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Tag: social justice

#dlRN15: Hope, Hands, and Stories

And so, the Digital Learning Research Network conference. I have been mulling over all-that-was-dlRN since leaving Palo Alto a week ago. I extended my stay in California for a few days to visit family before making the long journey back to Galway. It was a wonderful and memorable week. In looking at the photos I took over the course of the week — at Stanford University and in Palo Alto, Petaluma, and San Francisco — it seems the first and last photos tell the story of the week. So I’ll start there.

Stanford University Memorial Church22305856980_314803d474_o‘Hope’: Stanford University Memorial Church & 575 Castro, SF


I. Hope

dlRN15 was short and intense (2 days + an optional pre-conference workshop). It was not a conference about tech or ‘how to’ solutions. It was a conference united around clear values, namely a social justice vision of higher education and a belief in research as a tool for advocacy or, as Kristen Eshleman wrote, “a lever for positive change”. Many of us at dlRN had spent the days preceding the conference following tweets and updates from the ICDE Conference, held in South Africa during that same week, where many of the same themes were being discussed.

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 13.25.43

After the #icdeunisa conference, Paul Prinsloo wrote beautifully about the need to reclaim the potential of education as liberation through pedagogies of hope:

Designing hope means stop speaking in the passive voice as if there were no perpetrators, no guilt, no abuse in the name of science and technology. In designing hope we need to resist these discourses and return the gaze on venture capital, on the privatisation of education, the neoliberal dogma. We need to reclaim the discourses, the commons, ourselves. We should critically look at the words we use in our strategies and planning documents and our obsession to measure, to be top, to be the best, to rise in the rankings. Somehow we must discover the beauty and simplicity of hope, and designing hope. Hope that a better life of all may, may just be possible.

The central question propelling much of the dlRN conference also — whether discussing non-traditional students, adjunct faculty, open education, MOOCs, FedWiki, learning spaces, educational philosophy, curriculum or pedagogy — was this: how can we work together to make (higher) education more equitable for all?

II. Hands

It was a privilege to engage with so many smart and kind people for 2+ days to consider this question and to try to break it down. It wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows, of course. Conversations diverged. I was frustrated, at times, at language and concerns that seemed to focus specifically on US higher education, many of which are different to issues and concerns in Ireland, Europe, and other parts of the world. But we speak from who we are and what we know. The conference chairs, Bonnie Stewart, Kate Bowles, Kristen Eshleman, Dave Cormier and George Siemens, individually and collectively created a space for dialogue that was open in the best sense — open-minded and open-spirited. We engaged with one another. I questioned assumptions — my own and others’. Sometimes we disagreed. At times we apologised. We talked, we listened. Overall, it was a space of compassion.

it seems almost

as though this is what a human life is,

to be passed from hand to hand,

to be borne up, improbably, over an ocean.

Moya Cannon (2011) ‘Hands

It was a privilege to share the space with so many wonderful people, not just in-person but virtually. The conference benefited immensely from virtual participation by so many. In addition to conversation channels on Twitter and Slack, the Virtually Connecting team enabled and facilitated multiple conversations. I was part of just one of these, but the full set is available on the Virtually Connecting YouTube channel. I also attended one of several conference sessions co-presented remotely by Maha Bali — this one along with the on-site Rebecca Hogue, Matt Crosslin, Whitney Kilgore and Rolin Moe. This worked beautifully for on-site participants (although I think Maha had some trouble hearing the audio on her end). We are learning. I left the conference with a deeper appreciation of the benefits and challenges of virtual participation. As someone living on the west coast of Ireland, I often rely on virtual participation in my teaching, learning, and research. After dlRN, I’m re-energised to push the boundaries even further. Thanks @VConnecting.

The most powerful part of the conference for me was the final wrap-up. I can’t recall a conference wrap-up which began with the questions asked by George Siemens: “What did we get wrong? What foundational assumptions about the conference were incorrect? and Did we surface research that will help us build towards our vision?” What a helpful starting point for post-conference activities. George Veletsianos spoke particularly powerfully in the wrap-up session, noting the need to create better futures for all students, as well as all who work in higher education. We will do this by cultivating compassion, avoiding reductionist approaches, and avoiding the creation of alternate power structures. A worthy challenge.

As I listened to the final wrap up, I sat back in my chair trying to make sense of all the emotions I felt, in awe of the capacity and willingness of the people in the room to be vulnerable, to demonstrate compassion and empathy, and their sheer resolve to make sense of the changing higher education landscape and ensure all voices are heard. I was, and will continue to be, deeply moved by it.

