Trying to Make Sense of dLRN 2015

4 observations.

October 18, 2015

If you were at Stanford for dLRN 2015 then I hope you will weigh in with some sensemaking on Twitter, on your blog, on the dedicated dLRN SenseMaker platform, or in this community.

If you were unable to attend dLRN 2015 (or had not heard about this conference), in what sort of digital learning community would you like to participate?

Here is my initial dLRN 2015 sensemaking:

1. Research as Code for Agency, Autonomy and Authority:

The thread that ran through dLRN 2015 was research. This is despite the fact that very few of the sessions were about presenting research findings or describing research methodologies. The conference organizers consistently worked to bring the conversation around to asking how research on the topic being discussed might inform change.

The rationale for research being at the core of our digital learning work is the idea that generating evidence for new digital learning practices will both inform and motivate change. Research, in this construction, is a tool for advocacy - and a method to gain status (and ultimately power).

My sense is that very few of the people at the dLRN 2015 engage in traditional research. Most folks were practitioners, not researchers.

What is helpful about a research orientation is that it gives the digital learning community a measure of autonomy and authority. There is a disciplinary freedom in evaluating digital learning work on its own terms. Goals should be defined by our community, rather than being conceptualized as a means to advance someone else’s agenda. 

It is less important to the digital learning community that everyone (or even most people) are doing research, rather that the community assumes some of the cultural and attitudinal orientations of a research-based discipline.

This research-based orientation at dLRN was manifested in a few ways. Participants were eager to talk about hypotheses, not conclusions. Failure was discussed, not hidden. There was little desire to show only  the “amazing” things we've accomplished at our institutions. Rather, there was an honest desire to share what was not working - to get advice from peers - and to work together to find common (evidence-based) solutions.

The informality of the conference owes something to the culture of research. Transparency and connectivity are highly valued within a research community, while other attributes (such as titles or institutional status) matter less.

2. Digital As Code for Non-Incremental Change:

Very little of the discussion at dLRN was about technology. It seems to me that the meaning of "digital" is shifting from a technological descriptor to a shorthand for non-incremental change. Conference participants were not talking about change at the margins. The challenges of equity, costs, access, and quality are too big to believe that small improvements will suffice.

The digital learning community, and the people who participated in the dLRN Conference, are postsecondary reformers - not revolutionaries. There was no discussion (that I heard) at dLRN about doing away with the traditional college and university system.

3.  A Social Justice Orientation Toward Digital Learning:

Much of the discussion was concern about public disinvestment in higher education, and how the loss of public support disproportionately hurts the most vulnerable (particularly plow-income students and adjunct faculty). There was a lots discussion about how digital learning can exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, the challenges faced by first-generation and low-income students. Questions of how higher ed can be made more equitable, more just, more effective, and more responsive to the needs of those most often marginalized in the existing system were discussed.

This social justice orientation at dLRN also extended to educators who find themselves on the wrong-end of the traditional postsecondary caste system. The challenges of adjuncts, staff, and other non-tenure track / tenured faculty in the new digital learning ecosystem were openly discussed and debated.

4.  A Critique of the Corporatization of Educational Technology:

One constituency not represented at dLRN 2015 was the edtech establishment. I didn’t meet anyone from a tech company, a publisher, or an open online learning platform.

Part of what I think what was going on at dLRN is a suspicion of the dominant efficiency and scale narrative that we see in many edtech circles. Digital learning educators are traditionalists in the sense that most believe (from what I could gather) that education is a relational, not a transactional, activity. There is great respect for the role of the educator.

What is ironic is that a counter-narrative running through dLRN was some worry amongst traditional professors about the goals of the digital learning enthusiasts. My view is that the digital learning community and faculty share a common set of values and a matched set of goals.  Both groups are concerned about public disinvestment. Both groups believe that education should occur at human, rather than internet, scale.

If today’s attendees of dLRN 2015 are tomorrow’s higher ed leaders (an open question), then investors in proprietary edtech platforms and content may have some cause for concern. There seems to be a strong ethos in support of open platforms and open educational resources. How edtech companies and publishers should engage with this digital learning community remains an open question.

How are you making sense of dLRN 2015?

Does this sound a conference that you’d like to attend?



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