Call for Expressions of Interest: Data poor: Mapping data inequalities and its impact on student support and success

Rationale for the Call

Learning analytics as research focus and practice has promised to impact positively on the quality of teaching and learning, depending on, inter alia, having access to students’ digital data or, as the Call for Papers for the inaugural 2011 Learning Analytics and Knowledge Conference stated, the digital data that learners “throw off”. As well as access to students’ digital data, the effectiveness and appropriateness of interventions to support student learning may also be influenced by how student learning is understood, by the amount and quality of the collected data, as well as the quality of any subsequent analysis. These factors also impact on the scope, appropriateness of institutional responses to identified risks and/or learning behaviors.

What is often not considered are disparities in students’ access to sustainable and affordable connectivity and the subsequent impact of these disparities on the quality and scope of data provided, and flowing from this, on data analyses and institutional responses. There is a danger that students who have less access to sustainable and affordable connectivity may be doubly disenfranchised. Firstly given their reduced opportunities to engage and then as a result of a higher classification of being ‘at risk’ (due to lower levels of participation and engagement) which may marginalise them even further, often beyond the moment and/or context of being labelled ‘at risk’. 

Our first question informing this Call for an Expression of Interest is to consider the notion of students’ ‘data poverty’ and the subsequent impact on effective, appropriate and ethical learning analytics and more generally, student support and success.

The notions of ‘data poor’ (referring to ‘not having access to data’) and ‘data poverty’ (the socio-material effects of being data poor) is more often associated with educational contexts in the Global South, or as a pertinent issue for the Global Majority. The recent pandemics have illustrated that data poverty is not only a problem among the Global Majority, but rather a global problem. Many individuals, social groups and communities are living off the grid, not because of choice, but as a result of geographic location, low income or exclusion based on other combinations in the intersectional spectrum. Given these often mutually constitutive characteristics and/or contextual factors, these individuals are “not being able to get a data contract, lack of privacy and local infrastructure” (Lucas, Robinson & Treacy, 2020), seriously hampering their access to the affordances of connected services and opportunities, and even survival in a networked society (Palmer, 2020). (Also see Hayes, 2021; Hayes, Connor, Johnson & Jopling, 2022; Palmer, 2016).

Milan and Treré (2020) refer to two data gaps corresponding with the notion of ‘data poverty’ – “The first gap concerns the data poverty perduring in low-income countries and jeopardising their ability to adequately respond to the pandemic. The second affects vulnerable populations within a variety of geopolitical and sociopolitical contexts, whereby data poverty constitutes a dangerous form of invisibility which perpetuates various forms of inequality”.

As the measurement, collection, analysis and use of student data attempts to make students’ learning visible, the invisibility of those students who are ‘data poor’ impacts not only on them, but also on the effectiveness of the resource allocation, pedagogical strategies and funding in/of their higher education institutions.

Our second question informing this Call for an Expression of Interest is to consider the notion of institutional ‘data poverty’ and the subsequent impact on effective, appropriate and ethical learning analytics. We invite submissions that will explore other nuances of data poverty, such as when institutions do not have the digital infrastructure, policies and capacity to measure, collect and analyse student data, and/or where the format (analogue and/or digital), quality and/or scope of student data which institutions have access to simply do not allow institutions to get a holistic picture of students’ learning. In these cases, data poverty refers to institutions being ‘data poor’.

The notion of institutional data poverty may include institutions who are data rich, but information and/or analysis poor (Spiker, 2014; Sticher, 2021) to which Goodman (2016) refers as the “Data rich, information poor syndrome”. 

