Wednesday 29 June 2016

Does the Vine Design? - A contribution to the #EdMedia Conference

I'm going to be talking about design a bit later today in a Symposium on Design Research at #Edmedia. Yesterday I participated in an excellent round-table discussion on social media, where we considered the relationality of social media from a number of difference perspectives, including (most importantly) from the corporate perspective - the transactions which we unwittingly exchange with Twitter and Facebook in participating in their business models as we talk to our friends (of course a Blogger blog is no different). I mentioned Schutz's work on intersubjectivity, and particularly the whole business of the "pure we-relation" (see We need a phenomenology of social media.

Design Research is an emerging paradigm in Information Systems and educational technology research which attempts to integrate theorizing processes into iterative intervention. It seems to me to attempt to provide a theoretical foundation for iterative design methods which are pretty much everywhere these days, but which can easily lose their way, or become subject to a faceless crowd mentality where critical thought and moral direction get left behind. But I'm no expert.

What I wanted to contribute to this discussion was to draw attention to the cybernetic origins of E-learning and to what pioneers like Gordon Pask saw as the fundamental relationship between learning, conversation and design. Pask's work embraced not only the first e-learning systems, but also contributions to architecture and art. Fascinatingly, he was a central figure in Cedric Price's attempts to create a "Fun Palace" - a "university of the streets" in the 1960s. But the common denominator is cybernetics - something which is rarely talked about, poorly understood and often misrepresented.

Cybernetics is about organisation. It is fundamentally concerned with living systems. Education is a living system - so why can't we bring the intellectual resources for studying living systems to the study of education? The cybernetic heritage has been powerfully used in the study of biology and ecology. In the work of people like Eugene Odum in the 1970s, and more recently Robert Ulanowicz, the study of how things grow and develop, how complex organisations of diverse components evolve seems directly relevant to education. And this development and growth looks remarkably similar to the 'design processes' as they are described by Shirley Gregor and others - but they are not as rigid or compartmentalised.

Ulanowicz in his book "A third window: Natural life beyond Newton and Darwin" describes the growth of a vine. Does a vine design?

Ulanowicz uses Shannon information equations to discussion the inter-relationship between the components, making the fundamental distinction between flexibility and rigidity. Fundamentally what occurs is a kind fluctuation of constraint in the vine's developmental process. This is very similar to the kind of fluctuation of constraint which Gordon Pask analysed in the way that learners negotiated the relationship between problems and sub-problems. He diagrammed this in a fascinating way, showing how learners oscillated between considering sub-problems A, B, C, D and in different combinations, AB, BC, CD, etc, or ABC, BCD.... (this is all very similar to Ashby's concept of 'cylindrance' which I wrote about here:

Pask is a bit individualistic here, but in education, the really fascinating thing is the way that a teacher fluctuates constraint on a learner to stimulate growth processes. I think this is design. Teaching is an art in the sense that it is design. And what happens? What happens as they organise activities as they one minute are closely coupled with the student, and then withdraw to give the student space to try things out for themselves? What are the dynamics of organisation there? 

Pask and Ulanowicz and many other cyberneticians have very precise and technical answers to this kind of question. The advantage of engaging with these technical responses is not so much that they are right (although they are powerful), but that they invite us to think about education in a cross-disciplinary way - where we make the connections between human design and technology, education, and biological processes, physical processes and aesthetic processes. So that is the ground for the cybernetic "pitch"...

Friday 24 June 2016

Unravelling Status Functions: Which Speech Acts do you want?

The EU is just a speech act. In Searle's theory of 'Status Functions', he argues that all governments - whether national or transnational - exist because of declarations made by powerful people which are upheld by the 'collective intentionality' of the community which is to be governed. The authority of powerful people to make declarations (what Searle calls 'deontic power') is also determined through speech acts. And on it goes: money, markets, computer software, debt... oh, and austerity.

Revolutions are moments when existing sets of speech act declarations are overturned. Alongside this, the reality of many other related entities is also questioned: currencies or markets for example, or the EU itself. Although some see democracy as a kind of gift from an elite to the people, really it is a manifestation of social reality irrespective of whether societies are 'democratic' or not. It is part of a natural cycle that at various points in history, the people discover their power in maintaining existing speech acts, and seek to overturn them - particularly when they don't work in their favour. The advantage of maintaining an administrative structure around democracy is that explosive change is generally avoided - the stemming of violent explosion is one of the foundations of capitalism. Any attempt to overthrow capitalism has to deal with this. And we have to hope that the explosive change of Brexit doesn't lead to war (another expression of the overturning of speech acts).

