Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Explanation in education and economy: the science of limits

Before we can decide what sort of an education system we want, we need to explain the one we're in. But education (much like economy) is resistant to satisfying explanation. The complexity overwhelms, and in place of explanation we have disconnected theories, political opinions, individual passions and prejudices. This is not to say that any explanation is free from these things, but that deep explanation acknowledges its limitations. Ignorance of limitations on the other hand, is a poor foundation for making policy in a world in turmoil.

I think the arguments around realist explanation in economics can be applied to the education system (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_realism#Critical_realism_in_economics). However, I think even here, there can be a tendency to positivise explanatory causal mechanisms (I've recently written a paper about this). This can lead to problems in terms of arguments between those who support one explanation over another. Yet again the academic pathology of "I'm right and you're wrong" kicks in. Humility is the path to take.

Learning occurs throughout life in many contexts. First and foremost, there is the family - the first social structure that any of us get to know. But what happens in the home is linked to what happens in the workplace of parents, in the community, in the world, among friends, in the institutions within the state (health, education, transport, religion, media, etc). Increasingly, the institutionalised media is taking a technological form, and technology itself is playing an ever-widening role in the context for learning. What must an explanation of all this look like?

It is an economic explanation; a sociological explanation; a psychological explanation, a technological explanationn, etc... Indeed, there is little within the social sciences which isn't relevant to an explanation of education. Each explanation has its limits (and most are very limited indeed). Yet there is a tendency to ignore limits and stick to individual disciplinary boundaries. Universities themselves have supported this process. But it has got us going round in circles.

Importantly, among the available explanations, the least well developed (and the one with the greatest bearing on every other one) is the technological explanation. Sociology, philosophy, anthropology, economics all have 'black holes' where technology ought to be. That's interesting because it means (to me) that technology represents an important limit in the other explanatory discourses in the social sciences.

If I believe there is an important reason to take the work in e-learning that I have been involved with for the last 10 years to the social sciences it is precisely for this reason: technology represents a limit which we can all benefit by understanding better from our different disciplinary perspectives. Technology is the challenge that cannot be easily brushed-off with some jargonistic phrase. Like sex, death, religion, (and I think, music and mathematics), it identifies the points of collapse of explanations. Education, in reality, may be another such point. This is why e-learning is important.

Can we explain technology?

I think we are driven to attempt it. But our attempts will also have their limits. But what's more interesting is the interface between the limits exposed by deep attempts to explain society and the attempt to explain technology. In that interface, in that exchange of ideas, what is gained is not something positive, not some new 'unifying theory', not some Utopian grand design for a perfect education system. What is gained is a clearer perspective of the limitations that bear on all of us, on our societies, on our families and on our learning.

I think this is the proper objective of a social science. Indeed, the identification of limitations is what actually happens in the physical sciences. If I am hopeful, it is because I think a negative social science is a possibility. In practice, it should produce greater humility in those who seek to explain. And with greater humility comes deeper compassion, and (one might dare to hope) better decisions.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Competency, Communication and Information Literacy

Is 'competency' the way forward for safeguarding fair access to employment? Despite the deepest reservations I have about the concept, it has such a firm hold in national professional development programmes in Europe (but not so much in the UK), and dominates many of the agendas of the EU TEL and other programmes, that I wonder if my skepticism about it is well-placed. Some degree of this seriousness can be seen here:  http://www.ilo.org/public/english/bureau/stat/isco/index.htm  and http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=88&langId=en&eventsId=242&furtherEvents=yes

I believe there are many problems... but what's the alternative? University education, whilst increasingly a pre-requisite to getting a job anywhere, is a poor indicator of the abilities of individuals - particularly in a world where everyone has a degree. Of course, initiatives like HEAR (Higher Education Achievement Report) might produce a more fine-grained list of skills gained and marks awarded, although it puts a lot of emphasis on institutional judgement of individual skill - a recipe for unwelcome institutional say in the capacity of individuals to succeed in life away from academic institutions. Academic institutions have traditionally only been good at passing judgement on the academic ability of individuals (and not always good then!), judging individuals (for example) on their capacity for further study. Despite all the best intentions of University and the vocational education lobby, the profession of academia is what universities prepare people for.

