Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Writing and Thinking (Part 3 of A Short Introduction to Thinking in Education and Technology)

One of the purposes of last week's exercise on "reading" is to understand texts as something produced by other people (writers), and that in reading texts we are trying to understand those people. In an ideal world, we could take them for coffee and have a long discussion with them: their manner, inflections of speech, body language and the look in their eyes would tell us much about them that we would feel we could get to know them (we still might be mistaken though!). Unfortunately, most of the people we read are dead, or live far away, or haven't got time, and so on. Writing is the best we can do: like most technologies, it is an imperfect substitute for supposedly ideal human relations. Writing is a constraint on writers' self-expression, and in understanding that constraint, and how individual writers deal with it can sometimes be as revealing about a writer as a face-to-face meeting.
This week I want to focus on the experience of writing: the way that thoughts and actions bounce between another as actions gradually manipulate words on a screen, or scribbles on a piece of paper. This is everyone's experience of writing, and yet we rarely inspect it despite the fact that the fundamental task of any PhD is a producing an lot of text!
In this week's exercise, I want you to document the process of writing a short (300 word) passage of text. You are going to take multiple snapshots of your text at regular short intervals during its composition: from the first sentence all the way through to the completed passage. The text should be based around the question you asked in Exercise 1, and the different critical, experiential and analytical ideas you explored there can feature as a framework for you text.
In the video below, I explain this a bit more. One of the biggest problems is managing how you feel as you produce text. It is extremely common to write a few lines, read them back, get tired, and then to think after a bit of reflection they are no good and give up! How do you get over the emotional block? I talk about some of the things I do to avoid this.
Some things to think about after you've done this:
  • To what extent does your written passage reveal your own constraints?
  • To what extent is the technology of writing (the words, the computer, the pen and paper, etc) a constraint on how you express yourself?
  • To what extent does your writing reflect a particular world-view?
  • To what extent do you consider other world-views to be possible?
Next week's activity is about world views and their relationship with methodologies. The week after, we consider the constraints of technology.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

From Forms of Knowledge to Routine and Big Data

Educational interventions may not ‘create’ experiences so much as they punctuate them. In education, discussion about experience has appeared under various guises: from the implicit experiences that lie behind the efficacy of content within behaviourist approaches such as instructional design, through to philosophical musings on the ‘best’ approaches to education which go back to Plato, through to more recent thinking about the ‘forms’ of knowledge (Hirst). In the final analysis, each of these is talking about the relation between events and experiences, between subjectivity and objectivity: without any objective component, then they could not make any practical recommendation for intervention for improvement; without subjectivity they could not make any commentary on the efficacy of one intervention over another. In all cases, such approaches tend to be blind to the events that they themselves make in the experience of the education professor, politician, or student – where experience continues to filter through into policy through ‘folk pedagogy’.

Mental life continues irrespective of what happens in the classroom, living rooms and bedrooms. Yet the nature of the punctuation is such that the form of experience develops in particular ways which emerge from what happens. An abusive or shocking experience is not the same kind of punctuation as a boring Maths lesson. Abuse, loss of attachment figures and so on can cause abnormal growth of a person in the same way that carcinogens may impact the reproduction of cells. Moreover, the nature of the effect of punctuation will depend on the orientation of the subject who undergoes it. The design challenge of education is to consider the likely punctuating effects of interventions across a broad range of different students. Whilst different kinds of punctuation effect people differently, there appear to be ways of designing things where everyone becomes coordinated in a similar orientation and so the punctuation serves more predictably. The formulaic structures of Soap-operas or Hollywood Romantic Comedies are good examples of this.

Fundamental to the problem is the connection between an underpinning phenomenology and analysis and critique. The task is to understand the nature of punctuation of experience and to be able to characterise the relationship between embodied subjective experience and the events which impact on the orientation and structure of that experience.

Hirst's work is very interesting in this regard. He posits a view of knowledge and learning which is fundamentally Platonic: his is a reified curriculum of 'ideal types' where learning is a process of acquiring the requisite conceptual apparatus to be able to inhabit these ideal types. I'm curious as to why Hirst thought this - what were his constraints? One of them may well have been that to measure 'experience' per se is hard, and the sociomaterial paraphernalia of knowledge in the form of lessons, textbooks, timetables, etc is quite concrete.

I think new analytical techniques will turn this on its head. We can now (thanks to the huge amounts of data we have on the internet) look at the ground of experience - the routines, absences, redundancies which each of us experiences in daily life. We can compare one person's routine with another. We can see the overlapping of redundancies and expectations between people. And with a deeper understanding of the dynamics of overlapping expectations, we may get a far richer view on human learning, knowledge and the most effective ways we might organise education.

