Thursday, 27 December 2012

Universities Compromised? The separation between form and function in Higher Education

Andrew McGettigan has been drawing attention to a worrying trend of disestablishing Higher Education Institutions recently. The first example of its kind was the effective dissolution of the City of Leeds College of Music (see, which was transformed into a private company called Leeds College of Music Ltd, a subsidiary of Leeds City College. [I have a personal interest in this because I used to work there]

Next up, it looks like UCLAN is pursuing a similar strategy. The request for a change in corporate form has been made to the Secretary of State, Vince Cable, to dissolve its current corporate form (a Higher Education Corporation) and transfer all assets and staff to a new company.

The speed and ease with which this is happening is frightening. Universities may have considered their corporate status protected - after all, whilst approval is required from the Privy Council to create a University, once the status has been granted, there is currently no mechanism for removing it. However, the current moves illustrate that other mechanisms seem to be effective in fundamentally redefining the nature of a University as an institution. McGettigan points out that 20 other institutions in UK are similarly 'primed' with their own private companies to make a similar move. Given that the move can be made so easily and quickly, we can expect a great deal of turbulence in the coming year.

In whose interests is this? One would worry that the principal beneficiaries will not be students or staff, but senior managers and the partners with whom they can cut investment deals. Does the replacement of a quasi-public organisation with a private one means a shift in emphasis in from public service to profitability? McGettigan clearly worries that it does:
Increasingly commercial orientation will push up against the question of equity investment (investors cannot buy shares in charities), by which point the difference between a company limited by guarantee and one limited by share may appear as academic as the difference between the former and a higher education corporation does now.
The problem with this is that Universities are about truth: "Universal knowledge", as Newman calls it. The corporate form, structures of governance, curriculum and working practices are all entwined in the pursuit of truth. One of the things that these structures and procedures guarantee is open critique and disputation. Such openness, and the way that openness feeds into governance structures and mechanisms, protects freedom of expression as a means of keeping open the path to truth. The wish within a University is that the institutional conditions that led to Galileo's persecution could not occur.

This doesn't always work. But in established universities, institutional committees like the Academic Senate, which represents the intellectual heart of the institution with the Vice-Chancellor as its head serve as a balance between the operational needs of the institution and its deeper mission and commitment to truth and knowledge. Senate is not like a corporate board. The senators represent the identity, purpose and focus of the institution. In being the representatives of the state of knowledge within their respective disciplines, their concern for upholding truth and making their voice heard in matters ranging from the curriculum to the adminstrative procedures is fundamental to the University working as a coherent, purposeful whole.

The deep worry then is that the transformation in corporate form invites a kind of gerrymandering of academic governance: consultants and cronies fill the chairs once occupied by the critics. The transformation of corporate form is not being done in the interests of scholarship. It is being done for political reasons (the personal ambitions of politicians), and no doubt in some cases, for reasons of personal ambition by institutional leaders. As McGettigan points out, academics have been squeazed out of the debate about these changes. In fact, there has been no debate.

What lies implicit in this process is a split between form and  function within the University. Where the traditional governance arrangements saw administration and the pursuit of truth as part of a whole, the transformation of corporate form suggests that governance arrangements are separable from academic activity. For institutions like UCLAN, such a separation seems less controversial than a similar attempt within more ancient institutions. With UCLAN being a 'new' university, the insinuation is that the academic voice does not merit an equal voice in the governance arrangements of the institution; it is therefore ok to let the 'professionals' take over the governance and the 'form' of the university, and ensure that they 'direct' the activities of the academics in performing the 'function' of the university.

The separation between form and function becomes more serious however when attempts are made to silence criticism of university governance - both within the institution (in the form of threats and sometimes bullying) and from ex-employees - in the form of compromise agreements forced on those who leave the institution under the terms of a "Voluntary Severance" agreement. Many of these people have been witness to the back-room scenes of the sometimes brutal transformation of their institutions. Staff are forbidden from speaking out about what they've witnessed. The website academicFOI has done a survey (see on the numbers of Compromise Agreements arranged by UK universities. The figures are alarming as they are - but it should be stressed that the survey was done a while ago, and in the intervening period, Universities have been shedding far more staff under similar terms.

The survey figures largely represent witnesses to the transformation of their institutions (apart possibly from those having signed Non-Disclosure Agreements for research purposes) who have a story to tell, but who cannot tell their story for fear of legal action.

The risks are clear:
  1. The risk of damage to the intellectual life of the institution through the separation of form and function;
  2. The moral hazards brought about through insufficient accountability by institutions;
  3. The risk to students through increasingly aggressive marketing practices by new private institutions;
  4. The risk to the pursuit of truth through an increasingly "corporatised" climate of fear where academics become second-class members of their institutions.
It is a toxic cocktail: radical institutional changes coupled with what amounts to suppression of dissent and potentially the compromise of governance and accountability.

If openness and debate is not to be built into the structure of institutions through academic committtees like Senate, it will become a requirement for government to regulate Universities in such a way as to avoid moral hazards and damage to intellectual life. The former will present a political risk at some point (it will only take one "Bernie Madoff" in charge of a University somewhere...); the latter will present a risk to the reputation to UK Education and national competitiveness.

As I have argued previously, there is a pressing question concerning the governance of Universities in this new climate: (see I suggest a crucial first step to towards this new regulatory framework is to ban the use of compromise agreements simply to gag staff taking voluntary severance or leaving institutions for other reasons (I have heard of the use of Compromise Agreements for staff who simply move to jobs elsewhere!). The argument for these pernicious instruments is usually that they are to "protect the institution's reputation", but in reality is appears that they serve to protect the reputations of senior managers rather than the institution, for which public money is being used (or rather money students haven't earned yet). Why is existing libel legislation not enough?

Senior managers of institutions will need to be held to account. If existing governance arrangements become compromised in the confusion to transform HE, then government will need to step-in. Compromised academics are bad enough; compromised University accountants, registrars, personnel officers, etc are big red flashing warning lights that something could well be amiss. Similar warnings were ignored when government failed to regulate the banks: a similar tale of lack of accountability whose consequences lie at the root of our present difficulties.

It may be inevitable that the University sector contracts significantly as an employer in the coming years; that the number of institutions falls; that technology drives efficiencies whereby the best professors can be more effectively amplified (but in more imaginative ways than simply 'online'). These changes could be in the interests of students who have been positioned with little option but to get degrees: we ought to expect the cost of education to fall. But it might not. Fewer institutions means more powerful institutions and certainly more influential managers of institutions. It means a few individuals will become very wealthy on the back of education. Accountability in education will be as paramount as accountability of banking. Damage to the essential function of the University in the pursuit of truth is in nobody's interests. At worst it opens the door to corruption. At best, a radical rethinking about the form of institutions is required, where the relation between form and function can be properly inspected.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Allegories, Histories, Systems and Tippett's "Midsummer Marriage"

I'm been thinking about Michael Tippett's opera "The Midsummer Marriage". Apart from the music being fantastic, it is a story heavily influenced by Jungian psychology - an allegorical rite of passage from darkness to light. Nearly 60 years after its first performance, it still resonates. It has the power to transform its audience. It is music of rebirth. Sorely needed right now.

This continuing power is, I think, linked to the fact that history repeats itself. It's not just because the same people tend to make the same kinds of mistakes at different moments, but it appears that the same types of people make the same types of mistakes across different centuries.

I've always been a bit uncomfortable thinking about 'types' of people. It's all a bit rigid. "I'm not a type; I'm me!" we protest. But I've met a few other people like me - and it surprised me (my daughter is like me too - although that surprises me less!). But the idea of a 'type' is rather constraining. I might be a particular type now, but next week I could be something completely different. One minute I'm swearing at some code that won't work on the computer (one of the less appealing aspects of my personality!), the next minute I'm offer sage-like advice on a friend's career choice (actually, that's equally unappealing!).

But the point is, I change. So the issue of type can only be an issue of identifying a patterning to change processes. And then, if there are 'types', there could be determined a finite set of distinct patternings across a random population. This is rather reductionist. But there might be some utility in it.

Knowing a pattern is to have some anticipatory capacity with regard to behaviour. "If you do that to so-and-so, they will respond in this-or-that way". There's a chance that the patterns aren't far off the mark. And if the patterns aren't that far off the mark, then it is also interesting to thinking about the predictions of one person in interaction with the predictions of another person.

