Internationalisation, student voices and the shock doctrine: disrupting business-as-usual

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 24 January 2011

This post complements my keynote at the 11th Teesside University Learning and Teaching Conference, held on Wednesday 26th January. There are two slideshows. The first, entitled “in solidarity”, is a rolling piece to be run without commentary at the start of the session. It presents some images of student activism across the globe, limited to the period since 1968. It intersperses these with comments from the current UK coalition government and some detail on the financialisation and privatisation of UK higher education, in order partially to describe hegemony.

This slideshow highlights that student activism against the state has been, and continues to be, met with state-sanctioned violence. In the accelerated implementation of neoliberalism within the UK, opposition is branded as outlaw or is brutalised in the kettle. As societies are disrupted by climate change, debt, food production and energy availability, there is a quickening of the transformation of the state towards an iron cage of control, in the name of business-as-usual, growth and capital. And all this is a world where, as Žižek argues, our liberal aim is “to democratise capitalism, to extend democratic control to the economy by means of media pressure, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, honest police investigations and so on.” Žižek queries whether it is enough that “the institutional set-up of the (bourgeois) democratic state is never questioned.” Framed by this critique of the failure of liberal democracy to humanise, and in the face of the State’s oppression and antagonism, Mike Neary notes that we must question whether in education “The struggle is not for the University, but against what the University has become.”

In the face of disruption, and framed by an agenda that promotes internationalisation as a space into which UK HE can grow, steps the student.

The second slideshow is entitled “Internationalisation, student voices and the shock doctrine: disrupting business-as-usual”. I wish to ask two questions, from which spring a further set of questions, in this talk.

  1. What is the relationship between UK higher education, internationalisation agendas and student voices in a world that faces significant disruption?
  2. Is business-as-usual a viable option?


In slide 4 I highlight UUK’s response to the UK Coalition Government’s spending review proposals. It develops an argument about UK HE that demonstrates how the sector is important and an engine for economic growth. It begins to sketch a view that UK HE’s size and complexity, its networked potential to support growth, its ability to act as a motive-force, gears it to be re-focused and shackled in the name of market fundamentalism. Here, HE is about resources and the valorisation of (human) capital-in-motion, rather than the relationships between people. This is a hegemonic view of business-as-usual, further exemplified in HEFCE’s mission and the HEA’s Strategic Plan [slides 5-6]. In these documents, Internationalisation is explicitly and uncritically placed in relation to economic growth.

In slides 7-9 I highlight recent reports that demonstrate the place of UK HE in a model of neoliberal political economy, focused upon human capital in the global knowledge economy and the accumulation of capital by the UK through exports, alongside the increasing global mobility/flow/circulation of students as part of this process of coercive competition. A snapshot of current practice highlights a flow from developing nations [BRICS and south-east Asia] towards the West. Slides 10-13 highlight the current role of these nations in providing “human” capital in the form of students, counterpoised against their emerging success in Western-oriented school testing and the emergence of China as a space for the inward flow of mobile students. Importantly this is as opposed to the relative reduction of students into the USA. Is there a clash coming, or a shift in the locus of power between the USA and China in HE, as a function of the movement and re-production of transnational capital? This view is framed by slide 14, which also points out that whilst there may be differences based on the type of (non-) accredited, international activity, it is important that student migration grows faster than overall migration. At issue here is the cultivation of those likely to produce proprietary knowledge, as opposed to knowledge workers. A tied question is who will own such proprietary knowledge (workers)?

In slides 15-16 I wish to raise some central questions around business-as-usual;

  1. Is it possible to develop an internationalisation of HE that enables alien experiences enrich the curriculum and global “knowing”? (Deliberately opposed to “the knowledge economy”.) This is important in finding shared solutions to global problems.
  2. Is engagement with overseas students’ by UK HE a form of capitalist primitive accumulation, of both fiscal and human capital? Or is it tied to the transnational movement of global capital linked to corporate development?
  3. Where students entering UK HE are privileged and gain further ‘positional advantage’ in a crowded and increasingly ‘credentialised’ graduate labour market, is UK HE contributing to elitist, hegemonic positions in countries of origin? Moreover, are these positions an extension and a valorisation of neoliberal socio-cultural forms?

HE as homogenised

In slide 17 I begin to argue for a homogenised higher education, irrespective of cultural specificity/difference, with a focus on employment rather than knowing or a transformation of thinking. This view is focused institutionally in slides 18-19 by demonstrating that the international student experience is shaped [with a few exceptions based on state/financial security, like border controls] like the “normal” student experience. Such normalisation is helpful in extending a hegemonic position through the incorporation and assimilation of the “other”.

It is interesting to note that once the curriculum is brought into play, we begin to see examples of how internationalisation might enable experiential, or practical, production to occur, in the name of a transformation of mind [slides 20-21]. However, this transformative moment is almost lost in the face of the homogenised, institutional representations of internationalisation/student living that are revealed by university web-sites, whether they are grouped by 1994, Million+, Russell Group or University Alliance [slides 22-25]. This is in spite of the focus in some of these spaces for materials which underpin the development of staff, or the appearance of some student voices.

A view of HE as a convergent place for production/consumption is also revealed in the face of the stereotyped view of Asians as rote-learners, as opposed to more sophisticated, contextually-driven learners. Although, of course, we also see the same claims made about some home-based students who come to HE following their A-levels. This view that there is good [Western] educational practice that might be transferred is also reinforced by those private consultancies who are trying to engage with the rush to outsource practices, spaces and “excellence” [slide 26]. In spite of this structural, institutional position, at the level of the curriculum we see the possibility for a transformation of mind through shared, generic human experiences/stories that spill through. These need to be positioned culturally but they open up spaces for the transfer of things and thoughts [slides 27-29].

And so in slide 30 I wish to ask whether the internationalisation of HE has the possibility to be about something more radical – that it might be more humane? That it’s not just the (knowledge) economy (and efficiency) that is to be served, but that, irrespective of cultural differences, we might be able to produce something else. There is something here on power and the production of the curriculum and the world at a range of scales. Moreover, maybe commonalities are more important in a world that faces significant disruption.

However, we need to reveal how that view relates to our work with students. Work on the student voice is often seen as inclusive and democratic, and to validate specific views. It humanises our view of them because up to a point they are included in our work [slides 31-32]. At issue is whether our conversations with students offers the possibility of a radical moment in which we might crack open higher education for a productive purpose beyond neoliberal intent.

Slides 33-44 demonstrate how much work needs to be done here in engaging students with each other in the face of overtly economically-driven imperatives. These quotes from students highlight the alienating impact of money and debt on social relations, and how the cultural separation of individuals and groups is enhanced through our current focus on HE as economic engine, fuelled by debt and privatisation. This separation and alienation encourages marginalisation and views of the other. It enables the aggressive marketing of a specific way of life that is driven by capitalist work.


The next section focuses upon HE’s place in a world that faces significant disruption. These disruptions are prefigured around four themes.

  1. Control and management of flows of ‘economic migrants’/asylum-seekers: here is a view of international students as threat, as the other, unless they are holders of proprietary knowledge who become like us. This enables the dominant neoliberal position to elide the threat of domination by alien cultures with attacks on the wastefulness of the public sector and its assets, and to aggressively argue for privatisation [slides 46-50].
  2. Globalising privilege: as mobile students represent, to some extent, a ‘privileged’ selection of humans, there is a risk that ‘student switchers’ enable developed countries to accumulate human capital, and extend its hegemonic position through the ownership of proprietary knowledge workers [commonly referred to as a brain/skills drain] [slide 51].
  3. HE and post-colonialism/neoliberalism: whilst there is a flow of networks and connections between nodes in the West, and to an extent between the East and the West, there is emerging power within those on the boundaries that is challenging and radically threatening to established norms. The economic rise of the BRICS offers a central geographical space into which this clash may be escalated [slides 52-54].
  4. Against nature: climate change, peak oil, energy costs, the loss of biodiversity each threaten business-as-usual within capitalist social relations. Internationalisation threatens to take more people from countries with low ecological footprints and export them to those with high footprints, or to transfer activities in the opposite direction. And it is simply not good enough to claim that technological efficiencies will save the day, because a rise in global population and affluence will ensure that this is not possible. Deeper solutions are needed [slides 54-60].

As a result we might need to work in a more focused way at a range of scales, including within HE. We might need to revisit radically our curriculum and activities. We might need to think about limits. We might need to fight views of business-as-usual predicated upon students-in-debt as consumers-of-education. We might need to stand against technological and economic determinism and provide radical alternatives. And when we are told that capital in all its forms [financial, human, social, cultural] will save us because we will be more intelligent/flexible/adaptable, we need to ruthlessly critique the alienation, the imposition of hegemony, and the immiseration of life and labour enforced by capital in its self-valorisation and in its re-production of those social relations that imprison [slide 61].

The Shock Doctrine and HE: the place of internationalisation

Within UK HE, the Browne Report and the Coalition Government’s subsequent response has turned the global economic crisis into a means to quicken the privatisation of the state, and to attempt the strangulation of possibilities to energise transformative, co-operative relations. This places HE in the vanguard of the Shock Doctrine, designed “to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy”. It rests upon, for example…

  1. The relentless law of competition and coercion [the rush to internationalise].
  2. The impact of crisis to justify a tightening and a quickening of the dominant ideology [student-as-consumer; HE-as-commodity].
  3. The transfer of state/public assets to the private sector under the belief that it will produce a more efficient [smaller, less regulatory] government and improve economic outputs.
  4. Lock-down of state subsidies for “inefficient” work [Band C and D funded subjects].
  5. The privatisation of state enterprises in the name of consumer choice, economic efficiency or sustainability [encouraging the privatisation of HE].
  6. A refusal to run deficits [pejorative cuts to state services].
  7. Extending the financialisation of capital and the growth of consumer debt [increased fees].
  8. Controlled, economically-driven, anti-humanist ideology.

And so, internationalisation might be read as an attempt to enforce the shock doctrine as part of a response to economic crisis. It might be read as an attempt to increase the market for western neoliberal values, delivered in-part through higher education. At issue then is how shared, international values/stories might enable oppositional, alternative, meaningful social transformation to be realised.

