Cocktails and educational research

A lot of progress has been made in medicine in recent years through the application of cocktails of drugs. Those used to combat AIDS are perhaps the most well-known, but there are many other applications of the technique to everything from lung cancer to Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The logic is simple. Different drugs attack different vulnerabilities in the pathogens etc they seek to kill. Though evolution means that some bacteria, viruses or cancers are likely to be adapted to escape one attack, the more different attacks you make, the less likely it will be that any will survive.

Simulated learningUnfortunately, combinatorial complexity means this is not a simply a question of throwing a bunch of the best drugs of each type together and gaining their benefits additively. I have recently been reading John H. Miller’s ‘A crude look at the whole: the science of complex systems in business, life and society‘ which is, so far, excellent, and that addresses this and many other problems in complexity science. Miller uses the nice analogy of fashion to help explain the problem: if you simply choose the most fashionable belt, the trendiest shoes, the latest greatest shirt, the snappiest hat, etc, the chances of walking out with the most fashionable outfit by combining them together are virtually zero. In fact, there’s a very strong chance that you will wind up looking pretty awful. It is not easily susceptible to reductive science because the variables all affect one another deeply. If your shirt doesn’t go with your shoes, it doesn’t matter how good either are separately. The same is true of drugs. You can’t simply pick those that are best on their own without understanding how they all work together. Not only may they not additively combine, they may often have highly negative effects, or may prevent one another being effective, or may behave differently in a different sequence, or in different relative concentrations. To make matters worse, side effects multiply as well as therapeutic benefits so, at the very least, you want to aim for the smallest number of compounds in the cocktail that you can get away with. Even were the effects of combining drugs positive, it would be premature to believe that it is the best possible solution unless you have actually tried them all. And therein lies the rub, because there are really a great many ways to combine them.

Miller and colleagues have been using the ideas behind simulated annealing to create faster, better ways to discover working cocktails of drugs. They started with 19 drugs which, a small bit of math shows, could be combined in 2 to the power of 19 different ways – about half a million possible combinations (not counting sequencing or relative strength issues). As only 20 such combinations could be tested each week, the chances of finding an effective, let alone the best combination, were slim within any reasonable timeframe. Simplifying a bit, rather than attempting to cover the entire range of possibilities, their approach finds a local optimum within one locale by picking a point and iterating variations from there until the best combination is found for that patch of the fitness landscape. It then checks another locale and repeats the process, and iterates until they have covered a large enough portion of the fitness landscape to be confident of having found at least a good solution: they have at least several peaks to compare. This also lets them follow up on hunches and to use educated guesses to speed up the search. It seems pretty effective, at least when compared with alternatives that attempt a theory-driven intentional design (too many non-independent variables), and is certainly vastly superior to methodically trying every alternative, inasmuch as it is actually possible to do this within acceptable timescales.

The central trick is to deliberately go downhill on the fitness landscape, rather than following an uphill route of continuous improvement all the time, which may simply get you to the top of an anthill rather than the peak of Everest in the fitness landscape. Miller very effectively shows that this is the fundamental error committed by followers of the Six-Sigma approach to management, an iterative method of process improvement originally invented to reduce errors in the manufacturing process: it may work well in a manufacturing context with a small number of variables to play with in a fixed and well-known landscape, but it is much worse than useless when applied in a creative industry like, say, education, because the chances that we are climbing a mountain and not an anthill are slim to negligible. In fact, the same is true even in manufacturing: if you are just making something inherently weak as good as it can be, it is still weak. There are lessons here for those that work hard to make our educational systems work better. For instance, attempts to make examination processes more reliable are doomed to fail because it’s exams that are the problem, not the processes used to run them. As I finish this while listening to a talk on learning analytics, I see dozens of such examples: most of the analytics tools described are designed to make the various parts of the educational machine work ‘ better’, ie. (for the most part) to help ensure that students’ behaviour complies with teachers’ intent. Of course, the only reason such compliance was ever needed was for efficient use of teaching resources, not because it is good for learning. Anthills.

This way of thinking seems to me to have potentially interesting applications in educational research. We who work in the area are faced with an irreducibly large number of recombinable and mutually affective variables that make any ethical attempt to do experimental research on effectiveness (however we choose to measure that – so many anthills here) impossible. It doesn’t stop a lot of people doing it, and telling us about p-values that prove their point in more or less scupulous studies, but they are – not to put too fine a point on it – almost always completely pointless.  At best, they might be telling us something useful about a single, non-replicable anthill, from which we might draw a lesson or two for our own context. But even a single omitted word in a lecture, a small change in inflection, let alone an impossibly vast range of design, contextual, historical and human factors, can have a substantial effect on learning outcomes and effectiveness for any given individual at any given time. We are always dealing with a lot more than 2 to the power of 19 possible mutually interacting combinations in real educational contexts. For even the simplest of research designs in a realistic educational context, the number of possible combinations of relevant variables is more likely closer to 2 to the power of 100 (in base 10 that’s  1,267,650,600,228,229,401,496,703,205,376). To make matters worse, the effects we are looking for may sometimes not be apparent for decades (having recombined and interacted with countless others along the way) and, for anything beyond trivial reductive experiments that would tell us nothing really useful, could seldom be done at a rate of more than a handful per semester, let alone 20 per week. This is a very good reason to do a lot more qualitative research, seeking meanings, connections, values and stories rather than trying to prove our approaches using experimental results. Education is more comparable to psychology than medicine and suffers the same central problem, that the general does not transfer to the specific, as well as a whole bunch of related problems that Smedslund recently coherently summarized. The article is paywalled, but Smedlund’s abstract states his main points succinctly:

“The current empirical paradigm for psychological research is criticized because it ignores the irreversibility of psychological processes, the infinite number of influential factors, the pseudo-empirical nature of many hypotheses, and the methodological implications of social interactivity. An additional point is that the differences and correlations usually found are much too small to be useful in psychological practice and in daily life. Together, these criticisms imply that an objective, accumulative, empirical and theoretical science of psychology is an impossible project.”

You could simply substitute ‘education’ for ‘psychology’ in this, and it would read the same. But it gets worse, because education is as much about technology and design as it is about states of mind and behaviour, so it is orders of magnitude more complex than psychology. The potential for invention of new ways of teaching and new states of learning is essentially infinite. Reductive science thus has a very limited role in educational research, at least as it has hitherto been done.