In a sense, this is what social simulation attempts to do.

A cybernetic mechanism is a kind of patterning. In Beer's Viable System Model, System 3 does the operational management. We all know what happens if our operational management isn't working properly... we go bust!! But we also know how operational managers react to Research and Development people who (instead of worrying about operations) dream up new ideas and products (this is System 4 in Beer's model): "You R&D folks don't do anything. Come out of your ivory tower and do some work!", and conversely the R&D people will say "You operations people are blindly carrying on as if the world isn't changing. But it is - we will need to change!"

Some people seem more drawn to System 3, others to System 4. Is this their pattern?

But to come back to the point about continual change, nobody is an island. Indeed, to say "x is more System 3" is misleading, because x's System 3-ness is a manifestation of x's social circumstance, and (indeed) the mindset of the person making the judgement about x. Maybe it's more accurate to say "x is on a journey where being System 3 a lot right now is meaningful". But that doesn't ring true. If x is organised and an organiser, if x is a bully, if x is a dreamer.. we wouldn't really expect x to change over the course of their life, would we? But miraculous transformations can occur.

Maybe people don't change because they don't change their environment. "x is depressed" is a good example of a state which can be remedied through action - often the action of other people. Can "x is a bully" be remedied? I believe so, and the process is called "therapy". What's involved there?

Therapy is a process of changing the social situation. In particular, it changes the "positioning" of x (at least this is how Rom HarrĂ© would describe it). The therapist listens to the patient, unraveling the layers which mask the authentic self. The therapist may offer some sort of interpretation: something about the mother, something about sex, something about archetypes, etc. What's going on here?

Psychotherapy concerns itself with deep mysteries. The therapist's language names things that most of us rarely articulate. This process may have some effect because the subject that is addressed is so deep and dark that giving it a name assists in the process of reconfiguring one's perception of the world. This is the business of determining absences. [I'm beginning to think about a mechanism whereby this can be explained: see]

It may be that this moment of the identification of absence is always the same with everyone. It is a deep reckoning; a process of individuation.

But the path by which the therapist goes to get there is different for each person. Is it through the shadow? The great mother? The wise old man? Anima? Animus? In what order? That may be where there are distinct patterns. Something like the Enneagram may be a useful cypher for these patterns [Stafford Beer was particularly keen on the Enneagram - see]

But this is precisely the organisation of Tippett's opera. The main characters, Mark and Jennifer, go on different journeys, but end up in the same place as a result of their individuation processes. Just as we can look at any organisation and see the archetypes that work there, so too can we observe our own journeys. Indeed, it may be the only way to steer a safe course through turbulent times.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Cybernetics of History (and the History of Cybernetics)

History as an activity is a feedback system: the past feeds back into the present; the present becomes the past. But it does this through the reflexivity of people who think and write about history: that's another feedback system. The historian is in the present. But it is a present constituted partly by narratives of the past. The existence of the historian is situated in the 'history system' - the academy of historians, who (like all academics) compete for their narrative accounts to become the dominant story. History as a social system is very complex.

It's striking that Luhmann wrote voluminously from a historical perspective about various social systems, from law to economics, from art to love. But he never critiqued the basic paradigm within which he operated: that of writing historical narrative. He preferred to use his powerful system tools to redescribe historical narratives rather than look at the process and pathology of narrative writing itself.

What we end up with is a kind of neo-historicism. And it's not much better than the old-fashioned historicism  which was so vigorously critiqued by Popper, Berlin and Hayek. Historicism lies at the root of idealism. Idealism sits uneasily on the road to fascism.

Cybernetics itself has a history. It's become popular to tell the story of cybernetics within the frame of conventional historical narrative. First there were the Macy conferences, and so on. It's great the first time you hear it; but after that it all gets a bit dull and predictable. With stories that lead into the present in this way, there is always a hope that they end by saying "and then we finally managed to save the world!". Anything less is a let-down. And in the case with cybernetics (as many other intellectual movements), we would have to say "eventually it bifurcated, with factions splitting off in all sorts of directions, and everyone disagreeing about what it was all about." That's a fairly miserable ending. Which is a shame because the tools of cybernetics are very powerful indeed.

But let's turn the tools of cybernetics on this whole process of writing a history - even the history of cybernetics. What emerges?

The first thing that we notice is that this move transforms the focus away from diachronic sequential movements towards synchronic structural conditions: what are the regulating mechanisms of writing a history?  Here I am tempted to say that there's some mechanism of viability within a historian (a viability mechanism like any other human being), and there is a special 'game' that the historian has to play within their 'history' environment to maintain their viability. How might all this work? Well, we can start to put some flesh on this kind of mechanism... [but I won't go into detail about all that here]

A cybernetics of history is about suggesting synchronic conditions and comparing the dynamic of their emergence with what is known of diachronic movements. This is not a million miles away from agent-based modelling. But there is more to it than this.

Any history is, ultimately, about teaching a narrative. Historicist narratives can be dangerous precisely because of their teachability. It is the teaching of a history which changes the world, not the narrative per se.

If we are to escape diachronic historicism by moving to synchronic analysis, how is the teaching different?

To understand (to teach) the synchronic structural conditions of something is to teach the characteristics of a game - say a game of chess. Each player has their qualities, each their position, each their interactions. The moves of each can be understood, their options at any point assessed. But understanding in this way is also allegorical. Each player represents some dynamic aspect which has a relation to other dynamic aspects. The personification of virtues and sins shows their dynamic in much the same way as a cybernetic mechanism might characterise the different levels of regulation. I find it fascinating that allegories played such a major educational role in the medieval church.

But a synchronic understanding invites participation rather than spectatorship. Its goal is insight gained through activity. This is a move away from storytelling to community performance; from books to games.

There are some remarkable advances being made in technological areas which relate to this kind of synchronic exploration. Agent-based modelling on the one hand can allow people to explore hypothetical situations, and explore the qualities of agents. Data analytics and sophisticated regression techniques can reverse-engineer reality to help construct more sophisticated models, which can then be further explored. But technologies for shared experiences in engaging in these activities are even more interesting.

The problem with historicism is that the approach to teaching a historical narrative held the narrative as sacrosanct, to be absorbed (albeit discussed and critiqued) by its readership. What was never appreciated was that the learning of a historical narrative was never the 'absorption' of that narrative; it was the learning by a student of a historian-teacher's personality.

Our challenge is not now to come to know professional historians who tells convincing stories. It is to come to know each other. Of course, we all tell stories. But we need a means of inspecting each others stories and finding an accommodation between us for the sake of effective decision and control in our society. Cybernetics gives us the conceptual tools for producing synchronic characterisations; Technology gives us the means whereby those characterisations may be explored together. 

Monday, 17 December 2012

Sin and the Generals: Commemorating WW1

There's an excellent article in the New Statesman by T.G. Otte this week about the background behind World War 1. The coming centenary of the war in 2014 will be, no doubt, a very special occasion. We still feel the echoes of those terrible events now, and looking back and reflecting how it could happen is an opportunity to look at ourselves now.

We are in a dangerous situation, as Otte argues. The chaos we find ourselves in at present has some frightening parallels to the lead-up to the trenches. And then there's the fact that the previous 'general war' was in 1815, so we could be due another any time. I hope that if enough people find this terrifying, there may be a chance that it doesn't happen. But we will need imagination, creativity, intellect and love to avoid it.

One of the problems in thinking about war (and history in general) is the tension between the universalising force of narratives and 'historicism' and the particulars of individual lives. Individuals lead their troops to disaster; individuals fight; individuals fail to listen to subordinates who vainly try to speak truth to power. Each individual is worthy of voluminous study in their own right, whether they are the corporal's wife, or the general's illicit lover (male or female!). Each play their part - often without knowing it - in what gradually unfolds as a bloody narrative.

Each person loves and hates. Events cause them to fear - but not always big events.

