Rethinking student vulnerability and risk: Researching student success and retention in open education contexts


  • This blog contains text and some of the images used for the invited seminar, UNESCO Chair on Open Distance Learning, University of South Africa (UNISA), Wednesday 12 August 2020
  • This reflection flows from an editorial I wrote for a Special Issue of the International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education  with the theme “Towards a critical perspective on data literacy in higher education. Emerging practices and challenges”, to be published later this year.

Key takeaways

  • Some students are  more vulnerable, at particular points, in their journey than others, whether temporary or occurrent.
  • Their vulnerabilities are often linked to or caused by  vulnerabilities in the system (ICT, faculty). We therefor have to think of student vulnerability in terms of the broader eco-system consisting of human and non-human actors, processes, systems and imaginaries.
  • We have a responsibility and moral mandate to identify and support the vulnerable, and address or ameliorate the impact of the factors causing the vulnerability*. [*Terms and conditions apply. While some of students’ vulnerabilities are linked to the actions or in-actions of other human or non-human actors in a particular context, there are layers of vulnerability that fall outside the locus of control or mandate of higher education].

Key questions

  • How do we understand (student) vulnerability?
  • How do we identify these vulnerabilities – what data do we use and why?
  • What are our assumptions about these data/categories?
  • How can we prevent vulnerabilities in our systems and processes to impact or exacerbate their  vulnerabilities?


Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 13.21.40.png

Before COVID-19, when we would have thought about or spoke about vulnerability, we may have thought about it as a relatively far away concept, for many of us. Thinking about vulnerability called forth images of old people walking with walking sticks or in frail care, babies not being able to care for themselves, people with disabilities, and people living in shacks. We may have called to mind images of refugees, people left vulnerable by war or economic hardship. The list would have been endless – but the list would mostly have been about individuals ‘out there’.

 When the COVID-19 pandemic started to be a global phenomenon and we saw the overflowing hospitals and cemeteries in Italy, once again, it we all prayed that it would somehow spare the African continent. As the pandemic unfolded, we smiled at pictures of people panic buying toilet paper, and we joked about how awkward some people looked with masks.

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 13.24.06.png

And then it arrived. The panic buying (and I am not talking about alcohol) started with shops running out of masks, sanitisers, and toilet paper. Suddenly we were all vulnerable. But even though we were all vulnerable, some were more vulnerable than others. Early evidence showed that people living with co-morbidities like diabetes, TB, HIV and individuals older than 60 were at greater risk to contract the disease. What became very clear early on, is that your socio-economic security and well-being, access to credit and healthcare, running water, and foot security before the pandemic determined, to a great extent,  your rate of socio-economic survival during the pandemic.

As government responded to the pandemic with various strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and introduced social distancing, the regular washing of hands and closed small shops and businesses, it became very clear that many of these regulations were non-sensical in neighbourhoods with no running water, where extended families shared small houses, and where the survival of a household depended on the earnings of selling an array of fruit, vegetables and Grandpas on street corners. In an attempt to make people less vulnerable, these steps actually made people more vulnerable.

COVID-19 brough our understanding of vulnerability and how fragile we all actually are to the fore. It also provided us with a disturbing realisation of though we are all vulnerable, some are more and differently vulnerable than others. For many of us the vulnerability during COVID-19 will pass, for many COVID-19 will leave them more vulnerable than ever before.

In thinking about student vulnerability in higher education, COVID-19 may have provided us with a more nuanced understanding of vulnerability, the different layered-ness of vulnerability, how specific events can, overnight, change your vulnerability status, and how in our responses to ameliorate the vulnerability of targeted individuals, may actually increase their vulnerability.

 But COVID-19 has also foregrounded that it is not only (some) students that may be vulnerable,  but that many faculty, administrative staff were also and continue to be vulnerable. The vulnerability also include systems, processes, capacity, and policies. There were many examples of how the challenges faculty faced in teaching from home impacted on students who waited longer for feedback, or did not get someone to respond to their queries.  We saw how vulnerabilities collided and increased as our ICT systems could not handle the amount of uploads, students could not get hold of faculty and faculty could not get hold of ICT.

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 13.25.44

We have to start thinking about vulnerability in terms of an ecosystem  – with different human and non-human agents are connected, in relation with one another, and where changing circumstances in any of the vulnerabilities of any of the human and non-human actors, have an impact on the vulnerabilities of others, and actually, the whole ecosystem.

Thinking of vulnerability eco-systemically

So, what are the implications of thinking about (student) vulnerability and the ways it manifests using an eco-systemic lens?

Thinking of students’ vulnerabilities as their fault, of characteristics they don’t have

Much of the research on student success or failure, retention or attrition, focuses on what students have, don’t have, what students need to do, in order to be successful. We measure their readiness, their competencies or lack of the necessary skills and understandings. We blame them for not trying hard enough. We advise them to have a growth-mind set and we measure their resilience and grit. We hardly ever consider their vulnerabilities in terms of the ecosystem. We never seem to consider how their vulnerability, however temporarily, results from or is exacerbated by an ICT system crashing, a query that does not get answered, a lack of formative assessment with formative feedback (not in general, but per student).  We never consider how students’ vulnerability is related to the staff: student ratios at Unisa, the immense workloads our faculty carries, negotiating time between teaching several courses, supervision, research, community engagement and academic citizenship. We never consider how students’ vulnerabilities are made worse by the vulnerabilities inherent in the broader ecosystem such as the sustainability and cost of connection to the internet.

Vulnerability is relational.

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 13.34.07.png

Taking my cue from the socio-critical model of Subotzky and Prinsloo (2011), students enter higher education with a range of experiences, dispositions, capital, self-efficacy, agency, and from disparate socio-economic circumstances. They register, and choose programs and modules/courses for which they may (not) be prepared, encounter curricula and pedagogies that may (not) appeal to their prior learning and/or interests. Normally formative assessment should pick up disciplinary or other needs, but often, in large cohorts, the feedback on these formative assessment are general, and less personal feedback. Throughout this journey or ‘student walk’ students may (not) receive affective, cognitive and administrative support.

Often, in learning analytics, we would collect, measure, analyse and use student data as if they are the only role players and the data will not, necessarily account for (in)efficiencies and/or (in)actions on the side of academic departments, faculty, ICT and the broader institutional culture.

The data we have to our disposal may also not provide us with insight in broader macro-societal changes and trends that impact on students and the institution, e.g. pandemics, political unrest, economic downturns, etc.

Student retention, success, attrition, failure, drop-out and/or stop-out therefore has to be understood as emerging from multiple, often mutually constitutive factors in the nexus between student habitus, capital, agency and disciplinary and institutional contexts and arrangements (e.g. responsiveness, epistomological access, student: staff ratios, etc) as well as macro-societal forces.Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 13.50.57

Thinking of student vulnerability in terms of an eco-system, means that student vulnerability is linked to, and entangled in the vulnerabilities of the lecturer, the department and institution’s policies and processes, ICT and data infrastructures, and the responsiveness of systems.  We often speak of students-at-risk, or student vulnerability without considering student vulnerability as assemblage, of intersecting lines, emerging like a rhizome.

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 13.58.01.png

Vulnerability, in general, and especially student vulnerability in learning analytics can be w considered, “under-theorised” (Mackenzie, Rodgers & Dodds, 2014, p. 2; Prinsloo & Slade, 2016).  Being identified as vulnerable, in general, means membership of a sub-group, as non- conformance to the criteria of the ‘normal’ or ‘non-vulnerable’ or being ‘deficient’ in some respects (Broughan & Prinsloo, 2020) and as such, vulnerability becomes a ‘label’ (Luna, 2009) and increasingly a permanent, digital part of an individual’s profile (e.g. Mayer-Schönberger, 2010). The data and categories used to define student vulnerability are often “zombie categories” (Archer & Prinsloo, 2020; Guillion, 2018) – “categories from the past that we continue to use even though they have outlived their usefulness and even though they mask a different reality” (Plummer, 2011, p. 195).

In the context of education, these labels accompany students for a particular course or semester, or even for the duration of the program, and may follow them long after graduation. Except for considering the permanence of such a label (and its implications – see Mayer-Schönberger, 2010), there is a real danger that in an attempt to address students’ vulnerability, instead of amelioration, students’ vulnerability may become pathogenic (Prinsloo & Slade, 2016). It is therefore crucial to consider student vulnerability in the context of student agency (Jääskelä, Heilala, Kärkkäinen & Häkkinen, 2020), as well as found in the nexus of students’ habitus and agency, disciplinary and institutional contexts – efficiencies, responsiveness and resources, and macro-societal factors (Subotzky & Prinsloo, 2011). While some of the discourses on student agency emphasise grit, persistence, and a ‘can do’ attitude, often forgetting that student agency is not only situated in a particular context and flow from their habitus, but is, as such, a constrained agency (Subotzky & Prinsloo, 2011) and entangled in intergenerational structural arrangements and power (Strayhorn, 2014).

A critical consideration of the complexities in the nexus of student vulnerability, agency and learning analytics can easily start with any of the three elements, let us begin with unpacking (student) vulnerability by briefly considering three different reflections on vulnerability – the taxonomy of vulnerability proposed by Mackenzie, Rogers and Dodds (2014), the work of Luna (2009, 2019), and Butler (2012, 2016) before we consider the implications for student vulnerability, agency and learning analytics.

Mackenzie, Rogers and Dodds (2014) propose a taxonomy of vulnerability comprising “three different sources of vulnerability (i.e., inherent, situational, and pathogenic) and two different states of vulnerability (i.e., dispositional and occurrent)” (p. 7). Inherent vulnerability refers to sources of vulnerability that are intrinsic to the human condition. These vulnerabilities arise from our corporeality, our neediness, our dependence on others, and our affective and social natures” (p. 7; emphasis added). The second source of vulnerability is situational or context where one’s vulnerability “…may be caused or exacerbated by the personal, social, political, economic, or environmental situations of individuals or social groups. Situational vulnerability may be short term, intermittent, or enduring” (p. 7). Mackenzie, Rogers and Dodds (2014) acknowledge that the inherent and situational categories are not “categorically distinct … Both inherent and situational vulnerability may be dispositional or occurrent” (p. 8; italics in the original). Of particular importance to this reflection is Mackenzie, Rogers and Dodds’ (2014) claim that “Inherent and situational vulnerability give rise to specific moral and political obligations: to support and provide assistance to those who are occurrently vulnerable and to reduce the risks of dispositional vulnerabilities becoming occurrent” (p. 8). The third source of vulnerability, according to Mackenzie, Rogers and Dodds (2014) is pathogenic vulnerability that “may also arise when a response intended to ameliorate vulnerability has the paradoxical effect of exacerbating existing vulnerabilities or generating new ones” (p. 9).

In her mapping of vulnerability as ‘layered’, Luna (2009) states that considering  ‘vulnerable groups’ in research, can be linked back to the Belmont Report (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioural Research, 1979) which mentions specific groups as examples of vulnerable groups “such as racial minorities, the economically disadvantaged, the very sick, and the institutionalized”, who, “given their dependent status and their frequently compromised capacity for free consent, they should be protected against the danger of being involved in research solely for administrative convenience, or because they are easy to manipulate as a result of their illness or socioeconomic condition” (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioural Research, 1979, p. 9). As Luna (2009) warns, the treatment of vulnerability as the result of a combination of characteristics, results in “vulnerable as a fixed label on particular subpopulations” and “suggests a simplistic answer to a complicated problem”(p. 124). Addressing individuals’ vulnerability may require “more than one answer” as “Different types of vulnerabilities can overlap”(Luna, 2009, p. 124). Vulnerability should therefore best be considered as “layers” –

The metaphor of a layer gives the idea of something “softer,” something that may be multiple and different, and that may be removed layer by layer. It is not ‘a solid and unique vulnerability’ that exhausts the category; there might be different vulnerabilities, different layers operating. These layers may overlap: some of them may be related to problems with informed consent, others to social circumstances. The idea of layers of vulnerability gives flexibility to the concept of vulnerability (Luna, 2009, p. 128).

To illustrate Luna’s (2009) proposal of ‘vulnerability as layers’ let us consider students with disabilities. Not only do the specific nature of their disabilities make a difference to their vulnerability in specific contexts, students with disabilities from well-resourced socioeconomic backgrounds may be differently vulnerable than students with disabilities from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. Even then, there may be further layers that disrupt homogenous understandings of vulnerability as label. One may find a student with disabilities from a well-resourced socioeconomic background, but who is, at the same time, suffers from an abusive relationship, or may have experienced personal loss. Luna (2009) therefore suggests that vulnerability is, per se, relational – “That is, it concerns the relation between the person or a group of persons and the circumstances or the context” (p. 129). Vulnerability may therefore not be an inherent or permanent characteristic by emerge as a result of “a particular situation that makes or renders someone vulnerable” (Luna, 2009, p. 129). Once the situation changes or the individual is found or located in a different context, the nature and scope of vulnerability may change or disappear. Luna (2009) therefore proposes that an individual does not, per se, become, vulnerable, but rather acquire “ a layer of vulnerability; she is vulnerable in some particular aspect that is the result of the interaction of her particular circumstances and her own characteristics” (p. 129). To summarise, Luna’s (2009) proposal to see vulnerability not as a fixed category, label and “as a permanent and categorical condition… that persists throughout its existence” (p. 129) may help us to understand vulnerability in a more nuanced way. Understanding vulnerability as layered furthermore “challenges idealized views of the agent, human agency, and even justice that are so common in contemporary ethics” (Luna, 2009, p. 134).

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 14.03.19

In her 2012 essay, Butler considers “… whether any of us have the capacity or inclination to respond ethically to suffering at a distance and what makes that ethical encounter possible, when it does take place. The second is what it means for our ethical obligations when we are up against another person or group, find ourselves invariably joined to those we never chose, and must respond to solicitations in languages we may not understand or even wish to understand” (p. 134).  The first question Butler (2012) asks raises the interesting issue whether “proximity imposes certain immediate demands” (p. 135) and what happens to these demands when the vulnerable person or group is some distance away, or even when the vulnerable is not of our race, nation or culture, or even enemy. Butler (2012) suggests that “these are ethical obligations that do not require our consent, and neither are they the result of contracts or agreements into which any of us have deliberately entered” (p. 135).

In this particular essay, Butler (2012) enters in ‘conversation’ with Levinas and Hannah Arendt. From Levinas’s work, Butler (2012) states that our ethical obligations are, “strictly speaking, precontractual” (p. 140) even when we do not know the other, or choose the other.

As such, the “Other has priority over me” (Butler, 2012, p. 140) and is, per se, asymmetrical. Because the Other is vulnerable, this demands a unexpected, unsolicited and pre-contractual response from me, and therefore, makes me vulnerable.

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 14.04.33.png

Both Levinas and Arendt, according to Butler (2012) contest the idea that ethical obligations arise as a result of contracts, deliberately and voluntarily agreed to between one another. For Arendt, our ethical obligation towards the Other’s vulnerability arise precisely from the fact that we  “Not only do we live with those we never chose and with whom we may feel no immediate sense of social belonging, but we are also obligated to preserve those lives and the open-ended plurality that is the global population” (Butler, 2012, p. 144). Our ethical obligations to one another arise not because of agreements, choice or love, but exactly because we “have no choice” (p. 150) no matter how we “rail against that unchosen condition, we remain obligated to struggle to affirm the ultimate value of that unchosen social world” (p. 150).

