Tag Archives: discourse analysis

What are we building? And under what assumptions?

Here’s what I said to a group of doctoral students, the incoming president of SoLAR, and a handful of other researchers and practitioners at the Learning Analytics and Knowledge Conference:
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picture of a staircase that is underwater
In the 1970’s a philosopher named Hubert Dreyfus began criticizing some of his colleagues at MIT who were working on early versions of Artificial Intelligence- folks like Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert. In his seminal “What Computers Can’t Do” Dreyfus challenged what he called biological, psychological, and epistemological assumptions- basically any a priori claim about human consciousness and being-in-the-world. Dreyfus challenged a popular conception of the mind as functioning like a computer, that humans are rational agents in rule-bound systems, and the self-rationalizing ouroboros of instrumentalism.
Ultimately, what he was challenging was a scientific way of thinking about people and the world that was largely formed during the enlightenment, but that was explicitly applied to human behavior by folks like Edward Thorndike, and later B.F. Skinner.
It is important to question the claims and ideologies present in any discourse, as a closer interrogation might reveal internal contradictions as well as broader social and structural forces. Specifically the method of Immanent Critique seeks to probe into discursive claims and how they relate or conflict with other discourses.
Now, I’m not trying to start a philosophical argument. Oh wait, yes I am.
I am researching the discourses (texts, media, and other representations) of learning analytics and how they interplay with the discourses related to the purpose of higher education.
When learning analytics claim that they will provide insight into the learning process, I tend to go, “huh, what is the definition of ‘learning process?'”
When higher education discourses say they will advance knowledge creation, I wonder how that jives with adaptive learning language that will make the acquisition of knowledge more efficient. Especially in that latter statement I wonder if efficiency is necessarily a good thing when it comes to learning, or if it might represent broader economic motivations.
What I like about immanent critique is it’s subtlety. It is not intended to replace claims or value judgements with alternative facts, but it is a method of interrogation and exposure. It makes me think of Matlock: “I’m just a small town country lawyer just trying to discover the truth.”
Using a more theoretical discourse analysis is also useful in analyzing meaning both in terms of local or semantic concepts but also in terms of the structural or paradigmatic concepts.
The goal of learning analytics are to predict the likelihood of success or failure and to turn insight into action. The phases of learning analytics are describe, diagnose, predict and prescribe. IBM is already floating trial balloons about how cognitive computing can predict a child’s “learning styles” and career predilections (they call it learning styles- a term that makes education scholars cringe) and custom tailor a personalized, individualized learning pathway from kindergarten to career! Mo Rocca does the voiceover in the YouTube video, though uncredited. I swear it’s Mo Rocca.
Knewton has a video that describes how to increase or decrease the level of student agency.  . .
It may be problematic to leave assumptions unexamined, especially those that are validated by their own logic system.
The assumption that people are rational agents within formal structures who simply need to be nudged and prodded toward correct actions. Each of these concepts needs to be unpacked.
Not to sound like an alarmist that we’re heading towards some Orwellian or dystopian future, but language matters- it influences our beliefs and social practices. Language represents power and motivation. I don’t have some maxim or platitude to offer here; and, maybe I’m slow, but I’m just hanging out here at the “describe” stage. And rather than confidently diving into the “what” or the “how” of learning and education, I’m still wondering about the “why.”
Gert Biesta in his book “Good Education in an Age of Measurement” challenges notions such as learning outcomes and evidence based practices, as these things are not devoid of power structures.
Suggesting a critical orientation, Biesta proposes freedom as a goal of education:
we should not think of freedom as sovereignty, that is, of freedom as just doing what you want to do [but] rather. . . a ‘difficult’ notion of freedom, one where my freedom to act, that is, to bring my beginnings into the world, is always connected with the freedom of others to take initiative, to bring their beginnings into the world as well so that the impossibility to remain ‘unique masters’ of what we do is the very condition under which our beginnings can come into the world.
Now I have to admit, framing my research from this critical or philosophical orientation has caused me some ambivalence. I’m an IT administrator- a true blue technocrat. I keep systems running and we measure success by numbers of users. I think it has also broadened my perspective to really think like a humanist, and ponder the ineffable qualities of being human.
I grew up in a very small town in northern Wisconsin. We lived in a hand-built log cabin. For a while we didn’t have electricity or plumbing.
My dad was a high school dropout but later earned a college degree.
I’m part Native American but I check the box for white because that’s how I identify.
By high school I took a career inventory test that said I should become a puppeteer. My GPA took a nosedive but I got several scholarships because of my involvement in clubs and organizations.
It took me six years to earn my bachelor’s degree- I changed majors four times from Business, to undeclared, to Philosophy to English, I failed math three times. I took a bunch of music credits after a jazz instructor who saw me drum once asked if I would be the drummer for the college jazz band. I meandered through my undergraduate experience. I changed my mind. I questioned my own motives and identity.
Many university mission statements talk about personal exploration, creativity, freedom, exposure to a broad range of subjects, and critical thinking.
I breezed through a Master’s degree in Educational Technology.
Charles Eliot, the former president of Harvard talked about the idea of “liberalization before professionalization” as he was proposing a new requirement for students to go through a traditional undergraduate experience in the liberal arts tradition before going on to a professional degree track.
I have no regrets about my education– its errancies or pace
I’m not sure what Learning Analytics interventions would have been applied to me or how they would have altered my life. I did not stay on track nor did I finish on time. I left and came back. Now I’m earning a doctorate and taking longer than I had planned, but don’t really feel too bad about it.
I have no regrets about my education– its errancies or pace.
That being said, my wife uses data to reach out to first generation and minority students to engage them in mentorship programs and other support services. I use data to understand tool adoption and trends to target our training interventions and messaging.
I think about dualisms and strive for synthesis.