e-Learning: Independent Experimentation Plan

Over the next few weeks we are expected to undertake an independent research project investigating a facet of technology enhanced learning. I had intended to formulate an experimental exercise to do with my students for this but as we’ve just commenced our Easter break I don’t have much of an opportunity for that without instituting a session artificially, which I’d prefer not to do. As an alternative I’ve decided to build on some of the existing reading and writing I’ve been doing and look instead at the politics and priorities of online teaching platforms with a view to considering how far they embody particular ideological priorities, and reconstitute potentially undesirable power relations.

As Neil Selwyn forcefully argues, online teaching technologies are often discussed in uncritical terms, with advocates tending to view them in neutral terms, or even as inherently liberatory and democratic. There is relatively little questioning of the extent to which they reconstitute familiar classroom divisions and hierarchies and even generate entirely new ones. My current plan for my investigation is to attempt a forensic dissection and examination of one of these technologies, cross sectioning it and analysing it’s different elements in an attempt to reveal the ways that it might encourage or enforce a particular understanding of teaching, and might create certain inequalities between taught, teachers and institutions. Some of the topics I might consider include:

From Sage on the Stage to Sage on a Webpage: Even in its name Blackboard implies a very Victorian notion of teaching and learning. Does it replace the potentially very hierarchical, didactic teaching model of the face to face classroom with something more diffuse and democratic, or in fact does it create an environment where the ‘sage on the stage’ approach is perpetuated because that is what the technology has been engineered to permit and other possibilities have been closed off. Do the quite draconian tools provided to teachers/moderators serve to produce a dictatorial environment compared to the inherently negotiated space of the physical classroom, or is that control illusory.

Towards an Uber Model of Teaching: Thinking about the extent to which the spatially and temporarily decentred teaching made possible by these platforms encourages a view of teaching that caters to a de-formalised ‘gig economy’ and the implications of that change for students and teachers. Issues to consider within this include the recording of lectures, emphasis on informal hours, the break down between work and non-working space, the gathering and use of data generated in the course of teaching and learning. Does all of this encourage a different way of thinking about the purpose and form of teaching and learning, and if so is that change positive or negative, and for whom?

The Classroom as Private Space: Teaching technologies are typically licensed commercial products rather than in house developments, which has implications for transparency in their development and implementation. To what extent do the priorities of developers align with the agendas of institutions and the needs of teachers and students, and what other activities do developers undertake besides simply building teaching platforms (what happens to data gathered for example).

Some of the research methods I will use for this will include, further reading on the topic of educational technologies and power, interviews with former and current students on their experiences of the platform, possibly also a request to meet representatives from Blackboard who are headquartered in Washington D.C where I will be visiting in April. All this will lead up to a visual and textual deconstruction or dissection of the platform in an attempt to reveal and consider what lies beneath it’s surface. Ultimately the aim (in the spirit of Selwyn’s book) will not to be to criticize or find fault for the sake of it, but with the intention of identifying how facets of these technologies serve to shape ideas about what constitutes desirable teaching, and how these might develop for good or ill in the future.

While we have been prompted to produce the results of our investigations as an essay I would like to create something a little more novel which still meets the requirements of the unit. I am currently considering creating a ‘networked essay’, essentially a cluster of tightly interlinked webpages dealing with different aspects of this topic and heavily illustrated with visual examples of the topics I am discussing.


Reading: Distrusting Educational Technology

Neil Selwyn’s book Distrusting Educational Technology was introduced to us by Siobhan Clay in a recent session on inclusivity in the context of technology assisted learning. Her summary of some of the book’s arguments chimed with a few things I’ve already been thinking about here, in particularly the seldom unconsidered politics of these technologies, which tend to be heralded in uncritical, even evangelistic terms by their users. I’m currently thinking about making this issue the topic of investigation for the independent experiment I need to undertake for the technology enhanced learning unit and so reviewing Selwyn’s ideas in more depth seemed like a good starting point. His critique of these technologies is lengthy and intricate and so for the purposes of this post I’m just going briefly summarise the introduction, which gives a good overview of his rationale for critiquing these technologies, and the first chapter of the book which examines their ideological pinnings and the political reasons that these technologies appeal to some of the disparate groups that employ them.

In the introduction, Selwyn sets out an overview of the prevailing attitudes towards educational technology and offers a justification for a more involved critique of these technologies. He questions the deceptive simplicity of these platforms and is critical of the tendency towards unquestioning evangelism that is often encountered in this field, quoting Langdon Winner’s description of a ‘technological somnambulism’ that seems to pervade western society. Selwyn notes the lack of critical voices in the field of technology enhanced learning, writing that the tendency is towards only asking questions rooted in technical and procedural matters (i.e. an over emphasis on the how rather than why). More nuanced critiques tend to be rooted either in psycho-neurological concerns over the effects of these technologies on our minds and bodies, or in ideas about their moral tolerability. He argues we should in fact presume these technologies to be ideologically loaded and ‘to acknowledge the differences that persist throughout educational technology between those who produce and those who consume, those who are empowered and those who are exploited.’ He argues that as such they need ‘to be understood as a knot of social, political, economic and cultural agendas that is riddled with complications, contradictions and conflicts’ and as a result also that technology enhanced learning is a field as beset with value preferences; ‘social imaginaries and ideological formations that present common (and often persuasive) understandings of how things ‘should be’ and ‘will be’.’ As if anticipating criticism in return for his critical stance, Selwyn also somewhat defensively makes a case for the importance of pessimism in this field, suggesting doing so is not simply being difficult for the sake of being difficult, but is a case of realism and an important part of breaking free from educationalist hype. He summarises this as ‘approaching educational technology from a position similar to Gramsci’s notion of being a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will’.