Explosions occur when ordinary people get left behind and are coerced to participate in something that doesn't work in their interests. This is basically what has happened with the EU. It governed in the interests of those who were clever enough to cut through its bureaucratic language. Higher Education itself became increasingly focused on providing the 'skills' of bureaucratic language to enable people to swim in the EU techno-bubble. Increasingly 'higher skills' have become skills of compliance with a regime which half the population couldn't fathom. The EU felt it could ignore the other half of the population. It could endorse the cutting back on welfare support which was designed after the war to meet their needs, it could rationalise their workplaces, take their jobs, and in the process hope for a kind of educational utopia where eventually no-one would be left befuddled by EU newspeak, and it could impose its own version of neoliberal economic rationalism which in the end only served big corporations.

But the people left behind eventually realised they did have a voice. And they have now overturned the speech acts of the EU, defying 'experts' whose expertise (more speech acts) has, in most cases, only made things worse.

So what do we do now? Once people see things to be speech acts, and that each has the power to change them, all sorts of things become possible. I don't really think the Leave camp believed they would win (didn't Farage concede earlier in the evening?!). Nobody right now has a plan. Which is an opportunity. Austerity is a speech act. Debt is a speech act. So we can overturn those too.

But so many revolutions fail because they only go so far in overturning the speech acts they don't want, without declaring the things that they do. Think what might be possible if we can get this far: Universal basic income is a speech act. Free education is a speech act. Nobody to worry about having a roof over their heads...  Eliminate global inequality...

The general emotion I have right now is, on the one hand a kind of sobering realisation of really important things happening.... but that gives way to a realisation of what might now be possible to make the world a better place for everyone.

Tuesday 21 June 2016

"Insert cash or pay with card" (more on the EU)

Had enough of being told what to do by machines?
Of course, it's all very rational, sensible, etc...
But we all hate it.
Stupid machines.
Stupid techno-rationalism.
 How am I going to vote in the EU referendum? 
Obviously, since you ask, I've thought about it very carefully...
"I think on balance, we should vote to remain..."
But it's not an endorsement for the status quo
And I want it to be very close
I want people in Brussels to listen.
When I'm in the polling booth
Who's to know what I actually do?
"Insert cash or pay with card"
God I hate all that stuff!
 There's something a bit kinky about voting Leave
It's a kind of transgression
Like drawing a cock on the ballot paper.
But a cross in Leave is better than a cock
Because that momentary thrill...
could upset the whole establishment machine.
I could be tempted to be...
Thrills are so hard to come by under austerity. 
If the polls are terribly wrong, we shouldn't be surprised (again). This vote won't be rational. A rational position is, after all, very difficult. When people are in the polling booth, their behaviour may well be at odds with what they might have told pollsters.

"Insert cash or pay with card"
God I hate that! Now which box shall I tick? Do I fancy a thrill?
The political problem we have is that our politicians have a poor understanding of the human condition. That is a failing in their own education. They were schooled into a rationalistic, technocratic worldview which has taught them to become professional politicians. They may be about to learn that this view of the world is a myth. 
The lukewarm 'yes' is the most sensible outcome. But there will be nothing sensible that emerges from this. I think (fear?) NO will win by a bigger margin than the polls suggest. I sort of hope I'm wrong. But if I'm not, then everyone needs cool heads and open hearts.

Monday 20 June 2016

Some notes of the EU referendum: Why education matters

The EU referendum campaign has been dominated by fear on both sides: on the right, fear of immigration, fear for jobs, the economy, pensions, house prices, etc; on the left, fear of political disempowerment, unfettered globalisation, corporate domination and TTIP. Both constituencies have their personal reasons to be fearful - reasons which have an underlying root in austerity and cruel managerialism which dominates our lives. The EU is an institution associated with both austerity and managerialism - most notably in the shameful treatment of Greece. The left also worry about war, as do the remain camp. War is certainly something to be feared, and the world is clearly in a very bad way at the moment.

I fear that the EU in its current constitution will lead us to war in the medium term. I fear that Brexit will accelerate the process, with the casualties being not in the UK (immediately), but in some far-flung corner of Europe where lunatics take a British exit as permission to kill each other, much in the way that the man who killed Jo Cox assumed "permission" for his action by the tone of the debate.

