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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.


  1. Rolin wrote:

    I responded to the conversation you and Stephen had

    How we talk about MOOCs is as important a research piece as what MOOCs or other EdTech instruments do. And our subset of EdTech is not immune to criticism in how we talk about what we do.

    Friday, May 1, 2015 at 11:28 am | Permalink
  2. Great post, George.I like the social media idea and I have been sharing more via social media spaces. My question is this: How do we raise the profile of College of Education (w/ a focus on Texas) in the discourse of EdTech? I have heard from several high-profile people in higher ed that Colleges of Education are not at the table when it comes to innovating and disseminating new EdTech tools/ideas, etc. What are your thoughts and what can be done? I will read the newly published report!

    Saturday, May 2, 2015 at 7:01 pm | Permalink
  3. Frances Bell wrote:

    There is some interesting and thought-provoking dialogue around this report and that’s valuable in itself. I have only skimmed the report and made comments at (not visible at time of writing) and
    It has raised a question for me about the funding of qualitative research. Has the Gates Foundation funded rich qualitative studies of the student/learner/teacher experience? As an independent researcher, I know how time-consuming that is. Recently, I have been edging towards ‘analytics’ to complement exploration of qualitative data and I found that visualisation tools (as I painfully learn netvizz, netlytics and Gephi) really help to explore significant amounts of qualitative data. But I could imagine that the volume of pre-categorised data generated in large courses would challenge combination with the sort of bottom up qualitative data that is often collected with few pre-conceptions of what will emerge.

    Wednesday, May 6, 2015 at 6:49 am | Permalink