Connecting the Dots: Billy Beane, Nate Berkus, and Neil Selwyn

What do Billy Beane, Nate Berkus and Neil Selwyn have in common?  Other than the fact that they are roughly the same aged, succesful white men, I know that it seems like an unlikely trio.  But let me try to take them one by one and connect the dots, as I seen them…

Billy Beane

First, Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team.  Beane is well know in baseball circles for his data mining and in-depth analysis of baseball’s volumes of statistical information in order to gain a competitive advantage as he built his team.  He is more generally famous these days for being played by Brad Pitt in the newly released movie, Moneyball, based on the book of the same title written by Michael Lewis.

In the book, Lewis recounts spending the 2002 baseball season following Beane, the players, and the game as he gained a deep appreciation for this method.  Paying attention to statistics, of course, is not new to baseball – GMs, talent scouts, coaches, and fans have done this for time immemorial.  What was different about Beane’s approach was his willingness to rethink baseball, how the game is played, and who is best suited to which position.  He searched for inefficiencies in the game and for the story behind the statistics.  For example, rather than tracking hits, he looked at on-base percentages.  He also looked at mitigating factors involved with the various collected statistics (the weather, action leading up to errors, what else was happening on the field).  This more nuanced scrutiny put Beane in the position of being able to see raw potential in a player that others, looking at more conventional statistics, might have missed.  As a result, players who were seen as washed up or underperforming could be picked up for less money and, in the right circumstances, be allowed to shine.  For example a weak shortstop, with the right ingredients, and under the right set of circumstances, might wind up being a terrific pitcher.

I drew an instant line of sight between Beane’s unusual way of looking at data and education.  Isn’t that precisely what we should be doing with assessment?  And I think there are some valuable lessons in Beane’s approach for educators, for instance, his unflagging sense of the game as a whole.  While Beane burrows deep for facts and figures, he doesn’t fall into the trap of reductionist thinking but, rather, keeps the entire game and all of its interlocking parts in his mind’s eye. As Lewis puts it, for Beane, “the probability of any one thing happening in a baseball game is influenced by everything else that happens.”  Nice. Like a baseball game, what happens in a classroom is infinitely complicated and measuring the “outcome” of any one student (high stakes assessment) doesn’t tell you all that much (nor does it come close to what you need to know) about the potential for that student, or the teacher, or the classroom itself.  Beane attempted to make his approach to the game of baseball more scientific as he tried new and different measures to assess what was going on in the game.  Ultimately, he (and others who now use his methods) came to realize that there is a certain amount of “gut instinct” at work here as well; that it’s all extremely complicated, with many, many moving parts, and in order to really understand what is at work you must look at the detailed data AND the whole picture.  Yeah.  Sounds familiar.

Nate Berkus

Second, Nate Berkus.  I know, it’s a leap, but bear with me.  For those of you who don’t watch daytime television, Nate Berkus is a design professional.  He entered the television scene as a consultant, sometimes brought on air by Oprah Winfrey.  He worked his magic with re-imagining small spaces, bringing order to clutter, and sharing his design insights and eventually earned his own show, which airs weekday mornings at 10:00 a.m.  I first became aware of Berkus through a gut-wrenching tragedy in his life.  He happened to be vacationing in Sri Lanka, with his partner, when the 2004 tsunami hit.  Somehow, Nate survived, but his partner did not.  That heart-wrenching story was enough to compel me to watch his show, which I’ve now seen a few times.  While my motivation for finding the show in the first place was to gain some insight into how someone survives a tragedy of that proportion, my motivation for returning to it more than once was a fascination over what he was able to accomplish, design-wise, with very little money and a little elbow grease.  And here’s the thing – all of the home or apartment “make-overs” featured on his show involve him.  Nate is always there – with his sleeves rolled up, ripping off plaster, hanging shelves, stapling fabric, and hanging pictures.  Sure, he has a team of worker bees and he directs their efforts, but you always see him doing the work.  My guess is that it’s the doing the work that’s given him this gift of seeing possibilities.

Neil Selwyn

And that leads me to Neil Selwyn. I know, it’s been a long path, and you’ve been very patient.  Neil Selwyn is a British sociologist who writes beautifully and intriguingly about the integration of digital media with everyday life. I’ve just come across Selwyn’s essay (first published in the Europa World of Learning, 2012) entitled Social Media in Higher Education.

In this essay, Selwyn takes a look at the challenge that social media tools and applications present to higher education.  He examines social media and new types of learners, as well as new types of learning, and takes a deep look at the way higher education is responding (or not) to these influences.  I appreciated his even-handed and thoughtful description of the challenges – Selwyn’s training as a sociologist really shines – he carefully considers all the facts and issues in an objective manner. For example, Selwyn points out that internet access is not as ubiquitous as we’d like to think and that digital inequities persist along race, class, and gender, age, and geographical lines, making clear that social media use is not the equitable and democratic activity that it is often portrayed to be.  What’s more, students’ preferences for particular tools vary within economic and social classes, as well as ethnic boundaries.  Selwyn is also bald about the fact that social media use by many falls far short of the participatory and interactive potential and all too frequently falls down on the side of passive posting – or worse, carping from the sidelines. But even with the disparity between educational rhetoric and educational reality in mind, Selwyn still winds up on the optimistic side.

Particularly compelling to me was his call for a new “pedagogy 2.0″ as in this passage here:

“Nevertheless, many higher educators believe that universities are capable of accommodating (and benefiting from) these shifts in emphases. Some commentators have therefore begun to talk of the need to develop a ‘pedagogy 2.0’—i.e. innovative pedagogies that leverage these affordances to support learner choice and autonomy.”

He states that there is “room for higher education community itself to assume a greater role in shaping the development of social media on the ground in higher education settings. After all, social media technology is something that is supposed to be created by its users—higher education institutions and educators included.”

So here’s what I take from considering the work of these three seemingly disparate people, as I think about the application of new media to education:

  • We need to keep trying new things and consider alternative (unusual) ways of examining what goes on in a learning experience.
  • It’s important to regularly assess the very measurements in use, to make sure they are still working and telling us what we need to know.
  • Data is good, particularly when it’s analyzed in relationship to the whole
  • We must engage with these new tools and applications ourselves (you can’t figure out how they will work best for learners unless we understand them from the point of view of a user)
  • We need to keep our heads – to look at the problems and challenges with clear and unflinching eyes, and listen carefully to the short-comings as we embrace the possibilities
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