Where’s all the Dominant Narratives at?

The MOOC Research conference has resulted in some really interesting discussions that are playing out right now, and I want to take a moment to try and capture a few of them. I’ll start with Michael Feldstein’s thoughtful post “Changing the Narrative” that does an excellent job framing one of the concerns that arose in Arlington: the open education narrative being hijacked by corporate influences.

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.

I think this is an excellent framing of the difficulty at the heart of the co-optation narrative—no idea is pure and the drawing of such stark visions of right and wrong tends to shut down any and all convesation. Agreed. That said, the contention surrounding the idea of open remains really important for the field right now. What the term MOOC brought to light was that, to echo Martin Weller’s  post from a while pack, “openness has won now what?” Throughout the entire edtech field (whether public, private, for-profit, or corporate)  the value of open educational resources, courses, and experiences as an inherent value of the digital landscape for teaching and learning—a narrative David Wiley has been laying down for fifteen years—as been almost universally acknowledged. That’s not our revolution any more. And this is exactly where Feldstein’s point about the term MOOC having helped to change the narrative is right on. But to point to a very timely article published this past weekend by Martin Weller, the battle for the narrative isn’t about MOOCs, even if it has been a very important intervention, it’s a “battle for [the] narrative taking place … around the issue of openness.”

I think that might be a really interesting starting point to consider how issues of power, capital, and culture play out around a term like MOOC. That might be the current focal point, but the longer view is how openness as a more  ethos continues to pervade the work in this field, and that is where the struggle remains. As Stephen Downes notes on the topic:

I’ve watched the narrative – mine and others’ – be changed over and over the last 20 years. LMSs. Learning Objects. Educational Modeling. Content syndication. OpenID. E-Learning 2.0. EduPunk. Learning Networks. Connectivism. OERs. MOOCs. The result is always the same. Sometimes it’s ignored. More often it is co-opted and somehow becomes the property of the very institutions it targets. You can’t change the world – or the establishment – with a narrative.

It’s hard to argue just how effectively the narrative gets hijacked again and again, but I think Feldstein’s point might be that this is a demonstration of how effective the narratives have been. One continually informs the dialectic it enters, and the narrative is neither wholly co-opted or entirely pure as we imagine them—but something else. Always a sense of potential that moves us on (not necessarily forward), and for that I tend to believe narratives can change the world. So, I’m still a believer. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. There’s a lot of really smart people focusing on the importance of just this idea of narratives as they relate to open. Bon Stewart got me all excited about the idea to begin with, and Mike Caulfield was laying down some of these most brilliantly expansive bar room conversation around this idea and shipping, and big data I’ve ever been party to (more on that in my next post). I think we also forget, as Feldstein notes, just how much a few rogue bloggers have done to shape the open argument as it stands now. That said, it always feels like its on the verge of being transmorgrified into a venture capitalists’ wet dream of unbundling education from state funding. Damnit, there I go again with that narrative 😉

But why stop there?

I can think of other folks in the field that are going about openness in some really awesome and interesting ways that have been outside these narratives to some degree. The dynamic duo of Kin Lane and Audrey Watters have no institutional affiliations, and together represent a truly fascinating rogue perpetual motion machine that has been conceptualizing, narrating, and building the means to open up the technology at the level of the mind, soul, and API. I’m a huge fan of what they’re doing, and their sense of what was, what is, what’s coming, and what will be seems right on. I’ve learned a ton from them this year, and hope I learn even more next.

Also, the work Joss Winn and Mike Neary are quietly doing to transform Lincoln University is remarkable, and it certainly has a well articulated narrative of the edtech space in relationship to the political, social, and economic factors shaping it currently. Below is an excerpt from Winn’s recent post “A Co-Operative University:”

 …the practice of collectively producing, owning and controlling the means of production remains a very important objective for me and any criticism I have of the free and open source software movement(s) and free culture movement in general, are so as to develop the purpose and practice of common ownership and collective production, and help defend it from being subsumed by the dominant mode of production i.e. capitalism: a highly productive form of social coercion for the private accumulation of value.

The notion of open source as a radical movement that engenders the possiblity of a culture that can re-imagine its relationship to common ownership and production is yet another narrative. On that’s a bit more difficult for corporate-sponsored rockstar professors to fully get behind, or media outlets to channel as anything other than an updated vision of the red scare. So the idea that we have intervened in the grand narrative of edtech might not account for the fact there are more than a few discourses out there in this space that would add to the dialectics.

