Friday, June 29, 2012

My Charitable Giving Profile

Responding to a post from Beth Kanter

My giving is focused and specific. In particular, I avoid charities performing functions that ought to be performed by the public domain. Specifically, health care and research, education and social welfare all ought to be managed by the government. These should not depend on charities because they are matters of urgent social need and because funding from charities disappears precisely when these are needed most.

Consequently, my giving is focused in two areas that are outside the domain of government: advocacy, and socially-responsible investment. This means that I give to political organizations such as labour advocacy groups, Occupy, Live 8 and One, issues campaigns, political parties, and independent agencies such as Amnesty International. And it means that instead of investing to enrich myself, I invest to improve society, and in particular, support credit unions and co-ops, and support international microlending such as Kiva.

Some people may not consider any of this charitable giving at all. Most of the recipients of my charitable dollars do not even qualify for charitable status. But the underlying purpose of my giving is to do good, rather than (say) qualify for a tax return or receive credit for funding. Moreover, many of the problems in society exist not because of a lack of means but because of a lack of political will.

From my perspective, much charitable giving actually *contributes* to this lack of political will, rather than addressing it. The most urgent health and welfare needs stem from poverty and oppression, yet high-profile charitable research into advanced diseases diverts attention away from these issues. Meanwhile, these private charities also foster the perspective that medical research ought to be funded by private agencies rather than by and for the public good.

My observation is that a great deal of the money raised by the foundations is directed toward those least in need of it. I have commented, for example, on the way educational foundation money is directed toward such needy agencies such as Harvard and MIT. Aid money - even research aid money - would have much more of an impact if directed toward nations and people unable to otherwise conduct the work.

The WiserGiving quiz bears this out (I actually took it after making the above remarks, and was mostly able to identify each of the different approaches in the questions). Here's how it describes my responses:

"Your dominant WiserGiving Style is Increasing Effectiveness of organizations, which strives to strengthen an organization so that it can better perform its mission, exert greater impact, and be increasingly sustainable over the long term. You have two secondary WiserGiving Styles, Direct Services, which focuses on the individual as the agent of social change; and Making Change Stick, which protects hard-won gains achieved in the legal and public opinion arenas."

You might wonder why I wouldn't choose options related to 'building movements' and 'research and big ideas' or even 'public policy'. In general, each of these caters in some way to the elitism I criticize above; building movements is about leading people, public policy is about influencing leaders, and research is about funding people who already have money. It's not that I don't think any of these are important, it's that the methods described to obtain the aims are incorrect.

Take 'leading people' for 'building movements', for example. The survey instrument describes these as including "Examples include: Occupy Wall Street, Anti-Bullying campaigns, Pro-Choice, and the Tea Party." These do not belong together in a single category. Some, like Occupy, are much less leader-dependent than others. Some, like Occupy, are not *mass* movements like the others, but are rather composed of relatively small actions intended to make a statement. Occupy doesn't have *followers* the way the other movements (and movements in general) have.

My view is that, in general, in order to enable effective social change, we need to bypass and circumvent traditional power-centered approaches. Instead of trying to change banks, for example, we should work to achi3eve economic objectives, such as lending, in other ways. Instead of catering to elected officials, or running for office, we should create mechanisms through which we govern ourselves. Instead of charity as 'giving' from the powerful to the poor, whether it is direct aid or the giving of end-specific gifts (like, say, 'an education') we need to focus on reducing the disparity between rich and poor and in enabling the disempowered to create the putative 'gift' for themselves.

Most writing and literature regarding charity actually undermines these objectives. Most charity still takes the perspective of a voluntary transfer (usually with conditions) of direct aid from the wealthy (rich, powerful) to the needy, and usually in such a way as to reinforce, rather than ameliorate, the division that created the need in the first place.

