Saturday 7 March 2015

Information and Education

Information is the background of education. Formal education systems enlist mechanisms for codifying the knowledge and skills of individuals. The codification takes many forms, from identification of curricula, standards of assessment, learning outcomes, professional competencies and levels of achievement. However, the codification of each is contested. The criteria for making judgments about what statements to make about learning vary from country to country, system to system, and from individual to individual, just as the criteria for judging statements varies from company to company, and from one employer to another. Information about education may be codified, but its influence on decisions about things which matter to people making their way through the world (such as entering employment or educational progression) is at best partial, with many other exogenous factors playing a fundamental role.

This uncertainty has not prevented much effort being expended in attempting to extend the codification of education and learning to such a point that exogenous factors might be ruled out in pursuit of good intentions to produce transparent, rational, predictable, efficient and socially equitable education. Efforts by national governments (particularly in Europe) to codify professional competencies with increasing granularity are one recent example, whilst the harvesting of online behaviour (particularly from “informal learning”) has led to efforts to infer intentions, knowledge and skills automatically from large-scale datasets. On the one hand, the result is an bureaucratisation of education systems as each activity must be assigned a code; on the other hand is a homogenisation of agency and intention which carries threats to individual liberty, privacy, identity and trust.

So what is information? How does it (if, indeed, it is a thing) relate to decision? Can big data analysis achieve what it sets out to achieve? Moreover, given that we now have incredibly powerful technologies for storing, searching and sorting huge amount of data about individual online behaviour, how should we best deploy these technologies for the betterment of education?

To talk of information is to talk of something between us; in effect it is to talk of something “other”: information is a surrogate topic. So we first have to decide what ‘information’ is a surrogate for. One possibility is that information is a surrogate for theorising about agency. It is tempting to think (in an ‘information’ age) of information as ‘stuff’ carried by the technological media which bombards agents, demanding attention, engagement and action. In effect, this is to model the causes of action. Human agents are “nodes” in a causal chain of action. In acting, humans produce more information which causes others to act. This combination of agency and information become the Worldwide Web, the TV, the press where the between-ness in the final analysis is simply signals down a wire. However, biologists use the word ‘information’ to account for codes in the genome, economists use it to characterise knowledge of the market, and physicists are increasingly talking about its role in the universe. They can't all be right, yet the ambiguous surrogate world of Information becomes the stuff of screens and switches - something to be accessed, recorded, played back, absorbed and analysed.

Can there be information without learning? If information is a surrogate topic for theorising agency, then to theorise information is also to theorise learning: signals have to be interpreted, acted on, languages learnt and technologies engaged with. But then, is learning specifically human? Do cells ‘learn’ the DNA code? Does the universe understand the information contained in Hawking radiation? The questions highlight not only the poverty of our thinking about information, but also the poverty of our thinking about education. However, this has not stopped educationalists jumping on the information bandwagon as the “hand-grenade” of the internet effectively blew-up conventional centuries-old thinking about education. It is now not uncommon to find ‘access to information’ mistaken for education; “teaching” described as a kind of ‘information brokerage’; social online engagement mediated by information networks equated with classrooms; and the ‘functional equivalences’ of online learning paraded as a cheap alternative to expensive libraries and academic apprenticeship. The perpetrators more-often-than-not have been Universities themselves: ‘going online’ is seen as a way of reaching wider ‘markets’ for students. Going online becomes an engine for feeding further information about new marketing opportunities for Universities, extracting information about learner and teacher practices, informing managerial decisions for regulating professional behaviour and learner/customer management.

Despite the paucity of its theorising, educational managers and information technologists behave as if they have cracked not only ‘information’, but education too. Driven both by the hubris produced by a growing profitable international market in education, and by  information's analytical and apparently empirical nature, greed on the part of the few have fuelled the development of education on the back of efficient measurement of information. However, in disposing ourselves towards information and measurement, we immediately risk stepping into a functionalist world which is as effective at blinding us to what escapes measurement as it is in persuading us of the truth of what can be measured. A disposition towards measurement already carries us away from the critical and the existential opposition to functionalism.

To critique information is to challenge functionalism. An ancient example from the Greek myths serves to illustrate the questions to be asked. Aegeus, father of Theseus, sent his son on a mission to kill the Minotaur and told him to fly white sails on his return if he was successful. Theseus forgot to change his sails. Aegeus threw himself into the sea at the sight of black sails on his son's boat. To critique information is to ask, Was it the blackness of the sails, Theseus’s thoughtlessness or Aegeus’s hastiness which caused the tragedy? Functionalist accounts of information attribute rather too much to the sails!

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