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?

 

Brexit, Trumpworld, and the Future of Open Ed: A Topic for OER17?

The deadline is looming in a few days for next April’s OER17 conference in London. I’m not even sure yet if I can make to the conference yet but the events of the past week seem to me compelling to us.
I’m thinking of proposing a panel discussion to discuss Open Education in a time of Brexit, Trumpworld, & whatever other shifts to the hard right happen before April. Specifically we would look at not only whatever threats the political shift from globalized neo-liberalism to far-right nationalism might mean, but more importantly in my opinion other issues:
  • examining the idea that open, connected, learning is more important than ever, and that open, connected, learning is the vehicle by which we combat long-term these trends
  • the implications for the more decolonization and opportunity in the rest of the world, after all, Brexit-Trump-Putin etc is pretty much a Euro-North American phenomenon.
  • what hidden opportunities might this shift away from neo-liberalism offer?
  • how might we change our approach to promoting open, connected education?
Martin Weller has already offered some thoughts from last September in Open Education and the Unenlightment.  I intend to blog heavily in the coming months on the subject and also include my Comparative Economic Systems class in the work.
Here’s the catch. I really don’t want to create another all-white-male panel.  We need more voices. If you’re thinking of attending OER17, interested in being part of it, and you don’t look like me (lucky you!) please contact me ASAP.  Either follow me on Twitter (@econproph) and DM me, or email me at   econproph(at)gmail.com.

Doing the Write Thing

The past 4 weeks have been unsettling.   As above, so below.  At my school where I’ve spent 8 years heavily engaged in governance, planning, and accreditation work I’ve come under a severe personal and “political” attack that has put the open learning project I’ve decorative image of trees reflected in pond led at risk.  I didn’t see that coming.  Yet, three weeks ago I participated in my first Lilly Conference. I felt comfortable and surprisingly (to me) confident. I’ve never thought of myself as having much pedagogical expertise. I always thought I was just an economist, an unconscious competent when it came to teaching.  I started to realize that even though I don’t have any degree in “education”, I’ve got something to contribute and I feel comfortable with these “teaching experts”.

Then two weeks ago it was OpenEd16. I’ve already written about that. I found my people. Never have I have felt more at home with some academic group.  I went to OpenEd hoping to tell the story  of what we’ve done with open learning and a domains of one’s own project at my community college.  I seriously hoped to get a kind of “that’s a good job, there, little bro” from all these thought leaders and big research schools that pioneering this movement.  What I got was a welcome and interest as a peer – people thought I had something interesting to say.  My voice was welcomed. And it was welcomed on a stage much larger than I pictured. It’s an international stage.

And then election came day.  Trumpland.  I didn’t see that coming either, but in retrospect this week, I should have.   I’m still an economist. I teach not only macro principles, but econ history and comparative econ systems.  But I listened to pollsters instead of relying on my own analysis as economic historian.  So I’ve been deeply buried in trying to figure out what Trump + Republican congress means. How will things change.  How do I explain it.  And I’m trying to figure all that out while sorting out my own feelings of grief for my country and society and my realization that I have to help protect all those that are so threatened  by this coming new administration.  I am fortunate enough to be older, hetero, white married male. I am not as vulnerable as so many others are.  That’s a privilege.

But with great privilege comes great responsibility. 

So what to do?  I realize that I’ve let my blogging and writing languish in recent years as I got more and more involved in governance and politics inside the little campus where I work.  I got tied up in a silly anxiety over whether I should use this blog, which originally started as just explanations of economic news for my students and somehow gained some followers, or use a different platform for topics that weren’t directly economic analysis: open learning concepts, pedagogy, management and leadership of higher education, and just broader social commentary.  I realize I’ve let my voice get too quiet.  I also realize that while I don’t have all the answers,  I can offer some unique perspectives.  What’s felt like an unfocused jack-of-all-trades-not-expert-in-anything career with corporate planning, strategic & technology planning consulting, teaching economics, economic analysis, college governance, economic history,  rhetoric studies, and pedagogy might actually be an advantage.  I can connect dots that others can’t even see.  I’m also now in my sixties. I’ve seen many things those that are younger haven’t and were never taught.

So I hereby commit to write more.  I’m going to contribute my voice more and quit hesitating.  The role I’ve come to play on campus needs to step up to a larger stage where more across long distance can hear and where I can amplify their voices.

I’ve developed a bad case of blogstipation*.   Specifically, you the reader can expect more and more frequent posts about the following themes. I promise there will be more of not only the original reason for this blog,

  • More macro policy analysis – As we shift from Obama’s inadequate policies based on broken mainstream macroeconomic theories to Trump’s likely to be volatile and failed policies based on a free-market fantasy, there will be much to explain.

but also more about what I’m doing and experimenting with pedagogically.

