Opening the Dissertation: Why We Need to Make Open the Default

I want to talk about open. And academia.

And the outmoded gatekeeping process of the dissertation, world’s most glorified and inflated five-paragraph essay.

Last week was Open Access week, and just before I got on a plane for Australia, Dave & I coordinated a series of Lightning Talks at UPEI about a bunch of different facets of open, and cool things people are doing on campus. There was a GONG. It was fun. I talked about doing my dissertation research in the open…and managed to limit myself to talking for *only* five minutes. There were bets.

Then I went to Australia and talked for waaaay more than five minutes. One talk was specifically on academic Twitter but the other was more me trying to frame out the whole open scholarship thing for folks new to digital pedagogy. I built out an ABC structure that I’m looking forward to digging into more deeply soon…and for the “blasphemy” piece I got to talk Donna Haraway so I was happy.


Then I flew homewards and I was unhappy for approximately 32 hours. I swear the whole “let’s do Sunday twice over with zero connectivity and connections timed so you never seem to go to sleep” gig was harrowing. My mental health and I had to just grimly dog-paddle our way through screaming newborns and back spasms and tiny tiny seats, trying to hang together and forebear. We made it, ragged and ghastly, just in time for Hallowe’en!

Which is my segue into dissertating, because hey…there are parallels.

I am not getting on any more planes this week, though a part of me wishes I were. #OpenEd16 at VCU in Virginia starts today. A Very Large Proportion of my personal/professional “everybody” is there, and while Dave and I had hoped to be too, in the flesh, we are not. Life.

But we are part of a couple of panel conversations about open, including one tomorrow that launches the followup from last year’s #dLRN15 – go check out #SoNAR, the Society for Open Narrative Research.

But this narrative is about the OTHER panel.

Opening The Dissertation: Exploring the Public Thesis Spectrum is Friday afternoon, a hands-on session with Laura Gogia and Jon Becker. I proposed the panel back before I, erm, realized I totally couldn’t go. It was supposed to be us and my committee member Alec Couros and Sava Saheli Singh and Katia Hildebrandt…but. Life. Sigh. Yay Laura and Jon for picking up the slack!

I proposed the panel because for all I shared much of the process of my dissertation research here on the blog, there was a great deal that remained an unspoken long strange trip that no trip back from Australia can hold a candle to.

I want to open up the dissertation to the light of day.

To some extent, this conversation is about open dissertations and open defences. Laura and I both opened up our defences in various ways, with the support of our supervisors and committees, so that our broader networks – who, in both cases, were the subject/s of our research – had a window into the event itself. Mine was livestreamed, right up to the end of public questions. Laura’s was livetweeted by invited guests, right through the committee questions.

Laura, being a visualization wizard, has created a chart around the different decision points involved in opening up dissertation and defence processes to public audiences, and I’m looking forward to participating in the exploration of these – and the possibilities and risks involved – via Google Docs, on Friday. If you’re at #OpenEd16 and you’re in any way part of anyone’s dissertation process, come and join this conversation and help us gather ideas and possibilities!

But. I didn’t actually propose the panel *just* so we could all have a clearer and more granular picture of where we can potentially open up dissertations and defences.

I wanted to open up the question of what – and who – the dissertation is FOR.

Laura’s most excellent flowchart captures many of the decision points in the dissertation process where openness is concerned, but it misses what I think of as perhaps the core one – audience.

Not in the specific sense of the audience who sit in the room or even in front of a screen to witness a colleague outline the work they’ve brought to fruition – but in the sense of the eyes and ears and understandings and policies that thesis work eventually touches and shapes.

The capacity to choose real-life audiences – and to be supported in preparing to *address* real-life audiences – matters. In my day job, I work in adult ed. Done well, adult ed and professional learning are all about meaningful choices and application and authentic audiences for student work.

But when it comes to preparing scholars for the so-called pinnacle of higher education, the doctoral degree, the emphasis FAR too often is on having Ph.D students spend years of their lives preparing a very long, highly-format-focused piece of writing primarily for the audience of their defence committee – THREE TO FIVE PEOPLE, usually – and whoever wants to check the damn tome out of the library in ensuing decades.

Yes, scholars often adapt their dissertations for academic books or papers, but these separate publications usually involve another few YEARS of rewrites and edits from Reviewer #2 before they ever see the light of day.

We need to talk about this, academia.

Here’s my opening salvo for Friday’s presentation in Richmond (complete with sticky note diagrams, sailing metaphors, and upside-down boats):

Long story short, the status quo does not help us make a case for the value of higher ed and expert knowledge. Already we lock away too much of our research in expensive, inaccessible, and increasingly unnecessary journals because we’re attached to our own prestige economies. We miss the opportunity to get that research – knowledge that takes years and, often, public funds to develop – TO THE PUBLIC via policy and media and open channels.

But with the dissertation situation, there’s something particularly ugly about our continuing attachment to familiar forms.

