Resisting the surveillance project: Siân Bayne keynote at #altc

This keynote presentation began by describing the ‘slow death’ of Yik Yak, an anonymous geosocial networking app launched in 2013.  The software allowed people in close proximity to send and receive short, anonymous messages and write posts (Yaks).  It was heavily marketed on university campuses.  Yik Yak was totally anonymous, and was moderated by community voting.  Edinburgh students used the app to ask questions.  The hyperlocality of the app meant that interactions were limited (e.g. discipline specific, location specific) rather than campus-wide.

Between July 2016 and May 2017, 46,637 Yaks were downloaded and analysis.  In addition, two undergraduate research assistants kept reflective diaries, and data was pulled from other studies the researchers were involved with at the time.

The research team assumed that the hyperlocality of Yik Yak was the key element, but in fact anonymity was the the most important thing for students.  The app developers made a similar misjudgement.  Their tinkering with the app eventually removed the anonymity and this was followed by outcry from the user base.  The return of anonymity was eventually restored, and the data gathered by Edinburgh showed that, for their local users, use of the app picked up again.  At a global level it never recovered, and Yik Yak went from #3 in the download charts in 2014 to #447 by 2016.  On 6 May, 2017 the app was closed down and the company sold for $1 million – having been valued at $400 million just two years before. The failure of the developers to understand the importance of anonymity in their app was symptomatic of a more general failure to understand the value of their product for their market.

There was widely reported abuse, harassment, victimisation and toxicity on Yik Yak, and this was to some extent enabled by the anonymity.  To deal with this, the developers tagged the app as for adults on the App Store, and prevented the app from working in schools.  This cut a lot of the user base.  A system of word filtering was also introduced to flag potentially offensive tweets.  The community also tended to down-vote abuse and up-vote positive messages.  Black, Mezzina & Thompson (2016) found that there was abuse on Yik Yak, but not so much as to demonise the platform as a whole.

Bachmann et al (2017) argue that anonymity can enable disinhibition and create safe spaces:  anonymity need not be associated with toxicity.  Students at Edinburgh used Yik Yak as a support network, notably for mental health issues. Bayne argues that we need to stop seeing anonymity as evidence of some kind of deviancy or an unwillingness to reveal.  As Nissenbaum (1999) argues, the value of anonymity is in acting or participating while remaining out of reach and unattainable.  (Compare this with the ubiquity of Facebook and the way that it is practically essential for students who wish to have a social life or join groups.) Lanchester (2017) provides a good overview of worries about Facebook surveillance.  Bachmann et al (2017) make the point that anonymity is a barrier to both platform capitalism and surveillance culture more generally.

Two conclusions:

  1. When designing digital learning environments, we need to allocate space for un-namability and ephemerality.  E.g. designing pop-up tools that delete themselves.
  2. The surveillance project is opposed to our instincts for an effective life.  Zuboff et al (2015) suggest this leads to a kind of psychic numbing that makes us less attentive to the operations of surveillance capitalism.  In designing teaching we should actively educate against ‘psychic numbing’.

Open Cyborgs at #altc

I’m in Liverpool this week for the annual ALT Conference. I’m primarily here as part of the UK Open Textbooks project to assist and understand the adoption strategy used by OpenStax.

In the opening keynote Bonnie Stewart encouraged us to understand embodied work and embodied perspectives as important as the ‘rational’ perspectives that have traditionally informed academic inquiry.  She appealed to Haraway’s (1985) socio-feminist conception of the cyborg as a model for open practice in education.  “The cyborg gives me a model of hope and possibility… not faithful to norms (as in a bell curve) but capable of inspiring actions and projects.”  My own reading of Haraway identifies this position with the following adjectives: genderless; un-alienated; independent; oppositional; un-hierarchical; rhizomatic; irreverent; subversive; quintessential; bodily; illegitimate; monstrous; inorganic.  (Most of these appear to be negatively defined – i.e. defined by what they are not. This is also common for open approaches.)

