I was a keynote speaker at this week's Ed-Tech Innovation conference in Alberta, Canada, and the transcript from that talk is below.

I wanted to give a talk that expressed my deep gratitude to Canadian educators and researchers -- particularly those that created MOOCs -- alongside my concerns about the rewriting of education technology history that diminishes, if not erases altogether, their contributions. It's a larger problem too, I'd argue, with many tech entrepreneurs laying claim to education innovation with nary a reference or a nod to those who've shaped the field. It's disingenous and dishonest and deeply, deeply troubling as how we frame the past helps us think about the direction of the future. Oh and it pisses me off too. Clearly. So I cussed -- 8 times according to D'Arcy Norman's tally.

On November 4, 1979 a group of Islamist students and militants took over the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran. Six Americans escaped, eventually taking refuge in the homes of Canadian diplomats, including that of the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor.

In order to rescue the 6, a CIA agent named Tony Mendez devised a ruse that would explain their presence in Iran. They’d pretend to be Canadians — everyone loves Canadians, you know — in Iran doing some on-location scouting for a big-budget Hollywood film. With a good cover story and Canadian passports, the 6 were able to escape Iran in late January, 1980 — about a year before the 52 others held hostage at the US Embassy were freed.

Perhaps you’ve heard of this story… In fact, I’m almost certain everyone has as Argo, the 2012 film based on the “Canadian Caper” premiered at the Toronto FIlm Festival and then won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture for director and star Ben Affleck.

And I’m certain that many in this audience know too, with the politest indignation that Canadians can muster, that the film downplays and distorts the role of the Canadian government in safely rescuing the 6 Americans. Instead, the film posits that the extraction from Iran was the brainchild of and a victory for the CIA and, no surprise, a victory for Hollywood.

Now it’s easy to argue — as Ben Affleck himself has done — that “because we say the film is based on a true story rather than this is a true story, we’re allowed to take some dramatic license.” And I get that. The final scenes of Argo, while almost entirely fabricated, certainly keep viewers on the edge of their seats.

But we should be wary nonetheless of these sorts of alterations and amendments, especially when the revision of history helps further a particular narrative or ideology — history revised by an industry for an industry; whether it’s a narrative designed to keep us on the edge, to thrill and entertain us, to downplay or overplay characters’ roles, or to deliver scripts with solutions far sexier and shinier than reality has offered.

I want to talk to you today about narratives and histories and ideology and innovation. And I start with Argo for a number of probably obvious reasons, least of which being the film’s treatment of Canada. Indeed, the initial postscript to the film suggested that the Canadian ambassador was only given credit by the US government for his role “for political purposes” – something that even prompted President Jimmy Carter to balk when he viewed the film. According to Carter in a CNN interview, “90% of the contributions came from the Canadians.” “And the main hero, in my opinion,” said Carter, “was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process.”

Now truth be told, I bring up Argo because of the Canadian angle, but also because I really want to invoke one of the best lines from the film — the line that first occurs at a press junket staged to help make the CIA’s fake film appear real. There a reporter asks the producer Lester Siegel, played by the wonderfully curmudgeonly Alan Arkin, “What does Argo mean?” “I don’t know,” says Arkin, as he grabs some hors d’oeuvres from the buffet and tries to walk away. “Is it the Argonauts?” the reporter continues. And Arkin replies, his mouth full of food, “It means Argo fuck yourself.”

The phrase is repeated by Arkin’s character and by Affleck’s. It’s used not just as an admonition to “go away” or “eff off” but in lieu of saying “cheers” and “thank you” — a combination of gratitude, congratulations, and insolence. I love phrases with multiple complex and yet singularly obvious meanings — take the name of my blog “Hack Education” as an example — and in this case “Argo fuck yourself” seems to be particularly relevant to the relationships among the film’s cast of characters who manipulate politics and media… but also relevant to education and technology and politics and media today. There are times for euphemisms and polite small talk, but I have to say, this ain’t one of them.

