Emergent educational designs and distributed autonomous organisations

by Paul Maharg on 28/06/2014

Kate Galloway has posted on the digital revolution and the legal curriculum, and her piece warrants discussion.  From her conclusion:

I believe it possible to develop an ‘immersion’ law curriculum using digital literacies as an organising context. A scaffolded approach to knowledge, skills and attitudes is an essential part of the contemporary law curriculum. This can be done through embedding appropriate knowledge about digital practice in the substance of the law, and critical approaches to technology, its promise and its limitations. Students should have the opportunity not just to learn through digital tools but to engage in supported reflective practice around their use, developing a professional persona that will equip them to engage in the law of the future, rather than law as an historical artefact.

I agree with almost all of it, and in this post I’ll point out some digital directions in which we should be travelling.

Kate’s quote from Susskind (from his report for LETR — ‘it is almost impossible to conceive of a future – of law, or indeed society – that is not radically changed through technology’) is apt, pointing to the need to understand digital change and how it’s taking place in our lives.  Susskind quotes Christensen approvingly in his work, but I have to say that I’m not all that taken with the Christensen model of change as disruptive innovation that’s still out there, actually pretty much orthodoxy now.  As Jill Lepore points out in her discerning article now trending in the New Yorker, there’s a lot more to the issues involved in digitisation: ‘disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet’.

That said, Susskind is absolutely right about radical change; and that our legal curricula are in sore need of review to take account of digital change.  In curriculum design, staff sometimes think it affects legal research skills only – students need to learn to find stuff on the web.  Maybe also use Turnitin or whatever.  That’s actually small change compared to the major changes we’ll think about in a moment.  Still, there are interesting issues there to give us pause for thought.  In the LETR archive there’s an interview I conducted with librarians from BIALL (British & Irish Association of Law Librarians) that points us in the right direction, and references documents useful for Kate’s immersive curriculum concept.  Some of what they said:

It was noted that there were complaints from firms about trainees’ research practices.  They appeared to be generally unfamiliar with paper-based resources by comparison with digital resources.  In addition many noted that trainees seemed to depend on one-hit-only searching: in other words they did not check thoroughly and contextually around their findings.  They used Google extensively and their searches tended to be shallow and brief.  Trainees were also increasingly unable to distinguish between the genres of legal research tools – the difference between an encyclopaedia and a digest, for example.  They seemed to lack persistence and diligence in searching, as well as organization.  These values, that underlay the learning outcomes of the LILT document, needed to be worked on by students.  The group were unanimous in their opinion that many academics shared the weaknesses of students and trainees in this regard.  Academics were also poor at attending training sessions.  The group thought that it was time for a ‘wake up call’ on the whole issue of legal research.

What’s fascinating about this is that the librarians, who as information scientists are actually in the middle of their own digital ferment, have identified here not just deficits in practices, but new practices taking place, and blindnesses to what are the lineaments of ancient genres; and they talk of values, emotions and personal characteristics, and they compare analogue and digital practices.  They also draw lines to academic staff, and find them wanting, too.  In a number of places I’ve made the comparison between the shift we’re undergoing now with the academic revolution that took place in the thirteenth century, and the later, much better known shift from manuscript to print cultures in the fifteenth century.

But how to achieve that immersive curriculum Kate Galloway talks about…  I wrote about a version of it in Transforming.  How we think about the digital domain changes, not just because we’re in the middle of social change caused by it, but because we have little in our historical schemas to compare it with.  Back in the early 1990s I used to think that this was just a comms issue – the digital affecting how we read and write.  I re-read Scardamalia & Bereiter, Flower & Hayes, and many other classics of reading and compositional literature in the pale light of the digital – what was changed, what remained.   A big question was how on-screen composition changed compositional practices.  I wrote about it, was dissatisfied with it, sensing there was a lot more to it than that (and the internet pioneers pointed some of these out, eg Sherry Turkle), and left it aside.

Then in the new millennium I thought of it primarily as a design issue – digital affecting research, reading, writing, built into the curriculum pervasively.  In terms of professional literature, think of a virtual community, with virtual firms, a portal that students could enter when, Second Life-like, they could put on their professional identity and be lawyers.

I’ve always thought that could be pretty influential as an educational concept, and it compelled me to rethink pedagogical practices as transactional learning allied to many other ideas about multimedia learning; but in the last few years I think it’s getting seriously exciting.  I don’t go for the ‘rewiring our brains’ approach, simply no evidence as far as I can tell; but I do think that multi- and interdisciplinary literatures are pointing us in the direction where we need understand how our culture, economy, industry, professions, communications, leisure industries, privacy, emotional and intellectual lives are affected by the digital revolution – both the gains and the losses, and how we shape for the future the condition we find ourselves in now.   And that needs to be learned in every discipline in the academy.  This type of work has been carried out in the past of course — see for instance the excellent ESRC-funded research programme Virtual Society? The Social Science of Electronic Technologiesdirected by Steve Woolgar, and especially their OUP volume of essays Virtual Society?  Technology, Cyberbole, Realityand particularly ‘Virtual Society and the Cultural Practice of Study’, Charles Crook & Paul Light; ‘Real and Virtual Connectivity: New Media in London’, Andreas Wittel, Celia Lury, Scott Lash, and the final piece by Marilyn Strathern, ‘Abstraction and Decontextualization: An Anthropological Comment’.  But this volume was published back in 2002.  Since then we’ve had a dot.com recovery, an ongoing social media ferment, the relentless rise of new social & new media, new technologies applied in wars and in political revolutions, the creeping invasion into hard-won privacy, the devastation that the digital has wrought on virtually every industry in sight and the creation of new industries. Oh yes and a global economic meltdown in which digital technologies played a major role in the catastrophe, and which during the crisis and in the so-called recovery have served to increase the power of the hegemonic forces at the heart of capitalism: inequality, exploitation, commodification.

