Reflections on the politics of dashboards and Green IT

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 16 June 2011

Howard Noble from the JISC Open to Change project has blogged about the recent energy dashboards event held in Oxford. This event focused upon a number of emerging themes.

  1. How to represent/visualise energy data so that those who use institutional infrastructure can see the impact of their work? An outcome of the work on dashboards was that whilst some are seeking to reveal cost in terms of everyday activities that make sense to individuals, like the equivalent number of cups of tea that could be made, users of energy generally think about [are encouraged to think about?] their energy use as a cost in cash-terms. Money is the dominant metric in this approach to visualisation.
  2. Much of the focus appears, as yet, to be focused on individual behaviour change, rather than seeing this as a mutual, co-operative endeavour. There are plenty of examples of how networks or communities coming together can engage in a discussion about resilience, rather than sustainability, for example, Transitions Towns, Dark Mountain, the Co-operative College. However, this involves a focus, less on personalisation, which is a driving characteristic of societal and educational “value”, and more on mutualism, negotiation and collaboration.
  3. This need to re-focus discussion upon shared use of space and energy within it demands meaningful, long-term, public engagement. This is one of the outcomes of the DUALL project at DMU, and its successor GreenView, which wishes to enter into negotiation with people about “the impacts of our individual and collective actions, notably our increasing energy use and consumption of goods and services.” This includes technologies that are locally-hosted, but also those which are out-sourced to the cloud. Exactly where are we shifting our carbon commitments, so that we can shift any medium-term environmental risk off our short-term balance sheets?
  4. Thus, I think it is important to see energy dashboards in the context of a deliberative process that surrounds the discussion and opening up of visualisation data as a crack in our accepted norms of energy use. The process of opening-up our energy data, and opening up the production process that underpins those data needs to drive a wider discourse around our socio-technical activities within higher education. We need to move away from seeing dashboards as an end in themselves, as a set of data to be turned into a commodity that can be traded, exchanged or quantified in a league table. We need to use those data and their representation as a way to unpick the activities we engage in within Universities. In a draft article [under review], Joss Winn and I look at such activities in light of emissions and peak oil, and argue for a higher education where:
  • educational technology is a public rather than a private or institutionalised good with an acceptance of less energy-intensive, individualised access to processing power;
  • there is prioritisation of digital technologies in strategies for community consensus-building;
  • Universities are networks that act as hubs for local, community-level engagement with technologies, and high-level digital processes;
  • individual access to the web is less of a right than community access, based on a literacy of openness. Open is central;
  • outsourcing decisions are based on community need related to a critical analysis of environmental impact, rather than on a discourse of cost-effectiveness;
  • persistent and on-going procurement and renewal of hardware and software is rejected, in favour of re-use and re-purposing; and
  • students and staff produce and share their open curricula and artefacts, through trans-disciplinary approaches to global crises, like peak oil and climate change.

Engaging with a critique of the Triple Crunch and developing meaningful alternatives means that we need to think beyond business-as-usual, as realised through investments in a Green New Deal or long-term investments or out-sourcing risk and impact, in order to engage socially with the work, tasks and activities of our everyday, educational lives.

This means that we need to move away from a focus on values and attitudes to engaging with the deep, structural issues that are revealed by the work we undertake. How do the teaching, administrative and research processes of the University bind us into unsustainable practices [in terms of peak oil and carbon emissions], and make our communities less resilient? I am thinking of this in terms of our instant, recurrent, personalised, intensive use of energy-through-high-technology. How might energy dashboards and the information they project, help us to open up a dialogue about the ways in which we live our educational lives?

One lesson from the workshop is that we have a tendency to outsource, and that this makes us less well able to engage in a discussion of responsibility at scale. This might be in terms of institutional outsourcing of our carbon, or personal outsourcing of solutions to Government. This point has been reiterated in terms of corporate influence of public policy making and a withering of democratic engagement, in opposition to the social uses of technologies that should enable communities to share in “collaboration, process, experience, expertise, and knowledge”.

This is, of course, more difficult in a space where the rule of money and the invisibility/ubiquity of energy dominate the landscape, and where there is little discussion of complexities like the Jevons Paradox or alternative ways of working. We need to re-think our educational activities, in order to think about dashboards not as the next commodity or means of acquiring research funding, but as indicators of our shared consumption and production. We need fewer futuristic, positivist stories of green technologies, or green energy, and more focus upon our histories of adapting to energy shortages across communities. Meaningful public engagement is critical here, because Universities are located in time and space, and through community activity, external income generation, distance learning and outsourcing, they have a considerable carbon/energy footprint/requirement.

