Changing the Narrative

As Phil mentioned, he and I were both lucky to attend the MOOC Research Initiative conference, which was a real tour de force. Jim Groom observed that even the famously curmudgeonly Stephen Downes appeared to be enjoying himself, and I would make a similar observation about the famously curmudgeonly Jonathan Rees. If both of those guys can be simultaneously (relatively) pleased at a MOOC conference, then something is going either spectacularly right or horribly wrong. I believe it was the former in this case.

We are at one of those rare moments when there’s enough confusion that real conversation happens and possibilities open up. The sense I got is that everybody is really grappling with the questions of where we can take the concept of a “MOOC” and what MOOCishness might be good for. That is fun and hope-inducing. Phil and I spent a lot of the time interviewing folks for a future e-Literate TV series (coming to a computing device near you in March or April of 2014), so we were lucky to hear a lot of perspectives. There is some very good exploration happening now. George Siemens and his fellow conference organizers (as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which sponsored the event and the research) did a real service by bringing people together to talk about these issues at this pregnant moment.

One thing happened toward the end of the conference that has me puzzled, though. Jim mentioned it in his blog post:

At the same time[,] Bon Stewart’s admonitions for some kind of organized response to start filling the temporary void of direction with alternative narrative still rings in my ears—and it is very much the lesson I took away from Audrey Watters keynote at OpenEd.

There was a lot of conversation, really throughout the conference but coming to a head at the end, that the term of MOOC is somehow damaged goods and that…something…should be done about it. Usually the word “narrative” was brought up. But this talk of “alternative narratives” or, as Bonnie put it, “changing the narrative”, confuses me. As far as I’m concerned, the connectivist/open ed crowd has been spectacularly, stunningly successful at “changing the narrative,” and I’m not at all clear what it would look like to somehow do it differently. I don’t understand what they mean here. Unfortunately I had to rush out the door to try to catch a plane shortly after the panel discussion and didn’t have an opportunity to follow up with some of the attendees. So I’m going to try to express my confusion in this blog post and hope that somebody can help me figure out what I’m missing.

Warning: This post is long and lit crit wonkish.

The Archeologies of  Ed Tech Narratives

Before there was “MOOC,” there was “edupunk.” Jim coined this term in 2008 as a way of describing an anti-consumerist educational ethos. He was rejecting LMSs, course cartridges, PowerPoint decks, and other tools that tend to encourage (in his view) the notion of education as something that can be packaged and delivered. Journalist Anya Kamenetz picked up this term in her book DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. Despite the fact that Anya explicitly cited Jim and some of his peers as sources of inspiration for her book, the edupunk crowd was not amused. I didn’t follow this falling out closely, but my sense is that they didn’t like the book because it is, in part, consumerist in its recommendations to students about how they should think about their education. (Anya’s Gates-funded sequel, The Edupunks’ Guide to a DIY Credential, is essentially a consumers’ guide.) Anya’s use of the term and her impressive success at promoting the book and the ideas in it eventually prompted Jim and others to stop using the term edupunk.

And yet, I think it’s worthwhile for the DIY U critics to ask themselves what that narrative would have been like had it not been for the influence of their word on the book. Remember, Anya’s primary concern is the student debt crisis. Her goal is to show students that they don’t have to feel locked into the default path of a traditional college education that will plunge them deep into debt. There are other narratives that could have served her purpose. Consider, for example, libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel’s Ayn Randian exhortation that young people should drop out of college and create their own startups. Anya’s book title could have been simply DIY U: Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Education. The addition of “edupunks” destabilizes the narrative that would have been implicit in that title. It raises questions for the reader: What is an edupunk? Where did that term come from? What do punks have to do with edupreneurs, or the coming transformation of higher education? You could say that the term “edupunk” was co-opted, and there would be some truth to that statement. You could also say that “edupunk” infected or informed the narrative about the student debt crisis. There would be some truth to that statement too.

The story of “MOOC” is different but it shares some important characteristics. In this case, I believe the xMOOC proponents were largely unaware of the connectivist work when they took up the term. Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig cited Salman Khan as their inspiration; I don’t recall them ever mentioning George Siemens, Stephen Downes, or David Cormier. I suspect that “MOOC” was a convenient term that they and others latched onto without giving it a lot of deep thought. (And for the Derrida fans in the crowd, somebody then had to create the term “SPOC” to position “private” as the absence of “open”.) But imagine if they had latched onto or made up a different term, like “Internet-scale Courses (ISC)”. In this post-pivot moment, what conversation would that have provoked? With “MOOC,” we can ask questions like, “Really, what do we mean by ‘massiveness’ and ‘openness’, and why (and how, and where) are those useful features of an educational experience?” No such possibility would exist in “Internet-scale Courses.”

