Monday 21 December 2020

The Technological Meaningfulness of Academic Work in the 21st Century

I was speaking to an academic colleague the other day who was trying to work out why her quizzes weren't displaying properly in the VLE. She'd spent many hours entering them and editing them, only to become frustrated that they didn't appear to display as she wished. We worked on the problem together and sorted it out (this is very much my preferred course of action in these circumstances), but I asked her how she felt as she was entering all this data. Of course, it's incredibly boring and tedious. I remarked that one of the effects of technology in education is the amount of low-level repetitive work it creates for people who feel they are meant to engage in high level intellectual work.   

A similar situation arose with a member of professional service staff who was trying to get some specific data from the system that the system would not provide through the interface. Basically, we wrote a little program together (our shared Python coding environments are brilliant for this kind of thing), and again, solved the problem together. Here the alternative repetitive low-level work was by proxy, as a different system would be used that demanded far more tedious work than would be required from a bit of computational thinking and practice. Finally, I have been working with our medical school, the vets and the dentists in trying to synergise their educational approaches (they basically share a similar technical and pedagogical approach). Doing these things with people (not doing it to them) has become important to me, just as the process of working together to create synergies in activity. It's about bringing wholeness to the relationship between technical and intellectual work.

More broadly these situations have led me to reflect on the nature of academic work, and the relationship between high level and low level work. The distinctions are difficult: artistic work, for example, often features much repetition - indeed, it is characterised by this. But where that feels fulfilling and in a certain sense "high level" because it leads to self-expression, the tedious button-clicking of an interface definitely feels menial and low-level. So what's the difference?

I think looking at individual tasks in isolation is not helpful. Bridget Riley adding rows to one of her geometric paintings, or Lowry painting matchstick figures, is not a task that is disconnected from the overall artistic aims and ambition: it is entirely consistent with it.  The work has to be taken as a whole, and taken as a whole, the artist's "menial" tasks are consistent and coherent with the whole. So what does modern academic work  look like as a whole? 

I think this is at the root of what's happened to academia since the advent of technology (and possibly a bit before). The ideal of the academic institution is not individual academic labourers pushing out publications to raise their H-index, bidding for grants, etc, but the community of scholars - teachers and students - in the college working together for the wellbeing of each other and the pursuit of truth. When everyone works as one, the mechanism which selects what must be done is understood by all, and each responds in the knowledge that whatever task has to be performed - whether repetitive or deep and intellectual - is done because it is required for the common good. 

The point about the college is that it is a coherent whole. So what did technology do? It carved up the function of each individual and instead of it being a convivial activity, it became specialised and professionalised, given to a particular individual who could basically perform this function on behalf of everyone else. It's precisely what Illich says in "Tools for conviviality" about the difference between the conviviality of the shovel, and the lack of conviviality in the JCB. 

What is a convivial approach to technology in universities? It is certainly about doing things together, not doing things to people, or even for people. What's been so interesting with the current crop of technologies in institutions is that the skills for accessing and manipulating their data have become common: very often these are simple programming skills, and these skills, even if they are not known by everyone, can be communicated and their experience shared across a community. 

The technical essence of the Personal Learning Environment was a common toolset with which universal skills which could be shared. What we didn't talk about so much was the fact that because these skills were common and universal, effective convivial activity could be organised. (I do remember Oleg saying that the PLE was a way forwards to Illich's ideas of conviviality, but I couldn't see it clearly at the time). 

Today academic work is disaggregated, individualised, compartmentalised and specific functions are separated off with no connection to a common purpose. Moreover, the disaggregation is reinforced by tools which position themselves in "market segments" when in fact the whole thing is manipulating the same data. The one blessing that we have is that access to the core data underneath each of these specific functions has become easier through the APIs. Increasingly, I think we will see a single "back-end" for these systems - probably (so it seems at the moment) coordinated by Microsoft. 

But a deeper issue lies in the fact that our disciplines themselves have become separated from the technological and institutional context within which they organise themselves. Discplines tend not to think of themselves technologically or institutionally - and yet almost all disciplines these days see at their frontiers issues of technology, uncertainty, institutional organisation and data. In fact for many disciplines, if they were to examine the institutional and technological context of their own educational technology, they would find real-life and tangible examples of the very things they concern themselves with in an intellectual way. For example, medicine is increasingly going to become dominated by the kind of AI tools which sit behind many of the interfaces they use to organise and discuss their content. The same goes for Law (think Turnitin), Maths (learning analytics, convolutional neural networks), Psychology (AI), biology (bio-sensors, imaging), and so on.  

Change requires a new meta-language of subject orientation with technology. Institutionally, maybe this can be organised through inter-disciplinary collaboration and engagement, where deep questions about disciplinary knowledge and technical engagement can be asked. All disciplines demand that certain competency criteria are met. But there are always many ways to do this. And doing it together, where the disruptions of technology can be felt in the very fabric of disciplines themselves, may provide a powerful way back to the kind of wholeness and integrity of academic life that the college once had, but within a new digital context.  The way forwards is synergy.

Friday 18 December 2020

Bio-drama and new ways of teaching

For a few years now I've been exploring with John Torday how the many profound aporia we live with (what we seem to accept as "wicked problems" - climate change, inequality, homelessness, educational problems, health, geopolitics, etc) result from some gap in our understanding of how human consciousness came to be: to put it simply, it is Bateson's "gap between the way people think and the way nature works". In excluding the possibility of a deeper and more coherent narrative, we have grown to believe that our profound problems cannot not exist. But I am now asking a question that was once asked by Jiddhu Krishnamurti to David Bohm - is it possible for humans to have no "problems" at all?

The root of most of our human problems lies in the way that our egos separate themselves from their natural origins - their origins in cellular, biological, evolutionary processes. From mechanisms of cellular self-organisation and cooperation (without which there would be no advanced biological forms at all), we establish an idea of self which is more often competitive, defensive or combative. Our social structures are designed on the model established by the nature-divorced ego, and encourage this divorce from nature. Only when natural disasters occur - not just things like Covid, but earthquakes, floods, etc - that we are reminded of our origins in nature, and cooperation comes more to the fore (we are often surprised when it does, and praise the "heroics" of individuals doing what they were biologically programmed to do). We intellectually know that the split between ego and environment will kill us - but we seem powerless to intervene. 

Artists have always understood this split. Shakespearean tragedies show how the ego is torn apart by exposing the fundamental rift between culture and nature, but how Shakespeare does this is the thing. The play is a form in time, conceived in the mind of the playwright to unfold its moments of tension and tragedy in the lived experience of all the audience and players. This time of unfolding has a structure which is tied up with the structure of the drama, and this is the playwright's art - in concieving of the unity of the diachronic and synchronic aspects of drama as a whole.  

This uniting of the diachronic structure of life and its synchronic structure is something that also can be seen in cellular evolution. The principal mechanism by which it occurs is endosymbiosis - the absorption by the cell of aspects of its environment. As the endosymbiosis process unfolds, then obviously the structure of the cell reveals its history - rather like the rings in the trunks of trees, or ice cores represent a history book. Diachronic and synchronic are united. 

If this is the stuff that we are made of - if each of us, even at birth, are all "history stuff" - then the power of Shakespeare makes sense. In its unfolding temporal structure it recapitulates a much deeper temporal unfolding which unites each of us to each other through our cells. It's not that King Lear's tragedy awakens specific agonies in us with regard to our encounters with politics or power; it is that in the lived experience of seeing this unfolding dramatic structure, we see "through" each other - in Alfred Schutz's words, we "tune-in" to the inner life of each other. The power of the play is the power of deep connection and mutual recognition - all the more potent for it being so old and yet so fresh.

What we lack in our educational structures is the ability to make a similar kind of connection between teachers and learners. But such a connection can be made, I think. But like a Shakespeare play, it must be constructed so that this can happen. If there is any utility in the concept of "learning design", then it is this intended purpose - that something is designed or constructed such that learners and teachers can can perceive their shared biology and connection. 

How can you teach maths like that? or biology or physics? or medicine or brain surgery? Perhaps a better question to ask is "What stops us teaching maths, etc, like that?". And the answer to that is the nature-divorced ego implicit in our social structures of education. And yet, division and multiplication, cell boundaries, or the symmetries of quantum mechanics are all tied up in the processes which unify the diachronic and synchronic. We just lack a clear way of showing how - we lack a narrative and structure which reveals it. I think it's right, for example - as Louis Kauffman has argued (and more recently Steve Watson) that the symbolic notation that we use as the basis of teaching maths takes us in the wrong direction if we wish to identify wholeness. There may well be better "iconic" ways of approaching mathematical thought - as Lewis Carroll or Charles Sanders Peirce knew.

