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

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

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

What I heard…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What’s in a name?

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

We are eating ourselves and staying hungry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With eyes wide shut

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

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

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

What we hear and/or don’t hear…

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

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

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

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

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

A tentative end and start of a conversation

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

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

Image credit: https://pixabay.com/en/hearing-talking-communication-157385/

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Ecologies of open: Inclusion, intersections, and interstices in education

Ecologies of open

Image credit:I’ve used two sources for the above collated image. The image of the head was sourced from https://pixabay.com/en/art-sculpture-scrap-sculpture-human-1699977/ while the image of the network was sourced from https://commons.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Egoi_network.png

 Call for Proposals

We are excited to invite you to submit a proposal for a chapter in our edited book, Ecologies of open: Inclusion, intersections, and interstices in education.  We intend to approach Athabasca University’s open press for publication in 2018. 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: http://www.budapestopenaccessinitiative.org/open-access-toward-the-internet-of-the-mind

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 https://opendistanceteachingandlearning.wordpress.com/ 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 diannec@athabascau.ca

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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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Failing our students: not noticing the traces they leave behind


Image credit: https://pixabay.com/p-366446/?no_redirect

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

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

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

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

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

I do not share this reflection looking for sympathy.

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

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

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

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

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

Why have I not noticed this earlier?

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

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

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

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

I thought I cared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 I did not notice.

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Some thoughts on blogging as educational activism


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

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

On finding my (own) voice

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

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

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

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

Defining educational activism

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

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

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

The goals of the Action track were as follows:

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

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

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

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

Pointers towards a typology of educational activism


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

To amplify, retweet, re-blog, reiterate

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

To translate, to give voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

To speak/write out

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

To protest/disrupt

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

To be quiet, to hospice and not do anything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To hack, leak and bot as forms of play

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


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

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

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A blog on (not) blogging


toporImage credit: https://pixabay.com/en/bird-death-dead-829242/

Nowadays when someone asks me whether I blog, I am tempted to say “I used to blog, but not anymore” but then the next question would be “So, why did you stop blogging?” and that, my dear readers, is what this blog is about. In future I can just refer those who ask the question “Why have you not blogged recently?” to this blog to explain why I am not blogging… Mmm, somehow there is a Mobius strip in this narrative, but anyway, here we go…

My most recent blog was on 25 August 2016 – Nested Scholarship: Towards A Scholarship of Transgression, Anger and Hope – a very long blog (I admit) – in which I tried to map my own scholarship practices in the context of the (at that stage, current) higher education landscape in South Africa. Before this specific blog I attempted make sense of my own networked and networking scholarship – The (not so) secret life of a networked and networking scholar, posted on 19 July 2016. Compared to my blogging since 2011, the frequency of my blogs this year is really dismal. Guilty as changed. Mea culpa. Not that I have not tried. I’ve checked this morning and in my 2016 folder titled ‘Blogs’ there are 15 unfinished blogs – ranging from some only having a title and a first paragraph, to a few that are actually almost complete. So what happened?

In this blog on (not) blogging I try to make sense of my recent experiences as blogger. To a certain extent this blog is a confession. But this blog is also a defiant manifesto of trying to make sense of my own scholarship in an increasingly quantified and competitive world of academic scholarship. So please bear with me.

I recently came upon an article by Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti titled “Torpor and awakening” (2016) in which she shares the experience of making sense of picking up a dead hummingbird on campus

It looked really fresh, and I did not know what to do because I did not want people to step on the tiny bird. … So I wrapped the dead body of the hummingbird in my scarf, I sang it a couple of songs, and I put it in my bag…” (par. 5).

She forgot about the dead hummingbird in her hand bag until later the day when she  remembered and as she took it out of her bag she found that it was showing signs of life. This ‘resurrection’ was explained when she found information on the Internet showing that when hummingbirds experience external threats, “they go into a state of sleep where just 8% of its metabolism keeps it going” (par. 9) – a state described as ‘torpor.’ Torpor is a survival strategy by animals to survive temporary resource constraints or context-specific trauma. In her article she continues reflecting on the torpor she herself experiences in many of the people surrounding her with their exaggerated sense of importance,  entitlement and living in bubbles that separate them from themselves, others and the Earth.

