Saturday 23 February 2013

Interactive Documentary, Shared Experience and Better Theory in Education

I've recently been playing with the Wookie Widget Server for the iTEC project in producing a kind of interactive video. Basically, I have a movie (an instructional thing made with CrazyTalk) which (because it uses the HTML5 video component) can fire events at particular instances. Those events trigger changes in the Wookie widgets. As a result, the audience of the movie (eg. kids in a classroom) can be invited at particular points to engage in activities with the movie, and be automatically provided with tools (widgets) to do this. It doesn't matter what platform they view it on, providing the technology within particular widgets is compatible (so no Flash!).


Participant widget screen (in Moodle in this case)

It doesn't look like much as a screen shot, but in reality, it creates a very interesting dynamic in the classroom.

I'm fascinated by the shared experience, by the sequencing of activities in this way simultaneously, and by the way the teaching can do other things whilst the activities are running through and the participants engage in the video.

There's a lot happening at the moment in terms of real-time collaboration in this way. Smart Technologies (the Interactive Whiteboard people) have just launched something called Extreme Collaborate which appears to use a web-socket style connection system for direct interaction with any kind of web-enabled device and the whiteboard. Then, Microsoft are doing some remarkable things with their 'SmartGlass':

I think there is something in this. My wish is that it opens the door to a contrasting approach to open education than the one currently being explored by MOOCs. I think convivial experience matters, and that there is no reason why Universities shouldn't create rich convivial experiences that can be engaged with by groups of people all over the world - but something which is more like an interactive cinema presentation that a website that people look at on their own: with this technology, the lecture is an 'interactive documentary'. Currently, we are seeing arts organisations broaden their reach (the National Theatre and Royal Opera in London, and the Metropolitan opera in New York are two examples), with the use of live broadcast to global venues. These are powerful events. Why shouldn't Universities do the same?

It would require Universities to really think about the "theatre of the classroom" in ways that they perhaps haven't done before. It would offer the opportunities for Universities to continually improve the experience of the lecture, or the classroom theatre, by monitoring participant engagement, and getting live feedback on the learner experience. It would set a standard that they would then have to live up to. And why shouldn't anyone be able to attend?

But I'm interested in the research opportunities presented by this technology. It provides a way of exploring 'conviviality' in learning. The fascinating thing in my experiments has been the extent of discussion amongst participants - particularly when they are all engaged in the same activity. "What do you think?" they ask each other. What if their activities were all different, rather than all the same? What if the coordination was different? There are parameters of investigation here which can be easily explored and data collected. Indeed, it may be that the face-to-face classroom provides a richer opportunity for data collection and the examination of experience than the online world, where it can be so difficult and time-consuming to encourage engagement.

What am I after? There are a number of questions:

  1. What is the relationship between the 'content' of learning and the communication dynamics in classroom?
  2. What is meaningful in the experiences?
  3. What is the relationship between the manner of coordination of activities and the meaningfulness of the experiences?
  4. Is meaning related to anticipation?
  5. Is anticipation related to shared experience and knowledge of one another?
  6. Is what we learn that which we learn about each other?
  7. Do patterns of communication stimulated by shared experience reveal what we learn about each other?
  8. Is shared experience related to shared absence?
  9. Is the mechanism whereby shared experience affects patterns of communication essentially one of focusing on what's there, or is it drawing attention to what isn't there?
  10. How might the differences in communication dynamics in relation to the manner of coordination be modelled?

Probably enough questions for now. But the point is that there is a technological way of investigating them which can be reproduced in different contexts. I find that most exciting.

After all, any scientific investigation requires a degree of reproducibility in the experimental conditions. Despite the fact that education is clearly not physics  (it's mechanisms are transitive, as Bhaskar would say), we do identify 'demi-regs' (as Tony Lawson would call them) of 'things that tend to work'. Explaining the 'things that tend to work' in ways where new kinds of coordinations can be produced and tendencies predicted is a very important step to understanding educational processes a bit more.

But at the bottom of it all is the fact that I think one of the reasons why education is in such a mess at the moment is because our theories of education and learning need critiquing and investigating. This is certainly the case with e-learning. We need a better ontology.

Maybe technology can provide a means to working towards a better description.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

I - thou and educational technology

When we say "learners prefer x to y" there is always some kind of reduction of the person, the extent of which depends on the intentions of the individual making the statement. I've just done it... just now! But my intention is to be acutely aware of the kind of reductions that are performed, and the kind of reductions that I might perform in trying to talk about them.

