What’s Open? Are OER Necessary?

Like most great conflagrations, it began as a small exchange that touched on a vital point.  At OER17 a couple of weeks ago a suggestion appeared via Twitter that DS106 (the pioneering online course, not the NETGEAR router) wasn’t/isn’t really “open” since it wasn’t based on true OER (Open Educational Resources.  Exception was taken. The ensuing discussion has only grown. Now nearly three weeks after the conference, the discussion (debate? argument? positioning battle?) has grown to the point that Maha Bali has organized a Hangout to discuss it further.  She’s also begun to curate the growing number of posts on the topic.  Thank you Maha.

Back at the conference – before it blew up into such a large discussion – I had promised to blog on the topic.  Alas events at my home campus have delayed that post but here it is. I hesitate somewhat given the great minds that have already weighed in, but in the interest of openness itself I think I might have a slightly different perspective to add.

OER: Permission to Use Property

The definition of OER, Open Education Resources, seems relatively clear and agreed. David Wiley has defined Open Content and OER as those copyrightable works licenses so as to permit perpetual 5R activities of retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute. In practice this means Creative Commons (CC) licenses and CC-BY in particular.

I have some issues with this definition such as the exclusion of open source software, the silence regarding public domain and fair use, and Wiley’s deprecation of CC SA, NC, and ND licenses, but that’s fodder for another post. For this discussion, this CC-license-with-the-5R’s definition will suffice to clarify OER.  Thus we have it: The essence of openness for resources is permission to use copyrighted property. 

note: Though it’s peripheral to this discussion and worthy of its own post, I would like to remind folks that while we call copyrighted material intellectual property and the law treats it as property, it is artificial property. It’s not like land or that coffee mug in your hand. It’s an artificial government-granted bundle of monopoly powers that we call property.

The driver of this growing discussion then really turns on the question of what qualifies as “open pedagogy”?  Wiley is pretty clear about his view. Open Pedagogy is the practice of using OER.  Thus the definition of “openness”, according to Wiley, has OER and its property use permissions as prerequisite. If there’s not explicitly CC licensed OER involved, it’s not open.

Many of the posts discussing “what’s open pedagogy?” take a turn towards defining it differently. Some use open in practice/praxis terms.  Others use it in terms of the “open web”.  I think we can consider the use of open web approach as one emphasizing open access, whether that access is to read or to publish. Either approach, the praxis/practice approach or the accessibility/open web approach seem to still emphasize the written materials as the center of the issue.  In other words, the focus shifts to what’s done with the materials? Is the Internet and its affordances utilized?  Jim Groom in I Don’t Need Permission to be Open stakes out the position closer to my heart:

I think the locking down of open is dangerous. I think it draws lines where they need not be, and it reconsolidates power for those who define it. More than that, the power around open has been pretty focused on a few people for too long, and I count myself amongst them. More and more on this trip in conversations with others, I think we as a field need to do a better job of bringing the next generation of ed-tech folks to the fore, stepping back, and letting them frame what’s next. Even this post shows my harkening back to work I did 6 years ago, I don’t want to have a corner on open or ed-tech, I want something that gets me excited and passionate. OER17 certainly did that, and I crave more. What I see as hardline definitions of what is and is not OER or open need not police the discussion. I would hate for an edict about what is and is not open pedagogy to get in the way of people “coloring outside the lines” of the 5Rs, to appropriate Brian Lamb’s gorgeous turn of phrase from one of this 3 tweets in response to the avalanche.

David Kernohan in his comment on Jim’s post, though, really nails my position:

I don’t need 5Rs permission for the inside of my head. And if I want to share what’s inside my head with others, that’s my business. The fact that some of the ideas in my head have been put there by corporate idea salesmen, and that I need to refer to those ideas to express mine, is immaterial.

Make art. Dammit.

I would just add to David’s comment the admonition to “Make Art. Or Science. Or Philosophy. Or Whatevs. Dammit”

Property, Process, Pedagogy, and Power

The core of my objection to the “OER as prerequisite to being open” position is that OER are resources. They’re things. Commodities. Property. Or, at least they’re treated as property in a capitalist US-Western economic system that increasingly dominates the global economy and culture.

