Monday, 14 July 2014

Stephen Downes on the Personal Learning Environment at the LSE

There's an irony in Stephen Downes giving a talk on the "Personal Learning Environment" - that discourse about shifting the locus of control of learning and technology from institutions to the individual - at one of the great institutions of the social sciences (from whom control might be wrested) - see But the LSE is prestigious, and association with it (particularly a keynote) tends to impress most people. Perhaps we all crave this kind of opportunity - but it's a curious symptom of the tug-of-war between technology and institutions that the advocates of technology find a platform to spread their message and enhance their personal reputations from the institution! Somehow, YouTube and Twitter isn't enough; but the LSE will do nicely (although the  Oxford Union would be better!) Something in me really finds the whole thing a bit distasteful...

I should say that Downes was quite supportive of our PLE work in Bolton. He even came to a special 'experts day' which we organised as part of the JISC PLE project in 2006 (see and At that time (which is 8 years ago now!!), the PLE was the next "big thing" in e-learning. Social software was only just beginning to happen, driven by the technologies of XML webservices (consequently, the interoperability issue was also very important). But it's interesting that it's still around: I'm currently in Tallinn about to give a paper (see at the PLE conference ( My paper frames the questions I would now ask Downes about the PLE (since he too hasn't given up on it - perhaps because his thinking about MOOCs owes a lot to it).

At a fundamental educational level, the PLE didn't work. We thought that technology would challenge institutional hegemony. It hasn't. We thought that learners would prefer to use their own tools for learning. Mostly, they didn't. Institutions seem more powerful than ever- even the weaker ones are getting stronger. Which is OK if you work for one (actually it might not be because of the way they are managed and the technologies available to managers for making bad decisions) In another way, I think many of the arguments about personal technological organisation that we put forward in the JISC PLE project have proved to be correct. Our proof-of-concept environment, PLEX, bears strong similarities to the App-store driven approaches of Apple and Google: a simple set of 'technical dispositions' to connect and integrate a vast range of services (perhaps the integration isn't what it could be, although most mobile providers aggregate messaging from different service providers, for example).

What was wrong? My paper lays the blame on our approach to "learning". The PLE, in our conception, was a technological reification of an idea of learning. Our reification saw learning linked to personal organisation of technology, which was articulated through the cybernetic modelling of the Viable System Model. Downes continues to pursue his own reification of learning: connectivism, about which I have written here ( In each case, the thing that goes on in each of our heads is presented as a diagram with boxes and lines - in other words, an object. Having made the diagram, someone goes off and makes some technology where the boxes and lines become processes, roles and communications. Of course, stuff still goes on in our heads. And it goes on in our heads in response to the diagrams with lines and boxes, and in response to the software with people and roles. And always the stuff going on in our heads is disjointed from the abstract representations of what somebody thinks is going on.

Technological reifications of "idealised learning" are quite common, and becoming increasingly common in education: we should be worried about this. Constructivism has been the principal culprit, as has the cybernetic modelling techniques which are associated with it. Yet, for all the cleverness of the Pasks, Von Glasersfelds, Piagets, Deweys, etc, the truth is, WE CAN'T SEE LEARNING. Yet, this metaphysical idea has implanted itself deep within the education system: what happens in education is that 'students learn'. Moreover, learning can be measured: most perniciously by meeting (?) 'learning outcomes' (what are they, exactly?). The whole thing is tied together with the institutional need to demonstrate 'quality', such that the place of 'measurable learning' in the institutional edifice is reinforced. But this is not unassailable: educational attitudes will change significantly in the coming years.

Downes is stuck because he's obsessed with learning. Yet, all around him he's confronted by evidence that his learning theories cannot be right (MOOCs). Indeed, lurking at the back of his mind might be the thought "can any learning theory be right?" That's a scary thought - because the answer is no, and the reason is to do with "theory" in the first place.

Bateson argued that science progresses in a pincer-movement. On the one hand, there is abstraction, and on the other, there is experiment. Another way of putting it is that on the one hand there is logic, and on the other experience: analytic and synthetic judgements, a prioi and a posteriori (given that a posteriori analytic judgement is a contradiction). Educational research tends to be a half-arsed pincer: the theory part stays put, and only the practical part moves (do it again, but this time try harder!). The deep problem we have is that we are not able to inspect the logic of our theories and to compare the logic of theory with the results of practice. There is no connection between theory and practice, and no way identifying how a theory might need to be adapted. The only way this can happen is through identifying regularities in practice and then seeking to explain them through theory. Since it appears there are limited regularities in education research (and even those are artificially created by statistics), opportunities for concrete explanation-building are rare. Downes and Siemens at least recognise the problem: they put their faith in 'learning analytics' as their empirical exercise. But learning analytics is no more an empirical exercise than theorising about learning (it's a different level of reification of learning): analytics provides fewer regularities to be explained than good old-fashioned statistics!

