Failing our students: not noticing the traces they leave behind


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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 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


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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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments

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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The (not so) secret life of a networked and networking scholar

[ImaParkge credit: ]

Not a day passes or there is not another blog or article about the creeping commercialisation and surveillance on Twitter and Facebook. No matter how often I would check my privacy settings on both of these social networking platforms, it would seem as if there is no way to stay ahead of changes (often without notification), scams, surveillance or an alert shared by another user.  In the light of increasing concerns and discomfort among many academic users of these platforms, I continuously re-assess my own use and online practices, and increasingly have to defend my (continued) use…

So why am I still (for now) using these platforms despite many others opting out?

Allow me to share my current sense-making of what these two social networking platforms mean for me as an individual, as activist, as scholar and researcher…

Let me start with Twitter…

I discovered Twitter when I attended the ALT-C conference in Manchester in 2009. I remember sitting in the audience listening to debates on questions such as “Is the LMS dead?” …  Twitter was all the rage at the conference with many sharing stories and anecdotal evidence of their own practices and how Twitter enriched their teaching. I created a Twitter profile, tried to develop a sense or vision for my own practice but I really found it hard going. It just did not make sense, at first. I struggled to find my own voice, my own practice. I remember stressing about not having something ‘original’ to tweet, and my early attempts at originality disappeared in the forest where no-one hears when a leave is falling. But I kept going, slowly but surely building up a network of scholars in the field that I followed, with a lesser amount of scholars who followed me back. I mean, what can someone from a relatively obscure university in darkest Africa really contribute to the network of knowledge production and dissemination? My insecurities on being accepted in the Twitter network as having something to say or contribute showed an eerie resemblance to my insecurities and inability to play the field in a transforming higher education sector.

Then in early in 2012, my Twitter account was hacked. I clicked on a link in a direct message with the tempting message “Look what video of you I found on the Internet” – or something as obscure and possibly embarrassing as this. Almost immediately my Twitter feed was full of angry followers who asked me to stop sending them direct messages. No matter what I did, there was no-way out of this Kafkaesque nightmare. Changing passwords did not help so I committed hara-kiri – took one for the team.  I started over. New profile name. New passwords. No followers.

Twitter provided and still provides me with access to a network of thinking and exposure to ideas that I did not have access to in my geopolitical location and institutional networks. It was and is my oxygen. My daily Twitter practices slowly evolved to become a central and most important part of my daily research activities. My network slowly grew and keeps growing. I worked and work hard at proving my value to the network – by curating content, by sharing, by caring.

One evening in 2015 when I logged on to Twitter I saw that due to a glitch my Twitter profile indicated that I had zero (yes, zilch) followers.  I know it sounds terribly immature but the fact that all my hard work just suddenly disappeared left me panicking. I responded to the crisis and tweeted “@Support No followers? No one following me? Twitter Zen – with no followers, & not following anyone, does anyone still (hear) see this tweet? (Prinsloo, P. [14prinsp], 2015). I know it sounds frivolous but my Twitter profile was so much more than just a profile or data-proxy. My Twitter profile was me. And due to a glitch on the platform, something of me was taken away from me. I was erased from the network.

Though the glitch was restored and I could breathe again, it left a permanent mark on my digital psyche of how vulnerable we actually are on these networks. It is as if you play in someone else’s garden, knowing that s/he can, at any time and for no reason at all chase you out and lock the gate.  This experience brought back painful memories of playing by myself in a park or playground as my awkward attempts to make friends never seemed to pay off. This incident, however also illustrated the precarity and even frivolousness of our networked identities and beings (Watters, 2016).

Having survived this ordeal just made me realise how precious and how an integral part of my research Twitter profile and daily praxis have become. So when Twitter hearts started to explode all over the place, and the number of advertisements and promoted tweets, I just kept and keep running – “Run Forest run!”

I start my day in the office at 5:30 am. For the next two hours I scan my Twitter feed as far back as I can – often working through 6-7 hours of tweets. This time of the morning allows me, being located in South Africa, of seeing and participating in the discourses and networks in networks to the East (the US and Canada) and West of South Africa (e.g. Australia). I would retweet and amplify something I find profound. I follow links. When I find something awesome, I also share it on my Facebook page, my Linkedin page, and my page and send it via email to colleagues who are not part of my networks on these platforms.

I cannot (yet) imagine my scholarly life without Twitter.

The history of my use of Facebook also provides evidence of how I struggled to find my voice, my digital Facebook persona in deciding what I wanted to share and make public. I remember realising that I could not and did not want to share my most intimate feelings of desperation and depression (whether on personal or professional levels) with my ‘friends’… I somehow felt that they would not be interested in my scholarly discoveries… So I deleted my account. Facebook was not for me.

Grainne Conole (bless her soul) and her team from Leicester visited my institution and she encouraged me to revisit my decision not to use Facebook. I started afresh. I took a decision that I will use my Facebook only for professional and scholarly reasons. I don’t share to different groups. I just don’t have the time for that. I share what I want and if you don’t like it or find it boring, goodbye. Facebook allowed me to discover the love many of my scholarly friends have for cooking, for cats, for becoming a grandfather or mother, or pictures of their latest meal (…) or conference attendance in some or other exotic (or not…) location. As I found my feet on using Facebook as a way to share scholarly articles, as well as share my interests in gender and identity issues, my Facebook became an intimate space where I selectively share and witness some of the more personal details of scholars I respect.

Yes, I know Facebook uses my clicks and ‘likes’ to profile me. Yes I know the space is increasingly becoming creepy. I am increasingly guarded on what I share. I continuously look over my shoulder to see who is watching. I installed ad-blocking software, use Ghostery and my search engine is DuckDuckGo. I check my privacy settings almost on a daily basis. And yes, I know it will not undo the surveillance and the collection of my data.

But for now, I am playing with friends in the park, discovering, sharing, growing and learning. Yes, I am increasingly aware of those watching. But for now, Twitter and Facebook are my oxygen that allows me to breathe. For now…?





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Book review: The Internet is not the answer (Andrew Keen, 2015)

The Internet is not the answer

There are too many examples to mention where the Internet and access to the Internet is lauded (sold?) as the answer. Recent examples include Facebook’s scheme to provide access to some services in India, of course through Facebook as platform. Despite the claims that this will provide millions with ‘free’ access, there is ample evidence that it will be anything but free. [See for example the critique by Vlad Savov (2015)]. Not only does millions see Facebook and Google as the Internet, Facebook increasingly promotes itself as the Internet through focusing on providing access to “the Internet” to millions in developing world contexts. One example is Facebook’s attempt to roll out its ‘free’ access also the 100 million users on the African continent. For many concerned that students in developing world context lag behind due to a lack of access to the Internet, initiatives like the above are often too attractive to decline.