Clearly, this work demands a politics of energy use within and across higher education, which does not just engage students and staff with energy-as-money, but with issues and ideas of peak oil and consumption/production, and with their necessary activities/technologies. Until we have such a deliberative policy, dashboard-related work risks being the next commodity, or end-point, that salves our liberal, democratic consciences about energy use, but which actually change nothing. Hope lies in the dashboard and its production as a cipher for deliberation and socio-cultural change.

Towards a critique of mobile learning

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 20 May 2011

Mobile and wireless technologies are often described in terms of efficiency and productivity, or in terms of their provision of “flexible and timely access to learning resources, instantaneous communication, portability, active learning experiences and the empowerment and engagement of learners, particularly those in dispersed communities.” (JISC, 2011) Given the research and funding agenda, pedagogic case studies tend to focus upon outcomes for learners and teachers. They rarely critique these technologies beyond: the pedagogies deployed; technical issues; and the spaces and places in which they are deployed (Traxler and Wishart, 2011).

Such a pedagogically-driven analysis risks describing mobile technologies as socio-culturally neutral, against their absorption within social relationships and networks of power, based on their enculturation (Feenberg, 1999). In developing a more critical view of mobile learning there are three areas that might be developed: firstly, against pedagogies of consumption; secondly, for social justice and ethical imperatives; and thirdly, within analysis of energy availability. We might then ask, what is to be done?

Against a pedagogy of consumption. The pervasiveness of mobile hardware and software, and the persistent desire to upgrade, risks further privatising our education. Thus, educators might usefully ask whether a focus on mobile Apps, as opposed to the mobile web, reinforces a pedagogy of consumption through the commodification of content (Jarvis, 2010). This is based in-part on transnational software and hardware corporations driving content-based innovations that encloses and threatens the idea of the open web (Rupley, 2010; Silver, 2010), within the context of their brand and procurement processes, and the dominance of their cultural perspectives (Dyer Witheford and de Peuter, 2009). Moreover, we risk leveraging education into the almost constant need to search for the latest technological innovation or handset upgrade. This obsession with chasing the next innovative tablet or handset or application and therefore with power-over our access to resources, rather than on producing or enhancing or challenging or reforming our social relationships, needs to be critiqued.

For social justice and ethical imperatives. The labour rights, resource accumulation, geographical dispossession and supply-chains in which our uses of mobile technologies are implicated also need critique. Factories in which the iPad, iPod and iPhone are made in China have seen an abuse of workers’ rights and disturbing levels of suicide (Coonen, 2010; Hickman, 2010). Closer to home, there are also reports of alleged tax avoidance by mobile phone operators against the common good (UKUncut, 2011). More disturbingly, Hari (2011) has recently looked historically and materially at the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In over a decade of fighting, more than 5 million people have been killed, and Amnesty International (2011) have documented human rights’ abuses including gang-rape, mutilation, enforced disappearances and the militarisation of young boys and men. In this war, Hari emphasises the material importance of the DRC’s mineral deposits, and in particular Coltan, which

“is essential for the power-storing parts of cell phones, nuclear reactors, Play Stations, and computer chips. Coltan is increasingly exploited in the mountains in the conflict torn eastern part of the country… As coltan is necessary for the high-tech industry and as demand increases, motivation to pull out of the DRC by Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi decreases.” (Ware, 2001)

So, it is argued that these minerals are the driving forces for war, and that those who benefit are multi-national corporations involved in western high-tech innovation and development. A UN Experts’ Report (2008) argued that

“exporters and consumers of Congolese mineral products should step up their due diligence efforts by publicly disclosing evidence that would demonstrate that they are not knowingly purchasing tainted minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The place of energy availability and climate change. There is an emerging critique of the issue of sustainability tied to the viability of capitalist work within the context of reduced liquid resource availability, and a lack of control over carbon emissions (Greer, 2011; Pielke, 2010). Consideration of these implications is a reminder that higher education (HE) does not operate in a vacuum (Thrift, 2010). In particular, peak oil, or the point at which the maximum rate of oil production is reached, is a critical issue. Following this peak, oil production declines due to exponentially falling supply. Oil and coal are embedded in the production processes for the tools that we consume (Winn, 2010), with the production of carbon emissions as one outcome. Is our constant renewal of a range of personal technologies sustainable? In the production process for mobile technologies we also outsource our production of carbon to “developing economies”, without bearing the full cost. Is this morally acceptable? To what extent do we dissociate ourselves and our use of our tools from their global outcomes (Greer, 2011; The Oil Drum, 2010).