Outside continental Europe, most senior scholars’ concept of the dissertation defence or viva is a tradition of intimate questioning behind closed doors, a rite of initiation, almost.

But…initiation into what?

We are no longer training for the professoriate. Any pretense that that is what the Ph.D dissertation and defence processes are for in their entirety should be met with a Come-to-Jesus about both casualization AND contemporary scholarly practices. We lived in a credential-inflated world, and there are few long-term stable jobs left in higher ed for those who complete even its highest degrees. Even when their tuition and cheap grad student/post-doc labour keeps the system afloat. Full stop.

In my own dissertation work on open and networked scholarship, I found one of the biggest benefits *repeatedly* cited by participants was that cultivating open, public audiences for their work and ideas allowed them to “contribute to the conversation” in their field and in higher ed generally, EVEN WHEN THEY DID NOT HAVE STATUS POSITIONS IN THE ACADEMIC HIERARCHY.

This is where we get back to blasphemy. Haraway (1991) frames blasphemy as a form of faithfulness, an ironic and partial nod to profaned origins that nonetheless preserves the priority of those origins.

What are we being faithful to, when we engage in research, in Ph.D programs, in scholarship? A broken system, or the creation and circulation of knowledge?

How we do dissertations goes a long way to answering that question.

Graduate students embarking on a dissertation should be able to make informed, supported, meaningful choices about who the audience(s) for their dissertations should be.

One of the prime responsibilities of supervision should be helping students select, understand, and reach – to some scaffolded extent – those audiences.

And, OPEN SHOULD BE THE DEFAULT, RATHER THAN CLOSED. That doesn’t mean always, that doesn’t mean without supports. It does mean all of us IN the academy, no matter how precariously, need to learn to navigate various aspects of what it means to be part of the public conversation in our fields, so we can help students find meaningful ways to join in and contribute.

So, as I say in the video, let’s start this conversation. How do we open up the dissertation?

Reflections on Indie Ed-Tech


I first published this reflection on Atavist.

I’m an unapologetic fan of conferences. I like them less for the formal presentations than I do for the informal conversations that follow. Case in point: it was one of those conversations at the dLRN conference in October that led to last weekend’s Indie Ed-Tech Data Jam at Davidson College. You can read more about that in Adam Croom’s first reflection on a weekend that turned out to be one of the most intense, rewarding, and promising gatherings I’ve been part of in a long time.

Too often the momentum for the ideas that emerge in these conversations fades once you return to the urgent work on campus. This one did not. In my mind that has everything to do with the collective work around Domain of One’s Own (DoOO) and the Personal API.Jim Groom, Tim Owens, and Kin Lane are challenging us to look at our systems of ed-tech in another way. And we’re all in because this is the kind of ed-tech that goes directly to what we value most: student-centered, student-owned learning. There are great examples of this in DoOO schools –OU Create, VCU’s RamPages, etc. I will briefly describe the impact we’ve seen at Davidson:

Davidson Domains

When we first rolled out DoOO at Davidson, we pitched it as the ‘anti-Moodle’. For us it represented a breaking down of hierarchies. DoOO moved control of digital spaces from the institutional LMS to the individual teacher and student. In the classroom, domains have broken down those hierarchies even further. As Andrew Rikard wrote so eloquently last summer, this is significant not because of the technological shift, but because it supports a pedagogical shift.

DoOO is critical pedagogy. It is a technological reminder that scholarship happens in conversation. Students own their ideas in the form of content. Where that content resides becomes part of a negotiation. When students are empowered by the tech that lets them drive this part of the process, ideally they see how to drive their own ideas within the scholarly process.

So, that’s good ed-tech, but why is it ‘indie ed-tech’?

Adam opened the weekend by asking us to lay out our own definitions of indie ed-tech. Here is my reflection, cemented by Audrey Watters in her fantastic opening talk. Her first two lines go to the heart of my thinking:

The title of this talk could as easily be “indie versus institution” as “indie versus industry.” I have no love lost for either.

Indie is first and foremost about the individual. It’s DIY. It stands in opposition to corporate controls, but it doesn’t seek to destroy the system itself. That’s the way it works in indie art, music, film, etc. It’s an intellectual resistance, with a goal to improve it. We talk about indie ed-tech mainly in opposition to corporate ed-tech. But indie is really about resistance to any structures that seek to manage or control the individual.

This is what DoOO fosters and where indie ed-tech in general holds the most promise in my mind. As it pushes back on Silicon Valley and corporate priorities (i.e., procurement, digital courseware, the LMS, etc.), it simultaneously pushes back on our own institutional structures that, intentionally or not, prop up those corporate priorities.

While we are right to push back on Silicon Valley to clean up their backyard, perhaps we should clean up our own backyard first. For me that means creating what Tim Klapdor calls a new ‘infrastructure that supports scholarly agency and autonomy.’ DoOO is one layer. The University of the API is another…

API’s: “They will come and help you build it.”

