Saturday, April 25, 2015

Do We Count in #rhizo15?

I will eventually return to finish my series of posts on ethics in MOOCs, or swarm ethics, or rhizo-ethics, but Dave Cormier has issued a second challenge for #rhizo15, and I want to respond.

His challenge:
Get out there and count! What can we measure that isn’t learning? Think about all the other facets of the human experience… can we do better? What about all the fancy tools we’ve seen… can they help? Should we throw it out all together? Can we help people measure themselves? Is there a better way of looking at it? Be theoretical. Be practical… but GRADE ME!
Measuring has always been problematic for me, in part I suppose because of my discipline: writing. I do not approve of counting writing as a way of assessing students' abilities to write. A 76 on an essay has always struck me as meaningless and wrong-headed, and my readings in complexity theory cause me even more concerns.

For instance, I'm currently reading Timothy Morton's challenging book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (2013). Morton, by the way, is an English professor at Rice University who seems to share some of my own interests. At any rate and without getting into the meaning of hyperobjects themselves, which I'm not yet ready to discuss, Morton makes some interesting observations about the problems of observation and measurement in relativistic and quantum sciences. These ideas resonate with me.

First, he notes that measurement is always incomplete. Any measurement reveals and blinds at the same time. As we focus on some aspect of an object—say, an electron or a fourth grade boy—we lose sight of some other aspect of the boy or electron. This is not some mental trick; rather, it is the nature of reality as far as we can currently describe reality: Morton says, "This isn’t about how a human knows an object, but how a photon interacts with a photosensitive molecule. … The way an electron encounters the nucleus of an atom involves a dark side. Objects withdraw from each other at a profound physical level" (Kindle Locations 756-758). Think of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle here. Morton elucidates:
Quantum theory specifies that quanta withdraw from one another, including the quanta with which we measure them. … Thus, when you set up quanta to measure the position of a quantum, its momentum withdraws, and vice versa. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that when an “observer”— not a subject per se, but a measuring device involving photons or electrons (or whatever)— makes an observation, at least one aspect of the observed is occluded. (Kindle Locations 748-753)
There are no complete observations, whether by human or instrument. Thus, there are no complete measurements. At best, measurements are adequate, but this always introduces the question: adequate for what? In education, especially, we can never have complete confidence in our measurements of our fourth-grade boy, and we must always revisit our reasons for taking the measurement in the first place. Any measurement of our fourth-grader will, at the same time, reveal and hide salient aspects of the student. We ignore those hidden aspects at peril to both ourselves and the student.

Then Morton notes that measurements always entangle the observer with the observed. This entanglement is very problematic. Morton says, "[Nils] Bohr argued that quantum phenomena don’t simply concatenate themselves with their measuring devices. They’re identical to them: the equipment and the phenomena form an indivisible whole" (Kindle Locations 760-762). This should sober all of us, if not frighten the piddle out of us. Let's say this more practically: In some important sense, I become what I measure—both the things I measure and the tools with which I measure—and my tools and the things I measure become me. We all become entangled in a larger identity (this starts suggesting, I think, what Morton means by hyperobjects, but I'm not pursuing that here). If I measure our fourth-grade boy with a standardized test, then I become that test and that boy. I do not mean that I become ONLY that test and that boy, but that test and boy become entangled in my identity—indeed, for the boy, that test may be all that I am to him. There is no meta-language or privileged position outside the entanglement of me, test, and boy from which I can safely conduct my measurement. If I measure, then I am included in the measurement. In education, we should choose our measurements most thoughtfully, for we become our measurements. Moreover, our students become our measurements. That is an awful burden.

This entanglement suggests to me that any measurement changes the observer, the instruments, and the observed, and this change feeds imprecision back into the incompleteness of observations and measurements. The act of observing our fourth-grade boy changes that boy. He would have been different if not measured. Of course, the boy—along with everything else—is constantly observed and measured by other objects, and that constant observation and measurement and its resulting entanglement is in part what makes the boy what he is. In some sense, then, we cannot avoid making observations and taking measurements of others or being observed and measured in turn, but we seem to have some freedom in choosing the kinds of observations and measurements that we make. We should choose wisely. I wish I knew what was wise.

Of course, I am not suggesting here that education is in any way special. We all constantly measure our worlds, if only informally and loosely: that's more, this is less; you are prettier than he; you are big, you little; this is near, that is far away; you have more money than I. Counting numerically is more precise and handy than counting in natural language, but Morton is reminding us that measurement, counting, is not the benign activity that we imagine it to be. It implicates and entangles. What counts in life is what we count and how we count it. Counting has two entangled meanings here: enumeration and evaluation. We count what counts, and what we count comes to count.

Awareness of this entanglement is not new, I think. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again" (KJV Bible, Matthew 7:1,2). This passage is usually read as a moral lesson to avoid hypocrisy and censure, but I think we can give it a more profound reading: what and how you count determines how you yourself count. Perhaps the spiritually advanced among us, the deep meditators of the various religious and philosophical traditions, can measure without judging and without becoming their measurements, but I cannot. If I want to know who I am, then I can get a reliable read by noting what and how I measure my world, especially others, and how I assess the value of those measurements. That stuff counts.

I don't think comma faults count much, so I don't count them, but I know people who do. A comma fault—what a sad thing to become. It's really hard to have a pleasing conversation with someone who's always correcting your grammar, so I usually don't. What do you measure?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Learning Subjectives for #rhizo15

Dave Cormier has a fine way of challenging people to think outside their boxes, or outside any boxes. In the first week of Rhizo15, he has challenged us to think about our learning subjectives for the course. Of course, he's playing on the penchant of education for learning objectives, and I could glibly say that I'll let him know when I find them. In any rhizomatic course, objectives are often emergent outcomes, as Simon Warren notes in his marvelous post Emergent Outcomes from a Field of Weeds, and we should sustain the equanimity to remain open to those emergent outcomes, but starting with some subjectives—even objectives—can be helpful if we don't allow them to trap us.

