Monday 30 April 2018

Marion Milner and Educational Technology Discourse (post #OER18 thoughts)

Marion Milner was a psychotherapist who did important work in education in the 1930s. Her book "The Human Problem in Schools" has just been republished (at a price!) by Routledge ( This seems to me to be one of the great missed opportunities in educational research and what Milner does is unique: she investigates the context of human experience in education. In fact, she did this not just in education, but in art ("On being unable to paint") and in more general inquiry about life ("A Life of One's own"). Her method is fascinating because it breaks down barriers between categories. She can do this because she is armed with a basic psychodynamic mechanism which she gained from Jung, but the beauty of her approach is that the mechanism can be applied recursively at all levels of education. It enables her to speak beautifully about the madness of education and its remedy:

"much of the time now spent in exhortation is fruitless; and that the same amount of time given to the attempt to understand what is happening would, very often, make it possible for difficult girls to become co-operative rather than passively or actively resistant. It seems also to be true that very often it is not necessary to do anything; the implicit change in relationship that results when the adult is sympathetically aware of the child's difficulties is in itself sufficient."
I've been quite struck by changes in tone to the educational technology discourse after going to #oer18. Educational technology has always been a discourse of "exhortation", but the turning of "open education" into a subject (rather than a practice) is something which has gone hand-in-hand with a growth in critical discourse that orients itself around particular technological issues and solutions (e.g. reclaim hosting), identity politics (the controversy around David Wiley's presentation), open licensing, and a critical backlash against technology in education more generally (Audrey Watters). Suddenly we hear not only what we "ought" to do, but what we "ought not" to do. To be fair there was always something a bit mad about the educational technology discourse (learning design? learning objects? learning analytics?) and if there's an identifiable recent trend, it is the "critical turn" of many of the more exclusively technical issues. There's a tendency to applaud this critical turn as a sign of the discourse growing up. But it is not impossible that it is in fact regressing into smaller and smaller identity-bound communities who talk to themselves and ignore what they don't like.

The problem in all this is that the real experience of learning and education gets left out. Somehow by turning something into a "subject", we lose perspective on what the whole thing was about in the first place. This is a large part of the problem in education, and its requires explanation which is unlikely to be forthcoming from the current direction of the discourse.

Milner's focus on context provides a powerful corrective to this Balkanisation. Rather than preaching about what ought to happen, she catalogues what actually does happen and then seeks to explain it. As she says, the time given to understand what is happening would make it possible for things to be improved. And we must understand not just what is happening in education, but what is happening in our talk about education. It is context all the way.

Some may object that this is too complex or too ambitious. Indeed, our dreary research methodologies (they are all dreary!) are precisely designed to attenuate the complexities of education into a form which make them manageable for students trying to write their PhD theses within the institutionally-determined time frame of 3 years. But they only do this by ignoring ("bracketing-out") vast chunks of contextual stuff which is clearly relevant.

Milner, however, shows how it can be done.

Monday 23 April 2018

Transactions and Transduction modelling in the Redesign of Institutions

When we draw systems diagrams, we usually draw boxes with labels in them and lines between the boxes which detail the communication between different functions or services. Software development is then a process of turning these labels and boxes into interfaces, functions, user privileges and so on. When the software is implemented, inevitably it has a subtle effect in changing the human organisation of whatever process it is designed for. One of the problems with the design process is that it exercises a kind of tyranny by programmers and systems designers over the existing practices of individuals in an organisation: putting it crudely, it is the geeks who determine what everyone else's job should be.

Individual job functions are distinctions which emerge naturally in the pattern of transactions those people have with other people in the organisation. Often the nature of these transactions is hard to codify - particularly in a work environment already full of technology, where each individual can see themselves doing many different kinds of things and switching from one thing to another all the time.

Transactions of this sort are usually communications or conversations. Extending the logic of Coase's theory of the firm, each job function exists by virtue of the transactions which others have with them.

Transduction is a technical term for a process which maintains a distinction between two different forms of representation: for example, between the environment of light and the images in the eye, or between the vibrations in the air and the perception of a melody. All distinctions - including the distinctions which are made in systems modelling diagrams - are the product of transduction processes. More importantly, transactions are the outward sign of transductions: we can look at the words of a conversation, or the accounts ledger of a business and know that these signs of communication indicate a deeper process of coordination going on.

I'm increasingly convinced that our software design processes start from the wrong end: inevitably, software design models the transduction processes of the software designer and then impose those transduction processes on everyone else. What it we were to model the actual transductions within an organisation? What if we were to look at the way distinctions are actually maintained within a business?

