Time, priorities, oppression and critical love

(Photo by Mark Doda on Unsplash)

Just over a week ago I participated in the #HEdigiID    slow twitter chat around open educational practices facilitated Suzan Koseoglu.

The conversation evolved in the wonderful, meandering, and at times insistent ways that I find only really happen on twitter.   There is a summary of themes from the chat in this open google doc which is well worth a look. Sue Watling has also has written two excellent posts around participation and isolation, available here and here.

One part of the conversation focused around time, or the lack of it, particularly to experiment and try new things. Sue has explored many of the complex issues around engagement in her posts.  How we all priorities time was also a theme that resonated with me (and others in the conversation). James Clay also responded and wrote this post around time as a solution.  I’ll come back to that later in the post.

But guess what, I haven’t had the time, or as came out through the discussion, might not have been able to make it a priority to write my own reflection and response to the conversation until now.  I have been musing on the discussion all week. I have just had to prioritize other “stuff” until this morning, when I have made the time to sit down and write this post.

During the conversation I was quite tired (I’ve being feeling tired a lot this year) which I kind of put down to possibly being something to do with pre holiday malaise, trying to get things finished up and off at work. But actually as the week developed I realised that it is something much deeper that is causing this tiredness.

One of the highlights of this week was that I had the priviledge and pleasure of meeting Antonia Darder and attending one of the series of lectures/events she has been featuring in during a mini Scottish tour.    The meeting held in the Pearce Institute brought together a really wide range of people from across the city. Activism, critical pedagogy and the work of Paulo Freire being the uniting factor.

During the discussions and mini culture circles I was both uplifted and depressed by the struggles we are all going through just now.  And just how hard it is to affect real change; to empower people. As Antonia put it we are all “participate in our own silencing.” How through our increasingly neoliberal societies we are taught and accept the disparities and inequalities in our world.  When what we should be doing is working within, as part of our communities to develop support and coherence.

Sitting in a Govan (a pretty deprived area of Glasgow), in a room full of motivated, community activists, I was reminded of just how lucky I am, to have an education, to have a job, to have a house, food on the table every day, but more importantly of having a voice, and the importance of not letting that voice be silenced by lack of time.

In his post James highlighted that

Priorities in theory are set by the line manager, who is operationalising the strategic direction and vision of the institution

James also points to the potential of using a digital lens to work through some of these, what I am going to call here time challenges. However, I don’t think it’s that simple.  Increasingly I see institutional and sectoral “digital solutions” as being as much an oppressor of my time as the neo-liberal political agendas that drive our education sector.  I have to fight to get buy in/recognition for open education, which should be a given for all educators,  but then have to spend time explaining why spending nearly a quarter of a million pounds on a very immature, AI system is perhaps not actually a strategic priority, whilst at the same time trying to juggle figures to get new equipment in classrooms to move our campus learning environments (aka classrooms)  out of 1988 and into 2018.  That struggle, the tiredness, the silencing, the crushing of my voice, the feeling that I need to go along with things as I have to pay the mortgage, have food on the table, remember how lucky I am to be where I am, is my oppression. I am not alone.

Meeting and spending some time with Antonia, that twitter conversation, the connections I have outside my institution are a key part of creating a sense of coherence to fight back. I have come relatively late to critical pedagogy, but the more I study it the more it resonates with my core beliefs.  We need to contextualise, to work as a community with our students and colleagues to fight back against education and particularly higher education as being turned into a consumer journey, where data analytics, smart campuses are the focus of strategic direction.   We can’t let the current obsession  with “personalisation” allow what Freire described as bank education (bring ’em in, fill ’em up, sent ’em out, take the fees) to take hold.

I am still tired, but thankful that I have a network that constantly re-energises me. Where people like Laura and Susan provide space (that I do make the time ) to have conversations that make me realise what I can do. That critical love and support I get from so many colleagues is vital to support my struggles with my oppression.  We may all only have drops of struggle (another lovely phrase from Antonia) but all these drops can create help to create waves of change.




Data monsters, super creeps – the role of AI in learning and teaching

Earlier this week I was invited to take part in a round table discussion hosted by TES and Jisc at the University of Glasgow. This was a very small event, there were 10  of us and it was a sort of pre-conference event before the official start of the THE Teaching Excellence Summit

I’m not quite sure how I got invited but I suspect it was a combination of being a ‘kent’  face to Jisc, being local and being female. It probably comes as no surprise that I was one of only two women in the group, and that everyone in the room was over 40 and white . . .

It was an interesting, free flowing discussion which is being written up for a future TES article.  Nothing earth shatteringly new discussed. We made no major breakthroughs.  I may have ranted a bit . . . well I kind of felt I had to as I was the only person at the table from a university lower than DPVC level.

