Sunday, 26 February 2012

Rethinking 'Impact'

At the #CETIS12 session on visualisation, one the of principal reasons for visualisation was suggested as being “as a way of showing the impact of the JISC interventions in the sector”. The pretty visualisation pictures were deemed “better than a report saying ‘this has been used by x, y and z’”. It probably is better than doing that, but at the same time, we might reasonably worry that visualising the impact of interventions is no more honest or productive than writing a report about it; indeed, it might be worse because it is more visceral. I joked that we should visualise the impact of research in visualisation (didn't go down too well :-/)

I have argued that visualisation and analytics is about decision and control, and fundamentally about attenuating an increasingly rich information set which by its sheer diversity threatens meaningful collective decision-making, and which necessitates some technique of making sense of it. But I have said all that elsewhere... (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.com/2012/01/knowledge-and-performance-art-of.html)

What the conference discussion set me thinking about was the notion of ‘impact’ – particularly as I’m particularly interested in social innovation more generally at the moment, and the ways in which society might organise itself to reward effective social innovation.

The notion that ‘impact’ can be evidenced by external communication networks puts undue weight on the externalisable aspects of innovations. But the internal aspects of projects are usually the most significant: the major impact of any funded project is usually on those receiving the funding. Very often  the confidence and experience gained can lead to growth in individual social capital and increasing ability to make a difference in the organisations in which they engage (often coupled with internal promotion, etc). That sort of impact is a much 'slower burner' than the immediate communication networks suggest.

Not that I think there is a licence for not engaging with the community, or trying to find new ways of getting people to adopt your stuff – those are important reality checks, and avoid the danger of individuals disappearing off in impractical dream-worlds of interventions. But at the same, what goes on in peoples heads is of great significance, and acknowledging this will help us to understand the deeper nature of social innovation. The problem is we don't know how to do it. We only know how to visualise communication networks. But what we want to know is "what do projects mean to people?"

This relates to thinking about informational transfer, the growth of meanings and ‘entropy’ which I blogged about http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.com/2012/02/cybernetics-of-meaning.html. That sounds very ambitious, but the potential for its practicability is enticing me. Although this is difficult stuff, and very mathematical (I'm having to brush-up my maths quite a lot here - thank you Khan Academy!) I’m struck by the three equations of anticipatory systems by Daniel Dubois (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.com/2011/10/artificial-qualitative-data-from-quants.html). These equations  are ‘recursive’ (i.e. each state depends on the previous one); incursive (each state depends on the previous one and the current state); and hyper-incursive (each state depends on projected 'future' states).  Each of these equations is recursive and produces a ‘logistic map’.  The principal feature of the logistic map is that over time, the entropy increases.

The intervention situation of social innovation is such that meanings proliferate, and the selection of meanings within a society is usually complex. Moreover, individuals struggle to negotiate different meanings as they move through different social contexts: classically, school children struggle to negotiate the meaning constructed within the school with the meaning constructed online.

Coming back to 'impact', whether an effective intervention (i.e. one with impact) is a technology or an explanation (conceptual development) it results in some sort of communication and the effect of that communication is to change the situation with regard to the selection of meanings within a social group.  Whilst for some conceptual development, this can be seen as the growth of a social network, but what is important here is to be clear as to what we are seeing.  What is produced is, in effect, a reduction in entropy, and our next question must be “what is causing it?”

In order to consider that question, we need to look deeper at the individuals engaged directly in projects and practice with people around them. Here it is instructive to look at a couple of hypothetical project scenarios:
  1. The project with 'fixed ideas' (i.e. it has a theory which doesn't change in the light of practice)
  2. The project with no ideas and flexible methods
The first scenario is obviously unrealistic (although aspects of it do exist!), whilst the other two are more plausible. For people with fixed theoretical ideas, there is high certainty (low uncertainty) over the way they react to certain situations. This may be characterised as low entropy - we know what they will say! This is in comparison to the project with no ideas and flexible methods – there there is high entropy with some uncertainty over the selection of possible meanings.

Suppose both project 1 and project 2 engage with a real-life social domain X. There now follows a process of communication-making between each project and the domain X, within which the entropy of each entity interferes with the social domain. What happens?

The people in Project 1 are unlikely to be changed if their theory is so weighted to maintaining the status-quo (although of course, if the theory is brilliant, this is not a problem!), but they will have an effect on the social domain they interact with. This need not be a bad thing, as the social domain reorganises itself in the light of the interventions of project 1 (although [particularly if the theory is less than brilliant!] I'm sure project 1 will drive them nuts!). Project 2 is likely to be changed by the domain: its entropy will be changed in the light of the interaction (probably lowered). The self-organisation of the social domain may show some knock-on effects of this lowering of entropy. But in terms of the observable social effects, it may be project 1 which has the maximum 'impact'. Yet, the change in entropy within project 1 is non-existant. In project 2, there is change in both the project team and in the social domain.

