srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


1 Comment

Overcoming Built-In Prejudices in Proofreading Apps

by Ann Gillian Chu

As I am typing away in Microsoft Word, the glaring, red squiggly underline inevitably pops up, bringing up all the insecurities I have with academic English writing, as an ethnically Chinese, bilingual Chinese-English speaker. So what if I speak English with a North American accent? So what if English has been my medium of instruction for my entire life? So what if I graduated with a Master of Arts with honours in English Language from the University of Edinburgh? My fluency in Chinese somehow discredits my English fluency, as if I cannot be equally competent in both. Because I am not white, my English will always somehow be inadequate.

The way others, and I, perceive my English ability reflects how ‘standard English’ as an idea is toxic to the identity-building of those who are not middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual, white men from the Anglophone world. April Baker-Bell talks about the concept of linguistic justice, arguing that promoting a type of ‘correct English’ has inherent white linguistic supremacy. Traditional approaches to language education do not account for the emotional harm, internalised linguistic racism, or the consequences these approaches have on the sense of self and identity of non-white students. Extending Baker-Bell’s theory, how would this apply to the use of proofreading apps?

Apps are created by people who have their own underlying assumptions and worldviews, even if these assumptions are not explicitly written in any of the apps’ documentation. When using these tools, users need to have a sense of the kind of assumptions these apps carry into their corrections. More importantly, as programmes are written by people and applied in a formulaic way, they should not have the power to define their users’ sense of identity, or even their ability to communicate in English. Algorithm-based tools will always fall short in understanding the nuances and eccentricities that make human writing exciting and intriguing. The app should not have authority over its users, and its feedback should never be taken uncritically.

However, proofreading apps could be used as a pedagogical tool when thoughtfully and critically engaged. Evija Trofimova created a resource titled ‘Digital Writing Tools: Spelling, Grammar and Style Checkers,’ which investigates how different proofreading apps can or should be used. Trofimova’s project assesses how each app can be used for best didactic experiences, with exercise suggestions and classroom activities available for users to begin to see these proofreading apps as a possible pedagogical tool, rather than law enforcement of sorts. Users of proofreading apps should always treat each ‘error’ as a learning opportunity, investigate the rule behind the correction, and actively consider whether it is indeed a correction they want to take up in their writing. If a correction is unexpected, users should be encouraged to investigate why the app suggested it and what is the underlying principle. Crucially, app users need to have a sense of where to draw the fine line between what is conventional (rather than right) and what makes writing comprehensible to readers, and what expresses the unique voice and identity of a writer. Writers should explore more ways to communicate within and outside of conventions, in a way that best represents them. This sort of creativity will go beyond simply relying on the algorithm of a proofreading app.

It needs to be said more often that English as an academic lingua franca is no one’s first language (see Marion Heron and Doris Dippold, Meaningful Teaching Interaction at the Internationalised University). Just because someone is a monolingual English speaker does not necessarily mean that they are good at academic English writing. Just because someone writes in an unexpected or unconventional way does not necessarily mean that they are wrong. An essential purpose of writing is to communicate. As academics, we need to ask ourselves, how much can someone deviate from a standard and still be comprehensible? How much room can we leave to allow students to be themselves and express themselves fully in their writing? How much are proofreading apps stifling their ability to flourish as writers? We are not teaching students to become machines. There is no point in having different students write the same essay in the exact same way. Rather, it is precisely their unique and different voices that should be celebrated.

In ‘The Danger of a Single Story,’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about her childhood in Nigeria, reading books about white, blue-eyed characters who played in the snow, ate apples, and talked a lot about the weather, which does not reflect her experience of the world at all. Growing up, Adichie struggled with characters in novels being made up of white foreigners from the West alone, as if the Western world is a cultural ground zero. She and other Nigerians are not represented in the literary works she read. Non-white proofreading app users may easily fall into the same impressionable and vulnerable position as Adichie did. These prescriptive ‘corrections’ made by proofreading apps, just like the children stories that Adichie read, implies an ideological position that a specific language standard, such as standard British or American English, is somehow superior and ‘correct.’ However, the West is not a cultural ground zero, nor is English a neutral medium of communication. Other varieties of English used in non-Western worlds, far from being inappropriate or incorrect, should be celebrated for their ability to reflect the culture and experiences of non-Western writers. The attempt to make a piece of written work meet certain linguistic standards should not be above rhetoric, creativity, and cultural expression.

What makes proofreading apps dangerous is that their underlying assumptions remain invisible to their users. A ‘correct’ grammar may reinforce existing biases in our society, creating linguistic violence, persecution, dehumanisation, and marginalisation, which non-standard English speakers endure when using their own language in schools and everyday life. One thing that stuck with me the most from my undergraduate degree is that proper English changes throughout the ages. What is now deemed suitable was once upon a time a deviant use of the language. And what is deviant now may become mainstream in the future. People have always reacted badly to these linguistic changes, but the changes in usage stick nonetheless. As users of proofreading apps and teachers of students who use these apps, it is important to encourage everyone to think about who the apps were built for and what purposes they were meant to serve. What spelling and grammatical rules do they enforce, and why? In After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, Willie James Jennings pushes against (theological) education that is ultimately set up for white self-sufficient masculinity, a way of organising life around a persona that distorts authentic identity. This way of being in the world forms cognitive and affective structures that seduce people into its habitation and its meaning-making. When a white Anglophone world is presumed as a norm, and others somehow have to cater to its expectations, it strangles intellectual pursuits from the perspectives of the other. It is the freedom of expression between interlocutors that will create a space for students from all backgrounds to flourish.

Ann Gillian Chu (FHEA) is a PhD (Divinity) candidate at the University of St Andrews. She has taught in higher education contexts in Britain, Canada, and China using a variety of platforms and education tools. As an ethnically Chinese woman who grew up in Hong Kong, Gillian is interested in efforts to decolonise academia, such as exploring ways to make academic conferences more inclusive.


Leave a comment

Digital platforms and university strategies: tensions and synergies

by Sam Sellar

This blog is based on a presentation to the 2021 SRHE Research Conference, as part of a Symposium on Universities and Unicorns: Building Digital Assets in the Higher Education Industry organised by the project’s principal investigator, Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster). The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged. The project introduces new ways to think about and examine the digitalising of the higher education sector. It investigates new forms of value creation and suggests that value in the sector increasingly lies in the creation of digital assets.

In a lecture delivered to Stanford University in 2014, which was provocatively titled Competition is for losers, Peter Thiel argued that ‘[m]onopoly is the condition of every successful business.’ Thiel’s endorsement of monopoly over competition has become business strategy orthodoxy for Big Tech firms, which, as Birch, Cochrane and Ward (2021, p6) argue, have ‘often been willing to accept low revenues in the short- to medium-term with the longer term goal of capturing markets and monopoly rents through their expected future control over data’. Assets are replacing commodities in contemporary capitalism, and an asset can be defined as ‘something that can be owned or controlled, traded, and capitalised as a revenue stream … [and] the point is to get a durable economic rent from them’ by limiting access to the asset (Birch and Muniesa, 2020, p2). We can see these assetisation dynamics emerging in EdTech markets serving UK higher education, and in this article I offer early insights into how these dynamics, driven by the growth in use of digital platforms during the Covid-19 pandemic, are shaping university strategies and practices.

This article reports on findings from the second phase of the Universities and Unicorns: building digital assets in the higher education industry project. The project is led by Dr Janja Komljenovic at Lancaster University and it aims to investigate new processes of value creation and extraction-assetisation-in the HE sector as it increasingly digitalises its operations. In Phase 2 of our project, we are conducting a series of university case studies in the UK, along with the investor and the company case studies. The university case studies are designed to help us understand how universities work with their commercial partners and what are the synergies and tensions. We are also curious about how universities view changing business models that focus on assetisation.

