Thursday, 29 December 2016

Towards a non-binary educational logic

Logic is a powerful subject: to reason differently about the world is to change it. And perhaps to reason differently about education as a way of changing it is a start to reason differently about the world. Our reasoning is fundamentally binary: we inhabit the world of the "excluded middle", where something cannot be and not be at the same time. One of the great confusions of our time is trying to reconcile the habits of binary thinking with scientific knowledge and practice which increasingly challenges it. It's not just quantum physics where we are getting used to the idea of things being and not-being at the same time; politics is not longer left or right (if it ever was!); gender and sexuality is increasingly seen as non-binary; information analysis articulates contingency and mathematics itself embraces forms of expression such as category theory which embraces multiplicity in place of binary division. An important element in this is our approach to counting. What would our idea of economy look like if we counted differently? We've made our world fit our logic. Maybe it's time we made our logic fit our world.

In the world of education, we have conversations. The most important thing about an educational conversation is that it is sustainable, that it grows, and that through its continued development, the capacity for creative utterances increases amongst the participants. Our conception of knowledge and concepts themselves are embedded in this fundamental idea of conversation. And attempts to theorise conversation and discourse have become the cornerstone of theoretical development in educational technology. However, these theoretical developments (Gordon Pask and Niklas Luhmann are the most dominant theorists, Siemens and Downes's connectivism (I originally said 'constructionism' by mistake - but it is, isn't it?!) is a sub-domain of these basic ideas) embraced a logical ideal which was binary.  Essentially concepts were treated as objects articulated by utterances, and these objects could be compared with one another (your concept of an elephant vs mine - are they the same, yes or no?).

For Pask, concepts themselves are a manifestation of stabilities in the discourse - concepts emerged through the dynamics of communication. It's all very computational. The problem with this view is that emotions got left out of the picture. But any teacher knows the importance of emotion in teaching and learning. The problem is that we don't have a way of embracing it in our logical ideas of education.

We have to step back from all of this to get to a different kind of logic of education. The first step is one of humility: that whatever we think education, or an educational conversation might be, there is a domain which is outside it. Any theory, and any logic draws a boundary around education. The trick is to stay focused on the boundary, not the thing inside it.

Any boundary invokes distinctions within it. Conversations involve words - concepts, utterances, and so on. Any concept also has a boundary. Any boundary has a boundary too. What emerges are recursive nested structures which might be expressed as a string:

String P: (((((A)B)C)D)E)
Different people have different boundaries. Emotion is an indicator of a boundary. Teaching is a process of discovering and manipulating boundaries - in other words, changing the way people feel about things. A learner who is at first unknown, carries with them a set of concepts and boundaries about the world. They might be:

String Q: ((((W)X)Y)Z)V
Some of these boundaries will be deeply felt. But we can start to become more abstract. Let's talk about these two strings. What does P know about Q? How might "coming to know" be characterised as transformations in the relationship between P and Q?

Perhaps one way of characterising this is to imagine a process of gradually rewriting the strings P and Q so that they become more similar. The rules for rewriting the strings arise from the relationship between the two strings, which might be thought of as the emotional relationship between two people. So, for example, if P is (((((A)B)C)D)E) and P sees Q initially to be  ((W)V), then P might be rewritten (((((V)A)B)E). Lets say Q sees P initially as ((A)B). If  Q then sees P as ((V)E), V is understood as something which a recognised common constraint between them. P might say to Q, "it's cold here, isn't it!"

P has learnt one of Q's constraints. P's rewriting continues like this to illuminate the structure of constraint in Q. As the structure of constraint is discovered by P, so P can reveal their own constraints (their conceptual knowledge) in a structure consistent with Q's constraints.

The principal technique of teaching - and the principal objective of the string rewriting process - is to produce multiple descriptions of constraints. In this way, a string, ((V)E) can become ((((V)Z)Y)E or further, ((((((V)Z)A)B)Y)E... and so on. Each description can be broken down into multiple distinctions, and those distinctions related to other distinctions. The clues for the rewriting come from the distinctions made about the structure of Q's constraints.

This is rather sketchy, but the point is that it is not a matter of "does the student know concept A or B?" (binary), but rather, "concepts A and B are part of the constraints of the teacher; these concepts are learnt when the teacher discovers the structure of constraint in the learner and articulates multiple descriptions of A and B which reveal the teacher's constraints in a way that the learner can understand". Distinctions are always transcended, with the production of further descriptions. In the end, there is only the continual production of descriptions.

I think this logic demands a radically different approach to educational technology. This gives me hope that we might be able to do something really powerful with our technologies in education, rather than simply presenting content or exchanging text messages.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Personal Technologies Reconsidered - from Toothbrushes to Twitter

Audrey Watters has recently asked some deep questions about "personalisation" and the companies making claims for it (see http://funding.hackeducation.com/2016/12/19/personalization) in their online learning tools. Audrey highlights the marketing-speak of "personalisation", and her worries concern issues of privacy, exploitation of learners and the technocratic corruption of education. The outrage of "hands-off our data!" hangs in the background.

Companies claim their tools to be personalised. For the individual, the personal-ness of tools is not something to be shouted about usually. I don't boast about the 'personal-ness' of my toothbrush - to share what is personal to us is to make a gesture of openness and trust in others (even toothbrushes - and when it comes to them, it is a very meaningful and rare gesture of love!). It's not that different with sharing one's mobile number; it's certainly not the same as sharing one's Twitter or Facebook page - although to give somebody your Twitter or Facebook password is rather more like the toothbrush.

The issues that surround these different phenomena are ownership, identity, control and attachment. My Twitter feed is owned by Twitter, not by me, although my password enables me to make my personal contribution to the unfolding public document that Twitter publishes. My car and house are owned by me (at least, I have legal rights, even if the bank has ultimate power). Most social media companies are publishers with no explicit editorial control (although there is 'algorithmic' editorial control); what they do is publish documents produced by users.

When I was part of a team working with Personal Learning Environments (PLE), what interested us were the read-write web tools that enabled people to configure the interfaces of their tools in ways which suited them best. This control could be considered to be 'personal' in the sense that the ideal was that everybody could bring their own tools to do their learning, rather than having to learn how to use the tools provided by institutions (or indeed corporations). In this sense, 'personal' meant not having to change one's dispositions to fit someone else's tooling. Alongside issues of personal tooling, came related issues of 'personal organisation'. I now think these terms need inspecting closer.

E-portfolio, for example (to which the PLE was closely related), provided means for the "personal organisation of learning". What does that mean exactly? If you ask the champions of "personal organisation", they will talk about the activities involved in personal organisation, rather than its precise nature. They will say that with tools like Twitter or Facebook, one can "curate" (another popular term) content, references, etc. The manufacturers of e-portfolio talk a similar language. In my own experience, I have indeed found tweeting, facebooking, blogging (more than the other two) useful as forms of "curation" which I can easily search and retrieve stuff I have found interesting. In the past, scholars would keep "commonplace books", or (in the case of Niklas Luhmann) elaborate card index systems of knowledge. But in what sense are such practices 'personal' - to what extent is it right to talk of "self-organisation"?

