Thursday 29 December 2016

Towards a non-binary educational logic

Logic is a powerful subject: to reason differently about the world is to change it. And perhaps to reason differently about education as a way of changing it is a start to reason differently about the world. Our reasoning is fundamentally binary: we inhabit the world of the "excluded middle", where something cannot be and not be at the same time. One of the great confusions of our time is trying to reconcile the habits of binary thinking with scientific knowledge and practice which increasingly challenges it. It's not just quantum physics where we are getting used to the idea of things being and not-being at the same time; politics is not longer left or right (if it ever was!); gender and sexuality is increasingly seen as non-binary; information analysis articulates contingency and mathematics itself embraces forms of expression such as category theory which embraces multiplicity in place of binary division. An important element in this is our approach to counting. What would our idea of economy look like if we counted differently? We've made our world fit our logic. Maybe it's time we made our logic fit our world.

In the world of education, we have conversations. The most important thing about an educational conversation is that it is sustainable, that it grows, and that through its continued development, the capacity for creative utterances increases amongst the participants. Our conception of knowledge and concepts themselves are embedded in this fundamental idea of conversation. And attempts to theorise conversation and discourse have become the cornerstone of theoretical development in educational technology. However, these theoretical developments (Gordon Pask and Niklas Luhmann are the most dominant theorists, Siemens and Downes's connectivism (I originally said 'constructionism' by mistake - but it is, isn't it?!) is a sub-domain of these basic ideas) embraced a logical ideal which was binary.  Essentially concepts were treated as objects articulated by utterances, and these objects could be compared with one another (your concept of an elephant vs mine - are they the same, yes or no?).

For Pask, concepts themselves are a manifestation of stabilities in the discourse - concepts emerged through the dynamics of communication. It's all very computational. The problem with this view is that emotions got left out of the picture. But any teacher knows the importance of emotion in teaching and learning. The problem is that we don't have a way of embracing it in our logical ideas of education.

We have to step back from all of this to get to a different kind of logic of education. The first step is one of humility: that whatever we think education, or an educational conversation might be, there is a domain which is outside it. Any theory, and any logic draws a boundary around education. The trick is to stay focused on the boundary, not the thing inside it.

Any boundary invokes distinctions within it. Conversations involve words - concepts, utterances, and so on. Any concept also has a boundary. Any boundary has a boundary too. What emerges are recursive nested structures which might be expressed as a string:

String P: (((((A)B)C)D)E)
Different people have different boundaries. Emotion is an indicator of a boundary. Teaching is a process of discovering and manipulating boundaries - in other words, changing the way people feel about things. A learner who is at first unknown, carries with them a set of concepts and boundaries about the world. They might be:

String Q: ((((W)X)Y)Z)V
Some of these boundaries will be deeply felt. But we can start to become more abstract. Let's talk about these two strings. What does P know about Q? How might "coming to know" be characterised as transformations in the relationship between P and Q?

Perhaps one way of characterising this is to imagine a process of gradually rewriting the strings P and Q so that they become more similar. The rules for rewriting the strings arise from the relationship between the two strings, which might be thought of as the emotional relationship between two people. So, for example, if P is (((((A)B)C)D)E) and P sees Q initially to be  ((W)V), then P might be rewritten (((((V)A)B)E). Lets say Q sees P initially as ((A)B). If  Q then sees P as ((V)E), V is understood as something which a recognised common constraint between them. P might say to Q, "it's cold here, isn't it!"

P has learnt one of Q's constraints. P's rewriting continues like this to illuminate the structure of constraint in Q. As the structure of constraint is discovered by P, so P can reveal their own constraints (their conceptual knowledge) in a structure consistent with Q's constraints.

The principal technique of teaching - and the principal objective of the string rewriting process - is to produce multiple descriptions of constraints. In this way, a string, ((V)E) can become ((((V)Z)Y)E or further, ((((((V)Z)A)B)Y)E... and so on. Each description can be broken down into multiple distinctions, and those distinctions related to other distinctions. The clues for the rewriting come from the distinctions made about the structure of Q's constraints.

This is rather sketchy, but the point is that it is not a matter of "does the student know concept A or B?" (binary), but rather, "concepts A and B are part of the constraints of the teacher; these concepts are learnt when the teacher discovers the structure of constraint in the learner and articulates multiple descriptions of A and B which reveal the teacher's constraints in a way that the learner can understand". Distinctions are always transcended, with the production of further descriptions. In the end, there is only the continual production of descriptions.

