Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Ordering of Institutional Fear

There is a limit between the true and false. In many aspects of everyday life, we fear traversing this limit: fear is the emotion we associate with encountering the limit between the true and the false. There are other limits which we experience emotionally: for example, the limit between absence and unity (between 0 and 1) is, I suspect, the experience of climax: music and sex are where this is most apparent. This is where the real power of category theory lies: it provides a unified way of talking about rational experience (between truth and fasehood) and those experiences which are nuanced, flowing, emotional - what we might otherwise call irrational. In education, both matter. Badiou presents this as the difference between classical logic (excluded middle logic) and non-classical, dialectical logic.

In category theory, truth and falsehood are defined with relation to a 'sub-object classifier' (typically in the literature, this is written as Ω, although Badiou prefers to call it 'C'). In determining truth functions, the sub-object classifier is fundamentally the object which helps us determine order among the objects and transformations in a category. Ordering means some things are more important than others. It means that the experience of limits between truth and falsehood, ie. fear, which are everywhere present (because limits are everywhere present) have a hierarchy. Some fears are more constraining than others; some people are more frightened than others; the fear of one person depending on their ordering in the social scheme can impact on the fears of everyone else. Category theory gives us a way of ordering fear within an institution. This is both fascinating and important, given the amount of fear within our institutions (universities in particular), and the managerial belief that fear can be ramped up and oppression increased without consequences (many vice-chancellors apparently believe that fear within the institution has no effect on teaching and learning.)

What are the consequences of ramping-up institutional fear? There are two sides to it. On the one hand, there is the limit of fear within the person implementing a ramping-up of fear (say, a VC). VCs are among the most constrained actors in a University - 'clear' in their vision about what must be done, yet only clear because of what they do not admit into their picture of the world: clarity exists against the force of a limit. Here both the limits of fear and the limits associated with emotion (climaxes, excitement, enthusiasms) can be in play: a VC's enthusiasm for a particular 'pet-project' is as much the exposure of limit as their fear relating to pursuing a particular policy or not. The VC's limits determine differences throughout the structure of the institution. It is these differences which bear upon everyone else, to which everyone else's limits are subordinated. The question is, How do everyone else's fears (awareness of limits) become subordinated to the leader's fear? And what are the effects on the organisation?

The interplay between emotional limits concerning enthusiasms, climaxes, achievements, and (fundamentally) meaning, and the limits of fear between the true and the false can create conflicts and split within individuals. These conflicts can distort the limits of fear to the point that what is feared at one level presents emotional limits of a different and opposing kind at another. Here we may find the classic signs of Bateson's 'double-bind': for example, the alcoholic's calculation that  'alcohol is bad for you' which is between the true and the false, whilst the pleasure that alcohol brings (and the converse misery of acknowledgement of true/false distinction) serves to maintain individuals in a cycle of oscillating dependency. This is how people can be manipulated. Most of the logic concerning money is of this sort: on the one hand, money exists on a true-false distinction concerning the limits of financial viability, whilst on the other hand, money brings degrees of security and compensatory pleasure which leads to the a kind of economic slavery.

The boss as paymaster is the figure who is in control of determining the rational bargain with employees. For employees, the bargain carries an element of security providing the rational true/false distinction is appropriately met. The boss's assertion of this bargain is also subject to their own emotional limits: whims, enthusiasms, etc. It is not beyond possibility that some whims and enthusiasms are in some way sadistic or victimising. The enthusiasm may not be shared with the employees, who nevertheless have to comply to satisfy the pay (truth) bargain. At some point, the boss might demand compliance and enthusiasm as part of the pay bargain. At this point, the employees, who will have their own emotional limits, will find themselves split in an emotional tangle where the rational (or cynical) compliance and real emotional needs cannot be reconciled. Here we find (I think) the difference between Habermas's "communicative action" and "strategic action". It begins to mark out the logical structure of the double-bind situation. The double-bind situation bearing upon employees becomes more marked the more the whims of the boss are reinforced in the institutional structure: 'cronies' are appointed whose rational bargain reinforces the boss's whims (because there is rational gain in the form of higher status or pay). The example of such people is illustrative of the fact that the boss relies on employees for their status: the status functions concerning the boss ultimately come from the employees; this status declaration can be reinforced through the double-bind people are placed in - so in a University, as Senate and Governors are stuffed with yes-people, whims are reinforced, alienation increased and the double-bind exacerbated. Greater alienation may equal greater reinforcement for the boss's position: those VC's who believe fear is good appear to have justification at first glance! But it only works to a point.

The principal issue is the way that redundancies can become codified discourse.When redundancies of expectations are shared between people then communication arises and redundancies effectively become foreground and not background (in fact they are no longer redundancies). With an asserted policy which clearly doesn't work it will not be long before the individual disjunction between rational limits and emotional limits results in the emergence of codifications of emotional expectations which will become part of the fabric of rational limits: at this point there is a risk that rational challenge in the form of reorganising status functions - particularly those status functions which relate to the boss - might result in criticism and direct challenge. Such are the dialectics of the institution, and managers have to react appropriately in the light of this.

Empirically, we can measure status declarations between individuals. Every declaration of change to practice, every new professional mandate, every new technology, every new procedure is a status declaration. Some of these come from the top and filters to the bottom; others relate to experience on the ground (engagements with learners). There can sometimes be a strong conflict either between the commitments and other status declarations that staff are involved in, and therefore not all mandated changes to practice will actually occur (however much the boss might wish it). Conflicts in status declarations can be measured simply by ascertaining the status declarations surrounding existing practices, technologies and so on. Emotional factors have a bearing on this, but the emotional factors are establishable not through status declarations, but through redundancies of practice. Redundancies reflect the absences bearing upon individuals in their practice. What do they think about? What do they worry about most? What do they do most often?

Of course, the empirical investigation of redundancies may itself be a catalyst to change. But perhaps this wouldn't be a bad thing!!

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Mathematical Quantification and the Order of Education

We have grown accustomed to almost all empirical investigations in either the physical or the social sciences as involving some level of quantification: x% this, y% that, and so on. The foundation for the fiduciary qualities of this kind of work sits on an ontology of numbers where the truth becomes associated with the higher number (100%!). Behind this lies the view that numbers exist on a continuous scale. Yet mathematical work in analysis and number theory questions this. From Dedekind to Cantor, the fundamental issue with number is not continuity and quantity, but ordering and the way that numbers exist within limits. Indeed, quality is something that may lie within the mathematical ontology, rather than something to be deduced through processes of quantification. There's so much that's troubling with qualitative research: not least that almost always, qualities apparently only make themselves amenable for analysis through quantification; indeed, technologies have become instrumental in the industry of the transformation of qualities into quantities. Work done in this way - for the benefit of evidence-based policy (which as Hugh Willmott pointed out today is really 'policy-based evidence') - has real and often negative impacts on the lives of real people. Mathematics is beautiful, and its distortion which produces these effects demands that for all these reasons, it may be important to look again at number and mathematical ontology.

I've found myself studying the Category Theory of Mac Lane, Goldblatt, Badiou (who's taken much from Goldblatt) and Lawvere (who writes particularly beautifully for the uninitiated). Category theory is a development of set theory which works on the principle of describing processes of transformation between different states of constitution (my term - basically it's a set), where a "state of constitution" might be called an 'object', and a transformation might be called a 'mapping'. Most importantly, Category Theory gives us a way of describing ordering without numbers.

My educational empiricism is a concerted effort to study the ordering of education. That means looking at the logical structure of the relations between people, objects, institutional structures and so on. The relations between people, objects structures are (as John Searle and Tony Lawson independently insist upon) networks of rights, responsibilities, obligations, commitments, and duties. We can empirically discover some aspects of the structure simply by asking people questions like "who tells you to do x?", "who are you doing it for?", "what happens if you don't do it?", and so on. At the same time, a structure ought to make the distinction between what a 'right' is, what a 'responsibility' is, what an 'obligation' is, and so on. In each case we see a different form or geometry of the ordering, but where for each form, there is a central idea of a 'limit' with which a particular obligation or commitment might be identified.

