34 degrees south: history as insult

Former New York mayor Rudolf Giuliani could feel at home in the rough world of South African politics. President Obama, Giuliani says, has “a dilettante’s knowledge of history” because he believes that “bad things” happened during the Crusades. Here on the other side of the Atlantic, the Freedom Front Plus has laid a complaint of hate speech against President Jacob Zuma because he has said that bad things happened after Dutch colonial settlement at the Cape of Good Hope.

In one sense, this is politics as vaudeville. If Zuma is guilty of hate speech for criticizing colonialism, so also are swathes of history teachers, academics and public commentators for writing about the near obliteration of the Cape’s indigenous communities through the combination of guns, disease and land seizures. And Giuliani compounded his idiosyncratic interpretation of history by reviving the racial determinism of eugenics. It was impossible, he claimed, for him to be guilty of racism by stating that Obama did not “love America. Why? Because the Obama had a white mother.

President Obama responded to all this by declining to comment. It’s a pity that some here on the other side of the ocean did not follow his example.

The Cape Times hooked the Freedom Front Plus’s complaint to the Human Rights Commission to an ugly spat between a guest house owner, Jennifer Abrahams, and Sherri-Lynn Rigney, a potential guest. In taking exception to persistent enquiries about the quality of the accommodation, Jennifer called Sherri-Lynn “a typical Saartjie Baartman hottentot”.

As with Mayor Giuliani, a more considered appreciation of history would have been helpful here. “Hottentot” is certainly a term of racial abuse, coined by the Dutch colonial settlers whose probity the Freedom Front Plus wishes to defend. But Saartjie Baartman is an icon of repression and liberation: forcibly taken to Britain in the early nineteenth century and displayed in London as a fairground freak; her skeleton displayed for years in Paris by the Musee de L’Homme as a racial stereotype; her mortal remains finally repatriated to South Africa and formally buried after the intervention of Nelson Mandela.

This storm of insults and accusations was whipped up further by the Speaker of the National Assembly, who should of course be a model of neutrality and decorum, calling leader of the Economic Freedom Front Julius Malema a “cockroach”. This provided Jennifer Abrahams with a defence, of sorts. She responded to the persistent attempts of the Cape Times to make news of this story by telling its journalist: “If Baleka Mbete can call Julius Malema a cockroach, then I can call Sherri-Lynn Rigney a hottentot”. As with Rudolf Giuliani’s claim that white genes somehow immunize a person against a racial insult, we are here beyond the realm of reason.

But hate speech is an ever-widening mode of behaviour that must be taken seriously, and there are deeper implications behind these casually traded insults. For many, Speaker Baleka Mbete’s insult evokes the Rwandan genocide, in which Hutus were encouraged to massacre Tutsis. In one notorious case, the executives of a Rwandan radio station were convicted by a United Nations tribunal for repeatedly broadcasting encouragement for a “final war” to “exterminate the cockroaches”. Given that the Economic Freedom Front has, among other radical policies, advocated the nationalisation of land, the association with genocide that could be read into the Speakers’ insult are apparent; she was quick to offer an unreserved apology.

For its part, the Freedom Front Plus is the direct successor of the white Afrikaner separatism that was the core ideology of apartheid. Its political power base is Orania, a whites-only settlement in a dusty corner of today’s South Africa that continues the dream of separate development. For the Freedom Front, President Zuma’s criticisms of the first Dutch colonial settlers at the Cape, some four hundred and fifty years ago, implies a policy to drive white Afrikaners from their land; again, the implication of a form of genocide. The irony here is that Orania – and therefore the continued political existence of the Freedom Front Plus – is protected by minority rights enshrined in the South African constitution. Both President Zuma and Julius Malema have been careful to visit and to express respect for the rights of self-determination.

What can be made of all this?

Firstly, words and their histories matter. Racial identities in South Africa, and the benefits and disadvantages that come with them, are as attenuated today as they were in 1994, when a large majority lined up to vote in the first democratic elections. Words, in turn, index associations with history and its interpretation: Giuliani’s implied endorsement of the Crusades is a considered and provocative insult to the Muslim world; any association with the Rwandan genocide will bring a chill to anyone touched by South Africa’s tendency to violent xenophobia; despite its constitutional protections, the white separatist dream of Orania is a tenuous existence.