The point of this is that when we look at communication as changes in entropy, patterns emerge in different types of projects. There are fewer patterns than there are different types of project, and yet these patterns reveal meaningful project interactions which we can all recognise. Moreover, I think examining these patterns of entropy can allow for reasonable forecasting as to the likely future impact of projects. Patterns of change of entropy in the project team will no doubt lead to new and transformed projects, and new patterns of interaction. The lack of patterns of change in the project team of Project 1 will make it likely little will change in the future, and indeed social reaction to previous interventions will make future ones less likely to succeed. (I believe we have seen that sort of thing happen a lot recently)

This all needs more work to flesh out in full... Measuring impact in an accurate way is fundamental to social innovation. We really need to know what works, why it works, reward those who make it work, and spot the 'fixed thinking' projects that might look great on the surface (even visualised social impact!), but deep down are going nowhere.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The cybernetics of Meaning

The relationship between cybernetics and information is well-established, primarily through the work of Shannon. Shannon believed that his techniques could go only go as far as information, although Weaver does suggest that the insights of information transfer could eventually unlock some of the mechanisms whereby information carries deeper significance to individuals. Bateson, in defining information as 'a difference that makes a difference' effectively puts himself at one-step removed from Shannon's position, by emphasising that the important thing about information is not the stuff which is exchanged between end-points, but the relationship between those end-points as each engage in self-organising behaviour and make differences to each other in the process.

This is basically Maturana's biological position regarding information, which he sees as a 'consensual domain' of individuals self-organising, making differences that make differences to each other. It is this position which Luhmann takes as a starting point for rethinking the relationship between information, communication and meaning.

But Luhmann's other big influence, apart from Maturana, is Shannon. Like Shannon, Luhmann sees communication as a sequence of selections: selection of information to be communicated; selection of utterance; selection of meaning by the recipient. And like Shannon's theory, each selection may be seen probablistically. But Luhmann takes from Maturana the concept of organisationally-closed systems (i.e. closed systems with feedback) to argue that a separation must exist between what he terms the psychic system of the individual and the social system of communications within which individuals exist and maintain through continuing to make communications. (This is in contrast to other cybernetic theories of society like Pask's Interaction of Actors theory).

For Luhmann, what is made in the social system is 'meaning' - which is seen as the operational result of these interactions. And then Luhmann's sociological project begins by identifying different 'meaning systems' in modern society: love, education, law, economics, health, etc. Each 'meaning system' is a self-organising system oriented around a central organising principle, which is distinct in the case of each social system. In effect, this means that Luhmann had to write a lot of books! (each one about the operation of a different system of meaning).

The problem in all this is that Luhmann never identified in detail what 'meaning' really looked like. In recent years, there has been a suggestion that meaning might relate to the ability of a social system to anticipate its future states. This I find a fascinating idea (it relates in some way to the functioning of System 4 in the Viable System Model). In the mathematical work of Dubois, the simple equations of the Pearl-Verhulst equation can give us an idea of what an anticipatory system might look like, or at least how it might function in an abstract sense.

But since we live in such a data-rich time, surely we ought to be able to find some metric of anticipation between social systems within the data that we have to hand? This is my understanding of what Leydesdorff has been trying to do. Using a combination of Shannon's equations and longitudinal data from simple web-searches, the entropy of different search terms can be easily calculated. Because of the power of being able to look for occurrences in domains and co-occurrences across domains, longitudinal patterns of information transfer may be identified. It may well be that these patterns have some direct bearing on emerging meanings, and new anticipations in social systems.

What's important about this 'search for meaning' is that this data analysis reveals something which is not directly observable from looking at the surface data. But by calculating the transmission of information between domains, we can start to model the anticipatory systems that lie behind them. What is most fascinating about that is that Dubois's equations of anticipation are recursive: the fractal of the logistic map is the result. Working back from information transfer to mechanisms of anticipation that produce them could reveal fractal patterns that sit behind the data that we see.

Of course, none of this is any good unless we can use it. Rather, none of it is any good unless it results in better decision and more effective organisation. But since much of our bad decisions and poor organisation rests on a shallow interpretation of what is immediately in front of us, the opportunity to grasp the deeper structures of the data which all of our social enterprises swim in might just be worth exploring!

Sunday, 19 February 2012

School, Family and Online Domains of Meaning

(and meaningful domains)

In the list of things children worry about, I might modestly suggest (with some experience!)

