Tuesday, 15 May 2018

E-portfolio and Personal Uncertainty Management

One of the practical problems we face in my university is a plethora of e-portfolio systems which are meant to capture competencies and student "reflections" in various ways. Big questions about what competency is, how to measure it, what reflection is, how to capture it, whether it should be assessed and so on tend to get ignored: in the spirit of Cohen and March's "Garbage can model of organisational decision-making" the choice of the tool (and a different one for each academic area!) suffices for making a decision about intractable questions in education. So choosing a tool manages the uncertainty of the decision-makers (actually, its worth reflecting on how much of capitalism is like this in general!) Deep questions of education get buried further once a tool is adopted, and technical questions about "how to do x" then dominate thinking. Bateson summarised the problem in Mind and Nature:

Innovations become irreversibly adopted into the on-going system without being tested for long-time viability; and necessary changes are resisted by the core of conservative individuals without any assurance that these particular changes are the ones to resist.

Confusion is an important aspect of the educational journey. There is no learning which isn't preceded by some confusion. Confusion generally is managed by conversation, but thought is a counterpart to this conversation. Conversation itself is not just about talking to each other: conversation is about intersubjectivity both with those immediately around us, our contemporaries who are not with us, and those who are no longer alive. Libraries (and now the internet) are places of conversation - often with the dead (are they really dead?!)

Conversation works by coordinating rich multiple descriptions of things. Everybody has different ideas and descriptions of what they experience. We explore the differences between our descriptions by talking in the pub, or by reading books or watching videos. In the end, what occurs is a process of tuning-in to the generative mechanisms in others who attempt to describe the same things that we do. The more we tune-in, the more powerful our communications will be.

The communication "x is competent" if it is said with real feeling (where someone might add "x is brilliant", or "you should get x to do that!") is the revealing of the inner generative mechanism of judgement by someone of somebody else: the different ways in which "x is competent" might be articulated is an indicator of the strength of feeling about x. Said without feeling, it doesn't mean very much. There is no feeling in e-portfolio competency management systems.

By talking to each other, by reading, by practising, students acquire redundancy of expression: multiple ways of saying things. Through a process over time things are experienced and gradually the structural mechanisms for producing a rich variety of expression emerge. It is a diachronic process, and e-portfolio presents itself as a way of capturing the episodes of experience which go into forming the whole person at the end.

The problem is that e-portfolio becomes a kind of ritual which students are compelled to do. It becomes thoughtless, automatic, alienating. It needs to become conversational (in the deepest sense), intersubjective, a way of tuning-in to the inner-worlds of others; a way of generating insight.

No tool alone can do this. It requires a rethinking of pedagogy.

When students write entries in their e-portfolio, what they are doing is creating 'objects'. Objects are powerful mediators of conversation. They reveal something of the inner-world of one person to another. Different kinds of objects reveal different things. The pedagogic problem of e-portfolio is the demand that all students create the same kind of object and keep on doing it. So while something is revealed in the first instance, it gradually becomes less meaningful.

The making of digital objects is an opportunity to inspire students to creative forms of expression which break the boundaries of ritualised description. Activities could be coordinated such that drawings, poems, videos, photographs and so on can all be used as a way of driving conversation. Competency will reveal itself in the richness of descriptions produced through intersubjective engagement. It can all be much more fun.

It's interesting that given the richness and power of the technology, that we've turned it into something so dire. Why have we done that? Because the institution has needed to manage the uncertainty created by technology!

Monday, 14 May 2018

Diagrams of Uncertainty Management

The second diagram here is based on the diagrams in Beer's "Platform for Change"  which shows an entity which in order to maintain its identity, must manage its uncertainty. It struck me that the diagram fitted rather neatly the relationship between the Freudian Ego, Id and Superego.  Then it struck me that two Ego-Id-Superegos might communicate, which is what we would see in group dynamics. Freud has his own diagram which looks like this. Note the significance of the "external object". It's a fascinating diagram - Freud thinks like a cybernetician!