Representation Simulation
Bourgeois novel (realism) Science Fiction (postmodernism)
Organism Biotic component
Depth Surface
Perfection Optimization
Organic division of labour Cybernetics of labour
Reproduction Replication
Community ecology Ecosystem
Freud Lacan
Sex Genetic engineering
Mind Artificial Intelligence
World War II Star Wars
White capitalist patriarchy Informatics of domination

I found this table more helpful in explaining the difference between traditional, hierarchical positions and the “informatics of domination”. (I left out some of the more esoteric elements of the table.) Here are a couple of quotes that also seem to be useful for understanding the position:

“The cyborg is not subject to Foucault’s biopolitics; the cyborg stimulates politics, a much more potent field of operations.” (p.302)

“One important route for reconstructing socio-feminist politics is through theory and practice addressed to the social relations of science and technology, including crucially the system of myth and meanings structuring our imaginations. The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self. This is the self feminists must code.” (p.302)

I am not sure I understand the cyborg theory outlined in the paper well enough to say whether it really makes sense – but it’s an interesting take on how to identfy the normative dimensions of openness. For me it’s perhaps close to the kind of contrarianism presented in Deleuze & Guattari’s (1972) Anti-Oedipus, perhaps because of the common interest in Lacanian decentralisation of the psyche.  (Similarly, they also speak of ‘desiring machines’ and ‘rhizomes’.)(Wikipedia reports that feminist Lacanians like Irigaray also an influence.)

Haraway summarises her argument as follows:

  1. The production of total, universalising theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality (probably always and certainly now)
  2. Taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so embracing the skilful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts

Cyborg theory is anti-essentialist and aims at overcoming the patriarchal dualisms, taxonomies and logics (self/other, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/partial) that have characterised Western history.  This belief in emancipation and freedom is one that many open practitioners share, but here the approach is deconstructive.

Liveblog – Catherine Cronin keynote at #altc #altc2014

For one day only I’m at The University of Warwick for the ALT-c conference where I’m speaking on OER Impact Map.   (You can access my slides for today here.)

Catherine Cronin (National University of Ireland, Galway) – Navigating the Marvellous: Openness in Education

Catherine began with a quote that illustrates her view of eduction:

“Education is inherently an ethical and political act.” (Michael Apple)

Catherine spoke about growing up in New York and the political milieu in the 1960s (including the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy that helped her to grow to political awareness and the role of education for supporting healthy political life.  Different people have different parts to play in the political process.  Education thus conceived necessitates criticism of what exists, pointing to what has been lost, and identifying possible futures.

Openness: Catherine identifies this with sharing resources and thoughts in a freely available way.  Lots of resources that claim to be ‘open’ aren’t necessarily licensed in appropriate ways, and open practices should be understood as a more radical level built on top of this.

“Openness is an ethos, not just a license.  It’s an approach to teaching and learning that builds a community of learners” (Jim Groom)

Catherine was keen to identify openness with a kind of humility rather than the hubris of seeking greater attention for one’s work:

“I don’t think education is about centralized instruction anymore; rather, it is the process [of] establishing oneself as a node in a broad network of distributed creativity.”  (Joichi Ito)

As networked individuals, we need to overcome the distinction usually recognised between formal and informal learning.  Students come with different expectations and experiences that they bring to the spaces within which they learn.  Couros (2006) refers to the ‘networked’ teacher who makes use of a range of digital technologies.



from Couros, A. (2006). Examining the open movement: possibilities and implications for education. (Doctoral thesis, University of Athabasca.)

Learning spaces can be physical or online, and tend to be bounded in different ways. Different spaces can facilitate community building to different degrees, but in any space there will be some voices that are privileged and some which are excluded.  When online we experience fewer markers of identity, with differing ideas about the effects of presence and telepresence on pedagogy.  Open online spaces tend to disregard institutional, national or physical barriers to entry and so facilitate greater sharing and connectivity.

The network is the organising principle of open online spaces – but how should this work in practice?  Openness here refers not to licensing but to the practice of facilitating this connectivity.

When students enter institutions, we can ask them about the tools they use and their views on transparency, privacy, and experimental pedagogies.  These discussions can be open, and help to form a shared understanding and expectation.  Open discussions can take place on social media which draw on the idea of networked learning. Students should be encouraged to connect across cohorts and levels to build community and learning skills.

We can minimise the power differential between student and teacher through open approaches, though it should be noted that some students worry  about being judged for thoughts and contributions shared in the open.  Identity is key to understanding these concerns because identities are constructed through dialogue and sharing.  Students should be supported in building and trying out different identities because so doing will help build digital skills and confidence.  Online identity doesn’t so much transform one’s own sense of self but it can help us become more aware of the contingent and contextual nature of our identities, and help us to see possibilities for being otherwise.

We can see open learning spaces as ‘third spaces’ which are neither formal nor informal but draw on both the skills of formal learning and the informal identities that have a kind of authenticity.  One risk with developing e-learning is in believing in a kind of subjectless learner who does not bring their own identity to  their learning.  We need to recognise difference: gender, race, religion, disability and other potential sources of ‘Otherness’.  Open practices are a brilliant first step towards this.