Against this backdrop and the uncritical acceptance of promises and Book image - the Internetclaims from Silicon Valley, the book by Andrew Keen – “The Internet is not the answer” (2015) is a must read.

Andrew Keen has been described as the Christopher Hitchens of the Internet – and most probably like Christopher Hitchens, Keen is hated and lauded. Amidst the hype and the Silicon Valley narrative that everything is broken and the Internet can fix it, Keen’s book “The Internet is not the answer” provokes, unsettles, possibly infuriates and can only be ignored with peril.

Central to the book is Keen’s proposal that “Rather than the answer, the Internet is actually the central question about our connected twenty-first-century world” (p. xiii). On buying the book I was reminded of other sceptical approaches and disruptions of the Silicon Valley narrative, such as the work by Audrey Watters – the Cassandra of #edtech; Neil Selwyn, Evgeny Morozov and many others. Late in 2015 Watters delivered a keynote titled “Technology imperialism, the Californian ideology, and the future of higher education” at the 26th ICDE World Conference hosted by the University of South Africa. (See my blog post on her keynote). These authors have profoundly shaped my own sensitivities and assumptions about the potential of (educational) technology.

For example, Selwyn (2014) suggests that educational technology is “a value-laden site of profound struggle that some people benefit more from than others – most notably in terms of power and profit” (p. 2). Selwyn (2014) also proposes that we need to see and engage with educational technology as a political tool and construct and an increasingly commercial field. We need to understand educational technology as “a knot of social, political, economic and cultural agendas that is riddled with complications, contradictions and conflicts” (p. 6). Understanding and scoping the potential of educational technology is therefore much “messier” (p. 9) than what Silicon Valley, governments and educational institutions would make us believe. Against the backdrop of the “truthiness” (p. 10) and “techno-romantic” (p. 13) assumptions in much of the discourses surrounding educational technology, Selwyn suggests that “a pessimistic stance is the most sensible, and possibly the most productive, perspective to take” (p. 14). Such a pessimistic and sceptical approach “is at least willing to accept that digital technology is not bringing about the changes and transformations that many people would like to believe” (p. 15). Selwyn’s approach does not result in despondency, but rather in “an active engagement with continuous alternatives” (p. 16). As such “The Internet is not the answer” engages very critically and pessimistically (in the sense that Selwyn and Watters uses the term) with the promises and realties surrounding the Internet.

Keen summarises his book in the Preface and in attempting to provide a review of the book, I cannot summarise the main gist of this book better than Keen himself.

The more we use the contemporary digital network, the less economic value it is bringing to us. Rather than promoting economic fairness, it is a central reason for the growing gulf between rich and poor and the hollowing out of the middle class. Rather than making us wealthier, the distributed capitalism of the new networked economy is making most of us poorer. Rather than generating more jobs, this digital disruption is a principal cause of our structural unemployment crisis. Rather than creating more competition, it has created immensely powerful new monopolists like Google and Amazon.

Its cultural ramifications are equally chilling. Rather than creating transparency and openness, the Internet is creating a panopticon of information-gathering and surveillance services in which we, the users of big data networks like Facebook, have been packaged as their all-too-transparent product. Rather than creating more democracy, it is empowering the rule of the mob. Rather than encouraging tolerance, it has unleashed such a distasteful war on women that many no longer feel welcome on the network. Rather than fostering a renaissance, it has created a selfie-centered culture of voyeurism and narcissism. Rather than establishing more diversity, it is massively enriching a tiny group of young white men in black limousines. Rather than making us happy, it’s compounding our rage (pp. xiii-xiv).

The preceding two paragraphs almost read like a manifesto of what the Internet is not. Like these two paragraphs, the book often left me breathless, as Keen produces one piece of evidence after the other, like a passionate prosecutor who knows that s/he only has limited time to capture the imagination of the jury, and increasingly, the TV audiences and social media streams. The pace and amount of evidence can, however, also be the book’s drawback – there is almost too much and the fervour with which Keen presents his case that the Internet is not the answer, can be a mind-numbing experience. As Keen builds his argument that the Internet is not the great equaliser, and that the Internet has, so far, not delivered on the initial promise, the thoroughness of the book may also be its drawback?

Keen agrees that “the Internet is not all bad” (p. 8), but he claims that “the hidden negatives outweigh the self-evident positives” (p. 9) and that those who think there is more positive to the Internet “may not be seeing the bigger picture” (p. 9). It is interesting, that while I thoroughly enjoyed Eli Pariser’s book “The filter bubble”, Nicholas Carr’s “The shallows” and more recently Dave Egger’s “The circle”, the pace and almost religious fervour with which Keen charges and destroys the myth that the Internet is the answer becomes, at times, almost too much.

Despite feeling out-of-breath following Keen as he races through the history of the Internet and several industries that were destroyed as a result of this, there are many, many brilliant analyses of the impact and forces behind the reality that every place is connected to everywhere else in one big and ever-increasing distributed network. The leit motif throughout the book is the proposal that the “Internet has created new values, new wealth, new debates, new elites, new scarcities, new markets, and above all, a new kind of economy” (p. 33). This new kind of economy is anything but cooperative in nature, or result in more equal and just distribution… In stark contrast to the hype and the claims to the contrary, the “Internet is dominated by winner-take-all companies like Amazon and Google that are not monopolising vast swaths of our information economy” (p. 36). Keen proposes that “the rules of this new economy are thus those of the old industrial economy – on steroids” (p. 47).

Keen’s analysis shies away from easy answers and steers clear of some of the other unnuanced (in my opinion) critiques of the ‘self’ in a networked age. For example, Keen states that “our contemporary obsession with public self-expression has complex cultural, technological, and psychological origins that can’t be exclusively traced to the digital revolution” (p. 106. Despite the complex and mutually constitutive factors shaping public self-expression in our current age, there is little doubt that the statement “I update, therefore I am” (p. 106) cuts deep into our personal and collective digital practices. It would seem as “if we have no thought to Tweet or photo to post, we basically cease to exist” (p. 107; Keen quoting Malkani, 2013). Not only has “shameless self-portrait… emerged as a dominant mode of expression” it may have become “proof of our existence in the digital age” (p. 107).

The Internet does not, despite the claims, “empower the week, the unfortunate, those traditionally without a voice” but the Internet “has… compounded hatred towards the very defenceless people it was supposed to empower” (p. 149). The Internet heralds “Big hatred meets big data” (p. 151, Keen quoting Seth Stephens-Davidowitz). Throughout Keen’s book there is an ominous refrain of the role of Silicon Valley creating a new medieval world – “a jarring landscape of dreadfully impoverished and high-crime communities like East Palo Alto, littered with unemployed people on food stamps, interspersed with fantastically wealthy and entirely self-reliant tech-cities…” (p. 206).

