Skip to content

Adios Ed Tech. Hola something else.

I’ve been involved in educational technology since the late 1990′s when I was at Red River College and involved in deploying the first laptop program in Canada. Since that time, I’ve been involved in many technology deployments in learning and in researching those deployments. Some have been systems-level – like a learning management system. Others have been more decentralized and unstructured – like blogs, wikis, and social media.

But there is something different in the ed tech space today than what I have experienced in the past. Most of my career has involved using technology to help people get better access to learning resources and materials, to better connect with each other, to better access formal education, and to improve their teaching practices and pedagogies. I’ve been fortunate to journey with talented folks: Grainne Conole, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, Martin Weller, Dragan Gasevic, Shane Dawson, Carolyn Rose, David Wiley, Ryan Baker, and many many others. At some level we all shared a goal that fairness, justice, and equity underpin the role of education in society and that by enabling access to learning and improving the the quality of learning, we were helping to improve the lives of learners and of society more broadly. Sometimes this meant helping people to develop digital skills to find new jobs or transition into new roles. Sometimes it meant connecting people eager to collaborate with others from around the world. Sometimes it was about righting a wrong or injustice. Regardless of whether the goal was finding a job or developing new mindsets, my focus was always on the learner, on the human.

Emerging technology today departs from my previous vision of improving the human condition. Through AI/Machine Learning, we are constantly hearing that technology is becoming more human and becoming more capable of judgements that we once thought were our domain. In education though, the opposite is happening: educational technology is not becoming more human; it is making the human a technology. Instead of improving teaching and learning, today’s technology re-writes teaching and learning to function according to a very narrow spectrum of single, de-contextualized skills.

Two articles this past week crystallized my thinking. First, Sebastian Thrun, in an Economist article, states: “BECAUSE of the increased efficiency of machines, it is getting harder and harder for a human to make a productive contribution to society”. If that is true, why is his startup trying to teach humans? Why not drop the human teaching thing altogether and just develop algorithms for making the stated productive contribution to society? He also details nanodegrees which are essentially what we in academia have to date called “certificates”. Perhaps we can call them nano-robo-certificates. Making up words is fun when media attention is petitioned. Most discouraging about this is that I’ve met Sebastian and he is a friendly, caring, deeply motivated person. The Thrun-of-media doesn’t align with the thoughtful Thrun-in-person.

The second article focused on Knewton. Jose Fereirra states “this robot tutor can essentially read your mind”. I’ve met Jose on numerous occasions. He’s bright, charismatic, and appears to genuinely care about improving learning. His rhetoric doesn’t align with the real challenges of education where cognitive capability alone is a small factor in learner success. Robot tutors will not make personalized learning easy. Learning is contextual, social, and involves whole person dynamics. In the past, I’ve stated that Knewton is the only edtech company with Google like potential. That is likely still the case, but I’m no longer convinced that this is a good thing.

Both Udacity and Knewton require the human, the learner, to become a technology, to become a component within their well-architected software system. Sit and click. Sit and click. So much of learning involves decision making, developing meta-cognitive skills, exploring, finding passion, taking peripheral paths. Automation treats the person as an object to which things are done. There is no reason to think, no reason to go through the valuable confusion process of learning, no need to be a human. Simply consume. Simply consume. Click and be knowledgeable.

My framework for technologies in the edtech space now, those that I find empowering for learners and reflective of a human and creative-oriented future, includes five elements:

  1. Does the technology foster creativity and personal expression?
  2. Does the technology develop the learner and contribute to her formation as a person?
  3. Is the technology fun and engaging?
  4. Does the technology have the human teacher and/or peer learners at the centre?
  5. Does the technology consider the whole learner?

I go through five year cycles. My early interest was in blogs and wikis in learning. Then my attention turned to connectivism and networked learning. Then to MOOCs. And then to learning analytics. These have all been terrific experiences and I’m proud to have been able to work with leading researchers and exceptional students. But it’s time for change. A curious disconnect has been emerging in my thinking, one that has been made clear with the hype-oriented buzzwords of today’s ed tech companies. I no longer want to be affiliated with the tool-fetish of edtech. It’s time to say adios to technosolutionism that recreates people as agents within a programmed infrastructure.

Over the last several years, my grants and research interests have turned to something…else. I’m not sure what the unifying thread is a this stage. Partly it’s a focus on the whole person. On empowered states of learning. On mindfulness, complexity, integrative learning, contemplative practices, formative learning, creativity, making. The dLRN grant focuses on connecting researchers with state systems to improve learning opportunities for under represented learners. (btw, you really should join us at our conference at Stanford in October). Our grant with Smart Sparrow focuses on multiple dimensions of learning success where the teacher remains central in the learning experience. Our project with Intel involves several post docs exploring how personalization can be improved in the learning process by developing a graph model of the learner that considers contextual, cognitive, social, and metacognitive factors. Two of our NSF grants are focused on language and discourse analysis and using big data to explore roles that learners adopt in variously configured knowledge spaces (Wikipedia, Stack Overflow, and MOOCs). Our MRI grant produced a report on digital learning – an evaluation of how technologies foster learning, rather than foster routine clicking. These are promising narratives to the de-humanizing edtech narratives. Others, such as Lumen Learning, Domain of One’s Own, and Candace Thille’s research on adaptive learning are similarly advancing humanizing technologies.

