Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Challenge of Research Methodology in Educational Technology

Educational Technology research is a discourse of advocacy of social change through technological transformation of education. There are many of ways of thinking about, researching, collecting data and making sense of educational technology. Every methodology carries with it assumptions about the nature of the world, the nature of education, ethical and political biases which are rarely articulated. The methodological and technical approaches are often inconsistent in their views of education: one methodological approach can slip into another. In this paper, as a way of identifying the different methodological approaches available, I will focus particularly on the dynamic tensions between different approaches, how one approach slips into another, and how we might use this knowledge of dynamic tension between methodologies to give better guidance to students and researchers of educational technology.
In common with much educational discourse, Educational Technology is fundamentally ethical in nature: it concerns statements about what ‘ought’ and ‘ought not’ to be the case in education. So we say “such and such a technology will transform x” or “such and such a technology is no good”. Educational technology discourse is consequently always vulnerable to the critique of those positivist ethicists who argue that “is” and “ought” are radically separable. The “is-ought” gap is usually credited to David Hume who identified of the problem of deriving an “ought” from an “is”. However, Hume did not say that it was impossible to do this; he merely pointed out that people (including in our case, Educational Technologists) tend not to do it properly. Christian Smith (2011) argues in that the attribution of the is-ought gap to Hume is due to the misreading of him by the logical positivists who came long after and had their own agenda. In fact, Hume’s critique amounts to a complaint about the switch from one way of thinking to another when making ethical arguments. Hume says (1739):
“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason”
Hume’s involvement here is interesting because it is Hume who lays the foundations for scientific method, arguing that causation is not a real thing (the product of God), but rather a construct (the product of man) created by scientists in the light of reproducible experiment. In the light of this, positivist science has often held to a materialist ontology where observation is the route to absolute truth, losing sight of the social construction of theories which was so important to Hume’s mechanism.
An exposition of different ways of thinking in the world, and the tension between different ways of thinking comes from Burrell and Morgan’s classic text from Management Science, “Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis” (1979). Burrell and Morgan borrow the idea of ‘paradigms’ from Kuhn (possibly unfortunately), but they identify four principal ways of thinking about the world which I introduce later. Their ‘organisational analysis’ is very close to the research effort in educational technology, and whilst the methods they cover relate specifically to the study of organisations, many of them are recognisable from research strategies in educational technology. More recently the philosopher Alain Badiou (2009) has drawn attention to the disconnect between three fundamental streams of thought in 20th century philosophy: Critical theory (Marxism), Phenomenology and Existentialism, and Anglo-American analytical philosophy. Here I examine three ways of thinking, drawing on Badiou’s distinctions. My focus is on the dynamics between them. I argue that each paradigm only exists by virtue of its relations with the others (functionalism, for example, exists because of the critique by Marxists and phenomenologists). This tension bears upon the different methodological strategies we might employ in making sense of educational technology.
Technological Advocacy, Education and Social Change
Whilst educational technology is ethically-oriented, its ethical positions are articulated against evidence of positive or negative social change as a result of its implementation. Our first question, then, is to ask about the conditions for social change. In his study “What is a Person?”, Christian Smith identified a number of such conditions. His list is:
  • “Social change occurs when new relationships between different groups are initiated and when old relationships are weakened or terminated."
  • “Social change occurs when the categories of understanding of prevailing social structures change. For example, social structures change when people no longer think in terms of “lords, peasants and knights and imagine life instead in terms of burghers, citizens, traders and entrepreneurs”"
  • “Social structures change when sustaining material resources are significantly reduced (and sometimes when then are increased). Political structures, in particular, become vulnerable with a reduction in material resources."
  • “Social structures change when material objects that instantiate and express social structures (like, for example, church buildings, pubs or post-offices) fall into disrepair or become irrelevant."
  • “Social structures change in response to changes in moral and normative beliefs in the practices, procedures, rules and laws those belies underwrite.";
  • "Social structures change when enough of their participants simply – for whatever reason –    stop sanctioning noncompliance, deviance and rebellion."
  • "Social structures change when new or newly mobilized systems of communication decrease the intractability of coordinated interactions."
  • "Social structures change as a result of disruptions of normal reiterated body practices and collective activity patterns… The doing by some people of unexpected things with their bodies can exert significant causal forces of social structural change."
In each example of social changes that Smith provides, both education and technology are implicated. There appears to be some ground for asking whether, in terms of ‘engines for social change’ technology and education are inseparable, or even equivalent. New relationships, for example, are fostered by education and by communications technologies. Education teaches categories of understanding and creates the conditions for critique and debate, whilst technologies undermine existing categories and cause new ones to be invented. Technologies form a fundamental part of the material resources around which society organises itself (and of which education inculcates usage), and technologies as well as ideas undermine existing material structures. In terms of moral categories, education again creates a space for debate, but the forces that challenge and drive the debate are more often than not technological in important aspects. And the ritualised, iterated body practices (the kind of thing that Randall Collins has recently written about) adapt around emerging tech-cultures and practices – which education is so often slow to pick up on.
However, education employs technology to achieve its ends and technologies demand knowledge and understanding which is deemed to be the domain of education. Perhaps more importantly the practices of education are determined by political policy (in a democracy, mandated by popular vote), whereas (as Ulrich Beck has argued) technological development pursues an internal logic related to rationalism, historicism and determinism: “Technological change is legitimated social change without political legitimation”. The fundamental issue which is exposed by asking whether technology and education are the same is one the political determination of society. To ask questions about technology or education is to ask questions about how we live and the society we might want to live in.