All transduction processes can create organisational problems. Every transduction maintains a distinction, and in so doing determines the inside and outside of that distinction. Sometimes, what is excluded in a distinction is the source for more distinctions to be made, and quite often we see that there is a conflict between different organisational functions at different levels. To be able to analyse the transductions in an organisation is to have a map for possible interventions which might look to change the configurations of transductions in the organisation.

A simple example is self-publishing. I'm self-publishing my book, and have decided to do so because the transductions created by publishers are pathological (retaining copyright, setting outrageous prices, doing very little in terms of editorial control, etc). To understand the pattern of these transductions in the publishing system is to identify the intervention point where problems that arise from those transductions might be addressed. Equally, I am interested in the transductions of assessment in education. I'm interested in things like Adaptive Comparative Judgement precisely because it is a way of reconfiguring the transductions of assessment which then affect other transductions in education (for example, educational quality). Or we might look at the transductions of the curriculum. My interventions in Vladivostok are precisely about overcoming the transduction between different subjects in the curriculum, and targeting the primary transduction on the relationship between the individual and the phenomena of the world, rather than the individual and specific 'subjects'.

The key to being able to specify existing tranductions is to consider each distinction as a means of managing uncertainty. If the distinction concerns somebody's job (e.g. academic quality, teaching) then the transduction will perform the function of managing the uncertainty of that person maintaining their job. The key question in redesigning the transduction is whether there is a better way of managing uncertainty in the organisation. Obviously, designing a system which removes a person's job (which is what software designers often do) only increases uncertainty in the organisation; the trick is to reorganise things so that everyone is able to manage their uncertainty better. The pathology of current approaches to technology are that it ramps up uncertainty, and as a consequence, it creates the conditions for increasingly complex technology which tries to fix the uncertainties generated by the previous technology.

Thursday 19 April 2018

Openness, Identity and Non-identity: thoughts about #OER18

I’ve just returned from #oer18 where it was very good to meet up with friends and former colleagues from #cetis and #jisc. My abiding thought on leaving is that “openness” is the most important concept for the future of science. We live in an increasingly uncertain world. The sharing of uncertainty in scientific discourse is going to be critical in order to coordinate human understanding in the future. It is also going to be critical that scientific discourse opens itself out not just to scientists working in our universities, but to society at large. No account of uncertainty in invalid.

The shift to an uncertain science is something which is incomplete within our institutions of science. Our scientific publishing system is a hangover from the 17th century. Our universities retain organisational structures which evolved before the scientific revolution. Everywhere there is the disconnect between reductionism in the curriculum and its coupling with the increasingly inconvenient fiction that universities should organise their operations in terms of disciplines and departments which are no longer certain of the boundaries between them. This has ramped-up uncertainty. It is no coincidence that the forces of financialisation have not been far behind: when logic and epistemology fail, money is a good fall-back to manage uncertainty and retain some kind of order… until it all falls apart.

I drew a diagram on my way back to explore what I think is the radical separation between the scientific publishing system and the university system. What’s most important in the diagram is what’s happening in the middle: publishers and universities get richer on a positive feedback loop of status acquisition, whilst academics and students get squeezed. Each box on the left and right hand sides represents a functional operation in publishing (on the left) and universities (on the right). Each main box contains a small sub-box labelled "U" for uncertainty. This is connected to a "meta-system" which is meant to manage uncertainty. So, for example, publishers manage their uncertainty through marketing, review panels manage their uncertainty though acceptance criteria and journal ranking is managed through editorial control (approving members of the board, for example). The point is, it all makes money, and the university makes money too on the back of it.  This is the mechanism of closedness, and it is this we have to change.

Given the state of play of universities, it’s perhaps not surprising to find a healthy dose of identity politics in the OER18 discussions. There is a paradox in this though, which at some point will have to be grappled with. The question is, how in the final analysis, are openness and identity compatible? Radical openness tends towards non-identity, doesn’t it?

This is one area where I think it is more helpful to discuss openness and science, rather than openness and education. David Bohm, about whom I presented, promoted open scientific dialogue as a way by which the deep structure of the universe could be apprehended through dialogue (Bohm was very keen of etymology, and “dialogue” means “through wisdom”, dia-logos). He was particularly interested in music, through which he argued that “we apprehend the implicate order of the universe”. Dialogue was a path towards suspending identity. Interestingly, Roy Bhaskar took up many of these themes in his late philosophy (he either got it though Bohm himself or though Krishnamurti), and much as I once thought his late stuff on ‘meta-reality’ was a bit bonkers, I’m now beginning to think again. Great thinkers are often ahead of their time. It may be scientifically necessary, which was always the argument behind early Critical Realism.