I think subjectives are a bit like DNA. In becoming a person, it's really helpful to have had some DNA to kick start the journey toward becoming who you are and who you will become, but you really can't let that DNA trap you. DNA, for instance, provides you gender, but if you limit yourself to whatever that characteristic is supposed to mean or if some group limits you to that, then you then you short-circuit yourself. My DNA made me a male, but I'll be damned if I'll be limited to what male means in my society and in my head. My job is to push boundaries, to transgress, to wander, and to develop the patience to see what emerges. But I also have to accept that whatever emerges for me, it will emerge in part from my being male.

But—and here is what I'm hoping to learn more about in Rhizo15—I don't wander alone. Indeed, I'm coming to see that wandering alone is something of a Romantic myth concocted to glorify the individual. I am developing a deep and abiding appreciation for the rhizome, the learning community, the swarm. I must define myself incorporating the cold, brute genetic and social material I started with, and that responsibility is mine to accept or to ignore, yes—but there is no definition aside from, or independent of, the environment in which I emerge. I define, but I do so within my swarms. All my swarms.

Edgar Morin taught me this lesson, but I express it most easily in terms of my own field: writing. I've used this example before, but it is worth repeating here. Consider the period (full stop in the UK), that tiny bit of end punctuation.


All alone on a line, the period is reduced to its base DNA, if that: a "punctuation mark placed at the end of a sentence" (Wikipedia). That doesn't mean much, and if the period limited itself to its DNA, it wouldn't mean much, but arrange the period in a swarm of words such as this blog post, and it proliferates, it unpacks, it becomes much more than a silly dot at the end of a sentence. The period, of course, brings its DNA to a text, but within the text it enlarges, it moves beyond its boundaries. It becomes what it can be.

All by myself, I don't mean much, but in my swarms, I proliferate and unpack. I am father, husband, child, brother, employee, teacher, scholar, learner, friend, joker, traveler—all those things, and more, but only within a swarm.

I use the term swarm foolishly perhaps. Most people don't like swarms, which feature prominently in horror movies. Swarms characterize all those groups of things that lose their individual identity and menace us. Read most any American account of the Korean War, and you'll almost certainly find a reference to a swarm of Koreans or the Chinese horde. They are not nice words. But my reading into recent studies in swarms suggests that all those ants, bees, starlings, and fish are not identical and they are not all robots doing the same things. They follow their own trajectories within the context of their surrounding neighbors. It appears that following your own path within the constraints of your chosen communities has great affordances.

My subjective, then, is to learn more about how to cultivate the rhizome, the swarm—to find my path within the constraints of Rhizo15. I've been able to go some new places and think some new things because I have followed my path through this community. My path has influenced others and has been influenced in turn. It is both my path and the path of the swarm at the same time. I want to understand better how and why that works.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: The Two, Four, Ten or so Commandments of #rhizo15

I've been doing a series of posts about ethics in complex spaces such as MOOCs, and I was planning to do this particular post near the end, but then #rhizo15 started, and I read some things that made me think that this was the correct time to speak. Kairos can be insistent, but it is also short-lived.

Much of what I've been saying about complex ethics has been rather abstract. Really, provisionalism, transgressivity, irony, and imagination don't provide the kind of concrete guidance we expect from ethics, and I have the feeling that no one will be much convinced if I don't provide some list of rules. You know, a Ten Commandments—or six or so—something like that. I'm hesitant, but then … what the hell. Let's make some commandments.

First, the spurs: I read a post by Simon Warren called The Unsettling Headiness of #rhizo15 and a responsive comment by Laura Gogia. The post and comment are beautiful and captured the essence of complex ethics. In his post, Simon is exploring the complex tension between his attraction and his aversion to #rhizo15:
The lack of an explicit, GIVEN syllabus and objectives provokes both desire and aversion in almost equal measure. Desire because it is liberating (more on this in a moment). Aversion because my inner voice is screaming: “BUT WHERE’S THE MAP? WON’T YOU GET LOST? WON’T YOU MAKE A FOOL OF YOURSELF BY NOT GETTING THE RULES OF THE GAME?”.
For me, Simon has captured neatly the anxiety that most of us felt when we first plunged into an open MOOC. The complexity can be overwhelming. But then, Laura did a most amazing and quite ethically pure thing: she invited Simon to fly with her, to dance, to swarm. She says:
[I]n Connected Courses, I established a learning goal completely separate from anything being offered (I wanted to learn how to establish a network that would allow me to advertise my intention of doing research on the Connected Courses experience – as part of an ethical approach to Internet research) and then I found Maha Bali, who became the best supporter/teacher/friend that [a] learner-researcher could ever want. It was a great experience. … So if you want a #rhizo15 buddy, know that I’m around and I’m looking for one myself.
Here's the heart of the matter: offer to be somebody's buddy. It really is the only way to join and navigate a swarm. My western culture values too much the gunslinger, the raptor, the shark, the lone wolf. As a raptor, you might kill a few swallows from time to time, but you will never, ever be part of the swarm. If you want to join a swarm such as #rhizo15, then don't be a raptor, or a troll. Rather, find a buddy and graft on.

Then, earlier last month, my good friend and Southern Humanities colleague Linnéa Franits generously sent me a copy of Swarm Intelligence: What Nature Teaches Us about Shaping Creative Leadership (2013) by her friend James Haywood Rolling, Jr. This was a most fortunate and timely gift. In his book, Rolling discusses the four laws of swarm behavior, and I want to use those laws to build the core of my MOOC commandments, which I think, will illuminate the interactions between Simon Warren and Laura Gogia and between Linnéa Franits and me. The laws may also provide some concrete guidance for good behavior in a connectivist, rhizomatic MOOC such as #rhizo15.