Neither education nor technology presents absolute categories for inspection. Only education, it seems however, really presents itself as a political category; technology pursues its own internal logic largely without political debate – and when technology ‘troubles’ society the emerging debate is fought on a kind of Platonic educational platform rather than one explicitly technological (rather like Plato insisting on the goodness of particular kinds of music). Personal judgement, individual history and experience of education, political preferences and aesthetic disposition all play a role in determining one individual’s position regarding education. Each individual demarcates the limits of what they deem admissible within the category of education (just as they might demarcate what they think is admissible as art). Each proposal for educational development (including those which involve technology) are framed by “limits” which have their ontogeny in personal histories, and which are rarely explicitly stated. Every limit of understanding education is ultimately vulnerable to critique and challenge. Every discipline establishes limits of its understanding of education. The education ‘debate’ suffers from an inability to express clearly the limits of those who make a claim to determine its future. My focus in delineating these limits of understanding is to explore the methodological implications of one limit imposing upon another.
Paradigms of Thought and methodological perspectives
Burrell and Morgan’s situating of the 19th and 20th century sociological tradition within four paradigms is useful when thinking about the framing of educational thought. They made a distinction between the subjective and the objective, and between the sociology of regulation and the sociology of ‘radical change’ situating mainstream intellectual efforts across the spectrum: Interpretive (phenomenological), Radical Humanist, radical structuralist (constructivist) and Functionalist is thus presented within four ‘paradigms’ of sociological thought which Burrell and Morgan argue have been applied in various ways to organisational analysis. Although much discussed and critiqued, the paradigm idea finds resonance with other authors. In considering paradigms as a way of examining limits of thought in education and technology, I do not intend to reinforce the idea of concrete discursive ‘schools’ – which, after all, says rather more about sociological discourse than it does about the way people think about concrete problems like education. Rather, I’m going to suggest that the paradigm view is at least helpful in marking out the way individuals work with their limits of understanding of education, making arguments for educational reform or technological innovation.
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The multi-perspectival nature of education means that there is ample opportunity for jumping out of one paradigm into another. Educational practice are inseparable from the political context institutions, the socio-economic context of societies and the experiential aspects of individuals and their personal histories. No aspect of education exists independently of any other. However much one might consider an academic problem from the focused critique of one paradigm or another, the political context of the academy frequently interrupts. Yet it is not unusual to find scholars creating a radical separation between their work, their professional position and status and their personal experience. Sometime the interruptions cannot be ignored: when the department is closed for lack of students or funding, or when scholars find themselves in ideological battles with colleagues which owe rather more to personal histories and experiences than to reasoned debate. The difficulties and (sometimes) disinterest of students too can present to scholars issues which lie outside their discipline, but which are inescapably entwined with it. Rarely do scholars make the connections between the disconnects between their discursive practice and their practice as teachers. Perhaps the greatest evidence for this is the fact that few serious scholars have taken the disruptions of technology or managerialism within their institutions as challenges to their own discursive practice.
Educational Technology itself has suffered something of a fall from grace in recent times. Once responsible for encouraging people to engage in new ways with the issues of teaching and learning supported by technology and generous government funding, after results that were less than what had been promised, the funding was stopped. The academic discursive practices which had been focused on learning and technology suddenly were faced with thinking about politics and funding. The components of this mix of feelings and experiences are experiential and individual (worries about the future, crisis of professional identity), critical concerns and objections to the direction being taken, and analytical both in terms of the creation of new coping strategies and in the proposal of new strategies for coping with the situation. Yet each dimension is interconnected.
Different paradigms can be identified by their champions. Who would be most concerned for the powerless teacher being manipulated by politicians than Karl Marx? The Critical Theory which grew from Marx’s ideas is responsive to broader social objectives, questions about political power and the entailments of policy. Beyond Marx himself, the Critical tradition includes such figures as Marcuse, Fromm, Adorno, and Freire. Who would be most concerned with the inner life of teachers and learners in their struggles with the situation of education? Experiential thinking belongs to a philosophical tradition beginning with Brentano, Freud, Schutz and Husserl which exposes a mode of thinking which is deeply reflective. Experiential thinking is a deep inquiry into epistemological issues of learning, and its origins may be traced to the epistemological work of Kant (sometimes referred to as ‘correlationism’), but more recently it refers to the work of people like Piaget and Vygotsky (although Vygotsky identifies most strongly with a critical Marxist perspective). Who would be most concerned for the identification of solutions to the problems of education, even solutions to the struggles of teachers and learners to adapt to policy? The kind of solution-seeking which might have inspired political interference in the first place belongs to behaviourist psychologists, sociologists who assert the conditioning power of institutions over individuals (Durkheim for example), or large-scale social systems thinkers such as Talcott Parsons or Niklas Luhmann.
In the experience of anyone involved in education, there exists a basic relationship between a person and a problem identified through the making of distinctions. It is this distinction-making process which I will characterise as the identification of a ‘limit’. The multi-perspectival nature of education means that most situations present conflicting limits. It is because of the conflict between limit descriptions from different perspectives that rather than state limits explicitly, they tend to be approached from a variety of different perspectives.
Functionalism and Its Limits
There is no better illustration of the concept of a limit that in thinking about functionalism, from those who might identify with its methods and ambitions, and those who might oppose them. There are limits on both sides and these limits so often demarcate the battle lines of political and economic argument grounded in vastly different individual experiences. This particular limit is already drawn within the school curriculum from early childhood. Most broadly, it is the limit that is experienced between the sciences and the humanities. It is the limit that exists between the maths lesson and the music lesson. It exists between approaches to assessment from the exam to the inquiry-based project. The contemporary dominance of functionalism denotes the limits that define the reaction against it. The limits of functionalism and the limits of those who oppose it are defined by the winners and losers at the hands of functionalism. In contemporary management, functionalism tends to get lumped together with managerialism. It is functionalism which is responsible for targets, performance metrics, greed, capitalism, and so on. But from our perspective here, these are just ordinary people dealing with the problems that life throws at them in a way which they believe to be sensible.