I'm increasingly interested in exploring what novel iconic and dramatic approaches to learning might reveal, and how they might be organised with technology. For example, knots are a powerful metaphor which extend from mathematics to psychology and organisation theory. And there's wonderful software to explore them (see The KnotPlot Site

It's something which I think does unite some of the better critical pedagogic thinking (Freire, Boal, Shor, etc) with deeper understanding of the relationship between mind and nature. 

Thursday 10 December 2020

Networks and Biology: Wiring ourselves into a bad theory

The one thing that can be said about networks is that they are easy to draw. Anyone who's done "join the dots", or who has looked at a map, or studied physiology or neuroanatomy understands networks in their essence: a set of points joined together with lines. The join-the-dots pattern permeates the natural world like a kind of fractal motif. But what we see and what things actually are, are not the same. How would we know if networks actually exist?  

In order to know whether a network is real, we would have to be able to establish some kind of correlation between our observations of the network's structure (which is "the network"), its behaviour, and any changes we might make to that structure. Obviously, if the network is human-made, then the relationship between an electronic  network's structure, how it behaves, and predictable outcomes in the light of changes to it would seem to be straight-forward. But in complex artificial networks, such as those defined by machine learning models, predictability in the light of network change is elusive. We are strangely unbothered by this, because we see the same type of unpredictability in natural networks. 

We may see in the brain an array of enormously complicated "networks", but beyond some very crude interventions which zap entire sections of "the network", there is little predictability in the effects of these interventions. So when we see little predictability in the AI webs our consciousness has made, we are inclined to imagine ourselves in the image of God, and satisfy ourselves that if fuzziness is good enough for our understanding of nature, it is good enough for our understanding of artificial intelligence. 

But this fuzziness should ring scientific alarm bells. Networks do not just spring from nothing. They emerge in nature from biological processes. To put it more directly, networks emerge from the dynamics of cells. Neurons are cells. Nerves are made from cells. Tree roots, fungal fibres and bacterial colonies are made from cells. The cell is the thing. The network is an epiphenomenon arising from the cell's behaviour.

This point is important when we think about our technology. If we designed our technology from the metaphor of the cell, rather than the metaphor of the network, we would have very different technology. And I am increasingly convinced that if we understood our existing networks with their mystical properties (like machine learning) from the perspective of cells, then their behaviour would be much less mysterious to us.

The main thing a cell must do is maintain a boundary between itself and its environment. It must maintain its internal environment and maintain balance with an ambiguous external environment, and it requires energy to perform these functions. It is through performing these functions that the cell establishes relations with other cells, from which the physical characteristics of a "network" might be seen to emerge. 

However, this mechanism must drive the cell through the processes of self-organisation with its environment. Networks are driven through a process whereby the cell seeks stability in its organisation relative to its environment. This can be achieved through absorbing features of the environment so as to adapt itself and organise itself into increasingly complex life forms - a process Lynne Margulis called "endosymbiosis". Increasingly complex life forms in turn provide the cell with increased adaptability in the face of environmental challenge. These processes of endogenisation and adaptation are the basis for the epigenetic mechanisms which are exciting increasing interest in current empirical biology.

But endogenisation and adaptation mean that history and time is embedded in the structure of the cell, and in the networks it forms. Biological networks - like neural networks - are more like scar tissue, or the scree lines fomed by geological events than they are simple nodes and arcs. At each stage of organisation, the cell must maintain homeostasis and balance with its environment; at each stage it tends towards the conditions of its initial formation - conditions which are historically embedded in its own structure.

This is the "network" science we need. It is not a science of networks at all, but of dynamic processes of maintaining boundaries at all levels of organisation, from the brain and the liver through to consciousness, communication, technology and education. Behind the rigid visualisations of network dynamics on Facebook, and the scree lines and scar tissue of individual biographies, and biological history. 

Looked at this way, the way we think about our networks of human communication are grotesque distortions of nature produced by a bad theory. Instead of cooperating and organising themselves, the bruised egos of individual nodes compete against one another, each node seeing to be the loudest or the best, or "clusters" of damaged souls reinforce pathological and explosive boundaries in politics. 

The basic point is that the homologue of the cell's  boundary wall is not the person's skin; it is a dialogue's boundary. At a human level, we organise ourselves through communication - that's where our boundaries are formed. However, when locked-in to the network technologies of social media, the boundary walls are reinforced against the environment - there is little endogenisation, and hence little growth and development. It is the homologue of the cancer cell. 

There is an urgent question in technical design: whether it is possible to create a dialogical technology which can reproduce the organisational processes of the cell, including its endogenisation of the environment, and its maintenance of self-organisation against an ambiguous environment. To do this requires a much less mystical view of nature and of things like machine learning. Such a view can be found if we jetisson our obsession with the network, and instead think about the commonalities between how we maintain our communicative boundaries, and how a cell does it. 

Tuesday 24 November 2020

An inevitable paradox of data protection?

One of the principal benefits of computer technology is that it performs the role of recording speech acts (in emails, tweets, messages in Teams, etc). This serves an important function in human relationships. It enables each of us to track the commitments we make to each other, helping us to communicate, anticipating potential breakdowns in organisation or communication.  For individuals maintaining communication with each other, the record of speech acts is useful, but the fact that this data can be retrieved by others for whom this information was not intended, can distort power relations. 

Anxiety that such threats by powerful information-holding elites to individuals might manifest in legal proceedings aimed at those primarily responsible for protecting data and upholding GDPR legislation (managers in institutions) can lead those managers to seek a place of safety to protect themselves from litigation. However, this "place of safety" can be directly in conflict with the principal rationale and benefit of computer systems in the first place - that they allow for speech acts and commitments to be recorded and managed. 

A friend told me that a German university has recently done precisely this: in confronting the problems faced by GDPR, they first adopted a Microsoft solution (GDPR has been an open goal for Microsoft). Deeper reflection on the implications of increased capacity for storing speech acts and monitoring commitments has subsequently led to the same management to determine that all text and video communications produced through teaching and learning processes should be deleted after two weeks. In effect, having created a technological environment within which learners and teachers can grow to understand each other through producing data, management then assaults learners and teachers with measures that sabotage the technology. 

Is this an inevitable paradox produced by the way we have organised ourselves with technology?

The dimensions of the paradox are:

  1. Data is something "given" in the world - like an object or a created artefact; 
  2. Data counters amnesia. Records of conversation mean things to individuals, particularly when stored over a long period of time (although the locus of meaning is not "in" the data, but in relationships);
  3. Data can be rearranged, recombined, reorganised to produce other kinds of object. Consciousness works dynamically with processes of manipulation which result in new meaning arising. When data is analysed, something "given" is turned into something else in the world; 
  4. Databases are a technology for centralising access to data. They have emerged through self-organising, free market dynamics which were intended to distribute information, but instead they have produced concentrations of information and power;
  5. To protect individuals from this concentration of power, new legislation bears upon organisations to ensure that personal data must be carefully controlled (GDPR)
  6. To uphold the commitment to GDPR, institutions are forced to massify their technology (enter Microsoft)
  7. Massifying the technology introduces new concerns about concentration of power, leading managers worried about litigation to drastically restrict the capacity of the technology to store personal data;
  8. Restrictions on the capability of technology to store data directly impacts on the ability for individuals to coordinate actions with each other - it introduces amnesia.

While this "amnesia paradox" appears to be the result of pathology in institutional management (which it may be), more deeply it is probably the result of technical architecture which tends towards centralisation, in a similar way to which the http protocol has tended towards centralisation and pathology. 

Thursday 12 November 2020

Games and Cells

A game is another name for a conversation. When people play together, or talk together, they are creating a game which lives through their participation. The 'playing' is the dynamic which maintains the boundary of the game, just as the internal and external processes of a cell maintain its boundary with its environment. Games are like cells.

Like all whole systems, there is a meta-system which maintains the integrity of the whole. Games have rules, and rules are determined by the meta-system. The game lives as a viable entity because of the dynamic relationship between the rules of the game and the play. The rules might be thought of as a meta-game.