Importantly, we are not evaluating the use of EdTech in the context of teaching and learning or evaluating the strategies of individual institutions. Our concern is with how the HE sector is evolving in connection with EdTech markets. We are interviewing senior leaders, academic staff, directors of IT departments, IT developers and staff working in procurement, commercialisation and legal departments. We are also collecting a range of documents relating to digital strategy, business and data management plans, technical reports, financial records, and contracts with EdTech companies.

Our fieldwork with universities is a work in progress, and in this blog post I will outline three of our emerging findings, which relate to: (1) the ways that universities think about digital strategy; (2) the value of data from a university perspective; and (3) emerging processes of assetisation.

Digital strategy

None of the universities that we have studied so far have had formal and distinct digital strategies. Rather, digital strategy is embedded in IT, teaching and learning (T&L) and library strategies. In most cases, universities appear to be ‘between’ official strategy documents that cover this area. COVID-19 clearly shifted the short-term focus to tactics – working urgently to adjust and develop digital ecosystems to accommodate new demands of large-scale shifts online – and these universities are just now catching their breath and starting to update their strategies. However, despite this lack of formal strategy, some universities are very clear regarding the use of digital platforms to lead the sector and create value. In these cases, there clearly is an overarching strategy, it just isn’t described or formally presented as such.

Universities see themselves as developing institutional digital ecosystems by joining up platforms and focusing on the interoperability of their systems. Decisions about specific platforms are increasingly shaped by their potential integration into these ecosystems, and how data can be managed and integrated across platforms.

Interestingly, digital strategy is being driven by teaching and research strategy rather than shaping it. In one case, the point was made very strongly that digital is not separate, but rather a way of delivering the core business. Digital platforms are largely being used to deliver existing activity in digital form, rather than to create new forms of economic activity and new sources of value. However, questions are being raised about the relationship between IT and teaching and learning. For example, should IT departments simply support other business functions, or might they lead on digital strategy to enable new possibilities for the university?

The value of digital data

The primary value of digital data for universities appears to be reputational, and responses from our participants thus far have been remarkably consistent in this regard. Digital platforms can help to enhance the university’s brand and extend the business over a wider geographic range. This primacy of reputational, rather than financial, value is a distinctive feature of university perspectives on digital platforms, in contrast to companies.

Engagement with digital platforms was also seen to be valuable insofar as it generates market intelligence, supports student recruitment, changes perceptions of teaching and learning (eg blended approaches); and change perceptions of students (eg enabling particular cohorts to engage in new ways with benefits for their learning outcomes). Most interviewees are not thinking about the data generated by digital platforms as an asset, but it is clear that digital content (eg recorded lectures) are being seen in these terms insofar as they can be controlled by intellectual property rights and re-used over time.

Interestingly, our participants clearly hold the view that there is more potential for universities to make use of the digital data generated by platforms they use. However, in the case of learning analytics there is also scepticism regarding what it promises and its true value at this time. Despite a number of trials and experiments, many in UK universities are yet to see the benefits beyond what can be achieved using more prosaic approaches to data analytics.

Assetisation

The universities that we have studied so far do not appear to be using data to develop new products or services that generate value through economic rents; this kind of activity appears limited to commercial providers of digital platforms. However, universities increasingly understand the potential value of the data generated by their staff and students, and they are actively pursuing access to these data in their contractual negotiations with partners.

This is where we are seeing the emergence of assetisation dynamics in EdTech markets, which reflect the business strategies that Thiel promotes in his celebration of monopolies. Even if universities are able to negotiate favourable terms in individual contracts, providing rights to access and use data generated by university users on a given platform, they do not have access to aggregated data collected by companies through the use of this platform by other universities.

There is thus concern about the assetisation of data by commercial providers, for example, in relation to the use of aggregated data sets to develop new products and services that automate aspects of academic work (eg assessment). Turnitin is a primary example that came up in many of our discussions. The monopoly created by Turnitin leaves universities with little choice but to use their platform and pay whatever is asked, and relationships with Turnitin have become strained in many cases. The value of Turnitin is based on the data they have collected, and this data could be used to develop new services that automate, and thus substitute for, aspects of teaching currently delivered by lecturers. Work is being pursued through industry bodies to negotiate fairer distribution of the potential value generated by digital platforms in such cases.

Conclusion

While our university case studies are a work in progress, these three themes are already emerging quite consistently across our research sites. The value of data for universities is primarily reputational, extending the reach of teaching and learning functions, enhancing recruitment and supporting innovation in teaching and learning. Universities see digital strategy and the use of digital platforms as a way to extend their core business, not as a means to create new kinds of economic activity. In this respect, tech sector business strategies focused on creating value from data as an asset are not yet evident in the strategies of universities. However, we are seeing early signs that data is being assetised by EdTech companies, in an effort to extract monopoly rents by locking-in users through subscriptions to digital platforms. In this sense, we are curious to see whether monopoly will be a condition of every successful business in the burgeoning HE EdTech space.

Sam Sellar is Dean of Research (Education Futures) and Professor of Education Policy at the University of South Australia. Sam’s research focuses on education policy, large-scale assessments and the datafication of education. Sam also works closely with teacher organisations around the world to understand the impact of digitalisation on teachers’ work. His most recent book is titled Algorithms of education: How datafication and artificial intelligence shape policy (University of Minnesota Press), co-authored with Kalervo N Gulson and P Taylor Webb. Contact here: sam.sellar@unisa.edu.au

References

Birch, K, Cochrane, DT, and Ward, C (2021) ‘Data as asset? The measurement, governance, and valuation of digital personal data by Big Tech’ Big Data & Society8(1), 20539517211017308.

Birch, K, and Muniesa, F (eds) (2020). Assetization: turning things into assets in technoscientific capitalism Boston: MIT Press

Thiel, P (2014) ‘Competition is for losers’ The Wall Street Journal Available from: https://www.wsj.com/articles/peter-thiel-competition-is-for-losers-1410535536


Leave a comment

Critically analysing EdTech investors’ logic in business discourse

by Javier Mármol Queraltó

This blog is based on a presentation to the 2021 SRHE Research Conference, as part of a Symposium on Universities and Unicorns: Building Digital Assets in the Higher Education Industry organised by the project’s principal investigator, Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster). The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged. The project introduces new ways to think about and examine the digitalising of the higher education sector. It investigates new forms of value creation and suggests that value in the sector increasingly lies in the creation of digital assets.

In the context of the current SARS-COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing process of digitalisation of education has become a prominent area for social, financial and, increasingly, (critical) educational research. Higher education, as a pivotal social, economic, technological and educational domain, has seen its activities drastically affected, and Universities and the multitude of people involved in them have been forced to adapt to the unfolding crisis. HE researchers agree both on the unpreparedness of countries and institutions faced by the pandemic, and on its potential lasting impact on the educational sector (Goedegebuure and Meek, 2021). In as much as educational technologies (EdTech) have been brought to the fore due to their pivotal role in the enablement and continuation of educational practices across the globe, EdTech companies and investors have also become primary financial beneficiaries of these necessary processes of digitalisation. The extensive use and adoption of EdTech to bridge the gap between HE professionals and students due to the application of strict social distancing measures has been welcomed by investors as an opportunity for EdTech to establish themselves as key players within an educational landscape under a process of assetisation (Komljenovic, 2020, 2021). Investors and EdTech are scaffolding new digital markets in HE, reshaping the conceptualisation of universities, HE and the sector itself more generally (Williamson, 2021; Komljenovic and Robertson, 2016). In this brief entry, I focus on EdTech investors’ discourses, owing to the potential of such discourses to shape the future of educational practices broadly speaking.

