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. 

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Pribram's Biology of Learning

The psychologist Karl Pribram contributed a fascinating essay on "The 4 R's of Remembering" in a volume of essays on the biology of learning (see and the essay here ( This volume also contains a fascinating paper from Konrad Lorenz, but Pribram's paper is the most striking because it cuts to the fundamentals of education in a way that nothing does today.

The poverty of our present scientific inquiry into education is a scandal. We have allowed a marketised education system to stymie inquiry in ways that have been shaped by journal publishers, with unconstructive critique which endlessly swings from one fad to the next, making random academic "celebrities" in the process, and a discourse on education which has become entirely beholden to the social sciences which are in a similar mess. The possibility for educational experiment has been dissolved by ambitious vice-chancellors alongside dull bureaucrats who defend mediocrity in the name of "quality". It's all ridiculous.

So Pribram's essay is a breath of fresh air - from 1969. His 4 R's are: "Representation, reconstruction, registration and rearrangement". But the biggest R is "redundancy" - through repetition and multiple descriptions of the same thing. Pribram doesn't explicitly mention this, but redundancy can be both synchronic and diachronic, and he sees "representation and reconstruction" as a form of synchronic structuring, while he sees "registration and rearrangement" as diachronic.

He begins by making the case for taking information theory seriously in education, and particularly redundancy over information (redundancy is the negative image of "information"). Gregory Bateson was making a similar point in his work at the same time. Redundancy is context, and without context, there is no meaning (tell that to the machine learning people!)

Pribram is interesting because his work drew on the quantum mechanics of David Bohm. He saw in the patterns of electrical activity in the brain a fractal which referenced the origins of the universe. This seems fanciful, but Pribram amassed a lot of evidence that something weird was going on. He was interested in how these fractal patterns encode memories in the brain. Within the brain, Pribram argued that there was a holographic process that related neurons to each other, and that this holograpphic process was related to the deeper "holomovement" that Bohm postulated within his physical theories. Something like this must be going on, intuited Pribram, in order to explain intuition, deep thought, insight and empathy - all those processes where the power of the intellect is so manifest and apparently magical.

This raises questions as to the mechanisms by which these holograms are established in the brain. Pribram speculates about the role of proteins encoding interference patterns, which implicates cellular processes of protein expression in DNA. But it also raises a question as to how an encoded interference pattern is then decoded to produce a "memory". The key in this process is the redundancy of the holographic encoding, and the way that this redundancy is paired with the presentation of input signals which trigger memories. Effectively, redundancies interfere with one another producing patterns which relate to the encoded mental structures ("Event dimly remembered become more vivid when we return to the scene of the experience"). Memory is carried "out there" as much as "in here": its in the DNA as much as it is in what we might now call the epigenetic marks in the environment.

Pribram concludes:
"for education, the moral is clear. Instruction (shared discovery of structure) should supplement teaching (showing). The tools for structuring and restructuring must be developed by the pupil; the machinery of reconstruction must be put together. The techniques of analysis and of synthesis are to be empasized. The simple repetition of loosely connected facts ought to give way to the search far structure in the material to which the student is exposed. The short-answer test, which explores the number of items retained (ever so briefly and meaninglessly), ought to be recognized for what it is-a labor saving. featherbedding procedure to process the students through the school system with the least possible effort on anyone's part."
For the diachronic aspects of cognition, Pribram makes more explicit reference to redundancy. He is particularly interested in the process of reinforcement, which obviously is an aspect of redundancy. He considers the role of redundancy in the encoding of time:
"The process can be conceived to encode and distribute redundancy in a temporal mechanism much as the neural hologram achieves the distribution of redundancy spatially. When this active organizing process is engag~d, events are promptly registered in memory. Without the operation of this mechanism, items must be repetitiously presented to the organism before they bccome "memorized.""
In the  accompanying "rearrangement" process, Pribram asks how a temporal encoded structure is decoded and reassembled through experience. He makes the case for a kind of selection mechanism which distinguishes the segments of memories and rearranges them appropriately. He relates this to the experience of education:

"These experimental results suggest that a great part of the educational process, except for the acquisition of skills, lies in arranging and rearranging one's experiences. When I was in college, as today, there were individuals who "cribbed" during exams. One of the most effective methods was to condense the most important material onto small cards or even onto the inside of the shirt cuff. I was impressed and envious-identification and imitation quickly suggested itself. But as I began to work studiously through the course material in order to compress the relevant facts and ideas adequately, I found that I could go the "cribbers" one better. The arranging and rearranging of notes constituted a superb review. And the aim toward parsimony in expression left me with a few key cards, which could now easily be committed' to memory, since a context had been provided by the review. With one stroke, rearrangement had given me superiority: not only did I remember the material for the examination; I gained knowledge of enduring value and didn't have to risk disruption of my social fabric or of my conscience."

I think this work is very admirable, even if I have some reservations about some aspects of the theory and methodology. We need more of this - particularly now. 

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Modelling Government Failure

I've just been watching Andrew Marr's interview with Michael Gove. It's easy to criticise the obvious, but it is much harder to ask scientific questions as to the underlying reasons for what is patently a collapse in the effective functioning of the institution of government. Government has spent so long modelling the dynamics of a virus that nobody fully understands, and making policy decisions on the back of the fairy-stories which emerged from red and green dots on a screen, that they failed to ask questions about themselves.  But in the final analysis, and in the light of international comparison, the story will be that the horrifying death toll was caused by government failure. It's little consolation that Johnson, Gove, Vallance, Cummings and co will be seen as tragically lethal lunatics to future historians.

Systems collapse when they are overwhelmed by complexity. Another way of thinking about complexity is to consider that it is the aggregate of the variety of different problems that must be managed: "variety" is sometimes used as a unit of complexity.

In asking about government failure, we should consider the mechanisms which produce the variety that the system cannot absorb. What COVID-19 actually did was increase the variety in the natural environment of society in a way which meant that existing structures of social organisation are no longer viable. Therefore, the thing that has to change is the organisation of society to something which is viable under the new conditions. Understanding and acknowledging the potential of the threat to the social environment so that there is readiness to drastically restructure society will obviously be the best way to absorb this kind of shock. It is not surprising that those countries who had recent experience with epidemics like SARS were well-equipped to change their social structures. But the first question to ask of the UK is, despite the "world-leading" research in public health, and ample work on the risks of a pandemic, nothing existed in the mechanism of government to enact a radical social reorganisation in a timely fashion.

It seems that many of the mechanisms that might have permitted this were dismantled for short-term economic reasons in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.

But this only explains the delays in acting. It doesn't explain the further chaos that has ensued, and which still appears to be apparent in government actions. Understanding that can shed more light on the lack of foresight in the beginning.

