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#OER17 – a conference to attend


I am a newbie to OER conferences, and #OER16 was the first I attended.  I loved it, and live blogged  and blogged quite a few keynotes and sessions. The picture above is of David Kernohan at Laura Ritchie’s Ukelele workshop at OER16. I really enjoyed this workshop that was so engaging, mentally and physically, that I couldn’t possibly have live-blogged it.

I am a fairly recent participant in OER conferences but for the second time, I have participated in planning and reviewing by being a member of OER17 committee. OER17’s theme is The Politics of Open, a topic that becomes more relevant by the day. I was intrigued when OER17was announced (thanks Josie Fraser and Alek Tarkowski) and inspired by the call to submit an individual submission and contribute to a joint one. My excitement was mounting: doing, thinking, writing,talking about open education/ resources in context was political. Then the abstracts to review arrived in my mailbox and I realised that if my sample was anything to go by, OER17 will be a very timely and significant exploration of the politics of open.

Cross-referencing the titles and programme
Cross-referencing the titles and programme

This week, the programme was published, and I have already started to think about which sessions I wish to attend. Obviously, I can’t decide until I can read the abstracts but I can already foresee some difficult choices. And then there are the corridor chats with the interesting people who will be participating.

All in all, I can’t wait for April 5 2017. Will you be there?


Digital Trespass and Critical Literacy #OER17

Peter Riley explains the Kinder Scout Trespass that took place in 1932 as a protest against the permanent closure of all the wild uplands of Derbyshire for about 12 days of grouse shooting in the year. It has been described as “the most successful direct action in British history” Lord Roy Hattersley, 2007.

Cover of The Ascent of Kinder Scout
Cover of The Ascent of Kinder Scout

The other day I read a review by Billy Mills of the narrative poem The Ascent of Kinder Scout by Peter Riley. What Billy said made me think about the relevance of the Kinder Scout Trespass for us today and how the poem can help us understand more about the purpose and experience of education then and now. The pamphlet arrived in the post today to my joy.

Extract from Billy Mills’ review

These radicals, both working class activists and middle-class poets, had lived through one World War and its aftermath and were about to see a second. As the first generation to benefit from the 1918 Education Act, they had the tools needed to engage in a process of learning about power and its implications. As Riley writes early in this work, ‘The foundation of the state is not violence but education.’ This statement, apparently straightforward on first reading, gains in complexity as Riley questions the role and value of the state a few paragraphs later, concluding that it ‘makes everything possible, and makes strangers of us all.’

He also calls into question the value of education, specifically literacy:

They taught us to read and we thought we were so grand as to join heaven and earth. But all we did was wallpaper over the crack between myth and science and lose our homes. The farmer’s wife sang a truer song, told a sweeter story, of hope and despair hand in hand walking back into society.

This last word forming an integrative counterbalance to the divisive state. It is no coincidence that the verse excursus, which echoes the song Goodnight Irene, follows on immediately after the prose paragraph from which I have just quoted. This interlude sits in the twin shadows of war and emigration, of ‘promise betrayed’ and ‘all the bathos of the modern state’.

I know that comparisons with the 1930s are a little overblown at present but I found that the poem and review are very thought-provoking in my ongoing consideration of critical and digital literacy in public and open education.  I submitted an abstract recently for #OER17, a conference with the theme Politics of Open. My abstract looks at the role of criticality in Open Educational Practice, and how paying attention to the sociomaterial, as Fenwick(2014) encourages students and educators, can focus on the political as well as the instrumental nature of education, and critique the digital tools and platforms through which it is increasingly mediated.

So here is my proposal:

What if the critical and digital literacies that educators and students practice and share could help focus attention on the wider implications of using proprietary social networking systems and other platforms in learning, and activism and education?

What if these literacies helped bring about a digital trespass that was more like the Kinder Scout Trespass than a concern of cyber-security?

I’ll leave you with the words of the late Ewan McColl in one of my Favourite songs The Manchester Rambler.

I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler from Manchester way
I get all me pleasure the hard moorland way
I may be a wageslave on Monday
But I am a free man on Sunday

Fenwick, T., 2014. Social media, professionalism and higher education: a sociomaterial consideration. Studies in Higher Education, 5079(March 2015), pp.1–14. Available at:\n .