I think this logic demands a radically different approach to educational technology. This gives me hope that we might be able to do something really powerful with our technologies in education, rather than simply presenting content or exchanging text messages.

Wednesday 21 December 2016

Personal Technologies Reconsidered - from Toothbrushes to Twitter

Audrey Watters has recently asked some deep questions about "personalisation" and the companies making claims for it (see in their online learning tools. Audrey highlights the marketing-speak of "personalisation", and her worries concern issues of privacy, exploitation of learners and the technocratic corruption of education. The outrage of "hands-off our data!" hangs in the background.

Companies claim their tools to be personalised. For the individual, the personal-ness of tools is not something to be shouted about usually. I don't boast about the 'personal-ness' of my toothbrush - to share what is personal to us is to make a gesture of openness and trust in others (even toothbrushes - and when it comes to them, it is a very meaningful and rare gesture of love!). It's not that different with sharing one's mobile number; it's certainly not the same as sharing one's Twitter or Facebook page - although to give somebody your Twitter or Facebook password is rather more like the toothbrush.

The issues that surround these different phenomena are ownership, identity, control and attachment. My Twitter feed is owned by Twitter, not by me, although my password enables me to make my personal contribution to the unfolding public document that Twitter publishes. My car and house are owned by me (at least, I have legal rights, even if the bank has ultimate power). Most social media companies are publishers with no explicit editorial control (although there is 'algorithmic' editorial control); what they do is publish documents produced by users.

When I was part of a team working with Personal Learning Environments (PLE), what interested us were the read-write web tools that enabled people to configure the interfaces of their tools in ways which suited them best. This control could be considered to be 'personal' in the sense that the ideal was that everybody could bring their own tools to do their learning, rather than having to learn how to use the tools provided by institutions (or indeed corporations). In this sense, 'personal' meant not having to change one's dispositions to fit someone else's tooling. Alongside issues of personal tooling, came related issues of 'personal organisation'. I now think these terms need inspecting closer.

E-portfolio, for example (to which the PLE was closely related), provided means for the "personal organisation of learning". What does that mean exactly? If you ask the champions of "personal organisation", they will talk about the activities involved in personal organisation, rather than its precise nature. They will say that with tools like Twitter or Facebook, one can "curate" (another popular term) content, references, etc. The manufacturers of e-portfolio talk a similar language. In my own experience, I have indeed found tweeting, facebooking, blogging (more than the other two) useful as forms of "curation" which I can easily search and retrieve stuff I have found interesting. In the past, scholars would keep "commonplace books", or (in the case of Niklas Luhmann) elaborate card index systems of knowledge. But in what sense are such practices 'personal' - to what extent is it right to talk of "self-organisation"?

Like any practices, these practices (with portfolio, Twitter or Facebook) occur within constraints. The "person" - their identity, history, biology, capability and so on - is a small set of constraints in the mix of social, technical, political, institutional and material constraints within which organisation occurs. The "striking of bargains" with social media corporations, academic institutions, publishers, and so on is the order of the day when it comes to using "personal" tools. When Twitter says a tool is personal, they refer to the possibility that a bargain might be struck between an individual operating within the full gamut of their constraints, and the Twitter corporation hoping to maintain and increase the transactions that users have with them (thereby handing over their data). Interestingly, the key to maintaining this status quo is the deal that whilst the documents published by users are effectively owned by Twitter or Facebook, the individual user secures their personal password. The success of "personal" tools is due to users treating passwords like toothbrushes. If we all exchanged our passwords freely, it would all collapse.

We see passwords like toothbrushes because maintaining a sense of self means maintaining a coherent and (hopefully predictable) set of expectations in others - our friends, colleagues, employers, etc. Only by maintaining this does the world become a predictable place within which we can operate. To maintain a codified set of expectations, we have to hide as much as we reveal. It's not just gum disease: it's the chaotic and embarrassing world of our subconscious, our vulnerabilities and insecurities. To "have an ego" is to actively manage a "set of relations".

I don't think we understood this properly in the PLE - social software was too new. Now we need to understand it more urgently, because the chaotic subconscious is threatening the stability of our social world in the face of dramatic disturbances in the social and political fabric - partly brought about through technology. 

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Post-Truth and the Rationality of Irrationality

Of all the scholars who've died in the last ten years or so, the one who I wish was still around right now is Nigel Howard. Howard is well-known within the Operational Research community (but few other places) as a game theorist who objected to mainstream game theory, but who developed a mathematical theory of "meta-rationality" which he later developed into what he called "drama theory". This was used in conflict situations including Bosnia and Israel-Palestine.