One of the most interesting phenomena from both the UK and the US has been the "daily government briefings". It's been more obvious in the US than the UK, but these have effectively been vehicles for government propaganda, reinforced by many media outlets with close ties to government. This info-war is at the root of government failure. It's basically the equivalent of the ENRON shareholder meetings where everyone is told "We're doing great!" when the opposite is happening. The financial crash of 2008 resulted from similar mechanisms of misplaced trust and political expediency.

The fundamental role of government is to maintain the viability of society. In order to maintain viability one has to understand the nature of the complexity that has to be managed, where it comes from, and what one must do to adapt so that it can be effectively absorbed by the inter-relationships of the government machine. But one has to study complexity to understand it, and particularly to take care that one is monitoring the right signals. All complex systems produce a vast array of different signals - think about how a heart condition might lead one to think that one has indigestion. If we track the wrong signals, we will reach the wrong conclusion.  If we act on the conclusions we reach from tracking the wrong signals, we are likely to make things worse. This is what's happened to the UK government.

So the question is "How has the government tracked the wrong signals, and how has its capacity to recognise its errors been compromised?"

I suspect there's an uncomfortable narrative that joins up a lot of the pathologies of the current UK government and its predecessors. It was the Blair government that discovered the power of managing the information flows from government to the people. By exploiting technology, governments realised they could use sophisticated techniques for making themselves look good, and remain electable. It is noteworthy that the Labour government was brought down by another environmental disaster in the financial crisis which arose because the same approaches had been used in the relationship between banks, investors and governments.

The Brexit campaign and the last two elections were the high watermark in the info-war, where not only UK actors like Dominic Cummings, Cambridge Analytica, etc were monitoring the infostreams, but mischievous foreign actors were in the mix too. The message was clear: manipulate the message and you'll stay in power (and you may get very rich). The underlying message to that was that it was the infostream which was the signal from which to monitor the health of the nation. It is the wrong signal.

So what happens when you monitor the wrong signal? You believe you have indigestion when you are about to have a heart attack. So you act to control the signal, and you make the problem worse.

The outward manifestion of this is the "announcement of progress". Every day, the government briefing has been full of initiatives: locking down, producing ventilators, financial support, ordering PPE, rates of testing, vaccines, bleach, international comparisons ("ooh we're better than x" - until we're not), opening schools, the app, the Isle of Wight, sunbathing, and so on. Whilst not wanting to draw attention away from the substance of some of these (like the lockdown or the financial support), each is an attempt to control the information stream. But it's chaos because the PPE doesn't arrive, the testing falls below target, the international comparisons don't work any more, and the app almost certainly won't work. But they knew these were likely risks before they made the announcement - so the announcement could only have been made in a desperate attempt to control the information stream, and maintain a sense that "We're doing great!" in the face of obviously contradictory evidence. The result is that the thing they wish to control - the information stream - actually becomes more complex to manage. It's positive feedback - the root of all system failure.

What this points to is a fundamental lack of variety and intellectual capacity at the heart of the government operation. It's pretty much what was said in a powerful article in BMJ last week (, criticising the constitution of the SAGE committee and the government's chief scientific advisers. There was nobody to say "You're monitoring the wrong signals" because "monitoring the wrong signals" is not a thinkable thought in a government whose main objective is to stay in power by manipulating the information flows between itself and the public. Government has effectively become a toxic monoculture.

What is actually needed right now is a restructuring of government. But it is very hard to see how this might happen. The monoculture is feeding itself, and many more thousands of people are going to die. The long term damage to the UK is going to be disastrous. In particular, the loss of so-called "soft power" (a deeper facet of information management) will have a huge cost on all our institutions - particularly universities.

So what is going to happen? A government machine hell-bent on its own survival at all costs, for which it sees the management of information as the principal guide to its success, will tie itself into increasingly complex knots. Its attempts to manage information will drive it to hide inconvenient figures, in the same way that we see in other countries. It will invent legalistic ruses to force people back to work in dangerous situations, and it may begin to prosecute those who oppose it. But at some point it will all snap.

Coronavirus has drastically changed our environment. But it is not the crisis. The real crisis is the systemic collapse of government.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

In the Disruptive Light of COVID-19

There was a bit of an unkind fuss when Clayton Christensen died, with a number of people criticising/blaming him for some of the unfortunate pathologies of recent educational technology. "Disruption" was a dangerous idea, it was claimed (although many of us got lots of funding for claiming our kind of disruption would be good!) Christensen's work certainly wasn't very deep (although nobody complains about that!), but if we had looked deeper, we would have seen a whole education system which sought Christensen's kind of "disruption" as a way of maintaining its existing structures and practices. It was a convenient foil for essentially conservative institutions to appear to be radical, whilst at the same time cutting-back on personnel and resources in the name of innovation. What they claimed to be "disruptive" was basically conservative neoliberalism - and it was bullshit.

Now, however, we have real disruption. Not Christensen's fairy stories, but a real monster turning everything, including our institutions, upside down. I'm not sure Christensen had a pandemic in mind, but what could be more disruptive? And in the light of this disruption, all those "disruptive innovations" are revealed in their true conservative light!

The point about these conservative disruptions is that they are not disruptive - they essentially reinforce an old order. They exist to serve a market of existing institutions, structured in a traditional way. Basically, they are parasites, and at the heart of their parasitic attachment are uninspected assumptions about education, certification, educational markets, institutional status, and learning.

What everyone is realising very rapidly is that you can't teach effectively online using the same practices that you might use face-to-face. But it is not just a matter of exploiting particular tools, or changing the structure of activities. The ethos of the whole educational enterprise is transformed when we move online. While it might have been enough to run through a few Powerpoints, exercises, or even do a little groupwork, where the intellectual depth of the engagement was often a little bit shallow, going online means the intellectual depth really matters.

We rarely talk about the intellectual depth of our engagements with students. The curriculum effectively sidelined intellectual depth in the name of measurable learning outcomes and the uniformity of educational "products": this was the end of thinking in our universities. But thinking really matters because it is only through depth of thought that real connections are made between people - between learners and each other, and between learners and teachers. It is only through depth of thought that we "tune in" to the inner worlds of each other, as Alfred Schutz put it.

Intellectual depth is not an epiphenomenon of doing assignments and getting a degree. It is an essential parameter in the establishment of relationships with each other and with the world. While the distractions and comforts of the campus might provide alternative ways in which relationships might form - in the coffee bar or the pub - compensating for the dull bureaucracy of the assessment machine, online the compensations are absent. The intellectual connection must happen between teachers and learners, otherwise the whole thing will fall apart. It was the real weakness of the MOOCs that this didn't happen.

The organisational problem for universities is that the space for teachers to establish meaningful connections has been removed and replaced with a one-size-fits-all curriculum jam-packed with textbook nonsense, assessments with rigid criteria that encourage shallow strategic learning, and vast over-recruitment which leaves everyone gasping for air. These are the real problems that universities will face in September. It's really got nothing to do with technology.