Pedagogy isn’t property. It’s not a commodity. It’s a process. It’s a method of creating a desired outcome. For me the analogy is to business process analysis: pedagogy is the production process. It may be mass-production oriented or it may be artisinal. It’s the way things get accomplished – or at least it’s the way we intend to accomplish things.  For those without a business analysis background who may recoil at anything smacking of “business” in education, let me use a different analogy.  As educators, we intend to help students to have some kind of particular experience: learn something, change perspectives, grow, mature, create, collaborate, etc. Of course in the modern lingo we call those “learning outcomes” (don’t get me started on that!). My point here is that pedagogy is the intended process by which we enable students to reach those outcomes and  have that experience.

As a process, pedagogy, makes use of resources. Any production process uses resources, but the resources are not the essence of the process. In the case of pedagogy, what we normally think of as “educational resources”, books and written materials, whether they be closed ER or OER, aren’t even the most important resources.  The most important resources are human – the labor, communication, dialogue, and care of humans. Other critical resources include technology and its affordances embodied in what we economists would call capital. The methods and rules we use to combine all these resources, the property, the humans, and the technologies, is the process, the pedagogy.

If licenses and legal permissions to use property make resources open, then what makes pedagogy open?  It can’t be licenses or permissions. Pedagogy isn’t property.  It also can’t be that open pedagogy simply means using open resources. The resources may be openly licensed, but that says nothing about the openness of the process, the openness of the humans, or the openness of the media & technology.

A process, like a pedagogy, can be conducted in isolation removed from any other activities or parts of life. Or, the process can be conducted in the open, connected to rest of human activity.  Humans are the center of pedagogy or educational praxis. It’s students and teachers and their interactions that are the essence of pedagogy. That means that pedagogy is not just about some instructional design strategy, it’s about power relations. Who gets to do what? Who gets to tell whom what to do? Who sets the bounds and the rules? What are the limits of activity?  Who tells whom what to write about? Who defines the limits of the audience the student can reach? Who defines meaning?  To me, any pedagogy is primarily about power relations and therefore freedom.

Now I think we can get to the essence of openness in pedagogy. Since pedagogy is about process and power relations, then openness in pedagogy is about freedom and connection. It’s about the degrees and ways in which a pedagogy is free and mutual. Openness in pedagogy then starts to overlap with critical pedagogy. It is no wonder then that a discussion of “what’s open pedagogy” should emerge from an OER17 conference with the theme of the “Politics of Open”.

Recognizing Openness in Pedagogy

I don’t think a simple, checklist definition of open pedagogy is possible. It’s a pointless and ultimately dangerous endeavor to attempt to judge pedagogy as open or not according to some abstract checklist.  To do so risks reifying both pedagogy and education as something that exists independent of the students and teachers engaged in it. We already all too often talk about education as something to be acquired rather than an experience or activity that’s lived.

Freedom, power relations, and learning are very multi-dimensional.  So while a strict, abstract, checklist definition of open pedagogy isn’t useful, we can describe dimensions of openness.  I would love to see our discussions of what’s open pedagogy evolve these lines.  So let me try a few examples of dimensions of openness in pedagogy. I am grateful to my colleagues Jeff Janowick, Regina Gong, Meg Elias, and Leslie Johnson for recent discussions that helped my understandings of these dimensions. For each of these examples, the dimension is described as running from more closed to more open.

  • Isolation vs. Connectedness:  Does the pedagogy and learning activities exist predominantly in a closed, isolated space such as the traditional classroom or do they engage and form connections with the larger, outside world?  Using this dimension, courses where students create materials on the open web, accessible by the public, makes the pedagogy more open.
  • Disposable  vs. Permanent, Public, or Authentic assignments
  • Temporary Interactions vs. Building of Lasting Community
  • Defined, limited activities vs. opportunity for expressing more creativity
  • Controlled, limited use of learning materials, including which sources are approved vs. Accessing and using the range of publicly available resources on the Web.
  • Teacher as “the” authority vs. Students being able to bring other sources of authority. 

