A few days ago Stephen Downes – a little unusually – made a sequence of comments/tweets on Twitter around the “sameness of meaning” and its impossibility. Since then I’ve had a number of experiences and discussions that suggest some of the problem associated with learning and teaching policy, process and structure within universities arises because too many people assume that there is sameness of meaning.
Communication and the commonality of meaning
Let’s start with this tweet
Communication isn’t about commonality of meaning. That’s impossible. It’s about being able to at least approximately predict the response.
Further explanation flows from this tweet
What happens is, the word we transmit (and maybe gestures, etc) forms only a small part of the other person’s understanding of what you said
and this one
Your word is only a stimulus; Most of the person’s understanding is based on his prior knowledge, and that is what produces the response
And I particularly like this one as a guideline for how to move forward
“Get me a gazelle” would work just as well if your listener understood that he should deliver a Heineken; meaning doesn’t matter, results do
Implications for design
This talks to me because much of what I do could be broadly called “design”. Mostly it’s around the design of information systems. This means much more than technology. Information systems (in the meaning I am using) also embodies all the other “wetware” (i.e. people and organisational) stuff required for the technology to be used and used effectively.
This definition means that I include the following as design:
- The design and implementation of training and support for the system.
- The creation of the policies and procedures around the system.
- The design of the organisational structures and positions within those structures that will impact on the system.
- How people are encouraged to make decisions about the system.
As I wrote previously (Jones, 2004) – and really just repeating what others had already said – about the impact of representation/meaning
The formulation of the initial state into an effective representation is crucial to finding an effective design solution (Weber, 2003). Representation has a profound impact on design work (Hevner et al., 2004), particularly on the way in which tasks and problems are conceived (Boland, 2002). How an organisation conceptualises the e-learning problem will significantly influence how it answers the questions of how, why and with what outcomes
The answers that a university arrives at in terms of the how, why and with what outcomes end up embodying a collection of meanings. When the organisation and its members implement e-learning they too often assume that there is a commonality of meaning. Commonality of meaning is a key part of how they represent the system. Consequently, their design is fundamentally based on the idea of commonality of meaning. I think that this is a fatal flaw for much of what is designed.
What follows are some examples of where it doesn’t hold.
My main current task is the design of BIM (code should be out by Monday at the latest) and today was a day to watch a “clueless user” (she’s actually quite intelligent she just knows little about computers and BIM) interact with BIM. BIM is designed by me. It embodies the meaning that I have formed about BIM and its task over the 3 years or so I’ve been working on it. It also embodies meanings/ideas/understandings that have formed over the last 12/15 years of doing e-learning and developing e-learning systems. That same meaning is informed by my experiences in social media (e.g. this blog)
The “clueless user” is a sessional teaching academic in management/human resources. She’s done a bit of e-learning and used BAM. She doesn’t have very much in the way of detailed mental models about how her computer works, how the Internet works or how Moodle, BIM, blogs and feeds work (or even mean).
Needless to say, having observed the user and the meanings she has demonstrated of BIM, I have a long list of improvements for the interface and operation of BIM. If some of them aren’t made, the other academics going to be using BIM are going to struggle. Understanding her meaning and responding to it has been helpful. It has forced me to reconsider and hopefully improve BIM to better fit with other meanings. It should improve BIM.
Of course, 1 person does not make a universe. But that 1 person being very different from me will help a bit.
… and my take-away is that we should be careful not to assume that people see things the same way we do, because invariably they don’t
If I’d assumed the same meaning and left BIM as, there would have been trouble for someone. The academics using the unmodified BIM would have suffered increased levels of frustration of dealing with a new system for which they did not understand the embodied meaning. There will still be some of that, but hopefully not as much.
Downes, on the implications of this
there’s so much room for error in communication we don’t notice that we mean different things, usually, and then it surprises us when we do
I’m a little bit surprised by the level of changes needed in BIM. It’s based on a system that’s been used for 3 years, that has been used by this same “clueless user”.
But by engaging in what I’ve done I’ve opened myself up to that surprise at a stage much earlier where it is simpler for me to respond. Too much of how e-learning is implemented in universities does not allow itself to be exposed to “good” surprise, instead they get “bad” – often hugely problematic – surprise.
Minimum service standards
I know of an institution that has implemented minimum service standards for course websites. The standards have been approved at all the right committees, the designers of the standards have written a paper about it, there has been mention of it some of the training sessions for staff and it is now a couple of weeks out from the start of the first term using these standards.
The meaning being heard from the designers of these standards, at least until very recently, has been “it’s all good”. The meaning being heard from the academic staff now being required to fulfill the standards and complete the accompanying checklist includes: “Where did this come from?” and “How do we comply with it?”
Even some of the designers and promulgators of the standards have different meanings. Perhaps the two extremes of those meanings are:
- The standards are a stick with which to identify the bad teachers.
- The standards provide a scaffold within which to have discussions about the design of learning experiences within the LMS.
Now, will this difference of meaning result in a “bad” surprise. I’m not so sure. I think organisations and how they choose to perceive the world has a lot in common with what Downes says about communication
In fact, we mostly don’t detect the errors, there’s a huge tolerance for error in communication, that’s why it works
I would characterise the standard approach used to “train” academics how to use a new LMS – or any new system – as:
- In the months before the release of the system hold numerous training sessions in places and at times that suit the academics.
- Have the supervisors of the academics, and especially the senior management of the institution, reinforce how important it is to attend these sessions.
- Within the session seek to get the academics to understand the meaning embodied into the system so they can interact with it.
- Provide these sessions at a time and place removed from the normal context within which the academics will use the system.
- Employ a range of technical folk who can easily understand the meaning of the system to explain it to the academics in a way that is very similar to how the technical folk learned it.
- Assume that at the completion of the training they only need a much lower level of support and training. Generally limited to repeating the original training for new staff and providing front-line helpdesk staff to explain how any problems are due to the academic misunderstanding the meaning embodied in the system.
Can you see how the lack of a commonality of meaning is going to cause problems here. To me it’s obvious that the academics will not get the meaning embodied in the system.
The “clueless user” I mentioned above expressed this understanding of the training she experience.
I did the training in the first batch. Over 6 months ago. I haven’t touched the LMS since. How much do you think I remember?
If there is no commonality of meaning, then what?
Downes suggestion is (remember he’s thinking/tweeting in a different context, but I think it applies)
You need to experiment- Wittgenstein called it a game – to test and feel to see what word evokes what response- there is no common ‘meaning’
Given the impossibility of any commonality of meaning and the huge complexity and diversity of the meaning associated with e-learning, learning, teaching, universities, people and technology, the processes within universities and e-learning should be aimed much more at experimentation, at sharing of meaning, at encouraging surprise and enabling effective response and interaction.
What if the assumption of commonality of meaning remains? You keep operating as if there was commonality of meaning? Downes
if ‘sameness of meaning’ were required, communication would grind to a halt.