Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Ritual Tai Chi: Eskow vs. Jensen

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 22, 2001

Posted to DEOS, June 22, 2001

I've been following the recent exchange (mostly) between Brad Jensen and Steve Eskow with some interest. It is a matter of some current concern to me, because as you may recall, I have been looking for work recently (you will be pleased to learn that my contract has been extended yet again, so I am not unemployed).

The question at hand concerns qualifications. On the one hand, Steve Eskow seems to be taking the position that we cannot judge a person's veracity by his or her words alone; it is only with reference to a third party, usually a degree- granting agency, that we can make a reasoned assessment. Brad Jensen, on the other hand, argues that in today's online world, degrees and qualifications are of much less value in assessing a person's work than that person's work is in itself.

There is merit to both positions. I think it is true that the average layperson cannot tell whether a medical diagnosis or a legal judgement is of value merely by studying the words alone. But on the other hand, the mere possession of a legal or medical degree is no guarantee that a medical diagnosis or a legal judgement will be sound.

In my recent job search I took the unusual step of going to an agency. I'm not sure whether academics go to agencies, but I wanted to be in a position to look at offers from both the corporate and public sector. I had my best face on: I presented my degrees, my publications, and listed my committee and board positions. The agent took a somewhat different approach: he wanted only a description of my last two or three projects and an indication of my role in them. Credentials don't count, he said. Results do.

It's kind of hard in an academic environment to point to results. As Brad Jensen suggests, a lot of the research that goes on is narrow and seemingly pointless. Indeed, the piling on of empirical study after empirical study trying to reduce a margin of error in the evaluation of a particular pedagogy or technology may seem pointless, though there appears to be no better way to do it. Even worse, though, most of my own work is theoretical. Talk about a lack of results! And yet, it seems to me, that no discipline could exist without this sort of work.

But while I may have few practical results to show for my time, at least I have something - an online course here, an online program there, a learning community. In the world of academia, however, it turns out that I am quite unqualified to be doing the work that I do. Do I have a classic education in distance learning? No. A PhD in a relevant discipline? Uh uh. And yet I can't quite allow myself to believe what Steve Eskow maintains, that there is no way to distinguish my work from quackery.

In fact, one of the things people around here have said to me (to comfort me, I suppose) is that I would have no trouble obtaining another position. And it does seem to me, based on my conversations with people from the field, that I could probably avoid the plight of poverty should my current gravy train come to an end. And perhaps I am even, though with few or no qualifications from either a corporate or academic perspective, nonetheless qualified to work in my field, and even to make comments to a list like DEOS. How could this come to be?

I entered distance education quite by accident in 1987 after I obtained my Masters in Philosophy at the University of Calgary. And for the next seven years I worked as a tutor for Athabasca University - this included telephone instruction, seminar classes in Fisrt Nations communities, even a little course design and a little work in compugraphics. More to the point, I launched by first educational bulletin board system (using Maximus BBS, for those of you who are purists) around 1992 or so and created, with some colleagues, Canada's first educational MUD (a.k.a. these days, MOO).

This was enough to land me a position at Assiniboine Community College where a forward thinking administrator had the bright idea to offer classes in an online environment. Well. There were no Master's degrees in the field at the time, much less PhDs. Indeed, as my recollection serves me, the received wisdom in the field was that it could not be done; even distance learning, in the traditional sense, was sneered at as nothing better than correspondance school, and online learning would be even worse (such respected publications as the Chronicle of Higher Education still carry such attitudes to this very day).

Had I listened to traditional wisdom, I would have accomplished nothing in my career. I was told by the experts in computer services that it was impossible to run a web server from the network, so I installed one on my desktop and created my first web site. I was told that the web was an inappropriate medium for learning content, so I published my Guide to the Logical Fallacies on my site (and gained hundreds of thousands of readers and a slew of awards that continue to mount up even to this day). I was told that a proper college course couldn't be mounted on the web, so with two other people (and no funding) I built the province's first accredited online course. I was told that the cost of developing courses would never be practical, so I developed a reusable course object model and built a learning management system. I was told that people could never communicate and interact in a web based environment so I built a discussion engine and advanced a theory of online interaction. I was told nobody could predict where the field was going, so I wrote The Future of Online Learning. And so on.