Like any practices, these practices (with portfolio, Twitter or Facebook) occur within constraints. The "person" - their identity, history, biology, capability and so on - is a small set of constraints in the mix of social, technical, political, institutional and material constraints within which organisation occurs. The "striking of bargains" with social media corporations, academic institutions, publishers, and so on is the order of the day when it comes to using "personal" tools. When Twitter says a tool is personal, they refer to the possibility that a bargain might be struck between an individual operating within the full gamut of their constraints, and the Twitter corporation hoping to maintain and increase the transactions that users have with them (thereby handing over their data). Interestingly, the key to maintaining this status quo is the deal that whilst the documents published by users are effectively owned by Twitter or Facebook, the individual user secures their personal password. The success of "personal" tools is due to users treating passwords like toothbrushes. If we all exchanged our passwords freely, it would all collapse.

We see passwords like toothbrushes because maintaining a sense of self means maintaining a coherent and (hopefully predictable) set of expectations in others - our friends, colleagues, employers, etc. Only by maintaining this does the world become a predictable place within which we can operate. To maintain a codified set of expectations, we have to hide as much as we reveal. It's not just gum disease: it's the chaotic and embarrassing world of our subconscious, our vulnerabilities and insecurities. To "have an ego" is to actively manage a "set of relations".

I don't think we understood this properly in the PLE - social software was too new. Now we need to understand it more urgently, because the chaotic subconscious is threatening the stability of our social world in the face of dramatic disturbances in the social and political fabric - partly brought about through technology. 

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Post-Truth and the Rationality of Irrationality

Of all the scholars who've died in the last ten years or so, the one who I wish was still around right now is Nigel Howard. Howard is well-known within the Operational Research community (but few other places) as a game theorist who objected to mainstream game theory, but who developed a mathematical theory of "meta-rationality" which he later developed into what he called "drama theory". This was used in conflict situations including Bosnia and Israel-Palestine.

Howard would have understood Brexit and Trump (indeed, he would have predicted them). He would also understand the dynamics of the UK's Brexit negotiations, the rise of the far-right, and so on. Howard understood that the most powerful move to play in game is the move which breaks the rules. The kind of game Howard was interested in is summarised below in a game of chess between a husband and wife:
Husband: You've lost.
Wife: Have I?
Husband: You have two moves - this and this. Each leads to checkmate.
Wife: You are wrong. I have a third move.
Husband: ???
(Wife lifts chessboard and throws it in his face.)
(in "Negotiation as Drama: How "Games" become dramatic" in International Negotiation, vol. 1, 1996)

Howard explains:
a 'drama' is a set of interconnected games. Games are the situations in a drama that people - e.g., negotiating parties - see themselves as unable to escape from; that is, when they see themselves as ineluctably in a situation (defined by a given group of characters with given options and given preferences) then they see that situation as a game. But - here is the point - precisely because they see their situation as fixed and given, drama theory asserts that it generates in them, in a game-theoretically predictable manner, emotions that may cause them to reframe it - i.e., see it differently. Thus at the climax of a dramatic episode, an audience sees the game change as its characters create new subjectively perceived option sets for themselves and others and change their values, hence also their preferences. Thereby they put themselves into a new situation.
There, in a nutshell is Brexit and Trump. Now let's say, in the chess example, that the husband does not accept that the rules of the game have changed, or he denies his wife the right to reframe the game. "What the hell have you done?!" he might say. Might he then force her to "play properly"? 

Forcing people to "play properly" is basically how the EU treated Greece. It's how the establishment drove their "project fear" bandwaggon in the Brexit remain campaign. The Greeks are still trying to reframe the game, the EU refuses. It's a stand-off, but in the end, the irrational reframing will win, and the EU will eventually have to accept that the game being played is not the game they thought they were playing. It may not survive this. 

It's exactly the same with Brexit: for all the "Brexit means Brexit" talk, there is a palpable sense that the media and the government are pushing for some kind of democratic reversal of the decision - basically that people should "play properly". It's a kind of "media" game. I doubt it will work, not least because the opposite game, the "post-truth" game is unfolding equally potently on Facebook. 

Amidst all this, there is some pretty nasty far-right rhetoric. Some of these statements need to be seen as moves in a game. They scandalise and shock in the way that an air-strike might in a war situation. Trump is good at this kind of stuff. It's a way of saying "we are dictating the rules of the game now". It will continue as long as the opposing side deny that the rules of the game have changed and that everyone should "play properly".

What should universities be doing right now? As I said in my last post, it appears that Universities also believe everyone should "play properly". That is partly because the "proper" game of managerial technocracy has been thoroughly embedded within the university constitution, alongside the ideals of the enlightenment which are also being challenged. Because of this, it's even more difficult for the University to believe the game has changed. But scholars, more than anyone else, should be curious about what is happening. The new game need studying, the enlightenment project needs inspecting, and universities need to be able to adapt to a transformed world. 

Saturday, 10 December 2016

A great #srhe16 ... BUT... A Failure to grasp the Brexit nettle??

This was my third conference for the Society for Research in Higher Education. It was the first one I didn't have to pay for myself (thank you Liverpool!) I'd always felt it was worth it - which is probably the best thing you can say about any conference.

However, this year I came away slightly uneasy. Brexit and Trump was in the background, of course. Two of the keynotes addressed this directly. I have to say that the best keynote was the one that didn't by ├ůse Gornitzka. Jonathan Grant's keynote took on the issue of 'Post-Truth'. We must fight the lies, he said, in a staunch defence of the truths and processes of the academy in the face of the democratic misbehaviour of the manipulated masses. As he pleaded for the academy to stand up for its principles, I was left wondering why scholars had largely ceded control of the academy to managers and business people with barely a whimper - until those people, now some of them Vice Chancellors revealed themselves in Trumpist colours. Many of those academics sacked by these characters, so many adjunct lecturers on pauper wages, many students conned out of a fortune and left with a certificate and little else... many of them voted for Brexit, rightly identifying a failure of government. Ibn Khaldun's principle of good government: "to prevent injustice other than that which it commits itself" (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibn_Khaldun) has clearly been broken. Indeed, globalisation has delivered almost universally bad government, and injustices in corporations, social services and Universities which government ought to have prevented, went unchecked throughout the world.

Many delegates at the SRHE have been victims of this. The SRHE feels like a kind of support group for thoughtful and clever academics who care deeply about universities. They gather each year in Wales and chew the cud over "What the fuck is happening to education?" I've always found it invigorating. If I was to imagine a "Fantasy University", taking all the people in the conference dinner (before the disco!) would do very nicely.

My highlight was actually the first session I went to. To my own surprise, the moment of  brilliance came with a paper on learning analytics by a young researcher from Pakistan who is working with the OU, Saman Rizvi. I am very worried by the state of the discourse in learning analytics - it simply lacks critical or mathematical rigour. Saman provided some mathematical rigour (if not yet critical - but it will come, I'm sure) by combining Markov chain modelling with machine learning on engagement data for online courses and MOOCs. I did push her on the whole issue of the difficulties with probabilities, and the problem of 'variable-ism', but I was hugely impressed by the detail of her analysis. There is potential for some deeper insights from crunching the numbers - and maybe even a more penetrating critical discourse.

