Of heresies, heretics, and the (im)possibility of hope in higher education


 Detail: Bucher Boys (1985/86) by Jane Alexander

 Abandon all hope, ye who enter here (Inferno, Dante)

 Amidst the absolute horror, fear and nausea triggered by events such as the recent attacks in #Beirut, #Paris and #Mali, and the continued sponsored and condoned violence in #Palestine and #Yemen, there is, I suspect, a deep-seated questioning of “how is all of this still possible in the 21st century?”

What happened to ‘progress’ and the belief that a better world is possible and achievable? Where does the current (and possible permanent?) disillusionment leave the belief that education is the key driver to ‘progress’ and will, per se, result in a more just and equal society? Last week a meme circulated on social media with a picture of Malala Yousafzai with the words “With guns you can kill terrorists. With education you can kill terrorism.”

I wish I could believe. But I cannot. Not that I don’t want to believe, but somehow I suspect that we overestimate the potential of education, on its own, to address generations of injustice, poverty and inequality. Call me a heretic if you want, allow me to explore the possibility that unbridled economic growth and progress is a heresy. And education, as this heresy’s servant.

Allow me then, for a brief moment of your time, to reconsider our continued and uncritical belief that humanity, progressively gets better… As conversation partner to this blog I take the work by John Gray (2002, 2004) and Zygmunt Bauman (2004, 2011, 2012). Considering the work of Gray, John Banville said that “John Gray has always been the odd-sheep-out” and John Preston called Gray a “prophet of doom.” Bauman’s work has also been up for criticism and his work characterised as full of “sombre warnings and dark judgments.” Despite these criticisms, I agree with the assessment that “”Bauman on a bad day is still far more stimulating than most contemporary social thinkers.”

In contemplating education in this interregnum (Best, 2015), allow me then to reflect on some of the points made by John Gray and Zygmunt Bauman.

Gray (2002) suggests that “The uses of knowledge will always be shifting and crooked as humans are themselves. Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs – even if the result is ruin” (p. 28). Regarding humanity’s belief in progress as inevitable Gay (2004) suggests that “the core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The twentieth century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can, and will, also be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny” (p. 106; emphasis added).

Considering the advances since the Enlightenment against the backdrop of the absolute horrors of the two World Wars and the banality of evil as represented by the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Holocaust and the Vietnam war, one would have expected that humanity would permanently shied away from the abyss. And yet we didn’t and we still don’t.

Instead of doing everything we possibly can to steer clear of the abyss, we are “messing with forces on a grand scale” (Martin, 2006, p. 15) – on a number of levels. Amidst the many challenges facing humanity are, according to Martin (2006) environmental collapse, extreme poverty, unstoppable global migrations, non-state actors with extreme weapons, and violent religious extremism resulting in a new Dark Age.

Depending on your worldview, many suggest that higher education have unreservedly bought into the neoliberal project of globalisation as championed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the corporate-industrial-military complex. Economic growth is a leitmotif in curricula and is sold (often literally) as prerequisite for human progress despite evidence suggesting that “economic growth does not translate into the growth of equality” (Bauman, 2011, p. 50). Amidst the unbridled consumerism and decadent and rampant (if not rapacious) capitalism, inequalities have increased and the number of displaced people is the biggest in human history. The millions of displaced and permanently unemployed are classified as disposable, as the collateral waste of progress, those who have become permanently redundant suggest a new normal, the new, permanent “Other” (Bauman, 2004).

We live in times where “the incomprehensible has become routine” (Bauman, 2006, p. 14). As we built higher walls around our gated communities, closed our borders, and increased our entry requirements, our fears just got worst.

Fear is at its most fearsome when it is diffuse, scattered, unclear, unattached, unanchored, free floating, with no clear address or cause; when it haunts us with no visible rhyme or reason, when the menace we should be afraid of can be glimpsed everywhere but is nowhere to be seen (Bauman, 2006, p. 2)

Welcome to the 21st century.

As humanity spirals from one genocide to the next, we have increasing reason to question the gospel of Progress. John Gray (2004) state that the “belief in progress is the Prozac of the thinking classes” (p. 3). I would like to add to this, that the unquestioned belief that education, on its own, can make a difference is most probably co-prescribed with Prozac.

Gray (2004) makes the claim that “History is not an ascending spiral of human advance, or even an inch-by inch crawl to a better world. It is an unending cycle in which changing knowledge interacts with unchanging human needs. Freedom is recurrently won and lost in an alternation that includes long periods of anarchy and tyranny, and there is no reason to suppose that this cycle will ever end” (p. 3). Gray therefore contests the view that the Enlightenment set humanity on an irreversible path of progress where advances in science and technology will, per se, result in a better world. For many Gray’s statements amount to heresies, such as his claim that “The lesson of the century that has just ended is that humans use the power of science not to make a new world but to reproduce the old one – sometimes in newly hideous ways… Knowledge does not make us free” (2004, p. 6).

After the recent events in #Beirut #Paris #Yemen and #Palestine the statement by Gray that “The most striking development in politics in the past two decades is that this apocalyptic mentality has gone mainstream” (p. 10). In the light of the increasing influence of religious fundamentalism (whether in America or Iraq), terror has become “privatised” – that cannot be tolerated, but also not eliminated (2004, p. 11).

Gray (2004) furthermore states that no one cold have foreseen that “irrationality would continue to flourish alongside rapid advances in science and technology” (p. 18). Even the hope sold by Silicon valley that technology will solve all of humanity’s problems is without foundation as “[t]here is no power in the world that can ensure that technology is used only for benign purposes” (2004, p. 20). He continues:

“We are not masters of the tools we have invented. They affect our lives in ways we cannot control – and often cannot understand. The world today is a vast, unsupervised laboratory, in which a multitude of experiments are simultaneously underway” (p. 21).


“We can’t control our new technologies because we don’t really grasp the totality of their effects. And there is a deeper reason why we are not masters of our technologies: they embody dreams of which we are not conscious and hopes that we cannot bear to give up” (p. 22).

Sobering is the proposal by Gray that homo sapiens is actually homo rapiens with ambitions that are limitless, but living on an earth with resources that are irrevocably finite.

Our present way of life is more prone to disruption than most people think, and its fragility is increasing. We tend to think that as global networks widen and deepen, the world will become a safer place, but in many contexts the opposite is true. As human beings become closely interlinked, breakdowns in one part of the world spread more readily to the rest (p. 61)

In the light of the fact that democracy is seen and sold (literally) as one of the biggest (and deadliest) exports of the United States and its partners/alliances, and the claim that education should help spread the belief in one-size-fits-all type of democracy (Giroux, 2015), Gray (2004) states that “After all the babble about the irresistible spread of democracy and free markets, the reality is war, protectionism and the shifty politics of secrecy and corruption in other words, history as usual” (p. 66).

Despite the advances in science improving the lives of many, Gray (2004) states “Science cannot end the conflicts of history. It is an instrument that humans use to achieve their goals, whether winning wars or curing the sick, alleviating poverty or committing genocide” (p. 70).

So where does this leave us? How do we then teach without necessarily believing? How is hope possible in this interregnum?

A good place to start will be to acknowledge that “Knowledge is not an unmixed good; it can be as much a curse as a blessing. If the superseded science in the first half of the twentieth century could be used to wage two hideously destructive world wars, how will the vastly superior science of today be used?” (Gray, 2004, pp. 70-71). I really think that all curricula should have a warning attached to them – advising curriculum developers, instructional designers, students, and quality assurers (to mention but a few) that “knowledge is not an unmixed good”…

Is education willing to acknowledge that “the knowledge maps of the past have, to a large extent, been proven to be fragile and (possibly) the illegitimate offspring of unsavory liaisons between ideology, context and humanity’s gullibility in believing in promises of unconstrained scientific progress” (Prinsloo, 2016 – in press).

Will we teach different curricula if we believed that “history might be cyclical, not progressive, with the struggles of the earlier eras returning and being played out against a background of increased scientific knowledge and technological power” (Gray, 2004, p. 101)?

How do we help students to “read the world” (Freire, 1972, p. 120) – to recognise the metanarratives, the curricula sold-as-truth, engage with claims and counter-claims, realise (in more than one sense) their agency as constrained, entangled, fractured and possible?


