Tuesday, 14 January 2020

What have VLEs done to Universities?

The distinction between genotype and phenotype is useful in thinking about organisational change. Given that an institution is a kind of organism, it is the distinction between those behaviours that emerge in its interactions with its environment, and the extent to which these behavioural changes become hard-wired into its nature and identity (the "genome"). So institutions adapt their behaviour in response to environmental changes in a "phenotypical" way initially, implementing ad-hoc technologies and procedures. Over time, these ad-hoc procedures become codified in the functionality of universal technologies which are deployed everywhere, and which determine the ongoing behaviour of the "species" - the "genotype".

Changes to the genotype are hard to shift. They determine patterns of organic reproduction: so we see different kinds of people existing in institutions to the kinds of people that we might have seen 40 years ago. Many elderly esteemed scholars would now say they wouldn't survive in the modern university. They're right - think of Marina Warner's account of her time at Essex (and why she quit) in the London review of books a few years ago: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v36/n17/marina-warner/diary, or more recently Liz Morrish's "The university has become an anxiety machine": https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2019/05/23/the-university-has-become-an-anxiety-machine/. Only last week this Twitter thread appeared: https://twitter.com/willpooley/status/1214891603606822912. It's all true.

As part of the "genotype", technology is the thing which drives the "institutional isomorphism" that means that management functions become professionalised and universal (where they used to be an unpopular burden for academics). But - and it is a big BUT - this has only happened because we have let it happen.

The Virtual Learning Environment is an interesting example. Its genotypical function has been to reinforce the modularisation of learning in such a way that every collection of resources, activities, tools and people must be tied to a "module code", into which marks for those activities are stored. What's the result? Thousands of online "spaces" in the VLE which are effectively dead - nothing happening - apart from students (who have become inured to the dead online VLE space on thousands of other modules) going in to access the powerpoints that the teacher uploaded from the lecture, watch lecture capture, or submit their assignment.

What a weird "space" this is!

Go into any physical space on campus and you see something entirely different. Students gathered together from many courses, some revising or writing essays, some chatting with friends, some on social media. In such a space, one could imagine innovative activities that could be organised among such a diverse group - student unions are often good at this sort of thing: the point is that the possibility is there.

In the online space, where is even the possibility of organising group activities across the curriculum? It's removed by the technologically reinforced modularisation of student activity. If you remove this reinforced modularisation, do new things become possible?

If Facebook organised itself into "modules" like this it would not have succeeded. Instead it organised itself around personal networks where each node generated information. Each node is an "information producing" entity, where the information produced by one node can become of interest to the information-production function of another.

There's something very important about this "information production" function in a viable online space. In a VLE, the information production is restricted to assignments - which are generally not shared with a community for fear of plagiarism - and discussion boards. The restricting of the information production and sharing aspect is a key reason why these spaces are "dead". But these restrictions are introduced for reasons relating to the ways we think about assessment, and these ways of thinking about assessment get in the way of authentic communication: communicating within the VLE can become a risk to the integrity of the assessment system! (Of course, this means that communication happens in other ways - Facebook, Whatsapp, Snapchat, TikTok, etc)

The process of generating information - of sticking stuff out there - is a process of probing the environment. It is a fundamental process that needs to happen for a viable system if it is to adapt and survive. It matters for individual learners to do this, but it also matters for communities - whether they are online or not.

I wonder if this is a feature of all viable institutions: that they have a function which puts information out into the environment as a way of probing the environment. It is a way of expressing uncertainty. This information acts as a kind of "receptor" which attracts other sources of information (other people's uncertainty) and draws them into the community. Facebook clearly exploits this, whilst also deliberately disrupting the environment so as to keep people trying to produce information to understand an ever-changing environment. Meanwhile, Facebook makes money.

If a online course or an online community in an institution is to be viable, then it must have a similar function: there must be a regular production of information which acts as a receptor to those outside. This processing of "external uncertainty" exists alongside the processes of inner-uncertainty management which are organised within the community, and within each individual in that community.

In asking how this might be organised, I wonder if there is hope for overcoming the genotype of the VLE-dominated university.

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