In the second chapter Selywn attempts to view educational technologies in light of the ideologies they support by offering a deliberately political analysis of education and technology in counterpoint to the ‘commonsensical’ discourse often used about them in educational circles. In doing so he also seeks to create a framework for identifying these ideological interests and their consequences. He starts with a discussion and definition of ideology, aptly starting with Marx and moving through to more contemporary analysis. Selwyn reviews the evolution of ideas about ideology to produce an eventual definition which could loosely be summarised as the idea that ideology seeks to decontest or naturalise the meanings of certain things in order to create a common consensus about them. One can, he suggests speak of a dominant ideology of technology assisted learning or teaching in general, which permits certain activities and frowns on others.

Next Selwyn proceeds to identify the dominant ideologies of our present moment and of the technologies that define our moment. Referencing Andrew Feenberg, Selwyn suggests technologies are often rightly seen seen as sites of struggle between competing ideologies, and this view of them should also extend to digital realm. Selwyn sees our contemporary moment as underpinned by several key ideologies. One is libertarianism, a basic trust in the moral and political primacy of the individual and in North American context particularly their pursuit of individual self-interest. Libertarian ideology is basically humanist Selwyn suggests, having at it’s core a basic trust in the good of people, but also often tips in other directions. Liberatian ideas are heavily connected also to ideas about the power of technology, and extend into the digital as ‘cyber-liberalism’. Selwyn argues that ‘digital technology offers a ready canvas for various strains of libertarian thinking to be imagined and (in part) operationalized – in particular the privileging of the sovereign user and the principles of self-responsibilization and self-determination.’ The internet as a largely unregulated sphere of activity, exists as an example of this.

Next Selwyn discusses neo-liberalism, essentially an extension and updating of libertarianism but with a particular emphasis on consumer choice, free markets and private interest above communal activity or the interests of the state. Under this system every area of life becomes potentially subject to reorganisation along the lines of market principles. While neo-liberialsm is arguably the dominant ideology of our age, Selwyn suggests it is important to see it ‘an unfinished project seeking to remould the world in its image.’ Finally Selwyn discusses what he terms the new economy, a less clearly defined ideology articulated as the changing form of capitalism over recent decades away from Fordist models of production towards modern flexible, information based economies, the products of which are often immaterial in nature. In this new economy profit is gained from the production of knowledge and information, which is produced through a globally networked capitalism with the computer as the steam engine of the modern age. In turn these technologies help to colonise ever more areas of life as profit generators, including interpersonal communication, a transformation suggests Selwyn (quoting Antonio Negri) from the ‘mass worker’ of the factory to the contemporary ‘social worker’. As a result of this ‘the work skills of the new economy are based around skills and dispositions relating to multitasking, autonomy, creativity, ‘innovation’ and networked and cooperative forms of working, as well as malleability of working practices’.

Next Selwyn argues we should see educational technology itself in terms of the ideologies that give rise to and promote it. In doing so he acknowledges that ‘it is difficult at first glance to see educational technology as entwined with any aspect of the dominant ideologies just described. Yet, as was noted earlier, one of the core characteristics of hegemony is the ability of dominant ideologies to permeate commonsensical understandings and meaning.’ Selwyn identifies five key ideologies within educational technology. The first, learner centered learning is maybe the most obviously pedagogical, and reflects that the origins of much interest in educational technologies is in a progressive ideal for education designed to better meet the needs of learners. He suggests that ‘this approach frames digital technology as a key means of providing learners with enhanced access to sources of knowledge and expertise that exist outside of their immediate environment.’ Equally it ties to aspirations for education to be dispersed, non-authoritarian and autonomous. In this sense educational technology is sometimes seen as a so-called ‘trojan mouse’ intended to introduce agendas and ideas into the institution which might be difficult in the traditional classroom (although Selwyn also questions the extent to which technology is really necessary to realize these subversive goals).

Next, the efficiencies of education, emphasises the importance of maximum effectiveness and efficiency in education over and above individual or collective empowerment. Seen through this prism educational technologies are more about the economics of education rather than the result for it’s users, with online teaching facilitating ‘efficient logistics of educational provision; the idea of technology contributing to the profitability and commoditization of education; and the idea of technology contributing to countries’ economic competitiveness and efficiency of labour and knowledge production.’ Selwyn suggests that amongst some groups there is a clear sense that technology can be the means to realise a largely corporate model of education planned along market lines and without state intervention. This is counter-balanced at the same time by the perception in other groups that technology can be the means to ever greater national economic competitiveness, reconfiguring workers mindsets towards a knowledge drive economy, and the exporting of education as a product overseas, in effect serving state goals rather than breaking free from them. Next, communitarianism and anti-establishment thinking also underpins some advocacy of educational technology. Selwyn highlights the origins of the computer industry in 1960’s Californian counter-culture and efforts to reposition the computer as a social rather than war machine, and argues this extends to the present in the form of contemporary counter-technology. This thinking most often manifests today in a communiatarian ideal of technology as a way of reimagining and reorganising society along the lines of mutual empathy, understanding and cooperation, an ideal partly played out in debates about net neutrality.

Somewhat related to this is the ideology of Anti-institutionalism, which might be seen as a more active process of sabotage against existing institutions and norms. Selwyn writes that ‘The key here is the perceived ability of digital technologies to support ‘self-organization’ within networks that is decentralized, distributed and bottom-up, therefore opposing the planned and controlled nature of institutional organization.’ He suggests these ideas have informed some contemporary strands of critical pedagogy, advocates of which sometimes view educational technologies as a potential means for revolutionary ends, breaking beyond the rigid structures of conventional schooling and education. ‘In these terms, digital technology is seen as a potential means of resisting the ‘banking model’ of accumulating ‘knowledge content’, and instead supporting open discussion, open debate, radical questioning, continuous experimentation and the sharing of knowledge.’ Lastly, techno fundamentalism, the enchantment with technology and technological progress, might seem a less obvious value but is still, Selwyn suggests, an important one. He writes that ‘the techno-fundamentalist mindset reflects an implicit belief that technology offers a means to substantially improve current forms of everyday life and social relations – including education.’ Part of this is what has been termed ‘computationalism’ or the idea that the world can be framed in terms of data, algorithms and Boolean logic. This perspective assumes digital technology has the means of expression to understand and ultimately resolve the world’s problems and to some extent reflects a deeply ingrained western belief in technology as progress, something which at times borders on a new religion.