Category theory has a number of basic forms which might map onto different kinds of relations.
The picture above is the Category Theoretical 'epi-morphism' which is characterised by the two arrows from B to C. I look at this and think of those situations where people seem to acknowledge that 'C is the case', although they might do so for different reasons (hence the separate arrows). In each case, the two arrows stem from an initial single arrow f which is the beginning for each of h and i. But you can also stand outside the whole situation with arrow from a position that 'sees' A, B and C (although I haven't drawn the arrow to C in this case). An obligation, in this sense, appears to me to be a limit where the arrows h and i are acknowledged to be the same and that the declaration of equality between them is a statement of compliance with each others norms. This limit, a unique position of balance, is indicated by arrow k. This might be the politician's stance: the obligation to coordinate education that conforms to the norms of stakeholders in society.

Turning this diagram around, we get the category theoretical 'monomorphism' which starts from a diverse position to become a single point. The starting point of arrow g  indicates the viewpoint of being able to 'see everything (B, C and A). The limit line here, k, might be seen to be the point at which an identification of the difference between h  and i must be made. Is this a moment of 'responsibility taking' - the moment at which someone has to make a judgement the things that matter bearing in mind the different perspectives feeding into it?

There are also structures where two lines focus on a particular object (like the lines from D and C lead to E), where there is a point B that can see these relationships, but where is a point A that sees the whole situation including the observer B, and where A determines a limit on B. Category theory allows us to move up hierarchies like this (the diagram above is called a 'pull-back'), at each point challenging us to think about the limits imposed. Maybe 'rights' are limits imposed by the super-structure on the sub-structure? But then again, there is a difference between 'you have a right..." and "we demand our rights!". But to demand rights is to demand that A changes its limits. 

Perhaps that will do for now. The point here is that behind each of these diagrams is an inherent logic and ordering. The strength of category theory is that within this inherent logic are particular orientations towards truth, falsity and absence where in each case, the structural relationship between absence (say) and limits may be explored.

The absence bit really interests me because in addition to asking people about their rights, obligations, commitments, and so on, we can also observe their redundancies. I only have a hunch that absence is the same as redundancy (I gather Lacan - Badiou's teacher - held a similar view), or that Hume's regularity theory is really a redundancy theory (Tony Lawson rightly challenged me on this today), but I am also mindful of the work on pattern, figure and ground which people like Ernst Gombrich conducted in his "A Sense of Order": we are so 'figure oriented' in our approach to empiricism across all the sciences.

There is a discoverable order to education. There are practical steps we can take to unpicking it. This is not learning analytics! That (analytics), along with all our technologies, must now be considered as part of the contemporary "order of education".

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Empiricism and Education

What happens between understanding the logical structure of something and the usage of techniques for measuring reality? In Hume’s theory of causation, he deployed an implicit ontology of event regularity together with a constructivist (he wouldn’t have used the term, but that’s what it was), communication-oriented logic of understanding and theory-building about causes. Critical Realists and others argue that this can’t be right because many of the theories which are constructed (e.g. gravity, relativity, etc) predict regularities where none have been investigated, implying that there must be something ‘real’ that is discovered in a theory rather than simply something constructed through the communications of scientists. But maybe there is a question about how logic and measurement relate to one another? After all, Hume’s idea of scientists’ conversation carries an implicit logic of communication which has successively been shown to be more and more complex in its relations to reality (Kuhn’s paradigms, Popper’s falsification, etc, etc).

What appears to emerge from the work of those philosophers of science who have explored the discourse of science is a kind of ‘ordering’ of that discourse – the way that paradigms shift and interact, the way that institutional structures and other social forces come into play, the way that technologies change the picture. In effect, what seems to occur is the negotiation of a lot of ‘status functions’ as Searle would call them – “x says ‘this is the way the world is’ producing evidence z to support it; x is backed up by institution a and academic community u; x is opposed by counter-examples from scientist y in institution b and academic community v” … and so on. The logic of the ordering of a discourse relates in some way to the measurements that might actually be made of the phenomena in question.

Absence is the most fundamental feature in the ordering of anything: whatever position we take, it will always include (as a background) the possibility of “no position”; positivists might wish to deny absence as an element of their thought, but the denial of absence is itself an absence and ultimately this weakens the status of any positivist argument. Positions are subsets of other positions; positions vary in the network of status functions that operate around them. The logical structure of a theoretical position relates to the deontic powers it deploys and to those deontic powers which bear upon it. It may be that this logical structure is similar to the logical structure of number as we find in Badiou’s mathematical theory and Conway’s concept of “surreal” numbers. To argue this is to start to expose the “logic” of Hume’s scientific discourse.

What then of measurement? It seems to me that the most important thing we must grasp in our measurement is what is “not there”; this is much more significant that what “is there”. Of course, most measurement concentrates on the ‘present’, so there is a question about how we might measure the absent. Really it is about measuring the ground rather than the figure, or at least inferring the ground from the figure. I could be wrong about this, but I think that Shannon’s information theory is important in allowing us to think about the ‘message’ (the present) but also the ‘redundancy’ (the absent).

My reinterpretation of Hume suggests that science proceeds through the coming together of logic and measurement (isn’t Euclidian geometry like this?) Indeed, looked at this way, ‘regularity’ (which plays such an important role for Hume) is reinterpreted as ‘redundancy’. So what we see is a mapping of measured redundancies (which are absences) with the logical structures of status functions declared by scientists.

Am I stretching things too far to suggest that this holds out a possibility of educational empiricism? Our educational theories have a logical ordering determined by the networks of status functions that they declare. Institutional structures and patterns of usage also have a logical structure. These seem mappable to me as networks of commitments and obligations. But in addition to this logical structure, there is an empirical structure of measurable redundancies. Can we bring them together? Can we move forwards if we do? Maybe we should have a go…

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Some Reflections on the #pleconf and 'cool technology' : What Software or Hardware isn't Social?

I very much enjoyed the #pleconf in Tallinn. I wish I had attended these conferences in the past, but I sense that this year’s conference has brought a kind of sobriety around the educational idealism (which I gather typified earlier conferences) and which has surrounded the PLE more generally up to this point. Sobriety contains elements of disappointment, realism and a kind of ‘growing up’: I think e-learning in general is having to ’grow up’ – which means thinking harder. I suspect for some participants, the conversations this year have been too philosophical (although we were treated to a demonstration of a superb inquiry-based learning tool called “wespot” – – great to see new cool tools!), the questions “what do we mean by ‘learning’? ‘environment’? ‘personal’?” are inescapable and demanding: it is not difficult to point to the deficiency of any attempt to answer them.

My personal realisation at the conference is the sense in which the PLE has become so closely associated to social software tools: the birth of the PLE was roughly synchronous with the birth of Facebook, Twitter, etc. We may need to rethink this. At the PLE’s inception, social software was cool, innovative, exciting and generally unknown in the wider population. Now social software is rather old, everyone knows about (even if they don’t use it), and not particularly exciting. The question is whether the PLE became associated with social software because social software was cool and exciting when the PLE was born, or whether there was something intrinsically important about “social” software irrespective of its one-time “coolness”. Up to this point, the PLE (and the MOOC) has seized upon something intrinsic in social software, identifying in the analytics and connections of online discussion some deeper psychological import. I think this was a mistake, and has resulted in the PLE becoming associated with an ‘idea of learning’ which is constrained, reified and fundamentally indefensible in the light of real human experience.

What software (or indeed, hardware) isn’t social? There’s no question in my mind that the Oculus Rift causes powerful social interactions – it’s just that not all of them are amenable to data analysis (which probably makes them more powerful!). What about Flappy Bird? What about 360-degree video cameras like What about amazing Ableton Live? What about R? One way or another there are networks of practice evolving around new cool things that manifest in various ways in online social networks (Facebook, Twitter), developer networks (GitHub, SourceForge), academic networks (journals), blogs, etc, etc. If there is (as @srmpbi argued for at the conference) a socio-material entanglement going on, to draw the boundary of the PLE simply around social software and text exchanges and to ignore the new ‘cool stuff’ as somehow not ‘personal’ seems short-sighted.

