Saturday 29 May 2021

What is happening with "digitalization" in Education?

I am currently involved in a large-scale project on digitalization. The aim of the project is to instil practices relating to the manipulation of data, coding, algorithmic thinking and creativity throughout the curriculum in the University. While this appears, on the one hand, an attempt to reignite the "everyone should code" kind of stuff, something is clearly happening with the technology which is necessitating a reconfiguration of the activities of education with the activities of society. 

As with many big structural changes to education, there are already quite a few signs of changes in practice in the University: many courses in the humanities and sciences are using programming techniques, often in R and Python. My university has established faculty-based "data centres" - rather like centres for supporting e-learning - which provide services in analysis and visualisation. However, across the sector, there is as yet little coherence in approaches. It is rather like the situation with teachers using the web in the late 90s where enthusiastic and forward-thinking teachers would put their content on websites or serve them from institutional machines. The arrival of VLEs codified these practices and coordinated expectations of staff, students and managers. This is what is likely to happen again, but instead of codifying the means of disseminating content, it will codify programming practices across different aspects of the curriculum.  

There is a further implication of this, however, which has to do with the nature of disciplines and their separation from one another. One of the reasons why digitalization has such a hold in education at the moment is the dominance of digitalization in industry across all sectors. Where sectors might have distinguished themselves according to expectations formed around concepts, products and markets, increasingly we are seeing coordination of industrial activities around practices and processes. This has been slowly happening for the last 20 years or so, but is evidenced by the way that industries are realigning themselves by synergising practices and technologies across different fields of activity. Think of Amazon. This has been coupled with increasing "institutional isomorphism" in the management of institutions across the board. This has produced many problems in institutional organisation - partly because the old identities of institutions have been torn-up and new identities imposed which, although they exploit the new technologies available, almost always reinforce and amplify the hierarchies and inequalities of the old institution.  

With this in mind, this next phase of digitalization is going to be very interesting. The old hierarchies of the university are established around academic departments and subjects. These are basically codified around concepts which, within academia, operate to define and redefine themselves in contradistinction to one another. This is not to say that interdisciplinarity isn't something that's emerged: obviously we have things like biochemistry or quantum computing, but even within these new fields which appear interdisciplinary, the codification around concepts is the central mechanism which provides coherence. Look, for example, at how academic communities fracture and form tribes: not just the mutual antipathy between psychology and sociology, but between "code biology" and "biosemiotics", heterodox vs classical economics, etc. A lot of this kind of division has to do not just with disciplinary identity, but personal identity. Concepts are tools for amplifying the ego (am I not doing it here?), and the principal mechanism for this process has been the way we conduct scientific communication. 

Digitalization means that increasingly we are going to see research and learning coordinated around practices with tools. This is a more fundamental change to what is loosely called the "knowledge economy". It won't be enough to simply name a concept. We will need to show how what is represented by a concept actually works. Argument will be increasingly embellished with concrete examples, some in code, and all of which presented in a way in which mechanisms can be communicated, experimented with, new data applied to, refined, and continually tested. More importantly, because these practices become common, and because practices supersede concepts in scientific inquiry, the traditional distinctions between disciplines will be harder to defend. This will produce organisational difficulties for traditional institutions in which disciplines will perceive threats in the digitalization process and seek to defend themselves.

Another threat may come in the form of what might be called the "status machine" of the university. Concepts don't only codify a discipline, they codify the status of those who rise to positions where they can declare concepts (what Searle, who is not alone in pointing out this mechanism, calls "deontic power").  While new practices are codified in a similar way, practices are only powerful if they are adopted widely, and in being adopted, they are continually adjusted. Eventually we don't care about the concept or who thought of it, but about being part of the game which is developing and upholding a common set of practices. The operating system Linux is a good example: nobody really cares about who invented it; but we do care about using and developing it. We can start to make a list of similar practices which fit this model: computer languages, online programming environments, visualisation tools, etc.

