Monday 27 August 2012

Esoteric Explanations

My recent posts have been concerned with the nature and process of explanation. This fascinates me because not only is it central to understanding learning, but also in understanding the broader ways in which human beings organise themselves in institutions, businesses, families, and so on. Explanation is the thing that is continually going-on within what can appear to be 'self organising' social systems.

I'm interested in understanding these processes and trying to formalise their dynamics. There are many paradoxes about even wanting to do this: what I am producing is, after all, an explanation! But at the same time, I think there is value in working towards a more formalised way of thinking. Here, it is Nigel Howard's work on the 'Paradoxes of Rationality' which is interesting me most. Howard's 'paradox' is essentially a critical appreciation of game theory, where the rational assumptions of Von Neumann's game theory are followed to the their logical conclusions, and the rational behaviour which is supposed to underpin the playing of games (with their assumed ordinal pay-offs) is undermined by a careful examining of meta-strategies, coalitions, and the meta-games that are played with meta-strategies. A different kind of mathematics emerges, and as with all mathematics, this begins to reveal the limits of logic and knowledge. There's a paper or two in that, but I'll begin to explore it here shortly.

But before I dive into this, I'm being dragged-back (as I often do) to thinking 'how does this work for music?'. Because, whilst I am thinking about new mathematical formalisms for thinking about how things like the Viable System Model might work (one of the 'games' that I believe can be accounted for by Howard's work), music presents different kinds of problems, which may or may not fit the game metaphor.

Kant characterised artistic experience as a kind of cognitive 'game'. He says in the Critique of Judgement that:
"The cognitive powers, which are involved by this representation, are here in free play, because no definite concept limits them to a particular rule of cognition. Hence, the state of mind in this representation must be a feeling of the free play of the representative powers in a given representation with reference to a cognition in general."
Kant's ideas about play also form an important element in the aesthetic theory of Gadamer. But if what is happening in aesthetic experience is 'play', what's the game? is there one? can it be characterised?

Here I think it is important to take a step back from these questions and ask why they are asked. What I recognise myself as wanting to do is 'explain music'. Kant and Gadamer have provided a tantalising glimpse of an explanation... but how to make it more concrete, less "arm-wavy"? But then, why am I not satisfied with this explanation on its own?

There seems to be a connection between the desire to explain phenomena like music and the desire to understand processes of human social organisation, economics, business management, etc. The problem lies in the poverty of the explanations for economics and business in the face of the raw and profound experience provided by music.

Recently I've been struck by the power of some explanatory frameworks to try to bridge the gap between the deep human sensual experiences and the prosaic organisational concerns. In fact, there is plenty of slightly 'wacky' literature out there to try to do this: for example, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Beck's 'Spiral Dynamics' or Jungian personality types; I suspect the VSM also fits into this category.

These are relatively new-fangled explanations. But they bear many similarities to more ancient explanatory frameworks. What about Tarot, Astrology or the I Ching? Or, for that matter, the allegories of the major religions and myths? Notwithstanding the content of these explanations, their explanatory function is very similar. They consist of a series of distinctions with an explanatory framework which connects those distinctions together (or rather, manipulates a probability distribution of certain distinctions following on 'logically' from others).

I wonder if it is this pattern of weaving distinctions together that characterises the process of explanation. However music is explained, the explanation will take a form of "there are these elements, and because there are these elements, these events are more or less likely". In terms of explaining music, the words which we explain things will be uttered in social company: there will need to be agreement. Here, the game of explaining music is as social as the game of explaining business organisation. I suspect it's a game of 'maintaining coalitions'. But the agreement that the coalition will be built on will be based on something more profound, sensual and pre-linguistic. My suspicion is that agreement about these things depends on the recognition of shared absence.

Deep down, music is its own explanation. Like Isadora Duncan famously remarked about her dancing: "No, I can't explain the dance to you; if I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it." Music (like dance) explains. Or perhaps we might say, music unfolds. The game that our senses play with the art object that Kant and Gadamer allude to is related to the game that we play with each other when we explain our understanding. It is an unfolding of possibilities. Our verbal explanations might well serve our maintenance of coalitions, attachments to others, etc; the unfolding of music, or the self-explaining of music may also serve our maintenance of coalitions and attachments to others, but through affording us a deeper relationship with ourselves. In the realm of the senses we re-adjust and reform our equipment for social life.

There's one more thing to add here. Because it is, I think, a mistake to see our sensory equipment as some sort of inner-processing mechanism. It is instead the very process of sensual play where we are one of the players in the world of the senses. The game reveals what lies beyond the game. Music, as with the other arts, helps us to perceive what we cannot know; it's action is negative. As it brings the unknowable into sharper relief, so the grounds for recognition, love and agreement can be established. The extent to which this negativity is fundamental to explanation generally is the central question which lies behind any attempt to formalise explanation (and any good formalism will itself reveal what cannot be known).

So I have one question at the end of all this, which may appear a little abstruse: is the identification of shared absence the deepest meta-strategy which leads to the broadest and strongest coalition?