Looking back, I don’t think the PLE was really about "social" software as we have come to understand it; it was about “cool technology”. What made social software appear important was the fact that it was cool and exciting; what gives the PLE a problem now is that social software is no longer exciting nor particularly cool. But what makes something ‘cool’? Here is where I think the real essence of the PLE lies. When people discover or make something cool and exciting, their instinct is to ‘give’ it to other people. The euphoria of the early PLE was the euphoria of ‘giving’. As Marcel Mauss, Claude Levi-Strauss, Roger Caillois, George Bataille and others have studied, ‘giving’ is of fundamental human significance - it unites economics, love, war, art, religion, sex and play: those things we repeatedly see throughout human history in all cultures. So much of technological activity has the form of the ‘potlatch’ (see and there is a curious logic to it. What seems to emerge, through a complex variety of social mechanisms, are enhancements to social status: I do something cool and ‘give’ it on YouTube; an audience finds it, likes it, expects more; the social relation between myself and my audience – which incorporates both rights and commitments begins to become a formal recognition of status (which I can put on a CV); by continuing to uphold the commitments and obligations, status can be enhanced further, and so on.

The question for the PLE concerns how the ‘giving with regard to technology’ relates to the acts of giving within educational institutions (the best professors always ‘give’), and the giving of everyday life. In particular, the question concerns the nature of the ‘new’ and the ‘cool’ and the ways that individuals make their way through the world through the giving of novelty. The priority is to embrace and understand emerging technology, and to avoid getting trapped in what was once new and cool, but now isn’t. 

Monday, 14 July 2014

Stephen Downes on the Personal Learning Environment at the LSE

There's an irony in Stephen Downes giving a talk on the "Personal Learning Environment" - that discourse about shifting the locus of control of learning and technology from institutions to the individual - at one of the great institutions of the social sciences (from whom control might be wrested) - see But the LSE is prestigious, and association with it (particularly a keynote) tends to impress most people. Perhaps we all crave this kind of opportunity - but it's a curious symptom of the tug-of-war between technology and institutions that the advocates of technology find a platform to spread their message and enhance their personal reputations from the institution! Somehow, YouTube and Twitter isn't enough; but the LSE will do nicely (although the  Oxford Union would be better!) Something in me really finds the whole thing a bit distasteful...

I should say that Downes was quite supportive of our PLE work in Bolton. He even came to a special 'experts day' which we organised as part of the JISC PLE project in 2006 (see and At that time (which is 8 years ago now!!), the PLE was the next "big thing" in e-learning. Social software was only just beginning to happen, driven by the technologies of XML webservices (consequently, the interoperability issue was also very important). But it's interesting that it's still around: I'm currently in Tallinn about to give a paper (see at the PLE conference ( My paper frames the questions I would now ask Downes about the PLE (since he too hasn't given up on it - perhaps because his thinking about MOOCs owes a lot to it).

At a fundamental educational level, the PLE didn't work. We thought that technology would challenge institutional hegemony. It hasn't. We thought that learners would prefer to use their own tools for learning. Mostly, they didn't. Institutions seem more powerful than ever- even the weaker ones are getting stronger. Which is OK if you work for one (actually it might not be because of the way they are managed and the technologies available to managers for making bad decisions) In another way, I think many of the arguments about personal technological organisation that we put forward in the JISC PLE project have proved to be correct. Our proof-of-concept environment, PLEX, bears strong similarities to the App-store driven approaches of Apple and Google: a simple set of 'technical dispositions' to connect and integrate a vast range of services (perhaps the integration isn't what it could be, although most mobile providers aggregate messaging from different service providers, for example).

What was wrong? My paper lays the blame on our approach to "learning". The PLE, in our conception, was a technological reification of an idea of learning. Our reification saw learning linked to personal organisation of technology, which was articulated through the cybernetic modelling of the Viable System Model. Downes continues to pursue his own reification of learning: connectivism, about which I have written here ( In each case, the thing that goes on in each of our heads is presented as a diagram with boxes and lines - in other words, an object. Having made the diagram, someone goes off and makes some technology where the boxes and lines become processes, roles and communications. Of course, stuff still goes on in our heads. And it goes on in our heads in response to the diagrams with lines and boxes, and in response to the software with people and roles. And always the stuff going on in our heads is disjointed from the abstract representations of what somebody thinks is going on.

Technological reifications of "idealised learning" are quite common, and becoming increasingly common in education: we should be worried about this. Constructivism has been the principal culprit, as has the cybernetic modelling techniques which are associated with it. Yet, for all the cleverness of the Pasks, Von Glasersfelds, Piagets, Deweys, etc, the truth is, WE CAN'T SEE LEARNING. Yet, this metaphysical idea has implanted itself deep within the education system: what happens in education is that 'students learn'. Moreover, learning can be measured: most perniciously by meeting (?) 'learning outcomes' (what are they, exactly?). The whole thing is tied together with the institutional need to demonstrate 'quality', such that the place of 'measurable learning' in the institutional edifice is reinforced. But this is not unassailable: educational attitudes will change significantly in the coming years.

Downes is stuck because he's obsessed with learning. Yet, all around him he's confronted by evidence that his learning theories cannot be right (MOOCs). Indeed, lurking at the back of his mind might be the thought "can any learning theory be right?" That's a scary thought - because the answer is no, and the reason is to do with "theory" in the first place.

Bateson argued that science progresses in a pincer-movement. On the one hand, there is abstraction, and on the other, there is experiment. Another way of putting it is that on the one hand there is logic, and on the other experience: analytic and synthetic judgements, a prioi and a posteriori (given that a posteriori analytic judgement is a contradiction). Educational research tends to be a half-arsed pincer: the theory part stays put, and only the practical part moves (do it again, but this time try harder!). The deep problem we have is that we are not able to inspect the logic of our theories and to compare the logic of theory with the results of practice. There is no connection between theory and practice, and no way identifying how a theory might need to be adapted. The only way this can happen is through identifying regularities in practice and then seeking to explain them through theory. Since it appears there are limited regularities in education research (and even those are artificially created by statistics), opportunities for concrete explanation-building are rare. Downes and Siemens at least recognise the problem: they put their faith in 'learning analytics' as their empirical exercise. But learning analytics is no more an empirical exercise than theorising about learning (it's a different level of reification of learning): analytics provides fewer regularities to be explained than good old-fashioned statistics!

But there are regularities in education (not learning). There are textbooks, and classrooms, and teachers, and learners, and timetables, and institutions, and quality regimes, and Vice Chancellors (God Bless 'em!). And among the structures and communications produced by all of these people, there are regularities of role, commitment, obligations, positions, rights, responsibilities, etc. These regularities have a logical structure as well as empirical content. For example, the logic of a commitment from A to B infers that there is a C that can see the relationship (and make a statement about it)
What about C? Who's looking at them? And on it goes. A logical structure emerges quite easily with regard to the relations between people. What about the empirical side of things? To start with, there are the actual declarations between individual stakeholders; there are the objects that each individual engages with (textbooks, VLEs, etc), there are the relations between objects and people; there are the outcomes of peoples' engagement with objects and people (i.e. walking away from a MOOC, or using a PLE).

What's interesting is when the relation between A and B is where A awards B a grade in exchange for B honouring their commitments and responsibilities within the institutional assessment framework. Is that learning? Is it saying something about what's gone on in B's head? I don't think so. It's simply describing the systemic thing that institutions and teachers do to students, and the things that students have to do in order to win them.

Now we could draw a diagram of the commitments and obligations met between Stephen Downes and the LSE. What would that diagram represent?