Both Levinas and Arendt, according to Butler (2012) contest the idea that ethical obligations arise as a result of contracts, deliberately and voluntarily agreed to between one another. For Arendt, our ethical obligation towards the Other’s vulnerability arise precisely from the fact that we  “Not only do we live with those we never chose and with whom we may feel no immediate sense of social belonging, but we are also obligated to preserve those lives and the open-ended plurality that is the global population” (Butler, 2012, p. 144). No matter how one defines ‘we’, “we are also those who were never chosen, who emerge on this earth without everyone’s consent and who belong, from the start, to a wider population and a sustainable earth” (p. 146). Interestingly, Butler (2012) then maps uncomfortable terrain about the ethical obligations that arise from “situations of antagonistic and unchosen modes of cohabitation” (p. 150).  Our ethical obligations to one another arise not because of agreements, choice or love, but exactly because we “have no choice” (p. 150) no matter how we “rail against that unchosen condition, we remain obligated to struggle to affirm the ultimate value of that unchosen social world” (p. 150).

In Butler’s (2016) article – “Rethinking vulnerability and resistance”  she destablises the notion of vulnerability and states that we have to see and theorise vulnerability as relational and as “a relation to a field of objects, forces, and passions that impinge upon or affect us in some way” (p. 16). She points out the reality that some dominant groups “can use the discourse of “vulnerability” to shore up their own privilege” (p. 13). As example, she mentions

In California, when white people were losing their status as a majority, some of them claimed that they were a “vulnerable” population. Colonial states have lamented their “vulnerability” to attack by those they colonize, and sought general sympathy on the basis of that claim. Some men have complained that feminism has made them into a “vulnerable population” and that they are now “targeted” for discrimination. Various European national identities now claim to be “under attack” by new and established migrant communities (p. 13).

Butler (2016) concludes that we should understand vulnerability as having “a way of shifting, and since we may not like some, or even many of the shifts it makes, we may find ourselves somewhat awkwardly opposed to vulnerability. Of course, that is a rather funny thing to say, since we might conjecture that any amount of opposition to vulnerability does not exactly defeat its operation in our bodily and social lives. (p. 13). And while there are many legitimate criticisms of how vulnerability is appropriated and used, Butler (2016) moots that  “vulnerability is not a subjective disposition” (p. 16) but relational. Vulnerability is also “neither fully passive nor fully active, but operating in a middle region” (p. 17).

For example, Butler (2016) asks “What about the power of those who are oppressed? And what about the vulnerability of paternalistic institutions themselves? After all, if they can be contested, brought down, or rebuilt on egalitarian grounds, then paternalism itself is vulnerable to a dismantling that would undo its very form of power”(p. 13). In this one sentence, Butler destabilises vulnerability in a number of ways. She firstly asks how being vulnerable and oppressed, changes the power of the oppressed, or whether their vulnerability informs and in a certain way, instigates their agency. Secondly, Butler (2016) points to the reality that institutions and systems of oppression themselves can be vulnerable. And, what happens when vulnerable peoples address systems of oppression – “do they not establish themselves as something other than, or more than, vulnerable? Indeed, do we want to say that they overcome their vulnerability at such moments, which is to assume that vulnerability is negated when it converts into agency? Or is vulnerability still there, now assuming a different form?” (p. 13).

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 14.09.07

Let us start, for a moment, with learning analytics’ central concern to improve learning and to assist instructors to teach better, support teams to support more strategically and more effectively, and for students to be provided with analyses to help them make better informed choices (Gašević, Dawson, & Siemens, 2015; Siemens & Long, 2011). In order for learning analytics to realise its potential, it needs data – student data, to be more exact. Of specific interest at this point is considering that learning analytics focus on student data, and exclude from analytics data generated by instructors, events outside of the scope of learning management systems, and data arising from macro-societal events and impacts, influencing students’ journeys, but that falls outside the “data gaze” (Beer, 2019). Except for the reality that some of the default positions in learning analytics are contestable (Archer & Prinsloo, 2020) and that students’ learning journeys are translated and voiced-over in institutional accounts of their learning (Broughan & Prinsloo, 2020), students are often categorised as vulnerable using incomplete, tentative data and bracketed into zombie categories that may follow them, like zombies, long after they have graduated. But, let us start with vulnerability.

Some students are more vulnerable than others – from the start – whether due to personal histories and demographics, socio-economic circumstances, gender, race and the list can go on. Students enter the playing field of higher education, and different disciplines not from the same starting point and as Mackenzie, Rogers, and Dodds (2014]) indicated, their vulnerability will be differentiated and arise from a variety or combination of inherent, situational, and pathogenic sources found in either dispositional or occurrent states. There is a real risk that learning analytics hold students accountable or take factors into account for classifying them as vulnerable and at-risk, over which students do not have any control. Learning analytics may furthermore treat vulnerability as a ‘label’ and permanent characteristic and address one of the many layers of vulnerability (Luna, 2009). It is also crucial to understand that vulnerability is context and time-bound and that though some vulnerabilities such as students with disabilities have a permanent character, other vulnerabilities may be temporal or context-specific. And as illustrated earlier, sharing one characteristic such as ‘disability’ does not mean equal and permanent vulnerabilities. Washington and Kua (2020) use the notion of “differential digital vulnerability” to describe “how vulnerable populations are disproportionately exposed to harm through data technology that seeks to promote a single point of social good” (p. 9). “We extend Wynter’s argument that categories of protectable life in social and economic systems  imply categories of unprotectable life to technological systems. Our observations suggest that technological systems reveal differential vulnerability through digital representations” (p. 9).

Most of the work on student vulnerability and institutions obligations towards reaching out and supporting students with vulnerabilities, are founded on the contractual (legal, social and moral) agreement between institutions and students (e.g. Prinsloo & Slade, 2014, 2016; Slade & Prinsloo, 2013).  Butler’s (2012) discussion of the work of Levinas and Hannah Arendt destabilises the contractual basis for ethical obligations and proposes that the vulnerable (student) ‘demands’ an unsolicited response, not because of a contractual agreement, and as such, renders the lecturer, support and administrative staff representing the institution, vulnerable. The fact that in identifying vulnerable students, institutions themselves become vulnerable resembles the research by Prinsloo and Slade (2017). But, while Prinsloo and Slade (2017) would have centred the institution’s vulnerability as a result of its contractual obligations towards students – to not only be responsive but also response-able, the work of Butler (2012) provides a different foundation than contractual, namely the duty of care that comes into being, because of sharing a space, a learning journey.

Lastly, we also have to consider Butler’s (2016) destabilising of vulnerability and consider how the status of being vulnerable plays out as a political construct in the nexus of political, economic, social, legal, environmental and technological contexts. It is therefore crucial to consider where our classification of some students as vulnerable, leave them and how their classification as ‘vulnerable’ can, and actually, should empower them and not take away their agency.

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 14.29.27.png

Using the example of one of the fictive female students discussed earlier, consider the different factors impact on this particular students’ vulnerability. Possibly, an institution would have classified her as ‘vulnerable’ due to her ‘disability status’. But such a categorisation is such a poor (an in my opinion, lazy) attempt to map her particular vulnerabilities as if they don’t come into being with her other inherent and situational vulnerabilities, and how her categorisation as ‘vulnerable’ may have been impacted upon by vulnerabilities in the rest of the eco-system. Should she become unemployed, this may change the total picture. Should she walk out of her abusive relationship, that will have a domino effect on the other layers of her vulnerability. Should the lecturer who deals with her own layers of vulnerability not respond to a request for a late submission of a compulsory assignment, one can just get a sense of how these vulnerabilities intersect.

The question is, what data points do we have in the journey of the student (not only student generated by the particular student) but also data of faculty responses, downtime of ICT systems, etc.? How do our categories represent the layers and the complexities or do our current categories distort our understanding of student vulnerability?Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 14.37.37

Towards a layered and eco-systemic view of (student) vulnerability

Accepting as point of departure the proposition of Mackenzie, Rogers and Dodds (2014) that vulnerability is undertheorised and that thinking of vulnerability as inherent, situational and pathogenic (as well as dispositional and/or occurent) can provide us a good starting point for moving towards the suggestion by Luna (2009, 2019) of vulnerability as layered.

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 14.45.16

So whereto from here? Luna (2019) identifies some very useful steps towards moving away from seeing vulnerability as an inherent characteristic of an individual and/or group, but rather as a set of layers resulting in a state of vulnerability. The first step, according to Luna (2019) is to identify the different intersecting layers. It is crucial to also map how the different layers resulting in more or less vulnerability play out in a particular context and what stimuli triggers the layers to assume different positions of permanence/importance. It is also important to explore and disentangle the ‘cascading of layers’  – how the layers interact and how one specific aspect of vulnerability may trigger a cascading of pathogenic vulnerabilities in a particular context (Luna, 2019). The second step is to rank the different layers resulting in vulnerability with regard to their harmfulness in a particular context. Of particular importance would be to identify those layers resulting in vulnerability that are cascading or that have a domino effect. These layers have a “differential strength and damaging power” and “We should consider the dispositional structure of layers of vulnerability and assess what stimulus conditions can trigger them (their presence and probability of developing). Stimulus conditions relate layers with the context, with the actual situation and possibility of occurrence” (Luna, 2019, p. 92). The third step is to identify those layers resulting in vulnerability that are cascading or that have a domino effect.

Of particular importance is Luna’s (2019) proposal that three kinds of obligations can be applied to and arise from the previous ranking of layers and to the identification of the various stimulus conditions. The first obligation is “not to worsen the person’s or group’s situation of vulnerability (be this with a protocol intervention or with a public policy). Thus, we should avoid exacerbating layers of vulnerability” (p. 93). The second obligation focuses on the eradication of layers of vulnerability. In cases where a particular layer of vulnerability cannot be eradicated, we should attempt to minimise the impact of these layers. “Finally, these obligations can be expressed through different strategies such as protections, safeguards, as well as empowerment and the generation of autonomy” (Luna, 2019, p. 93).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Special issue: call for papers


Possibilities and complexities of decolonising higher education: critical perspectives on praxis (co-editors: Kathy Luckett, Aneta Hayes and Sharon Stein)

man standing in front of people sitting on red chairs Photo by ICSA on

There is wide acknowledgement of the need to ‘decolonise’ higher education (Anderson, 2012; Aman, 2018). There have also been critiques of Western mono-conceptualizations of modernity, democracy and the nation-state (e.g. Chatterjee, 1997; Mbembe, 2015) and the role of modern universities in imposing these ideals on Indigenous and Global South communities. These critiques are also epistemological, challenging the assumption that Western-centric knowledge is humanity’s only valid way of knowing and that the West is both the model and apex of human development. The decolonial critique insists that modernity and ‘coloniality’ should be understood as mutually constitutive concepts. Further that the coloniality of modern universities manifests in hierarchical economic, political, socio-cultural, linguistic and intellectual relationships between dominant and marginalized populations (see for example Quijano, 2000; Marker, 2004; Mignolo…

View original post 1,303 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Learning analytics in open, distance and distributed learning: Potential, practice and challenges


As part of the series, Springer Briefs in Open and Distance Education, we invite expressions of interest for a book that will critically explore and map the potential and challenges of learning analytics in the specific context of open, distance and distributed learning. Since the emergence of learning analytics as a phenomenon, research focus and practice, the field has matured into a rich, interdisciplinary field and praxis (Ferguson, 2012; Wong & Li, 2019). Not only has learning analytics as research and practice matured, but it has also come to terms with its imperfections, and to some extent, lack of evidence that it positively contributes to student success (Ferguson & Clow, 2017; Kitto, Shum, & Gibson, 2018, March). There is, however, evidence of how learning analytics shape pedagogy, student retention strategies and the strategic allocation of institutional resources (Gašević, Dawson & Siemens, 2015; Leitner, Khalil & Ebner, 2017; Lim, et al., 2019). Currently, much of the research, whether empirical, theoretical or conceptual, originates from residential or traditional forms of educational delivery.

Distance education as a unique form of educational delivery has evolved from correspondence education to various possibilities including offline, digitally supported, internet supported and fully online learning (Evans & Nations, 1992; Guri-Rosenblit, 2009; Holmberg, 2005; Moore & Kearsly, 2012; Peters, 2004, 2010). Within the scope of distance education, we not only have Open Distance Learning (ODL), as a particular form of distance education, but also various other forms of distributed online/blended learning such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and fully online course offerings on traditional campus-based higher education. These different forms of distance education all share, in one way or the other, the characteristic of students being detached from the delivering institution with regard to space, place and time. Being separated from the delivering institution allows students flexibility and choice, but it also may result in feelings of isolation, lack of peer support and access to on-campus resources. As such, open and distance education institutions are often left in the dark regarding how students are progressing in their courses, and what support students may need at specific junctures in their learning journeys.

While distance education institutions have always collected and analysed student data, this mostly informed operational and strategic planning, resource allocation and was used for reporting to a variety of stakeholders. As such, the collection, analysis and use of student data in much of open, distance and distributed forms of educational delivery fall in the category of academic analytics, and not learning analytics. [For a discussion on the difference between academic and learning analytics see Siemens (2013)]. Learning analytics as the measurement, collection, analysis and use of student data (demographic and behavioral) has therefore the potential to not only inform pedagogy and student learning, as well as the appropriate allocation of resources. Learning analytics focus on improving student learning and to positively impact on student retention and success. In the light of historical and persisting concerns about student retention and success in open and distance learning (Subotzky & Prinsloo, 2011), collecting, analysing and using student data may assist in more appropriate pedagogical strategies and practices, materials, assessment (both formative and summative), resource allocation and planning, and contribute to student retention and success.

Institutions not only have access to a greater volume, variety and granularity of student data than ever before (e.g. Kitchin, 2014), but developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning and neural networks open up not only new opportunities for the analysis and use of student data, but also raise particular concerns pertaining to, for example, the potential of bias, the ‘black box’ of algorithmic decision-making and the lack of oversight and accountability (Prinsloo, 2017; Vytasek, Patzak & Winne, 2020). In the context of open, distance and distributed learning environments, these developments pose huge potential to scale student support and learning, provide real-time advice and personalised learning journeys and as such, to break or ameliorate the impact of the iron triangle of cost, quality and access in distance, open and distributed learning (Daniel, Kanwar, & Uvalić-Trumbić, 2009; Power & Morven-Gould, 2011). We also have to critically consider the potential for harm and prejudice these new developments pose for students who may already be at risk. (See, for example, Macgilchrist, 2019; Pardo & Siemens, 2014; Prinsloo, Khalil & Slade, 2018; Slade & Prinsloo, 2013; Weber, 2016).

