Under the Cloud of Knowledge Deficiency

Higher education is entering a fascinating phase of experimentation with new models of teaching and learning. A good portion of this trend is driven by technology, particularly online learning and its current manic manifestation: the MOOC. Anyone with even a brief familiarity of the history of distance education (see this book for a good overview) will recognize that much of what is being touted as new has a long legacy of research and has existed in numerous forms previously. Even then, there is something uniquely new happening in education and while we don’t quite know what it is and the scope of its impact, xEducation is an attempt to understand the change drivers and the messy landscape.

Most people are aware that the global economy is in the midst of profound changes. These changes are evident in technological advances, capital flows, globalization, increased worker mobility and employment opportunities in knowledge work, social unrest, emergence of new economies, and the decline of long established economies. Taken together, these changes reflect a “big shift” economically and socially – one that is unprecedented in the modern economy and that has significant implications for corporations, governments, and societies around the world. The next twenty years will bring an even greater pace of change as megatrends and “game changers” continue to mature.

Higher education similarly faces change drivers that are “unprecedented in scope and diversity“. In response, provincial governments are confronting the reality that the “current system is unsustainable from a financial and quality perspective”. Top tier universities that have recognized the scope of changes are responding by calling for rapid responses, citing concerns that incremental change is no longer sufficient . The university sector is facing a future where technology will play a greater role in meeting the growing knowledge needs in society.

In spite of calls for change and predictions of disruption, higher education enrolment has continued to expand globally with average annual increases of 4.6% and the total student population doubling every 15 years. This trend has accelerated since 2000. Clear evidence exists that investing in a higher education degree has significant financial rewards for individuals and families. Many societal benefits exist for higher education including better access to quality jobs, lower unemployment, and breaking the cycle of poverty.

Additionally, the nature of work is changing. The economies of developed nations are transitioning to the long-rumored knowledge economy . Jobs that require advanced education are growing while those in the traditional labour and manufacturing sector on declining. Even in markets where traditional jobs are a large part of the economy, those jobs now require higher levels of education in order for individuals to be competitive.

The centrality of higher education in preparing individuals for knowledge work is not in question. Higher education plays a critical role in revitalizing regional economies through research and knowledge growth and preparing individuals and companies for innovation. For university leaders, the challenge is one of developing and articulating a vision of education that meets the requirement of a dynamic global marketplace and an economy prefaced on intellectual work rather than traditional labour. In particular, leaders need to recognize how the changing nature of the economy requires new approaches to supporting the needs of a diversified student population. Education is no longer an event that last four years and prepares students for the workforce. Education today must account for changing profiles of students, reskilling entire workforces transitioning to knowledge work, and preparing regional and provincial economies with the capacity to compete globally.

I grew up in a small town, Morden, Manitoba. For a variety of reasons, we didn’t have television or radio in our home. As a result, I read roughly every book in the Morden public library. I read westerns, I read about ornithology, psychology, hypnotism, tried reading Grey’s anatomy but it was a painful experience, economics, business, philosophy, and self-help. While the lack of media in my home resulted in significant cultural blind spots (the joys of discovering Knight Rider later in life), I did develop a breadth of awareness, note I didn’t say depth!, of fields and disciplines that I’m still trying to connect today. All these free floating unconnected information elements, urgently in need of connective super-structures. In the process, I developed one attribute, curiosity about everything, and lost one attribute: fear of, or intimidation of, knowledge – by reading widely, I developed a sense that every topic, every knowledge domain, can be understood with some time investment.

Yet today, I feel unprepared and unable to prepare myself for today’s learning needs. When mental capacity is exceeded by change, it’s time to adjust the emotional, namely expectations of what it means to be in control, or even knowledgeable in a networked world.

In the past 20 years, society has witnessed the greatest expansion of knowledge in human history. Yes, there were periods of rapid knowledge expansion (see this issue of the Journal of History of Ideas), but nothing that remotely resembles what is happening today. Those who trade in hype, have bold declarations:

If every image made and every word written from the earliest stirring of civilization to the year 2003 were converted to digital information, the total would come to five exabytes. An exabyte is one quintillion bytes, or one billion gigabytes—or just think of it as the number one followed by 18 zeros. That’s a lot of digital data, but it’s nothing compared with what happened from 2003 through 2010: We created five exabytes of digital information every two days. Get ready for what’s coming: By next year, we’ll be producing five exabytes every 10 minutes.

Others take a more thoughtful and research-oriented approach but still arrive at a similar conclusion: knowledge is changing, what it means to know is changing. As a result, what it means to learn is also in the process of changing. The institutions that have served us well historically are slow, even reluctant, to recognize the scope of how substantially knowledge and learning are changing.

Through the internet, we are aware of event around the world as they occur. Through our social networks, we encounter ideas, links, and resources that overwhelm us. Scientometrics has developed (.pdf) as a field of ” to describe the study of science: growth, structure, interrelationships and productivity”. Global research output, particularly in the science and technology fields, has steadily increased, particularly in developing regions of the world.

As a result of knowledge changes, many of us are in a period of constant angst about what we know and what we don’t know. It’s like we are under a dark cloud of knowledge deficiency daily. Consider the concept of networks as an example. Networks are everywhere. In a given day, it’s not uncommon to hear references to power laws, weak ties, strong ties, structural holes, and so on. We collect these unconnected bits of information. We are aware of the language of networks and might even use it in our discussions with others. For most people, however, the knowledge is shallow. Open online courses are a way to address the angst of knowledge deficiency. A Coursera course like Social Network Analysis provide an opportunity to connect the disconnected info bits that we’ve encountered over periods of time. BTW – does anyone else feel like a kid in a candy store when looking at upcoming Coursera, edx, or Udacity course offerings? I’ll take that one, and that one, and that one, and that one…


Later today, I’ll be on a panel organized by CBC’s Ira Basen at Western University titled Digital Boon or Digital Doom?. To prepare, I was sent a list of topics that will be considered during the debate/discussion. I’m sharing my thoughts and reflections here in order to prepare for the panel.

Pedagogy: online and classroom
The truly pedantic will state that we’re really talking about andragogy (i.e. Knowles). Given prevalence of use, pedagogy is just fine for me in describing teaching and learning at any level. A common question concerning online learning is its effectiveness in contrast with traditional instruction. Underlying this question is a research or evidence plea about whether or not schools and universities should embrace and move online.

There are two ways to answer this:

1.From the research: Research evidence is clear that online or blended learning is on par with in-class learning. Here are a few papers to look at:

- Bernard et al. on How Does Distance Education Compare with Classroom Instruction (search the article on Google Scholar and you can find pdf links – the one I found asked me not to link or cite without permission. duh.) – this is a gold standard case study for students on how to do a meta-analysis. The authors clearly detail their inclusion/exclusion criteria for research papers, see p. 384 for description, and the shortcomings of quality research papers in DE. Their conclusion is that online learning can be both better and worse than in-class instruction. Asynchronous online learning produces better results than synchronous online learning. They emphasize factors such as learning design in determining whether or not the learning experience will be effective. The view that media is a delivery mechanism and doesn’t influence learning dates back to Clark’s 1983 article where he argues that “there are no learning benefits to be gained from employing any specific medium to deliver instruction”. A counter claim to this argument, by Kozma, posits that there are cognitively relevant characteristics of media and as a consequence, media matter. Cognitive relevance shares some attributes with Gibson’s notion of affordances (i.e. action potential) of tools. This debate hasn’t been resolved for a few decades and I don’t intend to resolve it here. I personally fall somewhere in the middle: design matters. So do tools.

- Means et al. on Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning – this report draws heavily from the Bernard paper and provocatively concludes (p. 18) that “online learning (whether taught completely online or blended) on average produce stronger learning outcomes than do classes with solely face-to-face instruction”. It’s a widely cited and, for some, controversial report. Well worth reviewing, however.

- Tallent-Runnels et al. (.pdf) took a broad look at the experience of teaching online, considering students experiences, outcomes, and institutional factors. They don’t provide a clear assessment of “online is better” or “in class is better”, but instead take a more complex approach by evaluating the breadth of the teaching experience. Their analysis likely won’t change anyone’s opinion, for or against, online learning, but the paper does highlight the silliness of a blanket comparison. It’s kind of like saying “is it better to fly than to drive”. Well, that depends. Where are you going? How much time do you have? Do you have a budget? Do you like driving and sightseeing? etc.

- Bowen et al. on Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities – this paper hasn’t gained the acceptance that the above papers have, partly because the sample size is not large and partly because randomized trials are tough to do well in education and many educators don’t bother diving into attempts to do so. I include it here because it is a report that focuses on interactive online learning (they include an hour a week in person). The report concludes comparable learning outcomes between online and F2F, but tout productivity gains and cost savings of online instruction (p. 2). In their conclusion, the authors acknowledge that these benefits might not carry educational improvements”across the board” (p.27) and that future gains are related to improvements in software (p. 28).

2. From context: This is an argument that will infuriate many academics, especially those that take themselves too seriously or that don’t own a computer: The internet has won. Deal with it. Work is digital. Life is digital. The question of “is online learning comparable to face-to-face learning” has been answered by society: “Who cares. We live, play, and work digitally. Might as well learn that way too”.

The University
The interest in online learning, and the prominence of online courses (MOOCs), is stunning. I have never seen a trend develop as quickly and with as little input from faculty. The faculty voice has been mute in MOOC conversations. A handful of faculty members are offering MOOCs, but as a body, faculty have been on the sidelines as the biggest educational trend of the last several decades has developed. To me, this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the MOOCs phenomenon. I’ve spoken with numerous systems that are offering MOOCs and in each instance, it was an admin or IT decision that did not include consultation with faculty senate. How is this possible? Are faculty that technology-shy that they would permit the evisceration of their practice in order to not reveal their technical phobias? I’ve stated this in other forums, but if 2012 was the year of the MOOC, 2013 will be the year of the anti-MOOC as faculty finally (hopefully) get into the conversation.

A few concerns exist beyond the lack of faculty voice. I’m concerned that education is being commodified. That MOOCs are a vehicle that will be used by corporations to take over public education. I’m concerned that the Silicon Valley way of “don’t think, just do” will produce a pedagogical model that lacks theory and ignores consideration of principles such as power, learner autonomy, and equity. I’m concerned that discoveries and pedagogical models that have been established over the past century will be ignored and the same idea, now with a new data/digital/cool-sounding name will herald a new age of “We discovered this…” (no. no ,you didn’t discover it. Read some freakin’ literature. The ideas are there already. You’re Columbus, coming into someone else’s territory).

But in spite of those concerns, I’ll keep experimenting with MOOCs. The prospect of global education, increased connectivity, and greater learner control are too tantalizing to ignore. Plus, it’s foolishness to ignore a new area of research. No doubt, there will be unintended consequences that will be negative. But creating a better model of learning, increasing access, and improving equity is more important than trying to preserve a model of the university or even the professorate that is at odds with how knowledge is generated and shared today.

What does this mean to higher education? The changes coming will be tremendous. The competition for students will be fierce. Kathleen Matheos and I did an article on the future of higher education a few years ago. Our core assertion is that society’s knowledge institutions mirror how knowledge is created and shared in a particular era. As a result, universities will begin to adopt the attributes of networks in how they teach and operation in order to stay relevant. In the process, research, teaching and learning, and assessment will be unbundled or de-coupled. This in turn will produce an ecosystem of numerous players, each addressing one aspect of what used to be the integrated higher education model. The image below was from that paper:


If you’re interested in readings/resources/discussions on the future of higher education, we ran a MOOC on this topic in fall 2012. The readings can be accessed here in Desire2Learn (click ‘content browser’).

Are MOOCs the future of higher education? I don’t think so. They are currently approaching hype-like status that only comes when in the throes of a fad. The term itself is quickly losing meaning as anything online and learning-related is apparently a MOOC. If you’re looking for MOOC resources, I’ve been tagging interesting articles and websites since 2011 here on Diigo. My co-author, Bonnie Stewart, has been tagging MOOC articles here on Delicious. If you don’t feel like reading hundreds of articles, Sir John Daniel provides a solid analysis of MOOCs. Don’t forget to look at the peer reviewed MOOC articles. Several colleagues have found Clay “the McGuyver of MP3 metaphors – explaining all phenomenon in the world through the lens of MP3′s and Napster since 1999″ Shirky’s evaluation of MOOCs helpful: Napster, Udacity, and the Academy.

The bigger trend to focus on is the increased role of two things in education:
1. Startups and entrepreneurs (or put another way, commercial activity): SXSWedu and ASU EdInnovation are two conferences devoted to this topic. I’m involved in organizing a conference with the tech/innovation theme in Calgary, Alberta May 1-3, 2013. The ecosystem of educational offering is being expanded, or pillared, depending on your view, by these startups. When in doubt, follow the money. The future of education is being shaped by entrepreneurs, not by professors.

2. Networked technologies and pedagogies: this has been my stomping grounds since the late 90′s. Together with colleagues like Stephen Downes, I’ve been looking at how connectedness changes learning. Connectedness is the big pedagogical innovation. Complex problems are solved by connecting expertise and knowledge. Literally, the knowledge is in the connections. As we become better connected as more of our knowledge becomes findable through social media and mobiles, networked pedagogies will grow in prominence. I’ve tagged connectivism resources here if you are interested in getting deeper into networked knowledge and learning. Google Scholar has a variety of articles as well.


Back to where we started: most of us today live in this constant state of knowledge deficiency, feeling that we’re behind on something, don’t know enough, and need to do more learning.

This is now the norm.

Accept it.

Enjoy it.

Fortunately, learners today have terrific options for filling personal knowledge gaps or connecting information pieces that they’ve collected in their daily information interactions. MOOCs and online learning are long overdue. They benefit learners, first and foremost. Faculty and universities have a reason to be anxious. MOOC providers want to make money. They will stop being free and will start competing with universities. For those who are willing to engage in the change dialogue, it’s also a wonderful time to begin influencing the future of education. We know knowledge, learning, and higher education are changing. The best time to move the world in a direction that we want is when it is already changing. Influencing change that is already occurring is easier than battling inertia. Don’t like where things are going? Jump in, share your vision, build something that reflects your ideals and values. Just don’t sit on the sideline and complain about how what others are doing is ruining education. Out do them. Build something better, something more valuable. You owe it to yourself to have your voice heard.

2 thoughts on “Under the Cloud of Knowledge Deficiency

  1. Pingback: Some resources/perspectives on MOOCs

  2. Thanks for a wonderfully nuanced introduction to the work you, Bonnie & Dave are engaged in with respect to MOOCs. A couple of thoughts strike me.

    I very much appreciate the emphasis on the “technological amnesia” that pervades the MOOC phenomena just as it has done with virtually every technological innovation that has promised to transform education at least since radio. If the anti-MOOC wave that you predict for 2013 does manifest itself, it should have the benefit of refocusing attention on the question that MOOCs are best situated to explore, that is, “How do knowledge, knowledge creation, and our relationships to knowledge change in an era of massive connectivity?”

    The new connection coming to my mind is that between Bereiter’s (Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age) “either/or” shift of knowledge from Popper’s World 1 to World 3 to something more holistic, specifically, knowledge as something simultaneously personal (World 1), Social (World 2), and independent (World 3). It seems to me that MOOCs are nicely situated to explore this.

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