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Debunking Big Data

One of the dangers of computer technology is that the facility in cranking vast calculations can lead to to a dulling of critical thought. Something like this is happening in the mass of 'big data' analytics which dominate the contemporary academic landscape. People produce pretty pictures, tables of key phrases and so on as if they were pulling bunnies from a hat: yet, like the bunnies, there is a sleight of hand going on - but one which most of us are struggling to fathom. It seems that abstract algorithmic calculations applied to the agglomerations of data that each of us has contributed to (through writing on social media, journalism, academic papers, etc) produce insights for us to gasp at and think "isn't it astonishing that Facebook knows so much!" or "well, now I know that, the next time I hear someone say..." But like any magic trick, the game is between the magician, their technique and the audience - and it works because the audience is led to believe they have seen something which they could not have expected to see. The debunkers of magic tricks show that the audience's perception that they could not have expected what they saw is in fact wrong: if the audience had thought logically, they would not have been at all surprised. The skill of the magician is to deflect the audience from logic. I'm sure this is why Heinz Von Foerster loved conjuring!

It is important to distinguish magic from science. Unfortunately, in our current academic landscape, there are many over-serious people who believe they are performing science, when they are in fact performing magic tricks. The nature of scientific discovery is, of course, disputed. For Hume, it is about regular successions of events and social construction of causes. "Obviously, this is wrong" says the wonderful Rom Harre, whose PhD student Roy Bhaskar went on to argue that the social constructivism in Hume's theory couldn't be right because beyond the closed-system conditions, the socially-constructed causes still operate: if they didn't, we wouldn't have got rockets to the moon! Bhaskar's solution is to argue that causes are real and discoverable. What scientists do is a process of 'retroduction' in the light of experience, but resulting explanations have efficacy within both the transitive (i.e. social) and intransitive (i.e. physical) realms of reality. Given this, in the physical and the social sciences, regularity is still fundamental. What Bhaskar argues is that the explanations for regularities (which are social) have nevertheless causal efficacy within the social realm because of their relation to the physical realm. Ultimately, this builds to a theory of science as critical, dialectical and emancipatory, and this is the really important thing that distinguishes magic from science: Science is underpinned by ethics and politics; magic isn't.

So what of social network analysis? There are many things to say about this, but the most obvious thing is the problem of any analysis: an analytical move is a power-move. The analyst's results inform decision and action. In computer-based data analytics, the ethics and politics of the decision are never computed: the algorithm is king, and with it, the inventor of the algorithm and the interpreter of the algorithm's results. But this is problematic when we look closely at what is represented. Firstly, there is the distinction between 'nodes' and 'arcs': a node is a node because it has an arc to another node. Whilst the diagrams give the impression that nodes and arcs are separate, really they are an 'expansion' of a single piece of information - the fact that X makes a declaration about Y; if X hadn't made a declaration about anyone, then X would not exist on the diagram, irrespective of whether X exists in reality or not. A node is an entity with declared relations to other entities with declared relations. Once we realise this, we might ask ourselves the extent to which we are already aware of these declarations: indeed, we ourselves are constituted by the existent declarations of others. That means the surprise we feel on seeing a diagram is the surprise of seeing something we already know, and that if we were logical, we would not be surprised about at all! If we become aware of this, then we would also become aware of the role of the analyst and the interpreter of the data and their own relations of declaration both to us, to the diagram, and to their arguments. The problem here is that the mere declaration of the power of social network analysis is itself a declaration which impacts us: we very soon get trapped in a web which we ourselves are spinning.

But this is not to say that there are not regularities in social network analysis. It is to say that the regularities exist between us (the audience), the technique (the algorithm) and the magician (the interpreter). Magic tricks may not be science, but a magic trick is itself a phenomenon which can be studied scientifically! Where are the regularities? Well, they exist in the ways people are confused. How can we investigate the ways people are confused? We can develop new ways of exposing the logic behind what is going on.

My personal view is that mathematical category theory is the best tool to do this. It allows for any diagram to be exposed for the nature of its relations with a set of observers each of whom can have a different perspective. It can then explore the logic of different observer perspectives.  (I'll elaborate on this in a future post.) Most importantly, it can provide a logic which situates the observer of the diagram within the diagram in the context of what they know from outside the diagram. When observers see this, it is surprising how surprise disappears! But that isn't magic. 

Saturday, 5 July 2014

A Dolls House University

It's graduation season! Cue the absurd paraphernalia of cap-and-gown, the parading of privilege and the fundamental declaration of difference between those of 'learning' and 'rank', and everyone else. Veblen (in 1899!) reminds us of the pernicious, class-ridden foundation of it all - even in modest institutions which aspire to grandeur - as this serves the interests of elites:
"it is also no doubt true that such a ritualistic reversion [in aspiring universities] could not have been effected in the college scheme of life until the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the propertied class had gone far enough to afford the requisite pecuniary ground for a movement which should bring the colleges of the country up to the leisure-class requirements in the higher learning. The adoption of the cap and gown is one of the striking atavistic features of modern college life, and at the same time it marks the fact that these colleges have definitively become leisure class establishments, either in actual achievement or in aspiration."
The parading of rank is now a cynical advertisement for lining pockets of the wealthy: "You too can join the priestly ranks - providing you pay your fees!"

Rank and privilege dominate not only the relation between the institution and society, but within institutions too. Nothing new here, except that scholars have now become functionaries (effectively 'assessment operatives') to be commanded by elites. At a University near me which suffers a particularly nasty case of managerialism, I understand that the VC lined up all academics in full garb in the centre of town (a three-line whip!). Having had them stand around for nearly an hour, he proceeded to inspect the troops. He would stop occasionally, picking on individuals who couldn't do much about their situation (there's only so much one can do lined up in fancy dress!) "Your cap is not quite straight," he said to one, reaching out in a deliberate invasion of personal space, to adjust it: "there it looks better like that!"; to another senior manager who was surrounded by his staff, "Oh! Hello - I didn't think you still worked for us!" This was followed by a ceremony where the de-facto honours system of 'honorary doctorates' saw awards made to political allies and celebrities (good for media coverage) followed by a gala dinner with semi-naked dancing girls, prompting at least one family to walk out in disgust: it all amounted to the VC saying to all assembled guests "I can do what I want".

This unfortunate institution appears to be a "Dolls House University".

In Ibsen's revolutionary play "A Dolls House", the fundamental pathology of the situation that Nora finds herself trapped in is the "sense of entitlement" expressed by her husband. In the Dolls House University, it is an appalling sense of entitlement that infects university management. But Ibsen's play is about hope: eventually, somebody tears up the rule-book, just as Nora does:
NORA [...] But our house has been nothing but a play-room. Here I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I used to be papa's doll-child. And the children, in their turn, have been my dolls. I thought it fun when you played with me, just as the children did when I played with them. That has been our marriage, Torvald.
HELMER. There is some truth in what you say, exaggerated and overstrained though it be. But henceforth it shall be different. Play-time is over; now comes the time for education.
NORA. Whose education? Mine, or the children's?
HELMER. Both, my dear Nora.
NORA. Oh, Torvald, you are not the man to teach me to be a fit wife for you.
HELMER. And you can say that?
NORA. And I- how have I prepared myself to educate the children?
There are still plenty of relationships like Nora's marriage. But the fundamental rules apply eventually: behind any abusing relationship is somebody's sense of entitlement, and eventually this leads to breakdown.

Education is all about relationships. As teachers, we believe we can change peoples' lives by talking to them. It's true - but only under circumstances of care, responsibility, courage, freedom and trust. The pursuit of knowledge is not something that can happen in a dolls house. When one person feels entitled to manipulate everyone else, any possibility for anything good to come out of it dies. The dolls house might attempt splendid looks, but the vacuity of the display, the shallowness of the dancing girls, the puffed-up men and women in ridiculous costumes, the manic organist and the discordant trumpets all signify something sordid and festering.

Nora's courage is an example to everyone.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Personal Learning Environment and the Institution of Education: Reflections on Technological Personalisation in ITEC Schools

Introduction: Learning and Education
There is a simple distinction which divides the concept of ‘Learning’ from that of ‘Education’. Whilst ‘education’ manifests itself in institutions, textbooks, classrooms, curricula and teachers – all of which we can point at – learning itself is something that goes on in peoples’ heads: there is, ostensibly, nothing to be pointed at beyond accounts of subjectivity. In characterising the broader distinction between different aspects of reality, Searle has highlighted the difference between the “ontologically objective”, the “ontologically subjective”, the “epistemically objective” and the epistemically subjective” (Searle, 2010, p18). Schools, classrooms and curricula are “ontologically subjective” – they are real things that we can point at, but whose reality is constituted through social institutions. Learning, by contrast is “epistemically subjective” – its reality can only be known by the person experiencing it – rather like an itch. Conversely, with regard to “ontological objectivity”, we might say that “the earth is spherical”, or alternatively we might say that “Beethoven died in 1827” as an example of epistemic objectivity, since the statement about Beethoven is an objective statement of knowledge. But it is the distinction between ontological subjectivity and epistemic subjectivity which forms the basis of the argument in this paper.