Realising, at least for me, that history may be cyclical, that knowledge and advances in technology may serve evil or justice, give me a sense of purpose, if not hope. In this permanent interregnum where “the old is dying and the new cannot be born” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 110), a certain amount of morbidity and skepticism may be in order.

Image credit



Bauman, Z. (2004). Wasted lives. Modernity and its outcasts. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Bauman, Z. (2011). Collateral damage. Social inequalities in a global age. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Bauman, Z. (2012). On education. Conversations with Riccardo Mazzeo. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Best, S. (2015). Education in the interregnum: an evaluation of Zygmunt Bauman’s liquid-turn writing on education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 1-18.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Giroux, H. A. (2015). Democracy in Crisis, the Specter of Authoritarianism, and the Future of Higher Education. Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs, 1(1), 7.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Edited by Q. Hoare and G. N. Smith. New York, NY: International Publishers.

Gray, J. (2002). Straw dogs. Thoughts on humans and other animals. London, UK: Granta Books.

Gray, J. (2004). Heresies. Against progress and other illusions. London, UK: Granta Books.

Prinsloo, P. (2016 – in press). Metaliteracy, networks, agency and praxis: an exploration. Chapter accepted in T. Mackey and T. Jacobson (eds.), Metaliteracy in Practice




Posted in Open reflections | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

And then everything turned to beige… The quantified academic in an age of academic precarity

Wonderland_Walker_5[It almost feels obscene not to reflect on the events in #Beirut #Paris #Yemen (the list is endless). I am, however, permanently nauseous, speechless and saturated with claims and counter-claims and the increasing evidence that the events of the last few days, weeks, months and years are becoming the new normal. So forgive me if I don’t share my reflections at this stage. I.Just.Can’t.]

It is that time of the year again where I must report back on not necessarily what I have done or the quality of what I have done, but how much I have done… How many articles? How many chapters? How many single-authored or co-authored articles? How much money did I earn in the form of external research grants? How much am I worth? How many citations? How much did my h-index increase since I last looked and reported on? How many? How much?

My value contribution as a scholar and a researcher is being diluted to a single score on a template.

I have become a score, a number, and a single digit. Nothing more. But so much less.

And then everything turns into beige. I become a zombie. A member of the living dead.

Please understand that I don’t yearn for a romanticized past of academic freedom that (most probably) never was. As I meandered from being an administrator, to a professional to an academic to being a research professor (a journey of 20 years) I heard stories of ‘how good things were’, and ‘how things changed.’ As a fairly recent addition to the ever smaller number of faculty carrying increasingly bigger administrative tasks, workloads and participating in the dance of life and death as researcher, I can only reflect on the ‘now.’

Let me bore you with some detail.

In the beginning of the year I contract with my supervisor to deliver on a number of deliverables. As a research professor there is not much to negotiate. For example, I have four I four key performance namely – academic leadership (10%), research (70%), community engagement (15%) and academic citizenship (5%). The four performance areas are fixed, and though the percentages are negotiable (within a certain range depending on your job title); they are relatively bizarre and of very little consequence – except to play a role in the weighting of your single digit percentage in your final rating.

Let me illustrate the point: The key performance area of ‘academic citizenship’ includes my participation in academic and institutional committees, task teams, etc. This year I was the Scientific Chair for a major international conference and the amount of time I spent in meetings, reviews, and planning was much, much more than 5%. I could have increased it to 10% (the maximum) but then I would have had to steal 5% from another key performance area. Which one? And does it really matter? You only have so many hours (a point to which I will return)…

Except for the percentages allocated to each key performance area, there is also the ‘content’ of each of these key areas that are increasingly hard-coded – meaning that the definitions and criteria are predetermined, fixed and scores automatically calculated. Of my four key performance areas, two are hard-coded – academic leadership and research.

Academic leadership has the following criteria:

  • Contributions to innovative and cutting edge practices in research (carrying a 15% weighting of the allocated weight of 10%). Except for the highly problematic issues of defining ‘innovation’ and ‘cutting edge practices’ left out of the picture, is the fact that what may be innovative or cutting edge in one disciplinary field may not be appropriate in another field. How does one allocate a score to innovative and cutting edge? How innovative and cutting edge can you really be if your research application survived the horrendous ethical review process, journal editorial policies and reviewers who may have very different ideas regarding innovation and cutting-edge…
  • Successful submission of research plans of mentees to the Chair of Department (15% weighting). Score. No indication of how detailed these plans should be. No indication that a mentorship relationship is complex, layered and embedded in power.
  • Mentorship (70% weighting). Very interesting is the fact that your score is determined not only by the number of mentees, but specifically whether you can provide proof that you assisted them in applications for external funding or rating by the National Research Foundation (NRF). The quality of the mentorship is impoverished to assistance for external funding or ratings.

That’s it. That is ‘academic leadership.’ Hard-coded. Scored. Tick. Transfer score to template. Done.

Research as key performance area consists of three criteria:

  • Research outputs and successful completion of postgraduate students (80% weighting). Outputs are clearly defined, there is no doubt regarding what is regarded as an output – if it is on an approved list, tick. If you co-authored the article, half a tick. If your postgraduate student has not successfully completed his or her qualification in the period of reporting, no tick…, despite the immense amount of time, energy, blood, sweat and tears the supervisory process meant for both the supervisor and student.

It helps that you are required to report on the last 3 or 5 years as this allows for the time and different iterations involved in the publication process. What are not considered at all are your scholarly contributions in other formats, many of them increasingly peer-reviewed and public.

  • Grant applications for external funding (10% weighting). If you have evidence that you applied for external funding, you get a score of 2. If your grant was successful, you are average, a 3. If you have been successful with more than one external grant application, you get a 4 and you attain a full score if the total amount of grant money allocated to your research is in excess of 2 million ZAR.

Money talks. Money makes the world (of research) go round.

  • The third criterion is being rated by the National Research Foundation (NRF) (weighting of 10%). If the NRF rated you’re the gravitas of your research as being acknowledged on a national level (a rating of C3 on a scale of C1-3), you are allocated a score of 3

And at the end, the Excel spreadsheet tallies the scores and who I am, the quality and gravitas of my scholarly contribution becomes a number. Nothing more, so much less.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind being evaluated. I don’t mind presenting evidence of what I think I am ‘worth’ as a researcher. A lot of the evidence of my standing in the field is anyway, and increasingly, public, out there already, such as comments on my blogs, remarks on Twitter, and references by other scholars. Performing my scholarship in public is an immensely risky, but also very rewarding exercise.

So how do I make sense of this? How do I manage to dance to the beat that is not of my making?

I do understand that in the context of increased internationalisation and competition, higher education increasingly sells education as a privatised and mostly costly commodity, with an emphasis on a return on investments, just-in-time products delivered by just-in-time labor aiming to get the products (aka students) off the shelves in the shortest possible time.

I do understand that the efficiency of higher education is increasingly monitored and evaluated by auditing and control processes harvesting and analysing data and evidence as/in ‘rituals of verification’ (Power, 1999, 2004). Higher education increasingly resembles “Auditland” (Murphie, 2014:10) where these ‘rituals of verification” and auditing processes beget more auditing processes in never-ending cycles that affects all learning, teaching and research (Murphie, 2014). Higher education as “Auditland” where we all spy on one another, compete for scarce resources, trying to outdo the other with providing more evidence, getting those grants, getting the invitations as keynotes, getting ahead.

I do understand that since the 1990s higher education has become increasingly a fast food factory or outlet characterised by the mantra of efficiency, quantification, calculability, predictability and control (Hartley, 1995). I do understand that changes in funding regimes resulted in the directive that “funding … follows performance rather than precedes it” (Hartley, 1995: 418). I do understand that the dominant narrative in higher education is that of a positivist, quantification fetish (Prinsloo, 2014), informed by a “neoliberal lexicon of numbers” (Cooper, 2014: par. 5), the “tyranny of numbers” and “measurement mania” (Birnbaum, 2001:197).

Despite ‘understanding’, I also see these pervasive auditing and verification rituals as mediated and mediating tools in service of evidence-based decision making that creates technical systems that simultaneously serve as prosthetics and as parasitic supplementing and replacing authentic learning and frantically monitoring “little fragments of time and nervous energy” (Murphie, 2014:19).

And amidst all of this I have become colonised as a single digit score and I become a spectator to my own drama of losing myself. And then life turns a lighter shade of beige (see the wonderful post by Kate Bowles, and Frank, 1995).