On the whole, I found myself tiring of endless sociological rhetoric. I quite liked sociomateriality when I first encountered it in Karen Barad's writing (despite it upsetting a few of my Critical Realist friends). But now it's everywhere, and I still don't know what it means. (It's constraint, isn't it?) The same goes for the nods (and they are only nods) towards Foucault, Bourdieu, Derrida, Bhaskar, Latour, etc. The problem is that there is no real attempt to develop any of these theories; theory is instead used as a coat-hanger to make the mundaneness of education more interesting (for which, if you were unkind, you might read "pretentious"). In the end, it has the effect of saying "I've thought about education and I've read a lot of difficult books"

Education really is interesting in its own right. But it is really, really difficult and confusing. It deserves (and demands) its own theory - not the sociological cast-offs of others who (is this unfair?) didn't care much for teaching themselves, but rather more for their posturing, egos and status. Education deserves its own theory because it really matters. As Trump and Brexit have shown.

I presented on intersubjectivity and constraint. There was quite a lot to get through but people seemed to like it, and I got a lot of questions afterwards. I even produced a leaflet to accompany my talk! I delved into information theory, and used Spencer Brown's weird mathematical notation for thinking about the 'inside' (what is constrained) and the 'outside' (what does the constraining). Information theory and uncertainty have become very important to me.

Which brings me back to universities and Brexit. Rosemary Deem gave the final keynote which was entertaining, but rather shallow - much in the manner of the remain campaign itself: "don't be a fucking idiot and vote leave!" Of course it turned out that 51% of us were fucking idiots (and had it not been for my 16 year old daughter's petition to me to vote remain, I would also have been a fucking idiot). I asked Rosemary afterwards "Where are we in history?". She didn't think it was a very sensible question, but I disagree. The fear in Universities about Brexit is a palpable fear arising from the realisation that the world they thought they existed in is not the world as it actually (now) is. These shocks - where society (or its leaders) realise their model of the world is wrong - occur throughout history: we've been here before, and if we find out when in history we were here before, we can prepare ourselves for readjusting our model of the world.

The people who spoke about Universities and Brexit do not appear to yet accept that their model of the world is wrong. So Jonathan Grant wants to "challenge the lies", convinced of the truth of the academy, whilst today's science - which has been transformed by computers - only speaks of uncertainties and contingencies (this is the nature of information). Expressing uncertainty is not something academics are good at (Grant seemed very certain about his arguments, as did Rosemary Deem): they would prefer to appear to be experts. To express uncertainty is to make oneself vulnerable. And most importantly, it is to tune-in to the uncertainties of others.

Rosemary Deem's presentation mentioned widening participation as a way of reaching out to disenfranchised groups - as if sitting the disenfranchised in classrooms and inducting them into the noble ways of education will ensure that they play the establishment game! But maybe the disenfranchised Brexit voters saw the deeper truth of it: that education, more often than not, is a bit rubbish; that experts often offer "no shit, Sherlock" posturing, or make claims with the confidence of Old Etonians, which are quite patently misguided (and sometimes cruel).

Post-truth may be a deeper truth, in the way that in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the White Witch knew the "deep magic", but Aslan knew the "deeper magic". The deep magic is in the financialised, managerialist university. The deeper magic is in the hearts of those who used their democratic right to fight the system. Scientists and artists will always be concerned to understand the deeper magic better. The financialised, managerialist university has become an unfriendly place for those kinds of scientists - it's sacked many of them - there are no grants for what they do. There are big and scary changes to come - this is all very much like the 1600s - we have Puritanism (Trump?), regicide (King Charles III?) and civil war (the US?) to come! The SRHE would make an interesting kind of "invisible college"!

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

On Reading, Being Alone, and Social Media

I had an interesting conversation with one of the doctors who I'm working on a project with as I showed her some Agent-based models of blood flow which I'd created. We got on to talking about the reflexivity and curiosity of students. She loved the models saying she thought it might spark their curiosity. She then said something along the lines of: "When I was a student, we read books. Today's students don't do this - the medics go on the web, but they seem strangely uncurious about the things they study, and whilst they know all the terminology - which they've committed to memory - they seem to understand less about underlying mechanisms." I've experienced something similar amongst students in the past - my automatic response is to say that the education system has knocked the curiosity out of them (and these are the kids who did everything they were told and got three As). Maybe it isn't so simple. Then I thought about "reading" and remembered a comment by C.S. Lewis:
"We read to know we are not alone"
My own experience of reading - rarely fiction, but lots of philosophy, science, etc - was precisely this. I was weird, I had weird thoughts (I thought) - I wanted to find other people who were as weird as me. Wittgenstein and Douglas Hoffstadter were as weird as me, I found. The driver for intellectual engagement was a fear of being alone.

This sense of loneliness has been changed by social media.  There is a sense in which Sherry Turkle's "Alone Togetherness" of technology has a dimension which interferes with the fundamental drive for pursuing knowledge and understanding.

If my drive for reading books was to find others who were as weird as me, then that task is so much easier on social media. There are a multiplicity of groups shouting "I am as weird as you!". In joining one of these groups, one can feel 'together', no longer alone. Does the impetus for reading and pursuing deeper knowledge suffer as a result? It's not inconceivable.

I introduced my 16 year old daughter to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's outrageous "Derek and Clive" the other week. ("Worst job I ever had? Picking lobsters from...") She's become quite politically active in the feminist society at her college, and I was interested to know what she would think of Derek and Clive's shocking un-PC-ness. She thought it was hilarious of course. But then I asked her "could you play this to any other members of your society?" - Her instant reaction was "Oh God No! They'd go ballistic!". She might be wrong - but it is a challenge for her to find out. Like many of us, my daughter's on a journey, and reconciling what she finds very funny with ethical struggles and the political principles of groups will no doubt keep her thinking and reading more.

Social media gives us a lot of nonsense to read which continually feeds us the message that we are ok and we are not alone. It takes something from outside to create the strength to challenge the ok-ness of "being ok". And often, people appear ok when they are really not: there are too many happy, smiley facebook posts from people who kill themselves days or hours later. Maybe we need a corrective which reminds each of us that we are not as "not alone" as we thought we were. It's not to be anti-social media - but it's to become more aware of how it changes us. 

Monday, 28 November 2016

Truth and Post-Truth: Some thoughts about "counting" and "information"

The current vogue for 'post-truth', (and post truth commentary about post-truth) is really a symptom of the post-modernist malaise which has afflicted universities for many decades. If it has become mainstream, it is not because of Trump or Brexit, but because of some very confused thinking about data analysis and information (I hinted at this here: http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/appetite-will-and-intellect-journey-of.html). Now we have people like Nick Land spouting the language of second-order cybernetics and using it as an intellectual foundation for the alt-right. David Kernohan is partly right to say "This is us!" (here http://followersoftheapocalyp.se/its-good-to-be-king/) - but this isn't some kind of 'restoration'; it is simply madness, bad theory and weak thinking. This was always the danger with second-order cybernetics! So it's time to do some deeper (first-order?) cybernetic thinking and get back to the maths and to the detail of cybernetics - first and second-order. The place to start is at the root of the data fallacies and the assumptions about probability and counting.

When we count anything, a distinction is made between an inside and an outside. To count 2 of something is to perceive an analogy between thing 1 and thing 2. Ashby notes that:
"The principle of analogy is founded upon the assumption that a degree of likeness between two objects in respect of their known qualities is some reason for expecting a degree of likeness between them in respect of their unknown qualities also, and that the probability with which unascertained similarities are to be expected depends upon the amount of likeness already known."
In other words, to say that a = b is to say that:
Here, the bracket around "Outside a" and "Outside b" (which encompasses a and b) represents a limit of apprehension of the outside of a and b. This limit, and the equating of the outsides of a and b are hypotheses. Even when we might think the similarity between things is obvious (as say between eggs), it remains a hypothesis. Which means that counting is a measure of the assumptions we make about perception, rather than any kind of indication of reality.

