Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Unconscious Reality

The second slippery aspect of the question do we know all of Reality refers to how we conceive knowledge. If knowledge is something conscious and mostly intellectual, then I don't think we can know all of Reality, or even much of Reality. In other words, we have experiences of the Real that we are not conscious of and can hardly represent in any language. We engage and know many things with our minds and bodies long before we become conscious of them, if we ever become conscious. For instance, if you breathe in an unhealthy swarm of influenza virus, your immune system will know it and begin mobilizing a defense long before you are conscious of the infection. Or ask a gifted soccer player how he knows where the ball will be two touches before it arrives, and he likely cannot tell you, but he knows to be at that spot on the pitch anyway. Intimations of things long before we are conscious of them are a common experience in life.

We all know this, but we educators often behave as if we don't. We assume that, and behave as if, knowledge is strictly referential, based solely on our representations, descriptions, images, or mathematical formulations, to use Nicolescu's list. Knowledge is something we can put on the test next Tuesday. It isn't (you'll get a much better discussion of the issues with representational views of knowledge from Stephen Downes' blog Half an Hour). Knowledge extends beyond conscious knowledge.

But is this extended view of knowledge useful to education? I think it is extremely useful for those who envision education as a complex process of traversing networks—not as a walk to be taken (traced), but as a walking (mapping). I'm playing here with ideas that I've gleaned from Morin and Deleuze and Guattari.  Morin's concept of interdisciplinary research suggests that the path to knowledge is not followed, it is forged. He amplifies this idea with a line I've often quoted in this blog: we must learn to define from the inside out, not from the outside in. Deleuze and Guattari suggest that engagement of the rhizome, the Real, is a process of mapping structures and pathways, not tracing given structures and pathways. To my mind, these ideas position the Knower at the center of the zone of engagement as a knowmad who chooses to engage some aspect of the rhizome. Or not.

This tack positions me with the knowmad and suggests questions about what prompts a knowmad to engage or disengage some aspect of the rhizome. This reverses the usual pedagogical question of how to motivate students, as if motivation is a trigger we can pull, a response we can stimulate. I'm not sure it is. What then prompts a student to engage a teacher, a given curriculum, and a class? Where does this come from? And is there anything a teacher can do to facilitate that engagement?

Let's ask from the knowmad's point of view: why would a twenty-year-old studying to be a physical therapist want to engage a sixty-year-old in a course about writing? Why would they want to avoid such an engagement? In his book The Art of Changing the Brain (2002), James Zull says that most students unconsciously decide within the first 30 seconds of entering a class whether or not they will like it. Or like me. I probably know within the first 30 seconds whether or not I will like a particular class. These largely emotional engagements with the Real set the parameters of the Reality of the class, and they are difficult to change, in large part because we never quite make them conscious, or explicit. We just have a feeling that some classes work and some don't. However, some very heavy, precise neurological sensing and cognitive processing has gone on underneath the conscious surface to cause this particular Reality to emerge in the zone of engagement I and my students call Composition 1. Peering into the collective unconscious of the class to determine why a class is not working is more work than most of us care to take on, but it is extremely important for the success of the class.

There are plenty more questions to ask from the view of the knowmad: does this twenty-year-old have any sense of where I want to take them in the class? And do they want to go there? Do they have any hope of success? Any desire for success? Does this connect in any way with the path they are already on, or is this a side-trek they had just as soon avoid? And mostly: do they really want to connect to this sixty-year-old, short, white guy with his corny jokes told in a slightly southern accent?

The willingness to engage always comes from the knowmad themselves. The knowmad must see some path worth traversing, because mapping the rhizome is hard work. And it is the rare knowmad, especially young knowmads, who know why they want to engage or not. Much of our willingness to engage or not with a particular aspect of the rhizome, the Real, is decided prior to or completely outside of consciousness. As educators, we overlook this unconscious aspect of reality at our peril.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Quantum Random Walks and MOOCs

If Reality is an emergent property of the zone of engagement between the Knower and the Real, then what does that say about education in general and educational practices such as MOOCs in particular?

I think I should draw out some of the implications of this arrangement: a zone of engagement between the Knower and the Real. Most of the Real is hidden from us, both because it is beyond the horizons of possible engagement and because there is more Real than we can engage even within those horizons. Still, there is plenty of Real that we can know (we won't run out), and we are ever extending our horizons through technologies that allow us to engage more and more. So there's lots to learn, even if we can never learn it all. That's extremely good news, I think. A fine gospel for educators. Our vocations, if not our jobs, are secure.

That's our status in terms of the Real, but what about Reality, or the stuff that we can engage and can know, the stuff that "resists our experiences, representations, descriptions, images, or mathematical formulations" (Manifesto, 20)? Do we know all of that? This seems to me a tricky question. The first glib answer is that, of course, we don't know all of Reality, but I immediately want to counter that while I or you alone don't know all of Reality, maybe we do. Is it useful to define Reality as the sum total of what humans know and have known? I think so, and I think it points us to a most useful feature of MOOCs.

It seems to me that MOOCs, especially of the Connectivist variety, help us to approach the question of what we know rather than what I know. This is an important question because it undermines traditional education and its strict grading economy: 1 student = 1 grade, no cheating.

As electronically networked entities, MOOCs function similarly to quantum walks, a concept I first heard about in MIT quantum computing engineer Seth Lloyd's talk on Quantum Life, or how organisms have evolved to make use of quantum effects. At one point (11:50), Lloyd asks how photosynthesis can be so efficient (about 99%) when a photon that strikes a leaf must go through a maze of molecules to find the central photosynthesis processing unit. Apparently the photon engages in some very special kind of quantum multi-tasking, or quantum superposition, called a quantum algorithm. I don't have the science and mathematical knowledge to go into the details, and as Lloyd notes himself, even quantum scientists find superposition counter-intuitive, but basically the photon is able to explore all pathways at once, quickly locating the correct path to bliss.

For me, a better, more manageable, image of quantum walks is how bees search for a new hive. The bees start from the hive and then search all paths (approximately) at once, bringing back reports about each path, which is subsequently processed by the hive. This is what MOOCs can do, and this is what makes them so powerful, at least for me. Like bees searching for a new hive, MOOCers can begin in the middle with a given curriculum, but then they fan outward making a thousand different connections at once before bringing that new information back to the MOOC. Rather than exploring the single path of a single instructor, a functioning Connectivist MOOC explores nearly all paths at once, making connections to more knowledge, more contexts, than any single instructor, even a really bright and gifted instructor, can make. In other words, like bees in a hive, MOOCs use a process something like a quantum random walk to search all paths (approximately) at once, aggregate that knowledge with something like GRSShopper, and thereby create actionable knowledge available to the entire MOOC.

I like this image. For me, it captures some of the best of what happens within a successful Connectivist MOOC. This is good stuff.