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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Silence as counter-narrative in higher, open, distance and e-learning

ResistanceAt the start of 2014 it is important to claim a space in the blogosphere by making predictions for 2014 or analysing the trends in 2013. Writing a blog on being silent or ‘pausing’ is therefore most probably strange (or maybe not) as a first blog of 2014 … Gere (2001) suggests that we should see “silence in continuity with speech”, and refers to the work of Susan Sontag (1989) who suggested a dialectical relationship between speech and silence where silence becomes a form of speech (p. 207).

In a previous blog, (and my last for 2013), I reflected on my own experience of having aphasia as blogger, being overwhelmed on the one hand by the changing higher education landscape and on the other hand, by my professional identity that was (and possibly still is) in limbo and held ransom by a range of factors. Dominant in the blogosphere was and is the rise, fall and resurrection of massive open online courses (MOOCs) – the MOOC is dead, long live the MOOC. There is also intensification in the discourses on tenure, adjunct faculty and the increasing numbers of contract staff. The rise of for-profit higher education and the funding constraints of public higher education institutions and students, and the further “datafication” (Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, 2013) of students’ learning and potential – all of these created (and still create) a lot of noise and signals. Institutional and personal responses to these changes were a mixture of keeping-up-with-the-Jones-let-us-join-the-MOOCment, crying wolf, anger, revolt, and amongst faculty, often despair and aphasia.

Late in 2013 I discovered an article by Nicoli Humphry – “Disrupting deficit: the power of ‘the pause’ in resisting the dominance of deficit knowledges in education.” Her article made me revisit my thoughts on ‘becoming tongue-tied’ in 2013.

Humphry (2013) reflects on how teachers working with displaced young people use the ‘pause’ or ‘falling silent’ as strategy to disrupt the hegemony of deficit knowledges. In referring to the work of Foucault, Humphry (2013) points out that silence functions as a mechanism in power relations and signifies not only the “absence of sound” but also  “the absence of ‘theories’ and ‘imaginings’ within a discourse, particularly those ‘theories’ and ‘imaginings’ that could oppose ‘privileged, dominant discourses’” (Simpson & Lewis, 2005, quoted by Humphry, 2013, p. 6). Foucault (1980, in Gere, 2001) claims that “silence and secrecy are a shelter for power, anchoring its prohibitions; but also loosen its hold and provide for relatively obscure areas of tolerance” (p. 208). Later authors like Kristeva and others expand this notion and state that “silence provides protection from as well as shelter for power” (Gere, 2001, p. 208).

Humphry’s (2013) interviews with these teachers revealed that “Silence is therefore not just a space of static domination, but a space that shifts and changes with the power accessed within it” (2013, p. 1). When asked questions phrased in terminology that sanctioned the discourses of deficit knowledge, teachers would fall silent and pause – providing themselves a space to “challenge the truth of a deficit discourse and as a signal of something to come” (2013, p. 2). In these silences, “active and complex work was done” (2013, p. 2).

In the context of deficit discourses where “people ‘have’ a deficit” (p. 3)[think about the way we talk about students and faculty]; the deficit discourse allocates blame and responsibility to those with deficits, and “deflects blame from others” – those holding dominant positions.  Mostly those blamed for having some kind of deficit, fall silent and their silence/subjugation to being classified as deficient becomes a powerful tool in the continuing hegemony of the deficit discourse (Humphrey, 2013).

In her research, Humphrey (2013) however discovered “the pause” or falling momentarily silent as an active space of resistance, where the person falling silent uses his or her silence to reformulate and contest the deficit discourse. In pausing the teacher was looking for different ways to answer the question and to provide alternatives ways of describing these displaced students. Silence therefore moved “beyond just existing as a passive, impotent state” (p. 9) to a “strategic defense against the powerful” (Gal, 1989, quoted by Humphrey, 2013, p. 9). In the words following the silence or ‘the pause’, teachers challenged “deficit understandings via a re-speaking of these young people” (p. 9; emphasis added).

Humphry (2013) continues to provide a typology of silence as resistance and proposes that silence can be used to challenge deficit language used by others, as a deliberate and outright rejection of deficit, as negated deficit and even using deficit to subvert deficit practices (see Humphry, 2013, for more detail). She closes her article by proposing that silence or a pause before responding signified “the presence of an uncontested understanding. Second, it acted as a signifier that some type of work is being done. Third, it worked as a precursor to a language that challenged, resisted, and replaced deficit” (p. 14). Deliberately falling silent therefore became a strategy for “the disruption of dominant and damaging knowledges within both education and wider society” (p. 14).

There are many reasons why faculty (and students) fall silent – whether temporarily or alas, permanently. In the current rapid changing higher education context, many may simply just be overwhelmed. As the unbundling of traditional higher and distance education continues, many faculty (and students) may have become unbundled themselves, losing their identities as their skills’ sets became obsolete. Faculty are increasingly classified as having a number of deficits that should be addressed through hit-and-run training consultants or compulsory re-education programmes. Many faculty’s silence may also signify resignation with being part of the managerialist game as neutered and silenced. Can the subaltern speak? (Spivak, 1988). In these instances silence become signals of disengagement and abdication.