Though the article resonated with me on a number of levels, it was the description of torpor that resonated the most strongly.  It somehow gave me a handle, a way of making sense of my own experiences of shutting down, Ctrl-Alt-Del, of playing dead, of stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off feelings. I often wish I could hibernate for a while, just allowing my mental and emotional processes to calm down, and wake up, be resurrected with a new sense of purpose and recovered mojo.

In 2013 I  blogged about these feelings of being overwhelmed, of doubting whether speaking would make a difference, I compared my experience with that of having aphasia or being tongue-tied and illiterate. I wrote how often “I would start with a title for a blog or a first paragraph only to lose interest or lose my way halfway through the second sentence. Words, concepts, images would race through my mind but somehow the coherence, the rationale for blogging was lost in the inner noise and confusion.” I added that in trying to make sense and trying to cope with the pressures and changes in the higher education landscape I resembled “migrants or refugees trying to make sense of a foreign culture and expressing themselves in a language that is not their own.” I found myself illiterate, not knowing the language of performativity and the pervasive quantification of everything I do.

Now, three years later, my feelings of having aphasia and being illiterate, of being a perpetual imposter in disparate discourses resemble torpor, of shutting down, of pretending to be dead…

I’m not dead. I am just overwhelmed.

What is interesting, however, that while experiencing torpor, I am more alive than ever. While lying still on the ground, I am intensely aware of the voices around me, of demands on me.  I listen to the various petitions that faculty and researchers should just have more ‘grit’, ‘pull up their socks’ and have a ‘growth’ mind-set.  I just cannot. I.Just.Can’t. I am lying still on the ground. I hear you. I hear you that I should appreciate the fact that I have tenure. I hear you. I hear you when you shout that I am benefiting from years of inter-generational privilege as a white person in an increasingly unequal society.

I hear you. I hear you. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Allow me to reflect shortly on competitiveness in the academe, the increasing sense of precarity, the information overload, and what I did, so far, this year. Please bear with me.

In a context where funding grants for research are becoming increasingly competitive and the majority of grant applications are not successful; where applications for attendance of foreign conferences are increasingly contested (#TheHungerGames); and where your gravitas as researcher, networked professional and scholar is measured by your h-index, number of citations, who follows you on Twitter, the number of Likes on Facebook and exploding hearts on Twitter; failure is not an option. Competitiveness has become one of the great unquestioned virtues of contemporary culture (Will Davies, 2014). Davies points out that competitiveness in the markets is not a feature of modern markets, but “the fundamental reason why markets were politically desirable, because it conserved the uncertainty of the future.” In a (higher education) context where ‘winning’, ‘world-leading’, ‘excellence’ are valued and rewarded, the majority of staff are condemned to “also rans”, or “losers” – “thank you for your grant application. This year we received many more applications than in the past, and for which we have funding. We therefore, unfortunately, regret to inform you that your grant application has been unsuccessful. We wish you all of the best.”

I am lying still on the ground. I hear you.

David Frayne refers to the state of work as being in crisis with the erosion of stable and satisfying employment being something is something of the recent past, and where “mass unemployment is … an enduring structural feature of capitalist societies.” We’ve become “a society of workers without work: a society of people who are materially, culturally and psychologically bound to paid employment, but for whom there are not enough stable and meaningful jobs to go around.” And then this: “Perversely, the most pressing problem for many people is no longer exploitation, but the absence of opportunities to be sufficiently and dependably exploited.” To be unemployed has become “a form of deviance.”

I am lying on the ground. I hear you. I cannot afford to lose my job. Not now. Not ever. So I cancel the appointment with friends in order to work on the latest draft of yet another article. As a relative late bloomer in the field of higher education scholarship, I cannot say ‘no’ to an invitation to submit a chapter, an article and/or present a paper. This year also saw the first invitations to deliver keynote addresses. I just could not say no. For an African scholar to be invited to keynote at an international education conference is just not an opportunity to be missed. On the other hand, I am a white, male scholar – so my invitation probably fits the often hollow but filled spaces of  #JustAnotherWhiteAllMalePanel.