This is just a beginning. I would be very interested in hearing what others might think and of other dimensions in which pedagogy may be more closed vs more open.

If openness in resources is defined by permissions to use property, I argue that openness in pedagogy must be measured in terms of freedom, authority, and power of the learning process.  To place the resources, the OER, as the prerequisite of openness of pedagogy is to commoditize and reify education itself, ultimately denying the possibility of critical pedagogy. Open pedagogy, and therefore open education and open learning, are more about freedom of action and authority than they are about property permissions.

 

 

 

 

Open Ed, Trump, Brexit

The #Trexit Conversation

I’ll be leading  a panel discussion at OER17 called Open Education in a time of Trump and Brexit.  Joining me in the panel live at the conference will be Maha Bali (@bali_maha), Lorna Campbell (@LornaMCampbell), and Martin Weller (@mweller).  While we four could easily carry on a lively discussion for 80 minutes (some would say I could jabber that long myself), I wanted to bring in additional perspectives.  To that end, I have enlisted the help of a few people to provide different perspectives to get the conversation going.  These people, Robin DeRosa, Nadine Aboulmagd, Chris Gilliard, and David Kernohan, unfortunately couldn’t attend the conference in person, but they’ve kindly provided us video statements intended to help provoke the discussion and stimulate our collective thinking and learning.  I’ve embedded those video statements below in this post.

I know many, perhaps most or even all, open educators have thought about the implications of the Trump election, the Brexit referendum, and other political movements for open education and OER.  I hope this panel can help stimulate a wider and deeper discussion and sharing of ideas.  Feel free to participate on Twitter with the hashtags #trexit #oer17.   Or, add your comments here or blog them yourself.

The Topic

The original motivation for this panel discussion came from private discussions among some of us just after the US presidential election in November 2016.  We thought those discussions should be expanded and made more open. After all, one of the core values of the open education movement is that more participation and open involvement improves the outcomes, right? Hence, this panel discussion with the open education community at OER17. The original proposal for this panel discussion stated:

Like the Internet itself, the Open Education movement, including OER and OEP, has grown in a world of globalised capitalism that has been dominant in North America and Europe, and indeed, developed and growing economies. The Brexit vote, Donald Trump’s election, and shifts toward nationalist-right parties elsewhere are changing the political landscape. At a minimum, the rhetoric of these movements, both in support and opposition, has altered public discourse and often attitudes toward higher education. These political shifts have complex and multifaceted implications for the open education movement.

At the OER17 conference in London, our panel aims to stimulate deeper thought beyond our initial reactions to these political movements. We hope to provide different perspectives on the relationship between Open Education and the political changes represented by Brexit and the Trump election. Many questions arise, including:

  • What challenges do these political movements pose for Open Education? What opportunities?
  • Open Education movement has largely embraced values of inclusiveness, sharing, connectedness, equity, voice, agency, and openness. How might these values be furthered under these new regimes? How might these values be hindered?
  • Will our work in the open education movement change?
  • In what ways can we shape the future of the Open Education Movement?

When considering the relationship between Trump/Brexit and the OER/ open education movements, it is tempting to think in narrow terms. We’re tempted to see think first of funding implications, academic freedom concerns, or wavering support for education as a public good.   These are valid concerns. But as our three “provocateers” suggest, there’s more to the intersection of Trump/Brexit and OER/Open Education than we might think at first.  It’s complex.

The Provocations

Robin DeRosa

Robin DeRosa, (@actualham), suggests we observe and consider the parallels between the larger political environment and the environments we create in the classroom. (4:47 min)

Nadinne Aboulmagd

Nadinne Aboulmagd, (@NadinneAbo), provides a close-up insight into some challenges the Trump administration policies create for open scholarship. Note: Nadinne was prevented from creating the video at the last minute due to illness but has very generously shared her script for the video here.