As antidote to the hype and the unwarranted claims that the Internet provides equal opportunity for all and contributes to a more just and equal world, Keen suggests that history as opposite of forgetting, is the answer. “It’s particularly through the lens of nineteenth – and twentieth-century history that we can best make sense of the impact of the Internet on twenty-first-century society. The past makes the present legible” (p. 215). Throughout the book Keen refers to not only the history of the Internet, but also relates other dramatic changes such as the demise of Kodak, the clothing industry in London, and the music industry – to mention but a few. If I understand Keen correctly, it would seem as if he suggests that understanding not only how technological advances disrupted these industries, but also the reasons for these disruptions, may allow us to not have too many stars in our eyes considering the impact of the Internet. The basic claim is that none of these technological revolutions or disruptions “transformed the role of either power or wealth in the world” (p. 216). Keen strongly suggests that the Internet in its current form will definitely not “translate into a less hierarchical or unequal society” but it will, instead of “openness and the destruction of hierarchies” compound “economic and cultural inequality” and create “a digital generation of masters of the universe” (p. 218).

Keen furthermore bemoans the fact that the main role-players in the Internet not only enjoy higher profitability margins than ever before, but they are also “less harassed by governments that their predecessors” (p. 218). The sum total of the current grip the new masters of the universe (think Amazon, Google, Facebook, Instagram…) is the fact that these masters not only acts in the dark but are also unaccountable to the public and governments. Keen seems to propose that stronger and more extensive regulation and transparency will go a long way to realise (some of) the early ideals of the Internet. Despite this proposition, Keen (p. 223-224) quotes Ignatieff who asks “whether elected governments can control the cyclone of technological change sweeping through their societies.”

I, for one, doubt it. It is not that I don’t think that regulation and legislation can steer the Internet towards more accountability and transparency, but I somehow suspect that we underestimate the power multinational corporations and the corporate-military-government industry have over politicians and governments.

Keen recognises that the answer cannot be only more regulation and he proposes not only to have a Bill of Rights but also a Bill of Responsibilities “that establishes a new social contract for every member of networked society” (p. 226).

Keen (p. 227) concludes and agrees (p. 227) with Jarvis that central to our conversations about the role and impact of the Internet should be the question “What kind of society are we building here?” Therefore the “Internet may not (yet) be the answer, but it nonetheless remains the central question of the first quarter of the twenty-first century” (pp. 227-228). In an interesting addition to the paperback version, Keen added an “Afterword”, written a year since the first publication of the book in 2014. In the Afterword, he is much more hopeful that “the Internet can indeed become a successful operating system for the twenty-first-century connected life” (p. 234).

I hope he is right, but I don’t hold my breath.


Keen, A. (2015). The Internet is not the answer. London, UK: Atlantic Books.

Selwyn, N. (2014). Distrusting educational technology. Critical questions for changing times. New York, NY: Routledge.


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Algorithmic decision-making in higher education: There be dragons there…

There be dragons there

Algorithms do not have agency. People write algorithms. Do not blame algorithms.

Do not blame the drones. The drones are not important. The human operators are important. The human operators of algorithms are not lion tamers.

 Do not blame the drones for making you depressed. Do not blame the algorithms for blowing up towns. Oceania has not always been at war with Eastasia (Ellis, n.d.)

I am neither a data scientist nor have any background in computer science. I am educator and researcher with a keen interest in how we engage with student data, issues pertaining to privacy and increasingly, the potential and harm in algorithmic decision-making in higher education.  Amidst claims and promises that algorithmic decision-making will assist higher education to make better and faster decisions about student applications, personalising student learning and assessment and increasing student retention and success, I cannot help but feel uncomfortable about the design, accountability and unintended consequences of algorithms in higher education. Reading “The black box society” by Frank Pasquale (2015), work by John Danaher (2014), Evgeny Morozov (2013) the provocation piece by Barocas, Hood and Ziewitz (2013) and the unfolding of unease with the scope and impact of the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning only strengthen my discomfort.

I  also would like to acknowledge the many conversations with a colleague of mine who would often be bemused (if not irritated) by my concerns about algorithms – their reach, their design and how they shape our world. If he was to edit this blog, he would have immediate cautioned against the implication that algorithms have agency and act independent of human design and intention.  Whenever I would share an article about how algorithms shape our lives, he would always state: No, it is not the algorithm; it is the person (or team) who designed the algorithm. He would emphasise that the algorithm is but the tool in the hand of the designer… If algorithms do discriminate, it is because they were designed to discriminate. If algorithms are biased, it is because the biases of their designers and developers were captured.

So the fact that algorithms increasingly shape my world, why does this make me feel so uncomfortable and uneasy?

Was I just so uncomfortable when humans used to make decisions about what I am worth, what my credit worthiness is, what my health risk profile is? Were humans less biased than algorithms? Or to what extent does the bias inherent in algorithms impact me more than when the same bias was present in my dealings with a human behind a desk? Am I just so uncomfortable with algorithms when I rely on them for the best route to a destination, find the cheapest airfare, or when I enjoy reading a book found as a result of a recommender system?

I trust algorithms when searching for a cheap airfare or the best route to avoid a traffic jam, so why am I so uncomfortable with algorithms in higher education? Can I trust them?

Ooops. I did it again. Is it not strange that it is somehow easier to grasp and deal with the impact of algorithms on our lives by subscribing human qualities to them?

Povey and Ransom (2000) found that students in the field of using technology in mathematics anthropomorphise technology as a mechanism to voice their discomfort with the seeming power struggle between technology and humanity. These authors point out that talking about technology in human terms is “an aspect of a wider contemporary discourse on the relationship between technology and society” (p. 60).  They refer to the public uproar when a computer beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov:

The outcome of the match] threw some commentators into a tizzy. After all, they reasoned, how long can it be before [a computer], say, launches all the missiles in the world or gets its own late-night talk show? (People Magazine, 26 May 1997, p. 127 as quoted by Povey and Ransom, 2000, p. 60)

Does this sound familiar to the way we talk about algorithms?

Fox (2010) also explored the phenomenon of anthropomorphism and states that it “is rampant in all cultures and religions” (par.2), “ingrained in human nature” (par. 8) from the way we worship gods that resemble ourselves to how we make sense of a “largely meaningless world” (par. 16). He proposes that we “are more likely to anthropomorphise when faced with unpredictable situations or entities (par. 17). By anthropomorphising non-human actors and technology, we claim a “sense of control” (par. 18), belonging and connection.  As a result we build relationships with our computers, talk about the stock market as climbing higher or flirting with higher values… (par. 29).