Note: I should have said that there is no guarantee that the abstract will be accepted 🙂 I have plans to write a longer piece, maybe with a.n.other so this is definitely an ongoing writing project.

Note 2: Just heard that abstract has been accepted – Yay! So I can prepare my presentation to include added Kinder Scout goodness – abstract here – hope to see some of you there to hear your ideas.


Intentionality, Cliques and Agency

Banksy No Loitrin detail by Chris Devers
Banksy No Loitrin detail by Chris Devers  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I read two posts about in/exclusion recently : one from sava singh about cliquenomics; and one from Maha Bali on Intentionality, Community, and When Open Isn’t Open. I really like the way that sava captures an observational view of community and how it can include and exclude. She identifies that although people can have malicious intent, cliques can be a byproduct of our zeal for belonging

“clique economies” – exclusive clubs for the special few, the practice of which I will call cliqueonomics. sava singh

Maha has signalled her intent to focus on intentionality in her forthcoming OER17 keynote and seems to flag up cliques as having a power dynamic that intentionally denies access. She gives a comparison within  VConnecting of the close-knit communities that form on Slack and the public Twitter and Google Hangouts. That caught my attention because I have done a lot of wondering about the relationships between behind the scenes and public interactions in general, and specifically relating to some current work on network-building.  I think that a qualitative study from in-community and ex-community perspectives of this would be interesting and could contribute to critical perspectives on openness.

All of this made me think about some research that Jenny Mackness, Mariana Funes and I did that looked at qualitative contributions/survey data and quantitative activity data across different tech platforms on one MOOC. We found that community could be a confusing idea for participants who espoused heterogeneity and that platform design could also have an impact. We can think of intentionality as relating to the agency of individuals or as an emergent property of groups but if we take a post-human perspective on intentionality then intentionality and agency can be shared between humans and non-humans such as the platforms. I think this view could be helpful.

I am not really sure that participants who felt excluded by the lash up of individuals, groups and tech would feel reassured that this did not meet a particular definition of a clique. Like community, clique is a term that I use fairly sparingly now after some mixed experiences. Both terms seem to me to provoke strong emotions, and can get in the way of sustaining difference without exclusion. It would be good to look at cliques as something that we can all contribute to despite our best intentions and working on understanding what’s going on is a worthwhile enterprise.

A balanced complaint

I caught part of a BBC2 documentary, Trump’s America a Newsnight Special, last night and was appalled by what I saw.

From my armchair I tweeted, and it seems a few people saw my tweets but they didn’t seem to make much of a difference except that I probably felt a bit better for having tweeted, as part of the general head-shaking in this post-election period. Tweeting was marginally better than laughing at Have I Got News for you? but still pretty passive.

Frances Bell's tweets about Newsnight documentary
Frances Bell’s tweets about Newsnight documentary

Today I plan to watch the whole documentary on iPlayer (sorry that won’t be available to all of you). Then this morning on Facebook, I noticed that George Roberts was making a complaint to the BBC about an item on the Today radio programme.

As a tiny step towards action, I compiled my first ever complaint to the BBC, and I have included the text of it below the video.

“Last night I watched the segment of the Newsnight Documentary where Emily Maitlis interviewed Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the editor in chief of the American Spectator, R Emmett Tyrrell. Emily did her best to raise the issue of Donald Trump’s racism with both interviewees. Chimamanda was articulate and addressed the points that Emily raised but Emmett Tyrrell was an embarrassment to watch. He rambled, tried to compare KKK with the Knights of St Columba to justify why we need not be concerned about Trump being supported by them, rejected Chimamanda’s valid point on why oppressed people may vote for oppressors. He clearly forgot, or couldn’t cope with the strangeness to him of, Chimamanda’s name at one point. He rejected what he interpreted as Chimamanda’s use of false consciousness as ‘Marxist’ and completely failed to address what she said about his inability to define racism.
My complaint is about the decision to include Emmett Tyrrell in this segment. Was it for reasons of ‘balance’? Surely you could have found a Trump supporter capable of reasoned argument. Even if no such person exists, you could have found someone who didn’t necessarily agree with her to listen and respond to Chimamanda. How fortunate you were to have her on the show, and her contribution was diminished by the presence of someone unsuited to documentary debate.
Please could you tell me:
why Tyrell was invited?
Is there a policy in place that requires balance at the expense of the quality of the exploration of issue?
What role does an interviewer play in choice of interviewees? ”

