Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Aesthetics of Politics

I haven't done any improvised music for ages - and returning to it after a break has made me reflect on the nature of improvisation and how it relates to those creative acts which require more planning, determination, commitment, etc. I had a discussion with a composer at Duke University a while ago whose background was jazz, but whose composed music is very carefully are beautifully constructed. We talked about the difference between 'slides' and 'ladders' in creative processes. Improvisation was, in his opinion, a 'slide'. Everything flows, we are taken by the moment and act as best we can to maintain the flow. Our actions when sliding are necessarily limited: we are constrained to do whatever is easiest to hand - take too many risks, and the thing can fall apart. The opposite is the 'ladder' which more traditional composers climb - the struggle to 'get it right' to 'say what we want to say', or to 'get to the heart of the matter'. Those kind of struggles can last years. There used to a be a joke about modernist composers labouring for years over a 20 bar piece, whilst improvisers would produce vast quantities of music, and just enjoying it.

Music is more than entertainment. To me it is naturalistic inquiry of the highest order, because the challenges music throws up are so profound. As naturalistic inquiry, the composer in struggling to get it right is also struggling to articulate something about the real. When Beethoven does something extraordinary, he is not just entertaining us, or surprising us (although it is all those things too). It is teaching us about the nature of the world and how we might think to act in it. Beethoven knows, and shows us, that revolution is not simply about the clash of principles: it is about knowing exactly how to intervene and at what moment. It is about understanding that moral rightness is not subjective, but ontological and naturalistically grounded.

This is where the ladders come in. They are about studying action, material, the creative mind and the condition of the world. Improvisation is a condition - a document or testament. It may be a small part of the ladder, but it is in itself too constrained.

My blog posts are on the whole improvisatory. I get in the flow of writing. I type quickly and out it all comes. It's much like improvising on the piano for me. I haven't always written this much. My early posts are simply a video of me playing and a couple of lines of writing. But gradually I have acquired new skills and confidence in writing. In fact, I think I have transferred some of the techniques of music improvisation to writing improvisation. But it is still (I think) deficient as intellectual work. Although I'd prefer not to think of it like this, my blogging is a bit like wanking. Words issue forth, retweets made, likes gathered, hits counted, ego massaged. To be fair, I think a lot of academic publishing has become like this too. But it is all somehow half-baked: the point isn't reached; the inquiry doesn't penetrate the surface.

So I need to think harder about the aesthetic ladder. The way in which things can be gathered together and a naturalistic inquiry can produce something which tells us how and when to act in the world today. That means stepping outside all the conventional boundaries between art, music, politics, ethics and aesthetics.

To be fair, some of this was attempted at the ASC Conference in Bolton on Acting - Learning - Understanding. But that conference was largely improvisatory - we did a lot of music improvisation partly with home-made instruments! Largely it went nowhere (I think) - although some of the group improvisations and presentations did present challenges of aesthetic construction and coordination which required more thought. Generally, however, there were no ladders - and indeed, if anyone tried to climb a ladder, someone else would come along and do their best to throw them off! But perhaps seeing its "nowhere-goingness" is useful if we are to think about how we do climb ladders.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Ethics, the Good Society and Technology

I'm studying Christian Smith's "What is a Person?" at the moment. This is an important book, which brings together critical realist philosophy and focuses it on the "person" - that subject which is so everyday, so fundamentally in-our-face, so obvious to our commonsense negotiations with the world that (like many obvious subjects) it manages to escape the attention of many serious thinkers who prefer to indulge in systematic overarching descriptions of society, mental life, methodology and so on. In their grand theorising, real people are left out - this is what Smith wants to address.

I call this overlooking of the person "idealism", and it is the topic which inflames my intellectual passion more than any other. Idealists really screw things up. They appear to lack the gentleness and humility to admit their fallibility. And as I get increasingly worked up about it, I'm faced with the realisation that I too might be one! Idealism is a tendency of us all - and sometimes it's not all bad - but it is very slippery.

The root of the idealist's problem is ethics. The is-ought gap, where it is maintained that ethical distinctions are of a different order from naturalistic distinctions, sets the scene for overlooking naturalistic inquiry as ethical positions are established. That naturalistic inquiry into persons cannot give rise to ethical distinctions, in truth gives rise to the kind of Kantian deontological ethics where a categorical ethics overlays naturalism, or (a similarly Kantian) ethical consequentialism where ethics is situated against an idealised society (as in Benthamite utilitarianism). The cybernetic ethics of Von Foerster ("always act so as to increase the number of possibilities for acting") is also in this camp. Consequentialism and deontology arise from the same stable.

Smith talks about how Hume's discourse on the is-ought gap is not at all as cut-and-dried as it is sometimes presented. Hume is really saying that writers on moral matters shift gear from descriptive naturalistic statements to normative statements, and are unaware of what they are doing. The problem with the is-ought gap, to Hume, is the sleight of hand of commentators. He does not rule out the possibility of deeper critical inquiry leading to a naturalistically defensible ethics. This reminds me of my own arguments about 'gear slippage' in the way people think about education and technology (see and my forthcoming book). There's still much that we can learn from Hume!

If we are to follow Hume's actual discussion about is-ought, then ethical inquiry is a naturalistically-based and ontological inquiry. In simple terms, that means we need to understand the nature of social reality in order to make a better society. If I am occasionally rude about the managers in Higher Education, it is to highlight the fact that we have some real problems with people who oughtn't to be running universities actually trying to run them (and lining their pockets in the process). What's the ontology there? How the hell did that happen? We won't be able to do anything about it unless we understand what caused it (it's really a question about managerialism in general).

In a good society this wouldn't happen. I don't think I'm being idealistic in saying that. There are objective criteria for determining what is good in society, and the determination of those criteria stems from a deep understanding of the real in society. Smith says "Good societies foster personal thriving; bad societies do not".  Replace 'society' with 'university' and you can see how far we have to go in education, let alone society. Smith elaborates a bit about social good: "The good for society is to facilitate and foster through its institutions and structures the development and flourishing of human persons as they are by nature". It's those last 5 words which are important: "as they are by nature".

Maybe Smith is being idealistic here. There are bad people in society. Or rather there are damaged people - people who have, maybe in their childhoods, experienced failed relationships with carers which have left deep scars which develop into socially pathological behaviours. Can a good society prevent this? I think there are two things to prevent: the damage caused by poor attachments in the first case (education can be a substitute of sorts); and the damage that damaged people can inflict on a society. The former involves spotting unhappy children. The latter involves spotting adults who were unhappy children (and may be unhappy adults) but who compensate through counter-productive behaviours (which may nevertheless be legal, or even encouraged in a capitalist society).

So what of technology? There is something important to understand about human capacity for producing artefacts. Art and technologies are both examples. Some artefacts help to open peoples' hearts. Others seem to close them. Is there a connection between the closed-heartedness of technologies and the closed-heartedness of individuals whose attachments were damaged in society? Now there's a space for a demanding naturalistic inquiry! I would elaborate on Smith's definition of the good society: "the good society is where heart speaks to heart". The naturalistic question is "how does a heart speak?"

Monday, 24 March 2014

Mutual Information, Mutual Redundancy and Interdisciplinary connections

One of the advantages of working in a small University is that interdisciplinarity can become a habit in the coffee bar. I had a great experience this morning talking to a colleague who is relatively new to the university and whose disciplinary expertise is in biology. The conversation revealed some of the problems with current statistical techniques for genome analysis. "I and a Chinese colleague have started to look at Mutual Information and Entropy," he said. So up crops Shannon once more (see - and perhaps more importantly is the connection between the problem faced by this academic and the problems which I am spending most of my time thinking about which have no relation to his disciplinary area at all. Indeed, what happened between us is precisely indicative of mutual information!

But more interesting is the fact that the adoption of the Shannon equations present new kinds of problems which have been explored in the (again unrelated) domain of the economics of the knowledge economy - particularly through Loet Leydesdorff's work. Mutual Information, it turns out, is fine in two dimensions. But most communications in the world, including (I guess) those interactions which happen at a molecular level, are not in two dimensions. These are many-dimensional communication situations. Like education. Under these conditions, Shannon's equations deliver inconsistent results. Which led to a discussion about the value of looking at mutual redundancy rather than mutual information. So I could send him this latest paper which is appearing in the cybernetics journal Kybernetes: ( Geneticists reading a cybernetics journal - well, that's the kind of thing that ought to be happening in a University!

Actually, our discussion started with my colleague's complaint that our University ought to be doing more research, and that in research-active universities, teaching isn't so important. I challenged this view by arguing that Bolton's students provide rich opportunities to study the human experience of learning and teaching: Cambridge isn't lucky enough to have these opportunities! If we take this seriously then important cross-disciplinary fertilization can occur so that we gradually see serious scholars taking an interest in all kinds of students, their learning processes and the relation between the University and its community. It is because of my interest in these problems that my studies have taken me to Shannon, Leydesdorff and many other cybernetic theories. But then it is because of this, and because of the shared situation we all have in our institution (some of it very political and not very constructive) that new connections can be made between the study of learner experience and the latest techniques of biomedical engineering, or indeed many other applications. This too creates the conditions for mutual information and mutual redundancy.

The idea reinforces the mutuality of university life in general. However much managers might want to see staff as 'units of production', that simply isn't how it is. When you gather individuals together each of whom is committed to the search for knowledge in whatever domain, they will find rich common ground between them, from where innovations are born. But look at any single individual and you will see different weaknesses and strengths in performance. Individual performance metrics are dangerously crude. But perhaps what strikes me most is that it is in the cracks within the institution which (like many others) appears to want to box everything in and bring it under central control, new things appear which are quite unexpected. This is where the hope is - but perhaps we could do with a few more cracks in the plaster!