Within the ‘Universities and Unicorns’ ESRC-funded project, this exploratory research (see full report) aimed at unveiling the ideological uses of linguistic, visual and multimodal devices (eg texts and charts) deployed by EdTech investors in a variety of texts that have the potential, due to their circulation and goals, to shape public understandings of the role of Educational Technologies in the unfolding crisis. The research was conducted deploying a framework anchored in Linguistics, specifically cognitive-based approaches to Critical Discourse Studies (CL-CDS; eg Mármol Queraltó, 2021b). A central assumption in this approach is that language encodes construal: the same event/situation can be alternatively linguistically formulated, and these can have diverse cognitive effects in readers (Hart, 2011). From a CL-CDS perspective, then, texts can potentially shape the way that the public think (and subsequently act) about social topics (cf Watters, 2015).

In order to extract the ideologies underlying discourse practices carried out by HE investors, we examined qualitatively a variety of texts disseminated in the public and semi-private domains. We investigated, for example, HolonIQ’s explanatory charts, interviews with professionals and blog entries (eg Charles MacIntyre, Alex Latsis, Jan Lynn-Matern), and global financial reports by IBIS Capital, BrightEye Ventures, and EdTechX, among several others. Our main goal was to better understand how EdTech investors operationalised discourse to shape the imageries of the future in the relationship between HE institutions, EdTech and governance. In line with CDS approaches, we examined the representations of social actors in context using van Leeuwen’s (2008) framework, and more in line with CL-CDS, we also operationalised the analysis of metaphorical expressions indexing Conceptual Metaphors, and Force dynamics. Force-dynamics is an essential tool deployed to examine how the tensions between actors and processes within business discourse are constructed (see Oakley, 2005).

Our study yielded important findings for the critical examination of discourse processes within the EdTech-HE-governance triangle of influences. In terms of social actor representation (whose examination also included metaphor), the main findings are:

  • EdTech investors and companies are rendered as opaque, abstract collectives, and are positively represented as ‘enablers’ and ‘disruptors’ of educational processes.
  • Governments are rendered as generic, collective entities, and depicted as necessary funders of process of digital transformation.
  • Universities or HE institutions are mainly negatively represented as potential ‘blockers’ of processes of digital transformation, and they are depicted as failing their students due to their lack of scalability and flexibility.
  • Individuals within HE institutions are identified as numbers and increasing percentages within unified collectives, students routinely cast as beneficiaries in ‘consumer’ and ‘user’ roles, while educators are activated as ‘content providers’.
  • Metaphorically, the EdTech sector is conceptualised as a ‘ship’ on a ‘journey’ towards profit, where HE institutions can be ‘obstacles along a path’ and the global pandemic and other push factors are conceptualised as ‘tailwinds’.
  • The EdTech market is conceptualised as a ‘living organism’ that grows and evolves independent of the actors involved in it. The visual representations observed reinforce these patterns and emphasise the growth of the EdTech market in very positive terms.

The formulation of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors is also essential to understand the discursively constructed ‘internal tensions’ within the sector. In order to examine these factors, we operationalised Force-dynamics analysis and metaphor, which allowed us to arrive to the following findings:

  • Push factors identified by investors driving the EdTech sector include the SARS-COVID19 global pandemic, the digital acceleration being experienced in the sector prior to the pandemic, the increasing number of students requiring access to HE, and investors’ actions aimed at disrupting the EdTech market.
  • Pull factors encouraging investment in the sector are conceptualised in the shape of financial predictions. The visions put forward by EdTech investors become instrumental in the achievement of those predictions.
  • The representation of the global pandemic is ambivalent and it is rendered both as a negative factor affecting societies and as a positive factor for the EdTech sector. The primary focus is on the positive outcomes of the disruption brought about by the pandemic.
  • Educational platforms are foregrounded in their enabling role and replace HE institutions as site for educational practice, de-localising educational practices from physical universities.
  • Students and educators are found to be increasingly reframed as ‘users’ and ‘content providers’, respectively. This discursive shift is potentially indicative of the new processes of assetisation of HE.

On the whole, framing business within the ‘journey’ metaphor entails that any entities or processes affecting business are potentially conceptualised as ‘obstacles along the path’, and therefore attributed negative connotations. In our case, those entities (eg governments and HE institutions) or processes (eg lack of funding) that metaphorically ‘stand in the way of business’ are automatically framed in a negative light, potentially affording a negative reception by the audience and therefore legitimising actions designed to remove those ‘obstacles’ (eg ‘disruptions’). EdTech companies and investors are represented very positively as ‘enablers’ of educational practices disrupted by the SARS-COVID19 pandemic, but also as ‘push factors’ in processes of digital acceleration within the ‘speed of action is speed of motion’ metaphor. In the premised, ever-growing EdTech sector, those actors and processes that ‘slow down’ access to profits (or processes providing access to profit) are similarly negatively represented. The conceptualisation of the SARS-COVID-19 global pandemic in this context reflects ‘calculated ambivalence’. This ambivalence was expected, as portraying the pandemic solely as a relatively positive factor for the HE sector would be in extreme detriment to EdTech investors’ activities. Our findings reflect that, while the global pandemic is initially represented as a very negative factor greatly disrupting societies and businesses, those negative impacts tend to be presented in rather vague ways and in most occasions the result of the disruption brought about by the pandemic is reduced to changes in the modality of education experienced by learners (from in-person to online education). We have found no significant mention of social or personal impacts of the pandemic (eg deaths and scenarios affecting underrepresented social groups), where the focus has been mainly on the market and the activities within it. Conversely, while the initial framing of the pandemic is inherently negative, we have seen in several examples above that the pandemic is subtly instrumentalised as a ‘push factor’, which serves to accelerate digital transformation and is hence a positive factor for the EdTech sector. In a global context of restrictions, containment measures and vaccine rollouts, it is especially ideologically relevant to find the pandemic instrumentalised as a ‘catalyst’, or as an important player in a ‘experiment of global proportions’. Framing the pandemic in such ways detaches the audience from its negative connotations, and serves to depict EdTech companies and investors as involved in high-level, complex processes that abstract the millions of diverse victims to the pandemic. Ultimately, in the ‘journey’ towards profit, the SARS-COVID-19 is a desired push factor, also realised as a ‘tailwind’, which facilitates the desired digital acceleration.

On the whole, our research demonstrated that social actor representation and the distinction between push/pull factors are crucial sites for the analysis of EdTech discourse. EdTech’s primary focus is on the positive outcomes of the disruption brought about by the pandemic. In this context, educational platforms are foregrounded in their enabling role and replace HE institutions as site for educational practice, de-localising educational practices from physical universities. Subsequently, students and educators are found to be increasingly reframed as ‘users’ and ‘content providers’ respectively. We argue that this subtle discursive shift is potentially indicative of the new processes of assetization of HE and reflects more broadly a neoliberal logic.

Javier Mármol Queraltó is a PhD candidate in Linguistics in Lancaster University. His current research deals with the multimodal representations of discourses of migration in the British and Spanish online press. He advocates a Cognitive Linguistic Approach to Critical Discourse Studies (CL-CDS), and is working on a methodology that can shed light on how public perceptions of social issues might be influenced by both the multimodal constraints of online newspaper discourse and our shared cognitive capacities. He is also interested in the multimodal and cognitive dimensions of discourses of Brexit outside the UK, news discourses of social unrest, and the marketisation/assetisation processes of HE.


Leave a comment

Understanding the value of EdTech in higher education

by Morten Hansen

This blog is a re-post of an article first published on universityworldnews.com. It is based on a presentation to the 2021 SRHE Research Conference, as part of a Symposium on Universities and Unicorns: Building Digital Assets in the Higher Education Industry organised by the project’s principal investigator, Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster). The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged. The project introduces new ways to think about and examine the digitalising of the higher education sector. It investigates new forms of value creation and suggests that value in the sector increasingly lies in the creation of digital assets.

EdTech companies are, on average, priced modestly, although some have earned strong valuations. We know that valuation practices normally reflect investors’ belief in a company’s ability to make money in the future. We are, however, still learning about how EdTech generates value for users, and how to take account of such value in the grand scheme of things.