But there are regularities in education (not learning). There are textbooks, and classrooms, and teachers, and learners, and timetables, and institutions, and quality regimes, and Vice Chancellors (God Bless 'em!). And among the structures and communications produced by all of these people, there are regularities of role, commitment, obligations, positions, rights, responsibilities, etc. These regularities have a logical structure as well as empirical content. For example, the logic of a commitment from A to B infers that there is a C that can see the relationship (and make a statement about it)
What about C? Who's looking at them? And on it goes. A logical structure emerges quite easily with regard to the relations between people. What about the empirical side of things? To start with, there are the actual declarations between individual stakeholders; there are the objects that each individual engages with (textbooks, VLEs, etc), there are the relations between objects and people; there are the outcomes of peoples' engagement with objects and people (i.e. walking away from a MOOC, or using a PLE).

What's interesting is when the relation between A and B is where A awards B a grade in exchange for B honouring their commitments and responsibilities within the institutional assessment framework. Is that learning? Is it saying something about what's gone on in B's head? I don't think so. It's simply describing the systemic thing that institutions and teachers do to students, and the things that students have to do in order to win them.

Now we could draw a diagram of the commitments and obligations met between Stephen Downes and the LSE. What would that diagram represent?


Tom said...

Seems to be my day for commenting on your posts. Always something interesting and thought provoking in them.

I want to push one of your ideas further. You ask (and answer) '"can any learning theory be right?" That's a scary thought - because the answer is no'.

I don't want to pursue the any theory is contingent argument (which applies to the physical sciences). Instead I want to suggest the equally obvious that any theory in the social sciences is embedded in the political (not to suggest this isn't true of the physical sciences, but it is less direct and more amenable to challenge). The result is that data is interpreted in the light of the metaphysical position as much as the theory.

There is a second issue, that social theories tend to be partial and this is certainly true of learning theories. The theory encompasses an element of truth and can explain much of what happens with learning, but neither addresses all learning contexts nor does it predict when it will be the most appropriate theory to use.

To make this more concrete. Drill and test is (almost certainly) the most effective method of learning for some things (what to do in an emergency, learning to drive) whilst it would be hopeless for learning philosophy or how to teach. While there is some loose correlation between Bloom's taxonomy and appropriate learning methods it is probably too loose to be anything more than slightly indicative.

From this I take the idea not that learning theories are right or wrong (though some may be wrong I guess), but that they are useful in helping to understand how learning occurs and what can be used to support the learner to learn. To use a single theory would be foolish and limited; to use them all probably a quick root to insanity. But, to use a selection as a way of thinking about teaching and learning is clearly very powerful.

In short. It is not whether a theory is "right" or not, but whether it is useful that matters.

Stephen Downes said...

An interesting point about which there is a great deal to comment (including for example the supposed "evidence that [my] learning theories cannot be right (MOOCs)" which I can address later.

For now, to address the deep mystery about LSE: I was originally asked to speak at the 12th Academic Practice and Technology Conferece (entited Connected Learning in an Open World) at the University of Greenwich.

The timing was good so I accepted the invitation. I was later asked if I would be willing to help the organizers defray costs by doing a couple of other talks, one at LSE and the other at a second conference (ePIC) at the University of Greenwich. I said "sure, why not?"

There was no contract, beyond an email statement to the effect that "if you come we'll pay your expenses," which is my usual arrangement.

While I was in London I had the opportunity to meet with deputy Vice Chancellors with both universities, which was nice, and for my own part got some insight about the thinking (and ways of thinking) of people at these universities. You would have to ask them what they got from me; I was just my usual talkative and helpful self.

I don't see any irony in talking to the people at these institutions. They clearly feel at some level that their institutions are unassailable, and I felt I was providing a service in pointing out that they're not. I also took the liberty to talk about how institutions can support, rather than undermine, personal autonomy and empowerment.

And - no, YouTube and Twitter aren't enough. Goodness no, not even close. That's why I run my own website, have an RSS feed, an email newsletter, and all the rest of it. And those aren't enough either. A big part of my research involves engaging directly with the people impacted by that work. You can spot a 'Facebook and Twitter' researcher a mile away.

I think it was time well spent.

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Stephen - thanks for the comment. I found it interesting to see my web stats go crazy after you posted it! (@dkernohan also good for stats, but not that good!)

The issue about learning theory is a longer discussion. However, my position with regard to that and with regard to the LSE thing is that we have to get realistic about 'status'.

I don't think we can avoid status as an issue in education. Veblen may be right in saying education was "a very attractive and effective element for the purpose of impressing, or even imposing upon, the unlearned; and the standing of the savant in the mind of the altogether unlettered is in great measure rated in terms of intimacy with the occult forces" In other words, it's basically archaic. The web, I suspect, is no different, and we'd be silly to pretend that it wasn't.

So is a gig at the LSE a sign of "intimacy with occult forces"? What about a blog comment from Downes? What about a viral video on YouTube? Or a cool library on GitHub?

I'm keen to know how this works because it seems quite concrete - as opposed to the 'learning' discourse: does that really do anybody any good apart from those who promote it?

