In analogue photography there is a magical moment when something that was not visible becomes visible. There is a blank sheet of paper where an image develops slowly, emerges into being, something that was not there now comes to be there.
To get to that point, there are many steps, much expertise, a process of reviewing a roll of film to see which images are overexposed or underexposed and what is needed to bring the image into the best possible light. There are test strips and exposures of prints from different time periods to see which exposure works best for the crispest image.
It is this process that is going through in my mind at the moment as the book Higher Education for Good (#HE4Good) is coming into existence.
We are in the early stages now. The images are still being taken. But already in my mind’s eye the borders are starting to suggest themselves, dark clusters and absences, highlights and lowlights.
This metaphor reaches its limits at this point because in photography a lone figure works in a dark room, whereas we are working in a collaborative darkroom bringing a collection of ideas into the light in the crispest possible way. The collaborative process is in full swing between ourselves as editors and at an early stage amongst the 64+ authors from 20+ countries who make up the book, talking synchronously within the constraints of time zones, existing commitments and academic strikes. Talking asynchronously thanks to technology. We are sharing ideas, threading concepts across chapters.
We are capturing macro, meso and micro catalysts of change for good. We are recording forms of resistance to broken systems of Empire, platformisation, austerity while developing different images of the commons, the public good, justice, hope, care, sustainability, community and more.
We will soon share the full chapter and author list. For now, a moment of excited anticipation.
*Image from Dre Darkroom In Use 20 Aug 2011
Recently I asked on Twitter "Twitter friends, what are your best readings in digital inequalities, the digital divide and or digital inclusion?" There was lots of discussion and all sorts of interesting suggestions, which I list below. This is when social media is at its best - the power of weak ties!
Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani, @thatpsychprof: I’d recommend one of @hypervisible’s articles, for example: https://commonsense.org/education/articles/digital-redlining-access-and-privacy
Maya "yes, that's really my last name" Hey, PhD @heymayahey: Perhaps a little more theoretical than desired, but I have really benefited from reading the work of Wendy Chun. Discriminating Data, but also earlier works such as Race and/as Technology.
Su-Ming Khoo @sumingkhoo·: Old book but important https://ojs.ehu.eus/index.php/Zer/
Natalie B. Milman, Ph.D. @nataliebmilman;
I have a digital folder & a few books - one I return to often is
@markwarschauer 's piece - published in 2003: http://education.uci.edu/uploads/7/2/7/6/72769947/ddd.pdf (@markwarschauer I have good news—the book this is based on, Technology and Social Inclusion, will be released open access soon. Just finalizing the details now with MIT Press!)
Dr. Stella Lee @stellal: I recommend anything by @ruha9 Especially Race After Technology.
Michael Paskevicius @mpaskevic: I have found the research of Eszter Hargittai to be quite useful
Gerrit Wissing @yokufunda: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3871423;
Sandra Sinfield @Danceswithcloud: For Digital Inclusion I always turn to DS106 (https://ds106.us/about/) as a model of using the digital for creative purpose - and I follow @cogdog for ongoing uplift and inspiration.
George Station @FirstYear156: I follow such as @ruha9, @safiyanoble, @hypervisible
(which you do already, I know) and read what they're reading. Sometimes I gripe about EDUCAUSE proper, but @EDUCAUSEreview has good digital #DEI articles these days so kudos to their editors
✿Caroline Kühn✿ @carolak: This is an excellent one :-) The Promise of Access
Technology, Inequality and the Political Economy of Hope By Daniel Green
https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/promise-access and A digital new deal is also an excellent https://itforchange.net/digital-new-deal/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Digital-New-Deal-PDF.pdf
Dr. Catherine Cronin @catherinecronin: https://whoseknowledge.org/ are wonderful. https://a4ai.org/meaningful-connectivity/ @A4A_Internet concept of 'meaningful connectivity' And this “reading next” pile: Well-being Freedom and Social Justice; Your Computer is On Fire; The Costs of Connection
Julian McDougall @JulianMcDougall: Ellen Helsper’s The Digital Disconnect
The Social Causes and Consequences of Digital Inequalities
Dr Amanda M L Taylor (-Beswick) Digicritical @AMLTaylor66:
Emily Keddell“Make Them Dance”: Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, Behavior Modification and Fraser’s “Abnormal Justice”
* Thank you to Amanda Taylor-Beswick for the picture of her great books
Recently Mandy Garner from University World News contacted me with a specific request to write something positive, particularly about how technology has improved access, enabled inclusion, that sort of thing. It was a challenge - how on earth to say anything positive about this past period in higher education, let alone about the role of technology?