Functionalism tends to be demarcated by a pragmatic approach which privileges rational description which is easily codified and communicated, and which by necessity, tends to wash over rich details of particulars in favour of broad abstract descriptions of universals. Much technological development has a tendency towards functionalism. Educational technology in particular has been framed by the regulative and pragmatic mindset of the functionalist perspective. However, functionalism is not a necessary condition for technical development: complex technological developments can be seen in the design and production of artefacts which do not appear to have teleological significance in the same way as much educational technology - musical instruments are an excellent example, whose purpose lies beyond the performance of a ‘function’. Pragmatism comes at a cost: functionalism is often driven by impatience with the nebulous, and a preference for the concrete. It tends to exclude more than it includes. The limits of functionalism are the limits of the actual.
Functionalism dominates thinking about education as ‘instrumental’ for economic gain: it can be seen as largely responsible for the current trend towards the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) agenda in primary school. The limits of functionalism are not only the result of cultural conditioning: the distinction between functionalism and its opponents reproduce themselves across different cultures throughout history. The limit between functionalism and its opponents is indeed inscribed in educational culture, yet this culture reflects something deeper within human ontogeny.
Functionalism’s prowess rests in a capacity to coordinate human action with teleological assertions. The power of scientific advance rests on the creation of explanations around which society can be ordered. Here Burrell and Morgan’s paradigms may be compared with Kuhn’s paradigms. Functionalism displays a particular relation between logic and reality whereby individuals with sufficient mastery of analytical skill and social judgement could find themselves coordinating armies, institutions and nations. The limits of functionalism rest at the limit of the power relations between individuals caught up in this dynamic. Human coordination and goal-directedness may be clearly articulated, and even when there are differences of opinion as to whether they are good goals or not, the power of the arguments may still carry along a coalition of interested parties, not all of whom may agree to the fine detail of what is latent behind the scenes. Analytical propositions depend on pure reason for their articulation, even when aspect of the reasoned argument are not as strong as they might appear to be. Even within the social sciences, the impact of the computer in so-called qualitative research suggests here too that functionalism’s basic premises dominate. Within social theories which are themselves careful to avoid determinism nevertheless embrace teleology as a fundamental mechanism of human self-organisation.
The functionalist view is a product of enlightenment thought. Hume’s theory of causation, around which enlightenment proceeded, turned the scientific world upside-down. The technological world predetermines thinking about goals and teleology which is not eternal. Functionalism’s limit is, to a large extent, a limit that is applied to rationalism. Yet, even for the super-rational Greeks, functionalist ideas would only account for part of intellectual life: rationality co-existed with the irrational regime of ritual and the divine madnesses of the muses (Dodds, 1959). Some commentators argue that the rationality of modernity is in fact a reaction to the archaic roots of civilisation – for Bataille, it is deeply linked to the taboo; for Veblen (who thinks similarly) it is related to the archaic ritualistic roots of society.
Functionalism’s ambitions to impose its limits on the way that education is conducted are everywhere and typify many attempts to intervene with technology in education. Examples of reasoned argument in the application of technology to education have traversed a landscape of approaches ranging from talk of the ‘arrangement of services’, interoperability ,artificial intelligence and other the semantic web which have demanded a technico-rational approach. It is clear that certain types of people are attracted to these formulations. One of the basic characteristics of engagement at this technical level is a lack of critique of ontological foundations for a proposal: practical and operational challenges take precedence and rather than articulate deeper rationale for technical interventions, and intellectual endeavour is targeted toward the production of a ‘functional specification’. Processes of functional decomposition are also processes of social atomisation. The rationale seeks to maximise organisation of resources, and to fund efforts to design and build solutions to technical problems, whether they be problems of interoperability, or problems of resource management at scale. These advantages are significant and distinguish analytical approaches as being often genuinely collaborate, as opposed to critical or phenomenological approaches which tend to locate themselves around ‘key thinkers’.
Marxist Critique
Functionalism exists as an entity largely because it is named by its critics. The critics of functionalism see it from the perspective of their own limits: indeed, the limits of the functionalist are determined by other people. But the limit boundary that determines the marker between those who operate to benefit from technology and those who are subject to technology and the inequalities which that can bring introduces new limits. The limits of Marxist critique rests in the blindness to idealism but from a different perspective and to the broader understanding of the efficacy of critique and its coordinating power.
The Marxist sees the problems of education as fundamentally social, not psychological. Yet, in so doing, the Marxist runs the risk of a kind of social idealism. For Popper, the Marxist discourse is one where the emphasis on materiality and social progress and the idea of progress ultimately (like functionalism itself) admits no real people. The dangers of not admitting real people is a disconnect between rhetoric and reality can set in, whereby emancipation is talked about, but the realisation of any plan results in oppression. As with many kinds of opposition, the Marxist paradigm’s opposition to functionalism often presents two perspectives on the same limit.  When faced with the managerialist’s diktats, technologies and performance indicators, the Marxist can only be challenged to say “what would you do?” – only for a different set of technologies, diktats and protocols to be suggested in their place. Alternatively, the Marxist might throw their hands up and say that “nothing is possible as long as we are in capitalism”.
Critical and Marxist thinking can be analytical in different ways from the functionalist. Whilst the managerial ‘guruism’ of the functionalist is avoided, a kind of ‘critical guruism’ can take its place. The nature of limits means that each critical perspective is framed by those things around it to which it reacts to. A good example of this is the application of critical thinking to the educational system itself, and the recommendations for things which might be done to it. Within the critical tradition there are many great educational thinkers including Paulo Freire (1968), Ivan Illich(1971), Augusto Boal(1979) and Ira Shor(1980). In each case, there is a carefully articulated critique about the ‘nature of education’ and an argument about how education should change. For Illich, education is a pathological enterprise whose relation to society as a ‘component’ should be overturned, where education should be seen as intergral to the conduct of social life. Friere’s position is similar, although more practical. His ontology begins with the challenges of social life and the ways in which real political challenges can be leveraged for pedagogical benefit. The relationship between learning and emotion is highlighted. Other thinkers of the Left including Pierre Bourdieu, Basil Bernstein highlight the enculturation effects that education has on students and social systems in general. Their position rests on a critique of the role of social class (Bourdieu(1977)) or language (Bernstein(2000)) in the emergence of educational structures in society. More recently, deeper ontological critiques have emerged, citing Critical Realism (Pawson and Tilley, 2010), Speculative Realism and other forms of ontological inquiry as a basis for rethinking the relationship between schools, colleges and universities and the societies they operate within.