But the university is a "status machine": its business ultimately lies in selling certificates and through codifying status. So if it comes to be about practice rather than status, what does the University then do? New forms of personal status codification are emerging. The online machine learning competition site Kaggle, for example, provides opportunities to do real and meaningful data analytic activities. Winning a Kaggle competition is an important marker of personal status carrying more meaning than a degree certificate because it demonstrates what someone can actually do, with references to things that were actually done. But Kaggle does not lock its status mechanisms behind the expensive close-system of an institution: it is open and free, funded by the fact that the fruits of intellectual labour become the property of Kaggle (and by extension, Google). Intellectual activity given to the platform is exchanged for status enhancement. It is in many ways an extension of the Web2.0 business model with some important differences. 

What happens in Kaggle educationally is particularly interesting. Kaggle teaches simply by providing a network of people all engaging in the same activities and addressing the same, or related, problems. There is no curriculum. There are emerging areas of special interest, techniques, etc. But nothing codified by a committee. And it exists in the ecosystem of the web which includes not only what Kaggle does, but what StackOverflow does, or anything else that can be found on Google. Human activity contributes to this knowledge base, which in turn develops practices and techniques. Learners are effectively enlisted as apprentices in this process. Experts, meanwhile, will go on to exploit their knowledge in new startups, or other industrial projects, often continually engaging with Kaggle as a way of keeping themselves up-to-date.

The University Professor, meanwhile, has both become increasingly managerial, and increasingly status-hungry as they seek the deontic power to declare concepts, or make managerial things happen ("we should restructure our University" is a common professorial refrain!), but increasingly (and partly because there are so many of the bastards now), nobody is really interested - apart from those who will lose their jobs as a result of professor x. We just end up with a lot of mini-Trumps. Deontic power doesn't work if nobody believes you, and it doesn't do any good if, even if they listen to you, they merely repeat the conceptualisations you claim (but with different understandings). The academic publishing game has become very much about saying more and more about less and less, where each professorial utterance merely adds to a confusing noise that only benefits publishers.

Kaggle shows us that we don't need professors. There will always be "elders" or "experts" who have more skin in the game and know how to use the tools well, or to apply deeper thinking. But it is not about leading through trying to coin some attractive neologism.  It is about leading through practice and example. 

Here we come to the root of the organisational challenge in the modern university. Their layers of management are not full of people leading by example with deep skill in the use of digital tools. They are full of people who postured with concepts. And yet, these are the people who have to change as the next wave of digitalization sweeps over us. I suspect it's not going to be an easy ride.

Thursday 6 May 2021

Technology, Conversation and Maturana

I wrote this last month for the Post-Pandemic University blog (see Technology and Conversation – The post-pandemic university ( Maturana was on my mind. I saw him speak at the American Society for Cybernetics conference in Asilomar, CA in 2012. There were many other cybernetics luminaries there for the Bateson celebration "An Ecology of Ideas" (see Microsoft Word - all.docx (  I also remembered from that event Jerry Brown's motorcade arriving (he was a Bateson student), Nora Bateson's film, Graham Barnes's talk ("How loving is your world?"... Graham also died recently), Terry Deacon's talk and Klaus Krippendorff's birthday celebration. It was quite an event.  

I don't remember an awful lot of Maturana's talk except for a remark he made about learning in response to a question: "What we learn, we learn about each other". 

That deserves a huge YES!

So here's my postpandemic piece. And that comment from Maturana about learning runs all the way through it.


Biologist Humberto Maturana once wrote a poem called “The Student’s Prayer” in response to the unhappiness of his son in school. It goes:

Don't impose on me what you know,
I want to explore the unknown
And be the source of my own discoveries.
Let the known be my liberation, not my slavery.
The world of your truth can be my limitation;
Your wisdom my negation.
Don't instruct me; let's walk together.
Let my richness begin where yours ends.
Show me so that I can stand
On your shoulders.
Reveal yourself so that I can be
Something different.
You believe that every human being
Can love and create.
I understand, then, your fear
When I asked you to live according to your wisdom.
You will not know who I am
By listening to yourself.
Don't instruct me; let me be
Your failure is that I be identical to you.