My diagram also has an external object which helps to mediate communication between the two individuals. It is connected to the Superegos of both. This is because the superego is the part of consciousness which imposes norms and rules of communication. A shared object doesn't impose norms and rules, but creates a context within which new norms and rules might be formed. That's why particular objects and activities can be very powerful in shaking-up the superego and reconfiguring its relationship with the subconscious.


The subconscious itself represents "inner uncertainty". The self, or the ego, contains uncertainty in the undifferentiated aspects of experience. But the connection between the two superegos represents the uncertainty of social life: the challenges is to find the right words with which to communicate.

There is therefore a vertical process of uncertainty management which deals with the psyche, and a horizontal processes of uncertainty management which deals with social relations, mediated by objects.

I've used this diagram to describe my Vladivostok educational experiment. It really all hangs on the use of technology to create highly diverse and mutable objects. The computer affords the colliding of many different kinds of object from many different contexts. When they are mashed-up together, the superego has to find new patterns of communication in order to maintain its relationship with the inner-uncertainty of the psyche.

The combination of mutable objects and conversation is very powerful. New things can be brought out into the open from the subconscious through conversation. Not least important of these things is the experience of inhabiting a world dominated by the internet and machines. The educational process helps to articulate these experiences and bring  them into consciousness.

I've argued in my book that this is where higher learning really lies: it is in the individuation process which is stimulated through the interaction between horizontal levels of managing uncertainty (the psyche) and vertical levels of managing social coordination.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Open Watters

Audrey Watters gave an interesting talk about "Openness" the other day, the text of which you can read here http://hackeducation.com/2018/05/04/cuny-labor-open. It's a timely contribution to a critical question about openness concerning how openness and identity can be compatible. The logic of "openness", as I have argued elsewhere (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2018/04/openness-identity-and-non-identity.html), leads to non-identity (something which has a long tradition from Buddhism to Marxism, physics to the philosophy of science). The recent assertion of political identity among those who champion openness seems to tend in the opposite direction where groups who champion "open" appear to become more closed in seeking to represent the interests of particular groups. In claiming "open" as a means of "access" to education for under-represented groups, they often unintentionally reassert the very mechanisms of closure within the academy and within which corporate entities offer "platforms for openness" (Mark Carrigan's discussion group on Platform Capitalism is really interesting: https://markcarrigan.net/tag/platform-capitalism/). Audrey has been one of the leading critical voices who have asserted the freedoms of individuals against corporations - many of whom champion technology in education, and this has led her to a surprising stance with regard to openness which runs counter to the position of many of its advocates.

Audrey is having second thoughts about open and is removing the "creative commons" licensing from her work. I like people who change their mind - and this at least clears things up - although I think she's mistaken (I'm about to publish a book with CC, together with its code on GitHub, so I have some interest in this). Partly in reaction to the utopianism of educational technology, she seems to be saying that openness is not compatible with identity, and that in the end, the critical issue is identity, which must be a political fight, and that "openness" is an aspect of corporate conspiracy against the individual.

Often the things that get talked about a lot in education are the things that are most confusing (actually I think that's the reason why "education" gets talked about a lot). There's a kind of law to this: those things with the greatest number of possible descriptions require the greatest conversational coordination to negotiate differences in those descriptions. If I think nothing else of Niklas Luhmann, I believe he saw this most clearly! "Openness" is incredibly confusing. But it's particularly confusing because it doesn't fit the other categories which we use to describe processes of learning. To talk of "openness" and not to talk of "education" or "learning" or "science" or "human flourishing" is to mire oneself in double-binds within which it is impossible to escape the tangled mess of conflicting categories.

Coupled with that, we have things called "open" which appear to really work: like "open source" software. Here I think Audrey has a point about corporations. The "open" in open source is a rational response to the organisational problems of writing reliable code. By opening development to a broad community of people, the transaction cost of creating good software comes down. That means that the business opportunities for corporate activity which uses this software are increased at the expense of those who give their labour often for nothing. The issue of transaction costs and corporations is a more useful category to explore this stuff than to simply talk about "open".