Secondly, the role of the press matters. Reading that the Speaker of parliament has insulted the leaders of a political party is certainly news. So is a complaint to the Human Rights Commission against the President, however absurd. But an e-mail spat between a guest house owner and a guest as headline news in a national paper? Having comprehensively stirred this one up as a case of hate speech, the Cape Times announced, rather portentously, that it considering moderating on-line comments on its stories and not publishing those it believes to be offensive.

The newspaper could perhaps have applied this policy to Jennifer Abrahams’ intemperate and incoherent insults. That said, though, there is some fascination in wondering what kind of guest house she runs, given her unconventional approach to customer relations.

New York Times: “Giuliani: Obama Had a White Mother, So I’m Not a Racist”. 10 February 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/02/19/giuliani-obama-had-a-white-mother-so-im-not-a-racist/

Guardian: “Jacob Zuma under investigation for using hate speech”. 19 February 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/19/jacob-zuma-investigation-hate-speech

Cape Times” ‘If she said cockroach, I can say hottentot’”. 19 February 2015. http://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/western-cape/if-she-said-cockroach-i-can-say-hottentot-1.1820584#.VOoOG1OUdfw

The Rise and Rise of Learning Analytics

Learning analytics is the study of student behaviour through patterns in their digital world: how often, when and where they log on; the digital resources that they use; the web sites they visit; the social media platforms that they use. At the present time, this is a nascent field of interest in most colleges and universities. But over the next few years, the analysis of the digital trails that students leave as they move through the digital world will become central to curriculum design, learning support, assessment and quality assurance. Two recent reports by Jisc – British education’s digital solutions provider – set the stage for these changes, and point to some early work that needs to be prioritized if these developments are in the interests of students and enable better education.

That learning analytics are set to take off is hardly surprising. After all, its common cause that many of us allow the new virtual behemoths access to our every keystroke in return for the advantages that this brings us. Amazon uses our search and purchasing patterns to suggest what books we might also like to read on the same subject. Google scans the content of every e-mail to select the advertisements that are most appropriate to our needs. Weather apps use our location to tell us whether the sun will shine on us today. Students use all these services, and many more; they are not surprised if their universities use their personal data in similar ways. Indeed, Jisc’s work shows that students are – at present – relaxed about all this.

Up until now, these rich troves of data have been used almost entirely as early warning indicators of students at risk. The Jisc project was based on a snapshot of ten British universities, two colleges and on the work of the University of London’s Computing Centre, which hosts the virtual leaning platforms of more than a hundred organizations. While there was a fair degree of variation in the priorities behind this work, immediate concerns were identifying students at risk sufficiently early to allow effective intervention. But at the same time, all could see the potential for improving overall student experience by taking this work further: “many institutions see the data as part of a continuum which can be used by people at every level of the organisation, from individual students and their tutors to educational researchers, to unit heads and to senior management”.

What could this future look like? One way of shaping this would be through an ethnography of students as they engage with the digital resources available to them, and with the digital gateways that they have to pass through on a daily basis. For example, a student’s day might start with logging into their university’s web page to check on the timetable. Getting on to campus requires swiping their student card to get access; the same card is used for buying a cup of coffee. The lecture may be available on-line for a second look (or as an alternative to hearing it live). Assignments will require access to a wide range of on-line resources, either on campus or at home (and the choice will be recorded). Once completed, the assignment has to be run through a plagiarism detection programme (which will track and test the derivation of its content) and then submitted online. Towards the end of the day, our digital student may choose to go to the Sport Centre (another digital access record) or to the Students’ Union, where purchases are debited to their account – and recorded in detail. This digital footprint will be recorded and stored for every student, every day for three years; for a medium-sized university offering programmes in a conventional semester system, this is some four million student day records each year.

Data sets of this size can now easily be analysed for patterns, and these patterns tested against propositions. Because every one of these student behaviour profiles will correlate with their prior education record, their demographic details and their postcodes, universities will be able to refine and extend existing areas of interest. For example, there is already a sharp concern with the relationship between prior achievement and graduate attainment; learner analytics will provide a higher degree of predictability. Equality concerns require the demonstration of equitable opportunity, irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity or disability; learner analytics will allow assumptions in this regard to be tested. Librarians have to make key choices about which on-line resources to prioritize and space planners need to track student preferences for facilities; learner analytics will provide rich, real-time data about student needs.