As for technology, really the simplest stuff will do. Intellectual depth doesn't require rich media, although the powerful digital artifacts that we can now make can be a spur to intellectually deep conversations.  However, because we think of artifacts like Powerpoint slides or videos as conveyors of information, we miss their essential relational effect: their power lies as objects in a shared lifeworld between the teacher and the learners. The learning is not in the object. It is in the depth of the intellectual conversation that we can have about the object.

COVID-19 is the most powerful and all-encompassing "object" to have invaded all our lifeworlds for as long as any of us can remember. This is what we should be talking about now. But I fear that come September, universities will try to ignore it. Of course they will do their social distancing, and online meetings, etc, but they will try to talk about curriculum objects which they always talked about (and many lecturers will hide behind their Powerpoints in Zoom, like they did in the classroom).

It's a weird situation really. Imagine War of the Worlds, where the Martians have landed, zapping people at regular intervals. In society, everyone is talking about it. Except in the universities - where they have Core Study Skills and Employability 101, and worry about whether there'll be enough humans left to fill their courses.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Beyond Homeostasis: Some thoughts on biology, physics and cybernetics

John Torday, Peter Rowlands, Andrew Crompton and myself had a Zoom meeting today in which we talked about some fundamental issues in physics and biology. These have a bearing on thinking about education and development, and a particularly strong association to cybernetics.

Both Peter and John have theories about nature which reference a kind of recursive recapitulating symmetry in nature, from a fundamental original order, through to complex manifest biological and physical reality. There are differences between them in terms of defining what this original order might be: for John, it is a historical event, the Big Bang, and its associated singularity (although I gather from Peter that the singularness of the Big Bang is now contested). For Peter, original order means a totality of nothing in the universe (from Newton's 3rd Law), with the recursive and recapitulating mechanism driving a process of complexification in nature through successive levels of expressing the original nothingness at different orders of organisation.

Of particular interest in the discussion was John's view of epigenetics as a fundamental mechanism of evolutionary development through continual interaction and absorption of the environment by cells which exhibit levels of homeostasis at different orders of complexity. As cells seek to maintain homeostasis, they absorb epigenetic marks from the environment which steers the evolution of the species. The epigenetic marks themselves found their way into the environment from biological reproductive processes, fundamentally involving the sex organs. In other words, the old generation's expressions of epigenetic marks will lie in the environment to be picked up by the next generation, and in so doing, the ontogeny of the individual organism recapitulates the phylogeny of the species.

With regard to certain hormones this is very interesting. The balance between the androgens and oxytocin - the former causing "fight or flight" behaviour, the latter fundamentally related to generosity and love - shifts from youth to old age. The dominance of oxytocin in later years may help explain the growing warmth of the elderly - particularly in their attitude to the young. This, John argues, is not simply a behavioural shift - it is an evolutionary balance that serves to nurture the future of the species. I can think of many examples of particularly aggressive men who, in old age, find a new warmth of tone in dealing with the world (and people forget what complete bastards they were when they were younger!)

If this recapitulation of phylogeny is a kind of regulatory mechanism, then it raises questions as to how we are to think about things like homeostasis at all. Homeostasis is the maintenance of a stable state in a system in its environment - but it is a local phenomenon: homeostasis in maintained in local biological systems. But with epigenetics we are not talking about a local situation, but a broad historical situation where biological processes are spanning generations.

Piaget preferred Waddington's term homeorhesis - which is the tendency to maintain a stable flow, rather than a stable state. But that doesn't quite do either, because it lacks any explanation as to what might be driving a processes of homeorhesis.

This is where Peter's theory is so powerful. If totality is zero (or nilpotent in Peter's terminology), and local phenomena recapitulate this zero-ness by seeking to cancel themselves out, then it is possible to imagine that both the expression of epigenetic marks like oxytocin or the androgens driven by a principle of nilpotency at one stage in one context, and where their absorption at a later stage by a different generation is similarly part of a local process of trying to "cancel oneself out". And that process can then reproduce what appears to be a regulating mechanism connecting ontogeny and phylogeny. The key mechanism in this process is the creation of a selection mechanism for the organism that determines its behaviour according to how it believes its survival will be most likely: in other words, an anticipatory system.

More deeply, this means that our concept of homeostasis is too flat to describe these inter-generational historical processes.  As Conant and Ashby noted, every good regulator of a system is a model of that system. The third dimension of homeostasis, or indeed homeorhesis is anticipation. In their normal cybernetic conception, neither concepts have it, and because of this, neither can explain the underlying force for regulation. Moreover, anticipation itself can be driven by a nilpotent principle.

So we have to get beyond homeostasis. In the three dimensions that Peter's work takes us towards, our systems concepts look very different.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Technology and the many-brain problems of science and education - a response to @Czernie

Our current world of edtech is not the only technological world for education that is possible. That is the most important point in a great piece by Laura Czerniewicz, which catalogues the challenges institutions currently face:

As Laura points out, our institutions are now in a deep state of crisis. There's no need to repeat the statistics. The livelihoods of academics, like the livelihoods of everyone else, are under threat. Academics are lucky not to face the immediate redundancies faced by many. This is what a dramatic change to the environment does to any organism (and people and institutions are organisms - things which maintain their existence in an environment) which has no capacity to adapt. The virus kills by starving people of oxygen. Our institutions and people will be starved of money.

But we knew our institutions were in deep trouble, we knew our economy was unsustainable, we knew the planet was dying long before any of this. But somehow our daily practices, whilst perhaps acknowledging some doubts, confirmed to us that things would go on as normal and the world would continue to be safe for us and our children. But deep down we worried.

So what is knowledge to an organism that helps it survive and adapt? And what happens to an organism that suddenly realises that it was listening to the wrong signals, and signals which it discarded were the really important ones? As people, we have this experience continually in our lives. We reflect, change course, change jobs, get married, get divorced, study, etc. None of these changes are easy. They demand deep contemplation, and as individuals, the greatest strength of humanity is that we possess the capacity to do this, and we instill this capacity in our children.

What about the organism of the institution? With globalisation, all our institutions towered over the world like colossi: banks, airlines, governments and universities. They were the environment for individual people. We had replaced nature with markets and bureaucracy. Wasn't it only a matter of time before nature reminded who was boss?

That universities followed the path of the global colossus believing that the global demand for certificates would fill their classrooms and lucrative accommodation in the name of "preparing for the future" will be seen as the greatest mistake in the history of the universities. The paradox is obvious. The institution that existed to engender the contemplation of nature should believe itself and other institutions to be "natural", and therefore to be the only environment to which adaptation was necessary. Moreover, that adaptation to an environment of institutions merely required a certificate by a trusted university.

So that's the crisis. But now the challenge.

The complexity of the natural challenges that face humanity is enormous. The scientific response to this will have to have an equivalent complexity in order to be able to manage it. In distilling the essence of the inquiry into nature to a process of regurgitating things that were already known and certifying them, our universities have largely narrowed the complexity with which science is able to tackle complex problems.  Anyone who thinks against the prevailing winds of discourse finds themselves on the outside. That is a problem: A.N. Whitehead noted that if you want to know where the next scientific advance will come from, look at what people are not talking about. Our research establishment works in the opposite direction, increasingly feeding the interests of politicians and corporations. This must stop - and perhaps now it will.