These transitions in research are part of a broader agenda that will help, at least in LINK lab, to create tools, technologies, and pedagogies that enable creation, personal formation, engagement, fun, and joy. I’m still fleshing out exactly what this will look like over the next several years. Obviously technology will be central in this process, but it will be one where mindful and appropriate learning practices are promoted. Where technology humanizes rather than reduces people to algorithmic and mechanical practices. Whatever this research agenda becomes, I’m more excited for the future of technology enabled learning than I have been in many years.

White House: Innovation in Higher Education

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to the White House. The invitation was somewhat cryptic, but basically stated that the focus on the meeting was on quality and innovation. This invite was then followed a week later with a link to a post by Ted Mitchell, Undersecretary of Education, on Innovation and Quality in Higher Education, to help prepare for the conversation.

The event organizers made it clear that no media or social media was allowed during the event in order to have an open brainstorming session. My thoughts below are suitably vague so as to not identify who else was there and the specifics of the meeting. Instead, my comments are more about my personal reactions to the conversation without going into details about who said what specifically. (I was worried that the trip would have to be cancelled as I managed to get food poisoning a few days prior to the event, but fortunately, things worked out).

1. The White House is secure. As a “foreign national” it took me over two hours to clear three layers of security, was provided a special pink badge to identify me as a foreign national and was required to navigate only with an escort (including restroom visits and ultimately WH departure). I’m baffled how people manage to jump the White House fence. I felt watched over with lovingkindness.

2. Higher education generally has no clue about what’s brewing in the marketplace as a whole. The change pressures that exist now are not ones that the existing higher education model can ignore. The trends – competency-based learning, unbundling, startups & capital inflow, new pedagogical models, technology, etc – will change higher education dramatically.

3. No one knows what HE is becoming. Forget the think tanks and the consultants and the keynote speakers. No one knows how these trends will track or what the university will look like in the future. This unknowability stems from HE being a complex systems with many interacting elements. We can’t yet see how these will connect and inter-relate going forward. The best strategy in a time of uncertainty is not to seek or force the way forward, but to enter a cycle of experimentation. The Cynefin Framework provides the best guidance that I’ve seen on how to function in our current context.

4. I was struck by how antagonistic some for-profits are toward public higher education. I sat in one session where a startup spent much of the time expressing intense dislike for higher education in today’s form “my tax dollars are going to bad actors”, ironically to be followed up with “I loved my time in university. It shaped me and made me”. It reminds me of Peter Thiel’s drop out of school and start a company. But what does Thiel expect when his money and his life is at stake? He expects, for his hedge fund: “High GPA from top-tier university; preferably in computer science, mathematics, statistics, econometrics, physics, engineering or other highly quantitative”. I’m worried that the future will have an education system where the wealthy continue to receive high quality education on campuses, but the poor receive some second-tier alternative system that prepares them mainly to work but not to be change agents in the world. This gets at the heart of a challenge in higher education. HE is a system that is deeply embedded in societal realities, including equity and justice. It’s not an ROI equation. It’s a quality of life equation. A startup or corporate entity has a primary purpose of doing what makes sense economically. It’s their job. But it conflicts with the most dominant needs of our society today: how to educate individuals from low socio-economic status. The bottom income quartile of society has seen zero increase in degree completion over the past 50 years. Any meaningful redesign of higher education, for the benefit of individuals and society broadly, has to be primarily focused on helping to move this population toward success.

5. Title IV is the kingmaker. This is the alpha agent in change. Title IV drives federal student aid in the US. Systems that are included have access to students aid funding. Those that are not included (say a bootcamp startup) do not have access. As Title IV funding changes, so will US education. I heard several pushes for voucher systems (i.e. fund the student directly and they decide what to do with the dollars). This is the main space to watch in identifying which innovations will have legs and which ones will fail to get traction.

6. Expect a future of universities being more things to more people. A future of broadening scope regionally and of greater engagement in the lives of individuals. I addressed this toward the end of this presentation, starting slide 28. Higher Education is moving from a 4 year relationship to students to a 40 year relationship

7. Expect a future of far greater corporate involvement in HE. VC funds are flowing aggressively and these funders are also targeting policy change at local, state, and national levels. We aren’t used to this level of lobbying and faculty is unprepared to respond to this. Expect it. Your next faculty meeting will involve a new student success system, a personalized learning system, an analytics system, a new integrated bootcamp model, new competency software, new cloud-based computing systems, and so on. Expect it. It’s coming.

