Thursday 29 November 2012

The ITEC project, the ITEC Widget Store and Togetherness in the Classroom of the Future

This is my presentation from the Eisenstadt E-learning conference where I discussed the theme of 'togetherness' in the context of emerging technologies including the ITEC WidgetStore, real-time technology and the classroom of the future.  My talk began by getting all the delegates to sing, using one of the techniques which I learnt from Pauline Oliveros's 'Deep Listening'. (I'm grateful to my experiences at the American Society for Cybernetics for this). The point in doing this was to underline the particular and special situation of doing activities together: this is not Facebook, Twitter or a VLE - it has a different and more profound quality.

I divided the challenge of thinking about the classroom of the future into three categories: SPACES, ACTIVITIES and ORGANISATION.

Technology, and in particular ITEC Technologies, seek to mediate between these three aspects, providing new kinds of SPACES for learning, different kinds of ACTIVITIES, and providing new ways ORGANISING those activities. 

Real-Time technologies are, I believe, fundamental to this transformation of spaces for learning. With the advent of real-time interactive systems like Steam and OnLive, the richness of real-time collaborative experiences is deepening. At the same time, such technologies afford richer kinds of interactive activities in physical spaces: for example, cinemas might exploit real-time interactivity for audience participation (equally lectures, although cinema and theatre might in the end prove far more attractive). 

But what of the kinds of activities that are done? Here again, I think real-time technologies play an important role. However, rich activities online don't just have to be real-time. Eric Whittaker's Virtual Choir still stands out for me to be the best online activity I have seen. But there has been an explosion on the web of simple activities embodied as 'widgets' or webpages, which if used creatively by teachers can be really innovative and enrich lessons. Making these activities easily accessible for teachers to organise is one of the goals of ITEC. The ITEC Widget Store does just this, by providing the facilities not just to browse a range of different kinds of widget-based activity, but to personally curate collections of favourite tools. 

But then, given a range of tools, how can learning activities be coordinated? Here too, recent technological development are addressing the ease with which activities can be presented to a class, and coordinated. The Open-Sankore open-source Interactive Whiteboard platform can seamlessly integrate with ITEC's widgets because it uses the same W3C standard. There is one way of coordinating activity. But I also demonstrated the ability to present tools to users, and to dynamically change the tools that are presented on each user's screen using the ITEC Presenter Widget. This also uses the technology of the Real-time web, and provides a facility to ensure that learners have a shared experience, even when they are looking at personal devices. 

Finally, I invited people to participate in a performance of Haydn's Surprise Symphony. This was done by using the interactive features of the real-time web to power 'controller widgets' which served to deliver real-time signals to a sound generator on my machine which was hooked to the sound system in the class. At the crucial moment, participants hit a button to ensure that Haydn's surprise was more surprising than even he intended!

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Togetherness in Eisenstadt

Tomorrow I'm speaking at an e-learning conference in Eisenstadt, Austria (see Eisenstadt is etched in my musical knowledge as the home of Joseph Haydn, where he served at the Esterhazy court and struggled with a difficult domestic situation. Haydn's music is the epitome of joy, lightness and humour whilst also bearing witness to the most profound humanity and musical wisdom. I'm tempted to ask "what's the equivalent in education?". It seems so often the epitome of misery, boredom, heaviness and consistently favouring the superficial over the profound! Maybe I'm being unfair. I would have love to have met Haydn (one of the few composers I think I would have enjoyed talking to), but I have had some rare experiences through education to meet individuals who have possessed humour, lightness and profundity. Everything else was nonsense. Computers, I fear, have made the situation worse.

What I want to say at the conference is that computers need not make it worse. But in order to ensure that they do not become the tools of the harbingers of misery, we need to understand our truly joyful experiences of learning. I will begin with music - not just because it is my passion (and the best advice I was given when I trained to be a teacher was "teach your passion!") - but because it is unique in bringing people together. Joy comes from togetherness.

When we make sounds together we become aware of each other. We listen to each other. We sense the universality of our individual experiences; we look at each other. This is the root of learning and the path to wisdom. There is no wisdom without listening and that which we learn we learn about each other. Even physics and maths.

Technologies as we have them - our so-called "social technologies" - offer us little opportunity to listen. Who really listens to someone's Facebook post? If you really listened you would hear something different from what was written. Maybe...
"I'm posting this because I need to tell the world I exist and having a good time even though I'm not because I am having an existential crisis!". 
If we listened to that, we'd understand more about what technology isn't doing for us at the moment.

7 billion of us are inhabiting spaces together increasingly unaware of each others existence, their humanity, or their needs. This may be because appreciation of others means we have to consider our own existence, our humanity, our needs. And who wants to do that?? Technology is deafening us because we want to be deafened.

What is possible? How might it be different?

Imagine a shared space with lots of atomised individuals all staring into their own online worlds. Suddenly something grabs their attention and points them to the same resource. They become curious. They engage. As they do things with the resource, things happen around them which affect everyone else. Their attention shifts from their own screens to their environment and to each other. It's as if suddenly, everyone's been given a musical instrument and has been invited to participation in a performance. Technology has drawn people together and created a shared experience. Everyone remembers it. It is a meaningful moment.

I will argue in future posts that such moments are moments when technology is used to create a shared absence, and that this absence is the driver for learning. Absence is not content. It is simply the surprise revealing of the thing everybody was avoiding. That's what I believe we should be aiming for with learning technology. It is also the art that Haydn excelled at.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Towards A Negative Theory of Learning

If the best we can do with constructivist learning theory is the MOOC, and if theory predicts that MOOCs will work, then it's time for a new theory! As I have been arguing recently, constructivist theory is essentially positivist: it reduces reality to actual posited mechanisms of the learning process, and that learning and knowledge is a process which can be accounted for by the action of these mechanisms. To adopt a constructivist approach in this way means trying to account for the most mysterious aspects of human experience through a mechanistic metaphor. Computers, in being the epitome of mechanism, are ideally suited to this approach. And yet all we have managed to do appears deficient in comparison to established and ancient practices of learning.

As a cybernetician I perhaps ought to be sympathetic to the mechanicists. But equally, as a cybernetician, I am more familiar with the deficiencies of this kind of mechanistic thinking. It leads here: (more about that later). And I want to suggest an alternative approach.