Is there a world in which an original idea like “edupunk” or “MOOC’ could both become dominant and remain true to its roots? One narrative we should be particularly careful of is the narrative of co-optation. The notion that some pure Idea is insidiously taken over by Forces and corrupted to their Evil Ends is both convenient enough to be almost inevitably wrong and simple enough to contradict the epistemological tenets that undergird the very idea of connectivism.

Writing and Diffidence

I have largely put away the theoretical tools that I learned as a graduate student in media studies, but one that has stayed with me is the notion of critique in the Derridian sense. Now, I will be honest: There are vast swathes of Derrida that I simply do not understand. In fact, I have always suspected that his works were partly jokes about the knowability of meaning at the expense of the reader, in somewhat the same way that Shelley’s “Ozymandias” can be read as a joke about the knowability of identity. But one thing that I did take away from Derrida (and Foucault, in a different way) is that there is an inherent, inevitable, and eternal tendency in human culture to develop simple stories about what is. These stories are always wrong, in part because they are simple. You can’t fix this. You can’t “change the narrative” to something that is “true.” We want easy answers but there are no easy answers. One can buy this much of the theory without buying the idea that meaning is radically relative, but connectivists in particular should grok this concept. Changing the narrative does not get us out of the fundamental problem that all narratives are, in some important sense, false (or, if you want to get all post-structuralist, that they can only be “true” in the sense and to the degree that they are consistent with the rest of a belief system). Nor does it solve the problem that any narrative will inevitably be warped by the powerful human tendency to make what they are hearing consistent with what they think they already know and, more importantly, with what they want to believe. The best you can do, according to this view of the world, is continually destabilize the dominant narrative—to challenge people to look, for a moment, beyond the easy and search for the true.

And this brings me back to the thing that I don’t get. Given this view of the world, what does it mean to “change the narrative” or “create alternative narratives”? What would success look like? How is it different from what has already happened with “edupunk” and “MOOC”? If those stories are failure stories, then how would a success story be different?

Phil and I aren’t thinking about e-Literate TV as a work of critique—we’re just not that smart—but I suppose you could say that one of our goals with it is to change, or at least destabilize, narratives. What we see happening on campuses is something like this:

  • The campus president announces, “I just met with the very nice people at [insert commercial MOOC vendor]. We are making a MOOC. This is going to transform our university! Please make the MOOC by next week.”
  • Somebody in the faculty senate declares, “I heard that MOOCs give you cancer and melt the polar ice caps.”
  • Food fight.

We want to challenge both the president’s and the faculty member’s narratives, not because we want to replace them with a “better” or “truer” one, but because the most interesting conversations happen when people on both sides of the argument start realizing that the situation is more complicated than they thought it was. This is precisely what was so inspiring about the MOOC conference, and it’s the most that we know how to aspire to. If there is a more effective strategy or a higher goal for “changing the narrative,” I would like to understand what it is. But at the moment, I am having a failure of imagination.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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22 Responses to Changing the Narrative

  1. You say this: “the connectivist/open ed crowd has been spectacularly, stunningly successful at ‘changing the narrative’.” But as Phil Hill points out in another post, the only media coverage of the most significant gathering of cMOOC people ever is of some fairly minor UPenn study of xMOOCs. So, there’s that.

  2. Stephen, do you imagine that even the higher education-focused media are going to write nuanced stories about academics discussing connectivism? Can you tell me how that 1000-word article in The Chronicle would read? Do you imagine that Thomas Friedman or David Brooks would pick it up and carry the flag forward?

    The higher ed media outlets are going to write about UPenn, and they’re going to write about retention. They *might* (and should) write about the $16 million grant that you got. (Major congratulations, by the way.) They will write about the things that fit their definition of news. And the broader media will pick the pieces which fit in with narratives that they already understand and want to tell. Part of my point is that we need to have a realistic understanding of how these narratives work and what is and is not possible. Given that understanding, connectivists have had pretty remarkable influence on that which can be influenced.

  3. Huh.

    My point in the panel, for what it’s worth, was that GIVEN our human tendency to gravitate towards simple stories, we better learn to tell our stories about education better. More simply. More broadly. Not in institutional terms or journal articles, but in the media, where people with decision-making power can hear them and begin to believe they’re valid & valuable. Like you and I talked about at the Mexican restaurant the first night, giving administrators or potential learners a slightly better, slightly more complex box to open: one that isn’t just full of hot air that bears no relationship to viable learning. Or frankly, viable business models for higher ed.

