Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 39 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

On Subversion


Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 39 seconds

I have been thinking about subversion/subersiveness for a couple of days. First because folks on the #clmooc facebook group have been talking about whether “hacking” necessarily contains an element of subversion, and second because of the whole story of the now notorious Zurich prof who made the “MOOC disappearing act” (in the Coursera MOOC #massiveteaching) recently, getting so much press, best summed up and analyzed, in my view, by Kate Bowles here and best introduced from a learner/researcher perspective by Apostolos Koutropoulos here. (added later: and this great post today by Apostolos after the recent info came out – by far the best commentary on the topic)

I won’t repeat the whole story (the above links are great) nor do I think I know it all, and I suspect no one but DeHaye does. But what is nagging at me right now is the debate on whether what he has been doing (whatever it is, exactly) is unethical, or a brave attempt at subversion and opening up a debate (about what, exactly? Data mining? MOOCs? Pedagogy?)

So I thought I would look it up (the term “subversive”). Just typed in define: subvesive into google. Was annoyed to get “person who subverts”, so went to search for “subvert”. Definition was:

undermine the power and authority of (an established system or institution).
“an attempt to subvert democratic government”
synonyms: destabilize, unsettle, overthrow, overturn; More
corrupt, pervert, deprave, contaminate, poison, embitter

Right. It’s one of those words I always understood implicitly but had never actually looked up (there are so many of those words, right? And we can use them brilliantly in context, without ever actually looking them up) and I think the definition of it is pretty much how I understand/use it, but finding the definition clarifies something about its meaning to me. It’s about undermining power & authority, not necessarily about radicalness, which hmm btw needs to be defined (side note: I do not mean to imply that important words can only be understood by their dictionary definitions; I know we can use them to mean different things with different connotations; but here I am using the dictionary definitions as points of departure to reflect), also, and here’s what google brought up:

(especially of change or action) relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.
“a radical overhaul of the existing regulatory framework”
synonyms: thoroughgoing, thorough, complete, total, comprehensive, exhaustive, sweeping, far-reaching, wide-ranging, extensive, across the board, profound, major, stringent, rigorous More
antonyms: superficial
forming an inherent or fundamental part of the nature of someone or something.
“the assumption of radical differences between the mental attributes of literate and nonliterate peoples”
synonyms: fundamental, basic, essential, quintessential; More
antonyms: minor
(of surgery or medical treatment) thorough and intended to be completely curative.
characterized by departure from tradition; innovative or progressive.
“a radical approach to electoral reform”
advocating or based on thorough or complete political or social reform; representing or supporting an extreme section of a political party.
“a radical American activist”

Strangely enough, the way I use the term radical most closely identifies with its definition in a medical context, as in “characterized by departure from tradition” but of course also to mean the second definition related to that departure entailing advocacy towards political or societal reform.

So back to Paul-Olivier Dehaye (love the sound of the name, don’t you? Even sexier than Assange) and whether he is ethical, brave, insane, or?

George Siemens congratulated him for starting an important conversation. While Siemens believes Dehaye acted unethically and his attempt at subversion was probably poorly executed, he thinks Dehaye succeeded in doing three things:
1. Expose the lack of clarity on governance in Coursera (read Siemens’ post, he explains this really well)
2. The issue/question of a university’s responsibility (and I would argue also liability) for the actions of its faculty as MOOC providers. Siemens seems to take the view that a university is responsible. I think it is more complicated than that. Yes, a university, for its own reputation, needs to do that, but on the other hand, faculty autonomy is extremely important for freedom of expression and for political reasons (would it be ok for a university to stop a faculty member from doing, writing, teaching things for political reasons? More on this later)
3. Despite criticism of the ethics of the whole thing, Dehaye, Siemens thinks Dehaye succeeded to “perturb people to states of awareness”.

Umm ok. I tend to agree with Rolin Moe’s comment on Siemens’ blog, calling Dehaye’s actions a “theory-bereft approach” that is not necessarily “progressive”.

I mean, one of the things Dehaye wanted to point out, other than privacy concerns, was the whole learners depending on teacher/video, etc., and getting confused by lack of it. Well, HEEEELLLOOOO? Isn’t that what connectivism is all about? Losing the teacher/video centrality and learning via connecting to others? (After writing this post, i read a newer post by AK, also making this point). The MOOC conversation did not need this “radical” or “subversive” behavior by Dehaye to reach that point. The MOOC conversation actually started there, back when Siemens and Downes ran the first cMOOC. The whole getting out of Coursera, LMS, etc? That’s the Reclaim movement over at Jim Groom’s party, right?

I realize there is more to what Dehaye exposed than these last two points I am making, but I am still baffled by why he would go about it like this, in such ethically questionable ways.

The 100 prisoners doc Kate Bowles found (a probability problem whose solutions Dehaye had been working on) to me is just all about how this person’s mind works, which is probably why it’s difficult to understand what he’s doing and why (aside from his being mysterious about it as well, of course).

I wonder now, though, how much of what people now uncover about Dehaye will be truly him, or fabricated, and I guess he wants us to ask that?

To be honest, I feel kind of angry and used, a little bit like some people felt after Steve Wheeler’s April Fool “Goodbye” post. Someone said that to understand Wheeler’s post with humor, you needed to maybe be a White Anglo male (no offense to all the sensitive people I know who belong in that category). I think to applaud Dehaye takes a certain kind of person, too, and I am not sure he is subvertive or radical enough to deserve my respect. Yet. Time will tell.

I will agree with Jonathan Rees that “even superprofessors deserve academic freedom”, but Rolin Moe correctly wonders whether Dehaye got IRB approval (not that I am a fan of IRB processes, but I am guessing he couldn’t possibly have gotten approval – then again, do mathematicians often need to? How often do they do social experiments, like on actual living breathing people? i wouldn’t know since I don’t work in that discipline, but I am guessing not often? Scott from rhizo14 called this behavior a lack of “human literacies”, love the term).

So my objection isn’t that “someone” (Coursera or Zurich U) should have stopped Dehaye. I think he should have stopped himself, but since he did not, I think we (the community of people involved in the discourse of MOOCs, ed tech, etc.) need to be critical of what he did and how he did it, even though it did have some useful (ok, intentional) side effects of opening up a debate. I just think it could have all been better thought out than all this! And the apparent lack of ethical thought behind it is not acceptable to me. Yet.

To be subversive and radical, to support others who do it, does not mean to suspend criticism of the “means” with which others choose to subvert.

[Meanwhile, in the real world, people are dying over in Palestine and violence also happening in Israel. And here I am blogging about this MOOC stuff at 4am]


  1. Pingback: Need-to-Know News: #MassiveTeaching Mess, University of Texas at Austin MOOCs for Credit & Pearson’s SOOCs | online learning insights

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