Each of these three critical domains implicates and enmeshes our use of mobile technologies within the web of a global market (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004; Hardt and Negri, 2000). Yet these webs of capitalism and transnational power-relationships keep those of us who notionally benefit from mobile technologies at a distance from the effects of our consumption. Hardt and Negri (2000) note that “Machines and technologies are not neutral and independent entities. They are biopolitical tools deployed in specific regimes of production, which facilitate certain practices and prohibit others.” Dyer Witheford and de Peuter (2009) argue that whilst devices are enslaving, this is not to deny that they are pleasurable, but we need to recognise how that pleasure itself channels power. We need to critique the realities of our uses of technology, in order to imagine alternatives.

What is to be done? Clearly global solutions are required to the catastrophes outlined above. However, educators might think about the following in their lives and practices.

  • How do we lobby vendors, providers, re-sellers, commissioners, in order that they justify the extraction of the materials, and the production processes, that they use for their products? How do we do this in association with others and in our daily work?
  • How do we work for technological decisions, like procurement, outsourcing etc., to be based on community need related to a critical analysis of socio-environmental impact and human rights, rather than on a discourse of cost-effectiveness, monetisation, economic value, and efficiency?
  • How do we lobby for consensus in open systems architectures, focused upon open-sourced, community designed and implemented technologies?
  • How do we work for a digital or technological literacy that is ethical? How do we work up an ethics of mobile learning?

In Nostromo, Joseph Conrad (1963) wrote about the social and material history of the Congolese, as their land was despoiled and as they were colonised in the nineteenth century:

“There is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests. They have their law, and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without the continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle.”

Our current use of mobile technologies needs to be recast in light of a critical history of their production and consumption to imagine alternatives beyond the rule of efficiency and money, in order to reclaim our humanity.


Amnesty International (2011). Democratic Republic of Congo. Retrieved from

Conrad, J. (1963) Nostromo: a tale of the seaboard. London: Dent.

Coonen, C. (2010b).Two more suicide bids at iPad plant hours after media tour. Retrieved from

Deleuze,G., and Guattari, F. (1984). Anti-Oedipus : capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Athlone.

Dyer Witheford, N., and de Peuter, G (2009). Games of empire: global capitalism and video games. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Feenberg, A. (1999). Questioning Technology. London: Routledge.

Greer, J.M. (2011). The onset of catabolic collapse. Energy Bulletin. Retrieved from

Hardt, M., and Negri, A. (2000). Empire. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Hari, J. (2011). Dying for a mobile phone. Retrieved from

Hickman, M. (2010). Concern over human cost overshadows iPad launch. Retrieved from

Jarvis, J. (2010). iPad danger: app v. web, consumer v. Creator. Retrieved from

JISC (2011). Mobile Learning. Retrieved from

The Oil Drum. (2010). The Science of Oil and Peak Oil Revisited. Retrieved from

Pielke, R. Jr. (2010). The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming. Lyndhurst, NJ: Barnes and Noble.

Rupley, S. (2010). Mobile Apps: The Ultimate Threat to Search Engines? Retrieved from

Silver,J. (2010). Google-Verizon Deal: The End of The Internet as We Know It. Retrieved from

Thrift, N. (2010). A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma). GlobalHigherEd. Retrieved from

Traxler, J., and Wishart,J. (eds 2011). Making mobile learning work: case studies of practice. Bristol: Escalate.

UKUncut (2011). Vodafone. Retrieved from

UN Security Council (2008). Final report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Retrieved from

Ware, N. D. (2001). Congo War and the Role of Coltan. Retrieved from

Winn, J. (2010). Resilient Education. Retrieved from

A revised note on technology, outsourcing and the privatisation of higher education

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 14 December 2010

In a recent note on technology, outsourcing and the privatisation of higher education, I argued that hegemonic economic arguments, uncritically focused on short-term efficiency gains and the perceived flexibility of cloud-based provision, is accelerating the commodification of IT services, systems and data. A core strand of this is that the dominant logic “makes no attempt to focus upon an institution as a complex socio-cultural set of spaces, within which technology and those who work with it are situated.”