But what if we took the lessons of simulated annealing to heart? I recently bookmarked an approach to more reliable research suggested by the Christensen Institute that might provide a relevant methodology. The idea behind this is (again, simplifying a bit) to do the experimental stuff, then to sweep the normal results to one side and concentrate on the outliers, performing iterations of conjectures and experiments on an ever more diverse and precise range of samples until a richer, fuller picture results. Although it would be painstaking and longwinded, it is a good idea. But one cycle of this is a bit like a single iteration of Miller’s simulated annealing approach, a means to reach the top of one peak in the fitness landscape, that may still be a low-lying peak. However if, having done that, we jumbled up the variables again and repeated it starting in a different place, we might stand a chance of climbing some higher anthills and, perhaps, over time we might even hit a mountain and begin to have something that looks like a true science of education, in which we might make some reasonable predictions that do not rely on vague generalizations. It would either take a terribly long time (which itself might preclude it because, by the time we had finished researching, the discipline will have moved somewhere else) or would hit some notable ethical boundaries (you can’t deliberately mis-teach someone), but it seems more plausible than most existing techniques, if a reductive science of education is what we seek.

To be frank, I am not convinced it is worth the trouble. It seems to me that education is far closer as a discipline to art and design than it is to psychology, let alone to physics. Sure, there is a lot of important and useful stuff to be learned about how we learn: no doubt about that at all, and a simulated annealing approach might speed up that kind of research. Painters need to know what paints do too. But from there to prescribing how we should therefore teach spans a big chasm that reductive science cannot, in principle or practice, cross. This doesn’t mean that we cannot know anything: it just means it’s a different kind of knowledge than reductive science can provide. We are dealing with emergent phenomena in complex systems that are ontologically and epistemologically different from the parts of which they consist. So, yes, knowledge of the parts is valuable, but we can no more predict how best to teach or learn from those parts than we can predict the shape and function of the heart from knowledge of cellular organelles in its constituent cells. But knowledge of the cocktails that result – that might be useful.



Researching things that don't exist

As the end of my sabbatical is approaching fast, I am still tinkering with a research methodology based on tinkering (or the synonymous bricolage, to make it sound more academic). Tinkering is an approach to design that involves making things out of what we find around us, rather than as an engineered, designed process. This is relatively seldom seen as valid approach to design (though there are strong arguments to be made for it), let alone to research, though it underpins much invention and discovery. Tinkering is, by definition, a step into the unknown, and research is generally concerned with knowing the unknown (or at least clarifying, confirming or denying the partly- or tentatively-known). This is not a direct path, however.

Research can take many forms but, typically and I think essentially, the sort that we do in academia is a process of discovery, rather than one of invention. This is there in the name – ‘recherche’ (the origin of the term) means to go about seeking, which implies there is something to be found. The word ‘discovery’ suggests that there is something that exists that can be discovered, whereas inventions, by definition, do not exist, so they are never exactly discovered as such.

While we can seldom substitute ‘invention’ for ‘discovery’, the borders are blurry. Did Maxwell discover his equations or did he invent them? What he discovered was something about the order of the universe, that his (invented) equations express, but the equations formed an essential and inextricable part of that discovery. R&D labs get around the problem by simply using two terms so that you know they are using both. The distinction is similarly blurry in art: an artwork is normally not, at least in a traditional sense, research because, for most art, it is a form of invention rather than discovery. But sculptors often talk of discovering a form in stone or wood. And, even for the most mundane of paintings or drawings, artists are in a dialogue with their media and with what they have created, each stroke building on and being influenced by those that came before. A relative of mine recently ran an exhibition of works based on the forms suggested by blots of ink and water, which illustrates this in sharper relief than most, and I do rather like these paintings from Bradley Messer that follow the forms of wood grain. Such artists discover as much as they create and, like Maxwell’s equations, their art is an expression of their discovery, not the discovery itself, though the art is equally a means of making that discovery. Discovery is even more obvious in ‘found’ art such as that of some of the Dadaists, though the ‘art’ part of it is arguably still the invention, not the discovered object itself. Duchamp Fountaine And, as Dombois observes  there are some very important ways research and art can connect: research can inform art and be about art, and art can be about research, can support research and can arise from it. Dombois also believes art can be a means of performing research. Komar and Melamid’s ‘most-wanted paintings’ project is a good example of art not only being informed by research itself being a form of research. Their paintings resulted from research into what ‘the people’ wanted in their paintings. The paintings themselves challenge what collective taste means, and the value of it, changing how we know and make use of such information. And the artwork itself is the research, of which the paintings are just a part. 

Inventions (including art works) use discoveries and, from our inventions, we can make discoveries (including discoveries about our inventions). Invention makes it possible to make novel discovery, but the research is that discovery, not the inventions that lead to it. Research perceived as invention means discovering not what is there but what is not there, which is a little bizarre. More accurately, perhaps, it is seeking to discover what is latently there. It is about discovering possible futures. But even this is a bit strange, inasmuch as latent possibilities are, in many cases, infinite. I don’t think it counts as discovery if you are picking a few pieces from a limitless range of possibilities. It is creation that depends entirely on what you put into it, not on something that can be discovered in that infinity. But, perhaps, the discovery of patterns and regularities in that infinite potential palette is the research. This is because those infinite possibilities are maybe not as infinite as they seem. They are at the very least constrained by what came before, as well as by a wide range of structural constraints that we impose, or have imposed upon us. What is nice about tinkering is that, because it is concerned with using things around us, the forms we work on already have such patterns and constraints. 

Tinkering is concerned with exploring the adjacent possible. It is about looking at the things around you (which, in Internet space, means practically everywhere) and finding ways to put them together in new ways to do new things. These new things can then, themselves, create new adjacent possibles, and so it goes on. Beyond invention, tinkering is a tool for making new discoveries. It is a way of having a conversation with objects in which the tinker manipulates the objects and the objects in turn suggest ways of putting them together. It can inspire new ways of thinking. We discover what our creations reveal. Writing (such as this) is a classic example of this process. The process of writing is not one of recording thoughts so much as it is one of making new ones. We scaffold our thoughts with the words we write, pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps as we do so in order to build further thoughts and connections.

The construction of all technologies works the same way, though it is often hidden behind walls of abstraction and deliberate design. If, rather than design-then-build, we simply tinker, then the abstraction falls away. The paths we go down are unknown and unknowable in advance, because the process of construction leads to new ideas, new concepts, new possibilities that only become visible as we build. Technologies are (all) tools to think with at least as much as they are tools to perform the tasks we build them for, and tinkering is perhaps the purest way of building them. And this is what makes tinkering a process of discovery. The focus is not on what we build, but on what we discover as a direct result of doing so – both process and product. Tinkering is a scaffold for discovery, not discovery itself. This begins to feel like something that could underpin a methodology.