Friday 24 August 2012

Big Data Hubris

One of the most extraordinary things going on in technology at the moment is the realisation of the potential for the analysis of communications data. Having created a giant electronic network that includes everyone (the internet), we have created a situation where a significant percentage of our daily utterances are now made in an analysable form: the text that we send to each other, the transparency of those communications, the metadata that accompanies messages (like location and time, for example), the vast capacity for recall of histories and the tracing-back of conversations. Winograd and Flores argued (before the internet!) that computers were about communication (rather than data processing) and that their primary function was to record the speech acts that we make to one another (see I think they were clearly right. Moreover, the recording of speech acts is unprecedented in human history: it is not the 'connectedness' of people that is new with the internet (we have always been interconnected as human beings); it is the capacity for the strategic organisation, recall and manipulation of human commitments.

Literacy created shared memory and allowed for the expansion of culture beyond the confines of oral traditions. Writing, in all its manifestations, has provided a foundation upon which the cultures which surround us established themselves. The book has been the foundation of every cultural development in world history for at least 2500 years. The storage and manipulation of speech acts needs to be seen historically in that context. And just as those who in the early days of literacy must have wondered what it all meant, we should be similarly open-eyed and open-minded about what our current revolution might do for us. It is, after all, a very very recent development. It's worth remembering that in the ancient monasteries, it was the art of interpretation of texts, of asking 'what does it mean?' that occupied the scholars.

In which spirit I would prefer to see our current fascination with the analysis of what is being called 'big data'. I am certain that for all the excitement, there are big dangers. Technology can give us a false sense of confidence that somehow we know, or can calculate, what it means. Its hard, mathematical, logical designs leave little room for doubt and questioning. But the ones who say "This is what it means!" will be the tyrants.

As our educational institutions take more notice of the power of data analysis, there is a danger of hubris regarding the "uncontestable objectivity" of some data analysis. Some people will find this useful to their own ends and use it as ways of manipulating others. We will have managers buoyed-up by the apparent logical rationale and uncontestable analysis that supports their most devious plans. But their analysis can never be any closer to the realities of the daily experiences of those they manage than if they had simply asserted their will without any explanation. Data analysis should not be confused with explanation!

This is not to say that data analysis cannot be part of the process of explanation. It is here that I believe  the most productive outcomes of our 'big data' fascination might arise. But our problem, and it is the problem that's thrown into sharpest relief by the technology, is that we don't really understand what an explanation is. I think if the medieval obsession in the light of literacy was with hermeneutics - with understanding the meaning of things, then our obsession in the light of 'big data' should be with a deeper understanding of explanation. That is to understand how the games that we play with communications lead to learning, community and flourishing. But what we must realise in that process (and this is the antidote to hubris I think) is that however we look at this, the need is always for us to explain.

Thursday 23 August 2012

Is this what we're doing to Universities?

This is the amateur restoration of a fresco reported  by the BBC today: see

To quote the BBC article,
The once-dignified portrait now resembles a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic
A friend suggested to me a while ago that managerialism can be thought of as "the governance of professional organisations by non-professionals". My view on this at the time was that the 'profession' of the University was contested, and that managers believe the University should be something different from that which academics might believe it should be (in the manager's view, it should be something easier for them to manage!).  But the contested nature means that it is hard to know who is 'right'. Is there a 'right' way?

This fresco makes me rethink this view, because essentially it is a view that says there is no objective value in the University, it is a social construct which can 'change with the times' (postmodernism has done so much damage to universities.. but that's another post!). And Universities have changed with the times. But at the same time, there has been some maintenance of their 'essential quality', which has been stewarded by people who cared for their institutions and honoured their history. From a postmodern angle, one could argue that what is contested in the case of the fresco is an interpretation of what the fresco should look like. But deep down, I think that is patently insane: it is hard to defend what has been done (except for its comedic value!). 

That means that there was something of essential value which has been destroyed through amateur interference. If managerialism is governance by non-professionals, then might a similar result can be expected on the institutions they govern?

What is distressing about this is the fact that the damage is irreparable: there can be no going back; As with the library at Alexandria, it is now only a moment in history when something important was lost.

All that we can do is mourn and learn from what's happened.

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Clearing! (a new *exciting* game between students and institutions)

I've been involved in a game of risk and strategy over the last week which has been played out in every University in the UK. The game is called 'Clearing', and it is a complex game of psychology that appears misleadingly simple. Actually, it used to be a bit simpler than it is now, but in the last year, the Society for Umpiring Clearing Knowledge and University Protocols (SUCKUP) has amended the rules regarding the pay-offs and penalties for certain moves which have had a profound impact on the way in which the game is played. Having said that, the moves that players may make in the game are unchanged.

Player A is an individual - usually an individual lacking in social, cultural  or financial capital. The deep objective of Clearing is to increase capital, or rather increase cultural and social capital in the hope that financial capital will follow. Player A's means of increasing their capital is to enroll in an institution run by Player B. Not all institutions are open to Player A, depending on how much 'educational' capital they already possess. The higher the starting capital, the greater the choice for Player A.

Player B runs (or is employed by) an educational institution. Player B's goal is to maintain the viability of the institution by increasing (or at least maintaining) its social and cultural capital, which in terms of institutions is generally referred to as its 'reputation'. Player B's cards are not evenly distributed. Some Player Bs will have high reputation; others will not. The higher the reputation of Player B, the more likely they will be able to attract good Player As in order to maintain their viability and (potentially) grow.

With the amendments by SUCKUP, Player A must now pay a lot of money to Player B in exchange for the the cultural and social benefit. Given that Player A doesn't have any money, what they must in fact do is promise to pay in installments after they have left the institution.