Expression of interest

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

  • The purpose of this book is to specifically address the current gap of published/reported theoretical, conceptual and empirical research focusing on on the impact of ‘data poverty’ in all of its variations as explained above in the rationale for this Call – whether referring to students access to data and the impact on learning analytics, or institutions lack of access to either quality and holistic data, or lack of digital infrastructure, resources and/or skills.
  • This Call spans to separate, but linked research areas namely learning analytics, and the broader field of institutional research.
  • Proposals should be very clear regarding their value contribution to the purpose of the Call for an Expression of Interest. Successful proposals will add to our understanding of the specific challenges/potential of learning analytics and/or the broader context of institutional research.
  • Conceptual, theoretical, qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods approaches are welcome

Possible publisher

We sincerely hope to find an Open Publisher for this book if we can obtain funding (in process), but if not possible, we will consider other reputable academic publishers

Who we are

Paul Prinsloo

Paul Prinsloo is a Research Professor in Open and Distance Learning (ODL) in the Department of Business Management, College of Economic and Management Sciences, University of South Africa (Unisa). He is a Visiting Professor at the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, Germany, a Research Associate for Contact North I Contact Nord (Canada), a Fellow of the European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN), member of the Executive Committee for the Society of Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR) and serves on several editorial boards. In the South African context Paul has a B3 research rating confirming his considerable international reputation for the high quality and impact of his research outputs. Paul is an internationally recognised speaker, scholar and researcher and has published numerous articles in the fields of teaching and learning, student success in distance education contexts, the ethical collection, analysis and use of student data in learning analytics, and digital identities.

He blogs at and his Twitter/Mastodon alias is @14prinsp

 Sharon Slade

Dr Sharon Slade worked in open, distance education for almost 20 years, as a senior lecturer at the Open University in the UK. She led the work on development of the University’s Policy on the ethical use of student data for learning analytics, arguably the first of its kind in Higher Education worldwide. She has since contributed to further framework developments, notably with Jisc, Stanford University and Ithaka S+R, New America and the International Council for Open and Distance Education. Sharon was an academic lead for learning analytics projects within the Open University, leading work around ethical uses of student data, operationalisation of predictive analytics and approaches aiming to improve retention and progression. Keynotes and publications include papers around student consent, the obligation to act on what is known, examining the concept of educational triage and broader issues around an ethics of care. She now works on data insight at Earth Trust, an educational and environmental charity near Oxford.

Mohammad Khalil

Dr. Mohammad Khalil is a senior researcher and lecturer in learning analytics at the Centre for the Science of Learning & Technology (SLATE) within the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Bergen in Norway. Khalil, as an Erasmus Mundus granted scholar, has a Ph.D. with distinction from Graz University of Technology in Learning Analytics in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). He worked as a Postdoc at Delft University of Technology for almost 2 years in Technology Enhanced Learning. Khalil leads several international projects in learning analytics, including Erasmus+ and PederSather. Khalil is currently an associate editor of the International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning (iJET) and a Norwegian representative for Standard Norway to the European standardisation committee (CEN/TC 353) on MOOCs. His key research interests include Technology Enhanced Learning, AI in Education, Educational Data Mining, and Privacy and Ethics.

Proposal Submission Details

Proposal length should be maximum 600 words, not including references

Chapter length should be a maximum of 7,000 words, including references

Submissions will be:

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

Peer review

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

Format details to follow upon proposal acceptance

Submissions should be submitted to

Important dates

January 23, 2023First Call for Expressions of Interest
February 28, 2023Second Call for Expressions of Interest
March 13, 2023Final Call for Expressions of Interest
May 1, 2023Proposal deadline
May 15, 2023Notification of Provisional Acceptance
July 19, 2023Full Chapter Submission
August 28, 2023Review Results ReturnedChapters provisionally selected 
October 2, 2023Resubmission of provisionally accepted submissions
November 6, 2023Reviews returned 
December 4, 2023Final submission of chapters
January 8, 2024Submission of final manuscript to publisher

Target audience

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


Goodman, S. (2016). Data rich, information poor (DRIP) syndrome: is there a treatment?

Retrieved from 

Hayes, S. (2021). Postdigital positionality.  Developing powerful inclusive narratives for learning, teaching, research and policy in higher education. Brill Publishing.

