Thursday, September 30, 2010

Uniqueness and Conformity

'Short Input' to International Monitoring Conference, September 30, 2010

It is interesting that Fritz Bohle immediately characterized the dilemma between 'stability and flexibilization' as ‘management of uncertainty’, and focused on the idea of science having as an enterprise the reduction of uncertainty. The reality is that, as he said, the uncertainties resist elimination. I will consider why this is.

Johannes Sauer writes, “In order to protect and extend Germany’s capacity for innovation and competitiveness, the extension and organisation of learning cultures are of major significance within the process of transforming the industrial society into a knowledge society.”

Unstated in this assertion, and in assertions like it, is that the nature of ‘knowledge’ itself is changing as society changes. So we should not interpret the phrase ‘knowledge society’ from our comfortable definitions of knowledge.

The fourth dilemma outlined in the International Monitoring discussion paper  “describes the demand of individuals, organizations, networks and societies for safety of current and planability of future processes.” It is possible that the depiction of society as a ‘knowledge society’ offers for some this safety and stability.

If knowledge is derived to any significant degree from experience, however, then as new technologies, social structures, and innovation are generating an increasing number of novel and unexpected experiences, the continuous state of knowledge itself is one of change, as what we know adapts to what we have experienced.

Consider he concept of ‘knowledge processing’, from the opening keynote – this treats knowledge as though it is some kind of resource or raw material, like iron or coal, that will be transferred, reformed, processed. This is a traditionalist perspective of knowledge, which is no longer appropriate today.

Where there is structural complexity and process complexity, there is also epistemic complexity. Fully realized, a state of total knowledge is indistinguishable from total  complexity, or chaos. That which is ‘static’ or even ‘dynamic’ is nothing more than an interpretation, a pattern recognized and indeed imposed on the world.

They say knowledge is power. But in fact, power is knowledge. The only order in the world is that which is imposed, by those in power. In order to understand the changing nature and role of knowledge, we need to understand the changing nature of power. As we have evolved historically, from the power of the monarchy, to the power of the corporation, to something (which lies still in the future) a more decentralized power, so also knowledge evolves from a single, centralist concept, to the pluralism of corporatism, to the chaos of individualism.

In a chaotic environment, knowledge is nothing more than pattern recognition.

The challenge of commonality where there is no static underlying essence to unite us.

Mike Bullard, Canadian comedian, on the secret to stand-up comedy
-    first, you establish something in common with the audience
-    then you bring them around to your point of view
-    then you get them to laugh at themselves

The point is – the joke doesn’t first exist in the teller, and then appear in the listener. The joke exists entirely in the listener. The teller possesses only the mechanics of joke production, but not the actual humour. The comedian laughing at the audience is completely different from the audience laughing at themselves.

Knowledge works the same way.

The proposition from the keynote was, only companies that are unique are competitive. But knowledge is found in the recipient, not the company, which contains only the mechanism for knowledge production. If the company must be unique to achieve value, it must at the same time find a point of commonality in order to realize that value. That point of intersection is the critical point of innovation.

Management-union, social partnership, shared values – are artifacts of the older perspective.

Thinking of industry – manufacturing – the factory vs the artisan vs the individual… the industrial age created tools that could be wielded only by masses of individuals working in concert. But the post-industrial age has resized tools again. “The value of a tool in a man’s hand has to be re-valuated.”

The ‘tools’ of knowledge are the same.

The success of, say, electricity was based not on uniqueness but on commonality. The current that was sent was accessible, via a point of interaction, to every person in the world (the challenge to consumer power lies in this same point). But the semantics of electricity – the use to which it was put – was unique and determined by the individual.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Vote For The Liberals

Because I will be out of the country on Monday, I cast my ballot in the advanced poll Saturday, and I cast it in favour of the Shawn Graham Liberals.

I do so reluctantly, because my inclination and my money tend to support the New Democrats, but despite writing up a campaign donation for them this year I feel it would be irresponsible to vote for them.