In this situation, there are a number of risks that are borne by both Player A and Player B. Player B, if they have a poor set of cards, risks either not attracting any Player As, and therefore going broke, or only attracting Player A's whose educational capital is low, and whose risk of dropping out are high, with consequent damage to Player B's institution.

Player A's risks are considerable and unfold in the range of decisions that need to be taken as Player A moves through the game. These decisions are:

  • Do I play the game at all?
  • If I play the game, which Player B do I (can I) play with?
  • What are my chances of success?
  • Will success really increase my social and cultural capital?
  • Will my financial commitment to my studies hamper me later in life?
  • Will my financial capital increase as a result of my success with Player B?

Some of the risks relating to these decisions are calculable, and others are not. The risk relating to each one can be summarised as:

  • Do I play the game at all?
If I don't play the game, I may be hampered in my career, but I will not be saddled with debt.
  • If I play the game, which Player B do I (can I) play with?
If I choose my institution or course badly, I will increase my risk of failure. I will finish as if I had chosen not to play at all, but I will be carrying some debt
  • What are my chances of success?
If I fail my course, I will finish as if I had chosen not to play at all, but I will be carrying debt according to how long it took me to decide to cut my losses
  • Will success really increase my social and cultural capital?
If I choose my institution or my course badly, then even if I pass, my course may not reward me in the way I hoped.
  • Will my financial commitment to my studies hamper me later in life?
The student debt is considerable. I will notice the payments early in my career when I am likely to be wanting to buy a house, get married and have children. I am unlikely to be earning enough for the debt payments not to notice until later in my career. Financial pressures might make it more likely that I get divorced, lose my house and end up on the streets!
  • Will my financial capital increase as a result of my success with Player B?

Current indications show that there is a "graduate premium". It is difficult to predict if this will reduce or increase over the next 20 years.

These choices can be summarised in the diagram below:

The important point to notice here is that there are a number of ways that Player A can lose. They can choose not to play, but carry no penalty; they can choose to play but not succeed, where they lose whatever costs incurred up to the point they leave; and they lose even if they succeed if they fail to capitalise on their degree. At the centre of the problem for Player A is an inability to assess the risk they take in pursuing a course.

Player A has no knowledge when they make their early moves as to whether they will be able to succeed. There is nothing Player B does for Player A to help them assess the risk they might be taking. Ironically, this is also against the interests of Player B, because Player A's failure impacts on Player B's viability.

I think the logical conclusion from this is that Player B should invest in open education, making it easier for Player A to assess the risks they are taking. That way, the judgement of risk between playing and not playing can be left to Player A working with more complete information both about what they are dealing with and what they believe their capabilities are. 

Amongst the recent initiatives of SUCKUP have been  requirements for Player B to publish data concerning their success rates, employability and satisfaction. This presumably has been done as an initiative to address the risk situation bearing on Player A. However, this is unlikely to succeed because every Player A is different, and not every Player B reflects accurately in bland statistics: such statistics can in fact be mis-information. 

Only the opening up of the actual product can do the job. An urgent amendment to SUCKUP's rules and regulations is required!

Sunday 19 August 2012

Explaining Explaining Music

I've always wanted to explain music - to explain the sequences of sounds which have moved me in such profound ways for as long as I can remember. Only 'explaining sex' can compete with my desire to explain music! (and my desire to explain music is older!). When I studied music at University, I realised I wasn't alone in having this fascination: many others over centuries have puzzled over exactly the same kind of phenomena. There was something comforting about that - and I had a sense of feeling at home when I met or encountered the writings of those who were also trying to explain music.

Having said that, their explanations usually left me cold - or at least luke-warm. I'd worked on my own explanations... a strange adolescent cybernetic (as I now see it!) theory of the way that emotion is manipulated through time and the experience of sound. I've still got large numbers of badly-written and messy pages of repetitive hammerings-away at the problems of music, logic and time. The academics I encountered, it seemed to me, were more interested in pinning their colours to a particular mast than really pursuing the problem: so Schenkerians went one way, the set-theorists went another, the Retians another, and so on. But none of them really dealt with the problems of experience - or they may have claimed to (like Meyer or perhaps Schenker) but there were some huge gaps. And of course there were huge gaps in my own theories. And the attempts continue: if anything they are worse now... like Tymoczko's which I commented on here:

Now I'm more interested in the desire to explain in the first place. What drives music theorists to peculiar esoteric formalisms of something which, if nothing else, is incredibly beautiful? If they behaved like this with an analysis of sex, we might simply say that they "weren't getting enough"! Are they not getting enough music? Was I not getting enough music? I think there's something in this...

The question is about the possibility of rational analysis, the value of rational analysis and its motivation. I think that the motivation for rational analysis cannot be separated from the institutional structure which supports its creation: the University. Simply put, the University is a place of discourse, and discourse depends on rational explanations for phenomena. The University is also a political place, and great prizes await those who present the most compelling rational arguments (heaven knows, they might even get more sex!). But that does not explain the fact that such rational analysis often has a formal character. There is a tendency to think "the greater the formalism, the greater the rationality" - of course that's false (although many economists and others seem to believe it!). But given that we do accord extra trust in the appearance of abstractions and formalisms, what does this say about our rationality?