Hayes, S., Connor, S., Johnson, M., & Jopling, M. (2022). Connecting cross-sector community voices: Data, disadvantage, and postdigital inclusion. Postdigital Science and Education, 4(2), 237-246.

Lucas, P.J., Robinson, R., & Treacy, L. (2020). What is data poverty? NESTA. Retrieved from

Milan, S., & Treré, E. (2020). <? covid19?> The Rise of the Data Poor: The COVID-19  Pandemic Seen From the Margins. Social Media+ Society, 6(3), 2056305120948233.

Palmer, S. (2016, May 1). Rich Data, Poor Data: What the Data Rich Do – That the Data Poor and the Data Middle Class Do Not! Retrieved from 

Palmer, S. (2020, March 11). Can the data poor survive? Straight Talk. Retrieved from 

Spiker, S. (2014, November 24). Data rich, analysis poor. Retrieved from 

Stichter, A. (2021, June 16). Data rich and information poor. IIoT World. Retrieved from 

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An African Network for Learning Analytics Research


As African higher education becomes increasingly digitised and datafied, higher education institutions will have access to not only more student data, but also  a greater variety and granularity of data, creating opportunities to utilise the data for a greater understanding of student learning, more appropriate and timely student support, and more efficient planning and resource allocation. There is ample evidence that learning analytics can, inter alia, help faculty and instructional designers to develop more responsive learning and teaching experiences, and help the timely identification of students who may be at risk of failing or dropping out. Despite the fact that higher education institutions have the legal mandate to collect, analyse and use student data to improve students’ learning and ensure institutional sustainability, there are increasing concerns about the scope of data collection, the transparency of the collection and analysis processes and who have access to the collected data and who the data are shared with.

These concerns are further exacerbated by the reality that not many African higher education institutions have the necessary digital infrastructure and/or expertise to develop homegrown learning management and analytical systems and are, as such, easy prey for international commercial and venture-capital companies that offer African higher education institutions one-stop solutions. Africa is, in many respects, a new frontier for educational technology venture capital and expansion, and many authors warn of a recolonisation of Africa.

Paul Prinsloo (University of South Africa) and Rogers Kaliisa (University of Oslo, Norway) are both members of the Executive of the Society of Learning Analytics (SoLAR) and have published several articles on learning analytics on the African continent, and are expanding potential collaborations with other researchers across the African continent. [See CVs at the end of this Call]. 


We would like to invite individuals who are interested to join a network of African scholars, policy makers and researchers with an interest in learning analytics to  complete a short expression of interest available here.

We commit to not sharing your contact details and/or personal information with anyone without your explicit permission.

Compiling a list of interested individuals and their affiliations, will allow us a sense of the scope for proceeding towards the establishment of an African Network for Learning Analytics Research (ANLAR). We will provide everyone who provided us with their contact details an update on the number of individuals who expressed interest in joining such a network.  

Next steps:

  • Register ANLAR as a Special Interest Group (SIG) with SoLAR.
  • Arrange meetings with interested individuals to explore the potential for collaboration in creating institutional awareness regarding the potential and issues of concern in learning analytics.
  • Applying for international research funding for collaborative research projects.
  • Sharing of scholarly resources, opportunities. 

Short CVs for  Paul and Rogers

Paul Prinsloo is a Research Professor in Open and Distance Learning (ODL) in the Department of Business Management, College of Economic and Management Sciences, University of South Africa (Unisa). He is a Visiting Professor at the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, Germany, a Research Associate for Contact North I Contact Nord (Canada) and a Fellow of the European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN), and serves on the Executive Committee of the Society of Learning Analytics and several editorial boards. In the South African context Paul has a B3 research rating  confirming his considerable international reputation for the high quality and impact of his research outputs.. Paul is an internationally recognised speaker, scholar and researcher and has published numerous articles in the fields of teaching and learning, student success in distance education contexts, the ethical collection, analysis and use of student data in learning analytics, and (digital) identities. 

