Frances Bell

home at last – for all the mes


The Best Laid Plans …

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

Robert Burns

Research into complex phenomena such as networks of people and complex, connected technologies will almost certainly involve people working together who have different ways of seeing the world, and different ideas about what and how we humans and non-humans can know. I think that such research is needed to help us make decisions if we are to shape technologies, services, systems, even as they shape us.

On Saturday, I watched a recording of Stephen’s presentation on MOOC Research at Tübingen, Germany. I surprised myself with my very mixed reaction to what he said – agreement, disagreement but it certainly made me think.  I really appreciate that Stephen Downes lays out so clearly what his thinking is even if I don’t always understand what he means; and sometimes when I do understand him, I don’t agree with him. I am glad he is in my learning network, and I think on the whole I probably agree with him more often than I disagree with him.

Anyway, I just wanted to share some of thoughts that his presentation provoked for me..

Stephen has had quite a lot to say about theory in this and recent writings, and I was very interested in the idea that theory is already embedded in our interpretation of experience.  I wonder how that relates to our everyday theorising about the world around us that seems to me to be both conscious and unconscious.   For me, theories (from others’ writing and research) can be very useful, and they can help me (re-)evaluate past/current experience. So I do think that many theories are applied in context, especially ones that relate to the complex phenomena that I already mentioned.

I explored the possible use of theories and approaches in research and practice in a paper I wrote for IRRODL that I hope illustrates how what we are trying to achieve and the context in which we are making our efforts can influence both the theory and methodology we might use (see Table 2).


Stephen spoke about research methodology(ies) and proposed a model that was somehow common to research in general, but different to what he does.  I wanted to challenge this as it seemed to me that he was posing the scientific model of research that can be useful, but for me is incomplete on its own in the complex research that is my concern.  So technology-driven services can generate useful ‘big data’ as people use them but the rich picture of people’s experience requires a bit more work to tease out relevant data that can enlighten us about users’/ learners’ experiences and outcomes.  For me, this is part of the tendency of education technology research towards provider-centric (that concentrates on the resources and environments that are provided) rather than learner-centric research (that takes the perspective of the learner, looking across their experiences and use of technology).  In my own home discipline of Information Systems, there is an extensive resource on Qualitative Research that highlights many approaches eg Action Research, Ethnography that can contribute to these richer perspectives. These approaches do not rely on hypotheses, proof or refutation.

A criticism of research that Stephen made was that it tends to find what it is looking for.  This is a very valid potential criticism but I would claim that a combination of planning and flexibility can guard against this. An interesting example is from the PhD of Cristina Costa where in order to deal with the power relations and conflicts that emerged from the first two stages of analysis, she enrolled the theory of Pierre Bourdieu to help understand the data that confronted her.  I think that this is an excellent example of how, with a flexible approach, plans that are useful to guide a research study can be changed to accommodate the unexpected and to generate the richest understanding possible.


In April, I saw a really lovely example of the value of plans that can’t anticipate the context in which they will be completed when I visited La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, due to be completed in 2026.  Gaudi started his plans for the Basilica in 1893, died in 1926 yet today people are working to complete his vision with the help of technology of which he knew nothing.

3d-printer in crypt workshop of La Sagrada Familia

3d-printer in crypt workshop of La Sagrada Familia


I would really like to tease out what are Stephen’s assumptions in his talk – but of, course I don’t really know what those are, he would have to help me here.  I know it would help me to explore my initial thinking provoked by his talk.  Here are some areas where I wonder what his assumptions might be:

In talking about learning theories, Stephen Downes poses theories as explaining why learning occurs. I wondered if he thinks that a theory can generate the explanation (which feels a bit like prediction) or that some theories might help generate explanations that are more or less plausible depending on the context in which they are applied.

Stephen describes how he conducts his research in MOOCS – I wonder how he works (cooperates?) with others and how their research informs each other’s contributions.

I wonder if Stephen against methodology (flexible and open to change) or just against rigid method.


In between first watching Stephen’s presentation and writing this, I have been fortunate enough to have an exchange with Jenny Mackness and to have watched George Veletsianos’s keynote.  Both were very useful – not implying sameness of views, of course.  So thanks to all three of you.


francesbell • May 27, 2014

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  1. Roy Williams May 27, 2014 - 10:38 pm Reply

    Hi Frances, I too watched Stephen’s talk, and found it really useful: in particular, the idea that “research = a language to understand and read the world and its complexity”, and the idea that MOOCs can be seen as ‘probes’ – see my comments at:
    On the other hand, I think he is presenting his (or Feyerabend’s) “epistemological anarchism” to make a point, which comes over a bit strong in places (which might somewhat in line with your reaction to it, no?)
    My response (rather rough) was …
    I am broadly sympathetic to the radical scepticism, or epistemological anarchism (Feyerabend) that Stephen supports. It’s in line with rigorous (European) semiotics and deconstructivism, and with Deleuze and several others (and more interestingly now, Zizek).
    There are one or two points on which I differ, but they are just detail:
    i) His reference to ‘truth’ I dont get, as he seems – quite a few times – to go dangerously close to seeing truth as an absolute – though I suspect he is being gently ironical, and
    ii) The interesting (epistemological and scientific) point he always seems to duck – and I dont know why – is that while it is reasonable to accuse the social sciences of “empty consensus” (Latour in particular would agree with him), this doesn’t apply in the same way to the physical senses. Equations (in physics and chemistry, and the periodic table itself, which spans both) are, precisely, written in the ‘hypertext’ or ‘meta-language’ of scientific, chemical and mathematical notation which transcends particular languages to a large extent, and is the reason why most science is published in ‘English’.
    Scientists (as radical sceptics, which they all ought to be) would agree that science is based on falsifiable, contingent consensus, but in the physical sciences that consensus is pretty strong! I have never understood why Stephen does not concede this point – i.e. a differentiation between weak (and ‘empty’) consensus in quite a lot of cases in the social sciences, and strong – to extremely strong – consensus in (many parts of) the physical sciences.
    But that’s a little off the point – the overall point he makes, which I love, and which nudges my own thinking along a bit, is the idea that if …
    i) “meaning is use”, and if …
    ii) meaning is articulated through language (though you need to refer to the remarks above about the meta-languages of the physical sciences), and if …
    iii) languages are systems of contextual, Derridean ‘differance’ (the insistence that language is a system of differences, not ‘truths’ or even ‘representations’), then …
    iv) meaning is contextual per language, i.e. per the way different language groups live, speak, and make sense of the world (as well as per all sorts of other things like geography, climate, etc).
    … and (to concede, slightly, to the point Stephen makes about the contingency of knowledge in general) this applies even to the meta-languages of the sciences, as even these symbol systems have to be articulated, spoken and read in a particular language, which is inevitably embedded and implicated in the different systems of resonance and ‘differance’ in each of them.