Trust is key to discourse. The point about formalism is that it appears that it can serve to win trust. Why? This is what fascinates me about different kinds of explanation, and its particularly interesting when applied to music. It is a commonplace to say that maths and music are related. I think they are related  because they both express the "limits of rationality" in profound ways. How does expressing the limits of rationality help to win trust? I wonder now if it's because the limits of rationality have a universal quality: that we are bound together by what we can't know. In other words, it is not what rationality and formalism and music can say which is important; it is what it cannot say. It is the fact that formalisms identify limits of rationality in ways that can  be clearly articulated (like the performance of a musical score), that focal points are created for explanation. This is another way of identifying absence as causal, which I have discussed before (see

Does this explain the desire to explain music? No. It might explain the forms of explanation that arise. But to explain the desire to explain, we need to consider the form that explanation takes in terms of working with absence, and to think how this relates to human motivation. Whilst there may be a political motivation for producing the 'killer explanation' of music (or anything else) might be to win academic accolades, etc, I think if this was the sole intent of explaining something, nothing would really get explained at all - what we would have would be simple noisy 'posturing' of opinions (actually, we DO see a lot of this in the social sciences and (I'm afraid) education!). No science there.

I'd like to think that the motivation, the hunger, for explaining something like music is a search for meaning in life. What that means, in a more technical sense, is an ability to anticipate what life might throw at us. With anticipation comes greater robustness and viability, both at an individual and a societal level (and the individual is not separable from the society they inhabit). Of course, anticipation also plays a major role in the experience of music itself.

That trying to search for meaning in life through explaining music is futile only serves to highlight the poignancy of living. I find myself now torn between a drive to articulate formalisms around music, education, (actually everything!), and simply trying to be better at living and trying to take better care of the people around me. I guess I will always be torn in this way - the "explaining drive" fools me into thinking I am right (and others are wrong). And then I am pulled back to the beauty of music itself and a world of love.

Friday 17 August 2012

The Viable System Model and Drama Theory

I'm currently wading through some difficult mathematical territory in search of a way of articulating why Stafford Beer's Viable System Model  (see can be highly effective in stimulating reflexivity within complex organisations. My thinking is that the VSM contains a powerful combination of a simple set of categories for looking at the function of an organisation, with an equally simple explanation as to how these categories relate to one another in a recursive way. It is the implicit explanatory aspect of the VSM, which draws on the cybernetic theories of Ashby (the law of requisite variety: see, which I think does the trick.

What does the explanatory aspect of the VSM do? In essence, I think its function is to manipulate the probability distribution for the mapping of categories onto aspects of organisational experience. Thus, whilst the categories (which are numbered by Beer as 'system 1', 'system 2', 'system 3', etc) may be almost arbitrarily applied to different aspects of the organisation in the first instance, the explanation that accompanies them means that other categories cannot be applied arbitrarily, or rather their mapping depends on some initial choice. In this way, logically, the choice of mappings is restricted. This has a number of effects.

Firstly it means that the assignation of categories is not completely arbitrary. The assignation of an initial category (x is System 1) changes the probability distribution of the assignation of other categories.
Secondly, and related to this, it means that the scope for agreement between a number of different stakeholders in an organisation is increased, because not only are there a restricted number of mappings, but also the explanation of one mapping or another quickly reveals to other colleagues a deeper meta-understanding of the organisational structure which can be critiqued. In other words, people do not argue about the assignations of categories, but argue about their understanding. This is at a meta level.

It is interesting to compare the VSM to deeper theoretical cybernetic work which also relates to organisation. For example, I am very interested in Luhmann's communication theory. But Luhmann is not practical like Beer, and his work can be challenging. However, deep inspection reveals much that is of value, particularly relating to the necessity for rich ecologies of communication in organisations and the pathologies that can set it if communication is constrained (through fear, power, managerial isolation, etc). At the same time, Luhmann's work can be usefully applied to the analysis of communications data from the internet, and since the internet forms a key component of the environment of all businesses (particularly Universities) applying this analysis ought to carry some practical benefit.

To some extent, I think that this is what the learning analytics agenda is about. But there is a disconnect between the pretty pictures of data analysis and the real everyday political concerns of employees of an organisation. There is even a danger that clever data analysis could lead to a kind of managerial hubris which claims a 'higher intellegence' than the people on the ground doing the actual work! It is Beer's work which is with the people on the ground, yet Beer's work does not lend itself to the kind of deep analysis of communications that Luhmann's work affords.

So what can be learnt from Beer that might help in the practical realisation of the benefits of data analysis? Developing the notion of the role of explanation in Beer, and the consequences it carries for agreement, I am starting to look again at Nigel Howard's work on 'Drama Theory' (see This is a game-theoretical approach which seeks to articulate the complex ways in which individuals behave in organisational situations as they act in coalitions with colleagues with ideas about the strategies of those colleagues, or sometimes for their own personal gain. Howard's work can be seen as a mathematical articulation of institutional political behaviour.

As I try to understand the maths, I'm seeing some resonances between the dynamics of understanding each other's strategies (which is an anticipatory dynamic) and the dynamics of looking at immediate gain. Leydesdorff makes a distinction between those dynamics which rely on the previous state, and those dynamics which anticipate future states. The latter, it seems to me, are related to the understanding of strategies, and the extent to which strategies are agreed upon, and strategies depend on the articulation of explanations.

