Tuesday 1 October 2013

A Hierarchy of problems and the problem of 'control' in Universities

Someone who leads a learning technology firm that has specialised in school-based technology asked me the other week how to break into the higher education market. I answered that one of the most important things is to understand institutional politics. Blackboard, for example, send their salespeople to sell to Vice-chancellors. They give the "big-spiel" about tracking students (and staff), about monitoring success rates, student engagement, etc. They know this is the kind of language Vice-chancellors want to hear. They absolutely DON'T want to talk to the IT people, because the IT people will know that all these 'solutions' are just flashes of light on a screen - like any other piece of software, with all their faults and miseries to be imposed on hard-pressed teachers.

That Vice-chancellors are so important in this kind of process tells us something about where things are in Universities, the challenges for technology and the deeper challenges for students and teachers. The marketing strategy of any software company is to solve the problems of the person buying the system. So Blackboard aims to solve the VC's problem. But (despite the fact that Blackboard is meant to be a learning system) the VCs problem is not a learning problem. It is a 'retention' problem, or a 'monitoring' problem - a control problem of one sort or another. So the 'learning' system inevitably becomes sold as a control system because the dominant problem of the person buying it is a control problem.

But where are the learners and teachers? They have different kinds of problems. Typically, both learners and teachers suffer from a 'constraint' problem: the 'right thing to do' often lies outside the range of permissable things that can be done. The permissible range of things that can be done are constrained in order to solve the control problem of managers. This is not to say that there shouldn't be constraints, but that the problems of teachers and learners take second place to the control problem of managers. There is a hierarchy of problems in institutions.

There are deep pathologies of positive feedback that kick-in here. Managerial attempts to solve a control problem produce new constraints on teachers and learners, which in turn can introduce new control problems. If a control system objectifies teachers, and functionalises what they do, it can become a barrier to authentic feedback of the organisational situation on the ground. Taken too far, the only feedback that is possible is the feedback that is capable of being carried by the system itself; all else is lost and authenticity goes out of the window.

Is technology to blame for this? After all, technologies allow for 'control' in the form of a centralisation of power on a large-scale. They encourage autocratic idealisation of the functions and roles of individuals in institutions, instrumentalising practice and introducing constraints in the name of technocratic procedures like 'quality'.

The reality is that this isn't control! Things are never under control in a centralised system. The person at the centre may enjoy their moment of power but this is a symptom of blindness or delusion. A hierarchy of problems that makes one person's problem more important than anybody else's will inevitably collapse for the simple reason that the person at the centre does not possess sufficient capacity to absorb the complexity of the institution and its operating environment. All is attenuated as operations, strategy and identity become confused. Only complexity can absorb complexity - and no individual is complex enough to do the whole thing on their own.

But like Icarus's chariot, technology lets people think that this can work. What is missing in our understanding of technology that we haven't learnt this? Or is it something missing in our understanding of ourselves? Is there a technology that we have yet to see which will not allow us to think like this? I hope so.

Ivan Illich called for 'tools for conviviality' after he called for 'deschooling society'. The deschooling arguments were at once arguments for personal autonomy and convivial action. It may be because we see 'information' as something possessed by an individual, rather than something emergent from a community that we have merely seen 'personal technologies' used in ways which serve to give tool providers greater power. But what are truly convivial personal tools? Maybe there is yet a revolution to come... 

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