8. Expect M & A activities in higher education. I fully anticipate some combination of partnering with companies like General Assembly, creation of in-house bootcamps, or outright acquisitions by innovative universities.

9. The scope of change is starting to settle somewhat in HE. It’s a more comprehensible landscape than it was a few years ago. We’ve had our MOOC hype moment. The system of universities globally withstood the assault (remember when this was a legitimate conference topic??). Not only that, it was discovered that MOOCs are exceptional for those on campus. Similarly, some solidification of innovative teaching and learning practices is happening and it’s making it a bit easier for leaders to respond. As stated previously, this doesn’t mean that we know what HE will look like in the future, but it does provide a firmer foundation for planning for leaders. Any university that doesn’t yet have some department or committee focused on “responding systemically to innovations and change pressures” is missing an important opportunity.

10. Higher education is a great integrator and subsumer. I fully expect a future of more, not less universities globally. They play too significant a regional and local economic and identity role for regions to not expect a university in their backyard. Look how hard it has been to kill Sweet Briar. The clock is ticking on the nonsense of Drucker and Christensen’s statements about 50% campus closures. We are entering the golden age of learning. Why would we kill our universities?

11. I was stunned and disappointed at the lack of focus on data, analytics, and evidence. In spite of the data available, decision making is still happening on rhetoric. We don’t understand the higher education market analytically – i.e. scope, fund flows, student flows, policy directives, long term impact, – well nationally and internationally. I want to hold both universities and corporate sectors to accountability in their claims of impact. We can’t do that without a far better data infrastructure and greater analytics focus.

12. I’m getting exceptionally irritated with the narrative of higher education is broken and universities haven’t changed. This is one of the most inaccurate pieces of @#%$ floating around in the “disrupt and transform” learning crowd. Universities are exceptional at innovating and changing. Explore any campus today. It’s a new world on most campuses, never mind the online, competency, and related systems. And if your slide deck includes an image of desks and argues that nothing has changed, you’re being dishonest and disingenuous. Repent. Healing is possible for you, but first you must see the falseness of your words.

Employability and quality of life

The employability narrative for higher education is over powering. While I certainly agree that work is important, I think the framework of “getting a job” is too limiting for the role that higher education (can and should) play in society. I had the privilege recently to deliver a talk to a group of folks at HERDSA in Australia on this topic. My argument: employability is important, but quality of life is more critical as a long term focus. Slides are below.

Personal Learning Graphs (PLeG)

Personalized and adaptive learning has been described as the so-called holy grail of education. The idea is not new, though its technological instantiation is getting increased attention. In a well-funded education system, personalized instruction happens when guided by a teacher as each students strengths and weaknesses and knowledge gaps are known. However, when classrooms start to exceed 20+ students, some type of mediating agent is needed in order to address knowledge gaps as it becomes impossible for a teacher to be aware of what is happening with each learner. So, while the human educator is the original (and best) personalized learning system, the current funding constraints and other resource challenges have raised the need for alternative approaches to make sure that each learner is receiving support reflective of her needs.

Many of the personalized learning systems now available begin with an articulation of the knowledge space – i.e. what the learner needs to know. What the learner knows is somewhat peripheral and is only a focal point after the learner has started interacting with content. Additionally, the data that is built around learner profiles is owned by either the educational institution or the software company. This isn’t a good idea. Learners should own the representation of what they know.

Last year, I posted on personalized learner knowledge graphs. Since then, I’ve been working with several colleagues to refine and develop this idea. Embedded below is a summary of our recent thinking on what this would look like in practice. Personal Learning Graph (PLeG – pronounced ‘pledge’ (acronyms are hard)) is intended as a response to how work and life are changing due to technology and the importance of individuals owning their own learning representation.

The death of Athabasca University has been greatly exaggerated

I keep hearing rumours about Athabasca University dying or at least being on its deathbed. I guess stories like this don’t help: AU taskforce releases sustainability report. This article was picked up by Tony Bates, who states: “So Athabasca University is now in the same position as the Greek government, except it doesn’t have the EU, the IMF, or the Germans to look to for help – just the Alberta government, which itself has been fiscally devastated by the collapse of oil prices.”

I’m conflicted by Tony’s response. He has forgotten more about digital learning than most of us will ever know. He has a global view of the sector and has been in the trenches as a leader. His diagnoses of how AU’s problems came about resonates with the discussion that I have heard. Unfortunately, Tony also adds needless rhetoric to a situation that has qualitatively changed with the new government in Alberta. His comments don’t reflect the new Alberta context.

