Table of Contents
Outline of a regenerative knowledge ecosystem
2023-03-13 to 15
A month ago at Liminal Village my personal initial idea was to deepen and advance the general ideas around the linked themes of research and education, particularly higher education. Having myself had several years experience as a teacher, researcher and lecturer, I have quite some ideas about how to put together an ecosystem of education and research that is not bound, not constricted, by the conservative, sometimes reactionary constraints of most current educational and research institutions.
It's a huge job. And particularly difficult to circumscribe, because learning is such an essential, pervasive, central aspect of human life. Other life as well — but humans take learning to another level of complexity: the level of complexity that makes it so hard to formulate just what it is that we are trying to describe. Having just briefly talked over the essentials with a friend on a walk, I thought I'd write down what came up, and what comes up now, as little more than a bare outline.
This is the easiest place for me to start, because I've been involved with Cetis for about two decades, initially when it was part of the UK academic establishment, and then co-re-founded it as an independent worker-run coop in 2015.
The progression we experienced in Cetis seems quite common. The viability of a small research grouping in a university depends on several factors, including the orientation of the university itself. Bolton was not oriented towards original research or anything that didn't make money, so we had to leave. And we thrived, in a context where our overheads were almost zero, and we could offer excellent value for money to our clients. Cetis continues, though I will be playing less of a part in it.
From my first and second hand experience, what a small research consultancy needs includes a combination of several facets (in no special order):
- publishing useful information in the area of specialisation — this is needed to draw a general audience
- academic publishing is useful if potential clients and partners will not be searching primarily on the web, or if an academic reputation helps to bring in work
- clear focus on well-defined areas that are understandable to potential clients and partners
- a reputation in these focal areas of specialisation that needs to be outstanding
- ideally the specialist knowledge has commercial value and a market
- alternatively, for areas that are not yet commercial, there need to be funding bodies with an interest in those areas
- workers need to work well together, and to be well-motivated by the way the consultancy operates
This last point may mean that workers are supported in developing either personally or professionally or ideally both. The consultancy needs to constitute a community of practice where knowledge and skills are shared and passed on. And it needs to pay attention to succession, otherwise the business will fold sooner rather than later.
A knowledge ecosystem must not only support such research consultancies, but allow them to find their niches in the wider world.
I've seen more and more people describing themselves as an “independent researcher” or an “independent scholar”, which I personally welcome. Not all good researchers fit happily into an establishment research team. To serve these independents, platforms like Academia.edu give a valuable and easy opportunity to publish independent research. But that platform is still a commercial business, and therefore does not escape from the problems of being profit-driven. Naturally, it wants to attract users, to provide income directly or indirectly. And if it were to set high standards of quality, that would deter many.
How could we design a system for quality and reputation that is independent, and also free from the control of the businesslike organisations of present institutional universities and commercial publishers? This is much to big a question for me to answer by myself, or even attempt here. Platforms like Academia.edu can already provide something like intellectual playgrounds, but moving from there to a reliable degree-awarding system is a different game.
A knowledge ecosystem must include a role for these independents.
Anyone who has been employed in higher education will know that publication is second only to attracting research funding as a requirement of people employed there. There is much written about the problems with academic publishing, which I won't try to document here. Suffice it to say that publishing companies extract large amounts of value from the system, while providing services that may often seem poor or ineffective, and which could potentially be substituted for in other, better ways.
One key function of publishers is to protect and enhance the quality of publications. This is a big topic, for sure, but I am certain there are ways of not only equalling but surpassing the quality management function of current academic journals.
Another “function” of publishers is to make money by creating artificial scarcity by restricting access to information. Let's just get rid of that. We don't need to provide incomes for parasitic publishing companies, and academic writers are seldom paid anyway. We could see publishing companies as a hangover from days before the internet, when papers had to be published on paper.
So it comes down to quality; accuracy; truthfulness; honesty; transparency. I don't see these as provided by some sub-system, but rather as an emergent property of the system as a whole. Publication is an integral part of a knowledge ecosystem.
Despite the trend in recent decades to distinguish research from teaching universities, there remains a clear potential link. To the extent that higher education is seen as like school, as transmission of well-established knowledge, there is no need to link it with research. But even first degree programmes these days tend to include some kind of individual project, and even if that does not amount to creative, ground-breaking research, it would seem helpful to have it carried out in a setting where original research is also carried out, and good research practice can be absorbed through the culture.
However, I'm not sure that institutions that transmit well-established knowledge merit the name “university”. My vision differs. Along the lines of William G. Perry (psychologist), at school, you think your teachers know the answers, so you learn from what they say. As an undergraduate, you may learn that different lecturers don't know the answers, and that there are different theories that could be more or less true. But completing a PhD usually comes with the recognition that you, yourself, despite dedicating 3 or more years to a question, can perhaps only progress a short way towards an answer.
It may help to ask, what are the current functions of universities? To me, giving lectures seems among the least important roles. More important to me are (again, in no particular order):
- to manage and moderate assessment, and the related awarding of degrees
- to facilitate peer learning and networking, possibly including peer assessment
- to provide a social life, allowing long-term friendships to be established
- to give access to specialist resources, books, equipment, systems, facilities
- to guide and encourage through mentor figures (which could include peer mentors)
- to give access to live researchers and their research
Have I left out anything of importance?
I'm not going to try to describe just how to fulfill all these vital functions of higher education. Just to say that I believe they can be substituted in ways that are much less resource intensive, and therefore much more accessible. As already happens in many educational institutions (not just higher) mass lectures can be increasingly replaced by recorded lectures and other Open Educational Resources (OERs) Conversation around the topic and related lectures can be arranged largely in peer groups, with guidance, mentoring etc. as needed. There have been many peer learning initiatives even within established universities, so this is neither new nor untried or untested.
Higher education has long been recognised as the gateway to research. We could turn that around and say that whatever acts as a gateway to being an active, creative researcher adding to the commons of useful knowledge, that is higher education. It doesn't need to be in a university, or indeed any other similar institution. Sure, degree-awarding powers may not be opened up for years to come, but we could see ourselves as having the tools to provide effective substitutes that are better than the status quo.
Supportive Information and Communication Technologies
Currently, educational institutions rely heavily on ICT systems. These systems give a glimpse of the possibilities of education outside institutions. I've come across a few such systems in my time, though I'm not an expert user of any of them. Here are three.
Moodle has probably been the most widely used open source learning management system for many years. It is generally structured in a relatively traditional way, with courses, course timetables, classes or cohorts, learning resources released when the managers decide, and generally all the features that enable a course to be transferred directly from face-to-face to remote. But that's not the only way it can be used.
Mahara is an open source e-portfolio system that was designed to complement and fit in with Moodle. It gives a valuable social dimension, along with flexible privacy settings.
PebblePad is one of the most widely-used proprietary systems in higher education. It is based in the UK but widely used elsewhere particularly in the Anglophone world.
These are just the examples best known to me. The one thing they have in common is that they all need either to be financed by an institution or other organisation, or to be hosted by people with the appropriate technical knowledge and time resource.
But looking at my specialist professional area, e-portfolio systems, sounds a cautionary note. First, portfolio practice tends to be governed by specialists within an educational institution. How, then, could this be done consistently without an institutional basis? Second, there has been no demand for portability of learner portfolio records, even between institutions and professional bodies. So, how could we possibly justify the time, energy and expense of portfolio management systems outside institutions?
What I'm pointing out here is that the technology itself is not the most fundamental issue. Technology should not be dictating the form of a knowledge ecosystem. But if and when a vision of an knowledge ecosystem emerges as a shared goal, then it should not be too difficult to design the technology to support that. What is that ecosystem?
The human “systems” are vital to the whole ecosystem. I see two aspects to this: first, the technology directly serving human communication, and second, the actual human communication and relational practices themselves.
To communicate and collaborate, we need some kind of common language, and this is what ontological commoning is all about helping to establish and maintain. I won't repeat myself here.
In terms of human relationships and practices, we need whatever it takes to help everyone feel heard and respected; to address issues of triggering and unsafety, to build trust, and to have a culture of learning and development in which people learn about themselves as well as others, learn what works and what doesn't work, and where necessary learn new or developed ways of being that take us all out of fruitless old patterns.
These are not just intellectual matters, but very much matters of emotion as well, of the psyche and the personality as a whole, with all its IFS parts. But it is a vital part of the knowledge ecosystem, and we can share intellectual understanding of the processes as both an introduction and an aid to the practices.
All I want to say here at this stage is that we must not over-simplify the intellect or the emotions. Ideas, and beliefs about the world, have a great influence on people's behaviour.
I wrote a bit about “the word” from a theological perspective of top level ontology. The word inspires. Thus, rather than imagining words as being written on a blank slate, I'd like to imagine words as evocative.
Maybe also this goes along with another meaning of “knowledge”. In other European languages there are two words: one for the kind of knowledge we have of concepts – weten, connaître, conoscere, wissen, etc. – and the kind of knowledge we have of people – kennen, savoir, sapere, etc. So, when I'm talking about “the word” just now, I really intend not just the written, spoken, “left-brain” word, but also the communication that expresses, perhaps poetically, that other kind of knowledge. This may also help explain the different meanings of “education” words. Factual knowledge is related to the instructional kind of education, and to prose. More boring. Personal knowledge is related more to demonstration, to trial and error, to inspiration, and to poetry. Richer. More fun.
Putting it together
For sure, it's complex. My intention here is not to map out a solution, but to pose the challenge. Let's do some ontological commoning for the knowledge ecosystem (that feels rather meta!) that includes what different kinds of knowledge there are; what roles people can play vis-à-vis those kinds of knowledge; and how knowledge and people relate to themselves and each other.
Let's take care only to include those things that are co-creative; that are sustainable; that are regenerative. I hope that that filter will both reduce the complexity to manageable proportions, and also act to motivate people to collaborate towards this vision.
There is quite a lot to be found by searching the web for “knowledge ecosystem”. Before proposing concrete solutions, I would like to study, to start with, papers like these:
- The Knowledge Ecosystem (The International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU, no date))