Category Archives: Theory

Higher Education Studies

Structurally, politically, philosophically and commercially there is more change in higher education in the UK today than there has been since the Polytechnics had their magic wand waved in 1992

The OfS’s foundation is more than a simple re-branding exercise. The shift from a ‘funding council’ to a ‘regulator’, a body found in many public and private sectors from energy, telecoms, to financial services and beyond, is a fundamental change in philosophy. (WonkHE, Monday briefing, 3 April 2017)

In a leap across several nations and several arguments, I expect England, along with Scotland (already) and Wales (very soon) will have a common, but possibly chaotic regulatory and funding framework for post-compulsory (“tertiary”) education including a plethora of new providers (many private) and new awards including Degree Apprenticeships. But difference, hierarchy and competition will persist and be generated within and between institutions, nations and firms (or syndicates or enterprises).

It appears that rules of “firms” more so than rules of “markets” or “businesses” apply. An altogether more Machiavellian future of privateers on the edge of empires beckons.

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Backpacks, badges and epistemology: an interesting conversation that leads to happily ever after

Grant (2014) asks in the title to her book about digital badges, “What Counts as Learning?” This succinctly expresses the question of higher education and explains the continuing interest in badges, and in learning technologies in general. The fact this is less explored, gives me an opportunity to explore both learning technology and epistemology.

I have developed a new MA Education course module, “Philosophy and policy of higher education”. In this 20 credit level 7 module the question: “What counts as learning?” will be explored. That is the seductive game higher education plays: a chance at determining or being among the determiners of meaning – what counts as learning – for a generation or so. To extend the “play” metaphor to a stage on which higher education acts, higher education as an institution and its practitioners as individuals seek to occupy the limen, the space on the edge between consensual suspension of belief in order to “live the dream”, and the world as it is, explained. More critically for those in the game it poses the question about one’s own underpinnings, one own “will to power”, or academic identity or even life.

Badges are something like brand propositions and to some extent depend on other similar propositions. Like many brand propositions their link to truth is explicitly unattested. The badge can only serve as a conversation starter. Like travel badges on a backpack seen on an overnight Eurail while sleeping in the vestibule: “So when did you go to Sweden?” Most universities have a t-shirt and sports kit with a name and often a crest or logo. Some might serve the question: “Were you at Malmo?” To which an answer might be “No, it is a good hoodie.” But could also be, “Yes, for ice-hockey in 2009.”

Possibly the internet will work like the cold vestibule of a Eurail under an ex army coat, and when we see badges on a site we may start that interesting conversation that leads to happily ever after: life, love, career, changing the world? Or same as it ever was. That conversation about changing the world? Because as it is now, the foundations of meaning sometimes appear both unsound and cruel, not just one or the other.

References

Grant, Sheryl. 2014. What Counts as Learning: Open Badges for New Opportunities. Kindle. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. http://dmlhub.net/publications/what-counts-learning/.

What to do about Rhodes and other evils

I recently read Joanna Williams’ piece in the Conversation, “Safe space hand wringers are attacking academic freedom – we must fight back“. I have also been party to both academic and dinner-table conversations that addressed freedom of speech and cultural representation, currently exemplified by the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) debate. A number of themes merge into a wider discourse of freedom: freedom of speech, academic freedom, cultural representation, the infantilisation of students, protection from hate speech and similar. Continue reading

Usurpation of the University?

Transcendence – transgression – is the modality of human being in the world… The urge to transcend is the most stubbornly present … attribute of human existence (Bauman 2002, 222-23).

Last August I discussed a symposium to be held at the Australian Philosophy of Education Society with David Aldridge. That never happened but this note is what I was thinking of at the time.

Is transcendence as transgression a usurpation? We expect it is and is and is to be celebrated.

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The “enhancement debate” and TEL

Beginning a critical exploration of “enhancement”.

The “enhancement debate” clearly (to me) must be addressed within the scope of technology enhanced learning (TEL) debates. TEL is largely seen as an instrumental means of making the individual person (human being) more effective and efficient in the information economy, maybe more compliant to employability and managerial norms as well as possibly resistant to collectivist and democratic or redistributive urges. TEL discussions often focus on the capacity of the technology to enhance, and the person to be enhanced largely through an individual’s own capacity to use or even master learning technology. The person is often understood as a decontextualised individual, with inadequacies to be remediated or skill levels to be increased largely through their own efforts, assisted by appropriate training and development programmes largely focused on using tools.