What are my options? I wish I could shout with Kate Bowles that “you don’t have my consent to use my remaining time in this way.” I know that time is irreplaceable. I know that my luck will run out, possibly sooner than later. (See the thought-provoking post by Adele Horin).

I know I cannot sustain the frantic activity, the restlessness, the panic, the dread of the next performance appraisal. I will have to make a plan.

And of course I do. I work longer. I work harder. Weekends are a non-event. The only difference between office hours on a weekend and during the week is the fact that I am (most probably) the only one in the building.

But why, you would ask? Why? Don’t I have a life?

I am 56 years old, white academic in a post apartheid South Africa where my options for finding employment outside of academia or in international higher education is zero. Don’t get me wrong. This is not about ignoring the many privileges I had and still have as a white male. I don’t subscribe to the notion of victimhood and suffering that is prevalent in the much of the current white, Afrikaner discourse. There is a vast difference between recognising the “historic burden of whiteness” and self-abasement or lame apologies (O’Hehir, 2014). My race and gender, and the socioeconomic circumstances of my family allowed me to play on a field while many others were excluded from playing. (Also see Bowler, 2014; Crosley-Corcoran, 2014; Gedye, 2014).

So I cancel a doctor’s appointment. I fit in a physiotherapist appointment in during my lunch hours (lunch?) for the unbearable pain in my neck.

Let me make it very clear that I love writing. I absolutely love doing research. I love the excitement of living on the edge of publishing, of awaiting feedback from editors on the submission of your last article. I am an adrenaline junkie. Forgive me mother for I have sinned. I say my three Hail Josephs and accept the invitation to write a chapter for a book. Imagine. They identified me as a worthy scholar and they would be honored if I would accept their invitation to contribute a chapter. Of course I would. The honor is mine. As a white African on the outside of the hallowed spaces of North Atlantic knowledge production, I am just so honored. How can I refuse? As a white male I am a neutered stray dog with no teeth in my home institution. So when I get invited to participate in an international publication, how can I refuse? Anyway, it is a sole authored chapter and, as such, worth so many points in the template during the end-of-the-year assessment.

So I graciously accept. “I would be honored.”

So I cancel breakfast on Saturday morning to be earlier in the office. The color beige is not bad at all.

Image credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/06/Wonderland_Walker_5.jpg


Birnbaum, R. (2001). Management fads in higher education. Where they come from, what they do, why they fail. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bowler, D. (2014, August 27). Defined by your ‘blackness.’ [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://ewn.co.za/2014/08/27/opinion-danielle-bowler-defined-by-blackness

Bowles, K. (2013, November 24). Irreplaceable time. [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://musicfordeckchairs.wordpress.com/2013/11/24/irreplaceable-time/

Bowles, K. (2014, March 5). Walking and learning. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://musicfordeckchairs.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/walking-and-learning/

Cooper, D. (2014, December 5). Taking pleasure in small numbers: How intimately are social media stats governing us? [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/12/05/taking-pleasure-in-small-numbers/

Crosley-Corcoran, G. (2014, August 5). Explaining white privilege to a broke white person. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gina-crosleycorcoran/explaining-white-privilege-to-a-broke-white-person_b_5269255.html

Frank, A.W. (1995). The wounded storyteller. Body, illness, and ethics. London, UK: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd.

Gedye, L. (2014, October 13). Jou past se poes. The Con. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.theconmag.co.za/2014/10/13/jou-past-se-poes/

Hartley, D. (1995). The ‘McDonaldisation’of higher education: food for thought? Oxford Review of Education, 21(4), 409-423.

Horin, A. (2015, November 16). Dear reader, my luck has run out. The Age. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/comment/dear-reader-my-luck-has-run-out-20151116-gkzzpi.html

Murphie, A. (2014). Auditland. PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, 11(2). Retrieved from https://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/portal/article/view/3407/4525

O’Hehir, A. (2014, August 30). Why acknowledging white privileged is not surrendering to ‘white guilt.’ [Web log post]. Retried from http://www.salon.com/2014/08/30/why_acknowledging_white_privilege_is_not_surrendering_to_white_guilt/

Power, M. (1999).The audit society: Rituals of verification. 2nd edition. London, UK: Oxford University Press.

Power, M. (2004). Counting, control and calculation: Reflections on measuring and management. Human Relations, 57(6), 765-783.

Prinsloo, P. (2014, October 22). Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin: researcher identity and performance. Inaugural lecture at the University of South Africa. Retrieved from http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Paul_Prinsloo/publication/267395307_Mene_mene_tekel_upharsin_researcher_identity_and_performance/links/544f2f200cf29473161bf642.pdf

Posted in Change.mooc.ca | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Troubling open education: from ‘Fauxpen’ to open

Troubling openThe third keynote at the recently held ICDE2015 conference was Laura Czerniewicz, one of the most critical and informed scholars in higher education on the African continent, and a critical voice in international higher education, knowledge production and dissemination. The title of her presentation was “Troubling open education” (see this write-up by University World News). Against the backdrop of the hype, the claims and counter-claims regarding ‘open education’ there is an urgent need that we should critically engage with the different nuances between faux or false openness and openness as an emerging (and defiant) reclamation of the commons…

[In this reflection I tried to make sense of some of the central issues and arguments raised by Laura in her keynote. This blog is neither an attempt to provide a transcript of her keynote, nor a detailed summary. This is my attempt to make sense, to come to terms with and get entangled in the messiness of the notion of ‘open education.’]

In her keynote Laura referred to some of the general “troubles” in the broader landscape of higher education and specifically the role of open education in solving (or exacerbating) these troubles. While many of the discourses in current higher and open education use  “open” as if we all agree on its scope and meanings, Laura proposed that the notion of openness in education is confused and (should be) contested. In the general parlance ‘open’ often means ‘free’, ‘open licensing’, ‘legal openness’ and/or ‘digital’. Somewhere between these meanings,  openness as a ‘celebration of the common’ became and continues to be lost. Laura therefore mooted the need to trouble (as verb) the notion of open education and “reclaim the core of open education.”

The current debates, claims and counter-claims regarding open education can be understood in the context of some of references to the different ‘ages’ as found in the general discourses in higher education such as the ages of austerity, unbundling, inequality and abundance. Though these ‘ages’ or discourses are often mutually constitutive or exclusionary, they exist simultaneously (often in one institution…) and shape the meanings and understandings of ‘open.’ It is therefore not strange to find references to the ‘age of austerity’ functioning in some weird way as supporting the “age of abundance’ and ‘sharing’ – I point I will return to later.

Referring to the fact that “two thirds of OECD countries decreased the proportion of expenditure devoted to education between 2005 and 2011” and that “more than half of developing countries reduced spending on education between 2008 and 2012”, it is clear that things have changed. In response to the new funding regimes and cost savings, we encounter the “wonderful euphemism called ‘cost sharing’ which means we share the costs with the students.” As government subsidies and funding regimes changed the cost of education and tuition increased exponentially, the cost of books increased, the costs of houses decreased, and the consumer price index plateaued.

Laura shared two examples (of research done in 2009) of the cost of books between South Africa and the USA where, for example “A long walk to freedom” would cost $12.10 in the USA while costing $24.30 in South Africa. The Oxford English Dictionary costs $21.50 in the USA and in South Africa $47,00. The projected cost in the USA at South African proportions of income for the two books are $259.77 and $504.50 respectively!

Non-traditional students now comprise the majority of students in higher education questioning many of our assumptions about the ‘traditional’ or “average” student. Inequality is pervasive and the World Economic Forum describes the increasing levels of inequality as one of the top trends in 2014. In this somewhat notorious league table, South Africa is at the top – where the top richest people in South Africa have the equivalent of the wealth of 50% of the population.

But surely technology can make a difference? Referring to the promise of technology, Laura stated that although mobile phones are ubiquitous, the immense cost of data in the South African context seriously hampers the optimal use of mobile technologies in education. In developed countries, 96% of the population can afford data, while in developing countries only 21% of the population can afford buying data. We should therefore understand technology as “a cause, a consequence and a mediator of higher education change.”

We also need to understand the conversation about the meaning of ‘open’ in the broader context of knowledge production and dissemination that is increasingly privatized. We cannot ignore the commodification, the corporatisation or McDonaldisation and franchising of knowledge production and dissemination where North-Atlantic knowledge is “Cocolonising” the rest of the globe. The flattening or universalisation of knowledge functions as code for the naturalisation of American knowledge as the only ‘real’ knowledge, or for that matter, ‘truth.’

Against this backdrop, ‘open education’ seems like a great solution due to the assumed/presumed values of open education and assumptions about sharable knowledge and enabling technology. Education and specifically open education is presented as “an unprecedented public good” (Budapest Open Access Initiative) and the Cape Town Open Education declaration, focusing on OER, celebrates the open, collaborative and free possibilities of technology. Open education therefore seems to be a coherent response to troubles faces higher education.

So, can open education actually deliver on the hype and the promise? The answer is not as straightforward as we would like it to be. Laura referred to the South African saying – “ja-nee” – meaning a concurrent yes/no … Open education is a site of confusion, conflation and serious contestation and not helped by the flood of opens.

Our uses of ‘open’ are context, discipline and most probably rhetoric specific… The fact that we use the same word is not necessarily advantageous. Even in the educational arena the notion of ‘open” means different things for different people – open educational resources, open education practices, open courses, open content. We therefore need to unpick the different nuances of ‘openness’ and think in terms of degrees of openness, continuums of social openness. We should therefore never forget that openness always happens in particular historical and local contexts.

Defining and understanding ‘open’ is not simple at all. Laura referred to Chris Jones who said “openness is not reducible to a simple definition because it is a complex assemblage of social, political, and technological elements developed over time. It is variable and nuanced.” Openness in education is furthermore always relational and always exists in relation to closure. It is always relative and on a continuum. It is permeable. And, wait for it, openness is not necessarily positive. Openness has a shadow side and it is not necessarily intrinsically afforded by technology.

In the context of claims that ‘open’ means ‘free’ Laura pointed to the claims that ‘open education’ would mean the “the end of content scarcity.” ‘Open’ also means, for many, digital and low cost. It is true that the costs of reproduction of digital content are low and that there is not degradation in digital goods. There is also the reality of the explosion of user-generated content. Referring to the assumption that “digital = open = free”, Laura suggested that going “digital affords ‘open’ but it also affords closed” and “analogue has affordances that can be more open than digital.”

We need to remember that when we move to digital we move from the tangible to the intangible, we move from ownership to license, we move into an arena of digital rights management… We need to remember that it is not the technology that decides, but it is people who make the rules, write the algorithms, establish and enforce the licensing agreements. When Kindle removed copies of “1984” from Kindle readers’ devices they reminded their customers that they don’t own the copies of books they bought…

We need to look at new ecologies of access where there are continuums between legal and illegal and between analogue and digital. Open content is only one option in this new ecology. Examples of other options are “piracy cultures” (building media relationships outside those institutionalized sets of rules) and the “affective economy” (referring to the feelings of goodwill when files are shared, embellished, remixed and re-shared). Referring to the work by Castells and Cardosa (2012) – Laura pointed to the fact that significant parts of the world’s population “is building mediation through alternative channels of obtaining content” (emphasis added). Piracy cultures have become an essential characteristic of the networked society. Piracy has become the norm. This is linked to the central role of the “informal” as the “quiet encroachment” which sees the blurring of boundaries and the breaking of rules “as the norm.” Most digital books are pirated, more than 75% of prescribed text books are available as pirated e-books and a huge percentage of E-book readers download their books illegally.

This is not a developing country issue, but all happens across contexts, all over the world.

In research done at University of Cape Town (the ROER4D project), researchers found that many teachers assume that because a resource is digital it also means it is an OER. Students often also do not know the difference between legal and illegal resources, and feel that they had a right to educational and scholarly resources. Students feel that they have a moral right to educational resources and that withholding access to educational resources through licensing or copyright arrangements is unethical. For many students sharing and pirating sources “is the right thing to do.”

Laura therefore referred to the notion of “Fauxpen”, as combination between faux or false on the one hand, and on the other hand, ‘real’ openness. Central to understanding the dilemma is the elephant in the room, namely ‘copyright.’

Most of the discourses about copyright are framed in terms of serious criminality but Laura proposes that copyright itself needs rethinking. In a digital and digitized world, copying and sharing are integral characteristics of how computers work and therefore beyond our current copyright frameworks. The history of copyright illustrates that copyright was always regarded as a necessary evil where the rich did not need to earn money but authors and artists needed to make money through their works. The public domain was always the goal of copyright, and copyright was protected for the shortest period of time.

In stark contrast to these early beginnings, knowledge is currently in the vice grip of commerce and is being increasingly commoditised, enclosed and commercialised. We cannot and should not underestimate the implications. The foundations of an informed and democratic society may be at risk. Laura therefore claimed that “The intellectual property frameworks which shape higher education engagement with knowledge are anachronistic and outdated, out of sync with the urgent needs of a digitally-mediated and extremely unequal world.”

In this context Laura referred to the Trans Pacific Partnership – a current multinational trade negotiation agreement that would see the current 50 year copyright term being increased to 70 years. The agreement will also target whistleblowers and journalists, increase the liability for Internet intermediaries, and adopt heavier criminal sanctions. A counter-narrative is “Bound by law” – asking questions how creativity can flourish in an increasingly controlled and policed environment, how we can balance private and public spaces, and how we can achieve sustainable development for creativity and public access for everyone to use in the intellectual property space.

Laura made an impassioned plea that we should realise the profound importance of these changes for us as educators and we need to be building alliances with public interest lawyers. We need to find them and work with them. We need to (re)look at our intellectual property contracts for academics at universities. The notion of ‘sharing’, in stark contrast to many of the current regimes and practices, is such a positive word. Laura referred to David Wiley who said that “without sharing there is no education.” Notions such as ‘sharing’ and ‘generosity’ are currently being appropriated by commercial entities and celebrated the “Überisation of education

Open cannot ignore those who cannot afford to participate in these ‘open’ spaces. We cannot ignore those who are currently excluded and who will, in the context of the commercialisation of “open”, continue to be excluded. Laura warned against the fact that “Sharewashing” has become the new Greenwashing, perpetuating a world of make-belief and pretense, covered by a veneer of openness.

What does “reclaiming the commons” mean for educators? What can ‘openness’ mean for educators and higher education management? Laura suggested, in closing that the role of the university is to –

  • Assert academics and authors as the agents and owners of knowledge
  • Protect the autonomous university at the heart of commons-based structures for knowledge
  • Develop and support collaborative initiatives in knowledge dissemination

We should never forget that open education is a means to an end. As such open education can and should an important strategy towards an equitable, democratic and peaceful world.

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Resisting techno-solutionism, resisting the Pied Piper, reclaiming the story: A personal reflection on Audrey Watter’s keynote at ICDE2015

Listening to Audrey Watters at the recently held ICDE2015 in which she provided a radical and critical interrogation of the Silicon Valley narrative, I could not help but think about the legend/myth of the Pied Piper. It is said that in 1284 the town of Hamelin was suffering from a rat infestation. As if called, a piper, claiming to be a rat-catcher, appeared. With the mayor being at the end of his wits with the plague, the piper promised to rid the town of the rats for a sum of 1000 guilders. After the mayor agreed, the piper fulfilled his side of the contract by luring the rats into the river by playing on his pipe. On return to claim his payment for services rendered, the mayor reneged on his promise and only paid half of the promised sum. The piper swore to take revenge, left the town in anger only to return later. While the villagers were in church, the piper lured the town’s children into a cave by playing on his pipe. The children were never seen again. According to the legend, three children survived the ordeal – a lame child that could not follow quickly enough, a deaf child that did not hear the music, and a blind child that was unable to see where the rest of the children were going.

In my own version of the story I would imagine there was a fourth child that survived the ordeal – a girl with the name of Audrey – who recognized the piper for who he was and like a modern-day Cassandra warned the children not to follow the Pied Piper but the children did not believe her…

It is difficult to underestimate the impact the work of Audrey Watters had on my personal understanding of #edtech in the context of higher education. Audrey’s passion, incisive analysis and critical scholarship is a breathe of fresh air in the often incestuous discourses on technology, the latest disruption, the latest claims and products of venture capitalists and the captive gaze of technology as Medusa on higher education management and governments.