Commandment 1: Thou shalt chase after those ahead of thee.
Image by TeamXris (CC0 Public Domain)

In swarms, most of us are behind someone, and we are to chase after those ahead of us, those "temporarily blocking the path toward a role in the ranks of leadership" (Swarm Intelligence, 91). The ones ahead of us have "modeled a trajectory that leads to the front of the pack", and our chasing ensures a "short-range succession of new leaders one right after another" (91). Yes, most in the swarm are behind someone else, but eventually, almost everyone in the swarm will be on the leading edge at some time or another, but only if they keep chasing. Unlike a hierarchy, a swarm morphs, flashes, shifts, and changes directions so that everyone finds themselves eventually on the leading, or trailing, edge of the swarm, but only if they are chasing.

And chasing is not following. Followers usually keep a respectful distance behind their leaders, never pushing them to speed up or change direction. Chasers are always pushing. And always being pushed. In a swarm, just as you are most always chasing someone, then someone is most always chasing you. Enjoy the chase, both ways.

For instance, I recently wrote a series of articles and other documents with a swarm of #rhizo14 participants, and it was amazing to watch as with each document a new person surged to the front of the swarm to take the lead. None in the swarm minded chasing, and just as importantly, none minded taking the lead when it was obvious that they were best suited to do so or the situation just turned that way. In The Unsettling Headiness of #rhizo15, Laura invited Simon to follow along with her. With her gifted book, Linnéa invited me to follow her reading. Simon and I will both invite others to follow us. Eventually, Laura and Linnéa will follow us. Or someone else will. Chase and be chased. This is how a swarm works.

It is tempting to see this chasing as competitive, but that is thinking in terms of individuals and not the swarm. Chasing pushes those ahead to do more, and it positions those behind to step ahead when the direction of the swarm changes, as it always will. Chasing infuses the swarm with energy, keeps the most energetic on the leading edge, and allows all an opportunity to surge to the front at some time or another. The one in front does not block the one behind, but does work hard to stay ahead while at the same time allowing those behind to draft on their trajectories and surge to the front when a new direction appears. I'm doing some of the best writing of my life in #rhizo. Why? Because I'm chasing Maha Bali, Simon Ensor, Jenny Mackness, Frances Bell, Dave Cormier, Bonnie Stewart, and a dozen others. Every once in a while, I get to lead, but I'm also very happy to follow these brilliant writers and thinkers. This swarm is going fine places that I could never go alone.

So when you join a MOOC swarm, chase after those ahead of you, and push hard to position yourself for the front edge. It's your turn when the swarm turns. Turns within turns. Very complex. Good ethics.

Commandment 2: Thou shalt not crowd thy neighbor.
Image by Antranius (CC0 Public Domain)

Swarms are crowded places, and without a rule for maintaining some separation, none of us in the swarm will have room to move, to adjust our trajectories the moment a shift is called for. Rollins says that "swarms behave in accordance with the Law of Separation to prevent a chain of disorienting or disabling collisions that would slow the progress of the group toward its next position" (91). And this separation is required in the physical, virtual, and intellectual domains. No bird in a swarm expects any other bird to occupy the same space, to be the same bird, or to think the same way as they do. Individual moves and trajectories are allowed for, even demanded, all for the good of the swarm. Because there is space between all birds, then no bird is locked into a position, but each can move along its own trajectory through the swarm and yet always within the context of the swarm. This is, as Edgar Morin often argues, freedom defined within constraints, freedom that makes sense only within the constraints of the swarm.

My recent writing swarm (I have been in other writing swarms and will, no doubt, be in yet others again) always allowed space for each writer to have their own thoughts and to follow their own trajectories, which sometimes took them out of the swarm altogether as they pursued other interests not germane to this swarm. This freedom to move without the restrictions of an over-arching leader or rule of action constantly fed new energy into the swarm and allowed it to think beyond itself, beyond what any of us could have thought alone. I have never thought this well alone. Never.

In the blog post, Laura invites Simon to be a buddy, not a follower or a leader. I sense in her offer, space for Simon to move, perhaps even in ways that will eventually separate him from Laura. That's all good for the swarm.

So when you enter a MOOC, give your neighbors room to shift their own thinking, follow their own learning, and transgress their own boundaries. That will give you room to move, someone to chase, someone to push you, someone to align with. Give gap, take gap.

Commandment 3: Thou shalt align with those about thee.

Rollins says that "swarms behave in accordance with the Law of Alignment to maintain enduring micro-attachments, tightly knit integral clusters that also preserve the fabric of the larger group" (91). This is the complement  to Commandment 2: don't crowd, but don't be so loose that you cannot align. Aligning with your buddies acts as the constraint on your own trajectory and keeps you from leaving the flock by accident. If you align to those left and right, above and below you in the swarm, and they align left, right, above, and below, then the integrity of the entire flock is preserved regardless of the turns and morphs it makes. Not only that, but the integrity of your own trajectory is preserved and reinforced as others align to you.

Image by Sylke Rohrlach (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Finally, the fabric of this alignment is critical to the empowerment of each and all. No one can keep up with all of the activity and chatter of the flock, but much of this activity will eventually ripple through the fabric of the flock to everyone. Alignment reminds me of a point that Edgar Morin makes about the sum of the parts. Of course, everyone knows that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, but as Morin wryly notes, the whole is also less than the sum of the parts. Alignment amplifies some chatter in the flock, but it also dampens some chatter. Dampened chatter, if locally valued, may lead to the formation of a different flock, as a few change directions, fork the flock, to pursue a new conversation. The flocks may merge back later on, or not. No harm, no foul, play on.

Alignment requires a certain discipline, so some sub-commandments are perhaps called for. Commandment 3a: Thou shalt be alert. You cannot align if you don't know what is happening around you. Wake up. If you are tired or distracted by some other flock (your family or job flock, say), then draft in behind a key rhizo-buddy and cruise until you can return your attention to the flock. So Command 3b: Thou shalt draft when tired and distracted. Command 3c: Thou shalt let others draft behind thee.