[Excursion: one of the incomplete blogs is a reflection on how I try to make sense of these invitations as another white male, but for now just take note that #IKnow that with these invitations comes a lot of issues].

So in this carnival of academic scholarship and publishing, I feel like a slave being crowned as King for a day. I know that the day may pass, but for now, I dance, I provoke, I make fun of the real kings and queens , I make fun of myself while not affording myself one moment to take my eye of the clock.

I can’t afford to lie down. I must get up. I must keep moving. But fuck, I am tired.

And then there is the issue of comparing my blogging tempo, content and style with the blogs of others in the field – those who, when I read their blogs, I swear I will never write again. I am just not quick enough and/or profound enough. Often I have the distinct feeling that while I am still trying to formulate my words in the first paragraph of a new blog, someone else has responded, claimed the space, wrote about the topic – and so the moment has passed and the unfinished blog shuffles out of sight, embarrassed that, somehow, it did not mature fast enough to claim a space in the increasing fluidness of a Twitter feed.

So, my dear friends, in this blog I am singing to myself, Carefully. Caringly. As I unwrap my soul full of expectation looking for signs of life.

I’m not dead. I am just overwhelmed.

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Nested Scholarship: Towards A Scholarship of Transgression, Anger and Hope


Some background to this blog

This is a slightly reworked version of the keynote I presented on 24 August 2016 at the Vaal University of Technology, South Africa.

This keynote flowed from a range of influences such as conversations with Maha Bali  and Kate Bowles, my recent Fellowship awarded by the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute (#digped), University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg (VA), my engagement with Chris Gilliard during the Lab and the wonderful privilege I had to attend the #action track, facilitated by Audrey Watters. I was also deeply touched by my visit to the Martin Luther King Jnr Memorial in Washington DC.

This keynote was an attempt to make sense and map my sensemaking of these disparate influences in the specific context of South African higher education. Since 2015 and continuing into 2016, the South African higher education landscape was brought to standstill as students protested against a range of issues such as the cost of and access to higher education, issues surrounding the language of tuition and the need to decolonise curricula.  See, for example this selection of articles.

In this keynote I reflection on scholarship as nested praxis – nested at the intersections of my own history as scholar and trends and discourses in the broader higher education sector. Tessmer and Richey (1997) proposed that we are “condemned to context” (p. 88) and we ignore the variety of factors indigenous to a particular context at our own peril.  The notion of scholarship as nested foregrounds “[c]ontext is everything” (Jonassen, 1993, in Tessmer & Richey, 1997, p. 86).


What does a scholarship of teaching and learning mean in an age where higher education is confronted with the impact of funding constraints and the increasing demands to do more with less? How does our obsession with quantifying and measuring everything, impact on our understanding of what a scholarship of teaching and learning can be?

How do we engage and reflect on the scholarship of teaching and learning while acknowledging that even participating in the debate is entangled in issues surrounding gender, race, white privilege, class, socio-economic income, the widening inequalities and the continuing legacies of colonialism and apartheid?

How do I as a white 57-year old gay white male participate in these discourses? What happens when I quote the work of bell hooks, Audre Laudre and Paulo Freire and when I propose a scholarship of teaching and learning as nested in transgressions, anger and hope? How do I participate, or should I rather remain silent because my participation is inevitably coloured and tainted by my race, gender, white privilege and language (de Oliveira Andreotti, Stein, Ahenakew & Hunt, 2015; Tuck & Yang, 2012; Tuck & Gaztambide-Fernández, 2013)?

What does it mean to think about the scholarship of teaching and learning “living in a democracy that is at the same time violently, pathologically unequal” (Naidoo, 2016)?

What does it mean to reflect on the scholarship of teaching when many educators have given up hope that there is a way out of the constant quantification of learning and teaching, where their teaching and students’ learning are reported as numbers on spread sheets?

