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Stop what you are doing. Watch this: The Avalanche that Hasn’t Happened

David Kernohan delivered an stunning presentation at the Open Education conference: The Avalanche that Hasn’t Happened. He provides a critical evaluation of the testing/evaluation narrative in education. It is the best take down that I have seen of the dominant trends of for-profit, testing, and deliverology (honestly, that’s a word) impacting education. This video (below) needs to be shared broadly, particularly with leaders in the education sector. This is an impressive and valuable documentary. If David decides to develop a career creating education documentaries, I’ll be the first to provide kickstarter support. Resources and citations for the video are available here.


  1. I was eager, based on this write-up, to watch the video. Unfortunately, it wasn’t what I expected.

    There’s research showing that Michael Barber’s approach was a failure? Awesome, I’m eager to hear the details. But no, wait, we’re not going to do that. Instead, we’re going to intone solemnly, in Mark Stiles’ admittedly lovely voice, that such research exists and take it as a given that Barber must have been thoroughly demolished by some argument we don’t get to hear.

    We hear that Pearson is using high-school graduate trained teachers to run for-profit schools in Africa. That must be a horrible thing, right? High school graduates teaching? For profit? We’re going to hear about the better alternatives for those students, right? Oops, sorry, we’re not. We’re just going to suggest that this must be horrible, because we can’t imagine our students in our countries and economies being taught by high school graduates and because, you know, capitalism.

    We hear in ominous tones all about the global agenda for education as job readiness. So we’re going to get a robust alternative vision for what our aspirations for school should be and why, right? No, sorry, we’re not. Nor are we going to get an explanation of why open education is awesome and revolutionary while the vision of Barber, Pearson, and nameless capitalist overlords is pure evil.

    I was hoping for a robust, well reasoned, and evidence-backed argument for a specific vision of the role that education can play in our society and how we can know if we are succeeding in achieving that vision as a credible counter to the dominant narrative. But this isn’t it. This is a propaganda flick, designed to make people who are already hostile to the agenda being vilified here feel justified in their sense that there is a global conspiracy. It contributes absolutely nothing to the dialectic.

    Friday, November 8, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  2. dkernohan wrote:

    Hi Michael, thanks for sharing your critique. I’m not sure if you checked out the links and supporting material at but I think a lot of the detail you are looking for is in there. There are so many stories to tell, and to be honest the video is just an overview to give a sense of primary themes.

    The brief Audrey and I had was to provide a critique of parts of open education that concerned us, I chose to look at the links between open education and this education reform stuff.

    But thanks for your comments on Mark’s lovely voice – I absolutely agree! And thanks again for watching and commenting.cj

    Saturday, November 9, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink
  3. Paul Hollins wrote:

    Thank you… for a very thought provoking film and supporting narrative .

    You have my attention…

    Michael (above) has asked for the evidence based argument and I’m sure that will be the next development in this very worthy activity (and i would love to be involved !)

    Thank you … for prompting, what is an overdue, debate on fundamental issues in Open Education.

    I also recommend reading “The pirates dilemma ” (Mason) which sheds some light on IPR (all be it in other contexts) evolution in the west at least.

    and Thank you for being a much needed alternative voice !

    Monday, November 11, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  4. Thank you, David, for your gracious and undefensive response to my rather harsh criticism. Unfortunately, that response does not alleviate any of the substance of my concerns. I could write a long and tedious point-by-point response, but I think that one example will be sufficient to get to the heart of the matter.

    In the middle of the film, you quote a string of billionaires, each stating the irrefutable facts that each one of them was a college dropout. We aren’t given any explicit reason why this is important or explanation of what this has to do with open education, just as we are not given an explicit reason why an education agenda that is global is apparently inherently bad. I suppose the implication is that billionaires are part of a global conspiracy to undermine higher education. Now, there are billionaires who are actively hostile to higher education and actively working to undermine it. Peter Thiel, who you do not quote, is one of them. The Koch brothers, who you also do not quote, are two others. But one of the billionaires you chose to quote is Steve Jobs, and the quote you chose is from a rather famous commencement speech that he gave. You must have read or seen the whole speech in order to get your one-sentence excerpt. Therefore, you must have seen the part of the speech, not very long after and rhetorically directly connected to the quote that you excerpt, in which Jobs said the following:

    And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

    It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

    Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

    None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.

