Research in a World of Constant Connection – #AERA13

Research plays an integral part in the archetype of a college professor.  At state and select private universities (often known as Research I schools), a professor’s research record is as important as their teaching and service records, often more so.  At mid-major and liberal arts colleges, research may not be as integral but it is still important and relevant.  The ability for a professor to conduct topical and relevant research from implementation to publication is considered vital to the growth of the specific discipline as well as academia at large.

This is evident at a conference like the American Educational Research Association’s Annual Meeting, happening right now in San Francisco, where thousands of educators are presenting their research findings to thousands of attendees.  The sheer volume of papers and presentations on topical issues across the various strata of education is overwhelming, and AERA has worked diligently to divide their membership mass into divisions and special interest groups so that individuals can find field-specific topics to utilize for their scholarship or to share their scholarship.

I want to ask the question but does it matter? and then cut to the page break, being all provocative and such.  That’s not the right question, because it does matter.  It matters a lot.  But how much of a difference is it truly making? 

I had the opportunity to listen to Leonard Waks and Gert Biesta speak on the state of higher education in an increasingly market-friendly society, a definition many use the phrase neoliberal* to define.  These scholars, with very different perspectives on their field, are luminaries in the research literature, popping up consistently throughout past and present research.  I agreed with much of what they said, disagreed with some, and approached both about access to the full work they presented (and both were very kind and obliging).  I tweeted some of the touchstone points I took from their sessions (though I’m doing a lot less of that, for reasons I should explore later), and left the day at AERA thinking about how their work plays into my scholarship, and how my scholarship plays into the overall discourse in the field.

And then I happen across Charlie Rose’s recent exploration of MOOCs (via Bryan Alexander) and the Chronicle of Higher Education’s infographic on the main players in the MOOC world, and note an almost exclusive lack of connection to the developing research shown at a place like AERA.

(NOTE:  The conference did get some mention in a NYTimes op-ed about the gap between affluent and less-affluent students regarding learning outcomes, but this mention suggested the education research was somewhat to blame for the gap, either explicitly through failed initiatives or implicitly because the education/poverty theme of AERA comes 30 years after A Nation At Risk, yet outcomes for impoverished students have remained stagnant while those for affluent students have risen considerably.)

The MOOC as we think of it is less than two years old, and it’s spoken ancestry (Khan Academy) is only two years older than that.  The flipped classroom, the pedagogical model associated with both MOOCs and Khan Academy, is no older than the MOOC.  Yet these three models/platforms/enterprises have received an unprecedented amount of media coverage and institutional focus.  Outside research on these endeavors is trickling in, though we can expect a deluge soon.

And perhaps that’s the issue.  The archetype of research involves careful consideration, protection of subjects, institutional and peer review, deliberation, redefinition, historical precedent and future outcome.  It takes time to put those elements together in a thoughtful way that furthers the knowledge and discussion within a field.  For MOOC research, that means at least a year between identifying the phenomenon and being able to publish research that links to prior work and passes peer review.  Research is a slow cooker, an entity where time is required for it to function as it’s intended.

If MOOCs/KA/Flipping are ahistorical, a tie to any research is irrelevant.  Sal Khan is on the record multiple times as saying education research either states the obvious (several times in his book he notes that research exists on something he believes, but he figured it out without consulting the research), or it is so hyper-specific it bears no utility for larger use.   The seminal literature on the flipped classroom contains no citations, references or bibliography.  The MOOC developers and institutional presidents are more in concert with research (perhaps because of their roots as professors), but even that causes question:  edX’s Anant Agarwal cites research from 1972 as imperative to the understanding of the 2013 MOOC movement.  Perhaps the individuals at the center of these movements are keeping up with the emerging research in the field, but there is no evidence to suggest it.  Education policy is moving in one direction, and research is moving in a perpendicular direction.

What can be done?  I would love to know.  At an AERA session entitled Neoliberal Education and Political Subjectivity, Eva Reimers of Linkoping University (Sweden) noted the problems inherent in research critical of or resistant to dominant ideologies:  (paraphrase) by using the terms and definitions of the dominant ideology, we are providing them the power as a structure that we question. At the same time, the only suggestion on how to combat these movements was to work within them to promote the ideas and scholarship emerging from the research.  It is a good idea, though organizational leadership and change scholarship indicates a reluctance or unwillingness for administrators and those in power to open their doors to dissenting opinion if the existing system seems to be working.  A faster stream of publishing might seem ideal, but the peer review system is built on a donation of time and the reflection process necessary for all aspects of research is much of what makes research viable.  If we as a society continue to feel an insatiable need to consume content, it is the ahistorical stuff that seems to digest easily that will win the day.

*On Neoliberal, the word is thrown around quite often by critical theorists and pedagogues, to the point it has become an all-encompassing spectre of things wrong with society.  I struggle to define it adequately, and for now choose not to use it.

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