We invite researchers, scholars and practitioners to submit proposals for chapters using the following as guidelines:

  • The purpose of this book is to specifically address the current gap of published/reported theoretical, conceptual and empirical research focusing on learning analytics in open, distance and distributed environments. Preference will be given to researchers, scholars or practitioners working in open, distance and distributed learning contexts
  • Specific reference to theories and research in open, distance and distributed learning contexts
  • We believe that the specific nature of open, distance and distributed learning offers unique challenges but also unique potential to learning analytics as research focus, but also as practice/praxis
  • Proposals should be very clear regarding their value contribution to the purpose of the call for expression of interest. Successful proposals will add to our understanding of the specific challenges/potential of learning analytics in open, distance and distributed learning.
  • Conceptual, theoretical, qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods approaches are welcome
  • Of specific interest is for conceptual, theoretical or empirical research on the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning and neural networks in open, distance and distributed learning contexts
  • We prefer chapters not to have more than two authors

 Who we are

 Paul Prinsloo

Paul Prinsloo is a Research Professor in Open and Distance Learning (ODL) in the Department of Business Management, in the College of Economic and Management Sciences, University of South Africa (Unisa). Since 2015, he is also a Visiting Professor at the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, Germany. In 2019, the National Research Foundation (NRF) in South Africa awarded Paul with a B3 rating confirming his considerable international reputation for the high quality and impact of his research outputs. He is also a Fellow of the European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN) and serves on several editorial boards. His academic background includes fields as diverse as theology, art history, business management, online learning, and religious studies. Paul is an internationally recognised speaker, scholar and researcher and has published numerous articles in the fields of teaching and learning, student success in distance education contexts, learning analytics, and curriculum development. His current research focuses on the collection, analysis and use of student data in learning analytics, graduate supervision and digital identity.

 Sharon Slade

 Sharon Slade is a senior lecturer at the Open University in the UK with a background in mathematical modelling.  She is an academic lead for learning analytics projects within the University, leading work around ethical uses of student data, operationalisation of predictive analytics and approaches aiming to improve retention and progression.  Recent contributions include papers and chapters around student consent, the obligation to act on what is known, examining the concept of educational triage and broader issues around an ethics of care.

 Mohammad Khalil

Mohammad Khalil is a senior researcher and lecturer in learning analytics at the Centre for the Science of Learning & Technology (SLATE), in the department of psychology, University of Bergen, Norway. Mohammad has a Ph.D. from Graz University of Technology in Learning Analytics in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). He has 2 years’ experience at the Centre for Education and Learning from Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands. In 2019, Mohammad becomes the Norwegian representative at the European standards for MOOC quality (SN/K 186). Mohammad has published many articles on learning analytics in high-standard journals and conferences. His current research focuses on learning analytics in Open and Distance Learning (ODL), health, mobile, visualizations and gamification, as well as privacy and ethics.

 Submission Details

Only eight (8) chapters, each with a maximum of 5,000 words will be accepted.

Proposal length should be maximum 600 words, not including references

Chapter length should be a maximum of 5,000 words, including references

Submissions will be:

  • submitted in Microsoft® Word
  • in English
  • double-spaced, in 12-point font
  • using APA style referencing
  • original, not previously published, not submitted for publication elsewhere, and not revised from a previous submission elsewhere

Peer review

  •  Double-blind
  • Authors of accepted chapter proposals will be asked to review two other submissions

Format details to follow upon proposal acceptance

Submissions should be submitted to

Important dates

June 30, 2019 Proposal Submission Deadline
July 15, 2019 Notification of  Provisional Acceptance
November 29, 2019 Full Chapter Submission
January 31, 2020 Review Results Returned

Final Selection of 8 (eight) Chapters

March 31, 2020 Resubmission of Accepted Submissions
April 18, 2020 Final Acceptance Notification
April 30, 2020 Submission of Manuscript to Springer

Target audience

We anticipate that a varied audience for this publication will include a range of individuals in or having an interest in open, distance and distributed learning environments, including but not limited to managers, policymakers, instructors, academic planners, ICT, faculty, financial managers, researchers, practitioners, curriculum developers, instructional designers, and  administrators. The open-access publication of this book will increase potential readership.


Daniel, J., Kanwar, A., & Uvalić-Trumbić, S. (2009). Breaking higher education’s iron triangle: Access, cost, and quality. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 41(2), 30-35.

Evans, T., & Nations, D. (1992). Theorising open and distance education. Open Learning, 7(2), 3-13.

Ferguson, R. (2012). Learning analytics: drivers, developments and challenges. International Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 4(5/6), 304-317.

Ferguson, R., & Clow, D. (2017). Where is the evidence? A call to action for learning analytics. In: LAK ’17 Proceedings of the Seventh International Learning Analytics and Knowledge Conference, ACM International Conference Proceeding Series, ACM, New York, USA, pp. 56–65.

Gašević, D., Dawson, S., & Siemens, G. (2015). Let’s not forget: Learning analytics are about learning. TechTrends, 59(1), 64-71.

Guri-Rosenblit, S. (2009). Diverse models of distance teaching universities. Encyclopedia of Distance Learning, 2, 727-733.

Holmberg, B. (2005). The evolution, principles, and practice of distance education. Oldenburg, Germany: BIS-Verlag der Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg (pp. 37-88, 104-105).

Moore, M. G., & Kearsley, G. (2012). Distance education: A systems view of online learning USA: Wadsworth-Cengage Learning.

Peters, O. (2010). Distance education in transition: Developments and issues (5th edition). Oldenburg, Germany: BIS-Verlag der Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg.

Power, T. M., & Morven-Gould, A. (2011). Head of gold, feet of clay: The online learning paradox. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 12(2), 19-39.

Prinsloo, P. (2017). Fleeing from Frankenstein’s monster and meeting Kafka on the way: Algorithmic decision-making in higher education. E-Learning and Digital Media, 14(3), 138-163.

Prinsloo, P., Khalil, M., & Slade, S. (2018). User consent in MOOCs – micro, meso, and macro perspectives. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (IRRODL), 19(5), 61-79.

Kitchen, R. (2014). The data revolution. Big data, open data, data infrastructures and their consequences. London: Sage.

Kitto, K., Shum, S. B., & Gibson, A. (2018, March). Embracing imperfection in learning analytics. Paper presented at LAK ’18, Sydney, Australia. Retrieved from

Leitner, P., Khalil, M., & Ebner, M. (2017). Learning analytics in higher education – a literature review. In A. Peña-Ayala (Ed.), Learning Analytics: Fundamentals, Applications, and Trends (pp.1-23). Springer, Cham.

Lim, L. A., Gentili, S., Pardo, A., Kovanović, V., Whitelock-Wainwright, A., Gašević, D., & Dawson, S. (2019). What changes, and for whom? A study of the impact of learning analytics-based process feedback in a large course. Learning and Instruction.

Macgilchrist, F. (2019). Cruel optimism in edtech: When the digital data practices of educational technology providers inadvertently hinder educational equity. Learning, Media and Technology, 44(1), 77-86.

Pardo, A., & Siemens, G. (2014). Ethical and privacy principles for learning analytics. British Journal of Educational Technology, 45(3), 438-450.

Peters, O. (2004). The iceberg has not yet melted: Further reflections on the concept of industrialization and distance teaching. In O. Peters, Distance education in transition: Developments and issues (5th edition), (pp. 33-42). Oldenburg, Germany: BIS-Verlag der Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg.

Siemens, G. (2013). Learning analytics: The emergence of a discipline. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(10), 1380-1400.

Slade, S., & Prinsloo, P. (2013). Learning analytics: Ethical issues and dilemmas. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(10), 1510-1529.

Subotzky, G., & Prinsloo, P. (2011). Turning the tide: A socio-critical model and framework for improving student success in open distance learning at the University of South Africa. Distance Education32(2), 177-193.

Vytasek, J. M., Patzak, A., & Winne, P. H. (2020). Analytics for student engagement. In A.S. Lampropoulos & Tsihrintzis, G.A. (Eds), Machine Learning Paradigms: Applications in Recommender Systems (pp. 23-48). New York, NY: Springer.

Weber, A. S. (2016). The big student big data grab. International Journal of Information and Education Technology, 6(1), 65-70.

Wong, B. T. M., & Li, K. C. (2019). A review of learning analytics intervention in higher education (2011–2018). Journal of Computers in Education, 1-22.









Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Fear is a broken compass



Fear is a broken compass.

Fear is medication that does not work anymore.

Fear is convulsions at night.

Fear is not-knowing and to continue walking

I used to know the rules, the landscape, and what was expected of me as faculty, as researcher and as human. I used to know what skills were required, what social/professional capital I could use, and when, not only to survive but to flourish in higher education. I used to be certain of where and how I fitted, what I needed to do to endure, not only in academia and in my institutional context, but also in post-apartheid South Africa.

I used to know, but somehow I don’t anymore.

I always worked hard. I always opened my office door at least two hours before anyone else. I grabbed and was addicted to opportunities like a street kid looks for and sniffs glue. I staggered, intoxicated from one submission to the other. With each invitation to speak, to contribute, to co-author, to review, came a dose of adrenalin, a constant supply of rush.

I did not notice the fading of the light. I, somehow, did not notice the needle on my compass becoming disoriented. I mistook the fear of failing for adrenalin.

I continued to work harder than ever before. At any one stage of a week, I was writing and co-writing a number of articles, writing reports, ticking off boxes, and submitting grant applications. I was going somewhere. I knew.

My knowing was informed by having a compass, a sense of where North was, and having choices to walk North-East, or South-West. Increasingly, my compass just keeps turning. Either it became broken, or there is no magnetic North anymore.

Fear is a broken compass.

The not-knowing-anymore did not come suddenly, but resembled a gradual fading away of knowing, like the sun bleaching curtains, or a river drying up, or autumn arriving during the night and the leaves on trees suddenly turning yellow. The not-knowing-anymore resembled, at least for me, losing my eyesight, and finding myself in an unfamiliar world, feeling my way around, bumping into things, and getting used to the sound of things falling around me.

And as things faded, as I found myself shaking my compass to make it work, my anxiousness grew, and turned into fear.

Like someone becoming blind, I used to be able to find my way around, slower than before, but I could still find my way, my favorite cup, the peanut butter, and my increasingly growing stash of medication. I knew how to avoid the sharp edges of the cupboard in my room, to be careful with boiling water, and to remember where I put my keys.

When I woke up this morning, I realised that I have lost my sight, my bearings. Someone moved the door. I can’t find my favorite cup. I woke to find myself in a different world.

I lost my way.

Fear is a broken compass.

Or maybe someone stole North.

In her book, “Cruel optimism”, Lauren Berlant (2011) provides a lens, at least for me, into the disorientation flowing from “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” (p.1).  When your striving for a ‘good life’ frays and “fantasies of the good life becomes a landfill for overwhelming and impending crises of life-building and expectation whose sheer volume so threatens what it has meant to ‘have a life’ that adjustment seems like an accomplishment” (p. 3). My disorientation and depression seems to feed off my situation, like when police would report that they have a situation at hand. “A situation is a state of things in which something that will perhaps matter is unfolding amid the usual activity of life. It is a state of animated and animating suspension that forces itself on consciousness, that produces a sense of emergence of something in the present that may become an event” (Berlant, 2011, p. 5). Situations signify that “the rules for habitation and the genres of storytelling about it are unstable” (Berlant, 2011, p. 6), and that the situation heralds a knowing that “life are becoming undone” (p. 7).

And yet, despite the unraveling, and the smell of drowning,  I have to figure a way out of being attached to the very situation or life that is causing the drowning. Berlant (2011) states that, among other things/foci, she is “seeking out the conditions under which certain attachments to what counts as life come to make sense or no longer make sense, yet remain powerful as they work against the flourishing of particular and collective beings” (p. 13). My “stuckness”, my sense of treading water and seeking North therefore constitute “a problematic defense against the contingencies of the present” (p. 13). Even while my relation to life and staying alive is cruel, it is, at the same time, “a scene of negotiated sustenance, that makes life bearable as it presents itself ambivalently, unevenly, incoherently” (p. 14).


[Sandra de la Loza & Eduardo Molinari (2017) Source:]

So as I fumble around for meaning, as I protest my being born into this situation, this world, and I cling to the umbilical cord that binds me to this situation, to this world, to this mad rush for meaning, to this search for North.

Despite my broken compass, I walk, questioning. Like Sandra de la Loza and Eduardo Molinari, I am overwhelmed by the complexities of the world I live, work and breathe in. I am looking for ways to consciously inhabit my situation, to find a language to speak about, but also speak to my situation. I craft daily ‘to do’ lists and scribbles on serviettes in an attempt to archive my history, my situation.

In an act of archivist witchcraft I dance naked in this blog, to “unlock and reveal obscured narratives and hidden ghosts” in my life as scholar as archival material. The opening of the archive to my scholarly identity, despair and praxis, is an intentional ritual of scholarly witchcraft, of ‘cruel optimism’ as I shake my compass, and keep walking.

Fear is a broken compass.

Fear is medication that does not work anymore.

Fear is convulsions at night.

Fear is not-knowing and to continue walking

Image credit:

Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel optimism. Duke University Press

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Faculty as quantified, measured and tired: The lure of the red shoes


[This is the text of my keynote on 31 May 2018 at the First Annual NWU Teaching and Learning Conference at the North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa.]

I would like to take the opportunity to thank the conference organisers for the invitation to join your celebrations. Looking at the conference program of yesterday and today, it is clear that there is a lot of passion and commitment in this room. The variety of topics presented at this conference reveal ample evidence of honest reflections to, among other things, increase the quality and effectiveness of learning experiences, for both student and faculty. Please accept my apologies for not being able to attend yesterday as I had another commitment.

Organising conferences is an increasingly difficult task. Not only does one have to ensure that the  budget of the conference breaks even or even make a profit, but one also needs to attract scholars and practitioners who are willing to use the provided space to share their research and to network. And then, of course, there is  access to free WiFi and good food… Many a conference has failed not because of the quality of the keynotes or the presentations and networking, but due to the WiFi failing or the sandwiches being late for teatime.

Except for budget and attendance figures, choosing keynotes and getting their commitment to honour the invitation, is part of the more tricky parts of organising a conference. So what does one look for when inviting a keynote? Most probably the first criterion is to invite someone who has scholarly gravitas in the field (and more about that later). But conference organisers are also looking for someone who can provoke, entertain, have a sense of humour and, importantly, keep to the allocated time. While I cannot judge my own gravitas in the field, I certainly aim to entertain you, to share some provocations, …and to keep to the allocated time.  But there is something that is bothering me…


Having acknowledged the challenges in organising conferences and in choosing keynotes, I want to use this opportunity to briefly reflect on the irony that it is 2018 in South Africa, and we still have a conference with all of the keynotes being male and white.

On being a white, male keynote


When I received the invitation to keynote at this event, I took up this matter with the conference organisers and I was informed that one keynote withdrew at a very late stage and they could not find available candidates that were not white and male.  I was torn between declining the invitation or accepting the keynote but then use the opportunity to highlight the lack of diversity.

Picture 4

It would have been disingenuous if I did not use my invitation as white, male scholar to raise awareness that we have an urgent obligation to seriously rethink whose voices are amplified at academic conferences, whose voices are shunned or overlooked and what that means not only for the conference itself, but also for transformation in South African higher education.