But people may not know who is in their surround, so Commandment 3d: Thou shalt honk. Send a locator ping every once in a while to let others know where you are. This is a commandment that I too often ignore. I get lost in my reading and too long writing, and I don't surface for a time, and people think I'm dead, or worse. Don't go zombie: tweet, post, comment, like, honk.

Honk and listen for honks. Simon Warren honked and Laura Gogia honked back. They aligned. It's a beautiful thing and really easy to do. Moreover, a dozen others of us heard them honking, and we honked and aligned. Now we have a flock. Too easy!

Image Credit: Neels Castillon
Commandment 4: Thou shalt cohere.

Rollins says: "Swarms behave in accordance with the Law of Cohesion to prevent any member and his or her contribution to the group from getting lost or overlooked along the way" (92). But you might think, looking at a swarm of starlings or fish, how can one cohere with something that dynamic and fluid?

You can't.

Coherence is a proximate thing, a local thing, so you cohere to those in proximity. You cohere to your handful of buddies in f2f reality—handful just because of the issue of overcrowding in physical space. In virtual space, you can cohere with several handfuls, but the principle is the same. You stick with the few you know and that sticks you to the group.

Doesn't this create an echo chamber? It can, and that is a most disruptive effect in any swarm as it stops the flow of ideas and configurations within the swarm. A too-tight cluster of swallows who insist on maintaining the exact relationship with the exact same number of other swallows becomes a fascist knot within the sweep and swim of the swarm (sorry … I got carried away). This is as deadly to the elegant progress of the swarm as is a raptor or troll—actually more deadly. A swarm copes rather capably with predators—splitting and spinning about, then merging and re-emerging—but a fascist group within can be fatal.

Flocks deal with fascist echo chambers in a couple of ways. Your proximate surround is always present, but it should never be fixed or static. As we are all chasing, separating, and aligning, our immediate buddies slip in and out, sometimes ahead of us, sometimes behind, sometimes to the left, right, above, below. Or sometimes away. Gaps emerge in the swarm around us, but they are short-lived. We move to close the gap, or someone else moves in to close it. Coherence, then, is dynamic, not static. Swarming is promiscuous if you are thinking of individuals. It is absolutely faithful if you are thinking of the swarm. Promiscuity in terms of fidelity, or fidelity in terms of promiscuity (don't you just love complexity?). I like chasing after Maha, Sensor, and Dave, but I can't limit myself to them or them to me. I have to make room for Linnéa and Len and AK and Kevin and Clarissa and … well, and so many more and all those yet to come. So Commandment 4a: Thou shalt tie no knots. Cohere, but don't cling. Only little kids get to cling.

Another reason that fluid coherence works is that my handful of buddies includes Sarah, but Sarah's handful includes people not in my group. Likewise, I have buddies not in her group. Coherence groups are fractal. My group is similar to Sarah's but not identical. Our groups, then, are not only fluid, but they overlap. They imbricate and extend to the whole flock. All are included. So Commandment 4b: Thou shalt imbricate. Commandment 4c: Thou shalt not smother (reverse of Commandment 2, and thus, likely unnecessary, but then probably most commandments are unnecessary, if still occasionally helpful).

I don't know James Rolling, but my buddy Linnéa does. I cohere to her, she coheres to him, and as those who study social networks tell us, this makes me coherent with him. We imbricate and don't overlap. Nice little swarm we have going. So when you join a MOOC, cohere with those buddies about you and expect them to move in and out of your immediate surround as they follow their own trajectories and explore other aspects of their own bit of the swarm. That's okay. As Sarah swarms out, Rebecca will swarm in. You will maintain your coherence and the integrity of your identity while revealing new aspects of yourself as you travel with others. It's what swarms do best.

Rollins concludes his chapter on swarms with this advice: "In summary, behave like you're part of a swarm—chase ahead, separate from the crowd, align with the pacesetters, and converge upon a goal that benefits one and all" (115). So maybe there are only two commandments, writ small: give gap, take gap; or maybe: find a buddy, be a buddy.

There is, of course, more to say. Humanity has been spinning out commandments since … well, since the beginning, but I need to put this out there in the #rhizo15 swarm. I'm chasing some really bright people. I have songs to sing and recipes to prepare.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Irony

I'm still exploring Woermann and Ciller's discussion of complex ethics in their article The ethics of complexity and the complexity of ethics (2012). I have found it to be such a rich line of thought, and now Rhizo15 is starting. Actually, I think this is a fine time to write this particular post.

Woermann and Cillier's view of ethics relies on a self-critical rationality that accepts the tension between the unavoidable limits of our knowledge of any complex system or situation and the necessity of acting anyway. They explain the implications of this tension this way:
[I]f we remain open to other ways of modelling and other ways of being, we are more likely to practice a self-critical rationality, to respect diversity, to be willing to revise our models, and to guard against the naturalisation of these models. The provisional imperative, therefore, provides us with a strategy for remaining open to complexity at the same time that we reduce complexity through our decisions and actions. (452)
They posit four operations, or mechanisms, that support and make possible a self-critical rationality, and I've written about the first two: provisionality and transgressivity. In this post, I will tackle irony and humor as an approach to behavior in complex spaces such as MOOCs.

Imagine yourself in a dense fog at night on a poorly lighted street corner in a big city. You cannot shake the sense that something big is about to happen, but you don't know what it is. You hear sounds from every direction—some appealing, some not, most just ambivalent street noises. You can see vague lights of every color somewhere beyond your cone of light, though your own little light obscures most of them. Things move in the distance. You must decide to stay put or move. Decide now.

The point for Woermann and Cilliers, I think, is that we are all in a fog on a poorly-lighted street corner. In most situations, what we confidently know is dwarfed by what we do not know, certainly in complex situations such as MOOCs present, and we can either be scared shitless, or we can see the ironic humor in our condition and make our choices with the full understanding that we do not completely know what we are doing. Woermann and Cilliers argue for ironic humor, an alert ironic humor.