The relationship between the meta-game and the game is very much like the relationship between the shifts of entropy in play, and the shifts of maximum entropy of possible moves. Maximum entropy determines the maximum amount of disorder available to the game - in effect this relates to the maximum moves allowed by the rules at any point. The entropy of play relates to the constraints (rules) imposed by the metasystem. Both the rules and the play can evolve. 

This is rather like the game "Nomic", where moves in the game change the rules.

There is an interesting question as to when a game comes to an end: the constraints produced by the meta-system mean that the entropy of play is zero. 

If a conversation or dialogue is a game, then they can come to a pause, but somehow the "talk" goes on in other ways.  The pause in a game is also the result of the entropy of play hitting zero - at least within a particular frame of play. The rules of a game can enforce this pausing-zeroing - like the games and sets in tennis, or timed halves in football. Their purpose is to impose pattern on the sequence of events, so as to set up the conditions for an eventual ending. 

In education, summative assessment does the same thing: it sets up the conditions for an ending of the game. Appeals, mitigations, etc, open the thing up again, but this too is demarcated to create a pattern which is designed to come to an end.

Formative assessment, by contrast, is the actual "playing" of the game. 

Saturday 7 November 2020

Paul Ashwin's Critique of the London Interdisciplinary School

Paul Ashwin has written this critique of the London Interdisciplinary School:

I couldn't post a comment on the HEPI blog, so these are my comments:

I think there are two basic and related questions in Paul's critique:

  1. Is LIS trumpeting the scarcity of its offering to an elite market of “exceptional students”?
  2. Is LIS’s offering really new in being focused on transdisciplinarity and real-world problems?

These are very important questions not just for LIS, but for all institutions. With regard to scarcity and elites, all education, from kindergarten onwards, declares what Illich referred to as “regimes of scarcity” in the experience they provide. It’s ironic that they all end up looking the same! 

LIS’s marketing is unfortunate because it apes absurd Oxbridge-style scarcity, although one can understand how their marketing people might feel compelled to present themselves in this way. I doubt it will be quite as elite as they suggest – and indeed, being more comprehensive will, I'm sure, make their educational offering better.

But is it scarce? Is it new? Paul suggests not, but I think this really depends on what we are looking at. It is of course true that the desire for a radical restructuring of education is not new. What initiatives always amount to is not a restructuring or discarding of bodies of knowledge, but a reorganisation of the conversations through which knowledge is transmitted and produced. Sometimes they also reconfigure the means by which the variety of skilled performances by students are assessed and codified.

That, in my view (and I’m not an insider) is what LIS is aiming at – and that is different at a time when higher education has become increasingly transactional, learning outcomes (which I think Paul is no fan of) codify compliance with institutional expectations, not personal understanding, and technologies for learning become mere reinforcements defending institutional hierarchies and processes rather than liberating individual creativity and expression (how much can learners actually do in your institutional VLE?)

This is certainly not a great time in education, and we need experiments to find alternatives to the institutional sclerosis – particularly in the wake of the pandemic. If our older institutions are wise, they will look to learn from LIS, and wish that it succeeds. What might they learn? Well… 

  1. Focusing on inter-disciplinarity and polymathery is not to throw away knowledge. It is to reorganise conversations;
  2. Focusing on real-world problems is to find alternatives to the curriculum for organising conversations;
  3. Focusing on new ways of coordinating conversation will lead to more sensible ways of using technology to support personalised learning and deepen intellectual engagement, rather than uphold institutional structures;
  4. Assessing students in diverse work settings and activities will present new opportunities for exploiting new technologies both for formative and summative assessment, which may get us away from the ideology of constructive alignment and learning outcomes. 

Finally, in the face of bold and genuine attempts to make education better, I wouldn’t want to defend our institutions on the grounds of the structured bodies of knowledge they contain. If they can be said to “contain” knowledge at all, they do so because of the conversations that they have hosted. In the face of managerial nonsense over the last 15 years or so, those conversations have become increasingly difficult to maintain - particularly at disciplinary boundaries (REF has seen to that!). We do need to find new ways of reorganising ourselves, and LIS could be where we learn to do it.  

Saturday 24 October 2020

Making Online Learning Dance in an International Social Operating System

At the end of the Global Scientific Dialogue course at the Far Eastern Federal University, most of the students I spoke to said that being online didn't really affect their learning - indeed, for some, it was preferable to face-to-face learning. What they liked about the course is basically the same as what students tend to like most about most courses - working with friends, rich conversation, and sharing their enthusiasms for things with others. We tried hard to create this environment of group-work and sharing when we first designed the course 3 years ago for face-to-face delivery. It is quite different online, but this aspect of it has been preserved - and it was very gratifying to hear the reception. The role of the technology in this cannot be overstated - and there is something powerful and new in Microsoft Teams... it feels like an International Social Operating System... but more on that in a second.

If we really believe that conversation is the essence of learning, then the standard practices of much of the face-to-face curriculum cannot remain. Of course not all subjects deliver large lectures with masses of content - music and architecture stand out for me as the best subjects in the university - but far too many still rely on this mode of operation. It suits the teachers, and certainly suits the bums-on-seats managerialists, but doesn't do any favours for the learners. 

The online switch is revealing this more strongly. Global Scientific Dialogue, perhaps rather like music, is focused around tools and developing skills with tools. The content flows through the conversations and activities we get people to engage in as they explore the tools. It is personalised - everyone has their own experience, brings their own experience, and everyone has to make their own connections in developing their ideas. The truth is that this can be organised relatively easily and cheaply if the will is there to do it. 

Among the various noises about online learning during the pandemic has been the repeated claim by so-called experts that online learning is more expensive, more resource intensive, than face-to-face learning. Well - it is if you try to reproduce what you've been doing face-to-face! But why on earth would you want to do that? 

Of course, teachers in institutions are bound by institutional constraints and expectations about learning. But these constraints and expectations have formed around a bad theory of education. If we re-inspect our theory, we will find that the whole thing is much much simpler than the "constructive alignment" ideology, the learning outcomes, the quality measures which all but destroy innovation and creativity, and the assessment regimes that destroy conversations in the name of "academic integrity". The costs of education arise from our belief that these constraints represent what education is (grounded in "evidence" - another fallacy).

I've been incredibly lucky in Russia because I have had the confidence and backing of a senior management team who have been prepared to suspend judgement on things that are very different. In the UK our institutional stiffness in universities is much more deeply ingrained - partly, I think, because the layers of management that enforce it are threatened by the fact that real innovation in education would obviate their roles. The last thing anyone in a position of power wants to hear is an educational approach which simplifies everything to self-organisation and conversation.

But that is it. Being made to work online will make it more and more apparent to an increasingly large number of teachers and learners across the world. We can use the technology to do education and science better and cheaper - it's what the pioneers of educational technology always said from the beginning. We just don't need the layers of management and bureaucracy any more - just something to facilitate it. 

Education, when it's done well, is a dance. I'm really happy to have danced online in Vladivostok with some very talented learners and teachers. From our crazy improvised "orchestra" at the beginning, to the revealing of wonderful and diverse creative talents of learners expressed through our final "carnival" of presentations at the end, and rich conversations with a variety of experts in all kinds of disciplines in our "experts day", Global Scientific Dialogue has been a success and a revelation. The students produced wonderful stuff - highlights include two students - one in Russia, one in China, simultaneously trying to make a Mobius strip and cut it in half to make a trefoil knot, or students sharing their experiences of social media, or wonderful creativity in producing video (which many hadn't done before) and art.  

The technology too has been a revelation: Microsoft Teams is different from any other kind of educational technology we have had - and it is global, having consumed both education and industry over the last 8 months. It is our new international social operating system.  It will be with us for some time. Much as I distrust large tech corporations (they're all crooks, aren't they?), this may be a very good thing to happen to education at this juncture. 

Sunday 18 October 2020

Universities through the Looking-Glass: what challenges and opportunities does an online, global future for higher education present?

The pandemic for me has brought a period of very intense international collaboration. From weekly meetings with academic friends in the US and Europe, a large-scale online conference run as festival over the summer (, through to working with the Far Eastern Federal University in Russia on a radically different kind of pedagogy online. I'm thinking that as many universities switch their teaching to online-only, and more pessimistic noises are made about a vaccine, what if online becomes a more permanent arrangement? What might it mean? 

I've started to list a few points... 