With this in mind, here is an evolving set of considerations and guidelines for tinkering-based research that have occurred to me as I go along.

Exploring the possible

To be able to explore the adjacent possible, it is first necessary to explore the possible. In fact, it is necessary to be immersed in the possible. At a simple level, this because the bigger your pile of junk, the more chances there are of finding interesting pieces and interesting combinations. But there are other sub-aspects of this that matter as much: the nature of the pile of junk, the skills to assemble the junk, and immersion in the problem space. 

1) The pile of junk

Tinkering has to start with something – some tools, some pieces, some methods, some principles, some patterns. It is important that these are as diverse as possible, on the whole. If you just have a pile of engine parts then the chances are you are going to make another engine although, with a tinker-space containing sufficiently diverse patterns, you might make something else. There is a store near me that sells clocks, lights and other household objects made from bits of old electrical equipment and machinery, and it is wonderful. Similarly, some of the finest blues musicians can make infinite complexity out of just three chords and a (loosely) pentatonic scale. But having diverse objects, methods, patterns and principles certainly makes it easier than just having a subset of it all.

It is important that the majority of the junk is relatively complex and self-contained in itself – that it does something on its own, that it is already an assembly of something. Doing bricolage with nothing but raw materials is virtually impossible – they are too soft (in a technology sense). You have to start with something, otherwise the adjacent possible is way too far away and what is close is way too boring. The chances are that, unless you have a brilliant novel idea (which is a whole other territory and very rare) you will wind up making something that already exists and has probably been done better. This is still scrabbling around in the realms of the possible. The whole point is to start with something and assemble it with something else to make it better, in order to do something that has never been done before. That’s what makes it possible to discover new things. Of course, the complexity does not need to be in physical objects: you might have well-assembled theories, models, patterns, belief systems, aesthetic sensibilities and so on that could be and probably will be part of the assembly. And, since we are not just talking about physical objects but methods, principles, patterns etc, this means you need to immerse yourself in the process – to do it, read about it, talk about it, try it. 

2) The tools of assembly

It is not enough to have a great tinker-space full of bits and pieces. You need tools to assemble them. Not just physical tools, but conceptual tools, skills, abilities, etc. You can buy, make, beg, borrow or steal the tools, but skills to use them take time to develop. Of course, one of the time-honoured and useful ways to do that is to tinker, so this works pretty well. Again, this is about immersion. You cannot gain skills unless you apply them, reflect on it, apply them again, in a never-ending cycle.

There is a flip side to this though. If you get to be too skillful then you start to ignore things that you have discovered to be irrelevant, and irrelevant things aren’t always as irrelevant as they seem. They are only irrelevant to the path you have chosen to tread. Treading multiple paths is essential so, once you become too much of an expert, it is probably time to learn new skills. It is hard to know when you are too much of an expert. Often, the clue is that someone with no idea about the area suggests something and you laughingly tell them it cannot be done. Of course it can. This is technology. It’s about invention. You are just too smart to know it.

Being driven by your tools (including skills) is essential and a vital part of the methodology – it’s how the adjacent possible reveals itself. But it’s a balance. Sometimes you go past an adjacent possible on your way and then leave it so far behind that you forget it is there at all. It sometimes takes a beginner to see things that experts believe are not there. It can be done in all sorts of ways. For example, I know someone who, because he does not want to be trapped by his own expertise, constantly retunes his guitar to new tunings, partly to make discoveries through serendipity, partly to be a constant amateur. But, of course, a lot of his existing knowledge is reusable in the new context. You do not (and cannot) leave expertise behind when learning new things – you always bring your existing baggage. This is good – it’s more junk to play with. The trick is to have a ton of it and to keep on adding to it.

3) The problem space

While simply playing with pieces can get you to some interesting places, once you start to see the possibilities, tinkering soon becomes a problem-solving process and, as you follow a lead, the problem becomes more and more defined, almost always adding new problems with each one solved. Being immersed in a problem space is crucial, which tends to make tinkering a personal activity, not one that lends itself well to formally constructed groups. Scratching your own itch is a pretty good way to get started on the tinkering process because, having scratched one itch, it always leads to more or, at least, you notice other itches as you do so.

If you are scratching someone else’s itch then it can be too constraining. You are just solving a known problem, which seldom gets you far beyond the possible and, if it does, your obligations to the other person make it harder for you to follow the seam of gold that you have just discovered along the way that is really the point of it. It’s the unknown problems, the ones that only emerge as we cross the border of the adjacent possible, that matter here. Again, though, this is a balance. A little constraint can help to sustain a focus and doing something that is not your own idea can spark serendipitous ideas that turn out to be good.

Just because it is not really a team process doesn’t mean that other people are not important to it. Talking with others, exchanging ideas, gaining inspiration, receiving critique, seeing the world through different eyes – all this is very good. And it can also be great to work closely with a small number of others, particularly in pairs – XP relies on this for its success. A small number of people do not need to be bogged down with process, schedules, targets, and other things that get in the way of effective tinkering, can inspire one another, spot more solutions, and sustain motivation when the going gets rough. 

The Structural Space

One of the points of bricolage is that it is structured from the bottom up, not the top down. Just because it is bottom-up structure does not mean it is not structure. This is a classic of example of shaping our tools and our tools shaping us (as McLuhan put it), or shaping our dwellings while our dwellings shape our lives (as Churchill put it a couple of decades earlier). Tinkering starts with forms that influence what we do with them, and what we do with them influences what we do next – our creations and discoveries become the raw material for further creations and discoveries. Though rejecting deliberate structured design processes, I have toyed with and tried things like prototyping, mock-ups and sketches of designs, but I have come to the opinion that they get in the way – they abstract the design too much. What matters in bricolage is picking up pieces and putting them together. Anything beyond vague ideas and principles is too top-down. You are no longer talking with the space but with a map of the space, which is not the same thing at all.


One of the big problems with tinkering is that it tends to lead to highly inefficient design, from an engineering perspective. Part of the reason for that is that path dependencies set in early on. A bad decision early can seriously constrain what you do later. One has only to look at our higher education systems, the result of massively distributed large scale tinkering over nearly a thousand years, to see the dangers here. The vast majority of what we continue to do today is mediaeval in origin and, in a lot of cases, has survived unscathed, albeit assembled with a few other things along the way.