If the goal of an effective organisation is maintaining rich reflexive communications as a means of maintaining profitable interactions with its environment, then the role of explanation and anticipation are fundamental. If the way that explanation works within things like the VSM can be better understood, then we can create a relationship between the data analysis of internet communications and frameworks for articulating explanations of that data. In other words, the technology can serve as an environment for nurturing explanations amongst staff and in the process creating environment for rich cooperation.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Democratising Academic Administration

There are many tales of woe in UK universities at the moment. Despite the considerable pressures of government spending cuts, some university misery (although not all) appears to be the result of poor management. When this is the case, it becomes difficult for academics to speak out about the direction of decisions in their institutions: they don't speak out when they are employed for fear of losing their jobs; they don't speak out if they take severance because they have signed non-disclosure agreements. The scale of problems nationally can be seen here:

Given this, it is not inconceivable that a senior management team may implement policy against the will of the majority of academics, silencing critics of their plans, and leading inevitably to disaster for individual institutions and ultimately fundamentally damaging the educational infrastructure of the society they are meant to serve. The only check and balance is the 'board of governors', although boards of governors rarely intervene to criticise the policy of incumbent administrations, possibly for fear of damaging the reputation of the institution. Given such conditions, the probability that decision-making will be unregulated is very high.

This, I believe, is the biggest challenge that the University system faces as it goes through it's current phase of industrialisation. The safeguarding of spaces for intellectual discourse and the safeguarding of equitable access to employment are functions the university performs for society, not for themselves. There is no reason why an industrialised education system should not perform these functions (and indeed many reasons why industrialisation might be a good thing), but in order for it to work, we need to rethink the relationship between the way institutions are governed and regulated in the light of the social function that they serve.

In Universities, the pursuit of knowledge and the transmission of culture depend on freedom of speech and of the ability to ask difficult questions. There should be no question that cannot be asked. Alasdair Macintyre has recently stated that there are plenty  of questions that cannot be asked in modern research universities. He says:
"...the contemporary research university is, therefore, by an large a place in which certain questions go unasked or rather, if they are asked, it is only by individuals and in settings such that as few as possible hear them being asked." (see
This, for Macintyre, is partly the way academic specialism has led Universities as 'knowledge engines'. But more fundamental, I believe, is the importance of asking questions about how the institution itself is run. This is particularly important in a Widening Participation University, because the remit of inclusion necessitates broader definitions of knowledge which incorporate social responsibility and care, both of which can be severely damaged by managerial intervention. The separation between governance and knowledge is a myth peddled by managers who see the University as nothing more than a degree factory.

Universities bear stronger resemblances to religious institutions than to businesses and much can be learnt from the history of religious institutions - particularly in their various moments of pathology and self-correction. The events leading up to the Reformation are important not least because the 'business model' of the Catholic Church of the time was of 'selling salvation'. This is not a million miles away from the business models of our current universities whose 'indulgences' carry the word 'degree' but the reliability of which in a complex employment market is only marginally easier to demonstrate. Luther's reformation in response to this was a democratising movement (one which of course carried its own pathologies, but was nevertheless a necessary corrective). The Catholic Church's response in the Council of Trent was a fundamental realignment of the organisation of the church.

Will history repeat itself with Universities? I think as Universities swallow up thousands of pounds that haven't yet been earned by their students, as they behave with little accountability to their staff, as the value of the degrees they sell are questioned, as they only pay lip-service to their fundamental social mission... we are heading for trouble. What should we do? What sort of institutions do we want?

I have a simple recommendation. I propose that University Vice-Chancellors and their senior management teams should be elected by the staff and students of the University on fixed terms of office. Only by democratising the governance of the University can the separation between administration and knowledge, between social function and business viability be addressed. We've seen too many VCs on huge salaries; we've seen too much bullying of good staff by philistine managers; we've seen too many circumventions of employment law; we've seen too many harebrained schemes for "global domination" which serve nobody's interests other than those in charge; and we've seen too much protectionism of managerial position.

Democratising Universities will make the fundamental connection between the politics of institutional life and deep knowledge of the social mechanisms which University is meant to serve. It will protect against managerial excess. It will provide ways in which the academics - who make up the university and whose service is dedicated to the transmission of culture - can act if they don't like what they see.

With the private sector taking an ever-larger role in the provision of degrees (rather like the printers who made a killing printing indulgences! - see ) there is a need for societal (which means government) regulation. There is a laissez-faire attitude within government currently that believes that financial regulation through the provision of the funding councils and student loans will suffice. It won't. Deeper regulatory change in the form of democratisation of the way that institutions are actually governed is what is really needed. I believe there should be a campaign!

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Explaining Explaining! (of Learning Analytics and Content Analysis)

Yesterday's post on learning raised a number of issues and before getting onto the meat of "explaining learning", it is important to say something about explanation itself.

I think the most important thing about explanation is its relationship with agreement. An individual may have an understanding of something, but until they explain their understanding, they cannot know whether others agree with them. This is why when we think about learning analytics (for example), the individual interpretation of the data (however it is achieved) is not really the issue. The key issue is the explanation of the categories that an individual presents to others: the shapes, the form of the data - it is the explanation which counts because it is the explanation which may or may not elicit collaborative action.

This is why I think that visual analytics is the best path to take with regard to learning analytics, because there is no attempt made to elicit latent meaning in the data itself, but rather create tools which afford the collaborative exploration of the data and the construction of explanations.

This is not to say that no value can be gained from a data-analytic approach, but I do think that in our understanding of the data, we should try and factor in the possible explanans that emerge and their impact.