Whilst I was compiling my complaint, I saw that someone had posted a youtube video of the subject of my complaint which allows me to share it with those who can’t get iplayer. I contributed to the Facebook thread with this comment

My Facebook Comment
My Facebook Comment

I won’t reproduce the conversation from the semi-private space of Facebook but happy for others involved to comment here. I mentioned my guess about a white male as that was relevant to the original post. One response to me was strange. Whilst decrying people looking everywhere for someone to blame for the Trump, he appeared (in his response to  me a white woman) to blame the demographic of white women for Clinton not being elected.  What I have learned from painful reflection on my own white privilege has strengthened my feminism.

So here is what I think:

Any black or brown person who reads this post is perfectly entitled to ignore or mock my thoughts and actions. They can, but don’t have to, point out any inevitable misconceptions that stem from my white privilege because it isn’t their responsibility to educate me – I have to do that for myself. Black and brown Americans have every right to be angry about the way others voted, the Democrats for failing to deliver and the (in)actions of others, not least because it is the black and brown people who will most affected by this electoral result.

But what I learned from watching Chimamanda when she told Emmett Tyrell that he had no right to define racism, is that I don’t have to take being told by a white man that the demographic of white women prevented Hillary Clinton being elected. Because a white man being angry at white women for this is sexist.  I don’t feel anger at his comments – I’m grateful that he helped to improve my complaint, and my resolve to learn and take action (that goes beyond social media).

I will let you know of any outcome of the complaint in the comments, so subscribe to the post if you are interested. This is a tiny piece of activity but one thing that my network has shown me this week is that we need to work together and support others, particularly those who are disproportionately damaged by an outcome they voted against.

Thanks to something George Roberts said on Facebook about another BBC programme, I actually got my act together to make a formal complaint. Check out the page if you feel moved to complain about BBC programmes in future.

Language, Politics and #OER17

1984, Politics and the English Language, vintage Orwell reissues from Random Penguin, Foyles, St Pancras, Camden, London, UK
Vintage Orwell

This blog post started life as a comment on Martin Weller’s post about language and how it affects behaviour and thoughts in Edtech. The comment mysteriously disappeared as I posted it so I thought that I would repost it here and link from Martin’s post. The title of the post “Let’s think inside the box“ made me think about Blackboxing .
Whilst I agreed with many of the ideas in the post, Martin’s statement “But this post isn’t about politics” stopped me short.  I wondered what those of us thinking of making a submission to OER17  would make of this. I have been puzzling for a few weeks about what politics can mean in the context of  “The Politics of Open” theme for OER17, and I guess that others may be doing so too. I think that the concept of politics being broad and interpreted in different contexts will make for a great conference that enriches our understanding of Open Educational Practices and Resources.
So I would like to encourage Martin to think about how his post could be about politics and ‘fit’  OER17 – maybe even rework it as a submission 🙂 I was grateful to him for getting me to think about politics and language and my Scholar Google search turned up 2 corking resources.

  1. Orwell, G., 2005. Politics and the English Language. English, (December 1945), pp.1–9. Available at:
  2. Chomsky, N., 1984. Politics and Language. In Language and Politics. Available at: (search for 471)

My subject discipline was Information Systems (that bears some parallels to Edtech) and in our teaching, we included social and organisational aspects as well the technological ones. Ethics, gender and power were definitely on the curriculum. When we think about education and/or technology without considering the politics – global, national, organisational, personal, interpersonal – we are filtering our understanding and it’s no wonder that our noble aspirations don’t always work out as we would hope. This is why I think the OER17 theme is so exciting – it can help us expand our thinking and our practice.

So it’s back to writing my submission.

The Digital Library of the Unaffiliated: Workaround practices

Ask me about Open Access by Molly
Ask me about Open Access by Molly CC BY-NC 2.0

The practical bit of this post is about my workarounds to get articles online that are behind paywalls. Scroll down a bit if you want to cut to the chase.

