Monday 18 April 2016

The PLE and the Institution of Technology

Personal tools for learning are everywhere. We have mobile phones, tablets, and many of us use social media to keep abreast of and contribute to domains of knowledge which interest us. Institutional champions of social software and personal technology continue to encourage greater integration between personal tools and formal learning (sometimes under the banner of the ‘Personal Learning Environment’), or to encourage greater ‘literacy’ about technology, but the precise nature of this advocacy is unclear: it is clearly not that learners do not use the internet, smart phones or social software; it is rather that there is a gap in the purpose and nature of the interactions and expectations which occur between what is recognised as formal learning and what occurs informally. Part of this gap concerns the nature of the transactions that occur between learners and institutions, and between learners and technology corporations. In formal education the transaction typically concerns the completing assignments in exchange for grades from a tutor, and a certificate at the end of a course. With personal tools and social media, the learner consciously participates in transactions with friends and others, whilst (perhaps less consciously) engaging in a transaction with the social media corporations who provide the means of communication and who, in return, target advertising. Both educational establishments and technology corporations are institutions, and with both there is a pattern of transactional engagement.

The relationship between the Personal Learning Environment and institutions is poorly inspected: rhetoric which overstated the case for de-institutionalising educational technology took a simplistic view of both institutions and technology. Technology was seen as a counter-institutional force in education which could overcome barriers to learning created by rigid institutions. Originally conceived as a critique of the explosion of technology in formal education, the PLE argued that many institutional learning technologies became barriers to learning rather than enablers: each new tool provided new interfaces, often new passwords, new functionality and so on, and in order to proceed with their learning, learners had to negotiate increasing technological complexity. The argument was to shift the locus of control of technology towards the learner: wouldn’t it be better if different services from different sources (for example, communications services from different providers) could be integrated by learners, and the barriers of different interfaces addressed by having standard approaches for integrating and managing services? Students should be able to bring their own tools to their learning. Over the years, many aspects of this technological argument have been vindicated by technical developments. Mobile platforms now feature service integration: messaging tools, calendaring tools, media services and other facilities are today on most mobile platforms provider-neutral. Moreover, the adding of new services has, in the way that was reflected in PLE prototype tools like PLEX, become a standardised and easy process – often involving little more than installing an App. Appstores themselves have simplified the processes of coordinating and increasing the number of services individuals can coordinate. And perhaps most importantly, educational institutions have made their technologies available as Apps which can be more easily coordinated with other social media tools. The arguments about standardised technological coordination have largely been seen to be correct.

Before 2005 and the social software explosion, the argument that social technology was counter-institutional was clearer than it appears today. Experiments in peer-to-peer learning technologies like Colloquia (a server-less VLE) certainly provided opportunities for learners to take control of their technologies, allowing them to self-organise by creating their own courses, establish private groups and coordinate their own tools either with or without a teacher. However, with the advent of centralised social media which exploited Service-Oriented architectures to drive technological flexibility, the powerful affordances of these technologies gained mass following and approval by promoters of the PLE. Where peer-to-peer technologies like Colloquia had no owner, Facebook and Twitter were corporations. This meant that the distinction between a counter-institutional technology and the institutional rigidity of universities became a murkier battle where distinctions were harder to draw.

For this reason, the question about institutions is at the heart of the PLE where once there was a question about technology. Here there are two aspects to the question. On the one hand, there is a question about the institution of education - how it operates, and what it achieves. On the other hand, there is now a question about the institution of technology and the way that transactions are managed between learners and social media corporations. What is the relation between a person and the various institutions with which they engage as they move through the world? Institutions dominate life: the institution of education, the institution of health, the institution of the family, the state, public services, the media and so on. Each of these makes demands on learners – from simple transactions for the payment of services, to more complex transactions to uphold trust and commitments. Technologies mediates these transactions, and technologies themselves are controlled by institutions. So a clearer definition of an institution, and particularly a clearer understanding of the institution of technology is required.

