Wishing I Understood

Readers of my blog know how much respect I have for Stephen Downes. He’s a pillar of morality in our community, with a never-swerving dedication to his idea of what is right. I love him for it.

It’s that love and respect that makes me me sit up and want desperately to understand when Stephen says something like, “I’ve spent a lifetime pursuing this objective.” He clarifies this lifetime of work as follows:

But let’s be clear about exactly what this objective is. It isn’t about (as the OECD report was titled) “Giving Knowledge for Free“. That is, it isn’t about the wonderful rich people engaging in charitable work as some sort of civic duty (as though that somehow made they wealth OK). It’s about actually empowering people to develop and create their own learning, their own education. So not only do they not depend on us for learning, but also, their learning is not subject to our value-judgements and prejudices. We (those of working in MOOCs) have also been clear about the influences of people like Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire. And it’s not just about ‘flipping’ courses. It’s about reducing and eventually eliminating the learned dependence on the expert and the elite – not as a celebration of anti-intellectualism, but as a result of widespread and equitable access to expertise.

None of this happens by magic. There isn’t some ‘invisible hand’ creating a fair and equitable education marketplace. The system needs to be built with an understanding that personal empowerment and community networks are the goal and objective.

I’ve been confused by similar statements Stephen has made in the past, but perhaps a little too embarrassed by my inability to understand them (due to some lack of sophistication or nuance on my part) to admit it publicly. Or maybe I have and just don’t recall confessing previously.

I fully agree that we want to empower people. That seems to me to be the purpose of education. However, I don’t understand Stephen’s remarks regarding experts. My reading of the last sentence in the first paragraph is that we will eventually eliminate learners’ dependence on experts by making sure they have more equitable access to a larger group of experts: “It’s about reducing and eventually eliminating the learned dependence on the expert and the elite – not as a celebration of anti-intellectualism, but as a result of widespread and equitable access to expertise.” I’m confused.

If we take as a very loose definition of expert “someone who has more exper-ience than you do,” it is hard to imagine any form of learning that does not involve an expert – except pure, unguided, trial-and-error discovery learning. Without reference to any person – or any artifact created by a person – of more experience than ourselves, all learning would be maximally inefficient. We would each be left to rediscover the entirety of physics from scratch. And the entirety of music theory. And the entirety of every other field, without a conversation or a textbook or a Wikipedia article to guide us.

I can’t believe that this is what Stephen is advocating for. I believe one of the core purposes of education is to help learning be more efficient than blind groping in the dark, and I believe Stephen does, too. Which is part of what confuses me so terribly.

Stephen also mentions the “elite” in connection with experts. Are these people elite because they have expertise, and because expertise is such a rare commodity? I fully support creating more equitable access to a larger group of experts. And I agree that the way to make this happen is to democratize expertise, not by debasing our definition or lowering our standards of what makes an expert, but by helping more people rise to that level of achievement. However, I don’t see how I would decrease people’s dependence on, say, water, by insuring more equitable access to a larger pool of water. Pollenating expertise far and wide doesn’t make it any less critically important to learners, it only makes it easier for learners to get access to what remains critically important to them.

Stephen writes, “It’s about actually empowering people to develop and create their own learning, their own education. So not only do they not depend on us for learning, but also, their learning is not subject to our value-judgements and prejudices.”

This seems like a turtles-all-the-way-down argument. If learners are to benefit from any expertise at all, they will inescapably be subjected to the value-judgements and prejudices of those whose expertise they lean on while developing their own. Simply removing an economics teacher from the front of the classroom does not spare learners exposure to the biases and prejudices of John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Milton Friedman, or Adam Smith work when they read works by these authors. How are we ever to gain access to expertise while avoiding the values that drove those experts to develop their own expertise?

He concludes, “The system needs to be built with an understanding that personal empowerment and community networks are the goal and objective.”

Personal empowerment is the goal and objective. Community networks are one means to that end. We should be careful not to confuse ends with means.