But – of course – these more substantial uses of digital data will raise some tricky ethical issues; students, staff and regulatory bodies will be much less relaxed than they are at this early stage. This is why Jisc’s second report, which surveys ethical concerns and codes of practice across the world, is particularly important. As Niall Sclater, the author of the report, puts it:

“Current legal and ethical guidelines have not caught up with innovations in the identification of patterns and new knowledge emerging from the vast datasets being accumulated by institutions. A code of ethics is essential as the law alone cannot deal with the many different scenarios that will arise. We are in a critical window: whatever gets established today will be ‘sticky’ and will affect public notions of what is acceptable for many years to come. If we fail to assert values such as privacy, transparency and free choice, society will abandon these in favour of technical innovation and commercial pressures”.

Setting standards on the basis of wide consultation is important beyond the justified concerns of individual colleges and universities. As is well known, quality standards in education are relative; a university makes claims for the quality of each of its academic programmes by benchmarking in some way against the sector as a whole. At present this is done by well-tried but comparatively crude methods: the external examination system; the National Student Survey; the new Key Information Set; various external ranking systems. The rise – and rise – of learning analytics will provide a far richer and more nuanced way of benchmarking individual courses against their sector as a whole, and it is likely that both students and quality assurance authorities will require this. This, in turn, will require national databases that are aggregates of individual universities’ records.

If higher education does not get the ethical issues sorted out up-front, it will face the same challenges that are currently bedevilling health records. Niall Sclater again:

“Dealing with the ethical challenges relating to information technology is not simply ‘a good thing to do’ but also helps organizations to develop an ethical environment where bad things are much less likely to occur. Negative publicity about the use of IT almost always results from failures to deal with ethical issues. Business-focussed staff may consider IT to be ethically neutral but they are not necessarily familiar with the many choices IT staff are required to make in the design and deployment of systems which have consequences for individuals. This would seem to be particularly pertinent in learning analytics where the nature of the algorithms and how the results are presented and acted upon could have a significant impact on a student’s academic success”.

Niall Sclater Code of practice for learning analytics. A literature review of the ethical and legal issues. Jisc 2014.

Niall Sclater Learning analytics: The current state of play in UK higher and further education. Jisc, 2014.


The Paradox that Threatens Britain’s Digital Brain

Britain is the only country with a fully integrated digital network that connects all its universities and colleges. But the future of this digital brain is now uncertain. This is not so much from government funding cuts, although cuts have indeed been severe. It is rather because of a paradox central to its way of working; the more successful this brain is, the less visible it becomes, making what it does seem unnecessary.

The network, along with a wide range of associated services, is run by Jisc. Jisc was re-launched in January last year following comprehensive restructuring. It is now an autonomous organization, owned by Britain’s colleges and universities and funded by a combination of grants, income from services and institutional subscriptions. Jisc owns and runs the JANET network, the fibre and specialized digital equipment that connects every British university and college to the Internet, as well as research councils and specialist research institutions; over 600 institutions and 18 million users. At its launch in late 2013, the new JANET network had an initial speed of two terabytes per second; an order of magnitude difference with the original network of twenty years ago that is impossible to express in any metaphor.

The threat is this. In terms of Jisc’s new mandate, the present subscription system will cease to be mandatory in 2017. Individual colleges and universities may chose to opt out, making short-term cost savings by buying Internet access and basic services from commercial suppliers and reasoning that they will still get access to the growing volumes of open resources such as curriculum materials, open access publications and publicly available digital data banks.

If this were to happen the value of every college and university being part of a single network would be lost. Why would this matter? Here are four headlines.

Learning and Teaching. Within a few years, all curriculum materials will be in the Cloud, whether used in face-to-face classrooms or for on-line learning. With every student working on-line, one way or another, learner analytics will be central to individualized student support, evaluation and assessment, as well as to national quality enhancement systems. An individual institutions’ learner analytics will only have value and credibility if they are benchmarked with a national, dynamic, database. The loss of a comprehensive national network, owned by its members, will make this far more difficult to achieve.