The limits of phenomenology and Existentialism
The pursuit of both sociologically-oriented idealism and functionalist idealism and its real consequences becomes the focus for the identifying a different set of limits concerned with inspecting feelings, reactions, intentions, and experiences.  The nature of subjectivity, experience is a fundamental part of any ontological investigation. Here, the phenomenologist’s limit is to skirt with solipsism: it is to say “what else beyond experience is there?” This is turn can lead to a failure to recognise those things which are shared, those things where the political and social relate to the phenomenological.
Some sociologists schooled in phenomenology were keenly aware of this problem. Alfred Schutz (1967), whose career was dedicated to the exploration of the gap between what he believed to be the profound insights of Husserl, also felt that the social was absent from Husserl’s account. He intended to bridge this gap with an account of experience which was grounded in the sociology of Max Weber. Theories of both Piaget and Vygotsky highlight the processes of cognitive adaptation to stimulus where even the cognition of the environment is dependent on such processes. Given that the can be such scepticism about the nature of reality, how is such a reality knowable? The solipsistic limit of phenomenology is evidenced in the radical constructivism of Ernst Von Glasersfeld (1980).
The most significant influence of phenomenology has been on educational research methodology. Whilst functionalism has been supported the making of interventions, and Marxist critique has generally sought to oppose functionalist hubris, phenomenological inquiry has steered a methodological programme of attempting to map practical intervention with experiential “evidence”. A programme of phenomenological inquiry where multiple perspectives which are necessarily individual are sought and a process of coordination between perspectives is entered into in the hope of agreeing local norms and conditions, with knowledge claims strictly limited to the observing groups. Such approaches can defend themselves as being ‘grounded’ because they depend on data from observations only, rather than shaping existing theory to explain situations in a procrustean manner. New methodologies like Grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) became very popular in the identification and coordination of different perspectives and analysis, drawing theory out of observations of evidential data. Such measures have also had an effect in the domain of management, where soft system analysis (Checkland, 1999) similarly has sought to articulate different points of view. Yet phenomenology has survived on the back of its exploitation by functionalists: evidence-based policy really becoming policy-based evidence. It is the methodological application of phenomenology where the analytical approach holds.
The interaction of Limits
When limits move, social structures change. Smith’s articulation of changes to social structure are another way of discussing the way that the limits of individuals may change. Through political pressure, or through technological development, or through changes in fashion and social norms, what was once seen as a barrier between acceptability and fear moves. The shifting of limits provides a way of accounting for social change over time. The reproduction and transformation of social structure through agency is a reconfiguration of social order such that the limits of different agents and their relations with one another are transformed. In an academic career, one may start as a phenomenologist (expressing one set of obligations and commitments to a group) and end up a Marxist (expressing a different set of commitments to a different group). However, within a confusing discourse, limits are experienced from different perspectives without really knowing from which perspective knowledge comes.
It is easy to characterise this process in an abstract way: limits expose the identity of the individual: their enthusiasms, passions, identity and fears. These in turn reflect the relations between people: obligations, commitments, rights. Perhaps rather, it is the encounter with the limits of an individual that others discover them. What is apparent in print is very different from what is apparent in person; the dynamics of text-based exchanges are very different from the dynamics of face-to-face exchange. Those paradigms and limits so far discussed relate to aspects of thinking as it is represented in academic thinking; they are precisely the limits of the abstract: the Marxist vs the phenomenologist. Fears and enthusiasms are at the root of where these limits lie. The academic whose reputation has been established through a particular paradigmatic viewpoint, who sees professional fear in themselves being shifted from that viewpoint to another. But this is not simply a matter of the limit of discourse, or the limit of a set of ideas or a perspective. Something in the academic psyche led them to the point that they felt comfortable with a particular way of looking at things: something which probably has its roots in childhood led them to this point. The point here is that limits are not just established through the interaction of discursive paradigms: they are the product of personal histories – of patterns of engaging with the world.
The means of expressing oneself, the means by which limits are revealed are largely technological. The playing with the channels of communication, the means and organisation of communication pokes and provokes limits in ways which challenge existing limits: both education and technology exist in the in-between domain – where the experience of them subtly move limits whilst challenging the individual to assert their position with regard to it. Technologies are at the heart of this. When we talk about education and technology in education, we are not talking about defined discourse: they are invitations to ways of thinking which expose the gamut of individual limits.
The academic journey may well take one from functionalism to Marxism as a limit boundary becomes more clearly articulated from a different paradigm. Limits have much more to do with personal identities: they are exposed variously through advocacy or defence. In matters to do with education and technology, declarations of elevated status of new tools or procedures are made. In recent years, new objects and processes have been elevated in this way by various powerful groups: Virtual Learning Environments, Learning Outcomes, Student loans, CATS points, Competencies, E-portfolios, and so on. It is not long before some of these new declarations are accepted, or begrudged by the educational establishment. However, at their inception, any declaration of status will meet opposition to the functionalism – that limit which identifies in technologies solutions to problems which are themselves viewed through the lens of functionalism (and which are themselves often the product of technologies) – which is established through discourse and the rational support of the efficacy of artefacts. Critique and opposition to any functionalist position is met with counter-critical arguments. For example, in countering arguments about instrumentalising education through Virtual Learning Environments, counter-critical arguments point at the inadequacies of the status-quo, mobilising critical arguments in defence of a functionalist one. Behind the attempt to find evidence to support a functionalist overview, or the drive to ‘solve’ an issue, defending itself against critique, lies personal experience itself, together with phenomenologically-grounded descriptions of the defence of that experience. Limits are approached from different sides of an argument: power and technology all play their part in the process of establishing a new tool or practice.