Institutions and the PLE

Our principal focus is the identification of the institution through the study of transactions that individuals have with them. The philosophy of institutions has a long history, but the institution of technology is relatively new. It would not have occurred to Aristotle to consider those aspects of ‘techne’ as institutional in the way that he regarded the institutions of state. Among more recent perspectives, the view that institutions are human constructs is common: institutions exist through their continual reproduction and transformation by humans; if, as Bhaskar tells us, humans cease to exist, then institutions cease to exist: they comprise what he calls the “transitive domain of reality”. Yet this point is complex: Bhaskar argues for the continued existence of the Sun and the stars in the event of human annihilation – aspects of what he calls the “intransitive domain of reality”. Upholding the reality of his "intransitive" domain, Bhaskar upholds a separation between institutions and humans, between social structure and human agency. This separation is controversial. Giddens also maintains a distinction between structure and agency, but maintains that institutions do not have a separate existence beyond human minds: institutions are constructed in discourse. Searle more recent social ontology has developed a similar position, arguing that institutions and other social phenomena exist by virtue of ‘declarations’ of ‘status’ and ‘function’ by powerful actors in society, and a broad acknowledgement of ‘collective intentionality’ which upholds it. Both Giddens and Searle adhere to what Archer calls ‘ellisionist’ philosophy in conflating mind with social structure, a more extreme example of which is contained in the sociomaterial philosophy of Latour, Barad or Orlikowski. Here the quantum theoretical notion of ‘entanglement’ is used to articulate the difficulties in separating mind from nature, and in sociomaterial applications to education, technology from learning.

Whether institutions are separable from minds or not, they clearly have important effects. Institutions declare laws, provide healthcare, employ people, grant degrees, make products and provide services. To consider the personal organisation of learners who revolve around institutions without inspecting the nature of institutions themselves is to ignore half the story. To criticise ignorance of institutions in favour of the pursuit of focus on the ends of institutional engagement (learning), is to parallel similar criticism of ignorance of the the institution of firms and markets in economics. Coase, for example, believed that institutions were overlooked in economic analysis which focused on means and ends. In Coase’s economic theory, the institution was constituted through the transactions that individuals engage through it: crucially, the ‘firm’ only existed because the transaction cost of dealing directly with a market was too high. Again, similar arguments can be made for the institution of education, and the capability of independent teachers to obtain an income outside the institutions walls. More recently, work under the banner of “New Institutionalism”, the nature of the transactions within the institution has been studied more closely. DiMaggio and Powell have identified those processes whereby the management of institutions become similar: for example, the ways in which the management of a University becomes similar to the management of a technology company (and thus it is not surprising to see Martin Bean take the helm of the Open University). In terms of examining the content of transactions between institutions, Etkowitz and Leydesdorff’s Triple Helix presents measurable techniques based in Shannon’s Information Theory whereby the integration between discursive transactions can provide a metric of levels of innovation.

In the PLE, the learner engages in many transactions with many different kinds of institution. Technology has transformed this process of transaction management to the point that most transactions are mediated by technology. Whilst technological barriers to managing transactions have been alleviated, the nature of the management of transactions by learners has not been considered. Yet the starting point for thinking about transactions is to consider that both learners and institutions must remain viable: that the processes of reproduction and transformation which learners (and everyone else) engages in with institutions, the choices that learners and institutions make in their transactions, will be determined by ways of maintaining their viability within a complex environment. The modelling of viability of the learner played a role in the articulation of a broader argument about the relationship between the person, institutions and technology in the PLE (Johnson and Liber, 2008) using a model of the ‘person as a viable system’ based on Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model.   

