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: https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/11/06/how-radical-is-the-educational-offer-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.