I could, I suppose, tie “Argo” to other meanings — its mythological roots as Jason’s ship. I could call this talk something like “Chasing the Golden Fleece of Ed-Tech Innovation.” Or perhaps quite aptly, I could use a little punning and word-play I could call this talk “The (Golden) Fleecing of Education.” But instead, I’m sticking with “Argo fuck yourself” as my title and chorus. I do apologize.

And I hope it’s clear why I want to start this talk with Argo too – not just for the f-bombs or the historical legacies of our countries working together, but frankly because, much like its retelling of the history of the “Canadian Caper,” we’re witnessing a concerted retelling of the history of MOOCs. It’s one that erases almost all contributions made by Canadians. Stephen Downes. George Siemens. Dave Cormier. Alec Couros. Much like Ambassador Ken Taylor, their contributions have become a postscript to a story that gives Silicon Valley in this case, not Hollywood, all the excitement and glory and agency and innovativeness.

More broadly too, we’re witnessing a retelling of the history of education and education technology that eliminates contributions from almost all educators, researchers, and theorists, particularly those outside of elite US institutions (namely Stanford, Harvard, and MIT) and outside of the US. The movie Argo, incidentally, suggests that the British embassy turned away the 6 refugees. Not true. They actually stayed with the British early on but the location was unsafe. And similarly if the roles of the Canadians in the history of online learning have been downplayed, then the role of the British — particularly at the Open University — has been almost entirely erased from the dominant narrative. But that’s an argument for another keynote I suppose…

History is, of course, always partial, always situated, always contested. There is no “official story” about the Iran hostage crisis or about MOOCs or about education technology more generally.

And just as with politics, when it comes to education and technology, our notion of history is heavily influenced by the media. Although bits of the story had already been published, the movie Argo was based largely on a 2007 article in the famous technology publication Wired Magazine “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran.”

I don’t dare predict what Hollywood blockbusters we’ll see in 5 years time that stems from the 2011 Wired article “How Khan Academy Is Changing the Rules of Education” or the 2012 story, “The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever.”

But Hollywood blockbuster-in-the-making or not, these technology stories are helping to shape and steer our conversations about the future of education. When the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia voted to fire President Teresa Sullivan last summer, for example, it was not because of something they’d read in academic research journals; it was apparently not due to conversations they’d had with the university’s education technology experts or its professors or its students. The Board were moved by the news, by the mainstream media — they cited op-eds by David Brooks and articles in The Wall Street Journal as their rationale for why the university under Sullivan’s leadership was moving far too slowly. And in doing so, the Board of Visitors ignored all the innovative digital projects that were already occurring on the UVA campus – many that might have fit their narrative about thhe necessity for radical transformation of higher education. The University of Virginia’s leadership in the digital humanities, for example. The Scholars Lab. The pending partnership with Coursera, already in the works just as Sullivan was being fired for not having brought MOOCs to campus.

“Argo fuck yourself,” indeed.

Late last year, Khan Academy’s Sal Khan sat down with Forbes writer Michael Noer and recorded a video on “The History of Education.” It’s the history of education “from 1680 to 2050” told in 11 minutes, so needless to say it’s a rather abbreviated version of events. It’s not titled “The History of Education in the United States,” and that would be much better — because contributions to education from the rest of the world are absent.

Well, except the Prussians. Sal Khan loves to talk about the Prussians.

Our current model of education, says Khan, originated at the turn of the nineteenth century: “age-based cohorts” that move through an “assembly line” with “information being delivered at every point.”

“This is the Prussian model,” the Forbes writer Noer adds, “and it’s about as inflexible as a Prussian can be.” But Khan notes that there were benefits to this as “it was the first time people said, ‘No, we want everyone to get an education for free.”

Then “Horace Mann comes along about 1840” and introduces this concept to the United States. By 1870, says Khan, public education is pretty common “but even at that point it wasn’t uniform” with different standards and curriculum in different states and cities. So in 1892, “something that tends to get lost in history,” a committee of ten — “somewhat Orwellian” adds Noer — meet to determine what the twelve years of compulsory education should look like.

“It was forward looking for 120 years ago,” says Noer, “but what’s interesting is that we’ve basically been stuck there for 120 years.” Education has been "static to the present day,” agrees Khan.

