Online Educa Berlin is a major international gathering of online/elearning/distance learning/mobilized/datified learning innovators. This year I was a participant in the Online Educa Debate, an annual featured event of the conference. The house motion for 2014 was "Data is Corrputing Education". Inge deWaard and I were asked to speak in favor of the house motion; Dr. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Dr. George Siemens spoke in opposition. I have provided the full motion below, in italics, for your reading pleasure.
MOTION: The House believes that data is corrupting education.
- Is the invasive extensive profiling and rigorous achievement test, backed by for-profit organizations, skewing the means of gathering information and determining relevance?
- Will a focus on data corrupt the processes of learning, training and development or will it reveal new unimagined insights that will make way for streamlines, personalized and effective learning
- Is big data destined to be in the hand of a few, or will openness prevail for the benefit of all?
At first, I was completely nonplussed by this challenge. But the more I got my head wrapped around ways to support it, the more I stretched my thinking, which of course is the whole reason one does these things. Collaborating with Inge was delightful; having the opportunity to present with Viktor and George was a real pleasure. I am very pleased to have participated.
The video of the Debate will be available soon, and I will share it when available. It was lively discussion, among we debaters and with participants from the audience. For a while I even thought the crowd was with Inge and me, but I have to admit, even I would have had a tough time voting in favor of the motion as written.
While we lost the vote, I think we helped remind people that we all need to be mindful about the implications for unexpected consequences that innovative work may bring to practice. In the sprit of sharing have posted my notes of my opening argument, below:
Higher education has typically been organized around authority-driven models of decision-making; that is, the more senior among us are generally afforded positions of authority based on experience and expertise. The emergence of analytics tools and platforms are making it very clear that data can provide an even more complete, and certainly a more nuanced picture than expertise alone.
Educators are just beginning to understand the IMPLICATIONS of data analytics, where mining data for insight to support decision-making is the focus of exploration. While it is clear that there are great opportunities for gleaning heretofore unimagined insights, the fascination with data makes many uncomfortable. We have come to realize that the patterns of our data generation, our online engagements, transactions and interactions, tell people things about us or things we are doing that that we never could have anticipated or expected. It means that intelligence about us can be gleaned by those who have access to our various data streams. Are you aware of all the stories that your data are telling other people about you?
Our current fascination seems to be about data as a meme – an idea that spreads from person to person within a culture. Data-as-meme, especially BIG data, has come to stand for something bigger that the data themselves. It stands all of our excitement about the possibilities that they offer for risk mitigation and personalization. However it also stands for the doubts and fears about how all these data are going to affect how we do our work, how we go to school, how we live our lives, how we engage as citizens.
Data without context has marginal value. However, data WITH context is information. Information is power. And as the British historian Lord Acton reminded us, Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. http://www.acton.org/pub/religion-liberty/volume-2-number-6/power-corrupts
Simply stated, corruption is the self-serving deviation from an ideal. If one accepts this simple description, then one CAN make a case that data may very well be used to less-than-ideal ends. It might mean that we actively exclude some learners at the expense of others. We may push people of varying predicted skill levels into programs of study based upon test results, rather than on personal passions and interest. Will data have an effect the way that we approach our pedagogies? Absolutely. It this going to change how educational professional approach our work? Absolutely. How do YOU feel about instructional design as a data driven algorithm? How about licensing digital content where the price point is determined in part to how well students do in the class where the content is used? How do faculty feel about the prospect of expectations that we will be lurking in the lives of our students to see what and how they are doing at every single moment? How do YOU feel knowing that students aren’t going to be the only ones who are going to be tracked and measured in these ways?
I don’t think that data, by themselves, have corrupted, are corrupting or will corrupt education. I do worry about uninformed, naïve or even nefarious uses of data. I worry about data being used to punish, to limit access, constrain or restrict participation.
While I am excited about the possibilities for personalized, customized learing experiences, I am also fairly certain that educational practitioners who use data badly, non-transparently, or naively are very likely going to give data a very bad name.