Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Educational Cybernetics across Boundaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Scott said...

Thanks for this post Mark.

I think we envisaged the possibility of the teachers and learners taking control of technology to bring about powerful conversations, but instead we've seen more centralisation and bureaucracy to clamp down on this and reduce the educational experience to targets and measurements - usually of things that maybe aren't so important in learning, but are key concerns of the new class of professional management.

One of my great frustrations this past year has been the idea of "contact hours". Rather than have people meet and talk whenever there is something to talk about, in a context where there is possibility to progress, we instead have a communication target imposed that creates engagements that are pointless and alienating rather than emerging out of the flow of people engaging with each other and their subject of study. Its pretty depressing that the best education can come up with today is a crude version of Scientific Management from the 50's.

I think however students are beginning to react to this lack of authenticity, and I'm hopeful that managerialism is just a phase education will grow out of.

Richard Farr said...

Interesting stuff, Mark!

I think that this notion that "the young will grasp its potential in a way we couldn't imagine" is important to keep in mind. Not only did the next generation do things with the successor to ARPANET that couldn't have been anticipated, but it's still going on today. Cyberspace hasn't stopped evolving. Parts of it congeal into permanence because they're held to be useful, but I'm sure there's much more to come. Even household names can be succeeded over time (remember Yahoo?). Who would have believed in a collaborative encyclopaedia? Or blogs? Education is going to change just as much as music, film, news and telephony... eventually.