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"...

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