Thursday, 23 January 2014


The business model of widening participation universities is simple: attract students, keep them happy and keep them on-roll until they graduate. The business of 'attraction' is a dark art. University marketing departments have for many years pushed images of attractive bright-eyed students with a pipette or some ancient relic in hand surrounded by sophisticated equipment that looks like its taken from the set of a sci-fi movie. These images are important for the business of 'attraction'. They make learning look sexy. I find learning sexy (to a far greater extent that anyone dare admit, learning is all about sex!) - but learning doesn't look like this. I cannot give an 'image' of learning which accurately presents it for what it is because my own capabilities are tied up with my experience of it. If the business model of a University is simply to attract students (and to kick the day-to-day experience into the long grass), the image of learning will do. But the image takes over the substance. Whilst the substance of learning doesn't really change (it is a fundamental human activity), the image has changed dramatically. In my own university's engagement with the power of images, it deployed dancing girls around sports cars at the launch of a new 'supercar' all in aid of indirectly marketing a course in 'motorsport engineering' (here's the video of the 'launch':

The unions are understandably outraged at the exploitation of women as 'trimmings' for the sale of a course. The outrage is important because it draws attention to a very demanding question for everybody working in Higher Education today which goes deeper than both the pathologies of the exploitation of women and sanctimonious puritanism. It is about the relationship between the substance of learning and how it is represented, and the capabilities of those who interpret those images to gain a realistic impression of the substance and the labour involved.

Today all universities market their products through brandishing the esoteric accompaniments of institutional life. Thorstein Veblen noted (100 years ago) the tendency for Universities to surround themselves with the paraphernalia of rituals, gowns, flags and ancient titles like "Senate", "Provost", etc. In this, he argued that essentially the business of education is archaic. Such things are also about 'image' - about a way of representing something which is processual in a way easily digestible to the uninvolved observer. For Veblen, the University was the way the 'leisure classes' became part of the 'priesthood'; education was an aspect of the "wasteful behaviour" that was fundamental to the lives of the leisure classes: admittance to the priesthood granted legitimacy to individuals, and even (in some cases) nation states (witness the unholy relationships with toxic regimes in the Middle East!). Cambridge may turn its nose up at Bolton's Sports cars and its dancing girls, but in its place they will present their alumni lists of the great and the good, ancient quads, and nobel prizes. How are they not the same thing? 

This is the key question because it boils down to the capabilities of those reading the images. If you have the social and cultural capital and the capability of gaining admittance, the image becomes a badge you can wear - it is like a kind of sacrament: "An outward sign of an inner grace" as Bateson so beautifully put it. The inner grace is not within the institution; it is within you. If you don't have the advantage of high capability and suffer low social capital, the quad, the gown and the senate are simply images. They represent something you might dream of, and in dreaming of them, they may say something about you, but fundamentally they say something about what you lack, not what you are: paraphrasing Bateson, they are "an outward sign of inner absence".

So what of the dancing girls and the sports cars? If you have the social and cultural capital and the capability, these too can operate as sacraments in the proper sense (is it so different from the Virgin Mary??). Indeed, my University also has a popular course in Special Effects Production which recruits kids who do well and many of whom strongly identify with their learning activities (partly because it's edgy and weird!). But images of sports cars and girls are not designed to appeal to a select audience. Indeed, people who possess the capability to deeply identify with such cars as part of their identity are likely to be the people who conceive and design the courses! For everyone else, they are symbols of absence. But symbols of absence are a powerful attractors to those who lack the capability to be able to say who they are. 

To attract people in this position with images that can only be seen as symbols of lack and then to put little effort into the provision of addressing the lack (what would you do?) other than giving people what they've always got in education - in this case, lectures on engineering - looks misleading at best: the lack that lead to the temptation only becomes more apparent in reality. The transaction is similar to the behaviour of the pimp: the promise of something through the exploitation of an objectified person that symbolises a lack, but where the reality only makes the lack more apparent. 

Soon after buying-in to the bargain, students are forced to realise the game they are in. The University must keep them on roll. This means "getting them through" which in turn means ticking off learning outcomes based on evidence of their work (to be defended to external examiners) across the requisite range of modules of the course. Learning outcomes provide a rationalised metric for "quality" processes, easily graspable by managers, and whilst they capture something of a student's capabilities, they can be written in a way which means that defensible evidence for justifying the 'tick' isn't hard to come by. Learners, for their part, will either see their strategic job as to pass and get the degree, or to leave: it is perhaps unsurprising that strategic learning practices in completing assignments is not an infrequent occurrence.

The problem is that (like the pimp) accompanying the effort of it all is a whopping great bill! If only the efforts that go into the images went into the substance of learning experiences that genuinely aim to raise the capabilities of the learners who pay for their courses.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Alfred Schutz on Making Music Together

I'm grateful to Loet Leydesdorff for drawing my attention to a paper by Alfred Schutz on music (see Schutz, A. (1976) ‘Making Music Together: A Study in Social Relationship’, in A. Schutz , Collected Papers, Vol. II, pp. 159178. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff). It's fascinating not just because this is a phenomenologist taking musical experience seriously, but because it provides a deep insight into Schutz's later thinking on communication in general.

Schutz had a deep engagement with Husserl (they met frequently for discussions) but his thought occupies a critical space between phenomenology and sociology. Whilst indebted to Husserl's phenomenological insights, he argued that they could lead to an overlooking of the sociological context of experience. So he sits at a pivot point between Husserl and Max Weber. Of particular interest to Schutz is 'meaning' and the way that meanings are socially constructed. It's always interesting to understand the connections of students with their teachers and friends (something which is being eroded in our current marketization), and Schutz taught Luckmann and Berger, whose "The Social Construction of Reality" (see has had a huge impact in the social sciences and social constructivism in the articulation of a sociology of knowledge. With present preoccupations with 'knowledge economy' and the role of education in processes in those dynamics, there is much to be engaged with both in Luckmann and Berger, and in Schutz himself. Loet's work on the Triple Helix has been an important intervention in making an analytical connection between the sociology of knowledge and the calculus now made possible through internet communications.