Chris Gilliard

Chris Gilliard, (@hypervisible),  notes the role of surveillance and monitoring and urges us to think of open as in freedom. (2:28 min)

David Kernohan

David Kernohan, @dkernohan, takes a look at the “roaming auto-didacts” involved in the Trump/Brexit movements and considers what open education/OER did and did not contribute.

At this point, we’ll insert insightful and witty commentary from our panelists.

UPDATE:  After I put this blog post together but just before the panel started, we received the video from Nadinne (who went beyond the call of duty!).  I wanted to include it:

Still Running Errands for Open Learning Ideas

A big day planned today.  I’ll be spreading the word about Domains of One’s Own projects, Reclaim Hosting, and open learning to community colleges. I’ll be presenting twice today at the League for Innovation in Community College’s big Innovations 2017 conference.  Actually, we will be presenting and spreading the word today.

First up, I assist my fantastic colleague Leslie Johnson as she tells how the LCC Center for Teaching Excellence  uses our Open Learning Lab to promote sharing of teaching ideas and teaching faculty how to use open learning techniques like writing-in-public assignments.  The session is titled “Connect and Create: Teaching Faculty by Modeling Open Learning”.

Then in the afternoon we’ll switch roles and she’ll help me as I spread the word about open learning and Domains projects to community colleges. It’s the latest incarnation and update of story of how a community college started a Domains of One’s Own project. I call it “Running Errands for Ideas”.  The slides are here.

If you’re interested in learning more, contact us either by comment here or on the Twitter. I’m @econproph on Twitter and Leslie is @mtflamingo.

The OER Content Trap

Recently I’ve been following  a discussion about the future of OER (Open Educational Resources). Most of the discussion has been via blog posts between David Wiley (@opencontent) and Rajiv Jhangiani (@thatpsychprof).  Others have contributed via Twitter.  It’s a friendly exchange with the key blog posts having been David’s

and Rajiv’s

The discussion is not really a new one. It’s the question of how to promote OER. There has been for a while two “camps” or points of view.  To simplify (or oversimplify) the question:  To expand OER use do we argue the “free textbooks” aspect emphasizing retain and reuse, or do we argue the “open pedagogy” practices aspect and emphasize revise and remix powers.  The points are, of course, well made and I’m not writing here to disagree.

Rather, what I want to suggest is that we’ve fallen into a trap by our use of the word “resources”.  We need to stop thinking about “resources” period.  No more OER.

Yes, I have a proposed replacement – wait for it.  First, let me explain where I’m coming from. The past couple of weeks I’ve been reading a book called The Content Trap by Bharat Anand.  Read it. Do it. It’s a highly readable, story-laden book about business strategy for digital businesses. But despite being so accessible, it’s also strongly supported by good research and the economics of business strategy.  Trust me. I’ve been a full-time academic for the past 15 years, but I’ve spent nearly four decades in the business strategy world. I spent a good 20+ years working on these kinds of issues: how to expand adoption of a new technology/product/process/service and how to compete. I spent a lot of time a few years ago helping to craft strategy for a college.  I don’t praise business strategy books easily. Most are crap or pablum. The Content Trap is not. It is based on both sound empirics AND sound economics and behavioral analyses.  The oversimplified, too short TL;DR version of Content Trap is this: focusing on the product is a trap. It’s the connections that count: connections between products, between customers, between producers.

Rajiv is right that part of the problem is changing minds and certainly understanding the relevant psychology should inform our advocacy.  David is also right about a very important thing: we are competing against the for-profit publishers and the publishers are pivoting their strategies towards platforms.  But the essence we’re facing is a strategic competitive problem.  It’s the Open folks vs. the for-profit, lock-down, lock-in publishers.  I think by focusing on the “resources”, the content, we’ve fallen into the content trap.  We worry about how to finance the costs of production of “free” textbooks. We worry about competing for adoption of OER texts vs. the publisher texts. We’re trapped into focusing on the content.  Even when we talk about open educational practices or pedagogy, OEP, we’re still focused on the content because we focus on how the content is used.

We’re not alone in this trap. Nearly all higher ed institutions are there too.  They almost all think their special sauce is are the courses they teach or the research publications they produce. They’re wrong.  Similarly, the special sauce in open education isn’t the OER, the resources, books, videos, and content. The real special value is in the connections people make, the community that forms, and the identities they forge.

So what should we be focusing on? Open Education Connections or Open Educational Communities. OEC.

I’ll have more to say in the coming month, God willing.  I know this is just kind of a tease so far but I don’t have time tonight to go further. In my own head I’m beginning to visualize winning strategies built around this concept of OEC’s. It’s a lot more complex than just a simple name, great strategies always are.

I’ve got a panel discussion at OER17 conference coming up in April.  I’m trying to put together a couple longer blog posts in preparation for that.  Right now I’m thinking this OEC idea might fit.

 

WPCampus Online – Ten Plus Ways to Teach With WordPress, a.k.a Open Education

Please join me today at the first WPCampus Online conference. It’s free. If you’re involved with higher education you’ll find it helpful – regardless of whether you’re experienced or new to WordPress.   I’ll be talking about examples of using WordPress to engage students and create an open education.  Here’s the full description:

All times are listed in Central Standard Time.

Date: Monday, January 23, 2017 Time: 2:00 – 2:45 p.m. Location: Room 2

The Magic of Teaching Using WordPress: 10+ Ways to Easily Transform Classes & Excite Students

Open Learning means no more boring disposable assignments and no more locked-down closed LMS’s. In Open Learning, students become to become creators and publishers, instead of passive receptacles for lecture. WordPress is the magic that enables professors to create open learning experiences such as student portfolios, writing-for-public assignments, collaborative open texts, and more. In this session, I will describe ten (or more) ideas and designs for how to customize a WordPress site for a particular instructional use case. For each, I will provide ideas for how faculty can get started themselves – regardless of whether their institution has a formal blogs or domains program. All examples are based on our experiences at the Lansing Community College Open Learn Lab or at some other Domains-of-One’s-Own hosting universities.

Here’s a link to my slides in case this viewer doesn’t display them or you want to download.  Links to all examples are in the slides.

https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1DAmm7hk7QyXjIelIyMslSGkVnAdRIdfqo9rlAxHhlOU/pub?start=false&loop=false&delayms=3000

Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

How do you know that? Why do you think that?  How does that make any sense?  

I was a highly opinionated child with a lot of crazy ideas. But my Dad was patient. He never told me “that’s crazy” or “that’s wrong”.  Instead he usually greeted my pronouncements with some variation of those three questions and often he strung them together into a dialogue.  I’d answer and he’d ask the next question or repeat the first.  At some age, I don’t really recall when,  I began to internalize those questions and the resulting dialogue.  When I got to college I had the chance to study rhetoric and semantics. I added my own questions to his three.

Why these words? What do they want me to think/feel/do? Why are they saying this?

I guess these questions are what the education folks call “critical thinking”. What I know is that we’d be better off asking these questions when we read. I’ve been reading lots of stories, tweets, and posts about “fake news” websites and the need for improved “fact-checking” and digital literacy.  But I’m not too sure we’re getting at the problem. The problem is a lack of critical thinking as my Dad would have approached.  Instead, people seem to be emphasizing the following questions:

What are the “facts”? Is this true? Is this a “legitimate” news site? Should I trust this source? How do we filter out the “fake news”?

These are the wrong questions. They won’t lead to critical insight. They’ll only lead to more deception and propaganda.  I see two problems with these questions people are posing.

First, everything cannot be reduced to some “fact” status as either true or not true. I don’t want to get into some deep philosophical exploration of the nature of truth, I just want to point out any statement of the future  or intentions is inherently speculative and cannot be “fact checked”. All statements of policy intents are statements about the future.   A person can lie about their intents (and even lie to themselves) but it cannot be “fact checked”. The lie can only be challenged by building an argument of reasoning why the person should not be believed. Further the class of things that can be called “facts” includes only objectively verifiable things. Yet subjective things matter too. Feelings, preferences, and perceptions cannot be “fact-checked”. Culture is made of more feelings and perceptions than it is facts.

