Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Absentee Owners of Universities and the Handicraft of Education

Veblen wrote his last major work in 1923 on "Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise". The phrase "absentee ownership" has resonated with me for a while now when thinking about Universities: with apologies to William Frederick Yeames, When did you last see your Vice-Chancellor?

Veblen's account of the rise of "Absentee Ownership" is his way of describing the progress of economies from industrious handicraft when the resources, tools, techniques and objectives were all close-at-hand for those directly connected with the business of production, and the gradual emergence of capitalisation where owners of enterprises became the 'money men' who traded on the ownership of natural resources and the outputs of businesses, but who were detached from the actual running of those businesses. Veblen's analysis makes possible some fine distinctions in the emergence of capitalism, where absentee ownership was not a uniform development across all fields of industry. In farming, for example, there was ownership of natural resource (the land) but but a form of management which was not absent, being concernfully engaged with the operations of the farm. Similarly, not all heavy industry entailed absent ownership: whilst the handicraft industries evolved to use production machinery, managers would have an overarching vision of where to take their business and how to make the most of the new technological opportunities afforded by the machinery. This too was certainly not absentee ownership.

But when it comes to plantations, slavery, corporate agglomerations, and so forth, it is the capitalisation of the enterprise and the trade in credit which becomes the driving force. Absentee owners do money deals disconnected (conveniently disconnected in the case of slavery) from the realities of the industry itself. This 'New Order' of things generally serves to constrain output so as to keep prices high, thus serving the needs of the over-capitalization of production. The distance of absentee ownership can also exploit cultural and political differences: Veblen points out, with the case of slavery, that whilst the American South was the industrial heartland of the trade, the absentee owners were in the 'liberal' north, trading in New York. In this way legitimated practice rubs shoulders with illegitimate or shady practice. 

Education seems to be going through its own period of industrialisation at the moment, and it is no surprise to see absentee ownership of educational institutions on the rise. It's not just Universities, although they seem to be leading the way (as they certainly have done in America for the last 20 years or so). Even mainstream schooling is increasingly subject to absentee ownership: the UK Academy school programme, the Free School programme and the University Technology Colleges have encouraged private investment in state-funded education creating a breed of corporate 'sponsors' whose "money might" sways policy on curriculum, strategy, technology and staffing. But the current crop of Vice-Chancellors in the UK are the most telling example of absentee ownership. They are very different characters from those who served in that position 20 years ago. Apart from being paid industrial-scale salaries, they are noticeably less present in their own institutions, doing money deals with wealthy businessmen (some of whom are the same characters taking the lead in the provision of schooling!), touring the world selling their brand of education, and lobbying politicians and the establishment for acknowledgements of legitimacy (particularly from Church and the Judiciary), status for themselves or for their financial backers, or political favour in the corridors of power.

The contradictions of the industrialised education system and its absentee owners are manifest. The business of engendering learning remains within the domain of handicraft. Parents are the first source of this, but then it comes down to skilled teachers to listen to and understand their students so as to develop their confidence and ability. That some parents are far more skilled at this handicraft than others will remain a continual source of social inequality which the education system always hopes to ameliorate. If the modus operandi of the absentee owner in industry is to constrain productivity to maximise profits by keeping prices high, how does the absentee owner of an educational institution operate? Surely there is a desire to maximise the production of successful and confident graduates? How could constraint on the production of successful and confident graduates ever maintain the appeal of an educational operation?

Here it is useful to make a distinction between the business of learning and the cultivation of an individual as handicraft, with the conferring of graduate status on individuals. Higher education is a status game (Veblen wrote a earlier book about this). Universities have always constrained the conferring of graduate status on individuals. By so doing, they have maintained their appeal. The rise of the "leisure class" as he called them was primarily a status-seeking process. Higher education institutions effectively admitted people to the 'priesthood' of people who could laud their knowledge and expertise above those around them. "Lauding above" is the principle activity in Universities, occurring not just between the institution and the rest of society, but between individuals in the institution. The controls are simply to do with where the line is drawn as to who is admitted and who is not. Universities, as Illich reminds us, create failure.