Information theory, which sees information as a measure of uncertainty about a message, and upon which much of our contemporary data analysis sits, is fundamentally about counting. This is what is represented in Shannon's formula:
Shannon does have an 'outside' for his measure on uncertainty (H) which he calls Redundancy (R). So we might write:

But there are a number of problems. Firstly, the Shannon formula represents a count of similar and dissimilar events; it is in effect a measure of the average surprisingness within a message. Each identification of similarity or dissimilarity is hypothetical (in the way described above), or unstable. Secondly, the denominator in the redundancy equation, Hmax, is a hypothesised number of the maximum possibilities for variation (as opposed to the observed variation).

For a system with N possible states, the number of total possible information (Hmax) is log(N). In identifying "a system" we have already made a distinction between the inside and the outside, and that in counting the number of possible states, we have already made a hypothesis about the context of similar states being the same. This is what we do when we describe something. 

How many possible descriptions are there? Let's say there are M possible descriptions, which means that the total maximum entropy of the system + its descriptions is log(N x M). We may then produce descriptions about descriptions, which makes it log (N x M x O)... and so on. 

But of course N, M or O cannot be known fully: there are an infinite range of descriptions and possibilities - we can only count the ones we know about. However, it is also true that descriptions N, M and O constrain each other. A description of the number of possible states is dependent on the number of possible states, and so on. These interactions of constraint may be analysed.

This can be illustrated with the example introduced by Jerome Bruner, of the mother playing with a child, presenting a dolly to her and saying "see the pretty dolly" (in "Child's Talk", 1983). The game is never played only once. It is repeated:


Each repetition is framed by previous repetitions. The mother (and probably the child) recognise that this is a repetition - except that it isn't exactly. In the diagram above, the differences in intonation, emphasis, timbre, etc are illustrated by the relative size and height of the words. Coming back to Ashby's comment about analogy, what assumptions are made if we say "the mother repeats the phrase three times"? 

We can analyse each episode and describe each aspect. Calling the rhythm R, the pitch P, the timbre T, the dynamics D (and there are many other descriptions), then we might say that behind each of the utterances is a context RPTD.
Now the question is that in order to determine the similarity between these different utterances, an assumption is made about the similarity of the context. But for each description of each aspect of the context, there is also an assumption of similarity which is an assumption about its context. As so we get a recursive pattern:
(This misses out the final T). And on it goes. So each description constrains each other description. Might it then be possible to determine how each description might affect each other description?

One way this might be done is to consider the way that changes to one kind of description (say the rhythm) might be reflected in changes to another (say the pitch). To do this, it is not necessary to measure the redundancy. One only needs to measure the information as an index of the effects of the redundancy that sits behind it. If there are correlations between increases in information content (uncertainty) then there are is an indication of the mutual constraint between descriptions.

The next thing to consider is how it is that similarity is determined between these different variables. This can also tell us how new descriptions, and indeed surprises, might emerge.

The similarity between things - and their countability - is determined by the observer. Shannon information is not objective, and this, following Ashby, is an assumption about the unknown variables (the constraints) bearing upon the perception of something. The recursive pattern of distinctions and descriptions presented above is unstable because there is variation among the different recursions of the variables. Similarity is continually having to be asserted - a selection is made as to whether the latest utterance is the same or not. It may be that all one can say is "it might be" - and this is the essence of the game played between the mother and child. 

So what when something surprising happens? What when half-way through playing this game, the mother says "BOO!". The child's question (and ours) concerns the assumptions they made about the context of the utterances "see the pretty dolly", and the fact that whatever context this was has now permitted a completely different kind of utterance. The surprise means that the assumptions about the context are wrong and need to change. "BOO!" cannot be admitted into the information system until a new understanding of the constraints of communication can admit "see the pretty dolly" and "BOO!" together. 

Finally, what does this mean for truth? At one level, what we see as true fits the contextual knowledge we already possess. If the contextual knowledge is formed by the "echo chamber" of social media, it is quite easy to see how one might believe things to be true which others (with a better perspective) see as false. What we have become resistant to is to change and query our understanding of the context from which utterances emerge. Deep down this is an autistic trait: our society has become unempathic. The mother and child example, on the other hand, is the epitome of empathy. 

Friday, 25 November 2016

What would Ivan Illich say about Ken Robinson? A response to @thinkdif

When everyone is deeply confused about education, we should be on our guard for "thought leaders". These are people who are usually more interested in their egos than in society. They want to tell a story about education where they emerge as the saviour. Ken Robinson is such a person (he gave a talk with Peter Senge here: https://www.thinkdif.co/headliners/education-21st-century). Am I simply jealous in saying this?

Ivan Illich might also be considered to be a "thought leader". Except that there's a difference. Illich talked but also knew the pointlessness of talking. He knew the futility of education. It's worth being reminded of this passage from Deschooling Society:
"Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education--and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries."
There's an 'emptying' of ego in this statement: the sharing and caring is Illich's own. He's saying that education isn't scarce - it's abundant. When it's seen to be abundant, the idea of learning and "the learner" is seen to be a construct of education. As soon as we talk of school or university, we participate in the fabrication of the scarcity of education and this construction of "learning". This participation even corrupted the interpretation of Illich's message - it's unfortunate that his "learning web" was misconstrued as a kind of functionalist educational internet - that clearly isn't what he meant. Illich's position remained that of a priest, but not, I think, a guru.

Why do universities and schools talk of "learners" and not simply "persons"? The distinction is simply drawn on economic grounds as to whether one is signed up for a course. (Managers of institutions are never "learners") As soon as this distinction is drawn, the theory lunatics get to work on defining what "learning" is. Then we are really in trouble. What they produce are varieties of Kant's "transcendental subject" - a fabricated, disembodied, hollow abstraction of a person. Then institutions take this abstraction and create bureaucracies and technocracies around it which only serve to make everybody miserable, and create a market for "Ken Robinsons".

Robinson doesn't appear caring or sharing - he's feathering his own nest! Meanwhile the misery of school (and university) goes on, reinforced by his pronouncements of its deficiency - and as long as it does, he stays in business. He ought to be intent on putting himself out of work, along with all the other gurus. The state of fuckedness of the world is proportional to the number of gurus.

We need to stop talking about education and learning and to fight for a better society which doesn't need to contain these things. That, I think, is a society which is more aware of 'status' and 'scarcity'. Lets talk about status and scarcity instead (not that I want to be guru about that). Let's talk about the haves and have-nots, why the haves have what they have and why the have-nots don't. Let's listen to the voices of the dispossessed and the Trump voters, and have a dialogue about the uncertainties, worries and doubts of everyone.

Let's get angry and give up on education - it's an addiction which is killing our society. And when we do all of that, we will find that we've turned towards a new age of science. 