For many academics and researchers, the constant and all-consuming race to produce outputs and achieve predetermined outcomes makes us lose our ability to make choices, to decide how we want our bodies to be used. We forget our tastes and preferences. Life turns to beige (Bowles, 2014).   Death by a thousand paper cuts.

And finally, how does one reflect on the scholarship of teaching and learning when our norms and standards for determining and valuing the scholarship of teaching and learning still resemble a pre-Internet age? What does the scholarship of teaching and learning look like when the boundaries between online and offline, between our personal and professional lives and identities have become perforated, where office hours are disappearing and where we are online 24/7?


Delivering a keynote is an immense, fragile responsibility. Immense because of the centrality of the keynote in the sequence of events. Fragile because I don’t have the answers. What I do know is that I have a feeling that we cannnot discuss the scholarship of teaching and learning as if our campuses did not burn, as if there were no student protests…

In this keynote I would like to slow down the discourses on what a scholarship of teaching and learning entails. I want to make sense of what reflective scholarship means amidt student anger and protest. In this keynote I would there like us to consider a scholarship of teaching and learning as nested praxis – as nested in transgression, anger and hope.

Towards a Nested Scholarship

Nested is an interesting word calling forth images of structures made or used by birds to provide a safe environment for their eggs and their young. When something is nesting or nested it also refers to those living creatures or beings who occupy a particular dwelling or place. To therefore talk about ‘nested’ scholarship calls attention to the context or contexts in which a scholarship of teaching and learning takes place. The notion of scholarship as ‘nested’ acknowledges and accounts for its embeddedness in disparate discourses and practices but also acknowledges and accounts for the fact that scholarship engages and occupies a particular space as an active, deliberate act.

To reflect on scholarship as ‘nested’ therefore has two purposes. We need firstly consider how the shape of our environment impacts on the purpose, scope, value and measurement of what counts as scholarship. Nested scholarship, however, also refers to the way we occupy, how we (re)claim this space we call our home. In considering how we occupy these spaces of scholarship, I would make the claim for a nested scholarship of transgression, anger and hope.

Considering some of the discourses, the actors and claims

There is a long and rich history of scholarship of teaching and learning – ranging from defining scholarship to redefining its scope, its content and its use. Even before the seminal work by Boyer (1990) was written, there were attempts to define the parameters and content of the educator as a professional (e.g. Bucher & Strauss, 1961; Eraut, 1988). Since Boyer’s work (1990) Scholarship reconsidered: priorities of the professoriate, there were several attempts to define, redefine and describe the multiple roles of the professional educator (e.g. Arreola, Theall & Aleamoni, 2003; Braxton, 2005).

In 1990 Boyer petitioned for a redress or a “balancing” of teaching as equally necessary and worthy of reward and reflection then research. He defined scholarship as

…not an esoteric appendage; it is at the heart of what the profession is all about. All faculty, throughout their careers, should themselves, remain students. As scholars they must continue to learn and be seriously and continuously engaged in the expanding intellectual world (1990, p. 36).

Boyer explored four notions of scholarship, namely the scholarship of teaching, application, integration and discovery. These four dimensions of scholarship are distinct but interrelated.

At this stage allow me to refer to five issues or factors that shape reflective scholarly teaching:

  1. Disciplinary research is still considered as the gateway to tenure, fame and employment. Despite the rhetoric that values inter-disciplinarity and reflective teaching practice, what counts for tenure and promotion in the academe is a proven track record in research in a specific discipline.
  2. We cannot and should also not forget our obsession with the quantification of research and our commitment, whether as institution or as individual, with rankings and citations. This mad race to the top possibly results in the shallowing of research and institutional discourses informing teaching and learning.
  3. Teaching and research are often seen as incompatible and many staff would prefer not to have both responsibilities. While such a proposal may be worthwhile to consider, the essence of such a proposal ignores the crucial role administrative and professional staff play in reframing and redefining a scholarship of teaching and learning.
  4. And then there is the issue of the definition of what is considered to be scholarship/research. For example, departmental reports are not considered as Research (with a capital ‘R’), and these reports often die as they are rehearsed in various committee meetings and gather dust in a portable hard drive in someone’s drawer.
  5. And lastly, let us not forget the impact of the increasing outsourcing of teaching to adjunct faculty and temporary appointments.