This is what I came up with, hopefully managing to be both outraged and optimistic.....
There is something rather tone-deaf about the aphorism, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’. If anything positive has come out of the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education, it is surely despite the crisis, not because of it.
It is also impossible to attribute anything much – let alone anything positive – to the ‘online pivot’ and its associated technologies.
Firstly, the shift online has been only one factor among many that have been endured by students and academics over the past 18 months, including illness, death, family economic crises, change of responsibilities, change of modes, loss of educational communities and different pedagogies. These cannot be teased apart.
Secondly, what has been called online learning has largely been emergency remote teaching and learning. Due to haste, deep fatigue, trauma, global unevenness and uncertainty about the future, there has been insufficient time for the considered planning needed for fully online programmes.
Yet, somehow, some aspects of higher education have gone right, and, in the spirit of appreciative enquiry, it is worth articulating what these aspects might be.
Now that inequality and inequity have been seen, they cannot be unseen
Inequality is a social scourge, inevitably infiltrating higher education. It is almost a decade since former United States president Barack Obama described it as the most serious challenge of our time.
Nothing has changed and, until COVID-19 hit globally, it became inescapable only when the entire higher education sector sent their students home.
The pandemic made it impossible to ignore the inequalities hidden on residential campuses where connectivity and student residences appeared to level the playing field. Those brick-and-mortar spaces hid other forms of unequally distributed economic and cultural capital.
The pandemic has made visible what should have never been ignored. Now that the impacts of inequality are clear and visible, they must never again be rendered unseen.
The classroom has been made strange
By shifting mode, academics and educators have had to look with fresh eyes at their learning environments; the classroom, as Shanali Govender describes it, has been made strange again.
For many long-standing educators, the foundations of teaching had become opaque, lost in familiarity.
While the initial panic saw a frantic rush to upload content in a bid to salvage the academic year, as the pandemic has inexorably worn on, it has become clearer what learning involves. Going online has made the supporting skeleton of pedagogy, of community and of curriculum explicit.
Since the onset of the pandemic, attention has turned to rethinking time, reconceptualising space and learning environments, mapping pedagogy in new ways and reconsidering curricula.
After the initial panic, online learning design has seen shifts to enabling interaction and designing new forms of assessment, challenging taken-for-granted practices and at times improving those historically practised in face-to-face teaching environments.
Thus, while catalysed by the pandemic-induced pivot online, the fundamental issues of good teaching have received more sustained attention, no matter what the mode.
Collaboration against the odds
Universities are competitive institutions fostered by rankings and metrics that reflect a marketised culture of consumer choice. Research collaboration crosses borders deeply located in disciplinary knowledge.
However, teaching is considered a solitary undertaking with academics rewarded in promotion criteria that privilege individualist behaviour. If anything, collaboration in the teaching space has been disincentivised.
Yet, over the past 18 months, there have been myriad examples of informal mutual assistance. And at speed. Formal collaborative arrangements have sprung up and have been consolidated.
This generosity is evident in the collection of examples crowdsourced by Alexandra Mihai showing the numerous inter-institutional partnerships in academic staff development.
