October 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
Today when I logged into Facebook I got a message letting me know that I was banned from posting any content for the next 24 hours. Another contributor from a group I help to moderate had posted ‘inappropriate content’ and so all moderators for that group were temporarily locked from posting to Facebook at all.
This would be mildly annoying most of the time, but at the moment I’m teaching a unit where a substantial proportion of the discussion takes place through a Facebook group. Ironically, the unit is on ‘power and politics’ and the Internet.
While there are compelling reasons to experiment with Facebook in teaching (including students’ preference for the site over universities’ official learning management systems), doing so will inevitably raise issues like this. Should I leave the group? Should I, and other educators, avoid posting to Facebook about issues that may lead to bans? Should I try to create a teaching profile and a personal profile (which is against Facebook policy)? I and other contributors have touched on some of these issues in the chapter I contributed to An Education in Facebook?, but we need to be thinking more about ownership and control as we explore new teaching tools.
May 3, 2013 § Leave a comment
Recently, professors at a San Jose State refused to use a lecture series by Michael Sandel at their university: it’s well worth reading their explanation of this decision. After a long and somewhat frustrating discussion about this, I think it’s worth teasing out some of the issues surrounding MOOCs. Much of this draws on the conversation which I just had, but mostly because these views are representative of much more widely-held opinions.
There’s the assumption that just because something is ‘open source’, it must be good. This is tied to other assumptions about what openness means, such as the assumption that ‘open source’ necessarily means more participatory and more accessible. While MOOCs certainly have the potential to make interesting, useful, learning material widely available so that students (and others) can enrich their learning, we do need to bear in mind the context in which they’re being developed. Context matters. ‘Open source’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’ in all contexts, because other considerations must be taken into account.
In this case, we need to remember that MOOCs are being developed in the context of cuts to university funding around the world, and in the context of university systems which tend to privilege publishing over teaching, with ever-increasing class sizes and workloads for lecturers. We’re seeing a massive casualisation of the workforce as we shift from full-time lecturers doing most of the teaching to the use of underpaid teaching assistants who are usually on short-term, precarious contracts. Funding for students is also limited, making it harder for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to get a university education (in the US far more than in Australia).
What does this mean for our evaluation of MOOCs? Firstly, we need to be aware of the probability that requests (or demands) that lecturers use content from MOOCs hosted at other universities are motivated more by a desire on the part of university management to cut costs than by a concern for quality teaching. Secondly, there is a strong chance that the use of lecture content from MOOCs will be used to justify further casualisation of the academic workforce on the basis that as the backbone of the unit is there, all that’s needed will be teaching assistants/tutors rather than full-time lecturers. Thirdly, this is likely to contribute to and reinforce the existing two-tier system (more so in the US than Australia): some students will have access to lecturers who develop units, have funding for research, and engage in hands-on teaching, while poorer students at under-resourced universities will get content developed elsewhere, taught by tutors who are unlikely to have the resources and support necessary to develop themselves as teachers and as researchers.
There’s also the issue of what we use as the standard. While I’m sure Sandel is an engaging lecturer with many valuable points to make, the outline for the ‘Justice’ unit which the San Jose professors declined to use states that, “principal readings for the course are texts by Aristotle, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls.” In a unit covering “affirmative action, income distribution, same-sex marriage, the role of markets, debates about rights (human rights and property rights), arguments for and against equality, dilemmas of loyalty in public and private life”, it’s worth questioning whether a backbone consisting purely of dead white men is most appropriate.
Universities, and particularly the most prestigious and well-funded US universities, are still disproportionately accessible to privileged groups within society. If unit content is increasingly produced primarily by these universities, and then farmed out to other places, we are likely to hear a more and more narrow range of perspectives. The existing constraints on marginalised voices within academia will be reinforced: women and minority groups will, in all likelihood, be those who are pushed (further) into precarious employment as short-term teaching staff unable to create their own units.
I’m not against the idea of MOOCs. But we need to think about the broader context in which they’re developed, and take active steps to shape them in positive directions. We need to hold open spaces for participatory, accessible learning that values a diversity of voices – including those of both students and teachers. In order to do this, we can’t take the discourse of ‘openness’ associated with MOOCs at face value.
April 24, 2013 § 1 Comment
There’s been a significant push in Internet Studies over the last few years towards ‘big data’ studies, which aggregate huge volumes of information (such as tweets or website linking patterns) and subject them to analysis, often quantitative analysis. Much of this research provides valuable insights into how people are using the Internet and its impacts on society, politics, and economics. At IR13 last year there were plenty of projects which took a ‘big data’ approach to the study of social movements, particularly the Arab Spring and Occupy, and provided important analysis about how they organise and communicate. And, of course, my collaborator on the Mapping Movements project, Tim Highfield, is doing excellent work in the area.
However, I do think that there are important aspects of this shift towards big data that we need to maintain a critical approach towards. Part of the reason why ‘big data’ is so appealing is that it looks like Science: there are numbers! and statistical analysis! There have been claims that it will allow us to ‘do away with the need for hypothesis and theory’ (presumably ridding ourselves of the biases contained in these processes). It fits within our perceptions of what ‘proper’ science should be: more objective, less reliant on qualitative methods like participant observation and interviews. This notion of science has, of course, been critiqued from a number of perspectives. Emily Martin’s ‘The Egg and the Sperm‘, for example, provided an excellent demonstration of how profoundly even ‘hard’, supposedly objective, science, is shaped by cultural assumptions, including those surrounding gender.
