Intervention – “Control, Resistance, and the ‘Data University’: Towards a Third Wave Critique”


by The Analogue University[1]

From Auditing, Controlling, to Desiring Data

The term “neo-liberal university” has become shorthand for a range of contemporary pressures in university life (Burrows 2012; Strathern 2000). However, increasingly we are not only considering specific pressures – such as workload, anxiety, and the reduction of research to profit – but also the general position of the university itself in history (Chatterton et al. 2010: 251; Gill 2009; Mountz et al. 2015; mrs c kinpaisby-hill 2011).

In an early critique of the neo-liberal university, Marilyn Strathern (2000) put the bifurcation point for North American and European Universities around the turn of the new millennium, when neo-liberal metrics and audit culture moved from the worlds of business and accounting into mainstream academic life. This first wave of critique of neoliberalism in the academy saw education as a public good being forced to mimic the market where academic values could…

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Open Educational Resources from Government and Partliament

OUseful.Info, the blog...

Mentioning to a colleague yesterday that the UK Parliamentary library published research briefings and reports on topics of emerging interest, as well as to support legislation, that often provided a handy, informed, and politically neutral  overview of a subject area that could make for a useful learning resource, the question was asked whether or not they might have anything on the “internet of things”. The answer is not much, but it got me thinking a bit more about the range of documents and document types produced across Parliament and Government that can be used to educate and inform, as well as contribute to debate.

In other words, to what extent might such documents be used in an educational sense, whether in the sense of providing knowledge and information about a topic, providing a structured review of a topic area and the issues associated with it, raising questions about an…

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The Higher Education and Research Bill

The Disorder Of Things

The third and final reading of the UK’s HE Bill has been scheduled for next Monday, 21 November. If it passes the Commons and then the Lords, it will become law. Thanks in part to the turmoil around Brexit, this Bill has flown under the radar for virtually everyone, perhaps even most students and academics. But the consequences, if it passes, will be disastrous. Many academics seem to think it is just yet another piece of regulatory dross, yet another bureaucratic millstone to add to the many around their necks – and thus barely worth registering a protest about. The reality is actually very different. As I’ve warned on this blog before, the Bill will have a drastic impact on the economy of UK HE, and on the education we provide. Last-ditch resistance is urgently needed.


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#opened16 live blog: Gardner Campbell

Kicking things off here in Richmond, VA. we have our first keynote, Gardner Campbell.  The presentation began with a video montage featuring (among other things) a young Bob Dylan; quotes and graphs about different educational models; sections of It’s a Wonderful Life; Indie music; and end scenes from One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.  

We were then introduced to Robert Wagner Dodge, a ‘smokejumper‘ who escaped a raging forest fire by acting rather counter intuitively.  He lit a fire in front of him, reasoning that once the smaller fire had burned out he could shelter in the ashes.  None of his companions would follow him, and they perished.  Campbell refers to this kind of learning as ‘insight’.

‘Insight’ is a term that has grown in use as civilisation has become more complex.  There are many synonyms for insight (both formal and informal) and the word is used in many ways.  We normally understand it as:

  • an accurate and deep understanding of a person or thing
  • the capacity to gain an accurate and deep understanding of a person or thing

From psychiatry:

  • a breakthrough in understanding one’s own mental illness

Insight-oriented psychotherapy relies on conversation between therapist and patient.  (It can be contrasted with biomedical approaches that place the emphasis on medication.)

The question is posed:  why do insights come to us in the way they do?  A typical process might look like this:

  • Concentrate
  • Search
  • Mental block/Impasse
  • Distraction/Relaxation
  • *space*
  • Problem is somehow solved; a solution presents itself
  • Feeling of certainty – the Eureka!

The solution can’t be forced or rushed. What happens in this *space*?  From cognitive science there is a suggestion that certain regions of the right hemisphere of the brain become unusually active before an insight is reached (a related area is related to appreciation of jokes).  Gamma wave activity (the highest electrical frequency of the brain) spikes at this moment.

Campbell invites us to think about these kinds of ‘Eureka!’ moments in the context of formal education.  We make novel neuro-chemical connections between existing parts of our knowledge.  This goes beyond the classroom:  the pattern of making new connections prepares us for some fresh insight where we generalise about categories of our understanding.  Campbell employs a couple of quotes from Bruner to support the idea that this way of understanding learning is unlike traditional pedagogy.