For about 30 years off and on I was affiliated to a university, and appreciated the access to books, journals and other resources that accompanied that affiliation. I used it daily in my teaching and research work.  As a Masters programme leader in the early 2000s, I was tasked with interviewing a student who had been found razoring out an article from a print journal. I tried to convince her that her action was against a commons where many could share the same resource. I remember reflecting that this wouldn’t have happened if we had a digital subscription to that journal. But of course the library card or login that go with affiliation are the gate through which we pass for access to the institution’s digital library.

Since retiring in 2013, I have had to become much more inventive about gaining access to resources as I realised more sharply what I already ‘knew’. There is no single digital library: our personal digital library is shaped by our access and our practices. When affiliated, I found articles that I wanted to read that were in journals for which my university had no subscription. This is when I turned to friends affiliated to wealthier universities who might have access to the journal and be willing to share a copy. I also realised that Scholar Google and Google could also be my friends, turning up links to self-archived articles, dodgy uploads for class resources and links to institutional repositories. I learned much about the vagaries of copyright and licensing in my service as co-editor of ALT’s Research in Learning Technology, particularly during the process of transition to becoming an Open Access journal to fulfil ALT’s commitment to scholarly publishing. In my research for the editorial of the first Open Access issue, I learned that instead of digital libraries bringing cost savings that could be used to expand access and/or reduce institutional costs, expenditure on serials subscriptions increased.

Recently, archives such as and researchgate provide spaces for authors to self-publish data or papers, and to self-archive their papers published elsewhere. My retirement has given me more time for reading and writing (and craft and gardening) but lack of affiliation has increased the challenge of access to articles locked behind paywalls. Over the last few years, I have moved to publishing in Open Access journals (where that also suits my co-authors), and most of my reviewing work is for OA journals or conferences.

This morning, Mariana Funes tweeted to me about a new app that might help me find Open Access articles but as she said, it didn’t really add that much to my existing practices.

Tweet exchange with Mariana Funes
Tweet exchange with Mariana Funes

Talking to Mariana encouraged me to blog how I engage with my unaffiliated digital library.

Apps, tools and buttons

There are quite a few of these – I have the Google Scholar button, Openaccess button (not currently working), and but I haven’t found that any of these add much to my usual approaches.  For example, when I plugged in the DOI for Langdon Winner’s  article “Do artifacts have politics?” here is what the app returned:

Search for Langdon Winner article
Search for Langdon Winner article

It’s true that the article is behind a paywall, but when I was looking for it a couple of weeks ago, I tried my Plan A, and it came up trumps.

Plan A

I searched Scholar Google for the title, and here’s what came up. All 3 link to the paywalled version at JStor. The first and third also have a link to downloads of the JStor version. When I find an unofficial version such as these, I download the pdf and add it to my Mendeley library on my hard disk. The second link is to Google books which will persist but rarely has the full source.

Scholar Google search for Do Artifacts have Politics?
Scholar Google search for Do Artifacts have Politics?

If Plan A doesn’t work, then I try :

Plan B

Google search for article title plus .pdf. This is the search for the Langdon Winner article. It turns up one of the articles from Plan A plus a scanned version. Sometimes Plan A or Plan B turn up links to institutional repositories. If the full paper isn’t there, many repositories offer the chance to request a copy from the author. I have other plans too.

Plan C

If I have had no luck I search and researchgate for the title. For the Winner article, there was nothing on but Langdon Winner had uploaded it to Researchgate.

Plan D

If I know the author, I will contact them directly by email, otherwise I ask a friend if it’s possible for them to share a copy with me. I wouldn’t then pass on this copy to others, as it often contains clues to who might have downloaded it.

Plan E

There is also the Twitter hashtag #icanhazpdf that works by people sharing their request for an article and the Twitterverse responding. I have used this once.

Practices and Networks

My plans and friends serve me fairly well while we wait for universal Open Access. My personal unaffiliated digital library is distributed across the Mendeley on my hard disk, networks of open access publications and my friends who are willing to share articles from behind paywalls – I give thanks for all of those.

If you have any more ideas or comments please share them.


I should have mentioned that Caroline Kuhn reminded me of the Langdon Winner article in her comment here.  It was really good to read it again.