  • Teachers will get better at it
  • Personal tutoring will really become one of the most important things the university does, and not just a tick-box exercise 
  • Technologies for supporting innovative pedagogy designed to work in the online space will improve. Learning platforms like VLEs will evolve from web-based Content Management Systems into collaborative and cooperative academic relationship management systems
  • New pedagogies and ways of assessment will be developed
  • Many of these new pedagogies will focus more on personalised education - partly because this will be found to be useful for individuals struggling to survive in a profoundly uncertain environment
  • Universities are likely to review the ways they design and approve new programmes to encourage more innovation
  • Many new pedagogies will focus less on content, and more on tools - skills to use new tools will become of paramount importance
  • Global opportunities presented by being online will be exploited: there is no reason not to have contributions to teaching made by professors from all around the world
  • Economic challenges will bring an impetus to cut costs - globalisation will assist this, when rates of pay in universities across the world vary so much, and computer systems are increasingly global, why not have your administration. or even some of your  faculty, based in China? Will new legislation be required to protect jobs?
  • The annual scholarly conference will evolve into more established global scholarly networks which will become active on a more regular basis online. There will be efforts to engage students in these events, and maybe even to establish new kinds of academic apprenticeship
  • Active scholarly networks and platforms which are more open and outward-facing will gradually replace journals as the dominant mechanism for scientific communication
  • Global citizen science, empowered by AI tools, will drive new approaches to research in topics ranging from environmental studies, health, sociology, psychology, physiology, education, management, law and many others.
  • Fundamental science - particularly research into physics and biology - will connect with a more progressive approach to educational practice and theory
  • The arts will be one of the principle beneficiaries of this, as the biological mechanisms underlying creative work and collaboration are better understood as engines of social progress. The obsession with STEM will end as the online world makes the need for the arts even more apparent.


Wednesday 14 October 2020

Microsoft Teams, Class Notebooks, 200 students and 11 teachers in Vladivostok

I'm currently delivering the 3rd year of the Global Scientific Dialogue course in Vladivostok with wonderful colleagues at the Far Eastern Federal University, led by Elena Suvorova.  We did it first face-to-face in 2018 (see This time it's online and in Microsoft Teams. I have to say, Teams feels like a real advance in educational technology. Yes, it's Microsoft, with all its big corporate evilness. But.. this is a new way of doing teaching and learning, because it is a different kind of technical architecture.  Since my day-job has involved rolling-out Canvas, that might seem a surprising thing to say. Canvas has some strong points (its API!), but it remains a web-based, centralised Content Management System. Which is fine... but it constrains the educational practice around content delivery.

Teams can work a bit like Canvas - you can use its file storage mechanisms to deliver content. And if you try to do this, you would think Canvas is much better because it makes things look prettier. But you'd be missing the point.

The best bits in Teams are the ways that it distributes documents to students (or other team members). Each individual gets their own personal copy of a document, but if you are a teacher, the student's document is also viewable and editable by you as a teacher. This is new. In a content-management system, the system administrator, or the person who "owns" the course, owns the documents (with perhaps a few exceptions). In Teams, the users own their documents.

Perhaps there's not as much user-ownership as I would like, but it's a start. What can we do with this educationally?

Well, first it means that each user-owned document is a vehicle for personal conversation and dialogue with a teacher - or even other learners. In order to take advantage of that, we need a pedagogy which promotes personalised learning.

Global Scientific Dialogue always aimed at personalised learning - the idea was to take students through a set of "rooms" with different activities, tools and objects to get them to reflect on their own learning needs, career wishes, etc. Face-to-face there was lots of post-it notes and flip-chart paper... which was fine (good in fact). But online it's better.

Now the course is focused on "tools". The content of the course, as much as there is any, is themed around using tools and understanding what new tools mean - particularly AI, data analysis tools, simulation tools, creativity tools, etc. There are amazing tools out there, and since everyone is staring at their personal computers, they can download and play with these tools together! That's been a revelation. 

Then we need assignments to get the students to reflect on their experiences, and what they think these tools might mean for the future - particularly in a  post-COVID world (a number of them are studying tourism, or international trade, or other subjects which are vulnerable to severe disruption) 

Teams handles assignments by distributing documents, but tracking the workflow. Basically, it sees an assignment as a transaction which can bounce between a teacher and a learner. Assignments can be set up so that a learner is sent a document containing instructions on what they are to do (this can be a multimedia document of course), and the learner can either edit this document with their response, or attach other documents when they submit their assignment. 

So basically, I divided 200 students into 11 teams, with a teacher overseeing 17-22 students, being able to track the transactions of the assignments between the student and the teachers. 

Into these assignments, students can write, but they can also capture video from their small-group discussions and paste the video into their submissions. They can also download and edit these videos and include other things from the course (for example, AI-generated music or art). 

Face-to-face, the need for small-group activity meant that we needed to divide the students into small classes, each coordinated by a teacher. Online this has proven to be less necessary - we still divide the students for their activities into smaller teams (we have set up 1 main team and 11 small teams), but it is possible to get 200 students actively involved in using tools and experimenting all in one go online. I've made extensive use of Microsoft Forms to break-up delivery, and this is an exercise we did today in using Google's Deep Dream generator... For the first day, we asked the students to bring something "to make a noise", and got them to make a John-Cage like musical happening as a warm-up!

It's running until the end of next week, and we have a special "experts day" to come, alongside sessions on Data processing (I'm doing something with Kaggle), simulation (NetLogo), and knots. But so far so good - particularly for the technology.

What is fascinating me is that the technology presents a different set of constraints around teaching and learning, and with those, new ways of coordinating conversations becomes possible. Of course, I don't want to be tied to Microsoft, but frankly, this is almost a peer-to-peer delivery system which could have a variety of different back-ends as an alternative to Microsoft's - blockchain/IPFS anyone??

Friday 9 October 2020

Mutual Information, Mutual Redundancy and the Cell

Shannon's measurements of Mutual Information and Mutual Redundancy have the same kind of organic feel to them that was originally displayed in Ashby's homeostat, and many other cybernetic devices. This organic correlation may have application in the design of new kinds of communication networks which operate on a cellular and ecological basis rather than through a "node-arc" model.

Mutual information is clearly defined as the overlap between the entropies of 2 phenomena - the extent to which one entropy can be coordinated with the entropy of the other. Thus it is a measure of the similarities in degrees of disorder between two systems. It turns out that this "similarity in degree of disorder" is particularly useful in calculating the extent that an information source has been transferred to a receiver, which may develop, in time, the capacity to predict the information produced by the source. Thus mutual information can also be considered as a measure of the "transfer" of information.

It's calculation can be simplified to the entropy-of-A +  entropy-of-B - entropy of A and B together.

Most of the time, mutual information in 2 dimensions like this produces a positive result. Indeed, it has been shown that mutual information cannot be negative. Yet, under certain circumstances, using Shannon's equations, it is, and negative values of mutual information have prompted much speculation as to what this means.  

In 3 dimensions, mutual information is more likely to be negative.  

These information-theoretical measurements can be related to three fundamental features of cellular organisation. Mutual information can be considered to represent the degree of self-organisation within a cell. Mutual redundancy concerns the overlap in the pattern of constraint between a cell and its environment. A cell also requires energy from its environment and this can be represented by the extent to its range of possible actions can be expanded through interacting with its environment (it's maximum entropy). 

In information theoretical analysis of economic activity, the three measures of mutual information, mutual redundancy and maximum entropy can be used to measure the level of innovation in an economy. However, this high-level calculation depends on lower-level processes involving groups of individuals within institutions. If the high-level organisation of the economy can be seen as an "organism", then might the low-level communications of individuals within the economy been seen as constituent "cells"?

Examining this from the perspective of education is interesting. Educational "cells" are not individuals. They are conversations involving a number of people (just as cells contain many interacting components)- and conversations display exactly the same features of mutual information, mutual redundancy and maximum entropy. Importantly too, however, is the fact that conversations have a history. The way a conversation develops depends not just on its history, but on the history of its components. The personal biographies of a cell's components will play an important role in the development of a conversation.

When academics talk about this "cell-like" communication structure, it is sometimes related to the structure of terrorist groups like the IRA, or the mafia, or the French Resistance. It is a principal characteristic of a Clandestine Cellular Network (see . Thinking about terrorist groups highlights the importance of a recursive structure in cells: the personal biographies of terrorists and freedom fighters is often tied to emotional trauma in individual histories. The trauma is instrumental in the larger communication cell growing. 

But going deeper still, the "cells" of conversations depend on biology - real cells. These too interact on the same principles - mutual information in their self-organisation; mutual redundancy in their engagement with their environment; maximum entropy in their gaining of energy and information from the environment. These cells too have a history which will determine the direction of their own development: cells have "hysteresis", bearing the marks of previous stages of evolution. 