I could elaborate on the inadequacy of “fact-checking” and likely will in some future post, but right now I want to focus on the second issue: the problems involved in focusing on “legitimate” vs. “fake” news sites.  This isn’t really critical thinking at all. It’s a reliance on authority as the sole arbiter of truth. It’s actually the approach that says we don’t have to engage the actual message itself and critically think about it. This approach advises to divide the world into approved “legitimate” news sources, presumably nice establishment entities such as the New York Times, or Washington Post, or ABC/CBS/NBC/CNN.  I suppose whether Fox News qualifies depends on whether you’re Republican or Democrat.  But other sources are deemed suspicious and likely to be “fake”.  Folks, the problem isn’t whether the news publisher is “legit” it’s whether the news story itself is “legit”.  Big difference.

Let me use a story that has made the rounds in the last day or so.  The Washington Post published a story with the headline:
Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say

Almost instantly, the Twittersphere and blogosphere lit up with mostly unhappy Clinton supporters claiming this is the biggest news story and everybody is missing it.  And yet, the Washington Post site fails on all my Dad’s questions. There’s nothing really there. And when I ask myself about their semantics and ask myself “cui bono?” from this piece, I find it seriously lacking.  I don’t have to take it apart for you because Fortune magazine and journalist Caitlin Johnstone, quoting Glenn Greenwald, did it for me.  You can read for yourself:

Fortune:  Russian Fake News

Caitlyn Johnstone on Newslogue: Glenn Greenwald Just Beat The Snot Out Of Fake News Rag ‘The Washington Post’

(update 28Nov2016: An even better critical thinking take-down of the Washington Post article from William Black at New Economic Perspectives: The Washington Post’s Propaganda About Russian Propaganda )

I’ll reiterate what I’ve said on Twitter and FB.  We shouldn’t be calling out “fake news” sites. We shouldn’t even be calling out “fake news”.  We should call it what it is: propaganda.  Calling it “fake news” will mislead us and get all of us into trouble.  It leads to binary thinking: is this “true” or “fake”?  The problem is propaganda. The most effective propaganda is neither true nor fake. It contains at least some elements of truth or facts but uses rhetorical sleight of hand to get you to believe something you really don’t know. We used to call it spin, but I guess that’s gone out of style.

Let’s remember “legitimate” news sources can and often do deliver propaganda, “fake news” if you will, just as easily and even more effectively than any “fake news sites” spun up by some troll teenager in his basement.

I’m old enough to remember that the legitimate news sources delivered the news to us about Gulf of Tonkin incident and Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and anthrax.   Those were propaganda, “fake news”, spun up to work the nation up to war. They worked unfortunately and hundreds of thousands died. Indeed, the march to war is always accompanied by the whole hearted support of the merchants of death and the “legitimate” news sources.

Crying “Russians! Russians!” is dangerous. Accepting such stories uncritically is even more dangerous.  It allows people, especially establishment Democrats, to ignore their own culpability in creating this disaster of an impending Trump presidency. But even more dangerous is it feeds the war machine. We have a populace that wants to look elsewhere to blame their problems: Republicans want to blame Arabs, Muslims, and immigrants.  Now Democrats are crying to blame Russians.  That way lies madness. Let’s remember, when it comes to world wars, it’s three strikes and we’re all out.

So I humbly ask that we all ask ourselves as we read these days: Who’s zoomin’ here?

hat tip to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin for the inspiration for the post.  Enjoy:

 

 

Critical Analytics: It’s Stories All the Way Down

I’ve been hearing much lately about stories, narratives, analytics, data, and “big data”.  I have no need to call out exactly who or which pieces of writing. You know who you are. My aim here is not to criticize, oppose, or take sides. It’s to take a brief critical look at what’s being discussed.

Much of the discussion strikes me as one tribe (I’ll call them non-quants) pleading that stories and narratives are important too!  All of which is an understandable reaction to how the other tribe (I’ll call them quants) have seemingly gained a favored position and perceived superiority at divining the “truth” because they are evidence based!  Because data! I’m actually a member of both tribes and find the posturing of stories and narratives as alternative to quantitative analysis disheartening.

The most encouraging blog piece I’ve read recently comes from Michael Feldstein.  In his lengthy (and excellent) post called Analytics Literacy is a Major Limiter of Edtech Growth.  Please do read it.   He argues for the dissolving this false juxtaposition between “stories” and “data”.

…some of these arguments position analytics in opposition to narratives. That part is not right. Analytics are narratives. They are stories that we tell, or that machines tell, in order to make meaning out of data points. The problem is that most of us aren’t especially literate in this kind of narrative and don’t know how to critique it well.

I wholeheartedly agree.  Feldstein is (correctly) arguing that data points are nothing without stories.  The meaning we take from the data is itself nothing but a story we weave using the data points as we might use punctuation or particular words.  In essence, quantitative analysis is itself a story.

This really isn’t news or at least it shouldn’t be.  I remember how powerful McCloskey’s Rhetoric of Economics was for me when I read it decades ago.  McCloskey powerfully made the point that no matter how much we wrapped an idea in data, mathematical formalism, or econometric analysis, everything we said in economics was just a metaphor or a story we imposed on the data. Alan Grossman long ago pointed out that even that high temple of data-driven evidence, Science(tm), it’s still just rhetoric and it’s still just stories.

Yes, the meaning we attach to a set of data is itself a story.  So stories are not alternatives to data. Data is a story.  But it’s not just the obvious story we tell with the data. There’s a story unstated underneath the data the we use. Our choice of particular data variables constitutes a story itself. We (or at least the data collector) have in mind a story and narrative of what’s important before they collect the data.  They don’t collect data about the context that they don’t see as important or relevant (or easy enough to collect), so they assume a story about that uncollected contextual data holds no meaning.  There’s a story underneath the story we told with the data.

But it keeps getting deeper. Much like the philosophical turtles, it’s stories all the way down. That measure of the data you’re using. The one you think is just basic stats or math, something like the average (properly called arithmetic mean), or the variance, or correlation, or whatever.  It has a story too.  Let’s take that arithmetic mean (average) and each observation’s difference from the average. We think of that average as “the norm” – but that’s just a story invented by a couple of different statisticians in the 19th century.

I can’t really do justice here to the story of how that story of what the average or norm is.  I strongly urge you to read The End of Average by Todd Rose.  It’s fully accessible to members of both tribes, quants and non-quants.  You’ll never use your quantitative data the same way again. Todd Quinn writing in the Elearning magazine of the ACM had the same kind of dramatic reaction as I had.

I’ve finished reading Todd Rose’s The End of Average, and I have to say it was transformative in ways that few books are. I read a fair bit, and sometimes what I read adds some nuance to my thinking, and other times I think the books could stand to extend their own nuances. Few books fundamentally make me “think different,” but The End of Average was one that did, and I believe it has important implications for learning and business.

Rose’s point is pretty simple: All our efforts to try to categorize people on a dimension like GPA or SAT or IQ are, essentially, nonsensical.

But going another level down, as Rose explains in End of Average, there are assumptions beneath the calculation and use of ordinary stats like the average or the variance.  Let’s face it, “assumptions” is another way of staying “believed a story to be so true that it didn’t need to be stated”.  In the case of the average and the calculation of differences from “the norm”, that assumed story has to do with the ergodic properties of what’s being examined.  So what’s “ergodic  properties”? Well here’s Wikipedia’s attempt to explain ergodicity. It’s not very accessible to non-quants (or even most quants!).  Again, I would refer you  to Rose’s book for a beginning glimpse of what ergodicity means. I can’t explain it here, but the essence is that mathematically, statistically the vast majority of the stories being told with quantitative analytics are complete nonsense. Garbage. Invalid. Wishful alchemy.

It’s stories all the way down.  At first this might seem discouraging. But it’s not. I’m calling for not just analytics literacy but a critical analytics.  We need to investigate and become aware of not only the stories we tell using data, but also the assumed stories we slide under the table by choosing particular measures and statistical techniques without thinking about them. We wouldn’t let the semantics of narratives escape critical examination. Why should we let analytics?