Building from existing pieces can limit the damage – at least you don’t have to pull everything apart if it turns out that it is not a fruitful path. It is also very helpful to start with something like Lego, that is designed to be fitted together this way. Most of my work during my sabbatical has involved programming using the Elgg framework, which is very elegantly designed so that, as long as you follow the guidelines, it naturally forms into at least a decent outline structure. On the other hand, as I have found to my cost, it is easy to put enough work into something that it makes it very discouraging when you to have to start again. As the example of educational systems shows, some blocks are so foundational and deeply linked with everything else, that they affect everything that follows and simply cannot be removed without breaking everything.

Working together

Tinkering is quite hard to do in teams, apart from as sounding boards for reflection on a process already in motion. It is instructive to visit LegoLand to see how it can work, though. In the play spaces of LegoLand one sees kids (and more than a few adults) working alone on building things, but they are doing so in a very social space. They talk about what they are doing, see what others are doing and, sometimes, put their bits of assemblies together, making bigger and more complex artefacts. We can see similar processes at work in GitHub, a site where programmers, often working alone, post projects that others can fork and, through pull-requests, return in modified form to their originators or others, with or without knowing them or ineracting with them in any other way. It’s a wonderful evolutionary tinker-space. If programs are reasonably modular, people can work on different pieces independently, that can then be assembled and reassembled by others. Inspiration, support, patterns of thinking and problem solving, as well as code, flow through the system. The tinkering of others becomes a part of your own tinker-space.  It’s a learning space – a space where people learn but also a space that learns. The fundamental social forms for tinkering are not traditional, purpose-driven, structured and scheduled teams (groups), but networks and, more predominantly, sets of people connected by nothing but shared interest and a shared space in which to tinker.


As well as resulting in inefficient systems, tinkering is not easy to plan. At the start, one never knows much more than the broad goal (that may change or may not even be there at all) and the next steps. You can build very big systems by tinkering (back to education again but let’s go large on this and think of the whole of gaia) but it is very hard to do so with a fixed purpose in mind and harder still to do so to a schedule. At best, you might be able to roughly identify the kind of task and look to historical data to help get some statistical approximation of how long it might take for something useful to emerge.

A corollary of the difficulty of planning (indeed, that it is counter-productive to do so) is that it is very easy to be thrown off track. Other things, especially those that involve other people that rely on you, can very quickly divert the endeavour. At the very least, time has to be set aside to tinker and, come hell or high water, that time should be used. Tinkering often involves following tenuous threads and keeping many balls in the air at once (mixing metaphors is a good form of tinkering) so distractions are anethema to the effective tinkerer. That said, coming up for a breath of air can remind you of other items in the tinker-chest that may inspire or provoke new ways of assembling things. It is a balance.

Evolution, not design

Naive creationists have in the past suggested that the improbability of finding something as complex as even a watch, let alone the massively more complex mechanisms of the simplest of organisms, means that there must be an intelligent designer. This is sillier than silly. Evolution works by a ratchet, each adaptation providing the basis for the next, with some neat possibilities emerging from combinatorial complexity as well. Given enough time and a suitable mechanism, exponentially increasingly complex systems are not just possible put overwhelmingly probable. In fact, it would be vastly more difficult to explain their absence than their existence. But they are not the result of a plan. Likewise for tinkering with technologies. If you take two complex things and put them together, there is a better than fair chance that you will wind up with something more complex that probably does more than you imagined or intended when you stuck them together.  And, though maybe there is a little less chance of disaster than the random-ish recombinations of natural evolution, the potential for the unexpected increases with the complexity. Most unexpected things are not beneficial – the bugs in every large piece of software attest to that, as do most of my attempts at physical tinkering over the course of my lifetime. However, now and then, some can lead to more actual possibles. The adjacent possible is what might happen next but, in many cases, changes simply come with baggage. Gould calls these exaptations – they are not adaptations as such, but a side-effect or consequence of adaptation. Gould uses the example of the Spandrels of St Marco to illustrated this point, showing how the structure of the cathedral of St Marco, with its dome sitting on rounded arches, unintentionally but usefully created spaces where they met that proved to be the perfect place to put images of saints – in fact, they seem made for them. But they are not – the spaces are just a by-product of the design that were coopted by the creators of the cathedral to a useful purpose. A lot of systems work that way. It is the nature of their assembly to create both constraints and affordances, path dependencies and patterns early on deeply defining later growth and change. Effective tinkering involves using such spandrels, and that means having to think about what you have built. Thinking deeply.

The Reflection Space

Just tinkering can be fun but, to make it a useful research process, it should involve more than just invention. It should also involve discovery. It is essential, therefore, that the process is seen as one of reflective dialogue with the creations we make. Reflection is not just part of an iterative cycle – it is embedded deeply and inextricably throughout the process. Only if we are able to constructively think about what we are doing as well as what we have done can this generate ideas, models, principles and foundations for further development. It is part of the dialogue with the objects (physical, conceptual, etc) that we produce and, perhaps even more importantly, it is the real research output of the tinkering process. Reflection is the point at which we discover rather than just invent. In part it is to think about the meaning and consequence, in part to discover the inevitable exaptions, in part to spot the next adjacent possible. This is not a simple collaboration. Much of the time we argue with the objects we create – they want to be one way but we want them to be another and, from that tension, we co-create something new.  

We need to build stories and rich pictures as much as we need to build technologies. Indeed, it doesn’t really matter that much if we fail to produce any useful artefact through tinkering, as long as the stories have value.  From those stories spin ideas, inspirations, and repeatable patterns. Stories allow us to critique what we have done and learn from it, to see it in a broader context and, perhaps, to discover different contexts where the ideas might apply. And, of course, these stories should be shared, whether with a few friends or the world, creating further feedback loops as well as spreading around what we have discovered.

Stories don’t have to be in words. Pictures are equally and often more useful and, often most useful of all, the interactions with our creations can tell a story too. This is obviously the case in things like games, Arduino projects or interactive site development but is just as true of making things like furniture, accessories and most of the things that can be made or enhanced with Sugru.

Here are two brief stories that I hope begin to reveal a little of what I mean.

A short illustrative story

Early in my sabbatical I wrote one Elgg plugin that, as it emerged, I was very pleased with, because it scratched an itch that I have had for a long time. It allowed anyone to tag anything, and for duplicate tags used by different people to be displayed as a tag cloud instead of the normal list of tags that comes with a post. This was an assembly of many ideas, and was a conversation with the Elgg framework, which provided a lot of the structure and form of what I wanted to achieve. In doing it, I was learning how to program in Elgg but, in shaping Elgg, I was also teaching it about the theories that I had developed over many years. If it had worked, it would have given me a chance to test those theories, and the results would probably have led to some refinements, but that was really a secondary phase of the research process and not the one that I was focusing on.