They seem mostly to use irony as "a demonstration of incongruence between what is expected and what is" (455). This incongruence is the slippage between what we know and what we don't know and in the interactions between our knowledge and ignorance. We often seem to think that—or at least to act as if—what lies beyond our little street corner of knowledge does not affect us. This is not so. Complexity demonstrates that very little in reality is closed to outside influences, whether known or unknown. We try to build black boxes that do not interact with the outside, that are perfectly hermetic, but we always fail. All boxes leak, and the unknown always feeds into the known, perturbing our knowledge in mysterious ways until what starts as little slippages becomes a landslide, and we have to transgress our boundaries, expand our knowledge, to account for the perturbations.

Irony helps us to cope with the uncertain results of our choices, and this uncertainty extends far beyond our lack of complete knowledge of any situation when making our choices. The uncertainty really begins after we've made our choices. In her 2010 doctoral dissertation, A Complex Ethics: Critical Complexity, Deconstruction, and Implications for Business Ethics, Woermann references what Edgar Morin calls "the principle of ecology of action". Woermann says, "as soon as an action is taken, it begins to escape from the intentions and will of its creator, and is taken up in a network of interactions and multiple feedbacks, which deprives it of finality" (212). In other words, all our actions reverberate, proliferate, amplify, and wander. They blow back. Once we release our actions into an ecosystem, they unpack in ways that we cannot completely predict or control.

Anyone who communicates publicly is familiar with this capricious behavior of our pronouncements, for instance. My father, a Christian minister, often shook his head in amazement when members of his congregation congratulated or criticized him on some point in his message that he was certain he never made. If you speak in a MOOC, someone will misunderstand you. If you don't speak, someone will misunderstand you. How can you not see the irony in this situation?

Or the humor? Humor is a step beyond irony, a step that I am too willing to take, but it is a tricky position to take in a MOOC, or most any other open system. Humor is too easily misunderstood and too quick to give offense. Much of humor exploits the incongruence between what is expected and what is, and it works when that incongruence is sudden and somewhat surprising. In other words, humor depends on playing with people's beliefs and boundaries and pushing them beyond those boundaries. Almost everyone has beliefs and boundaries that they are not willing to challenge except under the most carefully managed circumstances, if at all. You can't make jokes about those boundaries without starting a fight.

Humor works best, perhaps, as a stance toward the pronouncements and behaviors of others. Keeping a sense of humor means recognizing that the other says things and acts from as confused a position as you do and with no more control over the consequences of their acts and pronouncements than you have. Practice the most humor with those who are the most confident that they are absolutely correct. They need all the humor you can bring.

Irony and humor, then, weave into our behavior and thought processes an appreciation for the impossibility of our situation: we don't know enough to make decisions with absolute confidence, and even if we did, we cannot determine the results of those decisions once they enter a complex space. Still, we must make decisions. We must act. Like all of life, our actions are probabilistic in nature, and while we can work hard to increase our chances, we will all have some fortunate successes and ample failures. Just keep a sense of humor about it, both for yourself and for others.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Humble Transgressions

This post was extended by a Rhizo14 article and presentation, but that was fine as I learned some new stuff. But back to complexity ethics.

Transgressivity is the second of Woermann and Cilliers' four mechanisms that reinforce and promote the critical attitude toward complex systems. To my mind, this heuristic is the most important to open learning spaces, and it is also the heuristic most likely to cause problems.

Basically, Woermann and Cilliers are insisting that a critical approach to complex systems such as MOOCs requires transgressing boundaries. From the perspective of the learner, this should be intuitively obvious: if we are to learn, then we must push beyond, or transgress, the boundaries of our current knowledge. No educator would deny this. The problem, of course, is that the limits of our personal knowledge are not the only boundaries that can be transgressed. We can also transgress the boundaries of others' knowledge, especially the limits of the teachers' knowledge, and the boundaries of sanctioned, blessed, or authorized knowledge. Now we are in trouble.

People commonly do not like their boundaries challenged. If they believe in God or global warming, then they do not want others to challenge those beliefs. Especially on issues core to one's worldview, there is no challenge—however kindly or innocently presented—that will not be perceived as a dire threat to be strenuously, even violently resisted. Yet, a critical approach to complex spaces such as MOOCs demands transgression. When we enter a MOOC, we should expect to have our beliefs and our knowledge challenged. Moreover, we are called to challenge and push beyond current boundaries of belief and knowledge. As Woermann and Cilliers say, a critical approach "can never simply re-enforce that which is current, but – as the definition states – involves a violation of accepted or imposed boundaries" (453).

This sounds almost aggressive and combative and a clear contradiction of the humility that Woermann and Cilliers insist also informs the critical attitude. Welcome to complexity. Transgression and humility are irreconcilable forces, and we must act out of the tension between them. We must challenge the boundaries of knowledge, but we must do so humbly, knowing that our own positions from which we challenge are themselves limited and filled with error. Woermann and Cilliers sum up the tension this way: "Modesty and transgressivity … go hand-in-hand, since modesty acts as the impetus for transgressivity, in focusing attention on the possibility of other rules of action (as commanded by the provisional imperative)" (453). Knowing that there is more beyond what we currently know gives us the courage to transgress boundaries. Knowing that our new knowledge, like our current knowledge, will be at best only provisionally true and useful keeps us humble.

We have, after all, small light cones, small knowledge cones. The dark unknown is infinitely greater than the little light within our cones of knowledge. At their most expansive, our boundaries are too tight. This is sometimes painfully obvious in a MOOC, where the 20 or 30 people we may come to know and interact with are only a fraction of the hundreds or thousands in the MOOC. We frame our little MOOC group in large part to make sense of the swelter, but this of necessity excludes the majority. And we must frame to make sense of things. For instance, Rhizo14 was framed in English, but this excluded billions. It talked mostly about education, and this excluded a different billion. We set up frames only to transgress them. Welcome to complexity.