First, let me say that reducing the person is a problem. If it becomes a reduction which gains official acceptance, then it will find its way into policy. Because the reduction is always the product of some kind of idealism, and that the real world and real individuals don't conform to any particular ideal, what we end up with inevitably are degrees of oppression. I've worried particularly about cybernetic reductions in this regard, but in fact most of the dominant learning theories (many of which are essentially cybernetic or mechanistic in nature) also fall into the category of reduction of the person. Essentially, every mechanicised description of learning amounts to a "mechanical metaphysics": the assertion of a mechanistic process to account for what we cannot possibly know. Indeed, the weakness of most of these theories is that, in the main, most of them stop short of trying to account for God (Bateson and Beer are notable exceptions).

I've been thinking about Martin Buber's I-thou-it distinction as a reminder of the dimensions of personhood which are distinct and irreducible to each other. The concept of the irreducible structuring of personhood is not something that has been widely represented in the educational discourse, and certainly not the educational technology discourse. The reason for this is the dominance of a mechanistic constructivism whose totalisations have washed over the rich complexity of the inner lives of learners, teachers and everyone else. And because the desire for learning technology has been tied to vested interests, personal agendas, economic forces, etc, the desire for a digestible explanatory totalisation has been great, as individuals working in the field of e-learning have sought to validate their activities and claims and their technologies. The extent to which they have been successful is an interesting phenomenon, possibly arising from the contested and confused nature of thinking both about education and technology in our post-industrialised world.

But what do I mean by the irreducible dimensions of the personhood? Buber describes 'I' as a focused aspect of being directed towards concrete experience of things ('it') which are distinct and separate from ourselves. "Thou" is an aspect of being which is a boundless awareness of relationships. In mapping this territory, Buber makes no claim for assimilating the "I-it" mode of being with the "I-Thou" mode, although he does claim that the human search for meaning ultimately leads to the spiritual awareness of "I-Thou" and God. But the essential point is in identifying the different kinds of experience.

Comparing this to cybernetic theories of learning, for 'perturbation-response' theories (like Piaget for example), "I-it" is the dominant experience (where 'it' is a perturbation - an experience of disequilibrium which causes adaptation, assimilation and accommodation). The locus of the cause of disequilibrium and its resolution is open to debate. But Piaget clearly is interested in the individual 'experience' of and focus on something that doesn't 'fit': this is "I-it". For radical constructivists like Von Glasersfeld, there is denial about a concrete external 'it', but his account is still "I-it" focused, emphasising the internal construction of external reality; indeed due to his scepticism about any external reality, Von Glasersfeld and other 2nd-order cyberneticians perform a profound "I-it" reduction of experience. Luhmann (and maybe Bateson), whilst coming from the same camp, I think provides a different focus. This is one with more emphasis on the construction of the ego through apprehending the relations of communications. Luhmann comes close to a characterisation of "I-thou" as the dominant mode of experience; 'it' is merely an epiphenomenon of the communication dynamics. With Piaget and Von Glasersfeld, scepticism about the existence of 'it' leads to "I-it" reductionism; with Luhman, scepticism about "I" lead to "I-thou" reductionism. Each loses the richness of the other.

Buber's point is that both are there and concrete. In social life, experience simultaneously hovers or oscillates between them. Spiritual awareness and thing-directedness coexist. (It's also interesting to reflect on this in the light of Freud's Ego-Id-Superego distinction, which are also co-existant and concrete). The scientific problem with this is that the explanatory tendency is to reject the experience of concrete distinctiveness between modes of experience in favour of explanatory totalising mechanisms which account for a reduced range of experience. There is a methodological aspect to this problem: where to begin? With concrete experience, or with an ideal abstraction? In learning technology, it tends to be the latter which the experience is then bent to fit. Then there is a practical explanatory problem which is to find a way of explaining rationally the existence of concrete and distinct aspects of experience.

I have some discomfort in suggesting the following because it is a mechanism, and as such it is ideal. But maybe mechanistic rationality is the best we can do... Terry Deacon has recently explained how concrete form arises through the interaction of presence and absence (see, between the internal mechanisms of an organic form and the substrate within which that form arises. Floridi has similarly described possible ways in which 'levels of abstraction' which are irreducible to each other might arise. Might it be like this with personhood? The absences between people are causal in the emergent distinctiveness of concrete aspects of experience which whilst emergent from a mechanism become irreducible to each other. Accepting this emergence of irreducibility and structuredness in reality may be an important step in thinking about how best to approach the study of those different levels of experience. Moreover, it suggests that the attempt to reduce the concrete layers to a totalising mechanism is futile. What happens is more subtle.

The major development in this approach for educational technology is the focus on absence as a category for investigation. The absences involved in the use of technology are always palpable - when it works, when it doesn't work, what is lost in the medium, what might be gained, etc. The comparison between the individual with a computer talking to others remotely can be compared to the convivial classroom situation. In each case, absences are distinct. There are simple things we can do to begin to get a handle on this. What happens when people are together? What happens when they are remote? There is concrete data (communications, activities, etc) that might be a starting point for differentiation. A mechanism involving absence may then be explored for its capacity to generate differences which relate to the differences that are demonstrable from the data. That would give us a way of getting a handle on the causal role of inferred absences through an analysis of data. This means using data of communication, etc as examples of distinct aspects on experience, and then asking about the emergent mechanisms which might give rise to that distinctness. We can then do a comparison between the differences in the emergent mechanisms and the social and material situation of learning.