But if we are to increase the complexity of our scientific imagination to meet the challenges of nature, then we have to create the conditions within which our scientific imagination can be enlarged. This is the university's job. It is to create contexts for conversations of sufficient variety that feed a scientific imagination of sufficient richness that it will be able guide humanity to new ways to organise ourselves.

In the scientific revolution, there was a similar demand to increase the variety in scientific discourse. The academic journal was a way of using technology to democratise science. Over time, as with all institutions, what was originally well-intentioned, became pathological, exclusive, and subsumed into a market logic.

As Laura rightly says, today's technologies are extraordinary. The capacity to organise global conversation, contemplation and action is with us. Politicians and corporations across the world know this and fear it. It is a threat to their own institutional arrangements - which are probably as doomed as our current institutional arrangements for universities. But the coffee houses of the 17th century are now online.

A technological rebirth will require fundamental questions to be asked about people, collectives and brains. We may ask about the "future of universities", but universities are institutions, and we need to understand institutions first: those organisational entities which comprise many brains, and somehow coordinate the thoughts in many brains. How do they work? How can they work better?

Heinz von Foerster argued that brain research is essentially a "one-brain" problem, while education is essentially a "two-brain" problem, and the issue of society and institutions is a "many-brain" problem. Von Foerster's colleague Ross Ashby, whose Law of Requisite Variety frames the essence of the problem I've been discussing (a complex system can only be controlled by a system of equal complexity), wrote a book called "Design for a brain". Now we need a "Design for an institution". 

The many-brain problem is the problem of organising institutions. The two-brain problem is the essence of the conversations which institutions have to create contexts for. The context for the conversation about both of these is the internet. It is conversation that has to happen - and will.

Facebook, Twitter and the media giants (which are largely politicised now) will try to distort any kind of coherent conversation in order to sell things, or deliver a kind of brain-washing to their clients. Eventually we will be able to mitigate for their disruption and organise our contemplative processes in ways that will provide stability in the relationship between humanity and nature once more.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Polythetic Assessment: What it is and why we need it

There are fundamental differences in the ways we categorise and group things, including learners. When we design assignments and exams, the point of the exercise is to create a common set of variables against which the performance of each student can be assessed. Effectively the students form a "cluster" around the measurement of these variables.

This approach to clustering around a common set of variables is called "monothetic" clustering.

In ordinary life however, we often don't cluster things monothetically.  When we select our favourite music for one of those Facebook/Twitter challenges which everyone is doing now, the criteria for selection into the cluster of "my favourites" does not depend on common variables. However, intuitively we know that there is some kind of deep pattern which unites all of these things, without necessarily being able to put our finger on exactly what it is. In a sense, the point about these Facebook games is to provide some evidence for what these deep patterns might be, and in the process, who we are in making the judgement.

This approach to clustering is called "polythetic". Its a term used today by the data scientists, but it has a longer pedigree in phenomenology. It was first used by Edmund Husserl to describe "family resemblances" between phenomena which could only be revealed step-by-step over time. Later Husserl's follower, Alfred Schutz, used the term to describe the experience of music in a striking paper called "Making Music Together" (Social Research, 1951)

The problem with monothetic judgement or clustering is that it forces things into a rigid framework. But most things, including student work, can be good or bad in many different ways. For those who argue against Learning Outcomes, the wish is to find ways of making defensible judgements about student work whilst embracing the diversity of the goodness or badness of that work.

More deeply, the difference between monothetic and polythetic judgement is that the former is 2-dimensional and the latter is 3-dimensional. To understand this means to dig-in to the logic of patterns, and understand that no pattern can exist which doesn't feature some aspect of "nothing" within it which segments one part of the pattern from another, and it can be shown mathematically that "nothing" entails looking at the world in 3 dimensions. To move to a polythetic approach to assessment is a bit like introducing perspective and a "vanishing point" into art. Indeed, the idea of "vanishing" is extremely important to understand polythetic assessment. It is assessment about deep patterns in things, not surface features.

I've made a video introducing "polythetic assessment" which describes the importance of measuring "nothing" when we look at phenomena. This work draws on physics, mathematics and biology - but it has direct applicability to educational assessment in ways which I will illustrate in future posts.

If we want more personalised, self-directed, creative learning, then we will need to find new ways to assess. Polythetic assessment presents a starting point from which we can look at the learning process afresh.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

The Downes, Siemens and Lamb debate: Two Internets and Two-Cultures

It feels as if there are two internets at the moment, and these two internets are at the heart of a battle between the educational technology thought-leaders (see George Siemens and Brian Lamb are institutionally-focused on the need for what might be called “Internet-1”. Internet 1 is the hair-shirt internet of online education, but perhaps a necessary place as teachers struggle to get their stuff online. “Zoomworld” can be a rather dull place where people are glued to screens like coronavirus masks, gazing at pixelated images of each other, piecing together broken audio, each knowing that the other is feeling the discomfort that all are feeling – but nobody can speak of it. 

 Stephen Downes supports what might be called “Internet-2” - a convivial and sometimes transgressive internet. It’s the internet of Houseparty, TikTok, Youtube, memes of Trump and toilet paper, musicians playing in their bathrooms, or creating coronavirus lyrics to old songs. Sometimes driven by corporations who want to steal our time and sell us things, Internet-2 appeals to a psyche disturbed by the dramatic transformation of the environment. But for the next few months at least, it will be the locus of social creativity.

If you were an 18-year old student looking to go to a University which looks likely to be online until at least Christmas, which internet would you prefer? Students might still swallow Internet-1, pay the money, and turn up in Zoomworld in September. They may worry that if they don’t go in September ‘20, the demand for places in ’21 might make it much harder to get in. They may still believe that their much-vaunted expensive certificates will benefit their careers when all this is over, despite the signs that the world may never be the same.

But lockdown will give them plenty of food for thought about the differences between their online experiences. It may lead them to consider whether they might learn more from the creativity of TikTok or Houseparty, making music videos or publishing art on Instagram, than in the hair-shirt of Internet-1. University leaders and teachers would do well to consider this question too with some urgency: their future may depend on it.

One interesting difference between the two internets is that internet-2 is full of music. In The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse described the eponymous Game’s provenance in an enlightened educational world in the 25th century as: “a kind of highly-developed secret language drawing upon several sciences and arts, but especially music and mathematics, and capable of expressing and establishing interrelationships between the content and conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines”. With our 21st century STEM-obsessed eyes, we may look at this and say “mathematics – of course!” But music? Why? It may be to do with technology.