Trying to force an insight can actually prevent the birth of an insight.  This is a counter-intuitive outcome:  we learn by avoiding the learning activity (or at least waiting until the appropriate psychological state is arrived at).

Campbell refers to some students essays on their responses to The Eureka Hunt.  Rather than thinking about it for themselves, many obviously just searched online for ‘the right answer’.  Their goal was evidently just to ‘succeed’ rather than authentically engage with the text.  There is a whole industry devoted to mantras of student ‘success’.  Campbell invites us to question this idea of ‘student success’.  Some of the claims associated with it (“4 deadly mantras of student success”) include:

  • “Students don’t do optional” – life will be a matter of conformity, not the exercise of freedom – why encourage it now?
  • “Define more pathways” – restriction of unique pathways, enforced rubrics
  • “We need to graduate more students” – Campbell suggests that students in fact graduate themselves
  • “Our students are our products” – !

Such approaches, it is contended, do not encourage the right kind of insights.  Essentially they all treat the learner as passive in their own education.  An open, Connectivist course for AAC&U faculty and collaborators will explore these issues from January 2017.


The Open Research Agenda

Here are the slides I’ll be using today for my presentation at the CALRG Annual Conference.  The Open Research Agenda is an international consultation exercise focused on identifying research priorities in open education.

You can read more about the project here:

The Open Research Agenda (2)

The Open Research Agenda (1)

Colonisers and edupunks (&c.): two cultures in OER?

I’ve started writing this post at the Open Education 2015 conference at the Fairmont Hotel in Vancouver because I want to try and capture some thoughts about the evolution of this movement and community.  But I’m finishing it from home after a little bit of time to digest and also after attending OpenUpTRU in Kamloops earlier in the week.

This has been my fifth consecutive Open Education conference and I’ve been privileged enough to hear from a lot of different people from around the world about their use of OER and the impact it has for them.  Over these years there has been a steady move towards raising the game with research into impact and strategising ways to mainstream the adoption of OER; perhaps the clearest example of this is the may presentations that have been devoted to open textbook adoption and efficacy studies at this conference.  This is entirely understandable given the co-ordinated focus in the USA on open textbook adoption as a tangible and measurable goal for advocacy and research.

Great things have been achieved by researchers working with the Open Education Group in this regard.  In terms of controlled studies which attempt to isolate the effects of moving to an open textbook while controlling for other variables (like instructors, etc.) there really isn’t any other game in town that comes close.  And there is a real need for this kind of work, since it is creating the body of evidence that can be used to reject the claim that open resources are of inferior quality.  The endgame here is to support widespread adoption of open textbooks in colleges.  This is something that can be measured and the savings calculated, so it’s a great strategic choice for advocates in the USA.

Now we have established that this research is great, I feel there are a couple of points to raise.  Firstly, a methodological issue related to the tension between two virtues of open textbooks that we like to put forward:  that they are ‘efficacious’ (they ’cause’ learning) [1] as established by controlled studies; and that they can be freely adapted.  How much adaptation can a text withstand before the efficacy studies – which are based on carefully controlling variables – must be repeated?  Of course, in many cases the textbooks are just adopted wholesale.  They are mapped onto common curricula and so can be used to teach a whole programme.  But if someone decides not to tamper with the textbook, isn’t the net result of all this just that the commercial textbook has been replaced by an open textbook?  But if they do ‘tamper’ with the textbook, might they be in danger of making their textbooks less ‘efficacious’?

Maybe that depends on how good they are at teaching.  What I mean by this is that, aside from all the fantastic savings made by students, the course may be taught in exactly the same way as before.  In effect, the open textbook strategy might (when fully realised) leave us with more or less the same educational systems as before (although a lot more affordable for many, and this would undoubtedly be a fine thing).

In effect, this is an attempt to ‘colonise’ an existing system by taking it over from within.  Maybe something more radical follows from this – open textbooks are a great way to introduce students and faculty to OER, and who knows what might happen a few years down the line in a situation where everyone knows about open?