Specific to our anthropomorphising technology, Buchanan-Oliver, Cruz and Schroeder (2010) claim that the way we speak about technology originates from “deeply-seated anxieties toward the mythic figure of the cyborg, which has been read as monstrous, Frankensteinian icon inviting both sympathy and revulsion” (p. 636). As such talking about algorithms as having agency may resemble “technology as prosthesis” (Buchanan-Oliver et al, 2010, p. 642) or an extension of humanity (with all of our hopes, goodwill, fears, bias and hunger for power). The way we talk about algorithms may furthermore herald increasingly porous boundaries between human and posthuman where we “mutate at the rate of cockroaches, but we are cockroaches whose memories are in computers, who pilot planes and drive cars that we have conceived, although our bodies are not conceived at these speeds” (Sterlarc and Orlan quoted by Buchanan-Oliver et al, 2010, p. 644). So technology and algorithms are no longer external tools to be used by us, but have become “an intrinsic part of human subjectivity” (Buchanan-Oliver et al, 2010, p. 645).

And then there is the ever increasing threat that machines will outsmart us… (see Dockrill’s post of 11 December , 2015 – “Scientists have developed an algorithm that learns as fast as humans . That’s the tipping point right there, folks.”). Or see this collection of essays edited by John Brockman (2015) – “What to think about machines that think.”

While it is tempting to think in terms of a binary – reflecting on situations where decisions are exclusively made by humans compared to a situation where decisions are exclusively made (sic) by algorithms, the reality is much more nuanced as John Danaher  in a post of June 15 (2015) points out – see the diagram below.


Image credit: Danaher (2015, June 15)

What I like about Danaher’s proposal is that it provides a more nuanced understanding of not only the different phases of data collection and use, but the way the framework relate these different phases to different combinations of human and algorithm interaction.  Different combinations are possible where, for example, algorithms collect the information, but the analysis is done by either only humans, or shared with algorithms, or done by algorithms with humans supervising or done by algorithms without human supervision. (For a full discussion of the different combinations and implications, see Danaher, 2015).

Important to note is that there is possibly another layer embedded in the above diagram recognising the fact that algorithms may have been written exclusively by humans, or developed as a result of iterative cycles of artificial intelligence.  Embedded and encoded in these processes are human bias and goodwill – where accountability for and the ethical implications of this mutually constitutive process resemble a ‘wicked’ problem described as  “a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.”

The ‘wickedness’ of understanding my discomfort with trying to make sense of algorithmic decision-making in this blog is also due to my lack of theoretical tools and academic background to fully understand how algorithms work, and secondly, to explain the intricacies of my discomfort about ‘losing control’…

Having acknowledged my possible lack of understanding, allow me then to voice in layperson’s terms my discomfort and understanding. Though I acknowledged that we should not think in terms of binaries – humans making decisions versus algorithms (created by humans) making the decisions (sic), thinking in terms of a binary gives me a handle on this slippery phenomenon.

The definition and scope/scale of the knowledge about me

In times past when humans made decisions about my credit worthiness, they most probably relied on past documents and records (on file) of my interactions with their institution, and information I provided on the prescribed application form with my signature to confirm that I told the truth.  I cannot deny that my race, gender, language, and home address played (and still play) a crucial role in their decisions. Depending on who interviewed me (and in those years it was almost certain to have been a white male), my chances on being successful was fairly certain. Even today if I was to have been interviewed by a person of a different race and home language, the legacy of my whiteness may actually carry the day.

In the context of algorithmic decision making, I am not sure (actually I never know) which sources of information collected in which context of for what purpose are being used to inform the final decision. As each source of information is combined with another source, each source’s boundary of integrity collapses and the biases and assumptions that informed the collection of data in one context, are collapsed and morphed with other sources of information with their own biases and contexts.  We are becoming increasingly small and vulnerable nodes in the lattice of information networks, where, like the character of ‘K’ in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, we are never told what the allegations are against us, what the sources of information are. All we are told is that “Proceedings have been instituted against you…” (Kafka, 1984, p. 9) without, ever, having access to know what they know.

[See the essay by John Danaher on issues regarding fairness in algorithmic decision-making (2015, November 5)].

The actor, algorithms and data brokers

Recently, Waddell (2015) in an interview with Phillip Rogaway (author of “The moral character of cryptographic work”) stated that “computer scientists and cryptographers occupy some of the ivory tower’s highest floors” (par. 1). The notion of the “data scientist” is emerging as an all –encapsulating title and the “hottest” job title in the 21st century (Chatfield, Shlemoon, Redublado, & Rahman, 2014:2). They have also been called “gods” (Bloor, 2012), “rock stars” (Sadkowsky, 2014), “high priests” (Dwoskin, 2014; Nielsen, 2014); “engineers of the future” (van der Aalst, 2014) and “game changers” (Chatfield, Shlemoon, Redublado, & Rahman, 2014:2).

So, can I trust them to write algorithms if the designers of algorithms don’t see their algorithms as deeply political and flowing from and perpetuating existing power relations, injustices and inequalities, or creating new ones? To what extent do they accept responsibility for the social impact of their algorithms? To what extent can they be held accountable?

In the past, when decisions were made on my financial future or my application to register or my application for health benefits, decisions were also made by humans, often with less information to their disposal than the scope of information that algorithms scrape and use to produce judgements and evaluations. These humans were not less biased, or more informed than the designers and writers of algorithms, so why am I uncomfortable with algorithms?

One possible reason is that the creators of algorithms are faceless, non-accountable, hidden in a Kafkaesque maze where algorithms feed off one another in perpetual cycles of mutation.  Where I could have petitioned the human who made the decision a number of years ago, or asked to see his or her supervisor, the creators of algorithms are hidden, faceless actors who create and destroy futures with indemnity.

Do algorithm writes need a code of conduct as proposed by John Naughton (6 December, 2015)? Do we need algorithmic angels (Koponen, 2015, April 18)? Is it possible to govern algorithms, and what should be in place? (Barocas, Hood & Ziewitz, 2013).

What are our options? What are our students’ options?

What are our options when my whole life becomes a single digit (Pasquale, 2015, October 14)?

In the context of the quantification fetish in higher education where we count everything, what are the ethical implications when we reduce the complexity of our students’ lives to single digits, to data points on a distribution chart? What are the ethical implications when we then use these to allocate or withhold support to spend our resources on more ‘worthy’ candidates in the game of educational roulette? What does due process look like in a world of automated decisions (Citron and Pasquale, 2014)?