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Laws of Form of Music

*Update 26/11/16 - Sadly, Pauline Oliveros died yesterday. She will continue to be a source of inspiration - http://www.factmag.com/2016/11/25/pauline-oliveros-dies-deep-listening-composer/?utm_source=social&utm_medium=twitter&utm_content=v1buttons *

George Spencer-Brown's death in September (see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2016/09/13/george-spencer-brown-polymath-who-wrote-the-landmark-maths-book/) prompted me to think that I really ought to work out what his Laws of Form is really about. Coupled with that, I've been doing some thinking about music which invited some comparisons to the idea of distinction and constraint which is at the heart of Spencer-Brown's work (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/the-information-science-of-music-and.html).

So on a cramped, delayed train journey back from London to Manchester (via Leeds!) I puzzled over his little book. I still don't understand it but I'm gradually getting a feel for where my questions lie. But in the notes, he says quite a lot about music as he defends the style of his writing. He adopts what he calls a style of "injunction" which he explains:

It may be helpful at this stage to realize that the primary form of mathematical communication is not description, but injunction. In this respect, it is comparable with practical art forms like cookery, in which the taste of a cake, although literally indescribable, can be conveyed to a reader in the form of a set of injunctions called a recipe. Music is a similar art form, the composer does not even attempt to describe the set of sounds he has in mind, much less the set of  feelings occasioned through them, but writes down a set of commands that, if they are obeyed by the reader, can result in a reproduction, to the reader, of the composer's original experience.
When Wittgenstein says "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent", he seems to be considering descriptive speech only. He notes elsewhere that the mathematician, descriptively speaking, says nothing. The same may be said of the composer who, if he were to attempt a description (i.e. a limitation) of the set of ecstasies apparent through (i.e. unlimited by) his composition, would fail miserably and necessarily, But neither the composer nor the mathematician must, for this reason, be silent. 
Spencer-Brown then highlights Russell's scepticism about Wittgenstein's statement, pointing out that Wittgenstein in fact manages to say a good deal about what cannot be said. Spencer-Brown highlights the importance of injunction in natural science and music:
"the professional initiation of a man of science consists not so much in reading the proper textbooks, as in obeying injunctions such as 'look down the microscope'. But it is not out of order for men of science, having looked down the microscope, now to describe to each other, and to discuss amongst themselves, what they have seen, and to write papers and textbooks describing it.[...] When we attempt to realize a piece of music composed by another person, we do so by illustrating, to ourselves, with a musical instrument of some kind, the composer's commands"
I am convinced of the power and importance of music for our time and perhaps part of this power lies in the injunctive mode in which the composer operates. This is partly why things like Pauline Oliveros's "Sonic Meditations" are so powerful. The injunctions are crystal clear here... and what a wonderful effect!



Russell suggests that there may be "some loophole though a hierarchy of languages" and Spencer-Brown suggests that the loophole is the "injunctive faculty".

Is this why we're so torn by social media, fake news, and so on? The semantics (or the description) and the injunction become confused. "Vote Trump" or "Vote Clinton" were injunctions after all.

What if  our political language was injunctive and not descriptive? You could probably re-represent the script from "I, Daniel Blake" as a set of injunctions:


  1. Consider a man who has recently had a heart attack and cannot work
  2. Apply welfare qualification rules (see appendix 1) to enable him to survive
  3. Introduce x amount of complexity and noise
  4. Consider output from stage 2 and apply next layer of rules (appendix 2)
  5. Amplify complexity and noise
  6. Consider output from stage 4 and apply next layer of rules (appendix 3)
  7. Observe algedonic emergency
  8. Apply emergency procedures for dealing with 7
  9. Amplify complexity and noise ...
  10. ...
  11. eventually... hold inquiry



Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Where are we now in history?

I keep coming back to this question - as I've been sitting in a completely weird medical trade-show - which makes me think of the genius of Jacques Tati (there's a wonderful trade-show scene in "Playtime)...




Despite spending my day trapped in this parallel universe, I've had some pretty amazing discussions. Yesterday a discussion with a very bright young woman ranged from the big bang to cybernetics, music, Jung, tarot, sex and Trump (he's practically obligatory these days!). It was the kind of thing that gives you hope for the future - much needed at the moment. The world needs people like her.

Today, I found myself talking to an exasperated doctor who had borne the full monty of managerial pathology and had had enough. He had clearly thought about things a lot, and we talked about Trump, Brexit, psychotherapy and management (how we need psychotherapy in management!), and I asked him the question about where we are in history. He said the 1930s - which I think is the big fear of a lot of people. I expressed my view, which I've been writing about recently, that it may be more like the 1600s, the prelude to civil war, puritanism, and eventual enlightenment. I think it cheered him up - he seemed to enjoy the discussion!

The conversation yesterday evening turned around the mystic symbolism of Trump. I really think this is very helpful. Jung lived through a time when the archetypes were so obvious strutting around the world stage that it helped to make distinctions about the shadow and so on. Overt revealing of an archetype is a powerful moment - and that is what we have now. We can point to Brexit, Trump, the horrible evangelical fanatics, and not only give it a name, but ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about how it has come to be, how the veneer of middle class self-satisfaction could be shattering in front of out eyes, what our role in it has been, and so on. This is all good.

I'm tempted to think that what happened in the 1600s was a kind of Jungian individuation process within society. Again, music helps me. In Tippett's opera 'The midsummer marriage', the main characters, Mark and Jennifer, undergo a ritual preparation before marriage: one ascends to the heavens (light), the other descends into a cave (shadow); and then exchange reverse roles. The villain is (effectively) the Fisher King (called Kingfisher) - a empty-hearted businessman. Trump is very much like him (I encountered him before in my previous workplace). The doctor I spoke to had also been a victim of this kind of character. The point is that this is a necessary process, and despite the confusion and disorientation (particularly in the dark times when everything is shadow), one gradually comes to know what is happening. Mark and Jennifer are ready to get married when they have become whole.

Creativity is a powerful defence mechanism - it may be the only way in which we do not go insane. Yesterday I also learnt about this - http://www.filthyfilthylucre.co.uk/. This is great... there are amazing things we can do to express ourselves. For all the horribleness around us right now, at some point we will look at ourselves and our technology and see its beauty and extraordinary potential in a way which is quite different from the technocratic nightmare which we are caught in at the moment.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Corbyn's Rite of Spring and 400 years of music

Jeremy Corbyn made an interesting speech last week attacking what he called the "fake anti-elitism" of Farage and Trump. He made a clear distinction between their cynicism and his own anti-establishment position:
"Politicians and political parties have a choice in this age of understandable cynicism. Do we play on people's fears and anxieties? Or do we take what might be the more difficult approach - to restore hope?"
Among the weird connections and coincidences I have experienced in the last week, powerful musical resonances to our current situation have been prominent. I went to a performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring at the weekend. I haven't heard it live for a long time. When I was growing up, this was "modern" music (although it wasn't really). Now it is over 100 years old - and still 'modern'! Our violent and tormented 20th century has produced some of the greatest music ever. I was also thinking that the class-ridden classical music scene is pretty horrible too - I really wish they'd fuck off with their tailcoats and black dresses.

I realise that little of the music I love dates before 1600 (apart from Machaut and Perotin). For most people, we have 400 years of music. That's basically from the early seeds of the enlightenment, or from Bacon's On the Advancement of Learning and Guy Fawkes.

In this time the fundamental paradigm of our thought and our science hasn't changed; technology has changed the context within which we live, and our society has been transformed as a result. But we have a 400 year story of science and scientific education which our universities are tied-up with.