Valuation and deployment of user-generated data

EdTech companies are not competing with the likes of Google and Facebook for advertisement revenue. That is why phrases such as ‘you are the product’ and ‘data is the new oil’ yield little insight when applied to EdTech. For EdTech companies, strong valuations hinge on the idea that technology can bring use value to learners, teachers and organisations – and that they will eventually be willing to pay for such benefits, ideally in the form of a subscription. EdTech companies try to deliver use value in multiple ways, such as deploying user-generated data to improve their services. User-generated data are the digital traces we leave when engaging with a platform: keyboard strokes and mouse movements, clicks and inactivity.


The value of user-generated data in higher education

The gold standard for unlocking the ‘value’ of user-generated data is to bring about an activity that could otherwise not have arisen. Change is brought about through data feedback loops. Loops consist of five stages: data generation, capture, anonymisation, computation and intervention. Loops can be long and short.


For example, imagine that a group of students is assigned three readings for class. Texts are accessed and read on an online platform. Engagement data indicate that all students spent time reading text 1 and text 2, but nobody read text 3. As a result of this insight, come next semester, text 3 is replaced by a more ‘engaging’ text. That is a long feedback loop.


Now, imagine that one student is reading one text. The platform’s machine learning programme generates a rudimentary quiz to test comprehension. Based on the students’ answers, further readings are suggested or the student is encouraged to re-read specific sections of the text. That is a short feedback loop.


In reality, most feedback loops do not bring about activity that could not have happened otherwise. It is not like a professor could not learn, through conversation, which texts are better liked by students, what points are comprehended, and so on. What is true, though, is that the basis and quality of such judgments shifts. Most importantly, so does the cost structure that underpins judgment.


The more automated feedback loops are, the greater the economy of scale. ‘Automation’ refers to the decoupling of additional feedback loops from additional labour inputs. ‘Economies of scale’ means that the average cost of delivering feedback loops decreases as the company grows.


Proponents of machine learning and other artificial intelligence approaches argue that the use value of feedback loops improves with scale: the more users engage in the back-and-forth between generating data, receiving intervention and generating new data, the more precise the underlying learning algorithms become in predicting what interventions will ‘improve learning’.


The platform learns and grows with us

EdTech platforms proliferate because they are seen to deliver better value for money than the human-centred alternative. Cloud-based platforms are accessed through subscriptions without transfer of ownership. The economic relationship is underwritten by law and continued payment is legitimated through the feedback loops between humans and machines: the platform learns and grows with us, as we feed it.


Machine learning techniques certainly have the potential to improve the efficiency with which we organise certain learning activities, such as particular types of student assessment and monitoring. However, we do not know which values to mobilise when judging intervention efficacy: ‘value’ and ‘values’ are different things.


In everyday talk, we speak about ‘value’ when we want to justify or critique a state of affairs that has a price: is the price right, too low, or too high? We may disagree on the price, but we do agree that something is for sale. At other times we reject the idea that a thing should be for sale, like a family heirloom, love or education. If people tell us otherwise, we question their values. This is because values are about relationships and politics.


When we ask about the values of EdTech in higher education, we are really asking: what type of relations do we think are virtuous and appropriate for the institution? What relationships are we forging and replacing between machines and people, and between people and people?


When it comes to the application of personal technology we have valued convenience, personalisation and seamlessness by forging very intimate but easily forgettable machine-human relations. This could happen in the EdTech space as well. Speech-to-text recognition, natural language processing and machine vision are examples of how bonds can be built between humans and computers, aiding feedback loops by making worlds of learning computable.


Deciding on which learning relations to make computable, I argue, should be driven by values. Instead of seeing EdTech as a silver bullet that simply drives learning outcomes, it is more useful to think of it as technology that mediates learning relations and processes: what relationships do we value as important for students and when is technology helpful and unhelpful in establishing those? In this way, values can help us guide the way we account for the value of edtech.

Morten Hansen is a research associate on the Universities and Unicorns project at Lancaster University, and a PhD student at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. Hansen specialises in education markets and has previously worked as a researcher at the Saïd Business School in Oxford.


Leave a comment

Beware efficiencies! Assetisation as the future defraying of costs savings in the present

by Kean Birch

This blog is based on a presentation to the 2021 SRHE Research Conference, as part of a Symposium on Universities and Unicorns: Building Digital Assets in the Higher Education Industry organised by the project’s principal investigator, Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster). The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged. The project introduces new ways to think about and examine the digitalising of the higher education sector. It investigates new forms of value creation and suggests that value in the sector increasingly lies in the creation of digital assets.

What makes learning more efficient? And what makes teaching more effective? According to EdTech providers and their champions, it is the digital transformation of higher education. The consulting company Gartner – which releases regular EdTech industry reports – defines this transformation as a shift from a ‘collectively-defined’ quality model in which universities provide their services – theoretically – to anyone, to a model in which quality is personally defined and delivered at scale through MOOCs or other means. In fact, Gartner emphasize the importance of EdTech providing scalable technologies for ensuring ‘cost effective education for the benefit of society’. And this seems to be the concern of many EdTech firms themselves; they aim to provide technologies that make life and work more efficient and effective for higher education institutions, managers, faculty, students, and staff.

But what does this actually mean?

I am part of a project, led by Dr Janja Komljenovic, looking at how value is increasingly being created in the higher education sector through the transformation of ‘things’ into digital and other assets – it could be students’ data, it could be research, it could be lectures, and so on. Part of our concern about these changes is the way they can end up reconfiguring societal, public, or commonly held resources as private assets from which companies can exact an economic rent. An important reason for examining this assetisation process is to analyse exactly how things are turned into private assets as a way to open them up to public scrutiny, and political intervention, should we so desire. While assets are constituted by legal forms, like property rights, and technical changes, like digital rights management, they are also the result of broader narratives about how we should or should not understand the world. Epistemic justifications matter. The World Economic Forum highlights what I mean here. They support the deployment of education technology as a way to “create better systems and data flows”. And this means more efficient and effective learning and teaching. But, what does efficiency and effectiveness mean in the case of higher education?

As we have interviewed EdTech providers in our project, we have noticed how they emphasize ‘efficiency’ as one of the key contributions of their technology, where this seems to be equated with producing an outcome at lower cost, whereas this is understood – in common sense terms – as doing something ‘better’ than before. It is important to see how the concept of efficiency is enrolled in the transformation of higher education into a range of assets. Assetisation in higher education depends on the development and promotion of a set of analytics that can identify efficiencies, understood as cost savings that someone or some institution can benefit from. Key to this assetisation process is the characterisation of efficiency as a common-sense goal for universities, managers, faculty, students, staff, and governments; in fact, efficiency can appear to be the very thing that education technologies are turning into an asset. For example, making it cheaper for students to study by enabling them to rent their textbooks, rather than have to buy them. Or making it cheaper for universities to pay subscription only for those electronic texts – or even parts of those texts – that are actually read and used by their staff and students. But this raises an important question: how do EdTech companies make money, if they are simply reducing costs all around?

EdTech companies look to the future for their success. Assets are temporal entities, entailing the creation of a stream of future revenues that can be capitalised in the present, thereby enabling investors to put a value to them that does not depend on being profitable now, or even generate significant revenues now. Efficiencies in the present often end up as defrayed costs in the future as those cost savings today compound into increased revenues for someone (eg EdTech) in the future. The future revenue expectations of EdTech companies come from the illusion of efficiency as cost savings at this point in time; for example, students can save on textbooks now but will be induced to subscribe to lifelong learning resources, or their personal data might be exploited in the future in multiple ways, or their reading habits will be used to sell something to universities, or any manner of revenue generating schemes. Someone is paying in the future.