  • school
  • friendships (particularly as they are maintained through mobile phones and social networks)
  • maintaining space and security in the family
  • being creative and having ambition (making things)
  • emerging political consciousness around global warming, terrorism, etc
  • fears of crime and insecurity

.. generally this boils down to fear of loss of attachments brought about in a variety of ways, including 'looking stupid' or 'being embarrassing' (loss of friends) to loss of parents, or environment or ability to express oneself.

Because of the importance of each of these domains, each one can be said to be 'meaningful' to the child. Each domain of meaning carries risks which affect other domains of meaning. Looking stupid in school has a knock-on effect on maintaining friendships, relationship with parents, online behaviour, etc. Sometimes, activities which occur in one domain of meaning (say school) can directly conflict or threaten others.

I want to suggest that whilst we think of the problem of learning as being one of 'acquiring knowledge and skill', the real concern of children is how to join up and manage the different domains of meaning which they engage in. Seen in this way, performing an acquisition of sufficient knowledge and skill in school has to be reconciled with the online domain, the family domain and the domain of the self in the wider social environment.

Some domains are richer than others in terms of providing a caring environment. Family and School are top of the list here. The online domain can feed both of these and must be managed, but in itself does not provide care.

Having started to identify these different domains, it is worth thinking about how the provision of care in schools and families works. In families, care is provided on the basis of mutual inter-dependence. Within the family, as long as one member is unhappy, all are unhappy. Families struggle to deal with this aspect of their condition.. sometimes leading inevitably to pathology - which of course has knock-on effects on the child's ability to reconcile meanings.

But the rule in school is different. The school community doesn't demand that everyone is happy; it instead demands that everyone is concernfully engaged in learning activity. The organisational situation in school is not the natural self-organisation of families, but an organisation based around the effective coordination of learning activities by teachers. The good teacher will do this well, and in the good teacher's class, all children will find a level of activity with each other which they may or may not enjoy, but which nevertheless the child can find a place for themselves where they can feel relatively safe. In the bad class, this will not be managed well (although it may not be the teacher's fault... problems with the curriculum are more often to blame!!) and many children will be left confused or wondering what they are meant to be doing. In such situations, the meaningfulness of the activity in school is compromised. As with the pathology of the bad family, this has knock-on effects.

The tricky thing (which education ministers never seem to understand, despite the fact that they will themselves have experienced it) is that not all bad families, or bad schools necessarily have bad results for the children. Indeed, they may even help them establish strong and positive identities later in life. But to understand this is to understand the priority of establishing a coordination between the different domains of meaning that children experience. For example, a bad lesson will leave the entire class with much to talk about in the playground.. and, when they get home, online. Thus meaninglessness in one domain fuels meaningful engagement in another. The net result can be a strengthened sense of identity. Indeed, just like the kids, teachers often learn most from bad lessons!

This is important, because it means that politically-driven attempts to 'weed-out' bad teachers are probably misguided insofar as they seek to establish standards of practice which are believed to work in 'coordinating learning' but which ultimately decrease the flexibility teachers have for experimenting and responding to the needs of the children for integrating meanings.

But the most worrying recent development is the reaction of schools to the online world. Recognising that the online world is an important domain of meaning to the children, schools are currently attempting to integrate social networking practices within lessons. This is well-intentioned, but probably flawed. The problem for the children is that they themselves have to coordinate their domains of meaning: it can't be done by anyone else. Bringing Facebook into the classroom is like bringing all the family feuds of each child into the classroom. Domains of meaning collide and the knock-on effect risks being chaotic and confusing, thus compromising not only the meaningfulness of the classroom itself (because the learning activity is harder to manage  for the teacher), but also (for the children) a real threat to other domains of meaning involving their friends outside school and their families.

Part of the blame for getting the integration of technology and education wrong in this case must lie with woolly thinking about 'community', and a naive notion that communities can combine: so the school community can combine with the online community, or the home community. I suspect it is in fact seeing the community of the school, and the family community through the lens of what is popularly believed (but mistakenly) to be the 'online community'.

I think the challenge of education for children is the integration and coordination of domains of meaning. Only they can do this; and if anyone else tries to do it, it ultimately only gives the children a bigger problem.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The myth of the online community

The subject that has dominated discussion in the e-learning world in the last few years is the idea of an 'online community': the e-learning world has fashioned itself as such a community, where messages are shared on Twitter and Facebook amongst a group of people who meet each other at conferences. However, when we think of the broader sense of the word 'community', the sharing of messages through text is only a tiny subset of its constituent aspects.

The communities studied by anthropologists are much richer in their means of communication and collective action. From the Inuit Indians who shared the 'potlatch' gifts studied by Mauss, to the Eastern Samoan tribes of Mead, to the communit√© de l'arche established by the catholic priest Jean Vanier.. there is much more to their 'communitas' than what appears online.

But for the online community, online-ness is the validation of an ideal around which they themselves have organised. To deny the 'community-ness' of the online community is to deny the ideal around which so many have established their personal identities. And yet, the deficiencies of the online community as a community in an anthropological sense are obvious. 

The conflation of the word 'community' to create equivalence between the online community and the 'face-to-face community' is particularly suspect. So much more happens when people are together: the life-and-death realities of existence are encountered in direct and practically ineffable ways. Online, and the nature of 'community' is reduced to text messages made in a strategic way by individuals seeking to maintain their position within the 'online' (and face-to-face) community. 

I think it's a mistake to think of such a thing as an online 'community'. What happens online is strictly 'strategic'. My tweeting of this blog entry is a classic example: I seek to gain the attention of those I know, and I wouldn't be so bothered unless I could see some strategic advantage in it for me. I don't believe I am alone in this egomania! 

But that strategic drive for recognition and feeding the ego is not (or at least only partly) what happens in real-life communities. There, issues of recognition, empathy, care and concern for each other are paramount. There, the radical dependence of one individual on everyone else is directly confronted through gestures and glances which have profound meaning for all. 

We would like to think of technology as providing a 'virtual community', but I think this is mistaken not just because what is created online is not strictly a 'community', but it is also mistaken because the picture that is adopted of technology is one which always assumes that individual experience of face-to-face can be replaced by online experience. It can't. They are fundamentally different entities. 

But this is not to say that technology doesn't have something to offer real communities. But it is not in replacing the 'community-ness' of the communities, but rather in enhancing community-ness by addressing directly the problem of 'fractured meanings' in the lives of individuals. Clearly the making of strategic communications online has become part of daily life. But equally, people still live in families, go to school, sit in lectures, etc. Those are convivial situations within which real communities might develop. The challenge however, is always to find a link between the meaningfulness of the 'real' communities and the meaning of strategic exchanges of text messages online.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Creepy creativity

'Creativity' is in fashion at the moment. It has a warm glow to it as we think (even if we don't intend to) of when we were perhaps most creative - when we were children.. safe... with playdough, lego and crayons and with a deep sense of security. Beware of words bearing warm glows... particularly when they become fashionable. Those same feelings of security were cultivated by the Nazis with the 'back to nature' movement. And I fear they are being cultivated by some unpleasant people at the moment who seek to hide their true motivations (and their past) in education. A warm word like 'creativity' is a cloak... watch out for the dagger.

There are a number of things we can do to protect ourselves. The first is to ask awkward questions:
"What do you actually mean by creativity? What do you want?"
"Stop telling me how important it is, and tell me what you would actually do in schools and universities" 
That's a good start. Because even the likes of (St.) Ken Robinson has been rather heavy on telling us how terrible education is and how bored the kids are (aren't we bored of hearing it?), but rather short on the details of what he would actually do about it. But he's got away with it! Nobody asks him! And after the TED talk, and the book, and the global profile, he's not going to have to run a school (phew!) so he won't be able show us how wonderful he could make things.

The problem I have with this is the latent assumption that "if only you did it my way, it would all be easy!"... which sounds pretty silly. Particularly silly to teachers who know how difficult school life can be... and more particularly to those teachers who've been the victim of the deranged headteacher who actually believes "if you did it my way, it would be easy!". What they usually mean is, "if you don't do it my way, I'll sack you!". Education is no more straightforward than family life. There are saints and tyrants and muddlers-through, but on the whole, individual human beings have a talent for screwing up. Most of them, however, mean well. A few don't.

Yet we survive. For children, after all, it's only 5 or 6 years of their lives in secondary school. For teachers, it can be 30 or more (although few these days manage to stick it that long - which tells a lot in itself). Families sort out the deficiencies of school; and a good school rarely compensates for a poor family (and then it probably is not the school as an institution, but a special individual). And the survival and success that is born from this messy swamp can often surprise us... (I'd put money on some future famous clever child who currently attends Downhills Primary School passing judgement on the ill-chosen comments of the current secretary of state for education in 20 years time!)

But the creepiness of the bad person with a hidden agenda trumpeting 'creativity' is hard to defend against. With developments like 'Free Schools', private universities, new educational businesses, corporate vice-chancellors, etc... we should be on our guard. In each case, look beyond the warm words - which will always look appealing - and ask:
"Who are these people?"
"How have they got to where they are?"
"Who have they trampled on to get there?"
Because for all the warm words, what they actually do in the name of 'creativity' is likely to be closely related to what they have done in the past. And their high profiles trumpeting 'creativity' have not come from nowhere... There has been enough time for cold experience and cynicism to recognise the opportunity that the creativity fetish brings. It would be better to listen not to their words, but to those of their victims (and there will be some in each case, because education in reality is always very messy, very political and sometimes nasty).