Howard would have understood Brexit and Trump (indeed, he would have predicted them). He would also understand the dynamics of the UK's Brexit negotiations, the rise of the far-right, and so on. Howard understood that the most powerful move to play in game is the move which breaks the rules. The kind of game Howard was interested in is summarised below in a game of chess between a husband and wife:
Husband: You've lost.
Wife: Have I?
Husband: You have two moves - this and this. Each leads to checkmate.
Wife: You are wrong. I have a third move.
Husband: ???
(Wife lifts chessboard and throws it in his face.)
(in "Negotiation as Drama: How "Games" become dramatic" in International Negotiation, vol. 1, 1996)

Howard explains:
a 'drama' is a set of interconnected games. Games are the situations in a drama that people - e.g., negotiating parties - see themselves as unable to escape from; that is, when they see themselves as ineluctably in a situation (defined by a given group of characters with given options and given preferences) then they see that situation as a game. But - here is the point - precisely because they see their situation as fixed and given, drama theory asserts that it generates in them, in a game-theoretically predictable manner, emotions that may cause them to reframe it - i.e., see it differently. Thus at the climax of a dramatic episode, an audience sees the game change as its characters create new subjectively perceived option sets for themselves and others and change their values, hence also their preferences. Thereby they put themselves into a new situation.
There, in a nutshell is Brexit and Trump. Now let's say, in the chess example, that the husband does not accept that the rules of the game have changed, or he denies his wife the right to reframe the game. "What the hell have you done?!" he might say. Might he then force her to "play properly"? 

Forcing people to "play properly" is basically how the EU treated Greece. It's how the establishment drove their "project fear" bandwaggon in the Brexit remain campaign. The Greeks are still trying to reframe the game, the EU refuses. It's a stand-off, but in the end, the irrational reframing will win, and the EU will eventually have to accept that the game being played is not the game they thought they were playing. It may not survive this. 

It's exactly the same with Brexit: for all the "Brexit means Brexit" talk, there is a palpable sense that the media and the government are pushing for some kind of democratic reversal of the decision - basically that people should "play properly". It's a kind of "media" game. I doubt it will work, not least because the opposite game, the "post-truth" game is unfolding equally potently on Facebook. 

Amidst all this, there is some pretty nasty far-right rhetoric. Some of these statements need to be seen as moves in a game. They scandalise and shock in the way that an air-strike might in a war situation. Trump is good at this kind of stuff. It's a way of saying "we are dictating the rules of the game now". It will continue as long as the opposing side deny that the rules of the game have changed and that everyone should "play properly".

What should universities be doing right now? As I said in my last post, it appears that Universities also believe everyone should "play properly". That is partly because the "proper" game of managerial technocracy has been thoroughly embedded within the university constitution, alongside the ideals of the enlightenment which are also being challenged. Because of this, it's even more difficult for the University to believe the game has changed. But scholars, more than anyone else, should be curious about what is happening. The new game need studying, the enlightenment project needs inspecting, and universities need to be able to adapt to a transformed world. 

Saturday 10 December 2016

A great #srhe16 ... BUT... A Failure to grasp the Brexit nettle??

This was my third conference for the Society for Research in Higher Education. It was the first one I didn't have to pay for myself.  I'd always felt it was worth it - which is probably the best thing you can say about any conference.

However, this year I came away slightly uneasy. Brexit and Trump was in the background, of course. Two of the keynotes addressed this directly. I have to say that the best keynote was the one that didn't by ├ůse Gornitzka. Jonathan Grant's keynote took on the issue of 'Post-Truth'. We must fight the lies, he said, in a staunch defence of the truths and processes of the academy in the face of the democratic misbehaviour of the manipulated masses. As he pleaded for the academy to stand up for its principles, I was left wondering why scholars had largely ceded control of the academy to managers and business people with barely a whimper - until those people, now some of them Vice Chancellors revealed themselves in Trumpist colours. Many of those academics sacked by these characters, so many adjunct lecturers on pauper wages, many students conned out of a fortune and left with a certificate and little else... many of them voted for Brexit, rightly identifying a failure of government. Ibn Khaldun's principle of good government: "to prevent injustice other than that which it commits itself" (see has clearly been broken. Indeed, globalisation has delivered almost universally bad government, and injustices in corporations, social services and Universities which government ought to have prevented, went unchecked throughout the world.

