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.