The absentee owner of the university acts both as a high priest and as 'captain of industry' in his or her shady dealings with businessmen, the establishment and politicians. His financialized assets maintain their value through the exploitation of his or her status and the constraints on the conferring of graduate status on others. The constraints on the conferring of status are however highly flexible and within the control of the Vice-Chancellor. At will he can confer PhDs (honoris causa), give assurances (if the circumstances are advantageous) that certain things will be so, despite custom and practice in maintaining academic 'quality' within the institution apparently precluding it. In doing so, he has to manage two things: maintaining his own status as the high priest, which is conferred on him by the board of governors, and ensuring that his flexibility for implementing his plans is not curtailed by opposition from workers in the University. The former he achieves by delivering financial returns in the form of economic surpluses. The latter he does by increasingly draconian and authoritarian control of the workers in the institution.

Where does this leave the handicraft of learning? Skilled teachers find themselves in an impossible position. Charged with the care and nurturing of their students in conditions where the actual cultivated benefits in students matter less than the simple "numbers game" on balance sheets of student fee income. In industry, mechanisation allowed the handicraft industries to increase production, yet in education, mechanisation (the internet) has certainly created new opportunities for learning and access to knowledge for those with the disposition to use it (which are generally those subject to the skilled handicraft of parents), but has done little for those who do not have these advantages. Good teachers remain largely trying to hand-spin threads against a background that demands mass-scale production which increasingly constrains their actions within assessment frameworks which preclude hand-spinning. Consequently, the conferring of graduate status becomes a mechanical process of hoop-jumping where contagious absenteeism infects teachers and learners alike: the qualities of the educated mind are substituted by academic credit scores and marks whereupon the criteria for status awards are made. (Of the many amusing Veblen anecdotes was that he would frequently award all his students the same mark irrespective of their achievement!)

Veblen's analysis of absentee ownership is subtle and powerful. In conjunction with his analysis of the Higher Learning in America, there are some very important questions we need to ask ourselves about education. Veblen laid the blame for the first world war on the absentee interests represented by nation states. He foresaw the economic disaster of 1929. Education does not suit itself to absentee ownership. We need management that is present. The best educational managers are like the farmers with one hand in the soil and the other in market. How we find our way back there is an urgent question.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

What is Value in Educational Technology?

I wrote my PhD about Value in Educational Technology 3 years ago. I described value (rather fancifully) as being like "a fabric which wraps around practice". In studying a number of different interventions in educational technology (I effectively gathered together findings from a number of projects I'd been involved in - my PhD was by publication), I considered the ways in which people communicated about what was "good", what became fashionable, what got funded, etc. I created a cybernetic model which focused on communications. There was, it seemed to me, to be a strong case to argue that value could be assessed as a kind of normative framework of conversation: certain things got talked about; as they got talked about, so they got funded; as they got funded, so personal egos became tied up with particular positions in the discourse; despite results being inconclusive, vested interests and egos saw to it that more funds were allocated - partly because things being inconclusive leads to them being talked about... that is until the whole thing went 'pop!'

Among the theoretical frameworks for looking at feedback between personal agency and communication, the theory of Niklass Luhmann is one of the most comprehensive. I still think Luhmann's emphasis on supra-individual communication as a way of accounting for agency is important - not least as a challenge to psychology (which is a more dismal science than economics in my opinion!), but there is a problem. I now see that my position in the PhD was essentially linguistically reductive. There were no real people; just communicating agents (I'm glad my examiners didn't pick this up!). Whilst the "values" of individuals may be situated in this framework of communication,  can you really talk about value in isolation from a concrete person? My journey since my PhD has been to realise that you can't.