The fear of discovery of an infidelity by a high-ranking official can lead to strange alliances and deals which then upset the political balance. Hypothetically (although I'm confident that such a story could be found amongst the incompetent generals in WW1), we could imagine disgruntled troops muttering:
"Why was Tommy-no-brains given such a powerful position by the General? What a mess he made of it! Nearly 200 men walked straight into enemy fire and were slaughtered. But Tommy was fine, protected by the General." 
But Tommy knew something about the General's proclivities.  
And it wasn't just Tommy. Others, equally talentless, found themselves groomed into the sordid personal life of the General, only to then find themselves handsomely rewarded for remaining quiet and pliant: chauffeurs, fixers of liaisons, managers of bedsits, etc... 
What happened to everyone else? 
There was disbelief as incompetence piled on incompetence; as failure was rewarded. There was total suppression of dissent: after all, nobody suppresses dissent better than someone fearful of being "found out", or in the case of Tommy, deprived of the source of their privilege. The fear instilled in the troops was seen by the "top brass" as a sign of their strength. And then the polarisation really set in: 
There was little averting the inevitable catastrophe. 
There is a different way to think about history. Not as narrative, but as systemic structure, where both diachronic and synchronic aspects are explored. This is revealing because it helps us to sniff out the essence of the structural conditions of our own time and see where the danger lies. When we look at the Jimmy Saviles, the Press Barons, the city traders and some of our politicians, we see it.

The danger lies in fear. If only the General has accepted his sexual proclivities, rather than being ashamed and wishing to hide them. But then, he wanted easy acceptance, to maintain an unblemished and unproblematic image. The General's fear was driven by a desire to maintain this and to protect it from his lustful alter-ego.

What we fear most is ourselves. That is the fear that leads to war.

If history is to be more than 'historicism', then it should be, I think, a path of self-discovery. Through history we see the dynamics of ourselves and others. We understand where the rot set in. If we can learn the lesson, then we might do the work on ourselves so that it doesn't set in again.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

#FutureLearn and Past Technology

Sticking #future in front of something makes it look great in shiny packaging and then kicks it into the long grass. In the real future (not the #future), when people come across the package, sodden and decayed, and wonder what it is, it is unlikely that any of the glitz of its original packaging will have any impact at all. The power of history lies in its reconstructing of narratives which account for present decay. Decay and death is ever-present, although some periods appear more in decline than others. We're in one of those now. One of the things that happens in such periods are efforts to escape. Presenting things as 'of the future' is a symptom of this.

When we do see things which really are new, we know it viscerally. I was fascinated to see a transcript of an online conversation between Ronald Reagan (who was then governor of California), Edward Said and Marcel Broodthaers (waiting for Jane Fonda to appear..) in 1975. Actually it turns out this was a hoax! However, in the made-up transcripts each had their own agenda politically - it could have happened. They all 'got it'. They knew it would be big. Said's first reaction was "this really works" (they couldn't do punctuation, although I guess he would have stuck an exclamation mark at the end of it.. or maybe a smiley!).

Hello this really works.
Hello this is Gov. Ronald Reagan of California.
Yes amazing.
Neat stuff.
I thought I would say hello whilst we are waiting.
This is mb.
Hello Marcel.
Who are we waiting for. Im Edward.
Hi Ed. Call me Ron.
Hi Ron you dont mind do you.
Hello Edward. Well Im told we are waiting for Jane Fonda.
No my wife calls me Ronnie.
Jane Fonda. Really. Well Ill be.
Interesting line up.

That's what it feels like when you see 'the future'. 
MOOCS, #FutureLearn, etc are not 'the future'. They are, in fact, pretty miserable - a symptom of decay. The visceral reaction really matters. The same might be said of e-learning in general. The uncomfortable fact is that the reaction of Reagan, Said, etc appeared to educationalists as 'potential' for education.. But somehow we've not realised the potential. Said spotted it...
Wouldnt you rather pick up the phone and call.
All this damned typing.
You get faster.
Yes I would but if it were to be cheap and inexpensive.
Free. Well who pays for it in the end though.
The people of course.
You mean taxes.
I assume you are in a military communication centre like me. Both of you.
But for a young man or woman in Sri Lanka this might help them voice their ideas to people like a university professor from Michigan or an architect from Bahia. 
The rich should pay.

It was obvious to an academic like Said that this was massive. Technology and communications have clearly done amazing things, and no doubt many lives in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, have been transformed. But they could not have foreseen how social structures, power relations, institutions and governments would have reacted to the potential. Reagan might also have been thinking "yes.. but if I was a terrorist or a communist..."  
The essence of something powerful like ARPANET, or any development that is really new and "will change the world" is a sensation of emancipation. That's what all of these people must have felt. Indeed, that's what I felt when I encountered micro-computers in the 1980s. It was thrilling - particularly for a teenager.
When we look at MOOCs, we do not see emancipation. We see a manifestation of repressive social structures that have become technologised. We see powerful institutions that are looking for new ways of hooking customers into their products and making money. They will tell us "it's the future". But the point about really exciting things is that nobody needs to be told "it's the future".. they already know. 
The real irony in this was that ARPANET was a research project (albeit in a military unit.. although I'm sure it felt pretty much like a university). That's what research should do - produce cool things that emancipate people. So what are universities doing to produce new things that emancipate, that have the same thrilling effect? Isn't that where our research effort should be concentrated? Why are Universities doing such dull stuff with education? 
The answer to this question is depressing and symptomatic of the deep trouble we are in. Research in Universities has become so closely tied to capitalism, to 'revenue generation' that the value of research is measured in terms of "business potential". When University academics are dependent on meeting these criteria to keep their jobs, then it is little surprise that the rot sets in. When those rules are applied to the business of the University itself, MOOCs are what we get. For some reason, Universities have been unable to match the excitement of the early internet with regard to teaching and learning. A depressing "if it brings the money in, if it creates a marketing buzz, it's good enough" mentality.
I think the reasons for this are complex. Partly, it is because our theories of learning (particularly the dominant constructivist theory) is deficient in explaining the gamut of the human experience of learning. The fact that these deficiencies have not been explored academically is connected with disciplinary pathology and the organisation of Universities themselves. The fact that new exciting educational technologies haven't emerged is to do with an absence of theoretical development. What has taken its place is corporatism, technological "fadism", and the unremitting forces of marketisation. The only way out is better critical thinking and better theory.
The discussion on ARPANET expanded on the impact on education:
Students I think could benefit from this greatly.
Yes I can imagine.
Vast networks of students.
Networks. What does that mean really.
Youth must be provided with the means to grasp this opportunity.
Sounds a bit out of control to me.
Sounds suspicious.
The young will grasp its potential in a way we couldnt imagine.
I dont doubt that.
You agree with me Ronald.
Well yes.
And what will it lead to Marcel. Other networks with more power will already have control.

I think that's where we are...

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

What now is the role of government in regulating Universities?

The relationship between government, universities and industry is of fundamental significance in a knowledge economy (see for an excellent analysis of this using cybernetic theories). The regulation of education by government inevitably has knock-on effects throughout the rest of the economy.

In industrial society, governmental regulation was partly a matter of deciding how many engineers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc were needed and what sort of research was required in the national interest. Resources could then be allocated centrally to institutions who were trusted to organise themselves in the delivery of suitably qualified individuals.

In a post-industrial society - particularly one with a massified higher education system - things are not quite so simple. There are of course still calculations done on the number of teachers, nurses (now this requires a degree), doctors, etc are needed. But education is largely treated as a commodity which is saleable in its own right, with its own market, providing its customers have the means to purchase. Government increasingly has taken the attitude that giving students the means to purchase education (through the provision of loans) is all that it requires to do to regulate the education system. The market for education will self-organise and deliver effective education (which may be exportable) given the provision of resource by government to students. To what extent are they right?

Education is a peculiar kind of industry. Institutions operate as autonomous entities but dependent on student numbers and (most importantly) political policy. Institutions, for all their claims of autonomy and independence, are beholden to the will of ministers. For ministers themselves, the fundamental question concerns the basis of their policy-making and the treatment of individual institutions. Whilst officially, government appears merely to be providing the resources to students so that they can purchase education, behind the scenes a completely different (and somewhat chaotic) picture emerges of lobbying by institutions trying to influence policy to favour their particular circumstances. Simple things make a big difference: for example, the allocation of 'student numbers' to institutions determines an institution's maximum potential income. 'Student numbers' are bid for by institutions and allocated by a rather opaque bureaucratic process where no institution can be entirely certain of the outcome. Added to this, with more providers entering the market, and with the highest-performing students excluded from the student-number control, the government appears set on producing increased competition in the sector, particularly at the lower-end, as Andrew McGettigan explains (see

"With the government maintaining control of overall student numbers through controls on recruitment, we would see more outfits competing for a limited number of students: intensifying competition. It is one thing to use private providers to increase overall capacity (as recommended by Browne), quite another to intensify a zero-sum game: recruitment and marketing will eat up a significant proportion of the new higher fees."

But the zero-sum game isn't quite what it seems. There is a kind of aleatoric element in university funding which is itself a regulating mechanism. The fact that lobbying can affect the outcome of student number allocation or policy initiatives introduces further levels to the regulatory game. There is some kind of process of allocation of numbers; there is also some kind of political game that must be played with the minister. Given this rather frightening scenario, one wonders who would want to be a Vice Chancellor. Of course, individuals with certain Machievelian character traits might thrive in this situation, but they are not necessarily the character traits that one would wish for in a leader of a university! To be fair, Vice Chancellors may well resent the assault on their institutions and the system. But who would dare speak out for fear of upsetting the minister? Many, I should imagine, find themselves in an impossible position - which seldom brings out the best in anyone.

The problem with all this is that it is completely unaccountable. The minister acts as a shadowy kingmaker behind the scenes playing a cynical game with the electorate whilst "leading on" university leaders. Universities find themselves in financial trouble and its their fault, despite the fact that the minister may well have been pulling the strings for some ulterior motive. At the same time, it is not inconceivable that institutional managers themselves may have ulterior motives. These may or may not also have been manipulated by the minister, but however it is inspected, the complete absence of a clear organising principle for higher education can mask mismanagement, injustice or (potentially) criminality.

This is a toxic cocktail of unaccountability, indiscriminate regulation, personal ambition and political manipulation. It may, however, work for a while. When is it likely to break down? As we have seen in other recent instances of institutional trauma (the press, BBC, MP expenses, etc), I think there will be some kind of shock. The problem with any unaccountable system is that people eventually get sloppy and make mistakes which gives the game away. As the shock is absorbed, and people unravel the tangled mess that has become educational regulation, they may well ask the question that so badly needs to be asked: "Why are we doing this?"

Education without Failure

Imagine an education system without failure. Could it work? Or is creating failure a necessary function of education?

We would have to rethink what it is education is doing. Can it still be considered a 'filtering mechanism' or a means of judging who should get what job?

Does an education system without failure necessitate a society without fear? Because people are fearful, so education addresses their fears, but it replaces one fear with another. The fear it replaces is irrational and existential. Educational 'fear' by contrast is rational, systemic and 'fair'.

But we all know it isn't really.

The things that separate us from one another are the judgements we make about each other which derive from our individual anxiety to preserve our identity. The preservation of our identity is, I think, tied to the preservation of a particular set of relations with those we love: our tie to our parents, our children, our friends, etc. Those ties are based on reliable patterns of communication, where strategies for action can be formulated with sufficiently accurate foresight as to the results of those actions. Those people we fear, those who are outside our circle of attachments, are people with whom we cannot predict communications. We fear this disruptive and unpredictable element and its effects not just on us, but on those we stay close to.

The labelling of education serves a purpose in this regard (indeed, the curriculum itself can be seen as instrumental). It marks out those with whom we may have a chance of predicting how they might communicate with us, even if we don't know them that well. It provides a starting point for social engagement. In this way, labelling is an extension of the class system. Failure serves to ensure this labelling system continues to work.

The irony in education is that deeper metacognition can overcome the reliance on labels for making judgements. The deepest metacognition leads to the "loving openness" that is the epitome of wisdom. At this level, the relationship between identity, attachment, and the world at large has been re-programmed. Identity is an unendingly flexible set of relations between the individual and the world. Preservation of identity is never in doubt, and fear is minimised.

If we are to have higher education for everyone, then the basic labelling of education is likely to cease working in terms of its ability to allow people to predict communications. Having a degree in x may mean vastly different things depending on the institution, the individual's social background, etc, and this will be quickly revealed through social interaction. Moreover, an individual may fail in degree x at institution y, but succeed in institution z, and whilst success at z is still success, the efficacy of the success may well be exposed.

If we didn't create failure, would it matter? Perhaps, in having such a range of different institutions, we are already doing away with failure. But this means the labelling doesn't do its job. It's not just a matter of asking "what might take its place?", but of demanding "whatever does take its place, can it be reasonable and fair?"

Here we have deep problems. Because in pushing everyone through education, there is inherent unfairness already. Individuals cannot help their upbringings, and in turn they will have less choice with their educational journeys. But they still have to pay, irrespective of the benefits of their narrow choice. Yet the labelling is already determined by the choice; it was already determined (by and large) by school, the family, etc. And education without failure in some ways makes this more confusing and less effective.

But I don't want to argue for failure: failure is terrible. I believe the onus is on those institutions at the bottom to offer something different from those at the top. Rather than trying to ape the elite, widening participation institutions should deal directly with those issues of fear that undermine the essential fairness of opportunity for all. Metacognition, inquiry, technological flexibility through to sheer 'nous' and creativity can overcome the barriers of the labelling of the elite universities. Learning how to teach this ought, I think, to be their central concern.

Monday, 10 December 2012


Sometimes we meet someone and think "you're a bright young thing! Always quick witted, able to make some incisive comment that makes everyone sit up and think (and often laugh)." and then we might think "How did they get to be like that?" (secretly wishing "I wish I was like that"). The word we use for this is "intelligence". The behaviours we associate with intelligence include the ability to remember large amounts of information and to weave quotations and anecdotes into their conversations. The aspect of 'recall' that lies behind this behaviour gives us some confidence that the labours of education are indeed effective, and that the more one labours to learn, remember, regurgitate, etc the more one might be capable of performing in this way.

But notwithstanding the fact that no doubt some degree of labour in remembering and learning can indeed give a person greater agility in social encounters (which in turn can make them powerful), there is an uninspected backwater to this kind of behaviour. This I think lies in the emotional bedrock upon which both the confident performances of an "intelligent person" and the will to drive through tedious exercises of learning as a means to gaining greater agility are situated. "Intelligence" in performance misleads an audience into misconceiving where it came from. "Practise" is all we can say, and so the education system rewards "practise". But it fails to identify the necessary conditions within which "practise" can take place.

There is plenty of evidence that the psychological conditions within which this kind of practise, and the will to battle through learning journeys are founded in social structures. Those from good homes, with books, with emotional support for their educational endeavours will succeed at least in the business of working through learning. Often they succeed only in remembering and regurgitating without thinking, and produce an aped performance of 'intelligence' which merely shows "cleverness" rather than intelligence: arguments might be won with clever quotations and put-downs, but the big questions are glossed over and nobody is any the better for it. The confidence that education can breed can be dangerous in such cases.

But what of those who have the capacity to be deeply intelligent (which I think is all of us) but who are not lucky enough to grow up in an environment which gives them the sufficient emotional management to be able to handle the hard work of learning? What they take from their home environments is anxiety and stress, they avoid the risks of saying it "how it is", assuming that the 'clever people' know better than them, and trusting the clever people to tell them how to be clever too - by sitting exams, doing what they are told, etc. The greatest crime is that they are told by the clever people in the education system that they are less clever than them, and that they can only become as clever if they do what they are told. Education creates stupidity in so many ways - and it does so in its own interests.

What if education didn't do this? Could we have an education system which didn't need to create failure? There's an interesting thought...

Sunday, 9 December 2012

History and Education

My experience of History in school was that it was a strange beast: the art of recalling the rememberances of other people in order to gain appreciation by the education system! My first 'homework' I was ever given was to 'make notes' on a dusty textbook telling me something about ancient british tribes. I diligently set about reading this thing. It was so boring. But I struggled through the boredom and wrote a few words about "celts" and "settlements" without really knowing what it was all about, but naturally worried that if I didn't do it, I'd be in trouble in my first week at school! I remember thinking to myself "but don't worry you don't understand. This is what all the clever people have done before you! Just keep with it.." It wasn't long before I was becoming very inventive in my excuses for not producing my homework!

There are moments in education when we have to pour over things, to bash-away at something, to do some hard work. But if the fruits of that labour never become meaningful beyond winning the plaudits of the system which sponsors them, then I think something is amiss. What are we bashing away at, exactly? Why? and eventually.. "what is the point in us doing this?"

That moment is the appeal to the "elephant in the room" to show itself - the gaping absence that sucked us all into a crazy ritual. Ironically, it is that very moment of revealed authenticity which leads people to write new (and exciting) history books, or books of any kind. Not the dreary textbooks of the sort I was making notes written by opportunistic and dull teachers, but the sort of books which people actually want to read and which change them.

I am really wanting to write about the "history of education", and I mention this terrible experience of history because the 'elephant in the room' is a huge elephant when we come to talk about the history of education. "Education began at 12.42 pm on the 15th January, 342AD in a cloister in the Abbey of St. Albans." That's interesting to begin with! In order to write a history of something, does that thing have to have had a beginning? We can write about the history of the First World War because the war had a beginning. Endings aren't so important.. we can always say "and its legacy still lives with us today. THE END".

Does Education have a beginning? There were the first school houses in the 19th century. There must have been a first 'grammar school', we know there was a first University. But are they a beginning?  Or just a continuation?

The problem is that it makes sense to see how a war began. Partly because we might be anxious not to begin another one - at least in the same way! Why would we want to think how education began? So we can begin it again? So we can 'reinvent' it, maybe? Popper has a point about the dangers of historicism!

With every birth, there is some rebirth of education. The story of education has no beginning, just a continual process of rebirth. Some voices that were born have been powerful and influential. They have grabbed onto the steering wheel of education and taking it somewhere where it didn't seem that it had been before (but in reality, this was probably the result of amnesia).

Each voice that has tried to steer education has had it's own 'story of education' within it. The story acts as a kind of compass. No doubt, the stories of many have within them invented 'beginnings' of education which say "this is where we've come from; this is where we need to go!". I don't want to be like this.

My challenge is that, like many working in my field, I want to be part of an effort to steer education in difficult times. However, I cannot easily tell a 'historical' story of education to explain where we are and where we ought to think about going. I would have to invent a beginning for that, and I don't think education has a beginning. So what is my compass if it is not a story with a beginning?

My challenge is to describe what things in education do. Now. It is to describe their experience and the connection between the experience of education, the way it is organised and the world we live in. This is not a history. It is (I think) more like an allegory.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Education, Manipulation and Extortion

I've just returned from Vienna, where (after my talk in Eisenstadt last week) I gave a paper on 'Animating Pathological Communications' as part of the GLODERS project (see an EU STREP project organised by CRESS (Centre for Research in Social Simulation) at the University of Surrey. I'm not involved in the project, although it's good to see conferences being organised like this, and it's great to see the EU funding an ICT project with such rich and important social implications. It's also a sign of the emerging methodological significance of agent based modelling.

Amongst the presentations were a number of insightful contributions from those working with police forces in parts of the world where the mafia and other groups conducting extortion are active. Most interesting for me was discovering the extent of mafia involvement in everyday life in parts of Sicily. The obvious question to ask was "In these cases, what is the difference between mafia and government?"

To make that distinction, a deeper systemic definition of mafia is required. Here both cybernetic and agent-based model thinking is very important. In my talk, I drew attention to Bateson's double-bind theory as a starting point, explaining the power of the metaphor, but also the difficulty in trying to get to a workable representation of double-bind situations which might be modellable. The mafia in Sicily clearly have people in a double-bind: usually by picking targets and gently inculcating dependency on illegal activity, and then exploiting the consequent vulnerabilities of those individuals (the mafia becomes the only available "solution" to the individual's problems). But, seen like that, we all inhabit double-binds: whether in families (which as R.D. Laing showed, are full of them!), government, etc. Indeed, as I suggested a while ago, education is full of double-binds (see and these dynamics may be partly responsible for the very existence of our educational institutions. And EU projects? Well, if anyone's ever tried to work through the documentation and jargon of the commission...

But the mafia is horrible, and education and government are generally not. However, these things can be horrible. A lot depends on what people can do when they become so. Governments can be voted out. We can choose not to do an EU project. But education? Of course, students can leave an institution. But there are risks in doing so. For students in parts of the world where there is less freedom and opportunity, these risks multiply. I know of a case where a student studied at a domestic university's overseas operation in an unfree part of the world and a country where they themselves were an immigrant. They found that their (quite good) degree result didn't open the doors which they had hoped because the validity of the overseas operation was questioned by employers. They then found that they would have to leave the country where they studied because they hadn't found a job and would have to return to the country of their birth (which was even less free). If they wished to stay in the country, what was their only option? Answer: to sign-up for another course from the overseas university operation (at considerable cost) which their experience suggested would not deliver a sufficiently credible qualification that would help them any further. But it was the only way of staying in the country.

Is this extortion? To answer that question, it is useful to look at the social dynamics of systems like the mafia. They always appear as 'parasitical' upon a pre-existing legal framework. 'Illegality' - a construct of the state - is the mechanism by which people are lured into the racket. In the case of this student, I think there is something similarly parasitical about the relationship between government regulation of immigration and residence rights, and the operations of the University. The only difference is that unlike the mafia, putting the student in this position is not the explicit intention of the University: although the university benefits from the situation.

With very complex issues arising from international operations of UK universities at home as well as abroad, I think these questions of whether there is extortion going on are very important. The terrible financial situation facing many universities creates the conditions whereby practices which may be 'racket-like' are tempting to institutional managers, even if we convince ourselves that such practices are in the best interests of our students. In order to properly use our moral compasses, we need deeper knowledge about the kinds of pathological and manipulative situations that are exemplified by organisations like the mafia, in order to understand the very real possibility of moral hazards for educational institutions.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Freud, Wiener and Education

I visited Freud's apartment (now a museum) in the Bergasse, Vienna today. It's somewhat empty because all his books and many of his artifacts are now in Hampstead, but it was a moving visit because it emphasised the terrible effect of Nazi occupation on this beautiful city. A lifetime's work was hurriedly shipped-out via Paris to London.

But what of the work itself? Psychoanalysis is about 50 years older than cybernetics. Just as cybernetics has bifurcated, different leaders coming to take it in different directions, so too with psychoanalysis. Today to say you are a psychoanalyst is immediately to invite the question "who do you follow?" It's a tribal thing. Cybernetics is the same. 1st order (cybernetics for engineers)? 2nd order (cybernetics for (second-rate?) philosophers)? Luhmann? Bateson? etc. It's difficult to claim it all. In order to do that, you would have to have a view of the whole thing, and as time passes, it all gets more obscure.

The truth is, in both cases, although there is a 'moment of birth' - the work of Freud, the work of Wiener - both subjects are much older. The consideration of the relationship between the mechanisms of living things and the mechanisms of the world goes back at least to scholasticism, with its roots in Aristotelian philosophy. There the consideration of the mind as mechanism lies latent in not only in the hands of artists (one has only to look at Sophocles or even Homer to see this) but in Platonic theories of education and society. Freud knew and acknowledged this.

But Freud is considered revolutionary because within the society he lived he had the courage to say something shocking which nevertheless people recognised as valuable and important. He reawoke his society to a primeval concern. He determined an absence which was recognised as a shared, but unarticulated, experience. It is a dialectical move which is perhaps comparable with that of Marx. Indeed, where Marx identified the absences of relationship between human beings, Freud identified the absences within each human being.

Did Wiener do something similar? Cybernetics didn't quite have the same Freud 'moment', but even so, Wiener identified something about 'feedback and control' (and a mathematics to go with it) which allowed a number of thinkers to gravitate around it. Wiener's identified 'absence' isn't quite at the same depth as Freud's emphasis on sex and drives, although it was perhaps a bit more practical in terms of giving rise to technologies.

The depth of an absence identified is related to the impact of a movement. Sex is a deep absence: describing the impact of its mechanisms on everyday life is a powerful move. Because of the depth of the absence, it strikes a chord with many (or at least identifies a question). Jung's archetypes are similarly deep: interestingly producing the same kind of effect. Wiener's 'feedback and control' is less deep, but nevertheless becomes shared between the small group of individuals who understood it. The impact of cybernetics was contained in the impact of what cybernetic thinking produced: advances in technology. It was the technology that was the deep absence that everyone could see. The internet is only the latest instantiation of this. It is important to remember this particular with regard to 2nd order cybernetics and a less practical, philosophical orientation.