To this day, what I believe and what I know about online learning is held in many quarters to be unlilkely, if not outright wrong. And to this day people in the field will wave their degrees and years of experience at me as a means, not of responding to what I propose, but as a means of making me go away. And I wonder what Steve Eskow has to say to such an unqualified practitioner to a set of words - these words - that cannot be evaluated on their own. I do not accept assertions that the 'body of knowledge' of a discipline maintains that something is unwise or untrue. I hold each thing up to stand or fall on its own merits; the 'body of knowledge' has a poor track record, as any Kuhn scholar will tell you.

What I have observed in the online environment resembles more of what Brad Jensen has to say and less of what Steve Eskow has to say. True, nobody judges a paragraph, or an article, merely on its own merits; you need a context of evaluation, the measurement of worth by a person's peers (or in a commercial world, one's customers). But everyone has a track record. Brad Jensen's comments do not appear in isolation on this list, nor do Steve Eskow's, nor do mine. Mauri Collins was a respected member of the community, long before she paid her $50K and got her PhD, by virtue of her measured comments and insightful observations, not her supervisor's nod of approval.

Indeed, from where I sit, the credentials by themselves are no good guide at all as to whether a person has a good grasp of the field or otherwise. I have reviewed many online courses, and some of the worst efforts were by well qualified people trying to the wrong thing with the wrong medium, and some of the best work has been done by people who have no knowledge of what 'should' be done. That is not to say that there are no lessons to be learned from the past (now that would be foolish) but it is to say that all lessons have to be applied in a context, and that a degree does not provide a context.

I can see while reading Brad Jensen's comments where he has missed some aspect of the discipline; I saw his comment about "the quality of the information and ideas that you provide" and, while agreeing with his point, saw straight away that it would be skewered, as have so many previous expressions of the same sentiment, with a narrowly focused endorsement of appeal to authority. It is - as Tim van Gelder once commented to me - like watching two people engage in an act of ritual Tai Chi, each person making the expected move at the expected time. Perhaps from time to time old hands like Steve Eskow tire of the dance and appeal to the black belt as a substitute for combat. But that satisfies no one and proves nothing.

The only way the received wisdom can be verified is through repeated testing; the only way a person's intellectual worth can be evaluated is through repeated exercise; the only way a person's authority on a subject can be measured in through is or her contributions to the field, either in writing or in practical application. In my view, institutions and writers that take the possession of a PhD (or the lack of one) as indicative of merit (or lack of it) are taking an intellectually dishonest short-cut. The possession of a degree can only be a guide; a person can exhibit merit whether or not they gained their expertise through state sanctioned institutions of higher learning. Indeed, some of the towering figures of the previous century - people like Albert Einstein and Ludwig Wittgenstein - made their original contributions from outside traditional academia.

What has changed between now and even ten years ago is that a person's track record (and related criticisms, peer evaluations, projects, etc) can be seen and known by anyone and everyone in the field. What has changed is that while previously a person's work would be seen by members of a field only if it were pre-screened for orthodoxy, today any person's work may be viewed by any person in the field without the benefit of an intermediary. Yes, this has led to the rise of various snake-oil salespeople or con men, but quality shows in the long run (and in any case, I could name a few shady shysters who have their PhDs - quality isn't what it used to be).

And, moreover, I think most people know this. I think most people are willing to recognize quality regardless of credentials, and I think most people have little patience for people who rely on their laurals, not their wits, to respond to a challenger. I think Steve Eskow knows this too, or he would not have responded to Brad Jensen at all. People - even DEOS readers - have their own filters: they will read quality, and disregard the rest, and make their own decision about who does, and does not, have something worthwhile to say.

What works (and it does work) on DEOS will eventually work in the wider world.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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