However set against this fairly common conception of the person and their relations to learning technology are various streams of more critical engagement (as set out by Van Den Eede 2015) from the transhumanism of Bostrom to the democratic humanism of Feenberg. Bostrom (2009) provides a definition of enhancement:

An intervention that improves the functioning of some subsystem of an organism beyond its reference state; or that creates an entirely new functioning or subsystem that the organism previously lacked. (89)

… which if the capacity to use certain tools or technologies is a “subsystem” and a human being is “an organism” and a “reference state” is a certain level of competence, then, I suggest this encapsulates “enhancement” sufficiently to both include TEL and to be included in discussions of TEL However, considering the individual “organism” or person as the object of the enhancement is only part of the landscape. Seeing TEL as an individual concern and an individual remedial (enhancement) challenge is simplistic and potentially problematic both for the individual and for groups (institutions, communities, etc).. As Feenberg (2009) suggests

… community is the primary scene of human communication and personal development. It is in this context that people judge the world around them and discuss their judgments with others. Any technology that offers new possibilities for the formation of community is thus democratically significant. (81)

Van Den Eede (2015) suggests that:

we must learn to see ourselves as hybrid blends of flesh, mind, materials, machines, information, values, institutions, relations, and processes. (152)

References

Bostrom, Nick. 2009. ‘Dignity and Enhancement’. Contemporary Readings in Law & Social Justice 1 (2): 84–115.

 

Feenberg, Andrew. 2009. ‘Critical Theory of Communication Technology: Introduction to the Special Section.’ Information Society 25 (2): 77–83.

 

Van Den Eede, Yoni. 2015. ‘Where Is the Human? Beyond the Enhancement Debate.’ Science, Technology & Human Values 40 (1): 149–62.

 

Towards a new education?

I asked Richard Murphy a question on Twitter after reading his post, “It’s not just a new politics we need: we need a new economics too.”
“And a new education?”
He replied “Almost certainly”.

This “new education” has to lie in what Murphy calls “collective” or shared narratives: “… where the individual seeks to achieve their purpose within the constraints that the planet now so very obviously imposes upon us… because achieving purpose is about substituting meaning for material consumption.” Narratives make meaning. Narrative must replace material consumption. As Max Tegmark (2014: 256) puts it, “… nature contains many types of entities that are almost begging to be named.”

I am leaning on Murphy and Tegmark here because both come from disciplines that value mathematical descriptions of the world above what Tegmark calls “baggage” or words. And both reveal the uncertainty at the base of measure, or to put it another way, they explore the measure problem. How you define constraints, if there are any?

And that I suggest is as ever: new or old education is about making meaning. Making meaning gets us very quickly into measures: pictures, categories, ranges, constraints; about how many lions are there over there? Meaning without baggage? Or is it all always baggage? Pragmatically, at what point do our useful approximations break down into mere baggage?

I spent much of Thursday and Friday last week immersed in dimensions of digital leadership in higher education, represented diagramatically. I started writing about this here. The base for this diagrammatic thinking was the range between “Visitor” and “Resident” in or to or in respect of/with reference to the digital. This model was constructed by Dave While and Alison leCornu several years ago in response to the “Native/Immigrant” model proposed by Presnky. There are other typologies, such as the “voyeur/flaneur” of dana boyd (2011) but the Jisc Co-designers find the visitor-resident one productive and useful.

To get the workshop talking and thinking together, the workshop facilitators laid another axis at 90 degrees to the visitor-resident x-axis. They labelled the upper end of the range “Personal” and the lower end “Institutional”. And this was the end of my messy thinking in my last post.

Tools as spaces as practises

Tools as spaces as practises

The next day we started again with a slightly rephrased map, where the top element was changed: “Individual” replaced “Personal” and rather than our own “digital capability” we were asked to map our institution’s.