Change to a 400 year habit of thought is like an "Ice Break" at the end of winter, or the thawing of the Russian permafrost. The former made me think of Tippett's opera of the same name of which I attended a fantastic performance in Birmingham a year or so ago (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/living-lines-tippetts-music-and.html) I went to see it shortly before losing my job, and in the midst of the nastiest behaviour by the 'leadership' at the University of Bolton (thank God I'm not there any more!). Tippett's political conscience spoke of the race riots in the 1970s and social fragmentation. His 1941 oratorio, A Child of Our Time, begins with the words:
"The world turns on its dark side: it is winter"
 The message of hope here is a Jungian one:
"I would know my shadow and my light, so shall I at last be whole"
Is this Corbyn's hope? Personally, I'm not sure he himself knows his shadow and his light, but here he has said the right thing - the thing to focus on is the light. Trump is the bringer of shadows. His supporters are consumed by the darkness that has been brought about through the irresponsible power of governments and corporations.

The enlightenment was a new spring. It was the beginning of a cycle - our musical history has documented its seasons, and winter has been brought about by the confusion resulting from enlightenment's scientific model falling apart. Is winter always confused?

It perhaps seems odd to think that a new hope rests with a science of uncertainty. But it is the admission of uncertainty in science which can create the solidarity and social cohesion which Corbyn hopes for. In the coming "new enlightenment", we will not make the distinction between science and politics: we will see that they are fundamentally inter-connected. 

Monday, 14 November 2016

The coming US Civil War?

There was an interesting article in the Telegraph (but unfortunately behind a paywall - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/11/12/data-is-out-emotion-is-in-we-should-have-seen-it-coming/) about the failure of pollsters to read the emotions of the voters. That this is a mess is obvious - after the UK election, Brexit, and now Trump. That it is a problem which threatens the social fabric and may lead us to civil war is less obvious, but I fear no less real. The problem is not about voting intentions in the run-up to elections. It is about the 'audit' of the effects of policy on the emotions of the population during government. For all the data that fed back showing economic indicators saying that policies were working, individual families were suffering (largely in silence) the consequences of austerity - reduced income, unemployment, family breakup, homelessness through to suicide. Some of this shows up in the "stats" - but most of it doesn't. We are now beginning to see the political consequences of real feelings - and the effects are potentially very dangerous.

The question is whether the latent misery which politicians found it convenient to ignore was more obvious to them in their performance indicators, and the risks more obvious, they would not have pursued the policies which led to misery in the first place, Trump would not be president, and Obama, (even Cameron and Osborne), and co. would have been radically socially progressive, rather than being essentially conservative corporatists.

The point is that there is a scientific question about information that sits behind this. Today's science now turns on information - yet we don't understand it. This is partly because it is new:  today's science is radically different from the Newtonian science which we teach our kids about, and about which education ministers have become religious zealots in promoting STEM and suppressing the arts and humanities. We've taken a reductionist model of education which was formulated in the 17th century and forced it to address the holistic challenges of the science of the 21st century. Finland's experiments with education are an indication of we need to be doing here: https://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2015/03/23/finland-does-it-again-abolishing-content-time-futuresed.. but even those radical experiments are only the beginning of journey in understanding the relationship between information, learning and the needs of society.

Today's scientific revolution is comparable to our last one in the 17th century - in the switch from Aristotelian metaphysics to Baconian/Newtonian empiricism. That change was accompanied by immense political upheaval, as religious certainties of the past were overturned. The result was puritanism, civil war, and institutional upheaval in England, the country at the vanguard of the scientific developments. The parallels to our present situation and Trump's election are striking.

The US and the UK are at the vanguard of our new science of information. The old order is represented by a Newtonian view on the nature of economics and information (contained in prices and stock market indexes). The new order is represented by the ecologists who apprehend not individual values of stocks and shares but set of relations that recursively connect from the smallest dimensions of human relations in society to the health of the planet. The new order threatens those who have done very well in the old order, just as the new science of the 17th century threatened the religious dominion of Kings and the church.

Trump represents the old order, who insist on the rightness of their view by imposing upon the world their own constraints to make it fit with their model. That they are deeply mistaken and naive will spell misery for those who are subject to their interventions.

This misery will turn violent.

The US has the most heavily armed civilian population in the world. These statistics showing the number of guns per 100 residents from wikipedia (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Estimated_number_of_guns_per_capita_by_country) are really scary:
1 United States112.6[6]According to the Congressional Research Service, there are roughly twice as many guns per capita in the United States as there were in 1968: more than 300 million guns in all.[7]
2 Serbia75.6
3 Yemen54.8
4  Switzerland45.7Estimates range widely, between roughly 25% and 55% for legally held firearms.[8] See Gun politics in Switzerland.
5 Cyprus36.4[9]
6 Saudi Arabia35
7 Iraq34.2
8 Uruguay31.8
9 Sweden31.6According to the Swedish National Police Agency in 2006, there were a total of 656,000 individuals who had a license for one or more guns;[10] 6.5% of the population. There were 2,032,000 guns or 21 guns per 100 residents. Of the 2,032,000 guns, 959,000 were rifles, 726,000 shotguns, 122,000 combination rifles, 88,000 pistols, 55,000 revolvers, 3,000 automatic guns and 78,000 weapons parts.
10 Norway31.3

Whilst Trump's victory is seen by those overseas as a threat to world peace, the level of emotion and anger among its own population is a far more serious threat to the world. 

People are worried that Trump is a kind of Hitler. He's certainly not a good man, but this doesn't look like nationalism. There is new Puritanism which has overtaken the White House which is disturbing because of deeper historical parallels. America is such a young country - and in the years leading to England's civil war, a bunch of English/Dutch puritans were first setting foot in Massachusetts. It's their traditions and conservatism which is most closely reflected by today's Republicans.

Friday, 11 November 2016

President Trump and the Little Trumpets: Why the former may help us to deal with the latter

Donald Trump is a nasty piece of work. Clinton, by contrast, appears to uphold decent values - although no doubt, she has been close to power for too long, and will have been corrupted by it. But really there is no comparison between the two. Like most people, I have been dealing with feelings of confusion every time I look at the TV: this can't have happened, can it?

Looking deeper at the differences between them, Trump is the overt criminal in charge of the world's most powerful nation, whereas Clinton is the technocrat who made life easy for so many smaller criminals - smaller Trumps - in charge of businesses large and small everywhere, whilst using her well-honed political skills to make sure that any disturbance caused by the 'Trumpets' didn't stick to her.

Big Trump - Donald - is now in a place where every move he makes will be scrutinised. He will not be used to this - because he has always been protected by the likes of Clinton, Obama, Bush, etc.

The pain that people experienced and have vented their anger about was not directly inflicted by politicians. It was inflicted by the Little Trumps who made them redundant, who ran their banks, who ran their educational institutions, their hospitals and welfare agencies. The liberal politicians created a world where nasty people could get to the top everywhere, whilst being protected by the establishment. That we now have a nasty individual at the very top with nobody to protect him might not be a bad thing (this is the best I can make of this). Imagine how other criminals like Philip Green would cringe at this level of scrutiny.