Silence can however also be a creative and active space of resistance, of reformulating responses and contesting dominant understandings (Humphry, 2013). (Also see Gere, 2001).

We need to question and contest the often unquestioned deficit understandings of faculty and students.  Humphry (2013) refers to the work of Vaughan (2004) who “encourages us to question, to trouble, and to problematise the everyday, familiar world around us and ‘to identify those discourses, be they prevailing, marginalized or otherwise, that circulate within a particular discursive context and to deconstruct the constitutive and regulatory effects of these’” (p. 5).

Since my last blog in 2013 I was scared that my aphasia would be permanent, that I would never regain my ability to speak/write. After reading Humphry’s (2013) article, I realised that silence can also be a very active, creative and critical space where I can allow myself to rephrase, to contest and reformulate alternative ways of seeing trends in my institution and in a small way, higher education in general. At the start of 2014 I am not sure that I have fully recovered my ability to speak. In many ways I have become distrustful and jaded. My silence and falling silent is most probably multidimensional and not only the result of being jaded, or signifying my disengagement or being disillusioned. I also want to embrace silence as space shelter from but also for power (Gere, 2001).


Gere, A.G. (2001). Revealing silence: Rethinking personal writing. College Composition and Communication, 53(2), 203-223.

Humphry, N. (2013). Disrupting deficit: the power of ‘the pause’ in resisting the dominance of deficit knowledges in education.  International Journal of Inclusive Education. DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2013.789087.

Mayer-Schönberger, V., & Cukier, K. (2013). Big data. A revolution that will transform how we live, work and think. London, UK: John Murray Publishers.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Being tongue-tied and speechless in higher education: implications for notions of (il)literacy #metaliteracy

AphasiaIn an earlier blog this year I shared my belief that I blog not because I necessarily want to or have extra time on my hands, but that I really feel compelled to blog. To stop blogging was, at that stage, unthinkable. Then suddenly I lost my rhythm and the number of blog posts declined rapidly (compared to blogging in 2012). The total tally for 2013 currently stands at only 4 blogs (January 7, January 21, May 22, and June 18).

Often when colleagues commented on my prolific blogging during 2012 I responded that there is so much happening in the general context of higher education and more specifically in the fields of open, distance and e-learning (as well as in my home institution), that I never seem to run out of topics to reflect/comment on.

And then it happened – I somehow lost my rhythm, my voice, not due to a lack of things to reflect and comment on, possibly to the contrary. Reflecting on the reasons for my feelings of being tongue-tied or speechless, there is nothing specific that comes to mind. Not only do I suspect that there are many possible reasons, but the reasons are also interconnected, interdependent and layered.

Was I feeling overwhelmed because there was just so much happening? Or did I become bored with the seeming navel gazing exercises in higher education on the shape, impact and future of massive open online courses (or the many derivatives that since arose)? It also seemed that if you did not blog on some or other technology and how it was to be the solution to all of education’s problems, that you were irrelevant. It was (and possibly still is) unthinkable not to fetishize some or other technology and claim the space to have been the first one to have identified it as a solution or a trend.

Or was the fluidity and liminal spaces I currently experience in my professional and personal lives to blame for my speechlessness? Or did the changes or contestations regarding the need and pace for change in my home institution paralyze me?

Whatever the reasons, I fell silent, not because I did not have anything to say, but because, somehow, the words just would not find their way to my fingers… I felt as if I had aphasia, or speechless and tongue-tied. Many drafts of blogs were left incomplete, “lost in translation” and often discarded. Even this blog took me three weeks to complete. It seems as if I lost my ability to speak spontaneously, to form words or name objects. Even when I could find the words, the words got lost or lost their meaning before they reached my fingers. While aphasia is contributed to brain damage often experienced due to a stroke, I cannot point to one, singular cause. It was not as if I woke up one morning and could not speak or blog anymore. As the frequency of my blogs during 2013 declined, I increasingly became aware of being tongue-tied. Many times I would start with a title for a blog or a first paragraph only to lose interest or lose my way halfway through the second sentence. Words, concepts, images would race through my mind but somehow the coherence, the rationale for blogging was lost in the inner noise and confusion.

Suddenly I have become illiterate (a point to which I will return later), in a world I did not understand anymore.

[By comparing my speechlessness or being “tongue-tied” with having aphasia I am, in no way, trying to belittle or stereotype those living with this terrible and numbing affliction. I also acknowledge that there are different types of aphasia and should you be interested, I advise you to visit the website of the National Aphasia Association or look at this introduction to aphasia on YouTube. To get a sense of what it must be like to live with aphasia, have a look at this video clip of an interview of someone living with Broca’s aphasia. ]

My experience reminds of a paper delivered at an interdisciplinary conference where the researcher used aphasia as metaphor to describe the feelings refugees and displaced persons encounter trying to adapt to their new environments, often in refugee camps in foreign countries. These individuals would then experience feelings of losing their “voice” in their attempt to negotiate their place within new dominant cultures or narratives. While my own loss of voice/words/coherence can possibly be ascribed to a number of factors; all of them share a number of characteristics such as feelings of being overwhelmed, at loss, feeling dislocated, and possibly a personal disbelieve that my speaking would make sense, be understood or make any difference.