So, if we want to avoid catastrophe, no change in the EU is not an option. It has left ordinary working people behind. It has implemented a kind of "educational apartheid": those who cannot articulate their feelings within the frame of EU bureaucracy our left powerless. They will fight eventually - unless we give them a proper voice. Much of today's terrorism is, I suspect, a kind of class war: it will get worse. But to change the EU will not be easy. It will require direct action, disruption, marches on Brussels and so on.

At the heart of the Brexit position - both on the right and the left - is anger and a desire to disrupt. Alongside fear, there is hate.

The only way forwards is a more open-hearted Europe. That is a Europe of forgiveness and love. Fundamentally, that means an end to the barriers that are created by austerity. It means an end to inequality between nations outside the EU and within it.  It means an end to gross inequality within the EU. It means an end to the persecution of unions, and the redressing of their power to protect working people. We must fight with love - and that is the hardest thing.

We need a new form of peaceful resistance and civil disobedience. We are close to war because peoples' hearts are closed. We must find ways of opening them again. There is only one thing that can do this. It is education.

The only thing that produces educational apartheid is education itself. Our opportunities to learn from each other are abundant, not scarce. If we can embrace our situation as an opportunity to learn, we may have a chance. If we allow education to erect yet more expensive barriers, more discrimination between those who have certificates and complex vocabularies and those who don't, we will be in trouble.

In the end, Jeremy Corbyn's lukewarm support for remain struck the right tone, I think. A lukewarm 'yes' will be the best result. It's not an endorsement. And frankly, the Tories are completely screwed - but they shouldn't have done this in the first place. The EU technocrats will be very foolish and irresponsible not to listen to the other side. They must end austerity and curb corporate power. 

Plagiarism and Constraint

"Submitting to Turnitin" has become part of the dull routine of education. For many students, submitting to Turnitin and getting a clean bill of health with regard to plagiarism detection has assumed a status of achievement independent of any intellectual effort in the work itself. It's an interesting example of how technology applies constraints on practice and transforms them. Plagiarism itself has become a technical rather than an intellectual failure. The process of writing and marking assignments has become systematised within the bounds of what can be handled by the technology. The result is a loss of variety, and with it an increasing sense of alienation from academic work which, we should worry, will feed the temptation to cheat the system rather than encourage intellectual engagement with topics which might risk "breaking the technocratic rules".

I've become interested in my own reaction to seeing plagiarised work. I, like many other teachers, find it a dispiriting experience. Why?

The problem is in a mismatch of expectations. As an academic, my expectations of engaging with an academic topic form a horizon of possibilities which are constrained by my knowledge of the discourse. When I encounter a piece of plagiarised work, I realise that the constraints bearing upon the student have nothing to do with intellectual engagement with the topic. They have everything to do with the constraints of the education system the student is caught in. We criminalise plagiarists. But really they are victims of the horrible alienated practices that education has turned into. The dispiriting feeling is a recognition of the difference in types of constraints operating between myself and the student.

It's rather like when having fallen in love with somebody, one gradually realises that the world of the other person - the constraints they operate within - is irreconcilably opposed to my own world. In love we walk away. In education, we are more determined to find a way through it. Except that the education system itself gets in the way. The essential step is to discover and express the constraints which unite everyone. This is the conversation that can happen where one gets to the heart of the matter.

I'm thinking about how the levels of unfolding constraint which I talked about in my previous post might be useful in this situation. There is a need to coordinate the combination of constraints and distinction-making, and to know how one might move from one aspect of constraint to another. The teacher needs a "constraint map" which may be not dissimilar from the map presented by Krippendorff. It is identifying the constraints in the teacher-learner intersubjective situation that movement from identification of a common constraint can gradually lead to the asking of questions, the gradual introduction of confusion and the supported identification of new categories and further questions. This is intellectual engagement. 

Friday 17 June 2016

Unfolding the Complexity of Entanglements in Education

We often refer to education as being 'complex' without analysing exactly how it is complex. There is a tendency to jump onto the theme of 'complexity' almost as an excuse for not looking deeper - where sociological linguistic sophistication overrides analytical exploration. I think the recent trend for sociomaterial views on educational technology are particularly guilty of this: "it's all entangled, and any attempt to explore the entanglements in analytical detail risks reductionism". Well... yes - to a point, and yes, there is a high degree of interdependence of 'variables' in education, but there are dynamics, and it is possible to have a constructive discussion in exploring how those dynamics work.