My belief that we are witnessing “an emerging crisis of the public space” revealed in-part through technological outsourcing, privatisation and enclosure has been amplified by recent, global socio-cultural events. These events highlight the power of capital in enclosing our places for co-operation.

  1. In an excellent commentary on Amazon’s decision to abandon Wikileaks, John Naughton claims that the migration to the cloud offers problems for those who dissent from prevailing narratives of power. The political pressure brought to bear on Amazon, and its decision not to support a counter-hegemonic or alternative position, for reasons that are extra-judicial, is concerning for democratic engagement on-line. Naughton quotes Rebecca MacKinnon: “A substantial, if not critical amount of our political discourse has moved into the digital realm. This realm is largely made up of virtual spaces that are created, owned and operated by the private sector.” Therefore the control of spaces for deliberation, where controversy can be played out is compromised by the interplay between power and capital. It should be noted that the Wikileaks farrago has been critiqued as business-as-usual, in that “The leaking performed by Wikileaks does not imply the disclosure of the web of power that government puts into motion”. However, the attack on dissent matters in a world where autonomous student and academic activists are using the web to oppose the dominant logic of those in power, and where the state is physically opposing forms of protest.
  2. MacKinnon goes on to state that “The future of freedom in the internet age may well depend on whether we the people can succeed in holding companies that now act as arbiters of the public discourse accountable to the public interest.” The web is entwined with our social forms – it provides a space to widen our engagement with education, with exchange and production, with communities in their struggle for justice. The web forms a space, embedded within our view of social forms, within which ideas of our shared public goods can be defended and extended. In the logic of capital, where cuts and privatisation, or the marketisation of our lives, are being catalysed at an increasing velocity, the spaces we defend and extend for shared social value are critical. However, it is clear that whilst the state has moved to enclose and brutalise physical space, through the use of militarised tactics like kettling people, in an attempt to reduce dissent via shock therapy, such coercion on-line also needs to be resisted in the name of democracy.
  3. Resistance is difficult to achieve for it rests on a view of the commons or public goods, which in-turn stands against the dominant logic of all spaces opened up for the exchange of commodities. Dyer-Witheford has demonstrated how the tensions between exchange for sharing, versus co-operation for sharing are exacerbated in the violence of the virtual space. Dyer-Witheford sees some hope in the concept of the multitude raised by Negri and Hardt in opposition to the power of capital that re-produced systemically, beyond national borders, as Empire. The multitude offers hope because it re-connects opposition towards the alienating, dehumanising effects of capitalism and coercive competition, by way of a proliferation of autonomous spaces. It re-connects opposition into the ethics of peer-to-peer sharing and the hacker. It offers a metaphor for multiple ways to dissolve the toxicity of capitalism into a new set of deliberated social forms. In this we need to reconsider our approach to the personal and towards celebrating libertarian views of the individual that commodify our privacy, or at least the state’s control of it. This is why the place of hacktivism, in and against capital’s dominant social forms and their shackling of our labour and social lives to an economically-determined set of outcomes, is important. Hacktivism as “electronic direct action in which creative and critical thinking is fused with programming skill and code creating a new mechanism to achieve social and political change” is critical in “securing the Internet as a platform of free speech and expression.” Increasingly, this work will be needed as the state marketises or closes down our public spaces for free speech and expression, and forces public bodies like Universities to privatise and valorise their work, conditioned by debt.
  4.  In the face of an homogenised life, we can view the autonomous nature of student occupations of physical and virtual space as a protest without co-ordinates or co-ordination. The lack of leadership in the face of a militarised response has enabled the multitude of dissenting voices to work towards a network of dissent that is able to theorise and critique a position beyond fees and cuts to teaching budgets. The dominant logic is one of resistance to capital, visited symptomatically through fees, cuts to public services, financialisation of debt, and corporate tax avoidance. One possibility is that the use of cloud-based social media, which is at once open source and proprietary, peer-to-peer, shared and closed, offers ways for those in opposition to subscribe to a broader critical and social opposition in developing this critique. This is not the world of the lone reviewer or subscriber, who can rate/subscribe to other lone reviewers. This is the world of security in the social; it is the world of re-production and sharing as social exchanges and social activities that are not-for-profit. They need to be defended and not proscribed.