Such an approach, in focusing on distinctions and differences between experiences, is distinct from idealised attempts to 'explain learning'. Instead, the focus is on 'explaining difference in experience'. The assertion is that by studying difference, we start to investigate the causes of difference, where absence is a fundamental category in a mechanism that leads to the emergence of irreducible differences both within individuals and between individuals. Determining and articulating the absences becomes the research objective.

In this way, concreteness not idealism is the starting point for investigation; mechanism is the starting point for explanation.

Saturday 9 February 2013

Why Openness Matters: From MOOCs to FlashMobs and Shared Spaces

Whilst I've been quite critical of them, MOOCs are clearly 'happening'. If the learning technologists from 10 years ago could see where we have got to with learning technology (some of them can, but they've got short memories!), they'd probably be quite impressed by the emergence of large-scale open courses - particularly the institutional buy-in they have gained. Where my worries begin is that we lose perspective in the MOOC debate: not just from the anti-MOOC crowd, but from the pro-MOOC crowd. There is a need for us to say "What is this really about?"

In a word (or 5) it is about "access to the education system". Where the anti-MOOC people and the pro-MOOC people disagree is precisely what 'access' and 'education system' really mean. In many ways it feels like a rehash of the many "don't forget the pedagogy!" arguments that surrounded VLEs, Learning Objects, e-Portfolio and Personal Learning Environments. But I don't think we ever sorted out what we meant by pedagogy in that debate - and there are similar fundemental issues surrounding MOOCs which risk getting ignored. In reality there was a tendency to take sides without fully exploring the positions adopted. One way of addressing that is to turn each positive assertion into a question:
  1. access?
  2. education system?
  3. pedagogy?
Regarding access, the education system has been and continues to be a closed system. That is not to say that learning has not been possible outside it (learning cannot be closed). But the education system, with its capability to certify individuals, has been closed through entry requirements, and more recently, fees. MOOCs address this.

The fact that the education system has embraced technology as a way of addressing its own closure is interesting. I have argued previously that Universities are experimenting with ways of leveraging technology to increase their market share through apparent 'openness' (of course that raises another question: apparent openness vs real openness..  but let's park that for now!). In other words, the new 'openness' may be another form of closedness. But if MOOCs are ultimately ineffective, then frankly its just another experiment - and probably one that has more positives than negatives as outcomes. If MOOCs, have massive take-up, lead to slashing the costs of education - if they are hugely successful in doing precisely what they claim to do - then we will have justification for worrying about Universities in the same way we worry about Google. It's important to be careful what we wish for!

But perhaps we should forget the education system and institutions for a moment. Learning is the active thing that goes on, after all; education itself doesn't do anything! The arguments against MOOCs tend to be based on poor learning experiences (I've jumped on this bandwaggon myself - and I'm now awkwardly readjusting my position!). Yes - the learning experiences are mostly poor, and this is reflected by the  few conversions to certification. But what are the alternatives? The traditional university with small group seminars, face-to-face (huge) lectures, out-of-date curricula, etc? Isn't that merely upholding the old-fashioned closedness of the system?

The basic question of education, not only educational technology, need to be asked:

  1. What is learning and teaching that some experiences are better than others?
  2. What can technology do to amplify better experiences? (can they be amplified? How does their quality change when they are?)
In other words, openness is not just about widening access. It is not just about putting stuff on a website. It is about widening access to great learning experiences.

One institutional business model for some (not all) MOOCs conceives of a 'loss leader' tempting students to purchase the deluxe product. Of course, it could have the opposite effect - MOOCs are reputational risks for institutions. Another is simply a super-scale effective education model with slashed costs. I tend to favour the latter because costs are the big concern of learners. But the systemic ecological implications on the 'institution of knowledge and learning' needs to be examined in a way which is not happening at the moment. And we need new theories and tools to do it.

Universities should aim to amplify their best learning experiences as a way of broadening access and participation: they have huge amounts to offer society. This doesn't have to be online. It can be on TV, in cinemas, huge public lectures (this is hardly an innovation - Bergson's lectures in Paris in the early 20th century were sell-out affairs). Flashmobs are a recent and incredibly creative invention: technology can do remarkable things there, I think! Universities should create the most exciting events which bring people together and give them the experience of having their minds opened. Perhaps Universities should examine their role as media companies - or even take a more direct role in political activism. Open education = Open Minds.