In this, we might ask [slides 63-66]:

  • Is HE resilient in the face of disruption? Or is it disoriented in the face of shock?
  • Do our approaches to internationalisation and the place of students in HE limit re-invention?
  • How does the intimacy of commonality help us? Which co-operative projects might offer possibilities?
  • So what might this mean for student voices in HE? Can the voices of international students help HE become more resilient?

Students-as-producers of resilient HE?

Resilience is about communities and societies working to adapt to disruption. It is not about business-as-usual. It is not about mitigation. It is about engagement, education, empowerment and encouragement. It is about co-operation and not competition. And so the University might become a space for international engagement with the production of a radical, active, non-hegemonic set of experiences. The totality of our contextual experience might be analysed from a range of perspectives, in order to develop new identities and social relations [slides 67-69].

And so students and academics might, irrespective of culture, work as co-producers of a mass intellect in commons. Collaborative social relations might enable us to re-envisage the University as a revolutionary space, where knowledge is constructed not for consumption and privatization and commodification for the economy, but instead for global knowing and reimagining, and solutions to global disruptions that are not financialised. Within this approach, civil, experiential action is critical, as is critique. The emergence of activities underpinned by co-governance and co-production, focused upon praxis, are central to this approach, and in answering the question: “In the face of disruption what is HE for?” [slides 70-73].

By engaging with education as social re-production, and taking on-board the homogenous, shared elements of out life-world, we might ask:

  1. Are there other ways of producing knowing? What authority does HE/do universities have? How relevant are fixed institutions/programmes in a disrupted world?
  2. How do internationalised student voices help to adapt to disruption? In a knowing world, rather than a knowledge economy, what does curriculum innovation mean?
  3. Does a pedagogy of production need to start with the principle that we need to consume less of everything? What does this mean for ownership of the institution at scale [local, regional, global]?

A focus on business-as-usual is no help in a world that faces significant disruption. We need to begin with our students and ask them “How can internationalised student voices help in the struggle to re-invent the world?” For it is through their revelation of the world that alternatives may be produced.

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.

Student-as-producer: reflections on social protest, social media and the socio-history of re-production

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 16 November 2010

I was taken with Mike Neary’s description of the 10th November national demonstration by students, staff and supporters of HE as a public good. It was important that Mike called his piece “History (Change) in the Making”, in order to highlight the possibilities for fusing the production of our futures through an engagement with the past. In the quest for progress, too often we dismiss any attempt at critique of our present moment as historically-situated, especially in terms of our use of technology. Too often we make claims for technology in education as progressive because we believe it enhances engagement or participation or the value of a student as a knowledge worker, and this tends to be collapsed into a discourse around employability. However, a more critical, democratic reappraisal of our shared positions in the academy, underpinned by socio-historical narratives, rather than socio-technical ones, is being focused by Neary through the student-as-producer project. This project is working in the institution, against neoliberal views of the curriculum-as-consumption, to move beyond prescribed social relations. Neary notes that:

“Student as Producer is not only about encouraging students to produce products, whether in the form of artistic objects and/or research outputs. Student as Producer extends the concept of production to include ways in which students, as social individuals, affect and change society, so at [sic.] to be able to recognise themselves in the social world of their own design.”

In relating the project to the protest, he powerfully highlights that the students in London were not those who will feel the cold-wind of fees, and yet they were standing-up for higher education as a public good. He also stated that they could see that “the lack of money is a constant grinding relentless reality”, which diminishes us all. This diminishing of education and our social relations in the face of externally-imposed, economic necessity reminds us “how the power of money has so overwhelmed human sociability that it now seems like a natural phenomena, rather than the outcome of an oppressive social process. And, as such, it appears impossible to resist.” Critically, as the Rector of Edinburgh University, Iain MacWhirter, noted, this means that in the name of supporting coercive capitalism and the financialisation of our economy and life-world, prospective undergraduate students must mortgage their futures before they can consider a traditional mortgage.

One of the critical outcomes from the protest was around the importance of re-politicising the question of what higher education is for, not just amongst academics and established intellectuals, but also amongst others who benefit from the forms of HE. I do not know whether the students engaged on the NUS/UCU demo regard themselves as intellectuals, activists, citizens, agents or whatever. However, the ability of 50,000 people physically to see 49,999 other people, alongside brass bands, drummers and carnival grotesques, is an important moment in radicalising and re-imagining what our concrete, living experiences of higher education might be. This re-politicising offers the promise of a re-imagining and a re-production of the forms of higher education.

In this way the reality of this national event was its appearance as a crack in the dominant form of resourcing, sharing and delivering HE. As a crack in the dominant moment of higher education it forces other students, academic and professional services staff, society, workers, the state, to grapple with alternatives, or at least to defend their orthodoxies. This is important because, as Holloway argues, this is a disruption in the dominant logic of our social determination. He quotes: “We shall not accept an alien, external determination of our activity, we shall determine ourselves what we do”. For Holloway, moving away from imposition and alienation, towards automomies of doing is a critical, radical moment. I wonder the extent to which Wednesday was important because of the spaces it prescribed for autonomous activity.

The value of actual, living experiences, where fellowship can be described and re-formed through direct action in the world, shines through this crack. Whilst I tweeted my descriptions of activity from the demonstration [as activists have done in a range of spaces before], and whilst Twitter enabled newsrooms to manage live representations of activity, social media only ever remained a second-order instrument, as a reporting tool, or a mechanism to disseminate information, or to re-publish live information. After the fact it gave a way for me to re-interpret lived events and to correlate that with those of others. My ability to use social media to reflect on my position in relation to a range of others is critical. [Note that there is a wealth of vimeo footage, #demo2010 tweets and blog postings about the protest.] However, social media only described a representation of our power to recast the world; it described a possibility, or a space where radical moments might be opened-up; it was never, of itself, that re-presentation without taking the form of concrete action-in-the-world.

One of the great spin-offs of the use of social media by the protest movement is the ability of autonomous groups to see their peers exercising their power-to re-create the world. Technologies are a means through which the idea of the university is being critiqued, or through which the possibilities of collective and co-operative re-productions of higher education are being discussed ahead of concrete action-in-the-world. In this way autonomous movements in Popular Education, student protests in Italy, automonist student collectives in the UK, an Education Camp in Parliament Square, and planned and actual student occupations based on teach-ins and the historical, educational experiences of radical communities, are engaging with social media as a means of re-producing their living experiences of higher education. It is this latter point that is central. Technology in and for education is at once an external portrayal of a living reality, and a means of re-inforcing the ways in which established cultures are being challenged. This is why its use by students-as-producers is so energising, where it is keyed into: their social relations and their relationships with the environment; their production and governance processes; their conceptions of the world; and the conduct of their daily life that underpins their social reproduction.

The view of students-as-producers connects to Collini’s case for the Humanities, which moves us beyond the economy and its reductive/hostile positioning of the academy, towards the need for a public discourse on the nature of the university as a public good. Collini urges us to move away from a discourse framed by the power assumed by the state in the name of the taxpayer, to reconsider our educational and socially-mediated values. In the struggle for higher education, in moving away from formulae of impact, excellence and assurance, Collini urges us to engage with issues of trust and “contestable judgements”. This is exactly what the use of social media by students-as-producers is hinting at, in particular addressing the contested meaning of constructed positions, especially the socio-historical positions taken by coercive capitalism.

This issue of engagement with socio-historical positions is underlined by Zizek who argues that we need to reappraise ourselves of what “interesting times” actually means, in terms of the consequences of socio-cultural, economic and environmental dislocations. He argues that it is not newness that is interesting, but how the new and the old are mixed. Otherwise our present fiction, in which the future as defined by the dominant form of capital, will continue to function as our dominant, living culture. Zizek argues that our socio-historical culture, and our understanding of the past is critical here in developing “a culture of tolerance, this is a culture of its own, not just being open to the other, but open towards the other in the sense of participating in the same struggle.” One of the pivotal points that he raises is that in order “to change a view you must reveal the extent of your oppression.” Social media is one such way in which students and academics are revealing this in their living experiences.

This mixing of a socio-historical critique of our social relations, our ability to produce our world, and technology is needed to engage with any work on futures. In this, no meaningful engagement with technology in education matters beyond the question of what is higher education for? Keri Facer has argued that we need to ask some serious questions and whether our hegemonic educational systems, oriented towards accreditation in the current economy are viable. She has asked what sorts of worlds do we want to live in, what skills and relationships do we wish to encourage, how do we integrate education into our communities?

These are big questions, and they sit uneasily alongside our view of UK HE and economic growth through, for instance, internationalisation agendas. Can we really look to extend market share in a world where countries like India, South Africa and China are expanding their domestic, higher education provision to support their own economic growth? However, more importantly, how does higher education react to, and plan within, critical international issues of political economy, like banking bailouts and structural trade deficits. What value futures’ planning for higher education in these scenarios, beyond blind faith in business-as-usual?

Facer argues that we are not having right conversations about HE, that Browne is a symptom of a failure to have debate over what HE is for and how it should be funded. She states that we need “a serious public debate about education” and speaks for a critique of socio-technical change rooted in an analysis of the radical possibilities of the curriculum. In this she sees universities as democratic public spaces, which need to be reinvigorated. Where we have the university as servant of the knowledge economy and no more, where our lives are based on technical skills alone, we will see radical socio-economic polarisation and economic inequality. We need to imagine alternatives tied more closely to needs/aspirations of our communities.

The realpolitik of this is that new funding models framed in the name of sustainability, as outcomes of the shock doctrine, increase our alienation from imposed social determinations visited through manifestations of business-as-usual. I would argue that the key to grappling with Facer’s question of what HE is for, is a meaningful socio-historical critique of the forms of higher education. Within that the use of technology is an area of activity interconnected with concrete activities and decisions that can be described, compared, offered and critiqued. The current use of social media by students in producing new, radical moments for the university is a valuable starting point for fighting for the idea of higher education. In planning alternatives to prescribed futures, we must recover our socio-historical positions. Students-as-producers have demonstrated how critical engagement with technology in education may offer hope in this praxis.