There are a variety of ways  of examining the reliability of data which is analysed for its latent 'content'. Of the different 'alpha' values which are attributed to reliability, I find the most interesting is Krippendorff's alpha. ('s_alpha). This is a measure of agreement of categories amongst a number of observers. Essentially it is a simple ratio between the amount of disagreement observed, and the amount of disagreement which is possible.

But I don't think it's quite this simple: explanation muddies the picture. This is because as certain categories are decided upon, explanations are formed, which are characterised by anticipations of what might be next, which colour the judgement of further categories. That means that the scope for disagreement fluctuates over time depending on the extent to which explanations are agreed. In turn this means that we consider not only the agreement of categories in content analysis, but also the agreement of explanations (maybe in the form of anticipations). It may be that the agreement of anticipations may follow a similar metric to the agreement of categories. This looks very much like an example of Leydesdorff's 'hyperincursive' sub-systems (see

What does this mean in practice? In essence, I think it's a more  formal way of saying something quite sensible: we need to communicate our understanding as well as communicate the categories we use. Some management tools (particularly Beer's Viable System Model) come with categories (in the VSM's case, regulating mechanisms) and with explanations as to how the regulating mechanisms connect. Because the explanations are set in the model itself, users of the VSM usually only have to worry about assigning the categories to their experience.

With content analysis of complex data (such as is attempted in learning analytics), both explanations and categories have to co-emerge. Actually, the co-emergence of categories and explanations is what happens in learning itself. This gives an indication of the deeper analysis that needs to be done with regard to learning theory (which I will follow up on in the near future).

But more practically, I cannot see how any analytic approach can be successful unless it focuses on the creation of environments for fostering shared explanations. Without that, the conflict of competing explanations and competing categories lacks any kind of regulation, and risks simply being subject to the assertion of power relations - which will be worse because everyone is so flummoxed by the data!

Monday 13 August 2012

Explaining Learning

The issue guaranteed to cause the maximum amount of confusion amongst learning technologists is the question “what is learning?” As an 'educational cybernetician', I am comfortable in discussing issues of technology and organisation, and have tools which can help me (and my colleagues) make useful distinctions. But learning?

Typically, the response to this is to label ourselves: “I’m a  social constructivist”. Whilst this is used as a badge of defence against those who would advocate drilling their students with Knowledge (with a capital K) in the manner of the Nuremberg Funnel, or various rigid forms of assessment, most of the learning technologists we know don't in fact believe in Nuremberg funnels and call themselves "social constructivists". But you can find instructional designers who believe that the cause of learning is determined by the way facts are presented, still calling themselves 'social constructivists'. When everyone carries the badge, it is unlikely that one person's social constructivism is like another's. That's led me for a long time to ask "am I a social constructivist? If not, what am I".. particularly given that I don't like Nuremberg funnels - although I have to admit, it does appear that knowledge can be hammered-in like nails, given the right conditions! (I just happen to think that it's not a very nice way of treating people!)

So what exactly is a social constructivist? “We believe that we learn from each other," comes the response.  In other words, social constructivists see the cause of learning being social - adaptational in the sense of Piaget. This might be contrasted with the position of 'instructivists' who might see the cause of learning being material - inherent in the design of textbooks, webpages, etc. They too would cite some sort of biological adaptational change. But I can't see it's one or the other. The human experience of learning embraces both the design of our environment (including our learning resources) and the ways in which we are treated. In other words, instructivism and constructivism are fundamentally related by the fact that they both wish to attribute a causal factor in the emergence of new skilled performances.

What is unarguable is the fact that whatever learning is, it is characterised (and recognised) as change in behaviour. Attempts to explain these changes are used as justifications for particular interventions. Instructivism and constructivism are two attempts to explain change and  to suggest different types of intervention. Both types of intervention don't work as well as those who subscribe to the theories wish they did: but the failures of interventions are rarely put down to poor theory; instead it is put down to errors in implementation.

There are two things to learn from this:

  1. the way we explain things is causal upon the interventions we make
  2. the interventions we make challenge our explanations, but for some reason we do not seek to explain what actually occurs

The reasons for this are, I think, complex. They are by no means isolated to education - the whole of social science suffers from an inability to explain (this has been Lawson's argument in Economics, for example). What is interesting is the fact that the business of explanation is bread and butter to educational processes in every discipline; yet explaining learning itself sets up a strange loop where scientific and rational principals are not upheld.

I believe if the last 10 years of e-learning has taught us anything, then it has raised some big questions about social constructivism. Models like Pask's conversation theory were used (or possibly, abused) by Laurillard and others to advocate networked conversational learning using text: VLEs, social media and MOOCs are the direct inheritors of this thinking. But on the whole, it's a pretty miserable, somewhat lonely and alienating experience (cue all those who've had fantastic experiences on a MOOC to criticise me, but I would say "YOU ARE IN THE MINORITY OF LEARNERS WORLDWIDE!").

If the theory of conversational networked learning and the social constructivism that underpinned it were correct, then MOOCs would be everywhere and the lecture (and possibly the campus that hosts it) gone. But despite the best advocacy of those who push the technology, learners want to be on campus, with each other, chatting-up the attractive student on the other side of the room. Er... what a surprise! In human affairs, sex wins every time!

