Connectedness and learning: an invitation

How much capacity for empathy do we have, for ideas and people whose worldviews are very different from our own? How much hospitality do we have in ourselves, beyond mere tolerance, for this kind of difference?

Maha Bali,  ‘Whom do you listen to? And why I’m hoping to go the US this August

At Mary Freer’s compassion lab last week I learned new things from systems researcher Fiona Kerr. Fiona advises large corporations on social neuroscience, and is a robust and articulate critic of the ways in which technology investment seeks to substitute face to face human interaction with AI, VR and robots. She speaks persuasively about the evidence that nurturing connections created between humans who trust one another transform our capacity to think, to innovate, to navigate risk and to plan with discernment. All of these are core benefits to any environment concerned with learning, so you would think that universities would be first in the line to be fostering empathic and collegial workplaces. Connectedness makes us better at the things that universities are here to do, literally.

jewellery links
Linked spirals: network diagram, photograph by Kate Bowles

There are practical problems, however, with applying these lessons to universities, first because we are hierarchical institutions with power issues; and secondly because we are naturally global organisations. The problem with the neuroscience of empathic connection is that the two activities that offer the greatest benefit in terms of brain responses are prolonged touch, and retinal eye lock. Neither transfer well into virtual environments; and prolonged touch doesn’t transfer well into many workplaces, so bear in mind that Fiona was speaking primarily to people involved in therapeutic patient care. (And even eye contact doesn’t generate such positive brain outcomes in Skype meetings as in face to face contact, which I found useful to know.)

So if we’re putting more effort into online communication (and universities really are burying themselves in email, at every level); and if we’re also positively encouraging online collaboration because it offers a wider horizon beyond collaborators who are local to us, then we need to figure out what it is that builds connection in online or virtual environments. All of us who teach also need to understand how students who are skilled in using technology to connect to others may still need support to develop those connections to a level that stimulates their capacity to empathise and then discern, in the same demonstrated way as eye contact and touch.

This has me thinking about what it means to teach empathically in diverse online environments, where we can’t always see or hear from the people we’re learning with, and we can’t assume in any fundamental way that they experience life as we do. We can take nothing for granted about the strangers we don’t meet, except through the words they offer in writing or when they talk to us through our screens. To remember to teach inclusively is to engage our own brains in thinking about the world as it is for others: over there, in that body, at that time of day, in that season, during that cultural festival, under that government, in that family structure, with those religious hopes.

The challenge of working inclusively and generously in online environments is impressive, but the opportunity that it opens up for us is something that we can’t leave to chance in this difficult world. So I am really glad to be heading to the US with my friend and colleague Maha Bali, to lead a section of the Digital Pedagogy Lab to be held at the University of Mary Washington in August. You can read more about our track here. We wrote that post together knowing that for very obvious reasons, Maha may have a tough time even entering the US as an Egyptian Muslim woman. But this is precisely why we’ve both chosen to try to show up:

we are coming to the US to lead this track because we both believe that the practical exercise of global citizenship is more important than ever. We believe that inclusive intercultural digital pedagogy is not a luxury, and can no longer be an afterthought. This time of walls and travel bans demands conviction and ingenuity from critical digital educators concerned with gestures of openness and hospitality. To change the landscape on both sides of the walls that are being built to keep us apart, we need to show up and collaborate wherever we can.

We are honoured to be making this complicated journey together. Above all, we are looking forward to working with participants at DPL Fredericksburg to shape new practices of witness, justice and empathy, and to advocate without compromise for a pedagogy of respect to the stranger, the migrant, and the refugee.

And after listening to Fiona Kerr and thinking about how our brains actually work, I’ll be asking specifically whether narrative practice in digital pedagogy is the missing dimension that enables us to form a profound sense of each other, in the absence of eye contact and touch. I’m thinking about stories that have been shared with me online, and how I retain a sense of that person through the lens of their story. To me this opens up a new way of looking at tools, platforms and practices to find those that are most likely to honour listening, without simply defaulting to likes and hearts and thumbs up. Which platforms are best to let someone know that they have been heard in this world? Which digital tools enable us to maintain a rich sense of the storied life being lived elsewhere?

So with all this in mind, I can’t say enough about the beautiful essay Sean Michael Morris has written about his practice of writing about teaching (Sean will also be leading a track at DPL in August, on this very thing.) As he puts it, all of of us who teach do so for reasons. It’s not always obvious what those are; it’s not always the case that we have been inspired by being taught formally or informally. Sometimes, we just found ourselves in the room, and stayed. That’s certainly what happened to me.

Sean’s story about his father covers so much ground; it’s a love story without romance, delivered reverently, candidly and carefully. It’s a story of connectedness and frailty, that gives space to what we learn about a person after they have passed from our life. About working with learners, who are at the core of this essay and at the centre of his practice, Sean has this to say:

We are not dealing with students, but people with dreams, people who will fail and people who will succeed, people who may end up alone and people whose high point of the day may be a conversation with us. Being kind may seem counterintuitive to the academic ethos—especially when being kind can sometimes mean being wrong—but we owe it to ourselves to think outside our setting, to see past the artificial boundaries of generation, expertise, and authority. And while we’re at it: race, gender, sexuality, religion.

This is how we should write about teaching. From a place less studious and a place more generous.

He could just have said this, but it’s the story that he shared around it of his relationship with his father that expanded the possibility of connection, and helped me to concentrate on and recall what he thinks about students. The gift of Sean’s story, the small details that are still in my mind, opened a space in the present for me to imagine my own storied life as a person who teaches, especially online. So I’d really like to know more about how this sense of connectedness and this intensity of recall might show up on an MRI. But for now it’s enough that this essay (and many others, by others) was shared online and I found it.

And if you can make it to Fredericksburg August 7-11, come and join us all. We’d love to see you.

Details are here.


There’s a lot of things that we have to look at critically that might have been useful at one time that are no longer useful.

Myles Horton

What is the space between the orchid and the wasp?

Jacques Abelman


In the third chapter, “Ideas”, of Myles Horton and Paolo Freire’s We Make The Road by Walking (1990), there’s a moment where the conversation suddenly looks right at us.

The [electoral] system that we have in the United States was set up at a time when the total population was the population of Tennessee. We’ve stretched it to try to make it work for different kinds of problems and in stretching and adapting it, we’ve lost its meaning. (p137)

Myles Horton suggests that there are always things that we need to look at critically, that have outlived their usefulness. In higher education, we’re used to this: the college lecture, the three or even four year degree, the textbook, the exam, the peer reviewed closed publication system, secure employment, shared governance—all under the hammer of disruption.

But can a whole electoral system lose its meaning in this way? When we look, can we see what needs defending, what can be lost?


Something about what happens when we talk.

Here’s a brief glimpse of the book’s origin, from the preface. Horton and Freire met and talked late in 1987 at the Highlander School that Horton had built, and that is now an education and research centre still focused on grassroots organising.

They could relax, explore their histories, and feel the texture and depth of each other’s experiences as they grew closer as good friends. Their conversations soon became like a dance between old companions accustomed to the subtle leads and responses by one, then the other.

Myles Horton was 83 and Paolo Freire was 66. They came to this meeting from different personal and educational starting points, with a shared interest in what radical pedagogy could contribute to social justice. They had worked across government and activist roles; they had lived as husbands and fathers and teachers; they had each experienced loss and grief and illness. The book exists at all because Horton’s collaborators at the University of Tennessee (Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John Peters) felt it was “time to let the world in on what each man, whose work was already well known, had to say to each other.”


While I’m in this #HortonFreire reading group, I’m still working with others to fathom the potential to critical pedagogy of the open source network The group of us who are looking at this, both uncertainly and with bursts of optimism, have shown up inside a refuge that’s still under construction. We’re trying not to get in the way of the host community for which the protections of this social space are evidently intended, and whose safety is important to us.