Some of the oldest technologies that exist in our museums are musical instruments. And Internet-2 is full of music: time-based art-forms, games, movies and jokes all conveyed through technologies which would have been considered miraculous a generation ago. Some will scoff. Entertaining and diverting it may be. But educational? No, for that we insist on the hair-shirt of Internet-1. But music tells us something about technology which is missing from Internet-1. Musicians approach the technology of their instruments as a means of amplifying feelings. The musician’s knowledge, their body and their instrument becomes one. Where does this happen in Zoomworld? Behind the predictable monotonous cry of “Can you hear me?”, feelings – which can be more apparent face-to-face – are too easily ignored.

Zoomworld need not be like this. But in order to give it soul, the bonds of campus-based custom and practice need to be loosened and the full capacity of the internet (1 and 2) must be embraced as a path towards higher learning.

Two Cultures?

The resistance to taking Internet-2 seriously as higher learning partly lies in an old debate about the separation between the arts and the sciences. C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” criticised the separation of studies of artefacts of culture, and the phenomena of nature. As culture, students learnt about Beethoven or Pink Floyd whilst overlooking the vibrating molecules and communicating cells which underpin the whole thing. The latter belonged in scientist’s laboratory, where conversely questions of aesthetics were ignored. This overlooking of the aesthetics as a facet of nature is relatively recent. The inquiry into music, for example, has been fundamental to scientific development since antiquity. From Pythagoras to Keppler, to Newton (who professed no love for music but still divided the light spectrum into a musical scale), Goethe or Helmholtz, the soul of scientific inquiry was aesthetic. We must repeat Snow’s question: what happened to our universities that they simultaneously squeezed-out aesthetics from science, and science from the arts?

In some ways, lockdown provides a torch for reinspecting this. In lockdown, our lives seem much flatter: the screen for the departmental meeting is the same screen as the lecture. It feels is as if the richness of social experience has been forced into the narrow bandwidth of a transistor radio. Where’s the structure? Where’s the climax? What’s the point? Click here to continue.

Our institutions of higher learning were not designed to be filtered into an online restricted bandwidth, divorced from the campus upon which they established their history, reputation, and their more recent capital investments. As institutions with established structures and practices, the campus restricted the freedom admit the full gamut of online experiences and activities as a threat to institutional stability.

Embracing the richness of technology, the richness of Internet-2, requires a fundamental organisational shift. Pedagogy, curriculum, technology, management and the divisions of knowledge must all be challenged and transformed in the way that Snow wished.

Why is internet 1 so stiff? It cannot be that we don’t have the technology. It must be that something holds back the exploitation and discussion of the full gamut of technologies in the establishment of meaningful encounters with students. Some institutional leaders might be tempted to blame a lack of “digital fluency” among staff. But in reality, the hair-shirt is of the institution’s own making, resulting from the way it organises technology, sets expectations of staff, and its desire to keep the disruptive world of Internet-2 at bay.

Yet in Zoomworld, one has only to drop the formal demands of curriculum and protocol and ask students what they really think is happening to the world, and more importantly how they feel, to open out an inquiry into the aesthetics of current experience as both nature and culture.

Nourishing the Soul of the Person

An online university can be a great thing. But it requires the reconception of a University. John Henry Newman was faced with a similar challenge in the 19th century in establishing a new kind of University. His problem was to bridge the division between religion and science, and in doing so he recognised the need to revisit the fundamentals of what the human intellect was, and the conditions for its growth. Of the intellect he wrote that it:
“energizes as well as his eye or ear, and perceives in sights and sounds something beyond them. It seizes and unites what the senses present to it; it grasps and forms what need not have been seen or heard except in its constituent parts. It discerns in lines and colours, or in tones, what is beautiful and what is not. It gives them a meaning, and invests them with an idea.”

As many commentators have observed over the last few decades, the university has moved far away from this encompassing inquiry into being human in the name of “knowledge economies” and “markets”. The urgency to remedy this is upon us. And we do have the tools to reorganise ourselves.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

What we learn, we learn about each other...

We've learnt nothing, it seems. Decades of well-intentioned public education policy has resulted in ecological catastrophe, global inequality, and a political environment across many major countries in the world which resembles the political situation in the 1930s. The latter has been driven by global networks of communication which have been amplified by remarkable telecommunications technology. Now we see our apparently miraculous advances in healthcare and increasing longevity threatened by the systemic effects of economic thinking which creates scarcity, and technologies of global travel which exacerbate contagion.

It's not even that we have learnt nothing. We seem to have forgotten a lot. Our universities,  in an important way, are institutions of memory. They have succumbed to a political toxin where knowledge is for sale, research is currency, and the richness of possibility and speculation has been distilled to curricula and certificates to bought by the young out of fear that their lives will be a misery without them. Our institutions of higher learning have become institutions of forgetting. In my own field of educational technology, I looked at the work going on 10 years ago in (then publicly-funded) JISC, and compared to what is being talked about now. There is no comparison in the quality of the thinking: the 2008 financial crisis was the moment when we forgot ourselves, and let the door open to what is happening now. 

The job of universities is not to sell courses or publish papers in 5-star journals. The job of universities is create contexts for conversations about the future, the present and the past. It is an inter-generational process. We now find ourselves overwhelmed by environmental complexity which many feared would happen: it turned out the people who feared this most were ignored. The complexity and variety of the problems we face requires equal variety in the scientific thinking to address them. But to gain equal variety in our scientific thinking, there needs to be sufficient variety in the ways we organise the conversations in education. If the variety in the ways conversations are organised in universities is impaired, then the variety of the scientific thinking will not be up to the job of the scientific challenges we face. 

The lockdown presents some interesting challenges for education. Universities will be desperate to maintain their business. They will seek to utilise technologies they have ignored for a long time in order to reproduce the practices of the institution online. This will not be a good experience!

But there is nothing about a "context for conversation" that says that 200 people should log in to zoom and listen to a lecture at a particular time. What it really means is that there is a set of conditions for creating meaningful communications between teachers and learners. Individual and small group communication, inquiry-based learning and personalised projects provide the best way to do this. There's really nothing new in this - and it can all be done with the minimum of technology. Short pre-prepared videos to set the scene and text chat will suffice. But it is a pedagogical shift, not a technical shift.

Deep down, it is a shift away from what we traditionally consider to be "teaching". Why prepare huge amounts of content when content is everywhere, and can be referenced with a URL? Why force learners into a one-size-fits-all pathway for the convenience of assessment, when each individual can be supported and encouraged to explore their own interests or be directed down individual paths that mean something to them? Why put so much effort into parading the teacher as a distant talking encyclopedia when the technology allows the teacher to make themselves available for inspection and inquiry so that each student has the opportunity to establish a more personal relationship?

It comes down to a fundamental principle of education: what we learn, we learn about each other. It's not our communication tools which are the problem. It's what our institutions have done to them. Essentially they became tools in a political game.

So now is our opportunity to learn something. And what we learn, we will learn about each other.

Friday, 10 April 2020

What does it mean for a communication to be meaningful?

