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.

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