The relationships between technology and open education in the development of a resilient higher education

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 4 November 2010

I thought it would be helpful to write-up that which I spoke about at Open Education 2010 in Barcelona, yesterday. The slides are available on my slideshare, and the paper is also available here on learnex. I spoke without slides, but will create a screenr presentation to cover the main points. You might also like to read this alongside Stephen Downes’ Huffington Post article on Deinstitutionalising Education.

This is pretty much what I said, and it is my story of the last 12 months.

This talk has one caveat and six points. The six points focus on: critique; transformation; sustainability; hope; cracks; and openness.

The caveat is that this paper is presented in the policy and strategy strand of this conference. My role as a reader in education and technology, but also as the academic lead for technology-enhanced learning [TEL] at De Montfort University in the East Midlands of England, enables me to influence institutional policy, practice and strategy. My role is to examine and develop approaches for transforming education and the curriculum within my university. My expertise and experience regards TEL as a part of that transformatory moment of education. But it is not the driver, or the most important element of that moment. My understanding of the place of technology-in-education, and technology-for-open-education informs my approach to policy and strategy. I outline my developing understanding in the six points below.

However, in this developing understanding, one of my previous roles as a researcher and a lecturer in History is important. We need to recover the role of past struggles as we face new crises, to recover the stories of the past, and the radical moments when technology was used to transform education and social relations. This is not a focus on technology and progress, as has been seen in its co-option by a neoliberal educational agenda. Rather it is a focus on technology in the name of progressive, dialogic critiques of our current crises, to suggest and implement alternative moments.

My first point is on critique. Open Education is a critique of our current social forms of higher education. It offers radical moments for the transformation of our lived experiences in higher education. However, through an agenda of consumption, marketisation and commodification, visited through the focus on second-order elements like open educational resources, open education is being subsumed within a dominant paradigm of business-as-usual. This fetishisation of OERs as commodities, as abstracted, intellectual value-in-motion that is to be consumed, diminishes the transformative moment of open education.

My second point is on transformation. The transformative moment of open education is critical because we are in crisis. Climate change, peak oil and resource availability/costs, alongside the  attack on the idea of the public sector in the UK, are symptoms of a deeper crisis of political economy. This is usefully framed by Naomi Klein’s idea of the shock doctrine, where the neoliberal, financialisation crisis is being used to extend business-as-usual and to entrench dominant positions through a focus on economic growth. This is an unsustainable approach. The private and public institutions that catalyse this view are unsustainable. The current forms of higher education are unsustainable. We need to produce transformative moments.

My third point is about sustainability. The hegemonic positions defended through the promise of business-as-usual have assimilated the radical moments of socio-cultural and environmental sustainability. The conversation is now based upon economic growth as sustainability, with a focus on impact measures. Moreover, the radical promise of resilience threatens to be bastardised and turned into a radical conservative focus upon adaptation. In fact the crises we face will overwhelm any attempt to adapt and maintain business-as-usual. Transformatory change should be the focus of resilience. What are we sustaining and why is at issue. Our discussion of OERs linked to economic growth, rather than dialogic encounters with of radical, open education, implicates us in this hegemonic conservation, as it hides the importance of movements of struggle, in the service of the status quo. The status quo is not an option.

My fourth point is about hope. I have hope that new social forms of higher education, and possibly the University, can enable students and teachers to develop the characteristics of resilience and sustainability that are transformatory and emancipatory. These new forms hint at open educational curricula underpinned by radical, critical pedagogy. So we see engagement with student-as-producer, teaching-in-public, pedagogies of excess and hope. The intention  is to enable people to re-cast their lived experiences, and to rethink the production, value and distribution of our common wealth, beyond its accumulation and enclosure by the few. Production is the corollary of consumption. I have hope that we can create radical moments in which we can co-operatively produce our lived experience, rather than simply consuming it.

My fifth point is about cracks. John Holloway argues that it is important to widen the cracks within coercive capitalism, in order to transform moments and institutions for the public good. Open education is a crack in the dominant, neoliberal social forms of higher education. Open education is a crack in the unsustainable models of business-as-usual that exist within higher education. This is important because we are not observing the crisis. We are in the crisis. We are the crisis.

My sixth point is about openness. The theory-in-practice of open education has tremendously empowering, radical moments within it. The struggle for open education is central to transforming our crisis. Open education, open activity, open production, open curricula, open networks, open forms of learning and teaching, are all central to this project. It is important that we develop transformatory moments and re-imaginings of our place in the crisis, and that we openly define and deliver open approaches for resilience and sustainability. We must use open education to reclaim the radical history of education, and technology’s place in education. We must move away from chasing the latest gadget or fetish. We must move away from seeing OERs as value-in-motion, as commodity. We must recover the radical place of technology-in-education from the mundanity of the latest digital development. In this we must revisit and recover the movements and moments of struggle in the past, and the use of technology in those struggles. For me this is a revisiting of the Workers Educational Association, of the Co-operative movements in the UK and in Latin America, of Cuban education after the collapse of the Soviet Union, of community educators like Trapese and the Autonomous Geographers, of anarchist social centres of learning, and of forms of participatory, co-operative education. This is not to say that these are perfect examples, or projects that can be transplanted, but it is to say that they offer radical histories and radical alternatives.

My hope is that we can reclaim open education as a radical moment of struggle, that can transform our experiences in the face of our crises.

Postscript: open education, cracks and the crisis of higher education

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 29 October 2010

I’ve been pondering the realities and possibilities surrounding cuts and Browne, based on conversations and reading of the comments to my original piece on open education, cracks and the crisis of higher education. This has been spiked by Leigh Blackall’s point that “Richard stops short of describing alternative approaches, pointing instead to a few worthy projects”. Leigh is correct. As is Martin Oliver in noting that in re-imaging the University as social form, as part of a re-imagining of the forms of our communities/societies, “I’m caught between an idealised and a pragmatic response”.

In part we are left with a soft-and-slow response from within HE, as a few questions are worked out within the confines of business-as-usual. These questions include the following.

  1. What does the cuts and fees agenda mean for our allegedly progressive pedagogies and the roles of the student-as-consumer and the student-as-producer? Will students who are paying £1,000s accept pedagogic models and engagement with resources that are about their production of their curriculum? How will this affect their expectations of the curriculum and their experience of HE? This is more so in the face of a hegemonic view, from business and government, of HE as marketised, and increasingly individualised rather than socially-constructed, commodity. All that work we have done on progressive and radical pedagogies needs to be considered in light of the curriculum-as-commodity.
  2. Will, for example, Band D subjects fair better than Band C, in that the HEFCE subsidy plus fee income will be replaced by a top-level of projected fee in the former, but not in the latter. Will there be cross-subsidy? What will this mean for power relations between subjects within the University, when it comes to the student experience or the allocation for resources or approaches to mechanisms like quality? We already hear stories of powerful faculties claiming they subsidise smaller areas of work.
  3. How can institutions differentiate themselves in the face of fees and cuts? Will their current make-up of Band B, C and D subjects impact how they fare post-2012/13?
  4. What does “the student[s] experience[s]” mean in reality, when we don’t have funding letters and we don’t know how Browne will play out in Parliament? What does “the student[s] experience[s]” mean in reality, when we don’t know what the University is for?

In this I feel that there are possibilities to re-imagine our work. From management within the academy lobbying and positioning is already beginning as a form of protest within the model of business-as-usual. There is a form of critique framed around autonomy and complexity, and a focus upon the institution as social enterprise. On his blog, the VC of the University of Sheffield notes that “In a world of global competition and profound change, we want our children to have more than just bread to live on. And to do that, they will also need to appreciate the value of the full range of knowledge, and why our good colleagues do need, and deserve, some bread.” Note the use of our *good* colleagues. Martin Hall, VC at Salford argues that “Re-connecting with local communities leads to academic excellence and international recognition”, and that “partnership working makes more sense than Darwinian selection”.

This view of developing the University as social enterprise is important within the framework of business-as-usual, and it might enable, for example, DMU to develop its strengths in partnership with Leicester as a global, national and regional exemplar of strategies for partnership, inclusion, diversity. The issue of scale, strengths and also values is critical here. However, this assumes that business-as-usual is an option, which given the radicalisation and marketisation agenda of the coalition, and to which opposition political parties offer limited alternatives, seems of limited value.

Elsewhere we have seen a view that protest through demonstrations or occupations might be the way to direct opposition. In the UK, the NUS and UCU are planning a demonstration on 10 November [which I will be attending] with the strap-line “fund our future”. A danger with this approach is that it disempowers – that it waits for the Coalition to agree that they were wrong and to maintain the status quo ante bellum. In short it isn’t resilient in the face of an ideological attack – it plays their game to their rules on their turf. It is about negation. But it is about the negation of the newly-imposed terms of business-as-usual. It is not about the negation of our negation. It is not about re-imagining higher learning. It is not about what HE is for. If we are in this crisis, and wish to move beyond it, then we have to be against it politically. The key here is radical alternatives and transformation.

Martin Oliver goes on to note in a comment to my original posting that:

“we do need to try out these open forms now. If we can’t work out how to do it – and just as importantly, how to tell credible stories about its value, and about what resources it really needs – then we won’t have it in our repertoire when we need it in the future. We also wouldn’t be able to resist inappropriate versions of that path if we couldn’t spot them and understand what made

“So – where can we start sharing stories about this?”

Martin asks us to re-imagine and share. Some of this re-imagining is possible through, as Leigh Blackall indicates, radicalising our practices within the academy. This includes:

  1. Radicalising the curriculum to engage with issues of transformation in political economy, within and across subjects;
  2. Radicalising the forms of engagement with our partners or stakeholders, by working with them to re-imagine, produce and re-produce, decisions, spaces and activities;
  3. Building active connections with radical, alternative groups at local, national, global scale [social centres, reading groups, the WEA, transitions town movements];
  4. Asking questions about what higher education is for, and what social forms best support its outcomes; and
  5. Using funding calls and partnership-working to enable the academy to develop radical alternatives.


The key here is to build and share alternative models, based on negotiated, shared values, that can be realised locally or individually or by communities and which challenge and lay bare the fallacies of the dominant ideology. This testing and sharing of alternatives is oppositional, and is made crucial, not only in the face of economic liberalism, but also in the face of imminent crises like peak oil. Is business-as-usual really viable?