And yet we’re co-evolving something, working in the space between the orchid and the wasp. Outlier members of each community are passing round each other’s ideas and comments, making design or server hosting suggestions, with nothing much in common except that we are all humans living in these times. And the copresence of two such unlike demographics is probably helpful in constraining the tendency for anyone to succeed in defining the whole project. It’s more than usually obvious in that neither “we” can imagine for others who are their own “we”, with all their own conventions and hopes for the future.

In this context, Jim Luke suggests that viability for a growing online community hosting many overlapping conversations relates to what people can see, what they choose to pay attention to. To Jim, this is a matter of lenses. What you see depends on the lens that you bring to the seeing. Some of this is an issues for system design; more that matters is derived from personal and social history, and purpose.

My glasses. They're how I see.
My glasses. They’re how I see.

The etymology of the lens is literal. Lens is the Latin form for the word that forks in English to become lens because it resembles lentil. It turns out that many languages share the same or proximal words for these two things, based on their similar lenticular shape.

The purpose of a lens is to bend the light that passes through it, one way or another, to enable things to be seen.


The idea of the lens has become newly fraught since the US election. For critical educators, for those of us following Foucault or Gramsci or any thinker on the mutability of what is thinkable according to who is thinking it and what power they wield, this is a tough time. Postmodernism has sedimented into the high school curriculum, and the post-truth presidency is on the horizon in the US.

We always said that facts were made things, polished lenses, ways of seeing the world. And now here we are.

This is a time for critical educators to work together in new ways to address what’s newly at stake. To me it’s encouraging to be reminded by Horton & Freire that activists have always collaborated, that conversations have been the basis of growth as much as harm, that ideas come into focus when we talk. And maybe we’ve forgotten in the turmoil of bitterness, malice and panic that our online networks are there to let the world know what we have to say to one another.

It’s not a reason to re-assert a modernist faith system, to shore up an imaginary pre-post-fact era when things were truer than they are now. It’s more that accepting the relativism and mutability of perspective doesn’t give us the right to silence at this time.


Book club part: the risk and promise of efficiency.

Horton and Freire draw a distinction between the kind of education that has the courage to be open to purpose, to what will turn up; and schooling which suffers (from) the same imperative as activism, to get stuff done. Between these two poles, there is something they call efficiency.

That is, efficiency, without being an instrument of enslaving you, is something that is absolutely necessary. Inefficiency has to do with the distance between what you do and what you would like to get.

Nearly 30 years later, we need to revisit this point. What can we wish for, when efficiency is the genius of the enslaving instruments of data management, of automated labour, of the market, of capital itself?

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the things people say about their navigational experiences in mastodon. Relative to other platforms it doesn’t smooth the paths. Wayfinding is sometimes hard. Conversations break apart and reform. We lose track, back up, follow branching paths, calling out to each other. Learning is hard and in every sense, time is short. Our human bandwidth is at capacity.

Other platforms know exactly how to use design to exploit this sense of informational fatigue. Cashed up social networks have got us used to being led to content, like we’re in IKEA. Algorithms make paths for us; algorithms even make our shortcuts.

Look, here is the significant content you missed while you were away, here is the gap in the hedge for you to catch up, here is the moment that matters.

We fall on this efficiency with relief because Twitter is the firehose, and the world that’s on fire. It’s the crowded pavement where everyone is running.

Mastodon feels to me like something slow, rough edged, inefficient. It requires us to stop, to concentrate, to think more carefully. In every way, it reminds me of Mike Caulfield’s earliest federated wiki in design and purpose, and in the ideal that I discovered there of uncluttered co-working for the collaborative extension of complex ideas.

It’s good to remember that we still know how to manage in these spaces, as we try to name all the things the lenses of the powerful are asking us not to see.


It’s not too late to dip in or join #HortonFreire, in your own time. Thanks to Bryan Alexander there’s a trove of links and the backstory all here. The front readers have reached chapter 4 but plenty of us are tarrying, and there’s no deadline at all. Maybe we’ll all just read this book together until the end of days..

On chapter 3, I really appreciated Amy Collier’s thoughts on broken heartedness of leadership. Adam Croom has made a quote generator from his own notes on chapters 3 and 4 which will put something in your day.

And Bonnie Stewart has opened up an extraordinary discussion about the potential to make a new thing, remembering instead of forgetting our history. Go there.


If you’re on mastodon, we’ve been following up Laura Ritchie‘s idea about using #lenses as a hashtag to gather up branching threads, and have run into a design feature that makes this awkward. Entirely unlike Twitter, this has led to an exchange with the developer about how things might work better.


The roads we make

We all agreed we had to start learning from the people we were working with, and that we had to learn from each other.

Myles Horton, #HortonFreire , We Make the Road by Walking

So I’m in a pop-up book club, which is probably the only kind of book club I can manage, as I’m a terrible reader. I have a vision of book clubs that is part Oprah, and part my friend David the philosopher who tells me stories of Melbourne book clubs with wine and erudition and sustained relationships over time. I harbour unfair conclusions about both, and “join book club” is not on my bucket list. Worse, my own practice of opposing assigned readings when I teach makes me a peculiar candidate for synchronised reading even in a professional context. I can barely bring myself to read the agenda.

But I came across a group planning to read the transcribed conversations between critical educators Paulo Freire and Myles Horton, published in 1990 as We Make the Road by Walking. And this is a book I actually read, and care about, and keep by the bath, and go over and over like a well-thumbed bible of sorts. Bryan Alexander is at the head of the line, and you can follow his thoughts here. Beyond that there are posts by Adam Croom, Amy Collier and Ben Scragg that are extraordinarily rich companions to the first couple of chapters. There’s a schedule and a Twitter chat. As a demonstration of what group reading can do, it’s compelling.

So I’m in, figuring that if I have only one book club in me ever, this could be the one. And of course, Bryan is on chapter 3 so I’m already running behind. But I’ve been here before, thinking about how we learn from walking together, especially with people who don’t walk the way we do, or the way we think is right. This is from 2014:

If you’ve ever watched 8 year olds walk a school route, you’ll know that their progress is circular, wandering, attentive and distracted all at the same time. They stop to pick things up. They run about in circles for a bit. They dawdle and notice things you miss. Adults and older children nag at them to do it properly, to pick up the pace and make orderly, timely, productive progress. There’s an implicit schedule which we think they should follow, so that everyone achieves the walking-to-school outcomes on time.

But suddenly I realised that what they’re doing is learning: they’re learning about their community by making tracks through it, remembering that yesterday there was a lizard here or a dropped bit of trash there. And this is exactly the point smart people like Patrick Masson and Mark Smithers have been quietly making about online learning and MOOCs: what really threatens the privilege of universities as regulators of approved learning is the internet itself, because this is where we all go to learn, to “make the path by walking”. (Update: I remembered Bon Stewart talking about this, and she has now helpfully reminded me where. It’s in a beautiful post on her blog, and she’s taking up a point from Horton and Freire.)

Horton and Freire’s conversation about their shared histories of becoming educational activists begins with their own experiences as children, learning to read. In the chapter “Formative Years” (see, I’m really book clubbing it now) Freire talks about learning at home, sitting among mango trees, drawing in the dirt with a stick. Horton doesn’t remember how he learned to read, but recalls the transition from know-how reading to reading for meaning.

I remember learning to know-how read, my mother’s finger running along the words, the picture covered over with a brown window envelope so I wouldn’t guess. Next she was big on flash cards, and stuck them onto the appropriate items around the house, so we lived briefly in a labelled environment like people who might at any moment lose their minds and forget which was the door and which was the window.

Then my dad, the trained teacher, came home one day and switched all the labels around — Semiotics 101.

I did all right.


“If I need a road, then I’ll make a road!” says Toad.

Start over.

When our older kids were little, my mother loaded us up with the Usborne phonics reader series. Slim little volumes of incredible tedium introduced us to phonics, rhymes, flattened cartoonish illustrations, and some modest relief hunting for a little yellow duck on every page, The girls loved them.

But there was one I also loved. Toad Makes a Road is the story of an enterprising and independent character who hops happily into her new house on a hill (brought to you by the h sound, get it?). Time ticks on (I’m quoting now, from ground in memory of those long nights) and the removalist truck can’t get up the hill, so (short version) Toad carries all her furniture up by herself, and then waits for her friends to appear, teapot in hand. One by one, they all tell her that her hill is too steep, and that she needs a road. She tells them brightly that she’ll make one, and is of course dismissed as a fool.

Illustration from Toad Makes a Road, Usborne Books
Illustration from Toad Makes a Road, Usborne Books

So I inwardly cheered every time when we turned the page and found Toad with her fully provisioned road building machinery—the really big earth movers, in the proper shade of yellow—laying the road, making it flat, and putting up a big billboard of welcome to all comers, all by herself.

Sometimes we make the road by making it. And this is hard work too.


Why do we try new things? Very often it’s because of a recommendation. We’re social learners, it’s a survival skill. And so it is that this week I followed a pilgrimage of travellers led by Paul Prinsloo to try a new kind of social network. The result has been heartwarming, surprising, and something that will take more than this post to explain.

Here’s what I have learned briefly. There’s tremendous energy in the open source community to build social alternatives to Facebook and Twitter. There are some quite niche reasons why particular groups are drawn to these alternatives at the moment, and like any communitarian energy, it’s generating a lot of work thinking about boundaries and rules and ways of getting along. If you’ve watched enough post-apocalyptic survival fiction, you’ll know what this is about.

Entering one of these communities, even accidentally, is about practising the reciprocal hospitality of the guest, and I’ve been watching colleagues and friends manage this with real care and respect, engaging with a host community that self-represents as marginal and in many ways at risk. We’re not the only ones thinking about how to act well in relation to strangers, how not to trip or trigger. It’s going on all the time.

Many small technical things that Twitter has made (suspiciously) easy are harder in this space. It navigates like Moodle, and looks like a darkened cave. But what has really surprised and engaged me is the rewarding labour of learning from strangers–the time that people give to one another to work in collaboration. It’s reminded me of many things about the cooperative, curious, clunky internet of 1995, animated with the urgency of figuring out the paths we need to make in the swampy ground of 2016.

You can read more about it here and here (Daniel Lynds and Sundi Richard on its potential for higher education users) and here (Maha Bali in ProfHacker) and here (“Everything changed when the marxist anime twitter arrived”).

And I’m truly glad to be involved in thinking about the world we might make by learning from each other.


The Latin word is from PIE root *ten- “to stretch” (source also of Sanskrit tantram “loom,” tanoti “stretches, lasts;” Persian tar “string;” Lithuanian tankus“compact,” i.e. “tightened;” Greek teinein “to stretch,” tasis “a stretching, tension,” tenos “sinew,” tetanos “stiff, rigid,” tonos “string,” hence “sound, pitch;” Latin tendere “to stretch,” tenuis “thin, rare, fine;” Old Church Slavonic tento “cord;” Old English þynne “thin”). Connecting notion between “stretch” and “hold” is “cause to maintain.”


What are the things that we hold to be true? What are the tenets of our time that arouse conviction, that we stretch towards, that we grab hold of and hold dear?

Sometimes we hardly know what we believe. The state of the world is manipulated from a village in Macedonia. Everything is crooked, and rigged. The algorithm has misled us and continue to stumble. Powerful forces. What is trustable, if we don’t have faith to guide us? Like many unbelievers I’m in the world with a compass of secular hope. I trust in the safety offered me by others, and I accept the risk that this could end poorly. I know that the life in front of me, the face that is not mine, is part of the vast archive of human data that exists well beyond our capacity to track—all life, ever—and that is what defines me as separate, myself, mostly coherent in my sense of how to proceed.

Travelling round the world I realise there are also some practical things I take as being trustable: air traffic control; the safe interval programming of walk/don’t walk; subway maps. It’s how we function at all: we flourish because we know how to learn, trusting signs and faces and evidence, and making evidence based decisions.

Yesterday in the subway I was standing with my daughter when a tiny girl came by, just learning to walk, in that bowlegged tiptoeing way, holding her tiny arms above her head to the adult she was leading by the finger. They walked on together very slowly and intently, turned back and passed us again. The astonished delight on her face at seeing my daughter’s bright yellow coat—again!  right there where it was! —that’s how humans learn, by memorising it, walking it, storing it away, coming back to it.

We all laughed.

This is the life-defining skill that we are trying to hand over to computational learning. I think it’s both possible and probable that machines will get better at something that approximates to human thought. But I can’t care about this as much as I care about whether humans will inadvertently in the process deprive ourselves of the same capacity.

It is fundamental to the joy of being human that we learn how to process the data of our world, to recall and rearrange the evidence, to think.  I am here for this. I am here for the slowness of thinking, the cognitive complexity that inhabits every gesture that we make, for the greetings, the avoided glances, the votes, the clicks, the sentences that end properly, the thoughts that half fly up.


I’ve been thinking this while walking the streets of Brooklyn waiting for the marathon US election cycle to finish up at last. Yesterday, in bright Autumn sunshine, New Yorkers took a breather from it all to stand on their pavements and sit on their front steps and sing in gospel choirs and wave signs and hang out of windows yelling encouragement at the other kind of marathon, the one that involves actually running.

Sport is what it is: business being made out of the spectacular performance of the most exceptional and highly developed human bodies, that are pressing right up against the skin of what’s possible, turning time itself into something measured in shavings of seconds. But what’s so great about marathons is all the rest having a go: all ages, so many different bodies, running with help, barely running at all, costumed, underprepared. It’s a camino of sorts, a pilgrimage, a passage of faith.

#blacklivesmatter, taken by Kate Bowles in Brooklyn Nov 6 2016
#blacklivesmatter, taken by Kate Bowles in Brooklyn Nov 6 2016

We stumbled into it and stayed the course, buying cupcakes from bake sales and chatting in a neighbourly way to people from all over the world. And along with these complete strangers, we ended up cheering the strangers sweating past us. “Don’t give up! You’ve got this! Go Sweden!” Runners grinned, waved, jogged, slowed to a walk uphill. Wheelchair athletes, blind runners, runners for charity and for personal bests and for each other and for the sense of being in the spectacle and just getting to the end, in any shape.

We loved the man who shuffled by wearing a sign that said “34 finishes”. That’s not competition, it’s not even sport. It’s the project of being a person, showing up, making it to the finish of the thing, and coming back next year.


I’m in the US because I attended the OpenEd 16 conference in Richmond VA. It’s a conference that encourages warmth, commitment and solidarity among its regular participants. “Is this your first time?” I was asked (see Sundi Richard’s beautiful post on this). It was a little disconcerting, and describing it as a family reunion didn’t entirely help because, you know, families. But there is something important to the prospect of achieving change in higher education around the world that relationships of care grow and develop over time. And until now, conferences have been as obvious as marathons as a thing that people do to express their solidarity with this ideal.

But I’m worrying more and more about the carbon cost of this, and the food waste, and the endlessly discussed problem of conference schedules being stacked with presentations so that people can attend at all, when what we most need is time to confer. There are far better ways to encounter and process other people’s research, and I think those of us who are committed to openness as a tenet need to lead on this one.