  2. francesbell May 28, 2014 - 11:04 am Reply

    Thanks for your reply Roy – insightful as ever.
    I strayed away from the ‘design as research’ angle – a can of worms for me as I think that overemphasis on design has been the norm – Williams and Stewart capture this much better than I ever could (full paper available to download) )
    I am slightly familiar with Feyerabend’s work – was he raging against ‘method’ and technique rather than against ‘methodology’ that can accommodate adapting a planned process to fit what we didn’t know at the beginning.
    I really struggle to dialogue with deep philosophical thinkers like yourself but love to read what you say, and try to engage;)
    Thanks for the suggestion that Stephen Downes may have been ironical in his use of the word ‘truth’ as that was definitely troubling me. My interest lies in how to enrol research to explore the areas that lie beyond the limits of science in the collision of technology, people, capital, innovation and lots of other things that the Internet has impacted on (and been impacted by).
    My impression was (and I hope we will correct me if it’s an inaccurate representation) that all/most research followed the model he presented and critiqued. I wanted to challenge that as it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy – other have critiqued the model and valuable research exists beyond it.
    I am sympathetic to Stephen Downes’ reservations about journals.The academic journal arena is a mess – and open access brings opportunities and problems. – here were my views from a couple of years ago
    A neat example for me is when I read the citations for a paper I wrote on connectivism I note that whilst some authors engage with my ideas, many seem to be using the citation as ‘padding’ so what price the citation count for the article?
    However, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater – editors, reviewers and authors can work together to improve the quality of published research. This involves people with different epistemologies working together, and acknowledging that what we know and our plans to develop what we know are always subject to revision.
    Thanks again Roy – hope I connected with some of what you said;)

  3. Stephen Downes May 28, 2014 - 11:23 am Reply

    I’ve read it, it will take a few days to find the time to respond. Good points though.

  4. francesbell May 28, 2014 - 11:26 am Reply

    Thanks for that – happy to wait. I wanted to engage with your ideas in a different way than Jon Dron did;)

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  11. Cristina Costa June 13, 2014 - 12:42 pm Reply

    I haven’t heard Stephen’s talk, so I can’t say much about his assumptions.
    What I can share though are my own experiences and views.

    In the last year I have started supervising postgraduate students and I have observed a tendency to initially ‘favour’ grounded theory on the grounds that to research is to find something new and therefore ‘we shall not be influenced’ by what came before. So much so, that I had someone interviewing children without letting on what kind information (topic) they wanted to explore as not to lead the children into the ‘right answers’. We ended up with very little information. But I do take on board the point that hanging on to theoretical assumptions often leads people to find exactly what they were looking for. It’s tricky, and as you say, flexibility is required.

    For example, Bourdieu’s legacy has often been criticised for focusing on the same issue over and over again, that is ‘reproduction’. And in a way that is true, but that is often so because people get really attached to his concepts and use them religiously, focusing only on the obvious, popularised aspects of what those key concepts aimed to convey. We then fall into the trap of creating a vicious circle of explaining why things change or stay the same. However, Bourdieu did provide another tool that is essential to any type of research and research lens, and that is reflexivity. Reflexivity is a form of empowerment for both the researcher and the researched, and also a form of overcoming our own theoretical bias and being critical of our own beliefs and practices. At the end of the day is up to us to open up our inquiry to the unpredictabilities of the social phenomenon we want to study. That is often easier said than done!

  12. francesbell June 13, 2014 - 1:59 pm Reply

    Thanks Cris some very useful ideas based on deep thinking, reading and experience – a powerful triad. I AM curious to know what benefit, if any, your initial literature review was to your PhD.

    • Cristina Costa June 13, 2014 - 2:13 pm Reply

      It was useful in the sense that it gave me a vague notion of my research topic…. in that it made me ask: if social media is so great for teaching and learning, what does it mean to research and researchers? In hindsight, it was also a way to realise that literature in this field still needs to mature considerably…this became particularly evident when it failed to answer the questions that the data posed back to me.

  13. francesbell June 13, 2014 - 2:15 pm Reply

    Thanks Cris – how clever of you to pick a topic with a sparse literature – gives you plenty of room for publishing 😉

  14. Cristina Costa June 13, 2014 - 2:27 pm Reply

    I’m trying. if the gate keepers let me is another story! 😉

  15. Simon Ensor (@sensor63) June 25, 2014 - 4:37 pm Reply

    Now that Frances is time well spent. My reading of your article I mean. I shall now have to watch Stephen Downes’ talk as I am now very intrigued…


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