Whilst identity politics has been extremely important in redressing social injustice and exclusion, the problems of identity politics are apparent to sociologists too. Discourse on intersectionality has sought to explore some of these problems and identify a more complete relational system between between different identity agendas. Queer theory has, I think, a more interesting take on things, as it seeks to challenge binary distinctions in a way that no doubt the likes of David Bohm and other quantum physicists would approve. But if I’m slightly uncomfortable both with identity politics and with the sociological critique of it, it is because I’m highly suspicious of the institution of education seeking to find some solid ground in a sea of uncertainty where it could avoid being radically transformed. So the institution supports the establishment of intersectionality as a discipline, it creates a department, charges students fees for studying it, publishers get rich on publishing books and journal articles, etc, etc. The pathology of education runs, not only in spite of, but because of, a discourse on openness.

I don’t know the answer to this. But I think we need better questions. We should ask about the nature of “closedness” – even if it’s the closedness that can form around identity politics. What is that? A kind of attachment? How does it work?  Whatever the mechanism, it’s highly likely that a similar thing is going on in our institutions too. If we can understand how it works, then we have a chance to intervene to change it. If we intervene without understanding what we are intervening with, it is a risk that we simply feed the pathology. As the world teeters on an incredibly dangerous situation, this is one of the most important scientific questions we should be asking ourselves right now.

Monday 16 April 2018

Openness and Educational Cosmology for #oer18

I'm at #OER18 on Wednesday this week, presenting on an information theoretical analysis of objects in education. The "open education" discourse interests me because it presents an opportunity to talk about the big questions in education. It's perhaps unfortunate that this opportunity is often missed. Objects interest me because they tend to be the focus of the open education debate (free content, self-publishing, etc), but the relation between teaching and objects (whether free or not) is poorly understood.

It doesn't make any sense to talk of "open" unless we understand what "closed" means. Generally, the terms refers to the difference between scarcity and abundance. But people (teachers) can be closed and open too. That isn't an aspect of scarcity. It relates to a spirit of generosity, ontological security, or a willingness to express uncertainty. Open and closed expression is mediated by objects. But there is no reason why a teacher should be open simply because they are using open resources. Indeed, acts of generosity in teaching can be more meaningful if they are conducted with scarce (or even expensive) resources. What unfolds with open communication and a willingness to communicate uncertainty, is dialogue. So what is the relation of objects to dialogue? What difference does it make if those objects are free or not?

To answer this, we have to consider the difference between scarcity and abundance. Scarce things are either scarce by decree, or by nature. Scarcity refers to restrictions on the possibility of existence of something. It amounts to the restriction on the number of descriptions that might be made about something. If something is abundant, there are many ways in which it might exist, and there are many rich descriptions which might be made of it by many people.

Multiple descriptions are essential to the communication process. Objects illuminate rich multiple descriptions of individuals communicating with those objects. They provide ways in which individuals can understand each other, increasing the likelihood of future communications. If an object is abundant then the range of descriptions can be magnified with the possibility that each individual might recreate their own version of an object. If an object is scarce, then it may illuminate the teacher's attitude to something precious - for example, in inviting biographical revelations about the teacher. However, even if an object is scarce, things may be done to make a scarce object more abundant. Equally, an object such as a powerpoint slide may reveal the teacher's unwillingness to expose their uncertainty.

The properties of an object and the properties of a discussion may be examined. Descriptions of an object and the discussions which surround it are produced both synchronically and diachronically. Dialogue is the unfolding of synchronic and diachronic patterns in the engagement between humans. Objects help to coordinate the structure of this dialogue.

Dialogue does not involve a free choice of talking. There is an emergent demarcation of levels of recursion. For example, conversations about an object produces a conversation about the conversation about the object, or a conversation about the conversation about the conversation about an object. These different levels of discourse shift over time. What emerges are different discrete strata of construction.

There is a question as to whether our forms of dialogue reflect deeper structures in the universe. The multiple strata of patterns of engagement in dialogue help us to perceive something deeper. Abundance of objects can help with the process of tuning-in to a discovery about symmetries in the universe. In the final analysis, teaching and dialogue are processes of generating redundant descriptions.