While ruminating on the monotony and sheer lack of variety of Zoom, I have been reflecting on how many academic friendships I have struck up through email. Just text - when it is done with care and thought - can create profoundly meaningful connections between people.

Academic communities have always operated like this. In the middle ages, monks would correspond with one another, citing references and sometimes sending books. In a time when scholars would only come to know each other through what was written, the potential for intellectual development rested on the written word.

By comparison we have an embarrassment of riches in terms of means of communicating at a distance. And it almost seems be the case that because of this our communication is less meaningful. It's hard to generalise - but it's easy to blame the technology and not look deeper. Yet it does throw the spotlight on what we think happens when we communicate through any medium.

In any communication process, utterances or speech acts must be made. They may be spoken, or they may be written, or they may be constructed in some more sophisticated multimedia form, but they must be made. In order to be made, utterances must be selected. Indeed, not only the utterances must be selected, but also the medium upon which they are communicated. The first question of communication is then, What is the mechanism of selection of utterances, and how is the selection mechanism constructed?

In thinking about the construction of the selection mechanism, one thing is obvious: no utterance is made in a vacuum. Rather, utterances are made to communicate with some other person. If we know nothing of the other person, it is very hard to formulate an utterance. We often see learners who are unsure of what is expected of them to be tongue-tied and unable even to ask questions. Having no insight into the person you are talking to is a conversation killer!

Conversely, being able to make an utterance entails having some understanding - a model - of the person you are talking to. More profoundly, that means that all utterances are made in anticipation of what the other person might say in response to them. Intellectual communication by email or text can be so powerful because the deep ideas which are explored in such communication underpin the understandings of academics of each other. Meaningful communication occurs when mutual expectations and anticipations are aligned.

I've been teaching some students recently using Big Blue Button, and what has been so revealing is that it is not the ability to broadcast my face and voice or Powerpoints has been educationally powerful. The most powerful things in the interactions have occurred through the text chat, but that only occurs when myself and individual students start to understand each other (they are working on projects around educational technology). Its in the text chat where the utterances are selected carefully in order to align expectations with individual understanding.

There was a key moment in these interactions with the students when I asked them "How many of you know your lecturers?" Hardly any of them did. This led to a more profound conversation about their expectations of university and the lack of personal connection with those teaching them. What's striking is that the face-to-face big lectures, etc, are incredibly impersonal. The online environment, if we get it right, can be more meaningful - but not if we try to emulate what the face-to-face environment does!

There's a bigger question here about why education has become so impersonal. It's not that Zoom is crap. It's that what we are trying to do in Zoom or Teams at the moment is mirroring something that was always crap. Here, I think we have to look to the essence of what the education system is geared-up to do: assess. It's assessment which is the thing which ensures that the institutional certificate is scarce (and therefore maintains its value, and the excuse to charge lots of money for it). Assessment underpins the business model. And the way we assess - by breaking things down into categories and forcing people to engage in rather unnatural activities to "jump through the hoops" - has an impact on everything else we do in education. As yet, in education, we don't have a better idea. But we need one.

So we need to look beyond technology in addressing why our Zoomworld feels deficient. We need to look at the constraints which are preventing us from having more authentic discussions. And the principal one is assessment!

Monday, 30 March 2020

Supersize Institutions vs Coronavirus

The principal objective of most coronavirus strategies across the world is to limit the collapse of institutions of health. It is obvious that the effort to protect one giant institution puts other giant institutions at risk. Government itself fears for its future, as politicians go to great pains to claim how "well" they are doing in the crisis: the risk here is loss of public trust. Collapse of the health system would produce catastrophic death rates and the potential for social breakdown. Businesses large and small also feeling the full force of the crisis.

Educational institutions will not be far behind. While moving teaching online has been the emergency measure, it is unlikely that traditional institutions of education can maintain their integrity divorced from the campus on which they established their history, reputation and (more recently) capital investments.

While it is tempting to view this as an environmental crisis which simply blows away everything in its path, such a view is dangerous. It opens the door to authoritarianism where Viktor Orban figures will demand total "control" to do the will of the people while really serving selfish interests. This too is a consequence of institutional crisis. The weaknesses in our institutional fabric have been obvious for decades. So there is a question to be asked about institutions - particularly those institutions which have grown so large and unwieldy, bureaucratic and sometimes dangerous so as to make them vulnerable to this kind of environmental disaster.

The institutionalisation of health is something that has happened the world over. Some thinkers, notably Ivan Illich, were always critical of the institutionalisation of public services, which has gone hand-in-hand with "professionalisation" which disempowered individuals to do things for themselves. It basically revolved around the principle of declaring "scarcity" around issues of health, treatment and technology where professionals were invested with the authority to exclusively make pronouncements around aspects of life where individuals were often perfectly capable of organising themselves to deal with if they had access to the technologies and drugs themselves.

This is particularly true in the light of our information technologies. Criticism of the use of technology for self-diagnosis and treatment is based on legitimate concerns about the results of technology. But the problems with technology are not the fault of technology. They are the fault of institutions of health defending their own structures and greedy tech corporations making profits in the shadows of large medical institutions. Health institutions chose to denigrate "Dr Google" and assert the status of institutional judgement rather that consider how health might be more effectively organised with technology in ways different from institutional hierarchy.

It is the same in education. Online education has been available since the beginning of the web. The story since the web has been one of the institutions defending themselves against technology, commandeering technology to defend their structures and practices. There was never any attempt to reform a viable institution of education online. Had there been, Facebook would have been a very different thing.

The point is that an institution is a kind of technology and coronavirus will break them. We may protect the technology of our health institutions, but in the process we will break the technology of our other institutions. Our institutions are not organised effectively. Their supersized structure is not an effective form of organisation. Unfortunately, the reaction to the current crisis is causing a ramping-up of the scale of health institutions. This is understandable: now is the time to react as best we can. But our institutions were vulnerable because of the way they are organised and the scale on which they operate.

The declarations of scarcity over technologies, treatments, and care are not effective ways of organising health in society. The pandemic genie is out of the bottle. We know that this will happen again, and next time it could be worse. So while we must now react, we will need to think about what "effective organisation" in health and education really means in the future.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Under the Skin of an Institution: Rethinking the Global University and Civil Society

An institution - whether it is a university, school, club, church, government, rock band or orchestra - is essentially a membrane between what an institution sees to be its "identity" and its environment - the world which isn't in the club. Every membrane that exists everywhere requires an active process to maintain it. This active process is the totality of work that institutions do. The coordinated work of maintaining an institution entails the division of labour into differentiated functions, the coordination of those functions with one another, the monitoring of the operation of those functions, the monitoring of the environment, the determining of possible threats or opportunities for maintaining the membrane and the directing of any change to internal organisation should something change in the environment. An institution is a "body" (from which we get "corporation"): functional differentiation applies to bodies too.

