Saturday 31 July 2010

Having and being in America

On my way to the American Cybernetics Society conference in Troy, NY, I was reading Erich Fromm's "To have or to be?" What Fromm calls the 'having mode' is so clearly visible in the US. I was struck how beautiful the natural landscape of New York city is - how it must have seemed like Eden to the European settlers. The train ride up the Hudson to Albany was simply stunning. When the settler's arrived, the 'Having mode' was already well established in them - and they wanted to have this land. The natives were in the 'being mode' - we didn't listen to them. And the consequences of the possessing we are clearly reaping now. Which way now?

Wednesday 28 July 2010

Distributed Cognition

My encounters with distributed cognition are proving very fruitful. Andy Clark's work is particularly interesting - he has a take on the moral side of all this. However, I'm not so keen on the emphasis David Chalmers (who Clark has worked with) puts on the singularity nonsense, or whether whole brain emulation (brain uploading) is a sensible way to look at things. Anders Sandberg's 2nd life lecture is fascinating though and inspired me to sort out our Moodle-SLOODLE installation.

What we need is good models which can help us take useful practical action. Cognition sits behind human organisation, and the emergent issues of organisational intervention (including intervention with technology). I think a cybernetic model of distributed cognition might come in handy... like the one developed through the JISC SPLICE project (above). The strategic evidence for the efficacy of this is growing... which makes the whole area very exciting!

Moral right and right answers

I've been trying a few approaches to helping my daughter with her maths. One problem with maths is that the stress of finding the 'right answer' can induce a state of mind where it is harder to think. Instead of focusing on the answer, I've been trying to focus on the different possible methods. Some methods are easy, but long; others are quite hard, but very efficient. Choosing the best method is important. Much of the anxiety in my daughter seems to be based around "we weren't told to do it that way!" - as if there are ways of doing it that might get her into trouble.

I'm wondering about the extent to which a 'moral sense' is as much at the heart of knowing the right answer as it is in doing the right thing. If that is the case, what teaching approaches could be used to relate choosing (and learning) effective methods? In computer programming, there is clearly a link between the best method and doing the right thing (my predominant feeling when programming is often guilt!).

I'm finding that by emphasising the moral dimension and moral choice in finding the right answer (by contextualising the problem in a moral framework), some of the stress can be overcome. "If someone's life depended on this, which method would you choose?" To understand why, I think it's useful to see the stress as emerging from the 3-4 homeostat which gets itself into a double-bind situation. Morality sits at System 5, and so takes more of a direct control over the balancing between the two.

Sunday 18 July 2010

What's the Graduation Ceremony about?

Graduation ceremonies are peculiar affairs playing a key structural role in University life. How does it relate to Quality or Teaching? It would seem to contain aspects of both. The video is me thinking through some of this. My conclusion (for the moment) is that Graduation serves as a 'mop' to soak up the unmanaged variety/complexity from the interactions between the teaching machine and the quality machine. In this, it serves much the same role as a religious ceremony.

The mop works in remarkable ways at many levels. On an individual level, as with a religious ceremony, the ritual uses communicative practices (order of service, procession, etc) to stimulate/increase perception. In doing so, new communications become more probable, because changes to the perception system inevitably have consequences for the communication system. People talk to each other about stuff they wouldn't have otherwise talked about... This facilitation of communication can address some of the mismatches between the Q and T machines. The mopping works because people are brought together in a common belief in education; their 'faith' holds the show together, and provides a vital balancer (positioning?) for the whole system.

Friday 16 July 2010

The 'Teaching Machine' and the 'Quality Machine'

I've been trying to think through the issues involved in the separation of the 'teaching machine' (T) from the 'quality machine'(Q). There's little doubt that the university maintains its capital value through the Q machine, but it's deeply entwined with the T machine, with teachers playing key roles in both mechanisms.

Globalisation and the drive for efficiency will force us to separate the two mechanisms. But this will potentially cause problems which we need to find ways of averting. There's no point in separating-off the T machine, if the Q machine rejects everything it does (and basically doesn't trust it).

