Thursday 12 August 2021

Digitalization In the Wires of the Institution

The defenders of the need for digitalization in Universities will point to the fact that the world does indeed seem to be "going digital". AI, big data and coding skills do appear to be needed in industry, and Universities are currently not ensuring that enough of their graduates are equipped with these skills. However, this is not to say that "going digital" is always an advisable move. Systems consultant John Seddon made the point a while back that "going digital" can be the last thing an organisation needs to do when what is really needed is a careful and strategic analysis of demand. One of the problems with digitalization is that it can generate its own demand (what Seddon calls "failure demand"), and this can exacerbate any underlying problems that a business had in meeting the already existing demand. Going digital is an easy management action - but a great deal of thought and care needs to be taken. Recent experiences with failed Covid apps are a good case in point. 

But if you examine those companies which are "digital", or who have gone digital successfully, being digital means more than simply using AI or data analysis. Not everyone in a digital company does data analysis, but successful companies will wire themselves in such a way that those who have deep technical knowledge can communicate with those who are more concerned with customer relations, personnel, or finance. These interconnections are vital to effective organisational adaptation: as technology advances and demand shifts, so arguments must be made as to what to purchase, develop, update, who to train, delivery targets, and so on. One might conceive of the digital business as a kind of "network", but it is more than that. It is a network which knows how to rewire itself. One has only to look at Microsoft, Amazon or IBM to see the power of the ability to rewire a business. 

The process of "rewiring" is not simply a process of assuming that certain connections will automatically be made with the "right tools". Human beings, like many biological organisms, are built for rewiring themselves, but this takes time and energy in which we need to learn about ourselves and our own wiring. Every new connection requires the conditions within which trusted communications can evolve. In biology, the creation of these conditions is the critical moment in the establishment of connection: it is the creation of a niche for communication. In industry, niche construction is a precursor to organisational shifts which ultimately result in changes to the ways in which transactions are conducted with customers. Of course, customers only see the transactions - they don't see the processes which underlie the organisational changes to how the business operates. This is a problem when businesses see education as a customer.  

Education is all about rewiring - it's basically another word for learning. It is much more about rewiring than it is about transactions. Because technologies have been adopted by education from industry, there has been a steady shift away from seeing education as about rewiring, to seeing education as being about transactions. Worse still is the fact that, when positioned as customers of industries (like Microsoft or Instructure, for example), education doesn't even see that the businesses that sell to them are actually much better at rewiring themselves than the educational institutions whose fundamental purpose is rewiring. The transactional processes they become absorbed in mask the importance of the niche-construction that is necessary for the rewiring to take place. 

If digitalization in education is to mean anything at all, it must mean that more flexible institutions which know how to rewire themselves are developed. Only with this kind of flexibility will educational institutions be able to adapt to a changing world and equip learners with their own capacity to rewire themselves. Unfortunately, digitalization is seen in terms of either "knowledge" (for example, digital literacy) or skill (programming, proficiency), both of which miss the point. The point is adaptability, and wiring the institution to instil adaptability lies at the heart of successful digitalization in industry. 

What needs to happen to instil adaptive tendencies? It is probably the capacity to create niches for innovative communications, experimentation and the development of new forms of organisation. That means, in turn, being prepared to embrace uncertainty, throw away trusted models, look at the world differently: uncertainty is the key driver where new communications are born.

We only have to look at industry to see how this is done. One of Satya Nadella's first acts at Microsoft was to introduce a new range of concepts including cloud computing and service oriented architecture, and to deprioritise the key products which the "old guard" believed were the cornerstone of corporate stability (notably, Windows). What that did was create a good deal of uncertainty, which in turn created the conditions for new networks and activities. What would this kind of shift of priorities look like in a University? Dispose of the curriculum? Commit to free and open education?  Disband the Computer Services department? Cap the salaries of managers so that management becomes a service to academics? This is niche creation.

In the niche, we learn new things about each other. This is the most important thing about rewiring. It's not just the technical architecture that needs to be rewired. It is the people - teachers, learners and managers. That can only happen if teachers, learners and managers understand how each other is wired. Technology follows: it is the thing which facilitates the rewiring, but in many ways it is the last stage. 