It was therefore an immense privilege for Audrey to have been invited as the second keynote to ICDE2015. The title of her keynote was “Technology imperialism, the Californian ideology, and the future of Higher education” focusing on “the future of edtech as imagined and narrated by Silicon Valley.” Her keynote was especially important in the context of education on the African continent where “Africa” is often the code for ‘new markets’ in the narratives of Silicon Valley. Examples include “Facebook satellite to beam internet to remote regions in Africa”, “Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg Invests $10M In E. Africa’s Low Cost Private Schools Firm”, Mark Zuckerberg launching Internet.org in Ghana, and “Zuckerberg: Facebook’s mission is to ‘connect the world.”

Despite being very critical, (if not skeptical) about the different claims Silicon Valley (and specifically Mark Zuckerberg) makes with regard to education, Audrey agrees with the sentiments expressed by Neil Selwyn (2014) – “While undoubtedly of great potential benefit, it is clear that educational technology is a value-laden site of profound struggle that some people benefit more than others – most probably in terms of power and profit” (p. 2). What makes Audrey and Neil’s voices so important is the fact that many (most?) academics and managers in higher education have an apparent “blind spot” for the ideological, political and economic nature and even possibly basis of educational technology. We are sleepwalking through our mediations with technology – a phenomenon called “technological somnambulism” (Winner, 2004, in Selwyn, 2014, p. 3). [Or blindly following the Silicon Valley Pied Piper].

It is easy to think of educational technology just in terms of platforms and tools we need to understand educational technology “as a knot of social, political, economic and cultural agendas that are riddled with complications, contradictions and conflicts” (Selwyn, 2014, p. 6).

Scholars like Watters and Selwyn may be accused of being over-critical or even pessimistic. In defense of them it can be stated that “there is little to be gained from maintaining a Pollyannaish stance towards technology use in education”, especially in the light of the fact that educational technology is not bringing about the changes and transformations that many people would like to believe” (Selwyn, 2014, p. 15). Selwyn (2014) actually suggests a “purposeful pursuit of pessimism” (p. 15) – not as resignation to a fate determined by others, but “as an active engagement with continuous alternatives” (p. 16). In doing so the intention is to “slow down the pace of our discussions in the face of fast-moving, rapidly changing and often ephemeral nature” of educational technology (p. 17).

In her keynote, Audrey, so to speak, unmasked the Pied Piper as the captains of technology and more specifically educational technologies in Silicon Valley. So why Silicon Valley?

What became the Internet originated in California in 1969 and since then the discourses about the Internet were imagined, shaped and told by Silicon Valley. The main tenets of this narrative are how the Internet and access to the Internet will benefit all, how access to the Internet is a human right – but not in the sense of having freedom of expression, or freedom of association, or a passion for social justice, or resulting in a more equitable and just society. Connectivity, and access to the Internet is, according to Audrey, Silicon Valley’s shorthand for new markets as well as the extraction and monetization of personal data…

As such Silicon Valley presents the Internet as master narrative in which the Internet will change and fix everything. Audrey pointed how Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is, for many, equivalent to the Internet (not that Mark minds). In fact, Mark founded Internet.org – a technological octopus comprising of a partnership between Facebook and six telecommunications and technology role-players. Facebook is the Internet. Facebook wants to be the Internet for everyone. At least, for the poor. And not the whole Internet – but selected services…

Why does this matter? Why should we be worried? Why should we pause for a moment and exit the crowd of excited governments and education institutions dancing to the tune of the Pied Piper?

We need to ask a number of critical questions such as – Who controls the network? Who controls [and have access to] the data? Who controls the servers? Who controls the software? We need to expose, that behind the philanthropy and hype, there are new markets, captive audiences, consumers, customer and data. Big Data. Enter surveillance capitalism. Big time. (See Danaher, 2015; Fuchs, 2010). Enter “algorithmic personalization” (Koponen, 2015) and a “scored society” (Citron and Pasquale, 2014; Pasquale, 2015).

We presume that the Internet is neutral and we forget that the inherent political, economical and cultural infrastructure of the Internet. In selling the Internet to African governments and educational institutions we forget (at our own peril) that the Internet (aka Facebook) does not share or serve our commitment to social justice and less inequality…

Silicon Valley is a mindset, not a location. This mindset celebrates heroes, inventors, smart risk taking, and of course, being white and male. Silicon-speak includes words such as innovation, disruption, and destruction. It privileges “new”, and everything it deems as old is doomed to be classified as obsolete. Everything is perpetually in need of an upgrade. “The Silicon Valley narrative has no memory, no history, unless it inverts one to suit its own purposes. “It celebrates the individual at all costs and calls this ‘personalization.’

The Silicon Valley narrative does not neatly co-exist with public education – and we forget this at our own peril.

Audrey asked: “What it Edtech was supportive and not exploitative? Open instead of foreclosed? About rethinking teaching and learning and not simply about expanding markets? What if Edtech was about meeting individual, institutional and community goals?” But educational technologies as designed, narrated and sold by Silicon Valley believes that education is broken and that technology (aka Mark Zuckerberg et al) can and will fix it. Enter the Pied Piper to rid the city of the rats.

Audrey also referred to the work by Neil Selwyn who said that technology is “a site of social struggle through which hegemonic positions are developed, legitimated, replicated and challenged.” We forget technology’s roles in and connections to neoliberalism and neo-imperialism, global capitalism and the Empire. The Internet and ‘being connected’ equates to being “hip and rich” ignoring race labor, gender and structural inequalities and white supremacy. The Internet as designed and narrated by Silicon Valley does not serve justice and equity but serves venture capital and is imperialisms latest form…

It is our responsibility to push back and to resist. It is not inevitable that we must follow the Pied Piper. We can resist, not because we do not want things to change… We must resist in the name of freedom and justice and not in the name of wealthy white men looking for new markets. “Silicon Valley does not have to be our dream machine. We can do better. And we must.”

Scholars like Audrey Watters and Neil Selwyn are, in the words of Popkewitz (1987, p. 350) doing “critical intellectual work.” “Being ‘critical’ … implies taking a skeptical view of the claims surrounding educational technology in terms of fairness and efficiency, and rejecting the notion that this is an inevitable process that is beyond challenge or change” (Selwyn, 2014, p. 12).

Audrey Watters, in delivering her keynote at ICDE2015 – was not a young girl running alongside the throngs of kids following the Pied Piper. She is a formidable scholar. We ignore her at our own peril.

Image credit

“Study for the Pied Piper of Hamelin – The children” (c. 1871) by George John Pinwell



Citron, D. K., & Pasquale, F. A. (2014). The scored society: due process for automated predictions. Washington Law Review, 89, 1-33.

Koponen, J. M. (2015, June 25). The future of algorithmic personalization. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://techcrunch.com/2015/06/25/the-future-of-algorithmic-personalization/

Pasquale, F. A. (2015, October 14). Scores of scores: How companies are reducing consumers to single numbers. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/10/credit-scores/410350/

Popkewitz, T. (1987). Critical studies in teacher education: Its folklore, theory and practice. Brighton, UK: Falmer Press.

Fuchs, C. (2010). Web 2.0, prosumption, and surveillance. Surveillance & Society, 8(3), 288-309.

Selwyn, N. (2014). Distrusting educational technology. Critical questions for changing times. London, UK: Routledge.

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Making sense of access: Access to what? At what cost? For whom?

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The last two weeks have been momentous in the context of thinking about access to (higher) education, the cost of access and who benefits the most from having access. On 14 October 2015 Tressie McMillan Cottom delivered the first keynote at the 26th ICDE World Conference hosted by the University of South Africa. The keynote was a tour d’ force and we could not have asked for a more apt and provocative start to an educational conference in a time where inequalities are increasing while the hype around the potential of providing access to higher education continue seemingly unabated.

While the outrage and discourses surrounding the rising cost of higher education has been a relatively permanent feature in the North Atlantic higher education landscape, the last two weeks in South Africa saw an unprecedented, a-political student protest movement (#FeesMustFall), not only questioning the rising costs, but also raising a number of other issues such as the increasing outsourcing of services, etc. (See the article by Ismail Lagardien as well as this overview on how university funding works in the context of South Africa).

In this blog I would like to weave and share my sense-making of Tressie’s keynote in the particular context of the hype, promise and lies about what (higher) education can and cannot do. [Please take note that the below notes and remarks are based on notes I made during her keynote and on watching the video recording. I used quotation marks wherever I used direct quotations from her presentation. In the light of being scared that the blog will morph into a mishmash of her ideas and my own as I tried to make sense of what ‘access’ means, I indicated my own thoughts as “digressions”].