So the question about value becomes a question about the constitution of an individual. I think Christian Smith's recent book "What is a person?" is an excellent starting point. But the deep question is, it seems to me, to be in finding new opportunities for empirical justification of the virtue of the real person. Social policy, education policy, university managements are all disastrous at the moment because we've lost sight of virtue. Common sense tells us that there is plenty of evidence this is the case and that its effects are palpable. But an empirical foundation for those judgements seems to elude us. Performance metrics only make the problem worse.

The interesting theoretical question is that Luhmann's 'people' formed out of the coordinations of communications, or the coordinations of coordinations of communications. It's all connecting stuff - deterministically causal. But I think (beyond my PhD) that persons and their values arise in the gaps between communications. It's not in the information we exchange, but in the redundancy we create, and in the ways those redundancies overlap. Attachments, love, caring for each other are all forms of redundancy (think how our minds turn continually around another person we love). It's from there that value arises. And indeed, in the models of normative value judgement that I examined in my PhD, the dominance of particular communications (say about e-portfolio or Learning Design), it is the redundancy of those communications which seems to do the business.

Value as "a fabric which wraps around practice" may still apply. But we must look closer to see what the fabric is made of and what its properties are.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Meandering, Connecting and Learning

Tim Ingold is right about lines (see his Actually, I only stumbled on his work (so much of life is stumbling) because I showed some of my distorted musical scores to a friend who happened to have the book on her kitchen table and made the connection. This is the latest incarnation of my score:

Ingold's fundamental question is "how come all our lines became straight?" To put it another way, how come 'connecting' became more important than 'meandering'? It is, after all, meandering that is the dominant form of human experience. The tragedy of the education system is that it fails to recognise the importance of meandering: it assumes that learning is 'connecting'. It sees 'connections' it those 'aha' moments as Koestler called them - the moments when something 'clicks'. But I wonder before the advent of the 'switch' how human beings accounted for that moment. The scholastics, for example, would not have talked about 'clicking'. They might instead have talked about revelation, epiphany or quest. Epiphany does not happen at a click (imagine the Magi being teleported instantly to the stable on receiving a text-message of a virgin birth!) It is the journey that matters, not the destination! C.S. Lewis got it right "The longest way round is the shortest way home"

Our straight connecting lines leave us no space to "be". It is because we have no space to 'be' that we cannot find our way home. Connections have caused us to lose ourselves.

As a cybernetician however, I'm aware we can do funny things with connections. Feedback is the way back to meandering. But because feedback is made out of connections, the connecting mentality assumes that meandering is in fact connecting. That's a meta-connection - the connection that our clever connecting brains make out of understanding connections. But it's wrong.

It's all a bit like Popper Clocks and Clouds. Are clocks clouds? Are clouds clocks? But I can't help thinking that like most philosophers Popper was a connecting man. Deep down, his clouds were clocks.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Values, Practice and Theory in Educational Technology and Society

There is an immense array of different kinds of activity which go on in education. It seems reasonable to say that education is a microcosm of society: much of the knowledge we have about each other's likely behaviour comes from the social experiences in school. We know how the bully, or the swot, or the joker, or the procrastinator, or the team-builder will behave partly because we got to know these people in the classroom. We got to know them particularly because our lives were framed by the educational universe with its shared activities, obligations and responsibilities. But this is all personal knowledge. What if we were to try and formalise the knowledge we gain from education and apply it to social thinking?

There are plenty of social theorists out there, and there are plenty of theories about how society works. There are also rather few effective theories of education (is there one??). Why might that be? Well, my guess is its easy to theorise about something that remains essentially abstract: whilst social structures may well be real, we don't understand them properly, and the typical academic response to not understanding something properly is to focus on universals, not particulars, and to mind one's own academic career in talking about abstractions. Education, on the other hand, is inescapably concrete. The kid who can't write, or the teacher who's incredibly boring (or exciting) are very real and individual phenomena. The complexity of explaining it is enormous. In education we seem incapable of grasping real subjectivity; instead, we accept (uncritically) abstract subjectivity - a neo-Kantian transcendental subject - ideal subjects who fit ideal theories. Real learners, real teachers and real schools go out of the window.