For now, though, nothing much need change except using an open textbook. Except it’s not just an open textbook, because to scale up and keep making the case for efficacy the data gathered must grow, which means more metrics, open learning analytics, and possible homogenization of the learning process.

This was how I captured the thought at the time:

What was less obvious at the conference this year were the voices coming from a different part of the OER movement: the people who emphasize the radical potential of OER.

This end of the spectrum may be hard to clearly define.  They might be edupunks or critical pedagogues.  They might identify with the open source, copyleft, open data or open government movements outside of education.  They might just be libertarians who like the idea of greater personal freedom. But the thing that unites them is that OER is, for them, more about challenging existing practices and forms of knowledge transmission than replicating commercial provisions on open licences.

Because they’re a disparate bunch it’s hard to put a label on this group, even though by the title of this piece I’m referring to them as ‘edupunks (&c.)’.  The important thing is that they are more radical in ambition, and in that sense they occupy the opposite end of the spectrum from the ‘colonisers’.

Here are some illustrative comments shared on Twitter at the time.

There were plenty of others to choose from, as well as plenty of support for what is being achieved with open textbooks.  Robin actually went a step further and wrote a blog post which expressed her frustration with the dominance of open textbooks and outlined the kinds of things that she wants from a conference like Open Education.

  1. Engage learners in contributing to their learning materials so that knowledge becomes a community endeavor rather than a commodity that needs to be made accessible. To that end, let’s stop fetishizing the textbook, which is at best a low-bar pedagogical tool for transmitting information. OER is better than that.
  2. Make open licenses the focus of our advocacy for learners, teachers, scholars, which means explaining how the open license enables us to do more with the ideas that we ourselves as learners, teachers, scholars are generating. It’s not the open textbook, it’s the open license that matters here.
  3. Consider public funding models for open education (OER, open pedagogy, open access). “Philanthropy” is the wrong word for a model in which the public pays itself for what it needs and can generate on its own. And I am not buying that private, for-profit companies– while capable of being good community partners– are the only way we can build a public infrastructure for publishing and organizing and economically supporting open work.
  4. Build a better mission statement for why we work in the open. I took a stab here, but it was just one tiny specific start. I need help explaining this why. We need the why before we can develop the what (who cares about our open tools and apps and platforms? that’s the easy stuff, so let’s do it second). We need the why before we can assess whether or not we achieved success. Will working in the open serve a social justice vision? improve retention and enrollment? increase interdisciplinary collaboration and improve the quality of our scholarship? Yes? Why? How? And what will it look like if our vision succeeds?

So, should the open education movement seek to colonise education, or transform it?  In can be tempting to think that the difference here is really between evolution and revolution.  The colonisers want to evolve formal education in a helpful way while the ‘edupunks (&c.)’ are more interested in empowerment and the freedoms provided by open licensing.

We might also surmise that this is a false dichotomy. Most people are somewhere in the middle, and relatively few people go around calling themselves ‘edupunks’.  In some ways this can be seen as the return of the familiar gratis (‘colonisers’) vs libre (‘edupunk (&c.)’) distinction that has been with the OER movement since the very early days: is the OER movement about freedom, or about things being ‘free’?

C. P. Snow famously wrote about the divergence of science and the humanities in the influential The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.  Snow foresaw that the aspirations, language and standards of validity of academic cultures were moving apart in ways that prevented cross-pollination of ideas and findings.  Thus, we have science professors who have never read Shakespeare, literature professors who cannot explain the laws of thermodynamics, and so on.  Now arguably there are more interdisciplinary thinkers than there used to be but education does still tend to siphon learners off into one or the other camp.

Without getting too far into that debate, I think we can use the basic idea of ‘Two Cultures’ as a way of thinking about changes in the OER movement, and being aware of people pulling in different directions.  Everyone is still part of the same conversation at the moment, but it doesn’t feel like it would take much to see new, more niche conferences and journals springing up.  In my view, both of these cultures need each other, because each ameliorates the vulnerabilities of the other and encourages attentiveness to the bigger picture.  So keep talking!

[1] I’m a little uncomfortable personally with the language of efficacy, which risks being scientistic – I’m not sure that isolating a lot of variables and then attributing any difference to the intervention is reliable in education research per se – though it is certainly commonplace and there is of course a need for evidence.