The values of T are different from those of Q. Q concerns itself with normative conceptions of fairness, equality, accountability, value-for-money, etc. Quality is maintained through the Q machine producing communications which uphold these normative conventions.

T concerns itself with pedagogy, knowledge, skills, relationships, conversation, activity and assessments. T's values are not always normative; they may be highly individual and personal. Assessment is the conventional interface between teaching and quality.

Teachers can get upset if their personal values concerning teaching conflict with conceptions of quality which deem their practice deficient. If teachers are increasingly asked to play a role in the Quality machine, they will get upset if the teaching machine isn't doing what they think it should be doing.

Do we need to solve this through more pervasive quality? To make the normative values of quality part of the process of teaching? This would be a bit like TQM for education perhaps... TEACHING Quality Management!

Thursday 15 July 2010

Making memories

I went to my daughter's primary school play yesterday. She was very good, as was the production. The head talked very briefly at the end of the show that its purpose was to 'make memories'. I couldn't agree more.

I attended another memory-making event today in the form of a graduation ceremony. Oleg Liber was receiving an Honorary Doctorate, along with ('Big!') Sam Allardyce.

Memory plays such an important role in learning. We often say that something has been learnt if it is 'remembered' (spellings, tables, for example). But these memories are very interesting. If the distributed cognition crowd are right (and I'm beginning to think they are), then memories are not in the head, but dependent on the context within which people live their lives. Events like graduations and school plays are special contexts, and with special contexts come significant moments of 'personal bio-psychosocial organisation'. The 'memory' is in the organisation - particularly in relation to the context it occurs in.

When it is recalled, the essence of the event is important. (The essence may be the trigger...) And the essence of the event is usually something significant, dignified, maybe joyful: the triviality of learning, teaching and assessment leads directly to something more substantial, human and eternal.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Distributed cognition and machine sex!

The rug seems to be getting pulled from constructivism. “Knowledge exists in the head” – Does it? Where exactly? Edwin Hutchin’s work on a Navy warship points to knowledge existing between peoples’ heads and a material world. Andrew Pickering talks of scientific knowledge as performance (a ‘mangle’) which is constantly ‘tuning’ into the material world. My work on music similarly is looking at the feedback mechanisms between individuals and their environment of communications. The bottom line here is very simple and has to do with basic morals:
1. If you treat someone badly they will ‘know’ different things to what they might have ‘known’ if you treated them well. That means they will communicate differently.
2. The way you change the world changes the ways others will treat each other.
I've been experimenting with the synth sounds for the cybernetics conference. It sounds a bit like machines having sex to me! More seriously, some will hear it and think "that’s rubbish!" or "that’s not music!"; others (one or two) might like it. What might each person ‘know’? Will their opinions change the communications they have with one another?

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Educational Cybernetics for China

The video for this improvisation is a (highly compressed) version of some videos I've prepared for a module on Educational Cybernetics we are preparing for some Chinese Universities. There are three main elements to it:
1. The cybernetics of the person
2. The cybernetics of communication and social structure
3. The cybernetics of learning activity
I touch on the idea of learning as emancipation, and the importance of free expression (drawing on Paulo Freire). The technologies to support this are explained as primarily addressing the two principle issues:
1. What sort of activities can we organise for our learners online
2. How can online activities be coordinated.

The technologies to support this are for (1) Wookie; and for (2) LAMS and IMS LD

Monday 12 July 2010

Grace, Genius and Outsider art

Went to a fantastic exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery on Outsider Art. If there's something challenging in these beautiful images and sculptures, it's that - following Kant's aesthetics - artistic beauty typically is associated with the concept of genius: that through engaging with the artwork, the 'grace' of genius is revealed.

Yet, the same powerful feelings of recognition and grace are produced with these outsider artworks. But these aren't socially constructed 'geniuses' - they are (for the most part) ordinary people expressing themselves in extraordinary ways. Grace would therefore appear to be in the recognition of a shared human experience.