The more I reflect on aphasia as metaphor for my experiences as an educational blogger, I realise that the metaphor can possibly also describe the feelings many students and staff experience in the current flux in higher education. Like migrants or refugees trying to make sense of a foreign culture and expressing themselves in a language that is not their own; many of our students and staff may actually feel as if they have aphasia. As these students and staff try to make sense and verbalize their difficulty in expressing their meaning-making, faculty and management may often blame them as being “misfits,” not wanting to change, “not belonging in higher education” or worse still, being illiterate in the 21st century.

Experiencing aphasia may therefore describe the feelings of many faculty and higher education staff when they try to describe and respond to the many and often contesting initiatives and discourses in higher education and open, distance and e-learning in particular. As higher education institutions respond to changing funding regimes, increasing accountability, demands from the marketplace and employers, as well as students as customers and consumers; many staff members may experience something alike to aphasia, being tongue-tied and at loss of words. Their experiences resemble the experiences of many migrants or refugees trying to respond to and negotiate sense and meaning in foreign and uninviting dominant cultures and narratives. At the end these staff members stumble from one performance agreement to another, failing to speak out, possibly giving up believing that speaking out may make a difference.

In conclusion: Many authors reflect on the type of literacies (Elmborg, 2006; Hobbs, 2004) or intelligences (e.g. Gardner, 2008) all of us need in the 21st century. Mackey and Jacobson (2011) coined the notion of “metaliteracy” – and in my presentation during the Metaliteracy MOOC I spoke of “metaliteracy in beta.” In my presentation I referred to Freire (1989) who said that “The act of learning to read and write start from a very comprehensive understanding of the act of reading the world, something which humans do before reading the words” (p. xvii; emphasis added). Being “illiterate, for Freire, was not only the lack of skills of reading or writing; it was to feel powerless and dependent in a much more general way …” (Burbules & Berk, 1999, p. 52).

Earlier I indicated that my feelings of being powerless, speechless and tongue-tied, made me feel illiterate. My silence or illiteracy could have been very easily understood as an inability to respond, or a lack of intellect or expertise in the field. And yet, my silence and being at loss of words was anything but being illiterate. I was overwhelmed, yes, and possibly even despondent of not being able to communicate, but not illiterate or non-caring. I fell silent because I cared, because I tried to read the world (Freire, 1989).

How many of our staff and students are tongue-tied and speechless, but not illiterate?


Burbules, N.C. & Berk, R. (1999). Critical thinking and critical pedagogy: relations, differences and limits, in Critical theories in education: changing the terrains of knowledge and politics, edited by T.S. Popkewitz & L. Fendler. New York: Routledge, pp. 45—66.

Elmborg, J. (2006). Critical information literacy: Implications for instructional practice. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2), 192—199.

Freire, P. (1989). Learning to question: A pedagogy of liberation. New York: Continuum.

Gardner, H. (2008). Five minds for the future. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Hobbs, R. (2004). Media literacy, general semantics, and K-12 education. Et Cetera, 24—28. Retrieved from http://www.generalsemantics.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/61-1-hobbs.pdf

Mackey, T.P., & Jacobson, T.E. (2011). Reframing information literacy as metaliteracy. College & Research Libraries, 72(1), 62—78.

Posted in Change.mooc.ca | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Modernity and its outcasts – the role of higher education

Homo sacerRight now there are about 42 million displaced people in the world.   One in every 170 persons in the world has been uprooted by war.  …  About one third of them are officially recognized refugees because they have crossed an international border.  The other two thirds are so-called internally displaced persons, or IDPs, because they are still within their own country.  Of the world’s 12 million or so refugees, about 3.2 million are in Africa.  In addition, Africa has about half of the world’s 25 million IDPs. 80 % of the world’s refugees are women and children who are more vulnerable to their unstable conditions. 


 The origin of this blog is in an encounter I had last week with an unlikely visitor – let us call him Jean for now (not his real name). Jean will be registering his final courses for a chemical engineering degree at the University of South Africa (Unisa) in 2014. When Jean called me last week to set up an appointment, nothing could have prepared me for what followed. His introduction was simply – “Hello, this is Jean from Burundi.”

It turned out that Jean read an account I wrote about another student “John” in which I shared the amazing journey of a young Zimbabwean who completed his bachelor degree in accounting two years ago at Unisa (link here). Reading my account of the John’s journey, Jean wanted to meet to share his journey.  Here follows an abridged version of his journey…

Jean was born in 1991 of a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother in Cibitoke (Burundi), almost on the border with Rwanda to the North, Zaire to the North West and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to the West and Tanzania to the East. In 1994 civil war erupted in Rwanda “resulting in the genocide of 800,000 Hutu and Tutsi at the hands of Hutu militia and the army” (Stearns, 2011, p. 8). The genocide killed a sixth of the population of Rwanda, sent another sixth into refugee camps and created “the conditions for another cataclysm in neighboring Congo” (Stearns, 2011, p. 13). The fates of Rwanda and Burundi are interlinked– both countries were Belgian colonies, both were inhabited by Hutu majority and a Tutsi minority (Stearns, 2011).  A year before the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the Hutu president of Burundi was assassinated resulting in ethnic violence sending thousands of Hutu’s into the neighboring countries. Less than a year later the Rwandan genocide sent another million Hutus into refugee camps.