Selwyn notes how interesting it is that educational technologies can comfortably incorporate such different, even contradictory ideologies reflecting the idea of these technologies as a contested space. Partly he suggests this might be explained by the fact that dominant ideologies need to attract and retain a wide array of groups, and these technologies may offer precisely that compromise in their flexibility of use. What is also common amongst these disparate groups is the view of educational technology as a means to improve or better education. He calls on educators to think critically about these issues through a series of six questions that end the chapter: These include to routinely question the ideological dimensions of educational technology, to ask what forms of engagement are promoted through these technologies, and which are marginalized or silenced. What freedoms and unfreedoms are associated with these technologies. How they alter the relationship between individual and commons and public and private, and what are the emotional and human outcomes from their use. Lastly and maybe most importantly we should be aware of the continuities and discontinuities they create between new ways of teaching and learning, and the old.

Exercises: Object Based Learning

As part of this blog I’m trying to briefly write up and assess various exercises, workshops and other learning activities I’ve been involved in, either as a teacher or a student, and to think about how they might be improved and reused in future sessions.

Our latest classroom exercise for our core Teaching and Learning unit was to devise an object based learning exercise to be carried out by our peer groups. Amongst my interests are the politics of specific technologies, and also the ways in which information informs the way people read objects (particularly photographic images). Initially I was tempted to give my group a photographic print and ask them to respond to it, before revealing new information about the image and seeing how that information might alter their readings.

Instead I decided instead to try something a little more complex and perhaps risky, particularly given the 10 minutes we had for the exercise. Instead of a print I presented the group with one of my cameras, a FED-2 35mm rangefinder and then asked them to discuss and respond to it in several rapid fire discussions. I timed each discussion to make sure we kept to time and also kept notes on the discussion. After a few minutes I revealed a new piece of information about the camera and the discussion continued, reflecting on how this change the group’s understanding of the object. Full exercise plan follows:

The Exercise

Preamble: The aim of this exercise is to stimulate thinking about how new information changes ones relationship to an object and also to think about how photography is politicised by the ways it is used.

You have 3 minutes, I want to describe and discuss this object based on observation alone.

After three minutes, are some facts about this camera:

This is an updated version of the FED camera. A Russian copy of the iconic Lecia 35mm rangefinder, the FED was the first mass-produced Soviet camera, made from 1934. It’s development was the brainchild of Anton Semyonovich Makarenko, a Ukrainian educator revered in the Soviet Union but virtually unknown outside of it. The cameras were to be made by children under a innovative work-education scheme and through it Makarenko hoped to help make the Soviet Union self-sufficient in cameras. Camera production was zero in 1928, but by 1939 100,000 FEDs had been produced alone.

For the next three minutes, I want you to look again at this object and discuss it again based on this new information. How has your view of it changed, what new insight does this information give into this object, how do you feel about it?

After three minutes, here are a few more facts about this camera:

The initials FED stand for stand for Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, also known as Iron Felix, he was the head of the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB secret police. The cameras were made at the Dzerzhinsky Commune in Khrakiv, Ukraine. This was a colony for ‘the rehabilitation of youth’ who were mostly children left orphaned by the civil war and by a massive state engineered famine known as the Holodomor, which occurred between 1932 and 1933 and killed as many as seven million Ukrainians. The camp was administered by the Soviet secret police and overseen by Makarenko. It had 600 inmates by 1934. It was destroyed during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

For the last three minutes, I want you to look again at this object and discuss it again based on this new information. How has your view of it changed, what new insight does this information give into this object, how do you feel about it?

After three minutes, end of exercise.

(Source for all information: The Dzerzhinsky Commune: Birth of the Soviet 35mm Camera Industry, by Oscar Fricke, published in History Of Photography, Volume 3, Number 2, April 1979)


It was very interesting to see how the group (all non-photographers) responded to each new bit of information about the camera, and how it went from a simple piece of photographic equipment, to something that was perhaps politically quite benign and even rather significant in terms pedagogy and photographic history, to finally an object that was the product of a system of state repression, indeed an object made by the children of that state’s victims. The fast pace of the exercise was useful in getting people moving and responding to the object quickly. If I had more time for the exercise I might have added some other stages, perhaps showing an image from the camera or from it’s production (like the photograph above) or asking the group to reflect on how photography was used as part of the repressive apparatus of a state like the Soviet Union. I would also have liked to allow more time for discussion and reflection because three minutes per discussion was very, very fast. More time might also make it possible to produce a visual response like a list of bullet points or a mind map as part of the exercise.

e-Learning: Inclusivity in the Online Classroom

For our latest Technology Enhanced Learning session, educational developer Siobhan Clay talked to us about the issue of inclusivity. While inclusivity is something that tends to be much considered in relation to the real-world classroom there is a tendency to make assumptions that online platforms do not pose the same obstacles and almost inherently inclusive. Clearly this is not always the case and while these platforms can lower barriers in some areas they can also create new ones.