There's a story in the paper today reporting on the inquest into the death of a young woman who threw herself from a bridge over the M62 (http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/teacher-inquest-school-work-stress-12159573). I remember it because I was caught in the traffic. She was a teacher. And she was under enormous pressure in her job, inflicted by the nasty managerialism of education today. Her nasty little Trump, the headteacher, found himself having to deny that he had told this woman of her "dysfunction" within the science department. It reminds me of another story from a school where I used to work: http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/bullying-claims-of-suicide-teacher-1148866. These are the Trumpets: Sir Trumpet.

Our social problem is simple, and our political system has so far avoided addressing it: we must deal with the Trumpets - the nasty little bullies who terrorise their employees every day - and the system that protects them. There are just so many of them: look at this one - http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/bolton-university-lecturers-sacked-loan-8925591. He's still there. Why? Who's protecting him?

When I started work in the 1990s, I found myself working for a small software development firm. A family business, it was run like the mafia. Being young, I remember thinking about the point of voting, and the supposed 'freedoms' of democracy. This isn't a free society because no political choice exercised at the ballot box will stop people being abused by employers. Of course, this is what we created unions to deal with. But the unions have been smashed. Now employers have free reign to grab everyone by the pussy (which in many cases they do - and its hushed up).

We have a criminal in the White House. Maybe he will help us to look at powerful criminals everywhere.


Thursday, 10 November 2016

Learning to Listen

Usually, when you don't know what to say, it's best to say nothing.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

The intellectual project of E-learning: avoiding Trumpton and Post-Truth Education

It feels like E-learning is in a different phase. Many who entered the field around 2000 (as I did) felt that it was a transitional thing - that ultimately, the topics of e-learning would be subsumed into 'education' more generally. Some professors whose position reflected their interest in e-learning avoided the title "professor of e-learning" precisely because they thought it would disappear. So where are we now? On the day America goes to the polls after a rather alarming campaign, we're in the land of Trump/Clinton: Trumpton (my favourite childrens' TV from the 1970s)

Unlike the world of Mrs Cobbett, this Trumpton is a make-believe world where we have allowed our politicians and our technologies to create problems which they can solve (or claim to be able to solve). This is what I think is meant by the phrase 'post-truth' which is bandied about at the moment (mostly in connection with Trump and Brexit). We avoid asking difficult questions which need to be addressed about our society, our lives and our education system. In Trumpton, we do not seek solutions to real existent problems in society. E-learning today epitomises the symptoms.


The research topics of e-learning are manifestations of asking technology to solve problems it creates: e-assessment, mobile learning, learning analytics, learning design, Personal learning environments, video lectures, classroom response, plagiarism detection (a classic example!)

But it's all a bit of a mess. It turns out that technology was something of a hand-grenade chucked into education, and the resulting education has become the market-driven pale imitation of what it once was because of it. The challenge for any working in education today - whether academic or educational technologist - is what principles do we stick to? What matters?

Trumpton has created artificial answers to these questions. It has made educational technology into a 'thing'. The mainstream educational literature has embraced technology to some extent, but what appears to have happened is that the technology has exposed deep confusion within the education literature itself. It seems that the classical 'education' literature (think Paul Hirst or R.S. Peters) was able to maintain its style and substance by glossing over the practical difficulties of real-world education. Now we have technology, those practical difficulties are all the more apparent, and much less easy to gloss over. So, in response, people have tried to deal with the glaring issues, but in process introduced more jargon, obfuscation, mechanistic application of ungrounded methods, and published more and more and more.. (nobody reads it - but all the time it increases their publication statistics!).

As I've argued elsewhere, I think the fundamental problem is that we are in a scientific paradigm shift, very similar to the one in the 17th century. Just like then, the transition throws up all sorts of unpleasant side-effects - civil war and bloody revolution being the worst of them. What emerges the other side are reformed institutions: the Royal Society, a transformed curriculum, reconfigured universities, artistic and cultural transformation, and technological evolution.

But what this really means is that the "thing that matters" is science. E-learning has been focused not on scientific communication, but teaching and learning as a kind of institutionally-defined activity which is increasingly framed by an "education market" (just think how the institution fetishises the "learner" as its customer - aren't we all learners?). But, whatever the market might think, Universities have always been about science, and the thing that drives science is communication. Our fundamental social problem is that despite amazing developments in communications technology, we have become very bad at listening to each other and communicating properly.

Just as the Royal Society embraced the leading communication technology of the day to meet the needs of its science, so today we must understand our new science properly to understand effective use of our leading technologies for its communication. This won't happen until we have loosened our obsession with the communication practices of the Royal Society (journals and their metricisation) - but to do that is to bring down some architecture of the modern marketised university. So I think that will take time.

But a society where scientists really do listen to each other is a radically different place. It may be Camberwick Green!

Saturday, 5 November 2016

1605 and all that: Gunpowder and the Advancement of Learning Technology

In 1605 some political radicals tried to blow up the houses of parliament and kill the king. It was also the year that Francis Bacon published his "On the Advancement of Learning" in which he attacked the old order of academia. In attacking the scholastic obsession with Aristotelian doctrine, Bacon argued:
"men began to hunt more after words than matter; and more after the choiceness of the phrase, and the round and clean composition of the sentence, and the sweet falling of the clauses, and the varying and illustration of their works with tropes and figures, than after the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment"
Look at us now! Look at the scholasticism in management schools (but not just there) as people talk about sociomateriality, entanglement, critical realism, postmodernism, embodiment and all the other tropes of "blah blah sociology". Just as in 1605, the scholastic game upholds the old order - the esteemed "history men" whose "round and clean composition of sentence" fills our journals, revealing nothing of fundamental uncertainties, feeding bibliometric creditworthiness, assuring the position and status of the few, whilst - on the back of it all - education is financialised. Some of our Universities have been taken over by criminals whilst the majority of academics and thoughtful people are devalued and replaced by adjuncts on pauper wages.

We may criticise Bacon's empiricism today as naive, but he fired the starting gun on a the scientific revolution which also ushered in a political revolution. With a few decades, the English did kill their king - although not by gunpowder. After over 20 years of chaos (from the civil war), the restoration of 1660 was soon followed by a completely reformed academic world: the establishment of the Royal Society, and the transformation of the academic curriculum along Baconian lines. 

Today's science is not Baconian or Newtonian science. The enlightenment brought certainty and reproducible experiment - and academic journals in which to communicate it. Our new science is data-driven, probabilistic (although that in itself is a problem) and uncertain. The US military's acronym VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguous) is not far off the mark in expressing where we are at. Today's 'old order' presents contingent and uncertain findings as certain and definite: big data, learning analytics, econometrics, most of education research, a lot of psychology - all do this. Every journal paper makes unreasonable claims for certainty on the back of dubious empiricism and unreasonable assumptions. Yet it gets published, and the fact that it gets published counts for more in today's academic world than what it actually says. But it doesn't matter, because few will read it!

More importantly, every journal paper utilises the communication medium of the old order to communicate something belonging to the new. This is inherently unstable. A science of uncertainty requires the embrace of rich means of communicating uncertainty, not the pretence of certainty in a restricted format. And all attempts to change the power dynamics of publishers merely represent more of the same: Open Access is simply "consumerism academic style" (as Steve Fuller says - http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/9953/comment-page-1); People publish in open access journals to buy citations, which feed the bibliometric machine. They do not communicate more effectively or honestly. 

