<Dallas deathstar in the snow – this may, or may not, be a metaphor>
I was at the MOOC research initiative conference in Dallas, Texas last week. As Jim and others have reported, we got caught in icemageddon, but that's a whole other (war) story. I'll be doing a few posts about the conference. It was a fantastic meeting, well done George Siemens, Amy Collier and Tanya Joosten for putting it together. I got to have some great conversations, and meet people I've know online for years. Which is by way of apology for my first post being a bit negative.
This one concerns one aspect of the conference that I am having difficulty articulating, so I'm going to try and work it through in this post. There was a data strand to the presentations, and I went to a few of these. There is some fascinating stuff being done, particularly when you have analytics on so many learners. But I also had a vague sense of unease about some of these.
They were often presented by super-smart, young computer-science researchers from privileged universities: Carnegie-Mellon, Stanford, Harvard. I don't have anything against super-smart, young or computer science people, or anyone from those universities (some of my best friends are young people :). But there was something a bit, well, cold, about it all (and not just because of the wind chill factor of -10). People were nodes, and they could be manipulated to move from peripheries to the center by tweaking certain elements. It was easy to forget you were talking about learners, and not sales of baked beans.
But I think we need this research, it's useful and can tell us a lot about what's going on. Candace Thrall was stuck at the airport so couldn't give her presentation, but a colleague gave it on her behalf. She mentioned that one of the transitions we were going through was from a theory-led one to an evidence based one. Prior to this Jim Groom was telling me about Mike Caulfield suggesting we were in post-theory now, where only the big-data mattered (this was from a book I think, if anyone knows which one, let me know).
UPDATE: Mike has done a great post elaborating on the post-theory debate here. It explains what I was trying to get at in this post.
I felt I had a glimpse of that post-theory world, and I wasn't sure I liked it. We may have been too theory-heavy before, where the evidence was inconsequential, because hey, we have a nice theory. But the pendulum swing to lack of theory where we only care about the evidence seems to lose sight of the people in the system. So I guess my plea to the super-smart, young computer science researchers at ivy league institutions who are now getting into to education is – don't ignore the bearded old guy with a bunch of theories in his back pocket, we need those too.
Like Dallas, education should be warm and welcoming, and the danger is that data fetishisation will make it like the post-apocalyptic Dallas I experienced.