So what about "creative commons"? If we look at the transactions which keep universities and publishers afloat (not just afloat of course - incredibly profitable), we see that the lock-in to high-status publications in order to maintain the prestige of academics (and give them job security) is a toxic mechanism which produces "status", on the part of individual academics, universities and publishers. Well-published academics command the highest salaries, go to the best institutions; prestigious universities can afford the best journals while lower ranking ones can't; prestigious journals ramp up the price of their journals and raise the bar for publication which excludes those outside the elite universities. Also there is the inexplicable fact that the transactions within the university - its recruitment and assessment processes particularly - remain extremely slow and inflexible, when in every other industry, technology has transformed the way transactions are coordinated. It's a racket - and really, completely against the spirit of the Royal Society, which established one of the first journals at the beginning of the scientific revolution: the point of peer review, etc., was to exploit the technology of printing to democratise science!

Scholars should really boycott this game and do their thing on blogs, self-publish books, etc. Indeed, I'm suspicious about how the "journal article" acquired the status it does in the social sciences in the first place. It fits an experiment in physics where there is an account of a concrete result. In education or social science? The journal article renders everything to small-scale statements about components of experience: nowhere can it articulate new cosmologies. Moreover, it encourages people to hide the true complexity and uncertainty of what they are dealing with. The medium is wrong for communicating uncertainty and complexity.

Which brings me on to science. The computer in the academy has had its biggest impact in the way we do science. It has transformed the enlightenment laboratory into a sea of contingencies and statistical uncertainties. If you want to communicate uncertainty, you have to be open - not just open in the media through which we publish, but open in the manner in which we defend what we think and admit what we don't know. And we have to be open to everyone: nobody has a monopoly on uncertainty - not even Audrey Watters.

As far as I can see, in education, and particularly in educational technology, we know very little for certain - and that's where we need to open ourselves out.  

Monday, 30 April 2018

Marion Milner and Educational Technology Discourse (post #OER18 thoughts)

Marion Milner was a psychotherapist who did important work in education in the 1930s. Her book "The Human Problem in Schools" has just been republished (at a price!) by Routledge (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Human-Problem-Schools-Psychological-Contributions/dp/B00088PDUG). This seems to me to be one of the great missed opportunities in educational research and what Milner does is unique: she investigates the context of human experience in education. In fact, she did this not just in education, but in art ("On being unable to paint") and in more general inquiry about life ("A Life of One's own"). Her method is fascinating because it breaks down barriers between categories. She can do this because she is armed with a basic psychodynamic mechanism which she gained from Jung, but the beauty of her approach is that the mechanism can be applied recursively at all levels of education. It enables her to speak beautifully about the madness of education and its remedy:


"much of the time now spent in exhortation is fruitless; and that the same amount of time given to the attempt to understand what is happening would, very often, make it possible for difficult girls to become co-operative rather than passively or actively resistant. It seems also to be true that very often it is not necessary to do anything; the implicit change in relationship that results when the adult is sympathetically aware of the child's difficulties is in itself sufficient."
I've been quite struck by changes in tone to the educational technology discourse after going to #oer18. Educational technology has always been a discourse of "exhortation", but the turning of "open education" into a subject (rather than a practice) is something which has gone hand-in-hand with a growth in critical discourse that orients itself around particular technological issues and solutions (e.g. reclaim hosting), identity politics (the controversy around David Wiley's presentation), open licensing, and a critical backlash against technology in education more generally (Audrey Watters). Suddenly we hear not only what we "ought" to do, but what we "ought not" to do. To be fair there was always something a bit mad about the educational technology discourse (learning design? learning objects? learning analytics?) and if there's an identifiable recent trend, it is the "critical turn" of many of the more exclusively technical issues. There's a tendency to applaud this critical turn as a sign of the discourse growing up. But it is not impossible that it is in fact regressing into smaller and smaller identity-bound communities who talk to themselves and ignore what they don't like.