While I will address these factors, I think there is a more important aspect to consider – the impact of context.

Scholarship at the Intersection of Anger and Hope

Nested scholarship means to face the reality of the deep seated anger that students express, anger towards a democracy that has let them down, anger at the continued dominance of white male voices and militarised responses to students’ anger. In the words of Fikeni (2016) a nested scholarship should play

…a critical role in transforming poverty from banality and into a political category that refuses the deliberate erasure of historicity implied in that post-1994 rainbowism that glibly suggests that this country is ‘alive with possibilities.’ ‘Alive with possibilities’ for whom?

Nested scholarship needs to account for the reality that

The very physical structures such as statues and buildings form part of the institutional violence and are centered in the critique of the university as a space involved in the subjectification and disciplining of black bodies according to colonial ideals, which insist on assimilating the black subject into the simulcra of the dominant social order as its perpetual, problematic ‘other’ (Fikeni, 2016).

Nested scholarship means to engage with those who resist our ideas, our syllabi, and our carefully planned schedules of submission dates and who express anger against being assimilated into the accepted discourses of what it means to be black, female, lesbian, queer, and the ‘other’.

Nested scholarship means to listen to students who say ‘Fuck white people’ to articulate how they feel as they grapple to find a vocabulary to describe black suffering and the continued exclusion from curricula, access to opportunities and the constant blamed for being under-prepared and, somehow, deficient. Fikeni (2016) states that statements such as ‘Fuck white people’ articulates the feeling that  “white people have screwed us to a point that is beyond discourse, that’s beyond political language, that’s beyond respectful, understandable, engagement; so fuck you.”


We no longer want empty reconciliation without justice, we demand justice and the expression of our anger is not a mere baseless prejudice. There is no vocabulary to explain black pain or the fact that white people never had to give anything for all the evils they committed (Nhlapo, 2016).

Only when we allow people to name their pain, their disillusionment, their anger, is their space for liberation, for hope (hooks, 1994). Paulo Freire (1994) states that we “certainly cannot ignore hopelessness as a concrete entity, nor turn a blind eye to the historical, economic, and social reasons that explain hopelessness” (p. 2). Freire (1994) states that “without hope there is little that we can do” (p. 3). And hope is born from rage and love (p. 4).

So how does a nested scholarship engage with the anger, the disillusionment, with the claims of ‘fuck whites’?  Freire (1994) writes that events or artefacts such as art or statues “are always wrapped in thick wrappers. They have been touched by manifold whys. Only some of these are close enough to the event or the creation to be visible as whys” (p. 10).  We therefore need to engage and take the time to unwrap the many layers and to understand the processes guiding expressions of anger, to find processes to realise our hope. We need to become conscious, engage with the lived experiences of students, before we attempt to understand, judge, assimilate their voices in a keynote or a Powerpoint.

Audrey Lorde (1981) in reflecting how (black) women respond to racism states that she “cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivialises all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action.”

There is a real danger that in considering the scope, intersections and boundaries of a scholarship of teaching and learning, we choose to ignore those who are in our classes, those who have entrusted us with their dreams, with their memories and with their hopes. There is a real danger that we escape into discourses surrounding the first year experience, lecturers’ perceptions of students, considerations of blended and online learning and the literacies our students and staff need and ignore the deep fissures and fault-lines.

I have a suspicion that the recent student protests are evidence that the “tectonic plates” (Booth, 1991) of the continued legacy of colonialism and apartheid are shifting. Booth (1991) writes “The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive” (p. 260).

In listening to the voices and the anger, we need to ask new questions, reconsider our assumptions and beliefs about the curriculum, about community engagement, about teaching and research. The tectonic plates are shifting. How can the scholarship of teaching and learning not be affected?

I would therefore like to think of a scholarship of teaching and learning as a scholarship of transgression


bell hooks (1994) in her book Teaching to transgress urges educators and all of us

to open our minds and hearts so that we can know beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable, so that we can think and rethink, so that we can create new visions.  I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions – a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom (hooks, 1994, p. 12).

