I just returned from the 2013 Sloan-C Emerging Technologies for Online Learning conference in Las Vegas. What a fantastic gathering! The value of the conference to me was the numerous great conversations with new friends (Jen Ross, Christopher Brooks, Amy Collier, David Wicks) and old friends (Tanya Joosten, Laura Pasquini). And, as always, I finally met friends and colleagues who I have interacted with online for a while (Mark Lee, Rolin Moe).
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Amy notes that the unconference was fantastic. She is spot on!
I’ve been trying to make sense of the conference and my experiences since I left. My friend and colleague Joel Donna (of 3ring) came to Austin to spend some time with me on Saturday-Monday and the conversations I had at the conference continued with him as well. Here’s what has been on my mind:
1. Three years ago, I used to have conversations with colleagues wherein I was desperately trying to make the case that technology-enhanced pedagogy was a powerful approach to have in our “how to improve education” toolkit. I wouldn’t be surprised if at times I was called a technology evangelist (any of you that follow my work know that I am not). Nowadays, I am finding myself on the other end of the spectrum – cautioning colleagues about the narrative that education is broken, educational technology is the fix, and for-profit corporations are here to save the day. If Gardner Campbell was here, he would have said, “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.” What is education for? Who is it for? What does it mean to learn? If education really “is broken,” what exactly is broken? Is the funding structure broken? Are the pedagogies that we use broken? Is instructor preparation broken? Is our understanding of how people learn broken? Is the notion of academic freedom broken? What is broken?
In the world that I inhabit, “broken” refers to educational systems that employ unjust practices, disregard unequal access, promote exploitation, and embrace pedagogies of hopelessness and marginalization. Unfortunately, I suspect that the notion of “broken” that I perceive may be unlike the notion of “broken” that popular narratives embrace.
2. I can try to convince individuals that this contemporary fable of education being broken is a story told and retold by powerful individuals/entities who have something to gain by creating alternative systems (…and just to clarify, I am not arguing that education is perfect – see above). Do we stop there? Ideally, no. What educators and researchers need to do is to become involved in the design and development of educational systems and educational technology. If we don’t, someone else will design our future for us. Do we really want that? Do we really want future educational systems designed without input from educators and researchers? I hope not. I am working on a project related to this and I hope to be able to share it with you within the next two weeks.
3. I met a a lot of colleagues at the conference that are thinking about similar issues. This makes me quite happy. And I am very glad and fortunate to be able to spend time with all of you!
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I had a great time participating in the Career Forum roundtables, giving advice to PhD students about academia and sharing my own experiences. I value this. I value having conversations with students and spending time together answering difficult questions. The question that keeps coming up here is: What is your passion? Is it teaching? Is it service? Is it a particular research method, a particular pedagogy, or worldview? How does that relate to the world at present? How can you pursue your passion? And to close the circle, unstructured time with colleagues is important and can be very productive for these types of conversations.
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I was originally invited to the conference to give a plenary talk on emerging technologies. Huge thanks to David and Jen for all their help in making this a success. My presentation was recorded and I am really hoping that it will be made available online for free (hint, hint). My slides are below, and a storify of my talk, courtesy of Laura Pasquini, is here.
While yesterday I mentioned that there was not much conversation about research, today was a little bit different. The value that educational research can contribute was highlighted by Alan November (November Learning) and Richard Culatta (US Department of Education). Richard in particular suggested that edtech startups work with educational researchers and teachers in designing their products. Such a simple idea (and one that we teach in our MA and PhD degrees), but one that is rarely taken into consideration it seems. Working within disciplinary silos (whether that’s teachers developing educational technology alone, or engineers developing educational technology alone) is not how complex problem (like education) are solved. On the one hand, the absence of educators from a design team could lead to development of tools/products that don’t solve any sort of educational problem. On the other hand, the absence of educators might lead design teams to think outside of the constraints of current systems. Each time I think about this, I return to the design process used by IDEO, which highlights diversity and interdisciplinary thinking. The video below is a good example of this type of thinking:
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The acknowledgment that educational technology startups will benefit from partnering with educational researchers is important. It is the same acknowledgement that was made by the NSF in the computing education for the 21st century program (disclosure: I am co-PI on one of those grants). Actually, the NSF went beyond simply acknowledging the value of partnerships and made CS-Education partnerships a requirement in applying for funding.