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Social Ontology of Education and Managerial Delusions

I'm writing an EU bid at the moment for which there's a really exciting international consortium coming together. No guarantees that the thing will get funded of course, but what's interesting is the fact that everybody I've shown it to 'get's it' (even if they will have powerful critical things to say about the detail). Deep down, it is a project about the social ontology of education and how it relates to society - and where technology fits in the relationship.

Although education is deeply contested (something which naive managers pretend isn't true: "Universities are businesses," they snarl), there are real things about educational experience which are pretty universal. The problem is that they are so deeply embedded within human experience that we struggle to find the words to articulate it, and because of that we struggle to organise ourselves to facilitate it. In place of attempting to articulate realities, we busy ourselves with the educational artifice of assessments, marketing, retention, certificates, and so on - and very quickly we lose sight of reality altogether. The hope for all those labouring under the pathological, naive, idiotic, greedy, power-crazed (and in some cases, downright nasty) lunatics who appear to be running our institutions at the moment is that reality always bites back in the end.

Where do we start with a social ontology of education? Conversation is not a bad starting point. Education is about people talking and listening with each other. It is through conversation that learning happens, and it is through conversation that we come to know that learning has happened. Some conversations are deeply powerful. One hopes in a university that Professors are those with whom one might expect a powerful conversation (although the title of 'professor' is no guarantee of this!). Powerful conversations are those moments of mutual opening of souls where there is a sharing of the abyss that each of us in daily life prefers to look away from - Hegel puts it: "The spirit is this power that looks the negative in the eye and stays there". Powerful conversations build courage, confidence and reveal new possibilities. The fundamental result of any powerful conversation is that new kinds of conversation become possible: usually this is made possible by asking powerful questions of each other. In a university, many powerful conversations involve people who are dead, who hold their part in the conversation through the books they wrote, or the art they created in their lifetimes. One of the functions of academics in the university is to facilitate the conversations both of the living and present (students, other academics) and of the not-yet-born. For the latter, we must leave behind our contribution to the discourse. Technologies give us new ways of doing this (I was fascinated to learn that Tony Benn not only kept vast quantities of records of his political life, but also maintained the various technologies - tape recorders, video, etc - which were necessary to revisit these: this is precisely what I mean about facilitating the conversation with the not-yet-born)

The most important thing about conversation, the most important skill that professors ought to learn (but rarely do) is the skill of listening. Conversation is talking and listening with each other. But now we come to the reality bite-back moment and the problem with our current crop of educational managers. They believe education is about certificates, assessments, income and graduation photos. Some students are led to believe this too - although the belief tends not to take them very far. They may well agree that powerful conversations are important - providing they deliver income. But deep down their 'production' model of education leads them to believe that people should be talked-at, not talked-with. As the hysteria kicks in prompted by falling rolls and poor retention, so there's an ever shrill demand from managers talking-at (or yelling-at) their staff: "you teach well, or we'll terminate your role! We'll replace you with cheaper, keen, young 'new blood' lecturers! We'll take them fresh from their PhDs in Oxford and burn them out, then replace them. That's the future - There Is No Alternative! Dissent will not be tolerated!"

Talking-at or Talking-and-listening-with? There's the ontological tension. We've had two years of this nasty business in institutions up and down the country. The signs are not good. As a PhD student said to me recently (who is likely to become 'fresh meat' staff somewhere or other), "Well, they think they're using these young lecturers and burning them out, only to replace them. In reality, those young lecturers will use the institution and it'll be worse off for it." There are already signs that the transplanted organs are being rejected by, or are rejecting the body. That's ontology for you!

The real question now is about the attachment between the body of staff who represent an institution, who have powerful conversations with their students, and managers whose ontological view is delusional. The sinews are stretched to breaking point. What next? Well, it's an interesting moment!

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

I am not a Node: Rethinking Big Data and Empiricism

Pattern has been of interest to cyberneticians for many years. Bateson coined the term “the pattern that connects” as a metaphor for the ecological perspective of thought necessary to see the world as a whole. Study of patterns within leaves, the patterns of symmetry in the limbs of a beetle, patterns in art, and so on led Bateson to consider the causes of these patterns (he identified 'constraint' as a major cause). Given that we now have the patterns in data analytics, would Bateson seek to explain those in a similar way?