But what about music? Schutz's opening paragraph tells us that
Music is a meaningful context which is not bound to a conceptual scheme. Yet this meaningful context can be communicated. The process of communication between composer and listener normally requires an intermediary: an individual performer or a group of coperformers. Among all these participants there prevail social relations of a highly complicated structure.
This presents a bit of a puzzle. As Schutz says, with "meaning", "there is a strong tendency in contemporary thought to identify meaning with its semantic expression and to consider language, speech, symbols, significant gestures, as the fundamental condition of social intercourse." Music blatently challenges any such view of meaning. Schutz focuses his attention on the process of meaning-making as being one of a mutual 'tuning-in' relationship: he calls it "the reciprocal sharing of the other's flux of experiences in inner time, by living through a vivid present together, by experiencing this togetherness as a 'we' Only within this experience does the other's conduct become meaningful to the partner tined in on him - that is, the other's body and its movements can be and are interpreted as a field of expression of events within his inner life."

Spot on.

Schutz spends a bit of time in the paper discussing the theory of Maurice Halbwachs on music. Halbwachs sees two domains of music: one for professional musicians comprising the notated corpus of music works known by professionals; the other domain being the musical world of the lay-person. Schutz rejects Halbwach's separation, but at the same time, his own view cannot account for the 'we' that is established between the long-dead composer and the performer.

It is interesting to examine these arguments in the light of my last post - which was my contribution to the open course for pre-phd students on "reading". There I argued that reading was a process of identifying constraints in the author. It is the overlapping of constraints with other authors that we seek when identifying if we agree with them or not: communication happens in the negative space which is uniquely about the 'we'.

Composers may not have constraints in the same way as authors of academic books. Our identification with a composer's music (although not their biography) is usually through some deep recognition of something universal. Unlike the author of an academic text, the activity of an artist is a process of generating complexity and then finding a form in it. In music, a form is found and expressed over time (indeed, Halbwach's theory was developed as part of a theory of time). The generating of complexity is fundamentally an act of 'we-identification': it is through this playfulness that the composer opens herself up to the totality of the world. The world's totality must necessarily include everybody else's totality. Performers must reawaken this process of totality generation in the process of recreating the sound. Meaning, as Loet rightly argues, lies in the structuring of expectations. I would say now that it is in the mutual redundancies of expectations that the connection between performer and composer arises: the we-ness. There is a question as to what the 'form' represents: perhaps formal resolution in music is the identification of the 'generating system'; However, I think is more likely to be a kind of invitation for us to generate our own complexities and to 'play' in the composer's territory.

I think Schutz's instincts to really think about music were right. The question now is how much more flesh can we put on the bones of this powerful theory? There is little doubt in my mind that within it there are important findings that relate not only to communication but to teaching and learning. Schutz never talks about 'events' - but clearly music comprises events. His question concerns the way that embodied subjectivity (and the meaning that is entwined with it) is shaped by the events that occur between people both through history and through the time of a performance.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Reading and Thinking (Part 2 of A Short Introduction to Thinking in Education and Technology)

Last week I introduced an exercise to stimulate deep thinking about education and technology. You had to think of a question which interested you. The exercise didn't lead you to answer the question. Instead, the exercise aimed to highlight the CONSTRAINTS around the question you asked in the form of analytical constraints, critical constraints, and experiential constraints. This week I want to further explore this issue of constraint on thinking with regard to the process of reading in academic study.
When we get to University, people tend to assume we can read. Of course most of us can perform the mechanics of reading - we can read a passage of text out loud, we can gain a sense of meaning of a text, and so on - just like we were taught to do in primary school. But beyond acquiring the mechanics of reading in primary school, we tend not to re-examine what it is to read. Unfortunately, there are many side effects of our early reading education which can cause problems when reading at a higher level. The worst side effects are:
  • The expectation that things should be read from the beginning to the end:
      • Samuel Johnson famously said "who reads books through?" Academics tend not to read things from cover to cover. Usually the process is one of constructing an understanding of a book (or a paper) by frequently 'dipping in' and working backwards and forwards.
  • The expectation that Reading is a separate activity to thinking:
      • Reading and thinking are entwined. A page of a book is some kind of environmental stimulation of thought. We don't understand how this works!
  • The expectation that the words of a text indicate the meaning of a text:
      • There is an assumption that the meaning of a text can be revealed through laborious study of the words and their meaning. The words of a text in a book are signs of the constraints operating on the author. Your job is to get to know the author. C.S. Lewis reminds us that "We read to know we are not alone". You will rarely get to know an author through a single book.
  • The expectation that the study of texts is hard work:
      • This is the most damaging of all. My advice is that you should never read anything unless you do so feeling excited, curious and passionate about what you are doing. If you don't feel like that, do something else that will make you feel like that - and then read!

The texts I'm asking you to examine as part of the exercise are:

For each one, the question is "How are they thinking?" - experientially, analytically or critically?