    So “changing the narrative” isn’t getting Thomas Friedman to write about connectivism. It’s not about wresting “MOOC” back to its roots a la edupunk, or fighting co-optation. It’s destabilizing the reductionism of the DisruptionTsunami discourse while leveraging the hype legacy to talk about different things. Like, oh, learning. Or networks. Or whatever. The stories won’t all be the same stories. The ones coming out of EdX or Stanford may sound very different – and have very different premises around knowledge and learning – than mine. I’m okay with that, so long as they aren’t empty (and impossible) in the way the NYT refrains of the past 18 mos have been.

    Co-optation of “MOOC” is irrelevant, to me. The question Dave asked toward the end of the panel was would we rather start again with a new word, to separate from the DisruptionTsunami side of the Two Solitudes I’d talked about. I said no. I wouldn’t have BEEN in Texas last week were it not for that crazy train, which I think is in part your point to Stephen in the reply above. But co-optation of learning and higher ed as a wholesale entity is, for me, a different story. And somewhere in the NYT hype, the future of learning and higher ed got not only conflated with MOOCs but with a marketized fantasy in which it appears natural that for-profit companies can offer free mass learning for everybody with no downsides. And that’s the narrative I think we need to take on.

  4. Peter Shea says:

    Maybe the issue with narratives is not that they are false, but true only within a community of discourse that commits to shared values, language, and rules etc by which to come to truths (with a lower care t). Looking for a “grand narrative” that transcends all of these local truths is the problem. But it’s not really a problem to have differing communities of discourse. They are just different sets of perspectives that clash in the marketplace of ideas. The problem is with a single (especially state sponsored, legitimate, official) grand narrative. I think the fear is that entities with great prestige, such as elite universities, well resourced philanthropies, mainstream media outlets and the like are at a distinct advantage in creating and selling grand narratives at the expense of more nuanced explanations. Good thing we have blogs. 😉

  5. The media formula is (some variation of):
    – change or conflict (the bigger the better, disruption is ideal, and preferably change that is opposed by unions, workforce, residents, etc)
    – profile (study, book or plan by someone from Yale, MIT, Stanford, Harvard, or maybe Princeton or Berkeley, in a pinch a 2nd tier US university (like UPenn))
    – money (preferably US venture capitalist money, foundation money, or in a pinch, government money)

    To change the narrative is either to (a) change the cMOOC story into something that fits the story above, or (b) change the formula above into something that fits cMOOCs.

    The only way to make the cMOOC story fit is to give it profile and money, and maybe make it more controversial. But even at the conference, it had profile (George joining UTA), it had money (my $19 million program), but yet that wasn’t enough to overcome the conflict, profile and money of a relatively small UPenn survey. So I don’t think we can make cMOOCs fit the formula without twisting it out of shape (or perhaps some MIT professor will take it up as a pet cause, at which point he (always a he) will be seen as the father of MOOCs and connectivism).

    So my point, I guess, to Bonnie is that there is probably no way to tell our story sufficiently well, sufficiently simply and sufficiently broadly to attract the attention of media – not only US media but even media in our own countries.

    The only way to change to formula itself is to ignore it, and focus on building something that can’t be ignored. That, I think, is what we have been up to – and to a limited degree accomplishing – with connectivism and cMOOCs. Not so much that media would actually notice it even if they were in a room full of connectivists (they were, and they didn’t). But enough perhaps to get them into the room in the first place. To create change sufficiently large that even they can’t ignore it, even if as a result they (a) misrepresent the nature and extent of the change, (b) credit or cite people who have had nothing to do with the change that was created, and (c) focus on opportunists and hucksters, and not the investments that created the change in the first place.

  6. Phil Hill says:

    Stephen (and Bonnie), I think part of the potential of connectivism and cMOOCs is to go beyond developing “it” and to more broadly influence and change in a positive direction the online ed world. I see that already happening (with potential for even more activity), even if it isn’t reported as a story about cMOOCs. This is where I think the focus on first principles is useful (what does it really mean to be open, how does massive change the equation, etc).

  7. I think I agree with everybody on the thread.

    Stephen, I agree that the right way forward is to build something. You change the narrative by changing the reality.

    Bonnie, I agree that the way to do that is to start with slightly more complex stories on the local level. By the way, I think Jim provided us with a fantastic example of this in his presentation on the Domain of One’s Own. One of the great things about his story is that he doesn’t buy into the idea that one has to choose between providing a rich and empowering liberal arts education and improving students’ marketability. Another is that he can point to actual successes (to Stephen’s point).