I find myself desperately wanting to understand Stephen’s characterization of his life’s work, but unable to. Stephen, or someone else, help please?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • I obviously can’t speak for Stephen, but I’d highlight the phrase “learned dependence” in his statement. Seems to me the difference between asking and telling, learning and teaching. The same dynamic is revealed in the recent piece in the Chronic on the perils of educational democratization (http://chronicle.com/blogs/worldwise/the-promise-and-peril-of-ed-tech-democratization/29413?sid=wc&utm_source=wc&utm_medium=en)

    “Tech-driven innovation doesn’t have to mean an academic state of nature.
    There’s no reason we can’t use disruptive tools to teach an established
    body of knowledge, in a particular course sequence, to more people,
    more effectively. It’s a mistake, I think, to assume that the tech
    revolution inevitably goes hand-in-hand with the idea that students hack
    their own knowledge.”

    Either extreme is equally right/wrong here – of course, from a common sense perspective, there is such a thing as “knowledge” that “exists,” facts etc. To flat out deny this seems nonsensical. Yet at the very same time, it’s not so flat out obvious. The how influences the what. (I hear the scientists and radical materialists fleeing for the door). I am not claiming the speed of light is different for an African villager or a kid from Greece or yourself. I am saying – MU!  To frame the problem like that is to already decide that a particular way of being-in-the-world is the “best” one. And arguing so has lead us to our ineluctable present –  Knowledge wins while everywhere knowers lose.

    Sorry if this doesn’t help, but it’s where I find myself each time we go round this.

  • Jared Stein

    I had drafted a more elaborate response, but you summed it up already: “This seems like a turtles-all-the-way-down argument.”

    •  You say this like it is a problem, instead of how it actually is – turtles all the way down

  • I share the confusion David. Sorry but you’ll get no help from here. I have the sense that expertise and elitism are seen as synonymous, but I know Stephen is a very smart guy so I must be mis-understanding something, as well. We’ll always have a distribution of people with expertise. Some will have more than others. Minimizing barriers to accessing that expertise is a wonderful goal. Facilitating others so they can gain as much expertise as they’re capable is equally important.  But I actually value those with much greater expertise and want to associate with them in some way to try and gain from them.  If they weren’t there, I’d be lesser for it.

    Dunno.  I sense Scott’s comment is key in this. Learned dependence, much like the culture of poverty, leads to internally set barriers that structures around education can inadvertently reinforce (or perhaps they are subtly intended by some who are more cynical and class-based in their view of the world). 

    We must await clarification.

    • mgozaydin

      Come on Phillip. Expertise and elitism are seen as synonymous .
      Today all expertise are free . Look up MITx and Harvardx . Most valuable expertise in the world are free or at a small fee. Elitism is not something to be envied . I am the first class of Caltech and Stanford and biggest executive in the world but I never like t?o be called elite . Elites are notyboys . I never wanted to learn from elites. I  despise them .

  • Allan Quartly

    It might do well to distinguish between knowledge and the expert. The expert is the holder of knowledge and while the knowledge of the expert resides in places of controlled access, then only the elite can access this knowledge. Having the knowledge in libraries, while theoretically open to all, was a means of limiting access to the knowledge. Having books did the same, as did gathering experts behind the high walls of universities and colleges.

    Opening that knowledge up so that it is not owned, and hence controlled, is probably one of Stephen’s aims.

    The other aspect to consider is how knowledge is built. Aspiring towards expertise is a means of entering the conversation about what is worth knowing. To fully free knowledge one must open the tools for generating knowledge to as many people as possible. Opening knowledge up this way, of course, removes the elite from positions of power. Allowing people to construct their own knowledge is probably what Stephen is also trying to say. This doesn’t mean that anyone can just go and create their own facts, it just means they are able to construct their own meaning about those facts.

    All this is my interpretation of course. Stephen is not well known by me, nor I by him, but I do agree with his worldview.