I honestly do not know what the New Democrats were thinking when they adopted the slogan, "the voice of middle class families." Did they deliberately throw the poor off the bus? Do they not care for people who self-identify as something other than a family?

But more, my candidate has been totally silent - not even responding to my donation, much less my request for a sign - and the party leader has been unfortunately inarticulate and ineffective. Moreover, there are clear signs the party is searching for a popular issue to hang its hat on - MLA pensions - rather than anything that genuinely represents New Democrat values.

On the other side of it, the choice between Liberal and Conservative has been relatively easy.

As I listen to Bernard Lord on CTV right now, it's clear the Tories are hanging their hats on two major Liberal failings: first, their attempt to sell NB Power, and second, the provincial deficit, which increased by roughly three billion dollars over the last four years.

Now I don't know how he stood on the sale, but I still recall Andy Scott saying to me, "if he (Graham) had come out and said, 'Now I know we do not have a mandate, and I know we promised not to sell NB Power, but here is an offer that we have been given, and it would be irresponsible not to put it to you the people to see what you think,' and then let it play out, it wouldn't have been a big deal at all."

And what is, to me, the biggest irony, is that if it had been put in those terms, the Conservatives might very well have supported the sale. Indeed, the only thing they seem to dislike about it is that it's a sale to Hydro Quebec (as their ads remind us over and over). Whatever anti-French or anti-Quebec sentiment there is in the province coalesced against the sale of NB Power.

But it's also true that the Conservatives, had they been re-elected in the last election, instead of Graham, would almost certainly be fighting the same fight, trying to muster support for their sale of NB Power. The Conservative government had reorganized the utility in preparation for the sale, and would have found a $3 or $4 billion sale price irresistible against an $8 billion debt.

And there would have been an $8 billion debt, or even more. Make no mistake. The Conservatives were in a deficit position coming into the election, they already had $5 billion worth of debt on the books, they had already set in motion the LePreau disaster and had not yet negotiated their way out of the Orimulsion fiasco. Graham's government may have been ham-handed when it comes to the energy portfolio, but New Brunswick's conservatives have been absolutely out of their depth. And the same has been true of their debt and deficit management.

But this election is not between Shawn Graham and Bernard Lord; we need to consider the alternatives before us right now: Shawn Graham and David Alward.

That's mostly good news for the Liberals. Had Bernard Lord stayed in his seat and stayed on as opposition leader, he would be cruising toward electoral certainty. It would be hard for anyone to suggest that the former premier was unprepared for office, and after a four year stint in opposition he could quite credibly claim to have learned from his mistakes.

It would have been better for New Brunswick, as well, as an effective opposition would have kept the Liberals somewhat in check, kept them less inclined to fly off the handle with 'the right answer' before going through the necessary round of policy consultations and negotiations. But Lord was gone, headed for an unremarkable stint of job-hopping, while the ineffective opposition was led first by the unlamented Jeannot Volpe and then the aforementioned Alward.

To say Alward is inarticulate is to be kind. It is not clear from his pronouncements on the issues that he has any grasp of policy, much less English grammar. He has been given an exceptionally generous run by the media, which should have been merciless after his performance during the debates.

There's a lot to choose from, but let`s consider this quote from the CBC leaders' debate transcript:
Leadership, to me, is about respect. It is about listening to the people, getting the best advice that’s available and then making the right decision. The right decision is that there is an independent panel that is doing its work and is bringing forward recommendations to fix MLA pensions. They are doing the work right now. As premier, I will accept the work that they do. This is our position and this is a position of leadership. I will also ensure, as premier, going forward New Brunswick never again will MLAs be able to vote on their own pay packages. That is not acceptable. As leadership, it’s also important that we bring back honesty, integrity, common sense and hard work to government for the people of New Brunswick.

If you actually read the paragraph closely the sentence structure actually falls apart, so it's not always clear exactly what he's saying (and the transcript as a whole is very kind to kind, correcting numerous errors). The only generous interpretation of this is that he does not understand what he has said. Because he has said, literally in the same breath, that he will "respect the decision" of the panel, but that he will "not allow" a certain outcome.

But also, consider this pair of statements, that " there is an independent panel that is doing its work" and that "this is a position of leadership." To take a leadership stance, in other words, is not to actually lead, but to turn the decision over to an independent panel.

It is this position, more than anything else, that has been characteristic of the Alward opposition. Not the position - much lambasted - that he will offer consultations on everything. That I could actually respect, if I believed it. But what we are actually presented with is a leader who doesn't really know what he wants to do on an issue, has strongly stated views on the matter nonetheless, and a policy that waffles between these two extremes.

If, for example, the matter of what to do with energy is, as the policy book says, being referred to consultations and committees, then what are we to make of the most recent announcement that energy prices in the province will be frozen for three years. Both cannot be true, which means that one or the other is utterly unbelievable, and the worst of it is, we don't know which.

Any Conservative government that emerges out of this election would be much in the same position as the Lord government that found itself unexpectedly in power in 1999 - in power with no clear understanding of why, with no plans except to take power, and without the skill and expertise to manage an enterprise the size of New Brunswick. An election of an Alward government would result in four more lost years.

Or worse. Because his plans are in fact unbelievable, and he will not be able to keep his promises, and he will be forced (as they all will) by financial exigency to begin to cut services. Alward will not raise taxes (such as the HST) and despite his convenient pledge to revoke a tax break to New Brunswick's richest citizens he will not impose any particular hardship on them. This means significant cuts to the Conservatives' usual targets: hospitals and health care, education and social development.

This may seem like an unfair criticism, but it's worth pressing him on this point. He is not going to do this? Then what will he do instead? His own promises leave him in a position where he can do nothing but this.

Now to the Liberals. And after the four years they've had, it is indeed remarkable that I would cast a ballot for them at all. They have mishandled a number of key portfolios, managing somehow to cache the correct policy within an envelop of failure. The reforms of the health care regions, the school system, and energy have all been afflicted with the same failure: a government that came out pronouncing the 'correct' solution, then backing off amid a sea of criticism that shows they didn't actually talk to anyone before launching their policy.

Moreover, I think the Liberals have been irresponsible with tax policy. Alward is quite right to criticize the tax break given to the wealthiest New Brunswickers, and (had he any courage) he should have gone on about the tax breaks given to corporations, a long-discredited approach to economic development which accomplishes little and leaves the government unable to manoeuvre.

But these concerns are offset by the series of successes the Liberal government has had. Its gas price regulation has made New Brunswick the destination of choice in the region. The job situation in Mirimichi, a disaster a few short years ago, has begun to rebound with initiatives as far apart as cranberries and Federal government offices. We finally saw the arrival of wind power in the province, through a deal with Alberta Power to finance the construction. He has convinced the Harper government to make some restitution over LePreau, though we would all like to see more.

Locally, we have seen even more. The river is flowing at its natural rate again, something the Conservative government had refused to allow. Roads leading in and out of Moncton have been repaved, after having lain fallow over most of the decade. Progressive education and development policies have led to companies like CGI locating in Moncton because of the city's skilled workers, not in spite of them. We've seen natural gas flow into the city, lowering heating bills for many residents (including me).

And, ultimately, the NB Power sale would have worked. It would have worked in two key areas. First, it would have reduced the debt by $3 or $4 billion, meaning that New Brunswick, unlike any other political jurisdiction, would have emerged from the recession without a significant additional debt - the very debt that Alward is criticizing today. And it would have given New Brunswick access to much less expensive hydro power, at a rate that was capped for five years - just what Alward is promising (but can't pay for) today.

The fact is, even with the missteps, New Brunswick came through the recession more intact than any other province in the country, and almost any other jurisdiction in the world. The standard line is to say "well we didn't have so far to fall," but in fact what kept things together in this province is the very $3 billion debt the conservatives decry. What would have been the impact had Graham imposed $750 million a year worth of public service layoffs and program cuts instead? What if he had decided to eliminate highway construction, add extra taxes on fuel, or raise the HST? Would we then be saying "we didn't have so far to fall?"

And, despite a rocky period during a term of economic upheaval and a steep learning curve, the Liberals have set in place the beginnings of a foundation for something more. They appear to have an economic development and jobs development plan. They are beginning to manage the health care portfolio effectively. They have been successful in education, with significant improvements in outcomes, more people learning French than ever before, and plans for 21st century curriculum and a student laptop program. It would be disappointing to lose these initiatives, especially at a time when challenges to funding will make them both more difficult to defend and yet more important than ever.

So I voted for the Shawn Graham Liberals. And I am endorsing a vote for the Liberal government in this election.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Not the Institutional Web Server

Posted to the JISC-Repositories Mailing List, September 16, 2010

My resources are also on my personal website, not the institutional web server. There are some very good reasons for this:

- the instant one of my resources touches an institutional server I am inundated with requirements and regulations about what I can and cannot say or present, and how this presentation must be done, including institutional look and feel policies developed in the 90s.

- my online work actually is perpectually 'under construction' - the idea of creating finalized polished 'publications' is something that belongs more to the print era, when you could not revisit your work

- because of the institutional intranet and access control policies, I cannot easily access the web server on which my resource sits. Nor can I open ports or allow my project to communicate with third party services without significant intervention from computer services.

- repositories themselves have limits on who can contribute and what can be contributed, since they only wish to preserve what is "valuable", yet my career (and probably most academics) was founded on creating and uploading material most people weren't interested in at the time it was posted

- I have worked at four institutions in the last fifteen years, and without fail, when I move from one institution to another, my original institution has removed my internet content, wiped out my email address, and effectively eliminated my presence

- my online work has also outlived most every initiative that has been created to provide a 'permanent' home for such work; projects in Canada like CAREO and eduSource are now history. I'm sure people in Britain can create their own list of shuttered initiatives. Who is willing to bet their academic record that JORUM will last longer that they do?

For these reasons and more I consider it well worth the money I spend every month to maintain my website and pay for my server traffic. Like most academics, my living room is also cluttered with books, software and gadgets I paid for with my own money, rather than go through increasingly restrictive institutional policies and rather than face the risk of losing them suddenly.

I do not dispute the worth of institutional archives of valuable material. And there may be times and places where these material contained in these archives ought to be deemed canonical. But these are few and far between. In the meantime, people will continue to have incentive, and will increasingly have sufficient resources, to maintain their own online presence.

Institutional archives should recognize this as a fact. They should focus on downloading copies of original works for preservation (just as Brewster Kahle's Internet Archive does).

Instead, therefore, of creating a set of requirements and impositions on academics, provision of access to this record would be an invaluable service to academics (certainly I've had occasion to recover lost material from Internet Archives, mostly because some institution deleted it).

Friday, September 03, 2010

Responses to Questions on Technology and Schools

Responses to a questionnaire for a Spanish News Agency.

1. How are the new technologies revolutionizing education, especially at schools?

This is a very large question with no simple answer. It depends very much what technologies are being discussed and what school system is being discussed. As well, the impact of new technologies outside schools is having a pervasive impact within schools.

If I had to generalize (which I really hate to do, because there are always inherent inaccuracies) I would venture to say that new technologies are making schools more open. By that, what I mean is that the barrier between school and non-school has become much more permeable. What happens inside school has become much more public, and what happens outside school has had a greater impact in school.

2. In your opinion, which of the new teaching tools have produced more positive results or had a bigger impact on teaching?

This again is a very general question and depends very much on what we mean by ‘positive results’. A lot of people think ‘positive results’ mean ‘better test scores’, for example, and I’m not sure that any technologies produce better test scores, nor do I think better test scores are very worth pursuing. Generally by ‘positive results’ people mean something like ‘more learning’, but learning is not merely (or at all) cumulative, and far more important is a sort of learning that is balanced, adaptive, and conducive to a good life.

In that regard, the technologies most conducive to a good life are probably those that allow individuals to be expressive and creative. This is where the most learning occurs, and more importantly, where the best learning occurs. Expression and creativity presuppose a community or audience, and so social creativity probably produces the greatest benefits, whether they be open source software contribution sites, artistic sites like Deviant Art or Flickr, blogging and discussion sites, or repositories like YouTube or SlideShare.

Are these ‘teaching tools’? Your evaluation may vary. But they are certainly ‘learningf tools’, which in my view is more important.

3. Has active and visual-based learning and teaching proved to improve the learning level of students at schools?

This question suggests two different sorts of contrasts. On the one hand, it may be looking to define the difference in result between different schools of pedagogy, contrasting more traditional transmission-based and instructivist pedagogies with contemporary approaches such as discovery learning or constructivism. On the other hand, it may be seeking to differentiate between different learning styles, contrasting text-based or language-based (audio or oral) learning styles with visual or kinaesthetic learning styles.

By ‘learning level’, by contrast, I take the question to be referring to grades received by students, or test results, or some such evaluation.

The difficulty here is that different systems of student assessment measure for different types of learning. A typical testing regime, for example, may presuppose that learning just is text-based or language-based knowledge – the ability to recite formulas, names, dates, places, and perhaps poems. Materials based in visual learning styles or constructivist pedagogies will do little to improve such test results. But rather than conclude that these materials did not improve learning at all (which is sadly all too common) we may want to conclude that the testing was inappropriate for the sort of learning being attempted.

For this real, I prefer not to evaluate the effectiveness of learning technologies based on test results. The lessons learned might never appear on the test, yet may be far more important than anything that was tested. The ultimate evaluation of any system of learning is the quality of life enjoyed, all other things being equal, by the learner.

Do “active and visual-based learning and teaching” improve a person’s quality of life? Sometimes. And sometimes not. Is there a useful generalization we can make about them? No. Does this mean they are irrelevant in the individual context? Also no. For people who prefer active and visual-based learning and teaching, these are critical. For others, who prefer oral or text-based learning, content transmission, or direct instruction, active and visual-based learning and teaching may actually produce worse results. That’s why, in the end, what is most important is *personal* learning.

4. How can teaching materials be more effective by using new technologies?

It is most important, I think, to move beyond a conception of ‘teaching materials’. We typically think of new technologies as inert, like a book or an exercise guide. They may be things that are used or consumed by learners, but they are essentially static, products, things that can be created ahead of time, stored on a shelf, and applied as necessary.

This view is not an appropriate representation of new learning technologies. The best learning technologies are immersive. They create an environment in which a student learns. This environment may be a game or a simulation, or it may be a workplace, and arena or a social network. The idea is that the learner is placed within the environment, and then learns by interacting with entities and objects within the environment.

This creates a requirement of a dynamic, fine-grained and very reactive ecosystem of learning systems, communications, resources and supports. Instead of trying to design an entire system ahead of time, it is better to define a minimal framework and then let students, authors and automated processes fill out the details. This means that learning providers, instead of creating texts and workbooks ahead of time, work within this immersive environment and fashion resources and communications on an as needed basis, acting as models or examples for other participants within the ecosystem rather than providers of context learners are expected to memorize.

5. What is your vision of the school of the future?

I once created a diagram to answer this question.

The answer is: not a school at all.

The end point of new education technologies is that society as a whole becomes the ‘immersive environment’ I was talking about in the previous question.

What new technologies will enable is the possibility of taking education outside the school, to have children and young adults learn by participating in the functioning of social functions – everything from taking weather reports to creating community maps to documenting community history and more.