Transnational Education. International learning is moving into a new and more mature phase of flexible provision, combinations of student mobility, branch campuses, smaller hubs and wide-ranging forms of face-to-face teaching and on-line collaboration. Many of these initiatives will be based on collaborations and consortia; all will require sophisticated, reliable and secure digital solutions. In addition, the combination of ubiquitous bandwidth and location-intelligent mobile devices will require solutions that keep pace with commercially-driven digital innovation. For most universities and colleges, these solutions will unaffordable without shared innovation and implementation. Jisc provides these services in response to the needs of its members and users.

Big data. In a foresighted and influential report, “Science as an Open Enterprise”, the Royal Society has set out a vision for the principles of research that are emerging from the availability of open digital data. In key fields such as epidemiology, economics and climate change, the ability to trawl very large sets of primary data, metadata and publications is enabling new ways of shaping and testing hypotheses. These new methodologies are linked to digitally-enabled survey and data collection techniques; forms of crowd sourcing that out-perform traditional methods of data collection by orders of magnitude. Again, managing, accessing and analysing these very large data sets depends on an integrated, high performing network uncluttered by paywalls and other unnecessary access controls. This is enabled by the high speed JANET network, which has been designed to support continuing increases in capacity.

Money and security. By 2016, the “new” Jisc will have achieved efficiency savings of about 34%. At the same time, the value of cost savings to Jisc’s subscribing institutions will be about £200m per year, or about sixteen times the average university or college’s subscription contribution. In addition to these cost benefits, Jisc offers a high level of data security, both to individual colleges and universities and to their shared databases. As with all virtual assets, cybersecurity is, and will increasingly become, a primary consideration and concern.

Why would colleges and universities be tempted not to buy into this? Digital networks are evaluated for their speed and efficiency. The hourglass is the enemy; the loss of connectivity is a catastrophe. This means that the better the service, the more its mechanics and paraphernalia fade from view, and out of mind. This may, in turn, make the expenditure seem unnecessary.

But nothing about the Internet is really free. The kinds of provision that are now essential for all colleges and universities require massive intermediation, whether in specialized digital kit or in human expertise. To ensure that Britain’s digital brain continues to function, this paradox must be seen as what it is, and the future of this unique and critical resource ensured by the continuing buy-in of all its institutional owners.

A shorter version of this post was published by Times Higher Education on 12 February 2014

Academic Citizenship? Or a Question of Survival?

Are academics being forced to give up altruism, driven instead by a narrow individualism and performance targets? And, if they are, are they abandoning a form of citizenship, an innate tendency to prioritize the public good? Or is it rather university managers who are at fault in prioritizing apparent short-term gains rather than appreciating the essential nature of academic work?

These questions arise from an excellent review of “academic citizenship” by John Morgan and Chris Havergal, just published in Times Higher Education. They talked to a wide range of academics across different kinds of universities, asking them about almost all the things outside the narrow scope of formal teaching and research: external examining; curricula and qualification design; student mentorship, support and reference writing; peer review of publications; editorial work; evaluations for funding bodies; working for scholarly societies; public engagement and outreach. Together, these tasks are seen as reciprocal, sometimes voluntary; contributions to a form of social capital that gives universities a collective and distinctive identity as a type of institution.

Responses to the THE survey were mixed, thoughtful. Everyone identified with the pressures of competing demands, more work. Given this, some wondered about the value of this “extra” work and others recognized its benefits, regretting that these could be lost. The overall direction of John Morgan and Chris Havergal’s take is that the combined demands of formal teaching and recognized research outputs are squeezing out “academic citizenship”, and impoverishing universities as a result.

This much is common cause. But there are further questions that follow on from this consensus and, I believe, bear thinking about a bit. For while there will be a number of “organizational altruists” in any workplace, the implication here is that academics are inherently altruistic as a class, and different. After all, it would be odd to make a case for, say, “retail citizenship”, which leads the staff of Walmart to volunteer for additional work to build the corporate brand. And in my experience the range of attitudes across an academic staffroom has much the same variation as any group of people working together in a common institution; some are mean and self-interested, some are professional and detached and a few have an inherent generosity and commitment that can make all the difference. Seen this way, “academic citizenship” is much the same as the social capital that gives any organization a distinctive identity.