Siobhan talked us through a few ideas and texts of interests, introducing concepts along the way. One was Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant’s idea of ‘habitus’, the innate qualities we derived from our upbringing and experiences. Our habitus predisposes us to successful navigation of some situations and a more challenging experience in others. Online teaching is an example of this, students who perhaps come from homes and backgrounds where digital technologies are extensively used and who do not regard them as intimidating are likely to inherently find these environments more accessible than those students who have not had this experience.

Siobhan also introduced us to Neil Selwyn’s Distrusting educational technology which looks at some of the pitfalls of online spaces and questions the extent to which they can support detrimental agendas. Issues of social exclusion (low income, lack of motivation, exclusion through physical and mental health disabilities) digital exclusion (Lack of hardware, access to internet) and accessibility (Urban vs Rural, ICT and information literacy) all need to be considered before praising the openness of these platforms.

Siobhan also shared some interesting statistics gathered from students at UAL which questioned the idea of young people as ‘digial natives’. A quarter of students were mildly anxious about sharing work online. A third felt overwhelmed by the digital information they received from the college and course. We also discussed community building around these platforms particularly in light of our experiences over the past several weeks with Tweetchats. Does social media generate a community? I think to some extent you can view things like social media are a framework or scaffold for communities which may or may not survive in their absence. In the context of Twitter and photography has become an alternative space, photography exiles not really welcome in the traditional venues of discussion and debate. Are they really community building?

Lastly for this session we discussed plans for our self-initiated projects for this unit. I’m still undecided about the course I will take with it. One idea I had was to look at how various platforms could be used for collaborative online teaching, testing some of them out with students. However the impending easter break and the timescale for this assignment means it would be difficult to do this to the extent I’d like. Alternatively, building on the discussions of this session and some of my previous writing on the topic I may look at the ways that these online platforms and spaces incorporate certain biases and obsctacles and perpetuate sometimes unhelpful power relations. I’ll be researching both of these ideas over the coming week and for the latter I think the Selwyn book will be a particularly useful starting point for.

Exercises: Collaborative Curation

As part of this blog I’m trying to briefly write up and assess various exercises, workshops and other learning activities I’ve been involved in, either as a teacher or a student, and to think about how they might be improved and reused in future sessions.

I sometimes hear lecturers in the arts complain that one of the downsides of teaching is it getting in the way of their own creative practices. While I understand the complaint (there are only so many hours in the day) the logical response to this would seem to me to be to look for ways to teach that are mutually creatively beneficial to students and to teachers. Last year a colleague and I curated a large-scale exhibition and have since been discussing an idea for a new one. We thought it might be a great test of this idea of mutual benefit to organise a workshop around this new exhibition idea with our students. We resolved to do a one day workshop with the aim of planning and installing an exhibition on our chosen topic in that space of time.

For the students, we hoped it would be usefully practical introduction to curation and exhibition installation, for us we hoped it would be a chance to try out existing ideas and generate new ones for the exhibition concept we are working on. For everyone it would be an interesting test of the dynamics of collaboratively putting together an exhibition as a large group, something which each student group has to deal with eventually anyway when they come to their final degree show. In preparation for the day we booked a space in the college and collected a small amount of suitable work from artists we knew, some reproductions of materials from the Stanley Kubrick archive (which is based at the college), and also some props we thought would work well for staging and transforming the space.

The Workshop:

We opened the day with an hour-long briefing on the idea, an overview of the aims and intended outcomes for the workshop and a discussion of some of the common steps one might go through when curating an exhibition, from approaching a gallery or a space through to planning how to show the work and finally installing. Next, we had a visit from Richard Daniels, senior archivist at UAL’s Special Collections archive who showed some original materials from the Kubrick archive. Following that we had planned to break into groups each of which would focus on a particular area of the exhibition, for example groups dealing with press, design, curating the printed photos, organising video. Instead we had an impromptu further discussion and viewing of some of other pre-selected art works, and then broke for lunch.

After a brief lunch, we divided into groups as planned and the students set about developing the space. One group set about planning where to display the art. Another focused-on press and advertising for the show. Another one still decided to gather data and visualisations about our topic and another group gathered and edited video to create several video pieces which we displayed on a flat screen TV and several laptops appropriated from the group. We were on hand to help out but generally weren’t really needed, the students collectively set about transforming the space and after two hours the show was complete and we ‘opened’ it to the public with a few beers. The opening was a nice way to round off the day, and the term, and we even had some curious passing visitors drop in to see what we were doing (the beer may have helped). Finally, we took the show down and cleared up the space.


My colleague and I felt the day went really well for something that was a complete experiment. It clearly helped to be working with a group of very engaged and enthusiastic students who completely got behind the rather strange idea of the workshop (and to some extent ignored our curatorial suggestions, sometimes for the best!). I think we both left feeling like the our original exhibition idea had been reinvigorated by the workshop and given new purpose, and so in terms of the initial idea of undertaking a teaching exercise that benefits student and staff alike it seemed like a great success.

Feedback from the students was generally positive but there were some comments for things to change next time. One was that it would have been good to have a clearer outline for the day at the start, something we had actually included in our initial briefing but forgot to cover because of running short on time. Another was the suggestion that if we ran the workshop again we should plan and advertise it far enough in advance that the final exhibition could actually be advertised around the college to an audience beyond the student group, a nice idea to try and make the exercise as real as possible and get more of a real life audience for the ‘private view’ at the end of the day.

Exercises: Zine Making

As part of this blog I’m trying to briefly write up and assess various exercises, workshops and other learning activities I’ve been involved in, either as a teacher or a student, and to think about how they might be improved and reused in future sessions.

Recently Monica Biagioli, a colleague from LCC’s design school ran a session with my MA students on using zine making as a means of reflection. As the name suggests, the collaborative unit puts an emphasis on students forming connections either within or without the course and then making work through them. The students were in the process of finishing off assignments for this and were at the stage of reflecting on their projects and how they had gone. We thought zine making might be a nice way to both get them thinking about this process and to some extent also slightly reward them after a term of rather more heavy going lectures with something a bit more practical and fun. We also thought that zines with their counter-cultural and sometimes quite collaborative history would be an appropriate medium.

The Exercise:

We provided cutting matts, scissors, scalpels, glues and a mix of papers, Monica brought examples of various zine structures and we asked the students to bring imagery from their projects if they wished. Monica and I began the session with a quick talk through the reasons for the session, and a little on the history of zines. I also emphasized the way zine can be a great basis for developing more complicated books because they allow you to make a large number of experiments very cheaply while still getting a good representation of how a finished book might work. I also talked a little about the extensive zine collection held in the college library. Monica showed some of her own examples to the group, gave them some suggestions for sources of different book structures.

From there we dove in to making. Me and Monica were both on hand to review how things were going and provide any assistance. Having two tutors was great and meant I was able to dive out to print materials for students who had forgotten to bring imagery but wanted to print materials from their computers. We had about an hour for making before the session ended.


Befitting the aim of the session partly being to offer a bit of decompression after a very busy term we intentionally avoided telling the students that they had to approach the exercise in a very specific way and left it rather open to them to explore zines as they wished. Some intended to submit books for their assessment and used the session as an opportunity to try out structures that they were considering using. Some used the session as a way to reflect and explore what they had done over the term. Others went in very different directions and just embraced the idea of cutting and pasting whatever they had to hand in order to make a cohesive little publication in an hour.

In all the session seemed to go well, everyone got involved and I could certainly see the results in tutorials that week. I think in another session, particularly if we were running the same exercise with undergraduates, we might set clearer goals and been more specific about people using the zines they made for reflection (with some clearer strategies and examples for how this might work). I think it would also be nice to build in time at the end of the session to review what people had made and debrief on how students felt the session had gone, new questions and so forth. Even so, considering how open ended the session was however I think it worked very well and would be an exercise I would definitely run again in the future.

Reading: Internationalisation

Our latest assigned reading for our Teaching and Learning unit was several sources looking at ‘internationalisation’ and the way higher education has come to be viewed as an export. We were given four sources and asked to read two of them and respond to three questions. I read three in the end, Vision 20:20: Forecasting International Student Mobility: A UK Perspective. Report by the British Council,  then a 2011 paper by Uwe Brandenburg and Hans De Wit and a 2011 article in the Guardian by Peter Scott. The questions we were asked to consider were; Firstly, if higher education is an export, what are we exporting? Secondly, what should we be exporting? And thirdly what does that second question assume about our aims/purposes (or those of higher education)?

First of all, if higher education is an export what are we exporting?

Considering the focus of the Vision 20:20 report there is actually surprisingly little about what exactly it is we are exporting through internationalisation. The report initially discusses the benefits of an international focus for UK institutions including improvements to their learning culture, the greater variety of courses that can be made available to home students, and obvious cash injection that overseas students provide. There is also interesting reflection on changing demographics of overseas students in the UK, from Greek students as the top group (27,000) in 1998 to Chinese students (32,000) in 2003, perhaps reflecting changing geopolitics and economics. The report is primarily concerned with how the UK higher education sector can maintain it’s overseas profile and mitigate risks and changes in the field, including the growth of transnational education (i.e. overseas teaching), new technologies (which the report says are yet to be fully exploited) and the changing aspirations of international students themselves. The report forecasts a few different scenarios for how these things will change, ranging from optimistic to pessimistic and also considers changes relating to particular issues like the UK’s relationship with Europe (clearly dating it, there is no discussion of Brexit). Beyond practical benefits however there is little discussion of what exactly it is we export through these practices and no critique of the practice of internationalisation itself.

By contrast in Brandenburg and De Wit’s paper they argue the explosion of internationalisation in universities has not kept pace with questioning of the ‘why and wherefore’ of these practices. They see distinct parallels with the notion of globalisation in the same time frame. It is argued that the two are in fact closely related, with internationalised higher education regarded as a globally tradeable commodity (somewhat echoing Collini’s ideas about a global multiversity). But just as globalisation was sometimes uncritically heralded as a means to prosperity, peace and international understanding by advocates in the post-Cold War era, for Brandenburg and De Wit there has been too much rhetoric about internationalisation from it’s acoyltes and not nearly enough cold scrutiny of the claims made for it. Brandenburg and De Wit also argue that internationalisation, far from being the progressive agenda it once was, has become part of the dogma of HE, and its proponents have gone from relative radicals to conservative defenders of tradition.

Writing in the Guardian, Scott argues that ‘Internationalisation is a clumsy word used to describe a wide range of activities, some of which we should be very proud of, and others best left in the shadows.’ Scott particularly objects to ‘managerial-bureaucratic initiatives to “internationalise” the university’ and argues that universities have always been international instituions (a claim one might question in light again of Collini’s argument that universities have always been in flux and that such generalisations are therefore unhelpful). Scott argues that we are less concerned with what we are exporting than our desire for cash ‘The bad aspects, sadly, are the mainstream drivers of internationalisation. First is the pressure to recruit international students, almost entirely because they can be charged higher fees.’ This includes uncritical relationships between the HE sector and countries and governments with poor human rights records, for example China. Scott’s message seems to be that what we are often doing through the rush to internationalise is exporting the message that we value money above principles.

Next, what should we be exporting?

As previously stated, the Vision 20:20 report seems more preoccupied with practicalities and perceptions than anything as ideological as this question implies. The report views internationalisation and higher education through the prism of a market, and in terms of adjustments to what we export it’s prime concern appears to be that universities appeal to this international market rather than meet an ideological informed notion of the purpose of international university education. Universities need to anticipate changing desires amongst international students and changing economic situations, not attempt to act as beacons for certain ideas about how the world, or education, ought to be.

Again in contrast Brandenburg and De Wit argue for a review of internationalisation practices and a move towards what they call a ‘post-internationalisation age’. For them this means moving away from the dogmatic, conservative practice of internationalisation which has developed in higher education, and replacing this with a new stance that views this practice as a means to an end rather than a goal in itself. This means critically asking why we internationalise and what benefits it really provides to students, staff and institutions. It also means reassessing the value of different forms of international exchange, and acknowledging that some practices and programs are more useful than others.

Turning to Scott, he advocates internationalisation’s ‘potential to transform the lives of international students; its role in sustaining, and growing, science and scholarship through vigorous academic exchanges; and its potential to build social and economic capacity’. However he also makes the point that some of these things occur more or less easily in the current climate, writing that ‘the first of these will always endure. But the second nowadays often seems a contingent effect of other, less wholesome, objectives; while the third, I fear, is dwindling into insignificance.’ Echoing his earlier comments on human rights, Scott also seems to view internationalisation as a way to export a certain ideological agenda, but also fundamentally sees universities as a national endeavour, ‘founded and funded with national purposes in mind’ who should have their core priorities focused on their home countries.

Lastly, what does the prior question assume about our aims and purposes for higher education?

The Vision 20:20 report basically presents a market led view of higher education. I am reading between the lines somewhat when I summarise it this way, but the report could be seen to be arguing that changes should only be made to mitigate risks and maximise profit, not in order to have any sort of ideological influence in the world (which might after all make the former aims harder). Analysis for example of the changing numbers of undergraduates and post-graduates have nothing to do with the question of why and when people choose to study, but rather the report argues are ‘important for a number of reasons, including decisions regarding allocation of international marketing resources, as well as influencing how an institution or country perceives or would like to perceive itself internationally’ [p.25]. This is interesting given the British Council’s origins and history, although clearly though even such an apolitical stance on higher education is itself political, and ties in neatly with criticisms made by the paper of the next two authors.

Brandenburg and De Wit clearly see internationalisation as a concept which carries as much problematic baggage as it’s more politically unpopular partner, globalisation. They call for a movement away from the concept, arguing that ‘what we need are people who understand and define their role within a global community, transcending the national borders, and embracing the concepts of sustainability—equity of rights and access, advancement of education and research, and much more.’ While they call for is familiar, and echoed by many advocates of internationalisation what is telling is their view that the dogmas and ideologies this practice brings with it in fact end up standing in the way of a great deal of the things they are supposed to enable.

Finally turning to Scott again, the view that universities might be used as a form of ideological soft power, or a carrot to engage states towards better human rights records is an interesting one. As the LSE relationship with the Gadaffi regime indicates, these relationships can also become a public relations fig leaf for unpleasant regimes, and can enable and train people who may ultimately return to support and maintain those same regimes. In either case this view makes certain assumptions about culture and knowledge as a component of propaganda, rather recalling the view of initiatives like the BBC and particularly the World Service during the twentieth century, or the purpose of the education system in the context of the British empire, as a tool to educate a foreign ruling caste in a particular set of ‘British’ values. One could argue this is no less problematic than the pretence of apoliticism one finds in the Vision 20:20 report. In all Scott seems conflicted between on the one hand a view of universities as a national utility, and therefore which should have a national focus, and on the other hand viewing them as a form of soft power for influencing other countries.

e-Learning: Power in the Online Classroom


Online technologies are frequently spoken of in democratic and liberatory terms, and clearly many have such potential in the classroom and beyond. As I’ve noted here before, one of the things I really enjoy about teaching on the part-time MA Photojournalism and Documentary course is engaging with course groups made up of students from across the globe, who might not otherwise be able to study our program because of geography and their commitments elsewhere. This geographic diversity is reflected in the work that is shown in our sessions, where even quite prosaic assignments (for example to take a portrait of a stranger) can result in an incredible diversity of subjects and approaches. While similar financial barriers might remain as those that curb access to traditional face to face courses, the democratic possibilities of online teaching are clear, even if they are unevenly realised.

Beyond overcoming the tyrannies of geography, online teaching can be seen as more democratic in some other respects. Since recently rereading and writing about Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, I have been thinking about the ways in which the online classroom challenges the traditional hierarchies of the classroom, in particular the spatial hierarchy of tutor and students facing each other apart, or at least with arrangement of the space focused on the teacher. These are arrangements which, as I noted in a piece on Focault’s text, have certain panoptic qualities. These hierarchies are so familiar and expected, ingrained into us practically from the moment we first enter school, that I think they often hardly register on students, who obey them without thinking. I have few fixed teaching rooms and often arrive to find rooms laid out in a wide variety of ways. Almost regardless of these arrangements, or where I decide to position myself in a classroom, students have a tendency to array themselves around the teacher as they have no doubt been taught to do from an early age. This tendency is something I’d like to explore and experiment with counter-acting  in the future.

The online classroom clearly dispenses with this student-teacher arrangement, and the hierachical and panoptic qualities that come from this, but there are questions about the extent to which these tensions and tyrannies are replaced by new ones. These feed into wider questions about the extent to which the liberational or democratic qualities of these technologies are tempered by other more authoritarian characteristics. While we might worship the cult of the small tech startup and the innovative entrepreneur, the reality is that technologies are still invariably developed and deployed by those with greater power than those who actually use them  on a day to day basis. Because of this I think it’s always useful to ask questions about the extent to which old and new technologies incorporate elements of the power relations of the time and place that given rise to them, or the ways initially positive innovations might open up repressive possibilities in the future. As an example Facebook have recently announced plans to use artificial intelligence to detect suicidal users, a move which to me smacks of rolling out ubiquitous surveillance disguised as humanitarianism (it’s notable they are also looking at ways to use the same technology to detect potential terrorists).