However, this demands that we live the alternative experiences of which we speak in the areas where we exist most fully – those areas where we have expertise or community investment or engagement. These operate at different scales, and in that they might usefully be seen in the context of how to change the world without taking power. This means, for me, in my work with edtech:

  • challenging the views of my institution about its place in the student experience;
  • being critical about pedagogy as a form of life-changing, transformatory production of political economic alternatives, and not just preparation for paying taxes;
  • working with curriculum teams to challenge their views of their pedagogies and the place of technology in that; situating myself against essentialism and techno-colonialism in all its forms;
  • using OERs as a driver for open education and production, co-operation and sharing, against commercialisation and consumption; situating this view of OERs in open education in political economy, against closed, vendor-driven models of education;
  • working to use technology to open the University up as more than a regional, social enterprise, so that it can offer resilient models of organisation and support at scale, against neoliberalism; working with local, regional, national radical partners using technology to develop new models for life;
  • using external bids to develop and share radical ideas with other stakeholders – to frame alternative models; to work in the hope that my decisions and activities challenge dominant positions.

Martin is right that we need to share and make the case for alternatives. That is the next challenge.

Towards a resilient higher education?

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 25 November 2009

Preamble: energy and education

Joss Winn at the University of Lincoln recently blogged on What will Higher Education look like in a 2050 -80% +2c 450ppm world? In this post he raises issues of climate change and the need to reduce emissions, linked to what higher education will look like in a world that needs to reduce its energy use. Some of the key thinking in this area is focused upon consumption of energy rather than the production of carbon. This is important for two reasons: the growing threat of peak oil and the impact that will have on our ability to consume/produce, and on our energy security and availability; and the need to own the carbon and energy we emit/use, in order to combat climate change.

A recent JISC Tech Watch Report on Low Carbon Computing begins to engage with some of these issues, but is very heavily focused upon emissions and more intelligent institutional/outsourced technology, rather than the threats of peak oil or a need to reduce consumption by end users. One gap that it flags is our shared, disaster scenario planning for climate change, consumption and peak oil within education. Given the holistic, ecological nature and impact of these issues, we need ecological solutions that involve us all. I touch on this below, in terms of resilience.

The report highlights the impact of ICT on global emissions – this is said to be 2% globally, but in developed countries it is higher. As other nations develop, we need to consider the impact of globalisation and our approach to internationalisation, and education’s role in that. The Tech Watch report rightly notes that the use of carbon and energy is a complex issue, with embodied carbon throughout the supply and service chain difficult to monitor. With evidence of carbon sinks beginning to buckle consumption becomes much more important and yet education is predicated on productivity, as the Government’s Higher Ambitions framework suggests.

One of the key themes noted throughout the Tech Watch report is a focus on better technology, rather than restricted use. This has a tendency to reinforce a view that science will save us and that we can carry on producing/consuming technology and education at an increasing rate. So, whilst the report focuses upon: efficiency in technologies, use and services; renewable sources; and carbon capture; it is important for educators to address the growing realisation that consumption is an issue. As a result, it may be time to address issues of energy efficiency and energy use within higher education. As Warren Pearce notes about the discourse over cloud-computing in his posting Do you feel lucky? Over-reliance on tech in a finite world “What the Chrome OS story does is illuminate our wider reliance on an ‘always on’ energy supply, rather than the Fordist method of embedding a finite amount of energy in a ‘thing’. Something old-fashioned like, say, a ‘book’”. The key then is addressing Joss Winn’s issue of beginning to think about how to develop ‘resilient education’.

What do you do if your knowledge and networks are global and the global is shut down?

This question provides an interesting stating-point for any discussion about the responsibilities of higher education, in a world where always-on energy use is not a given. If our ever-expanding use of energy is under threat then we will need much bigger plans for our long-term future. We need to integrate the very necessary, but prosaic, thinking about:

  • improved, intelligent infrastructures;
  • data centre/enterprise architectures;
  • the need for thin or slim clients, and the use of shared PCs;
  • forced upgrades versus open source;
  • out-sourcing and migration to the cloud;
  • data and information storage (up to 35% of energy in data centres is simply storage);

to our view of what higher education stands for and how we, as actors, engage with or challenge it. For example, will our approach to technological intelligence and adaptation be driven by social inclusion/justice, energy security/availability, the environment or the economy?

These issues may shake-down when we wrestle with issues like carbon allowances, which may operate at departmental or Faculty-levels, and may impact resources available for learning and teaching. So, if the cost of carbon/electricity is in devolved budgets, how will those teams or groups manage issues like cooling capacity in data centres, electricity supply and the use of AC, renewing old kit and the need for high performance? Staff and students may have to evaluate when and which tasks have to be timetabled. How will this impact our developed view of anytime, anyplace, anywhere access and consumption? It may be that task and service optimisation impacts the personalisation agenda, from a requirement to power-down, rather than leave machines on-idle, to addressing renewal and embodied carbon/energy in our hardware, and re-evaluating the software functions/Operating Systems that we think we need. Will these be institutional impositions or locally negotiated and owned solutions?

Such integration of the prosaic with the meaning of higher education demands deliberation around what HE stands for. One example of why this is important is the embedded energy in the educational supply chain, especially where that chain is in a high-energy-use area [large conurbations] or is international. Can we guarantee efficient supply for core, local services and production? Have we risk-assessed or developed contingencies where access to outsourced information/data/networks may be impacted by access to power off-site? The vulnerabilities of that chain mean that educators need to think about risk and agency, and a curriculum of resilience. This is more so when we consider the resilience of the services we supply to staff/students, and whether those actors can serve themselves through resilient communities.

Towards a curriculum for resilience

Peak oil, climate change and energy consumption issues (framed by a global financial crisis that impacts funding for the public sector) radically change the ways in which we need to define the purpose of education. In his keynote at the JISC Innovating e-Learning 2009 conference, Charles Leadbeater prompted me to think about the need for educators to develop disruptive approaches to the curriculum before they are themselves disrupted. This involves new ways to work/serve or to live. He spoke about the need for relationships, and the development of social enterprise with education as a catalyst. One aim is to move education away from simply improving formal experiences, to re-form them. This highlights issues of relationships and power, of anxiety and hope, of social enterprise and community-up provision, rather than centre-down imposition.

This view of the interactions between peers in a community/socially-focused range of settings is central to a view of resilience, where global over-reliance may lead to fragility. This opportunity for the social/community connects to a number of other emancipatory arguments.

  1. The DEMOS Edgeless University report demands responsive, local missions for institutions that are then cast as focused upon renewal. Such a renewal might include engagement with informal opportunities for supplementing and then transforming the overall life experience. We can’t rely on schools/HEIs to change local cultures on their own but as part of broader community-focused agents they might win-out.
  2. Illich’s work on de-professionalising and de-schooling society offers opportunities to engage with a choice architecture of experience, where people chose where to act, make decisions and receive feedback. The context for choices is defined by the individual actor, not defined for her/him.
  3. Enquiry-based pedagogies (for example see recent Futurelab work on enquiring minds) enable opportunities for communities to come together to work for local solutions to recognised issues.
  4. Informal learning opportunities are central to a social democratic model. In part, this is about the development of consciousness about issues like peak oil and climate change that promotes an identity of interests between individuals. These associations and their consciousness about issues are key in enabling what Gramsci would call organic intellectuals who can develop ideas for a community.

Each of these areas hints at a curriculum for resilience. Resilience is social/environmentally-situated. It denotes the ability of individuals and communities to learn and adapt, to mitigate risks, prepare for solutions to problems, respond to risks that are realised, and to recover from dislocations. The recent DEMOS pamphlet, Resilient Nation highlighted that we live in brittle societies. Over 80 per cent of Britons live in urban areas relying on dense networks of public and private sector organisations to provide them with essential services. But our everyday lives and the national infrastructure work in a fragile union, vulnerable to even the smallest disturbances in the network, and both are part of a global ecosystem that is damaged and unpredictable.

The report argues that we have a choice between reliance on government and its resources, and its approach to command and control, or developing an empowering day-to-day community resilience. Such resilience develops engagement, education, empowerment and encouragement. The good news for those in EdTech is that social media offer reach, usability, accessibility and timely feedback, and may be a key to developing resilience.

Rob Hopkins, in his “Transition to a world without oil” TED talk, highlights the work of the transition movement. This focuses upon defining local problems and framing local solutions that are contextual, and not technology-driven. He argues for framing resilience around our ability to develop adaptability, to work virally and in ways that are open source, rather than reliant on 3rd parties. Resilience is “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks”. He focuses upon the local and the historic, and demands that we empower people to become self-organising. The key for Hopkins is that resilience is more crucial than sustainability – we need to be able to manage shock or disruption or vulnerability, and to find alternatives. This means that the local is as vital as the global. It also means that civil action rather than political action is the key to enfranchisement.

Hopkins suggests that social/community actors need to work in a context that promotes:

  1. Diversity: through a broader base of livelihoods, resource use, enterprise and energy systems than at present;
  2. Modularity: he is not advocating self-sufficiency, but rather an increased self-reliance; with ‘surge protectors’ for the local economy, such as local food production and decentralised energy systems
  3. Tightness of feedback: bringing the results of our actions closer to home, so that we cannot ignore them.

He states:

For many years, those writing and campaigning on relocalisation have argued that it is a good idea because it produces a better, more equitable economy. Now, as the potential impacts of peak oil and climate change become clearer, an additional and very strong argument has emerged: that as the net energy underpinning society inevitably contracts, so the focus of our economies and our daily lives will inexorably shift, at least in terms of manufacturing and trade, from the global to the local.

Rather than communities meeting each other as unskilled, unproductive, dependent and vulnerable settlements, they would meet as skilled, abundantly productive, self-reliant and resilient communities.

What’s more he is hopeful that:

By seeing resilience as a key ingredient of the economic strategies that will enable communities to thrive beyond the current economic turmoil the world is seeing, huge creativity, reskilling and entrepreneurship are unleashed.

Can we forge a curriculum for resilience?

In an excellent paper on the limits of partnership Jonathan Davis argues that empowerment may depend less on enhanced network democracy, which is managerial and driven by the power of specific cultures, than on strong independent community organisations capable of acting coercively [i.e. through lawful, direct action] against elites. He terms this an exit-action strategy that is developed and owned by communities, and which helps to overcome the colonisation of problems, resources and contexts by elites. The key for any debate on resilience is that defining a curriculum that is community-focused, may require institutions to become less managerial and more open to the formation of devolved social enterprises. This will need spaces for what Gramsci has called organic intellectuals, who can emerge from and facilitate community action that leads to political influence and overcomes agenda gatekeeping.

Learners and tutors may be just such organic intellectuals. In light of peak oil and climate change our learners and staff capabilities are key – what power do they have to develop resilience in an era of risk and threat, and also of communitarian opportunity? A key element here is what Davis terms “democratic ‘co-governance’” within civil action, but which might usefully be applied to education. How might this impact stakeholder roles within higher education?

The role of learner: this may become the ability to be, to co-exist, to survive and to thrive, within a range of communities, many of which will be locally-focused. In this context Habermas’ “lifeworld”, or those informal, unmarketised domains of life, that are social, voluntary, and truly participatory are important in situating the individual within a curriculum for resilience. The key facets are the ability to work with a range of peers to define problems and solutions, to make decisions and take action, and to receive feedback [for instance, journalists working with engineers to develop a communication plan for a flood-threatened town]. In this way the current focus on the learner-voice may need to be revisited to focus upon resilient community voices, which can co-produce civil society.

The role of tutor is as a more experienced other, able to provide good-enough support in context. The key is mentoring, modelling and nurturing co-production, co-governance and possibly [lawful] coercion. The key here is lobbying for new modes of curricula design and delivery that lever social enterprise and resilience. This is an activist role and focuses upon the voice of the community and proper democratic engagement in that community. This might include working with those, and in contexts, well beyond the institution. It will also shake up subject-specific working to catalyse new curricula and problem-solving.

The role of institution may be to facilitate social enterprise, affiliation, preparation, and resourcing for transformation within communities. To create a space within which a resilient curriculum is welcomed and actively encouraged. This may mean that the 360-credit undergraduate degree becomes ever-more redundant in a world where we need skill-matching, sharing and problem-solving for complex issues.

One area that frames this will be in energy usage. The Tech Watch report highlights that on a 2005 baseline, by 2020 we will only see 13% reductions in desktop energy consumption due to the impact of peripherals, laptops, iphones, netbooks etc. There is a desperate need for both dematerialisation and adding intelligence to performance/systems/services. This means changing cultures around approaches to information management, decentralised, local, micro-generation of energy that is DC, and more devolved energy management, especially for pervasive computing.

The role of the curriculum will be to frame socio-cultural opportunities for agency, community, decision-making, building relationships, and producing. As Hopkins argues, an energy crisis may be hopeful if it leads to emancipation. At issue is framing a curriculum that enables transformation through celebrating and validating the application of intelligence at the edges of networks that can in turn lead to creation and adaptation.


There is a very real danger that we risk disenfranchising ourselves through a techno-determinist approach to peak oil and climate change. The more we wed people to technology and the perception that efficient technology will save us from a future of energy scarcity the less we focus upon the radical pedagogical changes that are needed. How do we develop the skills in social enterprise and community-working? How do we enable people to learning at a local scale? How do we build trust and dialogue, sharing and co-operation? It may be that we need to move away from reliance on the institution to self-reliance and local, voluntary responsibility.

Towards a resilient curriculum for HE

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 8 December 2009


In his recent blog posting on Oil and the story of energy, Joss Winn highlighted the work of David Mackay and his Five Energy Plans for Britain. Joss argued that two factors will squeeze our society as we manage the transition from oil to other energy sources, in any peak oil scenario.

  1. How long it will take to replace our current oil-based global energy infrastructure with something we think is a viable alternative. Joss quoted Robert Hirsch, who in 2005 stated “The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem.” Hirsch highlighted price volatility linked to unprecedented economic, social, and political costs, with “Viable mitigation options” needing to be implemented “more than a decade in advance of peaking.” Do we have the will for this?
  2. The net energy that can be extracted from other sources of energy, such as nuclear, solar and wind both as a direct replacement to “keep the home fires burning”, and as a composite used in the manufacture of plastics, fertiliser, medicines, rubber, asphalt and other useful products. As a replacement for oil in products other than fuel, nuclear, wind, solar, etc. are not viable. Can we contemplate this as we frame ourselves around the consumption of more systems, services and technologies?

Disruptions to economic norms, to the climate and our carbon-related consumption and energy security provide a counter-point to the determinism of always-on energy and technology use. So we have a scenario where falling energy supplies exacerbates issues around energy security, availability and cost, but also where availability of oil for manufacturing goods that support services and lifestyles upon which we have based our cultures may not be viable. One impact may be on the availability, use and supply of non-essentials like new technology, especially where hoarding or use only for essential activities becomes the norm.

How soon these issues will impact is a moot point. Whether a peak oil, energy-scarce model, or a techno-determinist, economic-growth position, or a scenario that lies somewhere in between, comes to pass, the lives that we live in 2030 seem likely to be framed by uncertainty. So how does this square with the curriculum in HE and the idea of the University? Can a focus on resilience help?

Towards a resilient curriculum? Determinism and technology

In Searching for a Miracle, Richard Heinberg notes “Over the long run, static or falling energy supplies must be reflected in economic stasis or contraction”. This is critical in thinking about the development of a resilient curriculum in HE. At present the dominant HE ideology is neo-liberal and driven by consumerist models. There have been Ideas of the University proposed that are more socially and culturally constructed, and which focus upon the University as spaces where reflexivity and enlightenment are valued. However, their ability to gain traction in a competitive educational market that is focused less on social enterprise and more on market economics is problematic.

This then impacts on the development of curricula that enable a learner to manage disruption and uncertainty like a transition to a post-peak oil scenario. At present, innovations in curriculum design and delivery are technology-driven and assume that the dominant discourse of energy availability and increased energy use will continue. Other major curriculum development strategies, like employer engagement and workforce development, and widening participation, are also focused on employability and the economy, and upon developing the individual’s economic value. This is echoed in the value attributed to technology-enhanced learning, or on-line learning/training, in the Government’s policy and is amplified through the current HEFCE online learning taskforce.

This deterministic, positivist, progressive approach demands that energy use is not only maintained but increased, if only in order to pay off the UK’s huge national debt. Not increasing energy use, even if we are expected to make significant cuts in carbon emissions, is not an option in economic recovery. However, in the peak oil scenario painted by Joss, it is difficult to see how this focus on always-on energy can remain unchallenged in the medium-term.

The value of “always-on” technology then frames the provision of services, which are increasingly outsourced. As Keri Facer has noted, developmental technological processes have catalysed core functions or services being outsourced away from the individual and towards machines or data-processors. A classic example is the use of SatNavs rather than maps, and the use of search engines for pretty much everything. This is not to say that, for example, the Geographical Information Systems implemented within HE leave GIS students de-skilled, but there may be a reliance or even dependence upon specific forms of technology and on using those technologies for specific tasks. Any dependence on always-on services within our curricula and within life more generally is a risk.

This dependency on tools and services underpinned by oil is possibly the most concerning in any peak oil scenario. A focus upon energy efficiency and intelligent technology moves us away from scenario-planning around the development of a meaningful curriculum for resilience. For instance, the latest JISC Strategy is economically-framed and paints a scenario where energy security and availability, and the increased manufacture of technologies are not at issue:

“The UK is at risk of losing its world-leading reputation for education, unless it continues to invest in digital technologies to meet the ever-changing needs of modern learners, researchers and the academic community… The strategy outlines a vision of the future whereby a robust technological infrastructure is required to meet the shifting needs of the 21st century education community. JISC believes it is crucial that the UKs education system continues to compete on the international stage by investing in innovation, research and increasing the availability of online resources.”

A key statement in this Strategy is “the ever-changing needs of modern learners”. This relentless, restless, dynamic picture is not energy-neutral, it implies constant curriculum re-definition and re-design, and the availability of renewed, always-on technologies. My concern in a world of uncertainties like peak oil is whether we are doing enough to prepare learners for the fact that this may not always be the case, and that they may need to master different tools and skills.

The case of Illich: tools for conviviality

In developing mastery, the Russian thinker Ivan Illich questioned the extent to which institutions, curricula and technologies (de-)humanise. In Tools for Conviviality he prioritised the use of tools for “autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment”. In part this catalyses social learning through the development of learning webs. In part it focuses upon the place and role of the individual in her/his communities. Illich’s view of autonomy and creativity framed a counterpoint to a dominant consumerist paradigm, in which individual relationships are mediated though consumption, and towards a focus upon shared resources and skills and more community-driven interdependence.

This focus upon the use of tools to redefine our approaches to socio-cultural, and economic, engagement, enables meaningful personalisation and a diversification of skills. Illich argued that “A pluralism of limited tools and of convivial commonweals would of necessity encourage a diversity of life styles.” This view of diversity and commonweals or communities defining needs and using shared skills is interesting in light of the types of literacies flagged in the Learning Literacies for the Digital Age project. The project final report (p.3) highlighted the urgency of supporting a differentiation of identities and engagements in multiple spaces:

“there is a tension between recognising an ‘entitlement’ to basic digital literacy, and recognising technology practice as diverse and constitutive of personal identity, including identity in different peer, subject and workplace communities, and individual styles of participation.”

Illich saw this as critical and believed that a “convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others”, in order to overcome regimentation, dependence, exploitation, and impotence. He saw tools as mediating relationships, and as emancipatory where mastery of them in a specific context could be achieved. The LLiDA project report contextualises this for the digital age (p. 7): “Literacies emerge through authentic, well-designed tasks in meaningful contexts”. So the nature of the curriculum and the learner’s engagement with it is key in developing their resilience. The types of literacies involved/developed/modelled involve foundational skills, cultural awareness, communicative practices, practice-based action, self-transformation and self-awareness. In this, authenticity and participation shine through (p. 9). So what might this mean for a curriculum for resilience in HE?