Monday, 20 January 2014

A Short Introduction to Thinking in Educational Technology: Part 2 of 6 - Reading and Thinking

Last week I introduced an exercise to stimulate deep thinking about education and technology. You had to think of a question which interested you. The exercise didn't lead you to answer the question. Instead, the exercise aimed to highlight the CONSTRAINTS around the question you asked in the form of analytical constraints, critical constraints, and experiential constraints. This week I want to further explore this issue of constraint on thinking with regard to the process of reading in academic study.
When we get to University, people tend to assume we can read. Of course most of us can perform the mechanics of reading - we can read a passage of text out loud, we can gain a sense of meaning of a text, and so on - just like we were taught to do in primary school. But beyond acquiring the mechanics of reading in primary school, we tend not to re-examine what it is to read. Unfortunately, there are many side effects of our early reading education which can cause problems when reading at a higher level. The worst side effects are:
  • The expectation that things should be read from the beginning to the end:
      • Samuel Johnson famously said "who reads books through?" Academics tend not to read things from cover to cover. Usually the process is one of constructing an understanding of a book (or a paper) by frequently 'dipping in' and working backwards and forwards.
  • The expectation that Reading is a separate activity to thinking:
      • Reading and thinking are entwined. A page of a book is some kind of environmental stimulation of thought. We don't understand how this works!
  • The expectation that the words of a text indicate the meaning of a text:
      • There is an assumption that the meaning of a text can be revealed through laborious study of the words and their meaning. The words of a text in a book are signs of the constraints operating on the author. Your job is to get to know the author. C.S. Lewis reminds us that "We read to know we are not alone". You will rarely get to know an author through a single book.
  • The expectation that the study of texts is hard work:
      • This is the most damaging of all. My advice is that you should never read anything unless you do so feeling excited, curious and passionate about what you are doing. If you don't feel like that, do something else that will make you feel like that - and then read!

The texts I'm asking you to examine as part of the exercise are:

For each one, the question is "How are they thinking?" - experientially, analytically or critically?

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Bolton Question (Part 2): The Fairness of Going High-Tech

As I wrote a couple of days ago (see, there are fundamental ethical problems with Widening Participation as the de-facto business model of educational institutions like my own. It is inescapably about paying salaries of University employees (large salaries in the case of rich Senior Managers) with money borrowed by the poor. How different is this business model from that of Pay-Day lenders like Wonga? It looks very similar: in fact, at least with Wonga, the poor have the short-lived satisfaction of having 500 quid in their pocket for a short time before they're roped into endless repayments; Universities make them sit in dull lectures and gives them tedious assignments to complete! Like Wonga, we lure them into their bargain with promises of a better life that we are in no position to keep: getting a degree does not guarantee a better life, although it might remove some bureaucratic barriers to success.

We've stepped over a line in education and now we have a big problem.

Nobody's going to pretend the 'education industry' doesn't exist. Nobody's going to pretend that "not having a degree" isn't now a big problem for young people seeking employment, and that the provision of a degree entails some kind of economic bargain. We've made all of this happen in our society. The question is about how we deal with it.

There is a political question about loans versus general taxation, and the extent to which the interest rate of student loans in under political control. David Willetts yesterday suggested that the loan rate would remain under political control: a move underlying the fudge and nervousness about the whole situation (see his talk Is a loan a tax? What's the difference between a tax and a loan when a basic need like education is the subject? But then the question is Is it fair? Individual capability (by that I mean Amartya Sen's definition: see, social and cultural capital (Bourdieu) all tip the scales in favour of the middle classes - the kids who would succeed whether they went University or not. So what about Bolton?

Is it fair that students with less capability and less social and cultural capital should be 'taxed' (have to borrow money) at the same rate, when their life-chances are hampered before they even begin? Education is not a level playing field. Are student loans like a "poll-tax" on capability? The inequality is exacerbated by institutional business models which increasingly aim to cut costs and 'pocket' money borrowed by poor students to bolster financial 'reserves': such behaviour is less about the security of the institution (which is how it is usually portrayed), but much more about the security of the leader in a world where financial performance is the measure of success. Indeed institutional security can be damaged by withholding money that poor students have borrowed, to the under-resourced detriment of educational experiences for those students, whilst putting more pressure on staff to 'deliver' to those students for less money to both their detriment and the students who pay for it. The 'efficiency' model is inherently unstable and morally repugnant all-round.

The question is How to level the disparity of capability? There will, in fact, be some kind of subsidy for less capable students because their salaries will not reach the £21,000 mark for repayment in the UK. Indeed, there are deep worries that even for capable students in a depressed economy, this target will not be reached, leading to an ever-deepening black hole of government supported student debt, and the likelihood of an education-oriented financial crisis (Think how popular Universities will be when welfare cuts are imposed because student loan debt has become uncontrollable!)

We need to address the capability imbalance: this is, and always has been, the job of education. At one point in our history, the capability imbalance concerned literacy: mass education addressed the problem when many believed it wasn't possible. We now have different kinds of capability imbalances and technology forms an important element of them. Accessibility to technology is now as fundamental as literacy. But in terms of addressing capability imbalances, methods of teaching and learning are very important. The combination of teaching and technology is currently underexploited in the classroom. This is not about social media, or effective internet searches. It is about how technology can give us a better insight into ourselves, our learning needs, effective teaching, our emotional management and our attachments to others. Whilst it feels like "e-learning"  has run out of steam, the capability gap and its ensuing moral problems in education demand that we move forwards and invest in the high-tech capability-raising of the poor. To not do this will maintain an injustice whose ultimate consequences will be explosive.