What if we shifted the content of conferences into asynchronous distribution; and treat the opportunity be in place together as the discussion, as a literal practice of conferring? What if we took out all of the sessions, and made the corridors the central venues, as many do (and thanks to Alan Levine and Sean Michael Morris for so many thoughts on this.) What if we built in time to write together, to share quick thoughts with others, to use all our networks as a central platform for conferring on key ideas and questions, not a conference backchannel? (See this link for the “big ball of conversations around OpenEd16“.)

A few things would need to happen. First we would need to acknowledge that the nature of long-term friendships within communities make it easy for cliques to form, newcomers to be missed, and sameness to roll on. Northern hemisphere events and associations of this kind in education technology and open education have a whiteness problem and a gender problem, and we need to say it this plainly. (See posts by Martin Weller and Tomo Nagashima.)

Second, we can all take a step towards undoing the cult of community stars and heroes, of deciding who matters and who is marginal. Keynote stars, corridor celebrities: none of this makes education more open. Let’s focus on the ideas whoever has them, and celebrate all the runners with the same joy. We’re in it together.

Thirdly, those of us with institutional positions need to lobby hard against the hyphenation of conference presentation to research outcome to career uplift. This is doing enormous harm to the quality of thinking at environmentally costly events like academic conferences. (And don’t get me started on conferences doubling as hiring fairs. Stop with that.)

And finally, we really need to think about placedness. There is a real privilege of being in the same place as other people, but that’s not the only way to be with people. So this is a cheer to the tireless Virtually Connecting team. I’m not always on board with the way they select and promote their hallway conversations, as I’m concerned that this in itself is sustaining the prestige hierarchies that we most need to get shot of. But they have been really significant in reminding everyone that a professional conference can and should include those who don’t trash the planet to be in the room.

This really is a tenet—a stretch goal—that we can’t afford to avoid any longer.

More to read

There are many blogs coming out of this conference, and I will post the link to the David Kernohan’s archive when I find it. Update: OK, found it. What a resource this is: go there.  But if you have less time, please read this on the need to pause, from Autumm Caines, and this from Laura Gogia on stories as a way of being.

For now, our own

In open online spaces, opening doors is not enough.

Maha Bali, ‘Reproducing marginality,’ September 2016

We so easily forget our bodies.

Mary Freer, ‘This body goes to work,’ August 2016

Over the last week I’ve been skirting a significant conversation begun by Maha Bali (“I don’t own my domain, I rent it“) and continued by Audrey Watters (“A domain of ones own in a post-ownership society“). Never far away is Andrew Rikard’s Edsurge post “Do I own my domain if you grade it?”

The question for me is how the idea of “own” works as a metaphor. It’s complicated enough as it is: my own, to own, owned, owned. We own our mistakes, we own our work, we own our politics, and none of this is quite like the way we own our homes—which for most of our working lives means some version of renting, in a funhouse world in which access to credit, like debt itself, has become an asset.

Conceptually, home ownership makes an ironic pass at all this, promising dominion over property that is actually quite a temporary thing in geohistorical time. Home ownership offers a misleading sense of permanence in relation to our provisional space in the world. A home that’s owned is always haunted by both its past and future. Far from sheltering us against the churn of things, it’s a daily reminder that we’re not here for long.

And inside our own homes where we might think of ourselves as free to do as we please, we remain legal subjects, subordinated to the local laws or ways of being to which our citizenship is bent. We house our human bodies, our social selves, our presentability. Our houses face the street; and behind the scenes, who knows what.

As legal subjects, we have modest rights to allow our homes to fall into disrepair, although these are limited by heritage considerations, public health and safety and so on. Zoning laws fence us in. Meanwhile there are all the social obligations of habitation to keep up: from the pragmatics of rent, rates, taxes, body corporate fees and utilities, to the labour of being a considerate neighbour, maintaining a yard, planting a tree that will outlive you. All this takes some skill, some literacy. No one really remembers how we learned to pay bills, or manage our garbage, but we do.

The implication that ownership of things is the beginning of practice of civic participation is something we both assume and overlook when we use ownership as a tech metaphor, without thinking ahead to use. It’s as if the ownership of a domain becomes an end in itself. Domain names are fetishised, like novelty license plates. They’re collectable and tradable, despite having no inherent functionality except to indicate an empty lot where something might be built, or a lot where something has been abandoned, that might be recaptured at a price for a new project. But achieving naming rights in the use of a domain doesn’t come with the skills you need to know what to do next, how to build what people will find if they search at those coordinates.

This is where I’ve come to in the conversation about whether personal domain ownership is a useful or socially equitable project for higher education. Maha’s post set off a deep and thoughtful exchange among some of higher education’s most experienced and engaged champions of student and personal blogging. Really, go read through those comments, they’re a model for the conversations we should have when we think about bringing tech innovation as a requirement into the lives of others.

As companion pieces, I read Maha’s further post on how things get paid for in Egypt; Audrey’ post on the impact of student debt on credit score; and two articles by Tressie McMillan Cottom, on the $20 principle and on preferential student recruitment as reparations for slavery (spoiler: it’s not reparations.) Then I fell into this exchange on Twitter about the critical importance of making small barriers to educational participation visible, kicked off by Robin deRosa reminding her students  to bring a credit card and working laptop to class.

To lower these barriers while keeping them visible, which is very much Robin’s project, we have to get much better at noticing them. We need to be scrupulous in attending to the assumptions that lie behind our metaphors, our proposals, our sense of being agents for change largely on the side of the good. We are teaching people with different life experience than our own–different educational capital, cultural capital, actual capital. I teach students for whom a missed shift at work may mean a lost job in a sinkhole local economy; a required online textbook with a digital key may prevent joining the class at all; a credit card may already be maxed or cut up; a laptop may be both so cheap and so broken that it’s hard to see through the cracked screen. All of these are actual barriers to participation that actual students have discussed with me in the last four weeks.

And it’s easy to say that we have policies or options for students who can’t do what we expect, and measures to show that they are in a tiny minority; but in reality we rarely check what disadvantage and/or risk comes with our Plan B. We don’t think nearly enough about students for whom the language of digital making is unfamiliar, or the demands of content generation are disempowering and demoralising. We don’t adequately accommodate the students who have poor internet access, exhausted data plans, or have to do everything through a second hand phone.

So when we say that it’s a good thing for students to own their domain, we need to ask what we mean by owning, and what we think home might be as a metaphor–especially given that the metaphor for our times is not home ownership, or even post-ownership; it’s homelessness.

It’s the global political scale of this homelessness, the mobility of whole populations for whom the modern projects of both nation and property have entirely fallen apart, that presses an anxiety of ownership on the rest of us. Having a home is more than a matter of shelter, it’s the presentation of a certain kind of survivorship, assessed in cultural competence, the assertion of literacy, the visible privilege of know-how. And like home ownership, domain ownership is the practice of insiders, survivors, using the skills and languages that flex their cultural power by asking to be taken entirely for granted, not just in terms of what appears on the screen but increasingly in terms of the coding that lies beneath it.

This weekend I walked past a house that I like. It’s in a gentrifying Sydney neighbourhood, defying the trend. It’s been taken over by an unpruned wisteria draped over its rotting balcony; curtains are never pulled back from its verandah doors. Who knows what’s inside? Who lets their property, in Sydney of all places, fall into this unproductive, vegetative state? But now there’s a notice stapled to the fence. Development is planned. The house will be demolished and replaced. There will be a plunge pool. This abandoned property will retake its place in the proper, and properly owned will become an asset to the whole neighbourhood in house price uplift.

Ownership can never be less of a public spectacle than this. It’s whole point is to be knowable by others, to turn exclusivity of access and control towards a model of social order and a vision of security that will miraculously extend to all, including those who are most obviously excluded. Owning and gentrifying are inseparable economic forces. So when we talk about securing a domain of one’s own, we’re also talking about this privatising vision of the proper—and we’re at risk of missing the fragile, important lesson that just as with homes, the security of ownership is always measured against the temporality of the bodies walking past.

Note: This blog is parked with Reclaim Hosting, for whom my admiration is unreserved. None of the questions I’m asking here are a criticism of their model.

US/not us

We need to have more conversations with people who are not us.

Chris Gilliard, #DigPed, August 2016


It’s 5am. It’s dark outside, and cold inside. My daughter’s in the kitchen banging cupboard doors and making coffee. She’s up to watch the Olympics, and she wants company. Blearily we straggle out to join her and slump on the couch under blankets, trying to figure out what’s happening. Skeet shooting, what is that?

Divers fall from the sky in apparently perfect synchronisation. They enter the water like needles. Judges manage to find something wrong. We marvel at the judges.

The television advertising of Australia’s major Olympic sponsors relays us back to ourselves over and over. Look, it’s us, up in the dark, our sleepy faces lit by the television screen, watching what’s happening on the other side of the world.

We show up.


It’s 5am. I’m up early to be part of a time-sychronised workshop for the Digital Pedagogy Lab in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I can’t point to Fredericksburg on a map, so I look it up. Wait, it’s that  Fredericksburg.Screenshot 2016-08-12 09.48.23

I grew up near that  Stonehenge so I know what it means to live in a place that has an overbearing past. In thick places, the tourist economy alibis history, sustains its double bluff: that we’re both done with its troubles, and so vigilant about it that we won’t repeat it.

Except until we do, in some form or another.

The workshop participants are collaborative, generous, thoughtful. They make time in their lives for us all to put our thoughts together, to try to understand what we think we know when we know where someone is from, and guess where they were born, and double somersault from there to the impressions we have about places, countries, cultures. They write their hopes for the workshop left-handedly to get a sense of what it feels like to be using techniques and technologies designed for (and by) a dominant culture.

People who are left-handed recognise each other at this moment, like two Australians at a northern hemisphere conference.


In a Google document we crowdsource knowledge of South Africa, Egypt and Australia, where we three facilitators work. The Australian field fills up in a familiar way:

Coral Reef, Great Ocean Road, Rabbit Proof fence,Kangaroos, outback, Vast and funky landscape, PY Media, the Opera House, Sydney Island


Crocodile dundee

But that’s not all. Because someone knows about the Nauru files, and that the Australian government we have just re-elected are destroying a generation of already homeless refugee children, on the grounds that this might save others from drowning at sea. Australians have seemed to go along with this lesser-of-evils calculation. But the details are becoming too much to bear.

This is the report of a witnessed assault by a guard on a 5 year old child because she was running through a tent.

With his left hand he hit her across the back of the head. It was very forceful – he hit her so hard it lifted her off her feet and sent her crashing to the ground.

Our Minister for Immigration responds to the stories contained in the Nauru Files with a lack of compassion so astonishing that our mouths fill with sand:

People have self-immolated to get to Australia.

Clearly never having met a fourth degree burn survivor, that is what he said.


Back in the workshop, we raise questions of power and silencing. We think about whether we need more rules, or fewer rules, for international online learning. We wonder if organically forming communities have an inherent tendency to marginalise the unexpected visitor—and not just in spite of the diligently inclusive language they use to value all their members, but because whenever belonging is made visible in the formation of a community, it is always coded by those who control the invitation to belong.

Derrida’s conditional hospitality is never far away, when we speak about what we can do to make others feel included.

Last week a brief exchange on whether a call for papers on the experiences of women of colour in education meant to say “US education” or was really open to others, sent me back to Barthes’ discussion of exnomination. In his essay on the function of myth in distributing power, Barthes points out that the most powerful in any situation will not need to name themselves, and indeed will seek to demonstrate their power by reserving for themselves the default position. The most powerful are those who can establish their own status as the one that never needs to be qualified.

President. Woman president.

There, you saw it.

Barthes’ focus is the bourgeoisie, the class who do not wish to name themselves. His idea was picked up in 2000 by linguist Robin Lakoff, who expanded it usefully to look at dominant groups in general, and the tactical unnaming of privilege.

If you are a member of the dominant group, your attributes are invisible, as your role in making things the way they are is not noticeable.

For all of us who work as educators, and especially those of us who work in edtech, the American college system has fully achieved this status. It is the default that doesn’t have to name itself. I have sat in LMS demonstrations watching a video of everyday US college life as the roadmap for vendor planning for us. And no one raised an eyebrow, because we’re used to this across every surface of soft cultural power, where the US dominates to the point that we forget we’re not thinking our own thoughts.

Hi Professor Bowles,

I hope your summer is going well! 

I wanted to reach out to invite you to participate in our ‘Professor Pulse’ study. This project aims to collect data and insights into professors’ sentiments on current issues and topics in higher education – everything from tenure, to student apathy, to school administration.

Hi Lauren. It’s winter here. Our professorial system is entirely different to yours. You don’t mean me, you really don’t.

But if Nauru teaches us anything, it’s that we don’t change global power by wrestling a bit of it for ourselves, and then punching down.


Here’s the hopeful part. International online networks are becoming a new kind of everyday, and they sensitise us all to the defaults we each use, and impose on others. This morning’s workshop was followed by a conversation about identity and difference in digital pedagogy with educators Sherri Spelic, Annemarie Perez, Miriam Neptune and Chris Gilliard. I asked Chris what he expects US educators to learn from the presence of others in their workshops, their conversations, their sense of the scope of “education” when they say it.

Chris’ answer went to the heart of how we achieve change by showing up. So if we want Americans to stop thinking of the rest of the world as the exotic, the underserved market, being present is the place to begin. We need to make time to hear from each other in workshops like this, at a scale that we can work with. We need to promote listening well as an activist practice. And as educators we have to lead this process, and centre it in our teaching.

We need have more conversations with people who are not us.

Warmest thanks to all the workshop participants, co-facilitators Paul Prinsloo and Maha Bali, and Chris Gilliard, activist educator.

What would Stampy do?

But we desperately want live lectures to work. We’ve done them for so long now that they seem a part of who we are. And we are tantalised by the mirage of thinking that if only everyone turned up, they would be a far more efficient way of teaching than the seminar or the tutorial.

Desperately. So desperately that we are prepared to ignore the prodigious financial and environmental cost of heating or cooling large empty spaces. So desperately that we are prepared to pay staff to talk to empty rooms. So desperately that we are prepared to attribute all kinds of behaviours and behavioural deficits to students.

Marnie Hughes Warrington, DVC,  “That Sinking Feeling: Counting the Cost of Live Lectures

If you’re the parent of a Minecraft age child, chances are you’ve encountered Joseph Garrett, aka Stampy The Cat, Stampylongnose or Stampylonghead. He’s the 24 year old British YouTuber with the high-pitched giggle who’s playing as the soundtrack to your life right now:

He’s teaching your kids how to dig, build, grow, combine and trade resources in imaginary worlds. He and his friends are modelling ways of working cooperatively, having fun, and taking care of each other. His YouTube channel features a new short video every day. He has 6,073,312 subscribers and 3,742,298,125 views. This year he’s also starring in a Disney-backed cartoon education show, Wonder Quest, using YouTube to teach your kids even more stuff.