Figure 1

Figure 1

It immediately struck my colleague, Richard Francis, that a small circle in the centre might represent the “disengaged learner” and that more “pressure” outward along any axis could be construed as a transformation of some sort.

Figure 2

Figure 2

I then observed that just maybe there were limits outward in some directions. It struck me that a person who was increasingly a visitor to one’s own individuality might lack self awareness (top left. And, in the same way travel too far lower right and a person might be in danger of becomming fully institutionalised.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Both these outer areas might break the “Identity and Wellbeing” circle suggested by the Jisc’s model of Digital Capability

6 Elements

6 Elements of Digital Capability

The last move in this opening development was to observe that the boundaries were at least elastic: that pressures towards self awareness might press inward while counterveiling pressures might push outward. And that these spaces might be characterised in various ways. Richard Francis proposed that being a visitor to one’s self from time to time might be construed as reflection rather than a tendency towards solipciism.

Figure 4

Figure 4

At this point in the morning the facilitators asked us to consider “openness” and “authenticity”. Richard Francis asked if perhaps the visitor-resident continuum might be relabelled “consumer-producer”? It struck me that an urge towards production and self-actualising transformation seemed to produce something like a wave or flow of force through the model, rupturing the membranes inward from the left to outward on the right. We realised that there was a relatively narrow band on either side of each of the main axes. We called the horozontal band the “Mean of engagement”: more or less individual and more or less institutional. We called the vertical band the “Mode of action”: more or less visitor and more or less resident. We also noticed an impact axis punching in another dimensionfrom lower left towards upper right. It appeard that the far left might be characterised by a lack of authenticity:. As one approached outer limits various pejorative warnings began to attach themselves to the image: at the outer and upper left solipcism and maybe hyper-capitalism dwelt, while at the upper right fully resident in individualism lurked the bully and the narcissist, with no self-control. There was a sweet spot for us upward and rightward from the centre where we put terms like open engagement, community, access and authority, while authoritarian by way of contrast fell out somewhere lower right.

Ruptured matrix

Ruptured matrix

We began to see institutional functions appear: assessment and the VLE seemed to occupy a backwater and the digital impact criteria of attention and presence firmly resided within the mean of engagement.

So all this was very satisfying as a means of understanding our world, but now the challenge is to turn it into action.

 

References

danah boyd. (2011). Dear Voyeur, Meet Flâneur… Sincerely, Social Media.” Surveillance and Society 8(4), 505-507

Jisc Digital Leadership Workshop

Semi-live blogging from the Jisc Digital Leadership project Workshop (Twitter #JiscDigLead. in Bristol at the Hotel Mercure, 22-23 October 2015.

Day 1

Lawrie Phipps opened the day mentioning the “dynamic online offer” from the Jisc Digital Capability service appearing maybe January time: “Online service moving into beta in the new year,” says Lawrie. I wonder if Jisc’s digital capability model

Jisc 6-element Digital Capability Model

Jisc 6-element Digital Capability Model

might assist in evaluations. And, I became exercised over a conflation of competitive comparison with evaluation. Just because s/he does it…

Clearly we want to Improve outcomes for learners and are trying to get our heads around the idea of adding value. Asking ourselves, what is learning gain? It is suggested there is an HE skills gap and that this goes top down. We are asked: Are you capable enough for the role you are undertaking? Who knows! I get a sense that Richard Francis and I, for Brookes are doing as well as many might hope. I suggest that there needs to be IT proficiency in the environs. You, the individual also needs to have to have some. What you don’t have others need. It is not only an individual good, it is a shared social good: education as well as the institution-digital. that is: the epistemic project rolls on.

See digital capabilities blog.

Moving on: Dave White asks why engage with technology? Is technology axiomatic? Is the digital being prefixed to everything? Why do we have a VLE? Can we reframe the discourse? What is the actual value? Dave is working with Donna Lanclos, who works at UNC Charlotte, NC, USA. Anthropologist studying the practices of  “the academic” in order to inform “the library”.

People are invited to question “George style”. Fame at last? Modelling practice? Or just annoying?