The problem in all this is that the real experience of learning and education gets left out. Somehow by turning something into a "subject", we lose perspective on what the whole thing was about in the first place. This is a large part of the problem in education, and its requires explanation which is unlikely to be forthcoming from the current direction of the discourse.

Milner's focus on context provides a powerful corrective to this Balkanisation. Rather than preaching about what ought to happen, she catalogues what actually does happen and then seeks to explain it. As she says, the time given to understand what is happening would make it possible for things to be improved. And we must understand not just what is happening in education, but what is happening in our talk about education. It is context all the way.

Some may object that this is too complex or too ambitious. Indeed, our dreary research methodologies (they are all dreary!) are precisely designed to attenuate the complexities of education into a form which make them manageable for students trying to write their PhD theses within the institutionally-determined time frame of 3 years. But they only do this by ignoring ("bracketing-out") vast chunks of contextual stuff which is clearly relevant.

Milner, however, shows how it can be done.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Transactions and Transduction modelling in the Redesign of Institutions

When we draw systems diagrams, we usually draw boxes with labels in them and lines between the boxes which detail the communication between different functions or services. Software development is then a process of turning these labels and boxes into interfaces, functions, user privileges and so on. When the software is implemented, inevitably it has a subtle effect in changing the human organisation of whatever process it is designed for. One of the problems with the design process is that it exercises a kind of tyranny by programmers and systems designers over the existing practices of individuals in an organisation: putting it crudely, it is the geeks who determine what everyone else's job should be.

Individual job functions are distinctions which emerge naturally in the pattern of transactions those people have with other people in the organisation. Often the nature of these transactions is hard to codify - particularly in a work environment already full of technology, where each individual can see themselves doing many different kinds of things and switching from one thing to another all the time.

Transactions of this sort are usually communications or conversations. Extending the logic of Coase's theory of the firm, each job function exists by virtue of the transactions which others have with them.

Transduction is a technical term for a process which maintains a distinction between two different forms of representation: for example, between the environment of light and the images in the eye, or between the vibrations in the air and the perception of a melody. All distinctions - including the distinctions which are made in systems modelling diagrams - are the product of transduction processes. More importantly, transactions are the outward sign of transductions: we can look at the words of a conversation, or the accounts ledger of a business and know that these signs of communication indicate a deeper process of coordination going on.

I'm increasingly convinced that our software design processes start from the wrong end: inevitably, software design models the transduction processes of the software designer and then impose those transduction processes on everyone else. What it we were to model the actual transductions within an organisation? What if we were to look at the way distinctions are actually maintained within a business?

All transduction processes can create organisational problems. Every transduction maintains a distinction, and in so doing determines the inside and outside of that distinction. Sometimes, what is excluded in a distinction is the source for more distinctions to be made, and quite often we see that there is a conflict between different organisational functions at different levels. To be able to analyse the transductions in an organisation is to have a map for possible interventions which might look to change the configurations of transductions in the organisation.

A simple example is self-publishing. I'm self-publishing my book, and have decided to do so because the transductions created by publishers are pathological (retaining copyright, setting outrageous prices, doing very little in terms of editorial control, etc). To understand the pattern of these transductions in the publishing system is to identify the intervention point where problems that arise from those transductions might be addressed. Equally, I am interested in the transductions of assessment in education. I'm interested in things like Adaptive Comparative Judgement precisely because it is a way of reconfiguring the transductions of assessment which then affect other transductions in education (for example, educational quality). Or we might look at the transductions of the curriculum. My interventions in Vladivostok are precisely about overcoming the transduction between different subjects in the curriculum, and targeting the primary transduction on the relationship between the individual and the phenomena of the world, rather than the individual and specific 'subjects'.