It's in this 'status trap' that we are all caught in, and where we see the real problems with social mobility and access. I think we should aim to understand this better if we are serious about taking on those problems.

I would have much preferred it if you had given your talk at the University of Bolton ;-)

Stephen Downes said...

Hiya Mark,

As I suggested in my tweet, the very practical and pedestrian reason I spoke at LSE and not Bolton was that they invited me and you didn't. This is literally true. If it were the case that multiple invitations fill my mail box every day and I pick and choose only those that seem appealing, you might have a point. But depending on schedule, I do no more than one or two visits a month, up to ten a year, I ask for expenses but nothing else, and it's first-come first serve. That's as non-status an approach as you can take (and if I could afford to pay my own expenses I would, but I have nothing near the sort of income I'd need to do that).

It's a good system. I'm not blocking opportunities for other people, but I'm available basically to everyone who wants me. I've been to very high-status places over the years (but never Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Stanford, Yale or Leeds) and to some very low-status places. I don't change my message for people, I have things I want to say and want to do, and I pursue these without regard to status or even, frankly, reach. But change isn't a mass phenomenon, despite the efforts of government and mass media to convince us otherwise.


We can have the discussion about learning at some point if you want, but I'm not sure it will be rewarding. I think there is a good deal of projection in your understanding of my thinking and approach (for example: "Downes continues to pursue his own reification of learning") which misunderstands my position. And I would take you to task for some very unclear expression (example: "But there are regularities..." - the use of 'regularities appears to be equivocal, and I'm not sure whether the sense of 'are' is ostensive or existential).


Part of this is my own fault. I need to take the time to create clear statements of the positions I hold. But these objectives are confounded by the very pedestrian objectives of earning a living and not being invited to Bolton.


p.p.s I really hate capchas - my eyes are such that I can hardly read them.

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Stephen,

Status isn't really about money. It's about reputation: the approving declarations made by others about us. I think it's very closely-related to certification.

The regularities of education I refer to are those things whose status is clearly agreed: textbooks, timetables, curricula, etc. I don't think this is equivocal - indeed that's the point: it's obvious. For most of us, these entities of education are (at the very least) ostensively defined.

I applaud and appreciate your generosity in you giving your time and efforts. Yet all of us gain status in the things that we do irrespective of whether we get paid for them. Indeed, not getting paid can increase our status. 'Giving' is a sovereign act of the individual.

The question is how do we support those without the means or privilege to increase their status? How do we support them through accessing new opportunities to uphold new responsibilities, commitments and rights? Can this be done online?

I think this is a very important question if we are to take social mobility seriously. Maybe we should organise a new 'experts day' at @boltonuni (or maybe @tallinnuniv) as we did for the PLE ;-) - was talking to @GrahamAttwell and @sebfiedler about this last week... they're keen.

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Tom,

I'm reminded of Bateson who said that to have no theory was a bad theory!

I think the issue with theory is causation. Physical theories and social theories attempt to articulate physical and social causes. Many physical causes (e.g. Gravity) appear 'stable' irrespective of the observer; social causes exist through the agency of all of us including observers. That's not to exclude the social process of constructing theory in the physical sciences, but there is a distinction to be made between the two.

I only learnt recently that Comte's preferred name for his 'sociologie' was 'social physics'. That tells us something about the ambition of early sociology to empirically identify causes! The foundation for the approach was the regularity theory of Hume. Basically, "physical science constructs causes on the basis of regularity; sociology must study social regularity" Enter "statistical correlation" and Bob's your uncle!

There's been plenty of criticism of Hume (not least from Critical Realists who I have a lot of time for) but his position is quite nuanced and subtle (he's not quite the sceptic everyone takes him for).

I think regularity is an important starting point for theory. Most learning theory is established in the absence of regularities (or as economist Tony Lawson calls them, demi-regularities), or in the absence of even looking for them. I think this is scientifically inexcusable - but that's not to say its at all easy to think what we might be looking for.

Having said that, the efficacy of "drill and kill" in certain circumstances is not a bad starting point!

Tom said...

Hi Mark,

I wan't arguing against theory, but pushing further your idea that no learning theory can be "right", which I agree with.

I think that many of the learning theories do start from patterns (is this the same as your regularities?). To take an easy one, Piaget proposed a series of stages of development that he argued are always pursued in the same order, and hence determine what and how children can learn. There are similar patterns underneath many (most? all?) learning theories I think, though I can't say that I have checked them all out.

For me a major problem with all the competing learning theories is that they don't really compete as they are incommensurate. They are offering explanations of different things, different parts of the learning process, different ideas about development, ideas around social or individual learning etc etc.

If they really competed then one would be able to posit things that would be explained by one theory, but not by another. But what one finds is that (almost) any behaviour is shoehorned somehow into the theory.

For me, most learning theories are at least as much political statements as they are theories of learning. While they purport to be objective, external theories they so much encapsulate a political position that they have to be treated with extreme caution.

Oh, and hopefully using drill and test in safety training is the exact opposite of drill and kill. But perhaps whales use drill and krill?