The study of complex interactions between variables was something which was a key issue in Ashby's later work, and which was subsequently developed by Klir and Krippendorff. The lattice diagram on the right is a representation of the ways in which the complex ('entangled') interactions between four variables may be decomposed in stages into different relations between distinct domains of interaction. So at the top, there is a single domain of interaction and four variables (messy): this might be written as ABCD. This can be decomposed into four domains of interaction with three variables (coloured red): ABC:BCD:ABD:CDA. These can decompose further into three domains of interaction, two of which have three variables (red), and one (green) which has 2 variables. And so on. At the bottom we end up with four separate domains (blue), A:B:C:D each with a single variable. We have reductionism at this level. 
Ashby called this 'constraint analysis', or 'cylindrance'. From top to bottom in the diagram, there are increasing levels of constraint that are applied. The single variable situation at the bottom, A:B:C:D is highly ordered, but a lot of the complexity in the system in stages before this has been lost. Entropy (uncertainty) here is low, and consequently, constraint is high. Another way of looking at it is to say that there is order but there is no flexibility. 

The top situation ABCD has high entropy - it's a messy situation from which no clear distinctions can be drawn. However, the messy situation is adaptable in a way that the bottom of the diagram is not. I think the distinction between the top and the bottom of the diagram is very similar to Stafford Beer's VSM where System 3 dictates operations with little input from System 4 (A:B:C:D) or when System 4 flies off into fantasies about future scenarios and possibilities, but operational management is lost (ABCD). Ulanowicz has a similar situation in his ecological diagrams. The bottom would be described by Bateson as "Rigour without imagination" = 'paralytic death', whilst the top is "Imagination without rigour" = 'madness'!

The interesting thing in all this is that distinctions have to be agreed. A, B, C and D are constructed. This, to me, is where this diagram really helps. When faced with an unknown situation, we initially cannot make distinctions: ABCD. Discursively, there will be the exploration of possibilities: ABC: BCD:ABD:ACD. What happens between us as each of us explores these different constraints? Is there a process of locating where we might be in the diagram? I suspect it's something like this.

To locate oneself in this diagram is to become aware of the constraints that one is subject to, and to identify the constraints which bear upon others. For example, as someone who tends to be allergic to positivist psychology, I tend to see the psychologist's distinctions as being closer to A:B:C:D, (for example, the distinctions between senses) where I might think more in terms of ABC:CDA:BCD... I will identify the constraint operating on the psychologist as some kind of functionalist epistemology which I will feel is mistaken. Different constraints produce more than different epistemologies - it produces different politics (I find most Tories A:B:C:D, whereas the Left tend to be ABC:CDA...)

What about in teaching and learning? Teachers have to identify the constraints bearing upon a learner. Essentially they ask "where's the blockage?" The confused learner will not be able to make distinctions: ABCD. The learner who is able to perform successfully in exams will be (at some level) at A:B:C:D. But education is not simply to produce A:B:C:D because that gives the learner no flexibility. It is to integrate the production of A:B:C:D as part of a repertoire where they maintain flexibility and balance - even to the point of being able to dissaggregate, recombine and critique A:B:C:D back into AB:AC:DA... etc - the point where certainties become questions once more. That presents another way of looking at the diagram: to move top to bottom is to work towards certainty; to go from bottom to top is to ask questions. 

Very often teaching is concerned with breaking down established certainties in the learner and getting them to unpick them. So we often find ourselves as teachers starting at A:B:C:D and moving towards ABCD. In order to do this successfully, a diagnostic process has to identify the constraints bearing upon the learner. But equally importantly, the teacher has to have a map of those constraints so that they can navigate a path of confusion, re-establishment of new distinctions, and so on. 

I've got to think more about this. It is (in a way) the detail of Pask's conversation theory - except that Pask tended regard the teaching process as one where distinctions were agreed, rather than constraints being coordinated. There is a fundamental question as to whether education begins at the top and moves down (which would produce Von Foerster's 'trivial machine'), or whether it begins at the bottom and moves up, to settle oscillating in the middle somewhere. The latter is a much more emotional  (and for me, a more realistic) process.