People need to realize:
- a donation to an anti-Cancer fund is a vote for a privatized health care system,
- a petition campaign entrenches a hierarchical political system,
- a research program typically entrenches the division between educational opportunities
- direct purchased aid enriches western manufacturers and agriculture at the expense of those elsewhere

Until they do, they will continue to conduct their charitable activities in such a way as to continue to create the need for charity, rather than to achieve its elimination.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Connectivism as Epistemology

Responding to questions from Vance McPherson

1) What is your response to Rita Kop's suggestion that connectivism is a new epistemology but not a new learning theory?
As I understand Rita, she understands the pedagogical aspects of connectivism to have already been present in constructivism, and hence, connectivism is not proposing something new when it comes to giving guidance to instructional staff. There are overlaps to be sure, however:
- criticisms of a teaching practice, which may be grounded if working in a constructivist perspective, are not grounded in a connectivist environment. For example, I responded to criticisms from Heli Nurmi several times in this fashion.
- there is a universalist aspect to constructivism that is not present in connectivism; to be a 'theory' requires statements of general principles of teaching, and connectivism mostly doesn't have these
- and related, constructivism depends on intention in a way connectivism does not - it supposes that people are consciously building or constructing knowledge, whereas in connectivism this is not required

Connectivism is *definitively* a learning theory, or more accurately, incorporates learning theories (specifically, theories about how connections are formed in networks). It suggests some teaching theories (I have capsulized them as 'to teach is to model and demonstrate' and suggested that connectivism argues for the creation of an immersive learning environment).

But all of that said, whether connectivism is a *new* theory of epistemology or pedagogy is irrelevant to me and I don't spend any time worrying about it. I often preface my remarks with the sentence "everything I have to say has been said (often better) by someone else."

2) My understanding of connectivism is currently as both epistemology and learning theory, which presupposes that it has ALWAYS been correct and is not contingent upon modern technological developments to "work." Rather, technology casts light upon the nature of the model.  But many authors are suggesting that the application of the learning theory is primarily to technology-based learning.  What's your take on this?
It has always been correct (insofar as it has components that say anything is 'always' the case). Networks have always learned. Humans have always been a network (at least, since graduating from single-celled organisms).

Other aspects of the theory change over time. At the deepest level, the principles for stable (dynamic, learning) networks - autonomy, diversity, etc - are probably reasonably constant over different types of networks.

But the sort of environments that create learning vary greatly - the sort of environment that produces a modern information-age knowledge-worker for example varies greatly from one which would produce a skilled bow-maker in the middle ages.

Additionally, with the development of technology, new types of networks have come into being. While human commerce has always formed a network, it has been a relatively simple network and certainly a slow-moving one. There's only so much connecting that can take place via personal communication and the Royal Mail. Technology greatly accelerated the size and speed of the human network, producing in a way not previously possible more observable properties of a network (for example, cascade phenomena as an idea or meme propagates through the network).
3) M. K. Dunaway (2011) recently published a paper in Reference Services Review, where she describes connectivism as claiming that knowledge emerges from an individual's learning network as connections are recognized.  If I'm understanding your position correctly, then Dunaway's description is inaccurate in placing the locus of knowledge with the individual learner's recognition patterns, and not in the network itself.  But I may also have not correctly understood you, her, or both.  Could you steer me straight on this?
I would have to read Dunaway to be able to provide a reasonable response - if you could link me to a copy that would be helpful.

That said - 'recognition' is a core thesis of my own theory. To 'know' x is to be capable of *recognizing* 'x'. To recognize 'x' is to assume an appropriate neural configuration when presented with an 'x', where 'appropriate' may be described in any variety of manners. I sometimes talk of 'knowing' 'x' to having the right 'feeling' when represented with 'x', a feeling of recognition. To 'recognize' is a property of a successful network.

Additionally, networks exhibit patterns or regularities. For example, a weather network may exhibit a characteristic 'storm front' or a mumuration of blackbirds may display shapes in the air. In my own work I often use examples like 'facves on a TV screen' or on the surface of Mars. These patterns in a network are phenomena that exist *only* as things that are recognized. To say a pattern 'x' exists in network 'y' requires a perceiver 'P' presented with 'y' and who instantiates an appropriate network state (a 'familiar feeling', a 'habitual reaction', a 'recognition') when presented with (a perspective of) 'x'.
4) I sometimes get the impression that you and George Siemens are not exactly on the same page when it comes to the epistemological aspects of connectivism, which of course would be perfectly fine in the context of a dialogic process, but I wondered if you'd care to comment on this.

