Sunday, March 8, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Provisional Imperatives

I think I should say something about what I mean by the term ethics, especially as distinguished from morals. In fact, I do not distinguish much between ethics and morals; rather, I follow what Bruce Weinstein says about the distinctions between the two: "[J]ust about everyone understands that both ethics and morality have to do with identifying right conduct and good character. To keep everyone on the same page, and to honor the linguistic history of these two noble concepts, it’s much better to treat ethical and moral as synonymous."

That said, I recognize that some conversations find it useful to distinguish the two:
  • ethics are social standards, while morals are personal beliefs
  • ethics deals with right conduct, while morals deals with good character (or the other way around—I forget)
  • ethics belong to the secular realm, while morals belong to the religious
  • ethics are absolute and objective, while morals are relative and subjective
In this conversation, I don't think I will use these distinctions, but I'm free to do so if the need arises.

At any rate, I'm talking about how people choose to behave in groups, specifically MOOCs. Those choices are both social and personal at the same time. They can also be secular and religious, absolute and relative, objective and subjective at the same time. I said in a comment on Frances Bell's blog that "new structures demand new ethics", and Jenny Mackness questions this assertion in her post New structures (MOOCs) demand new ethics? She raises a vital question. If there is no stable, enduring ethical system, then what prevents us from all simply doing what we want to do? Are we left with a totally relativistic, anything goes melee?

Woermann and Cilliers say not, but does their answer imply a new ethics? I want to explore these two questions.

Woermann and Cilliers avoid an anything goes relativism by asserting a  provisional imperative modelled after Kant's categorical imperative. They begin by noting that "the ethics of complexity cannot do more than generate awareness of the fact that we are always in trouble. In other words, it cannot provide substantive guidelines for an ethical system" (451). This is uncomfortable. What use is an ethics that can't tell us how to behave? Doesn't this leave us in an anything goes situation? They answer that "despite not being able to provide a substantive ethics, it is possible to develop a type of meta-ethical position, which serves to highlight important considerations that underscore the ethical strategies that we employ when engaging in the particularities of situations."

What they are aiming for, I think, are heuristics, rules-of-thumb rather than rules. Strategies that can be employed and adjusted on-the-fly as we traverse new territory, encounter new people, and shift contexts across a complex topography, which sounds like most of the MOOCs I've engaged. They capture this type of meta-ethical position, this critical stance, in a provisional imperative:
When acting, always remain cognisant of other ways of acting.
To get a sense of the distinction and importance of this imperative, it helps me to compare it to Kant's categorical imperative, which Woermann and Cilliers phrase this way:
When acting, always follow only universal rules, or only rules which you will want all other people to follow.
So what is different about a provisional imperative as opposed to a categorical one? First, note that Woermann and Cilliers' provisional imperative is a contradiction in terms, while Kant's imperative is not. As Woermann and Cilliers readily note:
The idea of a provisional imperative seems to suggest that the imperative itself is subject to change, and in this regard we seem to be advocating an impossible position. This is, to a large extent, exactly the point: we cannot do away with moral imperatives, but, if we take complexity seriously, we should also realise that our imperatives are the outcome of certain framing strategies or ways of thinking about the world, and are thus necessarily exclusionary. Thus the provisional imperative stipulates that we must be guided by the imperative, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the exclusionary nature of all imperatives.
To my mind, their imperative embodies the very complexity they are trying to address. It dialogically juxtaposes two terms that cannot be reconciled: provisional and imperative. The one term suggests open-ended change and flexibility while the second suggests closed, unchanging rigidity. Complexity says we are suspended between these two, irreconcilable positions, and our lives play out in the tensions between them. No relief, no exit. Provisional imperative is similar to the phrase assertive humility that I used in my last post: a dialogic that suspends us between equally demanding and yet irreconcilable positions. This is part of the nature of complex systems, for as Woermann and Cilliers quote theoretical biologist, Robert Rosen: "a system is complex precisely ‘to the extent that it admits non-equivalent encodings; encodings which cannot be reduced to one another'" (450). Morin is quite clear that these non-equivalent encodings are part of the core logic of complex systems: "the dialogic is not the response to these paradoxes, but the means of facing them, by considering the complementarity of antagonisms and the productive play, sometimes vital, of complementary antagonisms" (Restricted Complexity, 16).