This is why Bolton should go high-tech. Virtual Reality, bio-feedback, sophisticated analytics, corpus-oriented self-steering, video, flipped classrooms, flexible curricula, service learning are all important. But going high-tech means something else. Currently there is a tendency to invest money current poor students have to borrow in projects for the future (so current students whose money it is do not benefit). Technological investment benefits the students who pay for it: to each according to their needs. It creates opportunities for reorganising the classroom where those with more capability can help those with less: from each according to their ability.

I have blogged for a while about balancing the needs of society with the learning needs of individuals. The needs of our society are simple: we must redistribute wealth, risks and capabilities. Now I think that the way of achieving this is to drive the process of redistribution of capability in the University - in Bolton - using technology as the means to do it.

Monday, 13 January 2014

A Short Introduction to Thinking in Educational Technology: Part 1 of 6

This is a short "course" in thinking about education. I've put "course" in "" because I'm not really sure what a "course" is. Except that I can see that education is full of them, and if you want to do anything in education, you have a create a "course".

But you can change someone's life in 5 minutes!

There's something peculiar about a course in stretching the 5 minutes to 6 weeks! (Ezra Pound first made this point in his "ABC of Reading"). Maybe (Pound suggests) we do it just to try and justify sufficient payment for the employment of teachers for longer than 5 minutes.

Why am I doing this? In the Institute for Educational Cybernetics at the University of Bolton, we continually receive requests from students to study for a PhD. The number of these requests has grown in recent years (the PhD "market" - more inverted commas! - is likely to become very excited in the next few years as students try to differentiate themselves in a world where everyone has a degree). The problem is that a PhD is a very high risk strategy for a student. It is unlike any other academic award because, in the end, the award is a kind of declaration of trust between the student, the supervisor and the external and internal examiners. If either of the examiners are not comfortable with the award, it tends not to be made. After 3 or more years work, that can be a bitter blow. As with most failures in life, the root causes are usually deeply buried in the origins of the study. By the time it comes to the PhD examination, there's often little that can be done to remedy these kind of problems. The biggest problem, particularly in educational PhDs lies in assuming education to be simpler than it is. It may be that Vice-Chancellors and education Ministers can get away with this (although they shouldn't), but PhD students usually can't.

Some causes of simplistic thinking have their roots in the academy. Particularly at fault are the off-the-peg methodologies that are sometimes (unfortunately) presented to students as "ways of studying phenomenon x". At the extreme end are the kind of naive empirical studies involving pre and post-tests which see education as a branch of pharmacology. But naive thinking extends to methodologies whose supposed intentions are more realistic, but in their application, a gaping void of unexplored questions opens up between the real problems of education and those problems exposed by the methodology. Action research is a good example - great for hands-on trying-things-out, but generally poor at deeper explanatory frameworks which would ground critical analysis and build a foundation for the advancement of knowledge (which is what the PhD is meant to be about). Grounded theory is another popular technique but now too often uncritically applied as a kind of crank-turning process whose underpinning phenomenological foundations are rarely explored (and many of which are rather suspect!). This is to say nothing of the increasing use of text analytic software and the automated statisticisation of real experience which only serves to mask that experience in a fog of measurements. I'm not in principle against any of these techniques - they can all be useful. But I am against not thinking. And not thinking is the surest route to failure in the PhD.

So I want to provide students with a way of assessing the risk they face when embarking on a PhD before they pay the money to sign up for one. It also helps us assess the risk we might face in supporting them. In doing this, the purpose of this course is to get students to "challenge everything". This is how we think in IEC, and my hope is that having pursued this, students might be better prepared to make the decision whether to come and study with us or not.

The course is structured around activities, not content. Although we use some texts, the real purpose is to get students to produce artefacts which allow an inspection of how they think, and a framework for creating a strategy for deepening their thinking. The activities are:

Week 1: A 'way of thinking' mind-map. This activity focuses on the difference between analytical thinking, critique and experiential testimony. It's purpose is to highlight the difficulties of thinking straight about education.

Week 2: Reading critically. This activity focuses on two texts considering them from the point of view of analysis, critique and experience. The texts couldn't be more different: T.S. Eliot's "Notes towards the definition of Culture" and Gilly Salmon's "E-moderating". Students are asked to write a short analysis of the comparison between passages from each.

Week 3: The critical experience of writing. We look at  the experience of writing. How to deal with the creative process of trying to write about education and organise your thinking? How to deal with critically re-reading your own work and reorganising it. The exercise this week will use the mind map you produced in week 1.

Week 4: Method and Ideas in education. Using the mind map from week 1, we will explore the relationship between methods and knowledge about the reality of education. What is a research method and how does it relate to the way we think about education? This week's exercise involves you critiquing your own work.

Week 5: Technology and Experience. How does technology change the way we think? How do different media of communication change the way we think? What is the experience of using technology? Students will be asked to produce a short video on this topic and publish it online.

Week 6: Thinking and Modelling. What is a model? Why are they useful? Why can they be problematic? In this week's assignment you will be asked to draw a simple model of an educational problem that interests you. You will be challenged to identify the communication dynamics between the different actors in your model, together with the critical areas of doubt that you might have about your model.