There is an emerging concern that the privatisation and outsourcing of spaces and opportunities by Universities, driven by cost and an agenda of debt, is a real risk to freedom-of-speech and dissent. Where private firms are able to control public discourse, and where the internet becomes tethered or enclosed, there are no guarantees that we will be able to challenge. There is no guarantee that we will not be kettled or coerced where we protest on-line. The privatisation of our academic spaces threatens a negation of the critical, social life. It needs to be deliberated before that possibility is destroyed.

A note on technology, outsourcing and the privatisation of higher education

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 8 November 2010

Charles Arthur wrote in Saturday’s Guardian that the UK Government shouldn’t hang on Google’s every word. Arthur makes some interesting points around the increasing privatisation of public spaces and assets. [Although he does not explicitly make this connection, I am happy so to do.]

  • He notes issues of governance and evidence-for-policy, in the face of progressive use of technology [rather than technology-as-progress]: “sometimes there’s a temptation to think that because a big, successful company tells you something’s wrong, that it really must be”.
  • He notes issues of technology-as-progress that risks catalysing enclosure of the commons by our decision-makers, with PM David Cameron arguing that “we are reviewing our IP laws, to see if we can make them fit for the internet age”, and David Willetts, the Minister with responsibility for higher education adding “The US rule is that ‘anything man has invented under the sun you should be able to patent’. That’s something we do wish to investigate.”
  • He notes that there is limited critique of the role of technology in defining the state and its services: “But ministers and prime ministers are in thrall to those who would sell them technology.”

A key point that Arthur makes is about the productive value of opening-up, rather than closing down the web through overt institutional policy and governance. A central point here is that decision-makers are able to take action based on a view of technology as a function of systemic, socio-cultures, that are historic, rather than by seeing technology as a-historic and neutral. In referring to the opening-up of UK data under the last Labour Government and linking it to a view that open agendas spur innovation, Arthur argues that “There’s a lesson here: Berners-Lee spurned the idea of commercialising his invention of the web, in favour of giving it away; and everyone, including government, has benefited enormously.” The lessons of technology-in-education demand a political view rather than one which is driven by economics.

This gave me pause-for-thought, around what we give away, what we control, and what we open up, in terms of the recent Educause and NACUBO white paper on Shaping the Higher Education Cloud. The paper highlights how the Cloud offers hope for efficiencies and economies of scale, but that HE will need to overcome its “long tradition of building its own systems and tendency to self-operate almost everything related to IT”, as if culturally-specific norms, operations and strategies are inherently bad. The paper mentions the core mission and competencies of HE, hinting that these are not informed by technology [and neither do those norms inform the development of technology], and moreover that technology is socially, culturally and historically neutral, and can therefore be left to “experts”, or at least the managers who control the labour of those experts.

The argument given for efficiency in the face of mounting economic pressures, for flexibility in the cloud, for the commoditization of IT, makes no attempt at meaningful critique of what services, systems or data should be in the Cloud or why. It makes no attempt to focus upon an institution as a complex socio-cultural set of spaces, within which technology and those who work with it are situated. The paper highlights how privatisation of technology and infrastructures that support public assets like Universities are vital. Moreover, it highlights HE-as-consumption: as the consumption of content and data; and as the consumption of services. It says nothing of the lived experience of HE; it says nothing of the lived production of HE by those who work within it; it says nothing of the open engagement of those within HE with a range of stakeholders; it says nothing of the co-operative production of academic forms that are socio-cultural and which incorporate technology. In stating that by moving infrastructure, software and platforms-as-services to the cloud, universities can then concentrate on core competencies, the paper speaks of homogenisation, where the only choices on outsourcing are based on cost and risk, rather than academic practices and forms.

Whilst the paper says little about wider issues of enclosure of the open web, through Apps and the logic of private clouds, it does at least argue for federated access. However, identity management hosted by a broker for a set of private companies offers different perspectives from those negotiated and managed in the public domain, in co-operation. If my identity is in the cloud, and I am separated from my institutional ties through the dislocation of people and place, what does that do to my alienation from my work through myself? As I am further virtualised, and my identity commodified for the use of brokers or aggregators, what does that mean for the value of my labour and the control of my self or access to my self, whether by me alone or in conjunction with others? Separation rather than co-operation is at risk here, in the logic of outsourcing.