Dave and Donna show different pictures drawn by school kids asked to draw the Internet and my home in it (the internet mapping project). Map 2 Dave will want us to map our place on the visitor-resident continuum/a. He suggests, in response to questions that there are more than one dimension. Will we get near Hilbert space? Some of life plays out online. Other people are there. Social media, discussions all leave traces. Dave and Donna want to reassure us that modes of being online do not overdetermine our behaviours or experiences of the phenomenon of being online. We are asked to Google each other.

Dave raises the weak anthropic principle and the strong self-selecting assumption but doesn’t notice. Higher education so readily does the subject-object split to which is added an environment and within that (even going back to Lucretius) the waveform or quanta: movement and change. If the reference class is all people who might be invited and supported to attend this meeting then (as Wikipedia reports Brandon Carter says): “Although our situation is not necessarily central, it is inevitably privileged to some extent.”

And we dive into a Boston Consulting matrix style 2D representation of digital leadership.

  • x axis= Visitor-Resident
  • and y axis is Personal-Institutional.

In some quarters we “decompartementalise”. Richard Francis asks whether

  • Visitor = Consumer
  • Resident = Producer.

This seems plausable equivalence. I wonder how many more axes are possible and if two-d is really useful. They acknowledge the incompleteness of any model.

We are asked to map an “observer moment” of our life in the digital.

Here is mine.

Tools as spaces as practises

Tools as spaces as practises

It is later presented by Dave and Lawrie among four or five others  and comment invited from each of the mappers. It is messy. In one construction, the embodied world envelopes a digital space. But this gives the impression of focusing on “the digital”. We might use two axes to make a small spider diagram: or a dream catcher for the internet maybe? In respect of my map, I noticed the four foci on public writing. I acknowledged visitor status in much other multimedia. I observed how my use of email, Twitter, Facebook and a VLE worked: how it was all generally squashed down to the right: institutional resident. How metaphorical is the location and name of that quadrant?

Next James Clay is took us onto personal effectiveness: our effectiveness at using digitech, and how we build our capacity with technologies. We are asked: “You on your own, define the term: digital university.” I suggest teaching is the core project of the digital university. It seems to me that the digital still has the power to force questioning.

I suggest:

the digital university is immersed in the capacities and contexts of its world using and misusing as well as rejecting “the digital”. In particular the digital university is not slave to an external “digitality” but shapes and enables the shaping of the wider institution-digital. The institution-digital is a “moment” in the emergence of tools, practices and places within which the epistemological project takes place, transforming and also resisting the transformation of society.

A university that constantly evolves to

#JiscDigLead consensus on the Digital University

#JiscDigLead consensus on the Digital University

… the consensus distilled by reps from each table:

We then do PESTLE analysis (badly-can it be done well? The categories are so broad) on our digital university.

  • Political
  • Economic
  • Social
  • Technological
  • Legal
  • Environmental

… sort of.

Our table asks “Why are we doing this?” several times. Someone suggests: “marketing”. Of what? By whom? For whom? I might conflate legal with social, otherwise we more or less agree that leadership is all about:

  1. the political/economic/technical and environmental (society and culture)
  2. the personal (individual experience of society and culture)

I return to the question of embodiment around the breakfast/coffee/lunch/tea breaks. The problem of embodiment is seldom mentioned in higher education gatherings. The presumption of an embodied self-aware narrator is strangely persistent.

Day 2

This morning I am anticipating sessions on social media, cybersecurity risk, persuasive narratives and more mapping before we conclude with building a digital vision and strategy. This will be an opportunity to sanity-check Brookes’ new TEL Framework.

I am in the stoirytelling workshop on creating persuasive narratives.

Keep it lean and focussed. Is the story always an elevator pitch?

Link to strategic policy working document

I wandered off into Medium and pen and book.

The narrative continues here.

 

 

Usurpation: the condition of the university?

Usurpation might better be seen as the condition of the university than as a problem for any particular aspect of that complex phenomenon: higher education today.

Taking Subramaniam, Perrucci, & Whitlock’s (2014) theoretical framework of social and intellectual closure we might see usurpation as – in parts and in places – an ameliorating response to both micro and macro-political movements that lead to closure. I suggest that we might take this further into a space which can only be opened and kept open (rejecting closure) by the usurper who by choice lays him/her self open to being ursurped and indeed facilitates the process of ongoing transformation, which is the driving energy of the academy.