I don’t know all the behind the scenes discussions relating to this report. I don’t know the specific intent of the sustainability report. My impression from what I’ve read (see: Athabasca University’s Hostage Crisis and Athabasca University facing insolvency, Alberta government may have to step in) is that this is a political game (request for more funding) that is being played in the public sphere.

It’s amply clear that governments are divesting from public education. The defining challenge of our time is inequality. Any sufficiently advanced and civilized society should ensure a) healthcare is available to all and b) an education is available to all. Education is not the goal. The goal is a populace is able to improve their position in life and to live life on the terms of success that they define for themselves. Education is the best way that we have of doing this today.

The education system we are building today is failing to enable opportunities and is instead a system of hardening power structures and socio-economic positions. President Truman anticipated this, nearly 70 years ago:

If the ladder of educational opportunity rises high at the doors of some youth and scarcely rises at the doors of others, while at the same time formal education is made a prerequisite to occupational and social advance, then education may become the means, not of eliminating race and class distinctions, but of deepening and solidifying them

Publicly funded online universities (such as AU, OU, OUNL) have to date been the most successful systems in enabling educational access to learners who do not fit the traditional learner profile. While a number of traditional universities have recently started using the rhetoric of targeting and supporting under-represented students, open universities have been doing it since the 1960s (and some systems prior to that).

I hope that the new Alberta provincial leaders, and counterparts globally, would recognize and support the revolutionary and real life impact that open universities have had on the quality of life of many learners. It’s discouraging to see that at the exact point where many state and provincial leaders around the world start to recognize the need for improving education access, those systems that have been serving this mission for 50 years risk being cut off at the knees by limited vision and appropriate government support. Fortunately, early indications suggest that the government in Alberta is starting to listen: “”I take this situation seriously,” Sigurdson [Advanced Education Minister] told Metro. “The Alberta government is ready to work with the university and help it become more sustainable.”"

Digital Learning Research Network Conference

I’ve been working with several colleagues on arranging the upcoming Digital Learning Research Network (dLRN) conference at Stanford, October 16-17, 2015. The call for papers is now open. We are looking for short abstracts – 250 words – on topics of digital learning. The deadline is May 31. Our interest is to raise the nuance and calibre of the discussion about education in a digital era; one where hype and over-promising the power of technology has replaced structured interrogation of the meaning of changes that we are experiencing. We have a great lineup of speakers confirmed and are expanding the list rapidly. The conference will include social scientists, activists, philosophers, researchers, and rabble rousers. It will be an intentionally eclectic mix of people, institutions, and ideas as we explore the nodes that are weaving the network of education’s future. Representation from the following research organizations has already confirmed from: Stanford, Smithsonian, University of Michigan, University of Edinburgh, Columbia University, CMU, state systems (Georgia, California, Texas, and Arkansas), and SRI.

Join us for what will be a small (max 150 people) and exciting exploration of a) what education is becoming, b) who we (as learners, activists, and academics) are, and c) where these two intersect in forming the type of learning system that will enable us to create the type of society that we want for future generations.

For a more thoughtful analysis of the conference and our call for submissions, see Bonnie Stewart, Kate Bowles, and Kristen Eshleman

From the call:

Learning introduces students to practices of sensemaking, wayfinding, and managing uncertainty. Higher education institutions confront the same experiences as they navigate changing contexts for the delivery of services. Digital technologies and networks have created a new sense of scale and opportunity within global higher education, while fostering new partnerships focused on digital innovation as a source of sustainability in volatile circumstances. At the same time, these opportunities have introduced risks in relation to the ethics of experimentation and exploitation, emphasizing disruption and novelty and failing to recognise universities’ long-standing investment in educational research and development.

The Linearity of Stephen Downes. Or a tale of two Stephens

Stephen Downes responds to my previous post: “I said, “the absence of a background in the field is glaring and obvious.” In this I refer not only to specific arguments advanced in the study, which to me seem empty and obvious, but also the focus and methodology, which seem to me to be hopelessly naïve.”

Stephen makes the following points:
1. George has recanted his previous work and is now playing the academic game
2. Research as is done in the academy today is poor
3. Our paper is bad.

Firstly, before I respond to three points, I want to foreground an interesting aspect of Stephen’s dialogue in this post. I’m going to call it “academic pick-up artist” strategy (i.e. tactics to distract from the real point of engagement or to bring your target into some type of state of emotional response). I first encountered this approach by the talented Catherine Fitzpatrick (Prokofy Neva) during CCK08. Here’s how it works: employ strategies that are intended to elicit an emotional response but don’t quite cross over into ad hominen attacks. The language is at times dismissive, humorous, and aggressive. In Stephen’s case, he uses terms such as: hopelessly naïve, recant his previous work, a load of crap, a shell game, a con game, trivial, muddled mess, nonsense. These flamboyant terms have an emotional impact that is not about the research and don’t advance the conversation toward resolution or even shared understanding. I’ll try to avoid responding in a similar spirit, but I’ll admit that it is not an easy temptation to resist.