In this, as with so much analysis of technology-in-education, there is a chronic lack of critique. The paper argues for the “promise of cloud computing to transform higher education learning and business processes”, and yet offers no evidence for the former, or for systems that might be migrated [although the risk of payroll being managed in the Cloud gets a mention]. Does technology really transform learning? This is a classic positivist position, and one similar to traditional, historical arguments for the productive efficiencies of technology that underpin progress and ‘growth’. In this, other unsubstantiated statements are made for green facilities and the value of integration, whilst there is no meaningful focus on the impact of our outsourcing of carbon emissions or of our resource use. In spite of this, the key to the logic of outsourcing and the cloud is given on page 8: “the ability of cloud providers… to substitute capital for labour – makes it unlikely that higher education can compete on cost”. Here, the logic of technology within capitalism is laid bare, and it is reiterated on page 15, where the stepped-plan of what institutions should move to the cloud develops with no focus on culture and/or meaning, but simply on economic efficiency and ‘growth’. [Academic engagement is first mentioned on page 19.]

This demands a further reading of Postone’s Time, Labour and Social Domination. Where technology is divorced from academic endeavour and seen neutrally through a purely fiscal lens, it can be used to define the privatisation and marketisation of higher education, irrespective of that sector’s role as a key state asset. In this, the discourse of other technologically-driven innovations, like the personal learning environment needs critique against a prevailing libertarian standpoint, and in connection with co-operative and open, academic engagement. The fear is that an uncritical treatment of innovations that might be seen to be against the institution and against the public, and for the separation of private, individual consumption [including the PLE and OERs], work for neoliberal agendas of the marketisation of that which is ‘technologically-neutral’. Technology-in education has to be analysed in terms of critical, social theory, rather than simply economics.

This is an emerging crisis of the public space, which re-focuses our need to raise major questions of technology-in-education. Where are the spaces for partnerships of students-as-producers, or communities-as-producers with institutions or academic staff? What is the idea of the university where HE seems to be focused on consumption of data, networks, learning, resources, and the curriculum, and migrating this consumption to the cloud? Who should control the means of production in HE? There seems to be little space for denial of the dominant logic of outsourcing-as-privatisation, or technology-as-efficiency-for-learning. Within a logic of higher education as ancillary of business, seen in the Coalition’s cuts agenda and its response to the Browne Review, the privatisation of institutional functions risks HE becoming an edufactory for training/economic provision alone. Harvey saw this emerging in 1986, when he argued that universities were moving from being “guardians of national knowledge to ancillaries in the production of knowledge for global corporations”. As public control of HE as a public good is marginalised, and as we become less well able to think through the relationships of our local activities to global ecology and resources, this risk is amplified.

So I wonder, is the outsourced space one in which democratic governance can be imposed, in the face of the logic of markets? Is the outsourced space one which furthers the enclosure of the commons? Is the outsourced space about marketising higher education for efficiency of technological services before it is privatised for the consumption-of-training-as-learning? Does the outsourced space further remove us from the ecological damage of our resource-intensified life-worlds? Can our work towards open educational models help provide alternatives?

Google, Microsoft and HE: outsourcing the student and staff experience

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 13 August 2009

The issue of outsourcing technology-provision is emerging as a major issue for higher education managers. I know outsourcing has been around for a while – institutions have outsourced data networking and equipment maintenance since the year dot. Moreover, SOAS and Glasgow Caledonian outsourced email to Google in 2007. However, it’s only now that our institutional managers are grappling with the issue of student email provision, and as a result have to recognise the cultural and managerial implications of outsourcing the student and staff experience.

Outsourcing the student and staff user experience is what a pact with, for instance, Google, implies precisely because a Gmail implementation opens up possibilities and pressures for implementing the rest of the Google suite, and thereby changing the face of institutional communication and interaction. The impact on the core business of an institution will be seismic. Whilst such a pact may offer up opportunities for wider associations and networking, it also threatens those areas of an institution that may need to be closed (e.g. data management and processing for awards).

Outsourcing a technological solution has implications: for service provision; for data protection, privacy and confidentiality; for levering institutional, technological extensions [in Google’s case a burgeoning set of apps that have affordances for learning and teaching, rather than simply email]; and for institutional visions/blueprints of learning and teaching, especially where users can opt-in or out. It is critical that we recognise for whom this is being done and why.

There are a number of issues then in the migration of a major technological solution like student email to, say, Google.

