Response to Stephen Downes: Free the Facts!

Stephen Downes’ OL Weekly last Friday (1-24) contained a bit of a rant on Karl Popper this week.  It was an aside under the heading Free the Facts!  (Free the Fact (the article) advocates open access to research journals, a very worthy cause, but SD took exception to the view of science expressed.)  I disagree totally.  

I admit that Popper, like many philosophers, tends to be obtuse; writing more for other philosophers not scientists or the public.  But, I believe the gist of his argument (at least for scientists) is that: you can’t support a theory or proposition based solely on one or two studies.   You can prove that you specific proposition is false (at least usually with 95% certainly), but you can never be certain that your proposition really captured the actual cause in the correct fashion.  Many studies seem to act as if confirmation is true, but confirming propositional claims is a complex and broad-based task.  Confirmation should be based on bodies of work not individual studies.  It can also be supported with effect sizes in meta-analysis, with power reporting and with validation studies. (See Brualdi, 99, for a complete idea of what the concept of validity can entail.)

This viewpoint does many the translation of research to practice difficult, but it really was easy, we would have solved most of our pressing problems long ago.  Assuming an easy confirmation process is not helpful.  It makes the process even longer and erodes confidence in research efficacy.  (Think fashion in educational research as one example.)

A need for value with tenure

Yesterday I felt the need to support an instrumentalist view of education in response to Stanley Fish and Frank Donoghue.  Today I’m exploring thoughts on their primarily premise, that tenured professors are a dying breed and this fact is leaving education in lesser hands.

The cost of education is very high. Too many people need to mortgage their future to secure their future.  Beginning to address this issue will mean tenured professors and administrators must leave their walled-departmental-gardens.  From a business standpoint (and unless you are willing to work pro-bono, everyone should have some type of business perspective) administrator, professors and everyone involved need to account for how they add value to a students education, find new ways to add value, and understand how much that value costs.  Many professors are concerned with little more than delivering their course load and completing their (tenure hoop jumping) research projects; many advisor focus less on mentoring and more on choosing courses and navigating bureaucracy.  Many administrators just seem totally bureaucratized.

I believe that tenure for intellectual educational purposes is important.  A lack of tenure would be lamentable, but value propositions, not tenure proposition, are needed to be a central role in determining professor valuations.  My graduate mentor once suggested that meet every three year to justify the continuation of their course.  I agreed at the time, but even more so now.  Things change so fast these days and so many people, even tenured professors, keep on teaching the way they were taught.

Thoughts on the “Last Professor” and instrumentality in education

Stanley Fish has again given us an interesting though in the NY time article The Last Professor.  It is a review of a book by the same name; written by his former student, Frank Donoghue.  The book is about a paradigm shift that is moving away from a traditional humanities education to a functionalists model that is taught by adjunct deliverers of information, not by teneured professors.  He traces the origins of this shift to such captions of industry as Andrew Carnegie and Richard Teller Crane late in the 19th Century.  

What is unstated in this discussion is a thorough understanding of changing conceptions of what constitutes a good education.  What is the proper purpose of learning, what is the proper subject matter and what is the proper pedagogy needed?  First, the humanities traditions were designed less for the idealized purpose of a non-instrumental celebration of the mind than they were to set apart an aristocracy of church and state.  As this aristocracy no longer exists (or at least is less obvious in its operation); so the purpose of education rightfully must shift.  Furthermore, I would look to someone other than Carnegie and Crane ( regardless of their influence and power) to understand what this shift might rightly look like.  So, let’s take each of these three questions.

What is the proper purpose of learning?

It is my belief (based on my study of Vygotsky, Dewey, Mead and others) that all learning is instrumental; that learning is for doing.  This is a broad view of doing.  In the humanities we learn to do things like think, communicate, synthesize our contexts with historical circumstances, and sometime we just learn how to be good students (whatever various people may consider that to be).  It can be expected that most people’s investment in higher education might be more narrowly instrumental (think engineering, biomedical or business).  Such an undertaking as gaining a degree demands a quick return on investment (if for no other reason than for loan repayment).

What is the proper subject matter needed today?

The humanities are as important for success as is an understanding of statistics and other mathematics.  But, it is still instrumental; learning for doing.  Tools like abilities in communication are needed throughout life, but it is not some esoteric idea of communication, it is communication as a mediational tool.  Many problems in communication occur not because people can not communicate, but they are not adept at adapting the skills they posses to the context and situation at hand.

What is the proper pedagogy needed?

The internet and social media are bringing down the walls of post-secondary institutions.  One result is that it is easier than ever to immerse students into the world.  It is now easier than ever to use new skills for mediation that is other than the satisfaction of teacher assignment; to use skills for various mediational purposes.


This does not address the tenure issue, but I’ll leave that for the next post.

Back to work, Wrapping up and Moving on

After a lengthy period I’m indeed ready again to commit some time to blogging.  First, wrapping up my thoughts on CCK08.  Though I haven’t published, I have read and given thought to this topic.   

My overall conclusion is that there is very little found in connectivism that adds or transforms constructivism as a theory of learning.   Therefore, to call connectivism a theory of learning is a bit confusing for me.  

I feel that the primarily learning problems that need to be addressed today have more to do with pedagogy: how do we establish learning relationships with our networks and with ourselves?  How do we deal with the amount of important information available?  To put it another way, conceptual changes are not needed in understanding how we learn, changes are needed in how the interaction is established and maintained between the student and the other.  (I admit that I am way beyond tradition pedagogy.  But, I feel that any constructivist pedagogy must go way beyond traditional pedagogy.) 

Pedagogy is changing in 4 different ways and I don’t think the field has a handle in how to keep up with this change.

  • In the past, the other that I spoke of most often was a teacher.  Now that other is more likely to be a network of people.  
  • In the past, the interactions occurred at very specific times.  Now the timing of these interactions can be ubiquitous.
  • In the past, master – apprentice relationships were common.  Now we find many situations where no one has any ready made answers and there are few or no authorities.
  • In the past, the curriculum was set by others.  Now it is likely to be one’s own responsibility.

These are all huge learning issues that are related to pedagogy.  The term “personal learning environments” has becoming a frequent topic.  It implies a library like connection that we carry around with us.  For me though, the difficult problem is not with setting up my own physical or virtual learning environment so much as it is establishing a personal pedagogical space: how do I go about structuring my learning actions; how can I structure my learning journey in this new networked age.  

My constructivist mentors: Dewey, Vygotsky, Mead and many others still structure my thinking about the structural necessities of learning: the need for scaffolding, the need to connect learning and doing or the need to learn within social spaces.  But, the needs now are: how do I find scaffolding without authority, how do I connect learning and doing when I don’t know what to do, how do I connect with people in networks with the same intensity and authenticity of classrooms and traditional mentor / teachers?  These are my bigger questions right now.