Information theory is important to this because it provides a way whereby we can ask "are the patterns of organisation - between mutual information, mutual redundancy and maximum entropy - related?" Are the patterns of a cell related to the patterns of a conversation? Are the patterns of a conversation related to the patterns of an economy? 

A mathematical-empirical foundation for asking these questions is important: it allows us to take measurements and make predictions. It allows us to do simulations. It feels like a different kind of science, that takes organisation, history and communication together at multiple levels, and across phenomena. My interest in this is to explore new ways in which these equations can lead to a re-formation of educational structures using technology.

Sunday 4 October 2020

A Dialogical Cell Machine

I want to develop the ideas from yesterday's post about cells and networks with a closer look at cells and what a different kind of communication technology might look like that privileged cellular dynamics over individual ego. The question I left with yesterday is "What does the cell do?". I think John Torday's evolutionary biology and his First Principles of Physiology gives us a clear answer to this:

  1. A cell creates order within itself: it works against entropy, in the way Schrodinger describes
  2. A cell maintains stability with an ambiguous environment: it maintains homeostasis
  3. A cell gains energy from its environment: biologically, it gains energy through chemiosmosis, although multi-cellular organisms gain energy through digestion, photosynthesis, etc...
These principles apply at all levels of biological organisation - from cells to institutions.

Thinking about a "dialogical cell" - that is a conversation comprising a group of people, or a community, negentropy represents the ways in which people in the group organise themselves. Businesses, for example, organise themselves in functionally-differentiated units such as "accounts", "production", "marketing", etc. Academic societies organise themselves around topics and functions. This order arises through selection of particular communications - the "mutual information" of an organisation. Cognate terms serve as ways of indicating how things are organised. 

The maintenance of stability with an ambiguous environment requires that whatever happens inside a cell must represent itself to the outside environment in such a way that the cell can find a niche to survive in. Academic societies, for example, are related to one another in the topics they discuss. Each produce publications and public pronouncements of what they are doing. In so doing, they attract attention from other cells, and gain in sources of energy and support. They also contribute to the environmental conditions for their own survival - creating public communications which in time serve as an invitation to others to contribute to their survival. Such communications are rather like the "receptors" on the cell surface. 

I'm inclined to think of these external engagements as being the equivalent of an epigenetic mechanism. While the DNA of a cell might be represented by its internal organisational machinery - and a process of mutual information - the external engagement amounts to the production of epigenetic marks and the mutual redundancy between these marks and the environment producing an autocatalytic environment for the growth of the cell and the organism.  

It's a bit like a spider spinning a web - which is also a good example of redundancy. This external behaviour creates a niche for the spider, as well as transforming the environment for other organisms. That's what publications and other external communications do for dialogic cells.

In terms of energy, dialogic cells are populated by people who gain energy in other ways. However, the really important source of energy for any dialogue is new information - differences that make a difference, as Bateson would put it. Diversity in the environment of a cell is essential to the cell's survival. This is probably the biggest failing in current social networks - differences are attenuated. If there is no energy through difference, then cells are likely to eat themselves or each other. Which is pretty much what we see online. 

That's quite abstract. What about practical techy stuff? What's the functional spec for a dialogical cell machine?

What we need are:
  1. A mechanism for identifying mutual information as an organisation tool within a cell
  2. A mechanism for assisting the production of redundancy by the cell to its environment
  3. A mechanism for organising a dialogical cell such that it maximises the difference of its environment from which it can gain energy to grow
Obviously dialogue itself can identify mutual information. I saw this in the dialogues that occurred throughout the recent ANPA conference ( For example, Doug Matzke had produced a fascinating python program for doing geometric algebra, and Lou Kauffman noted the similarity between Matzke's approach and Peter Rowland's physics - "Maybe we should can put this together..." That's fine, but perhaps we can do more. In most videoed conversations now, we can produce transcripts very easily, and those transcripts can be analysed for mutual information, and references followed-up automatically, producing further mutual information. We should try this. Such analysis can be a catalyst to new forms of internal organisation in a dialogue, and it can also provide ways of managing large cells such that they might decide to split off and explore specific areas (mitosis/meiosis).

The epigenetic mechanism is more interesting because it requires some kind of system for processing and producing redundancies which might relate to external communications. What tools do we have for processing redundancy? That is precisely what machine learning does! Fed with information about internal dialogue and external dialogue, machine learning can identify external signals and generate new signals based on what is happening within the internal dialogue cell. The epigenetic mechanism is an anticipatory system. 

Left to its own devices, such a machine-learning driven mechanism will lead to confirmation bias. So a balance must be struck between the internal organisational processes and the external processes. Sometimes the epigenetic processes must generate unusual information as a way of attracting new kinds of cells from the environment. This can only happen by considering what the internal processes are doing and whether the homeostasis is "too stable". There must be a higher-level steering mechanism balancing mutual information with mutual redundancy, self-organisation and autocatalysis. 

What does all this feel like?

We start a discussion on Zoom (say). It's transcribed an analysed. New references are discovered, invitations sent out (the beginnings of epigenesis) and the discussion expands. Over time, each discussion is analysed and the result made available to its members. As internal organisational choices are made, so the analysis also identifies (through machine learning) the underlying patterns of the discussion, uses this to analyse the communications environment, and starts to support the generation of related documents (blog posts, etc), videos, etc, which are published to the outside world. Some of these attract new members... as the discussion develops, internally, the cell divides into related but separate discussions. 

I don't think this is Facebook - although there's plenty I haven't thought about yet.

Saturday 3 October 2020

Escaping the Ego Machine: Rethinking Systems Architecture for Educational Technology

I had an interesting discussion with a friend earlier this week about creating an online space for dialogue about education. The default technical solutions to this all look the same - they are all content management systems in various forms, where "personalisation" is provided in the form of tailoring the presented content to individuals based on their activities. 

Educational platforms like VLEs do not have the sophistication of Facebook's personalisation algorithms, although of course there is a lot of effort going in to trying to make this work. They are cruder CMS systems, displaying content according to particular organisational groups - e.g. modules, classes, programmes, etc. 

But saying all these systems are the same is to say that their basic architecture is the same: there is a server which acts as a repository of stuff contributed by teachers and (sometimes) students. Access to the system is controlled by an individual's account - their username and password. Activities too are tied to the individual. Although some systems allow for group activities in various ways, such group activity is really a different coordination of individual people, and a different presentation of content. 

But what is happening here? When we talk about "content" we are basically talking about "documents". A web-page is a document, a personalised feed in Facebook is a document, an assignment is a document... Who controls the documents when they're on the platform? 

This blog post is a document which I am writing and clearly I control what it says. Most blog posts are not collaborative efforts, they are individual and personal. When individuals publish things, they are mined for whatever information Google might find useful to sell stuff to other individuals. Obviously I have no control over this.

A lot of social media feels like an "Ego machine" - my thoughts, my documents, my desires feed a market of other individuals' thoughts, documents, desires. But to what extent is it an ego machine because of the systems architecture upon which it sits? If we didn't have servers and personal accounts, could it be different?

The question can be represented visually. The "ego machine" model can be represented as a set of interconnected nodes - individuals - with lines representing communicative acts of some sort. This is a "network model" shown below on the left. But social relationships in real life feel more like a cellular model, shown on the right. Cells are not individuals, they are "dialogues" or "codes of communication" - they might even be "communities of practice" - although I would want to dig into that loaded term...

What social media platforms have done is to overlay a "network model" of communication - which, after all was the simplest architecture for computers - onto a cellular model. The problem is that this excludes the detail of what happens in individual cells. 

Cells are not "nodes". They are active processes with a boundary that separates an "environment" which is negotiated and separated from a set of "internal operations". The collective action of the processes engaging in the environment and the processes maintaining internal states is to maintain the boundary - i.e. to maintain homeostasis with the environment. 

Seeing cells as processes with an inside, an outside, and a boundary presents a set of powerful questions which must be addressed. What are the internal processes doing? What are the external processes (those which engage the environment) doing? What happens at the boundary? More powerfully, these questions can be asked of all cells - including those that constitute the natural world. In the light of this, the network diagrams of social media look very one-dimensional - and I think this is reflected in our experience of the technology. 