Coursera, who like to claim drive-by sign-ups as actually engaged students (“more than 12.8 million students have registered for courses“) might notice that this busy, practical, popular, amateur educator measures his impact in billions. As a couple more reference points, Khan Academy on YouTube has 2,203,404 subscribers and a teensy 582,700,573 views; for the grown-ups, TED’s YouTube channel has 3,536,543 subscribers and 429,508,512 views. And so on. 

I was thinking about Joseph Garrett this morning as I was reading ANU Deputy Vice Chancellor Marnie Hughes-Warrington on the institutional sunk costs that mean we continue to treat the 55 minute live lecture as the gold standard for instructional delivery in Australian universities (despite highly promoted moves to phase out lectures at the University of Adelaide and UTS). Marnie argues that we lecture without due attention to the economics of the habit, and in particular that we do it without reckoning on the professional impact on staff.

She’s right. The university lecture is the city where all faiths converge. Until we work out how to make online content as updatable and responsive as a live presentation, then investment in video production is just being added to capital investment in buildings and their maintenance, salaries and on-costs for the permanent staff, and quality assurance procedures for both domestic and international students, all cohering around the idea that content is delivered not found, and delivering content matters more than other forms of teaching. This is why lecturing costs more in hourly compensation rates, and it’s typically weighted more in workload models: content is the badge of expertise, and singular, charismatic expertise is what you get at universities. Lecturing gets the best rooms and, typically, the better tech. Lectures get recorded. Posterity’s archive is stuffed with lectures.

So I’m thinking about Marnie’s points about cost as I’m staring at a syllabus that says that there will be lectures every week, in a timetabled room with raked seating and whiteboards, and an emergency exit plan, and a clock, and a networked computer that spends most of its active life being a dumb slide projector. As Marnie points out, we measure usage of rooms like this in terms of bodies showing up—thermal monitoring! that’s very fancy—but I think it’s worth trying to get beyond this to the complexities of time as finite and unreplayable. Human hours are the one resource spent on education that won’t be recouped later, under any loan plan, no matter how brilliant the graduate outcome. I’ve written on this before: I think this means educators need to reflect on whether we take the opportunity of presence to use the gift of time wisely.

This means understanding that just as we measure staff contact time as the tip of an iceberg of preparation and consultation, so we should expect students to calculate the opportunity cost of showing up at least in terms of travel and work. In this syllabus for a class that might have around 160 students enrolled, the projected cost in human hours committed to sitting-and-listening lecture time is therefore around 160 hours per week. We’re already sailing close to the edge of the world by delivering 8 lectures rather than the standard 13 that our workload model is built on. But this still means that we’re projecting 1280 human hours into this sitting and listening over the whole course of the semester.

Now let’s imagine that an hour in a lecture represents three hours including travel and waiting around time. So that means we’re planning to use up 3840 irreplaceable human hours lecturing. On top of that, these hours are taken from something else, so what if we try to imagine this in terms of lost income? The Australian minimum wage is $17.29 before tax. So we could think of this lecturing impost as costing something like $8299 a week in lost earnings, which is also money not spent in our local economy. Then we could try to calculate its true dollar cost to students in a way that factors in the price of petrol or public transport to attend and get home again afterwards.

Or we could look at this another way altogether, and calculate the lecture’s carbon footprint in terms of its education miles: how far are we expecting people to drive to sit and listen to something that they could access from home? And what about the other human intangibles of opportunity cost: time spent on health, self-care, care of others? What if we assigned a dollar value to these and calculated lecture attendance in terms of all the time and money we extract from communities and families? (If this seems extreme to you, think about the student parent we’re asking to pay for a full day’s childcare to attend a one hour lecture. These costs are not abstractions, we just don’t measure them yet.)

I don’t have a simple answer to this. I’ve loved the experience of listening to people who interest me; I drove hours in the rain to hear Derek Walcott read his poems in person and that’s time I’ll never regret giving. On the other hand, I have a three minute attention span and I’ve lost it completely at meetings, in training sessions, at conferences, in the movies, and in conversation with friends. So I understand why students are on Facebook in their lectures; I’m just not sure they need to drive an hour each way or give up a shift at work to do this in person.

And as I watch my daughter’s really delighted absorption in Joseph Garrett’s daily briefings, I realise that what I envy him isn’t that he gets paid to do something that makes the whole world laugh along with him. It’s his freedom as an educator to design the way he teaches around the circumstances of his learners. My daughter isn’t just learning from him that cake is a building material; she’s learning how to learn in a way that is driven by what she wants to know, when she wants to know it. She learns by doing, and she turns to him when she’s stuck. His video pedagogy is just-in-time, and just-enough, and the proof of her mastery is in what she can do. If you want a fancy term, this is CBL and flipped classroom on skates.

So thanks to Marnie Hughes-Warrington and Joseph Garrett, I’m now looking at this syllabus with fresh eyes.

What would Stampy do?


Jonathan Rees has responded to this post on his blog, and I just want to take an opportunity to say thank you to Jonathan and all the commenters below. I am the world’s slowest writer and least productive scholar, but I am absolutely a better thinker because of the people who challenge me here. People ask what value academic blogging is, especially if you’re not in the business of personal brand-building, and to me the questions I’ve been asked or the new ideas that have been put to me here (Spinoza!), are all the answer you need.

Stones only

The purpose of Stonehenge is lost to us. There will always be debate about its meaning.

Stonehenge Visitor Centre, Wiltshire

I grew up in England, although I wasn’t born here.


I’m not in Australia, I’m visiting the country that isn’t quite home, with my Australian teenage daughter who isn’t quite at home here either, while we both try to make sense of the weave of family (her) and familiar landscapes (me) that make England part of who we are. Or not.

"Seventeenth century depiction of Stonehenge", at
“Seventeenth century depiction of Stonehenge”, at

So it made sense to us to go to Stonehenge, because that was my landscape at her age. We battled the wind and the tour buses and the queues, and then sheltered from the weather with a turn around a small educational display of immersive diorama and interpretive panels: educators’ best guesses at everything Stonehenge might represent, pitched for tourists and school parties on their way to the gift shop.

Historians of Stonehenge—and the larger network of burial mounds and earthworks in the surrounding fields—are stuck with the fact that no one knows for sure why it’s all there. The explanatory panels have a provisional feel. What sense did these stones make to the humans who hauled them there and set them up with such precision? We don’t know. What we have instead is a history of conjecture: paintings and maps and interpretation and use. And now we also have ticket pricing, and audio tours, and the opportunity to bundle Stonehenge in with other sites managed by English Heritage at a discount.

This puzzle of a monolithic presence that’s so familiar you can hardly see it as strange has been in the back of my mind as I’ve been working with a lovely group of people on a conference whose topic is higher education. We were originally invited to create a conversation between scholars and practitioners with differing views on digital learning, but to me this is an opportunity to ask the bigger questions of the higher education systems we have all inherited: just what are these stones doing here?

Here’s how the call for proposals puts the questions:

What are the most pressing uncertainties, and the most promising applications of digital networks for learning and the academy? What agenda should be set for research in the near term? How best can researchers develop and share insights that will achieve practical outcomes and address systems-level challenges facing higher education, while establishing and applying robust standards of ethical practice?

Because this is a big set of questions, we’ve broken it up a bit with themes: ethics of collaboration; individualised learning; system impacts; innovation and work; sociocultural implications. I’m not sure these are entirely clear, but I hope that the ambiguity is productive. It’s certainly sincere: higher education should be difficult to reduce to simplistic abstractions, although the edtech stakeholders currently explaining education to everyone seem to have missed this memo.

