Monday, March 2, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Complex vs. Simple Learning

I've just written two things that have left me dissatisfied, and both of them had to do with ethics. The first was a long comment on France Bell's post Cycling between private and public in researching Rhizo14 about the recent article she wrote with Jenny Mackness, Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade. The second was my last blog post Anarchy as Freedom To. In both, I challenged an ethical position that struck me as inappropriate for education in the complex domain, but I did not provide an alternative. It's too easy to tear down and much harder to build up, so I need to repair myself. I want to start a series of posts that I trust will help me think through an ethical stance for education in the complex domain, which I think is the appropriate domain for connectivist MOOCs such as MOOCMOOC and rhizomatic MOOCs such as Rhizo14.

Much of what I will say in the next couple of posts is based on the work of Minka Woermann and Paul Cilliers, especially in their article The ethics of complexity and the complexity of ethics (2012), and on their extensive use of Edgar Morin's work on complexity. I've just discovered Woermann's work, but I've already written much about Cilliers in this blog and even more about Morin. They provide me a fine way to start thinking about ethics in the complex domain in general and about ethics in rMOOCs in particular.

Woermann and Cilliers begin their discussion of complexity ethics with the limitation of knowledge within the complex domain. To understand why knowledge of complex systems is necessarily incomplete, I have to refer to other essays by Cilliers, such as Why We Cannot Know Complex Things Completely (2002) in which he argues to my satisfaction that "meaning is constituted in a specific context where some components [of the complex system] are included and others are not" (86). This contextualization, or framing, of a complex system means that we limit the system in order to understand it, but also means that much, often most, is left outside the frame. That information outside the frame is not irrelevant; rather, it is constitutive of the complex system and leaving it out means that we do not know a complex system completely, cannot know it completely. Unfortunately, knowing it at all, means contextualizing and framing a part of the system to bring it into clarity. The only knowledge we can have of a complex system is incomplete, partial knowledge.

cMOOCs and rMOOCs engage the complex in terms of both content and people. People, of course, are always complex, but content is not, so I want to deal with content first. I teach college composition courses to help students master academic writing, the kind of writing they will do in their college courses. My college requires the APA style for all school documents. Teaching APA style is education in the simple domain, simple content. I do not mean that APA is easy—indeed, most of my students find it difficult to master—rather, APA is simple because it is a closed system, with a finite number of components, and if one is so inclined, then one can know all there is to know about APA. It's just a collection of rules, tedious but doable, and in almost all cases, there is only one right way to do any given reference or citation. This is simple content amenable to a mostly simple way of teaching.

Good writing on the other hand—how to craft an effective and appropriate argument or how to develop an illuminating metaphor—is complex content. You cannot know all there is to know about good writing, and to write anything, this post for instance, you must frame it in a way that privileges some ways of writing and certain language and excludes other ways and words. If I teach academic writing, for instance, I leave out all that I could say—often want to say—about poetics. I can cover APA. I will never cover writing, and I've been teaching it 30 years. APA, then, is education in the simple domain, while writing is education in the complex domain. I must mix both in my 10-week courses.

When Dave Cormier proposed Rhizo14, he posed a field of inquiry about the community as the curriculum and left it to the community to develop most of the content. He did not do this as a clever ploy. He did this because the community as the curriculum is a complex field of study, and he really didn't know how far it extended. We still don't know how far the field extends as we are still exploring, and to my knowledge, we haven't reached any definitive boundaries yet. There may be no boundaries. MOOCMOOC15 posed a bit more of a curriculum, but it is still quite open-ended. Both MOOCs are engaging complex content: open-ended and emerging. We can frame issues within the field of each, but we cannot enclose the field. We cannot exhaust the field, no matter how long we study. We can only grow bored and move on to other fields. In other words, our knowledge of the community as the curriculum can expand, but it is always incomplete. This is education in the complex domain.