It depends – Contexts for copyright, patents and licensing #OER17

Patent Suction - Image taken from page 119 of 'Beeton's Christmas Annual, British Library
Patent Suction – Image taken from page 119 of ‘Beeton’s Christmas Annual, British Library

Reading posts on variations of Creative Commons licensing by Alan Levine, Doug Belshaw ,  and  Maha Bali really made me think about our practices of licensing, copyrighting and attributing creative works, particularly of what we share as ‘knowledge’. Alan describes the various CC licenses he has used for his photos on Flickr, and the trials and tribulations he encounters in trying to apply CC0 to all of his images on Flickr. I had to check what CC0 was:

Once the creator or a subsequent owner of a work applies CC0 to a work, the work is no longer his or hers in any meaningful sense under copyright law. Anyone can then use the work in any way and for any purpose, including commercial purposes, subject to other laws and the rights others may have in the work or how the work is used. Think of CC0 as the “no rights reserved” option.Creative Commons FAQ

Doug Belshaw explains why he has applied CC0 to all of his work (including his doctoral thesis) that is under his control. Maha Bali, whilst acknowledging that CC licenses can be ignored, reveals how her approach to licence choice is contextual.

Thinking about my own practice, I publish this blog as CC BY-NC  and try to publish my research writing in Open Access journals. Having said that, the last two articles I wrote with colleagues as I was retiring were published in closed journals, since those were the most beneficial for my co-authors still subject, unlike myself, to the Research Excellence Framework. So my approach to copyright and licensing is also contextual. If asked do you publish openly? my answer would have to be – Yes, but it depends.

I am always interested in looking at historical accounts to try to understand innovation. Bijker(1995) was one of my teaching resources, with the story of the emergence of the popular style of the bicycle being a good classroom story to explore. Audrey Watters has argued powerfully that 21st Century ‘innovators’ in Educational Technology ignore/distort history in an attempt to big up their products and services.

Then I remembered reading about 19th century industrial innovations that relied on sharing rather than protection and secrecy. In looking for this, I didn’t find my original reading but instead found a very interesting article about the Cornish Pumping Engine (Nuvolari 2004). Nuvolari contrasts the ‘heroic narrative’ where individuals are credited with inventions with ‘collective invention’, an incremental approach where the contributions of individuals can remain anonymous.  For example, we all ‘know’ that James Watt invented the ‘modern’ steam engine  that helped to bring about the Industrial Revolution. Nuvolari’s case study examines what happened in Cornwall, a remote area of England, in the 19th century mining industry which had memories of a bad experience in the last quarter of the 18th century with the more fuel-efficient patented Watt steam engines, needed to address flooding in their mines. The business model that Boulton & Watt established with Cornish mine adventurers was royalties based on hypothetical fuel efficencies of the Watt engine as compared with the earlier Newcomen engine. This model was unsatisfactory to the mine adventurers not only for business and economic reasons but also because Boulton and Watt’s refusal to license the design prevented Cornish engineers from improving the engines to suit local circumstances. Watt’s patent hampered engine innovation in Cornwall (and elsewhere) and the 19th century started with a dearth of progress.

This situation lasted until 1811, when a group of mine “captains” (mine managers) decided to begin the publication of a monthly journal reporting the salient technical characteristics, the operating procedures and the performance of each engine. The explicit intention was twofold. First the publication would permit the rapid individuation and diffusion of best-practice techniques.
Secondly, it would create a climate of competition among the engineers entrusted with the different pumping engines, with favourable effects on the rate of technical progress.

Lean’s Engine Reporter continued until 1904 and was accompanied by a steady improvement in the thermodynamic efficency of Cornish engines. Cornish adventurers were driven by pragmatism rather than an ideological attachment to open knowledge. I can recommend reading Nuvolari’s case study as it questions the standard historical account of the ‘golden boys’ role in the Industrial Revolution and the role of patents in stimulating innovation, and draws attention instead to innovation’s incremental, anonymous reality that occurred in a variety of social, geographical, legal and economic circumstances.

