Month: June 2012

Vancouver bound?

Two papers (I think) accepted for Open Education 2012! Which is welcome news… full schedule isn’t up yet but it looks like being on day 3.


Design Update

This site now has a swanky new header courtesy of David Smith at 49th Floor Design who are good chaps and great designers to boot.  Thanks to Dave, who I can see from my Spotify feed is currently listening to Manowar like a true non-conformist!  By Moonlight! We Ride!

Philosophising about Education

A couple of weeks ago I attended the ‘What’s the use of philosophy of education?’ workshop at Liverpool Hope University.  The audio of my presentation can be found here and the slides on a recent blog entry.   I was presenting the research paper which myself and Markus Deimann are working on the moment.  Presentation of the paper went quite well – with a jointly authored paper it’s nice to feel that one has a reasonable grasp of the whole – although it did feel like 20 minutes wasn’t really long enough to explain the idea to an audience that wasn’t necessarily familiar (or indeed sympathetic) to open learning.  There were some concerns expressed about the paper supplying form but not content.  I think it would improve the paper if we had some more detailed analysis of examples of open learning to show how theory and practice might knit together rather than simply appealing to sympathetic notes between OER and Bildung.  There are a few different ways one might approach this.  At the moment, I think we could make a case study of MOOCs or of OLnet itself, taking care to show that understanding these phenomena within the context of Bildung helps us to make sense of them and show how they can be developed.

Although it didn’t really come up at the workshop (perhaps because I didn’t go very far into it) I think we need a clearer conception of what we mean by Bildung as it’s quite a complex term.  It’s not really enough to say that the word cannot really be translated while proposing to use it as a tool for explanation!  Is Bildung a theory of education or a challenge to theories of education?  While we cannot answer all these questions within one paper, it seems like we need a bit more specificity.  However, at this stage in the research it’s more about exploring ideas and synergies rather than offering proof (which seems to me more like a follow-up piece of research).  As Markus noted in his own reflections on presenting the research, we are bringing two concepts together rather than trying to prove an idea.

Markus has also come up with some new references which (mercifully) are in English…

Biesta, G. (2002), How General Can Bildung Be? Reflections on the Future of a Modern Educational Ideal. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 36: 377–390. doi: 10.1111/1467-9752.00282 link

Marotzki, W. (2003), Bildung, Subjectivity and New Information Technologies. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 35: 227–239. doi: 10.1111/1469-5812.00021 link

We have submitted the paper to Open Education: Beyond Content so perhaps we will get the opportunity to develop the paper before then.

Here are my notes (and opinions)  from the rest of the day… I hope they are a reasonably faithful representation of what was said and thought.

Paul Standish (Institute of Education): What’s the use of  philosophy of education?

Standish – who recently published a book on Cavell & adult learning – began with a discussion of ‘use’.  ‘Use’ connotes utility and recalls notions of instrumentality.  However, ‘use’ can refer to a wide range of different kinds of relationships (e.g. ‘use’ of typing, football, literature, people).  Notions of use can relate closely to the language of aims and objectives which has a special place in education policy.

Philosophy of education can play a role:

  • in the initial training and further development of teaching professionals
  • in educational research
  • for enquiry in its own right

Standish went on to show Raphael’s painting of Plato’s academy (1509) which I have discussed elsewhere, highlighting the Platonic/Aristotelian sides of the painting. He spoke about the various geometrical and theological points of interest of the painting, claiming that it could be seen as a dynamic genealogy of thought.  Philosophy thus construed is a kind of educated conversation.  Plato holds the Timaeus and points heavenward while Aristotle clutches his Ethics.

Plato and Aristotle by Raphael (1509)

Philosophy of education can be understood in a similar way.  In 1962, R. S. Peters is appointed to the chair of Philosophy of Education at the Institute of Education.  He introduces the rigour of analytic methods into the philosophy of education.  He also established the PESGB and the Journal of Philosophy of Education (1966).  Peters’ method (inspired by Locke’s ‘underlabourer’) was to use conceptual analysis to uncover the logic of education and the underlying educational reality (logical atomism)[1]. The PESGB defended a liberal model of education, and the ideal of rational autonomy.  In the post-war years we saw a growth in the ‘disciplines’ (including philosophy), partly as a result of them being embedded in teacher education.