The real problem we have with the digital in education is not skills or tools; it is that the prevailing structures of the institution prevent rewiring. When everything is turned into a transaction, there is no space to create a new niche. When everything is turned into a transaction, universities have become the mere customers of corporations who, it turns out, are much better at transforming themselves than the universities are. 

This situation can be fixed, but it requires a combination of technical imagination and humane leadership. More importantly, it requires that the technical imagination can get under the skin of the institution and into its wiring. If it can do that, then new niches are possible, and new forms of organisation can be created. That, in the end, is what the digital can do for us - but it is for us to demand it. 

Monday 9 August 2021

Looking where the niche is: Creating the Conditions for Dialogue in Education

One of the things that Covid exposed in education is the extent to which learning has become transactionalised. When face-to-face engagements were removed and technology took centre stage, it was highly noticeable that the learning platforms with which we are all now familiar, managed transactions: "watch this video, respond to this forum, write this essay, here are your marks". 

Of course, education has basically been this for a very long time, but with the removal of the physical context, the raw transactions seemed particularly cold. There is a yearning to "get back to normal" - despite the fact that "normal" is little different in terms of the transactions of education, or indeed, its platforms. But the physical context of education makes the transactional stuff bearable - and perhaps this is a problem.

As institutions massified their operations, making things more transactional appeared an essential requirement to deal with scale. The only way this could be done without people complaining was to amplify the compensation for transactionalisation. That was the coffee bar, the sports hall, the evermore plush (and expensive) student accommodation, and so on. There are very important educational and developmental things going on in these contexts, and while they obscured the transactional coldness of the business of the university, university managers might have believed that the transactionalising of education could continue unabated.

The online move has represented a change of physiological context. It is not a matter of online vs face-to-face, but different epigenetic environments (myself and a couple of friends wrote about this a while ago: Covid-19 and the Epigenetics of Learning | SpringerLink). The biology of learning has barely touched on this, but fundamental to any biological learning adaptation is the construction of a niche within which growth and development is possible. We don't as yet have the means of studying this in detail, but it seems to me that understanding the  processes of niche-construction is essential if we are to have institutions which embrace the technological context that we are all now in and encourage dialogue.

What is a niche? It is a home. At a systems level, it is taming of the complexities of the environment such that growth is possible. Think of a spider's web - that is a niche which the spider constructs. We do the same in education, but a niche in education creates the conditions for dialogue. When Rupert Wegerif talks about the importance of trust (here: What is a 'dialogic self'? - Rupert Wegerif), that is the process of establishing a home for learners and teachers together, which makes their communications not only possible, but probable.

I'm very interested in how niches are constructed. Niches are not constructed through transactions: something else happens, and I think this is what was missing in our Covid technological experiments. 

The key feature of a niche is pattern (again, think of a Spider's web, a bird's nest, beehive, etc). Information theorists call pattern "redundancy", and I find this technical description useful.  Patterns can be formed by the rules of a game (although "rules" themselves emerge through patterns of interaction). More deeply, I think patterns are discovered through a deep physiological engagement. It is the root of intersubjectivity - what Alfred Schutz called "tuning-in to the inner-world of each other". When we do "ice-breakers", this is what is really happening. 

What I think is particularly remarkable is that deep questioning in the light of some shared experience can begin to reveal a niche for dialogue. There is a difference between deep questions and shallow questions: it may be a physiological difference. Certainly, thinking deeply feels different to shallow thinking. Why is this?

It's as if we spin our webs inside us, and join them up at their deepest point. The deepest point (and this was I think, something Schutz was aware of, even if he didn't spell it out) is that we are all made of the same cell-stuff. So does the depth go right back into our cells? Our current cognitive/neuro obsessions prevent us from thinking this, I suspect - but neurons are cells: in fact they are cells which stem from the same developmental "germ layer" as our skin, and like all cells, they share their earliest developmental zygotic processes with all living creatures (you can see the germ layers being formed in this amazing video: Watch a single cell become a complete organism in six pulsing minutes of timelapse | Aeon Videos). Is thinking "deep" going back to evolutionary origins where we all came from? Is that our real niche?