Prior to the event, Kin Lane led a meeting with Davidson’s IT Leadership team to talk about campus API strategies and their potential to support the core mission of higher education – teaching and learning. No one has embraced API strategy as completely as the team at BYU – Kelly Flanagan, Phil Windley, and Troy Martin -who joined us for that meeting. These guys are my heroes.

The next stage in BYU’s API strategy is to develop the ‘personal API’, and a use case we could run at multiple schools was the ultimate design goal for our weekend at Davidson. Perhaps the best piece written about the BYU effort is this one by Marguerite McNeal. If you haven’t read it yet, make a point to do so. The personal API is not easy to grasp. This piece clearly explains both the concept and the potential.

Talking about the potential for API’s, Kelly delivered perhaps my favorite quote of the weekend: API strategy, he said, is reversing the equation from ‘if you build it they will come’ to ‘they will come and help you build it.’ Kin and the folks at BYU are laying the foundations for a new value proposition in higher ed IT. In a time when we expect modern learners to move from consumers to creators, the infrastructure that supports them also has to empower them.

I can’t think of a better way to close than to share Kin’s reflections and summary of how ‘API’s will deliver the change we need.’

What’s next?

Many thanks to everyone who came to the Davidson meetup and to all who continue to work on this effort going forward. Special thanks to Adam Croom and Eddie Maloney for co-hosting the first conversation. And Alan Levine for the awesome first reflection and photos.

Thanks to expert guidance from Known’s Ben Werdmuller and Erin Richey, who ran a perfect design sprint, we have good prototypes for the personal API. Future work will be openly shared on GitHub. Tom Woodward is already off to the races. And the students are leading a prototype build this summer. Talk is cheap. We have to start building for change.

#DLRN15: Why Should You Trust Us?

Well, that’s a wrap.

The first (and hopefully not last) DLRN conference is officially in the books. The reflections are rolling in on Twitter and blogs, and they are largely positive from the participant perspective. That makes me happy and perhaps a bit relieved. But as a co-organizer, I am conflicted when I think about what might have been.

As a community, we share a social justice vision of higher ed. I am concerned about the future of higher education and believe research can be a lever for positive change. I have high hopes for DLRN generally. But by the middle of day one, we weren’t talking deeply about research. We were expressing opinions and bonding around serious concerns that are worthy of attention, like the problem of casual labor, or the needs of non-traditional students, or the lack of learning science behind of edtech. We weren’t building toward solutions.

I walked out of one session, locked eyes with my wonderful co-chair, Dave Cormier, and vented my frustration. To be honest, the disappointment I felt really had more to do with higher ed conferences in general. We ask our educators to flip and blend, and then we come together for report-outs that follow with very little time for deep dive discussions. When we have a room full of smart people with great ideas, as we did during these two days of DLRN, why not leverage that latent capacity to design and plan new research projects that address the concerns we all share? Why not build something together?

At that moment, Dave and Amy Collier bore the brunt of my frustration. Without hesitation they both challenged me. “Why not break your plenary panel?”, they suggested. That moment and that push back encapsulates what I love about this DLRN community. We’re agile. We’re solutions-oriented. Candace Thille and Cristi Ford were graciously if not excitedly on board. Our two students, Andrew Rikard and Emily Rapport were ready for anything, so the next day we went unconference and changed focus about an hour before the session. I could not have pulled off the quick pivot without Amy, who is simply one of the best educators I know. Thanks to all involved, the session seemed to generate some interesting potential research designs.

One of the things I love most about this DLRN community, and about many other peers in digital learning, is the way we like to think together in the open. On the morning walk to Stanford before that session, I had a conversation about the conference with two of my favorite higher ed thought partners and friends – Allison Salisbury and George Siemens. Thinking out loud with them, I eventually came to a different perspective on the conference – one that embraces the style that took shape as a necessary first step in building a strong grassroots activist community.

I’ll summarize the rest of my reflections as a response to a question posed in the closing session, and I am paraphrasing:

As a taxpayer concerned about how expensive higher ed has become, why should I trust your goal to impact change through research?

Here’s why…

…because we will bring collective intelligence to the challenges ahead.
These are some of the smartest, most collegial, collaborative, and genuinely kind people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Perhaps it’s because we need each other. This dynamic digital space is filled with contradictions and uncertainty. We are all trying to understand it. We know good research, and are on consensus that we can go much further working on solutions as a network.

…because we believe in critical pedagogy.
The cynics within are often the ones who care the most. That is certainly the case here. Many of us are fans of Fanon and Freire. We put the learner at the center of education and research – all learners. We are committed to aligning institutions to the core mission. That does not mean we are working to preserve the status quo. We are working for social justice in a digital age.

…because we think deeply about who we serve.
We recognize that education will continue to go digital. We want to shape a future of education that best serves modern learners. Increasingly, we are bringing student voices directly into these conversations. Andrew and Emily spoke eloquently and powerfully in our plenary session, challenging us to respond to these questions through a research lens:

  • How might we understand the role and responsibilities of students in defining their individualization?
  • How might we increase a student’s awareness of the learning process inside and outside of the curriculum?