Jean found himself, with his father, mother, and two younger sisters in a refugee camp in the DRC, across the river Rusizi in 1991. Jean recounts that his father went back to Burundi to sell some cattle where “Tutsi soldiers and one man (X) from my mom’s family came … and killed my daddy because he has married a Tutsi girl who was my mom. And also wanting to kill me saying that I’m a Hutu.” After some time, Jean, his mother and two sisters moved back to Burundi. In 1994 the Rwandan genocide took place. With the huge influx of refugees from Rwanda and the genocide spilling over into Burundi, the family fled, once again to the DRC. War broke out in the DRC in 1998, and Jean, his mother and two sisters fled with some Congolese and Rwandan refugees across Lake Tanganyika to Tanzania, and found safety in a refugee camp at Kigoma till 2003. During this time Jean and his sisters became separated from their mother and he does not know whether she is still alive. A Tanzanian family temporarily ‘adopted’ Jean and his two sisters just before moving to Nampula in Mozambique. After this temporary host family immigrated to the United States, Jean and his two sisters were brought to South Africa in 2005 by a pastor and placed in an orphanage in Atteridgeville, close to Pretoria. Among the challenges Jean faced was the fact that neither he nor his sisters could speak English, and he was warned that he could only stay in the orphanage till he was 18, which was 3 years from then.

Jean found a French-English dictionary and taught himself a basic understanding of English. In 2006 Jean made a choice that changed his life. At that stage he had the equivalent of Grade 8. Knowing that he just had another 3 years left in the orphanage, he realized that he had to ‘skip’ Grade 9, in order to graduate from high school in 3 years’ time. The first day in class was a nightmare. Not being able to speak English, and the fact that the teachers taught in a mixture of English and local indigenous languages presented itself as a recipe for disaster. But Jean prevailed, studying day and night. He passed Grade 10.

It was then that Jean decided to change direction and choose scientific subjects. Despite the fact that he did not have any prior school experience in the sciences, his marks in mathematics were good and he was allowed to take physics and chemistry. He continued to pass Grades 11 and 12. Being 18, he then had to leave the orphanage, with nowhere to go.

Time does not allow me to share Jean’s journey from the time he left the orphanage to his first enrollment at Unisa in 2009. Allow me just to say that his journey reflects a mixture of tenacity, moments of serendipity, and the kindness of various strangers. Reflecting on this time in his life Jean says “I disciplined myself, I avoided doing wrong things. Above all I’m striving to be educated because I know through education there’s a good future. By doing so my dreams shall come true and [I will] fulfill my mission on this planet Earth. I want to see myself coming (sic) from zero to hero.”

If everything goes well, Jean will graduate with a chemical engineering degree from Unisa in 2014. He still has a temporary asylum seeker permit. This brings me to Zygmunt Bauman’s work “Wasted lives. Modernity and its outcasts” (2004).

In a world where citizenship of a nation state and the ability to participate as consumers are the norms for “belonging”, the unemployed, destitute, and refugees (like Jean and millions like him) are (permanently) excluded and “assigned to waste [where] there are no obvious return paths to fully fledged membership” (Bauman, 2004, p. 16). Bauman (2004) refers to Agamben’s notion of the homo sacer – a category of ancient Roman law that defines a certain category of humans as being without value – whether as citizen or even as sacrifice. “Killing a homo sacer is not a punishable offence, but neither can the life of a homo sacer be used in a religious sacrifice” (Bauman, 2004, p. 32). Humans classified as homines sacri are ‘useless’ and they have lost any intrinsic value they once had. They find themselves in permanent liminal spaces, outside the affordances of citizenship – no longer belonging in their original homelands or being accepted by their new hosts. “Refugees are human waste, with no useful function to play in the land of their arrival and temporary stay and no intention or realistic prospect of being assimilated and incorporated into the new social body; from their present place, the dumping site, there is no return and no road forward” (Bauman, 2004, p. 77).

Refugees and asylum seekers “can be oppressed and exterminated with impunity” (Bauman, 2004, p. 33). Bauman (2004) writes that modern society hosts homines sacri in isolated refugee camps or ‘places of safety’ which prevents them from feeding parasitically off legitimate citizens and consumers. They are seen as not only superfluous and redundant, but as “a cancerous growth gnawing at the healthy tissues of society and sworn enemies of ‘our way of life’ and ‘what we stand for’” (Bauman, 2004, p. 41). Asylum seekers are on a journey “that is never completed since its destination (arrival or return)remains forever unclear, while a place they could call ‘final’ remains forever inaccessible” (Bauman, 2004, p. 76).