Among the most significant changes to the environment for social institutions revolve around getting resource to survive. In modern society, this means money. Money fuels growth in ways in which food fuels metabolism, but money is a socially-determined codification of expectation which means that the same codified techniques can be used to organise internal operations: institutions "restructure". At the root of the monetary codification is confidence in  other related institutions - banks and government - and the general belief that social stability can always be achieved through fiscal means - however drastic and painful those means might be. Since the financial crash, this assumption that social stability can always be delivered by fiscal means has been called into doubt.

A plague is not a typical environmental change. It destabilises the foundations of all institutions including banks and government. It permeates the membrane of cells which lie at the root of everything. Not only the institutional membrane is threatened, but of all the sub-divisions of labour within the institution, and of all the other institutions which exist within the ecology of that institution: few conventional methods of restructuring can help. Attempts to provide fiscal support can be made, but in the process the banks must defend their identity by defending money as a "codification of expectations". But if nobody really believes the bank's defence of the value of the money they issue, this money will carry little value. An economic firestorm may occur when we lose trust in government and the banks: all membranes collapse.

Given the current clutch of world leaders that we currently have, it would not be unreasonable to expect a loss of trust in government and banks.

In society, a loss of trust can be replaced with physical force to reinforce a particular institutional membrane (for example, a totalitarian government). This is basically what happened in China, and increasingly Italy and Spain seem to be heading in the same direction. There is nothing new in this development: it is basically a matter of the institution of government wanting to physically defend its membrane by threatening its people (its "environment"). It will appear to work - temporarily. Just as it has only worked temporarily in so many other parts of the world.

A more intelligent way to think is to reconsider the nature of institutions, bodies and cells as recursively inter-connected membranes. During a time of "lockdown", the primary institution is clearly the household or the family. Like all institutions, families have their membranes and functional differentiation: not just the walls of the house or flat keep things together, but within the family are deep mechanisms of coordinating expectations of one another. In dysfunctional families this is more noticeable than in happy ones (remember: "All happy families are the same..."). The stresses and strains of life together in close proximity with little freedom is the very process of the institution attempting to maintain its cohesion. In many families, as money becomes more scarce, other means of coordinating expectations will arise. Some of these new means of coordinating expectations will reveal things about the nature of all institutions.

While there will undoubtedly be an increase in crime and selfishness, we are likely to see an increase in neighbourly altruism. As internal stresses take their toll, external cooperation will attempt to reorganise social groups for the survival of all. But this can only happen if there is external signalling from groups who want to help or who need help. This signalling will happen online. Our small institutions will become rather like cells producing receptor proteins on the cell-wall facing the environment which interact with "proteins" in the environment in "cell signalling pathways". The cybernetic term is "transduction".

So what of larger institutions like institutions of education? All our educational institutions started small: groups of friends with shared interests would meet and talk. Gradually their discussions and the products of their discussions attracted attention from outside. Gradually that attention and demand for more from the institution provided a foundation upon which the nascent institution could grow.

As academics and students move online, are we going to see an eating-away of the membranes of the traditional university led by individual academics across the world who will find that the best place to meet and talk is online? The online world also provides other ingredients for the growth of new institutions. Most importantly, for an institution to grow it must produce things which its environment finds interesting and attractive. Whether it is the video summaries of conversations, open invitations to observe small group meetings, the creation of online artefacts like models or software, or the concentration of intellectual status and reputation, this is not going to happen within the walls of any particular institution. It is going to happen globally.

Why restrict intellectual discourse to the walls of the campus when everyone everywhere is in one big campus? Since the physical campus is now toxic, it doesn't matter how ancient or beautiful it is - beautiful buildings are not what institutions are about. They are about ideas and people and if new ways of organising ideas and people become possible then they should be embraced.

More importantly, the essence of the nascent online university is trust within the new institution and outside it. The bullshit about graduate premiums has gone and the university bondholders can go at stick their increasingly meaningless money elsewhere. We have something more tangible, more effective, more trustworthy but inherently low-cost.

When the physical threats and surveillance of the population no longer work, then what will matter will be trust, honesty and openness to uncertainty. These are the values that we must build into our online institutions now.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

The Problem with Mathematical Modelling in Covid-19 and Economics

"Mathematical modelling" is everywhere at the moment, and it should make us as nervous as medical staff going to work without protective gear. It's a bad tool for policy making in a time of crisis. Models are abstract and never specific, but it is the specifics which determine matters of life and death. Whilst an agent-based model might give some idea of the exponential rise in cases, or the overloading of health systems, there will always be missing variables and causal mechanisms which are misunderstood. Some of those missing variables will account for why nearly 800 people died in Italy yesterday (following the nearly 700 the day before) two weeks after their lockdown, or why half of the 1500 people in France in intensive care are aged under 60. At the same time, the statistics from different countries don't seem to be comparable: China under-reported the extent of the death rate from the virus and Russia is determined to say that it is a "foreign problem", underplaying its significance, while building hospitals on the side.

Epidemiologists trying to predict the consequences of COVID-19 with models will cite the caveat that it is "only a model", but the fact is that it's only "only a model" if it isn't used to inform policy. As soon as policy takes heed of a model, the model becomes part of the situation. Ideas like "herd immunity" arise from models, and have informed policy. The outcry that this policy was effectively eugenics has been sufficient to cause some back-tracking.

Mathematical modelling is affecting policy decisions beyond simplistic models of transmission. At the root of government policy - particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world - is economic thinking which is also underpinned by mathematical modelling. Where do the epidemiological models and the economic models meet? That seems to have been the question puzzling the British and US governments in the last week or so. It is, of course, the wrong question. Herd immunity didn't simply arise from a particular slant on an epidemiological model; it was a compromise between the epidemiological model and the economic model: let the virus sweep through the country, let everyone continue their lives as normal, let people "eat virus", let the old die, let's save on the care and pensions, protect the market and the banks and all will be well. To any country with a "pension reform" headache, I can't believe this thought hasn't crossed the minds of their leaders, and the less scrupulous they are, the less they seem to do about the virus.

Frankly, to the calculating mind of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and a few others, this seems like a good plan. Until you think that it might be your parents in a makeshift hospital with no ventilators. The problem from Cummings and Johnson, and for any modelling geeks out there, is that Coronavirus is not abstract. It's not like a hedge fund whose victims are nameless in far-away countries. It threatens people we love. And much as the logic of capitalism dictates that we are all individuals engaged in a kind of Darwinian struggle for material success, love creates bonds which do not obey the individualist logic of the modeller. There is no variable which can represent its effects.

This is not to say that models are useless. But it is to say that the most sensible attitude to them is to ask how they might be wrong, rather than to ask what they predict. They are useful in the sense that they promote critical discussion among concerned individuals thinking about how to act effectively. So the critical thing is the organisation of human beings around the model. Get a load of politicians who want quick-and-easy answers, and the model could be lethal.