Tressie started her keynote with the questions – “what does access mean?” and “what does it NOT mean?” In these somewhat benign questions lurked the elephant in the room – namely the question “Can educational expansion balance access with equity?” Or in other words, can increasing access really address the legacy and pervasiveness of structural inequalities whether referring to geopolitical, gender, race, social class or cultural inequalities? Providing access may be easy [leaving out the issue of cost] – and much of the discourses and rhetoric of broadening access make it sound like ‘access’ is only a question of “mix, add water and there is your access.” So increasing access is the easy part. The more important questions are “What access can do for equity/equality and justice?” and “Are providing access and increasing equity incompatible goals?”

In her keynote Tressie emphasised that education as an institution is “relational and inter-related to other institutions” and as such structural arrangements. To understand and assess the potential of education to make a difference, we need to understand education as one of many role-players and as embedded in historical and current structural relationships. Often we act and make promises to students that; somehow, education can, on its own, change the world.

 Digression 1: Michael W Apple (2010) states that most of the hype and promises on the potential of (higher) education to make a dent in the inequalities and injustices, pretend as if education as institution and practice exist in a “vacuum.” “The naïveté of these positions is not only ahistorical; but it also acts as a conceptual block that prevents us from focusing on the real social, ideological, and economic conditions to which education has a dialectical and profoundly intricate set of connections” (pp. 7-8). We need to see education, and the rhetoric of broadening access as connected and embedded in “relations of exploitation and domination – and to struggles against such relations – in the larger society” (Apple, 2010, p. 15).

 We also need to be reminded that education has been used through many years to sustain and perpetuate inequality through two main mechanisms, namely exploitation and opportunity hoarding (Tilly, 1999). Not only is education a valuable resource that “powerful, connected people command” but also a resource from which they “draw significantly increased returns by coordinating the effort of outsiders whom they exclude from the full value added by that effort” (Tilly, 1999, p. 10). Opportunity hoarding “operates when members of a categorically bounded network acquire access to a resource that is valuable, renewable, subject to monopoly, supportive of network activities, and enhanced by the network’s modus operandi” (Tilly, 1999, p. 10). In Tilly’s (1999) exploration of some ‘future inequalities’ he suggested that “educational institutions [will continue to] exercise greater and greater influence on the sorting of people into categories and hence into the receipt of differential rewards”, and that exploitation may decrease but that opportunity hoarding will increase with “small, segregated camps of hoarders emerg[ing]”(p. 242).

 The rhetoric about the potential of higher education to, on its own, create a more just and equitable society is often not much more than “hopeful fictions” (Claire Taylor quoting Ron Barnett) in strategy documents and operational plans drowned in “superlatives and meaningless aspiration.” Tressie switched on the light in the room to show us the elephant – the realisation of what education can and cannot do.

 Digression 2: The emptiness of the rhetoric as well as the absence of evidence that higher education will ensure that the benefits attained by the few will, somehow, trickle down, makes me think of the work by Zygmunt Bauman – “Collateral damage” (2011). It would seem as if our marketing documents, visions and missions, contribute to the multiplication and the “infinity of human desires” (p. 36). Higher education is complicit in the (empty) rhetoric that economic growth will translate into the growth of equality (Bauman, 2011). We continue to sell access to education as insurance against the insecurities of the 21st century. Higher education and the discourses on lifelong learning sustain and perpetuate what Bauman (2011) calls “security obsessions [that] are inexhaustible and insatiable: once they take off and are let loose, there is no stopping them. They are self-propelling and self-exacerbating…” (p. 60). Staying skilled (like shopping) “becomes a sort of moral act” (p. 77). The degrees and qualifications we offer are lottery tickets – offering ‘the best chance you have’ on surviving the reality of becoming obsolete and being classified as collateral damage…

 Tressie firstly pointed to the fact that if you “expand education in an unequal society without a redistribution of resources, you will [merely] reproduce inequality.” Without a redistribution of resources and allocation of funding to support and widen access to higher education, we create a situation where for-profit colleges and venture capitalists move in to “fix” education. This may result in a “two-tier system where the most disadvantaged students pay the most for the least quality education.”

 Digression 3: I am not a conspiracy theorist but somehow I am deeply suspicious of the decreasing government funding for higher education and the increases in for-profit higher education (see this 2010 report by Robin Wilson. It smells of ‘disaster capitalism’ as discussed in the book The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein (2008). [See Steve Fraser’s overview of the history of disaster capitalism]. As this report shows, the South African government’s funding of higher education has, over the last ten years, declined with 9% to only 40%, and student fees has risen from 24% to 31%. Global standards show that government funding of higher education should be in the vicinity of 2.5% of GDP, while currently South Africa’s investment in higher education stand at 0.76%. [See William Deresiewicz’s (2012) reflection on how disaster capitalism plays out in American public education and Jon Marcus on the role of for-profits in Brazil].

Secondly, according to Tressie “educational expansion does not result in more and better jobs.” Yes, there is a correlation, but not a causal relationship. “Access to education without investment and changes to the job market structures [and rules of engagement], does not result in social mobility. Investment in education on its own does not produce the job structures and relationships that facilitate upward social mobility.”

 Digression 4 #FeesMustFall: In the light of decreasing government funding and support for higher education (see Bauman, 2011 for an overview of the impact of the withdrawal of the state of the commons…), blatant academic capitalism (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2009), and ill-conceived and costly student support strategies based on shooting at hearing noises in the dark – the costs of higher education are a matter of huge concern. Granted.

What scares me more, however, is the mistaken and continued empty rhetoric that having access to higher education (even free higher education) will necessarily result in upward mobility, employment and the good life you see in the marketing materials of higher education institutions… When will we tell the truth?

And lastly, as higher education institutions are as under-prepared for students coming into higher education than they are, governments underestimate the cost of providing appropriate and cost-effective student support.

 Thirdly, “public and private job markets must be linked for upward social mobility to happen. Upward social mobility does not happen in a vacuum or incidentally.” Any intervention trying to address historical structural inequalities “has to be affirmative and deliberate.” Tressie raised the question – “what purpose does it serve to broaden access to education and not access to the labor market? What (and who) will we be serving in doing that?”

There is therefore a really danger that we create a “permanently disadvantaged overeducated and unemployed group of people who are also disproportionally black, female and low-income.”

Fourthly, “access to high quality higher education must be affirmative for disadvantaged groups.” There is no doubt that through deliberate policy development and implementation resource allocation needs to be differentiated if we “don’t want to just reproduce disadvantage.”

Tressie also pointed to the “fragile points of transition” in students’ higher education trajectories – referring to students moving between vocational and academic tracks in the broader context of self-actualisation. In this respect we need to remember that learning is, per se, social and much more than the provision of content.

Towards the end of her talk Tressie pointed to a number of roadblocks such as the fact that the unequal structure of opportunity is defined by wealth (or the lack of). Those that benefit the most from various strategies to broaden access are whites already at the top end of socioeconomic pyramid. This results in the tragic situation where the benefits of many of the broadening access and opportunity strategies “accrue to those who need it the least.” So the real question actually is “how do we move from access to justice?”

“Can open, accessible, high quality, low cost instruction provide pathways to upward social, economic and political mobility for the most disadvantaged?” and “Can we design such a system? Can we build/design platforms, tools and governance [regimes] without leaving behind those who has already been left behind?”

With specific reference to the potential offered by open, distance and e-learning (ODeL) Tressie said that, in the context of the US, ODeL “reinforces the salience of wealth, parental income, race, gender and educational attainment.” Even developments such as the open educational resources (OER) movement seem to perpetuate and reinforce unequal relationships. “Schools with the most resources use OER the most, while the least resourced schools use propriety systems.” [Also see this brilliant 2011 post by Audrey Watters].

The notion of ‘open’ is therefore deeply political…

In closing: Can broadening access lessen the pervasive inequality and injustice in the world? Yes, but “only if we understand that education cannot do it alone.” Tools, platforms and technologies cannot contribute to a more just and equitable society on their own. We therefore cannot think education, on its own, can redress decades of unjust structural arrangements and relationships. We need partnerships. We need investment not only in education but also in opening up job markets. We need high quality, affirmative hiring.

“Who among us will be keepers not only of openness and distance education, but also of justice?”