With these brief remarks out of the way, I would love to share some thoughts around the title for this presentation – “Faculty as quantified, measured and tired: The lure of the red shoes

There was once a little girl…

Screenshot 2018-06-02 13.00.54

[Image credit]

Hans Christian Andersen started his tale of “The red shoes” with the words “There was once a little girl …”  The girl, Karen was fascinated with a pair of red shows which she was determined to wear to church. Of course, society frowned on any female wearing red shoes, no matter what the occasion, but this did not deter the girl from wearing the red shoes… The object of her desire soon turned into a nightmare as the red shoes acquired a life of their own and could not stop dancing. The initial excitement of having red shoes that could not stop dancing soon wore off when she realised that she was not able to take off the shoes, no matter how hard she tried. She even misses her adoptive mother’s funeral because she just could not stop dancing. Unable to stop dancing, the girl begs an executioner to cut off her feet so that she could, at last, come to rest and not dance. But even when detached from her body, her feet with the red shoes could not stop dancing… The fairy tale ends with the girl finding redemption and  “Her soul flies on sunshine to Heaven, where no one mentions the red shoes.”

Since Andersen penned down the fairy tale, the tale was adapted into plays, movies and ballets.

Recently, in a production by Matthew Bourne, the tale was adapted to tell the tale of a young ballerina who aspired to become world-class. As if, in an answer to her prayers, she is offered a pair of red shoes. After the initial rise in fame, she realises to her horror that the object of her fascination turned into horror as she could not take off the shoes. The red shoes took over control of her life. It goes without saying that the ballet does not have a fairy tale ending.

Academics with red shoes…

The tale by Hans Christian Andersen resonates with many faculty, on many different levels. Many of us can identify with the intoxicating enticement of receiving accolades from students and management applauding you as a good teacher who goes out of his or her way, the lure of being a rated scholarand internationally acknowledged, using the latest technologies in your teaching or just knowing that you are keeping abreast in your field.

Academics are also required to publish in high-impact journals, participate in various committees and task teams, strategic and operational planning sessions, grow an international reputation, excel in academic citizenship and lead community engagement projects. Not to mention teaching online and being available to students (and management) 24/7/365.

Making matters more complex is the phenomenon that higher education institutions have become obsessed with a variety of seemingly mindless rituals of verification, obsession with reporting and perpetual cycles of restructuring and change.

Screenshot 2018-06-02 13.06.39

Many faculty are left breathless, anxious and increasingly demoralised.

Like the girl in Anderson’s fairy tale, many faculty discover there is no way to take off the red shoes and stop dancing. The band plays on… The tune does not change, the beat just gets faster.

Higher education is brimming with notions like “innovation”, “excellence”, “student satisfaction”, “unity”, “ratings” and “rankings”, and of course, “change”… As faculty and staff, we are called upon to embrace institutional change as if change is always an unqualified good and, of course, painless. While there are very few (if any) academics, administrative and support staff in higher education who will dispute the fact that they cando things more effectively, do them differently and most probably also, do differentthings; we often underestimate the impact (and pain) these changes will have on not only whatwe do, but also on who we are.

At this point of this reflection it is important to note that my intention is not to allocate blame on anyone, whether to the executive or middle management of our organisations, or administrators or rating and ranking agencies. Allocating blame will not necessarily help.

There is also a danger in painting the current challenges many faculty face as a crisis. While I would propose that the current situation has all the characteristics of a crisis, there is a danger that framing it as a ‘crisis’ leaves us disempowered, paralysed and despondent.

More important than allocating blame  or to emphasise the crisis many of us experience, is to understand the field, the rules of the field, where these rules come from and how these rules impact on my being a researcher, being a scholar, being a teacher, parent, partner, … being human.

Screenshot 2018-06-02 13.08.45

At the start of the keynote it is also important to acknowledge that it is almost obscene to reflect on the increasing pressures in academia while being tenured, white and male. The challenges facing female scholars from all races, as well as black, Indian and coloured faculty in a still untransformed South African higher education sector, are immense.

My own discomfort with being measured and quantified, pales in comparison to their experiences.

Female scholars of all races and Black,  Indian and Coloured scholars enter the field of higher education as faculty and find the field hostile. It is like playing Monopoly where one player is given all the property except Whitechapel Road. They are also given 95% of the bank. They are expected to succeed with what’s left. Of course, many of them lose immediately. Why? It must be because they are lacy.

Screenshot 2018-06-02 13.39.34

Many young scholars entering disciplinary fields just don’t have the necessary capital (whether social, disciplinary and institutional) to confront the orthodoxies in departments, disciplines and institutions and formulate alternative narratives, processes and procedures.

ALLOW WE TO DIGRESS FOR A MOMENT:It is important to note that while I specifically focus on faculty, I do not want to perpetuate the notion that faculty is a special category of staff, somehow more superior than administrative and support staff.

Screenshot 2018-06-03 13.36.14Screenshot 2018-06-03 13.35.43

The abuse many administrative staff experience at the hands of faculty is simply unacceptable.

Screenshot 2018-06-03 13.37.51


In this keynote, I will attempt to map some of the trends in international and South African higher education and reflect on how these changes impact on faculty identities, their expertise and their roles. Once we understand the field, meet the rule makers and their beliefs, we can consider the cost of (not) taking off the red shoes.

So how do we understand …

The fact that  increasing number of faculty is experiencing burnout, anxiety and vulnerability?

Screenshot 2018-06-03 13.39.40

How do we understand that many faculty are permanently and increasingly anxious, just not having enough hours in a day?

Screenshot 2018-06-03 13.42.26Screenshot 2018-06-03 13.44.10

How do we understand that many faculty are permanently and increasingly anxious, just not having enough hours in a day?

Screenshot 2018-06-03 13.46.30

The increasing concerns about overwork?


Screenshot 2018-06-03 14.23.21

How do we understand the increasing surveillance of staff as part of performance management?

Screenshot 2018-06-03 14.24.31

How do we understand the immense levels of demoralisation that many experience in their jobs?

Screenshot 2018-06-03 14.26.34


How do we understand the immense workload and stress that borders on the inhumane?

Screenshot 2018-06-03 16.31.25Screenshot 2018-06-03 16.28.58Screenshot 2018-06-03 16.28.31

To make sense of the experiences of faculty and other staff in higher education, we need to understand how the field of higher education shapes us, forms us, deforms us.

In order to explore ways to resist, to reclaim our humanness, our passion for teaching and research, it is crucial that we have a critical understanding of some of the factors that shape the field of higher education.

Higher education as field

One possibility in helping us to understand not only what is happening, but also to explore how we can resist what is happening, is to explore higher education as a field.Think for one moment of a sports field, whether hockey, soccer or rugby.

In order for me to participate in a particular sport, I need to know what the field looks like, what the rules are, how many players there are on the field, and how to distinguish my own team members. I also need to understand what my position on the field entails, what is expected of me, how my position on the field speaks to my talents and skills, and how (and when) to respond to the ball coming in my direction.

The work of Pierre Bourdieu provides us with one possible lens on how to understand higher education and specifically, the role of faculty. Bourdieu (1984) proposed that we can understand practices and individual’s agency through the following formula:

Screenshot 2018-06-04 08.33.41

Let us start with the field.  The field does not refer to a pastoral field, but to a battlefield where various stakeholders lay claim to the field.  Suffice to point to some of the trends currently impacting on the role of faculty in higher education:

Nothing illustrates higher education as assembly line better than the 1995 article by Hartley – “The McDonaldisation of higher education“. In the article he points out how higher education are increasingly required to do more with less, to expect funding to follow performance rather than precede it, and to realise that it costs too much, spends carelessly, teaches poorly, plans myopically, and when questioned, acts defensively (Hartley, 1995, p. 412, 861). In higher education as McDonalds, students are customers, teaching and learning have become assembly lines, and every attempt is made to work faster, more efficient, and cut down on the ketchup.

Since the publication of Hartley’s article, there are various scholars who map the impact of the dominant models of neoliberalism and its not-so-humble servant – managerialism – on higher education (Deem, 1998Deem & Brehony, 2005Diefenbach, 2007Peters, 2013)

  • There is talk of “academic capitalism” (Rhoades & Slaughter, 2004) where academics “sell their expertise to the highest bidder, research collaboratively, and teaching on/off line, locally and internationally” (Blackmore 2001, p. 353; emphasis added)
  • “… the academic precariat has risen as a reserve army of workers with ever shorter, lower paid, hyper-flexible contracts and ever more temporally fragmented and geographically displaced hyper-mobile lives” (Ivancheva, 2015, p. 39)
  • In 2012, of the 5 million professors in the US, 1 million are adjunct professors appointed on a contract basis (Scott, 2012)

Let us also not forget how global university rankings are changing higher education. Competing in these rankings permeate everything we do – from who we recruit as students, how many applications we reject, how we value teaching compared to how we value research, and the monetary value of the research grants we bring in.

Screenshot 2018-06-03 16.39.34

[Altbach & Finkelstein, 2014]

In a powerful book by Michael Power – “The Audit society. Rituals of verification” he exposes how the current culture of managerialism, performance management,  and the quantification of everything result in  perpetual rituals of verification. While there is criticism against the bookthat has reached almost iconic status with its claim of an “audit society”, reading his book requires us to take a step back and ask: What is going on?

Within the context of the field, I would like to turn our attention now to two specific aspects of the current obsession with numbers in higher education namely, the power of numbers or in the words of David Beer (2016) “Metric Power” and secondly I would like to point to the issue of performativity and fabrications of value (Ball, 2004).


In his book, “Metric power” (Beer, 2016), David Beer explores not only our current obsession with measuring everything, but also questions some of the founding assumptions behind our beliefs in measurement and point out a number of implications of these beliefs. He does, however, move beyond just mapping the data and measurement landscape and petitions us to look how our metrics and quantification of everything shape us.


Screenshot 2018-06-04 08.38.15

In life outside the academe, we measure our calorie intakes, the number of steps we take, the routes we run and walk (and share them on social media). We get notifications on our mobiles if anything is posted anywhere, when news breaks, when someone shared a new picture on Instagram and we look enviously at the number of followers on our Twitter and Facebook accounts. In the institutions where we are scholars, we count, we report on these measurements and our value in the organisation and in the broader context of higher education is based on the number of citations, the number of keynotes per year, the number of publications, the number and size of our applications for research grants, the number of mentees and how many of them have applied for research grants, the number of graduate students we supervise, the number of committees we serve on and how many articles we reviewed for how many journals.

We need to slow down and consider Beer’s words – 

“Metrics facilitate the making and remaking of judgements about us, the judgements we make of ourselves and the consequences of those judgements as they are felt and experienced in our lives. We play with metrics and we are more often played by them” (p. 3).

Beer (2016) places his exploration of metrics  in terms of the debates on governmentality and power, in the broader context of political structures and constellations such as neoliberalism and neoliberalisation with its main emphasis on ‘markets’ as governing principle.

Screenshot 2018-06-04 08.40.47

In the context of neoliberalism, “Competition is not just an organising principle but also a virtue” (p. 12). Beer (2016) quotes Brown who argues that “all conduct is economic conduct; all spheres of existence are framed and measured in economic terms and metrics, even when those spheres re not directly monetised” (Brown, 2015, in Beer, 2016, p. 22).

Except for the fact of seeing everything through an economic lens, “measures define what is true and then are used to verify the truth” (Beer, 2016, p. 28).

Screenshot 2018-06-03 16.45.19

We need to understand this in the context of the role metrics play in higher education and in the lives of faculty. Of greater concern is to acknowledge that our obsession with metrics points to  particular way of seeing knowledge.Metrics and the measurement points to an ontological turn in higher education, where the way we see and use metrics and data, changes our definitions of value, knowledge and being.

Screenshot 2018-06-03 16.49.07

Our measurements – what they measure and how the phenomenon is measured – enable “norms to be cemented and versions of normalcy to be reified against which people can then be judged” (Beer, 2016, p. 43). In his work, Beer (2016) explores the thinking of Hacking (1990) and Porter (1986, 1995)  on the impact of statistical thinking on society and how “what it is to be considered normal was established in the numbers” (p. 46).  For example, he quotes Porter (1995, in Beer 2016, p. 49) who said …

“A decision made by the numbers (…) has at least the appearance of being fair and impersonal. Scientific objectivity thus provides an answer to a moral demand for impartiality and fairness. Quantification is a way of making decisions without seeming to decide. Objectivity lends authority to officials who have very little of their own.”

It is therefore important to acknowledge how the seeming objectivity of numbers that form the basis for most, if not all, evidence-based management approaches, “brings legitimacy and projects authority onto those who use them” (Beer, 2016, p. 50). Except for the fact that seeing the world through numbers, and defining ‘true’ knowledge based on numbers, we also have to consider how those using and requiring measurements use these numbers to cling onto their power and to perpetuate a certain view of the world as ‘normal’.

Screenshot 2018-06-04 08.45.08

As our measurements normalise a particular view of the world, it is important to note that there are many things that cannot (and possibly should not) be measured. “Those things that cannot be counted are rendered invisible, and those that can be counted achieve visibility” (Beer, 2016, p. 59). We must therefore take care and accept responsibility that “numbers have the power to force us to overlook aspects of the social world” (Beer, 2016, p. 60). <

Hence measurement is powerful not just for what it captures and the way it captures it, it is  also powerful because of what it conceals, the thing it leaves out, devalues, or ignores. In other words, measurement draws attention to certain things, illuminating them in a very particular light, whilst pulling our gaze away from other aspects of the social and the personal…” (Beer, 2016, p. 60).

It is outright dangerous to use our measurements, our numbers as the only ‘truth’, as neutral and removed from ethics and/or politics.

“As compliment, it can have many uses, but when used alone, when the world is reduced to numbers, a measure, to what is calculable and laid before us; when humans are summed, aggregated and accounted for; then much remains forgotten, unsaid, concealed” (Elden, 2006, in Beer, 2016, pp. 59-60).

Let us now briefly turn to higher education as a “performative society” (Ball, 2004). Ball (2004) refers to performativity as a “technology, a culture and a mode of regulation, or even a system of ‘terror’ …, that employs judgements, comparisons, and displays of means of control, attrition, and change” (p. 144). Like Beer (2016), Ball (2004)  points to the fact that we are increasingly constituted by the how we are quantified and we become our numbers and lose ourselves in the process.

Screenshot 2018-06-03 17.33.06

We are constantly performing never knowing when we are good enough and when the curtain will close for the last time. We depend on the applause, on the reviews and we are constantly compared to those who came back early from maternity leave, or those who work Saturdays and Sundays. We operate “within a baffling array of figures, performance indicators, comparisons and competitions – in such a way that the contentments of stability are increasingly elusive, purposes are contradictory, motivations blurred and self-worth slippery” (Ball, 2004, p. 144)

“You start to query everything you are doing – there’s a kind of guilt in teaching at the moment” (Jeffrey and Woods, 1998, in Ball, 2004, p. 145).  “Here then is guilt, uncertainty, instability and the emergence of a new subjectivity – a new kind of teacher” (Ball, 2004, p. 145). Possibly the worst part is that “Some of the oppressions I describe are perpetrated by me. I am agent and subject within the regime of performativity in the academy” (Ball, 2004, p. 146).And so we start to fabricate our lives – how many hours we’ve taught, how many of our students passed, how many articles we have published, how many applications have we submitted for external funding, how many journal articles have I reviewed, how many Masters and PhD students am I supervising, how many, how many, how many…

Screenshot 2018-06-04 08.48.22

So we perform, we produce a spectacle of Excel spreadsheets that we submit quarterly. And so I become alienated from myself, what I really love about teaching, what excites me about research.