But most troubling of all is that technology coupled with warm words like 'creativity' can make an even more effective cloak for the dagger. In the world of the web and social software, words tend to count above deeds. Words get 'retweeted' and 'liked' and as they do reputations are built and reinforced. Often even when the web itself can reveal more of the truth of character of individuals, the momentum of discourse can blind itself to the difficult and dark aspects of character it doesn't want to (or can't) discuss.

The mechanism is an old one.. well-described by Friedrich Hayek in "The road to Serfdom". There, he blamed the well-meaning but ultimately confused 'left' whose failed idealism left a vacuum for the bad people. I don't think there's anything wrong with being idealistic. But we mustn't be confused. And so, asking "What do we mean by creativity?", "What would we do in education to foster it?"... and... "Who are you?" are a good start in building a defence against some rather creepy forces, whose existence we may not wish to think about, but would be foolish to deny.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Melody

In Shannon and Weaver's "Mathematical Theory of Communication", Weaver gives a wonderful quote from Arthur Eddington from "The nature of the physical world":
"Suppose that we were asked to arrange the following in two categories  - distance, mass, electric force, entropy, beauty, melody. I think there are the strongest grounds for placing entropy alongside beauty and melody, and not with the first three. Entropy is only found when the parts are viewed in association, and it is by viewing or hearing the parts in association that beauty and melody are discerned. All three are features of arrangement."
Weaver then comments that he believes Eddington would also allow the inclusion of "meaning" along with beauty and melody (this is particularly interesting since Shannon - in the main part of the book - explicitly excludes discussion about meaning, only concentrating on information).

Both meaning and melody are interesting me at the moment. This morning I heard this very famous melody of Mozart. It is captivating - and I found myself asking "why?"

D'Indy has a similar attitude to melody as he does to tonality (which I blogged about here: http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.com/2012/01/vincent-dindy-and-breath-of-music.html). D'Indy highlights the relationships between melody, rhythm and harmony, but he generally sees in melodic phrasing a tightening - a making of effort - and a relaxing movement (repos), much in the same way as the ascent up the cycle of 5ths and descent down it produces a 'lightening' and 'darkening'. I think there's something in this, but I don't find it as satisfactory an explanation as his thoughts about tonality.


 My feeling on hearing the melody from the Mozart piano concerto is clearly one of 'effort making' and 'repose', but more fundamentally than that, it grabs my attention. It is this 'attention grabbing' - that melody acts as a thread by which the music can be traced, both as it happens and in my mind, which fascinates me most. I am wondering whether this is an aspect of 'attachment'.

Shannon talks of the statistical variances of signals and the importance of Markov processes.. he uses melody as an example. But seeing it as a Markov process doesn't account for the fact that the melody would have no coherence if each successive signal didn't become meaningful to me. And in being meaningful, I believe that it may be a manifestation of a sensual process which becomes fundamental to my viability as I listen: I have a stake in what happens. Mozart knows what it is to have a stake in what happens, and knows what to make happen in order for us to have a stake in it.

But then I think about this short piece by Webern:
There is a melody there too. But for many people listening to it, the experience of 'attachment' that I described for the Mozart will not be the same. There is something about the sensual productions here which may indeed repel. But for others (perhaps those who know the music), this is equally beautiful. Just as with the Mozart, we hang on every note, every articulation - a performance is special and meaningful. 

The question in all this is "what is the difference between the listeners that the attachment to the melody is different?" That's a question for which I feel myself tentatively edging towards a proposal.

Monday, 6 February 2012

The technoflattening of education

What is it to be techno-flattened? My definition is:
"to have the variety of human experience attenuated in the name of functional equivalence and labour-saving."
What does that mean? It means that the experience of 'doing everything with a computer' is less rich than the variety of experiences that one would have were you not to use a computer: writing and sending a letter is a richer experience than writing and sending an email; face-to-face meetings are richer than online meetings, and so on. Of course, sending an email is labour-saving, and much of the experience of writing a letter which is 'attenuated' might be regarded as a 'waste of time' (queuing at the post office, pen not working, etc). But nevertheless, something is clearly lost in terms of the richness of experience.

Is this a problem? I'm wondering if it may be. Much of the richness of experience is drawn from the variety of activities which we undertake. Even now, email co-exists with the telephone - and often face-to-face contact. But increasingly, the computer is at the centre of things. And the experience of the computer, importantly, is the same whatever we happen to be doing. It is basically:

  • Screen
  • Keyboard
  • Mouse/trackpad/touch
That is what we directly perceive, and all we have to do is manage the purpose to which we wish to coordinate our actions with the computer. All we see is that THE SCREEN CHANGES! I have wrestled over whether this single point of coordination is a good thing. Certainly, when we did work on the Personal Learning Environment, the idea of a single point of coordination under the control of the user was seen as a good thing, avoiding the cognitive overload involved in having to coordinate too many types of action with too many types of tools.