Tressie McMillan Cottom, like the other keynotes at ICDE2015, (in one way or another) embodies what Apple (2010) calls the “activist-in-residence” (p. 18)…

Image credit

Downloaded from http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2015-10-23-download-faith47s-feesmustfall-poster/#.Vin6JhAze34


Apple, M.W. (Ed.). (2010). Global crises, social justice and education. New York, NY: Routlegde.

Bauman, Z. (2011). Collateral damage. Social inequalities in a global age. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Slaughter, S., & Rhoades, J. (2009). Academic capitalism and the new economy: Markets, state, and higher education. Maryland, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tilly, C. (1999). Durable inequality. London, UK: University of California Press.

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Designing hope: Some ramblings and personal reflections on ICDE2015

Desiging hopeI write this blog not firstly as Scientific Chair of the recent ICDE2015 that was hosted by University of South Africa (Unisa), but as a participant observer, a player, a small node in the broader contexts of weak and strong links, (dis)connected to networks that include and validate, or exclude and reject. I am afraid that this blog post will be anything but a coherent reflection or report, but possibly resemble glimpses, snippets of sense-making as I battle to recover my mojo, to somehow feel human again after 18 months of intense thought, compromise, disappointment, excitement, negotiation and late nights. So please bear with me.

Inviting international scholars as keynotes, delegates, panelists and presenters to ICDE2015 reminded me of inviting friends over to our house at the wrong side of town… Let me explain.

When I was a child growing up middle-class white in a family with a father as a miner and a mother as a teacher who was not allowed to teach because my father said so – it was always with a sense of trepidation that I invited friends over, especially friends that were more well-off and accustomed to better things. As a child I was very aware of the fact that we stayed on the wrong side of town, the last street on the wrong side of town where a huge part of the towns’ upper-class would not be seen dead or alive.

[I have to admit that although it was the last street on the wrong side of town, it was still considered to be part of the town – unlike the areas outside of town allocated to blacks and migrant workers. At 9pm at night a siren would howl where after all blacks had to be outside of the town boundaries or face arrest. Blacks who stayed in servants’ quarters in town had to have with them a dompas, (a permit) to legitimise their presence after 9pm. If you are curious to read my reflections on growing up and how it shaped and still shape me you are welcome to read my inaugural].

So when teachers or (god forbid), the local pastor would come and visit, there was always the fear that somehow they would happen to meet my aunt who had an alcohol problem, meet my father in one of his moods, our neighbors who would somehow always wait for us to have visitors to knock on the door to borrow sugar as an excuse to join the conversation. Inviting friends/teachers or the pastor over was therefore a matter of secrecy and huge preparation – as we tried our best to ensure that everything would be 100% – that my aunt would be sober, the neighbors would have enough sugar and my dad was in a good mood. Needless to say that things never quite worked out the way we planned…

Inviting international and local scholars to South Africa to attend as keynotes, delegates, panelists and workshop facilitators – reminded me of inviting guests to my parents’ house at the wrong side of town when I was a kid – with a drunk aunt, unpredictable and curious neighbors and a moody dad. You just never knew how everything would turn out.

Let me explain the metaphor further. Hosting ICDE2015 on the African continent – yes, exactly, conjuring images of Joseph Conrad’s Africa – a continent dark and uncivilised – was a major challenge. Add to this the fact that 12 months before ICDE2015, thousands of people in West Africa succumbed to the Ebola virus. And as we know, Africa is a country – right?

Then there was South Africa’s Apartheid past and the enduring legacy of Apartheid – the excessive levels of corruption, sickening levels of unemployment and dramatic levels of inequality, sporadic events of xenophobia and a country somehow vexed by what was swept beneath the carpet after the first democratic elections in 1994.

Add to this the conference venue – Sun City – a mixture between Jurassic Park, Las Vegas, Disney World and a few extra tons of cement to create layers and layers of decorative extras – as if to hide the stench of a blood-drenched soil and smell of poverty.

And let us not forget the high levels of crime, the sometimes atrocious levels of service in stores and restaurants, the fact that most waiters in restaurants and cleaning staff in hotels earn atrociously low salaries and often live in dismal conditions and the underlying sense that there is no way that we can sustain the current levels of inequality and ignore the increasing levels of anger.

So, inviting international scholars to South Africa and Sun City in particular made me think of inviting my friends home, to the wrong side of town. What could possibly go wrong?

And yet, somehow, we pulled it off. Yes, we could not (and did not try to) hide the poverty and unemployment. Despite our best efforts we could not keep my drunken Aunt from attending or the neighbors gatecrashing and begging for sugar. Despite the odds, we were able to entertain our guests and create spaces of interrogation, questioning and celebration.

Which brings me to the “opening ceremony”…

We really wanted to create a spectacular celebration consisting of African and South African imagery, sounds, and dance. And despite some concerns I (and some others in the audience) had about the “empty” rhetoric in the voice-over text – the opening ceremony was amazing – a briccolage of color, movement and sound. I must confess I was deeply uncomfortable with various claims in the voice-over – such as the statement that Africa was the place where joy and love were always at home, that Africans immigrated to the rest of the world and shared our joy and love to the rest of the world. There was no mention of the fact that Africa has seen the best and the worst of humanity. The opening ceremony romanticised a past that never was and carefully lobotomised and sanitised our rituals of making memory – excluding from our narratives the brutal inter-tribal wars, the colonisation of Africa, the brutal slave trade which formed the foundation of the economics of Europe and North America, the various genocides – whether by Belgium in the Congo, Germany in Namibia, and the English against the Afrikaner, to mention but a few examples. The text of the opening ceremony seemed to suggest that the challenges faced by Africa and most of the developing world, just happens. It is easier to speak in the passive voice because in using a passive voice there is zero accountability. “No one’s culpable and in turn atrocities just happen, as we lose sight of the human costs” (Tweet by Melinda D. Anderson @mdawriter https://twitter.com/mdawriter/status/656963338602160128).

In the opening ceremony we focused on the harmony, the flag, the songs, the up-welling of emotions while looking at our political and sport heroes. It was as if we all needed, if only for a moment, to forget the disheartening levels of unemployment and inequality, the sight of the shacks on our way to Sun City, the look in the eyes of the waiter who served our breakfast looking at the remains on our plates after we have eaten… We really needed the noise, the color, the sacrament of forgetting – even if just for 40 minutes.

Possibly, in retrospect, we all needed to believe, even if it was just for an hour, that a dream is possible, that despite the increasing structural (social, economic, political, etc.) inequalities, examples of xenophobia and racism and a national leadership seemingly paralised by the scope and depth of needs to address – we somehow, can make it happen.

Which brings me to the title of this blog – designing hope.

Designing hope was a point raised by Joyce Seitzinger (one of our panel of five female out of seven keynotes).   I suspect, without us really consciously choosing ‘hope’ as design principle, the notion, dream and practice of ‘hope’ played out in a number of ways in preparing for the conference, as well as during the conference.

We consciously chose to have 5 female keynotes, from a range of contexts and philosophical dispositions. We consciously invited speakers (female and male) who are not anti-technology, but who have a track record of thinking about social justice, of addressing the increasing and seeming pervasive inequalities – whether gender, socioeconomic or racial. Our keynotes were, in many respects, hope embodied.

None of our keynotes were from traditional mainstream distance education backgrounds. We really wanted keynotes to confront us with the uncomfortable truths that despite some evidence that distance and online education make a difference to the lives of millions, we can do better.

We invited keynotes who shared the belief (and commitment) that although education can and should make a difference, there are some things that education cannot do and maybe, even should not attempt to do. While this point of departure may seem pessimistic, there is no empirical evidence in the belief that education can address all the social ills in our society. Somehow education is an essential part of an ecology of actors – nothing more and nothing less (see the brilliant first keynote by Tressie McMillan Cottom).

In selecting presentations we consciously chose to invite presenters from a range of contexts – addressing a range of themes. Presenters came from a wide range of context ranging from developing novice researchers to established researchers in the field. As such our parallel session programme presented a powerful counter-narrative to some of the taken-for-granted elitism in academic education conferences. We wanted to create safe and critical spaces – and allow the magic of the ecology to take its course.