The shift towards ‘big data’ is not only linked to the uptake of new analytical tools, it is also linked to our (gendered) ideas of what science should look like. As more funding becomes available for big data research, it is important to bear in mind the ways in which our assumptions structure the value we place on different research, and the ways in which access to different research fields is gendered. While many women provide vital contributions in STEM fields, there continue to be significant structural barriers to participation by women and minority groups in these areas. Devaluing qualitative research in favour of quantitative big data not only builds on misplaced assumptions about the value of ‘hard sciences’, it also adds to the factors excluding marginalised perspectives from academia.
This is not to say that we should abandon big data approaches. As I said, I believe that they provide many helpful insights. There’s also some fascinating work out there that uses big data in ways that undermine the assumptions that this research must be ‘objective’ – Zizi Papacharissi and Maria de Fatime Oliviera’s work on affective publics springs to mind here. Tim and I are approaching the use of big data by drawing together big data approaches and participant observation, interviews, and other qualitative methods. So the issue is not so much whether we use big data, as whether we remain aware of the ways in which its use is structured by our assumptions about what constitutes ‘science’, and of ways in which this may privilege some groups’ participation over others.
April 23, 2013 § Leave a comment
Here in Athens, I’m starting to get a much better idea of who I need to speak to and where I need to go, in part because I’ve had some fortuitous introductions from friends-of-friends-of-friends. This aspect of research on social movements is, I think, often under-acknowledged. You can, when doing research, make a more-or-less disinterested decision about the case study that will serve your research project best, show up, and then make contact with activists through websites or by showing up to protests. But activists in many circumstances are understandable cautious about talking to strange people who show up out of nowhere. As well as the security concerns that accompany state surveillance of many movements, activists have many competing demands on their time and talking to academics who may retell the story of the movement in ways which activists aren’t comfortable with.
So I’m tremendously grateful to the people who take some time to introduce me and to tell me who it’s important that I speak to. Our work in Tunisia relied heavily on connections from friends and colleagues, just as my work in Athens does. In return, I try to ensure that my work is relevant for activists, that I write in a way that’s clear and accessible rather than all wrapped up in academic jargon, and that my work is publicly-available (preferably for free as open-access publications). I’m not sure that I always succeed in each of these, but I do try.
As well as attempting to give something of worth back in return for the introductions, explanations, and time taken for interviews which activists give me, academia relies on a complex web of gifting. This morning I spent two and a half hours going through over two hundred applications for Adacamp SF, and after I finish this post I will review conference abstracts for the Internet Research: resistance and appropriation conference. In fact, none of the work I’m doing at the moment is paid, as I’m taking a break from teaching to do research. The book review I’m writing is unpaid, the three book chapters and one article I have due soon are unpaid, the research I’m currently doing is for a book that will only be published a long way down the line and is unlikely to bring me any substantial income in royalties.
Much of this ‘gifting’ is not entirely altruistic – it brings me benefits in one form or another, even if that isn’t financial (just as gifting does in other gift economies). Publishing is essential to getting an academic position, even a teaching-focused position (which is sad, given the importance of good teachers, and the extent to which this is gendered). Some of it also feeds into exploitative systems, like the use of academic articles and peer-reviews (both unpaid) to build a massively profitable academic journal business - one reason why I won’t do reviews for journals which aren’t open access.
I can’t do my work without the gifts – of time, energy, and reputation – that others lend me. And I wouldn’t want to do my work if I didn’t feel like I was gifting something in return (although sometimes I do worry that I’m giving the academic equivalent of an ugly sweater that will never get worn). The context of that gifting, and the relationships involved, need careful thought.
April 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
As Tunisia deals with the legacy of the Ben Ali regime, the framework of transitional justice is being used by many within the government and in civil society to guide the transformation. This includes the creation of a Tunisian Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice, the involvement of international groups such as the ICTJ, and a plethora of local groups which have begun to work under the umbrella of transitional justice. There is considerable debate surrounding the transitional justice process in Tunisia, especially around the specific form the process should take.
One of my friends, Dr. Christalla Yakinthou, has considerable experience working in the practice and theory of transitional justice, and while we were in Tunisia we were interested in looking more closely at the process. In order to connect our interests, we focused specifically on the shifts in Internet governance which have happened since the fall of the Ben Ali regime. Internet governance is not traditionally seen as being a part of transitional justice, but it’s a vital part of the process of rebuilding and dealing with past human rights abuses.
As Tunisians struggle to deal with the ongoing challenges of reconfiguring the state, including dealing with ongoing police violence and IMF ‘reforms‘ that are unlikely to help the Tunisian people, Internet governance seems to be one area in which definite progress has been made. We talked to a range of people, including activists, bureaucrats, and those working within the Tunisian Internet Agency: most were very pleased with the changes made so far, and the way in which the legacy of online surveillance and censorship had been dealt with.
This doesn’t mean that the Internet freedom is secure, of course, just as it isn’t secure in Australia or other nominal democracies.. While the previous mechanisms of censorship and surveillance have been largely dismantled, Tunisian courts continue to attempt censorship or other coercive measures to silence dissent, as well as ‘objectionable content’ such as pornography. Concerns also exist about the potential affects of the intellectual property provisions slated for the new Tunisian constitution, and the creation of a new ‘cybercrime‘ unit.
As we wind up the final interviews in the first phase of the research, I’ll be hoping for the best for those in Tunisia working on these issues. Everyone we spoke to was very generous with their time, especially given what a busy period it is there. We have some great material, and I’m looking forward to putting it together for publication. It’ll be interesting: it’s the first time I’ve focused on such a state-centric process. I think that there are important critiques to be made of the transitional justice process, and particularly of the top-down nature of much of the work in the area. While there are great hopes for the transitional justice framework, it’s important to understand it as part of broader structures, including the coercive mechanisms of the state and the international system. At the same time, many Tunisians are attempting to mould existing frameworks to meet their own needs, including by questioning existing models for transitional justice.