So we’re approaching this as researchers and educators, and hazarding some questions about how higher education might make senseScreen Shot 2015-05-17 at 12.00.09 am in specific places. Some of these respond to the provocations that higher education has faced in the last few years. All of them emerge from a conviction that we can no longer sensibly debate the meaning of digital learning in the abstract, as though the institutional and social context where it’s in use won’t fundamentally reshape what it is being used to do. It really does make a difference if the target is international market penetration as opposed to reduction in domestic cost overheads as opposed to regional equity.

So let’s stop generalising about students, teaching, learning, technology, faculty and administration. Reforms that spring up in one place won’t be helpful in another; technologies that transform learning for some students won’t necessarily have the same effect for others. What we are most likely to be able to share around networks of research collaboration are useful questions, and practicable ways of asking them.

At the same time, we need to understand that power is distributed very unevenly throughout the global network of higher education institutions. If digital innovation is left to the market, we will continue to see scale and standardisation dressed up as personalisation and differentiation. So it seems timely to have a productive conversation about educational diversity, and to ask how we can expand access to learning in a way that sustains it.

Here’s a start: John Elder, a faculty member at Middlebury College interviewed recently by Michael Feldstein for eliterate TV, on the limitations of MOOC evangelism:

What does not appeal to me is when people talk about the MOOC model, where they say, “At our megaversity, we have a professor who can give you an absolutely authoritative set of lectures on the following technical subject. And then, in your colleges, your professors can lead the discussions on them.” I kind of want to say, “You haven’t seen our lectures.” That’s one thing I want to say as a devotee of small colleges. But also, it’s sort of like, here’s a piece. That lecture becomes like a textbook, purely a textbook. There’s no reciprocity in it. It’s all worked up.

To recognise digital learning as the practice that networks small higher education institutions to global circuits of influence and profit, we need to think about this working up—this strategic withholding of reciprocity that has made MOOCs such Trojan horses for reform. What are the obligations for care that should accompany the power to impose curriculum from one place on learners at another? What are the implications for longer term sustainability of research-led teaching in smaller institutions around the world? How does withheld reciprocity connect to the state of the academic labour market and the everyday working conditions of the academic precariat?

These are difficult conversations, and it feels like the right time to be having them.


dLRN15 will happen at Stanford University, October 16th-17th, and this is an invitation: please come and join us. We’re delighted that Mike Caulfield, Marcia Devlin and Adeline Koh have accepted our invitation to set the tone as our keynote speakers. We really want to welcome scholars, researchers and practitioners who, like us, have more questions than answers, and are ready to look at higher education with a stranger’s eye.

For more on the conference, here’s the website. The call for proposals only requires a brief abstract, so just make a cup of tea and you’ll be done in a flash. To inspire you, here are some thoughts from two of the other organisers, Bonnie Stewart and Dave Cormier. The whole thing is under the shingle of the Digital Learning Research Network at the University of Texas at Arlington, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and George Siemens has rounded us all up.

We’re also supporting the Inclusive Fees campaign with lower rates for adjuncts, the underemployed and freelance/independent scholars or practitioners.

What next for the LMS?

All of a sudden it’s LMS week* in mostly-US higher education. Nudged by the imminent Educause annual conference, there’s a whole pop-up festival of reflection on why we still have enterprise learning management systems—and why we have the ones we have.

Audrey Watters, D’Arcy NormanPhil Hill, Michael Feldstein, Jared Stein and Jonathan Rees have all contributed to this thoughtful and detailed conversation; anyone who thinks universities just woke up one day trapped inside a giant LMS dome really should read each of these at least. And Mike Caulfield has nailed one of the key problems: LMS features that don’t deliver the function associated with the name—in this case, the wiki tools in an LMS that rhymes with Borg.

As Audrey Watters rightly points out in her look over the wall at what lies beyond the LMS, the natural mode of LMS development is incremental, calibrated to the traditional operations of education institutions. The bottom line is this: content goes in, grades come out, and the whole thing can be flushed and repopulated with new learners the next time it runs. The LMS is particularly efficient at delivering sequential learning, and so it’s learner-centred in the same way that IKEA is customer-centred.

But the LMS story isn’t centrally about user experience. It’s a story about corporations, their investors, and their attention to higher education as a market. This week, George Kroner and his colleagues at the Edutechnica blog revisited their 2013 analysis of four countries in the global LMS marketplace, to see how the market share of key players has shifted over the past 12 months.

This is the state of things as a bar chart:

LMS 'global' market share data, Edutechnica blog
LMS ‘global’ market share data,

It’s a flattening visualisation that distorts the dollar value of the Australian market to an extraordinary degree, and it’s triggered a rerun of last year’s polite shoving between George Kroner and Allan Christie, General Manager of Blackboard’s ANZ operations, as to what counts as the Australian higher education market.

Put simply, it is generally accepted that there are 39 universities (38 public, 1 private) in Australia. (Allan Christie)

In short, I do not consider the list of the 39 universities to be a complete representation of higher education in Australia. (George Kroner)

The thing is, the entire Australian market is a hill of beans in comparison to the US. This is why we don’t belong on this misleading chart, but it’s also why our LMS market behaves the way it does, and so strongly favours the existing near-duopoly. In all but three of our generally agreed major institutions, one well known LMS has the advantage of incumbency, and the other well known LMS has the advantage of not being the incumbent, which is unpopular with its users in the same way that politicians are: generically. In a small system where everyone knows everyone, the influence of other institutions’ decisions is direct and intense. It tethers aspiration to conformism, and cautions against risk. Look at the neighbours, we say, they bought a Kia. Or the other one. Either way.

But this year, the disputed inclusion of Australia’s non-university providers is newly significant. The constitution of higher education in Australia is the subject of a substantial reform bill currently under Senate investigation (submissions to the Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment have just closed, and you can check them out here.) If the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill passes, it will change the relationship between the generally agreed 39, and the less well understood mix of others who can award degrees but until now have been excluded from Commonwealth funding.

No one’s sure exactly how Australia’s universities will adapt to all this, or how the non-university providers will be able to take advantage of their access to funding previously reserved for university places. But it’s likely that over the next few years LMS selection in the whole higher education sector will be sensitised to the attraction and retention of students who have grown up online, who are facing higher levels of education debt, and who will be vigorously encouraged by price signalling into comparison shopping. They will encounter a university system with more feedback mechanisms, more features, more special offers, and more personalised interventions of all kinds. Even if we’re not yet at the stage of installing lazy rivers, our online environments will become potentially distinctive campus amenities just like our libraries. Their quality, efficiency, and accessibility will become important in new ways, both to students looking to move quickly through degrees and sub-degree programs, and to university leaders looking for ways to expand and secure new markets, while keeping the overheads from teaching as low as possible.

Meanwhile many senior executive decision-makers setting the strategic direction for the use of these systems will still come from the generation whose own undergraduate experience (and perhaps whose academic careers) avoided online learning altogether. This is one reason, I think, why they have a view of LMS use that is far more utopian than most academics or students. It’s also the reason that universities underestimate by a very long way the proportion of academic staff workload that should now be reserved for LMS resource development, not just in exceptional circumstances like LMS change implementation, but all the time.

The result of this failure over many years to recognise the time needed to use an LMS well means that we end up with the situation Audrey Watters describes:

The learning management system has shaped a generation’s view of education technology, and I’d contend, shaped it for the worst. It has shaped what many people think ed-tech looks like, how it works, whose needs it suits, what it can do, and why it would do so. The learning management system reflects the technological desires of administrators — it’s right there in the phrase. “Management.” It does not reflect the needs of teachers and learners.

This is right, but it’s not the consequence of essentially bad design. The LMS is specifically good at what universities need it to do. Universities have learning management systems for the same reason they have student information systems: because their core institutional business isn’t learning itself, but the governance of the processes that assure that learning has happened in agreed ways. Universities exist to award degrees, to the right people at the right time, and to do this responsibly they have to invest in the most robust administrative processes: enrolment management at one end, and lock tight records management at the other. Actual student learning is something they outsource to their academic faculty, who still achieve this with minimal management oversight except through feedback surveys.