These include professional development courses designed across and for multiple institutions nationally and internationally, teaching and learning consortia and the creation of openly licensed toolkits and resource hubs.
In short, the ‘not invented here’ barrier was broken, and that is surely something that has gone right.
Rules got broken
The higher education sector is notoriously slow to change. Despite there being hubs of innovation in different disciplines, universities at an institutional and often at a national level are governed by regulations designed to serve previous outmoded dispensations, many of which were on the way out even before the pandemic began.
Rules were broken to prevent sectoral collapse: the multimodal approach to saving the year, combining analogue forms from paper, to radio and television – and digital forms including flash drives, pre-packaged tablets, mobile internet vans, cellphones and, of course, laptops with Wi-Fi.
This has meant regulatory categories were understood as overlapping and categories of provision porous.
Strictly demarcated rules specifying what is and isn’t distance education, what can or cannot receive state funding, what can or cannot be defined as ‘presence’, ‘hours spent together’, ‘hours in a classroom’ – these all got broken to save the academic year. And to save the life chances of students whose futures depend on the academic year being completed.
Deeply imperfect as this has been, policy frameworks and the regulatory environment, usually glacially slow to change, were adjusted to protect institutions and for the greater good of students. This flexibility, made possible by breaking the rules, shows what is possible and what needs to continue.
Addressing barriers and structural problems
To go full circle, many of the persistent structural challenges shaping the higher education sector are now in plain sight and can no longer be wished away.
Some of the fundamental socio-economic issues shaping the deep inequalities which characterise the higher education sector have started to receive attention.
There has been recognition of how many students face enormous barriers to learning. The diversity of learning settings and their associated challenges have started to receive proper attention.
Importantly, there has been a renewed emphasis on the importance of good teaching and the benefits of collaboration, both for equity and knowledge sharing.
Leonard Cohen could have been talking about teaching offerings in his song "Anthem": Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
Last year 22 of us from 15 of South Africa’s 26 universities collaborated on a joint paper about the pandemic in South African universities, from an equity and inequality perspective. Many of us had never met one another but we all agreed that it was a serious issue which we could all contribute to from a range of context-specific experiences and varied perspectives. We think the paper was richer because of the multiple voices.
It was my wild idea but of course nothing would have happened without everyone’s enthusiastic participation. One of the co-authors, Matete Madiba, suggested we talk with her and colleagues at her university about collaborative writing. For us this was a positive experience, which is not automatically the case. These are the thoughts I shared….
Why write collaboratively?
Of course, there are different kinds of collaborative writing.
In the first case, there is a shared issue which will be grappled with; the explicit aim is for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. There is a shared problem, probably with multiple sites. This works best when there is no intention to resolve the issue in the sense of coming up with a single solution, but to demonstrate complexity. In the case of our paper, it was consciously a process of collective meaning making.
In the second case, there is a skeleton developed and a division of labour where different authors write different sections.
A variant of this second option might involve an expert brought in to write specific sections.
Some principles . Let’s not pretend. Collaborative writing is not a walk in the park. It makes a difference if there is a shared understanding. Here are some principles we have found useful.
Image: Faelle @deviantart CC 3.0
Turns out that announcing I am going to be blogging regularly has not made me blog regularly. So, this is an announcement that I am going to blog irregularly. Or continue to blog irregularly. I am still thinking about edtech as coloniality but of course I have been doing Other Things.
One of the Other Things I have been doing is writing an Insider’s Guide to Navigating the Research Bureaucracy at my university. You know, everything that you wished someone had told you? Turns out there is a lot to share about the informal systems as well as the formal ones. But that is not really blog worthy.
Something else I did was write a piece on South Africa for the 2021 Educause Horizon Report. The brief was to describe higher education in South Africa especially in the light of the key trends identified by the Panel this year. That is on page 39 of the Report.
What was striking is that Higher Education in South Africa represents an extreme case of a situation that the pandemic made clear is pretty much a global situation: inequality for students, for academics, for institutions, for national systems, for the sector as a whole.
