Phil and I went to the ELI conference this week. It was my first time attending, which is odd given that it is one of the best conferences that I’ve attended in quite a while. How did I not know this?
We went, in part, to do a session on our upcoming e-Literate TV series, which was filmed for use in the series. (Very meta.) Malcolm Brown and Veronica Diaz did a fantastic job of both facilitating and participating in the conversation. I can’t wait to see what we have on film. Phil and I also found that an usually high percentage of sessions were ones that we actually wanted to go to and, once there, didn’t feel the urge to leave. But the most important aspect of any conference is who shows up, and ELI did not disappoint there either. The crowd was diverse, but with a high percentage of super-interesting people. On the one hand, I felt like this was the first time that there were significant numbers of people talking about learning analytics who actually made sense. John Whitmer from Blackboard (but formerly from CSU), Mike Sharkey from Blue Canary (but formerly from University of Phoenix), Rob Robinson from Civitas (but formerly from the University of Texas), Eric Frank of Acrobatiq (formerly of Flat World Knowledge)—these people (among others) were all speaking a common language, and it turns out that language was English. I feel like that conversation is finally beginning to come down to earth. At the same time, I got to meet Gardner Campbell for the first time and ran into Jim Groom. One of the reasons that I admire both of these guys is that they challenge me. They unsettle me. They get under my skin, in a good way (although it doesn’t always feel that way in the moment).
And so it is that I find myself reflecting disproportionately on the brief conversations that I had with both of them, and about the nature of change in education.
I talked to Jim for maybe a grand total of 10 minutes, but one of the topics that came up was my post on why we haven’t seen the LMS get dramatically better in the last decade and why I’m pessimistic that we’ll see dramatic changes in the next decade. Jim said,
Your post made me angry. I’m not saying it was wrong. It was right. But it made me angry.
Hearing this pleased me inordinately, but I didn’t really think about why it pleased me until I was on the plane ride home. The truth is that the post was intended to make Jim (and others) angry. First of all, I was angry when I wrote it. We should be frustrated at how hard and slow change has been. It’s not like anybody out there is arguing that the LMS is the best thing since sliced bread. Even the vendors know better than to be too boastful these days. (Most of them, anyway.) At best, conversations about the LMS tend to go like the joke about the old Jewish man complaining about a restaurant: “The food here is terrible! And the portions are so small!” After a decade of this, the joke gets pretty old. Somehow, what seemed like Jack Benny has started to feel more like Franz Kafka.
Second, it is an unattractive personal quirk of mine than I can’t resist poking at somebody who seems confident of a truth, no matter what that truth happens to be. Even if I agree with them. If you say to me, “Michael, you know, I have learned that I don’t really know anything,” I will almost inevitably reply, “Oh yeah? Are you sure about that?” The urge is irresistible. If you think I’m exaggerating, then ask Dave Cormier. He and I had exactly this fight once. This may make me unpopular at parties—I like to tell myself that’s the reason—but it turns out to be useful in thinking about educational reform because just about everybody shares some blame in why change is hard, and nobody likes to admit that they are complicit in a situation that they find repugnant. Faculty hate to admit that some of them reinforce the worst tendencies of LMS and textbook vendors alike by choosing products that make their teaching easier rather than better. Administrators hate to admit that some of them are easily seduced by vendor pitches, or that they reflexively do whatever their peer institutions do without a lot of thought or analysis. Vendors hate to admit that their organizations often do whatever they have to in order close the sale, even if it’s bad for the students. And analysts and consultants…well…don’t get me started on those smug bastards. It would be a lot easier if there were one group, one cause that we could point to as the source of our troubles. But there isn’t. As a result, if we don’t acknowledge the many and complex causes of the problems we face, we risk having an underpants gnomes theory of change:
I don’t know what will work to bring real improvements to education, but here are a few things that won’t:
- Just making better use of the LMS won’t transform education.
- Just getting rid of the LMS won’t transform education.
- Just bringing in the vendors won’t transform education.
- Just getting rid of the vendors won’t transform education.
- Just using big data won’t transform education.
- Just busting the faculty unions won’t transform education.
- Just listening to the faculty unions won’t transform education.
Critiques of some aspect of education or other are pervasive, but I almost always feel like I am listening to an underpants gnomes sales presentation, no matter who is pitching it, no matter what end of the political spectrum they are on. I understand what the speaker wants to do, and I also understand the end state to which the speaker aspires, but I almost never understand how the two are connected. We are sorely lacking a theory of change.
This brings me to my conversation with Gardner, which was also brief. He asked me whether I thought ELI was the community that could…. I put in an ellipse there both because I don’t remember Gardner’s exact wording and because a certain amount of what he was getting at was implied. I took him to mean that he was looking for the community that was super-progressive that could drive real change (although it is entirely possible that I was and am projecting some hope that he didn’t intend). It took me a while to wrap my head around this encounter too. On the one hand, I am a huge believer in the power of communities as networks for identifying and propagating positive change. On the other hand, I have grown to be deeply skeptical of them as having lasting power in broad educational reform. Every time I have found a community that I got excited about, one of two things inevitably happened: either so many people piled into it that it lost its focus and sense of mission, or it became so sure of its own righteousness that the epistemic closure became suffocating. There may be some sour grapes in that assessment—as Groucho Marx said, I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member—but it’s not entirely so. I think communities are essential. And redeeming. And soul-nourishing. But I think it’s a rare community indeed—particularly in transient, professional, largely online communities, where members aren’t forced to work out their differences because they have to live with each other—that really provides transformative change. Most professional communities feel like havens, when I think we need to feel a certain amount of discomfort for real change to happen. The two are not mutually exclusive in principle—it is important to feel like you are in a safe environment in order to be open to being challenged—but in practice, I don’t get the sense that most of the professional communities I have been in have regularly encouraged creative abrasion. At least, not for long, and not to the point where people get seriously unsettled.
Getting back to my reaction to Jim’s comment, I guess what pleased me so much is that I was proud to have provided a measure of hopefully productive and thought-provoking discomfort to somebody who has so often done me the same favor. This is a trait I admire in both Jim and Gardner. They won’t f**king leave me alone. Another thing that I admire about them is that they don’t just talk, and they don’t just play in their own little sandboxes. Both of them build experiments and invite others to play. If there is a way forward, that is it. We need to try things together and see how they work. We need to apply our theories and find out what breaks (and what works better than we could have possibly imagined). We need to see if what works for us will also work for others. Anyone who does that in education is a hero of mine.
So, yeah. Good conference.
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