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Cyborg theory, online pedagogy and course design. Cybernetics 2.

One of the areas not covered by Hayle’s (1999) review of cybernetic theory development is the contribution made by Gordon Pask. In the move from the second (reflexivity) to the third (virtuality) wave of cybernetic development the concept of reflexivity did not totally disappear, it ‘lingered on as an allusion that authenticates new elements’ (ibid: 18). In part, this is perhaps where Pask’s theories begin to overlap.

Pask believed that all interactions could be construed formally or metaphorically as a conversation; that we converse metaphorically with everything in our environment which “speaks back to us” in the sense that we interpret it, in a dialectic and cybernetic exchange that has the structure of a dialogue in language. In essence, we converse by offering our views and acting, re-acting and thinking in response to what we hear, see and feel. Arguably this is a form of ‘reflexivity’ or the essence of a feedback loop. Pask  (1973) put forward a cybernetic and dialectic framework that offered a scientific theory to explain how interactions can lead to “construction of knowledge”, or, “knowing”. His theory preserved both the dynamic/kinetic quality of learning and the necessity for there to be a “knower”. He called it the ‘Conversational Theory’ and it is an attempt to explain learning in both living organisms and machines. (Wikipedia). In this theory interacting with the environment is also considered ‘engaging in an exchange which has the structure of dialogue in language’ and so forms the basis of a conversation. 

Personally, I do believe that learning in itself is a dialectic process and connective exercise whereby we integrate new information with old constructs via a process of interaction, reaction, interpretation and mean making, experimentation and finally negotiation, with others and/or the context we are operating in (culture, environment, professional field). I believe it to be a participative activity which can lead to the construction of knowledge, enhanced skills development and cognitive evolution leading to understanding and onto deeper learning.

Therefore, following Pask, if we accept that all learning can metaphorically be construed as a type of conversation and that as observers, we learn what we learn by interacting with our environment: the spaces, objects, processes and others-who-are-also- observing all around us we can see parallels and overlaps with Vygotsky’s social constructivist pedagogy and visualize our computer interfacing and online presence to be yet another part of the environmental interaction mix.

Interactivity and experimentation has been a key part of this course’s activities and is a form of interaction with our online spaces. Early on in the course we engaged in simultaneous discussion via Synchtube and Skype. We blog our thoughts on our readings, in essence our conversation with the authors, and links to our assignments. We receive comments and feedback on both from our tutors and peers, engaging occasionally in further debate. We tweet our progress, links or short perceptions and impressions and occasionally receive replies. Our reflections can also be conceived as a personal conversation. We  engage in discussion on course discussion boards. Most of these conversations are facilitated by digital technologies.

The role of conversation in education is an expansive topic and there are many ways to build conversational theories into online course design. Indeed this is something I attempted myself as part of the assignment set for the Course Design module elective on this MSc.  I designed a whole course around the ‘role of conversation in education’ and embedded relevant activities, including online discussion moderation, blog production and communal peer commenting, academic discourse published to wiki’s, group work and peer feedback, argument positions and debating etc.  

How else might we embed cybernetic, conversational approaches or pedagogy into courses? For a related post discussing how conversation can help the development of PELTS in secondary schools see http://educationaldiscourse.blogspot.com/2009/04/how-can-conversation-support.html

Taken from http://farm5.static.flickr.com/3118/2590572476_65ba3ced12_b.jpg on 2010-11-28
Original URL – http://www.flickr.com/71755445@N00/2590572476/ created on 2008-06-18 09:15:49
Scott LeslieCC BY-SA 2.0

Pask, G. (1973) Conversation, Cognition and Learning: A Cybernetic Theory and Methodology. London: Elsevier Press.

Pask, G. (1975) Conversation Cognition and Learning. Amsterdam: Elsevier

Pask, G. (1976) Conversation Theory: Applications in Education and Epistemology. Amsterdam: Elsevier

~ by Alison Johnson on . Tagged: , , , , ,

5 Responses to “Cyborg theory, online pedagogy and course design. Cybernetics 2.”

  1. Hi Alison,

    What a fascinating article. In truth, I discuss the ideas of active, experiential (often collaborative) learning, and yet do not mention the concept of conversation, which is clearly so valuable and essential to learning.

    This is something I intend to promote further to my students. They already blog, but developing the conversational voice would be interesting to see, as would peer commenting.

    Many thanks for this :)

  2. Hi Martin, many thanks for your feedback. Debating how theories of conversation transferred to secondary schools with Dave Appleby and others on the course design module was very informative for me as I focus on the University student. Such debates also help me get a feel for what some students bring with them on arrival too.

    There must be some mileage in your connections and thoughts as Dave also responded (then) in much the same way as you have here. He was a science teacher, I recall – which subjects do you focus on?


  3. Interesting post Ali – Laurillard’s use of the conversational framework would be interesting to explore here too – for anyone who’s not come across it, it’s an interesting application of the ideas presented here to online, or at least mediated, learning. There’s usefully brief overview of Pask/Laurillard at:

  4. Thanks Sian – the site links all key players in this area including Thomas and Harri-Augstein, who I mention in my follow up post http://edc.education.ed.ac.uk/alisonj/2010/11/28/cyborg-theory-online-pedagogy-and-course-design-theory-of-conversation/.

    I only came across the later at the end of my online assessment module last year and am very surprised Laurillard does not cross refer to their work at all. I commented this much to David Nicol who attended our discussion board for a couple of weeks.

    For those, who are interested they might find David’s recent article on assessment also of interest: From Monologue to Dialogue: http://educationaldiscourse.blogspot.com/2010/02/assessment-as-dialog.html

    Nicol, D (2010) From monologue to dialogue: improving written feedback in mass higher
    education, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(5), 501-517

  5. Hi Ali

    Nice one. I liked the chart very much .Helps to understand the role of computers in learning and teaching in terms of the activities of teacher and student as well as in the roles of teacher and student.
    Highlighting the importance of dialogue between teacher and student which enables critical thinking and reflection for knowledge construction and development.Some thing that fits with my cognition.

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