Many delegates at the SRHE have been victims of this. The SRHE feels like a kind of support group for thoughtful and clever academics who care deeply about universities. They gather each year in Wales and chew the cud over "What the fuck is happening to education?" I've always found it invigorating. If I was to imagine a "Fantasy University", taking all the people in the conference dinner (before the disco!) would do very nicely.

My highlight was actually the first session I went to. To my own surprise, the moment of  brilliance came with a paper on learning analytics by a young researcher from Pakistan who is working with the OU, Saman Rizvi. I am very worried by the state of the discourse in learning analytics - it simply lacks critical or mathematical rigour. Saman provided some mathematical rigour (if not yet critical - but it will come, I'm sure) by combining Markov chain modelling with machine learning on engagement data for online courses and MOOCs. I did push her on the whole issue of the difficulties with probabilities, and the problem of 'variable-ism', but I was hugely impressed by the detail of her analysis. There is potential for some deeper insights from crunching the numbers - and maybe even a more penetrating critical discourse.

On the whole, I found myself tiring of endless sociological rhetoric. I quite liked sociomateriality when I first encountered it in Karen Barad's writing (despite it upsetting a few of my Critical Realist friends). But now it's everywhere, and I still don't know what it means. (It's constraint, isn't it?) The same goes for the nods (and they are only nods) towards Foucault, Bourdieu, Derrida, Bhaskar, Latour, etc. The problem is that there is no real attempt to develop any of these theories; theory is instead used as a coat-hanger to make the mundaneness of education more interesting (for which, if you were unkind, you might read "pretentious"). In the end, it has the effect of saying "I've thought about education and I've read a lot of difficult books"

Education really is interesting in its own right. But it is really, really difficult and confusing. It deserves (and demands) its own theory - not the sociological cast-offs of others who (is this unfair?) didn't care much for teaching themselves, but rather more for their posturing, egos and status. Education deserves its own theory because it really matters. As Trump and Brexit have shown.

I presented on intersubjectivity and constraint. There was quite a lot to get through but people seemed to like it, and I got a lot of questions afterwards. I even produced a leaflet to accompany my talk! I delved into information theory, and used Spencer Brown's weird mathematical notation for thinking about the 'inside' (what is constrained) and the 'outside' (what does the constraining). Information theory and uncertainty have become very important to me.

Which brings me back to universities and Brexit. Rosemary Deem gave the final keynote which was entertaining, but rather shallow - much in the manner of the remain campaign itself: "don't be a fucking idiot and vote leave!" Of course it turned out that 51% of us were fucking idiots (and had it not been for my 16 year old daughter's petition to me to vote remain, I would also have been a fucking idiot). I asked Rosemary afterwards "Where are we in history?". She didn't think it was a very sensible question, but I disagree. The fear in Universities about Brexit is a palpable fear arising from the realisation that the world they thought they existed in is not the world as it actually (now) is. These shocks - where society (or its leaders) realise their model of the world is wrong - occur throughout history: we've been here before, and if we find out when in history we were here before, we can prepare ourselves for readjusting our model of the world.

The people who spoke about Universities and Brexit do not appear to yet accept that their model of the world is wrong. So Jonathan Grant wants to "challenge the lies", convinced of the truth of the academy, whilst today's science - which has been transformed by computers - only speaks of uncertainties and contingencies (this is the nature of information). Expressing uncertainty is not something academics are good at (Grant seemed very certain about his arguments, as did Rosemary Deem): they would prefer to appear to be experts. To express uncertainty is to make oneself vulnerable. And most importantly, it is to tune-in to the uncertainties of others.

Rosemary Deem's presentation mentioned widening participation as a way of reaching out to disenfranchised groups - as if sitting the disenfranchised in classrooms and inducting them into the noble ways of education will ensure that they play the establishment game! But maybe the disenfranchised Brexit voters saw the deeper truth of it: that education, more often than not, is a bit rubbish; that experts often offer "no shit, Sherlock" posturing, or make claims with the confidence of Old Etonians, which are quite patently misguided (and sometimes cruel).

Post-truth may be a deeper truth, in the way that in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the White Witch knew the "deep magic", but Aslan knew the "deeper magic". The deep magic is in the financialised, managerialist university. The deeper magic is in the hearts of those who used their democratic right to fight the system. Scientists and artists will always be concerned to understand the deeper magic better. The financialised, managerialist university has become an unfriendly place for those kinds of scientists - it's sacked many of them - there are no grants for what they do. There are big and scary changes to come - this is all very much like the 1600s - we have Puritanism (Trump?), regicide (King Charles III?) and civil war (the US?) to come! The SRHE would make an interesting kind of "invisible college"!