    Had you had included this entire excerpt, I think you would have gotten a very different reaction from your audience than the one you clearly intended. Because Steve Jobs is making the case for open education here. Your abuse of his quote, your cutting one sentence out of the speech and dropping into a context that makes it sound like he meant the opposite of what he actually said, was inexcusably sloppy at best and dishonest at worst. When you say that you didn’t have time in your 25-minute video to actually make arguments and you present evidence, particularly when you perform this sort of elision, you will forgive me if I don’t accept that as a reasonable explanation. One point of practice that my various academic mentors repeatedly drilled into me was that if you can’t make strong evidence-supported arguments for the thesis in the amount of space that you have, then you need to pick a narrower topic. If you do otherwise, if you choose to prioritize broader coverage of more assertions over demonstrating that the assertions that you are making are true, then you are not engaging in critique. You are doing something else.

    But really, it’s not you that have gotten me into high dudgeon here. I generally don’t make a habit of ripping into people whose intentions I trust overall for doing what I perceive to be a bad job on one thing or another. I don’t see a lot of value in that. The thing that makes me angry, really, is that this seems to be what the conference audience wanted to hear, and they were quite happy getting that and nothing more. Critique is supposed to challenge us. It is supposed to make us think. To reflect on our own views of the world. To become better. In what sense does attacking Pearson, billionaires, and global capitalism accomplish that aim for that audience? In what sense was this video a critique of open education? You don’t even mention anything that anyone could remotely construe as being related to open education until 22 minutes into the 25-minute movie. At that point, without any introduction or transition, you bring in a MOOC quote and then assert, out of the blue, that “people” view” Avalanche as “the MOOC report.” The report in question is over 70 pages long and does not contain the word “MOOC” anywhere in it. Some “people” may have read it as a MOOC report, although I am not one of them, but don’t you think that bears a little explanation? And most of all, don’t you think it would have been useful to bring that back to the practice of the open education practitioners in the room and how they should reflect on what they do? Even better, how about showing that entire Steve Jobs clip and asking how people who are passionate about open education can enrich that narrative and guide it toward a vision of education that a wide range of people can embrace, rather than flattening it into the slogan of “billionaires hate college” (which, by the way, places the issue into a political frame in which the open ed movement will almost certainly lose).

    Observing the conference at a distance this year, I saw no sign that the attendees were looking to be challenged. They were quite happy to hear you rail against Pearson and Audrey rail against Silicon Valley. They were quite happy to ridicule Andrew Ng. Nobody seemed to remember that when Jim Groom and Gardner Campbell delivered their respectively storied keynotes, even as they railed against the industrial model of education, they also spared a moment to challenge the community’s own definition of openness and the limits of its goals for itself. Going after Pearson is easy and cheap. In that crowd, it’s the rhetorical equivalent of a pratfall. Or maybe of a Twinkie. Tastes delicious, but does nothing healthy for you on the inside. I was hoping to see evidence of a community that is challenging itself to do better, and that defines itself and refines itself based on what it is for rather than what it is against. Watching the videos and tweets from the other side of the continent, I did not see a lot of evidence at a distance of any such introspection. There were, as always, some good, critical questions here and there, and some good on-the-ground projects, but in the main events where the community was speaking to itself about what it is and what it cares about, George’s was the only presentation I saw that dared to challenge the group, at least in passing. And that worries me.

    Monday, November 11, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  5. Thanks for the post and I enjoyed the film but I have to agree with Michael here. He makes some valid points about the importance of keeping an open mind.

    Monday, November 11, 2013 at 10:32 pm | Permalink
  6. dkernohan wrote:

    Thanks again Michael – these are great points and I’m glad that we can discuss them here!

    You gave the specific example of the Steve Jobs Stanford commencement address – and I’d like to confirm that I have watched the whole thing and it is powerful, moving and eloquent. And yes, auditing classes is a lot of what open educational practice is, and I love it. (as a fusty old English Lit student, I used to sneak in to cultural studies and american studies lectures to drink in the really extreme critical theory…)

    But the context in which I used the short clip I hope makes it clear why I used it – I’ll explain here what I was trying to do just for internet conversational completeness… please don’t think I’m explaining the way my art *should* be viewed as clearly this would be silly.

    In the opening narration for that section, you hear “This [dropping out and, not educational fulfilment, is the dominant narrative in our culture.”. What I’m trying to say is that we’ve (culturally) reached the point that if someone says they dropped out we offer their experience more respect than if they hadn’t.

    There’s nothing evil about dropping out, clearly (or being an internet billionaire for that matter!), and neither of these preclude one from talking sense about education. Though it doesn’t seem to be stronglt correlated :-)

    Perhaps the key “talking head” is the Richard Branson one, which is a direct appeal to authenticity and educational insight via the drop-out experience. After making his own claim, he cites Sergey Brin (inaccurately) and Steve Jobs as peers. I wanted Steve Jobs himself to confirm this, but I hoped that using the opening of the very famous commencement address that it would cause enough people to question the claims that Branson was making.

    Incidentally, the section after this, talks several times about open education and makes what I hope was a very uncomfortable challenge about the elision between learning and measures of attainment which is starting to creep into the Open Education mindset via MOOCs and the idea of credentialling open education. “Are we the hammer, or part of the wall?”. This came over very strongly in the discussions in the room after the film, and I think was a key take-away for many.

    And just to note regarding “Avalanche is Coming”, it covered the likes of FutureLearn and Coursera in detail. Here is an example of UK press coverage – & The Guardian’s education coverage is probably where most people would have first encountered the report.

    Incidentally, I totally agree I tried to show too much in too short a film, and if I was making it again I’d focus just on the metrics angle. But, I appeal for anyone to remix the video!

    Tuesday, November 12, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink
  7. Brian wrote:

    Micheal, you were missed at Open Ed this year.

    I do wish to counter the impression you received via social media of the conference attendees as a homogenous claque of jaded cynics. At one point David Wiley asked first time Open Ed attendees to stand, and at least half the packed conference hall came to its feet. I would confidently suggest those newcomers were under-represented on the feeds you were monitoring.

    One of those first-time Open Ed attendees was my boss. He did not care for Audrey or David’s keynotes — he said he did not have a frame of reference for those critiques, and did not think they offered concrete steps to address the complaints they were raising.

    I replied that those were fair responses, but that I strongly disagreed. A lot of us working toward open education in recent years have seen our work co-opted and contorted by corporate and government initiatives. That we’ve seen open education reframed for us through the lenses of venture capital and austerity. He and I had a great discussion — neither really convinced the other, but I felt good about it, and think this understanding will help us work better together here at my university. And in all honesty, I had similar chats of varying detail with other attendees, who had a wide variety of reactions to what was going on.

    I’m not sure how Andrew Ng’s keynote came across online, but let me share how it felt to me in the hall. Prior to the event, I remember thinking this was an interesting opportunity for discourse… I had recently seen a UBC professor present on his experience as a Coursera instructor and he had made a number of compelling argument. And here was a founder of Coursera sharing a stage with George Siemens. I was hoping the two keynotes might engage each other directly. I was looking forward to hearing how he responded to some of the critiques. Who knows, maybe he thought there was something to learn at Open Ed. But not only did he not bother to come in person, he gave a canned keynote that was identical to ones he has given in countless other contexts (this was confirmed by a number of other attendees). There were a few slides explaining to attendees what video-based lectures looked like. It was clear that Dr. Ng had not given five seconds thought about who he was speaking to. And I doubt he has given five seconds thought since.

    Micheal, I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the Open Ed 2013 community deserved to be respected. So I won’t say his keynote was disrespectful. But it was without a doubt an instance of absolute disregard. And at my table, at least, we did not take delight in “ridiculing” poor Andrew Ng. There was some attempt at humour, but the feelings were of dismay and disappointment.

    Tuesday, November 12, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink
  8. Brian wrote:

    Whoops — I see I reversed the vowels of Michael’s name. All I can say in my defense is that I work with a fellow who spells it the other way. Sorry.

    Tuesday, November 12, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  9. Esther Jackson wrote:

    The use of “deliverology” has relevance on multiple levels for education along with workplace learning. With the growth rate of globalization, it may not be a surprise to see the implementation of technology on addressing aspects of deliverology.

    Monday, December 2, 2013 at 2:27 am | Permalink