The attraction of competency frameworks is that they may be self-certified, or at least self-curated (to be validated at a later point). The disadvantage is that they require pro-active engagement by individuals with complex technologies - and often this is not forthcoming. But there have been many projects to try and make this happen: the EU TenCompetence project (http://www.tencompetence.org/), for example, was a major intervention in this space. It produced a range of tools to assist in the directing and certifying of competencies for a wide range of career paths. But few people actually used the tools. I'm currently involved in the TRAILER project (http://www.trailerproject.eu/) which is taking a slightly different angle, by allowing users to tag current activities against competencies. But I wouldn't be surprised if we face similar problems in engagement here.

The important thing to say is that it isn't the tool's fault. There's a deeper problem in encouraging individuals to take a pro-active competency-focused approach to using technology. They can't see what's in it for them.

Will they ever see what's in it for them? Is there really something there? (is the competency thing mistaken?) And (perhaps most worryingly) if we say there is something important in competency, are we making something important in competency simply by asserting it? Is that a good thing to be doing? Or are we paving our way to hell with good intentions (wouldn't be the first time in e-learning!!)

But there is a problem in safeguarding fair access to employment. All across Europe, we are seeing a huge decline in social mobility. Despite sending more people to University than ever before, this does not seem to be getting better. Indeed, the rise in numbers of people with a degree must logically lead to some deflation in the perceived value of a degree. There are many drivers for the massification of Higher Education, and raising social mobility is one: but on that count, it is hard to see how it could succeed. What it will do, however, is create a new industry in education.

Family matters more than ever in the success of individuals. It's not whether there was a parent with experience of university, but whether there was love, care, support and encouragement for educational success in the home. And love, care and support do not exist in a vacuum: what matters beneath are the degrees of community cohesion that individual families grow up in. This, I believe, is the real reason for the decline in social mobility: with the decline of large-scale industry in the 1980s, the factory, which was the centre of the community and (most importantly) a place of learning, was destroyed. It left individuals devasted, communities abandoned - not just through lack of employment and income, but through the destruction of the convivial enclave.

We're not likely to see the return of heavy industry. What we are likely to see is the rise of an education industry. But the education industry - itself a large-scale employer - cannot do what the factory did. The education industry has to pursue its own rather rules and regulations to assess individual merit. So much of the way it works is based on the individual's achievement, not collective effort. "Don't copy! Do your own work! Reflect on your experiences!": these are the mantras of the education industry.

I'd love to change this; I'd love to find a way where education is about communities rather than individuals: but the pathology of assessment and certification always drags us back to the madness of the individual-cult. And the individual-cult favours those from loving families, whose love and care depends on the cohesion of their communities. So we are in a vicious circle, and because of it, education cannot safeguard fair access to employment.

Can competency help us out of this? Before I think about that, I want to think about what really needs to be done. Paulo Freire got it right: deal with the emotion, deal with the oppression, deal with the family, the community, etc. Ultimately, deal with the psyche. The blockages can only be unblocked with new forms of togetherness. If education is a togetherness which always drives people apart through assessment and certification, then we need new forms of togetherness which bring people together: performances, sport, art - all of these have supreme value for a community (it fascinated me how many people stood in the rain to watch the olympic torch procession recently: it's that kind of thing which I think is important)

If the blockages can be unblocked, then there is one simple message: "be strategic with technology". But there is something else which relates to the way we think about competency generally. Competencies which are mere tick-box lists of 'skills' (which are probably not real) are are route to a mechanised, alienating and inauthentic world. However, the organisation of strategic communications relating to skills can reveal more than the tick-list: it reveals an ecology of communications. That's more interesting, for when competency claims are analysed holistically, or they are analysed over time, they can, I think, reveal something more authentic about the individual. But even with a more holistic approach to the interpretation of competency, there remains a need for individuals to be strategic and pro-active with technology.

Those who can be strategic will succeed - and whilst degrees will be an important element in that strategic way of life, they will not be enough on their own. Being strategic means becoming more aware of risk, effectively becoming more 'literate' about technology (but technology/information literacy programmes as they are promoted by Universities are likely to have the opposite effect!).

All the signs are that strategic use of technology is the determiner of success. Not least in academia, but also for many tradespeople, online engagement, reviews, presentation, etc are becoming fundamental. It is not to stretch the imagination too far to see this as a pre-requisite for the individual. Competencies provide a framework for this kind of strategic engagement: an evolving code within which individuals can navigate their careers. If everyone did it, it might be fairer - or at least more sensible - than the reliance on university qualifications alone. But the core question is whether the world changes so that everyone does this.