The discourse around a phenomena which are epistemic-subjective is grounded in philosophical metaphysics. Modern “learning theory” can be traced back to German idealism, particularly in what is popularly termed the ‘Copernican’ epistemological revolution of Immanuel Kant which situated the world around the individual’s cognitive processes. With regard to Searle’s position, Kant’s idealism is problematic: institutions of education – schools, Universities, colleges, seem to affect us all irrespective of our perception of them. However, there is a disconnect between the common-sense notion of the reality of institutions and their causal powers and our learning theories which fundamentally owe their origins to Kantian epistemology. It is this disconnect which, in the process of designing, implementing and evaluating the Personal Learning Environment (PLE), has revealed itself, and which this paper orients itself towards a realist interpretation: in short, the metaphysics of learning do not appear to have taken us anywhere. In its place is proposed a social ontology of commitments, rights, obligations and responsibilities.

Recognition of the difficulties with the concept of ‘Learning’ was a precursor to the establishment of the PLE in the first place. Whilst institutions of education have always constituted an “environment” for learning, the criticism, inspired by Illich (1971) and others, concerned the ‘fit’ between the learning needs of individuals and the particular kinds of environmental support provided by institutions (Johnson and Liber, 2008; Attwell, 2007). The implication behind the PLE, as an intervention in learning technology, was that a learning environment constituted by personal technology - a learning environment where the locus of control rests with the learner rather than with the institution - provides an alternative environment for learning to that provided by institutions. However, if this was the case, then as the costs of institutional education rise, we might expect an increasingly large number of learners to flee to the technologies of the PLE as a viable alternative. This does not appear to have happened.

In the early years of the PLE discourse, with the rapid rise of social software, the PLE became a rallying cry for the inversion of the institution (Wilson et al, 2007), arguing for “putting the learner in control of their learning”, accessing and coordinating services provided by the institution. This became a popular theme that affected not only university education, but schools, becoming aligned with ideas of self-efficacy, together with an argument that technology was moving too fast for institutional curricula to keep up, necessitating rethinking of institutional services and ushering-in ideas ranging from ‘Bring your own Device’, mobile-learning, service integration, widgetised learning and other concepts. Among the significant interventions in the school sector, the ITEC project funded by the European Union, has been a major attempt to establish this way of thinking.
However, in this attempt to reposition learning, learning itself became characterised in an increasingly concrete way: models of learning (each of which is commensurable with the other), ranging from Laurillard’s  conversation model (Laurillard, 1999), the model of the learner as a viable system which this author contributed to (Johnson and Liber, 2008) and connectivist learning which underpinned MOOCs (Siemens and Downes, 2009) all served to reify learning as a  process. With this reified process, technologies were identified as being functionally equivalent to more traditional practices in face-to-face education: conversation online was functionally equivalent to face-to-face interaction; access to online services was functionally equivalent to accessing the library, student services, etc. Indeed, in the technical specification of the PLE, the aim was to identify those services which could supplant the services of the institution (see Wilson et al, 2007)

In practice, the PLE has not realised the predictions of its theory. Consequently this paper asks, What might be wrong with the theory? In addressing this, I explore the nature of the reality of institutions and contrast it to the reality of software, widgets and MOOCs drawing on the experiences of the ITEC project and the social ontology of Searle. I then discuss how a refined picture of the realities of education can help us to explain some of the phenomena we see around us: not only the increasing power of traditional institutions, but new practices online where individuals do appear to be increasing their social status.

Constructivism and the Realities of Software and Institutions
The PLE adopted an approach to learning which was constructivist. This relation with constructivism played a fundamental role in its characterisation of what was meant by the word ‘personal’. Whilst constructivism itself was not new in e-learning (many VLEs were conceived as constructivist interventions) the view of the PLE was that if learners could be given the facility to coordinate the technologies of their life with the technologies of their learning, then a meta-level of personal construction mediated by their own personal technologies and practices could be more powerful than the surface level constructivism which relied on technologies provided by institutions. The vision of the PLE was a version of constructivism where nobody said “these are the tools you should use for your learning”, but rather, “whatever tools you wish to use for your learning, here’s how you can connect and coordinate your actions”. The PLE’s constructivism was fundamentally tool-oriented, as opposed to utterance-oriented constructivism that lay behind conversational approaches to learning.

In understanding the implications of tool-oriented constructivism, it is necessary to inquiry into the nature of tools as objects whose utilization becomes part of the individual’s construction of the world. One was of doing this was to characterise the coordinations of individuals with tools as a way in which individuals maintain their viability: such arguments about technology were put forward by McLuhan and others, and Johnson and Liber characterised the engagement with tools as a cybernetic mechanism of an individual. However, objects are not just ‘constructs derived from use’; they are real things in the environment independently of anything that they might mean to individuals: in Searle’s language, they are “ontologically subjective”. The objects of software which were advocated with the PLE may not be fundamentally dissimilar from physical objects like banknotes, cups, or pencils. The deep question is, How do these objects become meaningful and recognised as significant in our social contexts? The question concerning the PLE is, Is there a distinction between the status of reality of personal technologies for learning and institutional technologies for learning?

Searle’s Theory of Status Functions and the Objects of Education
Searle’s basic idea is that objects like banknotes, computer software, textbooks and curricula acquire their significance through a social process of what he calls ‘status functions’. A status function is a particular kind of speech act whereby an individual or a group of individuals make a declaration: “We (or I) make it the case by Declaration that the Y status function exists”. Such a declaration is supported by other declarations of others in the society, not least the declaration that the person making the first declaration has the power to do so. So, for example, the object of the Virtual Learning Environment was a status declaration by a group of influential learning technologists who made the statement that “A status function exists such that the VLE is an important part of university education”.  The impact of this status function was supported by other status functions which related to the organisations making it. In the UK, for example, the influential Joint Information Services Committee (JISC) played a significant role (and the reason why only in the UK is there talk of a “Virtual Learning Environment”, JISC’s terminology, as opposed to “learning management system” – as it is described everywhere else!). What emerges in the network of status function declarations between different stakeholders are networks of rights, responsibilities, obligations and commitments. It is through the network of these that the “ontologically subjective” entities, not just of the education system, but of society in general, establish their reality and their causal powers on everybody in that society.

Computer software itself is an aggregation of a variety of status functions. Within any computer software, there are encoded responsibilities, roles, obligations and commitments – of both users and developers - which once a person starts to engage with the software, they are obliged to comply with. This aggregated nature of software produces problems: with the VLE, there are implicit roles and responsibilities (the role of teacher, the role of learner) which are encoded in the software, and which have to be tacitly accepted if the status function regarding the software as a whole is accepted. The fact that the encoded roles and responsibilities within the software relating to those people for whom the software is intended often do not reflect their actual practice can lead to processes of alienation and disengagement. Technologists hope that through the intervention of software, the agency of the users will change. Yet it rarely does of its own accord. What is required in order for it to change (even for take-up of the VLE) are increasingly powerful status function declarations by powerful people in the institution which eventually mandate the use of the software.
The combination of different status functions relating to power relations within the institution, the status of software objects and the rights and obligations of individuals provides a backdrop to inspect the impact of the PLE. The PLE was a declared status function relating not to a particular object (because the objective was not to ‘build’ a PLE!) but instead relating to a set of practices. In effect, these practices were deemed to support notions of ‘personalised learning’ and self-efficacy whilst challenging the status of institutional approaches to education and the curriculum. Behind the rationale for these new ‘practice-oriented’ status functions were concretised ideas about learning. Learning, it was argued, was engendered through conversation and connection, and that these connections could be facilitated in ways where individuals could coordinate engagement with institutional structures in more flexible ways than those which were determined by traditional courses. As evidence for this, the uses of social software such as YouTube by artists and musicians, where individuals found new ways of making their way through the world independently of traditional brokers (like agents) was cited as an example of what might be possible within the educational universe. If individual practices could change so that individuals used personal technologies in effective ways which manifested in practices which were ‘functionally equivalent’ to institutional processes, then a challenge to institutional practices could be defended.