And from 1892, the story they tell jumps ahead, straight to the invention of the Internet. “The big thing here,” says Noer as the two skip over one hundred-plus years of history, “is what you’ve done” with Khan Academy. “One person with one computer can reach millions.” This revolutionizes lectures, Noer argues; it revolutionizes homework. “Class time is liberated,” adds Khan. This changes everything — Khan Academy changes everything — that has been stagnant and static since the nineteenth century.

Now history told this way certainly helps explain some elements from this week’s Canadian-free visualization in The Chronicle of Higher Education of the “Major Players in the MOOC Universe.” Of course Khan Academy has to be there — that’s where “one person” reaching “millions” with video-based instruction all began, right?

“This notion of ‘flipping the classroom’ was around before Khan Academy existed and clearly wasn’t my idea,” Khan admits in his recent book The One World Schoolhouse, but he then fails to cite or mention any of those whose idea it actually might have been. It’s the same pattern as he chronicles the insights he’s gained on learning by starting his non-profit — nary a mention of other educators, researchers, or theorists, past or present. Project-based learning, constructivism, behaviorism — all apparently discovered by Salman Khan.

This sort of ahistorical and individualistic posturing isn’t terribly uncommon among ed-tech entrepreneurs (or Americans writ large) eschewing as Silicon Valley tends to do “the past” in order to look to “the future.” And when historical antecedents are pointed out, there’s always the easy shrug that “clearly wasn’t my idea” to fall back upon, often neglecting to cite their sources along the way.

“Argo fuck yourself.”

Where do we get our stories about education and technology? From personal experience. From Hollywood. From the news — on TV, in print, online. From technology blogs. From Wired Magazine. From — god forbid — books. And yes, from Wikipedia — even Sal Khan admitted on the satirical news show Colbert Report that he uses Wikipedia as his main resource for teaching history.

In his defense, Khan did add that “I click on the footnotes” to which Colbert wittily responded “I’m responsible for some of those."

Colbert was referring, of course, to his critiques of Wikipedia and “truthiness” and the term he’s coined to describe it — “wikiality” — “truth by consensus” rather than by fact, based on the approval-by-consensus format of Wikipedia. Colbert once suggested that viewers change the entry for elephant to add that number of African elephants had tripled over the course of six months. The edits were reversed — not a surprise to anyone who’s actually tried to update a Wikipedia entry, whether based on accurate information or not — and the username “Stephencolbert” has been banned indefinitely.

So what is the “wikiality” of education’s history? What is the “wikiality” of ed-tech history and innovation? And what is the “wikiality” of the history of MOOCs?

The Wikipedia entry for Massive Open Online Course was created in July 2011. One of the earliest versions of the entry read, “A Massive open online course (MOOC) is a course where the participants are distributed and course materials also are dispersed across the web. This is possible only if the course is open, and works significantly better if the course is large. The course is not a gathering, but rather a way of connecting distributed instructors and learners across a common topic or field of discourse.”

The entry then proceeded to list examples: David Wiley’s Intro to Open Education and Alec Couros’ Social Media & Open Education in the Fall of 2007 (listed as “pre-MOOCs”), George Siemens and Stephen Downes’ Connectivism in 2008 as “the first MOOC,” the latter two courses offered via Canadian universities.

Needless to say, some 600-plus edits later, the MOOC article is quite different today. The first paragraph of the entry now reads, “massive open online course (MOOC) is an online course aiming at large-scale interactive participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and problem sets, MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build a community for the students, professors, and TAs. MOOCs are a recent development in distance education. Features associated with early MOOCs, such as open licensing of content, open structure and learning goals, and connectivism may not be present in all MOOC projects, in particular with the ‘openness’ of many MOOCs being called into question.” A wordier opening paragraph to be sure, but also a very different definition.