I don’t think the scholarship of teaching and learning in the current higher education landscape in South Africa will find an adequate response to students’ anger and disillusionment if we are not willing and allowed to transgress, to disrupt the boundaries of what is acceptable, to formulate new questions, to move against and beyond boundaries. Have we become so complacent that we think we can survive without listening to the movement of the tectonic plates? Have we forgotten what it means to consider the “classroom [as] the most radical space of possibility in the academy”(hooks, 1994, p.12)? Have we become so disinterested and bored as we dance to the tune of the quantification of teaching and learning that we cannot consider teaching “as an act of resistance” (hooks, 1994, p. 10)?

hooks (1994) acknowledges that

The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom (p. 207)

 We simply cannot be seduced into the comfortable space of thinking of the scholarship of teaching and learning as being primarily about the tension between teaching and research. We have to stop. We have to slow down the debates surrounding teaching and learning and listen to the tectonic plates shifting. A scholarship of transgression will require new rules for engaging with new questions, new rules for validating knowledge claims, a new dispensation on who is allowed to speak.

We have to think of the scholarship of teaching and learning as nested praxis.

Considering Nested Scholarship: Some Pointers

I close this keynote with exploring the possibilities in seeing the scholarship of teaching and learning as nested in

  1. the lives of our students;
  2. our attempts to address the legacy of colonialism and apartheid
  3. disciplinary and inter-disciplinary contexts
  4. the discourses on ‘who is in the trenches’
  5. the intersections of research, community engagement, and teaching; and
  6. digital networked worlds

 Nested in the Lives of our Students

A nested approach the scholarship of teaching and learning has to consider the aspirations and needs of our students. It is easy to pay lip service to our institutions being student-centred while ignoring the life-worlds, aspirations and needs of our students. Last year the higher education sector was brutally awakened when students on our campuses halted teaching.  Students demanded to be taken seriously, to be heard. Students demanded to find themselves, their lives and histories in our curricula, and in the languages of tuition.

Students claim that we have become anesthetised to think about, in the words of Naidoo (2016) of “the possibility of another kind of society, another kind of future… We have to recognise that the ruling elite, and in that I include the management of our universities, have lost the capacity to dream us, to move us, into a new time” (Naidoo, 2016). Our students don’t trust us anymore with defining a future in which they can believe in.

Nested in our Attempts to Address the Legacy of Colonialism and Apartheid

Recently, at the 15th Ruth First lecture, Leigh-Ann Naidoo (2016) made the claim that we need

to kill the fallacies of the present: to disavow, no, to annihilate the fantasy of the rainbow, the non-racial, the Commission [referring to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission),… even of liberation. The second task is to arrest the present. To stop it. To not allow it to continue to get away with itself for one more single moment. And when the status quo of the present is shut down the third task … to open the door into another time… There has to be a measure of shut down in whatever form, for the future to be called (emphasis added).

When we consider the different nuances or elements of a scholarship of teaching and learning- the scholarship of teaching, application, integration and discovery – how do we interrogate and question the fallacies of the dominant discourses of neoliberalism that have become the prescribed mantra in higher education? How do we stop and arrest the present? How do we open the door, create spaces to consider different ways of being, different epistemologies and different futures?

 Nested in (Inter)Disciplinary Contexts

Though I would be the first one to claim that research encompasses much more than disciplinary research, we cannot and should not disavow the reality that a proven research record in a particular discipline is, in all probability, (whether we agree with it or not), the gateway for career progression in higher education. Despite our claims that we value teaching as equal to research, our performance management systems and most probably the very core of higher education is based on the premise that disciplinary research somehow is more important than other forms of scholarship.

I would, however, propose that to only value a scholarship in discovery as pertaining to specific disciplines is a huge impoverishment of the value of a reflective scholarship of teaching, application and engagement.

But all of this is not new. We’ve been here before and we will most probably have the same conversations five years from now. In order to move our efforts forward to broaden the scholarship of discovery to also include a critical engagement with the issues inherent in the teaching of particular disciplines.