I think at the heart of this lies the issue of materiality. Material things produce visceral reactions. Those reactions are shared because the experience of encountering a material object is shared. I know that the way I feel staring at an iPad isn't that different from the way you feel. Because of this, design of such items is possible. This is the shared absence related to the materiality of technology. Similarly, I know, deep down, the way I feel staring at an erotic Japanese print (saw some of these today in the Leopold museum) is not that different to the way you feel (or anyone else might feel). That is the shared absence related to the  materiality of sex.

Freud took the intangible (for example dreams) and turned them into material narratives. This created literary objects which had causal power in making individuals feel things which they knew were shared. The sharedness of the absence had a organisational effect (maybe like Luhmann's contingency formula?). A movement was born. Shared absences produces new concepts, new discourse.

In the case of Freud, once the novelty of the underlying interpretation had lost its shock and the basic principles became accepted, the underlying principle lost its power as a centre of gravity. Other absences emerged within the group that was engaged in psychoanalysis. Tribal differences arose.

In cybernetics, those who concentrated on the material artifacts (computers, for example) gradually split from those wondering about more ancient questions of cognition and being. The remarkable practical discoveries that kicked the thing off lost their power. New absences arose within the group: tribal squabbles separated people.

What now?

Is education the space where cybernetics, psychoanalysis and material technology come together? I'm thinking that "emotional management" may be one of the most important things that goes on in education (when it works). People don't learn new things when they feel bad about their ability to learn new things. Education too often encourages this. Feeling good requires some sort of therapy, which sometimes we might simply attribute to 'good teaching'. But that therapy/good teaching will involve some kind of materially-realised artifacts: resources, tools, etc as well as activites. These may be the technological product of thinking about "feedback and control". Maybe we should be pursuing "higher education for all" with the same passion, creativity and technical innovation as the Viennese Secessionists pursued their artistic ideals!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The ITEC project, the ITEC Widget Store and Togetherness in the Classroom of the Future

This is my presentation from the Eisenstadt E-learning conference where I discussed the theme of 'togetherness' in the context of emerging technologies including the ITEC WidgetStore, real-time technology and the classroom of the future.  My talk began by getting all the delegates to sing, using one of the techniques which I learnt from Pauline Oliveros's 'Deep Listening'. (I'm grateful to my experiences at the American Society for Cybernetics for this). The point in doing this was to underline the particular and special situation of doing activities together: this is not Facebook, Twitter or a VLE - it has a different and more profound quality.

I divided the challenge of thinking about the classroom of the future into three categories: SPACES, ACTIVITIES and ORGANISATION.

Technology, and in particular ITEC Technologies, seek to mediate between these three aspects, providing new kinds of SPACES for learning, different kinds of ACTIVITIES, and providing new ways ORGANISING those activities. 

Real-Time technologies are, I believe, fundamental to this transformation of spaces for learning. With the advent of real-time interactive systems like Steam and OnLive, the richness of real-time collaborative experiences is deepening. At the same time, such technologies afford richer kinds of interactive activities in physical spaces: for example, cinemas might exploit real-time interactivity for audience participation (equally lectures, although cinema and theatre might in the end prove far more attractive). 

But what of the kinds of activities that are done? Here again, I think real-time technologies play an important role. However, rich activities online don't just have to be real-time. Eric Whittaker's Virtual Choir still stands out for me to be the best online activity I have seen. But there has been an explosion on the web of simple activities embodied as 'widgets' or webpages, which if used creatively by teachers can be really innovative and enrich lessons. Making these activities easily accessible for teachers to organise is one of the goals of ITEC. The ITEC Widget Store does just this, by providing the facilities not just to browse a range of different kinds of widget-based activity, but to personally curate collections of favourite tools. 

But then, given a range of tools, how can learning activities be coordinated? Here too, recent technological development are addressing the ease with which activities can be presented to a class, and coordinated. The Open-Sankore open-source Interactive Whiteboard platform can seamlessly integrate with ITEC's widgets because it uses the same W3C standard. There is one way of coordinating activity. But I also demonstrated the ability to present tools to users, and to dynamically change the tools that are presented on each user's screen using the ITEC Presenter Widget. This also uses the technology of the Real-time web, and provides a facility to ensure that learners have a shared experience, even when they are looking at personal devices. 

Finally, I invited people to participate in a performance of Haydn's Surprise Symphony. This was done by using the interactive features of the real-time web to power 'controller widgets' which served to deliver real-time signals to a sound generator on my machine which was hooked to the sound system in the class. At the crucial moment, participants hit a button to ensure that Haydn's surprise was more surprising than even he intended!

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Togetherness in Eisenstadt

Tomorrow I'm speaking at an e-learning conference in Eisenstadt, Austria (see Eisenstadt is etched in my musical knowledge as the home of Joseph Haydn, where he served at the Esterhazy court and struggled with a difficult domestic situation. Haydn's music is the epitome of joy, lightness and humour whilst also bearing witness to the most profound humanity and musical wisdom. I'm tempted to ask "what's the equivalent in education?". It seems so often the epitome of misery, boredom, heaviness and consistently favouring the superficial over the profound! Maybe I'm being unfair. I would have love to have met Haydn (one of the few composers I think I would have enjoyed talking to), but I have had some rare experiences through education to meet individuals who have possessed humour, lightness and profundity. Everything else was nonsense. Computers, I fear, have made the situation worse.

What I want to say at the conference is that computers need not make it worse. But in order to ensure that they do not become the tools of the harbingers of misery, we need to understand our truly joyful experiences of learning. I will begin with music - not just because it is my passion (and the best advice I was given when I trained to be a teacher was "teach your passion!") - but because it is unique in bringing people together. Joy comes from togetherness.

When we make sounds together we become aware of each other. We listen to each other. We sense the universality of our individual experiences; we look at each other. This is the root of learning and the path to wisdom. There is no wisdom without listening and that which we learn we learn about each other. Even physics and maths.

Technologies as we have them - our so-called "social technologies" - offer us little opportunity to listen. Who really listens to someone's Facebook post? If you really listened you would hear something different from what was written. Maybe...
"I'm posting this because I need to tell the world I exist and having a good time even though I'm not because I am having an existential crisis!". 
If we listened to that, we'd understand more about what technology isn't doing for us at the moment.

7 billion of us are inhabiting spaces together increasingly unaware of each others existence, their humanity, or their needs. This may be because appreciation of others means we have to consider our own existence, our humanity, our needs. And who wants to do that?? Technology is deafening us because we want to be deafened.

What is possible? How might it be different?

Imagine a shared space with lots of atomised individuals all staring into their own online worlds. Suddenly something grabs their attention and points them to the same resource. They become curious. They engage. As they do things with the resource, things happen around them which affect everyone else. Their attention shifts from their own screens to their environment and to each other. It's as if suddenly, everyone's been given a musical instrument and has been invited to participation in a performance. Technology has drawn people together and created a shared experience. Everyone remembers it. It is a meaningful moment.

I will argue in future posts that such moments are moments when technology is used to create a shared absence, and that this absence is the driver for learning. Absence is not content. It is simply the surprise revealing of the thing everybody was avoiding. That's what I believe we should be aiming for with learning technology. It is also the art that Haydn excelled at.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Towards A Negative Theory of Learning

If the best we can do with constructivist learning theory is the MOOC, and if theory predicts that MOOCs will work, then it's time for a new theory! As I have been arguing recently, constructivist theory is essentially positivist: it reduces reality to actual posited mechanisms of the learning process, and that learning and knowledge is a process which can be accounted for by the action of these mechanisms. To adopt a constructivist approach in this way means trying to account for the most mysterious aspects of human experience through a mechanistic metaphor. Computers, in being the epitome of mechanism, are ideally suited to this approach. And yet all we have managed to do appears deficient in comparison to established and ancient practices of learning.

As a cybernetician I perhaps ought to be sympathetic to the mechanicists. But equally, as a cybernetician, I am more familiar with the deficiencies of this kind of mechanistic thinking. It leads here: (more about that later). And I want to suggest an alternative approach.