In a sense, this is an appeal for 'information literacy'. But 'information literacy' as it is currently presented is not the answer: indeed, it is likely to do more harm than good. The challenge is not to preach; it is to be authentic and to accept the realities of the state we are in.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The idea of a University and the Turning away from Eden

Would we need universities if everybody loved and cared for each other properly? I'm tempted to say the answer is 'no': universities are a function of social pathology. [***If I was to be biblical about it, then they are the inevitable consequence of the fall. It is a powerful metaphor.*** - but isn't this nonsense??] But which world would we really have? The perfect world of love and care, but no Universities (and equally, no Shakespeare, Beethoven, Michelangelo, or Tolstoy) or our imperfect world with its art, culture, and knowledge - but also its misery?

In a sense, we don't have a choice: we have the world we are in. We know that Eden is a potentiality, but when we reach for it, it escapes us. Once the apple was taken, things could never be the same. Part of the terror of our situation is that we 'know' the potentiality of a world of love. We also know that we need to 'be love', but that requires overcoming the fears we gained in our acquisition of knowledge. And since we are all different, good and bad, generous and greedy, the question of us all 'being love' is unattainable. And so we have monasteries, and churches, and Universities.

The idea of a University as an institution of love was central to Newman's thesis. It was where we could acknowledge the situation we are in, and come to terms with the knowledge that that situation has led us to. In essence, it was the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of coming to terms with it. This, I think for Newman, was a way of 'being love'. Unlike the monastery, where contemplation seeks to bracket-out knowledge, the University embraces it. But they both have the same ultimate aim. But the university is more of the everyday world than the  otherworldliness of the monastery.

Technology, I believe, is creating a different kind of public realm for the exploration of knowledge. Rather than pursuing the 'idea of a University', I wonder (inspired by F.R. Leavis, who made this point in the 1950s) whether we should now consider the "Idea of an Educated Public". It is no longer a function bounded by the walls of an ancient institution. It is a function within the whole of society mediated not just through libraries and degree courses, but through the internet. An educated public is a public that comes to terms with the knowledge it has. It is perhaps a necessary corrective to the now-pathological University. Where the University has forgotten its role in coming to terms with knowledge (instead favouring a frantic continual generation of knowledge), the educated public can bring commonsense and everyday insight so that pathological knowledge-creation processes do not get out of hand. It is the public who know (often better than academics) that the important things in life are related to looking after each other.

From this perspective, online education looks different. The price for an educated public is the strategic use of technology. But the benefits include a more open science (perhaps related to the emerging discourse around Science 2.0 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_2.0)) and greater political participation in public realm. It requires a re-politicisation of the public.

Newman considered the requisite institutional infrastructure for his University. We should consider the technological and social infrastructure for the 'idea of an educated public'. Just as the institution of the University (certainly in Newman's conception) served to oil the wheel of discourse and to establish communities of scholars, so the infrastructure for the 'idea of an educated public' must target communicative and social barriers. We must critique the form and function of our current technology, and design the technological infrastructure which will bring communities together, not drive them apart (as is so often the case!).

To do this, we must understand information and technology better. There is no satisfactory theory of either. The work of Deacon, Floridi and others may be pointing us in this way (that work conducted within Universities of course!), but the hope might be that this work leads us to a new conception of what education is about, what society we want, and what a dream of an 'educated public' might mean.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Synchronic and Diachronic aspects on Competency

I've been attending a meeting of the TRAILER project, which is currently building a set of tools for the organising and tagging of informal learning episodes, resources, etc against competency criteria. There are many challenges with regard to changing practice in this attempt, but there is a refreshingly open and deep consideration of the problems to be faced which makes me think some very interesting outcomes will result.

I think at the heart of arguments around informal learning and the use of technology is the need for everyone to become more strategic, deliberate and purposeful in their use of technology. For it will be (I think) those who are most strategic, deliberate and purposeful in using technology to reveal their learning, thinking, being, etc who will succeed most in the world of the 21st century. I wonder whether strategic and purposeful use of technology will become at least as important as the gaining of degree for success in employment. There are, I think, already signs that this is beginning to be the case.