The status function of the PLE was a challenge to existing institutional status functions. By declaring the status of the ‘learning process’ and the associated “functional equivalence” off online engagement to face-to-face engagement, the PLE also sought to critique the status functions that others within the institutional environment had determined with regard to institutional learning technology – in particular, a challenge was mounted against the status of the VLE. Associated with the challenge to the status of technologies, was a challenge to the status of the individuals who upheld the status of those objects. The PLE was ‘personal’ in terms of a power conflict, not just in terms of its aspirations for learning!

Power, Status functions and the PLE concept in institutional learning
Whilst the PLE is described as something of a challenge to the institution, most experiments in engaging with PLE concepts have occurred within the context of institutional learning. Typically this has involved uses of technologies beyond those sanctioned directly by the institution. This creates a complex set of power relations which can also be described in terms of status functions. Searle describes power relations within his social ontology in terms of what he calls “deontic powers”. He explains:
“The power of the local party bosses and the village council as well as the power of such grander figures as presidents, prime ministers, the US Congress and the Supreme court are all derived from the possession by these entities of recognized status functions. And these status functions assign deontic powers.”  (p 164)
The role of status functions in assigning deontic powers to these bodies and individuals has a simple but profound logical consequence: “All political power, though exercised from above, comes from below.” Even dictators typically are unsure of the status functions that gave them power, needing to maintain these functions through “massive systems of rewards and punishments by terror.” In more democratic situations, those in power have that power given to them by those subjected to it.

Within status declarations about tools within an educational institution are implicit status functions relating to power structures. Compliance with institutional tooling entails status functions relating to head-teachers, vice-chancellors, heads of teaching and learning, examining boards, etc. As institutions become increasingly technological, and each institutional technology carries its own status functions and declarations of rights and responsibilities, so the network of status functions can become confusing and difficult for both learners and staff.

Politicians, heads of institutions and others in power can look at existing practices and say “This is no longer valid; these new functions/roles/responsibilities/tools are the ones you should now comply with.” Political interference in educational systems of this sort is common as educational intervention has become a popular means by which political parties can stamp their mark on a society. However, such attempts naturally lead to reactions.

The situation for teachers is ultimately one of conflicting status functions which somehow they have to negotiate. The rights and commitments they must manage must balance their obligations to their institutions with the obligations to their students. The status functions determined by the institution as they are embodied within institutional technology must be balanced by what the teacher might feel as opportunities for learners to learn new skills with technology that exists outside the institution. In managing this balance, teachers exercise their own deontic powers in relation both to their students, taking responsibility for their experiments with regard to how they might be viewed by their institutions. However, a teacher that declares that Twitter or Facebook will be the technology for a course is not promoting the principles of the PLE (although this is sometimes confused with the PLE rhetoric); they are simply declaring a different status function with regard to technology. On the other hand, a teacher who allows students to choose whatever technology they wish providing they meet some particular requirement of assessment might be closer to the spirit of the PLE. In such a case, the declared status function relates to the process of assessment rather than the use of a particular technology. In the variety of practices which have been described as being allied to the PLE, there are a large variety of distinctions that can be made with regard to the precise nature of the status functions that are declared.

In each case of teachers negotiating this balance of technology, institutional policy, assessment regimes and learner needs, teachers need to consider:
·       How not to put their jobs at risk;
·       How to ensure that they can manage the complexities of assessment which ensue from whichever approach they take;
·       How to balance the interests of learners with practical concerns about technology use;
·       How to avoid making technological demands on their learners which their learners are not comfortable with (in other words, how to avoid doing precisely what is criticised in institutional IT provision!)

There are deep mechanisms whereby the education system manages to hold things together. Not least this is because teachers want to continue to get paid, and students demand that they achieve qualifications. In reality, good teachers will work through things and make the best of it. The ITEC project presents some useful examples of where this was the case.

The Reality of Software in the ITEC Project
ITEC is a large-scale European project which aims to transform the technological practices of teachers in schools across Europe. It was formulated against the background of technological transformations which were among the driving forces behind the PLE agenda: the rise of social software, increasing personalisation of tools and the need for flexibility in the curriculum as well as addressing deeper societal concerns including the global movement of populations, social mobility and inclusion.

ITEC has sought to establish a community of practice among teachers and learners in schools focused around specific pedagogical activities which in turn implicate engagement with technologies. To achieve its ambitions, the project set to put in place an infrastructure whereby pedagogical and technical innovation is community-led and community-sustained. This is central to the iTEC philosophy: it is the means by which individual instances of classroom practice are are connected and contribute to a broader effort in experimenting with new pedagogies and technologies. By doing this, the conditions for sustained innovation through engaging in new practice is envisaged as not only a means to better practice on the ground, but also a means whereby teachers continue their involvement in a Europe-wide community of teachers the membership of which is something of perceived value to them. ITEC aims to be, in effect, a PLE for teachers to develop pedagogic practice.

The deployment of tools to meet the pedagogical requirements has demanded flexible ways in which toolsets can be organised and distributed.  Evolving the PLE’s concept of service interoperability and personalisation of toolsets, ITEC has used ‘widgets’ (small web-based applications) as a key component in the technical architecture of the project. These tools can be instantiated across a wide range of electronic learning contexts, including a number of popular Virtual Learning Environments. Whilst particular widgets were designed with requisite affordances for the educational requirements, the instantiation and curation of widgets could be left to the teacher through the use of a ‘widget store’, a technology developed from the Apache Wookie Widget Server (Griffiths et al., 2012; Wilson et al, 2008).  The Widget Store also provides additional social network features, thus not only serving the instrumental purpose of delivering tools, but also providing a means whereby the teacher community may share and comment on widgets which they find meaningful and useful within their practice.

However, across the 4 years of the project, the widget store has only met with a modicum of success. In general, teachers have chosen to use institutionally-provided tools such as electronic whiteboards or other tools provided on the web (for example, Socrative) rather than coordinate their own tooling through the widget store. From the perspective of the present paper, the realities both of the project’s innovation in designing the widget store, and in the actual practices teachers can be analysed in terms of commitments, responsibilities, obligations and the status functions which relate to them.

Any project is itself a status function which says (broadly) “this is a project which is of relevance to you”. The deontic power of this  statement rests on the body organising the project (in this case, the EU Commission), the amount of funding, the opportunities for engagement and the status of the ideas underpinning the project. Basing itself around ideas related to the PLE, the status declaration of the ITEC project had some weight with substantial funding, a broad range of stakeholders and a recognised need that technology in schools is an important thing. However, like all status functions – and particularly those relating to technological practices – there can emerge conflicts in local situations as teachers have to balance their commitments to their learners and their obligations to their managers, whilst at the same time seeking opportunities to raise their own status. Whatever status declarations ITEC could make about specific technologies, ‘engagement’ meant that fundamentally teachers had to endorse the status functions about the technologies with their learners. In doing so, they would not want to appear to be admiring the “emporer’s new clothes”. In doing this, many teachers ultimately decided that the emporer (at least the “emporer” of the widget store) was in fact naked and had to manouvre between their status relations with their learners and the status relations with the project.

There were some curious side-effects of this. Not least was the fact that despite the actual evidence of web activity on the widget store was low, teachers would often say that they had used the technology more than the statistics indicated, with many saying that the widget store was a ‘good idea’.  Moreover, teachers found that they could negotiate between the different status functions of the project, trading off one for the other. ITEC made two fundamental status declarations: on the one hand, there was a declaration about the use of technology; on the other, there was a declaration about engagement with “pedagogical scenarios”. The latter function provided flexibility in the acknowledgement of the former. Thus, the status of “being engaged in the ITEC project” could be achieved through engaging with the pedagogical scenarios, irrespective of the specific technological solution deployed.