Before any other human being got to use the system, the research process was shaping and refining the ideas. With each stage of development I was making discoveries. A big one was the per-post tag cloud. My initial idea had simply been to allow people to tag one another’s posts. This would have been very useful in two main ways. Firstly, it would give people the chance to meaningfully bookmark things they had found interesting. Rather than the typical approach of putting bookmarks into organized hierarchies, tags could be used to apply faceted categorizations, allowing posts to cross hierarchical boundaries easily and enabling faceted classification of the things people found interesting. Secondly, the tags would be available to others, allowing social construction of an ontology-like thing, better search, a more organized site. Tags are already very useful things but, in Elgg, they are applied by post authors and there are not enough of them for strong patterns to develop on their own in any but quite large systems. One of the first things I realized was that this meant the same tag might be used for the same post more than once.  It was hard to miss in fact, because what I saw when I ran the program was multiple tags for each post – the system I had assembled was shouting at me. Having built a tag cloud system in the 1990s before I even knew the word ‘tag’ let alone ‘tag cloud’ I was primed to spot the opportunity for a tag cloud, which is a neat way to give shape and meaning to a social space. Individually, tags categorize into binary categories. Collectively, they become fuzzy and scalar – an individual post can be more of one tag than another, not because some individual has decided so, but because a crowd has decided so. This is more than a folksonomy. It is a kind of collaborative recommender system, a means to help people recognize not just whether something is good or bad but in what ways it is good or bad. Already, I was thinking of my PhD work which involved fuzzy tags I called ‘qualities’ (e.g. ‘good for beginners’, ‘comprehensive’, ‘detailed’, etc) that allowed users of my CoFIND system not just to categorize but to rate posts, on multiple pedagogical dimensions. Higher tag weight is an implicity proxy for saying that, in the context of what is described by this tag, the post has been recommended. As I write this (writing is great tinkering – this is the power of reflection) I realize that I could explicitly separate such tags from Elgg’s native tags, which might be a neat way to overcome the limitations of the system I wrote about 15 years ago, that was a good idea but very unusable. Anyway…

It worked like a dream, exactly as I had planned, up to the point that I tried to allow people to see the things they had tagged, which was pretty central to the idea and without which the whole thing was pretty pointless: it is highly improbably that individuals would see great value in tagging things unless they could use those tags to find and organize stuff on the site. As it turns out, the Elgg developers never thought tags might be used this way, so the owner of a tag is not recorded in the system. The person that tags a post is just assumed to be the owner of the post. I’m not a great Elgg developer (which is why I did not realise this till it was too late) but I do know the one cardinal rule – you never, ever, ever mess with the core code or the data model. There was nothing I could do except start again, almost completely from scratch. That was a lot of work – weeks of effort. It was not entirely wasted – I learned a lot in the process and that was the central purpose of it all. But it was very discouraging. Since then, as I have become more immersed in Elgg, my skills have improved. I think I can now see roughly how this could be made to work. The reason I know this is because I have been tinkering with other things and, in the process, found a lightweight way of using relationships to link individuals and objects that, in the ways that matter, can behave much like tags. Now that I have the germ of an idea about how to make this pedagogically powerful, hopefully I will have time to do that. 

Another illustrative story

One of my little sabbatical projects (that actually it turned out to be about the biggest, and it’s not over yet) was to build an OpenBadge plugin. This was actually prompted by and written for someone else. I would not thought of it as a good itch to scratch because I happen to know something about badges and something about learning and, from what I have seen, badges (as implemented so far) are at best of mixed value in learning. In the vast majority of instances that I have seen them used, they can be at the very best as demotivating as they are motivating. Much of the time it is worse than that: they turn into extrinsic proxies that divert motivation away from learning almost entirely. They embed power structures and create divisions. From a learning perspective, they are a pretty bad idea. On the plus side, they are a very neat way to do credentials which is great if that is what you are aiming for, opening up the potential for much more interesting separation of teaching and accreditation, diverse learning paths, and distributed learning, so I don’t hate them. In fact, I quite like them. But their pedagogical risks mean that I don’t love them enough to have even considered writing a plugin that implements them.

Despite reservations, I said I would do it. It didn’t seem like a big task because I reckoned I could just lightly modify one of a couple of existing (non-open) badge plugins that had already been written for Elgg.  I also happened to have some parts lying round – my pedagogical principles, the Elgg framework, the Mozilla OpenBadge standard documentation, various code snippets for implementing OpenBadges – that I could throw together. Putting these pieces together made me realize early on that social badging could be a good idea that might help overcome several of my objections to their usual implementations. Because of the nature of Elgg, the obvious way to build such a plugin would be such that anyone could make a badge, and anyone could award one, making use of Elgg’s native fine-grained bottom-up permissions. This meant that the usual power relationships implied in badging would not be such a problem. This was an interesting start.

Because Elgg has no roles in its design (apart from a single admin role for the site builder and manager), and so no explicit teaching roles, this could have been potentially tricky from a trust perspective – although its network features would mean you could trust awards by people you know, how would you trust an award from someone you don’t know and who is not playing a traditional teacher role in a power hierarchy? Even with the native Elgg option to ‘recommend’ a badge (so more people could assert its validity) this could become chaotic. But my principles told me that teacher control is a bad thing so I was not about to add a teacher role.

After tossing this idea around for a few minutes, I came up with the idea of inheritable badges – in other words, a badge could be configured so that you could only award a badge if you had received it yourself. In an instant, this began to look very plausible. If you could trace the badge to someone you trust (eg. a teacher or a friend or someone you know is trustworthy), which is exactly what Elgg would make possible by default, then you could trust anyone else who had awarded the badge to at least have the competence that the badge signifies, and so be more likely to be able to accurately recognize it in someone else. This was neat – it meant that accreditation could be distributed across a network of strangers (as in a MOOC) without the usual difficulties of the blind accrediting the blind that tend to afflict peer assessment methods in such contexts. Better still, this is a great way to signify and gain social capital, and to build deeper and richer bonds in a community of strangers. It is, I think, among the first scalable approaches to accreditation in a connectivist context, though I have not looked too deeply into the literature, so stand to be corrected.

Later, as I tinkered and became immersed in the problem, thinking how it would be used, I added a further option to let a badge creator specify a prerequisite award (any arbitrarily chosen badge) that must be held before a badge could be awarded. As well as allowing more flexibility than simple inheritance, this meant that you could introduce roles by the back door if you wished, by allowing someone to award a ‘teacher’ badge or similar, and only allowing people holding that badge to make awards of other badges.  I then realized this was a generalized case of the same thing as the inheritance feature, so got rid of the inheritance feature and just added the option to make a prerequisite of the current badge itself. It is worthy of note that this was quite difficult to do – had I planned it from the start, it would have been trivial, but I had to unpick what I had done as well as build it afresh.