The managerialist’s confidence in logical solutions, the technologist’s euphoria over a new kind of technology; the critic’s passionate striving for the ‘good society’, the phenomenological quest for insight into the workings of the mind are together indicative of the variety of perspectives that typify education. Each individual has some understanding of the others’ limits. Each tunes into the other to defend their own position. The status of procedures and pedagogies appears to take second place to the status of objects and software: those things which can be easily pointed to and people mobilised around. When particular procedures and protocols are then used as a vehicle to make new kinds of status declaration, from a variety of perspectives, then this creates the conditions for the guru.
Technology, Education and the Traversal of Limits
To talk about the traversal of limits is to talk about the conditions for social change. Material changes, political challenge, changes to individual relationships and profound artistic and emotional experiences can each be a motivation for travelling across or moving limits. Returning to Smith’s description of the conditions for social change, in each instance it is possible to redescribe the conditions in terms of the limits of individuals, with those limits resulting from particular configurations of social structure. For example, the difference between old and new relationships occurs as the constraints which held communication practices with a particular social group (and away from another) weaken. Many narratives around the integration of previously ostracised social groups could be used to support this. Where were the limits which once caused racial segregation, or excluded women from political processes? Something, over time, happens to the feelings of individuals who at one point would see a clear boundary between acceptable and unacceptable social engagement, and at a later point in time, that particular boundary appears to have disappeared (or moved). Of course, ‘categories of understanding’ are part of this process (Smith’s second point). Discourse configures itself around the expectations of individuals, and expectations themselves will be formed against the backdrop of limits. Expectations too can help understand the impact of material factors in the ways that individuals experience limit.
Having said this, such a redescription – whilst it simplifies (perhaps it flattens) the instances of social change that Smith describes – it doesn’t explain what happens when individuals cross or move a limit. The encounter with limits is visceral: its principal response is fear. At what point does a fearful response yield to one where fear is overcome? To argue that the overcoming of a limit is an automatic social structural process would be to deflate human agency to the point of determinism. Every human limit is overcome through the agency of another human being. Indeed, it is precisely the moment of moving limits which we associate with the processes of teaching and learning. The question is, What sits behind the motivation of that agency? What sits behind the desire to change oneself and the desire to change other people?
In order to deal with this question, it is first important to clarify the relationship between those limits which emerge through discourse and those limits which are entailed through matter. Actor Network Theorists and Socio-Materialists argue that the powers and properties of matter have agency. In his articulation of the entwining of matter and humans, Latour  (2005) argues that aspects of social structures participate in an equal way in the processes of reproduction and transformation of social structures. Whilst it is the case (as Smith says) that restrictions or abundance in material resource have an effect on the perception of limit, material resources, robots, roads and buildings each exist by virtue of social linguistic processes which assert their significance: what Searle calls a ‘status function’ (2011).
Travelling across a boundary is a process of interaction between different kinds of limit and this in turn must entail an interaction between different kinds of people, objects and social structures. Education is the domain where the flux of being is most apparent: education discourse demonstrates the interplay of limits. Paradigm switches in education are indicative of the spaces between awareness of the absolute and awareness of present limits. Seen at best, technologies present new ways of exploring material limits and in the process serve to expose limits of understanding and stimulate critical inspection: technologies can grant permission to think about education. However, technologies are themselves the result of declarations made through power structures within society. Technological implementation may reinforce limits of understanding rather than cause travel across limits. This may be particularly true in cases where technologies reinforce a functionalist paradigm to which those subjected are already reacting against.
The phenomenon of paradigm-switching by those advocating technologies in education may be seen as a means of shoring-up a status declaration which in turn is intended as an assertion of limits on other people (like, for example, the withholding of material resources, or the imposing of new practices) with the intention of establishing social change in a particular desired direction. The weakness of the paradigm-closure position then becomes apparent: such acts are politically-motivated and rarely produce the desired consequences. Under conditions of oppression, new forms of expression eventually arise (although not usually after a protracted battle), which will explore other aspects of limit: the binding of communities through solidarity, the discovery of subversive forms of artistic expression or the pursuit of new methodological practices to challenge the functionalist orthodoxy of the policies being implemented. Yet this latter aspect is the most challenging and asks the deepest questions not only about how we reason about education, but how education is coordinated in society. The question of the governance of education is a question concerning the possibility of naturalistic inquiry within education.
Concluding Remarks: The Possibility of Educational Naturalism
The inability to establish coherent empirical methodologies which coordinate consensus-driven focus on theory-practice gaps in education leaves a void into which political expedience and managerialist interventions – each bolstered by new technologies and evidence-driven (for which read ‘policy-driven’) defences present themselves. Paradigm-switching is convenient license to replace clarity with ‘spin’ and assert technologically-mediated social change in the name of scientistic ‘progress’ which nullifies critique. Educational technology researchers should be careful not to become embroiled in this.
The possibility of a coordinated attempt to address theory-practice gaps rests on the possibility of shared judgements about social structures. Whilst it has become fashionable to challenge objectivity in the social sciences, the existence of social institutions, textbooks, vice-chancellors, prime ministers, teachers, secretaries of state for education, exam results, certificates and curricula is generally accepted beyond the solipsistic realms of radical scepticism. Given the existence of such aspects of education, it is sensible to ask how they are structured and constituted in relation to one another. In essence this is a way of describing a ‘social order’ of education. Furthermore, new structures and assertions about the “reality” of new software applications, professional practices, institutional positions, awards and sanctions will each of them change the relations between the entities of the education system.
