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November 02, 2006

Architectures of Control

I recently came across a great blog calledArchitectures of Control in Design, which is well worth a look; it has some great examples of regulatory features in products and buildings.

I'm a bit weary of the "control" debates we sometimes have in education, as they are often very superficial in their analysis. Its usually a case of cold creepies and warm fuzzies: Control = bad! However, this isn't a very sophisticated understanding of control, and it can lead us into some very weak arguments. Only a thorough understanding of control - what it is, its instruments, how it is exercised, its effects - is going to be of any use.

For example, if you were to hear that the nuclear power station down the road was "out of control" you wouldn't be advised to go up to it and congratulate it on its free-thinking, individualistic approach.

Cybernetics offers one analysis of control that is I think quite useful, especially when combined with an analysis of social and political power.

In education systems, the main fault I see recurring is the exercise of unnecessary regulation, implemented in an unreflective manner - a habit of control, rather than a consideration of control.

The chief recurring example being that of restricting access to the content of classes to registered members only; this is a control instrument common to the content management systems on which a modern LMS is ultimately based. However, it has no analogue in the physical system of the university, where movement in and out of lecture halls is more or less unrestricted (as long as you are being reasonably quiet about it).

Another common mistake in control is to constrain the tools used in the process rather than just the monitored output, when the output constraint is what is desired. It doesn't matter to a teacher whether they are monitoring 40 blogs with RSS feeds of 10 items each, or 4 LMS forums with 100 posts each. As long as the information is presented in a way that supports their intentions - that is, the output is constrained to a predictable form, such as RSS/Atom - the instrument with which that content is created does not need to be controlled.

Finally, there is simply poor regulatory design - control which is invasive and badly implemented, or which isn't of any clear benefit to those being regulated. A lot of IT policies and instruments, designed by - and for the benefit of - IT staff, fall into this category.

At the opposite end of the scale there is a rhetoric of freedom which I think fails to appreciate the variety of forms that control can take. For example, there are regulatory behaviours within networks of blogs; this is a type of control based on norms communicated by examples and by feedback loops. However, it is still a form of control. Its just smarter, less invasive, and less obvious. (here's a great example of this type of control).

Next year, ALT-C has the theme "beyond control". Hopefully this will not be reflected in the energy supply, network, catering, or pricing scheme, where I can only hope sufficient control is being exercised.

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