Social badging, peer assessment, scalable viral accreditation, social capital, motivation  – this was looking cool. Furthermore, tinkering with an existing framework suggested other cool things. By default, it was a lot easier to build this if people could award badges to themselves. The logical next step would have been to prevent them from doing this but, as I saw it working, I realised self-badging was a very good idea! It bothered me for a moment that it might be a bit confusing, at least, not to mention appearing narcissistic if people started awarding themselves badges. However, Elgg posts can be private, so people giving themselves badges would not have to show them to others. But they could, and that could be useful. They could make a learning contract with someone else or a group of people, and allow them to observe, thus not only improving motivation and honesty, but also building bonding social capital. So, people could set goals for themselves and award themselves badges when they accomplished them, and do so in a safe social context that they would be in control of. It might be useful in many self-directed learning contexts. 

These were not ideas that simply flowed in my head from start to finish: it was a direct result of dialogue with what I was creating that this came about, and it could only have done so because I already had ideas and principles about things like portfolios, learning contracts and social learning floating around in my toolkit, ready to be assembled. I did include the admin option to turn off self-awarding at a system level in case anyone disagreed with me, and because I could imagine contexts where it might get out of hand. I even (a little reluctantly) made it possible to limit badge awarding to admins only, so that there could be a ‘root’ badge or two that would provide the source of all accreditation and awarding. Even then, it could still be a far more social approach to accreditation than most, making expertise not just something that is awarded with an extrinsic badge, but also something that gives real power to its holder to play an important role in a learning community.

This is not exactly what my sponsors asked for: they wanted automation, so that an administrator could set some criteria and the system would automatically award badges when those criteria had been met.  Although I reckon my social solution meets the demand for scalability that lay at the heart of that request, I realized that, with some effort, I could assemble all of this with a karma point plugin that I happened to have in my virtual toolshed in order to enable automated badge awarding for things like posting blogs, etc. Because there was no obvious object for which such an award could be given as it could relate to any arbitrary range of activities, I made the object providing evidence to be the user’s own profile. Again, this was just assembling what was there – it was an adjacent possible, so I took it. I could, if I had not been lazy, have generated a page displaying all of the evidence, but I did not (though I still might – it is an adjacent possible that might be worth exploring). And so, of course, now it is possible to award a badge to a user, rather than for a specific post which, though not normally a good idea from a motivation perspective, could have a range of uses, especially when assembled with the tabbed profile we built earlier (what I refer to in academic writings as a ‘context switcher’ and that can be used as a highly flexible portfolio system).

These are just a sample of many conversations I had with the tools and objects that were available to me. I influenced them, they influenced me. There were plenty of others – exaptions like my discovery that the design I had opted for, which made awards and badges separate objects, meant that I had a way of making awards persistent and not allowing badge owners to sneakily change them afterwards, for example, thus enhancing trust in the system. Or that the Elgg permissions model made it very simple to reliably assert ownership, which is very important if you are going to distribute accreditation over multiple sites and systems. Or that the fact that it turned out to be an incredibly complex task to make it all work in an Elgg Group context was a blessing because I therefore looked for alternatives, and found that the pre-requisite functionality does the job at least as well, and much more elegantly. Or that the Elgg views system made it possible to fairly easily create OpenBadge assertions for use on other sites. The list goes on. 

It was not all wonderful though. Sometimes the conversation got weird. My plan to start with an existing badge plugin quickly bit the dust. It turns out that the badge plugins that were available were both of the kind I hate – they awarded badges to individuals, not for specific competences. To add injury to injury, they could be awarded only by the administrator, either automatically through accrued points or manually. This was exactly the kind of power structure that I wanted to get away from. From an architectural perspective, making these flawed plugins work the way I wished would have been much harder than writing the plugin from scratch. However, in the spirit of tinkering, I didn’t start completely from scratch. I looked around for a plugin that would do some of the difficult stuff for me. After playing with a few, I opted standard Elgg Files plugin, because that ought to have made light work of storing and organizing the badge images. In retrospect, maybe not the best plan, but it was a starting point. After a while I realized I had deleted or not used 90% of the original plugin, which was more effort than it was worth. I also got stuck in a path dependency again, when I wanted to add multiple prerequisites (ie you could specify more than one badge as a prerequisite) : by that time, my ingenious single-prerequisite model was so firmly embedded that it would have taken more than a solid week to change it. I did not have the energy, or the time.  And, relatedly, my limited Elgg skills and lack of forward planning meant that I did not always divide the code into neatly reusable chunks. This still continues to cause me trouble as I try to make the OpenBadge feature work. Reflecting on such issues is useful – I now know that multiple inheritence makes sense for this kind of system, which would not have occurred to me if I hadn’t built a system with a single-prerequisite data model. And I have a better idea about what kind of modularity works best in an Elgg system.

Surfing the adjacent possible

Like all stories worthy of the name, my examples are highly selective and probably contain elements of fiction in some of the details of the process. Distance in time and space changes memories so I cannot promise that everything happened in the order and manner presented here – it  was certainly a lot more complicated, messy and detailed than I have described it to be. I think this fictionlizing is crucial, though. Objective reporting is exactly not what is needed in a bricolage process. It is the sense-making that matters, not religious adherence to standards of objectivity. What matters are the things we notice, the things we reflect on and things we consider to be important. Those are the discoveries. 

This is a brief and condensed set of ten of the main principles that I think matter in effective tinkering for research:

  1. do not design – just build
  2. start with pieces that are fully formed
  3. surround yourself with both quantity and diversity in tools, materials, methods, and perspectives
  4. dabble hard – gain skills, but be suspicious of expertise
  5. look for exaptations and surf the adjacent possible
  6. avoid schedules and goals, but make time and space for tinkering, and include time for daydreaming
  7. do not fear dismantling and starting afresh
  8. beware of teams, but cultivate networks: seek people, not processes
  9. talk with your creations and listen to what they have to say
  10. reflect, and tell stories about your reflections, especially to others

As I read these ideas it strikes me that this is the very antithesis of how research, at least in fields I work in, is normally done and that it would be extremely hard to get a grant for this. With a deliberate lack of process control, no clear budgets, no clear goals, this is not what grant awarders would normally relish. Whatever. It is still worth doing.

