Thursday, 7 April 2016

The central question behind the Block chain: What is a transaction? And how does rethinking the transaction affect our understanding of educational technologies?

Block chains are records of transactions. Over the last few weeks as I've been hammering-out a bid for exploring block chain in education, I've frequently encountered the comment, "But education isn't transactional! It's interactive!" I've struggled to engage critics with a deeper consideration of what either "transaction" or "interaction" actually means. The point is that clarity about these words suddenly becomes really important. In reality, nobody knows what an interaction is any more than they do a transaction: I always struggled with the 'interactive' mantra of educational technology discourse from a few years back. It painted the computer as a kind facilitative medium through which actions were taken and the "machine" (either some AI or other kind of adaptive interface, some other person) acted back producing a kind of self-sustaining loop. This wasn't helped by certain socio-material theories which considered technology as a 'actor' without any consideration of how the technology 'actor' is identified.

The fact that people would say "It's interactive" was a way of acknowledging the existence of an "it" and a process which the learner/user gets caught in. Why do we call it an "it"? The reason for asking is that there are many social entities where we do things, things happen in return, and we get a kind of self-sustaining loop. We don't say that institutions are interactive, do we? We say "there is a university", "there is a bank" and so on. What is the "it" of interactivity?

What I'm getting at, apart from the woolly thinking about interactivity, is that the proper topic of interactivity is the question of the identification of social entities. It is a much deeper issue about patterns of human action and the determination of social objects.

In developing the Theory of the Firm, Ronald Coase argued that economics was upside-down. That it concentrated on means and ends, whilst ignoring the social entities through which means and ends were negotiated. There was in economics no questioning about the existence of markets, banks, firms, governments and so on. Coase suggested that social entities were created through the transactions which individuals engaged in. The cost of transactions (e.g. buying and selling) could be reduced through creating an institution to manage them.

Analytically, this means that transactions provide a key to the identity of social entities. With patterns of interaction with online tools available for analysis, this becomes increasingly apparent. Transactions are not just about money. They can be about approval or disapproval and social status. We have academic societies which publish their "transactions" for example. Transactions can also be large or small. A book is a transaction which takes a long time to execute. A hand-written letter takes less time. An online forum post or a blog post less time still.

As a general trend, we are sending more and more transactions of a shorter and shorter size. Part of the reason for this is the role of mobile technology. Although mobile technology is presented to users as a convenience - that it is more ready-to-hand (in Heidegger's terminology), the importance of the mobile revolution is in capturing small transactions: a Facebook like, a retweet, a Whatsapp message, and so on. Wearable, ambient, and IoT technology will decrease the transaction size and increase its frequency even more. The increasing use of Bots in mobile is a technological move to harness more and more transactions from us. When Satya Nadella announced last week:
“It’s not about man versus machines, but man with machines,” (see
He wasn't simply pushing increased effort into the virtual assistants. He was announcing a drive to engage humans in more and more small transactions - data from which Microsoft no doubt can try to sell us more and more stuff with "one-click" purchasing (i.e. very small transactional processing!).No doubt this is the strategy behind their newly announced "Bot Framework": - this appears to be the new mobile strategy for Microsoft now Windows Phone has failed. They may be right.

My guess is that education will not be untouched by this - but that it is not ready for what is coming. It will impact every aspect of formal education. Formal education has the longest transaction times of any social activity we engage in (apart from possibly mortgages). It is the least flexible of all the social activities we engage in. There may be virtue in the long, slow transactions. But right now, this is not where the world is heading and we need to think how education can adapt. 

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