Once we start asking questions about cells - whether its questions about cells of communication, or cells in our bodies, questions about "ego" take a back seat. We don't know the locus of consciousness and self - but we do know that it sits on a biological substrate, and that this biological substrate is cellular. We can also point to homologies in cellular processes at different levels of organisation. So the homology between cancer and the pathologies of confirmation bias and the corruption of a political system are telling, or the homology between epigenetic mechanisms at a cellular level, and our communicative practice online are also very powerful.

Moreover, once ego takes a back seat, focus falls not on the viability of individual cells, but on the coherence of the whole. 

That is where our technology needs to take us. I don't think a centralised server-based architecture can deliver this. We need something else. Documents can now be created collaboratively and used as vehicles for dialogue. This is opening the way for individuals to become "inter-mediaries" in document production, rather than authors. Distributing documents for diverse collaborative production is something that Microsoft Teams does very well - which is interesting - but then this technology works on a different technical principle to the  CMS. Can a coordination between different groups producing different documents be created so that some groups can naturally split (mitosis/meiosis) or die (apoptosis), all the time maintaining the coherence of the whole? These are the questions we really need to think about if we are to set ourselves straight for the future. 

Saturday 19 September 2020

Technology's Future in Education

Looking at the EdTech landscape right now, in the light on the Coronavirus pandemic, it seems that things have settled-down to an established set of tools, where "the future" is mapped-out by the as-yet-to-be-proven technologies of AI and big data. Certainly that is how the doom-sayer critiques of edtech appear to see it. But history often doesn't work out in the way that we imagine, and we've been certain about the way things will work out in the past, only to be surprised by what actually happens.

There are some early indicators among the current crop of technologies that things may change radically once more. The first indicator is the re-emergence of an old tussle between centralised systems like content management systems, and decentralised document distribution systems. 

Many institutions have been refreshing their Virtual Learning Environments, and perhaps the biggest surprise in this "refresh" is quite how little has changed in 20 years. The VLE is really a content management system that manages people, content and activities together. As a centralised management system, it provides students with very little that they can do for themselves: all the functionality is focused on the management of students and the allocation of resources. For this reason, the UK name "Virtual Learning Environment" is at least less misleading than the US "Learning Management System". But in truth, these systems are neither "learning environments" nor systems for "learning management". They are administration systems which help keep track of the transactions of learning. 

 But at the same time as institutions have been refreshing the VLE, they have also invested in Microsoft Teams for real-time virtual classrooms. Now, Microsoft have an interesting history in groupware, where they have experimented with CMS systems, and with document distribution systems. Their Microsoft Office Groove system from about 2007 allowed for the peer-to-peer sharing of documents both online and offline, although they abandoned this when they put their weight behind Sharepoint. 

But it seems that the document distribution model is back with Teams, and particularly with the Teams Class Notebook. The Teams Class Notebook is a document distribution system where the OneNote notebook is divided into sections, some of which are solely controlled by teachers, some of which are controlled by individual learners, and some which can be edited as shared documents in real-time (like GoogleDocs). Teachers can create resources and "push" them out to learners, so that learners then take ownership of the documents, can customise them and organise them to suit their own purposes. Teams uses its messaging infrastructure to drive the communication and coordination process between all the student notebooks so that the teacher can keep track of what everyone is doing.   

It's rather reminiscent of Liber and Olivier's Colloquia VLE from the late 90s, where documents and activities were distributed through emailed zipped IMS Content Packages. Teams does the same thing, but has replaced email with their technology, and the Content Packages with the OneNote file specification. 

However, there are some advantages that Colloquia had over the current Teams Class Notebook. Being completely peer-to-peer meant that students could create their own groups and classes and distribute resources independently of the teacher. In Teams, this wouldn't be easy to do as things stand (everyone would have to be a "teacher") - but it is something that I'm sure people will experiment with. And then there is the issue that Teams is tightly integrated into the institution's IT infrastructure, and that including people from outside the organisation presents a large number of barriers. 

My guess is that Teams Class Notebook will inspire people to think differently about technology once more - we don't need big Content Management Systems for Education; we need distribution mechanisms which can be coordinated by teachers and learners. That's important not just for education. The CMS model dominates almost all web platforms - Facebook is the classic example. But if Facebook worked as a document distribution model, it would be very different. 

The difference, I believe, may lie in the way that individuals taking control of their own resources can promote the making of personal meaning and connections between things. At the moment, our meaning-making processes are beholden to algorithms presenting new stuff to us all the time, often trying to sell us stuff. But if we could share documents by distributing them and accepting distributed documents from people we trust then making our own connections within our personal collections can deepen the way in which we process information and think about the world. 

I wouldn't be surprised to see some kind of convergence between new forms of edTech and new forms of Social Software in the coming years. Institutions of education are going to have to adapt to this stuff. If the making of personal connections and personal meaning becomes the focus rather than simply "swimming in information", then the central question will become "What do institutions do to help individuals make sense of their technical environment?" Is AI going to help there? I doubt it - at least not in the Golem-like way we currently conceive of it.  

Tuesday 8 September 2020

Beyond the USS Pension Fund Collapse

There is a certain air of relief in UK universities that they have students - albeit a much reduced intake from overseas. However, nobody is relaxed about the future. The UK higher education system is oscillating like Tacoma Bridge: it is experiencing violent shocks both internally and externally (this has been happening since before the pandemic), and it is reacting to each of these shocks in a way that reveals that both our institutional structures and our compass are broken. 

The latest shock is the unsurprising revelation that the USS pension scheme - already in trouble - is now in such trouble that anyone looking at it might reach the conclusion "is it worth it? do we quit and invest money elsewhere?" That's very dangerous for a pension scheme. It's difficult to know the larger-scale effects of this, but it is almost certain to make working in HE in the UK unattractive.

There is no question that the marketised universities have exploited labour - particularly of temporary/hourly-paid staff. The union response to this, compacted by the pension issue, may be come to be seen as a warning for what is about to come. Although I had very mixed feelings about the strikes, when we stop listening to each other (which was one of the factors that led to it), serious trouble is always around the corner.

In the  final analysis, the question to ask when things seem to be shaking themselves to bits, is What's it all about?, Why do send our kids to university? The conventional wisdom (if you can call it that) among many management teams has been "we're businesses - it's about making money". This attitude, promoted by government, is directly responsible for the extent to which things risk falling apart now. It will be seen to be a classic case of the dangers of having a poorly inspected ontology. More importantly, it will be seen to be a warning that no senior manager of Higher Education can afford not to understand the importance of a grasp of the deep reality of education (how many managers even understand what "ontology" means?). Unfortunately, both sides in the industrial action suffered the same problem. 

A grasp of the deep realities of education requires thought and reflection. It requires a university to think about what a university is. This task is exactly the same as finding (or refinding) one's compass. Having said this, the lack of reflection has resulted from deeply embedded political interference in universities which has pushed them towards a market model. It has also jeopardised the personal security that all of us hope for towards the later stages of life.

A deep reflection on the realities of education cannot now exclude technology. Technology, in many ways, occupies much of the same territory as education: communication, collaboration, coordination of intellectual activity, construction, etc. Like universities, its ontology is poorly understood, but tech firms are not universities. Because they really are businesses, they have been seduced by marketised universities as opportunities to make large sums of cash. But at its root, technology is simple and (to a large extent) free. What has been missing are the dispositions to engage with it creatively and intellectually. While the pandemic has brought much crashing down, this creative and intellectual engagement with technology has been transformed, and things will not be the same again. It is noticeable that much of that creative technological engagement has featured retired professors, who - thanks to their generous pensions - can afford to make valuable contributions.

In many ways - although it certainly doesn't feel like it - our present crisis is caused by an embarrassment of  riches.  Our problem is not only deciding which way to go when there are so many options, but in remembering why we are travelling. To make universities rich? No. To pass on sufficient wisdom, memory, foresight and capability to the next generation so that they can negotiate the future? That must be it, mustn't it? So the possible collapse of the pension fund doesn't just indicate an immediate (or impending) loss of cash. It indicates that our values were misplaced. 

Universities must be viable and effective. To do so, their members - students, teachers, managers, must feel secure and able to think creatively, believing what they do is meaningful and makes the most of their intellectual talents. Right now, nobody feels secure in universities - partly because we are all - of whatever political persuasion, influenced by the illusions of market capitalism. This risks causing a debilitating intellectual malaise which will exacerbate the crisis. That is most likely to manifest in more industrial action. 