Tinkering as a research methodology offers a lot – it is a generative process of discovery that builds ideas and connections as much as it builds objects that are interesting or useful. It is far from being a random process but it is unpredictable. That is why it is interesting. I think that some aspects of it resemble systematic literature review: the discovery and selection of appropriate pieces to assemble, in particular, is something that can be systematized to some extent and, just as in a literature review, once you start with a few pieces, other pieces fall naturally into place. It is very closely related to design-based research and action research, with their formal cycles and iterative processes, although the iteration cycle in tinkering is far finer grained, it is not as rigid in its requirements, and it deliberately avoids the kind of abstractions that such methodologies thrive on. It might be a subspecies though. It definitely resembles and can benefit from soft systems methodologies, because it is the antithesis of hard systems design. Rich pictures have a useful role to play, in particular, though not at the early stages they are used in soft systems methods. And, unlike soft systems, the system isn’t the goal.

Finally, tinkering is not a solution to everything. It is a means of generating knowledge. On the whole, if the products are worthwhile, then they should probably feed into a better engineered system. Note, however, that this is not prototyping. Though products of tinkering may sometimes play the role of a prototype at a later stage in a product cycle, the point of the process is not to produce a working model of something yet to come. That would imply that we know what we are looking for and, to a large extent, how we will go about achieving it. The point is to make discoveries. 

This is not finished yet. It might just turn out to be a lazy way to do research or, perhaps, just another name for something that is already well pinned down. It certainly lacks rigour but, since the purpose is generative, I am not too concerned about that, as long as it works to produce new knowledge. I tinker on, still surfing the adjacent possible.

Komar and Melamid: Most Wanted and Least Wanted Paintings

I don’t know why it took me so long to find this, but I’m very glad I did. This is a wonderful art project dating back to the mid 90s in which Vitaly Komar and alex Melamid asked people about their aesthetic preferences and taste in painting in order to discover what ‘people’s art’ would look like, and then they painted it. They did this for several populations around the world. The paintings, at, are remarkable and fascinating, but they are not the art work here. The project challenges analytic approaches to design at a fundamental and quite unsettling level.

The lessons are important to any creative endeavour, including to big ones that matter to me personally and professionally like teaching and education, and computer system and interaction design. They matter every time we base our designs and creative activities on feedback, opinion polls, course evaluations, learning styles, analytics information and similar quantification or classification techniques. The problem is not in finding out such things – that is always interesting. The problem is interpreting and using them to drive design and method, without reflection or critique, especially when we lie to ourselves that our interpretation is therefore in some way objective. But the paintings articulate this and the complex loops of meaning that emerge far more clearly than words ever could. The words are good though, and are as much a part of the artwork as the paintings themselves. As Melamid puts it, provocatively:

It’s interesting: we believe in numbers, and numbers never lie. Numbers are innocent. It’s absolutely true data. It doesn’t say anything about personalities, but it says something more about ideals, and about how this world functions. That’s really the truth, as much as we can get to the truth. Truth is a number.”

Address of the bookmark:

Two conferences in two days

I’ve just got back from a flying visit to the UK. The first thing I saw on arriving at the new and not at all unpleasant Heathrow Terminal 2 was Stephen Downes. Small world. We were getting luggage from different areas and lost each other in the rush to get to different places, but it was nice to see him, however briefly.

The main reasons I was in the UK were two conferences, The First European Conference on Social Media and the umpteenth Learning & Teaching Conference at the University of Brighton.  Sadly, they overlapped, which meant I only got to attend a day of each, but I managed to give two quite different sessions at both conferences. The first, at ECSM, was a traditional slide-based presentation about the Landing, why and how we built it, and what we might do differently if we started again. As an experiment, rather than my usual handful of images that sit behind most of my presentations, I threw nearly 50 slides (some with multiple build stages) at the stunned audience in 20 minutes. Quite fun. The second, at the L&T conference, was a much more discursive hour-long session  that questioned the fundamental notion of courses, which involved a few thought experiments and a lot of conversation among a very engaged crowd. 

ECSM was a very well-organized affair (disclaimer – the chairs were my friends Sue Greener and Asher Rospigliosi) which provided what I have hoped to see in a social media for some years but have previously been disappointed: diversity. When I put together my first social computing course a few years ago I tried to offer much the same kind of range as this conference provided, but have since been a bit worried that I was defining a discipline too early in its lifecycle. This is because most social media/social computing conferences I have been involved with over the past few years have fallen heavily into computer algorithm territory, which my course touches on but doesn’t make a central focus. I have sometimes thought that they would be better named as social network analysis conferences, as variations on that theme have totally dominated the proceedings. I have come across some social media conferences that drift entirely the other way, looking at social and sociological consequences, and a few that focus on a single subject area or context (education and/or learning being the ones that usually interest me most). In contrast, ECSM was delightfully broad, with offerings across the spectrum, with coverage that I feel vindicates my choice of subject matter and approach for a social computing course. It included a lot of papers related to business, politics, media, education and other general areas, and a wide range of research attitudes and methods from the highly algorithmic to the softest and fuzziest of media analyses and critical inquiries. There were plenty of case studies from lots of contexts and demonstrations or reports on plentiful interesting systems. I think this is a sign of a maturing area of study. Though they were not keynoting, I was impressed that the conference attracted the marvellous guru couple of Jenny Preece and Ben Schneiderman. My favourite discovery of the day was that Dutch police have a room in Habbohotel. At the conference dinner I sat next to John Traxler, who was doing the next day’s keynote (that I would miss). He continues to impress me as a creative and incisive thinker. We spoke more about beer, Brighton and music than mobile and social media, but it was fun.

I was not expecting as much out of the parochial Learning & Teaching conference the next day, but I was wrong. The first keynote by Sue Clegg on the arguable failure of widening participation was thought provoking and went down well. Though provocative, it was a bit dry for my taste – I’m not a fan of presentations read from sheets of notes. I’d rather read the notes and have a conversation. Its focus was also very UK-centric, which should have been interesting but I did not have sufficient background knowledge of the events and acronyms to which she referred. She also seemed unusually approving of higher education access rates in the US, ranking it highest in the world, which was more than a bit of a surprise to me: I guess it depends how you measure such things, but the OECD ranks the US well below Korea, Japan, Canada (we’re third!) and several European countries, including the UK, when it comes to higher education participation. None-the-less, her talk was mostly tightly argued and backed up by plentiful research. I had planned to leave and return to ECSM after my session, which followed Sue Clegg’s talk, but I was enjoying meeting old friends and sufficiently intrigued by later sessions to stay on. I am glad that I did, not just because it gave me a chance to catch up with old friends and colleagues.