What are our options? In a general sense I think the proposal by Morozov (2013) is an excellent start. He proposes four overlapping solutions namely (1) to politicise the issue of the scope and use of algorithms; (2) learn how to sabotage the system by refusing to be tracked; (3) create “proactive digital services”; and (4) abandon preconceptions. (See the discussion of Danaher, 2014).

In the light of the asymmetrical power relationship between higher education and our students, we simply cannot ignore the need to reflect deeply on our harvesting and use of student data. When we see higher education as firstly a moral endeavour our commitment to “do no harm” implies that we should be much more transparent about our algorithms and decision-making processes.

Who will hold higher education accountable for the data we harvest and our analyses?

Among other stakeholders, we cannot ignore the role of students. They have the right to know. They have a right to know what our assumptions and understandings of their learning journeys are. They should demand that we do not assume that their digital profiles resemble their whole journey. They have a right to due process.

If only they knew.

Image credit: Image compiled from two images –


Bloor, R. (2012, December 12). Are the data scientists future CEOs? [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Buchanan-Oliver, M., Cruz, A., & Schroeder, J. E. (2010). Shaping the body and technology: Discursive implications for the strategic communication of technological brands. European Journal of Marketing44(5), 635-652.

Chatfield, A.T., Shlemoon, V.N., Redublado, W., & Rahman, F. (2014). Data scientists as game changers in big data environments. ACIS. Retrieved from

Citron, D. K., & Pasquale, F. A. (2014). The scored society: due process for automated predictions. Washington Law Review89, 1-33.

Dwoskin, E. (2014). Big data’s high-priests of algorithms. The Wall Street Journal, Aug, 8. Retrieved from

Fox, D. (2010). In our own image. New Scientist, 208(2788), 32-37.

Kafka, F. (1984). The trial. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. London, UK: Penguin.

Nielsen, L. (2014). Unicorns among us: understanding the high priests of data science. Wickford, Rhode Island: New Street Communications.

Povey, H., & Ransom, M. (2000). Some undergraduate students’ perceptions of using technology for mathematics: Tales of resistance. International Journal of Computers for Mathematical Learning, 5(1), 47-63.

Sadkowsky, T. (2014, July 2). Data scientists: The new rock stars of the tech world. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

van der Aalst, WM. (2014). Data scientist: The engineer of the future. In Enterprise Interoperability VI (pp. 13-26). Springer International Publishing. Retrieved from
















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Seeing Jesus in toast: Irreverent ideas on some of the claims pertaining to learning analytics

Jesus in toast“In 2004 Diane Duyser sold a decade-old grilled cheese sandwich that bore a striking resemblance to the Virgin Mary. She got $28,000 for it on eBay” (Matter, 2014), and in 2009 Linda Lowe found an image of Jesus staring at her from a piece of toast. The phenomenon is called pareidolia and has been explained as complete natural, and all too human (Liu, Li, Feng, Li, Tian, & Lee, 2014; Tanne, 2014). Pareidolia is described as “psychological phenomenon involving a stimulus (an image or a sound) wherein the mind perceives a familiar pattern of something where none actually exist.”

In the world of data and predictive analysis, a relatively similar phenomenon is called apophenia – to see patterns where none actually exist (boyd & Crawford, 2012). In the context of higher education where we have access to ever increasing volumes, velocity and variety of student digital data, apophenia is uncomfortable companion in the analysis of student data. Harvesting and combining student data from disparate sources opens up the opportunity and risk infer relations unthinkable ten years ago.

As we engage with an ever increasing number and scope of data students we may be tempted to rush to look for patterns without considering our own assumptions and epistemologies, how we select our data, how we slice and dice, how we clean our data sets, and how we deal with the often uncomfortable silences in our data and analysis. We may be tempted to make claims on the quality and impact of student engagement based on the number of clicks, their participation in online discussion forums, and the number of downloads of resources. From this evaluation on the depth and quality of their engagement (often based on the quantification of our definition of ‘engagement’) we then design personalised assessments, curricula and the allocation of resources. Increasingly our predictive analyses also utilise the immense speed and scope of algorithmic decision destining students for a learning journey over which they have very little control or insight regarding its machinations.

It may be worthwhile to heed the words of Silver (2012) who warns that in noisy systems with underdeveloped theory – there is a real danger to mistake the noise for a signal, and not realising that the noise pollutes our data with false alarms and “setting back our ability to understand how the system really works” (p. 162). In a context where our abilities to harvest and analyse student data may outpace not only our regulatory frameworks, but more importantly, our theoretical and ethical dispositions, the latest issue of the Journal of Learning Analytics comes as a welcome relief.

In this issue the relationship between learning analytics and theory is recognised as important (“Why theory matters more than ever in the age of big data”) and this relationship is explored in contexts such as “Theory-led design of instruments and representations of learning analytics”, a “‘Beyond time-on-task: The relationship between spaced study and certification in MOOCs.” Other contributions include, inter alia, “Does seeing one another’s gaze affect group dialogue? A computational approach” and “Learning analytics to support teachers during synchronous CSCL: Balancing between overview and overload.”

As the amount, velocity and variety of student data increase, so will the noise and the potential to see patterns which either don’t exist, or patterns that do not contribute to understanding student success as the result of increasingly messy and complex, non-linear interactions between context, students and institutions at the intersection of curricula, pedagogies, assessment and institutional (in)efficiencies and operations. We therefore need to slow down our conversations (e.g. Selwyn, 2014) on the potential of learning analytics and create spaces to think critically about our epistemologies and ontologies that shape our harvesting and analyses of student data.

The plea to slow down our discussions on and embrace of the potential of learning analytics seem out of place with higher education as an increasingly privatised and/or costly commodity, characterised by an obsession on the return on investments, just-in-time products delivered by just-in-time labour aiming to get the products off the shelves in the fastest possible time. In contrast to slowing down we would like to speed up our search for signal amidst the noise. There may, however, be a danger that we may find Jesus in toast.

Let me state it clear that there is no doubt in my mind that evidence or data and the ethical harvesting and analysis of student data can and should inform the management of teaching and learning, the development of curricula, and assessment and student support strategies and interventions.My question is not whether we should harvest and analyse student data, but rather how do we engage with student data and the search for relationships that matter in the light of the fact that higher education is an open and recursive system? How do we engage with evidence of what works where the evidence does not tell us whether the intervention was appropriate and ethical?

