Tuesday, 15 May 2018

E-portfolio and Personal Uncertainty Management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 14 May 2018

Diagrams of Uncertainty Management

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 7 May 2018

Open Watters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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