EdTech companies have to make money somehow, and how they make money is the interesting question. Ideas about the current and future state of higher education and EdTech matter as they provide imaginaries of what is possible and desirable, which we discuss in this report. Claims to efficiency are part of how they make money; they are part of the way that EdTech companies construct new asset classes out of universities and their students, faculty, and staff. Interrogating how these supposed efficiencies are monetised is critical for getting a grip on the implications of EdTech for higher education in the longer term. It is essential we analyse this dynamic now to allow for timely public scrutiny, democratic debate and social intervention.

Kean Birch is Associate Professor at York University, Canada. He is particularly interested in understanding technoscientific capitalism and draws on a range of perspectives from science & technology studies, economic geography, and economic sociology to study it. More specifically, his research focuses on the restructuring and transformation of the economy & financial knowledges, technoscience & technoscientific innovation, and the relationship between markets & natural environments. Currently, he is researching how different things (e.g. knowledge, personality, loyalty, etc.) are turned into ‘assets’ & how economic rents are then captured from those assets – basically, in processes of assetisation and rentiership.


Leave a comment

Mapping financial investment flows in digital higher education: a focus on data-rich operations

by Janja Komljenovic

This blog is based on a presentation to the 2021 SRHE Research Conference, as part of a Symposium on Universities and Unicorns: Building Digital Assets in the Higher Education Industry organised by the project’s principal investigator, Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster). The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged. The project introduces new ways to think about and examine the digitalising of the higher education sector. It investigates new forms of value creation and suggests that value in the sector increasingly lies in the creation of digital assets.

Universities worldwide are increasingly interested in digital technologies and how they can support higher education. A recent study by the European University Association found that most European universities are already using or planning to use data-rich products and services, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, learning analytics, big data, and the internet of things (see Figure 18 on page 36). Indeed, it is precisely these data-rich operations that are central to the idea of the disruptive potential of education technology (edtech), as argued by my colleague, Javier Mármol Queraltó, in the recent UU project report. The discourse of investors and edtech companies promises thoroughly improved higher education based on personalisation, automation and efficiency. But how deliverable are these promises? Who innovates in the space of data-rich operations, for which services and for which users? Who profits? These are some of the questions we address in the Universities and Unicorns project, which aims to understand forms of value and ways of creating it in digital higher education. In this blog post, I will address three possible trends that can be identified from the interim findings of our quantitative analysis. But before proceeding to discuss these trends, I will contextualise our analysis.

We used Crunchbase to build three databases covering 2,012 edtech companies, 1,120 investors in edtech, and 1,962 edtech investment deals. We identified those relevant to the higher education sector, and our data reflects the state of the sector as of July 2021. Based on this analysis, we identified four key service models in the higher education edtech industry. First, the business to business (B2B) model includes digital platforms serving universities and companies, such as virtual learning environments. Second, the business to customer (B2C) model includes platforms targeting individuals directly. Third, the business to business to customer (B2B2C) model serves institutions that use or further develop the platform to reach individuals, such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) or Online Programme Management platforms (OPM). Finally, the business to the customer to customer (B2C2C) model includes platforms that connect individuals, such as skills and knowledge sharing platforms. B2B2C and B2C2C platforms, in particular, act as the kind of infrastructural intermediaries that are so popular in other sectors of our social and economic lives.

Our analysis found that half of all investment went into B2B platforms, followed by investment into B2C, while B2C2C and B2B2C together received just under a quarter of all investment. However, platforms with the fastest pace of increasing investment are those targeting individuals directly or through intermediation, ie B2C and B2C2C models. This might indicate emerging parallel or alternative higher education products and services that compete with traditional university provision, especially in the context of lifelong learning.

Digital platforms that say they incorporate data-rich operations in their products and services are not the priority area for investors. While we noticed an increasing investment in data-rich platforms, it was still only less than a quarter of all investment going into innovating such products. Nevertheless, we identified three possible trends that are especially worthy of our attention: (1) data-rich operations are being innovated largely in B2B platforms; (2) there is notable unevenness in terms of the location of edtech companies and investments in those platforms who innovate in data-rich operations; and (3) there might be potential for monopolies in data-rich innovation. Let’s delve into each of these possible trends.

Almost all investment in the companies developing data-rich operations in their platforms went to the B2B service model. Looking only at higher education institutions as the target customer, already half of the investment supports data-rich innovation. Most of that went into platforms that act as the institutional digital backbone, indicating that the intention might be to support all institutional functions beyond teaching with data-rich operations, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and various kinds of analytics beyond learning analytics. There seems to be a trend towards data-rich digital ecosystems at universities that harvest all user and other data in the near future.

There is high unevenness in where the investment in data-rich platforms is allocated. Regarding the number of companies, 239 in our database declare that they offer data-rich operations on their platforms. Almost half of those (101) are based in the USA, 21 in the UK and 19 in India. Companies based in Africa are entirely missing from the list. In terms of investment amounts, 88% of all investment in companies offering data-rich services in their platforms went into companies based in the USA, 3% each to those based in Norway and the UK, and 6% to the rest of the world. The discrepancy between the number of companies and investment size indicates that investment amounts are higher in the USA than elsewhere in the world.

Finally, if we compare different indicators of investment in companies that innovate data-rich solutions for higher education institutions, we notice interesting dynamics. Looking at the money raised, half of B2B investment went into those companies with a platform that included data-rich operations. But this is only 30% of deals and 25% of companies. This indicates that the concentration of investment in data-rich operation platforms for higher education institutions goes into a smaller number of companies who get higher investments. We wonder if this signals potential for monopolies in the future. Moreover, if we compare granted patents, we notice that a higher percentage of companies offering data-rich solution platforms own patents (30%) versus those offering other kinds of service or product platforms (10%). Digital platforms are typically still protected by a licence, but that differs from a more restrictive patent protection. We wonder if such discrepancy in patent share might indicate black-boxing of data-rich operations in higher education?

Our research on digitalising higher education is showing the complex impact of digital technology and datafication on the sector. This impact includes potential positive and supportive measures, but also many potentially worrying trends. However, further research is needed into these trends and the role of different actors, particularly financial investors and edtech companies. Please follow our project in which we will share the findings from this further work as it unfolds.

Janja Komljenovic is a Senior Lecturer and co-Director of the Higher Education Research and Evaluation at Lancaster University in the UK. She is also a Research Management Committee member of the Global Centre for Higher Education with headquarters at the University of Oxford. Janja’s research focuses on the political economy of knowledge production and higher education markets. She is especially interested in the relationship between the digital economy and the higher education sector; and in digitalisation, datafication and platformisation of knowledge production and dissemination. Janja is published internationally on higher education policy, markets and education technology.



Leave a comment

Dupery by Design

by Petar Jandrić

Since the election of a number of right-wing populist governments across the world, there have been increasing concerns that fake news in online platforms is undermining the legitimacy of the press, the democratic process, and the authority of sources such as science, the social sciences and qualified experts. The global reach of Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms has shown that they can be used to spread fake and misleading news quickly and seemingly without control. In addition to their power and reach, these platforms operate, and indeed thrive, in what seems to be an increasingly balkanised media eco-system where networks of users will predominantly access and consume information that conforms to their existing worldviews. Conflicting positions, even if relevant and authoritative, can be suppressed, discredited or overlooked as a result of filter bubbles and echo chambers.

Digital technologies have contributed to the prolific spread of false information, encouraged ignorance in online news consumers, and fostered confusion about how to determine fact from fiction. These same technologies have, however, permitted marginalised voices to be heard (transgender and autistic communities, victims of street harassment, for example), encouraged diversity, facilitated error detection and investigative accountability, and challenged privilege and prejudice. This opens up myriad questions such as:

  • How are online platforms designed to exploit particular vices such as close-mindedness, epistemic nihilism, insouciance, etc. and contribute to the power and dissemination of deception?
  • Deception: what is it? Is there anything peculiar about the times in which we live that should raise special concerns about the proliferation of fake news, lies, bullshit and other such vices online?
  • How do our individual and collective epistemologies interact with digital technologies to produce deceit?
  • How can we counter epistemic vices online, and protect ourselves and our institutions from their potentially baneful effects?
  • Can deception ever be justified? Is there anything to be learned from mass propaganda and deceit in other historical periods?