Patrice Torcivia

III. Stories

To borrow a phrase from the wonderful Kate Bowles, we brought our storied selves to dlRN. We worked hard to question and to understand one another’s stories, in order to build not just a smart but a compassionate network of researchers and practitioners to address our challenges.

My story? I travelled from Ireland to California with my wonderful daughter Sarah, a recent graduate with her own perspective on higher education. She joined me for the first day of the conference (before embarking on her own explorations) and for gatherings after the conference each day. I wasn’t the only one attending the conference en famille — we loved meeting Kate Bowles’s daughter and Bonnie Stewart’s and Dave Cormier’s children. In addition to enjoying the conference, my daughter and I met friends and family. We saw my 13-year-old niece play a home soccer game. We went on our own magical tour of San Francisco. We made memories. For one week we interwove our experiences and our dreams about work, education, family, friends, history, social justice, and the future.

My take-away from the conference is coloured by all of these experiences of the past week as well as by my position, my history, my values. And it’s simply this. There is, and will be, a plurality of voices, even when we passionately agree on the overall goal of working towards higher education which is more equal for all. We can learn much from other movements for social change — civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, workers’ rights. At times we will feel strongly about taking different approaches to reach our goal. Some of us will want to work for incremental change, some for policy change, some for legal change, some for setting research agendas. There will be times that none of these feels like it is enough and some of us will wield placards. But as much as possible, let us value our diverse positions as we speak alongside and on behalf of students (and potential students), colleagues (particularly those with fewer rights), and all who have been left behind, knocked down, or damaged by increasingly iniquitous systems of higher education.

We will re-write this story, we will take it and reshape. There is no one counter-narrative. We want one because the Master Narrative is so strong. But it’s going to take all the stories, all the points of data. In each retelling, each instance of both telling and listening, the story changes, the story evolves, and I believe we get closer to the place we want ourselves to be.

Lee Skallerup Bessette

Thanks to all those with whom I shared dlRN and all who have written their stories of dlRN. Each of you has touched me and taught me in some way. I’m sure this is not a complete list of the many dlRN blog posts, but I’ll add others as I find them. Thank you all.


I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living.

– Harvey Milk


Postscript: I presented my own ongoing research at the conference in a presentation entitled: Unpicking binaries: Exploring how educators conceptualize and make decisions about openness. I’ll share more information about this in my next blog post.

Taking a broader view at #ALTC

CC BY-SA iliasbartolini

CC BY-SA iliasbartolini (London, September 12th, 2015)

Many of us talk of “blurring boundaries” in education — between online and offline, our classrooms and the world, formal and informal learning, the roles of learner and teacher, research and practice, etc. Yet at last week’s ALT Conference in Manchester, UK, another boundary was challenged. Thanks particularly to two excellent keynotes by Jonathan Worth and Laura Czerniewicz, we were invited to move beyond our immediate areas of focus as educators and researchers, and ask of ourselves: how can we renew the discussion and practice of education, particularly open/online/connected education, to address broader issues of injustice and inequality?

There will have been many experiences of ALTC. A few hundred people attended in-person and even more participated online — via the live stream, Twitter and/or Virtually Connecting. Maha Bali has written of her experiences at ALTC, Alan Levine of his story of connection, and Frances Bell of her experience of connection & disconnection. Some may view ALTC as a tech-focused conference, but this was not my experience. I attended for two of the three days and, as with any conference, could attend only a fraction of all the sessions. Yet the overall tenor of conference — judging from the two keynotes, the sessions I attended, and conversations with many others — was, to quote Donna Lanclos, one of people and pedagogy. And more than that, many speakers and participants discussed the challenging issues of power, ownership, agency and inequality with respect to further/higher education. In the face of current global humanitarian crises, these are urgent issues for us to address, both as educators and as citizens.