So here's the video from Week 1: A "Way of thinking" mind-map
My example, which build's on my question "Why is education usually rubbish" can be seen by following the link to the Prezi presentation below.
Obviously, students will need to think of their own question.

Have fun!

A link to the Prezi presentation used:

Friday, 10 January 2014

Higher Education and the "Why Bolton?" Question

January is a good time to reflect on the previous year. This has been a horrible year in HE. It has been a year of rampant managerialism in Universities, where the thinkers have been subjected to a full-blooded assault by non-thinkers. "Thinking is waste - where are your outputs," screams the Research Excellence Framework; "Don't think, just keep your students on roll," scream managers who (to be fair) find themselves playing ridiculous accounting games which even they know are daft. But people have been desperately frightened. They still  are frightened: even when important things happen (deaths in the family are pretty important, for example) they struggle on into a work environment which they are barely in control of, but which they are terrified of being ejected from (as they have seen so many ejected before them).

This year, we have to put a stop to this. My own University has probably been no madder than any other (although probably not as mad as the one that Tristram Hunt, the shadow education minister, recently referred to in a conversation (allegedly!) as "Oh, that's the one with the nutter in charge!"), but the degree of madness that everyone has experienced leads people like me to think "What do I do next?" Like many, I have trawled the job pages - and applied (unsuccessfully) for a job in a 'better' institution than my own (for considerably less money). Sobering experiences - but also good. It is good to be challenged. Pathological managements can have positive unintended consequences. I console myself with the thought that Shakespeare worked in a police state; Shostakovitch always kept a packed suitcase under his bed lest the KGB came knocking; Beethoven wrote the 5th piano concerto holed up in a basement appartment in Vienna as Napoleon blasted the city walls; Anna Akhmatova dared not write down any poems, but instead memorised everything in a world where her fellow poets were arrested and executed. I know it's fanciful to compare myself to these people, but the point is that great work comes out of difficult circumstances. The other (obvious) point is that great work comes through really passionately caring about something.

Like my colleagues, I passionately care about education. I'm not always good at it, but I care about it. I care particularly about my colleagues in my institution and the students we teach. I worry about the students who now pay our salaries, who don't really realise the scale of the debt burden they take on, and some of whom will struggle to benefit from their studies professionally in a way which would not be the case if they came from middle class families. "Widening participation" as a gift of the tax-payer was an invitation to opportunity; "Widening participation" as the de-facto business model of institutions which seek to survive on the back of money poor students haven't earned yet is something quite different and potentially malevolent.

What are the choices? Perhaps Bolton and institutions like it shouldn't exist. There are many people in the academic elite, in the Tory government and elsewhere who will pompously say something like this (or think it, even if they fear that saying it is not PC): "send those students to apprenticeships" (as they withdraw funding from apprenticeships). The problem is that we now have a society (thanks partly to widening participation) where not having a degree is a real problem, even for jobs which once upon a time didn't require it. If the box isn't ticked, the job application goes in the bin. Society has created the risk of "not having a degree" and in so doing created a market for qualifications. If Bolton didn't exist, plenty of other institutions like it would, and they would probably behave less scrupulously than us (look at the scandal of the job seeker services recently:

We are in a bigger moral mess than a single institution. Is this the education system becoming a tool of the rich to make themselves richer with money borrowed by the poor? When we look at Vice-Chancellor's salaries, it looks this way. How long before the poor get angry and demand their money back? Large salaries may be a burden then.

In navigating this complex maze, I return to a simple question: what are the needs of society and how are they addressed through meeting the learning needs of individuals? This is an important question when thinking about student funding. Are student loans just another form of taxation? Some will say that the problem with that is that, unlike taxation, the student loan book is taken outside the political domain. But the political question is not about money; it is about What do we WANT? What kind of society do we want to build? How can education serve that society? What is the student loan money paying for? What do we expect our government to do in governing? We should demand equity.

Increasingly I see my own small institution as a key battleground for these questions. In my own soul searching, I have become more committed to Bolton: it's where things really matter (having said that, I'm at no less risk of being disposed of - but it really doesn't matter). With the ever increasing power of technology, globalisation, educational industrialisation, rich/poor disparities, it is in an institution like Bolton that we can try and do the right thing. It means rethinking education. It means reconnecting social needs with learning needs. It means taking care of students, not just over the period of a 'course' (how ridiculous our course fetish!), but over a life. Like any battleground, the dangers are all around. The temptation not to think is the biggest danger. The temptation to lure unsuspecting punters with glossy advertising as if it was a kind of Soho sex bar will be very great. But keep thinking and keep fighting - particularly as everyone becomes more frightened in a changing landscape.

When we are most frightened we need the most courage to speak out because this isn't just about our jobs. It's something much bigger and more serious. 

Monday, 6 January 2014

Playfulness and Mindfulness

I had an interesting discussion with @paddytherabbit today about play. David's blog is excellent (it's here - - and exhibits a sense of fun and discovery in the range of its posts - from developer stuff on the Oculus Rift to data analytics and computer games. Our discussion was along the lines of "what is this about?" The answer, David said, was 'play'.

But what's that?