The epistemology of deceit in a postdigital era

To address these and related questions, Alison MacKenzie, Jennifer Rose, and Ibrar Bhatt have edited a book The Epistemology of Deceit in a Postdigital Era: Dupery by Design. The book offers strong theoretical and philosophical insight into how digital platforms and their constituent algorithms interact with belief systems to achieve deception, and how related vices such as lies, bullshit, misinformation, disinformation, and ignorance contribute to deception. This inter-disciplinary collection explores how we can better understand and respond to these problematic practices.

Continuing editors’ earlier work in the Special Issue of Postdigital Science and Education, ‘Lies, Bullshit and Fake News Online: Should We Be Worried?’, the contributors to the collection discuss the diverse ways in which deception is a pervasive feature of our communicative lives. Among the issues explored are how the design and infrastructure of digital platforms enable (or disable us from distinguishing between) what is true and truthful; fake or real; informative, disinformative or misinformative, malinformative, and other such information disorders. The scale of the dupery impacts on human rights, individual freedoms and dignity, agency and autonomy, in addition to the harms mentioned above.

The role of higher education is critical within this context, as universities have traditionally been regarded as sites of epistemic authority where knowledge is created and disseminated through the work of academics and theoretically grounded systems of teaching. Recent trends have shown that universities market the idea that an education through them will create ‘future-ready’, ‘globally-aware’ and ‘critically-thinking’ graduates, equipped with the relevant skills and knowledge to deal with issues facing our modern world, including public health crises, climate change and conflict.

The book was launched at a successful SRHE event held on 16 March 2021, in which editors, authors, and more than 100 members of the public engaged in a vivid discussion.

What is next?

These days, there is really interesting research taking place in different fields about post-truth and online deceit. Closer to higher education, and interesting example is Michael A Peters, Sharon Rider, Mats Hyvönen, and Tina Besley’s popular book Post-Truth, Fake News: Viral Modernity & Higher Education, which discusses the meaning and purpose of higher education in a ‘post-truth’ world.

Aided by a unifying postdigital theoretical framework which holds that human beings are systematically embedded in digital infrastructures, Alison MacKenzie, Jennifer Rose, and Ibrar Bhatt in The Epistemology of Deceit in a Postdigital Era: Dupery by Design make a unique contribution by reaching interdisciplinary boundaries to explore, examine and counter online deception, and analysing the power of social platforms and their role in the proliferation of epistemic harms. This line of inquiry is in its early days, and it will be very interesting to see where it will develop in the future.

Petar Jandrić is a Professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Zagreb (Croatia), Visiting Professor at the University of Wolverhampton (UK), and Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Zagreb (Croatia). His research interests are focused to the intersections between critical pedagogy and information and communication technologies. He co-authored the chapter ‘Scallywag Pedagogy’ with Peter McLaren (Chapman University, California) in Post-Truth, Fake News: Viral Modernity & Higher Education. pjandric@tvz.hr


Leave a comment

Digital agility: how a Humanities department’s pre-Covid strategy enabled lockdown operations

by Nathan Loewen

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The author’s statement can be found here.

My department was ready for “2020”. Not because we anticipated a pandemic in 2019. Nor because our courses were all online. A more pertinent reason was the matter of brand identity. ‘Religious Studies’ is not a US high school subject. College applications rarely include religious studies as the planned major. To retain its place in the pre-COVID university, my department started making a shift in the study of religion over a decade ago (see Implicit Religion). Some of the tacit knowledge and skills base required for the post-pandemic university were cultivated in part by sharing the tasks of creating media that point to and from the department website.

Going Public Online

What does it mean for academia to be ‘online’ in the sense of being public? Some sort of stable, unified entity is probably essential for most academics to continue their employment. Solidarity can be found in all sorts of places. Most social theories explain, however, the fragility of allegiances without institutional structures. But if higher education institutions are in crises of enrolment (pre-2020), endowments, much less a pandemic, Quit-Lit might not be the best collective way forward. There’s an opportunity for departments to think about modalities of coalescence. This piece focuses on the practical advantages of a department going public online as a measure towards securing the futures of its academics. “REL,” the term used for the department, adopts claims from theorists like Francois Bayart to purposely fabricate its public identity.

The constituency of a university is not limited to students and their parents. The University of Nebraska English Department isn’t likely alone in the political scrutiny of their website. At REL, there is pointing back and forth between the website and the department’s Facebook, TwitterInstagramVimeo, and SoundCloud (as well as projects such as Culture on the Edge and American Examples). Service responsibilities for these platforms are distributed across the department. Elected representatives and the general public can easily find what’s going on in the classroom and faculty research. The University’s shift to ‘limited business operations’ on March 17 was handled in stride partly due to the department’s identity fabrication approach to online platforms and digital tools. While monthly meetings through the summer established a consistent approach to teaching remotely, the stable location to advertise this approach was already in-play.

Publicly pragmatic

The above suggests there are pragmatic advantages to going online in order to go public. While ‘public humanities’ has a 50-year history in the United States, principles discovered there haven’t made it to department websites. Content should be written strategically to develop an audience. Jessie Stommell’s remarks about public humanities may be applied to the departmental website: doing public work is different from making academic work public. Online presence may be more than quick blurbs about courses, images of plucky students and faculty bios with informal photos from faraway places. XKCD made this point a decade ago. Post-pandemic academic departments might reconsider its point

It’s not just that departments ‘need social media.’ Rather, establishing an online presence may help academics and their departments realize a public-centred pedagogy that pays off in strategic planning. There is likely a correlation between the potential to engage the public and cultivating positive relationships with university administrators. An active online presence and online teaching are rarely paired together. Administrators likely think that ‘going online’ likely means ‘online teaching,’ where conventional higher-ed wisdom sees online teaching as an alternate revenue stream critical to their long-term strategic plans (eg 2013 Babson Report).

Broadly speaking, that thinking structurally alienates academics. Online courses – and their revenues – are usually housed outside departments. Online FTEs are rarely counted in faculty course loads or promotion. In the 2020-2021 academic year, however, the term “massive” is no longer connected to “online” via wishful thinking for university revenues. Overcoming the 75% faculty resistance to teaching online isn’t a stroke of managerial genius or a book about disruption (I used to think I was innovative to urge making use of our classroom portals through collaborative, globally-networked pedagogy. That moment of novelty is over). The urgency of this semester is an opportunity for academics within departments to make use of their new skills to develop an active online presence that supports their teaching.

Hacking Education

How might the shift to remote teaching be gamed and hacked to drive the interests of a department? Audrey Watters’ Hack Education blog continually reminds us to take a critical approach to education and technology. One answer is to employ those new skills to shift emphasis towards a public-oriented, online pedagogical strategy. A useful location to do so is through the department website.

Individual scholarly websites are not likely to serve the long-term interests of post-pandemic academia. They do have the advantage of developing a personalised approach to research and teaching. When maintained with a regular workflow, there is much potential for dynamic content development that serves an individual’s teaching. Their liabilities include issues of narrow topical focus and significant costs of individual time and money. Department websites, on the other hand, have the same potential to situate all the above in a wider context of that can more easily reference each other. Additionally, departmental websites can be useful to protect its people who invest in public scholarship, too.

We will survive

When the shift to remote learning took place, REL’s faculty already had shared, basic skills applying their knowledge of critical cultural theory to web design, image manipulation, layout, audio and video production, network and cloud file sharing and collaborative project work. They were already teaching themselves and their students how to engage a variety of publics. The department had long been asking the questions posed in James M Van Wyck’s 2018 review of English department websites:

  • Who is our audience?
  • What does this page need to say and do?
  • What kind of writing is called for in the moment? That is, how do we engage a skeptical public, members of which walk our halls, perhaps as they consider majoring in [X area of study]?