Revisiting the Learner as a Viable System

The Viable System Model is a cybernetic model of the regulating mechanisms of living systems, whether they are individual organisms or collectives like bee-hives or businesses. Drawing on analogies with the human body, and on the work of cyberneticians such as Ross Ashby whose ‘Design for a Brain’ postulated the need for multiple-level regulatory mechanisms in living things, and McCulloch’s pioneering work on neural networks and heterarchical organisation, the VSM draws together a number of streams of thought into a deceptively simple model which Beer used primarily as a discursive tool within business organisations to help optimise business organisation. Beer’s definition of cybernetics more generally was that it was the “art and science of effective organisation”.

As a recursive model, the VSM is fractal in nature: each viable system comprises viable systems, and each viable system is a component in a larger viable system. Fundamentally, each viable system has to survive in its environment, where survival means that the complexity of the environment must either be absorbed by the system, or that the system can adapt to absorb new complexities. The process of absorbing complexity is a process of coordinating operations within the environment: most basically, eating, seeking food, avoiding predators; for learners, this list can be appended with ‘getting assignments in’, not running out of money, returning library books, socialising, career planning, and so on. This coordination requires a metasystem which has oversight of the basic operations, and which can provision resources so that the individual operations work effectively. Within the metasystem, there are specific functions. Operations have to be coordinated in such a way that they do not conflict with each other – in education, the timetable does this; operations have to be adequately resourced and directed – in education, ensuring access to adequate information is essential; the effectiveness of the coordination needs to be checked – getting feedback on performance is essential if learners are to know how they are progressing; potential threats in the environment need to be scanned and processes of adaptation or appropriate response coordinated – in education, the changing job market may require new kinds of activities; and the conflicting balance between the disruption of adaptation and the ongoing requirement for operational management has to be monitored – learners have to establish an identity which gives them sufficient flexibility to adapt to different situations, but which ensures that effective organisation of fundamental operations is maintained.

Whilst the VSM is a powerful metaphor, its utilisation requires some care. Beer makes no claim for the ontological existence of his regulating systems: there is no real System 2 or 3 - the VSM is a tool to think with. Related to this is the fact that the regulating systems are conceived as constructs emerging from discourse. Beer illustrates the differences between the regulating levels with allusions to typical comments individuals in different roles make in organisations: “System 4 is where they spend the money we make in System 3!” – illustrating the typical tension between Research and Development activities (System 4) and operational management (system 3). In other words, the regulating levels represent different communities of people in an organisation with different sets of expectations. Identifying a particular function as System 3 or System 4 is to articulate a particular expectation. Moreover, different sets of expectations are established in constradistinction to one another. Once again, the statement that “System 4 is where they spend the money we make in System 3” is a distinguishing of System 4 as something “other” to the expectations of System 3.

In Johnson and Liber’s paper on the PLE, the regulating systems of the VSM were presented as relating to the different activities of learning: System 2’s ‘anti-oscilation’ was the timetable, System 3’s operational management concerned the things that needed to be managed, System 4’s activities concerned looking at future career and Personal Development Planning, and System 5 concerned deeper questions about ‘what if…?’

The narrative of the VSM’s regulating levels is characterised by a particular kind of language which codifies different expectations. Beer’s identification of regulating mechanisms is a process of capturing these levels of codification. He captured some of these everyday utterances about organisation in his book “The Heart of Enterprise”, which between the theoretical chapters on the VSM, he includes a section “Later at the bar…” where a group of imaginary participants at a conference presentation discuss the theory of what they’ve been told. Statements relating to the different regulating mechanisms fall into different categories: “We have to make sure that everyone does this”, “we need to think about how we should adapt”.  Each statement can be thought of as a speech act or a transaction in the course of managing both personal viability and the viability of the organisation. From the individual’s perspective, the demand is to make utterances which contribute to a situation in their environment which they can survive better, and help with the process of being able to manage and coordinate the complexity of all the other things they have to manage. Many of these transactions are hidden, and yet the form of utterances reveals something of the nature of constraint which bears upon the individual as they engage with their environment. For example, if utterances are one-dimensional with little variation irrespective of the conditions, then some aspect of constraint is bearing upon them that causes this to occur; if utterances are varied and well-targeted, then an individual is likely to be operating with greater freedom to think.