In the context of online teaching these issues seem very important and yet not all that much discussed. In some respects you can see online classrooms as functioning in a way which is very top down and controlling. In the online classroom, physical hierarchies might be dispensed with, but I can see them being replaced by a different set of challenges, new hierarchies and forms of control which are in many ways more total, and more unchallengeable for students (and perhaps for tutors also). In contrast to the physical classroom, where sessions are always something of a negotiation between teacher and taught, in the online classroom the teacher/moderator is given a far more complete control over the session. Through the various options afforded me through the classroom software I am able to control what the class sees, who participates, who speaks, and so forth. This control is also highly limited of course, and in practice I have no idea of what a student on the other end of the connection is actually doing, indeed whether they are even still there or have left to make a cup of tea or hang out their washing. At the risk of getting making predictions best left to science fiction, one could see future iterations of such technologies seeking to address these blind spots, for example giving tutors live feedback on individual student engagement based on techniques like cursor or eye tracking. This could massively improve teaching and learning, but it could also be worryingly authoritarian.

This connects to the broader issues of the type of information we are generating through our interactions in these online environments and how that is being used. Data, like heat, is generated with almost every movement in the modern world, and like heat, data is highly persistent. It would be naïve to think there is not a certain amount of data logging taking place in the online classroom, whether by the software developer (perhaps to aid in future development or troubleshooting) or from the institution who operates it. Tutors are sometimes rightly concerned about the prospect of their online sessions being recorded and reused, but at least it is clear when it is taking place. What is less apparent is what other information we might be generating and what it might later be used for. This article suggests some of the end applications will be benign, indeed educationally powerful. However, the issue with individual data, rather like the technologies that generate it, is its ready applicability also to more malign purposes. What this means is that not the online classroom is not only a space where I as a teacher have an enlarged set of powers over my students compared to the real world, physical lesson, but it is also one where as a group we are caught within a large network of technologies and operators which may be monitoring our teaching, learning and more besides.

e-Learning: Social Media in the Classroom


After discussing our recent experience’s with MOOCs, the last part of our third Technology Enhanced Learning session focused on the use of Twitter. For homework, we’ve been asked to engage in a Tweet Chat, a group twitter conversation on a particular topic, thoughts on which come at the end of this post. Before coming to that I thought I’d highlight a few of the conversations that emerged in the classroom as a result of the request that we all sign up to Twitter and use the platform for this exercise, because I think they are interesting exemplars of the frankly rather old fashioned attitudes to technology and social media in higher education.

When this assignment was introduced our tutor asked how many people in the class were already regular Twitter users, the result was only a handful of people out of the twenty or so present. This opened up some interesting conversations about people’s attitudes towards social media, both as teachers and users in their own right. The familiar reasons for not wanting to use social media were raised. Issues of data privacy and online footprint (echoing the residents and visitors exercise done in our first session) revealed that for many people there was concern about how much information could be deduced about them from their social media accounts. Another issue raised was that of the noise of social media, and the fact that 99% of what occurs on Facebook or Twitter is completely inconsequential information which only serves to distract. Both of these concerns are legitimate, but also I think represent a fundamental misunderstanding of how to use social media.

As well as learning to use a social media platform the way it was intended, part of your responsibility as a user is to get to understand what risks a given platform presents, what information the owning company is looking to extract in return for your use of it, and finally how you can game the platform to use it for purposes other than its original intention. Keeping these in mind I think you can start to mitigate the inherent risks involved in social media (and the web in general) while also looking for ways to maximise the potential benefit. Clearly if the benefit dosen’t exceed the energy you put into it (at least over the medium term) then either you’re not using a platform the right way or it’s not the right platform for the sort of thing you do. I’ve found Twitter pays off in terms of the work that goes in, whereas some other platforms like Facebook usually don’t. Likewise in terms of the amount of useless content on social media, I see my accounts as projects in curation where I filter what comes through to me through the tools available. I’m fairly ruthless about who I follow on Twitter, and a large part of that is trying to keep my feed to mangeable flow of useful information. That’s still an ongoing project and something that might sometimes lead to hurt feelings if I don’t follow someone back, but it’s key to getting the benefit from these products (and they are products, not services).

From here the classroom conversation developed into a bigger one of the behavioural impact of technology on students and the learning atmosphere. It was a commonly held view in the room that mobile phones and their like have no place in the classroom. It’s an idea I have often encountered in higher education but still can’t completely reconcile myself with. As someone who has doodled his way through more than his share of lessons, I know that anything can be potentially distracting, and my secondary school maths workbooks are testimony to this. Banning pens and paper because of this capacity to distract would be considered inappropriate, and I see phones and other technologies in similar terms, as something which can and should be used to further learning and engagement in the classroom even at the same time as acknowledging that some students will allow themselves to be distracted by them. Besides being impractical, banning these things also doesn’t show much respect for students who are after all adults who need to learn to take responsibility for their own behaviours (but that’s not to say I won’t sometimes challenge or call out a student who I think is using their phone for something unrelated to the current classroom activity). It’s also worth not underestimating the ability of students to multi-task, I spent most of this third TEL session working on my laptop, taking notes, looking up references and so on at the same time as following along with the discussion.

One such reference was to John Locke’s book Why We Don’t Talk To Each Other Anymore, which I haven’t yet read but seems to make a familiar argument for the importance of speech and the challenges posed to it by technology (this superficially calls to mind Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep which makes a similar argument about another core human practice). While there are certainly arguments against technology in the classroom, those I heard during this session felt too generic and draconian, and didn’t readily enough recognise the benefits these technologies can have if you’re prepared to make them part of the session, I also think it’s important to challenge the notion that spoken conversation is intrinsic to forming trusting relationships. As part of my online teaching I work with the same students sometimes over the course of two years, never having met and sometimes not even knowing what they look like, but I would still say the connection can sometimes be as strong as those I have with my full time face-to-face students. In other words, perhaps we actually need to widen our definition of ‘talking’ rather than trying to desperately preserve it as the domain of direct unmediated speech alone.