In making this argument I draw on Popper’s (1996) positivism, Kuhn’s (1962) understanding of development in disciplines and Bhabha’s (2004) third space theory.

The pattern of usurpation described by Subramaniam, Perrucci, & Whitlock’s (2014) applies to any attempt to enter a power structure –  a university is a power structure – by agents desiring that power, whether to address wrongs done to them by that power structure and its relatives, or simply to seize more of whatever is going. When the usurpation is successful the usurper assumes the mantle of the power structure and then defends it against subsequent usurpation.

So we see entryism into disciplines of minoritarian or post-colonial themes: Women’s Studies, for example. We see traditional promotion routes to professorship usurped by teaching pathways (an interesting one Subramian et al spotted, which casts me as usurper!). We see the student experience usurping scholarship.

But as Kuhn should remind us: this is the way it works! The English curriculum which is so exercised by usurpation by Media Studies, itself was an entryist program usurping the Classics. And as Popper should remind us, this is to be celebrated. The problem is not usurpation but closure, which might be seen as resistance to being usurped.

References

  • Bhabha, H. (2004). The Location of Culture. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Popper, K. (1996). The Myth of the Framework: In defence of Science and Rationality. London: Routledge.
  • Subramaniam, M., Perrucci, R., & Whitlock, D. (2014). Intellectual Closure: A Theoretical Framework Linking Knowledge, Power, and the Corporate University. Critical Sociology (Sage Publications, Ltd.), 40(3), 411–430.

Getting away with it (a blimage challenge)

Bounced off Steve Wheeler’s post, “Blimy its a blimage” and thought I could be a nay-sayer or a player (more on which somewhere else maybe).  The image was of old school desks shot from above.

School desks

Photo by Steve Wheeler

The challenge — for the Blimage is a challenge — is to write an education-related piece about the image. Two thoughts hit me about this. I’ll go off for a bit on one and then close with the last.

First it strikes me that there is much synthesised nostalgia about school days, despite many people not recalling them with joy. I expect these desks are in an antiques yard waiting to be picked up by parents who will put them in their children’s bedrooms as sweet little learning spaces all their own. I sat at desks like that. In my early school days they even had holes for ink pots, though the ink pots themselves had long gone. The desk was was a safe space in which I could seek to be ignored between the much more challenging negotiations to avoid being hurt in the times when we weren’t sat at the desks. But when I see them in my friends’ kids’ bedrooms I do come all over fuzzy with kawaii. The fact that my children appear to be happy in school and there is not a school-desk in sight slips from my mind. I am not saying that the desks are causal, or even necessarily instrumental in themselves in the emotional abuse that old-school sometimes colluded in but they are symbols of order and authority as well as something more insidious: deception. The liftable lids enabled any amount of clutter and contraband to be swept away. As long as the surface could be tidy and the content hidden or deployed tactically and even surreptitiously all would be fine. The covered desk taught as much about what you could get away with as any other lesson. Carving your name in the desk was a rite of passage even if being caught doing it merited a punishment. Even if our subversiveness was unoriginal: smuggling comic books inside exercise books, even if we never read the comic books in class, I remember the frisson of hiding things in my desk and getting away with it more than most (any?) more substantive or intended lessons. I remember the feeling and that is the thing. The feelings that are a deep part of me were inculcated at desks like that and I am afraid I do not remember many feelings of joy from my school days. I am sure I learned other things but even to this day the struggle between authentic learning and just getting away with it occupies me more than I would like.

The second thing those desks reminded me of was this:

Punts

Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0): Photo by Graham and Sheila https://www.flickr.com/photos/grahamandsheila/74719450/sizes/o/

The dark, hardwood stain, the association with a disordered and anachronistic, rectilinear formality in learning and in their own way authority reminded me of the often repeated iconic image of punts lined up on the streams that flow past the two oldest universities in the UK. I saw a thread through the desks to Oxbridge. But again it is not the substance of learning that was drawn to my mind but something other: something about context, deception and subversion, something about the importance of a superficial order even if all was disordered beneath the surface; something about mastering that surface at all cost and if something deeper drifted by so be it.