He blogs at and his Twitter alias is @14prinsp

More info at:,-departments,-bureau,-centres-&-institutes/School-of-Management-Sciences/Department-of-Business-Management/Staff-members/Prof-P-Prinsloo and Google Scholar

Rogers Kaliisa is a Doctoral Research Fellow in Learning Analytics at the Department of Education, University of Oslo, Norway. His doctoral research focuses on using learning analytics, and in particular, learning analytics dashboards as a tool to support teachers in making data-informed learning design (LD) decisions in blended learning environments. He is also interested in mobile learning, virtual reality and use of multi modal learning analytics to support collaborative learning in co-located settings. His research utilizes networked approaches (e.g. social and epistemic network analysis) and automated discourse analysis to make sense of students’ data generated from online learning environments and how it relates to teachers’ intended pedagogical objectives. He currently serves on the executive committee of the Society of Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR) (elected as a student member) and co-leads SoLAR’s special interest working group. .

More info at:  and Google scholar:

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


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

Key takeaways

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

Key questions

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


Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 13.21.40.png

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

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

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 13.24.06.png

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 13.25.44

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

Thinking of vulnerability eco-systemically

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

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

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

Vulnerability is relational.

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 13.34.07.png

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 13.58.01.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 14.03.19

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

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

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

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 14.04.33.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 14.09.07

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 14.29.27.png

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2020-08-12 at 14.45.16

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

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

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Special issue: call for papers


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 Who we are

 Paul Prinsloo

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

 Sharon Slade

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

 Mohammad Khalil

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

 Submission Details

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

Proposal length should be maximum 600 words, not including references

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

Submissions will be:

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

Peer review

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

Format details to follow upon proposal acceptance

Submissions should be submitted to

Important dates

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

Final Selection of 8 (eight) Chapters

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

Target audience

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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









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Fear is a broken compass



Fear is a broken compass.

Fear is medication that does not work anymore.

Fear is convulsions at night.

Fear is not-knowing and to continue walking

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear is a broken compass.

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

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

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

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

I lost my way.

Fear is a broken compass.

Or maybe someone stole North.

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

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


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

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

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

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

Fear is a broken compass.

Fear is medication that does not work anymore.

Fear is convulsions at night.

Fear is not-knowing and to continue walking

Image credit:

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

On being a white, male keynote


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

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

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

There was once a little girl…

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[Image credit]

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

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

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

Academics with red shoes…

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

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

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

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Many faculty are left breathless, anxious and increasingly demoralised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do we understand …

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

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

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

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The increasing concerns about overwork?


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

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

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

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

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

Higher education as field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[Altbach & Finkelstein, 2014]

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am emptied out.

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

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

Talking back/Advocacy

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

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

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

Two other publications worth noting are:

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

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

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

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So what is left for us to do:

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

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

We can become stuck in self-care…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

What I heard…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What’s in a name?

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

We are eating ourselves and staying hungry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With eyes wide shut

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

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

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

What we hear and/or don’t hear…

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

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

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

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

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

A tentative end and start of a conversation

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

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

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Open(ing) Education

Ecologies of open

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

 Call for Proposals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[signed] Dianne and Paul

Dr. Dianne Conrad

Dr. Paul Prinsloo

Who we are

Dianne Conrad

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

 Paul Prinsloo

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

Submission Details

Important dates

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

Target audience

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

Proposal length should be maximum 600 words, not including references

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

Submissions will be:

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

Peer review

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

Format details to follow upon proposal acceptance

Fore more information please contact: Dr Dianne Conrad

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These classifications had immense consequences for many generations since.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

I hope this blog starts a conversation.

I close with a poem by Abhay Xaxa –

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

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

I am not the soul waiting to be harvested,

Nor am I the lab where your theories are tested,

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

or your entertainment at India habitat centre,

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

your help, your guilt, medallions of your victory,

I refuse, reject, resist your labels,

your judgments, documents, definitions,

your models, leaders and patrons,

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

your words, maps, figures, indicators,

they all create illusions and put you on pedestal,

from where you look down upon me,

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

I make my own tools to fight my own battle,

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

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