Like Andrew and Emily, we view student agency as a key driver of optimal learning. And, we understand that their agency can be achieved only when all actors in the relationship of teaching and learning have agency.

…because we want research to impact change.
We suspect that new forms of participatory action research are needed for the ‘last mile’ that moves our research findings to action. And we have great leaders thinking about how to get us there – folks like Rebecca Petersen and Amy Collier, to name two. We also recognize that institutions need effective change agents who understand how to implement responsible systemic change. Eddie Maloney is hard at work on an exciting new discipline model that can get us there.

…and finally, because we have great leadership.
He will hate this characterization, but thank you, George Siemens.

I am excited for the future of DLRN. I want to express my gratitude for the time spent knowing and learning from Kate Bowles, Dave Cormier, Matt Crosslin, Justin Dellinger, George Siemens and Bonnie Stewart. I feel incredibly lucky to have been a part of this organizing team. I am also grateful for new colleagues and friends I met over the course of two days. I do hope we do it again next year.

Now that we know who we are, let’s build something together.

Humanize Them All, and Let Them Sort Themselves Out: #dLRN15 Reflections

So now that the #dLRN15 conference is over, its time for the post-conference reflections to begin. As one of the organizers, I wanted to say a heartfelt “thank you” to everyone that presented, spoke, moderated, slacked, tweeted, blogged, organized, commented, questioned, thought, and attended. I was legitimately concerned over whether or not this conference would “click” with those that attended. But it seems from the tweets, slacks and blog posts that many things did click at some very deep levels.

One thing (out of many) that really stuck out to me was how the word “disruption” seemed almost completely absent from any conversation. While the concept of disruption has been incredibly popular recently, many have rejected the idea from the beginning. Education can’t really be disrupted because it has always been changing (even if too slowly for many). Even if education could be disrupted, would we really want it to be? Disruption can’t be predicted or really even controlled, while typically producing inferior products. For example, mp3s are compressed audio files that produce lesser quality audio experiences when compared to CDs – and you usually don’t even get liner notes. Had there been any ability to control the mp3 disruption, we could have at least utilized lossless technology (like FLAC) and kept the liner notes. Society has mostly accepted an inferior technology audio because of disruption.

To me, a more effective discussion focuses on the change agents that have affected education in small and large ways. Technology is an educational change agent; online education is a change agent; political agendas are change agents. Change agents – while possibly moving at a slower pace – have a greater potential to be influenced and directed for good or bad (or both) than disruption does.

One change agent that we can and should push and influence is the humanization of education, more specifically the designs and technologies we utilize to educate people. This was one of the major themes at #dlrn15: how do we rediscover the people at the center of everything we do in education? My firm belief is that all of our work, policies, discussions, and technology needs to be re-framed with people at the center.

Take my presentations, for example. On the surface, many call the dual-layer model a “MOOC innovation.” Before the conference, I looked at it more as an “instructional design innovation.” And I still do, but I need to start highlighting more that it was not an innovation for innovation sake. The goal of the dual-layer model is to humanize education by creating a practical design for individualized learning. The dual-layer model is an attempt to teach learners how to learn, so that they will realize the epistemological, ontological, even political ideals inherent in all tools (and therefore choose which one to use at any given time accordingly). This power shift is one of many ways to place people at the center of education rather than technology.

Or take larger issues, for another example. We are beginning to understand that where you are born will determine whether you even get to go to college more than any other factor. We tend to look at this as problem to be solved just because it sounds bad. But we need to reframe this as a human problem, by realizing the de-humanizing affect that these statistics have on the people most affected by them. Our tendency is to focus on solving the problem for the sake of solving the problem: those that are least likely to attend college hear that they probably won’t make it into college just because they were born into a lower socio-economic level and won’t even try. However, our focus should not be on solving a problem, because our tendency will be to come up with a one-size-fits all solution based heavily on our own context. Complex problems often involve multiple solutions from many different contexts. We need to re-frame these issues to focus on the people at the center of them, so that we can find solutions that work in their actual, human, real-world context. As Maha Bali put it in our ontology panel, standing on the shoulders of giants doesn’t work for her because those giants were not in her context.

Humanize all people, all issues, all change agents, all technology. All of it. All of them.

The other #dLRN15 theme that resonated most with me is listening to students. Education tends to de-humanize our students by classifying them based on how we think they should be classified. As the “experts,” we sort them out based on our classifications and then tell them what they need the most from us. There is value in that to some degree. But why not let the learners sort themselves out, and then offer our services as guides, mentors, fellow pilgrims on the path to “education”? Where are we creating spaces for them to ask hard questions, fail, get back up, learn outside the curriculum, pick apart a tangent, speak for themselves… in other words, be academics rather than our projects?

edugeek-journal-avatarOh yeah – we don’t really let many academics be academics any more. Maybe we should look at this from all levels. Admins: humanize all of your faculty and staff, and let them sort themselves out. Admin, instructors, and instructional designers: humanize all of your learners, and let them sort themselves out. And you could also say: students: humanize all of your instructors, and let them sort themselves out.

inequality & networks: the sociocultural implications for higher ed

Next week is #dLRN15 at Stanford. Months of planning and debating and collaborating (and panicking!) all come together to launch an inaugural conference/conversation on Making Sense of Higher Education: Networks & Change.