 Nested in the institutional discourses of ‘who are in the trenches”…

I started at the University of South Africa as a student advisor and tutor in 1995. I was introduced to the narrative that somehow administrative staff were the pen-pushers, second-class citizens in the galaxy of academics as moons, bright shining stars, supernovas and suns. No matter of the fact that many of us had qualifications equivalent to those in this galaxy, we were still second-class. We were admin. Nothing more, but also nothing less.  In our dealings with the different issues students brought to our attention, we were often on the receiving end of derision and disbelief. We were confronted with claims from faculty that “Students should just read the rules. Students should just study harder. Students should just make a plan to get hold of the latest edition of the prescribed book authored, often than not, by the academics. We advised students.” We were confronted with claims from students that (some) faculty just don’t care, just don’t understand, and who are not open to (re)negotiate the terms and conditions of a learning experience. We had access to their choices and often helped them to make more informed choices. But somehow the reports we wrote, and statistical analyses we produced, were not really regarded as scholarship. These analyses were only reports of daily life in the trenches.

In 2002 I became an curriculum and learning developer (or instructional designer) and had to negotiate a space with academics where my insights in design and in student learning were often regarded as interesting, but not of consequence to how lecturers designed learning experiences.  In the seven years I was a learning developer, I saw myself as fulfilling the role of an interlocutor, of translating not only the needs and realities of students and everything I read in the field to discipline experts who often saw the design and production of learning experiences as an unnecessary evil, preventing them from doing disciplinary research. I however also met many educators who were not interested in a career as a researcher, but who were passionate and curious about the ways their students learned, their students’ life-worlds, and retention and pass rates. But somehow the reports we wrote, the evidence of careful decisions on what technologies to include and which ones to exclude were never regarded as research.  Again I found myself in the trenches – negotiating meaning and meaning-making, supporting academics to design more caring and ethical learning environments. It was during these years that I attempted writing my first scholarly articles. I learned how to play the game, how to use the redevelopment of learning experiences and curricula as legitimate foci for scholarly consideration. I read more than ever before. I promised myself that I will stake a claim in the world of academic publishing.

In 2014 I was fortunate to be appointed as a research professor with the sole task to publish or perish. As I soon discovered, it was a matter of publish and perish.  I suddenly found myself in what many consider to be the crème de la crème of academia – a research professorship. Again I found myself in the trenches – different and possibly deeper trenches.

I would often hear academics refer to themselves as being in the trenches, dealing with under-prepared students, a non-enabling institutional culture and of course, dealing with arrogant administrative, non-responsive and overpaid staff. I still remember the days when I was an administrative offer, of low rank, constantly negotiating my place in the galaxy of academic superstars.

One thing we can do to grow a scholarship of teaching, discovery, engagement and integration is to acknowledge that we are all in the trenches, possibly at different locations on a battlefield. It is also important to acknowledge that our students are not the enemy, but are also in the trenches as they negotiate unresponsive staff, epistemologies and ontologies that are far removed from their own, but somehow differently valued.

Imagine a world in which all of us can be allowed to make sense of our engagement and our wayfinding and share our sensemaking and wayfinding in safe and caring spaces. What can we do to tap into the rich experiences of those who do not have research as key performance area, not as objects for our research, but as equal partners?

Nested in the Intersections of Research, Community Engagement, and Teaching

A nested scholarship also acknowledges the links between and the intersections between Research (with a capital ‘R’), the communities as participants in our meaning making and wayfinding and our curricula, and not as research subjects. Higher education institutions and academics would often defend the fact that they have their ear to the ground and that we know the needs and challenges of the communities around us?

Engaging with this claim, I have the following question:

If we had our ear to the ground (as we claim to have) how come we did not see the frustration and anger of students simmering below the surface? If we were so in touch with the reality our communities face, why were we totally unprepared for the calls from students that we have lost all legitimacy in formulating futures that they can relate to? Were we so obsessed with chasing citations and increasing our gravitas and shine in the academic galaxy of stars and suns, that we shunned the experiences of those who had difficulty in looking at our galaxies as they were coping with curricula and management structures that were oblivious to their needs and their claims?

In the past we saw the communities surrounding higher education as providing the research subjects we were looking for to answer our research questions and needs. Is it not time that we take our cue from the communities we serve and ask them what are the questions they would like to see solved and negotiate a space for research at the nexus of teaching, research and community engagement?

In considering the role of higher education in an age of supercomplexity, Barnett (2000) proposes that the role of knowledge production in  higher education must change from “an endorsing machine to one that seeks to produce radically new frames of understanding would require considerable changes in the ways in which research is funded, evaluated and managed” (p. 417; emphasis added). In a world where higher education has long since ceased to be the only producer of knowledge and knowledge claims, our  role has changed to scrutinise these new knowledge claims and “lay bare their structure and to provide a more informed understanding of them” (p. 418). Barnett (2000) furthermore states: “If knowledges are proliferating, if any account of the world is contestable from all manner of directions, if our sense of who we are and our relationships to each other and to the world are insecure (as they all are), being overtakes knowledge as the key epistemological concept” (p. 418; emphasis added). The last role Barnett (2000) envisages for higher education in an age of supercomplexity is to enable individuals “to act purposively in an environment where all bets are off, where everything is uncertain and where everything is challengeable” (p. 419).

One possible way forward towards a nested approach to scholarship is to engage in scholarship at the intersections of co-formulating revolutionary accounts of a world, a world where the distinctions between theory and practice have become perforated and in cases obsolete as we grapple with global climate change, the vast and pathological inequalities and injustices in our society and a realisation that not one discipline has all the answers.

Nested in Digital Networked Worlds

As higher education increasingly move to embrace digital technologies and online learning, we also have to reconsider what scholarship looks like in an age where the boundaries between professional and personal identities and lives become pierced and possibly disappear. I do not, for one moment, want to disregard the reality that the dividends of the digital age are not evenly distributed and that many in the world and in South Africa are still excluded from having affordable, sustainable and secure access to the Internet (World Bank, 2016). Having said that, Castells (2009) warns that while not everyone is connected, everyone is affected. While we need to be distrustful of claims that access to technology will solve all of the world’s problems (Morozov, 2011), we have to consider what it means to be human in a digital age (Siemens, 2016). How do we think about being  human in a digital age when the main narrative of being connected is formulated and narrated by white men and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley (Watters, 2015)? How does the fact that our lives are increasingly surveiled and our choices determined by algorithms impact on the issues of justice and equality in the communities we serve (Pasquale, 2015; Smith, 2016)?

What does nested scholarship look like when the devices we wear, and the social media we use, result in us being online (and tracked) even when we are offline?

In an “onlife manifesto” Floridi states that “ICTs are not mere tools but rather environmental forces that are increasingly affecting (1) our self-conception (who we are); (2) our mutual interactions (how we socialise); (3) our conception of reality (our metaphysics); and (4) our interactions with reality (our agency)” (p. 2).  He proposes that it is increasingly impossible to imagine our lives without and/or separate from these technologies and this “huge ethical, legal, and political significance” and heralds four major transformations, such as

(a) the blurring of the distinction between reality and virtuality;

(b) the blurring of the distinction between human, machine and nature;

(c) the reversal from information scarcity to information abundance; and

(d) the shift from the primacy of stand-alone things, properties, and binary relations, to the primacy of interactions, processes and networks (Floridi, 2015, p. 2).

 What are the implications for a scholarship of teaching and learning? As we engage with the potential to collect, analyse and use the digital lives of our students and staff, we may be tempted to disregard the ethical implications of such surveillance…


In the beginning I acknowledged that delivering a keynote is an immense, fragile responsibility. In this keynote I attempted to provide a personal account of the factors that impact on the scholarship of teaching and learning. I briefly engaged with some of the historical and current voices in framing and un-framing the scholarship of teaching and learning before mapping my view of a nested scholarship – nested in transgression, anger and hope.

Martin Luther King

I would like to end with the words of Martin Luther King Jnr

True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice (1958)

 I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits (1964)

A scholarship of teaching and learning as nested praxis opens up the possibility to have the audacity to hope.


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