The key to being able to specify existing tranductions is to consider each distinction as a means of managing uncertainty. If the distinction concerns somebody's job (e.g. academic quality, teaching) then the transduction will perform the function of managing the uncertainty of that person maintaining their job. The key question in redesigning the transduction is whether there is a better way of managing uncertainty in the organisation. Obviously, designing a system which removes a person's job (which is what software designers often do) only increases uncertainty in the organisation; the trick is to reorganise things so that everyone is able to manage their uncertainty better. The pathology of current approaches to technology are that it ramps up uncertainty, and as a consequence, it creates the conditions for increasingly complex technology which tries to fix the uncertainties generated by the previous technology.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Openness, Identity and Non-identity: thoughts about #OER18


I’ve just returned from #oer18 where it was very good to meet up with friends and former colleagues from #cetis and #jisc. My abiding thought on leaving is that “openness” is the most important concept for the future of science. We live in an increasingly uncertain world. The sharing of uncertainty in scientific discourse is going to be critical in order to coordinate human understanding in the future. It is also going to be critical that scientific discourse opens itself out not just to scientists working in our universities, but to society at large. No account of uncertainty in invalid.

The shift to an uncertain science is something which is incomplete within our institutions of science. Our scientific publishing system is a hangover from the 17th century. Our universities retain organisational structures which evolved before the scientific revolution. Everywhere there is the disconnect between reductionism in the curriculum and its coupling with the increasingly inconvenient fiction that universities should organise their operations in terms of disciplines and departments which are no longer certain of the boundaries between them. This has ramped-up uncertainty. It is no coincidence that the forces of financialisation have not been far behind: when logic and epistemology fail, money is a good fall-back to manage uncertainty and retain some kind of order… until it all falls apart.

I drew a diagram on my way back to explore what I think is the radical separation between the scientific publishing system and the university system. What’s most important in the diagram is what’s happening in the middle: publishers and universities get richer on a positive feedback loop of status acquisition, whilst academics and students get squeezed. Each box on the left and right hand sides represents a functional operation in publishing (on the left) and universities (on the right). Each main box contains a small sub-box labelled "U" for uncertainty. This is connected to a "meta-system" which is meant to manage uncertainty. So, for example, publishers manage their uncertainty through marketing, review panels manage their uncertainty though acceptance criteria and journal ranking is managed through editorial control (approving members of the board, for example). The point is, it all makes money, and the university makes money too on the back of it.  This is the mechanism of closedness, and it is this we have to change.

Given the state of play of universities, it’s perhaps not surprising to find a healthy dose of identity politics in the OER18 discussions. There is a paradox in this though, which at some point will have to be grappled with. The question is, how in the final analysis, are openness and identity compatible? Radical openness tends towards non-identity, doesn’t it?

This is one area where I think it is more helpful to discuss openness and science, rather than openness and education. David Bohm, about whom I presented, promoted open scientific dialogue as a way by which the deep structure of the universe could be apprehended through dialogue (Bohm was very keen of etymology, and “dialogue” means “through wisdom”, dia-logos). He was particularly interested in music, through which he argued that “we apprehend the implicate order of the universe”. Dialogue was a path towards suspending identity. Interestingly, Roy Bhaskar took up many of these themes in his late philosophy (he either got it though Bohm himself or though Krishnamurti), and much as I once thought his late stuff on ‘meta-reality’ was a bit bonkers, I’m now beginning to think again. Great thinkers are often ahead of their time. It may be scientifically necessary, which was always the argument behind early Critical Realism.

Whilst identity politics has been extremely important in redressing social injustice and exclusion, the problems of identity politics are apparent to sociologists too. Discourse on intersectionality has sought to explore some of these problems and identify a more complete relational system between between different identity agendas. Queer theory has, I think, a more interesting take on things, as it seeks to challenge binary distinctions in a way that no doubt the likes of David Bohm and other quantum physicists would approve. But if I’m slightly uncomfortable both with identity politics and with the sociological critique of it, it is because I’m highly suspicious of the institution of education seeking to find some solid ground in a sea of uncertainty where it could avoid being radically transformed. So the institution supports the establishment of intersectionality as a discipline, it creates a department, charges students fees for studying it, publishers get rich on publishing books and journal articles, etc, etc. The pathology of education runs, not only in spite of, but because of, a discourse on openness.

