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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.

2 Comments

  1. Vanessa Vaile wrote:

    I admire, read and take away much of value from both Illich and Freire… the same goes for both you and Stephen.

    That said, I’ll go back now and fill in on the back story so as not to be picking up butt ends.

    Sunday, May 3, 2015 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  2. Jason Snowden wrote:

    Well, after all, there’s a reason you are DOCTOR Siemens while he is MISTER Downes. It’s natural for someone in that situation to be jealous of those with a rightful claim to “academic games.”

    Wednesday, May 6, 2015 at 7:00 am | Permalink