I want to find a way in which we can map experiences in education onto experiences outside it (I'm doing this for a bid at the moment). Originally, I thought that we could categorise forms of activity, and map them across different domains (I blogged about that here: I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but now I think the mapping exercise won't work. It is simply too difficult. But there is something deeper which might work.

Everybody, whether they are an academic sociologist, or a practising teacher, has core values about what they are doing, why, what matters and what doesn't matter. Values are rather like personal 'fault lines': they exist at the limits of the disparities between the different sets of understandings we possess. Even the most mild-mannered academic can be hot blooded and aggressive if they feel their values are under threat. Values are tied up with identities. In academics they are also tied up with theories about the world. With teachers, they are tied up with approaches to teaching and learning and attitudes to learners.

So what if we simply present academics and practitioners with a list of values like "trust", or "commitment", or "responsibility" or "obligation" or "privacy" or "identity" and ask them to describe what they mean to them? Then we ask them to describe how this description fits with their broader description of the world. What will emerge? Well, my guess is that there will be differences between value descriptions not just between different academics, but between teachers and academics. Theoretical descriptions will not fit the world of practical experience. We see this is Educational Technology interventions all the time. And these gaps between theory and practice can be a driver for coordinating collaborative action between stakeholders (of course, there's another value in 'collaboration'!).

More interestingly, though, from the perspective of learning about education and society, we can run the same exercise with any group of stakeholders - it doesn't have to be in education (although education does provide us with a platform with which we can experiment - particularly with technology). In business, stakeholders also have at heart descriptions of what these value statements mean. They act in accordance with this. How does their understanding of core values relate to understandings in education? How do their practices translate into education? What new inconsistencies between theory and practice might be revealed by making the comparisons between values in education and values in industry? Again, it is the tension between theory and practice which drives the innovation and drives the theoretical rethinking.

In the end, we get to policy makers. They too have values. How to their values relate to the values in education, or the values in industry? Where are theory-practice gaps in policy-making? What can be done to address them?

Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Aesthetics of Politics

I haven't done any improvised music for ages - and returning to it after a break has made me reflect on the nature of improvisation and how it relates to those creative acts which require more planning, determination, commitment, etc. I had a discussion with a composer at Duke University a while ago whose background was jazz, but whose composed music is very carefully are beautifully constructed. We talked about the difference between 'slides' and 'ladders' in creative processes. Improvisation was, in his opinion, a 'slide'. Everything flows, we are taken by the moment and act as best we can to maintain the flow. Our actions when sliding are necessarily limited: we are constrained to do whatever is easiest to hand - take too many risks, and the thing can fall apart. The opposite is the 'ladder' which more traditional composers climb - the struggle to 'get it right' to 'say what we want to say', or to 'get to the heart of the matter'. Those kind of struggles can last years. There used to a be a joke about modernist composers labouring for years over a 20 bar piece, whilst improvisers would produce vast quantities of music, and just enjoying it.

Music is more than entertainment. To me it is naturalistic inquiry of the highest order, because the challenges music throws up are so profound. As naturalistic inquiry, the composer in struggling to get it right is also struggling to articulate something about the real. When Beethoven does something extraordinary, he is not just entertaining us, or surprising us (although it is all those things too). It is teaching us about the nature of the world and how we might think to act in it. Beethoven knows, and shows us, that revolution is not simply about the clash of principles: it is about knowing exactly how to intervene and at what moment. It is about understanding that moral rightness is not subjective, but ontological and naturalistically grounded.

This is where the ladders come in. They are about studying action, material, the creative mind and the condition of the world. Improvisation is a condition - a document or testament. It may be a small part of the ladder, but it is in itself too constrained.