Turning back to Twitter, on Wednesday evening I joined the Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Tweetchat. Started in 2014 this weekly session brings together teachers from across the globe to discuss a particular topic related to Higher Education. In this case the topic was e-portfolios, quite relevant to some of the other research I’ve been doing on online collaborative platforms. Like most social media platforms Twitter has it’s own etiquette and I quickly discovered the Tweetchat’s have their own in turn. It felt like a bit of a free for all at the start but gradually made more sense with people prefixing their tweets to make it easier to follow what questions they were responding to. One thing that was notable was that while people responded to questions set centrally and posted by the LTHE Tweetchat account, these responses didn’t seem to engender that many conversations. I have to admit that for my part I didn’t really help with this, as after a solid days teaching I didn’t really feel I had the mental energy left to do much more than lurk and read people’s Tweets as they came in. I wonder how typical this is of these Tweetchats or whether people are normally more discursive. In conclusion, devoted Twitter user though I am, I can’t see myself becoming a regular Tweetchater, but it was still a useful experience and one I might refer students to if I come across relevant discussions in the rather enormous lists of Tweetchats that exist.


Reading: What are Universities For?


As Stefan Collini notes in the introduction to What Are Universities For? attempting to define these institutions might seem superficially simple but quickly becomes complex and political. Universities combine a staggering array of facilities and abilities, and fulfil a huge number of functions. In some respects they are progressive, far seeing institutions, in other respects they are conservative and incorporate practices firmly rooted in their distant past. In tracing these contours and attempting to answer the title question, Collini is neither nostalgic for a lost past nor entirely negative about the future (although I think he clearly sets out his views on the current direction of higher education, for example the neoliberalisation of universities). The result is an engaging primer on the current educational landscape and a compelling argument for the importance of universities in a time of immense change. What Are Universities For? is broken into two sections, of which the first half really felt the most relevant and so I’ll primarily discuss that here. The second part appear to be reprints of earlier essays on higher education and at least from a skim read these chapters felt less relevant than those that preceded them.

In the first chapter Collini discusses the university in light of globalisation and the rapid expansion of the university model. In doing this he begins already to question the virtue of trying to define universities, institutions which may need to differ greatly with geography. He also notes the tendency to attempt to define university’s in relation to other organisations and institutions, and points out that while they might sometimes overlap with the activities of other organisations they will rarely operate in the same way. Collini cites the similarities and differences between university research and that of the private sector research labs as an example of this divergence. The second chapter is a short overview of recent university history, with Collini observing the tendency for contemporary commentators and politicians to view higher education as having lapsed from a former glory and being in desperate need of return to that state. As well as charting the evolution of the modern university, from the University of Bologna to the English polytechnics via Humboltd’s University of Berlin, Collini effectively demonstrates that universities have undergone such rapid change in the last century or so that it’s difficult to speak of any era when it was a stable institution on which today’s institutions might be desirably modelled.

Next, Collini revisits John Henry Newman’s 1852 book The Idea of a University. Newman, a priest instrumental in founding the Catholic University of Ireland, argued that a university’s focus should be on its students and that education should be broad in subject and liberal in atmosphere. These ideas have been highly influential, but for Collini their influence and repetition is itself problematic, evidence that thinking about higher education practice can become bound unquestioningly to a canon consisting of thinkers and texts which sometimes predate the foundation of modern universities by a considerable time. Collini while admitting he is not impervious to the book’s charms, offers a critique of Newman, attempting to strip away the class and gender assumptions of Newman’s era. Chapter four continues some of the threads begun in the previous chapter, of the supposed distinction between useful and useless subjects of study. Some of Newman’s arguments would seem to suggest that if education is to be more than a process of simply credentialing people for future jobs then no such distinction between useful and useless is really possible at all. Collini continues this idea, discussing the public misunderstanding of the form (much less purpose) of the humanities and the common pressure for these subjects to make themselves less esoteric and more accessible (while in doing so paradoxically often opening themselves indeed to the inverse criticism of being lightweight subjects). His conclusion in defence of the humanities, that it is really ‘an end in itself’ [p.85], feels rather weak even though I agree with his view that these subjects are as much about learning to understand others and live your life as they are about more practical or emplotable skills.

For the final chapter in this first section Collini summarises some of the previous points and makes a case for universities as a public good in spite of their ‘semi-marketized, employment orientated’ [p.87] condition today. Collini argues for the importance of defending universities from their sceptics, but also warns any attempt to justify something is bound to look rather defensive, and that therefore the ways that universities are defended must be carefully considered. Equally in the urge to defend universities we may end up inaccurately defining them to satisfy their critics, in effect making matters worse by giving people an unrealistic sense of what universities are for. Collini in the end seems to suggest that a good strategy is to challenge the terms of the question, particularly the tendency to measure university value in economic terms, and to view economic output as an end in itself. If, he argues, the purpose of a strong economy is that it allows us to do the things that matter, then we need to be clearer about what these things are, and perhaps the pursuit of knowledge for it’s own sake is one of them. All in all Collini’s book makes for insightful and informed reading on the evolution of university’s into their present state and attitudes both within and without about what these diverse institutions might be for. While I sometimes sense he falls into his own trap of feeling under pressure to overly defend universities to a sceptical audience, and while he also writes inevitably from a very specific political standpoint, What Are Universities For? is a thoughtful and at times quite beautifully argued case for higher education as economic stimulus, social good, and end in itself.