Secondly, Stephen makes some statements about me personally. He is complimentary in his assessment of me as a person. I have known Stephen since he did a keynote in Regina in 2001. I’ve followed his work since and have greatly valued his contributions to our field and his directness. I count him as a friend and close collaborator. I enjoy differences of opinion and genuinely appreciate and learn from his criticism. (do a “George Siemens” search on OLDaily – he has provided many learning opportunities for me).

Stephen says a few things about my motivations that require some clarification, specifically that I am trying to make an academic name for myself and that I am recanting previous work. I honestly don’t care about making an academic name for myself. I am motivated by doing interesting things that have an impact on access to learning and quality of learning for all members of society. I am a first in family degree completer – as an immigrant and from low socio-economic status. There are barriers that exist for individuals in this position: psychologically, emotionally, and economically. Higher education provides a critical opportunity for people to move between the economic-social strata of society. When access is denied, society becomes less equitable and hope dims. My interest in preparing for digital universities is to ensure that opportunities exist, equity is fostered, and that democratic and engaged citizenry are fostered. The corporatization of higher education is to be resisted as values of “profit making” are at often in conflict with values of “equity and fairness”. I want my children to inherit a world that is more fair and more just than what my generation experienced.

I will return later to Stephen’s assertion that I am recanting previous work.

1. George has recanted his previous work and is now playing the academic game

With academic pickup artistry and my motivations foregrounded, I’ll turn to Stephen’s assertions.

It has in recent years been engaged in a sustained attack on the very idea of the MOOC and alternative forms of learning not dependent on the traditional model of the professor, the classroom, and the academic degree. It is resisting, for good reason, incursions from the commercial sector into its space, but as a consequence, clinging to antiquated models and approaches to research.

This get at the heart of views that Stephen and I have discussed on numerous occasions. I believe in the value of the professoriate. In this instance, he is Illich to my Friere. As I interpret Stephen’s work, he would like to see all learning opportunities and control shift to the individual and sees limited value in the higher education system that is as much about preserving faculty positions as it is about preserving the academy. Stephen and I both resist commercialization of education but vary in how we want to see the university of the future. Stephen wants a university model without universities. This comes, I believe, from his unfortunate experiences in doing his phd where his supervisory panel played a hard heavy hand in determining what is and isn’t research that they valued. I’m sure his experience isn’t unique.

Faculty can be stunning idiots when it comes to preserving and perpetuating their egos. The pursuit of knowledge and advocacy for equity often takes a seat to ego and the goal building a faculty “mini me” who is expected to pick up a research stream done by a panel or department and toe the line. In contrast to Stephen’s views, I love universities. I want a future of more, not less, universities. Universities are not perfect, but they are the best model that we currently have to enable individuals to improve their position in life and a power structure that exists to counter and comment on the corporate and government power structures. Can these goals be realized by networks of individuals (i.e. the second superpower)? If the world was populated with primarily Stephens, then it might be possible. For many people, however, education is not a goal in itself, but rather a means to employment. Systems are needed to preserve and perpetuate the highest ideals of society. If left to chance, then the views of the most aggressive will become the norm. While society slept, many of the wealthiest were busy creating a tax system that preserved their resources and created inequity. In the past, unions existed to serve as an organizing structure to advocate for the rights of individual works. Stephen would argue that we could today do this organizing and democracy preserving work through networks. I agree that networks are important, but argue that institutions are a type of network that has been configured to better meet these needs. Some structure is needed. Perhaps not as much as we see today in universities, but a minimum level or organization is required in order to provide learning opportunities to society’s disenfranchised. Simply giving people access is not enough. Social, scaffolded, and structured support is needed.

Perhaps as a result, part of what Siemens has had to do in order to adapt to that world has been to recant his previous work… This recantation saddens me for a variety of reasons. For one this, we – Siemens and myself and others who were involved in the development of the MOOC – made no such statements. In the years between 2008, when the MOOC was created, and 2011, when the first MOOC emerged from a major U.S. university, the focus was on innovation and experimentation in a cautious though typically exuberant attitude.

I haven’t recanted my previous work. Stephen displays a linearity of thought, of cause/effect, that confuses me. I see the world in networked structures. Learning is about network making at neuronal, conceptual, and external levels. Knowledge is networked. The history of ideas is networked. I don’t see a “one or the other” approach to research, to corporate involvement in education, or to learning in general. Instead, I see 3D lattice-like network structure that have multiple dimensions and connections between those dimensions.