Does the social construct of 'genius' actually mean anything? It used to be used to say that certain artefacts, certain people were 'worthy' of appreciation. Seeing appreciation as a more dynamic, playful experience - as Gadamer does - means that appreciating the genius in things like outsider art is a transformative experience for the observer, and that valuable transformations can be effected both through the appreciation of so-called 'great' art as well as less socially-recognised forms of expression. Seeing 'grace' in everything effects a transformation on the observer.

Friday 9 July 2010

Play, Activity and Benjamin Britten

This music is Brittenesque. Britten used music as a playful activity to involve amateurs - particularly children. Few have done it so well or beautifully..

I've been reading Gadamer on Aesthetics in 'Truth and Method' where the aesthetic experience is always playful. But if it's play, what's the game? As a way of addressing this, I've just finished a paper for the American Society of Cybernetics on Music, aesthetic experience and memory where I suggest a mechanism which brings out Gadamer's idea by relating memory to an ecological relationship between 'viable people' (represented by the viable system model) and social and material structures represented by an 'atmosphere of communication' (using Luhmann's communication theory). Things that we do to our environment may have a transforming effect on our cognition, memory and human experience. What's the politics of this?

If memory and aesthetic experience is related to the relationship between individuals and their environment as this model suggests, how should decisions which transform that environment be taken?

Sunday 4 July 2010

Music and rippling water

This improvisation creates a rippling effect by arpeggiating the same sort of harmonies as yesterday's improvisation. What's in the arpeggiation? It may the same sort of 'constant disruption' that we see on the surface of an expanse of water reflecting the sky, or the rustling of trees in the wind.

Saturday 3 July 2010

Romanticism and the University

The romanticism of University is rarely discussed in board meetings. New universities cannot really compare in their romanticism to the old, and whilst there is a tendency to be more 'functional' in their view of themselves, the romanticism remains - perhaps in seeing themselves as a 'Bauhaus' to Oxford's 'dreaming spires'. Economic conditions can have a corrosive effect on this thinking, focusing the board on 'value for money', rather than the deeper values to which the romantic view is related.

But romanticism is important. It concerns dreaming, and dreaming is where ideas come from. If romanticism is eroded from the idea of a university, might the university cease to be the fount of ideas? What are we left with? And if students and staff live under the tyranny of economic necessity no-one is going to be in the mood for dreaming. The dangers of reproducing a narrow value structure which fails to recognise any values that are deeper than economic ones are very real right now. What can we do about it?

The improvisation is an attempt at a romantic 'cello' melody... my dreaming, from which these ideas sprang...

Angels, XForms and Messaien

This improvisation is a return to ethereal music which I haven't done for some time. I've actually got my head down in really concrete stuff at the moment - a crazily large and complex questionnaire which I'm coding in XForms (because QTI was crap). When doing something so prosaic and dull, I've always found a 'corrective' of some sort is required. So into the ethereal world of the uncertain and ineffable. And out of this balancing new things arise...

Which does raise a serious question... particularly for the poor sods who are going to be answering my questionnaire. Will we encourage them to have a 'corrective'? Where's the balance in e-learning?

Thursday 1 July 2010

Whitehead, Dimensions and Perception in Learning

I was recommended 'The concept of Nature' by A.N. Whitehead this week. It's an extraordinary work. I'm always attracted to thinkers who turn all the conventional ways for understanding things upside down, and Whitehead is incredible. I haven't got to the bottom of it yet, but he seems to be saying something very interesting about the way we perceive dimensions. He's critical of Einstein's distinctions between space and time (and this was 1920!). His concept of this perception of dimension seems more like a multi-layer regulatory process (c.f. VSM). It may be confused (I may be confused!) but it's set me thinking.

What about the dimensions of learning that we take forgranted? The role of time in personal development, the role of memory, the role of experience, curriculum, knowledge, etc? In learning it's perhaps more easy to see some dimensions as regulatory in the way Whitehead sees them (and the regulatory perspective is at the root of educational cybernetics), but even then we can easily find ourselves dimensioning quantities of things (achievements, length of study, books read, etc) forgetting that everything is probably mutually contingent in a regulatory process.

I also found out the other day that Pask's term for e-learning is 'Applied Epistemology'. Bearing in mind these sort of issues, that seems very apt!