But now I'm not so sure, and I'm certainly sure that the homogenizing of educational experience through the computer is not a good thing. 

I've been thinking about this particularly with regard to the iTEC project, which has sought to make technical interventions in education around the construction of 'innovative technological scenarios'. Each of these involves technology in one form or another. But the most revealing result of this process of scenario creation is the fact that all the scenarios appear to be the same. Because the computer is introduced in various guises (as a homework collaboration tool; as a data collection tool; as a means of engaging with outside experts; etc) in situations which would not normally require a computer, the richness of the experience of the not-with-computer homework task, or the not-with-computer data collection task is attenuated with the experience of "screen, keyboard, mouse". And no matter how much one attempts to be innovative with the scenarios, the inevitable branding of "screen, keyboard, mouse" has an inevitable (and rather dull) ring to it.

This I think is a problem, and it raises the deeper issue of the place for technology in education. Variety of experience is a fundamental component of education. But in our current conception of technology which is very user-focused, where the technology directly serves the learning process, the variety of experience is under threat. One might hope that teachers with iTEC scenarios will have the ingenuity to create rich experiences, although there is a risk that the scenarios themselves (and the technology) might get in the way of this. 

But technology is with us. It is part of the environment within which we try to educate our children. Its effects are highly complex, but one of the principal effects has been to challenge the meaningfulness of what happens in the classroom over what happens online (my daughter constantly complains that she could learn more from Wikipedia). There is nothing new in this. Education has always tried to justify the meaningfulness of what happens in the classroom in comparison to daily life. 

But schools are more like families than Wikipedia. They are not primarily instruments for information transfer - Wikipedia can, as my daughter knows, do that much better. They are instead social microcosms - safe places where human attachments can be explored against the context of norms and rules. We might think that even those processes can happen online in Facebook - but Facebook is no more similar to school life than to family life.  

The significance of this is that within families, schools and the online world communications are exchanged and different kinds of meaning are established. When my daughter complains about what happens in school it is because she cannot reconcile the meaning of what happens in the classroom with what happens online. In some ways, technology could serve to make that reconciliation of meanings even more difficult by being forced inappropriately on education - just as well-intentioned attempts to teach ICT actually led to one of the most disastrously boring subjects on the curriculum! 

Technology is clearly tied-up in the process of meaning-making. But Facebook may feel more meaningful because the coordination mechanisms within Facebook work better than the coordination mechanisms within the classroom. And those coordination mechanisms in the classroom (classroom management by teachers, curriculum, timetable, etc) appear less effective in the light of the effectiveness of technology. I believe the key is to see the link between meaning-making and coordination. Seeing that would mean that we wouldn't make the mistake of thinking that we have to put Facebook into the classroom (because that would confuse the coordination situation, not strengthen it), but rather we have to use technology to establish more effective coordination mechanisms in the classroom which can also serve to create conduits of meaning between the form of life in the school and the form of life online.

In short, the problem lies in the dissonance between different domains of meaning. The challenge is to help resolve the dissonance whilst maintaining the richness of the variety of experience in school. 

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Technology, Beauty and Music

Technology isn't beautiful. It may be exciting, it may sometimes fill us with hope, it may invigorate and shake us out of despair (much needed at the moment)... but it is not beautiful; it is not transcendent; it is not a vessel for the human spirit. It is very much of-the-world, not of-the-spirit. It enframes, enslaves, conditions, forces, sets-upon (I'm thinking of Heidegger who says technology is the "setting-upon that sets upon man"). Seen in this way, the world of technology is ugly.

People, on the other hand, are beautiful. And I think they are more beautiful in their using technology, in their individual struggle between the enframed life of technology and their search for the transcendent and spritual essence of their being. They are beautiful in their struggle against death and against nothingness. They are beautiful in their clutching at tools to cling to life. Seen in this way, the world with technology is beautiful.

I'm thinking about this as I've been playing with the Socket.io (https://github.com/LearnBoost/Socket.IO) library in NodeJS. I've managed to get it do something quite interesting (two web-socket servers talking to each other and triggering real-world events in the process). It's a frustrating and time-consuming process. I'm driven by my desire to realise an idea.. a possibility which I allow myself to believe will be perceived as valuable by others. It's like rehearsing some 'clever performance' which, in my mind - when I show my friends - will make them go "wow! that's clever!".