My experience of learning is visceral. Music knocked me sideways, philosophy thrilled me, science intrigued me, technology fascinated me and religion allowed me to step back into a space where everything was one. I fell in love with subjects, sometimes teachers or fellow students, and all the time being battered by a continual drive for something... I think (now)... meaning. I might well have constructed my world, but the extent to which it could whack me in the solar plexus was the richest reality I knew, and (through music) I knew that it was real for others too.

It's the whacking and the reality of it that matters! Not everyone feels it like this (I was odd!). But my first task is to compare my experience with what I imagine the experience of those who are unmoved by these things. Often, I wonder, they were being whacked by other things - by family, relationships, worries, etc. I believed getting whacked by science or music would help me establish the connections to others that I wished for; those uninterested in science didn't wish for those connections. My antennae were tuned in a particular way; others had different antennae. In essence, we had different strategic priorities. It's much like the differences that emerge in relationships when two people have moved past the stage of physically exciting each other to realise they are wanting entirely different things.

It is not what is thought, it is not what thinking itself is that matters. It is what is not thought. What is not thought bears on what is thought, what is decided, in powerful ways. My strategic priorities, like those of others around me, were the product of what each of us could not think. The reasons why things are unthinkable are, I believe, emotional: unthinkability relates to family, love, attachments. That means that unthinkability is social.

Constructivism is wrong in characterising a coordination of understanding - a coordination of thinking. What I think happens - what amounts to a negative theory - is the idea that coordinations occur around what is not thinkable. Shared absence is at the heart of this: those experiences which in a group of people produce the same physical reaction, the same turning of the stomach, the same 'knocking sideways'. Learning stems from this as a process of directly engaging with that shared absence and progressively determining it.

This is the process of human intimate relationships. The sexual absence which is felt is a shared question for each. It's gradual determination, exploration, identification leads to new absences which will either bring people closer together or drive them apart. Learning is the same. The astonishment of seeing sodium explode in water is shared amongst those who witness it. What happens then is a kind of critique. Different things are determined depending on the backgrounds of the individuals who experience this, depending on the thinkability or unthinkability of things, which in turn will depend on deeper emotional predispositions. The absence of the explosion is determined in different ways. One might say "rubbish! it's a con!", the other says "I can join a community of scientists!". Of course, they might both be right!

In education, we aspire to get everyone to the view of "I want to join a community of scientists" (or some other academic community). We measure individuals as to the extent to which they succeed in this, and determine their life chances based on this. A negative theory of learning highlights how dangerous this is. For the reaching of that position is determined by what is not thinkable. It is determined by a set of attachment situations and emotional predispositions which are codified in class structures which succeed only in delimiting thought. The anti-education critique is however a different set of unthinkable propositions which are no less worth exploring and critiquing than those which fit the system. Yet the system struggles support their exploration - particularly in school.

Most serious are the growing noises from government circles about particular 'idealised' educational experiences. I was horrified to see Geoff Mulgan saying that 'bad' universities should close (see I'm horrified because I've been a fan of Mulgan in the past, and he shares an enthusiasm for the work of Stafford Beer. But this is terrible. The ideals of 'good education' are essentially what is thinkable by the likes of Mulgan, Gove, Cameron and others. They believe, like the constructivists, that learning results from a 'coordination of understanding'. They believe that the community within 'good universities' might be expandable to learners at bad universities (i.e. takeovers). The opportunity to coordinate your understanding with the understanding of the great and the good can be sold as a product. Because of this, "Bad Universities" represent an absence for them which is different to what they represent to those who study and work there. But the absences of the great and the good (in good Universities) will never be the same as the absences of those in 'bad' universities: this cannot work. In essence, there is a shared absence relating to 'badness' of an institution amongst a class-oriented group, and a contrasting absence amongst the immediate stakeholders within that institution.

Ultimately, this results is the opposite of learning: oppression. The danger lies in the unthinkability of that proposition for Mulgan and co., and its visceral reality for those who will be their victims.

Saturday 24 November 2012

Learning, Society and Absence

If we believed that the social aspects of learning demanded some sort of physical proximity between individuals, then we would never have thought that e-learning was a good idea. Given that the experience of e-learning is generally still terrible - solitary individuals hunched over computers, knots in the stomach as they try to work out "what am I meant to do?", "where do I click?", "why am I doing this?", etc... dealing with the mantra to "engage socially" (which generally means exposing yourself through text messages that everyone else can see - more knots in the stomach), what do these experiences tell us about the deficiencies in the way we think about learning?

First of all, it is important to say that given sufficient determination and effort by learners, these terrible experiences can work. However, little is known about the conditions within which it works, and the conditions within which it doesn't. Given that the e-learning brigade is generally self-serving and has a vested interest in 'talking-up' the experience, it is very difficult to get a handle of the differences between actual experience and success.

I think physical proximity really matters in this process. And so I'm going to have a guess: things work online when learners are supported by those who are physically close to them. It works when the learners engagement online, at a distance, becomes part of the 'family project', or the 'work project'. Progress in the online course becomes an important factor in maintaining local conversations which people who matter in day-to-day life, rather than individuals represented as pixels on the screen. These attachments counter-balance (even compliment) the crappiness  of the online experience. Some research needs to be done here.

Conversely, when this is not the case, when the learner is really on their own, then I think it may not work. Although, there may be exceptions: the very lonely individual for whom online communities offer their only social outlet, for example. But I'd be willing to bet that such an individual would crave proximal (probably intimate) communications instead and the online vehicle might become a way of achieving that (or maybe a surrogate).

Thinking, attachment, emotional management and strategic engagement with technology are deeply entwined. What I may be saying is that attachments are a key factor in success in e-learning. The fact that attachment seems to be significant raises a number of questions. Simply comparing attachments to internet use, or to success in e-learning or participation on forums may be to over-reduce complex causal relationships. If we think with others, and our thinking relates to the management of attachments, then the strategies we pursue (whether face-to-face or online) are related to those relationships. But if this is the case, what does it tell us about thinking itself and physical relationships? What is the involvement of the body in intellectual life?

I've been making some suggestions here recently (see Our understanding of learning as "mental process", or learning as "connected mental processes", or learning as "practice and reflection in the light of models" all appear suspect. None of them acknowledge that for each individual there  are other individuals who are deeply important to personal viability: parents, partners, children, colleagues, etc. This oversight is largely responsible for some big mistakes in e-learning, including MOOCs, Learning Design, Instructional Design, etc. Maintaining attachments with those we love is essential for establishing sufficient emotional management to engage in challenging processes of learning. Ironically, many thinkers in e-learning themselves seem to plateau-out, no longer wishing to challenge themselves or their current knowledge, but preferring instead to believe that they are right and to become evangelists. But then, that's why e-learning is dead.

I'll return to this, but to illustrate my point, just imagine someone you deeply love standing alone on the precipice of a cliff. Most typically this might be your child. Think how you feel. The terrified anxiety which turns the stomach; the frantic search for ways of reaching them and dragging them back; the desperate instinct to protect; the fear that something might happen which threatens not only them, but you too. The bodily sensation here is fundamental and, I believe, ontological. The intellectual challenge brought about by the situation drives us to new thinking, new ideas. And this, I submit, is a better way of thinking about learning than the coordination of mental models, or whatever other mechanism might be suggested.

The difference between this scenario and the descriptions of learning that have be proposed to us by e-learning aficionados is simple: My scenario focuses on the negative, on what isn't there - all that we know is the churning of the stomach. All other descriptions attempt to assert a positive mechanism - what is proposed to be there (interestingly, positive descriptions often turn my stomach - I think of what isn't described!)

If there is a priority in the theoretical development in education, it lies in understanding the logic of the negative and the absent. That this theoretical development is urgent is underlined by the terrible things we are currently doing to education.

Thursday 22 November 2012

An Idea for a University

Amidst the attempts to fathom the "direction of Higher Education" in an environment of cuts, privatisation (see, managerial hubris, ministerial expediency, redundancies and parodies (see, the more obvious question is "what do we want university to be?" It rarely gets asked because it's difficult. Attempts in the past to ask it (first and foremost by Newman, then by various thinkers ranging from the Frankfurt school to F.R. Leavis) were from an age very different to ours, from an education system deeply different. None of them believed mass higher education was a good idea.

The environment of widening participation universities (like my own) would have been completely alien to most of those thinkers, who were themselves very comfortably ensconced in the system they described. They would have remarked that it "wasn't really a university" meaning that it wasn't at all like Oxford. I'd like to think that Newman might have had a bit more of an insight into Bolton than the likes of Leavis - after all, his ministry in inner-city Birmingham brought him into contact with something completely unlike Oxford. Newman wanted to make something special in Birmingham - he passionately believed in his Oratorian Movement and its spiritual and social mission. I'm thinking of this not just because I think a similar social mission needs to accompany the development of our new kinds of "university for everyone", but also because Manchester is about to acquire its own Oratorian Movement (see in a particularly run-down part of town. I believe this matters.

Students often turn up at Universities not being quite sure about why they are there. In fact this applies to students at many red-brick universities, but it especially applies to widening participation institutions. The chance to get a degree is of course important, but the means of getting a degree (boring lectures, assignments, exams) often comes as something of a disappointment, and for many widening participation students an uncomfortable reminder of where they have failed in their education up to this point. Too often Universities repeat the circumstances which give rise to habits of failure. Too often, now scandalously, they are still happy to take the students money when this happens (even penalising the students for the privilege). What bastards!

The world might be a better place if students didn't feel they all needed degrees. But I suspect the reasons why our society inculcates this need are deeply entwined with where our economy is in a post-industrial world. So all students feel they need degrees. But here is where I think Universities, and particularly widening participation universities can help.

My idea for a University is a place which helps students deal with the problem they are faced with: believing they need a degree; not knowing which institution/course to choose; not having equal freedoms to choose institutions or courses; sometimes not knowing where they are going; struggling with assessments; struggling with the cost of it all. It isn't just about trying to do things cheap, although that's important. It's about waking up to the barriers that we put in the student's way almost without thinking because we've grown accustomed to saying "but this is how we do it in education".

Education, I believe, is an important step in an individual's search for meaning in life. Education fails if it makes life more confusing and unmanageable. Sadly it often does this.

The search for meaning begins with trying to assess the chances of success of an educational journey (which the student is paying for) before that journey is embarked upon. The experience of education is so unreliable. Lectures are so hit-and-miss. I think students deserve more reliability in their educational experience, and they should be able to sample the educational experience before signing up to the course. Universities should be able to say to students "this is the experience we can guarantee" and this will be accurate. With the remarkable technologies we have, there is no reason why this cannot be done. Being able to sample the experience is an important step in being able to make the choice as to which course/institution and to assess their chances of success. By this path, my idea for a university is one of 'open education': where the experience is reliable and open to all; where the business model is geared around the provision of certificates, and the risks in submitting oneself for certification can be inspected by the student prior to committing themselves and paying their fees. This, I feel, is only fair.

However, meaningful experience is not just the performance of a lecturer. It is the social environment. But there too, the organisation and effectiveness of activities that students engage in is also hit-and-miss. As I have argued, thinking is a social activity. But the social activity of thinking and doing needs to be coordinated and people engaged. Being with others is special. Universities should aspire to create activities and experiences which can be tried, tested and reproduced.

When I was a student I wanted, more than anything else, to know what my professor thought of my work. More than anything else I wanted feedback from him. The rich and personal feedback is a fundamental component of what the university offers to students. I believe that here too, there are important incursions for technology in the support of deep and meaningful feedback.

But why is it that meaningful feedback about individual student's development rarely happens? Why is it that the work students engage in on their course is so often mundane and irrelevant to their lives? These questions boil down to the ways students are assessed. Yet, since the advent of modules and outcome-based education, all assessments are conducted against a set of learning outcomes. There is no reason why individual learners shouldn't produce work which is personal and meaningful to them, whilst also meeting the specific learning outcomes for each module. This is the route of "personal inquiry" and innovative assessment methods like Patchwork Text (see It doesn't require a radical shake-up of curricula. It just requires greater flexibility and imagination on the part of teachers.

The way students are assessed is so fundamental, and I doubt that it was an issue that registered at all with Newman or anyone else in the past. Assessment is part of a conversation with the learner. If it is rigid, if it is inauthentic, if it is exactly the same task for all the learners, then the conversation with the individual learner will quickly dry-up and learners will become disillusioned (and probably do the sensible thing and game the system!). But if the assessment is personal to the learner, whilst sticking to the set assessment criteria for modules, then there is room for a richer conversation, not just with the teacher, but between peers. And because it's individual and personal, plagiarism is minimised and feedback can be continually constructive. This way the conversation about the pursuit of meaning can support learners throughout their studies.

