Learners as chance-seekers

I have recently completed the draft of a paper, which will be published (in English) in a collection, whose title is: Digitalität und Selbst – Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven auf Subjektivierungs- und Bildungsprozesse.

The article is theoretical and it is an attempt to make explicit the connections between learning and chance-seeking.

Here is the PDF of the draft.

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Tinkering, subversiveness and conviviality

During the last EARLI conference here in Tartu Heidrun Allert and Christoph Richter had an interesting presentation in which they claimed that tinkering is subversive. Or, better, it is potentially so. I agreed wholeheartedly. The idea is that a piece of technology (a smartphone) or a service (Instagram or Facebook) comes, say, “in a package”. And users are not supposed to “unpack” it. I remember when I bought my second Mac and to my surprise the new design did not allow the owner to replace the battery. The iPhone itself was “locked”, but skilful users managed to unlock it and spread the word on the net.

Recently, I have bumped into an interesting example of tinkering, in which its subversiveness is quite on display. Instagram has a quite strict policy when it comes to  sexual content pictures. So, for example, pictures exposing nipples or bare breast are banned. The same for the male naked body and all the rest of it. Yet for many Instagram is a tool of full personal expression and its policy may limit users’ freedom to use it. Interestingly, this is partly true. Indeed, some simply put a little sticker on their nipples or crotch. In some other cases I saw that some women have erased their nipples and that made them look like a doll – de-sexualized. However, this limitation can be turn into something to tinker with. Instagram user louielewisss provides an interesting illustration of tinkering with censorship: https://www.instagram.com/louielewisss/

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What I would like to draw the attention to is that tinkering exploits the same very constraints that are operating, but at the same time via tinkering we potentially creates something different. So, to simplify, there is no need to put sticker (which would make one’s attempt to be erotically artistic an epic fail). But one can play hide and seek in ways that only one’s imagination can really know. This is also capture by the proverb: necessity is the mother of invention. Necessity is in this case the set of  constraints that are forced upon us, which, however, become the sort of trigger for invention.

Subversiveness can also be played out in a different way. And here comes my second example.

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I have a facebook friend who always posts incredibly suggestive photos that she herself takes. I sometimes comment, but sometimes I feel that my words are powerless to communicate my feeling of awe. I am also a bit tired of this “Like” culture that Facebook has contributed to spread. A Like is now an utterance that means anything and nothing. In addition to that, Likes have become for Facebook a powerful weapon to allegedly know what we want and therefore the kind of post to display in our feeds. But to come back to my friend’s post, on that occasion I decided to try to use a picture to express and so communicate my feeling (see the picture right here). And I picked one from a film. I did this pretty much by chance. I actually stumbled upon it using the image search. But I realized retrospectively that that is not a bad way. Who better than an actor can express sentiments and feelings?

Indeed, I was tinkering. Facebook Like does not provide me with an opportunity for full expression. But I can tinker. Accidentally, it turns out that this way it’s much harder for Facebook algorithms to “guess” what I am doing – whether I liked that picture or not. And it feels much more human, because the other person can have a better hint as to what her picture made me feel and experience (a hint, indeed!). Here again, tinkering is subversive.

There is now a last thing to add, which is not about subversiveness but conviviality. I refer here to Ivan Illich and its specific interpretation of the concept. Illich wrote in his Tools for conviviality:

I choose the term conviviality to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I indent it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment.

This is something I see implicit in the notion of tinkering. That is, tinkering is an attempt – either tacit or not – to turn a tool into a convivial tool. That, tinkering can be viewed as an activity in which we use our tool so as to to create zones of conviviality. More thoughts will come.

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Tinkering and affordance

In a previous post I  quoted Zhen Li, who wrote:

there is a risk of conflating flexibility of the technological artefact and interpretive flexibility of agents. If the structural properties of technologies are dependent on current agents’ practice and are thus inherently open to transformation, actors would generically enjoy a very high degree of freedom – ‘at any time they could have acted otherwise, intervening for change or for maintenance’ (Archer 2010)

This is a very important point to discuss when it comes to tinkering. But there is a kind of middle term here that we should bring out, which is the mysterious notion of affordance.

Affordance is a neologism coined by American ecological psychologist James Gibson back in the 60s. The term – originally introduced as a pillar of an ecological theory on visual perception – got picked up by Donald Norman in the 80s who tried (unsuccessfully) to use it to help designers create “better interfaces”.