However, I would have failed in my purpose of delineating the dynamic tensions between different ways of looking at education if the result of research into the ordering of education resulted in an abstract formulation. Given that the world is full of different kinds of people, and there are different ways of looking at it, and – as I have discussed – there is a dynamic tension between positions and people, it would be mistaken to hope that the multiple valency of the dynamics can be reduced to abstract models. There are, at the very least, many monovalent abstract models. However, it may be equally naive to suggest that reduction to abstract models ought not be done: there will always be researchers for whom this is an enlivening enterprise and who fight to defend their claim to the "truth" about education.
We are theory-possessing beings, and some of our theories concern the structures of the education system, the relations between its parts, the constitution of those parts and the structural shifts that we expect to see in the light of our interventions. My argument here has been that, academic egos aside, we can be fairly confident that our theories are inconsistent, incomplete, and subtly shift between different views of the world. Whilst we are capable of recording the structures of education in terms of networks of rights, responsibilities, obligations, commitments, object relations and duties within the system in various ways, the methodological question rests within the negative space between one person’s way of looking at education and another’s. Negative spaces are difficult to analyse, although recent advances in ecology and information theory are providing new glimpses as to how we might go about it. Methodological techniques of all kinds, whether functionalist, Marxist or phenomenological, in revealing the positive rational space provide at least some kind of indication of what is missing. But the deep issue is the way that the means of coming to know educational technology (or education more broadly) and the dynamics of knowing and personal being itself are intertwined.
References
Berstein, B (2000) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity
Boal, A (1979) Theatre of the Oppressed
Burrell, G; Morgan, G (1979) Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis
Bourdieu, P; Passeron, J (1977) Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture
Checkland, P (1999) Soft Systems Methodology in Action
Freire, P (1968) Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Glaser, B; Strauss, A.L. (1967) The discovery of Grounded Theory
Illich, I (1971) Deschooling Society
Latour, B (2005) Reassembling the Social
Pawson, R; Tilley, N (2002) Realistic Evaluation
Searle, J (2011) The Making of the Social World
Von Glasersfeld, E (1980) Radical Constructivism
Smith, C (2011) What is a Person?
Schutz, A (1967) Phenomenology of the Social World

Shor, I (1980) Critical Teaching and Everyday Life

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Educational Cybernetics across Boundaries

As teachers we believe that we can change peoples’ lives by talking and listening with them. The principal task of any education system is to find ways of organising the context within which the talking and listening occurs. To this end, technology has transformed the means by which conversations can be coordinated, and it would be reasonable to expect changes in the way education is organised. In a relatively short period of years, email, the web, Skype, blogs, and a variety of 'social media' platforms (Twitter, Facebook, etc) have not only transformed the context of education, but made the communications of learners and teachers available for analytical inspection. In this presentation, I will talk about the effort to transform education with technology, its theoretical foundations, its critique and the challenges that face educational systems. Fundamental is the issue of overcoming boundaries: whether the boundaries within nations among different social classes, or the boundaries between nations which can block access to higher learning. Whilst educational technology promised to address some of these issues, it has not succeeded, which leads us to ask why and, what might we do about it?
An example from the Beginning of the Internet
In the early 1970s, selected politicians, artists and academics were exposed to a new kind of communicative transformation. Their interactions on the early ARPANET network are recorded and reveal the interface between a new codified means of communicating through technology with an awakening of the possibilities for transforming the world through new educational experiences. The original transcripts of their engagements are online. Even in the constrained typescript of the interactions, the sense of excitement is palpable, as can be seen from this encounter between Ronald Reagan (then Governor of California, Belgian poet Marcel Broodthaers, and Palestinian philosopher Edward Said):
RONALD REAGAN: Wouldnt you rather pick up the phone and call.  
RONALD REAGAN: All this damned typing.
MARCEL BROODTHAERS: You get faster.
EDWARD SAID: Yes I would but if it were to be cheap and inexpensive.
EDWARD SAID: Free.
RONALD REAGAN: Free. Well who pays for it in the end though.
MARCEL BROODTHAERS: The people of course.
RONALD REAGAN: You mean taxes.
MARCEL BROODTHAERS: I assume you are in a military communication centre like me. Both of you. EDWARD SAID: 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.  
EDWARD SAID: The rich should pay.

Broodthaers and Said saw the potential - particularly for education. It was in education that the transformation of possibilities of communication would have their most powerful effect. The conversation continued:

MARCEL BROODTHAERS: Students I think could benefit from this greatly.
EDWARD SAID: Yes I can imagine.
MARCEL BROODTHAERS: Vast networks of students.
EDWARD SAID: Networks. What does that mean really.
MARCEL BROODTHAERS: Youth must be provided with the means to grasp this opportunity.


The technology behind ARPANET grew from a discipline which since the late 1940s had 'communication' and 'learning' at its heart. This discipline is Cybernetics. 

Education and the Origin of Cybernetics
Cybernetics began in a series of conferences in the Macy hotel in New York in the late 1940s. The original title for the Macy conferences was “Feedback Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems in Biological and Social Systems”. This later evolved into “Cybernetics: Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems.” Present at the first conference were academics from a variety of disciplines including Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, John Von Neumann, Norbert Wiener and Warren McCulloch. The first conference included von Neumann presented on computers and neurophysiology, Wiener talked about self-regulation, and McCulloch presented on neural networks. Gregory Bateson gave a presentation on his anthropological field work of the 1930's and highlighted the need for theory. Bateson was particularly interested in education, and in his presentation, he distinguished between 'learning' and 'learning to learn', challenging the group as to whether and how they thought computers could accomplish either form of learning. In so doing this, Bateson began to specify different levels of learning and consciousness which underpinned not only an educational theory, but a psycho-therapeutic theory: most notably his theory of the 'double-bind'.