  • Open Learning – the nuts and bolts of what I’m doing, what I (we) are learning about learning, and the odd insight

I now see that I these aren’t entirely different worlds of thought.  They’re connected.  So I’ve got some pieces in the works that make the big picture connections.

  • It’s the End of the World, except It’s Not.  Brexit. Trumpworld.  Putin. Europe seems to be turning to the right.  I read and hear way too much commentary that sees this as the end of the world but sees it in older 20th century right-left, free market capitalist vs. socialist, cold-war or WWII terms.  It is possibly the end of a dominant system in the West, but that system is globalized neo-liberalism (don’t reach the verdict yet, the Empire has yet to strike back).  That view also ignores the heavily colonized vast rest of the world. What comes next?  There’s a lot to talk about.
  • Sub-Prime US.  Gardner Campbell  planted this seed.  The financial crisis of 2007-09 that started in the U.S. with the sub-prime mortgage mess wasn’t an accident. It was a feature of the system and not bug.  When seen as part of a globalized, neo-liberal, hierarchical system, we see that sub-prime is a class thing.  The “student success” and “completion” agendas and efforts in higher education have much in common with Wall Street’s embrace of sub-prime mortgages.  The corporate restructurings and shift of the US economy from manufacturing to finance & entertainment is part of a class system: the blue-chip 1% and the elite-educated struggling to become the 1%, and the rest of us reduced to sub-prime status.  Sub-prime us.

But I also have ideas about how we can lead, react, and fix this mess.  I need to document and share these ideas so they can be pollinated.

  • Flipped College – How we manage, organize, and lead higher education must change.  Much has been made in recent years of the need to “flip” the college classroom (I hate the simplistic moniker BTW).  But the classroom pedagogy is but a reflection of the institution itself. If we don’t want the classroom to be top-down content-delivery, we have to flip the college itself away from top-down hierarchical structures and practices.
  • some more that I don’t have cute little names for yet.

Stay tuned.  I have work to do.

 

Processing OpenEd16

I am sitting in my hotel room trying to pack my bags and simultaneously unpack the conference.  It’s an interregnum between being immersed in the society of the conference and the travel I must begin in a few hours to return to home.  I’ve returned from many, many conferences. I know how to do this. But this time I think it will be harder. Home, my home campus, and my friends and colleagues will likely be much the same as when I left. But I’m not. I’m different.

bionicteachi

When I get home, folks will assume the OpenEd16  conference I attended was about free textbooks and OER’s which they think they know about. It was and they do. They’ll think it was about technology – especially all that crazy tech they think they don’t understand (yet) but that I’m always going on about. It was and I’ll continue to go on about it.

But that’s not at all what this conference was really about.  It was about insight (thank you Gardner Campbell!).  It was about students. But it wasn’t about Students(tm), those commoditized abstract entities for whom we are supposed to provide Success(tm) so that they might assume their rightful place as cogs and consumers with Good Jobs(tm) in the neo-liberal globalized economy. It was about real students. Real people. Human students.  Students in Sisyphean struggles to be human, support families, and to learn – often while being hungry and burdened with more debt. (thank you Sara Goldrick-Raab).

This conference wasn’t about technology or licenses or books. It was about us. Humans. There is much I still need to “process” so that I might integrate all I experienced.   I say experienced because learn doesn’t seem adequate.  A short, incomplete list of this conference for me would include

  • discovering that I have a voice myself and that there are people who actually listen to me!  At a very personal level I’m not willing yet to expose publicly, this is profound for me.
  • connecting at a very basic human level with Kate Bowles of Australia and feeling at a visceral level how we are one people on one planet and borders don’t matter.
  • realizing my struggles on campus are not isolated. Many others have the same struggles. It’s not me. It’s being pioneer.
  • how we – us hummartinwellerans – really progress and grow. We model for each other.  Consciousness matters and we progress is possible if we reflect. I thank Martin Weller for modelling and reflecting on how those of us who are privileged, like myself,  need to behave.
  • The opportunity to meet, exchange ideas, have fun, and just be humans with so many people that I’ve met only once before maybe or have only known a year or so. People who now seem to be such good friends that I can hardly remember not knowing them or having their ideas in my world: Robin DeRosa, Scott Robison, Alan Levine, Gardner Campbell, Tom Woodward, Adam Croom, and, of course, Laura Gogia and others.
  • just the overwhelming number of people who I knew only via the Web but now have had the privilege and luxury of knowing in person such as  Ken Bauer, Tim Owens, Lauren Brumfeld, Martin Weller, Kate  Bowles, Audrey Watters, Lee Skallerup-Bessette, Jon Becker, and again many others.
  • the vast numbers of Canadians including Irwin Defries and the whole crew from British Columbia who show what can happen when folks at different institutions really collaborate (politely, of course!)
  • the number of new people I met and now share bonds with.