I don’t know the answer to this. But I think we need better questions. We should ask about the nature of “closedness” – even if it’s the closedness that can form around identity politics. What is that? A kind of attachment? How does it work?  Whatever the mechanism, it’s highly likely that a similar thing is going on in our institutions too. If we can understand how it works, then we have a chance to intervene to change it. If we intervene without understanding what we are intervening with, it is a risk that we simply feed the pathology. As the world teeters on an incredibly dangerous situation, this is one of the most important scientific questions we should be asking ourselves right now.



Monday, 16 April 2018

Openness and Educational Cosmology for #oer18

I'm at #OER18 on Wednesday this week, presenting on an information theoretical analysis of objects in education. The "open education" discourse interests me because it presents an opportunity to talk about the big questions in education. It's perhaps unfortunate that this opportunity is often missed. Objects interest me because they tend to be the focus of the open education debate (free content, self-publishing, etc), but the relation between teaching and objects (whether free or not) is poorly understood.

It doesn't make any sense to talk of "open" unless we understand what "closed" means. Generally, the terms refers to the difference between scarcity and abundance. But people (teachers) can be closed and open too. That isn't an aspect of scarcity. It relates to a spirit of generosity, ontological security, or a willingness to express uncertainty. Open and closed expression is mediated by objects. But there is no reason why a teacher should be open simply because they are using open resources. Indeed, acts of generosity in teaching can be more meaningful if they are conducted with scarce (or even expensive) resources. What unfolds with open communication and a willingness to communicate uncertainty, is dialogue. So what is the relation of objects to dialogue? What difference does it make if those objects are free or not?

To answer this, we have to consider the difference between scarcity and abundance. Scarce things are either scarce by decree, or by nature. Scarcity refers to restrictions on the possibility of existence of something. It amounts to the restriction on the number of descriptions that might be made about something. If something is abundant, there are many ways in which it might exist, and there are many rich descriptions which might be made of it by many people.

Multiple descriptions are essential to the communication process. Objects illuminate rich multiple descriptions of individuals communicating with those objects. They provide ways in which individuals can understand each other, increasing the likelihood of future communications. If an object is abundant then the range of descriptions can be magnified with the possibility that each individual might recreate their own version of an object. If an object is scarce, then it may illuminate the teacher's attitude to something precious - for example, in inviting biographical revelations about the teacher. However, even if an object is scarce, things may be done to make a scarce object more abundant. Equally, an object such as a powerpoint slide may reveal the teacher's unwillingness to expose their uncertainty.

The properties of an object and the properties of a discussion may be examined. Descriptions of an object and the discussions which surround it are produced both synchronically and diachronically. Dialogue is the unfolding of synchronic and diachronic patterns in the engagement between humans. Objects help to coordinate the structure of this dialogue.

Dialogue does not involve a free choice of talking. There is an emergent demarcation of levels of recursion. For example, conversations about an object produces a conversation about the conversation about the object, or a conversation about the conversation about the conversation about an object. These different levels of discourse shift over time. What emerges are different discrete strata of construction.

There is a question as to whether our forms of dialogue reflect deeper structures in the universe. The multiple strata of patterns of engagement in dialogue help us to perceive something deeper. Abundance of objects can help with the process of tuning-in to a discovery about symmetries in the universe. In the final analysis, teaching and dialogue are processes of generating redundant descriptions.

Open education really needs to be seen as open scientific dialogue. To make scientific dialogue work better, we need to be increasing the redundancies of multiple description. With an increase in redundancy there is a better chance of detecting deeper patterns which will help coordinate a better understanding of the order of nature and consequently a better world.