Open education really needs to be seen as open scientific dialogue. To make scientific dialogue work better, we need to be increasing the redundancies of multiple description. With an increase in redundancy there is a better chance of detecting deeper patterns which will help coordinate a better understanding of the order of nature and consequently a better world. 

Saturday 7 April 2018

Teaching as Science: An Educational Cosmology

One of the interesting challenges behind the concept of a Personal Learning Environment has been the difficulty in making clear distinctions. Where is the boundary between a "person" and their "learning" or the "environment"? More profoundly, where is the distinction between "living" and "learning" and "using tools"?  These are not just fundamental questions about a branch of educational technology. They are fundamental questions about education. The PLE exposes the sheer difficulty of saying anything sensible about learning, and chips away at some of the dogma of educational research.

Educational research makes distinctions in order to make rational statements about educational activity, policy, technology, and the organisation of its institutions. The PLE challenges those distinctions. If there is no way of distinguishing learning from using or environment, then the distinctions which are made to defend the current institutions of education fall down. The problem is one of a scientific foundation for sense-making about education.

In dissolving the normative distinctions of education, the PLE operates in a different way to the normal way in which distinctions are made in the educational literature. Fundamentally, the difference is between what Bohm and others call a "synthetic" approach and an "analytical" approach. Like most areas of scientific inquiry in the social sciences (and indeed, much in the physical sciences), educational research is synthetic: that means it gathers evidence of perceived phenomena, available theories, and accounts of practice and attempts to coordinate them into something coherent. The result - particularly noticeable in education, but also in other social sciences - is incoherence. The approach is epistemologically-focused.

An analytical approach, by contrast, seeks to imagine fundamental generative principles (which may or may not be conceived of as mechanisms) which might produce perceived phenomena. This approach is ontologically-focussed. In scientific advances, it is usually the analytical mode which marks breakthroughs: from Copernicus to Kepler, and Newton to Einstein. In each case, what emerges is a new kind of cosmology: a description of the total system, which is sufficiently flexible to accommodate the variety of perceived phenomena, and which is sufficiently generative to produce new phenomena which can be accounted for within the system.

Cosmologies are, by definition, coherent in their own terms. In creating any new cosmology, the theoretical focus must fall on error.

The cosmology behind the PLE was cybernetic constructivism as exemplified by Von Glasersfeld, Stafford Beer, Gordon Pask. Yet this cosmology has been poor in predicting the reinforcement of institutional structures, the dominance of status, the way the institution declares the scarcity of knowledge, and the ways in which technology itself has become dominated by global corporations. So we need something better - but does this mean that cybernetic constructivism is wrong?

Any cosmology - and particularly a constructivist cosmology - needs to account for its own claim to truth. Whilst privileging "conversation", constructivism cannot account for the fact that conversational learning has to be directed or designed at some level, and that the authority which imposes it is not the product of egalitarianism. It must also account for the fact that implicitly, constructivist education upholds the division between "teaching and learning" and "science" - as if "teaching and learning" provides a way into science. Yet there is no clear distinction between education as a practice and science as a practice beyond the distinctions made by the institution. At the same time, it must account for truth and facticity within a discourse - no learning is ever "the blind leading the blind". Yet neither is it merely the imposition of facts on others.

In addressing these problem, I've been thinking about the idea of a "stratified constructivism" which can be seen as an underlying principle behind the generation of the fabric of nature, not just conversation or dialogue. I've been particularly influenced by Bohm's physics and his work on dialogue. The idea was developed and refined in the process of putting together the Vladivostok experiment (see, in preparation for rolling the programme out to 300 students. In using an educational intervention as a way of exploring a new theory of the world, the boundary between education and science is broken down. In the process, the dialogue within the course becomes a way of revealing deeper truths about education, technology and the world. This is teaching as scientific inquiry.

We have come to believe that teaching is an instrument for learning. But what teaching is really is the generation of multiple descriptions of the world. It is the production of redundancy. Learning is an epiphenomenon - a bi-product. Teaching is one side of a transduction process with the social world. If the transduction works, then learning occurs.

Generating multiple descriptions of the world is fundamental to any scientific and any artistic activity. It is only by generating redundancy that we have any hope of detecting deeper patterns. Coherence in a work of art is precisely the determination of a deeper pattern which connects its form, the materials of its construction and the world. The artist discovers this through generating redundancy. The scientist generates many descriptions of the world from which they too seek a more unifying pattern. Teaching is no different from this. More fundamentally, teaching is connected to both.