We didn’t really talk about AI as such that much but we did talk about data; how to get it, how to use it, who owns it, and a little bit about what it could do for learning and teaching.   This inevitably brought us to retention, predictive analytics and ethics. It was heartening, dear reader,  to see the agreement in the room about just exactly how data can help or not with this, and the need for much more research around what data is actually meaningful to collect and how to then make (and resource) effective interventions.  I also made sure I got in the point that data not being neutral and the bias inherent in AI. I possibly couldn’t resist using the analogy of the make up of the group sitting at the table having the discussion. . .

We did have quite a bit of discussion about the role of edtech companies, the seemingly never ending issues of (lack of) interoperability in university systems, and just what is it we are trying to do with data. Nothing particularly new really seemed to be the consensus. But still we are being told that the “business” of education must be able to be improved with data, AI, machine learning.  I may have ranted a bit more about the current political climate, the danger of the promise of “personalisation” and the reality of  increasing homogenization. 

There was a throw away remark about “feeding the beast” in relation to all the data/data exhausts that could be “consumed” and “industrialised”. At that point, David Bowie popped into my head. Well not literally but the lines “scary monsters, super creeps” , except this time I was changing the words in my head to “data monsters, (neoliberal) super creeps.”

I do think there is potential for data and some elements of AI within education and wider society. I also think that just now I think it’s really, really important that we in education are leading critically informed discussions with our students, the rest of society about how “it” all actually works, who is in control, who is programming the AI , who owns data. If we don’t do it, then we will just be consumed by the edtech super creeps.  They will inevitably sell our data back to us, in workflows they think are appropriate for an efficient (ergo effective), dashboarded to the max student journey but actually might not be that great a learning or teaching experience.

I didn’t take that many notes, and I’m looking forward to reading the TES article if/when it appears and I can maybe write a more considered reflection then. In the meantime I’ll leave you with a bit of David’s scary monsters.




Back on the blog:red carpets and alienation – some thoughts from graduation season

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged so I thought I better get back on the wagon as they say.  The past couple of weeks have been consumed with finishing the book I am writing with Keith Smyth and Bill Johnson but our manuscript is submitted now and I can escape from academese back to the much more comfortable territory of blogging.

The title of our book is “The digital university, the intersection of policy, pedagogy and practice”. I don’t want to create a #spoileralert but a large part of the book is concerned with developing more approaches based on critical pedagogy and open education to counter the current neoliberal narrative of managerialism that is all too prevalent in HE today.

Writing the book has been challenging, cathartic, at times inspirational, at times depressing. However this week there has been a bit more cheer in the air as it is graduation week here at my university. The week began with some real excitement as Annie Lennox (yes, the Annie Lennox) was installed as our new Chancellor, and our first female Chancellor.  The installation ceremony was actually pretty fantastic in terms of gender representation. Our new Chancellor,  Nicola Sturgeon (our first female Scottish First Minister), Jackie Kay (our national makar) and Rachel Simpson (the current President of our Students Association) all spoke very eloquently.

It has been lovely to see all our new graduates with their families filling up the campus everyday.  It’s been sunny here  too which makes it even nicer for everyone.  Seeing the crowds in their gowns and glad rags makes me glad to be working in HE, despite some of the depressing trends I’ve been writing about – particularly around the student as consumer and the overall worth, measurements and value of a degree.  This combined with the even more depressing trends I see in our world today where right wing extremism around immigration, race, gender, human rights are becoming normalised by the leader of the so called free world.   This is not the kind of leadership and world I (and I’m sure you, dear reader) want any graduates or young person to be part of.

As part of our research for the book we revisited a very fine (some may even argue one of the finest)  speech from Jimmy Reid when he was installed as Rector of Glasgow University in 1972.  You can read the full text here.  It’s called Alienation and almost 50 years on from when it was written it is still very relevant. Back then we were in an economic crisis, there was a huge debate about joining the European Union, the Tories clinging onto power.  The economics may have skewed slightly, but the debates about Europe are much the same. Crucially in the present day we know many more young people wanted (and still want)  to remain in the EU.  Their opportunities are being alienated by a group of egotistically politicians who have no plans, just bland bog roll rhetoric.  How many unwritten blog posts in my head over the past year do I wish had this as their opening.

Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today. People feel alienated from society . . .what  I believe to be true is that is is more widespread today more pervasive than ever before.

This passage is also still apt not just for new graduates but for us, particularly in terms of the politics of the moment coming from our Westminster overlords.

To the students I address this appeal. Reject these attitudes. Reject the values and false morality that underlie these attitudes. A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement.

Still on a sunny day we can instagram it all away. But I’d like to think that Jimmy would agree with me that if we can install a red carpet for our new Chancellor we should keep it on campus for the rest of the week for all our graduates too.