The difference between then and now, in and of itself, is hardly surprising. There have been many developments in the past 18 months surrounding MOOCs. Hardly a week goes by without some MOOC thing happening — the launch of Udacity, edX, and Coursera; more classes; more colleges joining one of the MOOC-provider platforms; countries and regions creating their own MOOC partnerships in response; learning management systems offering “open classes”; venture funding announcements; philanthropic funding announcements; proposed legislation; college credit offerings; college credit denials; class cancellations; faculty protest; Thomas Friedman and David Brooks op-eds galore; and on and on and on.

But what’s fascinating about the “wikiality” of MOOCs is not that the Wikipedia article has expanded to include all these new developments — Wikipedians are, after all, famously fast at updating entries for trending topics. Rather what’s interesting is that the article has been incredibly contentious — almost from the start — and that contentiousness has grown alongside the increasing popularity of MOOCs and has targeted the contributions of – you guessed it – Canadians.

Indeed in July 2011 shortly after it was created, the MOOC entry was flagged for deletion: “It is proposed that this article be deleted because of the following concern: no evidence that it meets the notability criteria for websites.” A few months later, when the Stanford engineering department offered 3 courses online for free and for anyone to enroll in and when hundreds of thousands of people signed up to take them, MOOCs had clearly become Wikipedia-worthy.

But since that initial charge that the Wikipedia entry offered “insufficient context for those unfamiliar with the subject,” many involved in some of the early MOOCs have contributed to the article, fleshing it out with theoretical roots, the instructional design approaches, the pedagogies and practices, the experiences of participants, and the benefits and the challenges of open online learning. MOOCs, the updated and clarified article made clear, were based on connectivist principles, including the importance of remixing, sharing, and aggregation — providing “a starting points for a massive amount of content to be produced in different places online, which is later aggregated as a newsletter or a web page accessible to participants on a regularly basis. This is in contrast to traditional courses, where the content is prepared ahead of time.”

In July 2012, one year after it was marked for deletion, the Wikipedia entry for MOOCs was flagged again. The warning: “This article appears to be written like an advertisement for the works of Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Lisa Lane who created the neologism MOOC for their own purposes and link to their own content self-promotionally.”

“Argo fuck yourself.”

“Please help improve it by rewriting promotional content from a neutral point of view and removing any inappropriate external links.”

For what it’s worth, Downes has edited the MOOC page 4 times. Siemens 3 times. And Dave Cormier twice. Perhaps the 200-some-odd others that have also edited the page are their minions. That’s the power of connectivism for you, or something.

In all seriousness: This warning highlights one of the great dilemmas of the crowdsourced encyclopedia – “wikiality” if you will – and it’s something that many, many authors and researchers have faced. Novelist Philip Roth, for example, felt compelled to publish “An Open Letter to Wikipedia” last year in The New Yorker as when he tried to propose corrections to the entry on his book The Human Stain — addressing the question of his inspiration for the novel — he was told by a Wikipedia editor “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work, but we require secondary sources.”

In the case of MOOCs, Downes and Siemens and Cormier and others are both the subjects of the entry, sources themselves, and experts in the field. So their strong presence on the MOOC page is not surprising. Indeed it is as it should be, you could argue, as the first MOOCs were theirs and not Sebastian Thrun’s. The “wikiality” of MOOCs history, however, would say otherwise.

Indeed this question of “the first MOOC” is also up-for-debate in the Wikipedia entry. In November of last year, Wikipedia user Kmasters0 wrote on the MOOC “Talk” page that “The opening paragraph of this section makes the claim that ‘David Wiley taught what ostensibly was the first MOOC, or proto-MOOC, at Utah State University in August 2007.’ There is no reference for this, and the description is simply of a free course that was open to people around the world. This, by itself, does not make it a MOOC. And, if that description is enough for it to be taken as a MOOC, then it certainly does not make it the first. (Using a meaningless concept such as “proto-MOOC” could apply to any form of web-based instruction.) For the statement to be taken seriously, far more independent information and references need to be supplied, otherwise it smacks of someone retrospectively laying claim to something, and should be removed.’”

“Argo fuck yourself.”

Later, that Wikipedia editor added “It has been three weeks since I suggested that this paragraph be removed, and there have been no arguments against it. I have removed it, but have copied here, so that, if there is a valid counter-argument, it can be restored.”