The digital needs constant review, constant thinking, constant action.  I still remember reading with incredulity back in the 1980s Elizabeth Eisenstein’s statistic in her celebrated studies that in the 60 or so years after Gutenberg’s first successful experiments with movable type (ie up to about 1500, the ‘incunabula’ period of print technologies), in that short span of time, around 20 million books were printed in Europe.  Given the huge difficulty of this expensive and complex technology in the fifteenth century it seemed unbelievable.  But the changes wrought to literacy since then are only a small part of the complex nexus of social effects spawning from the technology.  Little did I know then, sitting reading Eisenstein on floor 7 of Glasgow University Library around 1988,  what was about to be brought into being by digital technologies in the next decade.[1]

The comparison of print and digital prompts questions that are unanswerable, by our generation at least — we probably need another four centuries or so to fully understand what we are doing to ourselves, our social and physical worlds — but the effort to understand what’s going on must be part of our democratic and professional educational processes.

So as to the shape of Kate’s immersive curriculum in legal education – three comments on that huge issue that intersect, and that point to fascinating developments in code and use of code:

  1. The days of the gated LMS are numbered, thank goodness – see eg one escape plan @ http://mfeldstein.com/unizin-indiana-universitys-secret-new-learning-ecosystem-coalition/  What we need to learn from that is that we should never ever put our digital learning systems into the hands of for-profit corporations.  And that issues of flexibility, efficiency, elegance, beauty, emotion and personal communication really matter when it comes to learning.
  2. On the curriculum design issue, it shouldn’t involve ghetto courses in literacy, digital or otherwise, the way EU Law was taught in UK law schools in the 1970s-90s, before it became more or less pervasive.  Clunky, the very opposite of immersive.  And institution-centred, not learner-centred, as if we’d never heard of John Dewey and the Laboratory School.  Kate points to different directions, and I agree with that.
  3.  The nature of how we teach will change radically; and how will affect what.  Problem-based learning, simulation, clinic are (to quote Lee Shulman) the shadow pedagogies that are slowly emerging from the shadows.  But behind them, waiting to emerge, hand-in-hand with digital technologies, are even more shadowy, much more powerfully technologized and personal curriculum designs, which we need to understand and adapt.

What are these shadowy pedagogies?  See for instance Eris – a platform for distributed autonomous organizations (DAOs) that use Ethereum blockchain technologies.  Ethereum has a calmly ethereal feel to its website, (its currency is even called ether), and I’m in favour of almost any educational initiative that has a philosopher on its About page (except of course Walden 2 – but Skinner was no philosopher…),  but don’t be lulled by it.  Blockchain has the capacity to reorganise whole industries, again.  In the WG Hart presentation a few days ago I summarised some of the uses of this open technology (the original code is up on Github; Ethereum’s code is here): crypto currencies such as MasterCoin or Bitcoin, almost any financial instrument, contracts, wills, savings wallets, online voting, decentralised government, secure messaging, decentralised data feeds.  In financial terms, the digital blockchain performs moves we’ve seen in other industries, and particularly in disintermediation.  In legal education, a blockchained environment might include learning objects, a comms system, a badge system (eg Mozilla Badges), a payment system, access to knowledge and skills environments and other decentralised functions.  Decentralisation — what’s the role of the LMS then?  I’d guess that we’re already moving away from it, and blockchained legal education will probably render it unwieldy, pointless.

More fundamentally, and given disintermediation, what does this do to the nature, role and status of the law school as educational institution?  And how should this be regulated?  We have papers on Bitcoin regulation to use as a model, but we need much more imaginative thinking, and we need to do that with regulators, as I argued at the WG Hart Workshop, and bring them with us in our thinking.  Above all, we need to do it for ourselves and our students, so that we can greet the technologies as they emerge from the shadows, and draw them into the endless educational conversation, glancing awhile at the figures behind them, waiting their turn to emerge into the light.

  1. [1]In the linked site I gave for Eisenstein’s work, note what CUP says on book availability: ‘Manufactured on demand: supplied direct from the printer’.  In Transforming Legal Education I argued that the web was returning us to forms of reading, writing and learning that were in many respects pre-book, relying on direct glossarial methods of learning.  Here’s evidence that digital is returning us to early book production practices — those practices that were meticulously and comprehensively investigated by Lecien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin in The Coming of the Book.  The Impact of Printing 1450-1800 (Verso, translated by David Gerard, edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith & David Wootton

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