On Research – a #dLRN15 (and beyond) reflection

On Research – a #dLRN15 (and beyond) reflection

At the end of #dLRN15, George Siemens asked the conference body to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the conference, a first-time meeting around a call from the LINK Research Lab:

The networking of higher education requires a research lens in order to make sense of its implications for learning and knowledge, particularly for learners who are not well served by the existing system.

The conference wrestled with this, both in discourse during the final session as well as on the Twitter backchannel.  I wondered if the term research was dangerously close to becoming a klaxon ringing through this subculture, a call that was too focused on a specific space.  In that room, at that time, I was thinking about the dynamic of the room — diverse in terms of geography and gender but heavily weighted towards faculty, scholars and administrators in the world of higher education — and wondering if research was our grand narrative, the promise of a pathway to promise that in reality did not exist.

I still agree with this, but perhaps I was being too hard on research.  Perhaps research does need to be a greater part of the foundation. Perhaps the problem is in how our field traditionally engages *research*.

Martin Weller’s recent blog post, Half Awake in our Fake Empire, furthered my thinking on the subject.

There is something about throwing technology in the mix that demands people set aside critical faculty. If you want the big keynotes, the money slot on TV or the big book deals then you’d better be coming with a dystopian or utopian vision. Preferably based on sweeping generalisations from your own personal experience. That’s what sells here.

I would take this one step further — the dominant paradigm of EdTech keynotes is not either dystopian or utopian, but giving the audience the utopia or dystopia they desire.  And this is a problem with many facets — conference organizers often are considering budgetary considerations and wanting to ensure the viability of future conferences, attendees looking for what Argyris would call the ‘reflexive loop’ where people select data based on their beliefs, presenters wishing for positive engagement and focusing on the positive in their research while pushing the critical to a ‘it’s in the paper’ aside (h/t @veletsianos).  To play into the musical tropes of EdTech blogging, we give the people what they want.

I’m at a place in my research where exposing the dominant paradigm is not enough.  When Stuart Hall advocated for negotiated and oppositional reading in Encoding/decoding, it was not a system to only be engaged with dominant tropes.  If *we* are going to deconstruct the signs and symbols of those pushing the discourse in popular culture, in an age of digital publication and citizen journalism we must put the same lens on our media-producing subcultures.  We must heed Arthur Quiller-Couch and murder our darlings.

This can be difficult in spaces such as a conference, which we attend for a multitude of purposes:  see peers in our specific fields share their research, learn from others in complimentary or tangential fields, discuss field emergence with scholars, present our own research, etc.  Perhaps it is the direct focus on some of these instances that is the problem — the false assumption that engaging peers, learning, discussing and presenting cannot all happen at the same time.  I don’t necessarily think it’s willful that we extrapolate these rather than make them inclusive…our professional reputations are developed through our conference conversations and presentations.  We’re playing a game of cultural capital chicken, our networks built in part by the sacred puffing of our chests in our domains of expertise.

I gave a presentation at #dlrn15 that was critical of the OER movement message, which my research and scholarship identifies as an attempt to be inclusive while pragmatic.  I questioned the pragmatic approach, based on extending my research lens to look at how open is defined by those who provide non-exclusive, non-transferrable access to materials, as well as those who provide paid access to materials.  I agree with David Wiley that we have to avoid the mediocre middle of trying to make OER that is both reusable and effective…but the promise that an Open license is an escape hatch to solve the problems is presented as an unquestioned Right and Assumption, and it could very well be but I have trouble believing that statement while being critical of when Sebastian Thrun says the same thing.

This presentation was not well-received.  I am not equating criticism or questions with poorly received…for example, Mike Caulfield pushed back on my idea that the Open movement was not political, bringing up evidence of advocacy in some instances, UNESCO, and other policy pushes as counter to my position.  That is *exactly* what should happen at a conference…I make a claim supported by research, and it is debated and thrown around in the spirit of furthering the research and the claim.  But the majority response in the session was sour-faced, commentary focusing on defending the people whose work I critiqued rather than the assumptions within the work I was critiquing.  I think David Wiley and Cable Green are vitally important members of the EdTech community and their work has been an incredible positive in our world; I’ve only met David in passing and never met Cable but by all accounts they are wonderful people too.  But that does not make an escape hatch or an OER chart measuring more free and less free/OER and not OER…these are not concepts above reproach.  If OER is an important element in providing quality education, don’t we need to question the aspects of the domain where we lay our most basic assumptions?

Maybe the issue is in how we define research.  There is a lot of MOOC research at #elearnconf, which was shocking to me to be honest.  What this allowed me to do was to shape my sociocultural framing of EdTech from a MOOC perspective.  And what I came up with was that my research looks at analyzing the MOOC from the outside…it is important to look at how society/culture/media/governance look at our systems and platforms and what they say about education as it is to study the efficacy of those platforms or how those from within view the system.  If we are going to be asking questions of equity, access, transformation and social justice, those questions will only partially be answered if our focus is always internal.  This means engaging research questions, research partners and research identities beyond the traditional social science approaches of education and educational psychology.  This means more media studies, more cultural studies, more political science, more social work, more philosophy.  It means embracing hard science and postcolonial readings.  It means embracing research that will lead to more questions and probably not result in whole-hog scalable answers.

We are not going to save the world through education.  That is not a popular statement, but it has proven itself to be more true for millennia than the grand narrative of emancipation.  If our end-game goal is more similar to our research questions, where specificity grounded in data/evidence is more favorable than trite tropes, we will have multiple research lenses looking at multiple solutions for the multiple subcultures dealing with issues around the practice and politics of higher education.  I appreciate dLRN having this conversation.  I also note Adeline Koh’s statement that this conversation is nothing new, and educators must realize ‘new for me’ does not equal novel.  What we can do that could be new is use our space as ‘second professionals’ (first profession being expert in a domain of knowledge, second as educators) to better question assumptions, develop instruments and inform individuals of questionable public opinion.

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Posted on: October 21, 2015admin

2 thoughts on “On Research – a #dLRN15 (and beyond) reflection

  1. Hi – nice post. As I said to David K over on my one, I am a bit conflicted about this. I definitely want us to move away from “buzz wow” as an approach. But I also like people who _do_ stuff. So I don’t really like journal articles that, say, criticise OERs just for the sake of it, without offering some suggestion as to what should be done to counter that criticism. I’m just not interested in marxist reinterpretations of OER (say) just to demonstrate how much someone knows about marxism. I want it to suggest something that I can then argue or agree with. So while I want more criticism of ed tech as a field, I don’t want it just for its own sake. If that makes any sense at all.

    1. Hi Martin…that makes perfect sense. I responded to that thread on your blog, but to go a little longer-form here, I guess I am arguing for EdTech to do a better job of engaging some of those critical theory lenses in our own work. I brought up Stuart Hall in my blog post, and I think it’s apt…he was criticizing media production of dominant culture, and I’m not as well-read on cultural studies post-blogging, but Hall was certainly advocating for negotiated and oppositional readings of all media forms (just in 1973 there were few outlets for anyone outside the dominant paradigm). How do we properly use that engine of criticism as a ballast for OER/access/transformation rather than as a way for a few people to feel awesome about their reading?

      At the same time, I don’t think there’s a direct line between criticism and solutions/counter-arguments. A post colonialist is trained in postcolonial studies, and their gift to our work is a lens from which to consider the assumptions and biases inherent in what we do, from which we all work together to rectify. I think in the field of education these people would be better served if they were scholar/practitioners, so there would be a sense of how to improve…but the primary gift of critical issues is to shine a light on what we might all take for granted from the inside.

      My personal example — I’m spending my time learning more about programming and the history of artificial intelligence, because my work as a practitioner is better served with a greater understanding of creation and development. I will not be a programmer by trade, but I need that information. I look to feminist theory, queer theory, media studies, cultural studies and other -isms to shine lights and information as well.

      And I’m not sure if that makes any sense at all =)

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