But given this rather complex web of status functions, and the apparent failure of the attempt to get teachers to use ITEC widgets, it is also worth considering the winners and losers in the whole enterprise. In particular, we might ask, to what extent did teachers or learners increase their social status? To what extent were they able to define new rights and responsibilities? The answer here is, for learners – hardly at all; for teachers, not a lot. What about the core project team? These, in the final analysis, were the people who clearly did gain new networks of responsibility and obligations: they determined the nature of the technology provision, they determined the organisation of the project, they identified  the goals and challenges. Despite its intentions, ITEC appears fundamentally top-down, with an “elite” management which could only gain status from the project (even despite its failures), and teachers who were provided with few opportunities for increasing their own status. Given that the project team had few ambitions for despotism, how could this come about?

The root cause for this lies in the fact that ITEC’s status function concerned not a particular technology or a particular pedagogy, but an idea about learning. The concepts of online connection, conversation and cognitive development – whether in teachers or learners – lay behind not only its technological developments, but many of its pedagogical developments. Yet over-focus on ideals led focus away from the concrete realities of institutional life – not just in schools, but within the universities participating in the project, and within the governmental institutions that commissioned it in the first place. There are some fundamental questions which emerge from the ITEC experience:
1.       What if ITEC had been more aware of the network of status functions which it was going to become a part right from the beginning? 
2.       What if the concrete requirement for status enhancement of both learners and teachers had been in-built from the start? 
3.       What if the requirement to balance the deontic power of the project board with the deontic power between individual teachers and learners had been recognised? 
4.       What kind of preliminary research would have  been necessary to establish the realities of institutional relations? 
5.       What kind of interventions might have resulted in the light of a realistic grounding of the nature of the schools who were subject to the intervention?

The Personal Status of Learners: The role of Institutions and the Role of Technology
Situations such as those in ITEC are examples of institutionally-oriented approaches to personal learning with technology. However, the PLE articulated a vision of technologically-empowered learning which could theoretically bypass institutions altogether, or at least stich episodes of learning from different institutions together in individual ways. Despite a few isolated examples of where individuals found ways of carving out careers through engaging with online platforms, for the vast majority of learners, the bypassing the institution has seemed unrealistic. Learners often testify to fear and lack of confidence with online practices like blogging or posting videos on YouTube. Even when learners can be persuaded to engage with tools like Twitter, engagement does not always become habit, and habit does not always entail increased self-confidence or personal learning. In particular, online discussion forums – whilst promoted as being communities of support for all where issues can be discussed – tend to attract the few with the disposition to express themselves online, whilst everyone else either ‘lurks’ or fails to engage at all.

The exhortation to engage online through forums and other means has grounded itself in ideas about learning. It is through these ideas about learning that particular status functions are declared with regard to particular tools and practices. However, the rationale for these status functions is seen to be inconsistent with the experience of complying with them: it is not only that there are sometimes perceived to be no ‘learning experiences’ gained through engaging with the technology. It is more than confidence is often not increased or that fears about online engagement are not addressed. In effect, it is the fact that individuals exhorted to engage in personal technologies for learning too often fail to acquire new deontic powers themselves in order to declare new status functions.

In this process of the acquisition of deontic powers that some key distinctions can be made between what happens within institutions and what often happens online. Institutions – particularly universities – establish themselves on the basis of a rich set of status functions which relate them to society. For the most prestigious institutions, these status functions are almost universally upheld in a rich network of political, historical and societal status functions. Association with such an institution immediately connects an individual to this network of social declarations and grants them privileged social status. University education at all levels upholds its status functions through various processes of exclusion and selection. However, more than this, within an institution – even an institution which is not in the upper echelons of the University system – opportunities are provided for individuals to establish new commitments and obligations: it might be writing for the student newspaper, or managing the sports club, or taking a political role in the students union. In each case, such opportunities also accord to an individual learner the opportunity to gain new deontic powers within a limited context: students can find themselves in a position to take the initiative with new projects and so on – all things which they can declare on their CVs when they graduate and look to impress employers. Student confidence follows increases in deontic power.

Whilst Universities portray themselves as “institutions of learning”, analysis of the opportunities it affords for increasing deontic powers, giving access to new rights, obligations and commitments may provide a richer and more realistic picture of the causal power of engagement with such institutions. Having said this, we can turn to the PLE and ask to what extent ‘learning’ might be a mistaken focus for looking at the engagement with personal technology. In the celebrated instances of individuals making careers through engaging with personal tools, it is possible to determine processes of increasing social status through acquiring new rights, responsibilities, obligations and commitments through online action. For example, the YouTube video artist acquires an audience who harbour expectations about the kind of thing that the artist might produce next. The artist acquires new responsibilities to satisfy and maintain their audience. In open-source software development environments like GitHub, a software developer might through developing software, acquire a body of users whose expectations create the need for the developer to honour obligations and commitments in terms of fixing bugs, developing new functionality and new initiatives. In each case, what we see may be better described as networks of commitments and obligations rather than processes of learning which remain essentially unobservable.

Veblen’s Critique of Education as Archaic and Status-serving
The account given so far of the role and efficacy of institutional learning in providing opportunities for status enhancement goes some way to explain why it is that the PLE has not challenged the institution in ways that theorists thought that it might (including the present author). Despite rising costs of institutional education, there seems to be no decline in the demand for institutional learning, and there is certainly no abandonment of institutional learning in favour of technological engagement. How can we explain this? What is required is a more general theory of education as a status-oriented activity, where the nature of the relationship between status enhancement and economic activity is made explicit. Such a position was put forwards over 100 years ago by the American economist Thorstien Veblen. Veblen wrote twice about education – first in the last chapter of his “Theory of the Leisure Class” (1899) and later in “Higher Learning in America”. Here I will concentrate on the arguments put forwards in the former text, since they relate directly to a more general economic theory.
 Veblen sees "education" as having not shaken-off archaic sacramental roots, presenting itself to the "leisure classes" (Veblen’s name for the Bourgeoisie) as a means of becoming 'priests' or shamans. Veblen argues that:
"The recondite element in learning is still, as it has been in all ages, a very attractive and effective element for the purpose of impressing, or even imposing upon, the unlearned; and the standing of the savant in the mind of the altogether unlettered is in great measure rated in terms of intimacy with the occult forces"
In the relationships between those who consider themselves 'lettered' and those who don't, there is perhaps still an element of 'impressing' and 'imposing upon' that goes on. Veblen characterises the behaviour as:
"The priestly servitor of the inscrutable powers that move in the external world [...] stand in the position of a mediator between these powers and the common run of  unrestricted humanity; for he was possessed of a knowledge of the supernatural etiquette which would admit him into the presence."
Veblen's point is not so much to drive home a point about education. It is to drive home a point about economics. His theory of the ‘leisure class’ provides the foundation for his critique of American capitalism. He argues that the acquisition of priestly status among the leisure classes had become not only desirable, but mandated by 20th century society. In mandating this pretence, the engines of the education industry could be fired on the social aspirations of students. With this, so the engines of social difference and inequality drive value conflicts and networks of wants and desires which ultimately serve to keep the rich getting richer. Veblen points to evidence for his association with priestliness and learning in the obsession with rituals  in the University:
"the learned class in all primitive communities are great sticklers for form, precedent, graduations of rank, ritual, ceremonial vestments, and learned paraphernalia generally."
Later he says "Even today there are such things in the usage of the learned community as the cap and gown, matriculation, initiation, and graduation ceremonies, and the conferring of scholastic degrees, dignities, and prerogatives in a way which suggests some sort of a scholarly apostolic succession." Furthermore, he argues that:
"These usages and the conceptions on which they rest belong to a stage in cultural development no later than that of the angekok [shaman] and the rain-maker."
To what extent does Veblen’s critique measure up to what we see in the education system now? He presents a powerful description of what we might term the 'marketisation' of education:
"it is also no doubt true that such a ritualistic reversion could not have been effected in the college scheme of life until the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the propertied class had gone far enough to afford the requisite pecuniary ground for a movement which should bring the colleges of the country up to the leisure-class requirements in the higher learning. The adoption of the cap and gown is one of the striking atavistic features of modern college life, and at the same time it marks the fact that these colleges have definitively become leisure class establishments, either in actual achievement or in aspiration."
Finally, Veblen turns his focus on the leadership of institutions. Even in America in the 1920s, the pre-echoes of 21st century managerialism were present:
"it may be remarked that there is some tendency latterly to substitute the captain  of industry in place of the priest, as the head of seminaries of the higher learning. The substitution is by no means complete or unequivocal. Those heads of institutions are best accepted who combine the sacerdotal office with a high degree of pecuniary efficiency."
He goes on to say that there is a tendency for educational institutions to be run by the ‘money men’ rather than people of learning:
"There is a similar but less pronounced tendency to intrust the work of instruction in the higher learning  to men of some pecuniary qualification."
"Administrative ability and skill in advertising the enterprise count for rather more than they once did, as qualifications for the work of teaching. This applies especially in those sciences that have most to do with the everyday facts of life, and it is particularly true of schools in the economically single-minded communities."