What an affordance is – that nobody knows. I myself have tried to do my bit, but I did not really make any significant step to mention. Why is it so? My take is that affordance is fundamentally resorting to a set of metaphysical assumptions – let’s call them this way, which are not indeed dominant in the Western mind-set. Affordance, in other words, could be a notion found in some kind of Taoist treatise. You may get an hint from this:

What the idea of affordance implies is a radical re-description of the way in which we engage the environment and the resources in it. What is still the prevalent way of describing our engagements with the environment is, broadly speaking, a computational view based on information processing. So, basically, what it says is that we get the data from the environment through our sensory peripheries (our senses). All these bits and pieces get processed in our “mind” according to certain laws. So, what is cognitive is the kind of information processing that takes place in the mind, which is a sort of monad removed from the environment. Gibson challenged that (well..not exactly that, yet…) saying that perception is in fact much closer to action so that, to make a rather trivial example, when we see a chair, we see a chair (four legs, etc.) and sitting. That is, what we can actually do with it. Sitting, he argues, is directly perceived. There is no internal information processing that would lead us to that. Sitting constitutes an affordance.

Now, this is exactly the problem, because then we would be  tempted to say that an affordance is a function(ality) that an object has. Or we can go to the other extreme saying that an affordance depends exclusively on the way in which we interpret an object. Interestingly, we find exactly the same kind of dualism in educational technology. That is what Zhen Li pointed to. There is, though, another way to look at this and it is connected to tinkering.

Tinkering is the kind of activity in which our means-to-an-end type of thinking collapses. So, when we tinker, we are basically “groping around” as to what to do and how to do it – means and end. So, there is a sort of endless  and highly dynamic negotiation between what we can actually do given the resources that we have and what is somehow desirable (or what we can actually see as desirable in the amidst of a chaotic situation). And this is precisely where the notion of affordance comes into play. Affordance can be viewed as the actual result of this sort of negotiation. (Ok, negotiation is not the right word.)

So, if we go back to Zhen Li’s warning of not conflating flexibility of the technological artefact and interpretive flexibility of agents, we see that when tinkering this is exactly what we don’t do. We may say that these are the two polarities through which tinkering becomes possible. That is, they create a sort of “trading zone”, which is what enables tinkering.

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“Just look at our tools!” (Or let’s just thinker!)

I was in Inverness (Scotland) for a symposium devoted to “the porous university”. The format of the symposium was quite interesting. We did not have the usual 20 something minute presentation plus questions and answers, but up to 10 minutes to deliver what the organizers called “a provocation”. A parallel session was then composed of 2-3 provocations followed by a discussion in which the attendees discussed in small groups. After that, each group let a member present the results of the discussion holding up a flipchart paper where they had jotted down their ideas and points on the go.

On day 2, when the groups of the parallel sessions got together to share the results of the different group discussions, one of the colleagues showed a clip, instead of the flipchart paper (see the video below). Specifically, what he did was to take his smart phone and go through one by one all the different points that had previously emerged during the discussion and chaotically annotated on the paper. As he was drawing attention to particular portions of the paper, the whole thing appeared way less messy and chaotic than the almost incomprehensible scribbles on the flipchart paper that only the presenter could really decipher and thus make use of (which is what usually happens with powerpoint slides, by the way: a tool supposed to be interactive and create a space of shared attention is actually helping one single person, namely, the presenter). The suggestion to make a video actually came from Mark Johnson who describes the whole thing in a blog post, in which he invites us to “just look at our tools”.

Should we just look at our tools? Yes and this has something important to do with tinkering in educational technology, which is a topic that I have recently started to explore in this blog, and that will be the central topic of one of my courses here in Tartu.

In my opinion educational technology (as well as technology as such) can be viewed either technocratically or convivially. I would regard them as two polarities, which refer, in turn, to two different ways of looking at a deliberative process. Let me make an example. Suppose that I am a teacher and I have some material that I want to share with the students. I am using Dropbox and so I decide to upload the files to Dropbox and share them. In this case, the interaction with technology is pretty straight-forward. It is a means to an end. Now, consider a second case. Let’s say that I could use Dropbox. Why not? But suppose that I find this a bit boring – you know, uploading PDFs to a shared folder. Indeed, it’s good: students will have access to the files (provided that there are no copyrights issues!). However, I can start playing a bit and tinker. I can, for example, start using twitter. A short comment per each paper. Oh! I can use a hash-tag to render all my twits easily accessible. I keep brainstorming. I can indeed use my blog. In that case I can write a blog post and give a bit more context to the various links (I am already tinkering!). Or I can sit at my desk, lay down the 4 papers on it and make a short clip in which I comment them one by one. Maybe I can embed the clip into the blog post (I continue tinkering!!!) adding the PDFs and a few quotes that I consider meaningful. I can go on but I stop here. Hopefully, you get my point.

In this latter case, technology has a different role that is not exclusively instrumental. Indeed, technology remains an instrument – something that allows me to do something (I make a video with my camera!).  But all these interactions that follow one another form a sort of sketch board for discovering, finding, exploring, trying out different possibilities as they emerge. They also help me think and ponder. And, interestingly enough, they allow me to interpret and re-interpret the kind of things I want and/or can do with students.