 Monument to Boulton, Watt and Murdoch Outside the Birmingham House of Sport (formerly the Register Office) on Broad Street stands the statue of Boulton, Watt and Murdoch, nicknamed 'The Golden Boys' or 'The Carpet Salesmen'. It is the work of William Bloye, formerly head of sculpture at Birmingham School of Art and was unveiled in 1956, although preliminary designs were drawn up in 1938. The three men pioneered the industrial revolution in late 18th century England. James Watt's improvements to the steam engine and William Murdoch's invention of gas lighting have made them famous throughout the world. Matthew Boulton, entrepreneur and industrialist, harnessed their talents in a company that made everything from tableware and copper coinage to steam engines.
Fathers of Technology – monument to Boulton, Watt and Murdoch by Francesco Falciani CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Nuvolari also hints at the central nature of patents with frequency increasing with proximity to the Patents Office.

So what have I learned?

I have already started to think about the personal is political in relation to Open Educational Practice, and have long observed (from my gendered lens) restricted narratives and dialogues even within open educational communities , see this post from 2011. Cornish mine adventurers had pragmatic reasons for challenging patents and promoting competition between engineers, and will no doubt have operated within class structures. If we want to promote Open Education that challenges structural inequalities of class, gender and race, we need to acknowledge these inequalities and be alert to where heroic narratives obscure structure inequalities in the cause of ‘innovation’ and profit.


Bijker, W. (1995) Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change, Inside Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, MIT Press, [online] Available from:

Nuvolari, A. (2004) ‘Collective invention during the British Industrial Revolution: the case of the Cornish pumping engine’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 28(3), pp. 347–363, [online] Available from:  .

Watters, A. (2015) ‘The Invented History of “The Factory Model of Education”’,, [online] Available from: (Accessed 19 October 2016).

Personal is Political – a frame for thinking about Open Educational Practice

The OER17 Call for Contributions is about to be released but we already know something the theme of the 2017 conference, entitled The Politics of Open, chaired by Josie Fraser and Alek Tarkowski. OER16 was my first OER conference and I loved its friendly atmosphere, and of course I learned a lot too.  The theme and chairs of OER17 were announced at the end of OER16, and I was thrilled at the boldness of the topic.  From what I know of the OER community, we will rise to the challenge.

I have been thinking for some time about the topic of my own submission to OER17, and in preparation for writing it, I started to think of the different flavours of ‘political’ that are important to Open Educational Practice (a concept explored so well by Catherine Cronin, in her 2016 keynote).  The theme of the conference is broad enough to welcome many different perspectives in policy, organisational and societal contexts, and is sure to include fun too.

My first thought was about openness in politics, and I found , and from there to . I wonder if there will be submissions  that are specifically about political systems but it’s not really where I think I can best contribute.  The conference themes include policy and practice in local and wider contexts, organisational politics, and issues of equality  and participation.  I think my contribution will look at digital literacies but I am starting by looking at how I can frame my thinking.

I am interested in approaches to openness that are contextual, and don’t expect openness to automatically remove existing structural inequalities. For the Networked Learning Conference this year, my contribution to a symposium with Catherine Cronin and Laura Gogia included this digital story that hopefully illustrates my approach.

A Door Half Closed from Frances Bell on Vimeo.

As I develop my abstract for OER17, my challenge is to present my ideas in a meaningful way for the audience (assuming it gets accepted). The phrase ‘the personal is political’ popped into my mind and I decided to refresh my memory of what it meant.  Carol Hanish wrote an article originally published in 1970 in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s  Liberation. Carol’s article was  renamed by the book editors as “The Personal Is Political”, and it has had widespread traction over the last 46 years. Reflecting in 2006, Carol said

It challenged the old anti-woman line that used spiritual, psychological, metaphysical, and pseudo-historical explanations for women’s oppression with a real, materialist analysis for why women do what we do. ” from 2006 Introduction

A materialist analysis of Open Educational Practice seems important to me, revealing lived experiences and informing possible collective responses,  beyond an idea that the political is personal. I am still homing in on my specific topic for my abstract but I feel sure that the feminist perspective of ‘the personal is political’ can help me explore the politics of Open Educational Practice.

I’d love any feedback or discussion of this.


Hanisch, C. (2006, original article 1970) ‘The Personal Is Political’, Carol, (January), pp. 1–5, [online] Available from:

Check out:

Twitter – conference hashtag #OER17, Chairs @josiefraser, @atarkowski , Conference Committee list

Web site

Is Education Technology a Discipline? and does it matter?