My experience of learning is visceral. Music knocked me sideways, philosophy thrilled me, science intrigued me, technology fascinated me and religion allowed me to step back into a space where everything was one. I fell in love with subjects, sometimes teachers or fellow students, and all the time being battered by a continual drive for something... I think (now)... meaning. I might well have constructed my world, but the extent to which it could whack me in the solar plexus was the richest reality I knew, and (through music) I knew that it was real for others too.

It's the whacking and the reality of it that matters! Not everyone feels it like this (I was odd!). But my first task is to compare my experience with what I imagine the experience of those who are unmoved by these things. Often, I wonder, they were being whacked by other things - by family, relationships, worries, etc. I believed getting whacked by science or music would help me establish the connections to others that I wished for; those uninterested in science didn't wish for those connections. My antennae were tuned in a particular way; others had different antennae. In essence, we had different strategic priorities. It's much like the differences that emerge in relationships when two people have moved past the stage of physically exciting each other to realise they are wanting entirely different things.

It is not what is thought, it is not what thinking itself is that matters. It is what is not thought. What is not thought bears on what is thought, what is decided, in powerful ways. My strategic priorities, like those of others around me, were the product of what each of us could not think. The reasons why things are unthinkable are, I believe, emotional: unthinkability relates to family, love, attachments. That means that unthinkability is social.

Constructivism is wrong in characterising a coordination of understanding - a coordination of thinking. What I think happens - what amounts to a negative theory - is the idea that coordinations occur around what is not thinkable. Shared absence is at the heart of this: those experiences which in a group of people produce the same physical reaction, the same turning of the stomach, the same 'knocking sideways'. Learning stems from this as a process of directly engaging with that shared absence and progressively determining it.

This is the process of human intimate relationships. The sexual absence which is felt is a shared question for each. It's gradual determination, exploration, identification leads to new absences which will either bring people closer together or drive them apart. Learning is the same. The astonishment of seeing sodium explode in water is shared amongst those who witness it. What happens then is a kind of critique. Different things are determined depending on the backgrounds of the individuals who experience this, depending on the thinkability or unthinkability of things, which in turn will depend on deeper emotional predispositions. The absence of the explosion is determined in different ways. One might say "rubbish! it's a con!", the other says "I can join a community of scientists!". Of course, they might both be right!

In education, we aspire to get everyone to the view of "I want to join a community of scientists" (or some other academic community). We measure individuals as to the extent to which they succeed in this, and determine their life chances based on this. A negative theory of learning highlights how dangerous this is. For the reaching of that position is determined by what is not thinkable. It is determined by a set of attachment situations and emotional predispositions which are codified in class structures which succeed only in delimiting thought. The anti-education critique is however a different set of unthinkable propositions which are no less worth exploring and critiquing than those which fit the system. Yet the system struggles support their exploration - particularly in school.

Most serious are the growing noises from government circles about particular 'idealised' educational experiences. I was horrified to see Geoff Mulgan saying that 'bad' universities should close (see I'm horrified because I've been a fan of Mulgan in the past, and he shares an enthusiasm for the work of Stafford Beer. But this is terrible. The ideals of 'good education' are essentially what is thinkable by the likes of Mulgan, Gove, Cameron and others. They believe, like the constructivists, that learning results from a 'coordination of understanding'. They believe that the community within 'good universities' might be expandable to learners at bad universities (i.e. takeovers). The opportunity to coordinate your understanding with the understanding of the great and the good can be sold as a product. Because of this, "Bad Universities" represent an absence for them which is different to what they represent to those who study and work there. But the absences of the great and the good (in good Universities) will never be the same as the absences of those in 'bad' universities: this cannot work. In essence, there is a shared absence relating to 'badness' of an institution amongst a class-oriented group, and a contrasting absence amongst the immediate stakeholders within that institution.

Ultimately, this results is the opposite of learning: oppression. The danger lies in the unthinkability of that proposition for Mulgan and co., and its visceral reality for those who will be their victims.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Learning, Society and Absence

If we believed that the social aspects of learning demanded some sort of physical proximity between individuals, then we would never have thought that e-learning was a good idea. Given that the experience of e-learning is generally still terrible - solitary individuals hunched over computers, knots in the stomach as they try to work out "what am I meant to do?", "where do I click?", "why am I doing this?", etc... dealing with the mantra to "engage socially" (which generally means exposing yourself through text messages that everyone else can see - more knots in the stomach), what do these experiences tell us about the deficiencies in the way we think about learning?

First of all, it is important to say that given sufficient determination and effort by learners, these terrible experiences can work. However, little is known about the conditions within which it works, and the conditions within which it doesn't. Given that the e-learning brigade is generally self-serving and has a vested interest in 'talking-up' the experience, it is very difficult to get a handle of the differences between actual experience and success.

I think physical proximity really matters in this process. And so I'm going to have a guess: things work online when learners are supported by those who are physically close to them. It works when the learners engagement online, at a distance, becomes part of the 'family project', or the 'work project'. Progress in the online course becomes an important factor in maintaining local conversations which people who matter in day-to-day life, rather than individuals represented as pixels on the screen. These attachments counter-balance (even compliment) the crappiness  of the online experience. Some research needs to be done here.

Conversely, when this is not the case, when the learner is really on their own, then I think it may not work. Although, there may be exceptions: the very lonely individual for whom online communities offer their only social outlet, for example. But I'd be willing to bet that such an individual would crave proximal (probably intimate) communications instead and the online vehicle might become a way of achieving that (or maybe a surrogate).

Thinking, attachment, emotional management and strategic engagement with technology are deeply entwined. What I may be saying is that attachments are a key factor in success in e-learning. The fact that attachment seems to be significant raises a number of questions. Simply comparing attachments to internet use, or to success in e-learning or participation on forums may be to over-reduce complex causal relationships. If we think with others, and our thinking relates to the management of attachments, then the strategies we pursue (whether face-to-face or online) are related to those relationships. But if this is the case, what does it tell us about thinking itself and physical relationships? What is the involvement of the body in intellectual life?

I've been making some suggestions here recently (see Our understanding of learning as "mental process", or learning as "connected mental processes", or learning as "practice and reflection in the light of models" all appear suspect. None of them acknowledge that for each individual there  are other individuals who are deeply important to personal viability: parents, partners, children, colleagues, etc. This oversight is largely responsible for some big mistakes in e-learning, including MOOCs, Learning Design, Instructional Design, etc. Maintaining attachments with those we love is essential for establishing sufficient emotional management to engage in challenging processes of learning. Ironically, many thinkers in e-learning themselves seem to plateau-out, no longer wishing to challenge themselves or their current knowledge, but preferring instead to believe that they are right and to become evangelists. But then, that's why e-learning is dead.

I'll return to this, but to illustrate my point, just imagine someone you deeply love standing alone on the precipice of a cliff. Most typically this might be your child. Think how you feel. The terrified anxiety which turns the stomach; the frantic search for ways of reaching them and dragging them back; the desperate instinct to protect; the fear that something might happen which threatens not only them, but you too. The bodily sensation here is fundamental and, I believe, ontological. The intellectual challenge brought about by the situation drives us to new thinking, new ideas. And this, I submit, is a better way of thinking about learning than the coordination of mental models, or whatever other mechanism might be suggested.

The difference between this scenario and the descriptions of learning that have be proposed to us by e-learning aficionados is simple: My scenario focuses on the negative, on what isn't there - all that we know is the churning of the stomach. All other descriptions attempt to assert a positive mechanism - what is proposed to be there (interestingly, positive descriptions often turn my stomach - I think of what isn't described!)

If there is a priority in the theoretical development in education, it lies in understanding the logic of the negative and the absent. That this theoretical development is urgent is underlined by the terrible things we are currently doing to education.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

An Idea for a University

Amidst the attempts to fathom the "direction of Higher Education" in an environment of cuts, privatisation (see, managerial hubris, ministerial expediency, redundancies and parodies (see, the more obvious question is "what do we want university to be?" It rarely gets asked because it's difficult. Attempts in the past to ask it (first and foremost by Newman, then by various thinkers ranging from the Frankfurt school to F.R. Leavis) were from an age very different to ours, from an education system deeply different. None of them believed mass higher education was a good idea.

The environment of widening participation universities (like my own) would have been completely alien to most of those thinkers, who were themselves very comfortably ensconced in the system they described. They would have remarked that it "wasn't really a university" meaning that it wasn't at all like Oxford. I'd like to think that Newman might have had a bit more of an insight into Bolton than the likes of Leavis - after all, his ministry in inner-city Birmingham brought him into contact with something completely unlike Oxford. Newman wanted to make something special in Birmingham - he passionately believed in his Oratorian Movement and its spiritual and social mission. I'm thinking of this not just because I think a similar social mission needs to accompany the development of our new kinds of "university for everyone", but also because Manchester is about to acquire its own Oratorian Movement (see in a particularly run-down part of town. I believe this matters.

Students often turn up at Universities not being quite sure about why they are there. In fact this applies to students at many red-brick universities, but it especially applies to widening participation institutions. The chance to get a degree is of course important, but the means of getting a degree (boring lectures, assignments, exams) often comes as something of a disappointment, and for many widening participation students an uncomfortable reminder of where they have failed in their education up to this point. Too often Universities repeat the circumstances which give rise to habits of failure. Too often, now scandalously, they are still happy to take the students money when this happens (even penalising the students for the privilege). What bastards!

The world might be a better place if students didn't feel they all needed degrees. But I suspect the reasons why our society inculcates this need are deeply entwined with where our economy is in a post-industrial world. So all students feel they need degrees. But here is where I think Universities, and particularly widening participation universities can help.

My idea for a University is a place which helps students deal with the problem they are faced with: believing they need a degree; not knowing which institution/course to choose; not having equal freedoms to choose institutions or courses; sometimes not knowing where they are going; struggling with assessments; struggling with the cost of it all. It isn't just about trying to do things cheap, although that's important. It's about waking up to the barriers that we put in the student's way almost without thinking because we've grown accustomed to saying "but this is how we do it in education".

Education, I believe, is an important step in an individual's search for meaning in life. Education fails if it makes life more confusing and unmanageable. Sadly it often does this.

The search for meaning begins with trying to assess the chances of success of an educational journey (which the student is paying for) before that journey is embarked upon. The experience of education is so unreliable. Lectures are so hit-and-miss. I think students deserve more reliability in their educational experience, and they should be able to sample the educational experience before signing up to the course. Universities should be able to say to students "this is the experience we can guarantee" and this will be accurate. With the remarkable technologies we have, there is no reason why this cannot be done. Being able to sample the experience is an important step in being able to make the choice as to which course/institution and to assess their chances of success. By this path, my idea for a university is one of 'open education': where the experience is reliable and open to all; where the business model is geared around the provision of certificates, and the risks in submitting oneself for certification can be inspected by the student prior to committing themselves and paying their fees. This, I feel, is only fair.

However, meaningful experience is not just the performance of a lecturer. It is the social environment. But there too, the organisation and effectiveness of activities that students engage in is also hit-and-miss. As I have argued, thinking is a social activity. But the social activity of thinking and doing needs to be coordinated and people engaged. Being with others is special. Universities should aspire to create activities and experiences which can be tried, tested and reproduced.

When I was a student I wanted, more than anything else, to know what my professor thought of my work. More than anything else I wanted feedback from him. The rich and personal feedback is a fundamental component of what the university offers to students. I believe that here too, there are important incursions for technology in the support of deep and meaningful feedback.

But why is it that meaningful feedback about individual student's development rarely happens? Why is it that the work students engage in on their course is so often mundane and irrelevant to their lives? These questions boil down to the ways students are assessed. Yet, since the advent of modules and outcome-based education, all assessments are conducted against a set of learning outcomes. There is no reason why individual learners shouldn't produce work which is personal and meaningful to them, whilst also meeting the specific learning outcomes for each module. This is the route of "personal inquiry" and innovative assessment methods like Patchwork Text (see It doesn't require a radical shake-up of curricula. It just requires greater flexibility and imagination on the part of teachers.

The way students are assessed is so fundamental, and I doubt that it was an issue that registered at all with Newman or anyone else in the past. Assessment is part of a conversation with the learner. If it is rigid, if it is inauthentic, if it is exactly the same task for all the learners, then the conversation with the individual learner will quickly dry-up and learners will become disillusioned (and probably do the sensible thing and game the system!). But if the assessment is personal to the learner, whilst sticking to the set assessment criteria for modules, then there is room for a richer conversation, not just with the teacher, but between peers. And because it's individual and personal, plagiarism is minimised and feedback can be continually constructive. This way the conversation about the pursuit of meaning can support learners throughout their studies.

But what of research? Surely that's important in Universities? I think the development and adaptation of human beings to a complex and technological world is one of the most serious challenges we face in our world today. If we could only crack this problem many of our other crises and research priorities in health, technology, world peace and global flourishing would at the very least become much more manageable. It would open science to everyone, to make the march of progress a participatory affair. It is in institutions like my own (and not Oxford) where these developmental and adaptational problems are dealt with head-on. Studying and developing ways of addressing them best through education is probably the most important research that any institution could be engaged in today.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Nice noises

Amongst my fondest memories of my music professor Ian Kemp was his disarming way of poking fun at musicological seriousness. On receiving well-intentioned but jargon-filled explanations for musical moments, he would sometimes say, "yes, that's interesting.. but maybe it's just a nice noise". It stopped people in their tracks because the niceness of the noise was somehow absent in its technical descriptions. He could, of course, be deeply serious and technical too, but he knew the importance of popping his own bubble.

Music is good at bubble-popping. I've found it invaluable in my current work simply because however carried-away I get with hubristic and idealistic explanations for learning, technology or society, they rarely go anywhere in explaining the extraordinary experience of music. Music will always ask questions which show up the holes in any explanation. That keeps me moving on, never settling on any uber-formula for education. But in moving me on, I am driven to search for some new formula.

That's where I am at the moment. I am thinking about  'nice noises'. I wonder if a nice noise is like being poked in the stomach. What do I feel? Wow! I'm arrested (as I was listening to Beethoven in the car this morning). My whole body feels a sensation quite unlike any other kind of sensation. It's most like sex or eroticism (another of Kemp's interjections was "music's all about sex, you know"), but it is more cerebral than that, more controlled. But the most remarkable thing about it is that in experiencing it, I know something of the experience of others hearing it too. I think now (after musing about parody and the body, this is the most important thing: the social awareness that arises from visceral experience.

It is shared absence. Academic explanation is a way of trying to determine the absence. But equally (and perhaps more authentically) so is just to say "wow!" or to smile, or to inhale. And indeed, all those bodily responses themselves carry their own 'social awareness' (we know what it feels like for others to inhale; when others smile, we know what it means, etc). Something deeply recursive goes on here. It's interesting me to think that much of the power of orgasm can be thought of in the same way - but that's another post!

But the moments of 'nice noise' do not come out of nothing. There is structure, melody, rhythm, harmony all of which contrive to create extraordinary moments. There is a definite ebb-and-flow of physical sensation, a development of anticipation. Again, in analytical discourse about music, this ebb-and-flow is poorly accounted for (often meaning that music which doesn't fit analytical models is disparaged).

I will explore this in a later post, but at this stage, it is interesting to think that moments of motivic repetition can become dull if over-mechanical. Dull-ness too is a physical sensation. But what causes it? If there is a game that is played between listeners and the music, then that game probably involves a continual coordination of  anticipations with what is heard. An expectation is a choice out of possibilities. In game-theoretical terms, the choice would arise from identifying an equilibrium point.

I'm going to speculate that when we are engaged in music, we can identify our anticipations because we can identify our equilibrium points. The mechanism whereby this happens has something to do with what's not there rather than what is (see Ambiguity and suggestion is the food of engagement.

But if patterns are asserted over and over again, the positive choices (the things that are there) can be felt over the things that are not. That means that it becomes harder to identify equilibrium points; it becomes harder to choose an anticipation (this sounds awkward and probably needs unpacking, but bear with me!). This produces what I'm thinking of as an 'equilibrium crisis' where distinctions between anticipations break down. That too has a physical component. From the absence of the crisis comes something new: a new idea, a new motif. This is the moment of disruption, either through rhythm, harmony, melody, etc.

There's more to say here regarding music. But at the same time there's something to say about the experience of learning, which (along with sex!) has remarkable similarities to the experience of music.