The End of Theory

David Wiley, iterating toward openness, May 19, 2009
Commentary by Stephen Downes

David Wiley asks, hopefully, "Could it be that educational research is finally on the brink of making an inch of forward progress?" Well, maybe. But there are two things happening here, and they should not be confused. First is the recognition that models based on simple causality are inadequate to explain phenomena such as learning. And second, there is the availability of massive amounts of data and the suggestion that "we can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot." The first does not entail the second, that is, the failure of causal analysis does not entail the success of statistical analysis. There are many types of patterns, not just those revealed by statistical analysis. And so we see, for example, the Google algorithm tweaked on a regular basis, and the need for sites (such as this newsletter) that select materials based on a non-statistical form of pattern recognition. But that said: yes, by all means, let us declare an end to theory, and the simplistic (and wrong) causal explanations it proffers.
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