It’s all Panic At The Disco around here these days, people.

There are some serious high hopes embedded and embodied in #dLRN15. Not just for a successful event – though a successful event is a joy forever, as the poets say. Or, erm, something like that. But success is a complex thing, and hopes go beyond the event.

#dLRN15 is grounded in the kind of quiet hopes most of us in higher ed these days don’t talk about all that much: the hopes that things can actually get better. The hopes that research can be conducted and communicated in such a way as to shape the direction of change. The hopes for a future for the spirit of public education, in a time when much in higher ed seems to have been unbundled or disrupted or had its goalposts moved.

Those kinds of hopes are waaaaay too big to lay on the shoulders of any single event or single collection of people…but still, we got hopes, and they underpin the conversations we’re hoping to start through this small, first-time conference next week. We have the privilege of bringing together powerful thinkers like Adeline Koh and Marcia Devlin and Mike Caulfield as keynotes, plus systems-level folks and established researchers and students and grad students and people from all sorts of status positions within higher ed, all thinking about the intersection of networked practices and learning with the institutional structures of higher ed.

However, there’s one strand of conversation, one hope, in the mix at #dLRN15 that I’m particularly attached to. It’s the Sociocultural Implications of Networks and Change in Higher Ed conference theme, and particularly the opening plenary panel of the conference, on Inequities & Networks: The Sociocultural Implications for Higher Ed. I’m chairing, and the ever-thoughtful George Station, Djenana Jalovcic, and Marcia Devlin have agreed to lead the conversation from the stage.

But we need you.

No plenary panel is an island…and while all of us contributing have our own deep ties to this topic, our role is only to start the conversation. Help us make it wider and take it further. Whether you’ll be there or not, your thoughts and input are welcome on the #dLRN15 hashtag or on our Slack channel, or here in the comments. Throw in.

To me, this is the strand that gets at the heart of what education is for, and who it includes, and how, in a time of massive stress: is the digital helping widen participation and equality? Is it hindering?

If the answer to both is “yes,” WHAT NOW?

The aim of the panel is to explore how intersectional issues – race, gender, class, ability, even academic status – in higher education are amplified and complexified by digital technologies and networked participation. While digital higher education initiatives are often framed for the media in emancipatory terms, what effects does the changing landscape of higher education actually have on learners whose identities are marked by race/gender/class and other factors within their societies?

We’ll be sharing and unpacking some of the places we get stuck when we think about this in the context of our work as educators and researchers.

What effects do you see digital networks having on inequalities in higher ed? What sociocultural implications do networked practices hold for institutional practices? What are universities’ responsibilities to students who live and learn in hybrid online/offline contexts?

Please. Add your voices, so that this panel becomes more a node in a networked conversation than a one-off to itself. That in itself would pretty much make #dLRN15 a success, in my mind. :)

Reflections on the Academic Year

Over the past year, my role in the Learning Innovation and Networked Knowledge (LINK) Research Lab has continued to evolve. I have made sure to listen and learn as much as possible as I have continued to shape my place in educational technology. My time spent as an instructional designer has served me well, as has my time working in the Department of History. Both afforded me many opportunities to grow and experience new things, and develop my skills working in online environments. My K-12 background helped lay the foundation for my time in higher ed and working at a technology magnet heavily influenced my practice. All of these past experiences have culminated in my current position.

The LINK Lab sits at the edge of education and technology. Under the tutelage of George Siemens and Laurel Mayo, the lab has made global connections in places like Australia, China, and the UK, and will continue to expand these connections through researched-focused networks such as dLRN. These networks will help provide solutions to broad problems by closing the gap between research and practice through collaborative efforts. By partnering tier-one researchers with state systems, high-impact solutions can take place and continue to strengthen over time as networks grow. This is an important and relevant process, given funding limitations and the stress on cross-disciplinary partnerships, by maximizing impact and inclusion (i.e. bang for the buck).

The 2015 dLRN Conference #dlrn15 will be a great starting place to create broader networks. It will take place at Stanford University October 16-17, 2015. As one of the conference organizers, I highly recommend the event to anyone who wants to be part of the larger conversation on the uncertainties and applications of digital networks for learning, and it will have five themes: ethics of collaboration, individualized learning, systemic impacts, innovation and work, and sociocultural implications. The Call for Proposals ends on June 1st, 11:59pm PT. Even if you do not present, we invite you to take part in the conversation!

