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 ( 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!

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