Thursday 23 March 2017

Widening Participation and Scientific Necessity

The popular argument for 'widening participation' or 'outreach' in education is about 'giving access' to those who might have at one point been excluded from education. From the institution's point of view, giving access makes good business sense: it might be renamed "Creating potential fee-paying customers". Giving access means providing people with the dispositions and habits of those who succeed in education - Those who can stomach the lecture, the assignment, the group work, the conversation, the reading, and increasingly, the VLE, the blog, the academic tweeting, the O-so-clever (but now rather dull and double-edged) digital media.

We should be clear that this kind of access is in the interests of institutions and the often rather unpleasant characters who run them, but not necessarily in the interests of students. The "loan bounty" which is guaranteed upon the living body of the student will pay for the Vice Chancellor's yacht, the new vanity projects, the racing car design building and the architectural destruction of the local civic environment.

Students from the constituencies which are targetted by widening participation want money, jobs, security, love, fulfilment - indeed, they want the things which were probably denied to them since they were born, and denied to their parents. Education - however much those of us hope for better - wants to financialise their bodies and give them a mark - and, maybe a certificate.

You cannot really blame individual institutions for this (notwithstanding some of the criminals who are running them). To use a cybernetic term, all institutions (education, health, legal, gubernatorial) are autopoietic: they survive by making and remaking their constituent components. Widening partipication is simply the trawling of the environment for new components to be fed into the institution's autopoietic machine. In the process, the institution may claim a "purpose" which is at odds with what it actually does.

The key operation that an educational institution must do in an educational market is what Ivan Illich would call the maintenance of the "regime of scarcity of knowledge". To have the status of a knowledgeable person, one must have a certificate from a respected educational institution.

As Illich pointed out (before the internet) knowledge isn't scarce. It is a remarkable paradox (and an indication of quite how seriously pathological education is) that scarcity of knowledge has been increased with the advent of the web. Institutions have successfully used technology to ramp up the scarcity of knowledge by using the technology to amplify its existing structures. So the MOOC is a giant classroom, assessment can be done by MCQ or (increasingly) automatic essay marking, plagiarism can be statisticised, academic status accorded through bibliometrics, and learning analytics might (universities hope) keep students from dropping out and maintain the fee income (that's the interesting one - it won't work!).

Universities follow an illustrious line of great institutions in commandeering technology like this. The classic example is the Catholic Church in the 15th century who used printing for the production of indulgences. (I think universities are currently in the equivalent of the 1460s... the Catholic hierarchy must have been rubbing their hands!) The moral of the story is that the technology gets you in the end... usually in a way which you weren't expecting.

But there is something else happening which I think is more profound: Computers have transformed the way we do science, the way we make measurements and do experiments, and the way we reason about causes. The university obsession with teaching and learning is recent and market-driven. It won't last. Universities are about scientific inquiry.

Following the impact of printing which produced the reformation, critical attention was focused on education, where universities were sticking to Aristotelian doctrine in their scientific teaching. Printing facilitated a discourse outside the institution which challenged this orthodoxy, which eventually led to Francis Bacon's "The Advancement of Learning". Experiment, observation and an entirely different model of causal reasoning was established. The Cambridge curriculum of 1605 which Bacon attacked was fundamentally transformed by 1700. In between, there was enormous social turmoil - civil war, regicide, republicanism, terror, etc. It affected all forms of communication and production: T.S. Eliot's idea of the "dissociation of sensibility" between the work of Ben Johnson and John Milton is another aspect of this transformation.

This is what happens when science changes. Our science today is no longer Newtonian. It is probabilistic, contingent and uncertain. Yet our modes of communication remain rooted in the model established in the 17th century by the Royal Society, and which were made for communicating empirically objective knowledge (as they saw it). There is an essential paradox when one wants to be an expert in uncertainty - inevitably university academics downplay the uncertainty, contingency, doubt. Nobody wants to look uncertain on the lecture stage.

In an uncertain science, listening counts. The logic of uncertainty means that the more people who are listened to the better. From this perspective, "widening participation" - by which is meant listening, not preaching - is not a marketing exercise, but a scientific necessity.

The point is cybernetic, a discipline which remains the principal scientific foundation for dealing with uncertainty, doubt, and social coordination. Heinz von Foerster stated three principles of education.

  1. Education is not right or a privilege. It is a necessity.
  2. The purpose of education is to ask legitimate questions - that is, questions to which nobody has the answer.
  3. Following these two principles, there is a political principle which cuts against the regime of scarcity of education: A is better off when B is better off

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