The problem (and the way towards a different way of looking at this) is I believe to identify the latent positivism that underpins both social constructivism and its 'opposing' theories. I'll expand on this in a later post, but in essence the problem lies in the identification of 'actual' causes - causes whose existence can be justified. I think we should be more realistic, and accept that among the many causes for learning are things which we can't even say are actual things (issues around sex, death, religion, attachment and loss are in this category I think), which can't so easily be shown to actually exist, but nevertheless exert an influence. In short, I think our theories need to account for absence.

But all this is not to say that the technological work has been wasted, or even been a mistake. Clearly it hasn't. But there has been little learning of what has actually happened has told us. No revising of theory, and I think such a revision would be less confidently 'positive' in its attribution of causes.

Here we should ask ourselves what the philosophers would call a 'transcendental question':
Given that:
  • students want to be with each other
  • they learn from each other
  • they also learn from well-designed textbooks
  • they enjoy beautifully-designed campus facilities
  • they don't appear (on the whole) to simply want to sit in an online forum
  • they do appear to value the input of good caring teachers
  • many value the technologies made available to them
    What is actually going on as they gain new skilled performances?
Adapting? How? To what?

In creating a new explanation for this, I do not think that the purpose of such an explanation should be to pinpoint the next intervention (and the next bid for project funding!). Instead I think it should help us understand what comes naturally in teaching and learning practice with technology. In the process, deeper understanding and appreciating of what works and what doesn't in education can help create a more humble and humane approach to the delivery and organisation of education, where common sense rather than half-baked theory is the guiding principle.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Creativity, Work and Information

One of the most interesting things about the emerging theory of Information is an increasing awareness of the role of 'work' (as it is understood in physics) and probabilistic information as it is understood in Shannon's theory. In essence, what this concerns is the fact that the uncertainty of the correct transmission of a message (which Shannon equates to information), and which is expressed in:
nevertheless requires physical work to be done to a medium in which to transmit a message. This is the essence of Deacon's argument (see, and he says (convincingly) it creates a connection between Shannon's information entropy and Boltzmann's statistical thermodynamics (from which Shannon derived his equation). Importantly, however, the absence of physical work can convey information - if evidence of some physical agency in transmitting a message is expected and not received, then some conclusions about the status of the sender, or the connection will be reached, and these lie outside the domain of uncertainty that is expressed by Shannon's equation alone. But the important question here is "what is the information that might be inferred from such absence?"

The nature of the relationship between the physical work which is required to transmit a message and the creative human agency which has the intention of transmitting something relies on the efficient cause of the transmission of the information in the first place. I'm increasingly thinking that the effficient cause is 'creativity', and that without creativity there is no information. Whilst the relationship between Shannon and Boltzmann indicates that the material cause of information may be oscillating atoms or electrons down a wire, does it mean that the formal cause of information is human agency, or rather a human being? And what of its final 
cause? Floridi goes to some lengths to insist that false information is not information. He may be right.. certainly, taking that position would be to take a position that insists on some morally-oriented final cause of information... I'd like to think that the final cause of information is "emancipation".

I think about music as I think about these things. Without creativity there is no music. But there is no such thing as false information in music. And music does appear to have a liberating purpose. But there is more thinking to be done here!

To think of information away from human agency seems a mistake. When it is seen as such, the inquiry into information is as much a political inquiry as it is a physical or a mathematical one. Theologians like Arthur Peacocke have suggested that it is also a theological inquiry: that information is the essence of God. Certainly the idea that creativity is the essence of God is not new, and if information and creativity are so tightly bound together, then I can see this argument holding.

It seems that an information-focused inquiry into politics and society is precisely the inquiry that our world needs now. In particular, it may help us to understand (or come to terms with) the remarkable tools we have created for manipulating an ever-rich information environment which steadily confounds our historical preconceptions about the world, leading us into an ever-deepening crisis.

Monday 6 August 2012

The Idea of a Widening Participation University

What would Newman make of a widening participation university - one like my own, for example? This is an interesting question because it raises the question of the boundary between high-level scholarship and pastoral mission. Whilst Newman's conception of the University was in keeping with the Oxford he had known, and sought to emulate in Dublin, his pastoral work in Birmingham was with a congregation of mainly Irish immigrants and factory workers. The desire to reproduce something with the intellectual power of Oxford was evident - this was, after all, a difficult time for Catholics. Some degree of political motivation in establishing a Catholic university is more than likely.

Newman's comments in "The idea of a University" are interesting because they give an insight into why he believed University education mattered. Famously arguing that the University should accommodate all subjects, he argued that for students
"Though they cannot pursue every subject which is open to them, they will be gainers by living among those and under those who represent the whole circle. This I conceive to be the advantage of the seat of universal learning"
In essence, Newman is saying that individuals learn from each other; that it is the community of the university, and the discourse that the community engages in, which is special.
"The University [...] has this object and this mission; it contemplates neither moral impression nor mechanical production; it professes to exercise the mind neither in art nor in duty; its function is intellectual culture; here it may leave its scholars, and it has done its work when it has done as much as this. It educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it"
How are Widening participation Universities like this? It is, I think, silly to think that they are the same. Amongst the crazier initiatives in my own University, the funniest has been the recent suggestion of rebranding it as 'red brick' (I don't think intended entirely seriously) - partly prompted by the discovery that Bolton University can trace its history earlier than Manchester University! (I remember similar idiocy when the University in my home town of Luton published its 'history' after one year in existence!) But in  a sense, these silly episodes underline the confusion that we are still unsure as to what these places are for. Newman, I believe, would have had something to say.