Education, as I understand it, is about creating spaces for learners to learn to read the world, to recognise the meta-narratives as well as the epistemological and ontological alliances, as well as develop the capabilities and agencies to disrupt these meta-narratives and create new localised narratives in service of hope, equality and justice. Various keynotes and panelists raised the issue that we seriously and urgently needed to rethink our understandings of “open”, “access”, “knowledge production” (see the thought-provoking keynote by Laura Czerniewicz) and “hope.”

Rethinking the relationship between access, justice and equality (as Tressie McMillan Cottom suggested) means resisting the neoliberal discourses celebrating the collapse of public education in order to invite venture capital in to “save” and “fix” education – ala “the shock doctrine” and “disaster capitalism” exposed by Naomi Klein. We were reminded by Audrey Watters (the recording of her keynote to be uploaded shortly) that Africa should not and cannot afford to accept the Silicon Valley narrative that technology is all we need. Designing hope is, however, much more than resistance, but reclaiming (as suggested by Stella Porto) the potential of education as liberation through pedagogies of hope.

What would this mean?

Amongst other things, it would mean noticing and analysing the words and metaphors we use – they are not neutral. Designing hope means stop speaking in the passive voice as if there were no perpetrators, no guilt, no abuse in the name of science and technology. In designing hope we need to resist these discourses and return the gaze on venture capital, on the privatisation of education, the neoliberal dogma. We need to reclaim the discourses, the commons, ourselves.

We should critically look at the words we use in our strategies and planning documents and our obsession to measure, to be top, to be the best, to rise in the rankings.

Somehow we must discover the beauty and simplicity of hope, and designing hope. Hope that a better life of all may, may just be possible.


‘Maybe’ comes with no guarantees, only a chance. But ‘maybe’ has always been the best odds the world has offered to those who set out to alter its course – to find a new land across the sea, to end slavery, to enable women to vote, to walk on the moon, to bring down the Berlin Wall.

‘Maybe’ is not a cautious word. It is a defiant claim of possibility in the face of a status quo we are unwilling to accept… (Young in the Foreword to Westley, Zimmerman & Patton, 2006)


 In this rambling reflection, I tried to make sense of some of the elements and personal “aha” moments at ICDE2015. I did not want to exclude reflecting on the equally brilliant keynotes by Aziza Ellozy, Wayne Mackintosh and Harold Jarche (recordings to be uploaded shortly).

This is a first, tentative sense-making of hosting ICDE2015 – the joy, the rhetoric, the hope.


Westley, F., Zimmerman, B. & Patton, M.Q. (2006). Getting to maybe: how the world is changed. Toronto, Canada: Random House.

Photo credit: http://www.freefoto.com/preview/11-23-4/Broken-Window

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Kangaroo courts on student success in distance education

Mob justice

It is that time of the year again when students’ examination results are scrutinized and various investigations held to determine not necessarily why students failed, but more importantly, who can we held accountable for the state of affairs. Mostly, (however sadly), faculty is held responsible for a downturn in pass rates as inquiries, workshops and think-tanks are held to decide what faculty should do to improve the pass rates of students.

While genuine concern and care about students’ pass rates are laudable and praiseworthy, a lot of the concerns about students’ pass rates are driven by managerialist approaches to managing student success. As national governments hold higher education institutions increasingly accountable by setting performance and student success targets, so does the management of these institutions respond by holding faculty responsible for student success. There is nothing wrong with being accountable and being held accountable for student success. My concern is that much of the accountability discourses on student success in distance education contexts resemble kangaroo courts. A kangaroo court is defined as

1.   a self-appointed or mob-operated tribunal that disregards or parodies existing principles of law or human rights, especially one in a frontier area or among criminals in prison.

2.   any crudely or irregularly operated court, especially one so controlled as to render a fair trial impossible.

The notion of kangaroo courts is most probably as old as humanity where mob justice often provided instantaneous relief for the aggrieved parties without a possibility of a fair trial for the accused who faced his or her creator earlier than expected. The legal online dictionary refers to the term as having originated “to the historical practice of itinerant judges on the U.S. frontier. These roving judges were paid on the basis of how many trials they conducted, and in some instances their salary depended on the fines from the defendants they convicted. The term kangaroo court comes from the image of these judges hopping from place to place, guided less by concern for justice than by the desire to wrap up as many trials as the day allowed.”

There are many similarities between kangaroo courts and what we experience during inquiries into student success. Much of the court hearings are based on circumstantial evidence, a crude use of statistics, a deeply suspect understanding of the inter-dependencies in distance education delivery and a total disregard for rich history of research into student success and retention in higher education. For example, what does it really say if the pass rate in a particular course or module decreased from 2012 to 2013? Was the student cohort the same? Were all other variables such as curriculum content, assessment strategies, focus in the summative assessment, and exam timetables similar? What about institutional and macro-societal impacts such the replacement of servers, a 5-week postal strike followed by a disastrous staff strike?

In these kangaroo courts justice cannot done, neither to students nor to everyone involved in the delivery of distance education. The student journey consists of mostly non-linear, multidimensional, interdependent interactions at different phases in the nexus between student, institution and broader societal factors (Prinsloo, 2009; Prinsloo, 2012; and Subotzky & Prinsloo, 2011). In distance education contexts the amount and interdependency of variables makes it almost impossible to find direct correlation between a single variable and an increase or decrease in the percentage of students passing of failing a module or course.

Knee-jerk reactions to being found guilty in these kangaroo courts are almost the easiest way to please those who must report to higher authorities.  Yes, of course there is always room for improvement in learning experiences, but without thorough research and analysis, the adding of extra learning or reading materials, or even assessment opportunities may not have the desired effect. In a developing country where postal services are unreliable and student and faculty digital fluency and sustainable access to the Internet are still a future dream, there is only so much that a learning experience can entail in a semester of 14 weeks.

Huge numbers of students in developing world contexts study with the help of national student funding and often the funding arrangements are not finalised by the time the semester starts resulting in students registering late. Only once students’ registrations are finalised do they get access to their online study materials and resources while waiting for their printed study materials to arrive. Add to this scenario a postal strike of five weeks and/or a staff strike of three weeks and the whole scenario (and its predicted outcomes) changes.

This is not to say that faculty is innocent. Accountability for student success is, however, an institutional responsibility and in distance education contexts faculty is but one role-player amidst many others that impact on the success of students. To address concerns regarding student success in an institution or in particular departments and modules/courses, the following are tentative pointers to disrupt the belief that kangaroo courts will solve student success.

  • Acknowledge and manage the inter-dependencies between faculty, administrative and support departments (e.g., ICT comes to mind). While the quality of the curriculum and study materials fall within the responsibility of faculty, the teaching of a module/course is embedded and held ransom by teaching periods, assessment regimes, the expectations and workload of faculty, as well as professional development and support.
  • Get the basics right. Some of the basics that come to mind include the careful and informed design of curricula and pedagogy, an enabling environment for faculty, ensuring effective administrative processes, and responding timeously to student inquiries
  • Do research. At present the evidence presented at these kangaroo courts are suspect. Surely we must look for longer trends than just responding to two years? Should we not also compare apples with apples? What information do we need to make sense of change in pass rates – surely the examination statistics are just one factor or do I miss something?
  • Professional learning and development. We urgently need to, one the one hand, recognize the expertises and experiences of faculty, but at the same time, on the other hand, dramatically increase the understanding of faculty (and management) of the historical and recent developments in higher and distance education. Listening to some of the arguments and claims offered during these kangaroo courts makes me shudder. If students would offer us such unsubstantiated evidence and theory-poor arguments, we would not only fail them but consider them to be “not-higher-education-material.” Distance education and teaching in a digital age requires a thorough understanding of the field and specific capacities to respond in informed and appropriate ways. Can it be that some of our faculty are not “teaching-in-a-distance-context-material”?

No one benefits from a kangaroo court approach to addressing student success in distance education contexts. The lynching of faculty may provide brief respite for managers looking for neat answers and commitments to raise student success by a certain margin, but it dehumanises teaching as a moral and value-driven imperative and impoverishes us all.


Prinsloo, P. (2009). Modelling Throughput at Unisa: The key to the successful implementation of ODL. Retrieved from http://umkn-dsp01.unisa.ac.za/handle/10500/6035

Prinsloo, P. (2012, 17 May). ODL research at Unisa. Presentation at the School of Management Sciences, Pretoria: University of South Africa.

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 Education, 32(2), 177—193. DOI: 10.1080/01587919.2011.584846

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