A curriculum for resilience in HE

In an earlier post on the issue of resilience in HE, I wrote that

“The more we wed people to technology and the perception that efficient technology will save us from a future of energy scarcity the less we focus upon the radical pedagogical changes that are needed.”

There is a complex interplay between the theoretical opportunities of social media for personal emancipation through engagement in contexts for narrative and authorship, and our understanding of how those tools are deployed and owned in reality (See the issues raised in the special social media issue of JCAL from January 2009 on social media). One key issue is how technologies are (re)claimed by users and communities within specific contexts and curricula, in-line with personal integration and enquiry, and in an uncertain world.

It is perhaps this focus upon uncertainty that should drive the creation of a resilient curriculum. Barnett argues, in a Will to Learn, for the learner’s engagement with uncertainty and anxiety, and he re-frames this around spaces for an individual’s will to develop, and in which they can be and become in a meaningful way. The key is engendering reflexivity in an authentic context. In light of this, peak oil, climate change, energy scarcity, economic disruption all demand different approaches to existing, surviving and thriving.

So some emergent questions for the curriculum are as follows.

  1. What sorts of literacies of resilience do people as social agents need, and what is HE’s role in framing them?
  2. What sorts of relationships enable these resilient literacies and modes of being to emerge?
  3. What sorts of knowledge/understanding do these learners need to be effective agents in society?
  4. Are our traditional modes of designing and delivering curricula meaningful or relevant?

So we begin to think about how to frame a curriculum that enables individuals-in-communities to learn and adapt, to mitigate risks, to prepare for solutions to problems, to respond to risks that are realised, and to recover from dislocations. This demands curricula that may be:

  • authentic and meaningful, framed by decision-making and agency;
  • enquiry-based, in which skills, approaches, decisions and actions are developed and tested in real-world situations that demonstrate complexity and context;
  • cross-disciplinary, and linked to a guild or craft-style experience rather than a Fordist, factory approach;
  • negotiated in scope, governance and delivery within authentic, rather than false, communities;
  • accredited through the specification of expertise and experience developed within real-world processes and outcomes;
  • framed by mentoring and coaching; and
  • focused upon co-governance, rather than co-creation.

In thinking through the qualities of a resilient, differentiated curriculum, I am minded of the specific outcomes from four curriculum interventions at DMU.

  1. Framing programme, rather than module-level, communities of practice in Game Art Design. Finding spaces and technologies that enable co-governance of projects and co-creation for project deliverables, in negotiation with tutors and a wider, industrial community, supports the implementation of authentic outcomes. It enables innovation and risk and responsibility through mentoring. Personal ownership within a negotiated social space is critical.
  2. The fusion of affective and cognitive approaches to learning in first-year History, where learning logs focus upon the development of the student-as-person, hinging around evaluations of summative performance. The role of learning logs and reflection on action in enabling student to become themselves, as resilient performers and agents is key. This fusion frames the integration of affective and cognitive learning.
  3. The development of story-telling and therapeutic relationships between more experienced peer-mentors and their mentees, re-defines who has power to help and nurture in HE. These relationships demonstrate the power of dialogue in developing motivation, self-efficacy and problem-solving within and beyond the curriculum.
  4. The development of a UCPD in work-based learning for Placement students in Pharmaceutical and Cosmetic Sciences begins to value explicitly the reflection on the application of theory-in-practice, within a different learning context. A different approach to accreditation, valuing the affective and the reflective in a hard, experimental, scientific space, using industrial and academic supervisors as coaches is central.

These are not revolutionary in scope. However, I am interested in how a resilient curriculum might focus upon social enterprise, not in a return to localism, but in enabling solutions and responses within specific communities. The Cabinet Office notes that social enterprises are “businesses with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profit for shareholders and owners.” This definition enables social enterprises to define and catalyse projects that are community-oriented, inclusive, negotiated, and enquiry-focused.

So I am interested in how a new, first-year Historian at DMU might work with her/his tutors and more experienced peers, and also with students in other disciplines, to define projects within specific communities in Leicester or the East Midlands or nationally or internationally. These projects might focus upon contextualising specific community issues and framing development or renewal projects, in terms of different histories, and might subsequently involve decision-making and negotiation with other agencies [NGOs, Government, business], in order to take authentic action. This may involve work with media production or journalism students on communication, and with those involved in social care on engaging and representing the user voice in decision-making. It prioritises an integrated and social, rather than a subject-drive, approach to processes and solutions, and it respects the different skills and aspirations that individuals-in-communities offer. It also prioritises meaningful and developmental agency.

A key in building resilience is engaging with uncertainty through projects that involve diverse voices in civil action. Clearly discourses of power will impact the values we place on certain skills, and upon our negotiating positions, and upon the nature of the projects that should be undertaken. A role for HE curricula is framing an understanding of these discourses and the contexts in which they emerge so that they can be challenged, and so that co-governance as well as co-creation is enabled and tested. In a world of increasing uncertainty, where peak oil threatens our approach to always-on technology and connection, engaging the individual in authentic partnerships, mentoring and enquiry, and in the processes of community and social governance is central.


@Fulup has blogged about Peak Oil and Digital Preservation, and the hard decision that will need to be made in a world of scarcity. Scarcity of energy will impact availability of: digital resources; always-on services;  capacity for and scheduling of  high-end processes; out-sourced technologies/services. Such availability will impact the skills and capabilities of our learners, and their contextual decisions and actions.

A key question for the HE curriculum in the 21st century is whether it needs to address scarcity, and the possibility that the always-on access to services, networks and technologies that it promises is not viable. Do HE managers have appropriate risk/disaster management plans available? So much of our curriculum infrastructure is tied to oil and plentiful energy. So much of our curriculum design and delivery discourse is about personalisation in an always-on world. Are we helping our learners to exist in authentic, social communities and spaces where the switch may be turned off?

Values and educational technology: away from a Whiggish view

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 28 February 2010

Whiggish stories

In the Whig Interpretation of History, Herbert Butterfield railed against the congratulatory nature of that strand of British History which prioritised narratives and analyses of human progress. In particular, Butterfield highlighted “analyses” that stressed a move away from ignorance and over-bearing monarchical power towards prosperity, science and representative democracy. This was epitomised by the success of the Whig party in its opposition to the apparently corrupt, Jacobite regimes of the later Stuarts in the seventeenth century, and then in harnessing parliamentary democracy for the progressive benefit of England and, more broadly Imperial Britain.

In the round, Whiggish approaches to any study are reductionist in that they view any question at issue, through a determinist lens. In historical terms Butterfield argued that:

It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present; and though there may be a sense in which this is unobjectionable if its implications are carefully considered, and there may be a sense in which it is inescapable, it has often been an obstruction to historical understanding because it has been taken to mean the study of the past with direct and perpetual reference to the present. Through this system of immediate reference to the present day, historical personages can easily and irresistibly be classed into the men who furthered progress and the men who tried to hinder it; so that a handy rule of thumb exists by which the historian can select and reject, and can make his points of emphasis.

Positivism within a dominant discourse/ideology is therefore championed at the expense of complexity or acceptance of the validity of minority views, and this tends towards a kind of moral relativism, where particular cultural values or approaches carry more power. Moreover, it tends towards a relegation or negation of wider contextual issues because the past, in this case, is always framed through present concerns.

There is a danger that some within the strategy or management of educational technology demonstrate similar determinist or Whiggish approaches, especially in framing how specific tools or media are revolutionary or will deliver specific benefits, and are creating uncontested opportunities for personal or economic growth. The latter is demonstrated within, for example, the Government’s approach to Higher Ambitions, or HEFCE’s Online Learning TaskForce There is a tendency for the “how” to be elevated ahead of either the “why” or the constraints imposed by social or political economy.

As part of a rejoinder Selwyn (p. 67) has recently argued that we need to address “educational technology as a profoundly social, cultural and political concern.” This picks up on the comments of Ravenscroft (p.1) that practitioners need to consider “the current technological innovations as players in an evolving paradigm, and not necessarily clear solutions to well-understood problems.”

A classic example is the globalisation debate. Globalisation, ostensibly driven by trade and power over resources, has occurred using technology throughout human history. However, claims are made for the efficacy of social media as dislocating this paradigm, to support citizen participation and global networks. But is there really evidence for how such media are changing society, politics or political economy? Did it stop war in Iraq? Has it forced openness within the Chilcott enquiry? Has it led to changes in global or national banking regulation? It has given us insights into elections in Iran and earthquakes in China, but has it significantly changed what we personally or collectively value and why? Has it changed the meaningful action we take as a result? Or are we seeing just another set of tools owned by dominant players within dominant paradigms, which are predicated upon ideologies of growth and development? Are the millions of people now accessing social networks re-engineering and re-valuing themselves and their associations? Are they taking new action as a result of this belonging? If not, is this use of social media truly revolutionary? [See Säljö,p. 54]]

A revolutionary context?

The recent TLRP Digital Literacies Research Briefing made several claims for the extraordinary opportunities offered by social media and new technologies. It highlights the fragmentation of boundaries between operations, where the separation of concerns is fading: “The distinction between software engineering and the use of ‘applications’ has become more blurred” (p. 5). One result is seen in writing (p. 6), where innovation in user-control of new media forms is deemed “revolutionary”, as: texts become intensely multimodal; screens become the dominant medium; social structures and relations are undergoing fundamental changes; and constellations of mode and medium are being transformed. It is argued that “the consequences of this shift are profound”.

Selwyn (p. 66) is clear that we need more work on the place of social media in the idea of the university and the broader culturally-driven idea of the purpose of education: “the academic study of educational technology has grown to be dominated by an (often abstracted) interest in the processes of how people can learn with digital technology… the academic study of educational technology needs to be pursued more vigorously along social scientific lines”. To an extent this connects into the musings of the recent Horizon Report 2010 (p. 5), which stated that “digital literacy must necessarily be less about tools and more about ways of thinking and seeing, and of crafting narrative”.

Still the outcomes of the Horizon Report tend towards uncontested terrain. For example, on gesture-based computing it is argued that “Because it changes not only the physical and mechanical aspects of interacting with computers, but also our perception of what it means to work with a computer, gesture-based computing is a potentially transformative technology. The distance between the user and the machine decreases and the sense of power and control increases when the machine responds to movements that feel natural” (p. 26). At issue here is how to make best use of this technology, rather than a sense that contextual complexity may be at issue, and that growth in power and control might be problematic or inequitable for some.

It is interesting to review the TLRP outcomes on profound transformation in light of Crook and Joiner’s view (p. 1) that institutional or societal capacity and capability for take-up are crucial. They note “a recurring discomfort that these translations are not more widely taken up – that the education system fails to embrace new technologies with adequate enthusiasm.” This view sits uncomfortably against, for example, the outcomes of the PEW Internet and American Life project, Social Media and Young Adults report, which argues (p. 20) for transformation because “Access to the internet is changing. Teens and adults no longer access the internet solely from a computer or laptop. They now go online via cell phones, game consoles and portable gaming devices in addition to their home desktop or laptop computer”. More deterministic views can be seen in the work of Curtis J. Bonk: “Seems everywhere I go to speak, those in the audience ultimately ask about administrators, staff, and instructors who are more hesitant and what do to about them. When I get home, I send them the missing chapter titles “Overcoming the Technology Resistant Movement.”

The PEW report is interesting in that it highlights how: patterns of on-line activity have not changed significantly since November 2006; the majority of increases in content creation are to be found in older adults; and, on-line purchasing is a key practice amongst younger adults and teens. It then argues (p.5) that “the internet is a central and indispensable element in the lives of American teens and young adults.” It is interesting then to think about the contested reality of the “shift towards more diffused creative participation” outlined in the TLRP Digital Literacies Research Briefing (p. 10), in light of Crook and Joiner’s reporting (p. 2) of “the doubtful state of evaluation around these issues of impact.” At issue here is either projection from the present into an idealised future, just as Butterfield argued Whigs projected from the present onto the past, or a focus on a promise of educational technology that clouds or ignores the complexities of reality.

Alongside impact, another factor that is missing from much of the evaluation is value. What do we value as individuals, communities or societies? Is this simply to be reduced to statements around: access or empowerment or participation, which are all hugely complex and contested terms; or democracy and economic growth, which are problematic given the potential socio-economic disruptions that are on the horizon; or deeper human traits around forgiveness, respect, fidelity, trust, tolerance and generosity, which are much more philosophical?

A problematic context

I like Selwyn’s argument that we need a deeper understanding of the socio-cultural contexts within which educational technology is deployed. This connects into potential disruptions to our socio-cultural fabric, and political economy, which I have outlined elsewhere on this blog as riders to a discussion of resilient education [linked to Joss Winn’s analysis of peak oil, climate change and HE]. It might be argued that these problems are being amplified, as recent reports highlight issues around UK energy availability and costs, public sector debt and the affect of a zero growth economy.

Educational technology does not exist in a vacuum. Alongside the fact that our use of technology within and beyond institutions is pragmatically bounded by energy availability, security, and the impact of debt on HE teaching budgets, there is an ethical imperative to discuss the impacts of our use of technology on our wider communities and environment. Tim Jackson, in his keynote on The Rebound Effect Report, highlights the Ehrlich-Holdren sustainability equation: I = P.A.T, which tells us that the impact of human activities (I) is determined by the overall population (P), the level of affluence (A) and the level of technology (T). Jackson argues (p. 3) that “The IPAT equation appears to offer us broadly three ways of achieving overall reductions in energy demand (for example). One, reduce the population – not a popular choice. Two, reduce the level of affluence (again not high on political priorities). And three, improve technology: specifically to increase the energy efficiency of income generation, to reduce the energy intensity of the economy.”

However, a key problem is the dynamic of efficiency vs scale. Jackson notes (p. 3) that “Technology is an efficiency factor in the equation. Population and affluence are scaling factors. Even as the efficiency of technology improves, affluence and population scale up the impacts. And the overall result depends on improving technological efficiency fast enough to outrun the scale effects of affluence and population.” So these factors are not independent and “appear to be in a self-reinforcing positive feedback between affluence and technology, potentially – and I emphasise potentially – geared in the direction of rising impact” (p. 6).

So we have a very complex issue that frames growth, affluence, technology use and impact on the environment. There should be no escaping this issues by educational technologists and strategic managers, in their arguments for more technology [and hence more energy use] and for growth. In fact, it is possibly the ethical use of technology that demands deeper evaluation. The recent DEMOS report on Building Character highlights a view (p. 23) “that the ‘flow of novelty’ generated by today’s market-based, consumer societies is so strong that higher levels of commitment and self-discipline are needed to ensure that long-term wellbeing is not sacrificed for short-term gratification. As Offer puts it: ‘Affluence breeds impatience, and impatience undermines wellbeing.’” What are the impacts of always-on technologies in this view? Do we understand about wellbeing? Or are we tying our view of wellbeing to access to technology? What are the affects of our evaluation, operational and strategic practices? Is this all subservient to a view of economic growth?

In terms of where the focus for investigation or development might lie, the Horizon Report 2010 highlights the importance of openness, mobility, cloud, collaboration but argues that learning and teaching practices need to be seen in light of civic engagement and complexity. Facer and Sandford move his much further in looking at technology futures (p. 75): “the ‘imaginary’ upon which future-oriented projects are premised often takes for granted the contemporary existence of and continued progress towards a universal, technologically-rich, global ‘knowledge economy’, the so-called ‘flat world’ of neo-liberal rhetoric”. They ask much more critical questions of “the chronological imperialism of accounts of inevitable and universal futures”. This accepts the complexity of the use of technology, of societal development, and of political economy, and asks us to consider some of the ethical imperatives. In addressing these we have a chance to re-think our values.

What are the values that frame our use of educational technology

Elsewhere I have argued that “Technology changes nothing without a reappraisal of the “why” of HE.” Now, I also wonder whether those deeper humane values noted above, framed by the disruptions also noted above make this much more of an imperative. In Building Character, DEMOS state (p. 23) that a focus on wellbeing is critical: “Wellbeing is about more than having an abundance of goods and services; it is also about a ‘personal capacity for commitment’.” They also highlight how this is tied to equality, motivation, agency and application: “To the extent that careers are more internally driven than externally determined, the range of internal capabilities becomes more important” (p. 25). Facer and Sandford’s analysis of Beyond Current Horizons outlines scenarios that “require us to address the questions of what it means to become human and achieve agency in changed socio-technical contexts. Such questions suggest a need to re-engage the educational technology field with educational philosophy, with questions of sustainability and with concerns around social justice” (p. 88.).

So in-part I am brought to a reconsideration of the place of social media in civil society, in terms of the ideologies that frame our interactions and the values that we hold. In Inverting The Power Pyramid, Robert Douglas argues that we need to:

stop thinking of citizens as consumers: the consumerisation of civic society generated the very imbalance of Wants and Needs which we are all now struggling to re-calibrate, in light of build a more value-rich, sustainable and wellbeing world.

He argues that this underpins the recognition that as citizens we are equal partners in a drive for change, holding both business and Government to account, Moreover, within this view, digital technologies change the game, in promoting transparency and accountability, through new networks of citizenry. For Douglas this is important because “In very simple terms, nothing works in isolation anymore.”

A view of consumption versus citizenry is central, and is tied to an ideological debate about access and growth. In terms of educational technology, it is about recognising the full impact of the tools that we implement and the contexts in which that impact takes place. Growth, in terms of economic outputs and resource-depletion, and its affect on education, need reappraisal . Is our level of consumption of technology, and hence energy, carbon and oil, reasonable? Is it ethical?

The new economics foundation report Growth Isn’t Possible has flagged some of the issues that bound this discussion:

Endless growth is pushing the planet’s biosphere beyond its safe limits. The price is seen in compromised world food security, climatic upheaval, economic instability and threats to social welfare. We urgently need to change our economy to live within its environmental budget. There is no global, environmental central bank to bail us out if we become ecologically bankrupt.

Educational technology does not sit in a vacuum, offering us participation and inclusion at low- or no-cost. This ought to be part of a deliberation around what is important to us. In The Great Transition, the new economics foundation ask “What do we value? These are questions that as a society we do not ask often enough” (p. 36). These are questions that, as educators and technology-users we do not ask often enough. For the new economics foundation this is part of a recalibration way from a zero-sum game, in which we may be unwittingly partaking.

The collective is key here. Value in this sense is determined not by what we each want for ourselves – where this might be something that impoverishes another – but by what we agree is important for all of us, as members of society, to have access to – such things as a functioning ecosystem, a right to safe shelter, access to food and water and, ultimately, well-being. It also involves acknowledging that we will have competing interests that require government leadership to manage. We will have to become comfortable with trade-offs if we are indeed to redefine value in a meaningful and egalitarian way (p. 38).

Social Return on Investment is an interesting approach for auditing this impact, and it may be that we need to consider these types of audits as educational technologists, in order to address whether the futures we consider to be of value have disbenefits attached to them. The danger of an uncritical approach to the implementation of technology-enhanced learning for growth is that we ignore the ideologies and values that underpin it. Barnett’s work on supercomplexity is important here, in highlighting uncertainty and disruption, alongside power and knowledge, and frameworks for knowing, acting and being. This might be a place to begin a conversation around values, because it is predicated on the human and humane, rather than the technology.

In their work on Beyond Current Horizons, Facer and Sandford highlight some guiding principles that usefully help educators begin to deliberate and act.

Principle 1: educational futures work should aim to challenge assumptions rather than present definitive predictions

Principle 2: the future is not determined by its technologies

Principle 3: thinking about the future always involves values and politics

Principle 4: education has a range of responsibilities that need to be reflected in any inquiry into or visions of its future

Whilst they outline some scenarios and recommendations, these principles are hugely important in a shared re-valuing and in overcoming disruption. However, they demand that we become more self-critical about our practice, and evermore contextually aware in our research. As Butterfield stated:

There is a magnet for ever pulling at our minds, unless we have found the way to counteract it; and it may be said that if we are merely honest, if we are not also carefully self-critical, we tend easily to be deflected by a first fundamental fallacy. And though this may even apply in a subtle way to the detailed work of the historical specialist, it comes into action with increasing effect the moment any given subject has left the hands of the student in research; for the more we are discussing and not merely inquiring, the more we are making inferences instead of researches, then the more whig our history becomes if we have not severely repressed our original error; indeed all history must tend to become more whig in proportion as it becomes more abridged.