What places like my own University resemble, more than Oxford or Cambridge, is the community that surrounded Newman's Oratory in Birmingham. The oratory was essentially a Catholic version of many other religious and philanthropic communities established in the 19th century all over the country. These communities saw that there was a job of care to be done in the harsh industrial environment of the 19th century.

I think that Newman would look at the diverse mix of individuals in Widening Participation Universities and recognise the conditions.  These are not, on the whole, individuals thirsty for knowledge and yearning scholarship. They are, in many cases, subject to new forces of industrialisation and commercialism, in need of certificates, funneled into educational institutions often without knowing exactly why. Nor do any of the politicians, (or any of the scholars in Oxford and Cambridge for that matter) know why (except that the scholars in Oxford and Cambridge and doing very well during our current fetish for education).

Knowledge, I think Newman would conclude, has run away with itself. It has fallen down the slippery slope that he believed his idea of the University could help it avoid. Just to re-iterate:
"its function is intellectual culture; here it may leave its scholars, and it has done its work when it has done as much as this. It educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it"
This not the description of an 'engine for knowledge'; I see it as a description of a kind of "cultural attenuator" - something which stops things getting out-of-hand. It is a desperate irony that every overblown exhortation about the economic value of the University mis-quotes Newman to add gravitas to their sullied and nonsensical ambitions for "creating new knowledge". The extent to which all institutions have become swallowed-up in the mire of commercialism is evident from the report on "Efficiency and Effectiveness in Higher Education" published by Universities UK today: What would Newman make of that?? (At least they don't quote him!)

So, given the madness of all Universities, what of the prospects for the Widening Participation University? The pastoral mission of these institutions must be their principal focus: indeed, for my own institution, this has been our traditional strength. But pastoral strengths are easy to miss with "red-brick envy"; they are embedded in the DNA of individual teachers. But where Widening Participation meets the most noble aims of Newman's ambition is in the way that "University for everybody" opens up the dusty academy of scholars to everyone else: those who may not have read the Greats, but nevertheless will have an opinion on the plans of those who have pursued their scholarship in glorious isolation (and have gained enough political power to tell others how they should live their lives). The opinions of students in Widening Participation institutions are more than valuable - they are essential: the voices of dissenters who say "bollocks" to the high falutin gibberish of the old academy. As Edmund Burke famously said:
"I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observations of those who were much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business."
But 'inferior' is not the right word (it did the job for Burke in the 18th century). It is to simply say that there are different cultural backgrounds for thinking and being human, and that our civilization depends of an effective integration between them. Technology has created an environment where this kind of integration can work. Newman's  'whole circle' of the University is among us all. The pastoral role of the Widening Participation university can be the gateway through which, by virtue of individual care and the overcoming of inequalities, we might hope the potential for beauty and the maintenance of a healthy civilization can be revealed for all.

Friday 3 August 2012

Competency, Information and Entropy

One of the most pertinent questions about a person's competency profile is "how much information does it convey?".  I will argue in this post that the answer to that question is directly connected to the extent to which  others examining a competency profile are able to predict its content based on a sample. This in turn is related to the extent that employers can predict the behaviour of individuals in professional situations (based on a competency profile), and therefore form a judgement as to whether to give them a job or not.

A competency profile is a bit like a code. If a standard like the ISCO-88 classification of jobs in the EU is used, then the competency profile is a finite code. But information is conveyed through the various forms of expression using the code. It is, in a very simple way, rather like calculating the entropy of the English language, which Shannon famously did experiments on in the 1950s.

If we see a competency profile like the English language, then we might hope to identify some degree of pattern. Of course, unlike the letters of an English sentence, competencies aren't sequential... the whole meaning of a competency profile is achieved through scanning the entirety of what's there. Nevertheless, the examination of sample should give an indication of others in the portfolio. It is perhaps here that calculations of entropy and meaning bear some relation to gestalt psychology.

In "Meditations on a Hobby Horse", Ernst Gombrich asked the question as to how a child imagines the horse from the stick with a cloth head on it that they play with. What does this mean in terms of probability or entropy? The imagined horse is, in a sense, improbable - that is why Gombrich asks the question. Is it because it is improbable that it is meaningful? The more improbable a communication is, the more information can be said to have transferred. But what's in the improbability? For we cannot just look at the stick with a head, we have to look at the child. An unimaginative child may only see a stick - and in such a case, we might identify less improbability in the communication; less entropy (although we have to be careful with this word!)

The same applies to a competency profile. We see a competency of 'hang gliding' on someone looking to become a psychoanalyst. There are two pieces of information there to begin with: the competency and the context within which the individual wishes that competency to be assessed. An unimaginative response (one which carries less information) would be "you're a hang glider - you're not a psychoanalyst!". An imaginative response, which conveys more (less probable) information might be "you're adventurous!".

Equally, a person applying to be a psychoanalyst might claim a competency of "Psychoanalysis 101" - a module on a degree they studied. In both cases - in the unimaginative and the imaginative interpretation, this does not convey much information except to say "this is consistent with the application". That raises a problem which relates to the necessity for a competency profile to present "consistent" information (which in fact amounts to "redundant" information) - and which actually serves to convey very little information at all; and a competency profile which conveys rich information through presenting improbable communications.

When I dislike competency as a concept, it is because it tends towards redundancy and the transfer of little information. If I am hopeful that there might be something in it, it is because of the possibility of meaningful presentation of rich (but necessarily improbable) information.