The first signs of this are in education itself. Many people in Universities worldwide are losing their jobs. My experience is that those who are at the greatest risk of unemployment are those who are the least communicative. It is no longer enough to just teach students and mark their work. Academics are having to promote themselves through social media, blogs, as well as writing papers. The actions of those academics who survive is indeed strategic (this of course applies to this blog too). On the one hand, this is quite selfish. But on the other, it is a reflection of where communications technology has taken us: in a world of increased intensity of network communications generally, maybe individuals simply have to get 'noisier' than they used to be in order to still be recognised. The taciturn academic is of a bygone age.

But the same communicative and strategic forces are being felt in all sorts of professions. Online review sites have had a major impact for guest-houses, plumbers, electricians, restauranteurs and other trades people. A bad review can seriously damage business. A strategic 'social network strategy' is already an important part of many businesses: it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect that it becomes a necessary part of the behaviour of individuals and they too have to manage reputations and employability.

But the strategic use of technology goes deeper than simply engaging in social networks. For individuals it may require careful collection and presentation of capabilities and evidence of competencies. TRAILER is geared around competencies (something which I have long been skeptical about). Yet, seen from the perspective of a changing world, where use of technology may have to become more strategic, competencies (for all their deficiencies) at least provide some sort of "organising principle" for the recording of personal skills and experiences. What matters (as with all information) is how meaning is created around a set of competencies.

Most people are aware of the tick-box mentality when approaching competencies, and the gaming of the system that this kind of thing can encourage. However, this mentality is the product of a deficient approach to the interpretation of the meaningfulness of a set of claims of competence. There are, I believe, essentially two ways of looking at such a set.

  1. take each competency at 'face value', marking each one off against criteria for a job, or entrance criteria for a course;
  2. examine the competency profile holistically, both synchronically (the vertical list of competence claims at any time point) and diachronically (the emergence of the list of competencies over time).
Whilst 1 is typical, I think 2 makes much more sense, and what we should be focusing our efforts on. It relates to my discussion about what a subject is and the forms of knowledge from my last post. Instead of seeing individual competencies, we should see a set of relationships between competencies. For (synchronically) within a set of relationships there can be shown the range of communicative flexibility and adaptability, which may be a better predictor of employability and the sustainability of the individual. At the same time, diachronically, the emergence of synchronic competency structures over time can reveal processes by which greater communicative flexibility is achieved. Once again, this can indicate the capacity to learn and change within new environments.

This is making me think that we may need new analytical techniques for measuring the relationships between competency claims, and assessing the emergence of different learning patterns. There's probably a whole project in that alone, although TRAILER looks like it might provide a platform for some initial thinking which takes competency forwards from being a reified (and somewhat fascist) ideology, to becoming something practical which might help in the campaign to safeguard fair access to employment. In the meantime, we have to convince people that they have problems that they didn't realise they had!

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Paul Hirst and the nature of a "subject"

Paul Hirst's forms of knowledge was controversial. It embodied what M.F.D. Young he called an  "absolutist conception of a set of distinct forms of knowledge" whose correspondence to the traditional academic curriculum was, for Young, highly suspect. It looked like a somewhat reactionary move  (see http://www.philosophy-of-education.org/conferences/pdfs/white.pdf for more on this and the link with Hirst and Young). Yet, as R.S. Peters had pointed out, there must be something in the existence of maths, history, science, art rather than bingo or billiards that justified their presence in the curriculum. 

But with all such distinctions, there are many ways of looking at them. For example, we might see maths, science, religion, etc as distinct but related entities just as we see distinct and related fingers on our hand. At the same time, however, we may also see a set of relationships between our fingers (as Bateson pointed out), and in the same way seek to analyse the relationship between the different subjects on the curriculum. In this way, both Paul Hirst's conception of real distinctions between mathematics and art may co-exist with Young's relativist socio-historical processes. This approach carries some merit I believe. For all we might talk about the existence of maths, a maths lesson is in reality a moment in time. It tends last little more than an hour a day at most. It is followed by something different, just as the movement of a symphony contrast with one another.

It is this difference between subjects that interests me, and the ways in which the differences affect different kinds of people. At certain moments, certain people become animated and engaged: and not the same people at the same moments. Why might this be? It might have something to do with their particular state at a particular kind of day. Or it might be something deeper in them: a predisposition to that particular kind of moment in the day (in the same way as some people are of a melancholic or happy disposition). 

Are subjects moments? Or rather, is 'subject' the name that we give to a particular type of moment? The moment of mathematics is different from the moment of music. This is interesting not least because those who dig deep into any subject soon see that in reality it is not that much different from any other subject: music is the same as maths which deals with the same problems as philosophy and science, and so on. Reductionism is absurd.

Yet the moments of educational experience cannot, I think, be reduced to anything. Our abstracting of the curriculum is a way of creating the structural conditions for the reproduction of those moments. This is a bit like the codification of musical form or dances: a rondo is different from a sonata form; or a sarabande is different from gigue. We curse specialisation in the curriculum (particularly if it comes too early), but specialisation can be successful if the particular subject reveals a richness of moments. Music is the classic example of this. Here, there is the gamut of experience in a coherent form of expression and body of technique. Maths can reveal the same; science too. 

So why might we become mathematicians and not musicians or artists and not scientists? Specialisation draws us to the gamut of experience through the lens of the subject. But it is not maths, or science, or music: it is mathematicians, scientists and musicians. What we learn we learn of each other. I think there's something about absence here: about the abences that shape our thinking and our experience. We see someone else whose experience is shaped by a similar kind of absence: like two individuals with the same medical condition, there is a perception of shared constraint.

There are deep shaping influences on our experience. These shaping influences are no doubt different for each individual. I don't think there is a 'maths-shaped' absence or a 'music-shaped' absence. But whatever causes an enthusiasm and talent for music is drawn out through engagement with the subject matter of music. And in the presence of the subject matter, the causal power of the absence is revealed for others to see. Some will recognise it. And in this way musicians, mathematicians and historians are born.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Mathematics and Theory

There can be tendency to see mathematics and theory as two sides of the same coin. General relativity, for example, is a theory with mathematics that supports it. This mathematics gives the theory utility in enabling calculations in accordance with the theory. Moreover, the presence of mathematics in a theory, particularly if the mathematics affords calculation, can enhance the fiduciary quality of the theory: we say "ah, there's maths, and it seems to work - the theory must be correct". Economics (econometrics) suffers from this conflation particularly badly. And in econometrics, what happens is that all-too-frequently, the maths is not very good, and certainly doesn't 'work' in any real sense (it has little predictive and no explanatory power). Yet, its presence is a barrier to having a sensible discussion as to why or why not it doesn't work, or to explaining economic phenomena in a sensible way.

It is a commonplace to remark that maths is like music. But in a very deep way, this can be seen to be true. In fact, maths is like most arts: it's fundamental concern is with form, not calculation. What is revealed by mathematicians are the peculiar forms that our logical faculties - those essential quality of human beings - can take. There are, of course, many strange things that occur. Louis Kauffman showed me this mathematical 'joke' for example:

Euler's identity tells us that:
That means that:
this is where the funny thing happens.. because i appears to re-enter the equation in this way...

which produces this infinite regress:

This is the joke... But I have to confess I didn't really get it when I first saw it, thinking that the joke was in the infinite regress. I confidently taught this back to someone else (puzzling why I wasn't really laughing), only half understanding it (but in the hope that in explaining it I might understand it better...), but Louis pointed out what the real joke was: how can an imaginary number equal a real number?

What's relevant here though is the way that mathematicians think. This is a revealing of logical form. It has a kind of 'cadential' structure (to use a musical analogy): it is satisfying and beautiful. 

Theory on the other hand, is not like this. As I explained yesterday, I think theory is the result of an attempt to reveal this kind of beauty which effectively fails. Theory is a way of accounting for the failure. [this is my theory!]. 

Of course, mathematics has 'theory'. Louis uses category theory to work out his thinking about eigenform and time (which he also explained to me). Is such a theory (like category theory) a theory in the same sense as Luhmann's theory of communication, or Baudrillard's theory of symbolic exchange and hyper-reality? I think they are different, and an artistic metaphor can help expose how they are different.

I wonder if a mathematical theory is like some base material upon which the sculptor works to reveal a form. Category theory is like the 'material' basis whose logical structure can then be exposed through the work of a mathematician. Although most social theories aspire towards this same foundational goal, they tend to be ill-defined, and hence a slippery foundation for making any defensible statements (Baudrillard is particularly bad with this). It may be that the failure of such foundations feeds back into the need to prop-up bad theories with more bad theories. 