And note that transgressing our frames does not do away with frames—it merely reframes, a point that Woermann and Cilliers pick up from Derrida's Positions (1981):
There is not a transgression, if one understands by that a pure and simple landing into a beyond of metaphysics... Now, even in aggressions or transgressions, we are consorting with a code to which metaphysics is tied irreducibly, such that every transgressive gesture reencloses us – precisely by giving us a hold on the closure of metaphysics – within this closure. But, by means of the work done on one side and the other of the limit the field inside is modified and a transgression is produced that consequently is nowhere present as a fait accompli. One is never installed within transgression, one never lives elsewhere. Transgression implies that the limit is always at work.
If Derrida is correct, then we may be outside this particular boundary, this limit or frame, but we are never outside some limit or boundary. However we frame a MOOC, understand a MOOC, we always exclude something—and more importantly for ethics, someone. I just worked with a cohort of Rhizo14 researchers who truly agonized about the voices excluded from the ethnography we were writing. Our group was painfully aware of the silent voices beyond our ken and wondered how we could speak with any confidence about Rhizo14 when clearly so many voices were absent, outside our frame. We did not have the comforting, simplistic fiction of scientific objectivity to tell us that we were outside the system and could therefore see and account for it all. We were writing from the inside, and we knew that we didn't see it all.

Yet, we still had to say something. We had to tell our story, or let our story be told by someone else.

And other stories have and will be told about Rhizo14. We should expect that these other stories will frame Rhizo14 differently than we have, differently than we might six months from now. As a complex system, Rhizo14 can be framed in an infinite number of ways, and each frame will exclude something and someone that is truly important for understanding the MOOC. This is unavoidable and grounds us in humility. We all can only state our position about Rhizo14 as honestly as we can, but all our positions are limited, provisional, and riddled with error. This limited position calls us to transgression as our frames will not likely match the frames of others and will certainly not be adequate to encompass the MOOC. We will transgress, will be called to transgression, and will be transgressed ourselves.

The unknown, that which lies outside and beyond our boundaries, is vitally important for ethics in complex systems. Woermann and Cilliers note that it is the presence of the outside—the numberless people and infinite knowledge outside our frames, what Alain Badiou calls the non-existent—that gives ethics its potency, its pressing and critical insistence upon our attention. The non-existent is what couples ethics to politics, forcing one to move "to action and do something, even if it is imperfect" as Derrida says. If ethics was only a simple collection of rules to follow, how nice everything would be. But it isn't. In complex systems such as MOOCs, we must declare a position, knowing that it is imperfect and that it will transgress the positions of others. We must welcome the declarations of others, knowing that they are imperfect and transgress our own positions. We must move beyond into darkness and call others to the same transgressions. Otherwise, why be there?

Finally, it is others who bring our ethics into focus—they, especially the silent, unknown others, who make our choices critical and important. We must transgress our boundaries, moving and expanding them to include the silent unknown, and yet this transgresses their boundaries. They may resist inclusion within our boundaries. We are caught between the restrictions of framing reality from political positions merely to make sense of things and the call of the unknown to move beyond our frames to know the unknown. Morin says that we have freedom in terms of constraints, constraints in terms of freedom: "the complex notion of self-organization permits us to conceive of beings that are relatively autonomous as beings while remaining subject to the necessities and hazards of existence" (On Complexity, 113). Woermann and Cilliers say that we must "acknowledge the fact that there is no way in which we can fully engage with the excess of meaning that results from complexity; that our context (i.e. our position) is defined by certain freedom and constraints, which acts as the necessary conditions for action and transformation; and, that we have to acknowledge and exercise choice" (454)

What prevents our transgressions from becoming aggression? The knowledge that we may be wrong here and now and that we will certainly be wrong some other time or other place. There always exist a context in which our current knowledge is wrong, inappropriate, harmful, or irrelevant. It is the arrogant confidence that our current knowledge is Truth for all time and places and people that leads to aggression. This is the case in all human domains: social, religious, political, economic, educational, scientific. When we cease to believe that our knowledge is provisional, the best we can do at the moment, then we fall into aggression, either covert or overt.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Provisional Boundaries

Woermann and Cilliers posit four mechanisms that reinforce and promote the critical attitude: provisionality, followed by transgressivity, irony, and imagination. To my mind, mechanism is an unfortunate term, as none of the four seem mechanical; rather, I would call them heuristics, having more to do with experimentation in contact with the real, as Deleuze and Guattari say it, than with a device for reliably and regularly framing the world. These four mechanisms are bricolage for bricoleurs.

Given our incomplete knowledge of any complex system—and I think that all naturally occurring systems are complex as are many human-created systems such as MOOCs—it should be obvious that knowledge is provisional and, thus, the ethics based on that knowledge is provisional. While we must frame knowledge and ethical responses to complex spaces, we must simultaneously hold that our frames are in some way inadequate both when shifted to other contexts and within our own contexts. Let's see how.

That meaning, knowledge, and ethics change when we shift contexts is almost trivial to say. Even children can sense, if not adequately explain, the different meaning in the words "I love you" when spoken by different people in different situations. Indeed, the words don't mean much without a context. Likely when you just read the words I love you, you automatically supplied a context in your mind to help the words mean something. Without context, there is almost no meaning, and different contexts mean different meanings. Most of the world's love stories are based on two people using the same words from different contexts. Much of humor relies on things said or done in the wrong context (this touches both on transgressivity and irony, which I'll discuss later).

But the provisional nature of knowledge and ethics is even more subtle than this as both knowledge and ethics are uncertain even within a given context. Language, knowledge, and ethics never come to us pure, but they are always stained with their use in other contexts. Woermann and Cilliers quote Bakhtin, who says in his 1984 book Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics:
The life of the word is contained in its transfer... from one context to another context... In this process the word does not forget its own path and cannot completely free itself from the power of these concrete contexts into which it has entered. (452)
When we say "I love you", we cannot unsay all the other times we have said the same, for better or for worse, in other contexts, nor can we unsay all the other times the other has heard these words said. We cannot even unsay all the times countless others have said and heard these words. Our boundaries leech. Our frames do not hold absolutely against the outside. Perhaps this is one reason we so often envelope ourselves in emotional frames: to insulate ourselves from the knowledge of other contexts, to focus ourselves on taking the desired action quickly regardless of what we know, to forbid our knowledge and ethics from interfering with what we are passionate to do.