Institutions and Technologies
Veblen’s analysis appears powerfully prescient, but what does it mean for the PLE? When Veblen talks about the power of institutions he is referring to what Searle describes as the network of status functions which determine the position of those institutions in an economy. In particular, Veblen’s analysis which relates the status functions of the institution with the societal drive towards status acquisition and broader economic processes helps to explain why it is that even despite the rising costs of institutional education, learners are still drawn to it, being prepared to take out larger and larger loans as a consequence. Indeed, Veblen points out that his principal of “conspicuous consumption” by the leisure classes may make more expensive offerings of education more attractive – social status can be achieved through explicit and extravagant wastefulness. This gives rise to what has become termed the ‘Veblen good’: a good whose demand is proportional to its price. Veblen, in describing this phenomenon, is close to Bataille’s economic theory (Bataille, 1991) which related economic behaviour to exuberant wastefulness as an expression of individual sovereignty.

When we come to ask “What is exuberant or wasteful about the PLE?” we see by contrast a picture of economic rationalism. Indeed, this is not just economic rationalism but also a kind of ‘learning rationalism’. However, with regard to technological engagement, and particularly those engagements which have been effective in raising social status, there are particular special cases and exceptions. The principal one is the production of art. For Bataille, artistic endeavour was a fundamental expression of exuberance: it is an act of ‘giving’ or what Bataille termed, following Mauss (1922), a ‘potlatch’. What is particularly curious is that the potlatch of artistic engagement produces in turn a network of new responsibilities, obligations and rights – from which new deontic powers emerge for individuals, from where they learn. A similar pattern of potlatch can be seen in the behaviour of individuals who create software in GitHub. Again, this appears, at least initially, to be a wasteful act.

From this perspective, we can see how deep differences and similarities between technological practices and practices within the institution relate to economic forces which will tend to manifest in the increasing dominance of educational institutions in social life irrespective (and maybe because of) their cost. Whilst educational certificates carry particular declarations of status from the institutional bodies, the real value of institutional learning relates to its provision of other opportunities for status enhancement. Online, there are opportunities for status enhancement, but to realise them requires a more direct engagement with fundamental processes of exuberant and wasteful self-expression. Typically, those with the dispositions to do this will themselves be those privileged through upbringing to have the confidence to grab opportunities: online engagement does not represent a solution to the problem of social inequality.

Conclusion: A Personal Status Environment?
Technological interventions in education give us permission to ask deeper questions about education in general: the benefit of intervention, whether PLE, VLE, MOOC or anything else often lies not in successful implementation (which is rare), but in illumination. The PLE discourse asserted technology as a challenge to the institution’s hegemony on the basis of theories of learning. The outcomes from the interventions from projects like iTEC suggest that the theories cannot be right. The problem, fundamentally, appears to be the intangible nature of learning itself, and the impossibility of being able to impute concrete processes to things which go on in peoples’ heads. The PLE (not least through the present author’s work) not only attempted this but to design a technological infrastructure and set of practices whereby imputed learning processes could be supported: metaphysics drove technological development!

Technological development however does not need metaphysics to advance its cause. There is plenty of evidence of individuals making careers and advancing themselves through society with online activity. What is required is a theory to explain this which does not rely on metaphysics, but practical and concrete description. Searle’s social ontology helps with this task. Networks of rights, responsibilities, obligations and commitments can be revealed both by looking at the data-oriented connections between people, and by simply asking people about their relations with one another. Who has to do what? Who says who has to do what? What do people gain? Who has the right to change things? Basic transformations in rights and responsibilities bring with them the paraphernalia that typically are associated with learning: increases in self-efficacy, confidence, skilled-performances, and so on.

Institutions have always done this. However, they have presented what they do not as a ‘status game’ (which is what Veblen identified was actually going on) but rather as a metaphysical process of learning. We might ask whether for institutions to maintain their economic advantage, a certain degree of obfuscation about what they are really about is necessary. The appeal to the metaphysics of learning works by pretending that mysterious processes are going on in peoples’ heads whilst in reality social climbing and grappling for responsibility and power presents the real opportunities of the institution (opportunities which all-too-often are most accessible to those who already come from positions of privilege) and the currency beyond the degree certificate which carries graduates into high-flying employment beyond education.
Something happens to individual confidence, and status within the learning process – and particularly in the face-to-face interactions: it may be validation of personal viewpoints, or the ability to enhance self-expression. If the PLE is framed around the same metaphysical foundations that support institutions in their increasingly expensive offerings, it is unlikely that any institution will fear personalised learning. However, if the PLE operates as an illumination on institutional processes and socio-economic structures, then there may be ways in which the example of successful YouTube artists, software developers and bloggers might be codified and amplified in ways that provide individuals with genuine ways of using technology for social advancement. But his requires a deeper research project. Among the factors that would need to be investigated are:
1.       The socioeconomic status of individuals engaging in institutional study or online activity;
2.       The costs of study to learners in institutions; 
3.       The motivations for online activity; 
4.       The family backgrounds of individuals engaged in online activity; 
5.       The financial rewards of study to institutions; 
6.       The financial rewards of online engagement to technology corporations; 
7.       The financial rewards of online activity to individuals; 
8.       The net contribution to national economy of institutional performance; 
9.       The potential benefits of student loans to the government and industry; 
10.   The extent to which individuals engage in ‘potlatch’ style behaviours online or within institutions; 
11.   The power of networks of rights and responsibilities gained through online activity; 
12.   The causal efficacy of educational interventions in making a difference (or not) to social status; 
13.   The economics of course provision and the means by which institutions maintain their viability; 
14.   The utilization of free course offerings through MOOCs and the marketing strategy of institutions; 
15.   The consequences of the financialisation of knowledge and the consolidation of enterprise operations in universities

Such a list is only a beginning, but it is an indication that the research project of the PLE is a large-scale, transdisciplinary affair. It must bridge the gap between a discourse around educational processes, technological affordance, and economic analysis if it is to have any power. Ivan Illich, whose work provided one of the polemical foundations of the PLE argued that:
“Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education.”
In ruling out many of the popular initiatives in educational thought (including the PLE as it was initially presented!) Illich’s argument concerned the nature of the relationship between education and society. He goes on to say:
“The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.”
In order to do this, the task is an understanding of the nature of society, institutions, economy, technology and educational activity. The PLE’s apparent failure might yet be the root of its eventual success as a way of situating modern social life with educational processes.


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Illich, I (1971) Deschooling society
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Mauss, M (1922) The Gift: forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. London: Routledge.
Searle, J (2010) Making the social world: the structure of human civilization Oxford University Press
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Wilson, S; Liber,O; Johnson, M; Beauvoir, P; Sharples, P; Milligan, C (2007) Personal Learning Environments: Challenging the dominant design of educational system Journal of e-Learning and Knowledge Society