And how Covid has made everything so much more ingewikkeld - the dictionary says that means vexing and complicated.
And how there is so much that needs to be better understood. Which is why I concluded the piece with a set of suggested research questions:
This blog is part of the section on coloniality and the exploitation of natural resources. This in itself is wide ranging, so this blog is very briefly about how those of us working in teaching and learning in digitally-mediated higher education can't really escape thinking about greenhouse emissions.
The link between digital business models and climate change may be less obvious than other characteristics of coloniality. It was an area that I had an inkling about but once I explored it, I went down too many rabbit holes (many references!) to elaborate on in one blog post.
During Covid there has been a fair amount of coverage about how lockdown has been good for the planet and how greenhouse emissions plummeted.
Which is wonderful and has led to conjecture about how this might be sustained.
At the same time, in Higher Education, there have been calls for increased investment in digital infrastructure, for a variety of reasons. While these seem commonsensical, they have to be made with an eye on the planet.
Digitisation exploits mineral resources (which deserves a blog of its own) and it contributes to greenhouse emissions.
One useful paper Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations* (worth reading in full) studied the changes over ten years, summarised in these graphs.
What is immediately noticeable is the growth of green house emissions from smart phones and from data centres (i.e. "the cloud"). Policy researchers such as Research ICT Africa argue that ubiquitous smart phone ownership is needed to overcome the digital divide. Analysts such as Gartner, and many others have underlined that HE information systems are moving into “the cloud”.
So to overcome digital divides, and follow current trends, there is a danger of worsening green house emissions. A paradox?
These trends combined with these graphs make a striking case for green energy in higher education digital infrastructure, highlighting that it is impossible to divorce the opportunities of the digital for teaching and learning (and higher education) from responsibilities to the planet
*The study was undertaken pre-pandemic; I wonder what the situation looks like now?
This 2nd blogpost on Calculating Coloniality dovetails beautifully with a request from AdvanceHE to present a short video provocation, available here, on the future of higher education, as part of a panel with Vasengelis Tsiligkrisis and Mark Burkin.
In the previous post, I argued that coloniality and current dominant extractive business systems both use technology for the primary purpose of profit making and market expansion.
It is impossible to talk about the future without acknowledging that we are in the middle of a pandemic. What is interesting about Covid-19 is that while everyone recognises the horror and terrible impact of Covid19, in education the pandemic has also been described as an unanticipated and even exciting digital education experiment - indeed that the pandemic has been seen an opportunity to leapfrog into a digital future.
I am worried about that digital future. I think that the pandemic has seen numerous practices which were already of concern pre-Covid, become entrenched, and that without intervention, 2030 will see higher education fully colonised by extractive technology-based business models.
The word colonised has been used metaphorically by scholars (describing for example data colonialism or digital colonialism) yet strictly speaking denotes, as Maldonado-Torres (1) “political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a nation or a people rests on the power of another nation”
So, I prefer the term coloniality which, instead, he explains as “long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labor, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations”(1).
The point is that such colonial ways of being have become normalised, they are acceptable ways of engagement and of treated as the default terms of relationships. And while they don’t take traditional historical forms of direct subjugation of one nation by another, fundamental patterns, behaviours and relations of power persist and are reinscribed today.
New systems of extractive technology-based business models are an important vehicle for this reinscription, enabling the ultimate end goal of profit making and market expansions. While they hold out promises of progress, they require buy in to a system characterised by inherent inequalities, shaped by a homogenising world view and underpinned by new forms of exploitation.
To talk about new forms of profit making and market -making in education, it is necessary to engage with the impacts of digitisation in society more generally. Unfortunately, so far, Higher Education is proving to be a mere subset of these broader extractive systems, unable as yet to provide robust alternatives as we are still in the early stages of imagining, researching and testing what these might be.