Another encouraging part of my year in the LINK Lab was assisting with our Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). We had four PLCs that each had a different topic: building online community, open educational resources, tech tools for teaching and learning, and retooling the core. These groups consisted of faculty, staff, and librarians, and met throughout the year, including attending a major conference together. It became quite evident how exposure impacted their practice. At the end of the year, each participant presented their work at a mini-conference and to the Provost. Collaboration with peers boosted confidence in their use of technology, pushing their comfort levels of teaching practice, and sharing with their colleagues university-wide through published teaching tips. It was encouraging to see the faculty develop throughout the year and I would recommend it to any faculty to consider applying for next year!

Over the year, I have also begun to develop my research focus. I will stir the proverbial pot through this blog, with focus on synchronous learning, microlearning, MOOCs, online/instructional design, and faculty development. Oh, and I will write about history on my other site if you are interested (and who wouldn’t be!) If you would be interested in collaborating, I would love to hear from you.

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm this….

…Higher Education.

Why the Shakespeare reference in my title? England is on my mind lately thanks to Kate Bowles’ recent beautiful post on the mystery of Stonehenge and it’s analogy to the monolithic presence of institutions of higher education. I will come back to Kate’s thoughts and explain where I see intersections with education research, but for some framing of my own thoughts ahead of dLRN2015, here is the entire passage of my borrowed title, from Richard II:

“This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm this England….”

When John of Gaunt gave this speech, he was worried about the future of England in a time of uncertainty. That worry manifests in an impassioned proclamation about a country he loves. His is an emotional appeal to preserve the right kind of governance at a time when the country is unsettled and may be on a path of destruction. Like John of Gaunt, I am worried about the future of Higher Education in a time of uncertainty. I defend our institutions because I believe tradition and old ideas counterbalance the hubris in technosolutionism, and that without them, we are on a similar path of destruction.

One can argue however, that his and mine are essentially emotional appeals to preserve the status quo. John of Gaunt’s England is a country that serves him and his specific “happy breed of men” quite well. Higher Education is a system that serves academics well and transformed people like me. We both assume “this other Eden, this demi-paradise” scales to everyone, without examining more deeply the stories of others. Admittedly, when it seems to be working well enough, we’re not very motivated to seek out stories that are contrary to our own. Paraphrasing Kate, “[The] puzzle of a monolithic presence [is that it’s] so familiar you can hardly see it as strange.”

In contrast, Silicon Valley does see Higher Education as strange – broken, even. Entrepreneur-educators are sharing their own stories and shaping the current narrative that is impacting education policy. Like mine, these do not tell the whole story of higher education. These are the stories told by intelligent, confident and typically privileged people who are often the heroes of their own narratives. They embrace rugged individualism and believe in the larger narrative of Silicon Valley “progress” – a faith in technology and science that Eric Giannella describes as entirely objectively rational, with no space for the subjective and a-rational question of morality. He writes:

“By accepting this narrative of progress uncritically, imagining that technological change equals historic human betterment, many in Silicon Valley excuse themselves from moral reflection.”

I am struck by the words “moral reflection”. I think this is a valuable exercise in understanding the moral truths in any endeavor. Leveling this criticism at Silicon Valley’s foray into education is both appropriate and necessary. At the same time, I am not convinced that we in higher education reflect on the morality of our own institutions in a useful or systematic way. I see it happening at the margins, or a nod to it in our strategic plans, but I don’t see deeper engagement at the level of shared governance and decision-making. It’s my opinion that our uncritical acceptance of the narrative of traditional education leaves us struggling to account for our value.

Accounting for and communicating our value is a challenge I believe learning research can address. But how?

Interestingly, value accounting (or innovative accounting) is a tenet of the Lean Startup method prevalent in Silicon Valley. The goal is to hold entrepreneurs accountable to the effects of over-rationalizing. The methodology provides a framework for validating or invalidating assumptions and discovering what is unknown through actionable research that includes experimentation and fast feedback loops.

Setting aside for a moment the obvious value disconnect between us (learning innovation) and them (market innovation), how might we use a similar method to impact policy through the lens of research? In a recent debate with Stephen Downes, George Siemens describes the complexity of research in social systems as:

“…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…Where, outside of peer-reviewed articles and meta-studies, can academics, administrators, and policy makers find support and confidence to make decisions?”

Can we use a framework built on lean principles to invite more voices into our research processes in a way that also pushes against our own value assumptions? Can these methods include more decision-makers directly? Can frequent feedback loops through experimentation help us systematically understand and communicate the value of higher education? Might these methods of action research help us evolve faster to meet the challenges of modern learners?

Kate’s description of the purpose of Stonehenge as a monolith whose meaning will always be debated is a great analogy for higher education. With all of this in mind, I am pondering the following question:

In a time of uncertainty, what are the best methods and systems of research that make sense of higher education and shape a public narrative that reflects moral truths?

This is one of my questions for dLRN2105. Others I will blog about soon. By now, we hope the word is out. dLRN2015 is a new digital learning conference dedicated to making sense of higher education through the lens of research. Reviewers are needed and the call for proposals is open. Please join us in October and in early early conversations on your own blogs and at #dlrn2015.