Is it simply that I want that adulation? Is it simply that I need some recognition that my being, my action is meaningful? It's the meaningfulness which interests me most. I am thinking that my own technological innovations are in fact continual searches for meaning. The (terrible!) lines of code I write are performative acts, intended to evoke communicative responses from those around me. There is nothing intrinsic in the technology itself. The tools, the software, the 'advances' are merely vestiges of the searching of human spirit for meaning.

But there is something unsatisfying about the meaning arising from technology. Its rationality, its enframedness, its ugliness leaves me with the impression that something's missing (and it's not just my rubbish code).

Heidegger, of course, ended up with writing a kind of poetry (and certainly writing about poetry). In poetry he found 'dwelling'. I've been thinking about this as I go back on music I have written in the past. The video below it a piece of music I wrote on an abortive MA in composition at Manchester University. The score is below.

In many ways, the motivation for doing this is the same as writing software (or indeed, writing papers): "how clever! How meaningful your existence is!". But deep down, I believe there is a difference. Music, as all art, strives for beauty. It is of the spirit; it has access to the transcendent; it can address issues of meaning not only from the perspective of the rational, but from the perspective of the irrational.

But music is technological too (no other art is more so!). The pianos, drums and marimba in my piece are technical innovations. At some point someone said "Oh! How clever!" as some innovation of piano engineering that made possible some new performance technique, and no doubt the innovator gained a brief sense of meaningfulness of their endeavour. But ultimately, only in the hands of the skilled artist could something beautiful emerge.

That's what's missing with learning technology. We have no artists to fashion something beautiful from the tools that are available. Worse, technologists and businessmen (they are closely related!) believe the artistry to be irrelevant: the technology alone is sufficient. And so the uglification of education begins. We need to understand this process. We need to understand the existential roots of technical innovation and find ways of realising the meaning that is searched for by technologists in ways which foster the realisation of the deeper meanings that only artists can access.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Education and the real-time web: Nodejs everywhere?

I'm doing some work with Nodejs and Websockets for the iTEC (http://itec.eun.org) project at the moment. The plan is to create something which will enable us to create widget-driven activities which animate lessons by giving the children controllers which can affect physical things in the environment of the classroom (integrating widgets and physical stuff is a requirement of the project). 

Doing physical things is fairly straightforward - we're experimenting with a number of things including Arduino and its clones (including JeeNode - see http://jeelabs.org/). But the real challenge is the communication between widget-based controllers and the hardware.

Of course, the first question might be, "why use widgets?". I think the answer to this is that whatever we do which is really cool (or not!), there must be a simple to-hand way of reproducing what has been done. Widgets situated in an AppStore  can provide a way in which teachers can easily distribute controllers to the children - no software installation, no worries about privileges, or security and anything else. Just drop them into the environment and they will work.

Well.. sort of.

But to do really interesting things, the teacher has to do something different. Their controller must have more functionality - indeed, the richer its functionality, the better. And here, widgets won't help us entirely. Teachers may have to install something - the software they want to demonstrate, the devices they want to play with. There is something to do there - but at least it's only one machine, rather that 30!

And it could be a laptop which is simply plugged into the network to do the job. Fundamentally then, the approach is one of trying to increase the range of things people can do, whilst alleviating the organisational problems, but at the same time dealing with problems of classroom management (because the teacher controls their service which they offer to the kids who access it through their controllers).
But then there have been the issues of implementation. WebSockets are still quite new, and are undergoing rapid development. That means that different versions proliferate, and usually they are incompatible. More significantly, different web browsers support different versions, or offer no support. A number of solutions have been offered, and my initial prototypes used the Java-WebSocket library by TooTallNate (see https://github.com/TooTallNate/Java-WebSocket). This worked ok in Chrome and Firefox, but struggled with other browsers. It seemed like the best option because it presented a way in which web activity (like chat) could trigger real events on a particular machine (for example, controlling a robot) - because the library was basically a Java library, and a Java application could be written to integrate with it.

And this was my problem. I wanted something that happened on the web (in a widget) to trigger something on a client machine. But the web is it's own domain, and there are good security reasons why this sort of behaviour is not allowed. However, in this case it was a requirement.

The solution I'm playing with is making me think about broader issues. It is to use NodeJS as a native client application. In other words, the thing that the teacher installs to offer their service is NodeJS.  That means that I can use the more stable Socket.io libraries to handle the communication. But it also raises the issue of whether NodeJS should be just restricted to web-based applications. 

The fact is that there is so much more that we can do with computers than is possible within a web browser. Even Google acknowledge this, and Chromium approaches the challenge by offering a way to bridge system libraries with web functionality. But that seems the wrong way round. 