Not only do contexts leech the outside in, they are never complete in themselves. As Woermann and Cilliers note (453), Derrida says in Living On: Border Lines (1979) that "no context permits saturation." Woermann and Cilliers add that "every context is open to further description" and "[t]here are no final meanings that arrest the movement of signification" (453). Even when we position ourselves within a context in order to know what we know and to act as well as we can, our given context is open to further description, further interpretation. We can always know more, and that more always changes our knowledge and understanding.

We are always in trouble. We must make decisions, and the frames that inform our decisions are provisional. Most people do not like this tension, and they work very hard to simplify the complexity of life to render decision-making—which is the heart of ethics—into binary choices, into Thou shalt or Thou shalt not, into nothing can exceed the speed of light or you can understand any phenomenon by breaking it down into its smallest constituents and describing its fundamental interactions. Here is my problem with fundamentalists: not that they do or do not have a different frame than I, but that they insist that theirs is the only frame, the only context. Moreover, the true fundamentalists see it as their job or calling to destroy all frames and contexts other than their own. We have a long history of religions trying to stamp out competing religious frames, but we currently have a strong movement among atheists to stamp out all religious frames. To my mind, both are highly unethical attempts to destroy competing frames and to force their one, true frame onto others.

In a way, fundamentalists want to destroy ethics or to reduce it to a binary choice. Fundamentalism always posits absolute, universal rules, which reduces the complexity of ethics to simple choices: either one honors thy father and thy mother or one does not. A complex ethics rejects simple, binary choices.

A complex ethics also rejects an anything goes relativism that says all choices are the same. This is another way to reduce the burden of ethical choices. If all choices are the same, then just pick whatever is convenient. A complex ethics, however, accepts the constant burden of making choices with incomplete knowledge within restricted contexts.

This, I think, is a key stance for anyone engaging a complex learning space such as a MOOC. Even within the context of the MOOC, one cannot have complete knowledge, can't read it all, can't know everyone. MOOCs seem to work better if participants declare their own points of view, while opening space for others to do the same. MOOCs seem to work better when participants constantly reassess their own frames in light of other frames. Finally, MOOCs seem to work better when participants are willing to transgress their own boundaries when those boundaries, those frames, become inadequate to accommodate different, insistent knowledge and behaviors. This sounds like a recipe for ethics, but that's a trick of language—it isn't a recipe, it's a stance, a habit of mind, a heuristic, a cultivated tendency. It can happen in a moment, in a flash of insight, or it can unpack and emerge over the course of many MOOCs. It's a practice that is never mastered, never finished. It's a way of acting. It's complex ethics. It isn't the Way—it's a manner of walking. It isn't the Truth—it's a manner of conversing and mapping. It isn't neat and tidy enough to be a rule, but at best, a rule of thumb. It is not a social contract. I'm not opposed to contracts, but that ain't what I'm talking about.

I'll talk more about transgressions next. It seems that they are ethical after all.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Provisional Imperatives

I think I should say something about what I mean by the term ethics, especially as distinguished from morals. In fact, I do not distinguish much between ethics and morals; rather, I follow what Bruce Weinstein says about the distinctions between the two: "[J]ust about everyone understands that both ethics and morality have to do with identifying right conduct and good character. To keep everyone on the same page, and to honor the linguistic history of these two noble concepts, it’s much better to treat ethical and moral as synonymous."

That said, I recognize that some conversations find it useful to distinguish the two:
  • ethics are social standards, while morals are personal beliefs
  • ethics deals with right conduct, while morals deals with good character (or the other way around—I forget)
  • ethics belong to the secular realm, while morals belong to the religious
  • ethics are absolute and objective, while morals are relative and subjective
In this conversation, I don't think I will use these distinctions, but I'm free to do so if the need arises.

At any rate, I'm talking about how people choose to behave in groups, specifically MOOCs. Those choices are both social and personal at the same time. They can also be secular and religious, absolute and relative, objective and subjective at the same time. I said in a comment on Frances Bell's blog that "new structures demand new ethics", and Jenny Mackness questions this assertion in her post New structures (MOOCs) demand new ethics? She raises a vital question. If there is no stable, enduring ethical system, then what prevents us from all simply doing what we want to do? Are we left with a totally relativistic, anything goes melee?

Woermann and Cilliers say not, but does their answer imply a new ethics? I want to explore these two questions.

Woermann and Cilliers avoid an anything goes relativism by asserting a  provisional imperative modelled after Kant's categorical imperative. They begin by noting that "the ethics of complexity cannot do more than generate awareness of the fact that we are always in trouble. In other words, it cannot provide substantive guidelines for an ethical system" (451). This is uncomfortable. What use is an ethics that can't tell us how to behave? Doesn't this leave us in an anything goes situation? They answer that "despite not being able to provide a substantive ethics, it is possible to develop a type of meta-ethical position, which serves to highlight important considerations that underscore the ethical strategies that we employ when engaging in the particularities of situations."

