This blessed plot, this earth, this realm this….

…Higher Education.

Why the Shakespeare reference in my title? England is on my mind lately thanks to Kate Bowles’ recent beautiful post on the mystery of Stonehenge and it’s analogy to the monolithic presence of institutions of higher education. I will come back to Kate’s thoughts and explain where I see intersections with education research, but for some framing of my own thoughts ahead of dLRN2015, here is the entire passage of my borrowed title, from Richard II:

“This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm this England….”

When John of Gaunt gave this speech, he was worried about the future of England in a time of uncertainty. That worry manifests in an impassioned proclamation about a country he loves. His is an emotional appeal to preserve the right kind of governance at a time when the country is unsettled and may be on a path of destruction. Like John of Gaunt, I am worried about the future of Higher Education in a time of uncertainty. I defend our institutions because I believe tradition and old ideas counterbalance the hubris in technosolutionism, and that without them, we are on a similar path of destruction.

One can argue however, that his and mine are essentially emotional appeals to preserve the status quo. John of Gaunt’s England is a country that serves him and his specific “happy breed of men” quite well. Higher Education is a system that serves academics well and transforms people like me. We both assume “this other Eden, this demi-paradise” scales to everyone, without examining more deeply the stories of others. Admittedly, when it seems to be working well enough, we’re not very motivated to seek out stories that are contrary to our own. Paraphrasing Kate, “[The] puzzle of a monolithic presence [is that it’s] so familiar you can hardly see it as strange.”

In contrast, Silicon Valley does see Higher Education as strange – broken, even. Entrepreneur-educators are sharing their own stories and shaping the current narrative that is impacting education policy. Like mine, these do not tell the whole story of higher education. These are the stories told by intelligent, confident and typically privileged people who are often the heroes of their own narratives. They embrace rugged individualism and believe in the larger narrative of Silicon Valley “progress” – a faith in technology and science that Eric Giannella describes as entirely objectively rational, with no space for the subjective and a-rational question of morality. He writes:

“By accepting this narrative of progress uncritically, imagining that technological change equals historic human betterment, many in Silicon Valley excuse themselves from moral reflection.”

I am struck by the words “moral reflection”. I think this is a valuable exercise in understanding the moral truths in any endeavor. Leveling this criticism at Silicon Valley’s foray into education is both appropriate and necessary. At the same time, I am not convinced that we in higher education reflect on the morality of our own institutions in a useful or systematic way. I see it happening at the margins, or a nod to it in our strategic plans, but I don’t see deeper engagement at the level of shared governance and decision-making. It’s my opinion that our uncritical acceptance of the narrative of traditional education leaves us struggling to account for our value.

Accounting for and communicating our value is a challenge I believe learning research can address. But how?

Interestingly, value accounting (or innovative accounting) is a tenet of the Lean Startup method prevalent in Silicon Valley. The goal is to hold entrepreneurs accountable to the effects of over-rationalizing. The methodology provides a framework for validating or invalidating assumptions and discovering what is unknown through actionable research that includes experimentation and fast feedback loops.

Setting aside for a moment the obvious value disconnect between us (learning innovation) and them (market innovation), how might we use a similar method to impact policy through the lens of research? In a recent debate with Stephen Downes, George Siemens describes the complexity of research in social systems as:

“…a networked process of weaving together results, validating results, refuting results, and so on. It is essentially a conversation that happens through results and citations…Where, outside of peer-reviewed articles and meta-studies, can academics, administrators, and policy makers find support and confidence to make decisions?”

Can we use a framework built on lean principles to invite more voices into our research processes in a way that also pushes against our own value assumptions? Can these methods include more decision-makers directly? Can frequent feedback loops through experimentation help us systematically understand and communicate the value of higher education? Might these methods of action research help us evolve faster to meet the challenges of modern learners?

Kate’s description of the purpose of Stonehenge as a monolith whose meaning will always be debated is a great analogy for higher education. With all of this in mind, I am pondering the following question:

In a time of uncertainty, what are the best methods and systems of research that make sense of higher education and shape a public narrative that reflects moral truths?

This is one of my questions for dLRN2105. Others I will blog about soon. By now, we hope the word is out. dLRN2015 is a new digital learning conference dedicated to making sense of higher education through the lens of research. Reviewers are needed and the call for proposals is open. Please join us in October and in early conversations on your own blogs and at #dlrn2015.

The conference takes place October 15-17, 2015 at Stanford University and is sponsored by the Digital Learning Research Network (dLRN) directed by George Siemens, and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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One Comment on “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm this….

  1. Pingback: elearnspace › Digital Learning Research Network Conference

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