In addition to education, Cybernetics presented a strong technological focus. It concerned itself both with the architecture and construction of electronic networks (Claude Shannon was to attend the later conferences), simultaneously with understanding mental processes and human organisation. It is perhaps little surprise that the early experiments with technology and education came from this source.
Among the early experiments with educational technology and cybernetics, the most significant work was done by the British cybernetician Gordon Pask. Pask produced an ambitious theory (1975) of conversation which aimed to model the dialogue between teachers and learners. Pask conceived of teaching as a conversation between a learner and a teacher where the teacher would explain concepts, perhaps engaging the learner in an activity, and the learner would then 'teach back' the concept. The teacher would then assess the extent of the learner's understanding and adjust their approach. Like all cybernetic mechanisms the relationship between the teacher and learner was circular and displayed non-eqilibrium dynamics (Figure below). This was later explicitly expressed as a model for teaching and learning in Universities by Laurillard (1999).


Pask's theory underpinned the creation of a variety of teaching machines. These were used for purposes such as the training create computer punch cards (like the SAKI system shown below), sample opinions, and design courses. Unlike other models of learning of the time which aimed to model individual mental processes in various ways, Pask was interested in the dynamics of social communicative relations in a teaching and learning situation. It was this communication which, he believed, displayed non-equilibrium dynamics which could be supported by technology.
Pask's theory also sought to identify the way that concepts were connected with one another. He proposed that concepts were connected with each other through 'entailment meshes', and learner progression could be coordinated through the navigation of entailments. His CASTE system helped teachers design courses on the basis of entailment meshes which could be programmed into the system.
Constructivism and Technological Personalisation of Education
Pask's conversation theory contributed to a climate of constructivist thinking in education which gained many adherents from the 1960s on (Harri-Augstein and Thomas, 2015). Most prominent among cybernetic thinkers of education was Ernst von Glasersfeld (1996), whose 'Radical Constructivism' drew on the work of Piaget. Piaget himself had articulated his learning theory as a theory of organic adaptation and assimilation which he called broadly "genetic epistemology". When Vygotsky's work became known in the West in the 1970s further interest was stimulated in the social constructivism which Vygotsky had developed in the light of Piaget's work. In all this work, emphasis was placed on the role of conversation in learning, with the teacher-learner and learner-learner conversations seen at the heart of learning processes, where the role of the teacher was to create contexts and activities within which learning conversations could take place.
With the coming of the web in the 1990s, a new way of creating contexts and activities was presented. There was much hope that communications technologies could liberate the institutional contexts within which educational conversations could occur. Learning conversations in Universities were seen to have been restricted to outdated practices which only served educated elites. Technology presented the possibility that new forms of learning and engagement could occur online. Governments and Universities accepted the importance of the impact of technology, funding extensive programs in research and development of educational technologies.  In the UK this was spearheaded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) which sponsored work on e-learning systems in UK universities.
If education was to be transformed by technology then it was important to governments and universities themselves to understand what the changes might mean. In the work that followed, four areas of activity can be highlighted:
  1. Personalisation and Institutional organisation
  2. Technological organisation and interoperability
  3. Pedagogical coordination
  4. Analytics
With regard to 1, The Personal Learning Environment (Johnson and Liber, 2008) was the name given to an attempt to shift the locus of control of technology for learning from the institution to the individual learner. The technology created opportunities with tools like the such as the CETIS PLEX tool for individuals to aggregate resources, tools and services from a variety of locations on the web, thus enabling them to meet their own learning needs. Alongside personal control of technology came a drive for open-access material, open courses (of which the MOOC has been an important part), and new ways of coordinating learning activities. It was believed that personal ownership of technology would challenge the status and authority of institutions and the relationship between institutions and individuals. This didn’t happen.
With regard to 2, technical developments like “Web Services” meant that systems functionality could be disaggregated and coordinated in different ways. Service-Oriented Architecture in educational institutions became an important aspect of the strategic technical reorganisation of education to improve institutional efficiency. Global specialised educational services ranging from repositories of student work which could automatically check for plagiarism, advanced library systems which searched across contexts, reading list systems, academic journal subscription services, personalised learning analytics, portfolio systems, storage services and repositories, media services and learning tool libraries. In each case global markets were generated as institutions saw that it was more efficient to outsource specialised services than reproduce them in-house. With an array of services, it became important to ensure interoperability between different services. Therefore, much work went into specifying standards for communication between different learning services. Beyond the institutional adoption of Web Services, commercial social software exploited disaggregation by facilitating the coordination of a rich array of communications services by the individual, and in the process collected vast amounts of data about personal behaviour which could then be leveraged as a new business model for targeted advertising. New ways of organising education became possible, and most significantly, new ways of organising the academics and students in education became possible. The result was an increase in the power of management to coordinate and control the activities of academics, and increasingly casualised contractual conditions for staff. The ‘needle’ of New Public Management has burst the idealistic hopes of a transformed education system.
Regarding 3, attempts were made to technologically capture the flow of activities in teaching. One particular experiment called “Learning Design” (Koper, 2001) sought to bring workflow technology to teaching. The flow of activities in teaching were designed by the teacher in such a way that it could be could be replayed by any teacher with any group of learners. These experiments failed to engage teachers in sufficient numbers. However, such failures acted as opportunities to explore the gap between systematic thinking about educational processes and the human realities of teaching and learning.
When innovations succeeded, they tended to be absorbed by institutions. Rather than challenging the hegemony of institutions (as the champions of the Personal Learning Environment hoped to do), technologies served institutions in harnessing their individual reputations. For Universities, the technological spin-offs of work on personalisation and the integration of social software served the purposes of marketing. Despite high drop-out rates, the MOOC offered elite universities a ‘shop window’ for them to offer tasters of the intellectual content of their courses. The use of MOOCs, institutional learning systems, and social software have all exposed new opportunities for harnessing information about learner behaviour which then is used to improve institutional performance in teaching and learning. The rise of analytic technologies for learning has been mirrored by the rise of bibliometric technologies for academic writing. These latter systems have become increasingly important when research funding to Universities is allocated on the basis of research assessments drawing heavily on the results of bibliometric data.
The result of this is that institutions have become more powerful, not less. In the ARPANET dialogues, Edward Said began to feel uncomfortable at the enthusiasm of Marcel Broodthaers for transforming education. The conversation continues:
MARCEL BROODTHAERS: The young will grasp its potential in a way we couldnt imagine.
RONALD REAGAN: I dont doubt that.
MARCEL BROODTHAERS: You agree with me Ronald.
RONALD REAGAN: Well yes.
EDWARD SAID: And what will it lead to Marcel. Other networks with more power will already have control.


Said’s astute and bleak observation that "other networks with more power will already have control" appears to have been proved correct. In Universities, where academics themselves used to manage their own institutions, now those who have control of the network and its data are professional managers who make decisions based on sources of information based on data analytics. This has resulted in a fundamental transformation of the nature of education and the experience of learning. More broadly, it has changed the ‘Political Ecology’ of the institution wherein decisions about institutional organisation are made.
Concluding Remarks: Experience and Expectations of Education and Technology
It would be a mistake to think that Educational cybernetics itself has delivered an education system driven by analytics and increasingly global companies that offer specialised services which can be aggregated in different ways by institutions, or that it has produced a managerial situation where the control of universities has been ceded by academics in favour of professional managers. Although cybernetic thinking has contributed to the emergence of these things, Educational Cybernetics is fundamentally about the human experience of teaching, learning and the organisation of institutions. It provides a way of thinking and a space for asking questions about why driving education to be ever-more efficient appears to produce alienation in teachers and learners.
Technology in education acts like a torch which is shone on ancient processes and questions. Given the systemic effects of technology in education, and the more unpleasant aspects of New Public Management, it is important to ask the Educational Cybernetic question about what are sometimes alienating experiences that appear to be common in learning institutions worldwide. Educational Cybernetics can help us ask about the effects of technology not only on learners and teachers, but also on managers.
This deeper questioning of Educational Cybernetics raises difficult questions about communication, constructivism, experience and politics. There are many ways in which Pask's model is deficient and given this, we should not be surprised at the failure of many of the experiments in educational technology. For example, Pask's model contains no real people - only two abstract communicating agents who maintain their non-equilibrium dynamics. There is also no mention of the political dimension of education as it was discussed by Freire, nor is there any consideration of the ethics involved in teaching and learning. These omissions are important because they indicate that Pask's mechanism, fascinating though it was, didn't get to the heart of what matters about teaching and learning.
Cybernetic work in other domains might help. The phenomenological work of Alfred Schutz (1967) and Edmund Husserl on "intersubjectivity" found cybernetic expression in the work of Niklass Luhmann (1995), and more recently Loet Leydesdorff (2006). For Luhmann and Leydesdorff, the codification of expectations plays a fundamental role. Here there is a useful distinction to be made between simple technologies like cups or chairs, and communication technologies. The former codify expectations of functionality - what are sometimes called 'affordances'. By contrast, communications technologies like email, Twitter or Facebook codify expectations about new possibilities of communicating. Education itself is also a codification of new possibilities of communicating, although in education new possibilities are realised through new skills, communities and language registers, whilst communication technologies rely on new technological communication practices.
Significant too are the distinctions between face-to-face communication and online communication. Schutz described the distinction between face-to-face and remote communication as one where the flow of time is a key element in the appreciation of the inner life of the Other. This suggests that time-based forms of communication like video would have a greater communicative power than non-time-based forms like email. Given the central importance of video on MOOCs, and more generally on YouTube, there appears to be some empirical evidence that can support this. Schutz's integration of time in communication is something that has not been fully explored in cybernetics. However, it is an example of where educational practice can inform the development of a richer theory.
Finally there is the question about social organisation and communication within institutions themselves and the role of technology. The effects of technology are to reduce the richness of personal interactions within institutions, which can lead to the loss of the time-based element in face-to-face communication and the sharing of real connected experience. With only abstracted data representations of the institution to hand, bad decisions are likely to result through failing to understand the realities of institutional life. Educational institutions are seen as having management 'done' to them, rather than management being inherent in their organisational fabric.
It is the central challenge of Educational Cybernetics to work towards realising educational institutions where management is inherent in every part of their organisation, from learners to teachers to managers. It is unfortunate that cybernetic thinking in its under-labouring for educational technology appears thus far to have delivered the opposite effect. However, it remains a hope that this situation can be corrected with a deeper ecological understanding about our relationships with each other and with communications technology.
References
Harri-Augstein, S; Thomas, L (2015) Learning Conversations: The self-organised way to personal  and organisational and growth
Johnson, M; Liber, O (2008) The Personal Learning Environment and the Human Condition: From theory to teaching practice Interactive Learning Environments
Koper R. (2001) "Modelling Units of Study from a pedagogical perspective: The pedagogical metamodel behind EML" Technical Report OUNL June, 2001http://eml.ou.nl
Laurillard, D (1992) Rethinking University Teaching: A conversational framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies Routledge
Leydesdorff (2006) The Knowledge-Based Economy: Modeled, Measured, Simulated Universal Publishers
Luhmann (1995) Social Systems
Pask, G (1975) Conversation, cognition and learning. New York: Elsevier
Schutz, A (1967) On Phenomenology and Social Relations

Von Glasersfeld, E (1996) Radical Constructivism: a way of thinking and learning