gardnercampbellThis conference was really about inclusion,  insight, humanity, empathy, learning, and love. It was not as much a celebration of the commons as a loud voice proclaiming our commonality as humans and our connected diverse strengths. As Tom Woodward put it (or he quoted, I don’t know), it was about  who owns how you move through the world’ power structures & understanding your position within & how to navigate through them

It is sad that the values or goals that the mainstream leadership of higher education claims to be pushing us to achieve exist largely only as abstract concepts – the picture of learning that Gardner referenced. While this wonderful assemblage of people, most of whom are considered too fringe to be taken seriously at their home campuses, are actually creating the real things: inclusion, insight, creativity, humanity.  Those who were not part of this misunderstand. It was not technology and free books. It was precisely what they claim they want.

saragoldrickraabI have long thought that the measure of great rhetoric is that the listener cannot ever be the same person again.  I cannot be the same again.  I am changed. Thank you my friends and colleagues for doing this.  In particular, I want to thank Gardner Campbell and Sara Goldrick-Raab for their book-ending keynotes and their rhetoric.

But alas, I must now face the trek to home and back to work where they will likely once again look at me like I am from Mars and politely humour me.  It will be hard.

Open is Alive

OpenEd16 isn’t your normal higher ed conference.  This year it had all the normal features of a higher ed conference: keynotes, the stimulating concurrent presentations, food, and evening socializing by academics that felt just a little more freedom by being out of town.   But it also had a something new. A jam session.

Yes, that’s right. In addition to organizing the usual conference, David Wiley (@opencontent) rented a drum kit and who knows what other instruments and somehow convinced the Hilton Hotel to allow us to take over the lobby bar from 8 to 10 last night. Anybody from the conference was free to step up to the microphones, grab and instrument, and make music with their peers. Peers they had never practiced with. Peers they were playing with for the first time. Peers who were all at different stages of experience in playing. Peers who had varying levels of talent and skill (I’m assuming that, since being at the zero level on that scale I can’t really judge). Does this sound like an open pedagogy class to anyone yet?

When I heard of the plan, it sounded crazy. But it wasn’t. It was brilliant. It was fun. It was energizing. Some people got up and danced. Many watched and listened intently. Many others were actively engaged in conversations around the room with the music of their peers as background. I think everybody there had fun. And I know I at least had a moment of insight, that exquisite moment when the blood surges in the brain near the right temple that Gardner Campbell told us about in the opening keynote yesterday.

Somebody called it the OpenEd band (although membership was rather fluid). I have to agree. The band actually demonstrated why open education (open pedagagy) works. I’m now music expert, but even I know that objectively they weren’t “great”. They certainly weren’t as polished or slick as the original bands that sold platinum albums of those recordings. But that peer-reviewed, objective standard of “great” didn’t matter. Nobody wanted to sit around and hear the albums of The Monkees, The Rolling Stones, Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Lynyrd Skynrd, and all the other bands whose songs got played. What mattered was who was playing and that they were playing – creating– live. Live music beats polished recorded music. Everywhere.

Why?  Why would we rather listen to flawed music, complete with mistakes, than all gather to listen together to the perfect, polished recording?  Because it’s live. And live means alive.

I think the same is true with students and learning.  Alive matters. Alive gets us the real learning, not the “picture of the learning”.  But for learning to be alive, somebody has to be actively creating something. We have to be part of a live experience.  To me, the core of open learning is being in that space where things and ideas are created. The best space for that is for both instructors and students to create, share, and publish their own work.  Simply reading or viewing the flawless, peer-reviewed, polished, perfected work of some publisher is like listening to an album in public. It becomes background noise. If directed, we can attend a small part of it, maybe.  But mostly, we it has no affect on us.  On the other hand, reading, viewing, and listening to each others’ creations in the same time and space as they’re being created engages us. It even inspires us to create ourselves.  The flaws don’t matter.  The creating does.

Open works because it’s live. And live means we’re alive.

David Wiley, the leader in the background.

David Wiley, the leader in the background.

David Wiley, you modeled the proper role of a professor tonight perfectly. You set up the space. You provided the assignment. You mixed the sounds to pull in everybody. Folks engaged the risky experiment because they trusted you. And then you let the students open it up and create. Open. Live. Alive.

Running Errands for Open Learning Ideas

This is my presentation for Open Ed 2016 in Richmond, VA.   It’s kind of a progress report on the LCC Open Learning Lab project.  It’s very much a work-in-progress (the Lab project, not the presentation).   Assuming the universe cooperates, I’ll follow-up on this posting of the slides with a few long-form posts explaining what I said and going into some more detail.

If perchance your browser or Internet connection takes too long to load the above presentation, you can download the file here.