Political revolution and scientific revolution are tied up together. It brings social chaos - and we must expect this. The Universities look unassailable right now - perhaps in the same way that the monarchy looked unassailable in the wake of 1605. Brexit and presidents Trump or Clinton (which is worse?!) will chip away at this. Our technologies of communication represent part of the new order - but we will look at them very differently in the wake of the unfolding chaos. Learning technologists should be looking ahead.

"New eras" always sound exciting: but history shows that the transition from one era to another is almost always horrible. 

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Auden vs McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller on Technology and the Theatre

This is an extraordinary discussion which is ostensibly about the theatre, but which quickly turns to technology - first of all the technology of the set designer, and then to the distinction between actors and audience, consciousness and the subconscious. At a more superficial level, it's an argument between old men about whether to turn the TV off!



Auden appears rather reactionary and childish compared to McLuhan's cool and detached analysis ("There is no audience any more... everyone's an actor"). McLuhan accuses Auden of 'acting' the part of the Oxbridge englishman.

Of course, now we can look back at the legacy of these people. Much of Auden's work remains powerful and will no doubt be read for centuries to come. McLuhan has largely been sidelined to the history of thought about technology (much to our loss), and Buckminster Fuller remains a hero for a small group of scientists.

Are they listening to each other? Something is happening here as they probe each others constraints. At the root of it, I think, is that McLuhan is a political radical dressed up as a conservative analyst of technology and society, and Auden is a political conservative dressed up as a radical. McLuhan has a lovely put-down to Auden, who says he does not own a TV: "You merely suffer the consequences of TV without enjoying it!"

McLuhan points out that a thread in Auden's work is the elision of the public and private realm: McLuhan postulates that what has occurred is a kind of Freudian pushing of the subconscious mind into consciousness (Auden seems suspicious of this representation - but he senses where the argument will lead). Hannah Arendt made a similar point in the Human Condition. Today, when we consider Big Brother (the show), big data, internet porn and social media this does seem an acute observation - although of course now we know that the market is a big player in the process. The Freudian distinctions aren't good enough any more.

Auden's foppish objections to McLuhan are really a reaction what he may feel (but does not describe) as an ontological flattening which lies behind McLuhan's arguments. At the heart of it is the assumption of 'functional equivalence' between different media and a failure to make deep distinctions between reading, thinking, watching and acting.

SO what would they say about Facebook and Google?

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Conversation and Contingency: Some important questions for E-learning theory

The Pask/Laurillard conversation model, like the closely-related social systems theory of Niklas Luhmann, are both models of communication which have 'contingency reduction' as their principal operating feature. They present a sophisticated version of a type of educational theory whose less well-elaborated incarnations can be found in the 'connectivism' of Siemens and Downes.

For Pask and for Luhmann, conversation is the emerging reduction of possible misinterpretations of utterances, towards an agreement of particular meanings. In Pask (and Laurillard), this is achieved by processes of "Teach-back": basically the learner teaches back the concepts taught to them by the teacher: using a comparator, the teacher is then able to determine if they mean the same thing or not, and if not, the teacher can proceed with new speech acts, activities, etc, to gradually reduce the contingency of meaning between them. [In this diagram of Pask's Eucrates teaching machine, note the big comparator - a big X in the bottom right hand side]

If there is a difference between Pask and Luhmann, it is that Luhmann does not see 'agency' - the agency of the teacher or the learner - as the critical part of the mechanism. In Luhmann, psychological matters become sociological in a mechanism of communicative 'autopoiesis': basically, the continual reproduction and transformation of a discourse. The discourse is represented by the teacher, whose own communicative acts reflect the professional domains within which they are connected - both the subject domains (maths, physics, etc) and the domain of education. The teachers utterances are reproductions and transformations of their discourse. The learners' utterances are at the boundary of the discourse, although reflect their own concerns and discursive context. The teacher's judgements will not be necessarily a pure "comparator" as in Pask. They will reflect the continuance of the discourse. Mechanisms of pathological social reproduction, class barriers and so forth (so Bourdieu) can be accounted for in this process. Critically, Pask discounted the role of emotion. In Luhmann, it is an essential part of the autopoietic reproduction of the discourse.

However, both these models consider the interpretation of conversational utterances as essentially a binary choice: both ask "does this mean x or not?" - yes or no; both ask "do these utterances fit with my understanding?"

As such, the approaches of both theories suffer the same problem of turning conversation into a kind of 'accounting problem'. However, this is not the only perspective available: an alternative is an 'ecological' approach to conversation, which orients itself towards the utterance in a fundamentally different way.

The difference rests on what an utterance is as an object. Are my utterances here on this blog the result of some computer program, whose operation in producing such utterances is the essential arbiter of my meaning? (Pask thought this). The problem with all this is that it is difficult to define what we mean by meaning.

I think teacher-learner interactions are rather like the situation described by Ross Ashby:

Suppose a fleet, equipped with all modern signalling devices, finds just before it sails for war that a component used throughout the apparatus has proved defective, so that the fleet has to put to sea with only fifty old-fashioned hand-lamps for signalling from ship to ship. Clearly, the admiral may dispose of his fifty signallers  in various ways over the ships, and there may be no manoevre of the whole fleet that is completely impossible; yet this lack must impose some characteristic on the fleet’s manoevrings. After studying its manoevres for some time the enemy admiral might well say: This fleet’s ways of manoevring strongly suggest to me that it is seriously short of internal communications.
This is what a teacher might observe in a student. More typically, they would ask themselves "where's the blockage?" The blockage is unlikely to be simply a key concept, the grasp of which the student may or may not be able to "teach back". The statement "it is seriously short of internal communications" is a statement of recognition and comparison of constraint.

Teachers produce the utterances they do because they are constrained by a set of factors including the discourse within which they operate, their professional standards, institutional procedures, etc. The learner's constraints are relatively unknown at the beginning. In conversation, the student's utterance give clues as to what their constraints might be. Some teachers will overlook the fact that one of the constraints on the learner is the teacher and the institution. In adjusting their utterances with the learner, the teacher effectively adjusts the kind of constraint which bears upon themselves. In knowing how their  own constraints have changed, any changes to the learners utterances will reveal aspects of the dynamics of constraint in the learner. The teacher's job is to conduct this 'constraint dance' and gradually work out what the learner's constraints are.

Utterances in this model are not objects or tokens to be compared and agreed. They serve to reveal different aspects of constraint in both teacher and learner. In this way, there is far less distinction to be drawn between environment and activity and utterance. A new kind of learning activity can produce new utterances, and new revealings of constraint. A teacher might say "forget about maths, let's play table tennis" (if only!). What follows is a different set of activities which reveal more about the constraints of the learner. Alternatively, the teacher might say "do you think numbers are real?" to reveal a different aspect of constraint.

Pask and Luhmann were both aware of the constraint orientation of cybernetic, and Ashby was a huge influence on both of them. Yet something seems to have escaped them. It seems that a computational logic of communication caused them to miss what was missing. This is a shame, because there are well established techniques for studying what is missing, not least the measurement of Shannon redundancy. More deeply, the field of "study of the "not there"" has acquired increasing importance in the statistical study of ecology. It has attracted a name derived from theology: the Apophatic.

My reckoning is that the "apophatic" holds more promise not only for the future of education than any fashionable educational theory today, but for the future of science.