If this deep niche construction is what is needed for dialogue, then the transactional and shallow focus of institutional organisation needs to change. While dialogue is the central purpose of all education, the institutional conditions for dialogue are the institutional conditions to facilitate niche construction at a scalable level. Technology can, I believe, help us to do this. 

There is no reason why the physiological conditions of learning cannot embrace technology or even remote engagement. But I think starting to think about the physiology before we think about the transactions is critical. Creative activities or games, for example, are not just a "different" kind of activity; they are deeper physiologically.  This is quite obvious when we see kids engaging with each other on Twitch.

The niche is where the light gets in...

Monday 2 August 2021

Technology and Education as Energy Flows

There is some biological evidence for the role of inter-related parameters - particularly with regard to time and gravity in cellular development. For example, when taken into zero gravity, the biological development of cells "stalls" (this has been done with yeast and lung cells). Cells become a kind of "zombie" - nothing happens, time stops. When gravity is restored, development continues. So the removal of one of the fundamental parameters on which the equation for life depends (gravity) produces interference in another parameter of development: time. Normally we might think that such an interference in biological processes might occur through an epigenetic intervention (some chemical in the environment). But this isn't chemical, but a fundamental force. This suggests that physics goes very deep into biology, and biological origins.

One of the ideas of John Torday which has got me thinking most is the idea that a phenotype - any phenotype - is an "agent" which seeks information from its environment, driven by the demands of its internal operations with the ultimate aim of resolving the totality of its evolutionary history within its current informational context. What "resolving" means here, for Torday, is reconciliation within its original evolutionary state - the original "unicell". And since we are all phenotypes built on phenotypes, this process is ongoing at many levels of organisation, resulting (and this is the really intriguing thing) in the operations of mind.

Another interpretation of "resolution" is the "creation of zero" which one would get from the balancing of an equation, or a homeostatic equilibrium. Torday has been influenced by Peter Rowlands's physics, in which zero is everything, and Peter has shown how the mathematics of Hamilton's quaternions can explicitly show how zero can be made by manipulating the equations of Einsteinian relativity, or Dirac's quantum mechanics. What this means is that zero is an attractor, driving an ongoing evolutionary process. 

Another way of thinking about zero as an attractor is to see it as a flows of energy from one "level" of zero to another at a higher organisational level. There is some justification for thinking about zero as energy: Einstein's Mass-Energy-Momentum equation can be reinterpreted in the form of Pythagoras's triangle, which can then be shown to be an expression of zero in terms of mass, space, time and charge. What's powerful about that is that time is a fundamental parameter in the resolution: we tend not to think that material things embrace time, but Einstein says they do (because of the speed of light in the equation). Obviously, biological material things do embrace time, so this backs up the intuition that the evolutionary history must be considered in the behaviour of organisms - time and history are embedded in their structure. The same goes for social institutions (which are perhaps another kind of "phenotype")

Technologies embrace time too. The late Bernard Stiegler is broadly right about this: technologies are not mind-independent objects. A materialist view of technology is an the error. So what about thinking of technology as energy - or rather, technology as a fundamental component in evolutionary energy flows? 

Intuitively this makes sense to me. Quite literally, I find technology gives me energy - but only at some points. Nobody would do anything with technology if it didn't excite us.  It can, of course, also drain us. So at the point where it's exciting, there is an opening up of new possibilities. So is that the phenotype establishing a new level of balance? 

I think the important point here is that technological development is not material development, but energetic development. And technology is only one dimension of energetic development. Art, love, learning and politics are all things which can produce energetic development. They too are about gaining information from the environment. And each dimension (or parameter) is related to each other. Technology and science produce political effects, for example. But if each parameter is co-related then we need a way of examining the dynamics between them. 

At the level of human experience, our emotions are barometers of energy flows. We stall when one of the parameters we need to drive ourselves forwards is missing: something is lacking in the epigenetic environment. Restoring it requires finding ways of rebalancing our evolutionary development.

Our thinking about education is materialist and causal. We perceive educational outcomes as material products, not as flows of energy. This is partly because we haven't known how to organise ourselves to do anything else. What fascinates me about this scientific work is that it might give us new options for examining what actually happens in development beyond material productions.