The value of the web is that it's available ready-to-hand everywhere with no need to install things. But I want to use the real-time web to create new services from my PC which can bridge into the online space where everyone can interact with them to do interesting things together.

This seems to me to be the space for the  next generation (or maybe iteration) of the web. I found this diagram from http://blog.new-bamboo.co.uk/2010/1/4/brain-dump-of-real-time-web-rtw-and-websocket which I think sums up a fast emerging reality for the (re)organisation of our technology.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The history of the education industry: 2020 - 2050

The exact moment when 'education' was generally seen as a 'profit-making industry' rather than a 'service to society' is difficult to pinpoint. What can be witnessed is a process whereby the economy adjusted itself to the inevitable consequences of the vertiginous growth driven by the consumerism of the 20th century to a fundamentally different model driven by inter-human relationships, care, attachment and the cultivation of children. At some point, available individual resources were channeled away from the ownership of commodities and more towards the establishment of stable environments. However, with this shift came new kinds of inequality and social fracturing whose consequences were not realised until the second half of the 21st century.

For convenience however, we might place the beginning of the education industry with the emergence of the large multinational educorps, which started to swallow up individual universities between 2015 and 2020. There were a number of important factors that led to this process. Internet communications had increased the transparency of the operation of individual universities (this was one spin-off of the early - and rather idealistic - attempts at 'open educational resources' between 2010 and 2012). Transparency revealed similarity and opportunities for consolidation, both around educational content and around assessment processes. At the same time, transparency and accessibility presented an opportunity to academic publishers to present ready-made content solutions (which were initially offered at low cost) to individual institutions to offer their own certification services around. Sometimes institutions, uncomfortable with the loss of autonomy represented by the adoption of ready-made solutions, even commissioned publishers to produce tailor-made content (at huge cost). Little did these institutions know what they were letting themselves in for, for such moves were often followed by aggressive take-overs by the same publishers a few years later. 

But the educorps would not have thrived without a market, and the market for education was a function of a more general social order. The possession of a degree was a prerequisite for finding a job. Not that anyone really believed that a degree made individuals fit for a job, but throughout the whole society, it was accepted that this was the passport for professional success. It was so embedded in the social psyche that no-one really questioned it. Yet, this mentality was relatively new. It's roots lay in the 'widening participation' movement of the late 1990s, which in the light of history may be seen to be an elaborate 'pump priming' of the educational industry to come. As more got degrees, more needed to have them. In the absence of the traditional engines of economy and employment in the form of industrial production, the education industry fitted the bill in terms of providing a form of occupation for students and teachers, where everyone would at some point in their lives either pay for or be paid by the system. By 2020, this new economic system, which might reasonably be called an 'education economy' had clearly established itself. 

The believe in the efficacy of a degree generated many other social activities (which were themselves also forms of employment). For example, commissions for identifying competencies and coordinating the provision of educorps, professional bodies representing groups of workers (increasingly backed by trades unions, who also profitted from the education industry) all took part in complex (and often intractable) bureaucracies to support what amounted to a belief. 

In this way, the education industry resembled not so much the previous era of industrial production and consumerism, but more the feudal economies of the middle ages, which too were dominated by belief, and where most of the economic activity gravitated around the church as the guardian of those beliefs. The whole economy worked on the principle of blind faith in the efficacy of education. The more education was produced and consumed, the more difficult it was to critique this faith.

But as history has shown us many times before, ultimately this wasn't sustainable. The fault-line lay between families and institutions. The industrialisation of education that was the principle mode of operation of the educorps could not address the deep care needs of individuals. For those individuals who came from close and loving families, this was not a problem. But for those that didn't, much of the practice of the educorps only served to increase feelings of alienation and disillusionment. Some early attempts were made to deal with this problem (which many could see many years before it became a crisis). The Family reform act of 2020 sought to bring the principles of transparency and equality to the conduct of family life just as it had done to universities so as to benefit those from more dysfunctional families. But it was fiercely resisted by the middle classes. 

That the bloody riots of 2049 didn't occur sooner is perhaps surprising. But it took that long for those at the bottom of the pile to deal with the emotional damage that had been done to them and organise themselves into a force (initially a rabble) from which began to emerge some clearer distinctions about the nature of their complaint. Prior to this, the system seemed fair - but deep down it wasn't. More people had degrees, from all kinds of backgrounds. But the distribution of risks borne by individuals was not in any way equal. The emotionally damaged struggled with the increasingly complexification of daily life, finding themselves ripped-off at every point from finding the best bargains for food and travel to general taxation (and of course, the repayment of their educational loans!). The gap between themselves and the middle classes was flexibility. And only in 2045 was the direct link between individual flexibility and the environment of the education industry established. After that, a new phase was begun.