The first presentation I saw was about use of the e-portfolio system Mahara for professional and personal development. The University of Brighton has a mature and well-implemented Mahara instance that is used for a great many things, from personal publication to coursework to CV writing. I was a bit sad to see that, in combination with a WordPress instance and a SharePoint system used by staff, it had pretty much replaced the innovative Elgg system, community@brighton, that was part of the inspiration for the Landing and that largely surpassed all three put together in functionality. After 8 or 9 years, the last few of those in a state of slow and painful decline, community@brighton is about to be decommissioned. Community@brighton was a little ahead of its time; it suffered greatly in an upgrade process after its first successful couple of years that resulted in the loss of a great deal of the network and communities that had thrived beforehand, and it never fully recovered the trust of its users; it was insufficiently diverse in its primary uses, being quite focused on teaching and, in its latter years, finding shared local accommodation; and it was not helped that its introduction coincided with the massive rise of Facebook (before most people realised how evil that site was). But it was a great system that was (and even as it nears exinction, possibly still is) the world’s largest social media site in an HE institution and a lot of innovative work was done on and through it.

I was interested to learn that the University of Brighton has outsourced its Mahara, Blackboard and some other systems to the cloud. Mahara runs on Amazon’s Cloud service and is managed by Catalyst IT, ( the company behind Mahara, all for around £12,000 (roughly $CAD20,000) per year, plus fairly minimal cloud charges. This seems pretty good value to me – very hard for an internal IS team to compete with that. Similarly, though Blackboard is the work of the devil and the costs are astronomical, moving away from Blackboard would be very difficult for the University of Brighton. This is thanks to the massive investment in materials and training already sunk into it, combined with Blackboard’s strenuous efforts to encourage that dependency and notoriously bad tools for getting data out. Bearing that in mind, it makes sense for the University to move to a hosted solution, especially given the terrible performance, countless bugs, regular and irregular downtime, and the large amount of effort needed to keep it running and to answer technical problems. At least it should now perform reasonably, get timely updates, rarely go down and just work, most of the time. On a cautionary note I was, however, intrigued to learn that the university’s outsourcing of student email (to Microsoft’s Irish branch – Google was rejected due to lack of adherence to European data protection laws) had met with an unfortunate disaster, inasmuch as Microsoft changed the terms and conditions that had formerly meant students would have an email address for life, to a much more limited term. Outsourcing is fine when it works, but it always depends on another company with very different goals than one’s own. I normally prefer to keep things in-house, despite the cost. It means that you retain control of the data no matter what and, just as importantly, the knowledge to use it.

After a very fine lunch, I attended a double-length session reporting on the University of Brighton’s findings and work resulting from the very large Higher Education Academy ‘What Works’ research initiative. ‘What Works’ was focused on improving retention rates, seeking reasons for students giving up on courses and programs, and seeking ways to help them succeed. Brighton was one of the 22 institutions involved in the £1M study. A large team from Brighton gave a very lively and highly informative sequence of presentations on the background, the research and the various interventions that had been attempted following the study, not all with equal success, but all of them interesting. The huge take-home for me was the crucial importance of a culture of belonging. This was singled out in the HEA research that fed into this as the most significant factor in determining whether or not a student continues. Other factors are closely related to this – supportive peers, meaningful interactions, developing knowledge and confidence, and relevance to future goals, and all contribute to belongingness. There are also other factors like perseverence, engagement and internalization that play a role. It is intriguing to me that the research into this started with something of a blank slate, and did not draw significantly on the extensive literature on motivation outside of an educational setting. If it had done, they would probably have identified control as a major factor too although, given the context (traditional educational systems are not great for giving students control, especially to those in their early months of study), it is not surprising that it was missed. In recent years I have typically followed self-determination theory‘s vocabulary of ‘relatedness’ for this aspect of motivation, but ‘belonging’ is a far better word that captures a lot of what is distinctive about the nature and value of traditional academic communities and practices. Significantly for me, that is something which we at Athabasca University tend not to do so well. With self-paced courses, a large number of visiting students and relatively limited communication tools (apart from the Landing, of course!) it is very hard for us to build that sense of belonging. When tutoring works well, it goes quite a long way to achieving it and occasionally a bit of community develops via Moodle discussions but, apart from the Landing, we do nothing much to support a wider sense of belonging. At least, not in undergraduate programs. I think we tend to do it fairly well in graduate programs, where it is easier to build more personal relationships, peer support and cohorts into the system. I intend to follow this up and explore more of the background research that led to the HEA team’s conclusions. 

The afternoon ended with Pimms, but not before a closing keynote by Norman Jackson on life-wide (as distinct from life-long) learning. I found the notion of lifewide learning pleasing, concentrating on a person’s whole learning life, of which intentional academic behaviour is just a small part. The idea is related to the notion of learning trajectories as posited by Michael Eraut, with whom Jackson has worked. There was lots to like in his talk, and it drew attention away from the very course-centric view that underpins much university thinking, and that I had criticized in my own session. He had lots of nice examples based on studies and interviews with students, none of whom simply followed a ‘course’, though perhaps the examples were a little too glibly chosen – this was appreciative enquiry. He also placed a great onus on his version of ‘learning ecologies’ to describe the lifewide process. His definition of a learning ecology differs considerably from mine, and others who have used the term. As far as I could tell, the focus was very much on an individual, and his definition of a ‘learning ecology’ related to the various things that individuals do to support their learning. This is not a very rich ecology! I think that simply means that we tend to do a lot of things when learning that affect our learning in other things, all in a richly connected self-nourishing fashion. While he did, when questioned, agree that there was much richness to be gained from ‘overlapping’ ecologies and learning with and from others, I don’t think he sees the overlap as anything more than that. For me and, I think, most others who have used the term, a learning ecology has emergent patterns and behaviours that are quite different from its parts, full of rich self-organization, and it is crucial to negotiating meaning and creating knowledge in a social context. In a learning ecology, everyone’s learning affects everyone else’s, with positive and negative feedback loops creating knowledge that goes far beyond what any individual could develop alone. 

I am back in Canada now and trying to catch up with the load of things that two conferences inevitably delayed. I usually reckon that a conference takes up at least three times the time taken by the conference travel itself – preparation and recovery time are always a significant factor. In fact, it should take longer to recover because it would be great to reflect further to help consolidate and connect the learning that inevitably happens during the intensive sessions and conversations that characterize conferences: too many learning opportunities are lost when we rush back into a pile of over-delayed work after such things. At the very least, posts like this are a necessity to help make sense of it all, not an optional extra, but there is a lot more that I would like to follow up on if I had the time. It is also a pity because the weather in Vancouver is stunning (maybe too hot and dry) and I have a newly purchased but very old boat floating outside that keeps calling me.