Many students found philosophical study dry and challenging.  Conversely, the ‘disciplines’ themselves are suspected by government of being critical and subversive.  Since 1980 there have been fewer positions in philosophy of education.

Some of the figures in the painting of the Academy are disruptive, such as Heraclitus who leans on a block of stone that is out of joint with the other angles.  He also represents Raphael’s competitor, Michelangelo, by being dressed as an unkempt workman.  On the extreme right of the picture we can see a self portrait of Raphael, who takes no part in the discussion but looks out instead on the viewer.  These two subversive elements act against the order of the picture as a whole.

Standish claimed that philosophy of education is neither applied philosophy, nor a branch of philosophy, nor an amateur pursuit, noting that professionalization of philosophy need not be a positive thing.

In the 1960s, philosophy of education provided part of the practical substance of initial teacher education (ITE) and continuing professional development (CPD).  This has been superseded by the technicization [?] of education.  However, it remains the case that philosophy can develop the practical reason we use in teaching while addressing its existential challenges.  Teaching is about being exposed to others and we shouldn’t try to ameliorate that.  Philosophical questions are simply unavoidable in the practice of education: hence philosophy as educational research.  Philosophy should be fully engaged with the interpretation of research data (this is construed as an ethical matter; we should avoid reducing ethics to research ethics).  As in Dewey’s dynamic metaphysics, we should be committed to an idea of education that is in constant flux and development.

Seàn Kelly (independent): But What Will We Say? Philosophy and the Curriculum

At the centre of educational policymaking is the curriculum.   Every teacher should be able to provide a rationale or defence of the material they teach and why it is important (even in the case of curricula which are centrally described).  Philosophy plays an indispensable role in a.) critique and b.) justifying curriculum rationale. All educational policies contain ideological assumptions.  In the absence of a ‘god’s-eye’ view, our assumptions must be subjected to criticism  (nb. PERL group criticism of ‘managerialism’).

According to Israel Schefler, to dispense with philosophy is to concede to fanaticism.  However, criticism is rarely enough:  we also need to present a positive alternative if philosophy of education is to be credible.  Kelly seems to abide by a practical/folk-psychology account of what constitutes an educated person, or at least defends the idea that this is possible.  [EDIT 28th June 2012 – see Seàn Kelly’s (much needed) clarification of his position in the comments below…]

Istvan Danka (Leeds): Some Connections Between Philosophy and Education – The case of constructivism

Philosophers have always struggled with the legitimization of their activities as a profession.  Constructivism is much more popular in education than it is in philosophy.  Danka argued that this is mainly because some of the insights of constructivism are quite practical and strategically useful although some of the arguments are quite weak from a philosophical perspective (esp. in philosophy of science where it is associated with extreme relativism).


  • Active creation of knowledge
  • Invention > Discovery
  • Students encouraged to develop own ideas and think for themselves
  • Emphasizes role of student rather than role of teachers

(As an educational orthodoxy, constructivism expects teachers to correct ‘mistakes’ made by the learner and to understand how the error was made.)

Morgan White (Liverpool Hope): Higher Education and the Formation of Citizens

White began by outlining two conceptions of citizenship:  the ancient Republican tradition and the modern liberal understanding.  White contends that the purpose of the university is better suited to the Republican view on the grounds that the liberal model equivocates on the boundaries between public and private life.  Modern political thought tends to distinguish citizens from the state.  The drive toward ‘efficiency’ reduces capacities for action and  encourages consumer-style, instrumental responses.

Walzer (1980: 159-160) advocates a notion of ‘democratic play’ which allows the development of the skill of political citizenship by reflecting and discussing the political actions of others.  This helps us to come to a better understanding of our rights, duties and obligations, reinforces individual autonomy and develops our sense of ‘worldliness’.

Higher Education has been drawn within the remit of the welfare state.  It cannot now claim to be the preserve of an elite as it exists as an agency of the state among other services.   The university is a special kind of public service because it promotes the very idea of citizenship (and presumably it thus needs to be treated specially).

Peter Harrison (Sheffield): A Foucauldian perspective on the constitution of the subject within shifting educational contexts

Harrison presented a series of moments from history which described the arrival and normalisation of Christianity (597-1400).  This was then reframed as a way of constituting the Christian subject (ends, means, subject, relations to self/other, obligations).  During the Enlightenment many aspects of this form of constitution were challenged.