I'm unsatisfied with the explanations for play that I've come across. Bateson (who's better than most) talks about a kind of semiotic code of play, related to his double-bind theory, where signals are exchanged between kittens (for example) that "this is play fight, not a real fight". To be honest, the double bind is tricky enough - not because it isn't a useful concept (it's extremely useful) - but because it's not an explanation, it's simply a way of looking at things. [hmmm... How is an explanation different from a way of looking at things?... not for this post!]

To explain play, we would have to explain something about the way we think. Much of my mental life is spent 'kicking around ideas'. I want to know what the kicking does. Sometimes the kicking around tires me. I want to switch off and empty my head. For me, it's either an empty-headed mindless walk in a shopping mall, or a trip to my local church: they have the same effect! But when I empty my head, I just change the game I play - different ideas to kick around - although ideas much more about love than anything else.

My work with Loet Leydesdorff on expectations has focused me on the nature of my mental life. For Leydesdorff, anticipation is fundamentally important. Drawing on the mathematical work of Daniel Dubois, he has translated the idea of an "anticipatory system" to address issues of reflexivity from a transpersonal (i.e. not psychological) perspective (see our latest paper here: What's important in this model is that the causal agent of reflexivity is absence or 'constraint'; it is what cannot be thought. This, I think, is an important "turn" on conventional ways of thinking which will typically try to infer reflexive processes from what can actually be seen.

An important illustration of reflexivity which Loet has drawn from Dubois concerns a variant of the logistic map equation which involves an 'incursive function' calculating values based on past values and feeding back present values. Graphically, the logistic map is a fractal which shows increasing disorder (entropy) over time. This is the process of life as we know from the physicists. But reflexivity counters this forwards entropy-increasing motion by abstracting from a complexity the system that generated it. This aspect of reflexivity works against the arrow of time: Loet (following Dubois) calls it a 'hyper-incursive' function. In the logistic map, this can simply be illustrated by moving backward (so from right to left).

In thinking life, the hyperincursive function, the incursive function (which is a calculation of the future based the future and the past) and the recursive function (which is a calculation of the future based on the past only) all operate together. We are surrounded by increasing entropy. We continually reflect on the generated future states we imagine. We continually move to identify the generating system for the future states and incorporate it within our future. Katherine Hayles puts it most elegantly:
"Reflexivity is that moment by which that has been made to generate a system is made, by a changed perspective, to become part of the system it generates." (in "How we became Posthuman", p8)  

So what of play?

What's really interesting about the hyper-incursive function is that in some way, the complexities of life must be attenuated in order to identify the generating system. Real life is not like the logistic map - it is much more complex. The complexities which are seen and recognised in the hyper-incursive routine are constrained by what is overlooked. Consequently, the moving backwards of the arrow of time always creates a gap between those complexities which can be generated by the generating system and those complexities which lie outside. There is a fundamental need to familiarise ourselves with the complexities we cannot see in everyday life.

This is what play is about, in my opinion. It reveals complexity, and through so doing creates new ways in which the hyperincursive routine may find better fitting generating systems.

This also sheds some light on another topic I was discussing with David: the difference between scientists (or perhaps rather technologists) and artists. The technician's hyperincursive routine is good at moving towards the generating system (which they can then program) but the attenuation of the complexities of life are considerable. This then creates technical systems which themselves generate more constraint socially because they ignore the complexities which others see. The artist, by contrast, generates complexity, gradually finding the generating system through the form of their work.

What's encouraging about this is the articulation in a rather technical way for the necessity of apparently useless work, and the dangers of insisting on the utility and efficiency of everything.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Wonky Thinking and Educational Technology: an exercise

A little while ago I wrote about 'three ways of thinking about educational technology'. It was partly inspired by Alain Badiou's work, which has been dedicated to bridging the gap between the analytical, phenomenological and Marxist traditions in philosophy. But it's got me thinking about how we 'shift gears' in our thinking about technology between analysis (most of our technical thinking is analytical), critique - when we want to justify our analysis or technical design in some way, and phenomenology - as we try and defend the (largely crappy) experiences people have with technology! I've become interested in ways of thinking and the 'gear switching' that goes on because I see it going on everywhere in the e-learning discourse, and I think it's largely to blame for the kind of circular arguments that we see around issues like "the purpose of education". We need to pay more attention to the ways that we think, and where we switch from one way to another.

I've devised a little exercise to try and illustrate what I mean. It's a kind of mind-map and a large piece of paper (or small writing) is required. The steps are:

  1. Think of a question that interests you in education and write it in a bubble in the middle of your piece of paper. (My question when I did this was "why is education usually rubbish?")
  2. Around this central bubble, there are going to be three other bubbles. First, draw a bubble in which you support your question with something you have personally experienced. This is the 'experiential' bubble where you can think about the 'common sense' behind your question. (My experience of education has largely - but not always - been rubbish).
  3. A second bubble around the centre indicates doubts about the question: who says? in whose interests is this question asked? is it right? who would lose if we were to try and 'improve' things? and so on. This is the bubble of 'critique'. 
  4. Finally a third bubble contains some kind of proposition to address the main question: what would we do? how would it work? This is the analytical bubble where logical solutions are suggested. 
  5. Having created the three bubbles around the main one, look at each of the three in turn and around each of those draw three further bubbles: one for experience/common-sense, one for critique/doubt, and one for some kind of logical proposal. 
  6. keep going until you fill the paper!