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Richard mentioned that the Obama administration is developing initiatives that value teachers (e.g., Project Respect). I look forward to learning more about this, but to also understand how such policies align with the high stakes climate that the administration has continued pursuing. While individual policies may be worthwhile, they exist within a larger ecosystem, and I would love to know how the administration sees its high stakes approach aligning with these initiatives.
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Towards the end of the day I managed to position myself right in the middle of conversations related to venture capital, business models, and investment in startups. And the statement that follows has been in my mind since. A panelist said: Do we care about learning outcomes? Absolutely. Once we first make money for our investors. This statement was followed by another statement noting that a sizable return on investment is the “mandate.”
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I’m not that naive to believe that everyone is in this space for noble causes. I also don’t think that everyone is in this space for monetary gain. When building the educational systems of the future, all of us (educators, researchers, investors, designers, and developers alike) should make sure to ask: For whom is this future being built? Who benefits? And who is left out?
This week I am spending time at the SXSWedu conference. It’s described as a conference that “features four days of compelling presentations and informative sessions from education professionals, industry leaders, and policy practitioners committed to engaging all learners.”
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These are not my usual stomping grounds. Indeed, AECT, AERA, E-learn, SITE, EdMedia, ALT-C and all the other conferences I’ve been to feature groups of individuals committed to education and learning as well, but none of them feature the entrepreneurial atmosphere and the “disruption is imminent” aura that this conference is epitomizing.
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I had a great lunch with George Siemens today. I came across George’s work in 2007 and have chatted on and off with him over the past 5 years on various social media platforms but we hadn’t actually ever met face-to-face until today. I joked that I will be wearing my ethnographic hat during my time at the conference, trying to make sense of a culture different than my own. While my research aims to ultimately make a difference in education and people’s lives, and, a number of edtech startups and I are (seemingly) operating in the same area, I am not so sure I am in the “edtech space” (as it is affectionately called by the numerous entrepreneurs I met at the opening reception). And I don’t fully understand the different rounds of venture capital funding. But, that’s the language that’s dominating the conversations so far. But, I do believe this is something that more education researchers need to know about. After all, when individuals propose solutions for the problems of education, we need to listen. And to question. For more on this you should read this piece from Audrey Watters, (who is also at the conference and we got to spend some time chatting together today).
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Language is a strange thing. It’s strange because the same words might have different meaning to different people. Take the words “democratizing education” for example. What do you think of when you hear those words? I think of Paulo Freire, equity, education as a public good, the freedom from pedagogies of oppression. I wasn’t sure what these words meant when I heard them today. I believe they meant “freeing education from the control that educational institutions exert on it.” And even though it sounded good (who doesn’t want to “democratize education” anyway?!) I’m not sure that progressive educators’ visions of democratic and equitable educational systems align with the visions of democratic educational systems that were discussed today. And that’s another reason why more educators and researchers need to be here, and need to be in these conversations.
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Research was absent. Perhaps I was at the wrong sessions. Even at the sessions that I went to, any mention of evaluation (let alone research) was problematic. For example: “15% of our students told us that they [insert survey response here].” There was no mention of how many individuals were surveyed, what the return rate was, or whether the evaluation questions were created and validated by an independent party. I understand that educational research might not be on the radar of commercial entities and investors. But, it’s important. And, if we are truly dedicated to making change in education, however small or large it is, then we should be investigating whether the tools we create work, how they work, and in what contexts they work.