I am emptied out.

Screenshot 2018-06-04 08.49.26

“We choose and judge our actions and they are judged by others on the basis of their contribution to organisational performance” (Ball, 2004, p. 147).

But then our fabrications need to be sustained, they assume a life of their own and demand more and more of our attention.  “Authenticity is replaced by plasticity…” and the red shoes take on a life of their own.

Talking back/Advocacy

Screenshot 2018-06-04 08.50.47

Is there a way to claim back our academic identities, our dreams, our time? Is it possible to stop living fabricated, empty lives, take off the red shoes and stop dancing?

In this last part of the keynote, I would like to turn our attention to strategies to claim back our lives, to move from quantified to qualified lives. And no, there is not easy way.

In a recent publication, “The slow professor. Challenging the culture of speed in the academy” (Berg & Seeber, 2016), they map the current crisis in the professoriate but are very careful to open up the crisis to look for opportunities to talk back, to claim back stolen identities, stolen dreams, stolen time.

Two other publications worth noting are:

Berg and Seeber (2016) in their book “The slow professor” warn that  the notion of the professor as an “autonomous, tenured, afforded the time to research and write as well as teach” is facing extinction (referring to the work of Donoghue, 2008) (in Berg & Seeber, 2016, p. 5). While they do acknowledge that the notion of a ‘crisis’ and reference to ‘extinction’ creates a sense of urgency – there is a danger that we feel overwhelmed and powerless. And therefore the notion of resistance has so far been underplayed.

Despite the title of the book, “The slow professor”, Berg and Seeber (2016) state that what they propose is “not a simple matter of ‘slowing down’ but rather it is more fundamentally an issue of agency” (p. 11). Their book is not a collection of nostalgic ideas about university life in the past, but rather a tentative, yet powerful reflection on claiming back our lives, our worth, our dreams.

Screenshot 2018-06-04 08.58.13

With regard to academics constant complaint of a lack of time, they stat that “Academic culture celebrates overwork, but it is important that we question the value of busyness. We need to interrogate what we are modelling for each other and for our students” (p. 21). None of the self-help literature on how to manage your time more effectively really helps. “The real time issues are the increasing workloads, the sped-up pace, and the instrumentalism that pervades the corporate university” (Berg & Seeber, 2016, p. 25).

Screenshot 2018-06-03 17.48.14

So what is left for us to do:

  • We need to get offline. Yes, this is not being anti-technology. To the contrary. In my own scholarly praxis I’ve found my networks on Twitter and Facebook incredibly valuable and I cannot be a scholar without these connections. As scholar I think I live online – it sustains my curiosity, provides stimuli and inspiration and my networks support me. But… Recently I discovered that my attention span has diminished. I could not read a scholarly article in one sitting. I would read one page (if I was determined) before looking for something else (most probably online) – another source, another brief scan of a news article, printing yet another article. I got scared. I turned on the brakes. I paid attention to what was happening. And I took control. I still consider being online an essential part of who I am as scholar. But I am very aware of how it feeds a particular attention deficit.
  • We need to do less – “Time management is not about jamming as much as possible intoyour schedule, but eliminating as much as possible fromyour schedule so that you have time to get the important stuff done to a high degree of quality and with as little as stress as possible” (Rettig, 2011, in Berg & Seeber, 2016, pp. 29-30)
  • We need regular sessions of timeless time
  • We need timeouts
  • We need to change the way we talk about time all the time” (Berg & SEEBER, 2016, p. 31)

I concur with Berg and Seeber (2016) that we can slow down, that there are some things we can take control of. But there is a danger that in doing everything we can to adapt to the madness, the perpetual quantification and numbers-as-value, that we forget the need to confront the system that perpetuates and sustains this madness.

We can become stuck in self-care…

Screenshot 2018-06-04 09.05.39

In a provocative post by Benjamin Doxtador (January 13, 2018) he explores the possibilities and limitations of self-care amid the increasing demands on students and faculty. While we should look for innovative ways to look after ourselves, “this logic of efficiency can also be used by governments and institutions to increase both class sizes and labor demands on teachers.”

“Self-care then becomes another demand to put on our to-do-list, part of our ongoing responsibilities to become optimal workers. This quickly slides into a kind of deficit thinking about teachers who are unable to ‘keep up,’ especially when combined with the idea that the best teachers run on pure passion.”

 Benjamin Doxtador quotes Yashna Padamsee who, says, “let’s not get stuck here.” He emphasises that “While self-care is important, it doesn’t fundamentally interrupt and challenge the larger structural injustices in the system.” There is a need to move beyond the conversations surrounding self-care to considering how we can and should care for one another in communities of practitioners/activists.  “We need to move the conversation from individual to collective. From independent to interdependent.”

Being part of communities of/that care will prevent self-isolation as we all face, as individuals, the power of metrics, the reality that much of what we do are invisible and worthless for those in power. Doxtador concludes his blog post by stating –

“We should never underestimate how dangerous acts of caring and solidarity are to neoliberalism’s drive to privatize our struggles.”

As I wrap up this keynote, I would like to refer to an amazing presentation by Jesse Stommel “Centering Teaching: the Human Work of Higher Education” (May 28, 2018). Jesse formulates a power counter-narrative amid and against the increasing bureaucratisation of pedagogy and teaching and how the mechanisms dehumanise both teachers and students. 

Screenshot 2018-06-04 09.18.38


It is important to note that I am not against ‘measurement’ and the use of statistics and numbers in higher education. It is, however, crucial to slow down and consider how our current obsession with numbers and measurements in higher education have dramatic implications for how we understand knowledge and ‘truths’ in the world. We have to accept the fact that our measurements define what is acceptable and what is normal, and as such, then institutionalise and perpetuate particular beliefs about normalcy. Not only do we need to accept the implications that we our measurements only take into account that which can be measured, that which is visible to our instruments and that there is a lot of things that cannot be measured and that are invisible. The fact that these things cannot be measured does not make them of lesser value. We must also withstand attempts to define proxies for what is, in their essence, immeasurable and invisible.

The fact that Anderson’s fairy tale ends in a combination of horror and salvation, may not be of much comfort. But at least we can take a good look at the red shoes, the exhilaration of the dance, the panic, the exhaustion and the cost of (not) wearing them…



Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

What I heard, what I did not hear and what I wish I had heard… Reflections on the World Conference on Online Learning, Toronto, 2017

Recently I’ve had the privilege of attending the World Conference on Online Learning in Toronto, organized and hosted by Contact North I Contact Nord. What a conference it was! At times, it resembled a medieval marketplace or bazaar with a variety of voices and opinions demanding attention. In addition, amid the noise and excitement, if one listened closely, one heard silences, things that were not said, things that were left out, or things you just missed hearing because you were at a different part of the conference.

So what did I hear? What did I somehow miss? Moreover, what did I wish I heard?

What I heard…

In our discussions about online learning, we have to put pedagogy central and first, and not technology.

The first of the five presenters in the opening plenary of the conference, Laura Czerniewicz (University of Cape Town) posed, at least for me, the most important question of the conference, a question that unfortunately, seemed to have disappeared in the rest of the conversations and presentations… In her address, Laura put pedagogy central, and not technology, and in her ten-minute address, broke the Medusa-like spell technology has on teaching. [Sadly, Medusa was back in full strength for the rest of the conference and like the gods in Terry Pratchett’s book Small Gods, the more the followers, the stronger the god].

Laura’s address framed pedagogy and online pedagogies as inherently, political. She challenged the audience to reflect on the role of power in online teaching, who has the power, who makes the rules, and who/what determines access. She also warned against homogenizing students and in fetishizing students as ‘customers’. In an education context, that increasingly looks more than a commercial marketplace with vendors and venture capitalists competing for attention and contracts, Laura’s address was a welcome relief, however temporary.

The question has gone from “How will brick and mortar institutions survive the digital revolution” to “Will open universities survive the digital revolution? And if they do, why and how?”

With many of the delegates not being from the traditional community of distance and open distance learning institutions (more about that later), I sensed a deep unease and discomfort among those who are based in these traditional distance education institutions. In an online world, it was clear that the rules of the game have changed, there are different gatekeepers, as well as more and very diverse players who claim to redefine the rules of the game forgetting the rich theoretical and research history of distance education (see next point). Where a few years ago the question was “How will brick and mortar institutions survive the digital revolution?” the pendulum has swung 180 degrees and now the question is “Will open universities survive the digital revolution?” and even “Should open universities as a distinct form of educational delivery survive?” I had the feeling that many of delegates from traditional distance and open education institutions experienced something like getting back home after a night out, and when you open your front door, the house is filled with people you don’t know and who sees you, as the rightful owner, as having to defend your presence.

What place does ‘offline’ have in an ‘online’ conference?

Maybe it was in the way the conference was marketed and branded? In the past, this conference served a very particular community consisting of institutions, educational authorities, commercial actors, and individuals, in the broad field of open, distance, flexible and online education. In light of evidence that not everyone has equal access to affordable and high quality internet access in the Global South and the Global North, what happens when we only talk about online learning as if it is the new ‘normal’? There are many distance education providers for whom the most appropriate and most effective mode of delivery (still) consists of a blend between offline, printed materials and support, to a range of technology enabled/supported and technology dependent strategies.

How do we talk about ‘online’ when considering the reality of low bandwidth, the cost of access, and the dark side of online – think post-truth, security concerns, face news, cyberbullying, etc.?

Another interesting question to consider is to ask who drives the adoption of technologies? What are the role of commercial interests in normalising online learning as the new ‘normal’?

 What’s in a name?

So, what happens when a traditional distance education conference becomes an online conference? While this question may seem to constitute a theoretical exercise, I would like to suggest that we should not brush it off. The next World Conference, awarded to Dublin (2019) is already branded as the 28th ICDE 2019 World Conference on Online Learning. Please take note of the branding of the biggest distance education academic conference as an online learning conference. I think we need to ask, “What has just happened?” Does this name change signify a deeper change in the understanding, theorizing and practice of distance education? Considering that, up to recently, the view was that distance learning and online learning are different phenomena and practices (see, for example, Guri-Rosenblit, 2005), and that distance education is much broader than online learning, what are the implications of this name change? Now, in retrospect, will distance education ‘wake up’ like Gulliver and find themselves tied down not by the Luddites, but by Silicon Valley in the disguise of Lilliputians?

We are eating ourselves and staying hungry

I know it sounds dramatic, but maybe this conference stood in the shadow of the end of history. In the papers I attended, there was little reference to any of the theoretical work that established distance education as a vital and recognised research field. Everything was new. Everything was digital. Everything was fantastic. Instead of quoting the big voices in distance education research, presenters quoted the Harvard Business Review, MIT Review, commercial vendors and venture capital. “To save everything, click here”.

At conferences, at least those educational conferences I attend, there is always some contestation between theory or conceptual papers and more practically oriented papers, with some conferences even separating theoretical and practical papers… Personally, I always find this somewhat bizarre. Theory and practice are inevitably linked, and educational research has to consider both and find ways to not talk about practice, without, at the minimum, having some sense of theories and conceptual frameworks that may help us to understand practice. Though there may be disciplines, in which some theoretical work may abstracted from practice, one of the main aims of theorizing distance and/or online learning is to make sense of, to provide ways-of-thinking to engage with very practical issues.

Except for the dangers lurking in separating theory and practice and as a result, impoverishing both, much of educational research (at least those presented at those academic conferences that I attend), are ouroboric. Our papers are on auto-repeat. We seem to ignore the rich history of distance education research and many presenters at the conference barely mentioned established theoretical frameworks and empirical research in the field of distance education, or for that matter, online learning.

Having said that, there was huge appreciation for the work and thinking of scholars like Tony Bates, Phil Hill, and Stephen Downes (among others) and their gravitas and continued influence in the field ensure vital continuity between the distributed, distance and online teaching.

Losing our religion (with apologies to R.E.M) but we have bling

Interestingly, central to the origins and evolution of distance education was its strong emphasis on creating opportunities for those who were excluded from other existing educational opportunities. The origins of distance education was based in recognising “The humanitarian task of providing access for all learners, with special focus on those disadvantaged by distance, by precarious economic conditions, by belonging to discriminated minorities, or by being disabled.” (Peters, 2010, p. 32). Peters (2010) refers to the “revolutionary adaptation of teaching and learning to new technological and social conditions” and then states “There is no other form of teaching and learning that has broken away from tradition so sharply that is so flexible and conducive to further societal changes of the post-industrial knowledge society. Distance education achieved a first significant breakthrough in the reform of higher education” (p. 56; emphasis added).  In addition, outside the address by Asha Kanwar (Commonwealth of Learning) and some others, this original humanitarian ideal of distributed and flexible learning got, somehow, lost amid the changing higher education landscape and the bling of technology. Peters (2010) reflects on the change in the original mission of distance education and states that “this mission is now relativised by a growing number of privileged students who do not learn at a distance because they are forced to do this by unfavorable circumstances, but rather for reasons of convenience only (p. 32).

Some of the things I didn’t hear and wished I heard

 We cannot pretend as if the transition into the digital age is not painful and complex

It is no secret that some  of the traditional open distance learning institutions in the Global North have been going through a relatively painful process of redefining themselves in, not only the digital age, but in a context where public higher education is increasingly facing funding constraints. And though there was mention of these troubles and plans by a variety of speakers and in different sessions, I somehow missed an honest engagement with not only the potential of online learning for traditional, mega open universities, but how moving into a digital age dramatically impacts on not only traditional institutions (whether distance education or residential institutions), but also on staff contracts and roles, office hours, workload, performance management and quality assurance, and sustaining public higher education in a digital age.

Yes, there was an interesting presentation by Dr Neil Fassina, the CEO of Athabasca University in which he outlined some of the issues facing higher and online education.    There was also a presentation (or was it a sales pitch?) by Future Learn (in partnership with the Open University in the UK) of their entry into the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) market.

It is no secret that for many distance education researchers and institutions, Athabasca University and the Open University are the gold standard in distance education. Both institutions served, for many years, as the guiding light of excellent quality learning experiences at scale. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to listen to these two institutions, or a panel consisting of some of the mega distance educations in the world, and hear how they have redesigned and are redesigning their value proposition amid declining part-time student numbers (at least in the Global North), funding constraints, dealing with legacy projects and structures in their institutions, and increased competition. How do they see tenure? How does an institution scale student support at cost? How do we design technology-enabled and technology-dependent learning experiences when our distance education institution’s structures and processes still resemble those of an industrial era? What are the implications for an institution’s program qualification mix (PQM)? How do we break the iron triangle of cost, quality and access?

Or is the field too competitive to acknowledge our weaknesses and our struggles in public?

What questions don’t we ask about online learning and why are we quiet about them?

The second issue I want to raise was that we seemed to have missed many of the big questions regarding honestly assessing what teaching and ‘delivering’ teaching in a digital age look like. For example, how do we respond to the 2017 statistics that indicate that part-time students’ numbers are dropping? What does online learning look like when the number of students who go hungry is increasing, where the cost of studying is spiralling out of control and student debt is increasing, and where many may never be able to repay their student debts?  What does online teaching mean when poor students are penalised and are facing a higher risk of dropping out?  What does going digital mean when there are predictions that “The culling of Higher Ed” has begun where it is forecasted that “hundreds and even thousands of colleges and universities closing over a decade or so. But more even-keeled analysts also have foreseen increases in the number of failing institutions: Moody’s Investors Service in 2015, for instance, said closures and mergers of small institutions would triple and double, respectively, in the coming years.”