The conference takes place October 15-17, 2015 at Stanford University and is sponsored by the Digital Learning Research Network (dLRN) directed by George Siemens, and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

#dLRN15 – Making Sense of Higher Education

I sat at a lunch table earlier this week with some friends and colleagues at my institution and accidentally started a rousing conversation…about conferences.

I asked: What do conferences need to DO to be…valuable?

We all had different answers. In fact, we were perhaps in entirely separate conversations.

One staff colleague, affiliated with an association with an established and funded annual conference, said that conferences need to help get people into the learning/working mindset once the great annual social gathering is convened.

I can see that.

Other staff colleagues, whose positions are not affiliated with associations or any established conferences, but who have access to some annual or bi-annual funding, had a different response. Theirs focused on relevance and how they could find conversations aimed at giving them new conceptual tools while still recognizing that they have systems and practical limits they need to work within.

I could see that too.

Had we just reached out over the cafeteria benches to the rest of our colleagues around us, what other responses would we have gotten?

For faculty, sharing their work and research, both in sessions and in conversations with peers from different contexts, would’ve likely factored high.

For sessional or adjunct colleagues – whose $500 annual institutional budget for conference reimbursement is unlikely to even get many TO a major conference let alone reimburse registration or scholarly association or hotel or food fees – yet who also need to share their work and see what’s shaking up their fields in order to play in the academic prestige economy game of hoping to make more than 20k a year someday, the response might’ve mostly been laughter. Or weeping.

Same for the grad students.

Administrators might have had multiple different answers. I’m cynical enough to assume some would have been about the expense of conferences. I’ve been to enough conferences to half-nod and call that justified. I’m not so cynical as to think there aren’t other, strategic and vision-related answers that might have emerged from those corners.

I can see all those positions.

And then some of us in that cafeteria don’t even register on this list. Right now, I hold two separate part-time roles for which conference travel is not an official part of the budget. At this juncture, I pretty much go as an invited speaker or not at all. This is great work if you can get it, admittedly. However, when your jobs do not include “academic service” and one of them doesn’t include vacation, you come home and make up the days and time lost, which is rather like embodying the summit and the nadir of academic status simultaneously. And it’s not a position that’s often visible from the outside.

It’s hard to hold all our myriad perspectives in view, at once. Yet all of us in that cafeteria the other day – and many more, standing in spots I haven’t managed to articulate – are higher ed professionals.

We are, all of us, the people Raul Pacheco-Vega is referring to when he says “we need to rethink academia, but collectively.”

So I asked What do conferences need to DO? because I was thinking about re-thinking academia collectively. I was thinking about taking our conversations beyond Twitter and responses to op-eds we don’t control…I was thinking about making online ed more than training wheels, to quote Jonathan Rees; I was thinking that somewhere in the overall answer is the possibility that all the above groups and more end up sitting at the same tables, talking to each other about change, fulfilling at least a bit of all the purposes, all the answers.

I was thinking, basically, you should come to #dLRN15: Making Sense of Higher Education. If you can at all.

#dLRN15 – which will take place at Stanford on October 16th & 17th, 2015 – aims to “explore the most pressing uncertainties and most promising applications of digital networks for learning and the academy.”

Ambitious, definitely. But worth a shot.

We have Adeline Koh and Mike Caulfield and Marcia Devlin all coming in as keynotes.

We’re trying to explore five strands of conversation through the lenses of networks and change:

  • The ethics of collaboration
  • Individualized learning
  • Systemic impacts
  • Innovation and work
  • Sociocultural Implications

We’re trying to make it about re-thinking academia collectively. We want “stakeholders” and grad students on the same panels. We want “research” outputs central but voluntary, because not all valuable contributions are formalized as research. We want Works-in-Progress. We want connections and a social gathering and recognition of limits and recognition of contributions…and we want to make good use of people’s time.

We want you.

Yes, you. You, the staff member. You, the professor. You, please, the adjunct and the grad student and the non-institutional scholar and the otherwise-contingent member of the academy – we have significantly-reduced rates for all of the above. You, the administrator. You, the person who doesn’t know what table you fit at.

We want all the things conferences are for, under one roof. We want to talk about higher ed, and futures, and how we can all learn to hear each other and make sense of it all.

I don’t know if we can do all that conferences need to do to be valuable. But we will try.

Submit your 250 word abstract by June 1st to join us. And if you’d like to help us review submissions and make this conversation as rich as it can be, click here.

I look forward to it.

So You Think You Know Theory and Design?

Sometimes I want to create a TV game show based off of “Are you Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” called “So You Think You Know Theory and Design?” It would pull in a bunch of online instructors, administrators, and others that always tell me “oh, I know theory and design; I just need to find cooler tools and tech training!” and put their knowledge of online learning theory and design to the test.  Most people don’t really know much beyond what I teach college juniors about theory and design, so it would be hilarious to watch. Well… at least for the instructional designers out there that know this irritation all too well.