Then just last month, Downes chimed in saying “The reason the Wiley course was in the article was that it was referenced as an influence by both George Siemens and myself in our creation of the first MOOC. For example, I cite it in ‘The MOOC Guide’ which a reference of early MOOCs… I would recommend reinserting it.” As of yet, that edit has not stuck.

While the role of Wiley is contested by Wikipedia editors, it’s worth pointing out, the role of Khan Academy is not. “The short lecture format used by many MOOCs developed from “Khan Academy’s free archive of snappy instructional videos.” — Wikipedia cites that quote from the 2012 article in The New York Times, “The Year of the MOOC,” which mentions Siemens, Downes, Cormier, Wiley, Couros et al exactly zero times.

Now perhaps this all sounds like historical minutiae. Does it matter what David Wiley gets credit for? Does it matter what Salman Khan does? Does it matter if folks know the difference between the connectivist MOOCs and the corporatist ones? Does it matter that MOOCs originated in Canada?

Yes, of course it does.

It matters for accuracy, for inquiry, for legacy. And relevant to the topic of this conference and for broader discussions about the shape of the future of education, it matters for the narratives that we adopt or resist about innovation.

As the Wikipedia entry on MOOCs reads, “MOOCs are widely seen as a major part of a larger disruptive innovation taking place in the higher education industry.”

The phrase “disruptive innovation” was coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen in the mid–1990s and is invoked constantly these days — almost to the point of being utterly meaningless. Christensen has applied the concept to education in a book published in 2008, Disrupting Class, and he has fueled some of the MOOC hype himself lately with his assertion that in 15 years time, half of US universities will be bankrupt.

That’s what “disruptive innovations” purportedly do — they start at the low end of the market, often with an inferior product, but a product that is accessible to consumers who previously have not had access. In Christensen’s framework, disruptive innovations then reshape and transform the market and eventually displace existing players. Are MOOCs “disruptive innovation”? I don’t know…

I’m not sure I care. Because this process isn’t a scientific rule. Disruptive innovation doesn’t work like Newton’s Second Law. “Disruptive innovation” is a business school model. More importantly, it’s a narrative. Just because it looks like a teleology – just because a Harvard professor puts it forward – doesn’t mean that the future is preordained.

Much like the narrative in Argo that posits that it was Hollywood and the CIA who orchestrated the rescue of the six American diplomats and not the Canadian government, it’s a carefully constructed narrative — one that invokes certain events from the past and pieces together tidbits from the present, in order to make some folks appear heroic, to frame the world ideologically, and to point to and shape the future.

So what are the narratives we hear about “disruptive innovation” — or even just innovation — in education? They include things like “education is broken.” The incumbent players in the sector — teachers, schools, professors, universities, textbook publishers, and pencil manufacturers — are largely “resistant to change.” “Education has not changed” in — depending on who’s talking — decades, centuries, millennia. Someone from the outside — and this is key to this narrative — someone from the outside will provide the disruptive innovation that upsets, dare we say “revolutionizes” the entire sector. Technology — here’s another key piece of the dominant narrative — technology has changed, will change everything. Education is broken; technology – particularly from Silicon Valley, particularly proprietary and for-profit tech – will fix it.

But this is just a story — a powerful one, for sure. But one that — as we’ve seen with Argo and Khan Academy and Wikipedia — has been crafted and told in a certain way, to a certain end.

We need to get better at asking who is telling these stories. We need to ask why. We need to think about how we plan to tell our stories – our narratives and our counter-narratives. How do we make them “stick”?

Because there are other stories about the past and the future of education — ones where building human capacity trumps adding tablet capacity; ones where agency matter more than algorithms; ones where innovation comes from students, from professors, from librarians, from researchers; ones where new ideas are not driven by commercialism but by care; stories and initiatives that are local and will not scale but need not scale; and yes, stories and expertise that are Canadian.

To some of the mainstream stories we’re being fed instead, well, you know by now what I’d say to that… “Argo fuck yourself.”

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

Back to Archives