I agree with Biesta (2007, 2010) that the issue is not about the usefulness of evidence, but rather how we define evidence, what we include and exclude, acknowledging our assumptions about data and an honesty about what the implications of our research design decisions. Current evidence-based decision making practices favour technocratic modes that assume that “the only relevant research questions are questions about the effectiveness of educational means and techniques, forgetting, among other things, that what counts as ‘effective’ crucially depends on judgments about what is educationally desirable” (Biesta, 2007, p. 5). We need to understand our limitations of our designs when we explore, in an open, semiotic and recursive system, how interventions work. We need to acknowledge our search for the “magic bullet of causality” (Biesta, 2010, p. 496). “Much talk about ‘what works’ … operates on the assumption of a mechanistic ontology that is actually the exception, not the norm in the domain of human interaction” (Biesta, 2010, p. 497).

There is a real danger that we think of and apply learning analytics as if education is a closed and isolated environment such as a laboratory setting where we can limit the amount of variables and report on those variables that made a difference. Contra to such an understanding it would be safer (and most probably closer to the reality) to think of education in terms of the Cynefin framework’s (Snowden & Boone, 2007) proposal of simple, complicated, complex and chaotic environments. In all of these four environments it is possible to harvest and analyse evidence, but with very different results. I have a strong suspicion that we think of education as simple and at most complicated, while education is, most probably, rather complex if not chaotic at times. In complicated environments, Snowden and Boone (2007) suggest that cause-and-effect relationships are discoverable but that there is more than one ‘right’ answer. In complex systems, there are no right answers and though it may be possible to trace correlation, causation becomes almost impossible to prove, and more importantly, to replicate.

At many educational conferences when I listen to reports and evidence on interventions that resulted in an increase in student retention and success, I cannot help to see Jesus smiling to me from a piece of toast.

Image credit: Adapted from


Biesta, G. (2007). Why “what works” won’t work: evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research, Educational Theory, 57(1), 1–22. DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-5446.2006.00241.x.

Biesta, G. (2010). Why ‘what works’ still won’t work: from evidence-based education to value-based education, Studies in Philosophy of Education, 29, 491–503. DOI 10.1007/s11217-010-9191-x.

boyd, D., & Crawford, K. (2012). Critical questions for big data: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon. Information, communication & society, 15(5), 662-679.

Liu, J., Li, J., Feng, L., Li, L., Tian, J., & Lee, K. (2014). Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia. Cortex, 53, 60-77.

Selwyn, N. (2014). Distrusting educational technology. Critical questions for changing times. New York, NY: Routlegde.

Silver, N. 2012. The signal and the noise: Why most predictions fail – but some don’t. New York, NY: Routledge.

Snowden, D. J., & Boone, M. E. (2007). A leader’s framework for decision making. Harvard Business Review, 85(11). Retrieved from

Tanne, J. H. (2014). Seeing Jesus in a piece of toast and other scientific discoveries win Ig Nobel awards. BMJ, 349, g5764.

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Students’ role in learning analytics: From data-objects to collaborators


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In most of the discourses on learning analytics students and their data are seen as mere data-points or data-objects and recipients of services. Student data are the source for many hours of enjoyment as data analysts, educators, student support staff and administrators count and correlate a range of variables such as the number of clicks, the number of downloads, and the number of attempts to pass a course. We then add gender, race, age, employment status and also physical addresses as a proxy for socio-economic income to the mix, and voila, we can now personalise their learning based on our analyses because we know what they need…

There is, however, a real danger that learning analytics may serve as prosthetics and as parasitic, supplementing and replacing authentic learning and frantically monitoring “little fragments of time and nervous energy” (Murphie, 2014, p. 19). While I would like to propose that seeing students as collaborators and participants, rather than data-points and objects, can assist in humanising learning analytics, we need to understand the frantic gathering of student data in the current context of higher education characterised by higher education institutions dancing to the tune of “evidence-based management” (see Biesta, 2007. 2010), where we ascribe to “measurement mania” (Birnbaum, 2001:197), audit practices as “rituals of verification” (Power, 1999, 2004) and the “neoliberal lexicon of numbers” (Cooper, 2014: par. 5). This is the new normal where funding follows performance instead of preceding it (Hartley, 1995), where the success of prediction and the increase in returns on investment have become survival practices in “Survivor. The higher education series.”

Considering the amount of student data higher education institutions have access to, and the fiduciary duty of higher education to address concerns about sometimes appalling rates of student failure (Slade & Prinsloo, 2013), lack of effective or appropriate student support and institutional failures – higher education cannot afford not to collect and analyse student data. Knowing more about our students raises however a number of ethical issues such as whether they know that we are observing them and analysing their online behaviours for clues to determine the allocation of resources, the need for intervention correlated with the cost of intervention and the probability that the intervention will have the necessary effect and therefore guarantee a return on investment. There are also issues related to whether they have access to their digital profiles, whether they can verify their records and provide context, whether they are protected against downstream use and who will have access to their records and for what purposes. And finally, there is also the issue with the ethics of knowing – and knowing implies responsibility. Once we know, for example, that a student from a poor neighbourhood (his/her address as proxy) has not logged on for a week, or has revealed having difficulty in coping with the course materials – we have an obligation to act. So, while there are also ethical issues in not-knowing while we could have known, we often forget the ethical responsibilities that come into play when we know…

In the broader discourses of education and specifically higher education, various practices have been imported from the medicine. Examples include institutional review boards (Carr, 2015) and the seemingly inappropriate belief in the gospel of evidence-based management (Biesta, 2007, 2010). There is also the practice of educational triage – which although practiced, has not really entered the main discourses relating to student support, learning analytics, and institutional research (Manning, 2012; Prinsloo & Slade, 2014). In the context where higher education increasingly faces changes in funding regimes and increases costs and demands, Prinsloo and Slade (2014) ponder on the question: “how do we make moral decisions when resources are (increasingly) limited?” (p. 309). As a way to engage with balancing costs with the impact and ethical dimensions of decisions educational triage provides an interesting perspective into balancing cost, care and ethics. (For a full discussion regarding educational triage as construct and practice, see Prinsloo and Slade, 2014).

Though the links, overlaps and differences between practices in the medical fraternity and higher education are acknowledged, we cannot ignore the fact that our thinking about ethics in educational research have been hugely impacted on by ethical principles, guidelines and practices in the medical fraternity.

So it was with interest when I read about the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) launched early in 2015 by the White House. The PMI aims to, among other things, to provide individualised health care based on collaboration between patients, medical staff and researchers, using collected and gifted data to prevent or effectively treat diseases. Amidst the hype of empowering patients and the offering of individualised care, of particular interest for me as educator and researcher in the scope and ethical implications of learning analytics is the initiative’s aim “to engage individuals as active collaborators – not just as patients or research objects.”