Discipline by Brendan Lynch CC BY-NC 2.0

I noticed the recent discussion on whether or not Education Technology is a discipline at Martin Weller’s blog post.

When I read the article that prompted the whole EdTech as discipline discussion, I wondered what was behind the claim that a discipline was emerging.

As Georgetown University prepares to launch a master’s degree program in Learning and Design, a new academic discipline built around the study of education technology, learning analytics and instructional design is starting to take shape.


Martin gave us a discipline check list –  journals, conferences, professional accreditation, professional (I would say scholarly) society and degree programmes. As he pointed out, in the UK Association for Learning Technology (ALT) provide all except the last.

At this point, I pondered the parallels in my own home discipline Information Systems that started up in the 1970s and spent the next twenty years doing good work and engaging in identity struggles around method, epistemology and ontology between North American and European flavours of Information Systems,as it matured as a discipline.

Definition of Information Systems

Information systems are the means by which people and organisations, utilising technologies, gather, process, store, use and disseminate information.

The flavour  of IS I came to know and love, although it was applied, recognised that social and organisational aspects are important, as well as the technology. Critical approaches found a home here, and within my group of colleagues, undergraduate and postgraduate students were exposed to theories and engaged in practical critique, as well as learning about technology. We were confident that they left us as more informed and questioning practitioners.

My personal interest in education or learning technology was sparked by an opportunity I had in the mid 90s to share resources and support student discussion on a Lotus Notes server. I was hooked by the ease of publishing via Notes to the extent that I even learned HTML when deprived of the Notes server by one of many university reorganisations. When the LMS arrived at our university, my initial optimism waned as I saw the worst features of package software prevail. On the plus side, Blackboard was a great teaching case for student critique as they experienced it, likewise Turnitin.

In my last 5-10 years as an academic, numbers on Information Systems programmes generally declined and research had to fit in with changing organisational structures (publishing in the ‘right’ journals). Being assimilated into a Business School or Computer Science or other departments was common. Perhaps, as information technologies were absorbed into business sectors and other academic disciplines the Information Systems discipline has become disciplined by others.

So my reflections lead me to wonder if the question of Ed Tech as a discipline is the right one to ask. There seems little consensus in the current debate about what a discipline is but if we think about issues of power and economics that help make some disciplines sustainable in universities then research and teaching income are important, as well contribution to the university’s identity. That Edtech has few courses, and many staff who identify as learning technologists are on professional or academic-related contracts (in the UK at least) puts it at a disadvantage in claiming to be a discipline in the current Higher Education (HE) environment. Of course, learning technologists are doing great work in HE but trying to establish themselves as a discipline in their current contexts may be like beating your head against a brick wall, a not unfamiliar feeling.

For me, a far more important issue is the role of criticality in ed/learning technology, acknowledged by Martin and several of his commenters, and very powerfully by Audrey Watters in her recent keynote, a brilliant read . Audrey urges us to put criticism at the centre of our work.

I have a theory about why criticality may not come easily to those who include learning technology in their job descriptions (like me who was dubbed Learning Technology Fellow or learning champion at different times) or mainstream learning technologists. I suspect that when advocacy for learning technologies is part of your job, it can be difficult to reconcile that with engaging in critique of those technologies. And of course, many of us like the shiny stuff.

How many, like me, in the noughties flew under the radar of the ‘official’ LMS into the arms of the fun Web 2.0 apps to support learning activities? What began by seeming like harmless experiments either inconveniently disappeared  or morphed into ubiquitous platforms that eat our data (even when we delete it) and use it to sell advertising services. Here’s my full rant on that subject if you are interested.

One of things that troubles me about focussing on Edtech as a discipline is that it may reinforce some silos that already exist. Some of the great critical voices are already known in Edtech (for example Audrey Watters and Laura Czerniewycz) but there are others, sometimes in Education Departments or Institutes e.g.  Richard Edwards, Lesley Gourlay and Sian Bayne who are mentioned less often. Surely educational researchers talking sensibly and knowledgeably about technologies are good people to talk to.

Let’s open the door and risk the discipline.