It is here that I wonder if listening carefully to the mathematicians and the artists might be a more sensible thing to do, rather than to get increasingly bogged-down with theories...

Friday, 13 July 2012

What is a theory?

I love theory. That's why I love cybernetics. But theory brings it's problems. I want to be right about my  theory. And my theory (which is right) confounds other theories which are wrong. "And it's mine." I'm paraphrasing from the Monty Python sketch about this: Anne Elk's Theory about the Brontosaurus...

Why are we driven to create theory? Do we need it? Whilst we might talk about a search for truth, we also know that truth is to be found by coming to know each other. And coming to know each other is not achieved by trying to convince everyone that my theory is right (because everyone else's theories are right to them!)

I'm thinking about a definition of theory. This is a theory about theory... I want to be right about this...(!) But before I get into the recursion of that, here is the theory of theory that I am thinking about (and it's mine!):
Theory is an epiphenomenon of an attempt to act well
In other words, I do not set out to create a theory; I set out to act well. Theory is a side-effect. But if I act really well, and the product is increased love of one another and increased knowledge, there is no need for anything more; no need for theory. That leads me to a correction of my definition:
Theory is an epiphenomenon of a failed attempt to act well
Now let's deal with the recursion. My theorising is a side-effect of an attempt to act well. My well-intentioned action also leads to my current theory about theory. This action is intended to focus on love and action rather than theory. Yet the action is only partially successful: new theory is the result.

Of course, theory is only really theory if it is articulated (in an academic conference for example). The articulation of a theory is a failed attempt to act well. But less unsuccessful actions can avoid explicit articulation of  a theory whilst using deep insights (which a theory might try to express) to cause change to happen in other ways. I think powerful questioning is one of the best ways of doing this.

Powerful questioning requires insight, humanity and love. It causes deep reflection and the overcoming of barriers. Its expression is open; its effect is social. The insight, humanity and love never needs to be expressed as theory because it is powerful action in its own right.

So what would I do if I were not to produce a theory of theory? Psychotherapist Graham Barnes, who gave a wonderful talk at the American Society for Cybernetics today, has given me a response. Or rather, a question. It is:
"Is my world loving?"

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Theory, conversation and teaching

I'm thinking back to my experiences as a music student in Manchester University, and particularly to the privilege of being present in some wonderful seminars with the Lindsay string quartet which were led by Professor Ian Kemp. Kemp was a remarkable teacher whose knowledge of music combined deep theoretical insight with practical common sense and an awareness of music's power. He always valued the experiences of those without theoretical baggage - they had the 'fresh ears' which he and his academic colleagues lost long ago. He was adept at asking penetrating questions of those who were listening for the first time, privileging the value of their experiences and explicitly demonstrating that value to those whose academic music careers had led them to be less open in their hearing.

As I was conducting a workshop on education and technology yesterday at the American Cybernetic Society conference, I was thinking about this approach. The Lindsay seminars were interesting because they combined performance with conversation. They had the form of a masterclass which went beyond simply playing the music, but sought to ask more profound questions about what it all meant. Yesterday in my workshop, I organised people into doing a role-play against a scenario (I did this before with Keith Smyth in our Strategy Cascade events: see http://strategycascade.wordpress.com/). The groups were sent off to play the roles they had been given. They talked, argued, and eventually came to some conclusions which they reported. Thinking about it now, I wonder if this is equivalent to the 'performance' aspect of the music by the Lindsays. 

When they reported back, I tried to coordinated a deeper discussion about learning activity in general, the relation of technology to it, and what happens during a learning activity in terms of how we come to know each other better. Is this (I now ask myself) related in some way to what Kemp did when he would lead a discussion about what the music meant, or how else it could be played? I'm not sure... but I would like to think they might be related. Not just because I would like to be like Ian Kemp as a teacher, but also because it gives me a greater sense of connection between doing something which is clearly profound (talking about music) with doing something rather more prosaic (talking about technology and universities).

I believe the value in any kind of  learning activity is that it focuses the object of knowledge on coming to know each other. Theorists tend not to think like this. Their object of knowledge is an abstraction which tends to only exist in a few brains (or maybe one - the teacher's). That can lead to pathologies of power, imposed authority and potential alienation of students. The ASC conference this year is celebrating the centenary of  Gregory Bateson, and it's been interesting to observe that Bateson had tremendous theoretical insights, but tended to convey these 'from the front'. Kemp was not like this. He was not anti-theory (he knew and was fascinated by lots of theory), but instead of seeing it as an 'answer', he saw it as a tool for guiding his own questioning which in turn would lead out from his students insights which were powerful and valuable. 