The modern educational subject is ‘aspirational’: using state organised schooling or ‘technologies of the self’ to improve their economic and social standing.  Overall this seemed to me to deviate from Foucault… not least in the attempt to write a contemporary ‘history’.

David Lewin (Liverpool Hope): Technological Thinking and the Threat to Practical Reason

The modern climate of education is characterised by control and technocracy, and threatens to undermine the faculty of practical wisdom.  Lewin believes that instrumental rationality may well be ubiquitous, but also that we don’t fully understand its dehumanising effect.  Educational standards typically show consistent improvement regardless of whether they correlate to our experience of education.  From this perspective, the philosophy of education has failed.  Technology is too often seen as a value-neutral tool that can meet the high expectations which policymakers place upon it.

Lewin provided an example of what he terms technological thinking:  contemporary moral philosophy is stuck between utilitarian and deontological approaches, both of which attempt to obviate the need to make judgements.[2] (Lewin calls these ‘sciences of action’.)  However, ethical action cannot be determined in this way.  Virtue ethics resists this reduction.  20th century of virtue ethics focuses on the development of moral character.  Technological modes of thinking – like ‘managerial’ approaches – emphasize means while obscuring ends.

Jon Nixon (Sheffield):  Philosophy in practice – the interpretative tradition

Jon Nixon

Nixon began an interesting presentation with a discussion of Arendt.  Arendt was clear on the idea that thinking is not equivalent to action (though it is related to it).  By her own recognition, the greatest thinker she had ever known (Heidegger) had acted very badly.  Eichmann acted abominably, but in he thought he was banal.  In her final work (‘Mind’) Arendt explores the ways in which the gap between thought and action might be filled with ‘judgement’.

Aristotle distinguishes theoretical, practical and deliberative forms of thought.  Philosophy is ordinary and grounded in the human capacity for thought. We need to recognise philosophy as a commonplace form of language use and reason.

The hermeneutic tradition (nb. Vico as iconic figure and influence on Marx):

  • Any attempt at interpretation is a construct which has already been interpreted and reinterpreted.
  • If all understanding is already interpretation then the interpreter is implicit in the object of interpretation.
  • [Gadamer] If all understanding is already interpretation and the interpreter already a part of what is being interpreted then all understanding involves some aspect of self-understanding.
  • [Gadamer] The hermeneutical task is to locate oneself within the ‘hermeneutical field’ or tradition of understanding.
  • Hermeneutical priority of the question: understanding begins when we are receptive to that which addresses us.  The essence of the question is to open up possibilities.  We can understand intellectual discourse as a kind of question and answer.
  • Only the agency of the questioner can keep intellectual traditions alive and vibrant
  • Gadamer’s contribution to the hermeneutic tradition is to show that phronesis is not based on technical knowledge but a mode of ethical reasoning which requires an understanding of the common good.
  • Fusion of horizons – expressed superior breadth of vision that someone who aspires to understand must have. Nb.  Legacy of past to future and the corresponding debt owed to the past by the present; our horizons are mobile, never static.
  • Power of Prejudice – what one brings to interpretation is important.  We understand the world through and within our interpretation of the world.  What is the ground of the legitimacy of prejudices?  Prejudice is where interpretation begins.  We don’t methodologically extract our prejudices; we begin with them.  The ethical part is not our prejudices but the way we deal with them discursively and hermeneutically.
  • Beyond method – methods are not a guarantee of understanding: “of course there are methods… as tools methods are good to have… but methodological sterility is a well known problem”. Without hermeneutic imagination the person who applies the same methods will never learn anything new.  Implicit here is the idea that self-interpretation is open-ended while method implies an unchanging, ‘objective’ validity.  Even the methodology derived from the natural sciences is based on an interpretation.

What would policy look like from the perspective of the hermeneutic tradition?  Policy formation might be understood as an ongoing, deliberative process which is comprehensive, synthesizing, engaging and perpetually under scrutiny.