So what impact can higher education possibly have on the lives of the 42 million that are classified as homines sacri (Bauman, 2004)?

I am not sure I have the answer. I wish I could say that having an education or even a degree would make a difference in their lives. Many foreigners and asylum seekers may find and actually do find that once classified as a homo sacer you are never welcome – no matter what your qualification or educational background. There is no redemption from being classified as homo sacer.

Higher education curricula further prepare students to successfully participate and compete in an increasingly complex game of survival of the fittest. Graduates who do find employment, can’t wait to assume their rightful role as consumers in the malls of life, and while shopping they will do their best to protect their interests and forget the possibility that awaits us all, of being found “flawed” and classified as homo sacer.

For higher education to make a difference, in whatever small ways, we need curricula that empower students to question the grand narratives of the day, graduates who are willing to disrupt neoliberal schemas dictating the rules of belonging and worth. We need a different type of graduate – graduates who are deeply aware of the injustices of current social, economic, legal, technical and political dispensations and who are willing to speak out, live differently and make a difference.

In order for us to have different types of graduates, we therefore need a different type of faculty…


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

Stearns, J.K. (2011). Dancing in the glory of monsters. The collapse of the Congo and the great war of Africa. New York: PublicAffairs.

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

Coursera Condescension


A very critical post on by “Posthegemony” on (some of) the claims by Coursera.

Originally posted on Posthegemony:

Daphne KollerYesterday I watched the video of Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, speaking at UBC a couple of weeks ago. After her presentation, three UBC professors who have taught or are currently teaching a Coursera MOOC contributed to a panel discussion.

In many ways, neither the talk nor the discussion were particularly illuminating. Koller gave a talk that, I understand, she has been giving for some time. It’s the basic schtick for Coursera: “The Online Revolution: Learning without Limits.” It begins with the mathematical sublime, stunning us with the sheer numbers who register or show initial interest in Coursera offerings. And it transitions smoothly through the prestige of the universities who have signed up so far (“30 of the top 60 universities worldwide,” represented by their logos) to the pathos of individual cases.

For the first of three “vignettes” that she provides, we dwell on Raúl Coaguila, a Peruvian who won…

View original 511 more words

Posted in Change.mooc.ca | Leave a comment

Alliances of hope: breaking cycles of poverty and despair

AlliancesAmidst increasing concerns that higher education does not seem to make a dent in unemployment rates; many stakeholders (including students) ask various questions not only with regard to the purpose of higher education, but also about its curricula, assessment strategies, collaboration with employers and other stakeholders and the different components of post-secondary school education. Faculty members complain that the quality of students entering higher education has deteriorated, employers criticize the unpreparedness of graduates to enter the world of work, and graduates and students find themselves caught in an increasing maze of uncertainty where having a degree will not necessarily open the doors to employment, and join the ranks of the ‘haves’ compared to the growing numbers in the queues of the ‘have-nots.’

There are various responses to the above. Entrepreneurial skills and curricula have become a religion where converts are promised a life of self-employment and riches, employers and regulatory bodies increasingly demand input in curricula threatening to de-accredit institutions and faculties who do not comply, and many corporations start their own universities and training programmes. As funding for public universities continue to decline, higher education institutions have very little choice but to sell out to the highest bidder, the market. Giroux (2013) writes – “Increasingly, even curricula are organized to reflect the sound of the cash register, hawking products for students to buy and promoting the interests of corporations that celebrate fossil fuels as an energy source, sugar-filled drinks, and a Disney-like view of the world.”

According to The Economist (April 27th – May 3rd) “26 million 15-25 year olds in developed countries are not in employment, education or training” (p. 9), a rise of 30% since 2007. The World Bank estimates that about 262 million young people in emerging markets are “economically inactive” resulting in an “arc of unemployment.” Interestingly, the same issue of The Economist questions the belief that economic growth will be the solution – it is now mooted as a “partial solution” (p. 9). Disturbingly, “In North Africa university graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-graduates” (p. 9).

Henry A Giroux is one of the most vocal scholars today questioning the role of higher education’s impact on the lives of millions permanently disenfranchised. Giroux (2013) launches a scathing attack against “predatory capitalism [that] spreads its gospel of power, greed, commodification, gentrification and inequality.” Public education is sold to the “apostles of a market-driven ideology” resulting in many public institutions being closed or privatized (Giroux 2013). Those public higher education institutions that do survive, seem to promise students that a degree will allow them to join the ranks of the ‘haves’ and socially mobile middle and upper classes living in gated secure communities. The reality is, however, that an increasingly small number of graduates do join these ranks and the rest are doomed to join the ranks of those who have “ad hoc, temporary, insecure and part-time jobs” (Bauman, 2012). “Nothing has prepared them for the arrival of the hard, uninviting and inhospitable new world of the downgrading of grades, the devaluation of earned merits, locked doors, the volatility of jobs and the stubbornness of joblessness, the transience of prospects and the durability of defeats; of a new world of stillborn projects and frustrated hopes and of chances ever more conspicuous by the their absence” (Bauman, 2012, p. 47).