The original objective of REL’s going online remains. The website is a resource to shape the department’s academic persona. Linking that site to other online platforms increases the ability to reach a variety of audiences with specific narratives. We now teach this approach as a core course in our recently-launched graduate program. By March 2020, that history of faculty participation in online, public pedagogy developed a collective knowledge and skills base that simplified the shift to remote teaching. The take-away here for other departments may be the importance of leveraging their websites as an internal strategy for academic continuity.

Nathan RB Loewen is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, USA. Loewen teaches on philosophy of religion, Asian studies, and digital/public humanities. Loewen co-organizes the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion project. His current research applies machine learning to support qualitative scholarship on cross-cultural religious studies.


Leave a comment

The creepy university: professorial zombies and Zoom zombies

by Jeremy Hunsinger

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The author’s statement can be found here.

It is no longer our classrooms as creepy treehouses, but our universities have become creepy.  This paper argues that in the post-pandemic, we are faced with the creepy university.  The new normal of medical surveillance, social surveillance, involuntary publicity, and worse, combined with imposed technological choices and related issues, transforms and expands the creepy treehouse phenomena to encompass the whole university.  The post-pandemic university is creepy. Beyond that level of creepy, it is surrounded by various zombies perpetuating its creepiness. 

Contemporary ‘neoliberal’ universities in the post-pandemic are a shambling, groaning mess of dead bureaucratic impetus driven by the pandemic institution’s expired demands. The trajectories of the pandemic shamble onward through the action and inaction of non-faculty governance. Combined with that is the zombified information of dead lectures with their im/precise and de/contextualised knowledge published to various media sites by universities, professors, and students alike. They are the life of the occasionally found document, speaking their situated pandemic knowledges only when stumbled-upon. The post-pandemic university is full of mobilized knowledge that is perpetually escaping through a spectrum of fantastically good to fantastically horrible possibilities. As such, creepiness exudes, choices forced, choices unforced, have remade elements of the university outside of itself, dragging along as part of its new zombified self. 

A creepy treehouse is when a faculty member chooses a technology they prefer because of their history with it and forces the students, against their comfort, to use that technology in the classroom. The technology almost always has elements that creep the students out, such as invasions of privacy, surveillance, cultural difference, or otherwise. The creepy university is the future of the university. 

It is evidenced by the pervasiveness of the pedagogical form of life we find in our digital university environments, especially in Zoom environments. The Zoom Zombie, a person who is there, but not there; there is only the appearance of presence.  Zoom has become the killer app of the university’s remote administration, and shortly after it; it was introduced as the killer app of online lecturing.  Anyone who has participated in enough classrooms has seen classroom zombies, students who are completely turned off.  Similarly, Zoom zombies are prevalent both in online Zoom classrooms and in other meetings. The manifestation of this human response as not being ‘there’ in the face-to-face classroom has been extended to not be there in zoom meetings.

Nevertheless, Zoom Zombies are not the only elements of zombification of the university.  Neoliberal zombies are present along with their professional representatives.  But that is another argument. I want to present a few other forms of zombies. One is the professorial zombie, the professor or instructor who is physically and mentally exhausted, overburdened with their increasingly excessive responsibilities such that their capacity to act beyond the minimum necessary is limited. Their passion has waned, as has their reasoning combined with their capacity to perform their job due to increased workload and stress. The professorial zombies’ numbers are increasing, and they are not increasing equitably or fairly.  As one would expect, this zombification affects some minorities much more than others, and with that zombification, an increasing number of faculty are lost. Zombified faculty exist; you probably meet them every day. They learned to blend in, to hide their zombified state long ago, likely in graduate school.

Another type of zombification mentioned above briefly is the lesson or teaching period as zombified knowledge.  The knowledge produced and shared by the faculty is usually distributed online, out there and dead, but alive.  It might be outdated, it might have errors, it might be well done or not well done, it might be produced by the university, by the faculty member, or recorded by the students, but in any case, this knowledge is on the internet available for people to use and see.  Zombified knowledge almost certainly exists out of the context of the whole course.  It certainly exists outside of the maintenance and correction by the professor in the course. It is knowledge mobilized, not autonomously but by the public who find it, learn it and use it. It represents the university, much as the faculty member is some representation of the university. 

Teaching, as almost everyone knows, is a performance that relies on its audience for feedback. When we consider the zombies defined above, we can quickly see that the form of online education became creepy long ago. The university is full of zombies, and the zombies are creeping along stuck in their modes of existence, unable to do anything but what the zombie has done. This situation creates the creepy university, the post-pandemic university because it will take years to recover from the pandemic. It will follow many faculty until they retire, stories will linger even after all of the retirements, and the university’s relations to its members will never be the same. The post-pandemic university is one of overwork, surveillance, bureaucratization, automation, and in each of those a lack of consent by those participating in the form.

As more people are forced to participate in more uncomfortable and creepy experiences, more people become zombies. The professor becomes a face on a screen, perhaps a recording, the students are becoming a recording, or otherwise performing as a recording, a zombie. The online university needs to reconsider technological choice and inclusion more deeply to avoid becoming a creepy university full of zombies.

Jeremy Hunsinger is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.  His research is in critical internet studies and the politics of knowledge. He has been teaching university students online and off for over twenty years.

Image of Rob Cuthbert


Leave a comment

Axe S?

By Rob Cuthbert

People on both sides argue passionately about what they see as the biggest change in their working lifetimes. The present situation is flawed, but some believe the best way forward is to work within the system for continuing improvement. However others believe with equal passion that the best way is to crash out, with no deal for the big unaccountable bureaucracy on the continent. The European Commission is heavily involved. The debate has run for years, but then the powers that be announced that they would implement a phased transition to completely new trading arrangements. Battle lines were drawn and both sides dug in for a conflict which so far shows no sign of resolution.

Plan S is higher education’s version of Brexit. It may not have generated quite as much media coverage as that unreal thing, but it has its full share of intransigent minorities, suspicion on all sides, special pleading, accusations that the elite is merely looking after its own interests, and claims that a voiceless majority will be the ones who suffer the most.

Everyone is in favour of open access, in much the same way as everyone is in favour of free trade, but it turns out that neither concept is as clear-cut as it first appears. Academics’ guerrilla warfare campaign against what they saw as the exploitative practices of some publishers has now led to some major cancellations of contracts, the biggest and best-known being the decision by the University of California system to cancel its contract with Elsevier. Such legal opposition runs alongside illegal but massive file-sharing operations, the biggest being the Eastern-European based SciHub. Meanwhile the launch of open access journals such as PlosOne has not dented the supremacy of the major publishers: such journals may already have peaked with a very small proportion of the total publishing market.

Hence Plan S, an initiative by 13 European funders, the European Commission and charitable funders including Wellcome and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This group, known as cOAlition S, want all scientific publications arising from research they fund to be published in compliant open access journals or on compliant open access platforms from 2020. They launched a consultation on their proposals which generated a huge worldwide response from academics and academic publishers.

The UK entered the field early with the 2012 Finch Report (see SRHE News 9, July 2012), which controversially led government to choose Gold Open Access (OA) as its primary route, with the REF embodying this requirement. This means that ‘article processing charges’ (APCs) have to be paid up front, whether by the author(s), the institution or the research funder. It was envisaged that APCs would fall over time thanks to competition between publishers, but in fact there has been a 16% rise since then, as David Kernohan reported for WonkHE on 20 February 2019. The last-but-one HE Minister Jo Johnson asked Sussex VC Adam Tickell in 2016 to advise further – thatadvice and an Open Research Data Task Forcereporthave now been published. Kernohan reported that: “the UK hit 54% of outputs as OA in 2016, up from 15% in 2012. We are firmly on track to achieve the target. And there is substantial evidence that OA articles are downloaded more, cited more, and used more than their non-OA counterparts, both from journals and repositories.” The upfront cost of Gold OA is a clear disincentive for many researchers despite REF requirements: grants may not cover publication costs and research may be unfunded. The research councils currently provide block funding for APCs, but this is unlikely to be permanent, and Kernohan suggests total expenditure on APCs could triple in real terms from the 2016 figure, to £818million by 2028 if gold OA achieves 100% take-up. Something has to give, and a policy initiative is keenly awaited.