What does online teaching look like where academic staff are increasingly demoralised and teaching and learning quantified, measured and weighted and staff are increasingly facing precarious futures? (See the reflections of Richard Hall). What does online learning in a higher education context look like when George Siemens tweets (2017, July 19) “woah. Higher ed is becoming a brutally difficult field – make it and you’re good. No second place. Only last. No runner-up success stories.”

Don’t get me wrong. There was great presentations where presenters shared research results of how online learning makes a huge difference, often to the lives of marginalised individuals and communities. There were many presentations about the challenges and potential of Open Educational Resources (OER). There was an honesty about the continuing failure of many faculty embracing OER.  In general, however, there was a paucity or even absence of research that points to failures, to how online learning excludes often despite our best efforts.

We use academic conferences to report on the successes of online learning and leave reflecting on our failures to the public press

Strangely absent in the presentations were reports and presentations on our failures… Why is that? Is the competition so fierce that we cannot admit our failures, at least to one another? Or have we sold out to positive psychology or the self-help industry where conferences have become recipe-driven, ten-steps-for-success?

I have attended the Learning Analytics and Knowledge (LAK) conferences as many a time as available funding coincided with my paper being accepted. In 2016 a group of researchers presented the LAK16 Failathon providing a space for the sharing of failures. The organisers stated “Learning from one’s own mistakes can be a very powerful source of expertise. However, it is more efficient – and less unpleasant – to learn from other people’s mistakes too. But this is difficult without access to information about failure.” The workshop organisers hoped “to create a space where researchers and practitioners can learn from each other’s mistakes.” At the 2017 LAK conference this workshop was continued.

Reflecting on what I wished I had heard made me realise that I missed an honest appraisal of the many benefits of online learning as well as its failures. It is as if we use academic conferences to report on the successes of online learning and leave the failure to the public press?

With eyes wide shut

Lastly, but most probably the most worrying aspect of my reflection is the absence of any consideration of what the increasing commercialisation of the field of online learning means for public K-12 and higher education? I am talking about the fact that very few educational institutions have the capacity and skills to host and maintain their own learning platforms and before we know it we teaching on platforms that are not ours, with rosy promises of what we get as part of the ‘deal’, but with very little information about the implications if we leave. With apologies to the Eagles’ (Hotel California), we can check out but we can never leave. I am not even sure we can check out.

As institutions of learning increasingly move online, we are ripe for the picking as vendors and venture capitalists offer us ‘one click’ solutions to complex processes. Their ‘to save everything click here’ sales pitch often ignores the fact that technology is anything but neutral but a knot of economic, political, epistemological and environmental power relations and networks. We never buy or subscribe to ‘just a product’ or technology. What happens when our teaching practices are being defined, and in many cases constrained, by our learning managements systems? What happens when commercial providers of analytical services offer as dashboards and learning analytics based on a ‘black box’ of algorithms that is, of course, their intellectual property? What happens when the learning analytics provider also offers an institution a learning management system or vice versa, shaping our understanding of learning according to their beliefs, what can be measured, and what is valued?

I missed critical conversations on the implications to use, for example, ‘free Internet’ provided by a Silicon Valley company without consider the cost of ‘free’? How do K-12 and higher education institutions refuse an offer of ‘free’ hard or software provided by a commercial entity when the offer is so tempting, the danger of not keeping up with the Jones’ is so big and the opportunity to leapfrog into the digital age is not seen as a Faustian pack?

What we hear and/or don’t hear…

What we ‘hear’ or ‘don’t hear’ at conferences are much more complex than being or not being at a certain time and place. What we hear at conferences is also the messy result of the geopolitical location of the conference, those who had the funding to be able to attend the conference, those whose papers were accepted, the selection of main speakers, the special briefings by a selection of individuals who are on the ‘who’s who’ list in online learning, and those who sponsored the event or had the funds to afford an exhibitor’s stand at the conference. This implies that what we don’t hear is also the result of those who were not there, whether due to funding constraints, not getting a visa (in time), not having the necessary institutional permission, not being able to travel, or not being fluent in English, to mention but a few of the reasons.  Though the conference organisers made a brave attempt to provide translation services for French and Spanish-speaking delegates, and in some sessions even provided sign language interpreters, I did not go to any sessions that were presented in French or Spanish, and therefore was not in the audience to ‘hear’

We cannot underestimate the financial and increasingly commercial aspects that impact on what is (not) heard. There is no such thing as a free lunch or conference. Institutions or organisations play a game of financial roulette in planning a conference. Registration fees cover but a small part of the total costs of a conference and organisers rely on their choice of location (the more exotic the better), theme, keynote or panel speakers to attract as many as possible paying delegates. But even then, organisers are never sure whether their chosen theme, location, etc., will be ‘enough’ to at least break even. Enter sponsors. Exhibitors. Vendors. Politics. Networks. There is no free lunch. There is no such thing as an untainted academic conference. I have organised many academic conferences. I was part of the central organising committee of the previous World Conference in South Africa.  The origins, processes and the eventual realization of a conference are deeply contested, and yes, tainted.

Academic conference s are hugely compromised, temporal spaces of inclusion, exclusion, amplification and silencing

When we consider that conferences may provide us with a snapshot of a particular field at a particular time, we should not forget the decisions and processes that allowed and occasioned some things and some voices to be heard. Academic conferences are therefore powerful in excluding, including, but also amplifying and silencing voices, and in so doing, may influence the discourses in a particular field, in this case – online learning – in a particular way.

So when I reflect on ‘what I’ve heard’ and ‘what I did not hear’, or ‘wish I heard’, my reflection is not only in response to a deeply compromised and dynamic process, but also intensely personal, and yes, tainted by my own interests, my own assumptions, beliefs, dispositions, and expectations.

A tentative end and start of a conversation

The World Conference on Online Learning 2017 hosted by Contact North I Contact Nord was a huge success. Not only was the conference organisation excellent, but the conference introduced some interesting innovations. Some of the innovations were, for example, to have plenary panel discussions/presentations instead of keynotes, and to have dedicated briefing sessions presented by a selection of some of the leaders in the field of online learning.

When I considered writing this piece on ‘what I heard, haven’t heard, and wish I’ve heard’ it opened up another lens to reflection on my experience of the conference. Some of the things I’ve heard, may have been heard or noticed by others. Or not. If you attended the conference you may have heard different things, often when you were in the same session as I was. You may have wished to have heard other things.  For those of you who have not attended the conference, this reflection is, in no way, an attempt to judge or evaluate. This blog is an intensely personal and hopefully scholarly reflection. It is also an invitation to a conversation. Can we talk?

Image credit:

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Open(ing) Education

Ecologies of open

Image credit:I’ve used two sources for the above collated image. The image of the head was sourced from while the image of the network was sourced from

 Call for Proposals

We are excited to invite you to submit a proposal for a chapter in our edited book, Open(ing) Education.  We intend to approach Brill Sense Publishers for publication in 2020. A description of the scope and intent of the book is presented below, followed by submission details:

Thinking about “open” almost automatically calls forth thinking about “closed” as if we must think in terms of binaries – closed/open, good/bad, black/white. But there is also another way.

“Open.” “Openness.” “Opening.” “Opened.” In the context of postsecondary and tertiary education, each of these nuances or forms/degrees of “open”/”openness”/”opening”/”opened” can refer to, inter alia, admission requirements, registration periods, flexibility in choices, open pedagogy, curricula, professional development, curriculum resources, assessment practices, the scholarship of teaching and learning, and research.

While it is possible to see “open,” “openness, “opening,” and “opened” as processes or statuses, we can also understand them in terms of multidimensional relationships and networks, where the status or process of “open,” “openness,” “opening,” and “opened” evolve in relation to other, often mutually constitutive or incommensurable factors in overlapping ecologies. We propose understanding ecologies of “open” in education as existing in the nexus of political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal frameworks and agendas and as entangled with contestation, incongruities and obstacles. Ecologies of “open” rest on and flow from shifting and often colliding tectonic layers of how we understand the world and humanity’s role in it, and how we define, teach and share our understanding of knowledge. However contradictory it sounds, ecologies of “open” do not only include but also, by definition, exclude.

It is easy to think about how the evolution of distributed education and open universities celebrated offering opportunities to those who did not have access or the resources to attend postsecondary or tertiary education. Policies at the Open University in the UK, Hong Kong’s Open University, India’s Open University, UNISA, as well as open universities in Canada, Portugal and around the world have presented new learning opportunities to millions of learners. There is also an educational consortium of more than 30 institutions world-wide (OERu) permits the transfer of university and college credits among its institutions.

Openness in education often comes at a price.  Despite the hype surrounding Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) evidence suggests that those that benefit the most from these courses are those who already have social capital as whites, male and graduated. Some of these MOOCs’ resources are locked behind copyright regimes and their assessment/accreditation of successful completion of the course comes at a price.

In the field of the dissemination of research findings, evidence suggests that there has been an increase in the number of open journals that no longer rely on paid subscriptions to permit access to their contents.  Open publishing houses present monographs online for global access. Open educational resources (OER) foster the creation and development of myriad learning tools that are available to all.  Individual researchers increasingly use blogs, micro-blogging and a range of social media to share research findings. These “open” spaces are not, necessarily without discrimination and risks for scholars and practitioners who are from marginalised communities based on race, gender, geopolitical location and culture. In such cases, participating as scholar in these “open spaces” increases vulnerability and even personal safety. “Open,” “openness, “opening,” and “opened” can be risky business.

How do we therefore think about “open,” “openness,” “opening,” and/or “opened” in the context of the scholarship of teaching and learning and research? In an updated version of Boyer’s seminal work on scholarship, Scholarship reconsidered:  Priorities of the professoriate (2016), the word “open” does not appear in the index, although the “probing mind” (p. 70) of the researcher is deemed a vital asset to academia, and scholarly “investigation, in all the disciplines, is at the very heart of academic life, [such that] the pursuit of knowledge must be assiduously cultivated and defended” (p. 70). In this sense, being “open” implies an ontological turn that has implications for how we see not only the scholarship of teaching and learning, but also disciplinary knowledge, inter, intra and transdisciplinary research and practices, curriculum design and pedagogy, and the validation of knowledge claims.

In “Open Access: Toward the Internet of the Mind,” Romanenko (2017) identified communication as “the essence of science” and congratulated the Internet on its ability to foster and enable global communication. Open Access, he wrote, “is simply a way to express the cross-fertilization of the very culture of science with new technologies to create the optimal communication system science needs,” while at the same time recognizing the complexity of “open’s” newly-expanded possibilities.  The authors of Scholarship reconsidered agree: “It is through ‘connectedness’ that research ultimately is made authentic” (p.70).

While we agree with the foundational statements expressed above, we hold that a tension exists between the notions of openness, connectedness, and their by-product, community; we hold that a culture of interstices often separates researchers and academics from their intentions. And, without demonizing this state of divisiveness, we propose to examine it under the working title Ecologies of open: Inclusion, intersections, and interstices in education.

A prime focus will be on the gaps that separate us ideologically in research, epistemology, and in resulting occasions of academic engagement. In support of this contention, we invite you to look further at the status of open data, open initiatives, and open research in current research enterprises.

The following are some of the questions to which we invite your response:

  • Who/what are the gatekeepers in the discourses on “open,” “openness,” “opening,” and/or “opened”? How do they impact on the future of “open”?
  • Are researchers separated from each other, from colleagues, from … ideas? In what ways? Why? To what extent do university rankings and the race for citations skew/sustain/expand inter- researcher networks and relations?
  • How can a culture of openness be fostered within institutions? Within programs? Within cultures? Among researchers?
  • What design innovations/strategies will foster a culture of openness in research and scholarship?
  • What is the role of disciplinary identity within institutions? Within scholarship?
  • What constraints do inter-disciplinary researchers face?
  • How can inter-disciplinary researchers attain success?
  • What role do funding programs play in promoting or discouraging openness or inter-disciplinary movement?
  • What types of leadership skills are required to further the interdisciplinary agenda?
  • How can communication practices – personal and institutional – foster openness and connectedness? Within institution and beyond?
  • What assessment tools/practices can best address open environments/learning/ communities?
  • What is the value of a culture of openness to individuals, to community, to society?
  • What innovative technologies can promote, initiate, or sustain a culture of openness?
  • Is disruption essential for the development of a culture of openness?
  • What is the role of MOOCS in the future development of a culture of openness?
  • MOOCS…and then what? Do you see a post-MOOC openness?

Boyer, E. L., updated and expanded by Moser, D., Ream, T. c., Braxton, J. M & Associates (2016). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate.  San Francisco: CA:  Jossey-Bass.

Romanenko, A. (2017). Open Access: Toward the Internet of the Mind. Retrieved April 30, 2017 from:

We hope that this timely project excites you as much as it excites us!  We have included some brief biographical information below. Submission details also follow.


[signed] Dianne and Paul

Dr. Dianne Conrad

Dr. Paul Prinsloo

Who we are

Dianne Conrad

I have been a practicing adult and distance educator for over 35 years. During this time, I developed and taught undergraduate and graduate courses at several universities across Canada; coordinated and managed undergraduate and graduate programs in adult and distance education and communications; and, most recently, managed the prior learning assessment process at Athabasca University (AU) in Canada. I am currently the co-editor of the International Review of Open and Distributed Learning; serve on several international editorial boards in the ODL field; and teach in the masters and doctoral programs at AU. My research interests include the fields of open, distance, adult, continuing, professional, and online learning; and the recognition and assessment of prior learning. I am officially retired.  My first “in-retirement” book, Engagement and Authenticity: Assessment Strategies for Online Learning (co-author, J. Openo), is currently in publication at AUPress.

 Paul Prinsloo

I am a Research Professor in Open and Distance Learning (ODL) in the College of Economic and Management Sciences, University of South Africa (Unisa). My academic background includes fields as diverse as theology, art history, business management, online learning, and religious studies. I am an established researcher and have published numerous articles in the fields of teaching and learning, student success in distance education contexts, learning analytics, and curriculum development. My current research focuses on the collection, analysis and use of student data in learning analytics, graduate supervision and digital identity. I was born curious and in trouble. Nothing has changed since then. I blog at and my Twitter alias is @14prinsp

Submission Details

Important dates

September 15, 2017: Proposal Submission Deadline
October 15, 2017: Notification of Acceptance
January 15, 2018: Full Chapter Submission
March 30, 2018: Review Results Returned
April 15, 2018 : Final Acceptance Notification
July 30, 2018 : Final Chapter Submission

Target audience

We anticipate that a varied audience for this publication will include instructors and their students; researchers; program and curriculum developers; and higher education and ODL administrators. The open-access publication of this book will increase potential readership.

Proposal length should be maximum 600 words, not including references

Chapter length should be 7,000 to 10,000 words.