From this angle, the question is a little different. Rather than asking whether academics have been a different kind of person, now being forced to be more ordinary and self-serving by a cold and calculating managerialism, the issue looks like this; does the social capital built and remade by these kinds of “extra” work have an inherent value for the university of the future, or is it rather a left-over from a disappearing past that can be safely trimmed away?

A fair number of John Morgan and Chris Havergal’s interviewees referred to the tyrannies of their universities’ workload management systems; the various ways of counting and allocating hours and proportions of effort against notional prototypes that, in Britain, feed into TRAC, the mandatory Transparent Approach to Costing.

I have no doubt that many universities’ workload management systems – or the ways in which they are applied – are a work of the devil. Teaching, research, publication and administrative tasks merge into one another as a rich and mutually reinforcing continuity. Requiring that this continuum is disaggregated into discrete categories, each allocated a number of hours a week, is to create a model of academic work that, often, bears little relationship to what a person actually does. And, because the outcomes of workload allocation can have a significant effect on a person’s professional life, these exercises can create a dangerous office politics, with the “reward” of more research time, and the “punishment” of a greater teaching load. So while aggregated workload information helps Finance Managers mitigate risk and balance the books, and HR Directors describe the characteristics of their workforce, it has little to do with quality; with inspiring students to realize their potential, or with making and applying new knowledge.

But if universities’ social capital – academic citizenship – is being decimated by the application of workload management systems that have little place for this “extra” work, will this damage the core mission of teaching and research? Yes, it will. This is because the kinds of tasks reviewed in John Morgan and Chris Havergal’s survey are neither the products of a quirky academic altruism nor now-redundant vestiges of what universities used to be. They are, rather, essential to the ways in which our knowledge systems work, whether in teaching or in research.

It’s long been established that academics’ primary loyalties are to their disciplines, fields of research or professional identity. Archaeologists are most comfortable at conferences with other archaeologists; Physicists for the most part make big research breakthroughs as part of large consortia that cut across the boundaries of many institutions. These disciplinary identities are underpinned by common sets of theories and methodologies that are built up through the teaching curriculum and kept alive through the knowledge shared in the external examination system. Interdisciplinary teaching and research isn’t a grey melding of these ways of working; its rather the innovation that comes from, for example, juxtaposing the coding of DNA with the binary logic of computer science, or by putting an economist in the same room as a historian. All the “extra” work identified in the THE’s overview is the effort that keeps these systems of intellectual reciprocity alive; none of it can be effectively reduced into a workload allocation system and managed as an inventory.

Taken together, these “invisible colleges” are a massive set of global networks and a huge asset. With the rise of the “knowledge economy” accountants and investors are finding increasingly significant ways to estimate the asset value of knowledge networks. Ironically – because they invented these systems of sharing – universities are way behind in valuing this aspect of their work; here, TRAC is about as opaque as its possible to get.

But most academics, in contrast, are driven by the voracious needs of their specific networks. Employment, tenure and promotion depend on recognition through citation and conferences, peer review and editorial work enable an understanding of how the system works. Today’s postgraduate students are tomorrow’s professors; taking the time to mentor and support now will prompt reciprocity down the line. This may be altruism, but its also sensible, shrewd and self-interested. Its how the vast machine of university teaching and research works.

Given this, universities that let their attention to short-term, narrow and mechanistic measurement get out of hand risk everything. If academics are engulfed by the kinds of workload systems that make it impossible for them to build the social capital of their networks – to be “citizens” – they will become more and more marginalized in their “invisible colleges”. In turn, or course, their universities will be marginalized.

“Invisible colleges” have been around since universities were invented. Arabic and Latin were common languages of communication for itinerant scholars moving between libraries with their collections of rare and irreplaceable manuscripts. Our digital world now connects academics everywhere at anytime, making the “extra” work of keeping these networks live and relevant central to the quality of teaching and to emerging research agendas.

This is not just a question of citizenship; it’s an issue of survival.

**John Morgan and Chris Havergal. “Is Academic Citizenship Under Strain?” Times Higher Education, 29 January 2015. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.aspx?storyCode=2018134