Taking forward change in technology-enhanced education

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 1 April 2010

I had a great day yesterday in Bolton at a JISC-sponsored Strategy Cascade event for institutional teams, which was focused upon “the wider debate around what technology can offer our institutions, and how to most effectively harness technology in ways that are sensitive to the specific needs of institutions” and their stakeholders. The session, led by Keith Smyth from Edinburgh Napier and Mark Johnson from the University of Bolton, was an excellent example of grounded, deliberative action. It focused upon achieving an institutional understanding of the contested nature of technology-enhanced learning [TEL] as HEIs struggle to review their strategies and plans.

I was asked to kick the event off with some thoughts on the issues that I see as important in this debate. My slides highlight my activist, political position around the highly contested nature of the value of TEL, and against techno-determinism. The key themes I wanted to highlight were as follows.

  1. Values: do we understand the place of TEL in the idea of the University. Do we recognise and debate our institutional or educational or personal or humane values? How do technologies help us to realise or diminish these values? How do technologies impact the social relations that emerge around these values?
  2. Disruption: we are experiencing disruption, the scale of which may prove overwhelming. This is focused upon: massive public sector debt that will impact our spaces for action and activity; the realities of climate change science, which ought to affect our engagement with technology; peak oil and energy prices/security, which will impact our use of technology and our approaches to resource management; the impact of personal technologies on power and control at the centre or the boundaries of formal and informal classroom and curriculum settings, and the concomitant need for critical pedagogies; and the impact of non-institutional technologies on the value, place and space of the institution.
  3. Contestation 1: the policy and implementation landscape demonstrates complexity of use, expectation and delivery of educational technology within competing value-sets and practices. One space in which this is made manifest is the discussion over open educational resources, as a rider for discussions over the openness of higher education and HEIs that are [being set-up to be] competing. This discussion ought to take place against an ideological and political [small ‘p’] backdrop, which looks at what we stand for institutionally and societally.
  4. Planning: in thinking about institutional change Mark Johnson highlighted the work of Richard Gombrich [after Karl Popper] in developing approaches to piecemeal social engineering. I am concerned with how we are able to provide secure core institutional spaces that enable staff and students to position and become themselves, and to act in the world. Mark Stubbs at MMU has blogged about a vision of joined-up systems that is a powerful description of how institutions can support individuals in making sense of their institution [socially, administratively and academically], by aligning key events, data, processes and technologies, and how “mavericks” [an emergent participant-generated term] can be encouraged to innovate around the edges of the HEI within a supportive set of spaces. In taking this forward we need to see change as institutionally-led, and so as more than a project: it is a programme of work focused upon catalysing flexibility, diversity, modularity and feedback, which then delivers benefits aligned to key outcomes. At DMU we are developing a portfolio of projects to engage this approach.
  5. Contestation 2: we need to know more about the interplay between notions of personalisation and models of the curriculum. In thinking about this I highlighted some DMU examples of: mentoring as a key concept in learning design; thinking around technologically-flexible and modular “curriculum learning environments”; and recasting spaces for life-wide learning opportunities, where students can demonstrate activity in the world, and be accredited for it. This is complex and ill-understood, and techno-determinist approaches to its management are problematic.

I ended by focusing upon a series of issues related to power and emerging self-awareness and action. In particular, I was concerned to reflect upon whether institutionalised approaches reclaim and neutralise innovation within traditional, safe paradigms, and whether this neutralises agency. I wondered whether we know enough about the specific strategies that are deployed by learners using social media, as they become resilient learners and citizens. Finally I wondered whether we acknowledge and care for those who are marginalised or who risk marginalisation though our curriculum practices and values.

The activities that the participants undertook were focused upon: realising the value of different perspectives in the change agenda; our aspirations and who sets the agenda for change; the tensions between monolithic approaches and enabling diversity; and whether we do the simple stuff well enough to enable people to undertake meaningful activity. I was left with three key points that I wished to make as a plenary, with one caveat. These are captured in this Strategy Cascade plenary presentation.

However, I also added that we have travelled a long way in the last decade, in terms of developing the tools and communities that can engage with critical pedagogy and challenge the development of educational norms. There is much to hope for in this celebration of the possible.

Towards the democratic university: openness and community collections

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 28 May 2010

At the end of a thoughtful piece on the resistance to the closure of the Philosophy Department at Middlesex University, John Protevi, notes that we need to enact “the beginning of the democratic university”. This made me reconsider my blogpost from early April about openness within universities and the nature of the latest technology-enhanced learning project that captures the zeitgeist, open education resources [OERs].

In particular, I am interested in the use of OERs as a means for the legitimation of the production/social value of all actors in the education process, through the ownership of the processes of creation and sharing. This connects into Holloway’s view of the value of “doing” in re-shaping and refining and re-casting the world, and in resisting our alienation from it. He rightfully notes the importance of engaging with issues of power on our place in the world. This matters for OERs in terms of the two forms of power that Holloway writes about: firstly, the power to create, or to do; and, secondly our power over, be that over the productive process or of domination and subjugation, which stifles the power of people to create and act and be. So when we are talking about co-creation or co-production, or the value-for-money of approaches to OERs, we need to see this framed by issues of power, self-concept and legitimation.

These issues were thrown into sharp relief at a recent ANTF symposium, during a session on ‘The Future of Higher Education’. This space enabled senior managers to focus on the recent election and subsequent headline statements about education in the face of proposed cuts. The session highlighted a view that “what we do makes a contribution to the economic strength of other sectors”. It also created a space for the view that HE must “do things differently and stop doing some things”, and that innovation, or doing more with less, was central to HE’s role in 2010. When I hear that “the challenge is demonstrating impact”, I feel that this is a cipher for economic growth/economic value, and not social value, equality or inclusion. As part of this business-focused discourse, the language used was one of homogenisation that could be seen as objectification [“their learning experience”]. This market fundamentalism then shrouds our development of a discourse around sharing and OERs in HE.

This matters more because higher education faces critical times ahead and needs a critical response. The development, deployment and sharing of OERs offers hopeful purpose for an active participation in a practical life, both in stimulating innovation that supports social inclusion and justice, and in resistance to dominant economic models of education that link self-worth to externally-imposed metrics. A key here is academic activism in opening up spaces and places where students can engage in co-governance as much as co-production. Co-governance is vital because it is through engagement with both the theory and practice of negotiating and defining spaces and practices through and in which materials can be produced that individuals can become themselves and respect divergent perspectives. In the homogenisation of HE, in a discourse that only stresses the economy, the markets, value-for-money and STEM, we risk losing our humanity.

Perhaps one central question to which we need to return is “what is this for?” I ask this question not only in terms of HE in 2010, but also the OER project. For me a key outcome is self-determination and personal transformation, so that individually we are able to judge what is good enough for one-self [rather than good or excellent], given our own partial, situated experience. In fact, this partial, fragmented view of the world may be shaken up by an approach to OERs as sharing, which is highlighted by the anti-curriculum tract of the University of Utopia. Anti-curriculum stresses the joy of communal working and sharing beyond borders, and it highlights how engagement in productive sharing brings the curriculum to life, but perhaps also that it brings life to the curriculum. Our view of ourselves, others and the world is enhanced then, through the act of sharing, and this might usefully be the focus of an answer to the question of “what are OERs for?” However, it might also form a strand that enables us to engage with Protevi’s “democratic university”.

This democratic imperative focuses issues of inclusion and community engagement, which are in turn amplified by the possibilities of social media. These possibilities are becoming realised through connections between OERs and the power of community collections like the East London Lives 2012 project and RunCoCo, or community-approaches to research, like the Galaxy Zoo. In each of these cases, the focus is on democratic engagement in the production of digital stories or research, which accepts divergence in ideology, but that is ultimately about sharing artifacts, ideas and identities. These projects are primarily not-for-profit, and focus upon communities or networks or affiliations understanding difference and representing themselves. In framing the spaces that co-workers on a project occupy, a range of voices can be respected, and a range of roles are taken up, from novice, through to agitator, organiser, educator, advocate and more experienced other.

The beauty of these projects, accepting difficulties in licensing, copyright, establishing authorship, overcoming entrenched political positions, and finding ways to engage those with limited power to speak, is their mutuality and their focus on respect, devolved authority and responsibility for governance, creation and sharing. In this way the mix of social media and face-to-face workshops held by Culturenet Cymru and the Community University Partnership Programme offers the hope for community-engaged work that offers equality, and participation-as-partnership. Through these projects we have ways of seeing things differently, and of overcoming fragmentation or disintermediation, whether in the production and sharing of resources, or learning objects or in commenting and critiquing those resources. Promoting the sharing of interactions around an object enriches dialogue about issues, disciplines and ourselves.

Again the key question is what is this for? What is the role of HE in mediating and advocating and sharing? What is its role as a social enterprise working with not-for-profits? How do these types of projects, framed by OERs open up a space for us to challenge the dominant economic discourse around our activity and our very being? In answering these questions, a critical issue is how to enable people to own the process of creation and sharing, and thereby to become archival activists. Perhaps a key role for academics in this democratic process is as Gramscian traditional intellectuals, committed to the cause of personal-emancipation, who are able to advocate for and lead the development of organic intellectuals within communities, associations, student cohorts or networks. The hope is that such organic intellectuals are able to develop ideas that lead to the democratic and collaborative transformation of those communities.

In this context we need to seize each opportunity to widen the space in which we resist the dominating paradigms for HE. As a result, two things strike me as important in thinking about OERs and community collections, framed by co-production and Co-governance. The first is to cherish and support examples like the Really Open University and its focus upon praxis, in re-asserting the idea of the University as a site for critical action, resistance and opposition, lead by students. The second is to work with institutionalised structures, for example in defined OER programmes or open access legislation, to use them as levers for enhancing agreed social values. As a result we may be able to enact “the beginning of the democratic university”.