This is the point where intellectual authority is required - so desperately lacking from the present government. Only "health and quiet breathing" can create the unity between a deep understanding of the social necessity for higher education, the nature of technology, and the viable institutional model which can nurture and sustain it.

Friday 4 September 2020

More on the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association: What online learning was meant to be!

 We've just finished the 4th week of the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association conference... It feels like a marathon - but what an amazing set of talks! You can see them all here: Overall, over 60 people have attended from all over the world - which is a number of attendees not seen since ANPA was founded in Cambridge 41 years ago. 

The level of depth of engagement, the level of mutual listening to one another, the variety of the presentations, it's all been extraordinary. Everyone says how amazing the impact of the technology is on the discourse. This is what online learning should always have been! We missed it because the community making the noise in online learning were the online educators - and they were not the most important people. 

In universities, the important people have always been the intellectual experts and deep thinkers within their own disciplines. The best of them would always think beyond their disciplines and listen to everything - and we've got many of the best of them in ANPA. It's also worth saying that because of the marketisation of education, these people have been oppressed within the university. Talking about the foundations of physics, or the connection between biology and consciousness became harder and harder in a transaction-driven system that was focused on certifying students and making money. The problem is that  all that transactional stuff is bloody boring. 

Covid is producing many changes, not least in the fact that the elders are now on Zoom. But more importantly, the closure of the campus has exposed the transactional nature of university learning as deeply deficient. Intellectual depth and real interpersonal connection will be essential for the university's survival in the future. As I've argued previously (and about to publish in Postdigital Science and Education), the transaction-driven model of marketised education relied on the campus to soften the blow of the outcome-driven educational process. The campus was a kind of biological surrogate.

With the campus gone (and yes, another lockdown is likely, isn't it?), a new balance must be struck. 

John Torday's presentation to ANPA provides what I think is an explanatory framework for what is happening to us. Our epigenetic environment has been transformed by Covid-19. Now is the time to rethink the biological foundations of our learning theory - particularly in the light of technology. It is, fundamentally, to rethink Piaget's genetic epistemology and Papert's constructivism (which drew heavily on Piaget)

My presentation was connected to this. I talked about "ontological theatre" of cybernetics (and Pask's involvement in ANPA has been a revelation to me), and the connection to David Bohm's idea that theory was a "theatre of the mind", and to think about what happens when minds come together.

This was Bohm's vision of a scientific dialogue: a tuning-in together of many brains operating thought together. It was also Stafford Beer's idea of "many brains thinking as one brain". My talk took in fractals, anticipation, a doodling program which I wrote, Rachmaninov's Corelli Variations and John Cage. It was fun!

But there have been so many talks - all of which will now receive new audiences for years to come. Mike McCulloch's propulsion mechanism explained with "information loss" was perhaps the most astonishing, but there were so many others, including beautiful artistic images from John Hyatt and Lynnclaire Dennis, or Andrew Crompton designing dice, or David McGoveran's wonderful overview of ANPA history in the US, or striking mathematical work drawing on quaternions from Doug Matzke and Mike Manthey.

And there's another 2 weeks to go!

Friday 14 August 2020

An Online Space for Operating Thought

The most exciting thing that has happened since the lockdown is the reorganisation of intellectual engagement among scholars from all kinds of disciplines. When everyone, of all ages, was stuck at home in front of their computers, all over the world, it became easy to say "let's meet up in zoom and talk about all those things which we never got to discuss properly in the 20 minute slots in conferences". There are a number of groups now operating, and they need to be catalogued. I would mention John Williamson's QuiCycle for discussion around  physics (, and the "Important Things Group" featuring the encounter between physics and biology, courtesy of John Torday and Peter Rowlands, and many others. Now I have been organising the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association (ANPA) conference online along similar lines - one presentation per day, lots of space for discussion:

We have reached the end of the first week of ANPA, and I have found it richly rewarding. We have had profound presentations by Peter Rowlands, Mike Horner, Louis Kauffman and Dino Buzzetti. More importantly, all these presentations have been revolving around a single idea which relates back to Peter Rowland's seminal contribution to quantum mechanics, and Lou Kauffman's beautiful topology which draws on cybernetics and Spencer-Brown's Laws of Form. More impressive still is the fact that, as Dino Buzzetti and Mike Horner reminded us, these current ideas are closely related to the original ideas that caused ANPA to be formed 41 years ago,  alongside Margaret Masterman's Cambridge Language Research Unit. A key figure was Gordon Pask, who not only contributed to the theory but also made a machine (this helps explain how Pask's thought extended from education to consciousness and physics). 

I was wondering what Pask would have made of our zoom conference. Perhaps he would have suggested richer shared spaces for activity other than the conference chat. But at the same time, I don't think anyone who has built on Pask's work in educational technology has really considered the situation of eminent thinkers really coming together through technology, thinking together through that technology, and thinking together about a common set of ideas. 

I'll say something about Dino Buzzetti's presentation in a future post, but this point about thinking together was most evident in Lou Kauffman's presentation. It was beautiful partly because of its theatre. David Bohm always argued that "theory" was a kind of "theatre" - the words have the same etymological root. There is a process that occurs in the interplay between pictures, words, logic and structure whereby the interference between those parameters mixes with the interferences of everyone else's constructions of those parameters, to reproduce these structures in other minds. Bohm called this process "dialogue" and says that its purpose is to "operate thought". Thought, he said, is a bit like a machine, and we have to learn how to use it, which we can only do by coming together like this. 

Lou used beautiful hand-drawn equations and diagrams to illustrate his point that the point was nothing. And perhaps its nothing which is the result of all those interference patterns. Or it's nothing that permeates the patterning of those interference patterns. Either way, it seems if we want to see "wholes", we should look for "holes".


Wednesday 12 August 2020

The Exams Crisis: The Establishment Crumbles from Society's Children Upwards

Coronavirus is exposing the poverty of understanding of what really matters in society. If education  has been seen to be a priority at all, it is because the function of school in "keeping the kids off the streets" has been prioritised (behind lots of bluster about "learning"). 

In its ongoing development, like any organic entity, a society must exercise ways of making distinctions about things. Most of all, it must make distinctions about its own components as old components die, and new ones are born. Societies are autopoietic. Unfortunately, the ways that society conceives of its components, its structures, its purpose are determined by the established "components", most of whom have a vested interest in sticking to the old ways of making distinctions, and the old ways of structuring things.  Education is the vehicle by which nothing changes: it is supremely resistant to the demand for change, however much the world changes. While "Innovation" might be thought of as an engine for change, in fact this is education's immune system. But it's ok - because the world doesn't change too much.

Well, you can guess what's coming. 

It's not just societies that are autopoietic. People are too. Each of us, as biological entities is continually regenerating our cells in order to maintain our viable functioning in a changing environment. This is where what we call "learning" is happening. For the most part, the most important environmental phenomenon to which we have to adapt is our cultural environment - the world of jobs, money, mortgages, etc. This cultural environment sits on a substrate of the natural world which is biological and physical, but for the most part, the substrate is ignored by those busy with maintaining the culture milieu and making lots of money. 

Ignoring things is dangerous. Universities used to take the natural environment far more seriously than they do now. Fundamental inquiries into nature drove the scientific revolution. But today, nature is merely a "subject", some words on the curriculum, alongside all the other words like "accountancy" and "architecture". Its boxed-off, compartmentalised, separate. But this is the lie from where the ignorance comes.  

Our children are our natural inheritance. Their biology will come to dominate the cultural milieu when we are dead. Because of the rigidness of our thinking about our societal components, we are killing the very resource that offers hope for the future. It's as if we can't help ourselves - and that is one of the most frightening things about coronavirus - the threat of positive feedback in the biological and social system.

This isn't about kids getting into medical school or not, or kids getting grades they were awarded for exams that weren't taken terribly seriously by anyone. It's about how we conceive of the components and organisation of society, and how we create the conditions for development of its ongoing functioning. Everything that is called "Establishment" stems from the selection processes which operate on children in school. Everything is programmed for conservation of a rigid way of doing things, and this conservative impulse gets stronger the more uncertain the world gets. A number of Tory politicians (including the PM)  are saying that we need more exams. This is precisely the phenomenon of ramped-up conservatism in the light of increased uncertainty - positive feedback. 

We may be close to a breaking point. Just as the intense heat of the last few days is finally giving way to thunder and rain, so the anger of young people against a political class which is clearly incompetent may lead to a breath of fresh air. This anger has an existential and biological root, which doesn't just speak for the individual, but for the species. 

