Lately I’ve been thinking about data and stories, design and luck, prediction and intuition, faith, empathy, beliefs and truth, scale and thinking small, political and personal, power, control, freedom and social justice. And how all of these ideas crashing into one another inside my head. Conflicting and challenging one another. Creating turmoil, unease and discomfort. Uncertainty. A traffic jam of thoughts and ideas.
And into that confusion, I’ve inserted a deadline and personal challenge. (Thank goodness for deadlines). As a organizer of the Learning Analytics and Knowledge Hackathon, I suggested that we dedicate some of the time to a discussing some of discussing these ideas. The other organizers agreed and said, “OK, let us know what you come up with.” As of today’s meeting, I had nothing. Except now some newfound urgency.
So here it goes.
Data-driven vs. person-driven stories
Never so much in the past year have I felt as uncomfortable talking about using data among forward-thinking learning folks. In a year when data-driven algorithms influenced the news (propaganda) folks read, the polls got it wrong on critical questions, and both humans and robots spewing hate online became seemingly unstoppable, I don’t blame them. At the same time, we have have some recent examples of person-driven narratives whose goal to mislead (or gaslight – More notes on gaslighting by Tressie McMillan Cottom).
In the same year I’ve watched my phone faithfully tracked the steps I take and where I drive. Those data points, are simply micro-facts. If I used a wearable device, you could improve the accuracy of those facts by identifying all the times I forget to carry my phone (another micro-fact). If you gathered up enough micro-facts, you could create a story of me. What that story would say would of course depend on the micro-facts you chose to include and how you chose to interpret them but it would likely emphasize my day-to-day routines.
Still in 2016, I’ve started sharing my thoughts and stories on several blogs and gathering the narratives of others on whenIneededhelp.com. Some of these stories are gut-wrenching accounts of injustice and marginalization. In these stories, myself and others tend to filter the micro-facts and focus on a relatively small number of life events that have had a larger than normal impact on our lives, macro-facts. In fact, I recently noted that I only tend to write on my personal blog when things are falling apart. If you gathered up these macro-facts, you could create another story of me. What this story would say would of course depend on the macro-facts I chose to include and how I chose to interpret them but it would likely emphasize my non-routines.
These are only two types of stories. I think the above story dimensions could be combined in a variety of ways depending on the information gathering and filtering methods. My point is no matter which facts we choose to use to create our stories, the lesson I want to learn for 2016 and early 2017 is the importance of why and how stories are both told and heard.
Ambiguity and answers
In a recent event at Thompson Rivers University called “Towards Indigenizing the Curriculum,” I listened to Rob Matthew describe the importance of stories. He explained that “anything worth learning can be put into a story.” He went on to explain stories are powerful and the role of listener is powerful and needs to be learned. “Stories involve ambiguity and not one right answer” which can be frustrating for students expecting one right answer. That frustration needs to be discussed.
According to Matthew, the listener has a shared responsibility to interpret the story being presented to them and many students become frustrated in that role. How did we arrive to a point where post-secondary students believe that there is one “right” answer to a question? How can such an approach possibly help any of us to make sound decisions when faced with increasingly complex and often conflicting information flows? How do we learn to decide better using both data-driven and people-driven stories?
What does any of this have to do with analytics and the LAK Hackathon? The goal of analytics is to gain knowledge which can be used to make improvements or changes in by discovering, interpreting and communicating meaningful patterns.
Where businesses tend to have agreed on what they are trying to achieve (usually higher levels of profit) and who is the audience of their stories (usually internal operations, consumers and regulating bodies), within learning organizations and educational institutions there tends to be less consensus on both the goals and audiences within education.
What might we trying to achieve with our stories?
- Increased graduation rates and completion rates
- Revenue generation
- Efficient transmission of content and use of LMS
- Alignment of course content with prescribed learning outcomes
- Assess efficacy of new content (like open textbooks) and educational technology
- Improve learning design
- Teach skills to meet market demand
- Increase student engagement
- Innovate approaches to learning
- Improved access to educational opportunities
- Reduced reliance on the LMS
- Increased digital and data literacy
- Evidence of knowledge generation
- Better decision-making skills
- Empowering marginalized groups
- Challenging societal assumptions and remedying inequalities
- Increasing our ability to empathize with others
- (What else??)
Who might want to be our listeners?
- Institutional leadership
- Institutional operations
- Teaching faculty
- Research faculty
- Prospective students
- Current students
- Industry partners
- Accreditation organizations
- Government organizations
- Training organizations and trainers
- (Who else ??)
What if instead of defining our work by information gathering techniques, we define it by the goals of a particular project?
What if we made a practice of seeking out conflicting sources of information that challenge us to accept ambiguity? How might that change our opinions of stories, data, educational research and learning analytics? What types of conversation might we need to have to move such an approach forward?
Hoping to get some additional input, ideas and citations that I can use to generate conversation on this topic. (Please).