    Peter, I agree on the one hand that having different communities that see things differently is fine (and, in fact, very healthy) and that there is a problem on the other hand with the grand (or brand) narratives that come from mass media. I think the best way to start tackling the latter problem is to create dialog among the individual campus communities. There does need to be a shared understanding among academics of what we can aspire for an education to do for students beyond ticking fairly low-level competency boxes and giving them pieces of paper to get them over a basic employability hurdle.

    I don’t worry that Tom Friedman has a bad answer to the question of what an education can and should provide. I worry much more that Clay Shirky has a bad answer. And I worry even more that the average faculty member does. At the Re:Booting California Higher Education summit, one faculty senate representative explained her objection to distance learning by saying there is value in having students struggle to deal with the day-to-day campus hurdles like registering for classes. If the best we can say for the college education that we are delivering is that it provides the same value as waiting on line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, then we are in deep trouble.

  8. I, for one, welcome our new DMV overlords of higher ed! Oh, wait.

    I think I agree with YOU. And with everybody on the thread. But I thought we largely agreed on the important conversations coming out of the conference anyway, until I read the post. So yeh, changing the narrative doesn’t mean one new narrative, but moving away from the One MOOC to Rule Them All mentality/vision of our educational future, IMO.

  9. Michael —

    I think you actually said this better to me in a side conversation at the conference. It’s not that the narrative doesn’t need to be changed or that the press coverage isn’t horrible or that corporate influence isn’t at a level that we would have considered obscene twenty years ago.

    All these horribles are true, but as you said, I think correctly, the open pedagogy crowd has been “punching above its weight” the past 12 months. So this is an emerging success story from the little movement that everyone had written off in 2012, not failure.

    What you say about co-option is true, but I think Bonnie (and Amy, and Tanya, and Jim, and George etc.) would agree with you. You may be right, it’s probably not true to say we have to change the narrative as much as it is to say we should continue to do what we have done best, which is to infect the dominant narrative with history, context, unseen possibilities. Nuance as a virus.

    That said, does it feel a bit omphaloskeptic to talk each and every conference about the narrative? When we’ve actually been pretty successful here? I can see where it can feel like that, but I don’t think of it that way. The open pedagogy/open education movement has always been distinguished by its population of philosophical doers, and one of the reasons why I think we *do* punch above our weight is that people like Stephen and George and Jim and Dave and Bonnie and Amy both do and reflect in a world that all too often splits those two activities into different jobs. So while it may seem when you see a series of these conferences in a row that we’re completely hung up on the narrative, I think ultimately it’s related to our success, and I think the minute that it gets too theoretical and detached from real action, the community corrects itself.

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  11. Wow. Omphaloskeptic. You learn something every day.

    I certainly wouldn’t argue that there’s no point in talking about narratives. I just feel that sometimes—particularly when the language takes on the metaphor of an armed struggle—I lose the thread of what kinds of work these narratives are supposed to do. I am missing the theory of cultural change. I think that Jim expresses this difficulty very well in his response to this post.

  12. One way to change the narrative is to build better tools, offer better opportunities for learning, create new ways for learners to get recognition, and improve peoples’ lives. The education system is not doing all that well, and the Internet offers opportunities for more people to get involved and experiment, and come up with better ways. Let’s keep innovating and let’s make it easier for more people get involved. The narrative will change.

  13. Nick Kearney says:

    My impression, experiencing a MOOC debate at EDUCA Berlin, and following #mri13, is that the narrative issue is not about MOOCs at all. It is about how learning and knowledge are understood. The co-option in the MOOC context is perhaps simply a question of people applying their understanding of learning to an idea. If learning is basically “transmission” of generally accepted general knowledge, then if you take the Net and a set of technologies, at some point someone will invent a prototype xMOOC. (Arguably they did that some time ago and this is just edtech Groundhog Day, but that is another conversation).

    Bon Stewart made a nice clear distinction on the Venus blog between credentialling (where the money is), and learning (which appears to me to be where the cMOOC is). Audrey Watters has been writing about the need to know our history. As Bon Stewart says there is a need to build a shared narrative. Narratives do shift from the roots, and I have the sense of a common narrative coalescing slowly in recent years, around openness, and around connectivism. But when I discuss those issues, the differing opinions (tend to) appear to be informed by different understandings of what learning is, and of how knowledge is. So building that shared narrative should perhaps focus first and foremost on those issues.

    Perhaps what is needed is a shared undersanding of what might be involved in a “literacy” of learning. And that would of course have to recognise that fact that these are political issues. That can’t be glossed over.

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