While the above picture is indeed dismal, even more concerning are the thousands of youth, often from already marginalized communities, who are not in employment and not in education, the so-called Ni-Ni generation (Bauman, 2012) – who are regarded as “human waste to be relegated to the zones of terminal exclusion”(Giroux, 2013).

Despite the fact that there are many in government and higher education that seem to be quite comfortable with the above scenario, many of us are not.

So how do we break the stranglehold of “predatory capitalism” (Giroux, 2013) on education and prepare students to critically engage with and disrupt the make-belief and fickle world of consumerism? How do we break cycles of poverty, hopelessness and permanent despair? How do we prevent the start of new cycles of “downward mobility” (Bauman, 2012, p. 46) and offer hope to those who “inhabit zones of hardship, suffering and terminal exclusion” (Giroux, 2013)?

The answers to these questions are not simple. A good place to start would be to consider the following:

  1. We cannot (and should not) isolate education and educational programmes from broader social, economic, political, technological, environmental and legal environments and forces. Higher education cannot, on its own, bring about change in reversing established legacies of marginalization where forces outside of education maintain, perpetuate and benefit from these legacies.
  2. While higher education can (and should) critically engage with their curricula, their assessment practices and pedagogies, higher education is often (mostly?) on the receiving end of neoliberal funding regimes, legislation and regulatory frameworks. Higher education institutions and individual faculty are therefore, to some extent, held captive by policy, regulatory and legal frameworks preventing more nimble and critical approaches.
  3. The direct relationship between higher education and the employability of our graduates should therefore be interrogated and redefined. While the inclusion of entrepreneurial skills in curricula is definitely not the sole solution, it may be part of a broadening of the skills set our graduates have. Not every graduate will become an entrepreneur, but at least an increasing number will. There is, however, a caveat…
  4. I would plead for a critical entrepreneurship aiming at engaging with “zones of hardship, suffering and terminal exclusion” (Giroux, 2013), making a sustainable difference in environmentally sustainable and equitable ways. Should our entrepreneurship programmes just aim to increase the number of acolytes to “predatory capitalism,” we will not break and prevent cycles of hopeless and disenfranchisement.
  5. We need to design curricula and learning journeys that critically engage with and disrupt the mantra of neoliberal ideologies and rampant consumerism that deny the “massive inequality, social disparities, [and] the irresponsible concentration of power in relatively few hands” (Giroux, 2013). We need to reject curricula and pedagogies that are sterile templates aimed at skills and improving test scores. Our curricula should question and illuminate how past and current relationships of authority, knowledge and power shaped and continue to shape life on earth. “The role of a critical education is not to train students solely for jobs, but also to educate them to question critically the institutions, policies and values that shape their lives, relationships to others, and myriad connections to the larger world” (Giroux, 2013).
  6. Students also have to accept the responsibility to ensure that their choices of programmes and courses increase their skill set for an increasingly uncertain and fluid world. There is no longer space for claims of entitlement. There are so many free, open and affordable online opportunities available that there is almost no excuse anymore for those who have reasonable access to the Internet. I realize that making use of these online offerings depends on connectivity and the cost and sustainability of connectivity – therefore these offerings will not necessarily be the educational revolution that we need.
  7. Lastly, no stakeholder can address the immense inequality and “combined forces of a market driven ideology, policy and mode of governance” (Giroux, 2013) on their own. Higher education, NGOs, governments, the corporate sector and alumni need to form oppositional, community-based alliances of hope that strategically dismantle legacies of disenfranchisement and prevent new cycles of poverty and despair.

In closing:

If our age is an age of “excess, redundancy, waste and waste disposal” (Bauman, 2013, p. 21) with “spectacular spaces of consumption” (Giroux, 2013) on the one hand, and vast numbers of people who are permanently disenfranchised caught in cycles of employment and despair on the other, we can neither plead ignorance, nor have lone-ranger approaches. We need alliances, alliances of hope.


Bauman, Z. (2012). On education. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Giroux, H. (2013, May 20). Marching in Chicago: Resisting Rahm Emanuel’s neoliberal savagery. Retrieved from http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/16478-marching-in-chicago-resisting-rahm-emanuels-neoliberal-savagery

The Economist (April 27th – May 3rd). Generation jobless. The global rise of youth unemployment.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

2013 – An African making sense of signals and noise in higher and distance education (#etmooc)

2013 - an African perspectiveDisclaimer: I write this overview of some of the challenges facing higher and distance education in Africa in 2013, from the specific context of my location in South Africa. I cannot, however, speak on behalf of Africa. Even my identity as an African is continuously contested and rejected on grounds of my skin colour (white) and gender (gay).  Despite these contestations, being African is an identity that I chose to embrace – with all the responsibilities, challenges and baggage any identity marker brings. (If you are interested, read my reflection – Being an African: some queer remarks from the margins)

During my December break, I read Nate Silver’s “The signal and the noise. The art and science of prediction” (2012). As someone who is numerically challenged (another disclaimer), but someone who is embedded in making sense of the claims and predictions in higher and distance education, I thought the book would introduce me to the limits and potential of predictions and forecasts in higher education. Though the book did introduce me to the discourses and complexities surrounding modelling and predictions, I found huge parts of the book difficult reading due to the book’s assumptions that everyone has a working knowledge of American baseball, American politics and poker… Despite these drawbacks, the book provided me with glimpses of the need to distinguish between noise and signals in higher education. Silver (2012) states that most of the information produced today is “just noise, and the noise is increasing faster than the signal” (p. 13).  So how does one go about in making sense of all the claims and counter claims in higher and distance education? How does one recognize (and predict) patterns and signals?