My blog posts are on the whole improvisatory. I get in the flow of writing. I type quickly and out it all comes. It's much like improvising on the piano for me. I haven't always written this much. My early posts are simply a video of me playing and a couple of lines of writing. But gradually I have acquired new skills and confidence in writing. In fact, I think I have transferred some of the techniques of music improvisation to writing improvisation. But it is still (I think) deficient as intellectual work. Although I'd prefer not to think of it like this, my blogging is a bit like wanking. Words issue forth, retweets made, likes gathered, hits counted, ego massaged. To be fair, I think a lot of academic publishing has become like this too. But it is all somehow half-baked: the point isn't reached; the inquiry doesn't penetrate the surface.

So I need to think harder about the aesthetic ladder. The way in which things can be gathered together and a naturalistic inquiry can produce something which tells us how and when to act in the world today. That means stepping outside all the conventional boundaries between art, music, politics, ethics and aesthetics.

To be fair, some of this was attempted at the ASC Conference in Bolton on Acting - Learning - Understanding. But that conference was largely improvisatory - we did a lot of music improvisation partly with home-made instruments! Largely it went nowhere (I think) - although some of the group improvisations and presentations did present challenges of aesthetic construction and coordination which required more thought. Generally, however, there were no ladders - and indeed, if anyone tried to climb a ladder, someone else would come along and do their best to throw them off! But perhaps seeing its "nowhere-goingness" is useful if we are to think about how we do climb ladders.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Ethics, the Good Society and Technology

I'm studying Christian Smith's "What is a Person?" at the moment. This is an important book, which brings together critical realist philosophy and focuses it on the "person" - that subject which is so everyday, so fundamentally in-our-face, so obvious to our commonsense negotiations with the world that (like many obvious subjects) it manages to escape the attention of many serious thinkers who prefer to indulge in systematic overarching descriptions of society, mental life, methodology and so on. In their grand theorising, real people are left out - this is what Smith wants to address.

I call this overlooking of the person "idealism", and it is the topic which inflames my intellectual passion more than any other. Idealists really screw things up. They appear to lack the gentleness and humility to admit their fallibility. And as I get increasingly worked up about it, I'm faced with the realisation that I too might be one! Idealism is a tendency of us all - and sometimes it's not all bad - but it is very slippery.

The root of the idealist's problem is ethics. The is-ought gap, where it is maintained that ethical distinctions are of a different order from naturalistic distinctions, sets the scene for overlooking naturalistic inquiry as ethical positions are established. That naturalistic inquiry into persons cannot give rise to ethical distinctions, in truth gives rise to the kind of Kantian deontological ethics where a categorical ethics overlays naturalism, or (a similarly Kantian) ethical consequentialism where ethics is situated against an idealised society (as in Benthamite utilitarianism). The cybernetic ethics of Von Foerster ("always act so as to increase the number of possibilities for acting") is also in this camp. Consequentialism and deontology arise from the same stable.

Smith talks about how Hume's discourse on the is-ought gap is not at all as cut-and-dried as it is sometimes presented. Hume is really saying that writers on moral matters shift gear from descriptive naturalistic statements to normative statements, and are unaware of what they are doing. The problem with the is-ought gap, to Hume, is the sleight of hand of commentators. He does not rule out the possibility of deeper critical inquiry leading to a naturalistically defensible ethics. This reminds me of my own arguments about 'gear slippage' in the way people think about education and technology (see and my forthcoming book). There's still much that we can learn from Hume!

If we are to follow Hume's actual discussion about is-ought, then ethical inquiry is a naturalistically-based and ontological inquiry. In simple terms, that means we need to understand the nature of social reality in order to make a better society. If I am occasionally rude about the managers in Higher Education, it is to highlight the fact that we have some real problems with people who oughtn't to be running universities actually trying to run them (and lining their pockets in the process). What's the ontology there? How the hell did that happen? We won't be able to do anything about it unless we understand what caused it (it's really a question about managerialism in general).

In a good society this wouldn't happen. I don't think I'm being idealistic in saying that. There are objective criteria for determining what is good in society, and the determination of those criteria stems from a deep understanding of the real in society. Smith says "Good societies foster personal thriving; bad societies do not".  Replace 'society' with 'university' and you can see how far we have to go in education, let alone society. Smith elaborates a bit about social good: "The good for society is to facilitate and foster through its institutions and structures the development and flourishing of human persons as they are by nature". It's those last 5 words which are important: "as they are by nature".

Maybe Smith is being idealistic here. There are bad people in society. Or rather there are damaged people - people who have, maybe in their childhoods, experienced failed relationships with carers which have left deep scars which develop into socially pathological behaviours. Can a good society prevent this? I think there are two things to prevent: the damage caused by poor attachments in the first case (education can be a substitute of sorts); and the damage that damaged people can inflict on a society. The former involves spotting unhappy children. The latter involves spotting adults who were unhappy children (and may be unhappy adults) but who compensate through counter-productive behaviours (which may nevertheless be legal, or even encouraged in a capitalist society).

So what of technology? There is something important to understand about human capacity for producing artefacts. Art and technologies are both examples. Some artefacts help to open peoples' hearts. Others seem to close them. Is there a connection between the closed-heartedness of technologies and the closed-heartedness of individuals whose attachments were damaged in society? Now there's a space for a demanding naturalistic inquiry! I would elaborate on Smith's definition of the good society: "the good society is where heart speaks to heart". The naturalistic question is "how does a heart speak?"

Monday, 24 March 2014

Mutual Information, Mutual Redundancy and Interdisciplinary connections

One of the advantages of working in a small University is that interdisciplinarity can become a habit in the coffee bar. I had a great experience this morning talking to a colleague who is relatively new to the university and whose disciplinary expertise is in biology. The conversation revealed some of the problems with current statistical techniques for genome analysis. "I and a Chinese colleague have started to look at Mutual Information and Entropy," he said. So up crops Shannon once more (see - and perhaps more importantly is the connection between the problem faced by this academic and the problems which I am spending most of my time thinking about which have no relation to his disciplinary area at all. Indeed, what happened between us is precisely indicative of mutual information!

But more interesting is the fact that the adoption of the Shannon equations present new kinds of problems which have been explored in the (again unrelated) domain of the economics of the knowledge economy - particularly through Loet Leydesdorff's work. Mutual Information, it turns out, is fine in two dimensions. But most communications in the world, including (I guess) those interactions which happen at a molecular level, are not in two dimensions. These are many-dimensional communication situations. Like education. Under these conditions, Shannon's equations deliver inconsistent results. Which led to a discussion about the value of looking at mutual redundancy rather than mutual information. So I could send him this latest paper which is appearing in the cybernetics journal Kybernetes: ( Geneticists reading a cybernetics journal - well, that's the kind of thing that ought to be happening in a University!

Actually, our discussion started with my colleague's complaint that our University ought to be doing more research, and that in research-active universities, teaching isn't so important. I challenged this view by arguing that Bolton's students provide rich opportunities to study the human experience of learning and teaching: Cambridge isn't lucky enough to have these opportunities! If we take this seriously then important cross-disciplinary fertilization can occur so that we gradually see serious scholars taking an interest in all kinds of students, their learning processes and the relation between the University and its community. It is because of my interest in these problems that my studies have taken me to Shannon, Leydesdorff and many other cybernetic theories. But then it is because of this, and because of the shared situation we all have in our institution (some of it very political and not very constructive) that new connections can be made between the study of learner experience and the latest techniques of biomedical engineering, or indeed many other applications. This too creates the conditions for mutual information and mutual redundancy.

The idea reinforces the mutuality of university life in general. However much managers might want to see staff as 'units of production', that simply isn't how it is. When you gather individuals together each of whom is committed to the search for knowledge in whatever domain, they will find rich common ground between them, from where innovations are born. But look at any single individual and you will see different weaknesses and strengths in performance. Individual performance metrics are dangerously crude. But perhaps what strikes me most is that it is in the cracks within the institution which (like many others) appears to want to box everything in and bring it under central control, new things appear which are quite unexpected. This is where the hope is - but perhaps we could do with a few more cracks in the plaster!