Half an Hour: The Study, and Other Stuff

This is the latest in a fascinating ongoing argument between George Siemens and Stephen Downes over the value, reliability and focus of Preparing for the Digital University, a report created by George, Dragan Gasevic, Shane Dawson and many others on the current state of research and practice in (mainly) online and distance learning. Because I am quoted in Stephen’s post, and in George’s post to which it is a response, as agreeing with Stephen, I’d like to clarify just what I agree with.

Where I disagree with Stephen is that I do think it is a good report that pulls together a lot of good research as well as other sources to provide a rich and informative picture of what universities have been doing in the field of online and distance learning, and how they got there. I think its audience is mainly not seasoned edtech researchers, though there is a lot of valuable synthesis and analysis in it that those of us in the field can and will certainly use. I see it as a strength that it does not just limit itself to ‘reliable’ research (whatever that may be – I’ve seldom found an unequivocal example of that elusive beast) and I am quite happy with the range and depth of the sources it uses. This is an expert summary and analysis by some of the top experts in the field who know whereof they speak. Of course it misses some things and over-emphasizes others, but that is the nature of the animal and I think it does a very good job of remaining broad, informative and clear.

I think Stephen and I are in rough agreement, though, in observing the boundary that the report does not try too hard to cross: the challenge that some of the research presents to the very notion of the university as we now know it and, to a lesser extent, the under-representation of ideas and research that relate to that. The latter point is a tricky systemic problem because, on the whole, the majority of work and writing in that space is under-represented in literature that, because it tends to come from universities, tends to focus on universities. As this report is about universities, it is quite reasonable that this is the body of literature it uses.

The relative lack of beyond-the-institution thinking is, I believe, a concern for Stephen but, for me, it’s just something that, if I were writing it, I would want to add more of. It seems to me that this report will have most value in providing information for policy makers, managers of institutions, and those who are beginning to discover the field. It will open some eyes, help people to avoid old mistakes, and open up some important discussions. But, thanks to the intentional focus on the university and how we got to now, the structures, processes and measures are mostly rooted in an assumption that the university as we know it can and should persist. The discussion that emerges will inevitably tend to focus on how digital technologies can be used to do what we already do in (from a birds-eye perspective) only slightly different ways. In doing so, it may blind participants to the very real threats to their whole way of life as well as opportunities that are worth grasping. This may not be the best idea but it is not a weakness in the report as such – it is, after all, doing exactly what it says on the box. In fact, it is to its credit that it does address some approaches and tools that are transformative. 

I agree with George (and with Stephen’s hopes) that universities are and will continue to be really important institutions that can and should offer great value to our societies for a long time to come. We would invent them very differently, or maybe not invent anything like them at all, if we started afresh, knowing what we now know. The reality is, however, that this is what we have and it has enormous momentum that is not going to stop any time soon so, if we are to make the best use of it, we should both understand and make improvements to it. This report is a solid foundation for that. There are some risks that it might, without further reflection, lead to ‘improvement’ of the wrong things – those that are counter-productive to the goals of increasing knowledge and learning in the world – and so further ensconce harmful practices. My pet hobby horses include courses, grades, and the unholy linking of learning and accreditation, for instance.  But there are other huge problems like the trend to systemic exclusion of disadvantaged people, the treatment of students as customers and the unnatural separation of disciplines and fields. Stephen mentions more. With that in mind, it would be useful to think a bit further about ways that the foundations of the university like teaching, accreditation, community, knowledge production, knowledge dissemination, being a knowledge repository, a source of expertise and so on are being not-too-subtly eroded by things that are enabled by the net, as well as to further critique the embedded patterns, limitations, biases, and blind-spots that make those foundations brittle and liable to crack or crumble.

The basis for that is all there in this report but, on reflection, I think the discussion of those issues is something for a further report as it demands a different level and kind of analysis. I am not at all sure that the Gates Foundation would want to fund such a thing, but it should. Actually, maybe that line of thinking is a bit too narrow. After all, the exchange between George and Stephen, as well as contributions by others (e.g. George Veletsianos) is already, and self-referentially, doing much the same job such a report might do, and maybe doing it better. The learning dialogue and knowledge creation that is occurring through this distributed conversation is as rich as the report itself and, in its own way, at least as valuable. If the report had not been written then that dialogue might not have occurred, so it is a good anchor, but it is part of a richer knowledge network. And that’s exactly the point: technologies like social media are deeply subversive because they enable us do some of the job that universities traditionally do without requiring a university as a necessary intermediary, with all the limitations and exclusions that implies. The patterns, technologies, economic models, checks and balances are not there yet to replace all of a university’s functions – we have much research to do and many inventions yet to invent, and I am very aware that it is only because of the university that I for one am able to participate in this – but the change is already happening, and it is quite profound.

Address of the bookmark: http://halfanhour.blogspot.ca/2015/05/the-study-and-other-stuff.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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