Numerous scholars have described how technology is being appropriated and shaped by neoliberal systems. The culmination of this scholarship is provided in the detailed synthesising and analytical account of Zuboff’s work, on surveillance capitalism (2) which she succinctly describes as “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction and sales”*. Interestingly she also describes it “as an expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of people’s sovereignty”. It is striking how this loss of sovereignty is at the heart of the colonial project.
Under colonialism individuals were themselves a form of capital through their labour, forced, indentured, and enslaved while their assets such local knowledge, land, natural resources fed the new economy. These relations persist, albeit rebranded under a contemporary veneer. But individuals now provide an additional form of capital: their data a powerful financialised asset (3)** exponentially growing in value through the collated minutiae of the total human experience- what people do, their habits and behaviours, where they are, the moves they make, the views they express and so on.
The marketisation of HE has already become pervasive. Extractive business models are not limited to the big tech companies, they provide templates for businesses everywhere including in education. It is no co-incidence that there is currently increased investment in educational technology. Not only did the online pivot provide business opportunities, but ed tech companies are leveraging and experimenting with ways (described as innovative) of exploiting student data and experience for profit. The opportunities of the grand experiment afforded by the pandemic and of algorithmic academia has seen an annual investment growth rate of 16.3% expecting to reach $404 Billion by 2025 (4).
The fact that so much of the technological infrastructural investment is being made by venture capitalists with their profit-making agendas is a cause for concern. For digital infrastructure to be fairly and equitably available, it needs to be a public good which public universities should be able to leverage.
It is not simply the provenance but also the nature of that business model, premised on data extraction and financialisation which is especially worrying.
People often understand this data to mean the extraction of private information (like a name or number) and while this is important, what is even more important is what companies originally called digital “exhaust” . This is where it turns out the value lies- in other words the content is less important than the metadata and the “ambient” data that digital services collect. This is what we listen to, where we linger, who we connect with, what we prefer, what we say in passing, what we ignore, the list goes on and on). This data is collected to build models which can both predict and influence, which can shape behaviour and thought.
It is still early days to understanding this in society in general, and even earlier days in higher education.
The marketised nature of universities has been recognised for decades, and the term academic capitalism has summed up how knowledge has come to be understood as a private commodity rather than a public good. Prior to Covid, the platform university exemplified the role of big tech companies and their practices shaping academia. What has been illuminated in recent times is how the pandemic has been a catalyst for the extension of surveillance capitalism into HE academia, as universities everywhere invested in services and platforms to service the over 200 million university students who “pivoted” hurriedly online. Relationships with companies such as Online Programme Managers have substantially increased (4) as well as with a whole range of companies providing unbundled services for the entire student journey – from student applications to online proctoring, as well as the student experience through learning analytics and the like.
Even in the emergency rush online, the question of student data privacy has received some attention. In some universities and countries attention is being paid to the ownership of academic content through data privacy regulations and increasingly through data privacy positions. Much less attention is being paid to the “digital exhaust”, and to the control of extracted data. In contemporary business models, students are not owners of all their data; the risks are therefore considerable with student ambient data being consolidated into broader digital economic ecosystems. Even if the core data content is made private, the digital exhaust as an asset adds value.
Let’s take Google for Education as an example. It offers a collection of tools to collaborate (Docs, Slides, Sheets, Drive, Jamboard) and communicate (Mail, Meet, Chat), for classroom management (Classroom, Assignments, Forms) and administration (Keep, Calendar). These tools are a subset of the larger Google ecosystem (think of Maps, Translate, Chrome, Youtube etc). The promise of easy integration is paid for by consolidated and manipulatable data sets of students who will become in future consumer citizens. Catch them young and they are hooked into the entire system for life.
Through the shift to ERT, universities have delivered an entire generation of students to extractive business systems driven by profit seeking imperatives.
There is no time now to talk about the co-operation between big tech companies, nor their special relationships with third parties, although there is evidence that this is exists.