What they are aiming for, I think, are heuristics, rules-of-thumb rather than rules. Strategies that can be employed and adjusted on-the-fly as we traverse new territory, encounter new people, and shift contexts across a complex topography, which sounds like most of the MOOCs I've engaged. They capture this type of meta-ethical position, this critical stance, in a provisional imperative:
When acting, always remain cognisant of other ways of acting.
To get a sense of the distinction and importance of this imperative, it helps me to compare it to Kant's categorical imperative, which Woermann and Cilliers phrase this way:
When acting, always follow only universal rules, or only rules which you will want all other people to follow.
So what is different about a provisional imperative as opposed to a categorical one? First, note that Woermann and Cilliers' provisional imperative is a contradiction in terms, while Kant's imperative is not. As Woermann and Cilliers readily note:
The idea of a provisional imperative seems to suggest that the imperative itself is subject to change, and in this regard we seem to be advocating an impossible position. This is, to a large extent, exactly the point: we cannot do away with moral imperatives, but, if we take complexity seriously, we should also realise that our imperatives are the outcome of certain framing strategies or ways of thinking about the world, and are thus necessarily exclusionary. Thus the provisional imperative stipulates that we must be guided by the imperative, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the exclusionary nature of all imperatives.
To my mind, their imperative embodies the very complexity they are trying to address. It dialogically juxtaposes two terms that cannot be reconciled: provisional and imperative. The one term suggests open-ended change and flexibility while the second suggests closed, unchanging rigidity. Complexity says we are suspended between these two, irreconcilable positions, and our lives play out in the tensions between them. No relief, no exit. Provisional imperative is similar to the phrase assertive humility that I used in my last post: a dialogic that suspends us between equally demanding and yet irreconcilable positions. This is part of the nature of complex systems, for as Woermann and Cilliers quote theoretical biologist, Robert Rosen: "a system is complex precisely ‘to the extent that it admits non-equivalent encodings; encodings which cannot be reduced to one another'" (450). Morin is quite clear that these non-equivalent encodings are part of the core logic of complex systems: "the dialogic is not the response to these paradoxes, but the means of facing them, by considering the complementarity of antagonisms and the productive play, sometimes vital, of complementary antagonisms" (Restricted Complexity, 16).

Neither Kant's categorical imperative nor Woermann and Cilliers' provisional imperative is substantive. Neither gives us explicit guidance about how to behave, but I think that the provisional imperative describes a stance that is more useful for determining behavior in complex systems: act as well as you can within the context you define, but always be aware that others may act in different ways that may be as good or better within the same context and that are quite likely better in different contexts, so always be ready to question your context.

This seems to me a useful ethical stance to take in a complex space such as an rMOOC. I must engage a MOOC within my frame, presented as honestly and as clearly as I can. For instance, when I showed up to Rhizo14 last year, I came with a keen interest in Deleuze and Guattari and complexity thought and wanted to explore how both of these might inform a discussion about rhizomatic learning and the community as the curriculum. Given the title of the MOOC, I thought it was a reasonable frame. As the MOOC emerged, however, Deleuze and Guattari were not the central focus of the discussions. Others brought other frames to the MOOC. The clash of frames disappointed and offended some, causing them to leave the MOOC, and the emerging discussions that were often more artistic than philosophical disappointed others. The reframing of the discussion on Facebook and Twitter at first annoyed me, as I don't like either of those platforms, but the others in the discussion didn't like Google+. I could have stubbornly clung to my original framing of the MOOC, which would have forced me to either abandon the MOOC or try to twist everyone into my frame. I'm pleased that I chose the third way: relax my frame and engage other ways of acting.

I claim no moral high-ground here. I did almost abandon the MOOC. Like everyone else, I'm a busy professional, and I could have easily told myself and others that I was just too busy. They would have believed me. I would have believed me. Of course, now I'm glad I didn't leave, not just because of all the wonderful connections, real friendships, that I've made, but because I learned first-hand Woemann and Cilliers' provisional imperative: When acting, always remain cognisant of other ways of acting.

I should note that I did not exactly abandon my D&G frame for another frame; rather, I enlarged my frame to accommodate the others. I still mentioned D&G and complexity, quite often actually, because after all that is the value that I had to bring to the conversation, but my comments were framed not in a narrow, philosophical way, but in a more general community as curriculum way. In other words, I continued to declare the value that I could bring, but I worked to reframe that value into different contexts. I think it worked for others, and I know it worked for me. I was able to expand my understanding of D&G and of complexity by pushing the discussion into different frames. By the way, I also eventually joined the more artsy discussions, which I had at first resisted as they didn't fit my narrow frame. I introduced the haiku form of poetry, which led to a round of haiku among Simon Ensor, Terry Elliot, Kevin Hodgson, and me. Again, I was able to expand my understanding of D&G and complexity and, more importantly, make some treasured friends.

I think this provisional imperative informs Dave Cormier's list of suggestions on Youtube about how to be successful in a MOOC, especially the first three:
  1. orient,
  2. declare,
  3. network,
  4. cluster, and
  5. focus.
We orient ourselves within a MOOC by constructing an initial frame. We anchor to some aspect of the MOOC—a person, a concept, an activity—and look about through our frame. We declare ourselves part of the MOOC and present. Here we can state our frame, our value, our expectations, our point of view. From this position, we begin to connect to others, to network, and this is where we must always remain cognizant of other ways of acting. We must begin working with our frame to accommodate, complement, or stand in dialogical opposition to other frames and points of view.

This, of course, is where the rub comes in. It may be that we find no one to cluster with and we remain alone. We may have to accept that this conversation is not for us. I'm okay with that, but many feel that we should be all inclusive. I may blog about this later, but I'll say here that I don't agree with this point of view. If a group of people wants to play futbol except for one who wants to play baseball, then that one should disengage or decide to embrace the futbol game, and the group should not feel compelled to quit playing futbol to accommodate the one. Fortunately, MOOCs can be large enough to accommodate both futbol and baseball games, if the players will organize themselves that way. What isn't acceptable is for the one baseball player to stay and poison the futbol game. It would have been wrong of me, for instance, to insist that Rhizo14 focus its discussion on Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome metaphor just because that was the game I wanted to play.

Anyway, the provisional imperative may still seem both too vague and too demanding for many. Self-criticality is a difficult, tiring position to maintain and even harder to tell if you're doing it correctly, and so next I want to discuss four mechanisms that Woermann and Cilliers promise will "serve to reinforce and promote the critical attitude, namely provisionality, transgressivity, irony, and imagination."