Submissions will be:

  • submitted in Microsoft® Word
  • in English
  • double-spaced, in 12-point font
  • written in objective third person point of view throughout (Use “the authors” or “the researchers” NOT “I” or “we”)
  • original, not previously published, not submitted for publication elsewhere, and not revised from a previous submission elsewhere

Peer review

  •  Double-blind
  • Authors of accepted chapter proposals will be asked to review two other submissions

Format details to follow upon proposal acceptance

Fore more information please contact: Dr Dianne Conrad

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Decolonising the collection, analyses and use of student data: A tentative exploration/proposal


Voices from the Global South* (*I know the term is contentious) increasingly demand to not only be recognised in the extremely uneven and skewed terrain of knowledge production and dissemination, but to actively take part and contest and reshape knowledge claims. I would like to use this blog to tentatively interrogate the potential of a decolonising lens on the collection, analyses and use of student data.

Disclaimer 1: I am intensely aware of the impact of my race and gender in thinking about student data through a decolonising lens. My race, gender and the fact that I write this blog in English should make me uncomfortable and I am. Whether my inherent complicity in notions of white superiority precludes me in taking part in the debate is for you, as reader, to decide. I constantly grapple with the intersectionalities of my gender, race and settler identity as an African. In the field of learning analytics, as the measurement, collection, analysis and use of student data, this blog is a fundamentally and intentionally incomplete attempt to map a decolonising lens on learning analytics.

Disclaimer 2: I acknowledge that notions of post colonialism, decoloniality and coloniality are subjects of serious intellectual pursuits and my grasp of the different overlaps and differences/nuances is, for now, basic. I do accept, however, that coloniality is a reality and that we need to “better understand the nexus of knowledge, power, and being that sustain an endless war on specific bodies, cultures, knowledges, nature and peoples” (Maldonado-Torres, Outline of ten theses on coloniality and decoloniality, 26 October, 2016).

Disclaimer 3: I have a suspicion that the collection, analysis and use of student data overlaps with other discourses and practices of surveillance and digital redlining. As such a decolonising lens on learning analytics overlaps with and needs to take into account these discourses.

A month ago at the annual conference of the South African Association for Institutional Research (SAAIR) researchers from the Southern African region reflected on the role of institutional research in the extremely volatile South African higher education context with its increasing student demands for free higher education (#FeesMustFall) and demands to decolonise curricula. In my presentation I asked “How is it possible that the #FeesMustFall #RhodesMustFall campaigns caught higher education institutions relatively (or totally?) unprepared despite everything that we already know about our students?” (emphasis added); “Is it possible that the writing was on the wall but that we, for whatever reason, decided to ignore the message? Or did not understand the message?” and “What did we not know that would have prepared us for the disruption and destruction we faced over the last 18 months?”

Excursus: A lot of my research focused and still focuses on the ethical and privacy implications in learning analytics and in my preparation for this conference it started to deem on me how our collection, analysis and use of student data are informed by particular ideological and political agendas. This was the beginning of my discomfort and reflection.

I had (and still have) the nagging thought that the our samples, variables and the tools we use to  collect, analyse and use student data in higher education are shaped by the liberal and neoliberal social imaginaries of higher education, of the ‘educated subject.’ If we accept that data collection, analysis and use are political acts and serve declared and hidden assumptions about the purpose of higher education and the masters it serves, what are the implications for learning analytics? In a follow-up discussion during that conference I became aware of my increasing discomfort with our uncritical if not blasé approach to the collection, analysis and use of student data – without ever questioning the social imaginary informing our choice of variables, the hidden assumptions informing the proxies we use to define ‘effective’ teaching and learning, our emphasis on what our students lack and their deficiencies that prevent them from fitting in and our seeming nonchalant responses to the collateral damage of our analytics and interventions.  During the conference I raised the question: “What does a decolonised and decolonising collection, analysis and use of student data look like?”  Following the question there were a few awkward laughs, one or two responses that implied that I may have lost my senses or don’t I know that data are raw and the collection of data is neutral…

I could not sleep that night as I wrestled with the thought of what a decolonised and decolonising approach to the collection, analysis and use would look like? Already in the said presentation did I think aloud on how our collection and use of student data seem to disregard the entrenched, inter-generational structural inequalities in South African society.  We collect student data as if students start their studies with a clean slate, a tabula rasa, and as if they have not been impacted upon by generations of discrimination and disenfranchisement. We seem to blatantly disregard the fact that most of our students have limited loci of control over where they study, where and how long they can access the Internet, how many prescribed books they can buy. We ignore the epistemic violence integral to much of our curricula. We somehow believe that (more) grit and a growth mind set are the answer to their pathogenic vulnerability. And when you add to this the belief by government that education, on its own can rectify generations of injustice and inequality, then higher education institutions select and collect data that provide us with information on how to move students quicker through the system to increase our return-on-investment.

As my thoughts on what a decolonised/decolonising approach to the collection, analysis and use of student data were taking shape, I was forced to reflect on the question “how does a South African perspective differ from other perspectives in the world? What difference does a postcolonial and post-apartheid context make in how we view the ethical implications of the collection, analysis and use of student data?”

In the South African context we’ve been down the road before during Apartheid where individuals were classified according to some arbitrary classifications of race – white, black, coloured, and Indian. Four categories. Categories based on the curliness of your hair. The shape of your nose. The colour of your skin. There were also many people that somehow did not fit clearly into one category but who were categorised regardless of their ‘ill-fit’.

These classifications had immense consequences for many generations since.

Your category determined where you were allowed to live. What schools you had access to. The age at which you were allowed to start school. The curricula prescribed for the schools. The universities you had access to. The job opportunities. The loans and insurance you had access to.  Your risk profile for defaulting on loans, for getting HIV, for being in possession of drugs, for having friends and family who are in jail.

All based on you fitting into an arbitrary category. Categories that were informed by white superiority. Categories that were needed to ensure that we protect racial purity (WTF). Categories that ensured that education for white kids received much more funding, had access to better resources and better curricula and better job opportunities and better loan schemes and better universities and better lives.  And I was part of this. I was white.

The effects of these classifications have been felt and will be felt for many generations to come. Many of the assumptions and effects of these classifications became institutionalised and formed the basis for a massive set of laws and regulations. While many of these laws and institutionalised forms of racism and discrimination have been changed, it will take generations to address the effects of these structural inequalities and injustices. And yet we continue to use students’ home addresses and school experiences as variables if not determinants for access to higher education? We still charge a one-size-fits-all registration fee? We use variables such as number of logins, and contributions to discussion forums where the language of tuition is a settler language as variables to predict their success. WTF.

In the broader discourses on the collection, analysis and use of data – those who are on the receiving end of discriminatory practices and bias are often unheard, redlined and often excluded from access to the criteria being used to make decisions. The sources used to collect the data, the biases and assumptions of those who collected and analysed the data, the algorithms and decisions made in the analyses of the data – all of these disappear into a ‘black box’ – inaccessible, and not accountable to anyone, not even the user of the analysis at a particular moment in time.

So a contextualised view on the ethical implications on the collection, analysis and use of student data has to account for addressing the structural inequalities of the past, and ensuring that issues of race, gender, home addresses, credit records, criminal records, school completion marks are not used to predict potential and/or to exclude individuals from reaching their potential.

A decolonising lens on the collection, analysis and use of student data cannot ignore how colonialism

  • Stole the dignity and lives of millions based on arbitrary criteria and beliefs about meritocracy supported by asymmetries of power
  • Extracted value in exchange for bare survival
  • Objectified humans as mere data points and information in the global, colonial imaginary
  • Controlled the movement of millions based on arbitrary criteria such as race, cultural grouping and risk of subversion?

How dare we collect data like schooling backgrounds, and home addresses, and parental income as if there is not history to these data?

How do we collect, analyse and use student data recognising that their data are not indicators of their potential, merit or even necessarily engagement but the results of the inter-generational impact of the skewed allocation of value and resources based on race, gender and culture?

A decolonising lens on the collection, analysis and use of student data therefore has to

  • Acknowledge the lasting, inter-generational effects of colonialism and apartheid
  • Collect, analyse and use student data with the aim of addressing these effects and historical and arising tensions between ensuring quality, sustainability and success
  • Critically engage with the assumptions surrounding data, identity, proxies, consequences and accountability
  • Respond to institutional character, context and vision
  • Consider the ethical implications of the purpose, the processes, the tools, the staff involved, the governance and the results of the collection, analysis and use of student data


I acknowledged that this blog is a fundamentally and intentionally incomplete attempt to map a decolonising lens on learning analytics. I acknowledged my complicity and my own discomfort in attempting to take part in this discourse.  How our the purpose of our collection, analysis and use of student data, our tools, our samples, our variables still informed by a colonial social imaginary of control and ‘the educated subject’?

I hope this blog starts a conversation.

I close with a poem by Abhay Xaxa –

I am not your data, nor am I your vote bank,

I am not your project, or any exotic museum object,

I am not the soul waiting to be harvested,

Nor am I the lab where your theories are tested,

I am not your cannon fodder, or the invisible worker,

or your entertainment at India habitat centre,

I am not your field, your crowd, your history,

your help, your guilt, medallions of your victory,

I refuse, reject, resist your labels,

your judgments, documents, definitions,

your models, leaders and patrons,

because they deny me my existence, my vision, my space,

your words, maps, figures, indicators,

they all create illusions and put you on pedestal,

from where you look down upon me,

So I draw my own picture, and invent my own grammar,

I make my own tools to fight my own battle,

For me, my people, my world, and my Adivasi self!

Posted in, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 20 Comments

Failing our students: not noticing the traces they leave behind


Image credit:

Last week on 1 November, Jesse Stommel hosted a panel discussion on Ethical online learning  – which stayed with me and haunted me since I’ve watched it. Somehow this morning as I was writing this blog, some of the things that were said during the panel discussion came back to demand an audience. So while this post is not about the panel discussion (a reflection on the panel discussion is – hopefully – forthcoming), I want to acknowledge the impact that the panel discussion had and still have on my thinking – but more about this later.

This is not the blog that I wanted to write this week.

The blog I wanted to publish this week is half-way and as I was finalising the blog – I suddenly remembered that I fell behind with sending a mid-term assessment of my students’ participation grades. The purpose of this mid-term assessment in the context of the online course I am co-teaching, is to assess students’ general participation but more importantly, to warn those students who are at risk of failing the course.

As I was working through my students’ participation logs, the overview of what they submitted, their grades, the number of logins, their number of posts in the course’s discussion forum, etc.,– I realised that, somehow, I did not notice that one student (the gender and name of the student, in this account, is not important) was not as active as s/he should have been. This is an understatement. S/he was at serious risk of failing and only this morning did I pick it up. Damn it. Why did I not see it earlier?!

During the panel discussion Kate Bowles said that ethics in an online learning environment means noticing the footprints and/or the artefacts that someone has left online for me to notice. And we have to treat these footprints, these details, with reverence; almost in awe that someone left me something to discover, to engage with, to make sense of, and to respond to. And somehow I missed the evidence that s/he left me. I did not notice. And because I did not notice, I did not respond.

I do not share this reflection looking for sympathy.

I share this reflection/confession/despair in hoping that it will prompt deeper, more critical reflections on the ethics of teaching online, of having access to students’ data and the things they leave for us to find and the responsibility that comes with knowing when last they logged on, how many times they accessed the course site, when they last logged on and not really knowing what all of this means.

Let me provide context: The course I am teaching on is a 14-week, fully online graduate course with over 30 students and three instructors. While the instructors share the responsibility of responding to students queries and posts in this highly interactive and well-structured course, I am specifically responsible for the pastoral care of 10 students and to mark their various assignments and activities. Yes, only ten.

Over the course of the 14 weeks, students submit 3 essays, compile an e-portfolio and submit their progress in building this portfolio on four occasions. There are also eight ‘skill builder’ exercises such as using Diigo, creating a Twitter profile, annotating an article, etc.  Over the period of 14 weeks, students submit 16 various forms of activity/assessments that provides us opportunities to engage with students’ learning, to acknowledge their thoughts, to provide feedback and of course, allocate a mark. Over and above these activities, every week has assigned readings and students are required to post a comment (fully referenced) with regard to the readings per week, and respond to other students’ posts. As instructor I log on at least once a day to read through these posts, respond to a post or query. Between the three instructors we share this responsibility and this really helps. The three instructors are based in three different time zones which almost allow us a 24/7 opportunity of responding to students.

I also have access to an overview of each of my students’ progress. I am provided with a dashboard that provides me details of how many times they clicked on the separate pieces of content or topics, their number of logins, and an overview of their submission of the different assessments and skill builder exercises. For example, this morning I can see that one of the students has visited 81 of 213 content links (38% with 4 weeks to go),  has logged in 43 times since the start of the course 8 weeks ago, and  submitted (so far) 11 pieces of assessment and attained average scores.  Another student, in contrast, has visited only 23 of 213 content links (12% with 4 weeks to go),  has logged in 38 times since the start of the course 8 weeks ago (not much less than the first student in this narrative), and has submitted (so far) only 4 pieces of assessment which s/he passed. S/he has not submitted a second compulsory assignment and various other pieces of the learning journey.

There is a serious risk, for three weeks to go, that s/he will fail.

Why have I not noticed this earlier?

My guilt is even more when I drill down on his/her profile and look at the following information:

The student visited the topics/content in the course 64 times (but of the total of content links, only accessed 23 links – so s/he visited some topics repeatedly). Since the start of the course, s/he spent 2h 7 minutes and 33 seconds on the course site. S/he read 53 posts in the discussion forum, s/he responded to 7 and s/he posted 8 first-level posts (starting a thread). S/he logged in 112 times since the beginning of the course 8 weeks ago. The last time s/he logged in was yesterday. So it is not a question that s/he was not engaged.

I don’t have access to his/her prior education experiences. From the student’s profile picture s/he looks as if s/he may be in her/his late twenties or early thirties. S/he wears dark sun glasses on his/her profile picture. S/he is allocated to me as instructor. I failed her/him.

For the last 8 weeks I logged in almost every day. I am not behind with marking the assignments and skill builders. I provided and provide detailed feedback to my allocated students. It takes me an average of 90 minutes to read through each student’s essay assignment and provide detailed feedback. I think I am fair in my assessments and provide detailed evidence of what I appreciate in each essay and how I think they can improve their writing. In my responses to their posts in the discussion forums I try to stimulate them to think differently, more critically.

I thought I cared.

But I did not notice her/him falling behind. I had access to data about her/his engagement. And somehow did not notice.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t propose that the data I have of her/him give me a holistic picture of her/his learning, her/his aspirations, and her/his life-worlds. Not at all. The data I have access to provide me partial data of a student in her/his late twenties or early thirties. A student who wears dark sun glasses on her/her profile picture. I also acknowledge (and I am on record) that we don’t yet understand what the number of logins means. What does it mean that s/he logged onto the course website 112 times over an eight week period? What does it mean that s/he spent (so far) 2h 7 minutes and 33 seconds on the course platform? Should I have noticed earlier that s/he does not post often? Is there a way that an algorithm could have picked up that s/he did not submit his assignment on time and could have warned me so that I could have written an email? Or was I so busy with grading the assignments of those who did submit on time in order to be ready for the next submission or responding to the next post or quickly logging on while I am responding to an article that just came back from the reviewers or whatever – that I did not notice that a student who is in her/his late twenties or early thirties wearing dark sun glasses has fallen behind?