The example that I mentioned above share some crucial similarities with this that I have just made. To me both are cases of convivial use of technology. By that I mean that we start using the things around us to create something to share with others rather than simply accomplish something specific decided in advance for which the piece of technology is a mere “means to an end”. The single piece of technology ceases to have a specific function. It is kind of “opened-up”. Indeed, constraints are still there. I can’t make a video, if I don’t have a camera. Yet we start tinkering, which means in this context, exploiting latent opportunities on the go – affordances.

Convivial use and the exploitation of latent opportunities (affordances) has something in common with art. Not that we necessarily express something artistic, something aesthetically pleasant. Art people don’t optimize. They create with whatever they find suitable for the expression and presentation of something that is hidden. And that’s what we may look at.

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First thoughts on tinkering and its assumptions in educational technology

From next August on we will have here at the Uni. of Tartu a brand new master’s programme in Educational technology. The master will be partly on-line and I will be teaching two elective courses. The topics for the two courses are respectively responsible innovation and creative- re-use in educational technology. The latter will be centered on tinkering – a topic that is dear to me and about which I have written quite a bit on this blog (see the tag cloud).

In preparation for the two courses, I have started to do a bit of thinking as to the general approach that is implicit in the idea of tinkering applied to educational technology.

Now, tinkering is a queer thing. One way in which I wanted to introduce it is to focus on the fact that we all tinker. And the reason is that the relationship that we establish with objects and tools is never the one that is envisaged by those who designed them. Tinkering is in a way the appropriating process. So, in this regard, tinkering rejects the essentialist approach to educational technology (see Hamilton and Friesen and their paper on online education published in 2013). We can have abstract pedagogical principles built into a tool in the form of certain functionalities. But that is just “on paper”, because there is no such a thing like functionalities prior to any actual use. Or, to put it differently, with the actual use of a tool comes tinkering and tinkering is always a bit subversive for reasons that I will explain some other time.

However, there is a catch here. And this is where tinkering becomes a bit more controversial that it already is. I quote here Zhen Li who wrote recently:

there is a risk of conflating flexibility of the technological artefact and interpretive flexibility of agents. If the structural properties of technologies are dependent on current agents’ practice and are thus inherently open to transformation, actors would generically enjoy a very high degree of freedom – ‘at any time they could have acted otherwise, intervening for change or for maintenance’ (Archer 2010)

Is tinkering about the flexibility of the technological artifact? Or the interpretive flexibility of agents?

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Serendipity and abduction

Next August I will be participating as a speaker in panel on serendipity during the world humanities conference in Liegi.

The title of my talk is: Inquiry, chance events, and abduction.

I have extensively talked about serendipity on this blog and its relations with chance-seeking. In my presentation I will try to connect it to abduction.

Here comes the short abstract:

While models of inquiry – inspired by the work of Peirce on abduction – have stressed that inquiries are initiated by a surprising fact, very little attention has been devoted to how chance events can be integrated in the creation or selection of a hypothesis. I will argue that chance events initiate and punctuate the search for what is known as the major premise in the abductive syllogism. This will help me introduce the idea that sagacity can be viewed as an abductive “skill” enabling the inquirer to handle the chance elements in connection with the more deliberative ones.

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Porous inquiries

In a week or so, I will be attending a two-day symposium hosted by the University of the Highlands and Islands in Inverness, Scotland. The topic of the symposium will be the nature of openness within Higher Education – what the organizers termed “The porous university”.

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The symposium will be based on “provocations” – an interesting format for an academic conference. My colleague Maarja Taaler and I will have our own provocation on the “porosity” of inquiry. Whatever this may actually mean, here is our abstract:

While it is usually connected to widening participation, openness can also be interpreted as the very core element constituting inquiry as a mode of engagement in and with the world. Our provocation focuses on inquiry as openness in university.

Our starting point is an experience matured in schools as ethnographers in a European project called “Ark of Inquiry” focussing on inquiry learning. In this project we had a chance to observe how inquiries were conducted in several Estonian schools. Interestingly, the single cases observed varied along a continuum that went from a highly scripted format to a more open one. On the one extreme, students were reduced to mere executors of a recipe-type of activity. The teacher stepped out of the process making sure that all the steps were properly followed. On the other, students were given the chance to make several key decisions during the inquiry, forcing the teacher to step into the process, tinkering with students’ suggestions and improvise.

Although inquiries practised in school are not (fully) comparable with those conducted by researchers and students in their apprenticeship, this experience made us think. As we have observed, inquiry loses its reason d’etre when it is pursued instrumentally. If in schools this means relying on a recipe-type of format, in university it means limiting the possibility of re-defining problems, improvising on the basis of chance encounters, experimenting with new methods of collecting as well as presenting “data”.

If we do not limit such possibilities, what kind of institutions can we imagine? How could we re-frame commitments and responsibilities? How would we re-imagine the engagement of actors outside the university? Would inquiry as openness lead to chaos and dismissal of the university? Does it describe an ideal that would never fit any institutional framework? How would it be financially supported and sustainable?

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