Excursus: In the context of learning analytics, student involvement as participants was first mentioned by Kruse & Pongsajapan (2012) and expanded by Prinsloo & Slade, 2014, 2015).

It is important to note that as far as I could establish there are two versions of the privacy and trust principles, namely 8 July and 9 November. Interesting is the critique and feedback (dated 4 August, 2015) of William W. Horton (Chair: ABA Health Law Section) of the American Bar Association on the proposal (dated 8 July).

This initiative is founded on a number of privacy and trust principles ensuring that the right to privacy and ethical research are guaranteed. The principles include issues regarding governance; transparency; participant empowerment respect for participant preferences; data sharing, access, and use; and data quality and integrity (version of 9 November). The 8 July version included a section on the assumptions that informed the principles, as well as a section on “security.” The earlier (8 July) version’s section titled “Reciprocity” is titled “Participant empowerment through access to information” in the version of 9 November.

The earlier version of the PMI (dated 8 July) acknowledges a number of assumptions (p. 2) such as:

  • “Participants will be partners in research, and their participation will be entirely voluntary”
  • “Participants will play an integral role in the cohort’s governance through direct representation on committees”
  • With regard to the variety of data sources the PMI states – “Participants will be able to voluntarily contribute diverse sources of data – including medical records, genomic data, lifestyle information, environmental data, and personal device and sensor data.”
  • The PMI is also clear that participants will have “access their own medical information.”
  • Security is addressed and the PMI guarantees– “a robust data security framework will be established to ensure that strong administrative, technical, and physical safeguards.”
  • With regard to ‘consent’ the PMI suggests that consent is dynamic, ongoing and negotiated – “Given the anticipated scope and duration of PMI, single contact consent at the time of participant enrolment will not be sufficient for building and maintaining the level of public trust we aim to achieve. A consent process that is dynamic and ongoing will better serve the initiative’s goals of transparency and active participant engagement.”

There are no reasons provided why the assumptions contained in the version of 8 July have been deleted from the final version of 9 November. As far as I could assess, outside of the issue of ‘security’ all the assumptions are sufficiently covered in the final version (9 November).

In the next section, I provide a short, and selective overview of the PMI (9 November) and specifically focus on aspects that I suspect can benefit our policies, frameworks and practices in learning analytics.

For example, under ‘Governance’ (p. 2) the PMI suggests the following:

  • Substantive participant representation – “should include substantive participant and community representation at all levels of program oversight, design, and implementation” (emphasis added). Interesting, the 8 July version enshrined active collaboration among participants with regard to governance by stating as fundamental assumption – “Participants will play an integral role in the cohort’s governance through direct representation on committees established to oversee cohort design and data collection, use, management, security, and dissemination” (p. 2; emphasis added).

Excursus: Would there be a difference between substantive and direct participation and representation? How practical would such a principle be in learning analytics?

  • The PMI further state that “Risks and potential benefits of research for families and communities should be considered in addition to risks and benefits to individuals. The potential for research conducted using PMI cohort data to lead to stigmatization or other social harms should be identified and evaluated through meaningful and ongoing engagement with relevant communities.”

Excursus: Currently there is no or very little oversight in learning analytics despite the ethical concerns and the potential of harm. Willis, Slade and Prinsloo (in press) suggests that while the prevention of harm and discrimination in research falls under the purvey of institutional review boards, there is currently no clear guidance whether learning analytics qualifies as research and therefore needs oversight by the IRB, and if learning analytics is not considered as research, how and who will oversee the ethical implications and the potential of harm and discrimination.

The PMI addresses the issue of ‘Transparency’ as follows:

  • Transparency is accepted as dynamic, ongoing and participatory. The 8 July version (p.4) stated explicitly – “To ensure participants remain adequately informed throughout participation in the cohort, information should be provided at the point of initial engagement and periodically thereafter. Information should be communicated to participants clearly and conspicuously concerning: how, when, and what information and specimens will be collected and stored; generally how their data will be used, accessed, and shared; the goals, potential benefits, and risks of participation; the types of studies for which the individual’s data may be used; the privacy and security measures that are in place to protect the participant’s data; and the participant’s ability to withdraw from the cohort at any time, with the understanding that data included in aggregate data sets or used in past studies and studies already begun cannot be withdrawn” (emphasis added). The 9 November version (p. 2) covers all of these in separate points but also add that “Communications should be culturally appropriate and use languages reflective of the diversity of the participants” (p. 3; emphasis added).

Excursus: As Prinsloo and Slade (2015) suggest, it is crucial that we think past the binaries of simply opting in or out, to a more nuanced, and continued, dynamic interaction between students as collaborators in a student-centric learning analytics at different intervals during the process. The PMI’s suggestion that participants should be involved at the “point of initial engagement and periodically thereafter” and fully informed regarding “how, when, and what information and specimens will be collected and stored; generally how their data will be used, accessed, and shared; the goals, potential benefits, and risks of participation; the types of studies for which the individual’s data may be used; the privacy and security measures that are in place to protect the participant’s data; and the participant’s ability to withdraw from the cohort at any time, with the understanding that data included in aggregate data sets or used in past studies and studies already begun cannot be withdrawn.”

  • “Participants should be promptly notified following discovery of a breach of their personal information.”

Excursus: Currently, due to the lack of oversight or regulation of learning analytics (See Willis et al, 2015) students are often left without any recourse and may not even know when there was a breach of their personal information.

Of specific interest is the comment of Horton (ABA Health Section) who suggests that there is a need to take cognizance of the OECD guidelines regarding the disclosure and protection of information with specific mention of the potential that the shared information may be used for commercial purposes, that the information may be used for non-research purposes e.g., insurers, employers, law enforcement, etc.

With regard to ‘Respecting Participant Preferences” (pp. 3-4), the 9 November version include reference to the following

  • To be “broadly inclusive, recruiting and engaging individuals and communities with varied preferences and risk tolerances concerning data collection and sharing.” Interestingly, the 8 July version also included the use of information and not only collection and sharing. What does this deletion signify?
  • Another interesting point is that the PMI (both versions) stress “participant autonomy and trust.” This is achieved through “a dynamic and ongoing consent and information sharing process” (9 November).

Excursus: What does “participant autonomy” mean in the context of the asymmetrical power relationship between medicine and patients? How autonomous can patients really make decisions in the light of not necessarily understanding the implications of withdrawal and secondly, the often different opinions on options? The PMI states that participants will be able to “re-evaluate their own preferences as data sharing, user requirements, and technology evolve” (p. 3) – and while this should be lauded, what are the implications of withdrawal?