But what of research? Surely that's important in Universities? I think the development and adaptation of human beings to a complex and technological world is one of the most serious challenges we face in our world today. If we could only crack this problem many of our other crises and research priorities in health, technology, world peace and global flourishing would at the very least become much more manageable. It would open science to everyone, to make the march of progress a participatory affair. It is in institutions like my own (and not Oxford) where these developmental and adaptational problems are dealt with head-on. Studying and developing ways of addressing them best through education is probably the most important research that any institution could be engaged in today.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Nice noises

Amongst my fondest memories of my music professor Ian Kemp was his disarming way of poking fun at musicological seriousness. On receiving well-intentioned but jargon-filled explanations for musical moments, he would sometimes say, "yes, that's interesting.. but maybe it's just a nice noise". It stopped people in their tracks because the niceness of the noise was somehow absent in its technical descriptions. He could, of course, be deeply serious and technical too, but he knew the importance of popping his own bubble.

Music is good at bubble-popping. I've found it invaluable in my current work simply because however carried-away I get with hubristic and idealistic explanations for learning, technology or society, they rarely go anywhere in explaining the extraordinary experience of music. Music will always ask questions which show up the holes in any explanation. That keeps me moving on, never settling on any uber-formula for education. But in moving me on, I am driven to search for some new formula.

That's where I am at the moment. I am thinking about  'nice noises'. I wonder if a nice noise is like being poked in the stomach. What do I feel? Wow! I'm arrested (as I was listening to Beethoven in the car this morning). My whole body feels a sensation quite unlike any other kind of sensation. It's most like sex or eroticism (another of Kemp's interjections was "music's all about sex, you know"), but it is more cerebral than that, more controlled. But the most remarkable thing about it is that in experiencing it, I know something of the experience of others hearing it too. I think now (after musing about parody and the body, this is the most important thing: the social awareness that arises from visceral experience.

It is shared absence. Academic explanation is a way of trying to determine the absence. But equally (and perhaps more authentically) so is just to say "wow!" or to smile, or to inhale. And indeed, all those bodily responses themselves carry their own 'social awareness' (we know what it feels like for others to inhale; when others smile, we know what it means, etc). Something deeply recursive goes on here. It's interesting me to think that much of the power of orgasm can be thought of in the same way - but that's another post!

But the moments of 'nice noise' do not come out of nothing. There is structure, melody, rhythm, harmony all of which contrive to create extraordinary moments. There is a definite ebb-and-flow of physical sensation, a development of anticipation. Again, in analytical discourse about music, this ebb-and-flow is poorly accounted for (often meaning that music which doesn't fit analytical models is disparaged).

I will explore this in a later post, but at this stage, it is interesting to think that moments of motivic repetition can become dull if over-mechanical. Dull-ness too is a physical sensation. But what causes it? If there is a game that is played between listeners and the music, then that game probably involves a continual coordination of  anticipations with what is heard. An expectation is a choice out of possibilities. In game-theoretical terms, the choice would arise from identifying an equilibrium point.

I'm going to speculate that when we are engaged in music, we can identify our anticipations because we can identify our equilibrium points. The mechanism whereby this happens has something to do with what's not there rather than what is (see Ambiguity and suggestion is the food of engagement.

But if patterns are asserted over and over again, the positive choices (the things that are there) can be felt over the things that are not. That means that it becomes harder to identify equilibrium points; it becomes harder to choose an anticipation (this sounds awkward and probably needs unpacking, but bear with me!). This produces what I'm thinking of as an 'equilibrium crisis' where distinctions between anticipations break down. That too has a physical component. From the absence of the crisis comes something new: a new idea, a new motif. This is the moment of disruption, either through rhythm, harmony, melody, etc.

There's more to say here regarding music. But at the same time there's something to say about the experience of learning, which (along with sex!) has remarkable similarities to the experience of music.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

On Knots and Universities

Imagining a world without universities is difficult. Even for those who've never been, they're there, the places that their mates might have gone, but where they personally chose not to go. Certainly, everyone has an opinion about universities, as they do about education in general, from "waste of space!" to "fundamental to civilisation!".

The first thing to say is that a world without universities is not a world without learning. Learning is intrinsic to life. Anthropological studies have highlighted the societal structures by which children are cultivated into the norms of their society, by which rites of passage lead to transformations of social function, and through which belief systems, ethical codes, justice, play and art take their place within the complex shared experiences of belonging to a society.

Universities have simply become part of the belief system of our own society. They have their myths, their history, their rites of passage and have assumed their role within the social order. Universities and churches have more than their historical origins in common. Despite the crudely functionalist rhetoric of ministers and  vice-chancellors, the University is still metaphysical in nature: imagining a world without universities is like imagining a world without religion.

It is to imagine what might happen if the great knot that our society has tied between the minds of individuals, old buildings, books and practices and which keeps many individuals in a certain place and engaging in particular kinds of activity (often without knowing why) has been untied. What is gone is the reason to engage in those practices, to be in that space. What then?

To answer that, we may need to understand something about the nature of the knots in the first place. The double-binds of education are everywhere: the curriculum that must be followed irrespective of an individual's interests; the exams that must be sat irrespective of their ability to measure learning; the texts that must be followed irrespective of their relevance; and so on. Tying a knot in anything turns it from 'anything' into a 'knot'. The knot is there because it's a knot.

Human life is full of knots. Family therapists spend their time trying to untangle the knots between siblings, parents and children, men and women. Economists spend their time trying to fathom out the ways in which individuals wrestle with their own personal and social knots (spending money - another knot - whilst they do it). It may not to too far-fetched to say that the only thing that creates the conditions for concernful agency in anything is being caught in a knot. Luhmann calls this the central paradox that sits at the heart of his various communications systems - a 'contingency formula'.

What becomes of research if we untie the knot of universities? Or rather, what becomes of the knot of research? Well, it probably gets tied somewhere else. What becomes of art history or music? Some other knot will probably be tied. What becomes of wisdom??

Wisdom may be something different. That's the thing that tells you you're in a knot. Would we lose wisdom if we lost Universities?

Universities don't teach wisdom; they award degrees. Wisdom certainly happens through learning and personal growth. It may happen in Universities (and Universities have covered themselves in glory for those instances where it has). But often it doesn't, or it happens elsewhere.

To ask of the nature of wisdom is to inquire into the nature of the human intellect. Newman writes:
The intellect of man [...] energizes as well as his eye or ear, and perceives in sights and sounds something beyond them. It seizes and unites what the senses present to it; it grasps and forms what need not have been seen or heard except in its constituent parts. It discerns in lines and colours, or in tones, what is beautiful and what is not. It gives them a meaning, and invests them with an idea. It gathers up a succession of notes into the expression of a whole, and calls it a melody; it has a keen sensibility towards angles and curves, lights and shadows, tints and contours. It distinguishes between rule and exception, between accident and design. It assigns phenomena to a general law, qualities to a subject, acts to a principle, and effects to a cause.

You don't need a University to do that. What is needed are the conditions for love. That may be to be caught in a knot; to know that you are caught in a knot; and to accept it with grace.

That our knotty universities are currently tying themselves into such a bundle they neither know they are in a knot, nor can accept it, is a curious indictment on the effectiveness of universities for producing wisdom.

If I accept that 'knowing that we are in a knot' and 'accepting it with grace' are important, then the challenge reveals itself: describe the deeply complex knotty web of universities, technology and economy.

Monday 19 November 2012

Is "What is the Future of the University?" the wrong question?

Over-concern for one's own future is often an invitation to those who present themselves as the 'strong man/women' ready to save the country/institution/etc. As Hayek and others warned us a long time ago, these people are dangerous. Thinking of others needs to come before self-interest. Universities are currently rather over-concerned about their future, preferring to worry about that than the terrible burden that is to be carried by their students.

There's been an interesting video posted by the University Alliance ( which outlines four possible ways in which Universities might develop:

The basic comparison is between Uni-public, Uni-market, Uni-divide and Uni-wifi. These are situated against two axes drawn up according to whether the economy grows or stagnates (one axis) and on the other axis against whether society is individualistic or collaborative. Clever. But...

All four scenarios are predicated on the separation between economy (as we understand it) and education (as we understand it). As I have argued previously, I believe that economy and education are re-aligning themselves in ways which question our fundamental assumptions about both. Education is economy, education is industry, education is society, and so on. That raises the question "what is economy?" as much as it raises the question "what is education?"

In terms of the categories of collaboration versus individualism, there are similar ontological problems. What is collaboration? That is a question the game theorists struggle over. And indeed, certainly in a world where individuals do not conform to a rational behaviour model, the question of collaboration is deeply problematic - as indeed is the question of individualism. Attachments, families, love, relationships, and primeval instincts underpin the economic and social theories we currently have. I believe current developments in education are revealing these assumptions to be problematic.

But in the end, I think it is a mistake to try and analyse "where Universities are going". It is for us to decide "where do we want Universities to go?". The question is political. But to decide what we want out of education is much more difficult than implementing institutional policies. Who is "we"? It requires a national and global conversation about the relationship between civilised society and the needs of each human being for a meaningful life. It is in facilitating that conversation that I believe technology is important, not in realising a particular idealised trajectory of universities.

At the heart of the debate about what we want from Univerisites is, I believe, the togetherness of humanity. Richard Hall drew attention to a similar theme a few days ago (see The social and political imperative lies at the heart of our current debates about education. But the questions are very difficult. We will need new means of organising our togetherness if we are to address them.

Friday 16 November 2012

Parody and Truth

I think if we'd written parodies of some of the e-learning projects we'd been involved in over the years we wouldn't have endlessly pursued dead-ends like Learning Design, Learning Objects or any of the other now-defunct initiatives we've been involved with. Humour is very powerful because it takes us out of our heads and back into our bodies. As I wrote the other day (see this bodily engagement - whether the involuntary spasms of laughter, or the gut-wrenching tightening of grief - brings us back to a reality which we rarely glimpse in daily political discourse. Satire has been incredibly important in politics.

The relationship between education and humour has been a difficult. Education is often so worthy, where the funniest and raciest texts - like Rabelais's Gargantua, Swift's Gulliver or Chaucer's Wife of Bath - are subject to the 'dead hand' of education. All the innuendo's get passed over in favour of 'the structure' or 'understanding the context'. Worthy textbooks are written with an artlessness of an opposite degree to the sheer glee that contemporary readers must have felt in reading the original. Music is the same, yet being more abstract has managed to find itself a place in the academy where its sexual and comedic origins can at least be directly experienced without the 'benefit' of academic comment. Although in some instances (like Purcell's drinking song below), there is hilarious and surprising 18th century rudeness!

The question I ask is whether comedy reveals a deeper truth than is possible with conventional academic analysis. This kind of truth might be called 'alethic' - the revealed true nature of things. Thinking about my post on the body, I wonder whether alethic truth is in some way related to bodily response. It is, as I argued,  directly related to the identification of shared absences: as we laugh, we know what it feels like for others to laugh. This brings us together, allows us to look into one another's eyes and to know the truth of love.

Alethic truth is politically dangerous. It challenges dogma, received wisdom and corporate speak and it challenges those who want us to believe it. This is why churches have heresy and institutions act against being 'brought into disrepute'.

Truth is not to be feared though, and parody is often the best way of creating a climate where it can emerge. In the dramatic transformation in Universities in the UK, there are a number of parodies that have been created including one mentioned by an anonymous commenter to this blog. I am amongst the people thought to have produced this. I am not. And although I admire this particular parody (and I wish my writing was as witty and light as this shows in places), I also fear its political consequences.

But I am slightly ashamed to be fearful. That's simply where we are right now. Perhaps I need to think of a parody of the fear... but I'm not witty enough to do it...

Thursday 15 November 2012

The Question of Emancipation from Education

There's a fascinating story in the Guardian this morning. A statistical breakdown of university applications by regions of the country shows a statistically large drop in middle-class kids choosing to go to university: see I do not find this surprising. I think it is important to reflect on what it tells us about the re-alignment of  education and economy.

I have argued that education, money and technology are similar in their function with regard to the capability and flexibility of individuals: see, Ultimately, capability is a measure of the adaptability of individuals to changing environments. Money affords flexibility in a rich variety of ways - particularly if it is used well; education, skills and qualifications similarly affords adaptation; technology too affords new capabilities (but see yesterday's post - In all cases however, the emotional management of the individual is the primary bedrock upon which any new capability is grounded. The well-balanced individual will deal with the circumstances life throws at them with the resources they have available, and they will have the confidence that they will be able to do it.