Learning, Viability and Constraint

The advantage of discussing viability rather than learning is that viability is relational: a learner is viable in relation to an environment. Viable means that the way the learner organises themselves balances the complexities of the environment they are in – either through careful selection of those aspects of information which they know they have to concern themselves with (what Beer calls attenuation), or through expanding their capacity to organise themselves in richer ways through technologies (amplification). A further advantage of viability is that online discourse provides clues as to how individuals organise themselves and the constraints within which they operate. Any discussion about learning, by contrast, remains metaphysical speculation – and its reification (which has been a characteristic of some discussion about the PLE) can be a recipe for dogmatic ideology rather than intellectual inquiry.
A technical way of examining viability and the nature of amplification and attenuation is to see it as autonomous self-organisation within constraints. Constraint is the flip-side of variety: the behaviours of viable systems adopt patterns – repetitions, common tricks and habits – in response to constraints. The greater the constraint, the more predictable the behaviour; the less constraint, the more erratic the behaviour. Each human being operates within multiple constraints that may be identified individually, but whose net result is not reducible to the action of any single one. We are constrained by bodies, emotions, the emergent effects of childhood attachments, economic conditions, social class, educational opportunity, jobs, family, transport, nutrition, access to healthcare, and so on. Educational processes manipulate constraints. Whether it is the fear of a five-year-old child in ascending a climbing frame, or the confidence to speak a foreign language or play a musical instrument, what once constrained behaviour within a particular range is overcome and behaviour acquires a broader range of possibilities.

The cybernetic concept of constraint has a more technical representation within Shannon’s Information Theory. The variety of learner behaviour can be considered in terms of the average surprisingness of different behaviours at any point in time. The inverse of average surprisingness is called ‘redundancy’ or ‘constraint’. Shannon’s information theory provides two equations which are powerful in describing this. On the one hand, the average surprisingness of behaviour, identified by Shannon as ‘H’, is:

In other words, the sum of the log of probabilities of each event (i.e. each probability multiplied by each other) weighted by the number of each type of event. (The minus sign results from the fact that probabilities are fractions, and therefore negative logarithms)

As the inverse of this relation, the constraint, or redundancy (R) bearing upon the pattern of n behaviours is 1 – H. H, however, is a scalar value potentially greater than 1 which needs to be expressed as a value between 0 and 1. To do this, it is divided by a notional value for the maximum possible surprise within the system, or Hmax:

These equations provide two important aspects on learning which resonate with the Viable System Model. On the one hand, learning can occur through increased self-organisation. In other words, the observed surprisingness of learned behaviour may decrease to the point where behaviour is reliable and predictable. H tends to 0 and constraint is 1. Such an increase in self-organisation might arise through continued practice and mastery of skills such as the mastery of musical performance, or mastery of language skills, for example.

Equally, however, something may occur within either the learner or the environment which increases the possible maximum surprisingness of events within an environment. This may be a new technology, a performance-enhancing drug, or some acquired expansion of capability. Under such conditions, constraints will also be increased as new possibilities are reckoned with and there is greater self-organisation.

These information theoretic notions of learning are not speculations about metaphysical processes. They are instead statements about the nature of self-organisation within a complex environment. Having developed this theoretical apparatus, we can turn to a concrete example of learners having to coordinate their behaviour across different environments. On an online Continuing Professional Development course, the variation in transactions is reflected in different kinds of speech act that learners make in different circumstances. We can speculate on the relationship between the variety of speech acts in online transactions and the maintenance of individual viability for learners on the course. Fundamentally, it is possible to consider ways in which the constraints learners operate within are made apparent through discourse, and then to consider the ways learners find of overcoming their constraints. 

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