The matter is, however, not so simple (maybe it never was?). Audrey Watters, in her blog “Why I’m Not Making Ed-Tech Predictions for 2013”, makes a personal case for not attempting to predict trends in educational technology in 2013, while Tony Bates in his first blog of 2013, “Why predicting online learning developments is risky but necessary” claims that, despite the issues raised by Watters, he feels that, not only is he in a position to make predictions, but also that it is necessary. In a follow-up blog “Outlook for online learning in 2013: online learning comes of ageBates then continues to make a number of predictions such as

  • that online learning will “come of age” in 2013 and move from the periphery to the centre
  • there will be an increase in hybrid learning that will necessitate “the re-design of courses to integrate the best of online and campus-based teaching”
  • online learning will become an integral part of institutional strategic plans
  • outsourcing will increase, such as, inter alia, 24/7 technical support, learning management systems, learner support/tutoring, and course design
  • the evolution of massive open online courses (MOOCs) will continue
  • open textbooks will become the norm
  • the use of tablets will transform pedagogy
  • flexible course design will become a necessity
  • Mexico and Asia needs to be watched in the international domain.

Bates’ last prediction namely “expect the unexpected” includes “monsters lurking in the shadows” such as the privatization of post-secondary education in the USA, Apple, Google, Facebook or Amazon entering higher education offering educational opportunities at a profit, with accreditation by elite universities and a possible backlash against the open educational resources (OER) movement with the tightening of copyright legislation. Also see Steve Wheeler’s series of posts on the future of education.

Many of the challenges facing international higher and distance education in 2013 such as the increasing convergence between traditional face-to-face higher education and distance education and e-learning, changing funding regimes, the impact of neoliberalism, the economic downturn and technology,  also impact on higher and distance education on the African continent. These international trends in higher and distance education do and will continue to shape higher and distance education on the African continent and in South Africa. Castells (2009) warns that while not everyone is included in a global networked society, everyone is affected – “exclusion from these networks, often in a cumulative process of exclusion, is tantamount to structural marginalization in the global network society” (p. 25). This process “overwhelms the local – unless the local becomes connected to the global as a node in alternative global networks constructed by social movements” (p.26).  Many of the challenges facing higher education on the African continent are embedded in the nexus of local versus global, alternative epistemologies and changes in international and local geopolitical alliances and networks.

In the rest of the blog I therefore try to make sense of the changes and challenges facing higher education with specific reference to higher and distance education in South Africa and on the African continent.

  1. The link between higher education and (un)employment. With an unofficial unemployment rate of close to 40%, and many graduates joining the queues of the desperate-for-work, we need to re-examine and possibly redefine many of our assumptions about higher education. Except for the growth in the NiNi (Not-in-employment, not-in-education) generation, we also have to consider the huge number of students in higher distance education who drop out before their second year, or take longer than 8 years to complete their qualification. We have to seriously reconsider, inter alia,
  • The structure of our qualifications. In the South African higher education context, should students not complete their qualifications and “exit” at an earlier stage, this leaves them with just an uncompleted qualification. The earlier regime of “exit-level qualifications” were discarded a number of years ago. I realise there were (most probably) sound reasons for the change (e.g. issues of subsidization, etc.), but I sincerely think that the new regime leaves students who exit their qualifications earlier than planned, poorer in a number of ways.
  • Our belief that tertiary education is necessarily appropriate or necessary for everyone. After decades of excluding prospective students on racial grounds, and a non-functioning Further Education and Training (FET) sector, tertiary education is seen (and marketed) as a basic ‘right’, and your ticket to employment and the ‘good life.’ For many years South Africa’s primary and secondary school education did not (and still do not…) allow learners to discover and realize their potential. Any attempt to withhold this ‘right’ through admission requirements, capping of registration numbers and bridging courses are seen as dehumanizing and perpetuating the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. We need to critically question and engage with our assumptions, claims and counter-claims regarding the role and composition of post-secondary school education in the 21st century.
  • Not only are most students totally under-prepared for higher and distance education, the institutions themselves are equally under-prepared to deal with these students’ specific needs, unrealized potential and the daunting reality that their dream for a better future will be (once again) deferred. When square pegs don’t fit round holes, we usually blame the pegs, and we never question the shape of the hole…

 2.       Going digital and mobile. For years the debates on the impact of technologies on African higher education were shaped by the constructs such as the ‘digital divide’, and ‘digital natives’/ ‘digital immigrants.’ These constructs have been deconstructed and discredited as neither being based on empirical evidence nor sufficiently nuanced (see for example, Czerniewicz & Brown, 2010; Bennet & Maton, 2010)  Mobile technologies (e.g. smart phones and tablets) offer huge potential for African higher education. The challenge is however how to harness this potential for teaching and learning. While the cost of smartphones have decreased and is forecasted to decrease even further, the cost and sustainability of connectivity are continuing concerns in our efforts to optimize the potential of mobile technologies. With students having access to a wide range of devices, institutions are faced with the possibilities and challenges of offering device-independent teaching and learning with implications for formats, readability, content-generation or use, etc.