Neither Kant's categorical imperative nor Woermann and Cilliers' provisional imperative is substantive. Neither gives us explicit guidance about how to behave, but I think that the provisional imperative describes a stance that is more useful for determining behavior in complex systems: act as well as you can within the context you define, but always be aware that others may act in different ways that may be as good or better within the same context and that are quite likely better in different contexts, so always be ready to question your context.

This seems to me a useful ethical stance to take in a complex space such as an rMOOC. I must engage a MOOC within my frame, presented as honestly and as clearly as I can. For instance, when I showed up to Rhizo14 last year, I came with a keen interest in Deleuze and Guattari and complexity thought and wanted to explore how both of these might inform a discussion about rhizomatic learning and the community as the curriculum. Given the title of the MOOC, I thought it was a reasonable frame. As the MOOC emerged, however, Deleuze and Guattari were not the central focus of the discussions. Others brought other frames to the MOOC. The clash of frames disappointed and offended some, causing them to leave the MOOC, and the emerging discussions that were often more artistic than philosophical disappointed others. The reframing of the discussion on Facebook and Twitter at first annoyed me, as I don't like either of those platforms, but the others in the discussion didn't like Google+. I could have stubbornly clung to my original framing of the MOOC, which would have forced me to either abandon the MOOC or try to twist everyone into my frame. I'm pleased that I chose the third way: relax my frame and engage other ways of acting.

I claim no moral high-ground here. I did almost abandon the MOOC. Like everyone else, I'm a busy professional, and I could have easily told myself and others that I was just too busy. They would have believed me. I would have believed me. Of course, now I'm glad I didn't leave, not just because of all the wonderful connections, real friendships, that I've made, but because I learned first-hand Woemann and Cilliers' provisional imperative: When acting, always remain cognisant of other ways of acting.

I should note that I did not exactly abandon my D&G frame for another frame; rather, I enlarged my frame to accommodate the others. I still mentioned D&G and complexity, quite often actually, because after all that is the value that I had to bring to the conversation, but my comments were framed not in a narrow, philosophical way, but in a more general community as curriculum way. In other words, I continued to declare the value that I could bring, but I worked to reframe that value into different contexts. I think it worked for others, and I know it worked for me. I was able to expand my understanding of D&G and of complexity by pushing the discussion into different frames. By the way, I also eventually joined the more artsy discussions, which I had at first resisted as they didn't fit my narrow frame. I introduced the haiku form of poetry, which led to a round of haiku among Simon Ensor, Terry Elliot, Kevin Hodgson, and me. Again, I was able to expand my understanding of D&G and complexity and, more importantly, make some treasured friends.

I think this provisional imperative informs Dave Cormier's list of suggestions on Youtube about how to be successful in a MOOC, especially the first three:
  1. orient,
  2. declare,
  3. network,
  4. cluster, and
  5. focus.
We orient ourselves within a MOOC by constructing an initial frame. We anchor to some aspect of the MOOC—a person, a concept, an activity—and look about through our frame. We declare ourselves part of the MOOC and present. Here we can state our frame, our value, our expectations, our point of view. From this position, we begin to connect to others, to network, and this is where we must always remain cognizant of other ways of acting. We must begin working with our frame to accommodate, complement, or stand in dialogical opposition to other frames and points of view.

This, of course, is where the rub comes in. It may be that we find no one to cluster with and we remain alone. We may have to accept that this conversation is not for us. I'm okay with that, but many feel that we should be all inclusive. I may blog about this later, but I'll say here that I don't agree with this point of view. If a group of people wants to play futbol except for one who wants to play baseball, then that one should disengage or decide to embrace the futbol game, and the group should not feel compelled to quit playing futbol to accommodate the one. Fortunately, MOOCs can be large enough to accommodate both futbol and baseball games, if the players will organize themselves that way. What isn't acceptable is for the one baseball player to stay and poison the futbol game. It would have been wrong of me, for instance, to insist that Rhizo14 focus its discussion on Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome metaphor just because that was the game I wanted to play.

Anyway, the provisional imperative may still seem both too vague and too demanding for many. Self-criticality is a difficult, tiring position to maintain and even harder to tell if you're doing it correctly, and so next I want to discuss four mechanisms that Woermann and Cilliers promise will "serve to reinforce and promote the critical attitude, namely provisionality, transgressivity, irony, and imagination."

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