Such an effort would entail a honing of the "theatre of the classroom". Convivial spaces that allow them to say with confidence to students "this is the experience you get if you study with us - and it's really great!". The most important element of this experience is, however, social. Why does this openness matter? Because students need to make decisions about what to study, where to study, etc. They need to be able to see the experience they will get to assess the risks of submitting themselves for assessment.

At the moment, the University is largely opaque to students before they choose to go. Yet those students are on the point of making one of the most expensive financial risk transactions of their lives - Without the ability to see the product? to assess the risk? It's the kind of nonsense that we'd hoped went out of fashion with the pre-reformation Catholic Church! MOOCs might be a useful experiment in the right direction. But we should remember this is not the only possible technological world we might live in. Others are possible. And Universities might well expend some effort in exploring them - for the sake of all of us!

Saturday 2 February 2013

Educational Technology and Sociomateriality: An Aristotelian perspective

A friend of mine argued recently that “there’s no such thing as technology; there are only artefacts” I find this position very interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, we should consider what it is we talk about in e-learning if there is “no such thing as technology”. In fact, it challenges us to accept that there are many dimensions of things that interest us: changes in agency of learners and teachers  being one of the fundamental ones. Then we are interested in the technical dimensions of our ability to manipulate the material environment: much like an artist will look for new techniques to manipulate paint, wood or stone (new interoperability standards, new programming languages provide this kind of thing in e-learning). Taking the  position that “there’s no such thing as technology” means that the causal connection between what we do and what we observe happening is re-situated. We cannot say “it’s the technology that does this” because the 'technology' as an entity isn’t there; there's just an artefact. We might then ask ourselves why we would want to say that “the technology does this…” The answer, I’ve often encountered, is because we want to believe that the technology as a 'saleable commodity' has causal power. After all,  many other technological artefacts appear to have causal power.

Much educational technology discourse centres on the impact on agency from the creation of artefacts in the environment. New websites, textbooks, systems for recording attendance, giving feedback, coordinating activities, and other systemic interventions allowing for the seamless joining-up of existing system have material properties - the physicality of the computer, the light from the screen, etc. Their social properties, which may or may not emerge from their materiality include the power relationships which demand interaction with a new system, normative practices, expectations of others or social roles.

But surely, saying “there’s no such thing as technology” is ridiculous?! There are things like cars and telephones and wheels and houses. McLuhan would tell us about the 'extending' power of technologies: cars extend the feet, telephones extend the voice, etc. But is 'extension' merely a particular property of particular technologies? 

I think Aristotelian causal distinctions are useful here. If we are to distinguish between different kinds of technologies as artefacts, our distinctions take the form of examining formal, material and final causes. [See here for a quick guide to Aristotelian causality (] McLuhan's idea of 'extension' is an articulation of a final cause - the purpose of something. McLuhan tends to see technology as teleological - i.e. for a purpose. Not all artefacts are purposeful in this way (for example, a painting). But teleological thinking can cause us problems - after all, purpose for whom?!

Artistotle's distinctions can help us make a deeper analysis of artefacts that we think of as technologies. A car is an artefact with a formal cause (being car-shaped with wheels, an engine and seats), a material cause (paper cars never really caught on!), an efficient cause (you need a car industry, and industrialists to make a car) and a final cause (it extends my feet). But something interesting happens here: the final cause is linked to the efficient cause (the economy); the material cause of the car is dependent on other efficient causes (mining industries, for example); the formal cause is connected to the final cause which influences the efficient cause... and so on. Aristotle's distinctions appear to create dynamic feedback patterns when we look at different artefacts.

If we see a £20 note lying on the road, it will have a particular effect on us. The urge to pick it up will be strong. Is this urge is the result of the presence and proximity of the artefact? Is it the result of the 'affordances' of the £20 note? I wonder if we can do better than "affordance". Picking it up is a transformation of agency in response to a material intervention. Something happens in us which drives us. We can first of all think about the questions which we might ask: “who dropped it? What can I do with it? Could I take it? Will someone else take it?” and so on. In essence, picking it up is a decision. The question is “how is the decision reached?”. These are questions about causality. Can we then make a connection between the dynamics between the causes of an artefact and the decision-making process of people encountering it?

I have recently argued that decisions are reached through what is not thinkable, rather than through what is thinkable. An artefact may create unthinkabilities. It may be that the unthinkabilities are related to the causal properties of the artefact. The artefact of money is interesting because the final cause is normative and related to the efficient cause. That everyone understands this means that everyone has a similar experience in the presence of the artefact of money. Because everyone has a similar experience, so everyone may be drawn to a similar way of acting, and similar decisions will be made. In turn this creates the efficient conditions for the reproduction of money. This would not be the case if we saw an abandoned car, for example. There would be far more differentiation in peoples' reactions.

I wonder if many technological artefacts aspire to the condition of money. And I wonder if the dynamics of self-perpetuation (autopoiesis?) are fundamental in our distinguishing 'technologies' from other artefacts.