I'm nowhere near doing that with my work on educational technology and cybernetics, but I do think it's a good thing to aim for. I think this is the best way to see theory. In a sense it is to make it disappear. If a theory is a good one it can help us to ask powerful questions that elicit powerful responses from those who know nothing of the theory. In the social sciences, I believe we are the theory; theories are not external to us. The power of our theory is in the depth of the insight we gain into each other; it is in our capacity to make each other think and to love each other more.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Meditation, Recursion and Science

I'm at the American Society for Cybernetics conference in Asilomar at the moment, presenting on what I'm increasingly seeing as 'recursive visualisation': the harnessing of real-time technologies for ways of organising groups of people to examine available information and identify what's meaningful to them. With so much information, making group decisions about what's meaningful is difficult. Typically, power relations assert themselves as a way out of the confusion: the boss decides and everyone follows. Technology, I believe, may  provide an alternative to this.

Real-time technologies allow us to 1. look at information; 2. look at our looking at information; 3. look at our looking at our looking at information; etc. A recursive real-time dynamic can be revealing of underlying patterns of meaning-making in each other. What do we find? I think we find out something about  the absences that are shared amongst the group, and in identifying shared absences, we can identify a meaningful course of action. The recursive process is a process of making shared absences determinable. It works in the same way that a fractal (like a mandelbrot set) gradually acquires definition with each iteration of the recursive algorithm. So we go from this:
to this...

What's now interesting me is that this process of 'recursive visualisation' is not a million miles away from medieval practices of copying of manuscripts. What it amounts to is a collaborative meditation on artefacts, and a shared activity in re-realising those artefacts. 
Are we simply learning to become scribes again?
Here's another way of looking at recursive visualisation:

It's the same thing, isn't it? A book which has been copied containing an image of someone copying. I'm finding this quite fascinating.

What is more interesting is the relationship between the Scriptorium and the monastery and then the University. These were places of meditation and learning. What went on was profoundly hermeneutic: a reinspection and re-evaluation of ideas: looking again, and again, and again. What emerged? Was it too a shared conception of absence? In the case of the monastery, of God.

Early scientific knowledge also emerged in these circumstances, and I find that interesting as we think of new ways to do science, to avoid the pathologies of reductionism which our modern universities are so beholden to. I believe we need a participative, reflexive, and common-sense science. That means (I think) harnessing the power of recursive inspection to reveal shared absences: for science, although since the enlightenment, science has focused on the positive, working at the heart of the greatest  scientific discoveries has been an acknowledgment of absence (particularly with people like Newton and Einstein).

So the question is "can technology deliver a different form of scientific enterprise?" I believe it can, and I believe we need to invest resources into trying to make it happen.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Institution of Education

Institutions everywhere are in crisis: banks, newspapers, political institutions, legal institutions, religious institutions, health institutions... and educational institutions. Beneath all the complexities of each crisis, there seems to be a common thread: the erosion of public trust. We expect our institutions to perform a safe-guarding function for fundamental aspects of our social life: institutions are 'safe'. Banks safeguard our money; the press safeguards our freedom of speech; political institutions safeguard our human rights; legal institutions safeguard justice; religious institutions safeguard morality; health institutions safeguard our right to life; educational institutions safeguard our right to think and to develop our minds, whilst also being a vehicle for accessing employment. The most corrosive thing that can happen to an institution is for the thing that it is meant to safeguard to be seen explicitly to be threatened by the form and function of that institution.

This is what is being seen in the banks at the moment. But what I am interested in is the institution of education, and how the institution of education's role in safeguarding our right to think and develop our minds is increasingly being seen to be under threat by the conduct of the institution itself. What is the nature of the threat? It lies in the various pathologies of education, which in turn are connected to pathologies in science, and in pathologies of all the other institutions: the pathology of education is inseparable from the pathology of politics, or health, or the banks, or newspapers, or the courts or the church.