Unlike content, people are always complex, though we too often try to reduce people to the simple domain through the use of labels: you are a woman, therefore you must not understand technology very well; or you are a white male of European descent, therefore you must feel unreasonably privileged; or you are an advanced student, you are a slow student. We do this all the time, but as Woermann and Cilliers argue, our identities are complex—they are both particle and wave, to use a familiar observation from quantum physics. They say of identity:
Our identities are neither a priori nor static. Rather, identity is constituted in a complex network, and must be contextualised as both a temporal process of becoming, and as a point in a nexus of relationships (Cilliers, 2010).
My identity in a MOOC is both particle, a point in a nexus of relationships, and wave, a temporal process of becoming. As McGilchrist shows so well in his book The Master and His Emissary (2010), the problem with being two things at once is that creatures such as humans with bicameral brains can see either the particle or the wave view, but not both at the same time. The Uncertainty Principle of physics makes this inability to see two things at once a central tenet of complexity science: we can identify either the position of a particle or its velocity, but not both at the same time. In the daily push and pull, we humans favor the left-brain particle view, which means we tend to reduce other people to their current positions, minimizing or ignoring the right-brain wave view, their stories. I am not either my current position or my trajectory—neither particle nor wave. I am both, at the same time, but you and I can see only one at a time. The key insight here is that we always view the other from a limited perspective. Thus, all our views of the other are based on limited knowledge and contain inaccuracies.

Moreover, our identity is never ours alone, but always a product of our interactions with and within an enclosing ecosystem, itself a very complex structure. Woermann and Cilliers say:
We act on one another in ways that give rise to our personal identities as well as the identities of our social practices, and that leads to the transformation of these identities (Woermann, 2010). We are therefore not only vulnerable with regard to the things that we value, but also with regard to our very identities. My state depends on the state of others (Preiser & Cilliers, 2010).
I can't know you unless I know myself, and I can't know myself unless I know all of you. My knowledge of you and me is incomplete, and while it can expand, it will always be incomplete. This is a monstrous ethical problem that cannot be transcended, but must be engaged.

Woermann and Cilliers say that our incomplete knowledge of any complex system "introduces an unavoidable ethical component into our thinking about complex phenomena", because as soon as "we engage with complexity, we have to make certain modelling choices when describing phenomena. In other words, since we cannot have complete knowledge of complex things, we cannot 'calculate' their behaviour in any deterministic fashion. We have to interpret and evaluate" (448).

Thus, when I engage the people and content in an rMOOC, I introduce an unavoidable ethical component because I have to make certain modelling choices when describing phenomena in the MOOC—when describing the people, the content, the activities and processes and assessing the value of those things. The choices I make in an open field of inquiry reveal my ethics, continue my trajectory, and yet are also influenced by the choices of others.

This is so unlike learning to use APA style, which involves no ethical choices after we commit to using APA. The questions cease to be am I right or wrong and become am I accurate or inaccurate. I do not differ, dare not differ, from others or from the teacher, but I must do APA exactly like everyone else. Conformity is the only reasonable option, the only sanctionable option, in simple learning. Learning becomes, as Deleuze and Guattari say, an issue of tracing accurately, of competence, not an issue of performance, of mapping, which is always an issue of ethics. Most students and teachers like the precision, clarity, and regularity of the simple domain. It's easy to teach here: accurate or inaccurate. That's easy to grade. I suspect that we teachers too often force some topics that are really complex into the simple domain to ease our burdens. It's like writing teachers who base their grades mostly on grammar. They can point to the rules and justify the 74 grade.

I've taken longer than I expected to arrive at my point: learning in the complex domain is an ethical issue. And ethics are constitutive of complex learning, not an add on. As Woermann and Cilliers insist:
[E]thics should be understood as something that constitutes both our knowledge and us, rather than as a normative system that dictates right action. Hence, the ethics of complexity is not an add-on, but inherent to any real engagement with complex phenomena. Otherwise stated, the ethics of complexity is a structural element of complexity thinking. In practice, this means that we should assume a critical attitude when modelling phenomena, where the critical attitude amounts to both the recognition of, and engagement with, the limits of knowledge (Preiser & Cilliers, 2010). (448)
Ethics is not a list of rules or norms or a social contract or a syllabus; rather, it is a critical attitude, complexity thinking, and a way of engaging and mapping an open field of inquiry, such as the community as the curriculum or critical learning. We make ethical choices in education when we are creating new knowledge, mapping new territory, forking a syllabus, not when we are memorizing a list of rules, such as APA. In simple learning, the ethical choices have all been made for us, while in complex learning, we must make the ethical choices through our own engagement with complex others and with complex content.

So what is this ethical stance, this ethical way of engaging and mapping in open terrain? I'll tackle that next.
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