It’s for all these arguments, approaches, and positions that have some truly intelligent, engaged people behind them that I’m really optimisitc these days. The edtech field has, interestingly enough, become a site where many of the most important discussions around the future of higher ed are taking place currently, and it takes courage to struggle with them openly and honestly. What’s more, as I noted at the MOOC Research Conference, it’s a field wherein many of the folks involved in the discourse are on the margins of traditional, tenure-track academia (which, ironically, has itself become a margin). Populated with Ph.D. dropouts, technologists, and a wide diversity of disciplins and degrees, it represents an interesting moment for the voice of higher education’s future. Although it probably won’t last. The armies of Ph.D.’s without a tenure-track position are gonna figure out how much better edtech folks have it than them (travel budgets, no teaching load, a steady paycheck, relevance, etc.)—that’s why God created the Digital Humanities and #altac! Not to mention the simple fact that, for better or worse, a terminal degree is the coin of the realm—although most folks with a terminal degree in instructional techology are about as relevant as typewriters currently.

Well, maybe I’m not that optimisitc after all?  Damned if I know what the hell is going on in edtech, but this conference really got me thinking. And what I do know for sure is that this post is already too long, rambling, and incoherent. Let the record show I recognized this fact before I clicked “Publish.”

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17 Responses to Where’s all the Dominant Narratives at?

  1. Actually, I think the lack of coherence is sort of the point. The world does not cohere nearly as much as we would like. Which makes it particularly challenging to figure out how to change that world. It’s not that narratives are unimportant. It’s that their causal relationships to change are complex and indirect. I think it’s worth asking what we think a narrative can do and what other actions are also necessary to effect the change that we want to see. I’m not optimistic that we’ll get clear answers, but I think it’s worth asking for.

    (I also would like a pony.)

  2. Reverend says:

    I agree about the incoherence thing, but that isn’t the simple narrative people like, which you mentioned in the theory part of your post. Point is, I think a sense of more coherence and a unified vision of what an ethos around open might look like is what folks like Bon Stewart are referring to—although I might be wrong. The vision of the MOOC as it was popularized was neither complex of indirect, it was MOOCs will disrupt and, as a result, save education. We know that not the case, but at the same time the disillusion and frsutration is born from the fact that simplification wins. It almost seems like a losing battle, although I know it’s not entirely.

  3. We tend to talk about both narratives and cultures as monolithic, when of course they are not. And the use of both of these terms tends to erase the people who are involved. The fight should be on the local campuses to convince colleagues you know personally to think more deeply about what their role is as educators and what they want out of their vocations. It should be the fight that you are successfully waging at UMW. There is value in attacking dominant narratives, but that value is primarily in creating the kind of productive uncertainty that can foster richer conversation among…you know…actual humans. Meme globally but act locally, you know?

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  5. Bon says:

    Ah. I think I *get* the objection, Michael, if it’s to the idea of narratives as monoliths. I don’t see ’em that way: even the hype narrative around MOOCs was faceted with disruption and tsunamis and salvation, which broadly fit media & cultural predilections, but don’t make for a single story. My point was that that side of the story isn’t about learning, just hype. On the other side, there are a whole tangle of likely irresolvable differences about what learning and education – and therefore MOOCs – ARE. I’m okay with that multiplicity. The circulation of conflicting narratives around learning leads to very different action possibilities than the circulation of hype and fear of being left behind. You can’t totally ditch the latter from the scene, but you can (maybe) shape the field of possibility in which people making decisions SEE themselves and their institutions.

    Not all of us have institutional ties or influence in the same ways. I think the less institutional position and power a person wields, the more the focus on narratives matters…it’s what’s left as a field of action if you don’t have a learning lab or a tenured position or place to begin to act locally FROM. Jim points out Audrey & Kin…no institutional affiliation. Big influence on opening up practices and possibilities. To me, speaking and writing about MOOCs as learning and using whatever channels you have available to push for a conversation that goes beyond “MOOCs will save/disrupt/replace us all” IS a form of action.

  6. Ben says:

    I like to think that in a world in which I devoted more time to thoughtful reading and reflection of educational theory and research, I could arrive at such thoughts. Great reflection here to toss around, incoherence aside Jim!

    My hope is that this discussion, and greater narrative, does not play out as so much “fringe science”, but as an actual catalyst that continues to push upon the greater #EdReform narrative.

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  10. I’m not trying to raise an objection so much as I am asking question about a piece I’ve been missing. I wasn’t being coy about that. And it’s a question in response to a range of conversations throughout the conference and even before the conference. Bonnie, your comment was really the one that helped me crystalize the question, in part because of the context. As I recall, we were talking about “forces” being in “retreat” at the moment, but that there was a need to develop alternative narratives before they could “regroup.” (I use quotes here to indicate that these are words I specifically remember being used and not to imply a judgment about them, although it’s true that I don’t personally think of the problem in these terms.) And what that made me wonder is what kinds of expectations do people in the community have about what one can accomplish with alternative narratives and how that fits into a larger theory of cultural change. On the ground, how what work does narrative do for us, and what other tools do we need to bring to bear in concert? I went into all the theory talk not because I believed you and others are unaware of the complexity of narratives–I’m sure you know the body of theory far better than I do–but to set a context for my question. The audience for e-Literate is pretty diverse, and sometimes I need to calibrate for a specific group I want to talk to by doing some code switching.

    If I understand your comment here correctly, you are giving me two answers. The first is that a good narrative can provide hooks for actual people in actual institutions to see their role in solving problems, rather than seeing the solution as something you can simply go out and buy from somebody who already has it all figured out. I deeply, passionately agree with that. It’s what Phil and I are trying to do in our own way with e-Literate TV, and it’s what we try to do in a slightly different way with the blog itself (and really, every day in our consulting work). We can quibble about how much of this work is done by constructing narratives and how much of it is accomplished by deconstructing them, but in the end they are two sides of the same coin. Nature abhors a vacuum. If you create a space by removing something, then that space will be filled by something else.

    The second point I hear you making is that, while narrative is an unpredictable tool for change, it is often the only one that people have. Speaking as a guy whose livelihood is largely dependent on convincing people who read my blog that I say things that are smart enough to be worth paying for, I wholeheartedly agree with that too. Like Audrey and Kin, I am unaffiliated. I don’t think of myself in those terms, but the truth is that there is not a single person on the planet who has to do what I say because of my institutional role. And yet, it is possible that I have more influence, for example, on educational technology decisions made on some SUNY campuses now than I did when I was a union-protected SUNY employee with the title of Assistant Director (although, admittedly, this is really not saying much). One can have powerful relationships that are not power relationships, and narratives can be helpful in building those relationships.

    Putting these two pieces together, I think what we have in the way of a theory of change is that alternative narratives can (1) invite specific people to see themselves as having constructive roles in making important choices, and (2) provide communicative tools for building powerful relationships between the people who are telling them and the people who are listening to them. I think that having the context of a theory of change helps to clarify the kinds of narratives that need to be constructed, the ways in which they should be deployed, and the results that we can hope to get.

    So, question answered.

    • Reverend says:

      Did I ever tell you you can write really well, and that kind of clear, concise framing of ideas is not welcome on the bava. It just makes the proprietor look bad 🙂

      More seriously, I thought you framing of the Changing Narratives through Derrida was brilliant, and that post was really thought, considerate, and provoking. I can’t speak for anyone esle, and don’t pretend to, but your voice in the overall narrative has been an important one, and I’m excited about what you and Phil are doing in terms of re-thinking how we can approach those in power at the institution. The part where that gets tricky is that thye so often work in an action/reaction state when it comes to money, numbers, and press. This is why the MOOC hype ha been so totalizing, even if there have been a series of tributary narratives coming from it.

      What’s more, the issue you start alluding to in the Changing Narratives post is also playing out more generally when it comes to thinking about what place theory holds in broader institutional decisions that are driven by “big data.” So I see the two conversations deeply conencted, and I think we are starting to see the outline of the shape of things mocing forward.

  11. That means a lot to me coming from you, Jim. I aspire to write as clearly and compellingly as you speak.

    In a way, this whole situation isn’t any different from money in politics. Money generally buys ads, which essentially means an opportunity to push a narrative. When does money work to swing an election? When (1) voters spend more time listening to the ads on their TV than they do talking to and listening to their neighbors, and (2) the voting block that is sympathetic to the message of the ads is more motivated the one that is opposed. But money in politics doesn’t always work, and it usually starts to break down when two neighbors are standing next to each other as they both happen to be taking out to the trash and one says to the other, “Am I crazy, or is this whole situation getting out of hand?”

    I agree that Big Data is starting to play out the same way as the MOOC hype, and I am sure that there will be other waves after these. The dynamic is baked into the cake at this point.

    • Reverend says:

      I had to clean up my un-spellchecked comment after that very nice compliment 🙂

      As to the question of money and politics playing out the same way as they always do, I guess that’s what depresses me a bit. The promsie of the web is that it was far more distributed and empowering than the comglomeratre, coporate run channles that dominate TV, radio, film, newspapers, etc. Turns out, that is the narrative that hasn;t necessarily lived up to its potential, and more than any other issue, that has been a bit bummed. Big media and the web are not as anathema as we might have hoped.

  12. Yeah, but that brings us back to the core question of what power we can and cannot expect from narratives. The web has certainly enabled more and different stories to be told. But one of the fundamental limits on this power is the fact that human attention does not scale. I may have more stories (and voices) that I can pick from, but I still only have a certain amount of time to listen. And because of that, I develop judgments about the relative authority of the storytellers as a filtering advice. Which brings us back to CNN and Square 1.

    Except not quite. Because we still have the authority of our local relationships, and with the internet, we can occasionally form relationships that are not physically local but still strong. Those trust relationships are what bring us new information sources and alternative ways of looking at the world. The game we’re playing is Six Degrees of The Bava, where we’re trying to reduce the number of hops it takes for a story to get to a person of influence from a person who is influential with that person. The way you win the game is through developing individual human relationships, not just narratives or networks. The opposite of “massification” is “intimacy.”

  13. Err…”filtering device.”

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