Who gets to be a doctor or a teacher? Who gets to be an artist or a thinker?  Who doesn't want to go to university? Who wants to serve in cafes or design space rockets? 

The answer must be: anyone who wants to. Equally, nobody should have to get the mental health problems, eating disorders or suicide attempts. 

Society then must organise itself to make this happen, and what it will take will be a fundamental rethinking of the relationship between nature - including the nature of our biology as sentient organisms - and culture, as the world of language and the speech acts that give us money, presidents, corporations and football matches. 

But this can only happen if society finds a new way to think about itself. It needs a language to express its use of language, in the context of the language it uses to describe its biology, physiology, and the material contents of the planet and the universe. A way of understanding the way we build things, and a way of understanding how we can build things differently. 

The establishment is crumbling. We need a meta-language to escape the trap of positive feedback which will otherwise finish us all off.  

Tuesday 11 August 2020

Alternative Natural Philosophy Association Online

The Alternative Natural Philosophy Association is a scholarly society which began in Cambridge 41 years ago, established by Ted Bastin (see, Frederick Parker-Rhodes (see, Clive Kilmister (see, David McGoveran (see, John Amson and H. Pierre-Noyes (see . Whilst the academic background of its founders lay in theoretical physics - and one particular theory called the "combinatorial hierarchy" (see dominated the early meetings - the intellectual ambition was always much broader than physics. Figures on the periphery of ANPA included Gordon Pask (Bastin worked extensively with Pask) and David Bohm (Basil Hiley, Bohm's collaborator in London, sometimes attended ANPA), and Roger Penrose (who collaborated on a book with Bastin about quantum theory).

This is Bastin, Kilminster and McGoveran discussing the combinatorial hierarchy in December 1992:

I got involved with ANPA 4 years ago, invited by physicist Peter Rowlands who I met at Liverpool university. I had been involved with the American Society for Cybernetics, and realised Peter and I knew some of the same people. I had got to know people through cybernetics, and he through physics. My meeting Peter occurred because I asked Loet Leydesdorff if he knew of anybody who was doing anything around anticipatory systems in Liverpool. Loet sent me a conference proceedings which mentioned Daniel Dubois (who work in anticipatory systems in seminal), and Peter Rowlands from Liverpool. Loet had worked with Daniel in developing anticipatory systems in the social sciences, and Peter (it turned out) knew Daniel well. And then the pieces started falling together. Peter also knew Louis Kauffman very well, who is one of the leading figures in cybernetics.

Last year, ANPA took place in Liverpool University, following a conference on Laws of Form, which is a mathematical theory which is closely related to approaches to physics. This year ANPA is online, hosted courtesy of Liverpool's Zoom account, and I'm organising it. Normally, this is a conference lasting a week. This year, I thought that nobody wants to spend all day staring at Zoom, so we could do one presentation per day, for a number of weeks - more like a festival than a conference. We started yesterday, with a presentation on the history of ANPA from Mike Horner, followed by a discussion where some of the older members of ANPA shared their memories and thoughts. For anyone interested in the history of ANPA, this is an excellent introduction.


It worked well, barring the usual technical glitches of Zoom. 

There's something very important happening with this online stuff. It would have been difficult to convince many academics to put up with online engagement before the pandemic. Now everyone's online - and more than that, people who haven't seen each other for decades because of difficulties travelling are not only meeting up and sharing memories and ideas, but creating a video resource which will exist for future generations.  

These kinds of discussions used to happen in universities (although ANPA was always a bit esoteric). But today, even in Cambridge, discussions of this nature won't be found. All universities, without exception, are now businesses. The academics have gone in search of a new forum for exploring deep ideas - and it is online. My betting is that students will follow in the fullness of time.

In the phase of development in online learning since the web, the focus was very much on teaching and learning rather than disciplinary scholarly engagement. I wonder if this led to some errors of thinking which require deeper inspection that is only possible with the kind of scholarship that manifests in things like ANPA. Educational research, by and large, provides only a very pale representation of scholarly thought about consciousness, communication and learning. If we want to get closer, we need to talk to the people looking at nature from the deepest perspectives. 

When their discussions start to embrace the technology which we have had for 20 years or so, and they make their deliberations available to everyone else, there is an opportunity not only to move things forwards in education, but to rethink how we organise intellectual engagement and academic apprenticeship more generally: the very things that universities are there to do. 

The ANPA programme is available here:

It is open to anyone, so if you would like to come, please contact me and I'll send you the Zoom link.

Sunday 9 August 2020

Luhmann and Biology

Niklas Luhmann's social systems theory is one of the most impressive achievements in the social sciences in the second half of the 20th century. Widely appreciated and mainstream in Germany and across mainland Europe, it remains far less well-known in the Anglo-Saxon world, beyond the realms of systems theorists who knew about Luhmann's hinterland, cybernetics, Maturana, etc. 

Loet Leydesdorff is about to publish a new book detailing the intellectual relationships that Luhmann had with Habermas and the intellectual elite in the 60s and 70s. This history is important because its not just our institutions that are in a mess at the moment, but our disciplines - not least, sociology. 

For those who want to critique Luhmann, his dependence first on the biological cybernetics of Maturana and Varela is a cause to claim "biological reductionism", or his later fascination with Spencer-Brown as a kind of sophistry which doesn't convince Leydesdorff.  It's remarkable that despite these criticisms, and indeed the criticism by Maturana that Luhmannn had misappropriated his theory, that Luhmann is the only figure from mainstream cybernetics to have had a major transformative impact on a discipline, with important work drawing on it - from Kittler's media theory (again, pretty much unknown to Anglo-Saxon media departments) to Yuk Hui's recent and brilliant "Recursivity and Contingency" which is spreading around the world. People reading Hui will learn about Ashby, Maturana, Von Foerster, Simondon, etc from this. 

Luhmann, like Stafford Beer, grounded his theory in biology. Autopoietic theory said that organisms maintain their structure by reproducing their components. Luhmann said that communications and discourses were the same. His project was to detail the mechanisms of reproduction in the discourses of economics, law, education, art and so on. It was a biological metaphor applied to a historical sociological analysis. Leydesdorff has impressively (but sometime impenetrably) operationalised this. By going back to Luhmann's intellectual foundations in phenomenology (Husserl, Schutz, Parsons), and drawing this together with biological work that Maturana didn't consider in detail (Robert Rosen, Daniel Dubois) and information theory (Shannon), Leydesdorff has created powerful analytical techniques for analysing discourses and identifying the mechanisms of autopoiesis by looking for "anticipatory systems" in the imprint of communications.   

At the heart of Leydesdorff's techniques has been the analysis of "mutual redundancy" - something which I have played a part in too. Redundancy is so useful and powerful because it exists at all levels of communication, from cellular organisation to language. The technologies that allow us to make comparisons between different levels of analysis are becoming more available. Leydesdorff was able to exploit the internet to make measurements of discourses. But now we have so much more - physiological data is available to anyone with a FitBit or an Apple watch, and more sophisticated techniques for analysing other facets of communication like prosody, body movement, etc are all becoming easier to operate. 

These physiological data points throw the spotlight back on Luhmann's drawing on Maturana. What is the relation between cell-talk and people talk? Cell learning and organisation and people learning and organisation? More to the point, people are aggregates of cells which have a history both in the ontogeny of the person, and in the phylogeny of the species. 

We know that developmental history is fundamental to present behaviour and learning. We know that developmental history was informed by environmental conditions. We're not clear about exactly how this works. How should our education policy progress if it turns out that (as we suspect) the history of environmental conditions are inseparable from individual development. Poverty, austerity, unemployment, stress, etc will all contribute to developmental problems - an uneven playing field which serves nobody well.   

Eugenics is generally considered a dirty word even in right-wing educational thinking. But it permeates a lot of educational thinking on the right and the left. The idea that individual merit and achievement is purely down to individual "effort" - Blair's "meritocracy" (which he never saw the irony in) is implicitly eugenic. It is implicit in the awful video that UniversitiesUK sent out that I commented on in my previous post. 

It is gaps in our theory which lead to this. The grasp of environment and history in the understanding of educational development is urgent if we are to make things better in education. In a sense the theoretical project is an extension of Piaget's "genetic epistemology" - but we've got to look beyond manifest biological structures and more towards their ontogeny and phylogeny. Mass education is about as old as the last pandemic. Perhaps it's about time we used the anniversary (and the current pandemic) positively.