Freedom of thought is not as easy as it might seem. Received 'wisdom' quickly establishes its own hegemony supported by publishers, scientific communities, the media, and government funding councils. Step outside received wisdom at your peril as an academic: the case of Professor Andrew Wakefield, who raised the question of the link between MMR and autism, is a salutory lesson for any scientist. Skeptics are no longer called skeptics, but deniers. Wiser scientific minds value skeptics (James Lovelock has recently praised the climate change skeptics for keeping climate scientists on their toes and causing a continual self critique and reevaluation). This is very important, but in the highly charged academic environment, it is very difficult.

Often the problems are political. Health cases, like Wakefield's, are a classic case. Into this category also go the HIV/AIDS causal link skeptics (which got Thabo Mbeki into such trouble!). Yet there are important questions to answer there too (what if the conspiracy theorists were right - what sort of collapse in the institution of health would follow a revelation that it was antiretroviral drugs that caused people to die??). But irrespective of politics, little medical research goes without funding from major drugs companies. Walk around any major teaching hospital today, and you will see units funded by Glaxo, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, etc. Surely the consequences of this are obvious? And then we should ask how the drug companies relate to the food companies - to agriculture reseach, GM and so on. So we have to start thinking about things like statins and their relationship to increased fructose in diets (see http://people.csail.mit.edu/seneff/why_statins_dont_really_work.html). Scary stuff.

Then there is the pathology of publishers, who themselves are increasingly wanting to turn education to their own purposes. It's not just with the technologies of journal submission systems which increasingly box-in knowledge into categories that it doesn't fit, or the locking-away of research, or their crucial role in the establishment of academic reputations, but the increasing influence that they have on the very fabric of academic institutions. Government research funding is directly linked to the judgments and behaviour of publishers. Once again, it becomes difficult if not impossible to step outside the system. Increasingly a post in an academic institution - in effect, the right to teach and pass on ones' knowledge - is dependent upon this unholy alliance of judgments and mechanisms.

And related to the publishers, also wanting to get in on the education act, are the global technology companies. Apple has been most active in promoting its e-book standard (actually it's not a standard - it's Apple's deliberate 'breaking' of the EPUB standard (which is a standard), to hook institutions into buying their content through the Apple AppStore). Google's offering of an educational app-suite is a similarly sneaky way of trying to lock-in learners. Banks too, despite the public ire, know that student finances are big business and will be lobbying hard to take it on. With financial institutions and technology companies getting into the mix, it seems to me naive to suppose that there won't be some impact on what actually goes on during learning.

But the institution of education is full of people wanting to keep their jobs. That's always the root of institutional pathology. Self-interest narrows the vision, clouds the judgment and before long the purpose of the institution has been forgotten. In whose interests is this? To what purpose does it serve?

These are the questions which need to be addressed. If the purpose is to safeguard important things, and we see that our institutions are now incapable of safeguarding those things, what should we do? I think there are two questions that should be directed at the institution of education. They are:

  1. "How should we safeguard our right to think and develop our minds?"
  2. "How should we safeguard fair access to employment?"
These I believe are separable issues (although not separate). 1. concerns research; 2. concerns teaching and assessment. They are linked because research is employment, and therefore it requires some means of providing fair access to it. Both issues have become corrupted by institutional pathologies. 

To deal with 1, I think we need an environment for doing a 'commonsense science'. This is a science which is participatory, diverse and (fundamentally) mixed-ability. It puts as much emphasis on teaching as it does thinking. But the hope is that by being participatory, a critical pursuit of knowledge will be uncorrupted by vested interests of publishers, funders, technology companies, etc. I shall expand on this more in later posts.

To deal with 2, I think we need to consider the role of risk production in learning and assessment, and design teaching and assessment programmes such that learners do not bear undue risks. Assessment criteria should be transparent and available for inspection before a decision to study is taken. Institutions make money (and learners often feel duped) because of a lack of transparency of what is expected. Once more, I will elaborate on this later.

But in summary, we need to rethink what our institutions do and how they do it. We need to address the desire for institutional employees to keep their jobs. But the safeguarding function of institutions does not imply preservation and stasis. Like tradition, safeguarding must be alive, innovative and responsive. Perhaps more than anything, we need a science to understand the interlinked roles of our institutions in allowing spaces to think, resources to be managed, health to be maintained, quality of life to be improved, freedoms to be upheld. I suspect this science will need to focus on the relationship between our knowledge of the physical world and knowledge of the information environment within which we all swim.