Although such patterns are not 'natural' in the same sense as the patterns on leaves, data is clearly 'out there': both 'big data' and its analytics are now features of the world we live in. The tools and algorithms are there too. But does the presence of data make it's analysis empirical? To address this, we have to consider the nature of the regularities that are produced through the combination of data, algorithms and tools. One of the continual complaints about ‘big data’ analytics was that (for example) social network analysis resulted in pretty pictures that appeared to tell us things that we already knew (but in some kind of “objectified” way). This is not, however, an empirical result. It is instead a confirmation of regularities established elsewhere, reinforcing existing preconceptions and explanations about what we think is happening. In a highly politicised environment where the denial of some regularities can be common among those who would prefer they weren’t true, analytic reports of this kind can be powerful because of their own material constitution (and hence status as an 'object'), of the fact that there’s understandable ‘mathematics’ that sits behind them, and because they appear to show 'evidence'. But in addressing the question of whether this is empirical or ideal, we face some difficult problems.

A typical social network graph shows 'nodes' joined together by 'arcs'. We think of each node in such a diagram as a ‘person’. But this is misleading. In fact each node is no more than a source of "declared relations" to other "sources of declared relations". What's a declared relation? Well, it's a Facebook 'like' or a comment. The important thing about this, though is that looked at in this way, the lines within a social network diagram are constitutive of the nodes: the 'arcs' don't actually 'add' any information; the picture as a whole is expressive of a state of affairs concerning 'sources of declared relations'. This gets more interesting because there are many ways in which we can conceive of a ‘source of declared relations’. It really depends on what we think is declared by a source. In social network analysis, we might believe that "affection" or "attachment bonds" are declared. But the positioning of familial relations (which are likely to be stronger emotional bonds) with friendship relations would appear to demonstrate a wide range of strength of bonds which aren't necessary borne out by the positioning of different nodes on the graph.

By seeing a node as a “source of declared relations” to other sources of declared relations means that different characterisations of a ‘node’ can also be made. Instead of seeing a 'source of declared relations' as a person, we might instead see it as a "document”. How does a document declare its relations? It does it through the words and phrases it uses within it. A simple example of this is the ‘citations’ shown by one document of other documents. Seeing documents as sources of declared relations in this way means that metrics of ‘influence’ of documents, and (in particular) metrics of influence of the authors of documents (where an author is a source of these sources of relations to other sources of relations). A citation is a declared relation of this sort. However, there are other ways in which a document may be seen to exhibit relations to other documents through its exhibition of undeclared relations with other documents. These are the words and phrases which may be present in one document and in other documents.

Given all of this, we can return to question about the empirical nature of big data. Empiricism relies on regularities. Where are the regularities which relate data analytics and the world? On the one hand, we might say that data analytics is a variety of statistics, and that like statistics, data analytics produces regularity-by-proxy. In other words, statistics permits us to wash over the details of individual cases, to produce broad-brush averages of results, and then to produce regularities among those broad-brush pictures according to different sorts of interventions (for example, smoking and cancer). It may be with data visualisations that the principal question concerns the correlation between the viewing of visualisations and the understanding of individuals of the phenomena represented. What might this tell about what must be going on in the heads of people whose communications, data and language is represented pictorially? Maybe the visualisations of data and our reaction to this visualisation gives us a way of being able to explore the different models of agency that are presupposed through our different ideas about information, or our different ideas about agency...

It certainly appears to be the case that in our excitement at being able to produce pretty pictures from data, we have overlooked the need to identify regularities which require explanation. I am sure that if we look harder, we will see correlations between social environment, practice, declarations of social relations, habits, routines, etc. I am sure that if we seek to explain regularities arising from these, our understanding of ourselves and our relation to technology will increase. 

Saturday, 15 March 2014

University Surpluses: Student money placed in the service of a VC's ambition?

All universities are trying make money at the moment. Although there is a lot of talk about the money they need to keep going, the dominant rhetoric is that there's "another disastrous threat to income around the corner" and so, whatever might appear to be a relatively healthy short-term financial position at present, the university must build a surplus fund to off-set any interruptions to its intake in the future. We have had a number of "looming disasters": the rise in tuition fees, "AAB" students being swallowed up by redbrick universities, and the latest is the removal of the cap on numbers which is believed to be the regulatory force which has restricted the recruitment of places like Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, etc. All of these events have had impacts - pattern to university recruitment have changed, and these have economic consequences. However, universities can make (and have made) redundancies to off-set these challenges. Any business would. And consequently, they remain viable - if perhaps smaller and (heaven forbid) a bit more efficient.

However, the 'surplus' - that 'rainy day' fund - rarely gets touched to off-set the threat to staffing or morale. When the captain spots a new sea-monster on the distant horizon, he instinctively throws more crew overboard whilst continuing to cram the galleys with 'booty'! Why?