To understand policy in this way is to challenge one of the most insidious policy assumptions of the modern day:  the idea that there are no alternatives to the policy is proposed.  (Liberalism as ‘inverted totalitarianism’.)  UK education has been transformed into a competitive market which does not pay attention to new and emerging pedagogies.  Educators are often pulled in different directions by competing policy initiatives.  Many state assets have been privatised.  Policy based on Gadamerian hermeneutics would look rather different:

  • Focus on primacy of pedagogy
  • Reject pre-specified learning outcomes
  • Formative, developmental assessment which records a broad range of student achievement
  • Value pre-school as highly as higher education
  • Focus on teaching and learning as core activity
  • Focus on relationality:  teacher/teacher; teacher/taught
  • Fostering the ‘questioning’ attitude
  • Intrinsically dialogical
  • Inclusivity: all educational institutions would make this central to their purpose as a matter of epistemological need rather than a sense of social justice
  • More flexibility for course structure so that education fits around other commitments

It seemed to me that there were a number of symmetries between the policy of hermeneutics proposed by Nixon and the OER/Bildung crossover; it’s reassuring to find someone thinking along similar lines!

[1] However, philosophical questions about education are as old as philosophy and arise in culturally and practically diverse contexts.  There are many other proposed approaches (including Bildung and Marxism) and this variety is healthy.

[2] This seems in need of nuance – utilitarianism, for example, is often thought by utilitarians to a reconstructive rather than directly action-guiding endeavour.

Tools for Data Visualization

I’ve been looking into different online visualization tools with a view to using the data collected by the OLnet project.  (I’m also building up an inspiration gallery on Pinterest.)  Here’s a provisional list with a few comments of my own.  I’m not really going to look at word clouds (e.g. Wordle) as they’re a bit simple for my needs.  I’d be interested in further suggestions or thoughts on these tools!


This service has a number of templates available, all of which seem to be open to a considerable degree of customization (including uploading your own graphical elements).  A drag and drop canvas makes the process seem relatively painless, but it’s worth noting that you need to have a pretty good idea of what you want to say at the outset as there’s no analysis function on here as far as I can tell.  Outputs are exported as image files.


Once you’re logged in, Infogram presents you with a range of poster template designs.  After choosing a template, you can edits things like titles, charts and text but the basic elements seem to be permanent.  Four types of chart are available: bar, pie, line, and matrix.  You can generate these from spreadsheet information that you upload to the site.  Once completed, these charts can be embedded in various ways. supports the creation of infographics from Twitter hashtags or Twitter accounts.  (I tried to generate one which described activity on the #oer hashtag but it wouldn’t seem to render.)  It also seems to be a place where graphic designers share their work; I couldn’t see any obvious way to create some of the items in the ‘popular’ gallery using the tools available to me with my account.  There are new tools in development, however, so perhaps I just don’t have access to these  at the moment.  Which is a shame, because there are some cools visualizations on here.

Google Fusion Tables
Again, one can upload data and have it turned into a visual form.  This service seems to support geomapping through integration with Google Maps.  It also seem to be set up to support collaborative working (like other parts of the Google family) and allows you to merge datasets, which could be interesting.

GephiGephi is open source software that you install on your machine.  It looks like it lets you deal with quite complex data sets which are linked in various ways by manipulating different representations to bring out different aspects.  It’s mainly configured for network analysis according to the examples provided, and it seems to be able to harvest data from social networks, which could make for some interesting mashups.


Manyeyes is an IBM research tool which allows you to upload spreadsheet information.  Most people on the site seem to be using to create word clouds or simple charts, and I found a few OER related examples.  It looks like the data has to conform to fairly strict protocols before visualizations will make sense.

There’s also a long list of tools like these at, but most of them look like they’re a bit techie for me.

FRRIICT: Oxford Workshop

Framework for Responsible Research & Innovation in ICT (FRIICT) is an ESRC research project led by Marina Jirotka from the University of Oxford and Bernd Stahl from De Montfort University.  Last month I attended their inaugural workshop, entitled “Identifying and addressing ethical issues in technology-related social research”.

The overall aim of the project is to:

  • develop an in-depth understanding of ICT researchers’ ethical issues and dilemmas in conducting ICT research;
  • provide of a set of recommendations and good practice to be adopted by EPSRC and the community;
  • create a self sustaining ‘ICT Observatory’ serving as a community portal and providing access to all outputs of the project.

The workshop took place in Oxford and was attended by about thirty people, mainly technology researchers or social scientists who intend to use ICT to collect research data, as well as a couple of lawyers.

