Saturday, 2 April 2016

The Transactional Dynamics of Personal Learning Environments

Whatever the eventual result of the Block Chain hype, I suspect the lasting result will be a renewed focus on transactions in education. Thinking about the relationship between transactions and institutions has a long history dating initially from Weber, but particularly from Ronald Coase's Theory of the Firm in 1937: institutions can be thought of as the site of transactional behaviour where the firm's existence depends on the cost of its transactions being lower than they would be outside the firm. The transactional behaviour within firms can also shed light on the internal organisation of the firm and its bureaucracy. DiMaggio and Powell's classic work on institutional structures and "institutional isomorphism" (where the activities of management in different organisational sphere start to look the same) kick-started rethinking organisational analysis through differentiating the kinds of intra-institutional and inter-institutional transactions which  characterise modern corporate life. The result of this have sometimes slipped into a confusing gap between constructivism (institutional structures are constructed through discourse) and positivism (institutions are nevertheless assumed to operate as real sites for analysis, with little questioning of their existence or legitimacy). Typical examples of approaches include Etkowitz and Leydesdorff's Triple Helix and Lounsbury, Ocasio and Thornton's Institutional Logics.

The Personal Learning Environment was originally conceived as a critique of institutional control of the resources and technologies for learning. Whilst most of what has been written about the PLE has focused on the impact of 'personal' technologies (e.g. social software, mobile devices, etc) for learning, little attention has been paid to the institution itself, and what we imagine the institution to be, and (more pertinantly) what the PLE imagined the institution to be. Drawing, for example, on various 'de-schooling' arguments of Illich, there was a implicit hope that technology would present a viable alternative to institutional learning: that, with rising fees and rigid curricula, students would organise themselves and their learning with technology. This clearly hasn't happened, and much of the PLE discourse now consoles itself with stories like "I let my students use Facebook and Twitter instead of the VLE..." (ignoring the fact that Facebook and Twitter are institutions).

In addressing this problem, a transactional approach can be a useful tool for analysis. Whether learning is institutionally-coordinated, or whether it is personally coordinated with online tools, there are conversations. The extent to which these conversations can be regarded as 'transactions' can frame an interpretation of the critical issues of the PLE. Thus, the first task is to frame a description of what an 'educational transaction' might be.

The classic educational transaction is "I've done my assignment, you give me a mark/certificate/etc" This is the principal transaction of education - and it is a long and infrequent one - typically occurring once or twice every module (usually about every 6 or 7 weeks). One transaction leads to another, although the follow-up to this long educational transaction is typically handled badly by most institutions. The transaction that follows: "Here is your feedback, you show me how you've developed in the light of it" tends not to get the same attention as the initial transaction. The restrictions of curriculum, staffing, timetable, etc get in the way of genuine attempts to support deep learner progression and development.

Online informal learning doesn't involve grades being exchanged for work (indeed, this is the principal criteria by which it is termed 'informal'). But there are transactions. A google search for a resource is a kind of transaction with a (sometimes anonymous) community: "I want to fix my car, you give me a video of how to do it". This transaction might be carried further if it occurs within an online forum. Here, resources are provided by somebody who the learner can talk to. But we might ask, where certification was the principal goal of the long educational transaction in the institution, what is the essence of the exchange in informal learning?

Whilst there is no assessment of the learner's accomplishment after finding a resource, there is nonetheless a recorded recognition of the resource provider's engagement with the learner. Every view, every 'like' contributes to an aggregated statistic of 'status' for the 'teacher'. Considering this, we might also consider the learner's motivation for learning something new in the first place. This might be to solve a particular problem, or it might concern a personal project. In each case, the acquisition of new skills through whatever means, results in an increase in capability which in turn translates into a status enhancement for the learner within their own community. For example, "I've found these cool resources for fixing my car - look!"

What is being transformed here is what Searle calls the "collective intentionality" of the community regarding the status of individuals, and their own personal power in proclaiming themselves to be 'experts'. This increase in status can be compared to the institutional function of certification. The institution brings to bear its recognised authority to grant certificates and the learner benefits in receiving a certificate, whilst the institution benefits from the learner's approval of the institution. The institution's power to grant certificates rests on its ability to standardise mechanisms of trust in itself and in its own processes. In the absence of standardised mechanisms of trust, each assertion of the status of an individual as 'expert' in x rests of the recognition by the community within which this assertion is made that the declaration of expertise is meaningful and true.

Simple statistics regarding online approval are easy to "game": the number of Twitter followers or hits on a blog are increasingly unreliable. Even the bibliometric techniques of citation analysis among academics is open to abuse. The institution protects its own judgements with various heavy-duty mechanisms for the management of academic quality.

The real question for the PLE is what would happen if the online measures of status could become more reliable and trustworthy? Could a situation arise where the first port-of-call for recognising the status of an individual was consultation with a personal status record of learning transactions rather than a certificate from an institution? Importantly, however, this transaction record may not concern itself so much with what an individual has learnt (which is what an institutional certificate indicates); it would instead be a record of what an individual has contributed to the community as a result of their acquired knowledge and skill.  Isn't that a far more sensible approach to education than the one we have at the moment?

In this process of status recognition, there is a transactional dynamics. In order to analyse these, first we have to make some distinctions. Considering different kinds of organisational function and different kinds of transaction, it is possible to use some of the techniques of New Institutionalism to look at the learner in their environment or work, family, educational institutions and their dreams. There are transactions in each of these domains. Each set of transactions in a particular domain is constrained by sets of transactions in a different domain. Each set of transactions transforms a shared lifeworld with new expectations, capabilities, social groupings, and so on. A transactional dynamics analyses the mutual constraint relations between these different dimensions. The diagram from my last post on music is relevant here where A might be work, B online engagement, and C family and intimate relations. Each is defined in contradistinction to the other.


Frances Bell said...

I love this post Mark but will need to reread it to gain more understanding - it's so rich. Two preliminary comments
I love this " This clearly hasn't happened, and much of the PLE discourse now consoles itself with stories like "I let my students use Facebook and Twitter instead of the VLE..." (ignoring the fact that Facebook and Twitter are institutions)." I have been doing work on impact of FB algorithms in online social learning and this resonates with me. What aren't we talking about when we take social media as an unproblematic context?
My background in Information Systems has left me with a critical approach to digitally-enabled transactions. First they are cheaper to process but they are asymmetric from a power/ knowledge perspective. Also what about the transactions beyond the digital/network gaze?

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Frances,
Yes I agree re. Power and the digital. But I think the power is transactionally situated too - this is where I really like Searle's status functions. This means that the analysis is necessarily recursive: There are multiple layers of constraint from the online tool, to the corporate structures behind it.