Unfortunately, in economic modelling, they have never been used like this. Much to the dismay of great minds in economics, including Marshall, Keynes and Hayek, bad mathematics took over the discipline of economics promising policy guided by numbers - models presented ways of removing the uncertainty of policy-making. But in removing the uncertainty, they threw away most of the information in the system.

What it left us with was a rationalistic, linear and shallow picture of human life. Looking at the world rather like Harry Lime looks down on those "little dots" from the Ferris Wheel in the Third Man, each of us was reduced to a kind of "variable set", each with our motivations and histories, and each of which could stop moving or disappear at any point without any effect on the others.

Coronavirus tells us what's missing: it cuts to the heart of our mistakes in modelling. The virus reminds us what we always knew but preferred to ignore: "we are all connected". Model-based capitalism told us the opposite. The crisis of this pandemic is only just beginning. Our very understanding of money, the economy, ownership, debt and wealth depend on the modeller's deceit that we are individuals acting with one another according to rules codified in law, executed through a market. Coronavirus takes us back not to social law, but to natural law: the bonds of love across generations matter more than any amount of money. It blows apart what Veblen saw as the atavistic behaviour of the leisure classes once and for all.

Love isn't some new variable which can be factored into the model. What happens in meaningful social interaction is the coordination of expectations, and love plays a powerful role in forming expectations. Money is, by contrast, merely a codification of expectations: artifice. But when "heart speaks to heart" (as Newman put it) - as it surely is now - there is no need to artificially codify expectations. We know the truth of the world. Maybe it is the "implicate order" of nature that we perceive. But we know. And nothing else matters.

There is a modelling question to be asked here. But it is not about extra variables. It is more about what the heart speaking to heart really is. What is it that enables us to tune-in to one another? Indeed, what is it that drives us to modelling in the first place?

The way forwards from Coronavirus will be a meta level of understanding.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Defining "Defining"

The Foundations of Information Science mailing list are currently trying to define "information". Frankly, that's what they've been trying to do for years (without much success), but recently they've tried to be explicit about it. The problem is that you can't define "information" unless you have some concept of what "defining" itself is. So I suggested a definition of "defining":

"Defining is a process of seeking abstract principles which are generative not only of phenomena themselves, but of our narrative capacities for explaining them and our empirical faculties for exploring them."
Some suggested to me that the word "abstract" is redundant here. Aren't they just "principles"? I'm not sure.

Lou Kauffman said that I was thinking about mathematics when I say "abstract". I am - and this definition arose from a conversation with a mutual friend, Peter Rowlands (I couldn't have had the intellectual insight to come up with something like this without Peter's genius)

Lou said something interesting about empiricism in relation to this.

"Nevertheless, we find something different in the empirical domain. We do not demand that our abstract principles generate the phenomena there. In fact we find that concept and percept arise together in the examination of phenomena and that it is in this arising, with the help of thinking and the fundamental circularity of thought knowing thought, that we come to agree that information is present."
This is precisely it. I would say that concept and percept arise together in a kind of counterpoint. It's like music. The counterpoint contrives to give form and meaning to understanding. But meaning and understanding can only arise if the interactions of the counterpoint contrive to create "nothing".

It's only by creating "nothing" that the patterns upon which meaning and understanding operate can arise. 

This, it seems to me, is new. It's where Peter Rowlands's physics and Lou's mathematics point to a profound new development in our understanding of nature and complexity.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Positioning Technology Management in Education

It is hard to imagine that technology in institutions today wasn't "managed". Management is endemic in all organisations: institutions are not so much coherent self-sustaining organisational structures, as managed aggregates of people, tools and activities - which are to varying degrees, sometimes incoherent. Indeed, the form of management which imposes functionalist categories onto all its components has become the hallmark of modern institutions. Yet as repeated institutional crises indicate, this kind of organisation appears unadaptive and brittle: in business, it produces failed banks and corporations; in politics, corruption; in education it produces disquiet, alienation and a ravenous, bottomless appetite for ever more resource from society.

For people working under it, management becomes synonymous with the constraints it imposes on the organisation. Management means making decisions about what tools to use, when, by whom and for what purpose. These decisions are necessarily simple - and far simpler than the situations those who are subject to them are trying to negotiate on the ground.

But here there is a problem: simple decisions which constrain those who are negotiating complex situations make those situations more complex. Simple decisions based on out-of-date information produce organisational oscillations and chaos. The problem is particularly evident in educational technology.

Educational technologies are managed - not merely in the sense of being provisioned and maintained, but in the sense that who is able to do what with them, with whom, how and when. Yet the provisioning of tools is fundamental to empowering individuals to deal with their environment. If a university had no classrooms, organising classes would be impossible; if it had no timetable, clashes between competing interests to access resources would result. If there was no audit of whether resources provisioned were actually utilised, then inefficiency would result. In a world that didn't change, provisioning of resources, coordination of activities (to avoid conflicts) and audit would suffice.

The impact of technology on universities has largely resulted from a change to the environmental conditions universities operate it. Talk of "Technology Enhanced Learning" is usually misplaced - computer technology produces continual world changes, and institutions must change themselves to survive in it. So what might be a largely internally-focused process of provisioning tools and resources, coordination and audit, must become a process  of balancing internal demands with external scanning of the ever-changing environment. Institutions must understand these changes, and have sufficient understanding of their own internal adaptive processes, to change themselves to survive.

These adaptive processes require steering. This is the proper domain of management. Yet if the end result of the efforts by management to govern by binary decision result in increased complexity, then the adaptation process won't work. If management sees its principal role as the balancing of complex demands between inside and outside of the organisation, then the focus of its activities becomes much clearer - and less focused on direct provisioning from the top, but on creating the conditions where dynamic provisioning of tools, educational coordination and monitoring can happen closer to the ground.

So then we must ask, What are the conditions which facilitate dynamic provisioning of tools and resources closer to the ground? In modern technological institutions, there are particular constraints that have to be overcome, the principal one being the difference in languages between different stakeholders in the institution.

These languages might be thought of as:
  1. Structural/administrative 
  2. Technical 
  3. Pedagogical 
The structural language is a language of politics, existent institutional procedures, external demands (from government and society) and power. The technical language is a language of code, systems, procedures, constraints and compliance. The pedagogical language is a language of relationships, learning, personal expression, and freedom. 

One way to coordinate a process of addressing these constraints is a continual programme of experiment and inquiry involving all stakeholders in the institution at the boundaries of these languages. Managers would do well spending less time in meetings, and more time learning to write python code (for example). Technicians would do well spending less time writing python code and more time talking to learners and teachers. Teachers would do well spending less time presenting Powerpoints, and more time engaging with the structural and technical aspects of educational organisation and educational experience.

IT tools can be instantiated anywhere. Their provisioning and control can be brought closer to the users - teachers and learners. That we tend to do technological provisioning of tools at the top of institutions is an indication of the fact that technology is seen as the main environmental threat, and so institutional technology is seen as a means of countering it. But technology is not an environmental threat. The real threat lies in ineffective organisation within the institution itself.