Saturday 11 June 2016

#Blockchain in Education Summit Madrid - Some thoughts

On Monday I'm participating in a mini-summit on Blockchain and other emerging technologies in education involving the Universities of Liverpool, Antwerp, Hamburg and Madrid (who are kindly hosting us) as well as CETIS and Gameware Europe. The meeting arose from a rather hurriedly assembled H2020 bid which centred on Blockchain and education, alongside technologies which are concerned with transactions,  including Comparative Judgement (see and, games and analytics (from the perspective of the RAGE project:, and the emerging importance of Bots (see and

I've always believed there is great merit in submitting to the stresses of writing proposals (and EU proposals are horrendous!) because they concentrate thinking on important developments in technology and education at a moment in time. In my experience, the projects that result can sometimes be disappointing because they get mired in bureaucracy and fear about compliance with Commission requirements (who tend to wave big sticks over projects in ways that are sometimes counter-productive). I wrote about this here: But the best bits of projects are always the free exchange of ideas among academics and business partners looking at important questions from different angles. Even if our bid isn't successful, using a bid as an excuse for a summit meeting is a way of making this exchange of ideas happen.

What's important about our proposal? Whilst writing it, I had many arguments about technology and education. Universities currently behave as if they've 'sussed technology': they have VLEs, they have e-Portfolio, they have MOOCs, class response, etc. As far as Universities are concerned, technology has been 'done'. Partly what this means is that the technology has been successfully integrated in reinforcing the way that institutions have always organised education. We've been here before (1993 is the classic date - "we've got DTP, WYSIWYG, Multimedia, etc, what more could you want"). Even the TLTP funding programmes of 1996 were still aiming at the production of Multimedia CD-ROMS, ignoring the internet completely! Every time we see "it's all been done", technological developments blind-side institutions with developments that fundamentally change their world-view.

Blockchain appears to be important. The UK chief scientist seemed to think so in January when this report was released: But in engaging with the central argument I found myself involved in a debate with David Kernohan  who wrote this:, Audrey Watters who produced this and  others. The argument centres around the extent to which the new technology was an escalation of predatory commercial forces in education, or to what extent it might be emancipatory (Watters and Kernohan are suspicious - it's interesting to see Educational Technology scepticism become significant!) Then there was the question as to what extent education was transactional (Blockchain is all about 'transactions') - this is a much more complicated question.

There are transactions in education: "I've done my assignment - you give me a mark; I've completed the course, you give me a certificate". What we actually do is process all of these transactions in batch: education still deals with cohorts, and technologies have been deployed to meet individual needs through teaching cohorts. The H2020 ICT22 EU call (see talked about more flexible and personal ways of delivering education. They say:
"the current environment limits development to silo products, creates barriers to technological and market innovation and cross border adoption of new learning technologies."

At the heart of the problem is the way that the institution positions itself as the guarantor of its transactions. Blockchains seem to be able to create a data-driven system of trust that bypasses institutional authority. Whether one wants to uphold the existence of institutions (which I think we should) or find ways of re-organising education in new ways and recongfigure institutions (which I also think we should) this new technology needs investigating. Which is why the questions surrounding our proposal are important.

There are (at least) two areas which need to be unpicked here. First of all, Blockchain technology hasn't come from nowhere. It is fundamentally a particular kind of distributed database, and there have been radically changes to database technology over the last 10 years which have upset the dominance of 'traditional' relational databases. Today, we might reach for a non-relational tool like Mongo ( or Neo4J ( sooner that we might reach for a relational database. Data and its storage is fundamental to the systems that we create. If we change the way data is stored and queried, then we change the things that we do and the way that we organise ourselves. Blockchain is fundamentally an immutable, replicated database. It's immutability has implications for trust and institutions.

The other critical issue concerns transactions. The rise of mobile, Bots, Virtual Reality, gaming and so on all equate to an increase in the number of transactions between a user and a service provider. Service providers harvest data from transactions, and their continued existence is dependent on maintaining and increasing the number of transactions that an increasing number of users have with them. Everything that we do through our phones is (I think) a transaction - even if we are not consciously aware of it. Bots are designed to engage us in conversations that we would not otherwise have had; VR captures every head (and maybe every eyeball) movement; games engage us in actions in environments which are configured to continue our making of actions. What we consider to be personalisation is really a transactional relation.

So, with fundamental changes to databases, fundamental issues arising from the ways we engage with technology, what does this all mean for education? That's what I'm hoping to dig into in this meeting...