  1. The first is the nature of the risk assessment that has been done, linked to the full business case. In fact, is there a full business case that focuses less on cost savings and more on real value? The key focus should be on the relationships between staff, students and resources within appropriate learning communities that are open and/or closed to the institution, programme, or individual. How are these best organised and supported? Outsourcing on cost alone should be a non-starter, although it seems that this isn’t always the case.
  2. Implementing, for instance, Gmail opens up opportunities for extending the rest of the Google suite that includes recent changes to iGoogle, Google Reader and Google Wave. This impacts any proposed blueprint for technologies that support an institutional vision/ethos, and which also engages non-institutional networks or communities. This has to be properly assessed by key local stakeholders in-line with their needs, rather than jumped on because students feel Google is sexy, shiny and better. Moreover, where new services have pedagogic implications, this impacts our development not only of existing tools, but critically our engagement with, development of, and support for academic and support staff. What will the services that we provide for staff and students look like, so that neither group are left behind?
  3. Oxford have argued that Gmail is not a viable solution for them for staff email given privacy and confidentiality issues. With the amount of shared group-work and collaboration needed by staff and students, delivering dual systems is not an option in their context. Given that other potentially-shared Google services are available, it is critical that both students and staff are engaged in a planned way, in order to avoid opening up a digital divide in the services are offered to support learning and teaching. That deliberation has to be set within an institutional culture that may be at once open and/or closed, and which frames decisions about data or relationships that need to be held in-house.
  4. There is a very real risk that managers are bedazzled by identification with, for instance, the Google brand, and new developments like ‘caffeine’. Google has been criticised over privacy, copyright infringement, hacking, censorship, DRM etc.. Hence the value-set of any association or affiliation needs to be deliberated properly across all institutional stakeholders. Anil Dash’s excellent piece on “Google’s Microsoft moment” asks whether Google is moving to a position where it is “favoring what’s convenient for [its] own business goals” rather than that which matters to its real-world users. He goes on to add that “The era of Google as a trusted, ‘non-evil’ startup whose actions are automatically assumed to be benevolent is over”. Most tellingly of all, he states that Google’s “protestations of ‘but it’s open source!’ are being used to paper over real concerns about data ownership, and the truth is that open code doesn’t necessarily imply that average users are in control”. We are not yet at the point of transition to the university of the people, where there is no need for closed positions. There are bigger issues here that impact local, educational user engagement, set within validated and purposeful institutional cultures.
  5. A final issue here is that of openness. Dave Cormier argued at OpenEd09 that open educational resources, including tools and contexts, are often not open for creation or re-creation or re-formation, and at best they are simply static and accessible materials. By focusing institutionally or within a community upon one service or set of services, we are in danger of excluding or marginalising by locking people into or out of specific ways of working. Empowered decision-making about relationships, technologies, services and resources demands contexts that scale choices for learners (for instance in safe, free-ranging environments). Cormier argues that the personal processes involved in learning and in engaging with communities are complex and messy. If he is right then decisions need to be made about institutional openness and engagement with shared resources, services and toolsets by a range of stakeholders, not just those who operate in isolated pockets.

This all needs clear planning with key stakeholders, with a clear rationale developed for any link with Microsoft, Google or whoever, which is based around institutional need and an institutional blueprint. Managers need to know for what issue(s) outsourcing is a solution – a technology or service or organisational change or cost saving? Why this technology and why now? What are the dis-benefits?

The implementation of, for instance, gmail is not neutral. It opens up possibilities for new technological developments. Those developments are also not neutral – they impact the management of identities, services, staffing, organisation, processes, data etc. at a range of levels, from the personal to the institutional. Some of these issues are raised by the JISC Legal Tutor Guide to Web 2.0, and again impact this debate.

Now it may well be that Google supplies solution for some of the things for which Universities need social media. I use Google services both personally and to manage the information/communication needs of a Homeless Hostel for which I am a Trustee, and I am very happy to do so. However, our Trustees have risk assessed this decision in terms of our data and resources, their management and the critical nature of our work. I see merit in an affiliation with for example Microsoft or Google, in terms of personalisation, scale and flexibility. However, there are huge cultural, curricula and working ramifications in any proposal to outsource an element of local practice to such an organisation. This is, I believe, a risky strategy that needs proper deliberation, so that institutions are not just pawns in on-going business battles.