In my example, I found myself trying to defend the need for more funding as a way of addressing the crappiness of education, whilst also worrying about where the money was going to come from. Equally I worried about whether education is really rubbish for everyone, and considering the problem of value pluralism. And my experiences were shaped by socio-economic expectations - how to change those? What methodology can help us to find out about them? (in whose interests is a particular methodology?)

The point is that my thinking about educational problems is wonky. It moves from an analytical proposition to a critical defence, or a theoretical justification for experiences which in turn relies on methodologies which raise political concerns.

Take any example of input into the e-learning discourse and you will see the same wonkiness. From Salmond's 5-stage model to Koper's Educational Modelling Language to the Pask conversation model, the thinking often starts analytically (either in the form of a methodology, or in the form of a theory), but then retreats to critique or phenomenology in order to shore-up the shortcomings of the analysis and its consequent technical implementation. Sometimes further analysis is then used to shore-up the critique! Some interventions like the PLE already bring with them a heady mixture of different ways of thinking from the start (the PLE had Illich, and Service Oriented Architecture all thrown in to start!).

It's not just learning technologists who think in this wonky way. Since education is now techno-dominated (all interventions in institutional management have a technical component; computer-based metrics govern the governance), pseudo analytical thinking which rides roughshod over critical and experiential concerns is beloved of many Vice Chancellors. It's allure of objectivity gives them some sort of rational basis for making decisions which are (by and large) ill-advised. But VCs suffer the gear-switching disease.

I think it's important that we develop the means for identifying when this happens. The next phase of Education Technology is likely to be a 'critical' phase: where we look at all the money spent in the last 10 years or so and wonder what on earth we were thinking. We were thinking wonkily, and now we need to understand how that happened as we prepare for technologies which are going to be even harder to think about.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Why courses?

Computers blur distinctions - they're like a kind of solvent. They don't reduce one thing into another (it's not like reducing chemistry to physics) but they create common practices between different areas of activity where distinct practices had once prevailed. The common practice which is dissolving everything at the moment is data analytics. Whether you are looking at chemical signals in the visual cortex, traffic patterns across a city, dancer movements to music, sporting performance, interview responses or social networks, the same practices are emerging. Shared redundancy of practice is the main driver for innovation and change. And given what is going on, we should expect plenty of change in the next couple of years or so.

The institutions of education change less rapidly than the practices of scientists and artists. Institutions will wish to maintain subject divisions for the sake of stability in their own administrative apparatus. But increasingly this will simply not make sense. I know of no institutions which isn't still fixated on 'the course' as the central unit of educational delivery. Indeed, in the marketisation of institutions, there appears to be an attempt to beef up the educational quality of 'courses' (although nobody's really sure what that means!) But if we actually listen to what's happening on the ground, does it make sense to think about distinct 'courses'?

As I have argued previously (see, courses are a kind of branding of different parts of education. In effect they are risk manufacturing operations: a course creates the risks of not studying that particular course (you won't be a lawyer if you don't study law). But even law isn't immune from the breaking down of boundaries produced by computers. One may well find oneself in a senior position in law firm through technical skill, not legal skill (indeed, it is likely that the lawyer's job becomes increasingly technical in the future as IT takes over the grunt of case-work: topic modelling is likely to be transformative in that domain). So what happens is that the risk manufacturing operation of the University is countered by changes in technology which mitigate the risks. At the same time, the content of courses as 'assurances of employment' is likely to be undermined by increasingly rapid technological progress which demands new skills from domains well outside those traditionally considered appropriate. 

So what matters for the learner? Graduating from a course? Or simply having the self-efficacy, flexibility and emotional security to continually adapt practices which are common across all domains so that they can position themselves effectively in the jobs market. The key there is "emotional security", and the whole business of "student experience" as a process of building confidence, enhancing creativity, inculcating skills and dispositions will be increasingly important. Ironically, initatives like the Higher Education Academic Record ( are likely to become important, not because of the 'educational CRB-check' that they offer to employers (although this is likely to be a big thing), but because of the emphasis it places on 'achievements' outside the curriculum. It may be here that educational innovations like Service Learning really take off in the UK as a way of promoting non-curricula achievement. 

The course creates risks whose fiduciary qualities will be challenged by the fast-changing world. Maybe universities should focus not so much on 'the course', but on the opportunities that membership of the institution provides. That would mean Universities would have to prepare their learners to take advantage of available opportunities (only the most confident learners will embrace opportunities without any encouragement), to continually encourage participation and genuine achievement. That in turn requires a different kind of learner support. 

This is not a call to turn our back on the curriculum. The risks of 'the course' have not all gone away - and we should be realistic that some careers are well and truly barred to those who didn't study the right course. Rather, there is a need to better study courses as risk-making concerns, and to consider the ways in which those risks are changing in the light of changing technology. Any risk makes people anxious. Anxiety is the driver for the choice of one course over another (if I do x will I still be able to become...) But anxiety is an irrational compulsion. If institutions were to equip themselves with a deeper understanding of individual anxieties (not just those of the learner, but also of teachers too), whilst appreciating how new possibilities for mitigating risks are made available by technology practices, then we may have a foundation for rethinking educational practice, and focusing more directly on the thing that really matters to students: their confidence.