting point of Global Scientific Dialogue was the point of realisation that all these people were basically saying the same thing - and we needed to talk about it.

The pandemic has accelerated things.  For some considerable time, it's been obvious that the professoriate of the academy (or at least those who were the real professors, even if they weren't formally recognised as such!) has been reorganising itself online. ListServs have been very important for nearly 20 years. The Foundations of Information Science ( has numbered some illustrious names in fields ranging from mathematics, physics, biology, semiotics, sociology and philosophy.

More recently, these scholarly discussions have shifted to videoed meeting through Zoom and other similar platforms. It took the pandemic to make this happen, but having got everyone on there (even the most tech-phobic professors), there will now be no going back. Physicist John Williamson's "quicycle" ( has been growing for a few years, but has really taken off in the pandemic. Last week mathematician Louis Kauffman gave a talk (which was a collaboration between him and Peter Rowlands in Liverpool) about the mysterious Majorana Fermion, and its topological significance. This was the discussion at the end:

I have accidentally ended up doing a similar thing, because of two friends whose work I introduced to each other, and because of the pandemic which made the Zoom connection possible. John Torday has a radical theory of evolutionary biology which relates cellular communication to quantum mechanics, and is backed up with an impressive array of empirical data relating to studies of the lung and asthma, while Peter Rowlands has spent his career rewriting the laws of physics in a way which provides a foundation for Torday's thinking, and which also is commensurable with fundamental work in mathematics developed by Kauffman. So we all met on Zoom, and have continued to meet each week, each time developing the dialogue and the connections between biology, physics and everything else. I have half-expected it to run out of steam, but it doesn't seem to have done yet. It started like this with four of us:

And gradually, I invited more people. They came from architecture, management, education, cybernetics, psychology, philosophy, art history, and technology (so far).

But the real trick is to get students involved. Joining the conversation now is a process of observation of the dynamics of people who are working at the frontiers of their fields talk with one another and attempt to find connections between one another. I've been wondering if that is too off-putting for students - there's no gentle way-in. Now, there's not even any time to make introductions. I try to keep the sessions to an hour (no more than 90 minutes).

I've been doing a similar dialogic thing with a group of students in Liverpool who have been doing projects related to educational technology. Because these students have come from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, the key has been to make connections between disciplines and technology, which inevitably means digging into the nature of technology, and its connection to biology, physics, sociology, history, art, etc. A couple of students ended up in academic area quite close to the discussion that I was hosting online. So I sent the student snippets of the online discussion saying "this is what people working at the frontier are doing, and this is how they are talking with one another". That seemed to fire their imagination, and many of the results have been very good.

I've often thought that "the way forwards is always meta". I don't know who said that first (it's a Bateson-ish thing perhaps), but I think it's right. So Global Scientific Dialogue will be a meta-dialogue. We've got to get the professoriate talking (the real professoriate). And we've got to video their discussion. These videos will become the resources to lead a meta-dialogue in which students can be introduced to the ways people talk, the content of what they talk about, their biographies, and in the process conduct their own dialogues based on this.

The students dialogues will then also create a resource-base at a different level - a commentary. Some students will gradually find that they are perfectly comfortable within the base-level dialogue group, participating with the scientists. Others will continue at a commentary level, producing dialogic resources which then feed another level of engagement by other students.

So in September, we will have 200 Russian students doing this, creating meta-dialogues. YouTube translation tools are going to be invaluable  (technology is so important to this process). This week I will concentrate on teachers doing it (which can be a resource for the students in September).

At the root of all this is a fundamental principle of education. To teach is to reveal one's understanding of something. It is not to hide oneself behind a Powerpoint presentation, but to reveal oneself - both when one is leading the argument, and when one is learning from others.   It actually can only work online - it would be impossible to do without technology. But more importantly, higher education can be much better for it.