Designing hope: Some ramblings and personal reflections on ICDE2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to the “opening ceremony”…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would this mean?

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

Photo credit:

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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8 Responses to Designing hope: Some ramblings and personal reflections on ICDE2015

  1. sharonslade says:

    thank you for sharing, Paul. Although I haven’t experienced the preparation in any way to the same extent that you have, I have had a sense of some of your concerns and experiences along the journey to ICDE. As I couldn’t be there, I shared some of the live streams and twitter feeds and it was clear that here was something quite different. Despite your feelings that parts of the presentation may have papered over what lies beneath and behind the gloss, I think you’ve achieved something of huge credit to yourself, to Unisa and to your great African ‘country’ . At the very least, there’s a greater awareness of (some of) the issues and of the potential to create and shape change. Bravo.

  2. Laura Czerniewicz says:

    Great post Paul, I love the way that you name the un-nameables!

  3. Pingback: #dlRN15: Hope, Hands, and Stories | catherinecronin

  4. Maha Bali says:

    Thanks for this, Paul. I love that you made yourself so vulnerable here. Not only by exposing a lot about South Africa, but your own life, too. I have led a privileged life, but never thought to be concerned over how visitors would look upon all the ugliness that lives in my country which is equally over-glorified for its distant & recent history AND overly made scary/ugly in media.

    Thanks also for your reflections. I still need to listen to Tressie’s keynote. It literally had never occurred to me that edu couldn’t solve all the world’s ills. It seems obvious now. But I think it’s a grand narrative we have not questioned critically. Thanks for pointing it out. Off to watch now!

  5. Wow, Paul. Reading this moved me in a peculiar way. I feel both a deep gratitude and sense of overwhelm. Your reflections are personal and strike a chord which goes beyond just thinking about speakers, messages, and what went on at the conference. You take us to that place of uncertainty in ourselves and our endeavors and ask the big troubling questions: what difference does/can/will this really make? What makes me/us believe? Such unvarnished and piercing reflection by someone who has just organized a resoundingly successful conference is a huge testament to your commitment to what I would call ‘the critical imperative.’
    “Designing hope” receives a tremendous power through your descriptions here. Although I could not attend the conference, I felt welcomed from afar and encouraged in my belief that there may be ways for me to contribute. Just following via Twitter let me feel hopeful. This post reinforces and fortifies those feelings. So, thank you, Paul, for giving all of us the gift not only of your generous hospitality but also of your unflinching willingness to ponder the tough stuff.

  6. Pingback: Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015: The Politics of Education Technology - Uncle Sam's Blog

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