What is critical though in the Google example, is the centrality of Google search at the heart of the Google Alphabet behemoth. Prior to the pandemic, it was already understood how search played a gatekeeping role in knowledge formation. Google has over 90% of the search engine market and is so popular its brand has become for a synonym for search.
A 2020 investigation (5) showed that a significant percentage of search results on Google search front page results point to Google’s own products- such as Youtube and others. If profit-making rather than relevance or neutrality determines which information is found online this has real implications both knowledge comprehension and for knowledge creation.
It is significant that it is a decolonial scholar, Mbembe (6) , who has warned of knowledge systems worldwide being underpinned by the logic of value extraction (6) thus subverting the knowledge agenda.
I will end where I began - with coloniality. Maldonado-Torres reminds us, as modern subjects we breathe coloniality all the time and every day. What this means is that these extractive practices are not outside of us as citizens, as educators, as academics and as students. We are participants and we have responsibilities.
In short, extractive economic systems are shaping the future of education and unless policymakers and knowledge makers act soon, fast mutating forms of coloniality will be imprinted in the DNA shaping the future of the university and the higher education sector.
*In an interview 9 Harvard professor says surveillance capitalism is undermining democracy – Harvard Gazette) , Zuboff stresses that although it was Google that first learned how to capture surplus behavioral data, more than what they needed for services, and used it to compute prediction products that they could sell to their business customers, in this case advertisers, surveillance capitalism is no more restricted to that initial context than, for example, mass production was restricted to the fabrication of Model T’s.
In other words, it is this model which provides a template which is being explored and exploited in higher education.
** Komljenovic makes a compelling argument for digital data to be understood as assets rather than commodities, for reasons more complex than it is possible to summarise here. Best to read her excellent article.
This is the first of a series of blog posts for thinking aloud about coloniality as it is being enacted through tech-based extractive business models and new forms of sovereignty. The title has triple resonances for me- calculating as in ‘working out or making sense of”, calculating as in cunning and calculating as in the numerical basis of new forms of digital society and digital education.
Digital colonialism and data colonialism are terms which have some currency at present. I have heard them used in the fields of education, sociology, computer science and elsewhere. They are sometimes used metaphorically and sometimes to refer to big US tech companies. I was intrigued when the prominent decolonial scholar Achille Mbembe commented that the world has become a data emporium, a vast field of data awaiting exploitation, of predatory extractive forces, which can be seen as part of ongoing histories of colonisation. This signals a confluence of thinking from different domains.
Strictly speaking colonialism refers to the sovereignty of one nation over another, literally of one territory over another. Yet the term is more than simply symbolic or metaphorical. The term coloniality strikes as more apt as Maldonado-Torres describes it: “long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labor, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations”.
It is the systems, practices and patterns of power that echo and repeat colonial forms of engagement. They have become the default terms of relationships and have become internalised, normal and indeed the default.
During the pandemic, which both critics and evangelists have described as a global educational experiment, I have been especially interested in how coloniality is playing in Higher Education. Thinking about this means considering how the characteristics of coloniality play out in society generally, given that, at present, Higher Education is a subset of these practices, rather than a challenge to them.
The key ongoing colonial characteristics which echo historically, and which are being re-enacted and reinscribed now are as follows.
That is the taster! I have loads of notes and examples (thank you Evernote), and writing the blog posts will make me concisely articulate what each of these characteristics or categories would look like, and how they should be refined.
The next post will be about profit making and market expansion.
A new year, a new resolution. Mine this year includes to start blogging again (the others are not for public consumption!).
I have been an intermittent blogger, even at a times a regular blogger (well quite a while ago now), and sometimes a guest blogger. Also various articles in publications including The Conversation, World University News and Educause Review.
Now starting again on my own site, and keeping it simple, just to get going again. Let's hope 2021 does not throw us too many curved balls.
Image thanks to Tim Mossholder, Unsplash