This morning when I revisited her/his posts I noticed that in the first week when students were required to post a short bibliography of themselves, s/he sounded eager, enthusiastic, a go-getter (like most of the class). Did I miss something? Would it have helped if I had more data on her/him? Would it have helped if I knew her/his race or the gender with which s/he identifies? Would I have been more careful to notice her/his absence if I knew her/his socio-economic income or her/his familial responsibilities?

In this case, I think, it would not have helped if I knew more. I already had access to a lot of data s/he had left behind for me to find and make sense of. And somehow I did not notice.

It is easy to look for factors that would somehow, if not absolve, but would mitigate my guilt. But this blog is not about absolution or a lesser sentence due to mitigating factors. I should have noticed and I did not. Full stop.

So where to now? I sent her/him an email to voice my concerns and to offer my assistance if s/he would need any. I just hope I am not too late. And while I wait for her/him to respond (or not) let me conclude with some remarks/pointers:

If education (including online learning) is in its essence, relational, with different roles and responsibilities, we cannot negate the fact that in the asymmetries of power between us as teachers and students, that we have a fiduciary duty of care. If we decide to teach online, this is what we commit ourselves for – to care, to enable, to find whatever our students leave behind for us to find and treat those finds with respect, with reverence, and care. It is so easy (and tempting) to think about students’ login details, their time spent on task, and their patterns of engagement as interesting data points that we can interpret, that we can use to determine their risk and allocate a number on a spreadsheet uploaded to a grading system.

It is so easy to forget that the data points, the patterns, the number of logins are things our students leave behind, for us to find, engage with, make sense of, and treat with respect.

Does this have implications for student: teacher ratio? Yes. Do we need to consider the number and detail of responsibilities we expect of our online teachers and facilitators? Yes. Do we need to reconsider the way we design these online experiences and the number of people who take co-responsibility for different aspects of students’ learning journeys? Absolutely. And can we, carefully and considering all the challenges in algorithmic decision-making consider how to use algorithms as first warnings for me to notice, evaluate and consider and then act? I think so.

I am responsible for ten students in a small cohort of students in a highly structured and activity-intensive graduate online course. Over the course of eight weeks they leave me traces to make sense of, to engage with and to respect.

One student,  in her/his late twenties or early thirties  wearing dark sun glasses left me traces that s/he was in trouble.

 I did not notice.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Some thoughts on blogging as educational activism


[Context: This is one of the many blog posts that somehow missed the moment when they were called on-stage and hesitated in a moment of I-am-not-yet-ready-for-this and shied away and stayed hidden in a folder. And as we all know, once you’ve missed your line in the school drama, other actors take over and continue without you. #YouSnoozeYouLose.

I started this blog at the end of August 2016. This is my attempt to rework and expand the original draft and bring it back to life #ReadyOrNot].

On finding my (own) voice

In my previous blog “A blog on (not) blogging” I shared some thoughts on my own practice of (not) blogging – sharing feelings of being overwhelmed and resembling a hummingbird in torpor. Written between these lines is the issue how difficult it was and still is in finding (and accepting) my own voice in the context of not only the increasing noise and number of voices in the field of education, but also the awe and respect I have for bloggers like Audrey Watters,  Kate Bowles, Sean Michael Morris, Jesse Stommel, Tressie McMillan-Cottom,Bonnie Stewart, Frances Bell, or Sherri Spelic to mention but a few. I am on record to have stated, on many occasions, that “When I grow up, I want to write like [insert name]”. I’ve said this so many times that it is possible these statements may have become shallow or are seen as a cheap form of I’ll-pat-your-back-and-it-will-be-nice-if-you-could-reciprocate. In stating that I wish I could write like [insert name], it often refers to the way s/he craft/tame words, create narratives that haunt me for long after I closed their blog. My respect may also refer to the way they witness, translate, contest, re-claim, and confront. And often my admiration also refers to the frequency of their blogs; the way [insert name] finds the time or just makes the time to respond to a current issue while I was still thinking about the title for the blog and the most appropriate image for the blog-to-be.

I often feel like a sloth in the company of cheetahs. Stuttering. Overwhelmed. Much too slow.

Thinking like this, I realize, is a trap – a trap that most probably originates in our current age’s obsession with grit, champions, awards, rankings and competition-as-virtue. In the race for citations, performance criteria, research grants and strategies that will protect us from becoming part of the increasing number of the precariat, we were/are seduced in thinking that there is only one form of engagement, activism, being witness that counts (sic). I may have fallen into the trap thinking that my voice, my way of being blogger, activist, and human is not good enough, not effective enough, not visible enough, not making a big enough difference.

So this blog is an attempt to think about my blogging practice as a form of educational activism.

Defining educational activism

So, what counts as educational activism? Who decides? What are the criteria? And then there are issues such as: What are the costs of being or aspiring to be an educational activist? What are the ethical issues in educational activism? How do educational activists sustain themselves?

In August this year, I received a Fellowship to attend the Digital Pedagogy Lab hosted by the University of Mary Washington (VA) in the United States, 8-12 August. There were four possible tracks namely an Introductory, Design, Praxis and Action tracks. I selected the Action track based on a number of considerations such as the fact that I was no longer intimately involved in instructional and curriculum design and I currently have a fairly limited teaching role. My main focus is on doing research in open and distributed contexts and networks and I see myself increasingly moving into an activist role – whether with regard to human rights, gender issues, surveillance and privacy, and issues pertaining algorithmic decision making and accountability. Another reason why I opted for the Action track was the fact that it was facilitated by Audrey Watters, one of the scholars and activists in the field of educational technology that I hugely respect. It was a dream come true to have had the opportunity to engage with her over the period of a week.

The Action track sub-title was “How do we privilege ‘action’? What types of actions ‘count’?” In the context where I am confronted on a daily basis with being measured and my citations and scholarly impact being quantified and counter, I was immediately hooked. As a researcher, my scholarly outputs are determined by often (mostly?) unquestioned assumptions regarding what counts as ‘scholarly endeavor’, ‘action’ and ‘impact.’ Though I speak from a position of white, academic privilege, the cost of being continuously measured makes me realize that it is no longer a question of ‘publish or perish’ but more likely the reality of ‘publish and perish’…  In this mad rush for citations and outputs, there is just not any space for ‘not acting’ or inaction and I battle with the demon of the shallowing of my own research as I scavenge every data set for yet another article, another output, another possibility to be cited… Welcome to the ‘shallows.’

The goals of the Action track were as follows:

  • To explore the politics of the digital and to consider what “action” looks like with and through digital technologies
  • To challenge dualisms – thought/action, thinking/building, making//writing, digital/analog, public/private, action/inaction, “real world”/classroom – that permeate our cultural expectations of (digital) scholarship, (digital) pedagogy, and (digital) activism.
  • To ask what role “education” might play in critical/digital engagement.
  • To become more comfortable with constructing and deconstructing “ed-tech”

Over the course of five days we deliberated the distinction between ‘action’ and ‘inaction’ and spaces where not-taking-action may actually be classified not only as ‘action’ but may be the most appropriate form of ‘activism’. We discussed the role of intention in moving an ordinary activity from being ordinary to activism. For example, if I am trans or cisgender, the act of using a public toilet becomes a form of provocation and activism. When I am a black scholar, entering white disciplinary spaces become a form of activism.The discussions I had with Remi Kalir (@remikalir), Chris Gilliard (@hypervisible) and Autumm Caines (@Autumn) enriched my understanding and I am forever indebted to them for the way our conversations shaped my thinking.

We also designed and built Domains of Our Own as a form of claiming back spaces, identity, and action. Some of us created Twitter bots to disrupt, to question, to play. We also considered the need to care for one-self and for one another when venturing into (more visible) forms of educational activism.

Since August this workshop, the discussions and the issues that were (not) discussed, stayed with me, haunted and invigorated me. In wrapping up this blog post, let I want to think aloud and share some tentative pointers for thinking about a typology for educational activism.

Pointers towards a typology of educational activism


When we think about educational activism, it is easy to fall prey to thinking about the more spectacular forms of educational activism – to keynote and/or blog like [insert name]. While their keynotes and blogs are indeed mind-blowing, these visible and vocal forms of educational activism are not the only forms of educational activism. There are also actions that come from a quieter, possibly more subversive form of activism namely to be woke, to witness, to sleep with your eyes open. This form of activism resembles the sentries on the walls of ancient cities who were constantly on the lookout for approaching armies, visitors, signs of approaching danger. I therefore have a suspicion that informing and sustaining the blogs, the narratives, the ‘spectacle’ of educational activism, is, and need to be a profound awareness, ‘wokeness’, sleeping-with-your-eyes-open. The educational bloggers I admire all share this quality of ‘wokeness’, of being curious, sleepless-in-Silicon-Valley, constantly warning, sharing, alerting and informing. Most probably this, for me, is the basis of all forms of educational activism.

To amplify, retweet, re-blog, reiterate

It took me a relatively long time to consider my retweets and dissemination as a form of activism, possibly less spectacular, but just as important. This is a role or form of activism that I particularly enjoy. I was born curious and in trouble and nothing has changed since then. My daily practice of systematically working through four to six hours of tweets has become a major influence in my own scholarship and activism. As I systematically work through the tweets, I follow the links and if I consider the information as valuable, I share the link/information on my Facebook, Linkedin and pages. And for those of my colleagues who are not on social media, I would send information via email. In refusing to let a particular tweet just disappear unnoticed, I retweet it and my retweet gives it another chance of being noticed. I know it is not spectacular, but it provides me much joy.

To translate, to give voice

On Friday I found this amazing blog by Lina Mounzer “War in translation: Giving voice to the women of Syria” – it was and still is a blog that left and leaves be heartbroken and in a strange way, energised and more committed than ever before to try to make a difference. In her blog Lina relates how the act of witnessing and translation affects her, changes her, and in ways emotionally destroys her. In translating the voices of women caught in the Syrian conflict, the translator enters “into the most intimate relationship” with another’s text where

“Neither the translator nor the text emerges from the act unscathed.” She states that translation “is not just about transposing words from one language to another. But transplanting a feeling, a way of seeing the world, from one vocabulary of experience to another. I think of the verb, to transplant. A seedling from soil to soil. But also an organ from boyd to body.”  There are, however, “still no guarantees that anything will take root, or that the new body will not reject the new organ for being foreign.”

In this act of translation, of transplanting, the English language is a tool,

“as available to raw beauty as it is to hegemonic violence. And I know the only way to redeem it for all of us who it marginalises is to fight our way out of those margins and insist on being part of the text. But my English is a war wound. It is the result of the roughshod amputation of my mother tongue.”

Despite the costs of communicating in a foreign tongue, Lina writes

“it is the best form of resistance I can imagine for a world scarred with forbidding, categorical borders. … The only way to make borders meaningless is to keep insisting on crossing them: like a refugee, without papers, without waiting to be given permission, without regard for what might be waiting on the other side. For when you cross a border, you are not only affirming its permeability, but also changing the landscape on both sides. You cross carrying what you can carry, you cross bearing witness, you cross knowing that you are damageable, that you are mortal and finite, but that language is memory, and memory lives on.”

To speak/write out

While it may be tempting to disavow the formal channels of academic scholarship as viable forms of activism, I do think that would be unfair. Yes, while there are legitimate concerns that a huge percentage of academic publishing consists of crap that nobody reads, I’ve read peer-reviewed, academic articles that contest, that question, that disrupt, and expose. I’ve read academic, scholarly articles that are nothing but activism-in-print. While I would agree that open forms of scholarship such as micro-blogging and blogging and open publishing do provide (more) exciting spaces for critical scholarly activism, I think we should not discount editorials, op-eds, opinion pieces and journal articles whether in scholarly or popular publications. As a form of activism and protest, I am increasingly committed to only publish in open, peer-reviewed journals, but I do not discount the potential for activism in journals that are pay walled.

To protest/disrupt

In the current South African higher education landscape this form of activism is almost too easy, too natural, at least for our students… with many scholars, researchers and faculty assuming a very critical stance on the student protests and especially the blatant celebration of violence, while forgetting the equally blatant and often inter-generational violence sustaining and perpetuating structural inequalities. While many academics (including myself) who find the current impasse and the death of compromise frightening, we’ve become comfortably numb and ignorant to the gross inequalities in South African society.

To be quiet, to hospice and not do anything

And then there is the comment of Simon Ensor on a blog by Maha Bali Cognitive Stack Overflow: Unpredictable behaviour in which she shares her feelings that she is “at my breaking point here. Seriously. Right at the edge of overflow.” Simon reminds us that

“The systems in which we work and live will break us. They are insane.

Activism also includes inactivity, peace, play, silence, sleep.”

In my reflection on #AmIAnEducationalActivist I realised that we see activism as interventions, as blogs, articles, keynotes, taking action. Not doing anything is almost unthinkable.

Not-doing-anything does not, however, indicate inaction. Not-doing-anything can be a very active space of engagement and contemplation. It is looking and resisting the temptation to look away. It is looking into the eyes of the beggar on the street corner and not looking away. Not looking away means allowing yourself to witness (as verb), to be a witness (as noun), to be overwhelmed, to not allow yourself to forget.

de Oliveira Andreotti, Stein, Ahenakew and Hunt (2015), reflect on various strategies to engage with the potential and challenges of realising postcolonialism. They mention strategies that qualify  as ‘soft-reform’ such as increasing access and dialogue; ‘radical -reform’ that includes specific strategies to address racism, capitalism, colonialism, heteropatriarchy and nationalism and potential strategies they categorise as taking place in the ‘beyond-reform space’. In the latter they mention imagining alternatives, hacking and hospicing. I find the notion of ‘hospicing’ as verb very interesting. Hospicing as verb entails accepting the death/decline of a system and accepting that due to various factors, that you cannot directly intervene/act, but you also don’t allow yourself to walk away. In hospicing as activism, you remain involved, caring for a system in decline to the extent that the system allows you to care for it, nothing more, nothing less. In the broader context of South African higher education, my participation and activism in the transformation of the sector is most probably restricted to the intentional caring and hospicing as a form of activism.

But activism most probably also requires a letting go, a critical self-knowledge of your own locus of control, and things beyond your locus of control. Activism involves self-care, allowing the community to care for you, to shield you, to hide you, to allow others to speak on your behalf.

To hack, leak and bot as forms of play

I must confess, play does not come naturally to me. I was born serious. I was born an old soul carrying the testimony of many prior generations in my soul.  Personally, play as educational activism involves being creative in the choice of images for a PowerPoint, or a blog. Play as educational activism think about narrative strategies and metaphors. But play as educational activism may involve more serious forms of play such as the creation of a Twitter bot that disrupt, that poke fun, that reproduce nonsensical gibberish that ape the latest claims of disruption in higher education or to hack the sites of those in service of disaster capitalism


I’m a sloth in the company of cheetahs. I am a hummingbird in a state of torpor. I am overwhelmed. I am slow. I think slowly. I write slowly. But I think. I write. I see. I witness. I translate.

I must learn to judge my forms and practices of activism for the unique shape it takes, for its evolution, for what it is and not for what it is not. I am not [insert name]. I am. I love. I trust. I care. I share.  I am.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments