Manifesto for Teaching Online – Aphorism No. 5 – “Every course design is philosophy and belief in action”

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”[In English- “The best-laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry”] = Robert Burns, To a mouse (1785)

In a revised edition Lucile Suchman (2007) recently revised the emphasis of her 1980s influential, but not undisputed work– Plans and Situated Actions. She now shifts a focus in the earlier work from a pure-play approach to action being situated to actions also arising from a blending of symbolic strategic planned intent and how one copes when one ‘arrives’ in a future scenario. This revised focus “is both on the utility of projecting future actions and the reliance of those projections on a further horizon of activity that they do not exhaustively specify” (Suchman, 2007, p. 19).

Basically she is reiterating a well known experience which I think that most of us can relate to: What we think things will be like in the future, our ideas of this future, influence our plans of how we will get there and make it so, and later we will experience how this varies from the actual lived existential experience of doing, feeling or thinking it. The expected or the planned course of action is typically challenged in some respect by the vicissitudes of the situation.

From ‘wayout’ predictions of the future captured in science fiction scenarios, to plans for mega-industrial projects, to what a certain advertised product seduces us into thinking it will do for us, or what an exotic travel adventures will offer, we constantly have to adjust, widen, lower or higher our expectations and go with how we find things. We have a range of constant expectations of things, people, and places which fit with how we think of them retrospectively and at the same do not. When we go with the flow we are effortlessly adapting to whatever fate or fortune puts in our way, and so we constantly improvise, even the least creative of us. In the light of what is put in our way and reflection on how we handled it, help us adjust our future tactics and strategies. This is basic cognitive science, but strategy is as much about interpreting as it is about analyzing, that is, the projected, imagined and the strategic may simply not relate at all to that which pans out. And as mentioned in the earlier post, algorithmic and rigid forms of thinking, and forms of bias and prejudice, may not be in anyway useful in dealing to the real or actual situation as it presents. It simply will not fit [which is maybe a good thing for innovation and invention]

But we would never believe that the world runs this way. Certainly not when looking at financial news and reports on the television. With a surety, passion and emphasis upon numbers we can witness the prominence of the Queen of the social sciences – economics – and its adherents and practitioners who seem always on hand to advise or comment on the affairs of governments, the consumer, industry and financial services. A bit like weather forecasting, they also seem to consistently get it wrong (although weather forecasting seems to have gotten better over the years??). There are also less prominent characters hidden behind the scenes but still possessing no less ‘idol’ status. They are the ‘big data’ experts who purport to crowd source and crunch insights from the enormous amount of sys-log data that is being produced by online systems. These elites are testimony to the faith that organizations and government have their quantitative analysis as a crystal ball, lending not only perspective on ‘what happened ’but ‘what will happen’. But as de Bono rightfully instructs: “To deal with the future we have to deal with possibilities. Analysis will only tell us ‘What is’.” In a sense this is why formal proofs and engineering maths, bound to good [physical] engineering, put men on the moon, but fails to predict stock market chaos.

The present as it constantly unfolds has determining contingencies that shape and require revision in our conceptual ideas of things. But technologies and their designs are persistent beyond the design Wakkary (2004) asserts that:

The key distinction is a question of understanding design as a prospective action, that is actively reflecting within a present moment on future action and contingency, as opposed to a retrospective event from which we view the design process or artifact as a stable past action with little attention to context.

They move through a logical process from a non-patterned chaos – i.e. a collection of discrete components and parts – to concrete devices – a particular configuration of these components or parts. Also, thinking across many disciplines, including management and design follows such a path before becoming ‘proofs’ and ‘best practices’. Roger Martin has highlighted the move from what he terms ’mystery’ (chaos) through ‘heuristics’ (selecting and relating a set of discrete elements to ‘algorithms’ in his knowledge funnel model.

Roger Martin's knowledge funnel model

This shows a similar idea on the cognitive level of the firm as it practices shift from soft R&D to more crystallized manufacturing of economies of scale. Where no pattern exists, human beings incorrigibly move on to make one. One a dominant design comes around industrial activities turn their focus on how to cut unit costs in manufacturing. This includes belief in action.

This has as much to do with how and why we invent as much as formal proofs and well-hackneyed paths dependencies do. Suchman goes on;

“My position then and now has been that plans are conceptual and rhetorical devices… that are deeply consequential for the lived activities of those of us who organize our actions in their terms. Just how plans are consequential for the actions they project defined, at least potentially, a territory of mutual interest for the social and cognitive sciences. (p. 20).

The point she is making here is relevant as she is writing reflectively upon the first printing of the book which came under criticism from those coming from other, but related, scholarly perspectives such as the situated cognition camp. The main criticism seemed to circulate around the idea that in situated learning, knowledge is acquired situationally and transfers only to similar situations, suggesting some kind and level of stasis and inflexibility in what we learn and know. I do not wish to get drawn into these debates, I must leave that to the readier to revisit, but suffice to say that what Suchman was saying is that one often has to improvise as the future is not liked it seemed. This has been echoed in other authors such as Dourish, complexity is seen as an “interactional” issue where it is understood through and by action, as opposed to a “representational” issue – it simply cannot be mapped out beforehand (Dourish, 2004). What I want to say here that if we were to imagine a scenario where all learning was state and context dependent, that would mean anything we ever learned at school, would only make sense in a school. Everything we ever learnt when we were sleepy and bored, would only be recalled when we were sleepy and bored. Everything we learn online, only made sense, had value and appeared reasonable online.

The important point I wish to raise here is that any course which has learning outcomes, necessarily has to have ideas of how the student will be cooked in order to get there. Will they be basted, or sautéed, steamed or slow-cooked? What will be the inputs, and what will be the outputs, the final dish replete in all its aesthetic and functional glory? The inputs as discussed earlier will be found or given coursework elements, bound with dynamic advice and discussion with peers and tutor. Outputs will be assessments aimed at whatever any state learning objectives and outcomes have been achieved. To stipulate learning objectives which are universal between students, or ‘ín-the-course’, then their has to be a belief in the future action arising from the application or at least the illustration of the application of this knowledge applied to a problem (in context or out of context) Such thinking seems right sitting with design, which is a future orientated perspective of action[s]. So is education.

If any course, online or offline is not predicated upon a set of strategically formulated learning outcomes themselves designed to be representative of particular skills and knowledge sets, say in a work setting or community setting, then what is it predicated upon. In a sense outcomes could be redefined such as in the canoe scenario offered by Suchman.

One – student, teacher or course administrators – can formulate an [symbolic] idea, a plan of how to navigate the rapids, but this plan may be continually revised according to the experience of actual navigation in the act of doing. Placed in the present example, course objectives could be redefined or refigured according to the experiences and developing knowledge of the student on the course.

The danger is here of course is that the student makes too many, or too radical revisions to the outcomes, or gets bogged down [or drowned] in the shear potential dearth of material and knowledge which is available, especially online. Herein is the crafty and skillful role of the tutor in helping them identify interstices in knowledge, lacunae in the big or small picture, plateaus in their interpretation and learning of a subject, and keeping them focused so that any revisions are made judiciously and with tact and intelligence.

I was inspired to this in part by the work of my former supervisor Prof James Fleck (now Dean of Social Sciences at the Open University) who had showed how within manufacturing, industrial robots often required significant further innovation when and after they were deployed to better suit their operating environments. The important message in this work was that they could not be simply ordered ‘straight off the shelf’ ready to ‘rock and roll’ so to speak, but needed significant adaptation to the new operating environment to do the job they were envisaged by their sponsors. This echoed the research of significant others in the field such as Eric Von Hippel of who speaks of lead users who can point developers to deficiencies in the operation of certain devices and machines, and who sometimes themselves modify them in order to better suit the task at hand. Configurations carry implications and new means and methods such as reorganizing work and industry. Of course since Adam Smith there has been the breaking down processes and products into constituent components and specializations, that can be recombined in a tailored, automated fashions producing efficiencies but also the need for a ‘science’ of management.

Firms who could be made to be aware of this could capitalise upon it, that is, providing such feedback was encouraged and maybe trained in what were essentially sales staff organized and optimized to sell equipment, rather than be pocket book social scientists observing, understanding, recording and reporting difference [outside their contractual work specification?]. Also, to make a change for the good they had to communicate to the right people in their organization, namely those responsible for design and re-design. Within the traditional massive organization, like IBM in the 1960s, and today’s transnational corporations there were divisions between constituent firms, departments. Also departments were huge with many employees. Salesmen reported to their department heads who discussed things with other department heads, such as product development, manufacturing, finance, and so forth. intra-departmental communication could be frayed largely due to internal politics and people protecting their own patch and their own budgets. In some cases this created a silo approach to portioning, not just actions and behaviors and expertise, but knowledge. This could work against the interests of the organization as a whole advancing personal and individual aims. Not just industry closer to home we can see such attitudes existing in the academe preventing cross-disciplinary work and creating narrow foci even within departments. There have been some attempts to transcend this through the creation of national grids enabled by the internet to pool knowledge and data. However, in some cases that I have personally come across, where commercial interests and partnerships are in place, where firms have worked with university departments on R&D with corporate legal departments signing confidentiality agreements with individual researchers and department heads, essentially free circulation of knowledge in the society of minds is hindered or even prevented, fostering a corruption of the special place academics have had to look across industry cases through being nonpartisan, apolitical and unbiased. .As the departmentalization of the post-Humbold university originates and is fashioned according with industrialization, as are schools, this is to be expected. The belief in action was the production of knowledge which would furnish industry with new materials and processes, with managers and through schools, new labour and young people conducive to training and working discipline and hours.. But this arrangement can only compromise access and created tensions which prevent research in the future. While a lot of attention has been put on the comercialisation of new ideas some of which can give rise to new products, this does not compete with private equity in creating new firms and successful innovations.

But returning to the case at hand a synthesis of ideas drawn from more than one discipline can lead most importantly to new perceptions, and may contribute to the development of new skills, new products and new research avenues. This is innovation in the academe. In my own case, an interest in technology, user-experience design, management, media and communication and the wider social sciences have synthesized to inform my perspectives on people, media, technology and learning.

Addressing this aphorism as literally as I can, certainly every course design is an exercise in epistemology, and also in communication and absorption, but a belief in action? Our frameworks, and technologies, both for making sense of the world and determining the relationships of all that therein are created through our actions, structure by actions, and yet are also structured by them by being held to account, being responsible. This is why words and actions often act in mutual shaping process. If I do as I say, or do as I am told, then there is a rational congruency in my behaviour which is often appreciated by those in control, working alongside me, living with me, or under my control. There may be the impression that I am consistent, reliable and honest. Orthodox formal learning has a series of tacit and explicit calls for action; i.e. “sit down”, “be quiet”, “do not disturb”, “listen to me” ”remember these points” “read this chapter” “Can you remember?” “Do not rock the boat”, “write this down” “What is…Who was… where…. what and when?” and so forth. There has been much parlance, indeed criticism, of the ‘hidden curriculum’ as delivered in schools, namely that the very order, structure and organization, and rules of the institution, the behaviors practiced inside, the types of communication and knowledge flows, and the content of these knowledge flows present tacit affects and conditions. Now my interest is: “What kind of questions undergird and are implicit and tacit in an online course, which prompts to action are in your face (buttons, online questionnaires), explicit and obvious?

The product, what ever that is, of learning is a construction and so therefore by nature, is complex and so learning is contextual, situated and dynamic. It cannot be isolated solely no matter how it is treated in written or printed work, processes or artifacts. And this is the challenge to standardized testing, exams and other stimulus response forms of assessing learning, which treat knowledge as something apart from dynamic acts or interpretation and reflection, and reduce it a unit [most usually a question]. I remember helping my son with his o level business studies as and some of the questions that we got wrong were really matters of interpretation. The fixed question did not only index to the fixed answer – business is complex, dynamic and contextual and does not reply of formal proofs otherwise any of us that can think like this would be millionaires! Formal logics, profits and facts governing success would mean that their was a no risk sure way to make your packet. But then again, I have seen how these are sometimes used by economists and even marketers in academic departments to show how things should happen in the real world [but often don’t]. More often than not it is to lend themselves a scientific credence (See the work of Elizabeth Hirchman and Maurice Holbrook who offers a fascinating .discussion regarding the migration of statistical and positive techniques into business and management studies).

A course can only be something, if anything at all, and only partly shaped intentionally in the constituency and context of learning. Should we pretend otherwise? It is also shaped and evolves through our actions and interactions as we react to real-time real-world requirements arising from mundane settings, that are, our non-formal learning environments. What we find is that the process of learning can not be pre-programmed, considered an algorithm, pre-determined as complex, symmetrical or simple in structure, submittable to evaluation using simple criteria. Rather it is a complex and dynamic process that is improvisational and responsive to the changing learning situation, just as assessment is. So why is it not negotiated more often? An active stance is required in evaluation as it is in learning. This symmetry and these learning strategies have come to be understood as reflective, embodied, or contextual in practice, as they draw on rich contexts of meaning and diverse interdisciplinary sources for their inspiration, scientific basis, social understanding and improved communication, presentation and dissemination. In achieving that goal it is important to underscore in assessment, the creative, professional, as well as reflective aspects of such an undertaking.

Richard Buchanan: Keynote from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.


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