But as we move towards a more competitive system, with tighter budgets and higher expectations for quality, we should probably notice that the LMS is also a performance monitoring system for teaching. Minimally this is being introduced through the development of institutional threshold standards for online learning practice, while the attention of analytics tools is technically towards the evidence of student engagement with learning. As more routine teaching shifts online, there is nothing whatsoever to inhibit the development of LMS analytics for staff performance evaluation—including of casual and sessional staff.

This is why even academics who find the LMS a pretty hopeless teaching environment need to keep an eye on its strategic development, and especially to pay close attention when institutions engage in the process of selecting a new LMS. Because behind all the blither about the transformation of the student learning experience, an enterprise level management system is exactly what it says on the tin.


* LMS week: it’s like Shark Week, only longer.



Updates below

In a bizarre coincidence, when I opened the book to scan the contents I found myself looking at the section about sharks.  In particular, “surviving if you are in a raft and you sight sharks—”… I wonder if anyone would be interested in using this as a model for an edtech field manual for surviving the Higher Ed apocalypse.

Jim Groom,”Survival: the manual” July 7 2014

Thanks to Jim Groom, I’ve been thinking about Jaws in this plainly bizarre week in the short history of commercial MOOCs. For all its singular qualities, and for all the symbolic load placed on it by film theorists, Jaws is at heart an ordinary mystery: something unexpected and unexplained happens, someone goes missing, and everyone else spends the movie piecing together clues, disputing priorities, and dealing with what comes next.

But there’s a small scene in the middle that often gets forgotten, where two kids prank the holiday crowds at the beach with a cardboard fin—and in doing this set up the perfect opportunity for the real shark to glide in to calm water, unnoticed by everyone until it’s too late.

This week’s edtech weirdness had both mystery and something like a distracting prank, involving a MOOC in which the professor was yanked from view, then bobbed up again briefly, before vanishing again. Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a maths lecturer from the University of Zurich, put up a three-week course: “Teaching Goes Massive: New Skills Required” (#massiveteaching) through Coursera. The landing pages raise questions about the Coursera approval pathway and standards: two weeks of short RSA Animate style videos, and a final week where students will do more or less whatever they like in an “Experiment Area”. Dehaye is likeable, clear and thoughtful about his topic, but the videos aren’t elite brand rocket science—certainly, nothing that an informed and curious teacher in the office next door to you couldn’t have thought up.

And that should have been the first clue, I think. The course goal is “personal growth”, for which—thankfully—no certificate is offered, and the content is quite vague: “‘Readings’ will come naturally during the course as basis for discussion. … In the first week, we will provide a short summary of proposed content of the course. The content of the later weeks will be decided on by the students, and should cover the proposed content and more.”

But after the first week some or all of the content was deleted, and then Dehaye was himself removed, leaving enigmatic clues on Twitter, some participation in Metafilter discussions, some blog comments here and there (including on George Siemens’ blog), and a deleted Etherpad document that he wrote to explain his actions.

MOOCs can be used to enhance privacy, or really destroy it. I am in a real bind. I want to fight scientifically for the idea, yet teach, and I have signed contracts, which no one asks me about. If you ask me something, I can tell you where to look for the information. My plan becomes to flip the tables. I want to “break out” and forge an identity outside of the course, on Twitter, because I realize this is the only way for me to fight for this identity, engage with my students, and those big shots all simultaneously (journalists, educational analytics people, etc).  … Meanwhile I want everyone to organize their own learning, which I know is happening by looking a bit around. Some people don’t like my course, which is fine. It’s your choice, that’s part of the point. Still, I get lots of emails from coursera asking what is going on. A lot of pressure from them now. They are confused just like you were, and I intended to confuse them even more because they were not ready to challenge their own pedagogical practices fast enough, judging from past experience.

After blogger Apostolos K pointed out that these strange goings-on hadn’t attracted much coverage, and George Siemens wrote “Something Weird is Happening at Coursera“, the story was quickly picked up. Carl Straumsheim treated it as “The Mystery of the Missing MOOC” for Inside Higher Ed; Steve Kolowich covered it for The Chronicle first as a mystery (“In a MOOC Mystery, a Course Suddenly Vanishes“) and then as an experiment (“University of Zurich Says Professor Deleted MOOC to Raise Student Engagement“). Jonathan Rees had two goes at it, both worth reading: “The worst of the best of the best” on his own blog, and “Even super professors deserve academic freedom” for The Academe Blog. Rolin Moe, whose MOOC blog is touchingly subtitled “Debating, debriefing and defining the learning trend of 2012-“, wrote it up as “Dr Famous is Missing“.

By the end of the week, opinions diverged. Yesterday Michael Gallagher argued in a beautiful post that to exploit students in a research project raises questions of trust that can’t be overlooked even if the intent is to criticise (“Teaching vs. research and MOOC brouhahas“); today George Siemens congratulated Dehaye on starting a conversation about our vulnerability to commercial data mining by companies like Coursera.

I’m still absorbed by the freakishly odd coincidence of Dehaye’s co-authored take on a probability problem that’s apparently well known to mathematicians, involving 100 Prisoners And A Lightbulb, with George Siemens’ July 5 post (published just before all this turned into a thing) on the latent knowledge in any class, involving 100 learners in a room. This is Siemens, but could be Dehaye:

The knowledge and creative capacity of any class is stunning. Unfortunately, this knowledge is latent as the system has been architected, much like a dictatorship, to give control to one person. In many cases, students have become so accustomed to being “taught” that they are often unable, at first, to share their knowledge capacity. This is an experience that I have had in every MOOC that I’ve taught. The emphasis in MOOCs that I’ve been involved with is always on learners taking control, learners joining a network, or learners becoming creators. In a Pavolovian sense, many learners find this process disorienting and uninviting. We have been taught, after a decade+ of formal schooling, to behave and act a certain way. When someone encourages a departure from those methods, the first response is confusion, distrust or reluctance.

I’ll call my theory of knowledge and learning “100 people in a room”. If we put 100 people in a room, the latent knowledge capacity of that room in enormous. Everyone in this room has different life experiences, hobbies, interests, and knowledge. We could teach each other math, physics, calculus. We could teach poetry, different languages, and political theory. The knowledge is there, but it is disconnected and latent. Much of that knowledge is latent for two reasons: 1) We don’t know what others know, 2) connections aren’t made because we are not able with our current technologies to enable everyone to speak and be heard.

At the moment, I’m not sure that we know enough to be sure what the plan was with #massiveteaching. So I’m keeping an open mind to the possibility that what looked like a prank was an attempt to start a different conversation—including, and perhaps especially, with students—about the risks of corporate data mining and the lessons from Google advertisements or Facebook’s experiments with emotional manipulation. The fact that it didn’t work smoothly, and might make Coursera much more twitchy about allowing experimental course design in the future, shouldn’t necessarily be the measure by which it’s finally judged.

Meanwhile let’s keep one eye on the ocean where the real sharks are. As ever, the timely counsel in confusing times is from Jim Groom, who seems to me to be looking in the right direction:

I don’t know what it is, but Sharks remind me we are deeply vulnerable always.

Me too.


People are still writing about this. Two very good posts today:

According to Apostolos K, Coursera/U Zurich have resumed the course without Paul-Olivier Dehaye, which seems to me a reasonably complicated thing to do if the whole designed purpose of the enterprise originates with him. It’s a bit like the Mayor of Amity Island putting on the cardboard fin to prove that there’s no shark.