George and I have our debates. My sense is that is is much more concerned with the pedagogical aspects of connectivism while I am much more interested in the epistemological aspects. Philosophically, George is a realist while I am more of an idealist - that is to say, he is more likely to say the phenomena we observe (be they chairs or colours or shapes and movements) are 'real' while I (for reasons just stated) say they require a perceiver.
One more thing, something of a comment.  You've described semiotic processes (language, symbols) as epiphenomena of networks, but not essential to them.  This reminds me a lot of Stephen Jay Gould's idea of "spandrels."  I thought it was interesting because one of Bill Kerr's beefs with connectivism seems to be that there is not a good evolutionary / biological explanation for how connectivism is possible.  But I think that, on the contrary, connectivism, if correct, would prove conclusively Gould's spandrel hypothesis, which is widely accepted in evolutionary biology circles.  Just a thought.
I have described the patterns we perceive as supervenient on the phenomena that produce them. So that does make them epiphenomenal in a way.

The whole question of an evolutionary basis for connectivism is one I have not considered. But I think there's a good basis for such an argument. A network is at heart a recognition system; it responds in consistent ways to complex and variable phenomena. It embodies the capacity to adapt to change. The more complex an environment the more likely that a network, rather than a simple innate instinct, would ensure survival.

A language I think emerges quite naturally out of this. Given that humans have the capacity to make noises and gestures, and that these would be consistently produced given certain phenomena, it would not be long before the adaptive advantage of communication ensured its adoption. Most - if not all - of actual language is (in my mind) learned. But there is no question that the networks we are born with at birth are sensitive to the sounds and movements made by people like ourselves.

That said: language (as an entity) is a *social* phenomenon, not a personal phenomenon. Language is stigmergic. As Wittgenstein would say, there is no private language. Not because of some 'private language argument' (I think this is a recreation of Wittgenstein's thought after the fact, and not core to what Wittgenstein had to say) but because the properties of language - specific words (the associated sounds and symbols, and conventional meaning or reference), grammars and syntax, works in literature and art that constitute paradigms, etc. - are physical phenomena, present out there in the world and not in the humans that speak and write it.

Is language a spandral - an accidental artifact of evolution? In one sense no - I think a look at language after the fact shows how important it has been to survival. But in another sense no - it's not an artifact of evolution at all, as it is not a property of individual humans.

But should investigation show a particular innate sensitivity to some aspect of language - a 'mirror neuron for syntax', say, that might be a spandral. That might be a selected preference for a particular aspect of language that *could* have been different (you could have an equally effective language without it) but was the way it was, and was selected for. It might show up in the way, say, an innate preference for the colour red might have - as an aid to identifying dangerous stuff in the world, which in an alternative history could well have been blue or green (think Vulcan) or whatever.

Good questions, interesting discussion, thanks. I will post these to my weblog, if you don't mind.

-- Stephen

Friday, June 01, 2012

Feelings of Science

David Hume's philosophy of morality is distinct from most approaches in that it does not postulate some set of principles or criteria for moral behaviour.

Rather, he argues that we are governed by a 'moral sense' that tells us when an act is right or wrong. "Extinguish all the warm feelings and prepossessions in favour of virtue, and all disgust or aversion to vice: render men totally indifferent towards these distinctions; and morality is no longer a practical study, nor has any tendency to regulate our lives and actions." (Hume, Of Morals)

The idea here isn't that Hume is arguing for some sort of moral relativism and 'anything goes', though he has often been mischaracterized that way, but rather that other putatively ''objective' measures of morality are crude instruments, and that our own sensations are fine-tuned detectors of moral nuance that can be developed, through practice and experience, into reliable measures of morality.

It's a bit like the difference between monitoring the gauges on a dashboard and a driver feeling how the car responds to the road around corners and while braking. An experienced and sensitive driver can tell if there's something wrong with the car well before any objective instruments can because the car doesn't 'feel' right.

Note again that this isn't an 'anything goes' theory of auto mechanics. There is an objective fact of the matter as to whether the car is performing badly or not. But this fact is not equated with dashboard monitor readings, or indeed with any particular measure that can be determined a priori. Prior to an actual breakdown or measurable malfunction, it's no more than wear and tear in a car's engine the human mind can sense well before any more coarsely-tuned measuring device can.

This sort of juding appropriateness by feeling isn't limited to ethics and auto mechanics. Rob Cottingham posted this cartoon today and then discussed how he came to produce it:

He writes, "For me, the trick is to not overthink it, because that’s a sure route to paralysis... ultimately, the goal is to create the cartoon I want to make, and then reach more of the people who will enjoy that cartoon." In a cartoon there can be a million variables that go into the definition of 'good' and the cartoonist does not create a cartoon to specifications, but rather, works by feel.

These considerations emerged today as I discussed the concept of a connectivist research methodology with Sheri Oberman. Now I hadn't really thought in such terms about connectivism - I remarked that I see myself as more akin to an explorer than an experimenter, and that my methodology is based more in Paul Feyerabend than in anything else: "The idea that science can, and should, be run according to fixed and universal rules, is both unrealistic and pernicious. It is unrealistic, for it takes too simple a view of the talents of man and of the circumstances which encourage, or cause, their development. And it is pernicious, for the attempt to enforce the rules is bound to increase our professional qualifications at the expense of our humanity."

But again, this isn't an 'anything goes' methodology, and Oberman is right, I think, to suggest that a connectivist methodology would be based in some significant way on connections. And when I reflect on my own practice it does seem to me that my own work is based in forming connections - though, more specifically, it is based in acting as a node in a network, and not in network-forming per se (I think the concept of 'building networks' is a bit misleading; if we want to be a part of a network we must be in the network, as a node, and not outside it, as a god).

But what would that methodology look like? Again, I could probably draw out some criteria - I've talked about the importance of autnomy and diversity, etc., in the past, and these qualities certainly characterize my own practice. And perheps, after the fact, you could measure my own research performance against, say, an 'autonomy index', and determine to what degree I practices and promoted autonomy in my own work.

But that's not how I actually evaluate my own work. It's not that the criteria are wrong. It's that, first of all, the criteria that determine whether my work was a success or not do not emerge until later, and second, even then, I evaluate my work according to how it feels against any such criteria (indeed, it would drive me crazy to try to evaluate against such criteria).

For example, the Skype conversation I had this morning, and practices like that Skype conversation (I have another in less than half an hour, and routinely have short conversations where I talk to people interested in this and that). I'll pose one 'research' question: should I record them? (Another: should I blog about them after? Etc.) I don't record them because I want the conversations to feel more like practice rather than performance. Is this a correct methodology? What would tell me whether it was? I won't know until some time in the future the basis on which these conversations were a success or otherwise. But I do know I have a pretty good feel for such things, so I that's what I use.

Would it be better if there were some criteria against which I made my decision whether or not to record? No, because the success of the conversation is based in much more than whether or not it is recorded, and so any such standard would be artificial and arbitrary. And, in some important respects, wrong.

Obermann mentioned knowing whether a dance is successful. It's the same sort of thing, again. I know whether I am dancing well by how it feels when I'm dancing. If I'm feeling awkward, not knowing where to put my feet, unsure if I'm holding my partner properly, and all the rest (and I speak from experience here) then I know I am dancing incorrectly. By contrast, if these concerns fall by the wayside and I feel only a smoothness of motion and attachment to my partner, then the dance is progressing well.

Now, a couple of things. I could assess my dance against a dancing design pattern, consisting (for example) of a series of step marks imprinted on the floor (kind of like the old 'figures' in figure skating). This would certainly be objective, and measurable. But it would be incorrect - I could dance poorly even while hitting every step, and dance well even though missing the mark. Indeed, the point of the dance is do no more than to merely replicate a best practice, it is to take it and make it something more.

Again, though, note that this is not an 'anything goes' theory of dancing. Nor is it even a theory that supposes that my own standard of 'good' dancing is static (and hence, forever primitive). As I dance, as I watch other dancers, as I discuss dancing with my dance partner (or with total strangers I've bumped on the dance floor) my sense of dance becomes more refined. What I feel changes. What used to feel pretty good now seems to me to be slow and simplistic. As I evolve, I strive to be a better dancer, and my sensation becomes one of detecting this improvement in my dance.

This is an important point. One of the fundamental difficulties with the empirical sciences is that the science of measurement - which is what we need in order to obtain experimental results - is itself an empirical discipline, and itself subject to amendment and improvement over time. Nowhere is this more evident than in personal perception - our tastes in music when we are young are (typically, and with some caveats) laughable when we are older. Did I really buy that Bay City Rollers album? Yeah - I did.

The literature of aesthetics is full of references to things like the refined palate in wine tasting, the expertise of the chef in cooking, the appreciation of a master carpenter for a fine mortise and tenon. People who study colour closely are able to distinguish differences in tint and tone that will escape a novice. Our quality of experience improves over time, and it does so because our capacity to perceive nuance, distinction and difference is improved, and this reflects the impact of hundreds of thousands of individual experiences over time on our mind. Our brains, quite literally, become shaped into better perceivers (given the appropriate practice and experience).

As this is true of individuals, so it is true of the assessment of science and research in society generally. For while on the one hand we have today a trend toward objective criteria-based assessments of research and science, a connectivist approach (if there were one) would suggest that the acceptance of a research methodology or a specific research program is an emergent phenomenon describable only in terms of that programs placement in the wider network?

What does that mean? One way of stating it is that society as a whole feels good about a given program, and senses discord about another. Think of the sort of social approbation or revulsion we feel for certain moral or immoral acts - there is for example in Canada a certain crime of murder and dismemberment that has just been committed, and there is a widespread sense of revulsion regarding the fact that it was recorded and posted on the internet. This isn't a matter of voting or counting individual preferences, or of violating some guideline, law or precept; it's more like a whole body response to the phenomenon.

What constitutes it? Well precisely it is the set of interactions each of us with the others, the call-in radio shows, the blog posts, and the rest, combined with our inner sensations about the act as they are expressed in a myriad of ways, some not even connected to the act (that's why simply counting votes would be inappropriate; it completely misses the changed way we regard each other in the grocery store, a change imperceptible and almost unidentifiable, but if you were sensitive to it and looking for it, you might say you saw it there).

This form of social perception is the ultimate judge of the adequacy of any research program (or musical taste, or dance moves, or cartoon, or any of the rest of it). Again, it is not an electoral process, nor a market behaviour (quite the contrary; these are mass phenomena intended and designed to magnify the needs and interests of individual members of society, rather than to reflect the sense of society as a whole).

And - importantly - like personal perception, social perception is itself subject to refinement and improvement. It's as Richard Duscho writes, "the proper game for understanding the nature and development of scientific knowledge is engagement with the ongoing pursuit and refinement of methods, evidence, and explanations and the subsequent handing of anomalies that are a critical component of proposing and evaluating scientific models and theories."

The mechanisms we use to validate are - or ought to be - similar to those used to validate great cuisine, or dancing, or auto mechanics. Both society as a whole and experts in particular play a role. Society probably defines relevance - and again, relevance may not be immediately apparent. Most of society understands this, and we have always kept a place for abstruse researches, not because we understand them, but because we don't. Experts in the mean time are needed to distinguish the gold from the dross, the genuine from the imitation; their own inner sense of the discipline has been finely honed.

We need both, and we need these to be undefined, rather than specified in terms of some sort of code of guidelines or best practices or whatever, not only because such are hopelessly inaccurate abstractions on the judgements that are actually made, but also because by their very nature they are resistant to the sort of growth and personal development every society needs. When societies learn to feel and not just to measure, arts and sciences flourish; when they return to standards and specifications, they have lost that capacity, and a decline has begin.