    • mgozaydin

      Come one. OK expert is the holder of knowledge.
      But not only elites can access to that knowledge .
      Lately just look up MITx works . Everybody can access to knowledge MIT provides . MIT is the greatest expert in the world . And now Harvard. Stanford and Yale are on the way .

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  • Stephen’s perspective makes more sense, to me, by starting with an understanding of “Connectivism.” Reading the passage David (Wiley) quotes with this in mind, I come up with the following.

    First, Stephen is in favor of making communities of learning more accessible. 
    Notice, however, that is communities of learning he wants people to have access to, and not necessarily knowledge or facts. He sees the community as the engine of knowing. So a MOOC is far more valuable than a free ebook.

    Second, the objective is not “Giving Knowledge for Free.”
    The dynamics of most OER resources are that one group pays so another group can receive without paying. Just finding philanthropic and grant funded  to make static representations of knowledge freely available would be insufficient to a connectivist. 

    Third, the most important thing is empowering people to create their own learning.
    This resonates strongly with unschooling, self-directed learning and other schools of thought which explore unleashing student interest first and meeting their learning needs second, as opposed to forcing students in groups of 30 through a dictated curiculum. The MOOC seems based on voluntary engagement by interested people who participate successfully in the give-and-take of learning amongst each other. In Connectionism, empowing people to learn requires more than making the book free.

    Fourth, the learners control the learning.
    Here, for the first time, Stephen is downright at odds with a narrow definition of OER. In a learning community built around algebra, the topic of imaginary numbers might not even come up. That’s fine if your goal is to empower people to learn what they want to learn. But a failure if imaginary numbers are a learning outcome defined by your state, school or author. But in any given OER, the author decides what will be taught, not the reader. 

    It is this fourth stance of empowering the learners that untwists his last couple sentences. Now it seems clear how empowering learners can “eliminate dependence” on experts (to walk them through on blind faith, step-by-step) and instead participate in a community of learners sharing expertise in a way that is “widespread and equitable.” The community creates the connections which spread the expertise.  

    All is summed up in his closing statement about the need for this system to be built “with an understanding that personal empowerment and community networks are the goal and objective.”

    This does not mean OER is bad. He’s just laying claim to a vision that is, in very specific ways, broader than simply making content free to the learner. At least, that’s my read.

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  • mgozaydin

    Well, I know somehow Stephene and Wiley too .
    I know Stephene supports MOOC .
    Wiley does not or Idid not hear him about it .
    ” giving knowledge for free ”  is non-sense. Everything has a cost. That must be recovered .
    The expert means a person who knows more and better than us .
    So we learn from him .
    I do not agree with Wiley that we have to create more experts to learn more .
    Even, in theory, one expert in one subject is enough .
    The greatest revolutiopn happened last week. Joint effort of MITx and Harvardx . Their target is 1 billion people.. Vow .
    Even I did not envision that many . They are more than great . We do not need many experts to disseminate knowledge and create more experts . We need technology and vision. MITx and Harvardx have that . It is a global movement not a community movement .
    I cannot analysis Stephane and Wiley works and compare them. They are  too philosophical .
    But I appreciate both . But what I do appreciate is to access target of MITx and Harvardx to
    1 BILLION people of the world .

  • I dont think its that complicated: … expertise is as expertise does …

    Some things to keep in mind …

    1. I am pleased to find worthwhile journals to publish in that are open access, and that no-one has to pay to access (we have to disregard the little matter of access to broadband for this thought experiment, and a few other little digital divides, if you dont mind). 

    2. I am interested in engaging in conversations with other people who are worthwhile talking to, and conversely, this will only happen if they think I am worth talking to, in turn.

    3.  So what’s this ‘worthwhile’ bit?

    4. Worthwhile is worth my while (time/energy I suppose) and theirs.  We have to be comparable, compatible, com …..(fill in the blank to taste) in some sense – knowledge, expertise, imagination, sense of humour, etc etc.

    5. So I have a metaphorical ‘box’ of worthwhile/free, which I do in good faith, at no cost to anyone else (like this post, and publication in some, selected, open source journals – I’m quite picky), and then I have various other boxes that have ‘costs’ attached to them. 

    6. As an anthropologist/ sociological observer, you can use that profile to describe in what sense I am an ‘expert’ or part of a self-appointed ‘elite’ – feel free. 

    These discriminating boxes are variable, and negotiable, but they’re not going to go away, and I strongly suspect that this  applies to most of us 7 billion hominids, including hypothetical Stephens and Dr. Ivy-leaguexyz’s: it used to be called private v. public space, now its called social network presence, but it hasnt really changed that much. 

    Try asking for 30 minutes of their time, every Monday, for the next 4 weeks, to discuss something that might happen to puzzle you next Monday (not).  

  •  Experts and Empowerment

    We all, as David Wiley writes, want to empower learners. While we read a great deal these days about education as job training and workforce readiness, what we really want to be able to do is to enable each person to make his or her way in the world, to pursue their own good in their own way.

    This, to me, involves reducing and eventually eliminating their need to depend on experts. As I imperfectly expressed the point the other day, “It’s about actually empowering people to develop and create their own learning, their own education. So not only do they not depend on us for learning, but also, their learning is not subject to our value-judgements and prejudices.”

    Unfortunately, this is often read as a casting of the student into the world to rely solely on their own devices. David Wiley echoes the sort of misinterpretation of this view that is common:

    “It is hard to imagine any form of learning that does not involve an expert – except pure, unguided, trial-and-error discovery learning. Without reference to any person – or any artifact created by a person – of more experience than ourselves, all learning would be maximally inefficient. We would each be left to rediscover the entirety of physics from scratch. And the entirety of music theory. And the entirety of every other field, without a conversation or a textbook or a Wikipedia article to guide us.”

    Such a proposition is absurd, and as it is absurd one should conclude (I would hope) that it is not the proposition I am arguing for.

    So let me be clear: in the world as I understand it, there are more than two options. There is an option somewhere between “depending on an expert” and “left to rediscover the entirely of physics from scratch.”

    And – to be clear – a great deal of ‘expert content’ exists. There is not only the aforementioned Wikipedia, there are also academic publications, magazine and newspaper articles, open online courses, blog posts, NASA videos, TED talks, and a host of additional educational content. Indeed, in today’s environment, and for the forseeable future, we are virtually swimming in educational content. It would be rash, irresponsible, and unthinking to say that a person should not consult any of this when learning physics or any other discipline. So, that is nbot what I am saying.

    What I am addressing with remarks like “we should not depend on the expert” is the *stance* that ought to be taken by the learner with respect to the learning material extant on the web and elsewhere. And I mean this two two distinct but related ways:

    – first, the learner should not accept the report of the expert uncritically. Expert advice on any given subject may not merely be misleading or misinformed, it may also be offered out of context, it may be outdated, it may be misunderstood, and in some cases it may be malicious. Examples of any of these cases may be found in abundance, expecially on today’s polarized and politicized media environment.

    – second, the learner should resist the characterization of certain sources, certain perspectives, and certain content types *as expert*. While once we may have been able to rely on peer and publisher review to verify the authenticity and accuracy of the information, this is no longer the case. Moreover, an increasing body of verifiable and reliable information is being published outside tradititional channels.

    These two conditions amount to the assertion that the learner should take what amounts to a critically reflective stance with respect not only to expert content but with respect to all content. Maybe there was once a day when we could trust expert opinion, but today we live in an environment where not only can we not trust the experts, we cannot even trust that the people offered as experts in fact *are* experts.

    This is an important point. While it is common to use terms like ‘elite’ and ‘expert’ interchangeably, they are in fact distinct concepts. To call a person an expert refers to their knowledge. A person is an expert in a discipline if they have a deep knowledge of the field, a base of experience in the field, and can talk about matters related to the field ratrionally and reasonably. But to call a person an ‘elite’ refer to their position in a community or society. A person who is elite will have accumuluated a disproportionate amount of power, wealth or influence.

    Sometimes a person will be elite as a result of their expertise. If we speak of, for example, “elite scientists”, we may be referring not to the richest or most powerful scientists, but those with the most expertise. But in practice we are rarely so precise. And so the word ‘elite’ even in a scientific discipline may refer not to those with the greatest knowledge, but to those with the most power and influence.

    My own experience in life is that the people who become elite do not always become so as a rsult of their generosity, but rather as a result of their parsimony. They achieve their status as elite not by sharing but rtaher by hoarding. Such members of the elite carefully cultivate a culture of dependence. By ensuring that their followers depend on them for knowledge, infleunce and wealth, they augument their own position in society. The parsimonious elite are not interested in the empowerment of their students. They are greedy, selfish and self-interested.

    Not all members of the elite are parsimonious, and not all experts are members of this elite. But the membership is sufficiently large that a learner ought not, as a general policy, place oneself in a position of dependence on experts. With every word of advice received, the learner must be in a position to ask whom the advice is intended to benefit. And the learner must be in a position to seek alternative sources of expertise, to weight options, and to decide what to believe for him or her self.

    What is significant, to my mind, is that by being able to adopt such a critical stance with respect to expertise, learners are not only much better able to vet for themselves the reliability and authenticity of a piece of expert advice, they also acquire the capacity to look beyond a smaller set of ‘trusted sources’ and cast their gaze across the wider information landscape, as they will be able to select the reasonable and reliable even from such nontraditional sources as discussion lists, blog posts and alternative media.

    It’s like being able to read. Before we could read, we had to depend on the priest to tell us what the book said. After we learned how to read, not only could we see what the book says for ourselves, we can also read other books that may say different things. Being able to read not only increases ourunderstanding, it increases our power to choose what will inform that understanding.

    From my perspective as an educator, we should not be like the educator who reads to people, and who builds a large hall and charges fees in order to have people come to us to listen to use read to them. We should be like the educator whose primary interest is in teaching people to read, so they do not need to come to us at all, so there is not only no need for a hall and for fees to be paid, but no need for our particular expertise, because everyone can have it.

  • mgozaydin

    When Stephene says ” we do not need experts to learn he means we do not need elites who think they are experts ”
    To me MIT is expert but not owned by the elites. MIT is owned by the 300 million people of the USA even may be more than that by some another 200,000,000 people of the world .
    So people can learn from MIT but not necessarly from elites.
    I think he thinks elites are bad guys, elites are the ones they think they are the greatest people in the world  but not .
    So we do not ( I say we agreeing with Stephene ) want to be the slave of elites. We can create our own expertise.
    ?n fact we have created already look up MIT, Harvard, Yale . They are the creastion of people n?ot the elites as they think so .
    To me elite is a negative adjective . Now look MIT it shares all values and wealth pf knowledge with billions of people .
    MIT is the expert , people of the USA + world created,  and they should be proud of it .

  • Howard Johnson

    This is a multifaceted problem to sort out, but maybe this is a small piece.  I recent read an SSRN article, Reasoning is for arguing, where the authors propose a take on an argumentative theory of reasoning.  I’m thinking through this paper in a psychological context where I believe the main evolutionary purpose for human consciousness is for connecting with others, not doing things individually.  This is from the abstract of that paper:
    “According to this theory, individual reasoning mechanisms work best when used to produce and evaluate arguments during a public deliberation. It predicts that when diverse opinions are discussed group reasoning will outperform individual reasoning. It also predicts that individuals have a strong confirmation bias. When people reason either alone or with like-minded peers, this confirmation bias leads them to reinforce their initial attitudes, explaining individual and group polarization. We suggest that the failures of reasoning are most likely to be remedied at the collective than at the individual level.”
    I find this theory interesting (though I’m sure more needs to be done).  Maybe we need experts and elites to produce not only content, but also corresponding arguments, but then to allow and accept that those arguments will enter the public arena where other may expose the biases and build on the reasoning.  Of course, there is always the possibility that I’m just being assimilated by the Borg.

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