Jonathan Worth set the tone with his Day 2 keynote, acknowledging the vulnerability of learners and speaking openly of his own learning and vulnerability. Early in his career, Jonathan actively defended the copyright of his work. As digital photojournalism and the associated business models evolved, he began to see the difference between images (data, experiences) and photographs (physical artefacts). As he wove together ideas and stories, Jonathan drew a powerful connection between Photographers and Teachers. Both used to be considered one-to-many arbiters of meaning — but no longer. Yet both hold positions of relative power within Photographer-Subject and Teacher-Student relationships. As educators, we must acknowledge this and ask ourselves: “how can I empower people to tell their own stories?”. The most powerful part of this keynote was Jonathan’s honesty and humility about not only what he’s learned, but what he has yet to learn. His experience with Phonar helped him to realise that “learners together are more powerful than learners apart”, so he shared his questions with us, much food for thought:


Laura Czerniewicz‘s keynote on Day 3 was one which I will return to again and have already shared with others. In Considering Inequality as Higher Education goes Online, Laura noted how inequality pervades the entire landscape and she challenged us to create more inequality-informed practice, research, policy and advocacy. Drawing on Robin Mansell’s definition of two social imaginaries and Therborn’s Killing Fields of Inequality, Laura built a compelling picture of structural and global inequality. We require shared solutions to the challenges of inequality — particularly in further/higher education where, Laura noted: “the brutality of competition has opened a new era of global apartheid”. There are no simple solutions. We must do no less than reclaim the networked society. Education must be de-conolonised, in both face-to-face and online spaces. We should strive for more equal partnerships between the global North and global South. Open licensing and open practices provide some of the tools for this, but our main work is developing a deeper understanding of inequality and committing ourselves to challenging it, in all our work.

I highly recommend reading Jenny Mackness’s post The Micro and the Macro of the EdTech World in which she reflects on both keynotes. There’s also an extended comment from Jonathan Worth here — well worth reading.

Though not physically present at the conference, the important work of Audrey Watters, Kate Bowles and Paul Prinsloo was discussed during they keynotes and throughout the conference, as well as a recent blog post by George Siemens — all highlighting issues of trust, care, and equity/inequality. Other conference sessions which touched on these themes included:

These were just a few of the highlights of the conference for me. I missed other sessions I would have loved to attend by Helen Beetham, Steve Wheeler, Terese Bird, Andrew Middleton, Paul Gormley, Sheila McNeil, Sue Beckingham, Chrissi Nerrantzi, and others. In-person, online, and hybrid conversations (looking at you, Maha Bali and @VConnecting!) enriched the conference in so many ways. Warm thanks to all.

Image source: CC BY-SA Ilias BartoliniOne world, Refugees welcome (Flickr)

Thank you, Mary Robinson


Photo: CC BY 2.0 Trocaire

In June 1996 I attended a poetry reading by Seamus Heaney at the University of Stirling. The Principal of the University gave a short introduction, saying that we would remember the next hour for the rest of our lives. I believe he was right. There were many reasons that Seamus Heaney connected with and elevated us that evening. One was that Heaney was speaking to a community deeply shocked by the tragedy of the school shooting just 3 months earlier in neighbouring Dunblane, where I also lived. We were still shocked, still grieving, emotionally wide open. I remember thinking at the time that, somehow, Seamus Heaney met us in that space. Without addressing that pain directly, his poetry, his tone, his truth were like lifelines to us. He began and ended with his poem “Song” (from Field Work, 1979):

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

Mary Robinson pictured at Galway Arts Festival 2012 where she was joined in conversation with Fintan O’Toole. (Photo: Reg Gordon)

I had similar feelings seeing Mary Robinson last week at the Galway Arts Festival. The event was billed as Mary Robinson in conversation with Fintan O’Toole so the atmosphere was one of an evening among friends. The sound that greeted the pair when they emerged on stage at the Town Hall Theatre told a story in itself. A huge roar arose — applause, whoops and cheers. It was a wave of gratitude, affection and admiration for a woman who many of us regard as a hero, but also an expression I think of our hunger. We yearn for leaders with ethical vision, leadership skills, and courage in the face of injustice. We have so few of these (with our President Michael D. Higgins a notable exception). Seeing Mary Robinson reminded us of the best of us, what we have and also what we lack.

During her remarkable career as a constitutional lawyer, human rights campaigner, Senator, Ireland’s first female President, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson developed a reputation for fearless leadership. As she said last week, she never had a problem confronting bullies. She did that “growing up with four brothers” in Mayo and throughout her student days at Trinity College, as well as in Irish public life and on the world stage. As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights she voiced forthright criticism of human rights abuses following the events of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq — and received harsh criticism. She told us that one of her colleagues remarked at the time that she might lose her job for speaking out, to which she replied: “It’s better to do this job then to try to keep this job.” Mary Robinson stepped down from her position at the U.N. in 2002.

For the past decade, Mary Robinson has devoted her passion, her intellect and her considerable energies to educating about and addressing our most serious global problems – racism, human rights abuses, child marriage and climate change. She is a founding member of The Elders (“one of the younger ones”, she wryly remarked) and founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation — Climate Justice.  Her greatly anticipated memoir Everybody Matters will be published in September 2012.