3.       Going massive and open. While there is a lot of hype regarding the potential of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to include those not currently in higher education, recent research show that current enrolments in MOOCs are limited to those already in higher education or employment (see Beyond the MOOC Hype: Answers to the Five Biggest MOOC Questions, Part 1). Though these initiatives do offer potential for those not formally enrolled in higher education, we have not touched the immense need to open education for those who have never completed their primary and secondary school education. While the massification of higher education is embedded in the discourses and practices of addressing the legacies of apartheid, we cannot ignore the bigger questions regarding the role of higher education (see point 1), accreditation, the need for sustainable business models for massive (and open) higher education, and addressing the needs of the millions outside the epistemologies of privilege currently germane in higher education.

4.       Out with the old, in with the new (or not?) While present day fashion has made ‘old’ and ‘worn’ fashionable (you cannot buy a pair of jeans without it being torn in several places and with some permanent and carefully placed dirt marks), education seems mesmerized by the ‘new’ and the ‘latest.’ While I don’t contest that some of the latest advances in technology do offer interesting educational opportunities, this does not mean (necessarily) that we need to (always and immediately) discard the ‘old.’ Surely there is a way to embrace the potential of the ‘new’ while (still) nurturing and supporting the best of the ‘old’? We seem to have sold out to thinking in binary terms (where ‘old’ is bad and ‘new’ is good) instead of embracing the fluidity of continuums where ‘old’ and ‘new’ can function interchangeably and appropriately dependent on the context.

 5.       Can anything good come from Africa?  Africa and Africans have, for years, been defined (and are still defined) by North-Atlantic discourses and knowledge regimes as being backward, dark, second-best and in need of sympathy (not to mention development aid).  The implications of ‘being defined’ by these discourses and knowledge regimes, include, but are not limited to the following:

  • For years we internalized the superiority of North-Atlantic knowledge regimes and imported curricula and text books. While there is an urgent need to acknowledge that indigenous knowledge systems and ways of seeing the world are equally worthy for inclusion in our curricula and assessment practices, we should also be wary to romanticize, essentialize and even invent the past and the local. All knowledge is ideological – whether produced in the North-Atlantic or whether local. Just because local knowledge is indigenous does not make it neutral.
  • Many African scholars and researchers can testify how difficult it is to be acknowledged as an equal in the research, publishing and conference regimes in North-Atlantic contexts.  Our African addresses seem to exclude us from many international conferences and publishing regimes. Many African scholars’ attempts to be accepted by North-Atlantic journals are met with rejection because the research was ‘too African’, parochial and not suited for an international (read North-Atlantic) audience, and/or that the article/paper does not contribute to the discourse (framed by North-Atlantic assumptions and epistemologies). Don’t get me wrong. As a researcher I don’t want to be included in a conference proceeding or journal just on the basis of my address. African scholars and researchers can also not expect that our research can be less rigorous or meet different criteria just because we are from a developing world context.
  • While many graduates produced in North-Atlantic contexts have very little understanding of the impact of imperialism and colonialism on world and specifically African history, African graduates cannot afford to be ignorant regarding world history and the major events that shaped Africa and the world. I spoke to two graduates this week, an engineer and an accountant, who had no idea of the history of slavery (past and present), the genocides that shaped and still shape African and world history, and a general historical frame of reference of how geopolitical power relations changed over the last 100 years. Has higher education so sold out to neoliberal market ideologies that we continue to produce employable graduates with no critical sense of location?

 In conclusion: Higher and distance education on the African continent are shaped, in many direct and indirect ways, by international trends and developments. Our responses to these trends and challenges are, however, also shaped by broader geopolitical, economic and environmental trends – many of which are embedded in the legacies of colonialism and an on-going realignment of geopolitical networks and alliances. The list of challenges I shared in this blog is anything but complete or comprehensive – but it may provide readers with glimpses of some of the issues African higher and distance education face in 2013…

Postscript: In my previous blog, I shared my personal approach to blogging. I may have created the (incorrect) impression that blogging comes ‘naturally’ and ‘easy’.  This week’s blog was one of the most difficult blogs I ever wrote. I pondered, phrased and rephrased, deleted, and started over.  This blog was difficult to write due to a number of factors, including the amount of ‘noise’ in higher and distance education and the way my personal identity and insight (or lack thereof) are shaped by my habitus, cultural capital and context. This blog is therefore not an African perspective on 2013 – but one African’s attempt to find patterns and make sense of the world of higher and distance education.

Posted in #etmooc | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments