Half an Hour: Research and Evidence

Stephen Downes defends his attack on the recent report on the current state of online (etc) learning developed by George Siemens, Dragan Gasevic and Shane Dawson.

I have mixed feeling about this. As such reports go, I think it is a good one. It does knit together a fair sample of the literature, including bits from journalists and bloggers as well as more and less credible research, in a form that I think is digestible enough and sufficiently broad for corporate folk who need to get up to speed, including those running academies. Its methods are clear and its outputs are accessible. Though written by very well-informed researchers (not just George) and making use of copious amounts of research, I don’t think it is really aimed at researchers in the field. My impression is that it’s mainly for the under-informed policy makers that need to be better informed, not for those of use who already know this stuff, and it does that job well. It’s a lot more than journalism, but a little less than an academic paper. I can also see a useful role for it for those that need to know roughly where we are now in online learning (e.g. edtech developers), but that are not seeking to become researchers in the field. 

I think the more fundamental problem, and one that both George and Stephen seem to be fencing around, is in its title. The suggestion that it is about ‘preparing for the digital university’ is tricky on two counts. First of all, ‘preparing’ seems a funny word to use: it’s like saying we are ‘preparing’ for a storm when the waves are high around us and we are on the verge of capsize. Secondly, and more tellingly, ‘digital university’ implies an expected outcome that is rather at odds with a lot of both George and Stephen’s work. The assumption that a university is the answer to the problem (which is what the title implies) is tricky, to say the least, especially given quite a lot of the discussion surrounding incursions by commercial and alternative (especially bottom-up) forms of accreditation and learning that step far outside the realms of traditional academia and challenge its very foundations. That final chapter mentions quite a few tools and approaches that relegate the institution to a negligible role but there are hints of this scattered through much of the report, from commercial incursions to uses of reputation measures in Stack Overflow. If we are thinking of preparing for the future, the language and methods of formal education, courses, and mediaeval institutions might be a fair place to start but maybe not the place to aim for. There’s a tension throughout the report between the soft disruptive nature of digital technologies (not so much the tools but what people do with them) and the hard mechanization of arbitrarily evolved patterns. For instance, between social recommendation and automated marking. The latter reinforces the university as an institution even if it does upset some power structures and working practices a little. The former (potentially) disrupts the notion and societal role of the university itself. For the most part, this report is a review of the history and current state of online/distance/blended learning in formal education. This is in keeping with the title, but not with the ultimate thrust of at least a few of the findings. That does rather stifle the potential for really getting under the skin of the problem. It’s a view from the inside, not from above. Though it hints at transformation, it is ultimately in defence of the realm. Personally speaking, I would have liked to see a bit more critique of the realm itself. The last chapter, in particular, provides some evidence that could be used to make such a case, but does not really push it where it wants to go. But I’m not the one this report is aimed at.


Address of the bookmark: http://halfanhour.blogspot.ca/2015/05/research-and-evidence.html

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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