During the wide-ranging conversation with Mary Robinson in Galway, Fintan O’Toole asked her about emigration, racism, her Presidency and her more recent global work. Emigration from Ireland, across generations, has deeply affected our national psyche, she said. In ways, “emigration is our psyche”. It “hardens us” but also contributes to traits such as our humour, resilience and adaptability. Of xenophobia and racism, however, Mary Robinson was unequivocal. Racism is the human rights issue of our time, she said. During her time as President, and since, she has been aware of racism in Ireland. Mary Robinson linked emigration and racism, saying that we must reflect on the generations of Irish who emigrated to Britain, the United States and elsewhere (my own grandparents among them). How did they or would they have felt experiencing the racist treatment which some emigrants to Ireland experience?

Mary Robinson spoke most passionately about climate justice. She recounted how she has been struck over and over again, across her travels to poorer communities in Africa, Asia and South America, by the cataclysmic effects of climate change. Robinson described how her friend Constance, a small farmer in Uganda, told her that there are no longer any seasons, only cycles of drought and flash flooding. These are dramatic and recent changes which Constance emphatically described as “outside our experience”. Robinson realised that this is likely to mean 200 years of experience, as oral tradition stretches back through the generations. Mary Robinson is clear about our responsibilities in the developed world to work towards climate justice. We must reduce our reliance on oil, continue to invest in and develop renewable forms of energy, and help the developing world become climate resilient. The developing world is suffering “because of what we have done”.

Mary Robinson describes climate change and the goals of climate justice

Of all there is to admire about Mary Robinson, her warmth and humanity shine above all else. She spoke openly last week about all she has learned throughout her public life. She spoke of her dread of public speaking when she was younger, and how she decided she had to overcome that fear in order to speak what had to be said. She learned also, during her time as President, about the importance of tone and humour. Her landmark speech to the Houses of Oireachtas in Ireland in 1995 was feted globally, particularly for her potent concept of the Irish diaspora and the light in the window at Áras an Uachtaráin. The speech was not warmly welcomed by the assembly in the House, however, and she realised that her tone was too serious: “I was too important about it”. So she learned to communicate more of herself and her humour. And from the playwright Tom Murphy she said she gained a deeper understanding of tone while “telling it true”. Today, Mary Robinson is a woman who brings all of her considerable talents to her work, along with her wonderful humanity, humility, honesty and humour. For all of this, and all she has done, she is loved and cherished.

At the end of Mary Robinson’s talk with Fintan O’Toole, she offered to take questions from the audience. My thoughts were on young people including my own children, so I asked what words of advice or inspiration she might have for young people as they face economic and social challenges, both national and global, unforeseen just a few years ago. In her thoughtful response Mary Robinson spoke first about the power of connection which many young people have – mentioning Twitter and Facebook as examples – which enable them to connect with others across the country or across the globe. This can be a great force for building shared understandings. She went on to describe and to quote from Seamus Heaney’s mighty poem From the Republic of Conscience, commissioned by Amnesty International and published on Human Rights Day, 1985, and in the Irish Times in 2008. The poem, simple in style and language, but rich in metaphor, describes the narrator’s journey to the Republic of Conscience. The poem concludes:

The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.

He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.

Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.

This poem, Seamus Heaney’s gift, is Mary Robinson’s message to young people. We are all connected and each of us has dual citizenship: in our own nation(s) and in the Republic of Conscience. Owning and understanding our shared values is the key to individual fulfilment, as well as the hope for our collective global future. I carried this message home like a beautifully wrapped present, a precious gift to my own children.

Of course, it is a gift to us all. Mary Robinson’s words are still ringing inside me. Her words, her work, her example will continue to affect my work in the future. Today I am thinking about ways to connect my IT students with Mary Robinson’s ideas and the work of her foundation on Climate Justice. And I would be delighted to communicate with anyone thinking along these or similar lines.

Finally, thanks to my dear friend Mary Loftus who joined me in Galway for this wonderful event and thanks to Sally McHugh for making contact afterward. Thanks also to Fintan O’Toole and the Galway Arts Festival, and the warm and wonderful people of Galway, for hosting and welcoming Mary Robinson in fine style.

But most of all, thank you, Mary Robinson.

“You see me because I stand on the shoulders of so many.” – Mary Robinson, quoting Desmond Tutu

Image source: CC BY 2.0 Trocaire, Jennifer O’Gorman, July 2011, Dollow, Somalia