Maturana’s poem speaks of the importance of exploration and conversation in learning – what he calls “walking together”. Taken literally, conversation is actually “dancing together” because the Latin “con-versare” means “to turn together”. I find this a useful starting point for thinking through the confusing categories by which we distinguish online activities and artefacts from face-to-face engagements. Anyone who has danced with anyone else knows that it doesn’t work by one person imposing something on the other. It does require “leading”, but the leader of the dance engages in a kind of steering which takes into account the dynamics of the whole situation including themselves and their partner.

What happens in this steering process is also revealed in “conversation”: it is a negotiation of constraints – “this is how we can move”, “this is how I am able to move”, and so on. Like dancing, conversation is not about imposition. In a conversation, participants reveal their understanding and their uncertainty through the many utterances that they make. Those utterances are multiple attempts to describe something which lies beyond description. But taken together, something is revealed, and if it works, like the dancer and their partner, each person becomes a different version of the same thing – rather like a counter-melody to a familiar tune. A richer reality emerges through the counterpoint of multiple descriptions.  

This understanding of conversation is the antithesis of the increasingly transactional way in which the education system seems to view the “delivery” of education. This is not merely an exchange of words, essays, text messages, tweets, or blog posts. It is a coordination. Or perhaps more deeply (to borrow some terminology from Maturana) it is a “coordination of coordinations”.

When I try to explain this, I sometimes use some software called “Friture” which graphs the spectrum of sound in real-time. You can download the software here ( I ask people to sing a single note (or at least try) and capture it on the computer. The resulting spectrum shows a set of parallel lines representing the many frequencies which combine in making the single sound. Conversation is like this, I say.

Indeed, we can explore things further with sound. If you sing the note while gradually changing the shape of your mouth to make the different vowel sounds, the number of lines decrease and increase. The narrow “e” sounds are rather like a tinny transistor radio. The fuller “ah” sounds are more “hi-fi” and rich. So the more simultaneous versions of the same thing, the more “real” it feels. Try it!

The message is that our grasp on reality and the effectiveness of our social coordination requires the coordination of diverse voices – and that is what conversation is about. The physicist David Bohm, who made the connection between a view of quantum mechanics and scientific dialogue, explained it more elegantly here: (1) David Bohm on perception – YouTube. And there is a political message: the richness in our understanding of reality entails the conditions of a free society which embraces diversity and creates the conditions for conversation: that is, one that doesn’t impose one particular description of the world on everyone else. That merely produces the tinniest of transistor radios!

Technically, in the world of information theory, multiple descriptions of the same thing are termed “redundancy”, which is another word for “pattern”. This is useful when we try to make sense of the relationship between the conversations that we have face-to-face, and the phenomena that we experience online. 

The Internet’s Multiplicity

The internet has vastly expanded the multiplicity of descriptions of the world. Does the internet dance in much the same way that our face-to-face conversation dances? I think it does, but to understand how it does, we have to look a bit more deeply at the kinds of multiplicity involved in all conversation. 

The internet produces its multiplicities differently. Face-to-face conversation is comprised of gestures, words, phonemes, and prosody – we wave our arms, use our eyes, change the pitch of our voice, and often repeat ourselves. The repetition we might think of as a “diachronic” (over time) redundancy; the arm-waving, voice pitch, gestural stuff is “synchronic” (simultaneous). Returning to the sound spectrum analyzer, the parallel lines identify the synchronic aspects, while if we were to sing a melody, the changing pattern over time represents the diachronic dimension. 

So what if the balance between synchronic redundancy and diachronic redundancy can be shifted around? What if parts of what is synchronic, become diachronic? Isn’t that what happens on the internet? 