Robert Harington (American Mathematical Society) asked ‘Plan S: what about researchers?’ on the LSE Impact Blog on 17 January 2019. On 21 January 2019 University College London (UCL) said Plan S was “heavy-handed”, the Plan S coalition should engage more with universities and researchers, and the requirements of individual subject areas need to be more precisely understood, as Ashleigh Furlong reported for *Research on 21 January 2019.

Jeffrey Brainard wrote in Science on 25 January 2019 that scientific societies supported by journal subscriptions describe Plan S as “an existential threat … Many journals now follow a hybrid model, publishing individual papers open access for a fee but deriving most of their income from subscriptions … Plan S’s requirements will disproportionately hurt the journals that many societies publish … Such journals typically have high [APCs] … and the societies typically have lower profit margins than … commercial publishers … The largest, Elsevier, based in Amsterdam, publishes more than 2500 journal titles; scientific societies each publish at most a few dozen.”

Steven Inchcoombe of Springer Nature said Plan S might put Nature out of business, as Rachael Pells reported in Times Higher Education on 13 February 2019: “All the focus [of Plan S] is on the supply side and we think a lot more focus should be on demand – by which I mean the researchers themselves, and other funding agencies that are not yet signed up with Plan S”. Springer Nature then resorted to special pleading, saying titles such as Nature should be treated differently under Plan S: the cost per article of in-house professional editors and the high refusal rate means average APCs are between €10,000 and €30,000 (£8,770 and £26,300), which would be “very difficult” to recover via an article processing charge. 

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe (Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) summarised the tsunami of responses to the cOAlition S’ call for feedback on the Guidance on the Implementation of Plan S, writing for The Scholarly Kitchen blog on 11 February 2019, picking out seven themes:

  • Clear support for the transition to open access and the goals of Plan S.
  • Concern that the implementation guidance reflects models that work for STEM but will negatively impact HSS scholars.
  • The technical requirements for publication, repository, and other platforms are poorly thought out.
  • The predicted effects on small, independent, and society publishers raise concerns for the viability of these publishers.
  • Setting a fair and reasonable APC sounds fair and reasonable but it is also likely impossible.
  • Scholars and organizations in the Global South object to being told what they want.
  • The timelines are not feasible.

Martin Szomszor, Head of Research Analytics at the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), part of the Web of Science Group, blogged on 14 March 2019 for The Impact Blog about findings from ISI’s The Plan S footprint: Implications for the scholarly publishing landscape, asking four key questions:

  • Without carefully paced transition to allow for the emergence of new titles, is there a risk of unusual constraints and disjunctions in publishing opportunities in affected subjects? 
  • Might restructuring the spread of well-cited papers have unplanned contingent consequences?
  • How can the shift to Gold Open Access and associated APCs be managed equitably to protect the positions both of unfunded researchers in G20 economies and of a wider spread of authors in emergent research regions, especially given the collaborative nature of academia?
  • There are many small publishers, including those linked to learned societies, who publish an important part of the Plan S funded output in serials central to their discipline. Will transition be more difficult for them and, if so, can this be managed effectively but flexibly?

Jon Tennant (independent) wrote for The Impact Blog on 5 March 2019: “The whole point of Plan S was to disrupt the status quo and transform the world of scholarly publishing. If it yields to those who it is trying to disrupt, at the cost of the greater good, than that’s not exactly progress. Open Access is not a business model, so let us stop treating it as such. I believe that science can help us shape the world to be better, and can help solve the enormous problems that our planet currently faces. I do not believe that having it under the control of mega-corporations and elite individuals or institutes helps to realise this, or is in the principles of fundamental human rights.”

Richard Poynder (independent), who has been called the “chronicler, conscience, and gadfly laureate” of the Open Access movement, wrote for The Impact Blog on 6 March 2019: Plan S and the Global South – What do countries in the Global South stand to gain from signing up to Europe’s open access strategy? He noted thatPlan S raises challenging questions for the Global South … To succeed, Plan S will need other countries to commit to the initiative. To this end, Plan S architect Robert-Jan Smits spent considerable time last year lobbying funders around the world. But should countries in the Global South sign up? Perhaps not … legacy publishers would have little choice but to replace current subscription revenues with article-processing charges (APCs) … Plan S would lead to a near universal pay-to-publish system. APCs range in price from several hundred to over $5,000 per article. This is unfeasible for the Global South and so researchers would be excluded in a different (but more pernicious) way than they are under the subscription system: free to read research published in international journals but unable to publish in them.”

Clearly Plan S poses a host of difficult moral, ethical and financial challenges for all learned societies, including SRHE. Like most societies SRHE joined in a collective response from the Academy of Social Sciences response in February 2019, to which SRHE Director Helen Perkins contributed significantly. That response said:

“3. The AcSS supports the principle of open access as an important public benefit. A key question though is how best to implement this principle, and how to balance it against other principles (academic excellence, autonomy and freedom). Balancing open access is not just a question of balancing one principle against another but considering how in practice open access can be broadened, while not undermining the conditions for producing excellent research and ensuring that an appropriate degree of academic autonomy is supported.

4. Like many other respondents, the Academy of Social Science has concerns about the method and speed of implementation proposed both by cOAlition S and, in the UK, UKRI. We are concerned that these plans are still accompanied by little detail in many important areas, and little empirical evidence about possible effects on the wider systems and structures within which academic research in produced (as well as consumed), or of the effects on different disciplines. We do not believe that ‘Gold’ access is the best solution in all cases; we think that Green (and hybrid) journals are capable of meeting aspirations for wider access.

5. We believe that cOAlition S, and in the UK, UKRI and others, should engage more widely with a range of stakeholders to consider relevant evidence about systemic effects, looking also at distributional effects (between early career and established researchers; research in different parts of the world; and researchers from different disciplines) and a range of possible
unintended consequences, including the effects on the social sciences. This should inform proposals about how to implement aims to improve open access, but would require changes to the timetable announced by cOAlition S.”

The British Academy response in February 2019 was blunt:“ … our initial response … set out our concerns about Plan S’s antipathy to hybrid journals … these concerns are not allayed by the new Guidance. … cOAlition S’s hostility to all forms of hybridity will have precisely the opposite result to its stated intentions.” Meanwhile Euroscepticism persists in Brussels, with Robert-Jan Smits, described as the European Commission’s ‘open access envoy’ declaring there is ‘something fishy’ about publishers setting up mirror journals to get past Plan S proposals about hybrid journals, while publishers protest that mirror journals are simply a necessary part of hybridity.

Echoing Brexit, it seems the divide between the proponents of Plan S and the defenders of the status quo has not diminished, and the initial response to the deadlock may well be to extend the deadline. Elites may be divided, but no doubt they will still emerge unscathed; the price of any change will be paid by marginal communities in the North and the global South. With Brexit many academics, bolstered by overwhelming academic belief in the rightness of their cause, have seized on every shred of evidence to dismiss the alternative. Will Plan S be able to exploit its superficial appeal to the evident rightness of open access, or will academics be willing to engage with the difficult ethical and moral questions which Plan S poses? It may be time for the Creative Commons to take control.

SRHE News Editor:  Professor Rob Cuthbert
rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk  

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics rob.cuthbert@btinternet.com.