The myth about the education reforms is that some institutions are not viable in a market-driven system. But history tells us that institutions are remarkably viable. An old colleague of mine (now retired) used to say "disaster has always been round the corner in this place - but we're still here" The institution survives, but individuals may lose their jobs. However, the individual who is unlikely to lose his job is the captain. His guarantee of safety is the surplus he has been building up. This is the 'bond of trust' between himself and the governing body: as long as the surplus continues to rise, no question can be asked about his competence, or the 'tough decisions' he makes, and considerable leeway will be granted to the sometimes cavalier investments in 'new opportunities' (for which part of the surplus might be used).

So there is a rherotic and the truth about the surplus. The rhetoric is that it is 'rainy day money'. The truth is that it shores-up the leader's position, enables them to lead vanity projects which (if they ever work) would further enhance personal reputation, and make career progression easier (if they don't work, he can distance himself, make some fall-guy responsible, and stand well back). The surplus is student money placed in the service of the VC's ambition.

There is nothing technically wrong with having a surplus to develop new university projects. But as with all public money (which this is) proper democratic accountability and scrutiny is required. To not do this is tantamount to a kind of despotism - very much of the kind that we have seen in big industrial failures. The lack of proper governance in Universities, the well known fact that boards of governors do not govern (they usually have little idea of what really goes on day-to-day), together with a climate of fear leaves the door open to clever and manipulative people to palm governors off with tales of "millions in bank".

But there's something else which I think we are going to see. Imagine two such motivated people, each in charge of their own institutions and each looking to secure a bigger stranglehold on the regulatory apparatus around them. "How big's your's?" one asks then other with a knowing wink. They compare sizes. "Of course, if we put them together...large captive student market, achieve massive economies of scale in staffing, amalgamate our  property portfolios, enhanced packages for each of us... you'll need a private jet, of course!"

What appeared to be only a small institutional problem becomes a much bigger problem for many more people. Of course the people who should be fighting this are the people whose money it is. Vice Chancellors will be one of the few applauding the political apathy in the young!

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Creativity in an Age of Distraction

I spent most of my adult life struggling to be creative. In particular, I've spent it struggling to compose music. There's remarkably little to show for it, apart from piles of half-finished manuscripts. I'm rather like the character Amédée in Ionesco's play of the same name, who as a struggling playwright, spends a large part of the play writing the odd word in a notebook, walking around the room, pondering, then crossing it out, and repeats this process endlessly.

Around Amédée there is a curious array of distractions. His wife Madeleine is a telephone switchboard operator. Yet neither she nor he has left the apartment for many years. Madeleine has all her telephone equipment at home. When she works, the phone is continuously ringing: "No, Sir, no. The President can't take a call for another half an hour, I've just told you..." Amédée is perturbed by the sprouting of poisonous mushrooms in the flat, but the most troubling distraction is the dead body in the adjacent room which appears to be getting bigger and bigger, threatening to overwhelm their flat. The body exhibits "Geometric progression, the incurable disease of the dead". We are led to assume that it was the lover of Madeleine, and that maybe Amédée had killed him. Eventually the couple have to take the body out of the appartment, where the body opens up like a sail and Amédée is swept up into the sky: "A bad day for literature," remarks an attendant policeman.

What interests me is Amédée's creative struggle and its relation to his environment. This is an alienating, automated and fundamentally loveless environment. For Ionesco he would have been deliberately pointing at the post-war world of 1956. I can only imagine that if he saw our internet-dominated world of 2014 he would probably have a chuckle to himself and merely remark that the dead body has got bigger still! Aren't we all telephone switchboard operators now?

The climax of the play is a beautiful and strange transformation, and it is this which any creative artist seeks in their practice. It is the moment where the labour of many weeks suddenly begins to take shape. But what are the conditions which produce this? I want to suggest that the principal condition is love. It is the absolute commitment over an extended period to a particular idea, cause, person, object. It is the condition of the thing that becomes an obsession, continually turning in one's head. But obsession on its own can be destructive. What the successful artist manages to do is to channel the passion in a practice that constructs something steadily. It is the routine of Beethoven, Janacek, Debussy, Elgar or Tippett which is most important. It is from routine that things emerge.

The problem - at least this has been my problem with composition - is that routine is difficult in an age of distraction. Computers do an enormous variety of things at the flick of a switch. One minute I can be writing a blog post, the next reading the news, watching a film, or pursuing some personal interest in intellectual, spiritual, sexual, health or any other curiosity which strikes me at any moment. Where physical constraints of having to locate myself to the appropriate place or device or book once helped to curtail the tyranny of distraction, now the uber-switch of the computer acts as a kind of teleport operated in the instant (there's a wonderful episode of the Simpsons where Homer is delighted to discover that Bart's "teleport device" means that he can teleport the toilet, eliminating the necessity to get off the couch to relieve himself!)

My personal challenge has been to find a way of establishing routine and maintaining a passionate involvement with a particular cause or idea over an extended period of time in the context of this technology. I think it probably has to be done with technology in some way - although I've spoken to friends about this, and they disagree - but I'm too scatty and disorganised to maintain sheets of manuscript paper, pens, etc - at least the computer saves me the hassle of physical organisation.

This blog was the first phase of this establishing of routine - particularly the improvisations (which is where it started). But now I want to go further (interesting that I haven't improvised for a while now). I am writing two or three lines of music every day. And then I am distorting them and making pictures out of them. Then I read the pictures like a score and hone-in on the details of what I want to say. All I can say is that I think this is working. I think I fall in love with the pictures. There's something sensual about them, and this maintains the necessary passion to drive the labour of continuing to produce them and eventually to make a piece.

What am I saying with all this? Well, it's a struggle. But I don't think I'm alone in struggling. Technology gives us many wonderful things, but it does get in the way of an important aspect of our humanity in our creative imagination. If I was to be more technical, I would say technology robs us of redundancy and repetition, and creativity nourishes itself on redundancy and repetition: like the continual obsession with someone we love, our thoughts continually turn to them. My struggle has been to try an put this back. This one isn't finished yet, but you get the idea...

Monday, 10 March 2014

From Forms of Knowledge to Forms of Practice: Comparing Educational Activities with Activities in Society

It is very difficult to make meaningful distinctions between practices in the classroom and practices in business, or public services. In each case, stakeholders engage in activities with rights, responsibilities, positions, roles and obligations. As a result of interventions there usually are changes in the patterns of responsibilities, obligations, rights, etc. These are observable to the extent to which communications and practices reveal some kind of transformation. When such change has occurred, we may well say that individuals have ‘learnt’ something (although what is learnt is sometimes hard to say!)
The question is how the changes to patterns of rights, responsibilities and obligations can be compared across different domains, how the causes for such changes may be compared, and how the causal factors behind such changes can be explained.
At its simplest level, a methodology has to make three levels of comparison (shown in the diagram below). Comparison A (below) is a comparison of outcomes: what are the changes to positions, rights, obligations, understandings relating to an activity? Comparison B is a comparison of the activity and its associated information and technology: how do the constraints relating to one context of comparison relate to the constraints of another? Comparison C is a comparison of the contexts between the two situations: how are the normative constraints of the context similar or different?
Explanations for outcomes must account for the relationship between context and intervention which leads to outcome in each case. Effective explanation will be applicable to both comparable situations.
These levels of comparison relate to different kinds of constraint which are operating, and these in turn relate to the different foci of explanation that need to be produced. For example, comparisons A and B require an understanding of the constraints applied by technologies and the constraints applied by a particular activity or task which may need to be performed by the technology. This maps onto the material dimensions  and interpersonal communications. Comparison C requires an understanding of the deeper social structures which will further constraint practice and affect the ways in which interventions have causal power.
For an operational laboratory, some control over the kinds of activities to design to test certain explanations must also be considered. This means making a mapping between activities within education and activities in the world outside. In turn this requires a generic typology of activities within education.
Constraint analysis may provide a way of doing this. The music lesson is different from the French lesson. In reality, the constraints that bear upon learners and teachers vary. There are constraints that bear upon acting in the classroom, there are material constraints that bear upon students in the music lesson which are different from the material constraints that bear upon students in the English lesson. There are social constraints emerging from the dynamics between peers within the classroom, and so on. Activities conducted within the French classroom and the music classroom are fundamentally different in type. Each activity constrains in different ways. These constraints may be thought of as material or informational?
Determining Activity Constraints
When considering any kind of activity, a number of different stakeholder views must be considered. Each stakeholder has particular roles, responsibilities, rights and obligations. The network of things that connect the different rights and responsibilities for each stakeholder can be mapped, together with the different things that constrain each stakeholder. Stakeholders together may well constrain each other. Each of these rights and responsibilities may be represented in terms of different kinds of constraint.
In trying to distinguish different aspects of activity within the classroom, we propose to track three aspects of constraint which map onto the different levels of experience collected in the explanatory section  of the project. Considering the aspects of material constraint, social constraint and constraints imposed by any particular activity, we can create a three-axes graph upon which different stakeholders may respond to questions concerning how they feel about particular aspects of their experience.
On the above axes, it is possible to situate different “triangles” on axes which represent different freedoms of constraint. For example, in triangle A, there is freedom to use any kind of tooling possible (or no tooling), there is freedom to exercise any kind of activity from any authority, however, there is a strong normative constraint which forces everyone to behave in a similar way. Free play activity in the school playground for example (whilst nothing is ever completely free from material constraint). The absence of any overt authority, but the strong constraint of social context would produce the kind of behaviour seen in religious communities. (Team games would produce this kind of social constraint.)
In triangle B shows free choice of activities, freedom from social norms, but constraint in the choice of tools. The school example of this is to provide technical tools which are mandated for classroom purposes, but activities are open providing they are performed through the tools. Various forms of electronically-mediated resource-based learning may fit into this. In business, such an extreme might be represented as technocratic management.
In triangle C, there is freedom of constraint with regard to tooling, freedom from social norms, but there is constraint in the activities that are coordinated. The demand that a person might be told to achieve a task in whatever way is possible would be representative of this kind of situation.
Having said this, where there is constraint in two dimensions, we look down the axes. In the case of constraint of constraint of tooling and constraint of norms, we get axis 1, where there is freedom of activity, but normal constraints and tooled constraints. Such an instant would be an online game where individuals can freely explore (e.g. World of Warcraft).
What about the kind of constraint where there is constraint in activity, constraint in tooling, but individuals can act without worrying about others? In such a case there is a case of individual problem-based learning, or personal investigation with given models.
What about the kind of constraint where there is constraint of activity and constraint of norms, but freedom in the choice of tools? Such a situation would produce activities where there are divisions of roles and responsibilities (as in roleplay), but within each role, there is flexibility as to how those roles might be executed.
Against the three axes, there are questions which can be asked of stakeholders. They are:
  1. To what extent are you free to use the tools you want?
  2. To what extent can solve the problems you have to solve without reference to those around you?
  3. To what extent can you solve your own problems and engage in your own activities?
Each of these questions may be answered according to a Likert scale.  The dimensioning of the triangle is useful because it enables us to make distinctions about different kinds of activity. It also enables us to make comparisons of similar kinds of activities in education and what happens in industry.

However, the structures of constraint bearing upon activities are recursive. For example, where there is strong constraint in one dimension, those activities which result in that constraint can also be analysed for the constraints that bear upon them. In this way, for both educational  activities and for activities outside education, we can analyse and map webs of constraint.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

MOOCs, Status, Economics and Fairness

One of the great problems in thinking about the funding of education is the fact that economic life, from where the resources to fund education must be found, is difficult to separate from the processes of learning which we all undergo continually. The fact that some of that learning takes place in institutions with a particular status, and studying at which leads to 'status awards' (degrees) to individuals for which they have to pay large sums of money, is not an indication of a 'market' in learning. It is a market in status. MOOCs are not telling us about learning. They are telling us about status. Currently the vast majority of those engaging with MOOCs already have relatively high social status.

When the education 'market' is understood like this, it is little wonder that MOOCs are in the trough of disillusionment right now. What kind of status is associated with studying in a MOOC? Mary Beard's critique of them the other day (see was really an expression of worry that the MOOC would become a barrier to opportunities for certain individuals to increase their status. Resources would be diverted to establishing a 'false' status-increasing instrument (the MOOC) which actually served to enhance the status (and relative inaccessibility) of prestigious face-to-face education. I think the broad thrust of her argument merits serious attention. Because education is so confusing and so contested, it is easy to get side-tracked into an argument about the wrong thing (learning), when the thing that really matters (status) is overlooked in the interests of those who wish to preserve it.

What do we mean by status? John Searle, in his recent work of social ontology (see ) proposes one way of looking at this. He argues that human beings have:
“the capacity to impose functions on objects and people where the objects and the people cannot perform the functions solely in virtue of their physical structure. The performance of the function requires that there be a collectively recognized status that the person or object has, and it is only in virtue of that status that the person or object can perform the function in question"
By 'capacity', Searle means that individuals can declare status. This move of linguistic reductionism is in line with his earlier work on Speech Acts, but his acknowledgement that institutions are created through the declaration of status adds a powerful new twist to his general theory of the constitution of the world through language, and one which ultimately admits to the inadequacies of simple linguistic reductionism, and the importance of taking social structures as 'givens'. In effect, we might say, status is a given - it's there, real, substantial. Functions of declaration are given at a different level, but equally real. Status has causal powers, tendencies, etc; functions have causal power. Through this route, there isn't much difference between Searle's position and a less linguistically reductionist position as is articulated in Critical Realism (for example).

Universities declare status. They create a division between themselves and the rest of society. This division is a division relating to rights, duties and obligations. If we want to compare MOOCs with the rest of education, we have to look at the associated rights, duties and obligations in each. Revealing differences emerge. The whole point with MOOCs is that the duties and obligations relating to students are simply not there: it's laissez-faire education. The obligations and duties bear upon the providers of the MOOC. They must make their lectures and activities available and organise effectively the assessments of the students. Who gains status in this? Answer: the people who subject themselves to the rights, duties and obligations! That's not the students, but the providers of the courses.

Compare a traditional university. On gaining admission, students are subjected to a different set of rights, duties and obligations. They must obey the rules of the institutions, do their assignments on time, pass exams, etc. Teachers have rights and duties to give lectures, mark work, etc. But in upholding the compliance with the declared rights, duties and obligations, both teachers and students gain status. The degree of status gained is dependent on the perceived level of duties and obligations to be complied with. The obligations and duties of a degree at Oxford are not the same as the obligations and duties of a degree at Bolton. However, if Bolton was more creative, it could create situations with other kinds of duties and obligations (other than academic ones) which might be seen to be of equal value. For example, if Bolton were to create duties and obligations to serve the local community in some way (maybe through some form of service learning), then this would also serve as a way of increasing the status of the individual.

I'm currently thinking about the Higher Education Academic Record (HEAR - see , which seeks to recognise and validate student achievement outside academic qualifications. This is a good way in which status functions might find rich expression in university participation, and which might serve to translate that added status into the employability of students.

But what of economic life, social life and status? To start with, Searle is explicit that money is a 'status object': "I promise to pay the bearer" is a status declaration. In many ways money can buy status. The big car, house, etc, all articulate some kind of status (even a slightly shabby one!); however, so does the cramped house in a bad area full of books! Increases in status can give rise to greater opportunities to make money. To some extent, the rich get richer because they can afford to buy the status opportunities which give them and their families access to further status-increasing opportunities. But there are limits to this. The rich will tend to want to conceal the advantages they had in acquiring their status (private school will become an embarrassment!). Whilst the real business of being subject to rights, duties and obligations is theoretically open to anyone, it may require a state of ontological security which is easier to have with the emotional stability of a loving family, good schooling, etc.

Monday, 3 March 2014

The problem with information that "connects"

In our computer age we tend to think of information as ‘stuff’: letters on a screen, signals down a wire, codes in the genome, etc. Information is all "screens and switches", on tap – something to be accessed, recorded, played back, absorbed, analysed. Moreover, our experience tells us that information is the join between a state of "not knowing" and knowing. Information is directed at us for a purpose, it is to be made operational - it points to the way of learning. We hope and expect from teachers that they point us towards information. Indeed, in recent educational discourse, it is not uncommon to find the idea of teachers as ‘brokers’ of access to information, where learning itself can be gained purely from immersion in an information environment. Yet, as our discourse has increasingly embraced this kind of approach, supporting our technological infrastructure, the word information is used in a way where it masks what is being talked about rather than reveals it. Technology has changed the way we think. Our discourse is about individual processing of available information, freedom of personal choice, goal achievement: everything which is about the linear connections between states. This way of thinking about information we might call ‘connecting information’.

We have to give, after all, some kind of label to the thing that happens when people talk together. There are words which are exchanged in text messages and emails: what else would you call it? "Information" will surely do. The problem might be that rather than simply accept this label as a label for the connection between people, we then imbue it with causal powers in its own right. At this point, information becomes an actor. Our “information society” is no longer about people, but about the stuff that exists between people. The “knowledge economy” is about the capacity of individuals and corporations to participation in the creation of information. Universities are particularly guilty of this way of thinking. The problem with this is that it stops us asking an obvious question. What does it mean for people to be connected to one another?

Before the information revolution of the 20th century, connectedness was not a way in which people thought. Rights and responsibilities, positions, roles and duties were incumbent upon a person in their society. The connectivity mantra may have emancipated many in society by giving them choice as to which rights and responsibilities they are subject to because they can effectively choose which communities they associate with. But it may well have enslaved them to a technocratic society at the same time. The challenge in thinking about information is to think beyond the connection.

I've been looking very closely at the work of Luciano Floridi recently (I've written about this before). Floridi's work, it strikes me, is very much about 'connection'. He holds to a Theory of Strongly Semantic Information, where information is presented as a mapping function between questions and answers. Floridi wants to connect truth to information: Am I writing this blog? Yes I am! (but 'no, I'm not' wouldn't be information) What's curious about this, however, is that the further Floridi goes in justifying his connection model, the more he is driven towards having to produce a model of agency. Indeed, I'm thinking that his theory isn't a theory of information at all, it is a theory of agency. Of course, this may be an excellent model of agency, but I wonder about the criteria for deciding if its any good or not. Might it be that the criteria for deciding this depends on the coherence of the model of agency with the theory of information? Where does that leave real experience?

Floridi has yet to produce a theory of learning. He may not believe one is needed. Yet in terms of real experience, the capabilities of individuals to make sense of available information appear to be widely divergent. This has real consequences, not least in the economic and political domain. The domain of yes/no questions and answers is no doubt an important aspect of information (Luhmann agrees with this too). But there is so much more to our agency.

Life processes are morphogenetic. If the information in the genome is the same kind of stuff as the information on the computer screen, then we can say that the biological information plays a fundamental role in morphogenesis of the organism. We don't know exactly how. Indeed, the 'field theories' of morphogenesis which predate the discovery of DNA have better explanatory power than the genome sequencing nonsense that we are surrounded by today. But moreover, the images on the computer screen also play a role in the morphogenesis of society. Once again, we don't know how.