Our snippets of text, video, emails, game plays, hyperlinks, blogs, timelines, likes, shares and status updates do not happen at the same time. While some of them (like video) contain rich synchronic aspects similar to face-to-face engagement, and text itself is a remarkably rich synchronic medium (without which poetry wouldn’t exist!), much of the multiplicity (or the redundancy) occurs diachronically as well as synchronically. The timeline matters; the concern for a particular individual’s understanding matters. And we may never meet somebody face-to-face, but following them on Twitter might mean that we get to know them as if we had, and perhaps a bit better.

Why don’t your Zoom lectures Dance?

So why, when it comes to education online, does so much seem deathly? Why doesn’t your zoom lecture dance? If the internet dances, why can’t education join in?

To answer this, we have to examine education’s constraints. And here we meet the very things that Maturana was railing against. Why is it so dreadful? Because the basic function of the system is to impose on students what is already known, examine them and certificate them. It instructs, reproduces and fails (at least, in Maturana’s terms): more goose-step than dance. 

There are of course reasons why this is so. After all, how would a meaningful assessment system operate if learners were allowed to be different from one another or do completely different kinds of activities? Well-intentioned though ideologies like “constructive alignment” are, inevitably they get used to hammer abstract “learning outcomes” into students in the same way that we hammer in facts. In short, online learning is crap not because of technology, but because of the constraints of the institution. But our institutions took their form in a world where our available tools were limited, meaning that this was the most effective way to organise education at the time. If we started from scratch today, with the tools that we now have, might our institutions would look and behave very differently?

We have a vestigial education system which increasingly insists on a transactional “delivery of learning” and its measurement. Shifting this ideology online brings the added disadvantage that the internet does not afford the same synchronic richness of face-to-face situations (which at least mitigate the pain of instruction), while the education system cannot adapt to the internet’s rich diachronic mode of operation.

Dancing on Stilts

But it was always obvious to the pioneers of technology in education that learning with technology was a different kind of dance. One would end up dancing on stilts or trying to play Mozart wearing mittens if one insisted on reproducing established ways of institutional education online. 

In a very revealing passage explaining his core idea of “teach back” (where a teacher would ask a learner to teach back what they had learnt), Gordon Pask noted something fundamental in the patterns of teaching and learning processes that chimes with Maturana’s poem:

“The crucial point is that the student’s explanation and the teacher’s explanation need not be, and usually are not, identical. The student invents an explanation of his own and justifies it by an explanation of how he arrived at it” (Pask 1975)

What Pask argued was that it was the redundancy of the interactions that mattered in the dance. 

Technology and Institutional Structure

Now we have amazing technology, this redundancy can come in many forms and many different kinds of media. Videos, blogs, social media interactions, and so on. And yet within the context of formal education, we rarely harness this diversity because it presents organisational problems in the assessment and management of the formal processes of education. The root cause of why we dance on stilts lies in the structures of education, not in any particular pedagogy or “ed-tech”. 

This is the paradox of the current state of the uses and abuses of technology in education. The need for technical innovation in education lies in the use of technology to reform the management and structures of education which constrain teachers and learners to such an extent that it makes online education unbearable. The actuality of “ed-tech” innovation in education lies in corporations feeding on the obvious inadequacies of online learning, looking for a chunk of the enormous sums of money going into education, and pitching for minor improvements to fundamentally broken processes, while often burdening institutions with increasingly complex technical infrastructure and expensive subscriptions. 

There is hope. The internet really does dance, and the students are getting increasingly good at using it (and indeed, some teachers!). Educational institutions are like a Soviet-style old-guard in a rock-and-roll world. Technology is the lubricant that will eventually free everything up – but the old guard will be slow to shift. 

We have to decide what our educational institutions are for. Are they there to “deliver learning” and make profits and pay vice-chancellors obscene salaries? Or are they there for creating the contexts for new conversations? It is a fork in the road. One way lies a future of ed-tech which feeds on the inadequacies of the existing system like a parasite. The other lies a future of technology being used to transform the self-steering both of institutions and individuals in their dances with each other and society.