The truth is, instructional design is not the way to fame and fortune in Ed Tech. Its not really even the route to getting a lot of people beating down your door for advice (no matter how many times they have epiphanies that sound suspiciously like something someone might have told them already). Of course, some of the problem is just bad marketing, really. Many people have blogged for years about the ideas that were recently referred to as “MOOC 4.0″ to little attention, but give it a silly number (that ignores 3-4 years of MOOC history) and suddenly the bloggers lose their minds! :)

The funny thing is, to an instructional designer it doesn’t matter if MOOCs work or not. We know how to make it work: good theory and design. Same thing goes for any concept out there: flipped classrooms, blended learning, you name it. We can already tell you how to make it all work – if you really want it to work. Sometimes you want to ask people: “are you designing the course to make one specific student fail, or are you just aiming for the highest possible failure rate?”

Of course, there are also the times you just kind of want to say “sure, blame the discussion board for the bland responses” and call it a day. You have seen enough new, shiny tools come along to know that by this time next year, people are going to be talking about the boring, rote responses they get to VoiceThread activities. That has happened with every online tool so far, and you know too well how the bad designs and theory used to insert the newest tools into the same paradigm and theory is going to produce the same results. What was that Albert Einstein said about this cycle?

The truth of the matter is that most people in online education have mediocre design skills and minimal theoretical knowledge at best, even after going through a Ph.D. in Education. They think they need more tech training to help them discover that golden child tool they need to revolutionize their classroom. Instructional Designers take one look at their class and know that’s not the case: its about needing better theory and design.

Of course, some bad design is driven by the massive number of students they have to teach, and control over that factor is out of their hands. When administration forces bad contexts on instructors, of course bad design is going to emerge.

But a lot of this goes back to what I have been thinking about Ed Tech conferences lately. To be honest, I was probably going to wind down going to any, because its all the same old, same old: old bad ideas re-packaged as shiny new start-ups with the same bad pitches or old bad ideas repackaged as “latest and greatest” conference sessions.

This was until I went to the OLC Emerging Technologies conference (#et4online). Yes, there were some old bad ideas re-incarnated, but there was also sessions on heutagogy, post-modernism, humanizing the MOOC, and a whole host of other design issues scattered amongst the shiny, new, refurbished dud ideas. So I emerged from that week encouraged to stick to the path of what I know best: learning innovation should be driven by innovations in design and theory (which sometimes means actually doing old ideas that we have ignored all along).

Now, don’t get me wrong: I still like new tools, and think we need to push to build better ones (like the crews behind ProSolo, Reclaim Hosting, Known, and others are doing).

(notice that I listed new tools that are based on theory and design more than hype and buzzwords?)

edugeek-journal-avatarSo that is why I am excited about the upcoming Digital Learning Research Network’s 2015 conference in October (#dlrn15). Many of the people that made #et4online a ray of hope are also getting involved with #dlrn15. The people that did the good sessions at #et4online are putting together proposals for #dlrn15. The Call for Proposals actually uses the word “Sociocultural”! And FYI, my name is on the committee list, but I had nothing to do with the CFP – even though it uses ideas and terms that I have been confusing people with for years.

So maybe there is some hope out there yet on the conference circuit?

Call for Proposals for dLRN2015

A very interesting call for proposals (dlrn2015) looking at “Making Sense of Higher Education: Networks and Change”:

Learning introduces students to practices of sensemaking, wayfinding, and managing uncertainty. Higher education institutions confront the same experiences as they navigate changing contexts for the delivery of services. Digital technologies and networks have created a new sense of scale and opportunity within global higher education, while fostering new partnerships focused on digital innovation as a source of sustainability in volatile circumstances. At the same time, these opportunities have introduced risks in relation to the ethics of experimentation and exploitation, emphasizing disruption and novelty and failing to recognise universities’ long-standing investment in educational research and development.

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 Digital Learning Research Network (dLRN), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, explores how digital technologies are impacting all aspects of education, including research, teaching, learning, assessment, and support for underrepresented students.

The dLRN Conference – Making Sense of Higher Education 2015 – hosted at Stanford University on October 16-17, will offer a state of the field assessment from top international researchers and educators. This call for papers will be of interest to researchers, academics, and practitioners who are exploring the many nuances of the complex and uncertain landscape of higher education in a digital age.

What are the most pressing uncertainties, and the most promising applications of digital networks for learning and the academy? What agenda should be set for research in the near term? How best can researchers develop and share insights that will achieve practical outcomes and address systems-level challenges facing higher education, while establishing and applying robust standards of ethical practice?

We are keen to invite participants to evaluate current practices in digital and networked learning, whether formal, self-regulated, structured, unstructured, or lifelong. In particular, we are calling for papers that help make sense of what networks mean for the changing environment of contemporary higher education.”

See the full CFP for more details – abstracts due June 1st!