Tuesday 24 December 2013

Academic labour, new media and why reviewers should Boycott Elsevier Journals

Elsevier's somewhat Scrooge-like take-down notices sent to Academia.edu and Universities around the world, including Harvard and Stanford has woken us up to the rather dirty business of publishing and its interface with scholarship. It also makes us aware of the issue of academic labour and those who profit from it. When University lecturers are taking industrial action in their institutions about the payment they receive for the labour they do for those institutions, Elsevier's action highlights the labour academics do for people who don't pay them a thing. I received a reviewer invitation for a paper in an Elsevier journal yesterday, and my inclination is (frankly) to tell them to get lost.

The truth is that without reviewers, academic publishers wouldn't have a business. Of course, authorship is important, but actually it is the reviewer network, which is associated with particular academic communities, that grants (or more frequently excludes) acceptance to the academic discourse; it's the status that peer review gives to authored articles which creates the dynamic whereby certain journals become more 'respected' than others. Publication itself is more open today to anybody. But publishers know that the physical presence of writing in print is no longer the game. They must harness and nurture communities of esteemed individuals who are willing to work for nothing so as to maintain the capital value of their assets - in the name of scholarship.

What does everyone else gain from this? The publisher will argue that publication in their journals (or reviewing their journals) grants individual academics increased status. Indeed, bibliometric research measurements have reinforced this view. Increasingly, the academic game is a status game - not just the status of academics, but the status of institutions who are increasingly measured by the extent to which their employees belong to high-status publication networks. This can grant individual academics some career opportunities, although they are not paid for their labour. The deal appears to be "labour for status". But for the publisher, this status transaction is extremely powerful economically, and academics (who gain from the status of association) tend to turn a blind eye to it. But the end result is to push up subscription prices to University libraries, and make academic research available only to those who can afford it. Ultimately it is students who pay the price in fees which fund thousands of journals which are rarely read.

Given that publication is available to everyone, why do these status networks still revolve around journals? Why have we not seen online communities of scholars willing to read and critique each others' work in detail? The blogosphere currently does something like this, but most of the reading is cursory and blog posts are not papers. But it seems to me that the establishment of friendly networks of scholars who are willing to read and critique papers and advance their sciences in a more open discussion that currently takes places within journals.

There are now other sources of status in the online world. One of them is the world of Open-source software. There there is genuine technical advancement and discourse completely free from from any commercial publisher. One of the interesting things about open source software organisations like Apache is that it is a different medium for the communication of ideas: one that wouldn't fit easily into the pages of an academic journal, but whose ideas (and the status of those who have the ideas) still has impact. As academics explore the affordances of new media, other ways of expressing ideas are become available which can subvert the traditional patterns of publication. One of the most interesting phenomena I have witnessed recently is the impact of R packages (for use in the statistical programming environment). These are accompanied with papers detailing the use of those packages.

So maybe we should worry less about journals: we should look to new forms of academic expression, new media and new networks. If only the government research assessment framework was as awake to the pathologies of publishers which it itself exacerbates.

Friday 20 December 2013

Knowledge Economy and Universities: Convenient Fiction?

Are we emerging out of the crisis in our so-called knowledge economy? Are we starting to have ideas again? Are our Universities, having been marketised successfully (?!) now going to lead us to world emancipation?

Without suggesting that we're 'out of the woods' in UK HE, things do seem to be a bit calmer in my institution at least. However, there is a strange unease hanging over the entire sector; a feeling that something fundamental has changed. And it's everywhere from Cambridge to Cumbria. It isn't merely fallout from the economic crisis. There are so many dimensions to the current state of things. In UK universities, the REF (research assessment exercise) for example, has been almost universally dreadful in providing managers or (in some cases) fellow scholars a means to settle personal scores, or remove 'under-performing' academics: what nonsense that is - we should be very careful lest we jettison a Higgs (as Higgs himself explained http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/06/peter-higgs-boson-academic-system) or a Darwin (peer review would have killed his ideas straight!). I wouldn't have thought that would be very good for a knowledge economy!

The academic world seems to demand greater noisiness, greater attention-seeking (but often thoughtless) publications, greater attention to bureaucratic targets (which never make sense), and increasing constraints on the capacity for teachers to do the right thing in their teaching with the students that they have. And for students, the constraints are ramping up: fees are just the start; but nobody told them about the regulations which they will fall foul of at some point, or the fact that an increasing proportion of their money will contribute towards inflated managerial salaries and grandiose development projects which they themselves will not see the benefits of.  Alarmingly, education appears to be acquiring the pathological bad habits of the Catholic Church. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. But neither should we be surprised when Martin Luther pops up!

What happened to us? Basically, the crisis - in the economy at large and in education - is a story of hubris, greed and apathy. The hubris centred around the rhetoric of the 'knowledge economy' and the role of education in it. "We must have more graduates!" the cry went up. "Education! Education! Education!" said Blair. Why? Because, we are told, the economy is increasingly dynamic: the job for life is over (unless you're an academic, of course!). We should be training and retraining - always on the move; always on our toes; always anxiously looking at the international competition (and learning Chinese). Despite some of my academic work being closely related to the concept of 'knowledge economy', I have to confess I don't know what it is. It seems to me that in any economy, ideas and communication are important. Political freedoms and increased communications may well oil the wheels for spreading ideas (if ideas are spread by wheels!), but deep down, we have always lived within the constraints of what we know. The fact that knowledge is unevenly spread in society creates the dynamic whereby individuals seek to spread their ideas. What a strange world it would be if every innovation was conceived by every mind at the same time!

But an 'economy' of knowledge? It seems to be an economy of money, rights and obligations, markets, families, dreams, etc - just like any other economy. We might think that information is playing a bigger role in our lives than it once did. But when asked "what is information?" we cannot answer in a satisfactorily coherent way. There is no coherent understanding of information.

Our obsession with 'knowledge economy' is symptomatic of our obsession with information technology. Yet, as with most things that information technology touches, it's fundamental effect is one of shining a new light onto something old. The old thing that technology shines a light on is "economics" itself. "Knowledge economy" - whilst it might wish to present a new "economic model" (whatever that is!) - is really a label that we give to this new light on economics which reveals (more than anything else) that we weren't that sure what an economy was in the first place (in fact all the greatest economists really concern themselves with this question: what is this thing called economics?)

Economics is an academic discipline. It is taught in Universities. Some (two in the UK) of those Universities are centres of power: world politicians of the future pass through their doors, soak up ideas, formulate them into policies and then go to Westminster or some other government to implement them. But economics is about everyday life of everybody. Yet 'everybody' is largely excluded from economic discussions amongst academics. At a recent meeting in Cambridge I asked a one of the participants "this is all very well, but we are all quite clever people. Yet we are talking about everybody else... and everybody else isn't here!" I don't think he understood me, which I found illuminating and a bit worrying.

Economics itself is a body of ideas, egos, courses, institutions, policies. Keynes was right about the impact of "defunct economists" on the future of the world. But what abstract and fundamentally exclusive nonsense is in their heads! And what a cosy conspiratorial relationship with powerful educational institutions! Economists will have comfortable careers writing books about everybody else. Meanwhile the education system feeds off their 'celebrity status' (cue a Nobel prize or two!) to entice students (and their fees) within their hallowed walls.

What does our technological torch tell us? Perhaps it is that we are (and always have been) constrained by information. We don't know how that works, but we know that it's a pretty fundamental mechanism that underpins the way that money, markets and education all work. Education promises a way of negotiating the constraints of information. Yet it rarely delivers this to those who were already heavily constrained before they started. The middle class kids who succeed may attribute their increased flexibility of choice to education, but it is likely to have happened anyway irrespective of whether they went to University or not.

The technological torch is a kind of 'negative light'. It illuminates that which isn't there, but which constrains perception of what is there. When we see and talk about 'knowledge economy', when we see and create 'education for all', we are operating within constraints that cause us to see those things. I know of a VC in a UK institution who recently asked a group of managers why they felt he'd made a particular decision. A good question! But a better one would have been why he didn't make any different decision. The answer to that would have been because he was constrained by his own ideas, preferences, personal history, prejudice - just as we all are.

It is not unassailable logic which determines that economists see a knowledge economy and the need for expanding education. It is the constraints presented by the convenience of "expanding education" that prevent them from seeing anything else. Veblen (and Bataille) would say the whole thing is essentially archaic. The negative light of technology is a way of revealing and questioning the irrationality of what we believe to be rational positions.

Thursday 12 December 2013

Segregation and the International Business Model of Universities

The train-crash interview with the head of Universities UK, Nicola Dandridge on BBC Radio 4 this morning is symptomatic of the sheer confusion Universities find themselves in (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-25331877). Caught between temptation to capitalize of rich international pickings, and concern about their own financial viability, Universities have embedded themselves within countries whose cultural values are very different to our own, but whose oil wealth, or wealth from other sources (including political corruption) entrances Vice Chancellors like the Siren song of the Lorelei. There are few academics, myself included, who have not been caught up or affected by these kind of initiatives.

As institutions which stand for truth, Universities are attractive partners for politically deficient regimes. And we should be clear than any culture that demands the segregation of men and women, or sanctions persecution on the basis of sexual orientation, or maintains unrepresentative forms of government is politically deficient. There are degrees of this, and we are all sullied at one level. But some of us can talk, think, campaign and write about it freely, and the place to do that is in the University.

Deeply deficient political regimes want legitimacy (thanks are due to a friend for really nailing this). University partnerships give them legitimacy. But in doing so, the Money God wins over the Truth God, and the legitimacy of the University is compromised. The current battle over segregation is not about religion. It is about political legitimacy for illegitimate regimes, and the threat to legitimacy to those institutions which we look to to maintain civil society.

The corrupting force, as always, is money (actually, it's sometimes sex, but that probably boils down to money too!). We need to understand what money does to truth: we're now seeing some powerful evidence (and perhaps we should welcome it). The segregation is not caused by some religious doctrine; it is caused by money. Money splits, compartmentalises, excludes, cuts. Truth loves, embraces, heals. We need to look at where  the education system increasingly is seeking to split, compartmentalise, exclude and cut society. It is these acts which we must oppose and ask ourselves how a University can love, embrace and heal and not grant legitimacy to those who seek the opposite.

Monday 9 December 2013

University Brands Behaving Badly

If one wanted evidence of a particular kind of naivety in University management today, one wouldn't have to look much further than the University of London's knee-jerk policy-making regarding student protests (see http://www.channel4.com/news/university-of-london-student-protest-ban-senate-house-occupy) What's going on here? What's the calculation on the part of management that they think this kind of action will be beneficial to them?

Universities have become extraordinarily 'image conscious' recently. This partly is a reflection on those who lead them: the 'boss' must look good, and since the bosses of educational institutions are largely unaccountable their vanity translates directly into institutional policy. The great fear is that in a highly competitive international market, a brand tarnished by protest will cause next year's students not to come, sponsors to turn their back, and research grants to be awarded elsewhere. So, basically, the mantra is that the brand must be protected at all costs.

Brands regularly get into trouble. Apple's problems in their manufacturing plants in China, or clothing brands use of overseas sweatshop workers all pose serious problems for those businesses. Boycotts are bad news. However, whilst the practices of these organisations remain pretty dreadful, businesses have to respond to ethical concerns. Increasingly ethics has become a major issue for business; ethical failure can kill a business - particularly where ethical failure can be seen to lead to catastrophic operational failures (BP is the classic example here, but failures in the banks are also attributable to ethical failures).

How to respond to a threat to the brand is an art - and it is an art that Universities seem rather poor at. The problem with London's banning of student protest is that it makes their situation worse. Any brand is really a 'risk creation' exercise: it demarcates something desirable that some people can associate themselves with providing they pay, are clever enough, or high-status enough to do so. Brands are typically exclusive, maintaining their exclusion on price; Universities maintain their exclusion on accessibility.

There are many branded products we buy where the initial risk of owning the brand introduces new risks: the iPhone presents us with the risks of owning the latest (branded) apps; the new games console introduces new risks of owning the latest games, etc. Universities introduce a plethora of new risks: the risk of failure, the risk of exclusion; financial risk; the risk of irrelevance or uselessness. Once a student agrees to the initial risk of joining the institution, they cannot escape the other risks. Unfortunately, this could give the University a license to do whatever it likes with the students: they could take the majority of their fees to fund vanity projects, or trips for senior managers overseas, and students wouldn't be able to do anything about it. More than that, Universities can now threaten to exclude or otherwise discipline (even legally sanction) students who voice concern at their own exploitation. What does this do to the brand?

Subtle contradictions can work for brands (that's how Apple survives!). But a contradiction which becomes patently obvious to everyone, where everyone can laugh at it, is a different matter. The University of London will no doubt extol the virtues of freedom of speech whilst clearly suppressing it in their own back yard. The danger is that this obvious contradiction 'toxifies' the brand - the message goes out loud and clear: "they are not to be trusted". A degree at the University of London becomes tantamount to acquiescence in student oppression.

The deep problem here is not just with the University of London. It is with the divide that has now emerged between Universities as businesses creating the risks of 'not having a degree' and the actual learning needs of a free and democratic society. Universities as businesses will seek their viable operation through this kind of behaviour, undermining their own legitimacy.

Ironically, I don't think "student fees" are the problem - it is, after all, just another form of tax. But what is urgent is the need to rethink the social contract between the needs of society and the learning needs of individuals. Few people in University management are thinking about the needs of society: their focus is on maintaining their own fiefdoms. We might hope that the backlash from the actions of the University of London may take us closer to changing this.

Friday 6 December 2013

Branding and Status among Universities and the Latest Reforms to Student Number Controls

To create a brand (whether you are Apple, Microsoft, Cambridge University or Manchester United) is to create the risk of not being associated with the brand. The level of risk created is to be measured against the communities within which individuals seek to maintain their identity and status. To children, the brand of trainers matters among their peers; the pressure to help children maintain status then falls on parents (particularly at Christmas) - who will seek to maintain their own status with their children. By these forces, which are fundamentally interpersonal and deeply associated with attachments, communities, love and identity, the economics of capitalism rolls on - even when people appear to have run out of money. Inevitably, the running out of money merely feeds new economic cycles of attempting to maintain the appearance of having money, where its sources become increasingly murky and dangerous. Enter Wonga-woman (or man!).

The risks that are created by the branding of universities are particularly interesting. Nothing is more of a 'risk game' than education (even insurance!). Degrees are a risk-manufacturing operation in themselves: as Illich says, they create failure - the risk of not having a degree. The demarcation of programmes on the curriculum creates risks of not being qualified for particular areas of employment (the MBA is most fascinating here!). Assignment deadlines and examinations feed on these risks as mechanisms of institutional compliance for effective operation. Now the funding game adds to the pre-existing network of risk manufacture. At one level, this is like any other form of risk-creation: one pays to mitigate risk. Middle class parents will pay by sending their children to the private schools and tutors that teach the children to mitigate the risks of the assessment regime. The poor and exploited families however are left exposed to a disproportionately large number of risks which they are unable to mitigate through payment or capability. The State education system can do its best to help children manage the risks of education and life (it does a far better and more efficient job than its private counterpart), but it often finds itself fighting a losing battle as families attract more and more threats to their viability.

The risk of "not having a degree" is relatively new. The level of the risk is proportional to the number of people who are exposed to it. There was a dramatic increase in the risk level with the widening participation agenda in education: if 50% of the population have degrees, that creates a bigger risk of not having one. The Chancellor's announcement of the removal of caps on university recruitment clearly indicate that the education system is ramping-up for Wonga-style risk creation. There is a perverse economic rationale to this, and it does suggest that Ulrich Beck's social analysis is pretty close to the mark.

There comes a point where we should not think of education as 'opportunity'. It is potentially a threat to those who are least able to mitigate the risks they are exposed to in education. These, typically, are the least-able students who find themselves increasingly vulnerable without a degree, but equally at risk in being exposed to pathological processes of educational institutions. They do not have the choice of wealthy middle-class kids who went to 'crammers' to get them into Durham or Manchester. They have few choices about where they go to study - ending up in institutions that aim to 'widen participation'. The more those particular institutions (which include my own) aim to become like elites (and create risks in line with the elites), so the risks mount up on students. It's not so much the risk of failure (most widening participation institutions desparately try to help their students succeed). It's more the risk of continued "impoverishment of spirit", the risk to personal confidence and the financial risk in the face of a style of education which doesn't work for them. It barely works in Cambridge, but it cannot work with the diversity of students faced by widening participation institutions. And yet even these institutions will seek to emulate those institutions which they see as being 'better' than them (and about which they often have little knowledge or experience).

What happens here? Why does every institution want to become like Cambridge?

It's branding again. Brands are a hierarchy - and the branding and status of institutions plays with the minds of Vice-Chancellors. Institutional league tables become a spin-off industry in the risk manufacture game as organisations like the Times Higher Educational Supplement try to set themselves up as academic 'Credit rating agencies'. Cambridge creates the risk of institutions not being Cambridge - a message reinforced by these other industries. What do institutions (and their VCs) do? They want to say "but we are Cambridge!". How do they defend their 'being Cambridge'? By attempting to emulate Cambridge's "prestige" - at least in a few academic areas - attempting to be something they are not - buying academics with lots of publications (even if nobody has actually read them), establishing 'glamour' courses, deriding staff who are deemed not to fit the "future vision". Who funds it all? The students that the aspiring University says it doesn't want any more!

We mustn't do this - its ethics are deeply troubling, and I believe the moral difficulties will eventually catch up with us. We must recognise the dangers our education system poses to the poorest sections of our society. We must recognise that those institutions which open their doors to disadvantaged students are potentially malevolent in their well-meaningness. We will open our doors smiling at the "opportunity" we are providing to disadvantaged students; we will pay our salaries with students' fees (which many will be repaying after we are dead); but we will shrug our shoulders if those students do not benefit from the degree which we will try to ensure they get (so as to retain them) all along using their money to attract 'better students' and become like Cambridge. This is unforgiveable.

The education industry and the economy surrounding it is a radical (and potentially pathological) new way of organising society - it is not a natural evolution of some prior state of nature of education in the past. It is a way of managing the 'time-bombs' that each human individual potentially is now that other methods (like mass industrial employment) have gone. We need new kinds of institutions and new kinds of educational practices. Most importantly, we need to renegotiate the contract between the needs of society and the learning needs of individuals. The nascent market in education cannot deliver this - it will only deliver pathological institutional reproduction. The job requires vision and leadership not just by government but by Vice-Chancellors.

Politicians will believe all they need to do is twiddle with the attenuators on the system they believe to be real (e.g. student number caps). They may get away with it for their political term (and feel rather smug). But we should fear the consequences for institutions and society when the ontological failure of the political vision becomes apparent.

Friday 29 November 2013

Logics of Multiple Expectations

Following on from yesterday's post, what does a logic of multiple expectations in music look like?
We have rhythm, harmony, tonality, melody, motif, structure, etc. Each is itself social, and the expectations with each in themselves is a social function. In the mutual redundancy of expectation generation within the social domain for each phenomenon, there is the hyper-incursive routine which creates a new generative system. Across all phenomena, there is mutual redundancy across these expectations. In that small domain of mutual redundancy across the social anticipations at all levels, there is generation of something new, some new system: some meaningful moment.

Such moments are contrived by artists by constructing events within a musical work which at certain points bring together the mutual redundancies of different dimensions: melody and rhythm and tonality combine at moments of climax. 

We can analyse these moments by simply looking at the content: we have many ways of looking at the musical work, and through each lens (rhythmic, harmonic, structural, motivic, etc) we can identify the redundancies and we can identify the mutual redundancies. To do this is to get some picture of human experience in a normative context. Could we do the same with learning?

I have also thought about this in terms of absence. To what extent is the same diagram above representable as this:

The idea behind this diagram, which was based on Nigel Howard's metagame idea, was the concept that absence is causal on decision (which in turn depends on expectation): what we think is caused by what we can't think. Within absences - what can't be thought - are the seeds of new recursive principles - recursive principles which can reshape the metagame tree and (sometimes) aid decision-making. A recursive principle is  nothing more than 'the system which generates the system'. Beer's Viable System Model concepts are a perfect example of recursive principles that generate the system; although most cybernetic concepts fall into this category. 

There is a distinction to be made between incursive and hyperincursive anticipation. The metagame is an incursive idea: future states are based on present states. The seeding of new principles is a hyperincursive idea: the generation of the generating system - of the present from the future. How does this relate to redundancy?

Redundancy is constraint on what can be expressed. Redundancies of anticipations constrain what can be anticipated because they shape the 'grammar' of anticipation - some things become more likely than others; other things are forgotten. The blanks in the diagram are caused by the multiple occurrences elsewhere. Overlapping expectations are redundant expectations which will cause blanking elseswhere in the metagame. The constraining effect of the overlapping is also catalytic in the identification of the system that gives rise to the system. Large scale overlapping means massive redundancy = massive absence. The system that gives rise to the system in this case will be highly meaningful.

A while ago I thought about climaxes in music as being related to attachments: we struggle to maintain attachments in the flow of experience, but approaching a climax we struggle harder and harder to hold on. Until eventually, finally, we have to let go. Attachments are expectations. Holding on to an attachment means maintaining the system that generates its expectations. It get harder and harder when there is more redundancy amongst the expectations. As the redundancy increases, so the autocatalytic processes generate a new generating system.

And the world begins again.

Thursday 28 November 2013

Expectations in the Experience of Music

Katherine Hayles has a wonderful definition of reflexivity:
"Reflexivity is that moment by which that has been made to generate a system is made, by a changed perspective, to become part of the system it generates." (in "How we became Posthuman", p8)
I found myself having to re-read this a couple of times intuiting the truth in it without being entirely clear on its implications. After reflection (so my 'system' has incorporated into itself the system that generated it!), I would say "spot on!" (I think...)

As with any powerful idea I encounter, I immediately take it to my laboratory where I can subject it to the most rigorous testing I know. In my case, this is musical experience.

The 'system' she is talking about is a system of 'anticipations' or 'expectations'. Anticipation is the lifeblood of music (as it is all the arts). It may be the lifeblood of everything - but I don't want to go there right now. Just concentrate on music - it's difficult enough!

The system which generates anticipations of sound must work with established norms at some level or other: no piece of music is experienced in isolation from the experience of any other. Western tonal harmony, plainchant, chromaticism, atonality, bebop and hip-hop all have established norms. Our 'virgin ears' are in the far distance behind us.

The normative horizon may provide the resources for the construction of one kind of reflexive system: anticipations may be generated against known patterns. Redundancies across swathes of repertoire help to carve out the broad expectations of a genre. The system which gives rise to that anticipatory system may also be generated. But what of individual experience here? How is it constituted?

What needs to be understood is what is 'understood' as we listen. If we feel moved to tap our feet, to sing along, or to get up and dance... what is going on there? What if we merely think of singing along - where we perhaps have found a moment to pitch a note, or we feel the phrasing and gently tense our muscles in a caressing gesture through the air? I think all of these are moments of what Boris Asavief calls 'intonation': they are moments of acknowledgment of some universal expectation. It is a moment of acknowledgement of shared biology.

When we watch classical musicians play we see this kind of 'intonation' written all over their faces. In ensemble, they act as one, breathing with the music, communicating with each what the other feels, knowing that what they feel the other feels. It is the mother knowing the baby knowing the mother.

There is my experience of the music and your experience of the music, and there is my idea of your experience of the music. (There are my anticipations and your anticipations and there is my idea of your anticipations.) We breath together when out expectations overlap: where there is mutual redundancy in our expectations. As my wonderful music professor told me once, "basically, it's all about sex!"

So, you might say, "I'm listening on my own but I still react in the same way...". But there is always more than one. The norms which shape my expectations are collective, supra-individual. I still maintain the idea of the other as I listen on my own. Music really is the food of love - particularly when we are alone!

A norm represents a multiplicity of expectations and a multiplicity of systems that generate those expectations. We may glimpse the multiplicity through the various analytical lenses through which we view music. Schenker's levels are a good example. There are moments where we know what to expect. That is when the multiplicities overlap. It is when rhythm and harmony and tonality and melody all converge in one moment - a climax or a cadence. These moments may be analytically tractable to us: particularly as we have the computing tools to analyse corpuses of music from many perspectives.

What we experience on hearing music or playing it is a regulatory process of coordinating multiplicities of expectation.

Monday 25 November 2013

Personalisation and Illich's Learning Webs

Ivan Illich has been the godfather of the Personal Learning Environment (PLE). It was Illich who, in 'Deschooling Society', described the pathologies of the education system and appealed for a needs-based, self-organising approach (of 'learning webs' as he called them in 1972) as opposed to the institutionalising, dissempowering status-quo. But his argument was really another salvo in a lifelong commitment to a reawakening of human dignity in the modern world. Illich's Catholicism never left him.

I've written many times about what Illich would make of current developments of the internet and education (he died in 2002) and our discourse on the Personal Learning Environment. The deep issue about the PLE, which is continually forgotten as e-learning academics get carried away with utopian visions which are in the end little more than apologetics for the status quo, is the human condition in a world of technology. I wrote about this here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10494820701772652#.UpKYQNLIZCc

What we have seen in the discourse around the PLE is a mess and I wonder what Illich would make of it. I've been partly guilty here: woolly schemes and bandwaggons have rolled in wizzing people off to e-learning utopia via Facebook and Twitter - in many ways, much more troubling and less accountable institutions than your local University!

I think Illich would have been the last person to have sanctioned this cross between hippie laissez-faire education, technological determinism and personal ambition on the part of the academics that promoted it. Indeed, he said it quite explicitly:
"Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education--and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries."
The third sentence sticks out: what is a MOOC if it is not a "proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom)"?

This passage also reveals what really drove Illich - the "heightening of the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his  living into one of learning, sharing and caring" This doesn't sound to me like an 'online community'. It is a real, everyday community. Illich here is quite close to other Catholic thinkers - particularly Jean Vanier and his Communite de l'Arche (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Vanier)

I've been recently talking to education academics at a University in the US who are running a thriving programme of 'Service Learning' among their middle class students. Service Learning is hard work - but it is important and and can be highly rewarding. The experiences of students on this programme are often transformative. The students entering the programme have an expectation of success wired into them by the expectations of their parents. The Service Learning situation challenges presuppositions: whilst the students may embark on the programme with ambitions to change the world (that the communities should be so lucky to have them!) the reality quickly hits them. Many good people have gone before them, trying to make a difference - and these new students will join them in trying to make a difference: engaging in the hard business of trying to do good things in difficult circumstances; acting out of care and compassion, not zeal and ambition.

This is what Illich meant by learning webs. It isn't about technology. It's about the interface between social needs and learning needs. This is not to deny technology a role, for technology forms an ever increasing part of the social fabric. However, the pathologies of technology must be properly understood. Of the pathologies one which I've been thinking most about is "the labour of learning is not to be saved".

What I mean by this is that as technologists we are tempted to reduce repetition of things  through the use of technology. So we video things, we put up web pages, etc. Sometimes these are appropriate things to do. But when they really work, they turn one form of labour into another; sometimes they increase rather than 'save' labour. For example, I video feedback to my students regularly. I do this because I think students will take more time to watch my videos than they will to read some comment at the bottom of their work. It takes me longer to do this, but I feel it is more meaningful to me and to them. Technology here isn't saving labour, it's increasing it. For their part, students will listen and play through the video more carefully. They will listen to things more than once, where they might have chosen to ignore a written comment. In short, their labour has increased too!

If, as a teacher working with a child who can't do their tables, I have to go through the basics over and over again, that repetition, effort and time really matters. If the child gets bored with one approach, I can find different ways to do the same thing - even ways involving technology (I did this with my daughter a few years ago - hilarious! http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.com/2010/10/crazy-tables.html) - but there is no taking away from carefully constructed forms of repetition. (Actually, isn't most of education is some kind of varied repetition?)

What I'm saying is that it is the routine which does the work in education: the routine of practice, commitment and perseverance. There are no magic bullets: magic bullets take away the routine in the name of 'efficiency'. The education system, which Illich tagetted in his critique, believes it is a magic bullet (our politicians and managers want to make it ever more efficient!) We now mistakenly believe technology is a magic bullet. We need to reconnect with the day-to-day routine of life. We need to get 'stuck in' and become part of it. We need our learners to do this too. That is what 'learning webs' are really about. Service Learning isn't a magic bullet. But it may be part of the project that Illich was looking for.

Friday 22 November 2013

Powerful Conversations and Powerful Institutions

I'm having some powerful conversations at the moment. These are the conversations which open doors, not just to new external opportunities (although this can happen) but also which open doors on new areas of the imagination (which leads to new opportunities). A powerful conversation is where one can feel free to utter something which one has long thought about but not felt able to say; and having uttered it, it is recognised, validated and expanded  by the person one has the conversation with. You don't need to have read hundreds of books to have a powerful conversation. In fact it helps not to (Michel de Montaigne advised 'Read a lot, forget most of what you read and be slow-witted'). But what you do need is the deep honesty that only comes from the emptying of ego. It may be your expression of some deeply traumatic event: a bereavement or a divorce. It's that delving into the deepest recesses of the self where the conversations can start. Events like death and divorce can be the most powerful spurs to intellectual development - not reading books or attending lectures. They invite that unequivocal emptiness which is the necessary ingredient to the powerful conversations: powerful conversations happen between empty people.

The academics I admire most are the ones with whom I have the most powerful conversations. I am deeply grateful for these friendships. They exhibit profound intellectual generosity, which even given the pressures on their time, still make room for those who want to struggle to be honest. These people are rare - even in powerful institutions. Many academics (even 'successful' or (worse) 'powerful' ones) really ought to know better. The mean spirit of Richard Dawkins has set a very bad example. There's vast variation in ways academics position others in conversation.

Powerful institutions, on the whole, set out to gather together great academics. They are the window dressing that lures in students. But academia is not about celebrity; it is truth and honesty. Managers of institutions of all sizes like to sell institutions on the basis of celebrity because it seems to work: it gives them something to brag about; the students want to come to be near the stars. But this gloss is really a shadow world. What matters to those who matter is truth. And the way to truth is powerful conversations.

This is really why we have Universities. They are places to talk and to think. Their functional role in running courses and awarding degrees is related to thinking: the best teaching is also a process of emptying and empathy. But what if you just want to have the powerful conversation and not the degree? This can be a problem because the degree (at whatever level) is the means by which institutions earn their money. So No degree = no money = no conversation? Well, that's not true in my experience. In the end, the discourse rules, not the institution. Any institution which tries to disrupt discursive flow risks ridicule (although there may be some cases where institutions have stepped in to distort discursive representations - particularly in health care: things can get nasty)

Thinking about powerful conversations is important when we think about efforts to create open education. There are many wonderful things on YouTube. The emptying of an academic is quite visible on video. Karen Armstrong's talk on "Compassion" at TED a few years ago is one of the best examples of this. But  YouTube isn't a conversation, and its power will depend on the state of the individual watching it. Emptying is much less easy to convey in writing, although not impossible. The most effective way of self-emptying is to invite people into an activity: a discursive response, a game, group creativity, etc. This can be done through technology; although it seems qualitatively different if its done in real-time rather than asynchronously. But with things like MOOCs, real-time is tricky and asynchronous appears to lead to homogeneity and depersonalisation. However, I do think that it is possible to create the conditions for people to have powerful conversations in an online environment. But we need to have experiments where we explicitly try to do this.

Currently online education provision (not just MOOCs) positions learners as consumers of knowledge. This may be because the most natural affordance of internet technologies is the provision of information. But the internet can do so much more in terms of coordinating mass-scale activities, rendering virtual worlds (even in VR), delivering real-time data (audio, video, text), and so on. Yet pedagogical designs are largely unambitious. Instead of focusing on pedagogical innovation and exploration, they focus on academic celebrity (come and hear Prof. X's lecture of data analytics... blah... blah...) or institutional status (you too can study at Stanford for FREE!).

The problem is that MOOCs are seen not as a pedagogical and technological experiment. They have got off the ground as a marketing opportunity in an increasingly marketised education system. Only when Universities realise that their real function is not the selling of courses but the enabling of powerful conversations will there be a genuinely exploratory and experimental effort to create those opportunities for everyone online. 

Thursday 21 November 2013

Radical Technology and Institutional Pathology

I find myself in a curious paradoxical situation - more about that in a minute. But first, I'm thinking we're currently in an "it's all been done" moment in technology: we've got the internet! social software! big data! mobile apps!... what more could we want? It's been done. Let's settle down and get used to it!

But we've been here so many times before, as I pointed out here: http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.com/2013/10/towards-2023-education-rediscovered.html. It's the '1992' moment: then people said: Hey, we've got Windows! and Macs! and MS Office!... what more could we need? Patterns repeat. But they repeat in a way that whatever is next is going to be completely unlike whatever was 'next' last time.

And what's next?? I would call it 'emotional computing', 'the feeling computer', 'aesthetic computing', and so on. It's a moment of convergence between the arts and the sciences: where the information systems by which we come to know the world are indistinguishable for the world we wish to come to know. Practically, this means a different kind of symbolic encoding of what we expect. Currently, expectations are encoded in transactions online in the form of simple transactions like "I order a book from Amazon... the book arrives in a couple of days". Financial transactions have always worked like this "I promise to pay the bearer...". However, in most human contact these kind of simplistic transactions are in the minority. Trust builds between individuals because of deep reflexive knowledge about each other. Trust breaks down where expectations are not met.

Individuals to whom we are attached are people we know deeply: the baby knows the mother and the mother knows the baby knowing the mother. The extent to which our own identity is constituted by these networks of attachment which themselves are the product of deep reflexive processes is something which an individualistic psychology alone cannot fathom. It's the patterns of communication which constitute individuals. It is this realisation that will drive a new kind of symbolic encoding of expectations, and a new kind of technology.

The basic issue is that increasingly rich pictures of communications are available for analysis. It's as if, without really knowing it, we are all walking around with MRI scanners examining the context of our brains. Except that the neuroscientists may have needed look no further than the deep analysis of communications to understand the many mysteries of the psyche (MRI pictures are in fact a kind of communication - although I think visualised bowel movements rather than brains would tell us much more!). There is enough that is revealed through communicative action which can tell us about structures of expectations in individuals. There is enough that is revealed that tells us about departures from norms of behaviour which will be associated with particular feelings. The mass data that is collected about everyone gives those who have the tools to manipulate it the means to understand (and predict!) the behaviour of individuals in ways which we never imagined would be possible.

Think about it. Imagine that every character I type on this blog is fed to Google. Not only each word and phrase, but the rhythm of my typing, the pause between words as I think, the corrections I make, and so on. How much does that reveal about me? Well, imagine that the database of every single other post I have made is similarly recorded in miniscule detail and can be compared and contrasted in nanoseconds in immediate response to what I do. It can see patterns where I have done things before; it can see where I deviate from something before. Most importantly, it can see not the unique and imaginative things I might do (occasionally!) but gets a grasp of the routine and mundane things. Those are the things that really matter, because they are the ground upon which innovation arises.

Could a machine work out how to respond to stimulate my creativity? Could a machine work out novelties that I might have missed? Could it imagine what I'm thinking? Could it read my mind? Or could it appear to read my mind?

When the first AI pioneers imagined 'intelligent machines' they were countered by sensible people who argued that a brain isn't a computer, that the Cartesian view which privileged thinking over being was short-sighted and based on what C.S. Lewis called "Men with empty chests". Computers were communication machines as Winograd and Flores, and many others, have insisted. And indeed they were right. But here's the twist. The AI pioneers were indeed wrong to think of brains as computers, but the communication-oriented people were wrong to think that communications were not constitutive of what we assumed to be "brains". They may have been the proper AI specialists!

Of course, right now we're not there yet. Things are still slow. But they will get quicker. And quicker. And faster is different, never only just faster.

So what's the paradox?? Well, how do we research and develop this technology? Answer: you go to a University. How does a University organise itself for the conduct of this research? Answer: through rigid institutional structures, evaluations, PhD programmes, etc. Why does the institution do this? Answer: to keep itself economically viable in its provision of educational products. Why can't/won't it deploy the radical technologies and practices it researches to make the research process flexible and adaptable? Answer: because it fears radical change to its operations will threaten its viability.

So once again, here's the future of technology. And you will find it everywhere in the next 5 years I reckon. Except (not for the first time) in your University!

The question I ask myself is "How the hell do we fix this?"

Monday 18 November 2013

Architecture, Education and Personal Learning Environments: Approaches to reinvention for the 21st Century

In the 1960s an optimistic spirit of exploration in the "white heat of technology" caught the imagination of British architects as they sought to imagine how we might live in the future.  One of the most iconic results of this was the collective of British architects who went by the name of "Archigram". Archigram created visually impressive designs of cities of the future... from cities that 'walk':
To cities which do not contain buildings as such, but are simply frameworks within which buildings can be 'plugged in' as needed.
I'm struck by these designs because their aesthetics are compelling and exciting. At the same time, they're clearly a bit crazy: but crazy and beautiful is a good combination at least. There is a similar kind of idealism present in educational technology - but it tends to be more on the crazy side rather than the beautiful side.

Educational designs for the future are similar to architectural designs for the future in one important way at least: they are both reimaginings of the ways people might live. In doing this, they have engaged with an inspection of human experience, and how the needs that emerge from human experience might be met in new ways. It's very similar to Christopher Alexander's 'Pattern Language'. 

A few years ago, I was part of a project which sought to redesign learning in the context of the Personal Learning Environment. We used Alexander's technique to identify the 'services' through patterns that would be required and could be reprovisioned through technology. My colleague Scott Wilson created this schematic diagram of the ways in which the different services that would meet the needs of learners might relate to each other:

Thinking about Archigram has made me think about the ways in which our thinking operated when we did this work. The JISC PLE project was one of the best E-learning projects I worked on, but looking back I think our thinking was blinkered in a number of ways. Although we tried to represent as rich a picture as we could about 'personal learning', our focus was ultimately on an analysis of the affordances of emerging Service Oriented Archicture. Using this as a starting point, we then tried to imagine how the experience of learning might map onto these services. The mapping was done with reference to another analytical framework: Beer's Viable System Model and (to a lesser extent) to Heidegger's phenomenology. Not that there was anything inherently wrong with this, but the approaches were all fundamentally 'analytical' in orientation. There was little deep consideration of the phenomenology of teaching and learning (which Heidegger, for all his talk about 'denken', seemed strangely blind to) or the real experiences that real learners have as they struggle to get on with their lives. To be fair to us, I don't think we then had the intellectual equipment to do it, and neither did anyone else.

But now the situation might be different. It turned out that the deep experience of learners revealed flaws in our analytical enthusiasm. I had another JISC project called SPLICE which was able to look at this. But by the time SPLICE was coming to an end, so was e-learning as a well-funded government research effort: it was now mainstream and government funding was increasingly deemed unnecessary. The initial enthusiasm for analysis and then the kick-back from understanding real learners' experiences felt like a circular journey. But the whole thing was part of a three-dimensional dynamic, not two. The 'collapse' of funding for e-learning was part of the picture too.

This third element was a kind of critical-rationalising movement which examined the impasse between architects dreams and real experience and concluded that no progress could be made through government funding and maybe institutions should just get on with it themselves. The credit crunch was a perfect excuse for shaking things up. But this critical movement was the shallowest of all of them. Where its role ought to have been to steer a politically responsible research effort, it took a back seat while the money was easy, and when the money wasn't there, it simply backed away arguing the market competition (MOOCs anyone?) would deliver the goods.

The need for a properly functioning critical voice in e-learning is essential. The critic is the one that looks deeper at the motivations of both those whose passion is for designing the future world and determining its analytical components and those concerned with individual experiences. So often the passion for analytic schemes stems from childhood, with particular personality types drawn to energetic schemes which are ultimately doomed (not just the geeks). The critic also sees those whose focus is not on realising analytical schemas but understanding experience deeply. The critic knows that this too is important, but whilst its vaguaries are hard to operationalise, reflection on its outcomes are valuable in avoiding analytical excess.

The critic asks "why are we doing this?", "who will lose out?", "what's missing?", "what do we want?", "who is we?". It is the role of government (and possibly institutional management) to do this - but it is a professional job. It is not something that dilettante managers ought to engage in - they are more likely to belong to the naive operationalism of the analysts! The most important aspect of the critic is that the critic is aware of the way that they think and understands the ways (and the causes of the ways) that others think.

We are not short of clever analytical ways of thinking about the world. In some parts of the world (particularly the US) there are many fantastically energetic reimaginings of the future going on (what's Google working on?) One of the most interesting developments in this work is how it is shedding new light on human experience, reflexivity and emotion (I'm in Duke university at the moment where they are taking this development very seriously indeed). These things are coming and they are very important. But when they come there will be losers as well as winners. There are 'elephants in the room' everywhere - the biggest one being the education system itself. Only the critic can see these, and (I think Alain Badiou is right here) if we have a single need for development in intellectual life, it is the growing-up of a coherent politically-oriented critique which can connect with the most exciting analytical developments and the depth of phenomenology so as to challenge each and to continually challenge itself.

Sunday 17 November 2013

Analysing meaningful experience of dwelling in the Oculus Rift

There appears to be general consensus that experiences within the Virtual Reality of the Oculus Rift are something new. The thing that stood out for me was the fact that this was a technologically-enhanced experience which felt relaxed, unhurried, stress-free - it genuinely felt like 'dwelling' - that key category that Heidegger created as the antithesis of technology. I wonder if he would have agreed with me. For Heidegger, there is something poetic about dwelling. And there is something more poetic about the VR experience in the Rift than with any computer technology I've experienced.

What is going on? Can we analyse it?

I think the simple fact is that the VR conforms to expectations about experience of reality in ways that conventional technology doesn't. When we move our heads, we expect our perspective on the world to change. In the Rift, it does. Because of this, it may present us with a way of understanding our ordinary experience of reality.

One way of approaching an analysis is to consider the aspects of experience which are not represented. The Rift is a different kind of experience in many ways, but one obvious way is the fact that you cannot see your own hands. It may seem like a small point, but up to now, all our technology has worked on the basis of hand-eye coordination. I've recently been reading David Sudnow's "The ways of the hand" which is a phenomenological account of jazz piano playing (quite brilliant) and a reminder that looking at one's hands and coordinating what they are doing with awareness of the tools they engage with has been a fundamental characteristic of all tool usage up to this point. Not being able to see one's hands may be a big deal.

In VR, the neck and the eyes are the most important things. These movements we do not associate with technologies in the real world at all. We instead associate them with exploration, discovery, wonder, gaze, etc. So the combination of neck movements and visual stimulation in VR which conforms to the expectations of real-world neck movements may stimulate similar emotions. This is interesting because hand-eye coordination is associated with goal-oriented technological practice; neck-eye coordination is associated with exploration. And then there is the sound environment too. This begins to explain some aspects of my experiences in the Rift.

But then, what of expectations? What of reflexivity as I explore my virtual world? Is there something worth looking at in Gibson's affordance theory, because he put particular emphasis on the movements of the neck and body in ascertaining affordances of objects? What information is flowing as we look around us? How are our expectations changed?

The question here is "What shapes expectations?" The answer, I think, is redundancies. It's a useful answer because redundancies are measurable. The technique for analysing expectations in the Oculus Rift is very similar to the technique for analysing the experiences of music. Redundancies occur at a variety of levels of experience. These levels of experience are not 'modes' (as "multimodal" experience) - but they are effectively different levels of expectation. In music, we might have an expectation of an overall tonality, whilst also entertaining expectations of particular motifs, phrasing or particular rhythms. These are not on the same level, but they co-exist, and are mutually dependent. What matters in musical experience is where levels of redundancy shift over each other. This shifting over each other is key to understanding experience in the Rift.

Imagine a physical action which is repeated such as moving one's neck left. This action produces a set of visual stimulations which also change as the neck moves. These are overlapping redundancies. If I move towards an object and repeat my neck movement, the pattern of redundancies shifts because my perspective shifts: some things will be the same and some things will be different. It may be that meaningful information will exist in the overlapping of redundancies from one moment to the next because one level of experience gains access to the constraints operating on another level of experience.

Overlapping redundancies constrain expectations because they represent things which we do not notice but are causal on the experience of the things we do notice. Wallpaper is a classic example of a redundancy which frames experience. I suspect that when two redundancies overlap, each redundancy becomes noticeable to the other layer: in other words, what was absent becomes present, or at least some new 'presence' arises through the awareness of what each layer of experience misses. New presences drive new ideas and new action. In this way, we can characterise within Virtual Worlds as "intrinsic motivation" as a dynamic of "presencing" absence at different levels of experience.

But that is all theory. What is measurable are the patterns of redundancy. And we can compare the overlapping of the patterns of redundancy with the experiences of people within the Rift. To begin with, that would be a useful exercise as a way of investigating whether the idea of overlapping redundancies at different levels of experience maps on to the emotional experiences of VR.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Three "ways of thinking" about Educational Technology

Today I eavesdropped via Skype on a discussion in a conference 3000 miles away about informal learning. Being so remote made me particularly aware of the dynamics of the conversation - a dynamics which displayed a particular kind of circularity. Individuals took positions: usually these were "moral" positions - certain things were to be advocated, other things avoided (people got very excited/upset at these) because of the risks of not avoiding them. It went round and round. Nobody appeared to be listening to anyone else. No progress was made, but eventually everyone seemed satiated with their run around block a few more times and they went off to get drunk.

What is this? What kind of maddening circle of hell has education created for us that we can't talk about it in order to genuinely make progress, but instead are condemned to go round in circles? I've been wondering about this quite a lot recently - particularly because we seemed to have reached a point in educational technology where the governments that funded expensive programmes have finally got tired of the lack of progress and are deciding that a lot less funding is required.

The classic answer to the circularity is "but education is SO difficult". But I think that's just an excuse. As academics our job is to think about difficult things. Our problem is that we don't know how to think. The problem of circularity may be that we are unaware of the ways in which we think, and we slip seamlessly between one way of thinking and another, unaware of the frictions and potential incompatibilities that different ways of thinking can produce.

I'm going to suggest three fundamentally different ways of thinking. There may be more, but these three will do for a start:

  1. An analytical way of thinking - the practical world of operationalisable metrics, structures and technologies where it is possible to design a better education system;
  2. A critical way of thinking - the way of thinking that considers what's missing in any proposal. It is the way of thinking of the "knot in the stomach" when reacting to some new (often analytical) proposal;
  3. A phenomenological way of thinking - the way of thinking that is rooted in a deep reflection about personal experience. The phenomenological perspective tries to put words to feelings, and understand the ways that experiences are shaped by environments.
The different disciplines that have taken an interest in educational technology can be situated  between these different ways of thinking. No discipline successfully relates to them all at once. For example, my discipline of "cybernetics" is fundamentally concerned with analysis and experience. When it is more analytical it can also be very practical (the most useful cybernetic tools include things like Beer's Viable System Model) Its great weakness (and the reason why it isn't progressing at the moment) is that it lacks any kind of critical philosophy - and particularly a deep critical look at itself. 

Sociology, of which education studies is really a subset, tends to combine critique either with analysis, the latter often taken as a methodological add-on producing things like evidence-based research with grounded theory, or it is combined with phenomenology to produce hermeneutically-inspired examinations of educational experience or policy which, whilst valuable and interesting, can lack any kind of operationalisation. 

Of more interest possibly in combining critique with analysis is the growing work in social ontology (i.e. critical realism). However, even this suffers from lack of operationalisability, and (along with Marxism from which it derives) it has very little to say about the perceptual aspects of experience. Actually, this school of analytical-ontological inquiry is prefigured not just by Marxist scholars, but also by older Catholic thinking (I think it was Jacques Ellul who pointed out that Marxism was just a branch of Christianity).

Now when we look at the thoughtful 'literature' on Educational Technology (how much of it really counts as academic literature?), where can we situate people? Where would Connectionism sit and the  MOOCs it gave rise to? I think that's with the cyberneticians on the analytical-experiential axis. But there's no deep critique. Where would Gilly Salmon's 5 stage model sit? It looks predominantly experiential with not an awful lot of analysis or critique. What about Laurillard/Pask? Again that's clearly cybernetic, as is the Britain and Liber VLE work. In Liber's work, the critical element is there (particularly through appeal to Ivan Illich - there's the Catholic Marxist!), but the intellectual tension between the analytical arguments and the critical arguments is not completely followed through or developed. What about learning analytics? Again we see analysis with no critique and in the case of big data, not an awful lot of attention on phenomenology either. 

But those are the big-hitters. When we start to look at the interventions of organisations like JISC and the EU Tel programme, it starts to look very thin indeed. Where's E-portfolio? This is where we see the problems of not being clear how we think: it becomes a case of shallow flirting with ways of thinking rather than consistent and deep engagement. With e-portfolio there has been a shallow phenomenology and poor analysis (and once more no critique). Where's the PLE? A deeper phenomenology and cybernetic analysis, and a critique based on Illich but once again the tensions between the different ways of thinking are not explored.  What about OER? That's lots of analytical work on the mechanisms of distribution of 'material' but no educational or phenomenological critique of what it means either to institutions or individuals.

When we come to 'informal learning' it is not surprising that people go round in circles. There is a tiny bit of phenomenology. There is a tiny bit of critique (although the contradictions it introduces only serve to trip people up). There's not an awful lot of analysis and consequently, the operationalisation of it is hampered. 

The point I want to make is that the way to deal with the circularities we are caught in is to be clearer about the conflicts in the ways we are thinking. Circularities are caused by attending to a particular topic (like 'informal learning') without attending to the way in which we think about that topic. This really means that we have to develop deeper self-awareness of our own habits of mind, and understand the difficulties of switching gear without being aware of it.

Thursday 14 November 2013

Re-coding the education system and the possibility of emotion-oriented computing

The next technological revolution will be about emotions. We have experienced in the last 20 years a transformation in our information environment. But in creating this transformation, we have neglected what it feels like to be immersed in this information environment. Marx recognised that the symbolic codification of exchange that is the essential nature of "money" was at the root of what he called 'alienation'. The information revolution has introduced symbolic codifications of human expectations that relate to almost every sphere of life. Technological practice has become the normal means by which the symbols are manipulated. But the information revolution has delivered a side-effect in the nature of tools and the amounts of data that are now surrounding us. It has now become possible to ascertain the normative patterns of social behaviour in the manipulation of symbols.

This, first of all, is valuable to salesmen: norms are trends which can be exploited, individual profiles matched and marketing targeted. But that's pretty horrible really. Yet behind it is a world of emotion and meaning concerning the things that matter to each of us: the presents we buy and the travel destinations we go to see loved ones; the books we buy about the things that are important to us; and the recesses of irrational drives that constitute psychosocial orientations.

The test of a mature technology is when it reveals things to us that coincide with theoretical speculation and produce powerful evidence in support. The data reveals ample evidence for social structuration (whether Giddens or Bhaskar's variety): the reproduction and transformation of social structure which in turns conditions and constrains agency. Individuals appear constituted by norms which they reproduce and transform. The really important thing here is a powerful analytical challenge to cognitivism. It turns out the social psychologists were right! But with this comes the means of analysis of individual experience and meaningful action which has never before been available to us. This is particularly important for education.

To consider emotions, we have to consider our expectations. Whatever I write here, my words result from a process of consideration and choice: my reflexivity attempts to judge the likely responses to the different things that I might say. My consideration of the likely effects of possibilities is based on my understanding of normative expectations of those around me - or at least those to whom I wish to communicate. This is to say my expectations are normatively constructed, then the degree to which they might deviate from normal conditions may be an index of emotion: if Cassandra knew that nobody could understand her (which she must have deduced!), then her cries were at the very least cries for help.

As we get older, we find it difficult to cry for help. For those learners who have had difficult learning experiences in the past, the normative route is to continue to 'duck and dive' the education system, producing the same kind of results that they always experienced (failure). This is the kind of  double-bind 'addiction to excuses' that I discussed a while ago (http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.com/2013/10/employability-student-confidence-and.html). What is required to jump out of this? At the very least it needs the disruption of norms and establishment of new norms that make it safe for more authentic expression on the part of the learner. Great teachers have always known how to do this - but they are so often hampered by the restrictions of the education system (curriculum, exams, etc): they are hampered by the restrictive coding of education.

But what if our analysis of normative experience, and our measurement of individual expectations could re-code education? What if institutional expectations were based around the codifiable emotional needs of learners? What if real educational development could be measured by tangible indices of student confidence? The fundamental question is "Is it possible to re-code the expectations of the education system that they fit the diverse emotional lives of learners". Maybe we need to move the symbolic codification of expectations a step further and work towards making technology work for education, not the other way round!

Tuesday 12 November 2013

What is Inquiry Based Learning - really?

I was involved in a project a few years ago to create a framework for Inquiry-based learning in my university. The idea was to create degree opportunities for those students who didn't fit the traditional academic route. Instead of studying a 'subject', students could study their work - whatever their work happened to be.

It's a long story, but basically - despite similar programmes being successful in one or two other universities - it didn't catch on in my own. Ever since there's been a degree of wailing and gnashing of teeth among the team as we try to work out what went wrong. This has been aggravated by the fact that most of us still think that basically it was the right thing to do, and we shouldn't give up. However, one of the fundamental questions which we never addressed is "what is inquiry?"

Strangely, I find myself returning to this topic as I go deeper into the study of information and redundancy. The relation between information and redundancy is analogous to the relationship between routine and innovation. Redundancies shape the conditions for information to be transferred in the same way that routine shapes the conditions for people to be innovative. Most assessment criteria, most educational programmes are concerned with innovation - the things that stand out, the achievements of the past, the achievements of student assignments, etc. Rarely are we interested in the routine - in the habits that are repeated day-in day-out.

Even those interventions that try to capture the process of learning like e-portfolio actually insist on some kind of innovative practice through the articulation of 'insights' and 'reflections'. This I think is probably why e-portfolio is so unsatisfactory: few of us can match up to the expectation that we should be continually insightful! But any insight - even an insight in an e-portfolio - is situated against a ground of routine.

Our form of inquiry-based learning, in asking learners to study their work, demanded that learners look to their routines. The routine became foreground rather than background. At least that was the idea. However, within the idea that this would be a valuable thing for learners to do, there was I think a category mistake. The inner life of individuals wherein their passions and enthusiasms lie (i.e. the stuff which drives meaningful learning) is situated against a backdrop of routine. For many people, work plays this role: it's function is not to be studied but to be managed in relation to the deeper inner life of individuals. Work may be dull and unpleasant, but its regularity and rhythm create the conditions for imaginative escape. To shine the spotlight on the routine may therefore not be welcome. To do so is to shake the inner life as the order of routine and innovation is disrupted.

Of course, this is not to say that it is a bad thing to have this kind of disruption! But it does indicate that the idea of studying work might not make as much sense as it might at first appear. Any educational process is fundamentally about changing the expectations of individuals.That process begins with learners identifying something that's missing, the search for it creating the necessary passion for personal transformation. In this way, academic learning and work-based learning are no different. For some workers, what's missing might simply be a qualification - and therefore they will submit to any valid means of filling that void. But for many, it is not that simple. What's missing? is a question about personal identity and meaning. To deal with this sensitively we may need more finely tuned educational instruments than either the traditional 'course' or even work-based inquiry.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Redundancies and Meaning in Music

One of the exciting things about playing with Ableton Live is the exploration of the effects of the generation of redundancy in music. I found that the repetitious sound generated by the computer stimulated me to make more sound. But the striking thing with Ableton was that it wasn't simply the idea of repeating things (which is perhaps most closely associated with the idea of 'redundant' information) like a rhythm or a melody, but the layering of different ideas on top of one another in different time periodicities. More than anything else, it was this layering - particularly poly-tonal layering which was most richly stimulating. So, given that my experience of this sound is one of being stimulated to create, and I associate that kind of stimulation with redundancies, I'm wondering if this polytonal sound is also in some ways an aspect of redundancy. But how?

It is important to remember that in information theory, redundancy is constraint on entropy, or uncertainty in being able to predict the next message. Redundancies shape the 'grammar' of what's happening. But this works strangely in music: a repeated chord as accompaniment approaches zero entropy (we expect the chord to be repeated almost 100%), but as it does so, we might expect absolutely anything else to occur on top of it (so, the entropy increases as the chord is repeated because there is high uncertainty about what might come next). That means there appears to be multi-layer entropies and redundancies.

Harmonies themselves may have entropy values. A major triad has lowish entropy because it frames possible things that might harmonise with it. There's not a lot that's redundant in a major triad. A polytonal triad (say, C and F#) produces high uncertainties about what might follow it, in a similar way to a repeated accompanimental chord. That suggests that there may be high redundancy in a polytonal chord (like the repeated pattern) which opens the door to any other possibility.

What might we generalise here: a layer that produces zero entropy through high redundancy stimulates high entropy at a new layer. Emergent patterns of redundancy limit the entropies of the new layer until it too might approach zero, and so the cycle continues. What emerges is a stratified information model, not a linear one. So the question then is how the different strata move over one another. Or rather, there is an information model with diachronic and synchronic aspects.

One way of considering this is to characterise it as a multi-dimensional communication situation with mutual redundancies between layers. An idea fertilizes another idea when the constraints behind the production of messages of one idea are identified as the constraints behind the production of another idea. With mutual constraint there is transfer between the two levels. At this point it may be that a new level is born.

But Shannon's theory is about machine communication. In human communication, what appears to happen is that expectations arise above a sea of information and redundancy. When we listen to a tonal piece, there is an emerging expectation that messages will fall within a particular 'key' (this is not, I think, simply socially constructed - although its ontology may implicate some kind of deviation or compliance with a social norm). It is in this domain of expectation that Asavief's 'intonation' may occur (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/four-climaxes-and-theory-musical.html). An intonation is a selection: so an expectation is selected from a set of possibilities. It is a way of filtering out 'semantic noise'. What are the criteria for selection of an expectation? I think the most likely cause will be the mutual redundancies that exist at different levels of experience. A new idea is a new expectation.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Learning, Entropy and Supra-individuality

There is a problem in thinking about learning: we can only see the outward signs of cognition: linguistic utterances, body movements, etc. Our understanding of what a person might be thinking, of what might be going on in the learning process is derived from the way in which people play particular language games. Focus on 'agency' in learning seems to condemn us to metaphysical conjecture: no judgements can really be defended; they are effectively intellectual posturing.

The alternative to focusing on agency is to focus on structures which are, in the final analysis, communications. It is reasonable to suggest that communicative structures may provide some glimpse to the world of the agent: certainly some of the constraints that operate on the agent in their behaviour are available for inspection. But also, we might be able to test theories of agency which relate agency to structure by examining evidence from communications. With this supra-individual perspective, we can ask fundamental questions about the constitution of the self: are minds within the head? are selves within a body? and so on.

Supra-individuality is also metaphysical conjecture of course. But at least it provides us something that we can explore in a systematic and analytical way; studying agency per se on the other hand either leads to the ontological difficulties of the psychologist's lab, or to the ineffectual hand of phenomenological interpretivism.

So what tools do we have? One of the techniques we have for doing this is Shannon's communication theory. Shannon's insight into the transmission of messages between machines is deceptively simple: the issue is the uncertainty of a receiver in being able to predict the messages being sent to it (remember this is machines, not people!). The greater the uncertainty, the greater the amount of information gained if the receiver were to be able to predict the message. But messages are transmitted within constraints of grammar, meaning, syntax, etc. These mean that symbols are not equally probable; some symbols are more probable than others depending on the context. The thing that determines the distribution of probabilities of symbols Shannon calls 'redundancy': some things are repeated more often than others (like the letter 'e' in English); equally, some messages are repeated to ensure correct transmission if the medium is "noisy". Redundancies can be added to ensure effective transmission over a noisy medium: either by repeating messages, or by simplifying the syntax or grammar: both these techniques effectively add 'extra bits of extraneous information' to the message to ensure its transmission. Entropy is framed by redundancy.

Shannon was resistant to the idea of applying his ideas to human communication. The missing ingredient for Shannon would be 'meaning'. It's all very well to talk about information and entropy, but the relationship between meaning and entropy is of a different order. One way of characterising this 'different order' is to conceive of human communication as a process of selecting anticipations of communication processes. If we pursue this line of inquiry, then agency starts to become more tractable.

My utterances on this blog are not performed in the vacuum of my head (!) They are performed in anticipation of the likely responses I might have to it. Actually, I reckon very few people will bother to read this far in my post; but one or two (the people I want to communicate with) might. I can imagine what they might say. Actually, I am talking to myself in wondering what they might say; but as I do this, I am exploring a set of anticipations which will inform the utterances I choose to make. My hope is that the utterances I eventually select will stimulate conversation with those who I wish to communicate with. So I have anticipations of communication and I have models of other people.

There are ways of conceiving of anticipations of communication. Daniel Dubois has done very interesting work on anticipatory systems in computer science (see http://wohlstandfueralle.com/documents/DUBOISHYPERINCURSION.pdf). But what is interesting in this work is the way that we come to eventually select utterances: the criteria for agency. The exploration of anticipations is also an entropic systetm; it is constrained by redundancies. But the redundancies which constrain the anticipations of communications between humans must necessarily be shared. My communication with you will be a process of selecting an utterance to which I calculate you will respond to in a particular way; I can only predict this if I have some insight into the constraints that operate between in our communicating.

I find this an exciting result. Because the redundancies in our communications are measurable. When we look at emails, documents on the internet, twitter posts, blogs, etc we can determine levels of redundancy. In comparing levels of redundancy in discourses, there does appear to be a way of getting back to some conception of the processes of agency which created the conditions for the making of utterances. In the multi-dimensional world of human communications, it is the redundancies which are shared between people where meaningful discourse arises. Shannon's theory on its own cannot determine this (indeed, in multi-dimensions, it would suggest that communications ought to fall apart as Klaus Krippendorff argues). But multi-dimensional human communications do not fall apart - in fact, they often work rather well. Thinking about anticipations and mutual redundancies is a way of understanding our extraordinary success!

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Socio-technical Evaluation in the ITEC project

The ITEC project has one year to run. In the last 3 years, it has done many good things in stimulating technical engagement in schools across Europe. There have been some very heartening and enthusiastic engagements with the project coming from places ranging from Turkey and Portugal to Norway and Finland with talented teachers finding a voice and a platform for experimenting with technology and doing 'cool things with the kids' - even if it's simply using video (the most powerful and easy-to-use technology) to boost confidence and encourage reflection...

ITEC has a technical vision whereby it aims to bring technologies closer to-hand for teachers across Europe. As part of this vision, it has created a 'Widget store' where teachers can upload and organise small tools (which can be easily found on the web) and bring them into their teaching platforms. As with all technical visions, however, this is more easily said than done!

The Widget Store exists as an entity (see it at http://itec-moodle.eun.org where you can log-in with Facebook or Google) although usage is more sporadic amongst teachers than those who envisaged and designed the technology might have wished. Does this mean that it's not very good?

This is a question I've been asking myself quite a lot (partly because the Widget Store is something my own University has played a big role in). The problem is that when we design technologies in all hopefulness and expectation of how people will react to them, we don't really have "real" people in mind: we have 'abstract' people who tend to be little versions of ourselves: our "abstract people" get excited about our technology because we are excited about our technology. There is a kind of delusion that sets in with any technical design. In a project, this is a collective delusion!

What's interesting is that sometimes, despite delusions, things really do catch on. Whilst the delusion or abstract users will rarely be correct, something does set the public imagination alight. Nobody who originally designed Twitter, or many other  social software services would have imagined what they might become. Even YouTube's early ambition would not have dared to reach the extent of its business model now. But without the initial delusion, we'd get nowhere. Delusions are important.

But perhaps we shouldn't feel so bad if our ambitions are thwarted by 'real people' - or at least, we shouldn't feel so bad if that happens and we LEARN FROM IT. That is the real purpose of evaluation. (It would of course be dumb to not only be delusional in our design and idealism but to not learn from what happens!) Many brave technical experiments have gone this way: Apple have made many technical interventions far more expensive than ITEC's Widget Store before it caught onto something which grabbed the imagination of everyone: the Newton was ahead of its time; OpenDoc was a remarkable technical development. Google too are continually creating and discarding developments. We ought to be doing this in education, and it's work that ought to be funded properly. (Or we could let Google and Apple do it for us - but that takes us in dangerous water, I think)

The value of a technical development is complex. ITEC is a large project with many strands of intervention, from technical to pedagogical. Telling a simple story about the project has been much facilitated by the tools it has produced. The simple fact is that when explaining the project to a group of teachers, rather than ramble on about concepts of pan-european integrated education, ITEC could talk about its tools, and it can demonstrate them. Teachers can use those tools, and through using them, understand the deeper aims of the project. Tools like the Widget Store are particularly valuable in this regard because they are heterogeneous in their embrace of technology. That means that it is not just one technology that might be introduced to teachers (say, making a video), but also Etherpad, or a Shared drawing tool, or Prezi, or Poplet. Any one of these could be introduced individually, but that would concentrate the discussion on one tool. The Widget Store maintains an overview of possible technologies, whilst situating all of those technologies within the broader narrative and vision of the project. Even if people don't go on to use it in their daily practice, its discursive intervention can be significant in inspiring and changing practice in line with the aims of the project.

The way I'm beginning to think about this is through understanding the different discourses that interact when doing e-learning projects. There is always a group of technologists talking about technology. There is always a group of teachers who the technologists want to get to use their technology. There is always some kind of project management. These discourses are quite separate from one another, and the big challenge in ITEC has been to connect them. Sometimes it has been possible: but only under one particular set of circumstances: Where there is coherence in an identified 'need' or absence within one community with an identified absences in the other two communities. So when a pedagogic need coheres with a technical requirement which coheres with a project objective, then things work. If this isn't the case, they don't.

What I have learnt in the technical evaluation of ITEC is that absences really matter. Our challenge in evaluation (and project management) is to find better ways of identifying them. The delusions of software developers are, in a deep way, driven by absences. The better we get at orienting those technical absences to the real needs (also absences) of real people, the more virtuous the circle between design, implementation and management will become.