I agree with John Bowlby that attachments within the family are the principle source of the emergence of psychological balance (see I have argued that this theory has implications for our understanding of education, economy and technology. The Guardian article, I believe, bears out the essential truth of Bowlby's message. The middle-class kids who shun university are more likely to come from stable attachment situations than many of the poorer kids whose applications are holding up. In essence, loving families together are helping the middle-classes to free themselves from education and free themselves from outrageous debt.

If this trend continues, then who will be left in education? Answer: those who do not have the psychological resources to free themselves from it. Worse, in being unable to free themselves from education, they are deprived of financial resources too which will further impact on their capability.

This is an explosive combination and the manifest injustice of it will become apparent at some point.

In order to face up to the problem, we need to understand where we are in the history of education. Technology is providing new means of capability, but possibly only to those who have the emotional disposition to benefit from it. Education has become an industry which is increasingly indiscriminately sucking up resources in order to keep itself going. In the process, social division based on familial background is likely to be amplified. Increasingly, education is becoming parasitical on society.

Forms of oppression in history have largely been coordinated by governments. We have never considered that education and its institutions might be a form of oppression (despite this being the experience for many students for a long time). This is a different kind of oppression from that practiced by governments. The question is whether we can free ourselves from it without feeding it in the process!

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Some worries about the increasing importance of strategic engagement with technology

My blogging practice is strategic in two principal ways. Firstly, I think aloud, and in posting my thoughts I am able to track my own personal development, the development of my ideas (which I would forget), and to create a resource which is readily to-hand which allows me to situate my current thinking with my previous development.  Those are the 'personal strategic' aspects of my practice.

But then there are the 'social strategic' aspects, which are equally important. These are the aspects of managing reputation, gaining information about the community which I engage with, personal steering through monitoring analytics, building and maintaining social capital.

As an academic, these two strategic games are not entirely new or purely the result of our present social technologies. Publication in journals has traditionally been the way that academics act strategically. There too, there is an aspect of 'thinking aloud' together with an aspect of 'social strategy'. The same can be said for engagement with learned societies. What's been interesting with the advent of social networking is that the traditional academic practices of publication have been taken-up by individuals who exist outside the traditional academic domain. Many more people are engaging in publication practices practices through the web, and these are strategic in a similar way to academic publication.

It is also significant that social software appears to be on a trajectory where it will overtake traditional publication for academics themselves. The boundaries are already becoming blurred with self-publishing, e-books, etc. Crowdsourcing rather than peer review, data analytics and search and discovery is becoming increasingly important in determining the concrete career advantages to academics as well as professionals outside the academic space.

The disadvantages of this are important. Close analysis, careful criticism and the scholarly voice can be drowned out in the crowd. In a celebrity-dominated culture, we should worry about this, because knowledge, critique, freedom of expression and scholarship are essential components of civic society. There are signs that the wisdom of the crowd is having a serious effect on the level of academic discourse - particularly with the rise of "celebrity academics" (mostly in the social sciences) whose scholarly achievements are less significant than their presentation skills (what on earth is Andrew Marr doing presenting a TV series on world history??)

But the academic game has traditionally been linked to one's success in finding employment. Celebrity academics also seek employment. But increasingly, for any professional this is becoming essential. For  young people embarking on their life journey, the question may increasingly be "do I play the academic game or do I act strategically with technology?" (although it obviously isn't a stark choice between the two). Given that education is expensive, the technological route is enticing.

Sensible advice might be to do both. But I do believe that the technology route will become increasingly important. Strategic engagement with social software services like LinkedIn are clearly related to professional progress and access to employment. As the conscious practice of all professional orients around the web, your professional identity may be worth little unless you can be discovered through Google.

But this is a problem.

Strategic engagement with technology depends on affective development in the individual whereby a level of self confidence is developed which facilitates it (posting blogs, engaging with LinkedIn, tagging things that you do, etc). This is likely to only exist in those instances where individuals come from families which encourage them to be proactive in their dealings with the world. It may be the product of increased levels of education, although even now, many academics are ambivalent about online engagement of their students. And insisting on it often can hit the same emotional barriers in staff and students.

We should be careful not to assume that strategic engagement with technology can 'just happen'. It happens because the disposition to engage strategically is already present, and this depends on the emotional management of the  individual. Not appreciating this is dangerous.

The rise of technology and the apparent importance of strategic engagement with technology for raising social capital may well suggest structural adaptations by the education system: the world of MOOCs will be upon us. If this is done on the assumption that technology is freely available and preferable to traditional educational structures, then this, I believe, will increase problems of social mobility. MOOCs are deficient not least because the emotional predisposition to engage is the product of family and upbringing. Without the home background and emotional stability to engage with technology strategically, then technological engagement will divide between social classes.

It is part of the job of education to provide emotional support. A functionalist view of education overlooks this fact, and tends towards the conviction that technology can do it all. It can't. The removal of traditional educational structures in favour of technology will only deepen the human crisis that so obviously surrounds us at the moment.

Monday 12 November 2012

Body, Society and Learning: from Positivism to Negativity in educational theory

Sometimes I have to get a little bit drunk to absorb anything new, to think, to solve a problem. The bodily change brought on by a little alcohol (but not too much, because getting too drunk is no good either), somehow puts me in a state where I become more receptive... maybe less fearful. I've also noted that difficult texts are often best read sitting on the loo, or in the bath. It may be a similar mechanism. Certainly, I think the bowels are a fundamental component of our intellectual apparatus and unrepresented in the literature on learning. More importantly, unlike alcohol, bowel movements and learning is an association that goes back to early childhood.

Music can sometimes help in a similar way. Distraction in some ways can be emancipatory and entirely efficacious with regard to learning. Physical exertions in the form of playing the piano, from walking, wriggling, fiddling through to sexual behaviour and other forms of physical exuberance are so fundamental to the way we are, the way we learn. There's so much that's off-limits in the educational discourse. Not just because it's embarrassing (there are papers on music and physical activity and learning, but little on bowel movements or masturbation), but I suspect more deeply because we simply cannot explain it. These things do not fit our somewhat positivistic ideas about what learning might be.

I want to say something about what I believe positivism is. It is much misunderstood, particularly by constructivists and postmodernists who fail to see their own positivistic tendencies.

Positivism is about reducing the world to things that can be said to actually exist. Not necessarily just things which are identified through experiments (which is the conventional understanding of positivism), but asserting the existence of structures and mechanisms (eg. Social mechanisms), which are asserted to be actual. Positivism has no interest in anything other than the actual. Because of this reductionist and actualist focus, positivism lends itself to dogmatism.

Constructivism lends itself to positivism because it asserts the actual existence of mechanisms of construction, and articulates an ontology based on this. This is a totalising philosophy based on a mechanistic foundation.

The problem is that experience shows through the cracks in these explanations. It shows itself through things like the coincidence of sexual behaviour or bodily functions and cognition and learning. It shows itself through the apprehension of the transcendent, or the inflections of intuition. Actualised mechanisms may brush these aside as epiphenomena of individual (rarely social) biological processes, but somehow we always suspect that the sky is being untuned when pious mechanicism pours cold water over our passions.

What I believe this shows is that absence is real and causal. This is really a logical assertion, which I have little interest in proving other than by assuming it as an axiom and seeing what it does to our thinking. It is a bit like assuming the existence of negative numbers.

What does it show us?

In my work on Nigel Howard's theory (see I have suggested that our decision-making - within which we can consider the decisions that are made in learning processes - are dependent on what we don't think rather than what we do. It is absences that determine equilibrium points.

Fundamental to any learning is the identification of concepts. These, according to this theory, must be identified socially through a recognition of shared absence. This is because the game of thinking is inextricably linked to the game of communication. A new concept clarifies decision-making, but does so because it is efficacious in clarifying the decisions of the group with whom that concept is communicated. There are no private concepts, just as there is no private language. Thinking, not just learning, is social.

How is a walk, a bowel movement, physical exuberance, etc the identification of shared absence? Consider the composer who knows that their chord, the artist their blob of paint  or the poet their phrase is a question. That question draws attention to an absence which is real and apprehensible by more than just the artist. Indeed, the identification of it as a question is itself an identification of the anticipated reaction of others. That the anticipation is accurate is testified by the capacity of artistic endeavour to connect with an audience. That it does is the reason why we identify this as art.

In the same way, a bowel movement, a bit of alcohol, a walk or physical exuberance is also a question - a disruption to the equilibrium. The otherness of the body draws attention to the otherness of others' bodies. The otherness of the body and the otherness of others' bodies is shared. In this way, the physical life of the body may be a conduit to shared experience, the determination of absences, and the identification of new concepts. Body, society and thought can in this way become structured.

It is interesting to think that only a bit of alcohol and not too much is needed for thinking. Get too drunk and the capacity to coordinate any kind of reflexive process is impaired. Just drunk enough and the question can be asked, and the absence it raises identified. But it may not be the alcohol which does the trick here, but the gut...

Sunday 11 November 2012

Metaphors, Mechanisms and Keeping Universities Afloat

In the current crisis of Higher Education in the UK, where almost 60,000 students who were expected to attend university this year have decided not to go, many Universities are experiencing severe financial hardship as a direct result of the drop in their numbers. It's not just 'new' universities like UCLAN (who might have been expected to suffer having set their fee at the full £9000) and who are running short of about 1200 students this year (= £10m), but more established institutions like Leeds (down 1000), Sheffield (down 600), Salford (down 1200) and York (down 600).

This can only spell redundancies.

Vice-chancellors up and down the country will be explaining their rationale for burdening individuals with their own financial and psychological crises with the use of metaphors like "the ship has hit an iceberg", "we're taking on water", "need to get rid of some ballast!" (actually nobody I know has said that one, although that's what is usually meant). I guess ships can be big (like Universities) and they can sink - which makes this work. But there are many dangers in getting carried away.

Metaphors imply mechanisms. They describe particular mechanisms which are universalised: the ship metaphor works in a ship simply because its a description of the reality (in a ship, it's not a metaphor!). It may describe something of trying the 'save the university', but it runs thin pretty quickly. And when it comes to 'ballast': human beings, however useless they may appear, are not ballast.

Mechanisms are themselves metaphors. But the concept of mechanism per se has a different property from a metaphor. Where a metaphor describes particulars which are universalised, mechanism is a universal which can become particularised. In the latter case, the particularising of universals can either have explanatory benefit, or it can become procrustean and idealistic. One leads to emancipation, the other to slavery. The question is "how universal is mechanism?"

This is an ontological question. In the cybernetics community, mechanism is everything: mechanisms are used to provide totalising descriptions of the world. I think this is a mistake.

The problem with mechanism is that it is imagined by human beings, who may imagine themselves to be mechanistic (as a totalisation, we would expect this). Yet we cannot be certain that the perfection of our imagined mechanisms isn't the product of the imperfection of our own mechanisms as human beings. Indeed, our brokenness as machines is manifest, particularly in our current predicament. Might it be our very brokenness that leads to our conceiving of perfection in our idealised machines?

The political world, the world where Vice-chancellors of universities really operate, reveals the manifest brokenness of individuals (even of vice-chancellors!), and the deficiencies of metaphors and mechanisms. Broken individuals need each other. The transpersonal reality of cognition, intelligence, care, politics and morale reveals itself in collective anger, collapses in confidence and a frightenting listing (back to ships again) of the things that everyone loves.

What does this tell us? What might it tell Vice-Chancellors?

The transpersonal, the political and the ethical trumps the mechanistic and the monetaristic. 

We will still have to lose staff. But the moral compass and not the spreadsheet is the tool that is most needed  now.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Webdoc, Widgets, Messages and Mashups

I've been playing recently with Webdoc (, a social media platform where 'posts' are effectively mashups of tools, other posts, bits of text, pictures.. in fact, almost anything you want. Given that I have been concerned with the predominance of text in electronic communication, I'm interested in this as a way of communicating in a more 'connotative' way; text, after all is very 'denotative'.

One of the things that I am interested in is the possibility of integrating our ITEC Widget Store widgets into this mashup. In fact, it's very easy to do via embedding from the ITEC widget store. The calculator in the above example has been added in precisely this way...
What interesting about this? Well, I think the ITEC store has developed into a means of individual curation of  favourite tools. In essence it is a 'personal teaching environment'. What is interesting is the interoperability between the personal curation of tools afforded by the ITEC store and tools like webdoc. Users can say "I know the tools which work for me.. here's my list.. and whatever online learning environment I work in, I can easily reach for my own personal tool box."

I think this level of personalisation for teachers is new.

Interestingly, the webdoc tool is closely associated with the development team that produced Open Sankoré (see Open Sankoré has explicitly adopted the W3C widget standard, and (being open source) it wouldn't be that difficult to plug in access to the Wookie-based ITEC store. So, teachers can teach at a whiteboard within an environment, and always be assured that their collection of personal tools is available. 

The fact that this same collection of personal tools becomes available across a range of other tools and platforms makes this personalisation more powerful: so it  works in Moodle, in web tools like webdoc, in Wordpress, it can be embedded in blogs, etc, etc. 

What is interesting at a deeper level is the connection between the mashup of simple tools and the conveying of more complex connotative messages. It's almost like there is a complex meta-language where meaning can be conveyed between the appearance of different tools. In this way, communication can become more creative, less restricted to simple means of communication like text.

Is this like poetry? After all, poetry is composed of denotations (words), but their juxtaposition produces something more powerful. That might be to stretch things too far... but there is something there, and certainly some of the creative behaviour in webdoc does point to new forms of creative expression.

On the technical side, something else is happening, which is also relevant to this way of thinking. That is the emergence of new specifications for 'mashing things up'. Regarding this, there is the Open Mashup Description Language, which is being developed through the OMELETTE project (see

The use of the Apache Rave platform and Wookie Widgets is producing remarkably rich integrations of tools, each of which might have its own functionality, but in combination, they communicate something which is much greater than the sum of their parts. 

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Drama theory and Concert theory

Nigel Howard's 'Drama theory' has fascinated me in recent months. As a theory of political behaviour, and with some powerful mathematical reasoning to back it up, together with a critique of conventional game-theory and rational choice, I think there is something very important there.

But I have been looking at a particular adaptation of it which brings in Luhmann's theory of communication and establishes a way in which reflexivity (expressed in terms of thinking about strategies, meta-strategies, and higher-levels of recursion) translates into action and social structure, and social structure in turn feeds into reflexivity. In bringing in Luhmann, I am arguing that the games people play are communicative, and that the individual game of communication is dependent of their communications (their agency) being successful. And successful communication depends on building coalitions of others whose behaviour becomes known and predictable.

Howard's 'drama theory' is a practical theory for addressing problems. Its first stage is to identify the particular problems and possible actions of a situation, and then to think through the various combinations of strategies and meta-strategies which might pertain to those identified problems and actions. This helps identify the likely actions of individual players. Howard was able to apply this thinking to dramatic scenarios too, showing how the behaviour of characters in a drama can be accounted for by this same approach.

Much as I admire this, I think there are some oversights. Most importantly, I think there is an assumption that the processing (the reflexivity) of individual action takes place in the individual mind. Whilst the composition of meta-strategies includes predictions of what others might do, given enough information about the behaviour of others, then effective reflexive processing can take place.

I do not share this view. The big problem with regard to agency as communication is the problem of how one utterance is chosen over another. In essence this is a problem of identifying 'equilibrium points'. But (importantly) equilibrium points do not emerge from thinking about what we can think about. They emerge from what we do not think about. It is the absences in thought which lead to decision.

What is necessary for successful communication is shared equilibria. What that means, in a practical way, is shared absence: we all see the same thing missing (rather like watching a disaster movie where everyone knows what's going to happen next). Shared absence means shared experience. Finally, the only conclusion is: Togetherness is fundamental to thinking and being.

What this means is that it is not the drama itself, but "acting in concert" which matters.

But of course, there are musical resonances here too.

A note is a shared experience. It creates a shared absence. What is remarkable about our music is not that a dominant seventh falls to the tonic, but that we all agree that it should!  That is the codification of a shared absence. It is the identification of equilibria within particular contexts. If there was no shared absence, no shared experience, there would be no music. The agency of musical utterance creates a shared experience which hones-in on absences from where the shared realisation and expectation of the unity of the work arises. Listening, performing and composing are all done in concert.

That our rationality depends on this is a conclusion which is having a deep effect on me.

Monday 5 November 2012

Oppression and Liberty

Erich Fromm's analysis of Freedom begins with something of a warning:

The battles for freedom were fought by the oppressed, those who wanted new liberties, against those who had privileges to defend. Whilst a class was fighting for it own liberation from domination, it believed itself to be fighting for human freedom as such and thus was able to appeal to an ideal, to the longing for freedom rooted in all who are oppressed. In the long and virtually continuous battle for freedom, however, classes that were fighting against oppression at one stage sided with the enemies freedom when victory was won and new privileges were to be defended. 
Tables turn, history (and oppression) repeats itself. Slowly, in front of our eyes, we see patently oppressive situations emerge coming from the most unlikely sources. "Who'd have thought it?" we say, "I never thought he/she would ever behave like that!". Before long, the Reichstag is burnt and around the smouldering embers people rub their eyes in simultaneous disbelief at what has just occurred, shame that they didn't see it coming (but a guilt that they knew all along), and a cold, embittered reorientation to the new brutal reality they are faced with. "Was it the moment they said 'Dissent will not be tolerated!' and ordered dissenters to leave immediately?" they ask. "Was is the moment the brutal rationale was put forward as 'the only alternative'?", or "Was it the moment when so-and-so were forced out of their party/institution/job?"

All of these were the warning signs.

Then there are those who knew more of what was about to occur, but did nothing. In truth, all of us have something of this in us. They are the Adolf Eichmann figures, who only did their job, who only obeyed orders, who took their comfortable salaries, and who (maybe for the sake of their mortgages, the pension, their marriages, the children's education,  or other equally worthy, but selfish, cause) chose to put principle second. Everyone is fearful of their freedom (that is what Fromm's book is about).

Am I talking nonsense? It couldn't happen again! Not like that. That would take real EVIL. Our society is too sophisticated for it to happen again. We have TV, the internet, Facebook, etc.

But freedom is slippery. And Fromm may well be right. The real danger is that little word, "IDEAL". It is with that little word that we believe that we no longer have to listen to each other (especially those who we believe to be wrong), that we have the answer, that we have seen the truth and the way forward. Nothing binds us to our fateful human condition than that little word.

It's only antidote is another little word: "LOVE"