Siemens has moved over to that camp, now working with EdX rather than the connectivist model we started with… Again, these rash and foolish statements [from Agarwal] are coming from a respected university professor, a scion of the academy, part of this system Siemens is now attempting to join.

I disagree with this statement, largely because I have privileged access to my own thinking. In this instance, and at least one prior when I did a talk at Online Educa many years ago and he stated that I had become fully corporate, Stephen is putting me in a box. Nobody puts George in a box! I am part of the academy in terms of employment. I am part of the academy by nature of grant writing and research. I am part of the academy in terms of publishing with my peers. But I am not only a one-dimensional entity. I did not take a traditional academic route. My publication history is not typical. Many of my citations come from open public works rather than traditional publications. To say that I have recanted prior work is simply not true. I am bringing my previous work into a different context – one that allows for networks and university structures to exist. Stephen is doing something similar with his work with LPSS. Has he sold out to the corporate oil and gas sector?

The inclusion of the Chronicle article as part of Stephen’s comments makes this a more complex discussion. We are now not only looking at what Stephen feels is a bad report, but that my professional ambitions are now being interpreted through a Chronicle piece. My criticism here, and something that was not clear in the Chronicle article, is about the academy’s embrace of MOOCs. Stephen takes the “we” personally, whereas he was never the intended target of the “we”. I would love to see all media interviews and recordings posted fully with articles such as this. My use of “we” in the above quote is problematic. By “we”, I was speaking about education/hypesters/corporate entities like Udacity/Coursera. This is something that Rolin Moe also asks about.

And what is key here is that he [George, over here, still in a box] does not believe our work was based in research and evidence… He says nice things about us. But he does not believe we emphasize research and evidence.

I was making an argument that didn’t come off clearly. This is perhaps a similar failing to Stephen’s previous assertions that his work is about “making” not only reporting. I don’t believe he meant it in the way that others interpreted it. What Stephen was saying there, and I’m saying here, is that there is an approach to work (in my case research and in his case writing software) that produces hope for desirable outcomes rather than despair at seeing a seemingly inevitable techno-solutionist outcome. I’m not denying that Stephen does research. But he has placed himself in a difficult position: he doesn’t want the institution of higher education but he wants to be seen by people in the academy as someone who does the same type of work as they do. Stephen defines himself as a philosopher. His papers reflect this spirit. He doesn’t frequently subject his ideas to the traditional peer review that defines academic research (for obvious reasons – he doesn’t trust or feel that process has much value). His writing is open and transparent, however, so anyone could engage and critique if they were so inclined.

2. Research as is done in the academy today is poor

The comments above aren’t a direct engagement yet with our paper. In the second half of this post, Stephen expands on his primary concerns which are about educational research in general.

He says:

Why is this evidence bad? The sample sizes are too small for quantificational results (and the studies are themselves are inconsistent so you can’t simply sum the results). The sample is biased in favour of people who have already had success in traditional lecture-based courses, and consists of only that one teaching method. A very narrow definition of ‘outcomes’ is employed. And other unknown factors may have contaminated the results. And all these criticisms apply if you think this is the appropriate sort of study to measure educational effectiveness, which I do not.

Educational research is often poorly done. Research in social systems is difficult to reduce to a set of variables and relationships between those variables. Where we have large amounts of data, learning analytics can provide insight, but often require greater contextual and qualitative data. Where studies, such as Bonnie Stewart’s recent PhD, are qualitative, criticism against size can be leveraged. These are both unfair in that no single node represents the whole knowledge network. Research is a networked process of weaving together results, validating results, refuting results, and so on. It is essentially a conversation that happens through results and citations. The appeal to evidence is to essentially state that opinions alone are not sufficient. The US Department of Education has a clear articulation of what they will count as evidence for grants. It’s a bit depressing, actually, a utopia for RCTs. While Stephen says our evidence is poor, he doesn’t provide what he feels is better evidence. Where, outside of peer-reviewed articles and meta-studies, can academics, administrators, and policy makers find support and confidence to make decisions (the stated intent the introduction of our report)? What is our foundation for making decisions? If the foundation is opinions and ideas without evidence, than any edtech startup’s claim is equally valid to researchers, bloggers, and reformers. Where is the “real research being performed outside academia” and what are the criteria for calling that activity research, but what’s going on in the academy, and funded by NSF, JISC, OLT, SSHRC, as being largely trivial?

Stephen then makes an important point and one that needs to be considered that the meta-studies that we used are “hopelessly biased in favour of the traditional model of education as practiced in the classrooms where the original studies took place.” This is a significant challenge. How do we prepare for digital universities when we are largely duplicating classrooms? Where is the actual innovation? (I’d argue much of it can be fore in things like cmoocs and other technologies that we address in chapter 5 of the report). Jon Dron largely agrees with Stephen and suggests that a core problem exists in the report in that it is a “view from the inside, not from above.”

I need to reflect more on Jon’s and Stephen’s insight about research rooted in traditional classrooms and the suitability of assessing that against a networked model of education and society.

3. Our paper is bad

At this stage, Stephen turns to the paper itself. Short answer: he doesn’t like it and it’s a trivial paper. The list of what he doesn’t like is rather small actually.

At this stage of reviewing his post, I’m left with the impression that much of Stephen’s complaint about our paper is actually a discussion with himself: The Stephen that disagreed with his phd supervisory committee and the Stephen that today has exceeded the impact of members on that committee through blogging, his newsletter, presentations, and software writing. Our paper appears to be more of a “tool to think with” and enable Stephen to hold that discussion with his two selves, effectively Stephen of today affirming that the Stephen in front of the phd committee made the right decision – that there are multiple paths to research, that institutions can be circumvented and that individuals, in a networked age, have control and autonomy.

Stephen next statement is wrong: “With a couple of exceptions, these are exactly the people and the projects that are the “edtech vendors” vendors Siemens says he is trying to distance himself from. He has not done this; instead he has taken their money and put them on the committee selecting the papers that will be ‘representative’ of academic research taking place in MOOCs.”

The names listed were advisors on the MOOC Research Initiative – i.e. they provided comments and feedback on the timelines and methods. They didn’t select the papers. The actual peer review process included a much broader list, some from within the academy and some from the outside.

They do not have a background in learning technology and learning theory (except to observe that it’s a good thing).

In my previous post, I stated that we didn’t add to citations. We analyzed those that were listed in the papers that others submitted to MRI. Our analysis indicated that popular media influenced the MOOC conversation and the citations used by those who submitted to the grant. Many had a background in education. George Veltsianos shares his recent research:

Our tests showed that the MOOC literature published in 2013-2015 differed significantly from the MRI submissions: our corpus had a greater representation of authors from Computer Science and the Gašević et al., corpus had a greater representation of authors from Education and Industry. In other words, our corpus was less dominated by authors from the field of education than were the MRI submissions. One of Downes criticisms is the following: “the studies are conducted by people without a background in education.” This finding lends some support to his claim, though a lot of the research on MOOCs is from people affiliated with education, but to support that claim further one could examine the content of this papers and identify whether an educational theory is guiding their investigations.

He goes on to say that the MOOC conversation has changed and that greater interdisciplinarity now exists in research.

Final thoughts

Stephen and I have had variations of the conversation above many times. Sometimes it has centred on views of what is acceptable knowledge. At other times, on the role of academics and knowledge institutions in networks. Some discussions have been more political. At the core, however, is a common ground: an equitable society with opportunities for all individuals to make the lives that they want without institutions (and faculty in this case) blocking the realization of those dreams. We differ in how to go about achieving this. I value the legacy of universities and desire a future where they continue to play a valuable role. Stephen imagines a future of greater individual control, less boundaries, and no universities. Fundamentally, it’s a difference of how to achieve a vision that we both share.

On Research and Academic Diversity

In my previous post, I mentioned the release of our report Preparing for the Digital University. Stephen Downes responds by saying “this is a really bad study”. He may be right, but I don’t think it is for the reasons that he suggests: “What it succeeds in doing, mostly, is to offer a very narrow look at a small spectrum of academic literature far removed from actual practice”. This resulted in a Twitter exchange about missing citations and forgotten elearning history. Rolin Moe responded by saying that the history that we included in our citation analysis of MOOCs was actually the one that most non-elearning folks follow “depending on lens, Friedman Pappano & Young are more representative of who’s driving EdTech conversation”.

We took two approaches in the report: one a broad citation analysis of meta-studies in distance, online, and blended learning. This forms the first three chapters. While we no doubt missed some sources, we addressed many of the most prominent (and yes, prominence is not a statement of quality or even impact). In the fifth chapter, we evaluated the citations based on the MOOC Research Initiative, which received close to 300 submissions. We only analyzed the citations – we didn’t add to them or comment on their suitability. Instead, our analysis reflects the nature of the dialogue in academic communities. In this regard, Stephen’s criticism is accurate: the narrative missed many important figures and many important developments.

The heart of the discussion for me is about the nature of educational technology narrative. At least three strands of discourse exist: the edtech hypesters, the research literature in peer reviewed publications, and the practitioner space. These are not exclusive spaces as there is often overlap. Stephen is the most significant figure in elearning. His OLDaily is read by 10′s of thousands or readers daily – academics, students, companies. His work is influential not only in practice, as his Google Scholar profile indicates. Compare his citations with many academics in the field and it’s clear that he has an impact on both practice and research.

Today’s exchange comes against the backdrop of many conversations that I’ve had over the past few weeks with individuals in the alt-ac community. This community, certainly blogs and with folks like Bonnie Stewart, Jim Groom, D’Arcy Norman, Alan Levine, Stephen Downes, Kate Bowles, and many others, is the most vibrant knowledge space in educational technology. In many ways, it is five years ahead of mainstream edtech offerings. Before blogs were called web 2.0, there was Stephen, David Wiley, Brian Lamb, and Alan Levine. Before networks in education were cool enough to attract MacArthur Foundation, there were open online courses and people writing about connectivism and networked knowledge. Want to know what’s going to happen in edtech in the next five years? This is the space where you’ll find it, today.

What I’ve been grappling with lately is “how do we take back education from edtech vendors?”. The jubilant rhetoric and general nonsense causes me mild rashes. I recognize that higher education is moving from an integrated end-to-end system to more of an ecosystem with numerous providers and corporate partners. We have gotten to this state on auto-pilot, not intentional vision.

When technology drives education, a number of unwelcome passengers are included: focus on efficacy over impact, metrics of management, reductionist thinking, etc. To sit at the table with academics and corporate players is essentially to acquiesce to capital as a driving and motivating factor. Educators have largely been out maneuvered, as indicated by the almost luddite interpretation by media to any resistance by faculty and teachers. We can’t compete through capital at this table. So instead we have to find an additional lever for influence.

One approach is to emphasize loosely coupled networks organized by ideals through social media. This is certainly a growing area of societal impact on a number of fronts including racism, sexism, and inequality in general. In education, alt-ac and bloggers occupy this space.

Another approach, and one that I see as complimentary and not competitive, is to emphasize research and evidence. At the decision making table in universities and schools, research is the only lever that I see as having comparable capacity to capital in shaping how decisions are made and how values are preserved. This isn’t to discount social networked organization or alt-ac. It is to say, however, that in my part of the world and where I am currently in my career/life, this is the most fruitful and potentially influential approach that I can adopt.

Preparing for the Digital University

We’ve released a new report: Preparing for the Digital University: a review of the history and current state of distance, blended, and online learning (.pdf).

The report is an attempt to reposition the narrative of digital learning away from “look, my cool new technology does this” to something more like “here’s what we know from research and here’s what we can extrapolate”. Innovation is a bunnies and kittens type of concept – who could possibly oppose it? Sometimes new is not better, especially when it impacts the lives of people. Remember the failure of Udacity and San Jose State University project? Even passing familiarity with research in learning sciences could have anticipated the need for scaffolded social support. Instead, a large number of at-risk-students had yet another blow delivered to their confidence as learners, further entrenching negative views of their capability to success in university. This is bad innovation. It hurts people while it gains media accolades and draws VC funding. With our report, we are hoping to address exactly this type of failure by providing a research lens on how technology and learning are related in various contexts.

Five articles are included in the report and provide an overview of research literature, while a final article looks at future technology infrastructure :
- Distance education
- Blended learning
- Online learning
- Credentialing
- MOOC research
- Future learning technology infrastructures

From the introduction:

It is our intent that these reports will serve to introduce academics, administrators, and students to the rich history of technology in education with a particular emphasis of the importance of the human factors: social interaction, well-designed learning experiences, participatory pedagogy, supportive teaching presence, and effective techniques for using technology to support learning.

The world is digitizing and higher education is not immune to this transition. The trend is well underway and seems to be accelerating as top universities create departments and senior leadership positions to explore processes of innovation within the academy. It is our somewhat axiomatic assessment that in order to understand how we should design and develop learning for the future, we need to first take a look at what we already know. Any scientific enterprise that runs forward on only new technology, ignoring the landscape of existing knowledge, will be sub-optimal and likely fail. To build a strong future of digital learning in the academy, we must first take stock of what we know and what has been well researched.

Nothing new here: Arizona State and edX partnership

I’m learning that if you call something existing by a new name, or if you get some press, you can discover well defined concepts and claim them as your own. Today’s example: Arizona State and edX Will Offer an Online Freshman Year, Open to All

The project, called the Global Freshman Academy, will offer a set of eight courses designed to fulfill the general-education requirements of a freshman year at Arizona State at a fraction of the cost students typically pay, and students can begin taking courses without going through the traditional application process… Students who pass a final examination in a course will have the option of paying a fee of no more than $200 per credit hour to get college credit for it.

So, for $200 a credit hour ($600 for a 3-credit course), you may well pay more than you would at a small college. The fees charged then are not innovative or game changing. The idea of open access? Oh, well the OU started that in the 1960′s: Brief History of OU.

The only innovation here? Marketing & PR.

Once systems like ASU, who have launched some innovative ideas over the past decade, start looking at what has been done in education and what is known about learning, and then launch a legitimately new idea, rather than playing a PR game, we may have the prospect of substantial educational change.