The weather in Oxford was glorious but the sessions were lively enough to ensure that people didn’t get too bored by sitting inside.  Most of the two days were given over to discussion of case studies and general discussion.    The two (fabricated) case studies I worked on with groups were:

1.) Digital Sensory Room for Hospices: a therapeutic, calming sensory environment incorporating music, light, colour, smell and touch and digital communication tools which may be particularly useful for patients who have difficulty with self-expression

2.) Smartnews Inc: a smartphone news app which personalises a feed based on crowdsourcing data from relevant Twitter communities

I won’t reproduce the deliberations here, but the feeling in the group I was in was that the first of these had very little research validity (unsupported assumptions); a number of methodological problems (how to measure quality of life?); and came across as a desperate attempt by a HCI researcher to find a problem to which technology could be the solution.  The second case provokes questions about how data is shared through a service like Twitter and what kind of notion of consent might be in operation with respect to the use and storage of personal data.

The basic approach that FRRIICT seems to be following at the moment is roughly as follows:

  1. Begin with a stakeholder analysis which identifies those who might be affected by a particular intervention
  2. Sketch out the relevant rights, responsibilities and issues of that stakeholder
  3. Work out how these issues might be addressed in the context of the project
  4. Deduce whether a protocol can be derived and applied in other cases
  5. Share

Getting people with a science or technology background to think ‘ethically’ can be quite challenging.  (I tried to sketch out a tool for doing this is in my paper on ethics and mobile learning.)  Researchers typically think of ethics in terms of compliance: as long as the research ethics committee approves a project, that’s good enough for them.  For many of them, this is their only formal encounter with ethics.  But contemporary researchers working with ICT need a better awareness of how technology works, and should think about the wider social impact of technology.   Nonetheless, from a researcher’s point of view, being able to justifiably describe the consent of stakeholders as ‘informed’ is still perhaps the most important part of ‘being ethical’.  The problem, it seems to me, is that reflecting on ethics is one thing, but as soon as you want to discuss or collectively analyse these issues it strikes me that you need at least a minimal grasp of concepts and vocabulary from moral philosophy.  Arguably, everyone has an implicit sense of notions like duty, consequence and the development of moral excellence.  But moral philosophy offers ways to bring these things out and make them explicit without reducing them to pseudo-scientific decision-making tools.  Ethics is not structured like a science (or a stakeholder analysis).  Hopefully FRIICT will help us to work out the most effective forms of ethical reflection in these research contexts.

Here’s some copy from the call for papers from the next workshop (to be held in September):

As technology progressively pervades all aspects of our lives, HCI researchers are engaging with increasingly sensitive contexts. Areas under scrutiny include the provision of appropriate technology access for those approaching the end of life, the design of a social network site for parents of babies in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and the design of interactive memorials in post-genocide Rwanda. The ethical and methodological considerations generated by research in sensitive contexts can go well beyond those addressed by standard ethical approval processes in Computing Science departments and research groups. Such processes need time to catch up with the innovative areas which HCI research is engaging with.

The aim of this workshop is to bring together researchers and practitioners with a common interest in conducting HCI research in sensitive contexts. Examples of ‘sensitive contexts’ include working with potentially vulnerable individuals such as children, adults with disabilities and cloistered nuns, and working in communities affected by a traumatic event. By sharing their experiences and reflections, participants in the workshop will generate a collective understanding of the ethical issues surrounding HCI research in sensitive contexts. We hope that participants will subsequently use this understanding to inform the design of ethical review processes in their own research groups, and incorporate awareness of ethical considerations into research design.

67 interviews (grounded research) were carried out EPSRC management and researchers, NGOs, professional organisations in a preparatory phase of the research.  The researchers found the following:

  • There is a perception that ethics is not strictly speaking a part of ICT research
  • 2/3 of respondents believed that technology is value-neutral.  The other third believes that ‘social value’ plays a part in technology research
  • Most ICT researchers only think about ethics in terms of securing private data and acquiring informed consent for experiments involving human subjects
  • Many researchers feel that their responsibility is to come up with reliable results

Insights thus far:

  • We must recalibrate ‘long term’ and ‘generic’ research: debunk the idea that basic research takes place outside of society
  • Reposition foresight methodologies and make them more approachable
  • We need to refine definitions of ICT as well as acknowledging and meeting skepticism
  • Use cases and misuse cases are typically deterministic and contrived
  • We need to develop new scenarios within ICT research which are more relevant to emerging contexts: social media, geo-tagging, ‘big data’, etc.
  • How can systems be designed in such a way that they demonstrate appreciation of ethical issues?