 “Participants should be able to withdraw their consent for future research use and data sharing at any time and for any reason, with the understanding that data included in aggregate data sets or used in past studies and studies already begun cannot be withdrawn” (p. 3; emphasis added)

Interestingly, the PMI (in both versions) state that consent cannot be withdrawn in the event of studies that have already begun. Do researchers and participants know, from the onset, how long the harvesting, analysis and use of information will be? What happens if the scope changes due to new insights? Students in higher education contexts may be protected by the fact that courses have predetermined durations and that most learning analytic projects take place on course level.

With regard to withdrawal from the PMI, in the feedback provided by Horton (ABA Health Section) he suggests the “development of policies, procedures and notifications to Participants which would clarify when and how the right [to withdraw] could be exercised, distinguish between identifiable and non-identifiable personal information, and articulate the limits on the withdrawal of information already in use” (p. 10).

The principle of “Participant empowerment through access to information” (p. 4) (called ‘Reciprocity’ in the 8 July version) includes, inter alia the following:

  • “should enable participants’ access to the medical information they contribute to the PMI in consumer-friendly and innovative ways”
  • That “educational resources should be made available to participants to assist them in understanding their health information and to empower them to make informed choices about their health and wellness”

Excursus: Currently, in higher education, anecdotal evidence suggests that students do not have access to the learning analytic data that institutions have collected about them. And secondly, what I find interesting about the PMI is the commitment to make available education resources to assist participants to understanding the analyses and findings so that patients can make informed decisions.

In many of the discourses surrounding learning analytics, the emphasis is on the benefits institutions will derive from learning analytics to make choices on behalf of students. The PMI seems to turn this around and ensure that patients will be able to make the decisions affecting their health.

The feedback provided by Horton (ABA Health Section) is crucial in this regard. Horton (p. 11) raises the issue whether making the information and analysis available to patients may create “an expectation of medical intervention and/or treatment.” This raises the issue mentioned earlier in this blog whether knowing brings with it the responsibility of caring?

The second issue Horton raises with regard to this principle is whether healthcare providers have the necessary capabilities and capacities to usefully apply the PMI data. This is also pertinent in higher education context where it is not clear whether faculty or student support teams have the necessary capabilities and capacities to interpret and act on the analyses.

Horton also raises a third issue that is also pertinent when thinking about learning analytics and that is the need that “Unvalidated findings should never be communicated to participants because they may be confusing and obfuscate any meaningful application to improve healthcare” (p. 12; emphasis added). Anecdotal evidence in learning analytics suggests that often (mostly?) that there is often not time to validate the findings of a learning analytics’ project due to the often urgent need to intervene. And secondly, when we accept that education is an open and recursive system, the next student cohort will, in all probability, be different, with different needs and characteristics.

So what do we do, in the context of learning analytics, to validate findings and ensure appropriate and ethical interventions?

Under the principle of “Data Sharing, Access, and Use” (9 November, p.45) the following elements are mentioned:

  • “Certain activities should be expressly prohibited, including the sale or use of data for targeted advertising”
  • There should also be “multiple tiers of data access—from open to controlled”
  • Unauthorized re-identification and re-contact of participants will be expressly prohibited.” Interestingly the 8 July version also included “…and consequences should accompany such actions.”
  • The 8 July version had this problematic statement that was removed from the 9 November version “PMI cohort should maintain a link to participant identities in order to return appropriate information and to link participant data obtained from difference sources” (p. 5; emphasis added).

Excursus: In the current mist surrounding learning analytics, and the lack of and uncertainty regarding ethical oversight, higher education institutions will have to make very clear what activities would be strictly prohibited, e.g. the sale of data, or for targeted advertising (often by the providing institution)…In the context of “surveillance capitalism” (Zuboff, 2015) and the monetary value of data, we need to be clear on the exact boundaries of our governance of student data. There are increasing concerns about the implications of the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the exchange value of data.

There is also the issue of the potential of the re-identification of students which is currently not strictly addressed in learning analytics.

Horton raises the issue that “access [to data] should be permitted only where there are assurances that the recipient of the data has adequate protections in place to ensure the privacy of participants and confidentiality of their information” (p. 13). In the context and practice of learning analytics in higher education and the fact that oversight and ethical clearance are mostly left to the integrity of individuals accessing the information, what are the implications?

There is nothing out of the ordinary under the principles of ‘Data Quality and Integrity’ (in both versions). Interesting is the fact that the section dealing with ‘Security’ (in the 8 July version) was totally scrapped in the 9 November version. What makes this more puzzling is the fact that Horton suggested two pages of aspects to be addressed under ‘security’ before it was removed in the version of 9 November.


Despite concerns of finding parallels between research and practices in the fields of medicine and education, I read the PMI (both versions) with interest. While I am not sure the PMI addresses the complexities in the asymmetrical power relationship between medicine and medical practices and patients, the PMI does point to some issues that higher education can/should consider in order to move beyond seeing students as data objects and the providers of data (often without them knowing) to collaborators and participants.


Biesta, G. (2007). Why “what works” won’t work: evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research, Educational Theory, 57(1), 1–22. DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-5446.2006.00241.x.

Biesta, G. (2010). Why ‘what works’ still won’t work: from evidence-based education to value-based education, Studies in Philosophy of Education, 29, 491–503. DOI 10.1007/s11217-010-9191-x.

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

Carr, C. T. (2015). Spotlight on ethics: institutional review boards as systemic bullies. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 37(1), 14-29.

Cooper, D. (2014, December 5). Taking pleasure in small numbers: How intimately are social media stats governing us? [Web log post]. Retrieved from

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

Kruse, A. & Pongsajapan, R. (2012). Student-centered learning analytics. CNDLS Thought Paper. 1-12. Retrieved from:

Manning, C. (2012, March 14). Educational triage [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Murphie, A. (2014). Auditland. PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, 11(2). Retrieved from

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

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

Prinsloo, P., & Slade, S. (2014). Educational triage in open distance learning: Walking a moral tightrope. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 15(4), 306-331.

Prinsloo, P., & Slade, S. (2015, March). Student privacy self-management: implications for learning analytics. In Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge (pp. 83-92). ACM.

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

Willis, J.E., Slade, S., & Prinsloo, P. (in press). Ethical oversight of student data in learning analytics: a typology derived from a cross-continental, cross-institutional perspective. Submitted to a special issue of ETR&D titled “Exploring the Relationship of Ethics in Design and Learning Analytics: Implications for the Field of Instructional Design and Technology.”

Zuboff, S. (2015). Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization. Journal of Information Technology, 30(1), 75-89.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the 21st century.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Image credit


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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