Saturday, 19 January 2013

3 Bad Assumptions of E-learning

The value of e-learning to me has been in the opportunity to look at the mysterious process of human development afresh through the lens of technology. We had such optimism, and had so much support (and money) from government sponsors. But where's it got us?

Whilst technology cannot bear the full blame for the current crisis in HE, it lurks in the background as a causal factor - even if its just the whiff of 'inefficiency' when we see a lecturer performing the same lecture they always have done to a small group of students. The steamroller of technology says "why not video it?", put it on a social network, etc. Of course, this question is never taken as a challenge... "Why NOT video it?"

The problem is one of perceived "functional equivalence". Or rather, the mismatch between perceived functional equivalence and ontological and phenomenological difference. In short, we've been good in spotting (and defending with 'evidence') functional equivalence. We've been less good in investigating ontological distinctions. Those are the things which come to bite us when we look at miserable MOOCs.

This is not to defend the status quo, or to argue for the maintenance of inefficient practice. It is to attack shallow, lazy and expedient thinking. It is to critique the traps that 'functional equivalence' have led us to. These, I think, are 3 significant assumptions that lurk behind our current problems:

  1. Communication is the exchange of information between individuals;
  2. Community is a network of individuals bound by communications (as defined above);
  3. Learning is adaptation.

For each assumption, I think we need to insert "more than" so that "Communication is more than the exchange of information", etc. But the obvious thing to then to say "in what way 'more'? How can we investigate it?" The dynamics of communication have been modelled in various ways, and in e-learning, one of the principal models is Pask's Conversation theory as it was adapted by Laurillard.

The problem with conversation theory that it posits the existence of a mechanism whereby individuals coordinate themselves with the communications of each other. The coordinations are based on the communications (the result of other coordinations) of the teacher, or other learners. It must be said that this is not an unsophisticated model; indeed, Pask developed a theory which accounted for 'concepts' themselves in a remarkable (but rather impenetrable) way.

But the bottom line is, if Pask was right, then the experience of MOOCs would be fantastic. They offer the epitome of the constructivist theory in action, where adaptation, concept formation and communication work together in an environment which is geared towards supporting it. (The connectionist metaphor is, of course, where the MOOC started in the first place, and this is entirely consistent with Pask's more sophisticated theory).

Pask is wrong for an important reason: thinking itself, not just communicating, is a social and environmental process. The world in its entirety, including what is and what isn't there, is constitutive of individual humanness; it is not a 'constraint' within which concrete processes of cognition operate. Merleau-Ponty's talk of "the flesh of the world" is perhaps the most visceral expression of this. Pask thinks that individual humanness is merely constituted by the coordination of communications. He ends up positing ideal humans. We have developed our technologies (not just learning technologies) based on this misapprehension too.

This brings me on to the second problem: community. If the individual is constituted by their environment, then it is a mistake to conceive an individual as a dot in a network. It is worse to misrepresent communities as clusters of dots. Each dot represents acts which are recognised to be there, recognised to be individual. And whilst each act may relate to other acts of other people (for example, I give you a present and you say "thank you!"), the act is not the person, and the sequence of acts is only a sign of something deeper that might be going on. Each act (the act of joining a forum, for example) is the result of deliberation of the individual which, as I have just indicated - is itself social at a deep level. Community lies in the deep bonds of trust, care, understanding and love that develop between people as they grow together. Community does not lie in patterns of acts between people per se. Teaching at its best, is about community. But isn't teaching at its very best face-to-face (at least with someone, although not necessarily with the teacher themselves...)? or even one-to-one?

Finally, we come to learning. The Piagetian idea of learning as adaptation needs challenging. Rather like Pask's conversation model, Piaget envisaged entities reacting to concrete perturbations in the environment. In a way, his is a biological model with a physical characterisation of causality. For Piaget, what we learn is an epiphenomenon of our adaptational processes. This model is wrong I believe, because it conflates biological adaptation processes with complex psychological and social performances. The problem lies in the conflation of biological reductionism - the flattening-out of structure.

Learning and Teaching are like music. At any moment we may determine 'elements' to which we might attribute an experience, or even reduce the gamut of our experiences to that element: it's all about the harmony, or all about the melody, or the rhythm, etc. In reality, however much we might want to bracket-out things which we don't want to consider in order to understand our experience, those things are still there. They have not been reduced, just overlooked. Indeed, the challenge of notation of music has been to codify the uncodifyable: to establish a normative representation that connects intuitive practice with intentions.

Whilst I write this, I am aware of a recent document about 'learning design': I should talk more about this later, but the document contains an analogy to music notation and 'educational notation' which I found a bit superficial. The document states that  regarding notation of music:
As a result, a musician living hundreds of years later, in a very different context, can still understand the musical ideas of a composer long ago, and with appropriate skills, can reproduce those musical ideas.
This is an inappropriate causal attribution. The notation does not do this. Music lives through practice, interpretation and study. Indeed, early notations appear really focused on coordinations of group practice. These things took place in monasteries, universities and (much later) orchestras and opera houses. (It is only relatively recently that some medieval notations have been interpreted so that they can be performed). It may however be true that notation created a common language whereby the study of this rich and mysterious art may be conducted and coordinated amongst practitioners. The processes of study (like the hermeneutic study of ancient texts) have to consider what is not there as well as what is. Performance takes place in this context, and always against the context of its own time, not some ossified recreation of the past. Literacy is not just about reading and writing; it is about the organisational, institutional, political, educational, technological and legal structures that facilitate the passing-on of the understanding of texts from one brain to another.

Efforts to establish notation of (and technologies for) learning have assumed a conflated reductionist model of learning and teaching, and consequently produced deficient experiences as the ignored levels of educational ontology assert themselves (in ways never anticipated by the learning designers). This can be organisationally disastrous for the Icarus-like attempts to promote new technologies (like the University of California blowing $4.9m on online courses and recruiting one student! Just as music's normative practice is always social (even if it's merely a dead composer's score and a solo performer), but where the magic is in the communion which results, so too with learning. Learning exists in an ontological context which includes society, politics, care, attachment and love. A functionalist notation (and functionalist technology) brackets these things out, or simply flattens them.

Our challenge now is in coming to terms with the stratified and irreducible levels of learning, communities and communication and finding ways in which our technologies can address and support these levels, rather than reduce and conflate them. 

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