Give feedback on “A critical digital pedagogy for education in the 21st century”?

I finally managed to put together some ideas for my chapter on critical digital pedagogy in the CPN book on critical perspectives in practice. I split the chapter into 4 sections, excluding an introduction and conclusion (because they’re likely to change with future editing), which you can find here:

  1. Background: In which I explain the point of this short series of posts.
  2. Command and control: In which I describe how higher education today revolves around the idea that students should sit still, be quiet, and do nothing that might be considered interesting or creative.
  3. Weapon of mass instruction: In which I argue that technology is being used to reinforce the conditions promoting conformity and  a culture of oppression.
  4. Education as the practice of freedom: In which I discuss critical pedagogy as a way of thinking about teaching that aims to liberate students and teachers from institutionalised education.
  5. Teaching at the edges of chaos: In which I explore some aspects of the open web that may be used to implement a critical digital pedagogy in higher education.

Now that the draft is finished, I thought I’d try a little experiment. In addition to being able to comment on the posts above, I wondered what it would be like to get public feedback on the whole chapter. I’ve shared the document in Google Drive and would love to hear any thoughts you may have on it. If you’d like, you can also download the full document as a PDF here. Please note that this is a first complete draft and so there’s probably going to still be some heavy editing.

As Yeats said: “I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly for you tread on my dreams.”

Critical digital pedagogy: Weapon of mass instruction

Update (22-02-17): This post has been modified from the original. Changes include updated in-text citations, minor grammatical improvements and an added reference list.

Yesterday I posted the first section of my CPN book chapter on critical digital pedagogy. That section lays out what I think is especially problematic in our classroom teaching and learning practices, informed largely by the work of Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux. If you haven’t read it then you might want to check it out quickly, since this post continues that argument. Today I’m sharing the second section of the chapter where I describe how the use of technology reproduces and reinforces these problems, only in digital and online spaces. Remember, this is a first draft. If you do comment, please be gentle.

The title for this section comes from John Taylor Gatto’s Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling (2010).

“We shape our tools and then our tools shape us” (Marshal McLuhan)

Education is not neutral. It either serves to programme people into conformity or gives them the tools to engage critically and creatively with the world in order to transform it. Given that context, we can analyse the predominant way in which technologies are used in higher education, and ask if that use is oppressing or liberating our students.

The best thing we can probably say about the use of technology in higher education is that it serves to support traditional methods of teaching and learning; we use it to improve lectures with slides and interactive whiteboards, we make our notes available online, libraries provide access to digital resources, and tutorial discussions can be performed asynchronously online. These are positive, incremental improvements in the quality and flexibility of our classrooms, but are nowhere near being transformational (Laurillard, 2007). This is not the use of technology that I’m interested in. There is nothing wrong with teachers using technology to make small iterative changes to their teaching and learning practices. However, for this chapter I want to get to the more insidious aspects of technological integration that needs our attention.

The Learning Management System (LMS) is by far the most ubiquitous use of technology in higher education. The LMS enabled universities to bring new technology into the institution without any of the bother of actually changing anything. The plug and play, template driven, user friendly LMS meant that we could provide universities with a digital facelift that made us feel like we were moving with the times (Campbell, 2009). The reality is that we simply took an oppressive pedagogy and reproduced it in software. The LMS manifests a form of curricular design and implementation that substitutes technological control for democratic processes and goals, making both teachers and learners passive. At its core, the LMS means that course is behind a wall, and everything in the course happens behind that wall (Watters, 2014). At the end of the course students lose access to it, and to any of the content or data they’ve created as part of their learning process. In some cases, their creative works may be signed away as part of the Terms of Service. As Watters’ puts it: “There is one instructor and possibly a few course assistants. They grade. They monitor the forums. The teachers are at the center. The content is at the center. The learner is not at the center.” (Watters, 2014).

Insofar as the educational process can be controlled, the LMS is the digital equivalent of Benthem’s Panopticon; the closest thing we have (so far) to a perfect system of observation and control. As we saw in the previous section, the Panopticon is a representation of power in its ideal form, increasing the number of people who can be monitored, recorded, and controlled, while at the same time decreasing the number of people needed to operate it (Foucault, 1977). Digital technology has taken this concept to astounding new levels. An information Panopticon need not rely on physical arrangements, such as building structures and direct supervision. The information Panopticon is defined as a form of centralised power that uses information and communication technology as observational tools and control mechanisms (Berner, Graupner & Maedche, 2014). Software tracks and records everything about a student’s online interactions, from the time a task is started to the time it is completed, and every click along the way. Based on the data that this process generates, the teacher monitors a students’s performance and intervenes when necessary.

A central idea of Foucault’s panopticism concerns the systematic ordering and controlling of populations through subtle and often unseen forces. Such ordering is apparent in many parts of the increasingly digitalised world of higher education. The LMS, used mainly to distribute content and monitor progress along the assembly line, is a claustrophobic space where students consume information, rather than create knowledge. Students know they are being monitored at all times. Even if a teacher is not physically there, the software records their every move and this data is available to the teachers at all times. Like the prisoners in Foucault’s Panopticon who never know if they’re being watched, students feel the need to conform and satisfy the system rather than do their best work. The purpose of technology in higher education – as it is generally implemented via the LMS – is not to enhance learning, but rather to enhance the control of learning through surveillance, measurement and control.

How did we get here? Castells (2001) has argued that the events leading up to the production of a new technology determines the content and uses of the technology throughout its existence. If we want to better understand when and how we lost our way with educational technology, we must go back to the early days of the Internet. The system began as a military-oriented project that embodied the key elements for the military requirements of a communications network that was “survivable”: flexibility, absence of a command centre, and maximum autonomy of each node. Even though it was – at the time – rejected by the military it was reborn at ARPANET, an experimental non-military network that extended the communications architecture of the nascent network based on three main principles: 1) the networking architecture must be open-ended, decentralised, and multi-directional, 2) all communication protocols and their implementations must be open, distributed, and susceptible to modification, and 3) the institutions of governance of the network must be built in accordance with the principles of openness and cooperation (ibid.).

The Internet is therefore a cultural creation where the culture of the Internet is the culture of the creators of the Internet (Castells, 2001). To explore this culture, Castells draws on the lessons derived from an analysis of the history of the Internet. The first lesson is that the Internet grew from an unlikely collaboration between university based academics and graduate students (the hackers), and the government. The second is that the network was shaped by those who were using it.

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a flourishing of a culture of individual freedom across university campuses in the United States. The students involved were not social activists but nonetheless had strong beliefs about freedom, independent thinking, and cooperation. In most cases this culture was seeking technological innovation for the pure joy of discovery, and community networks were established in many university towns. But these networks were small and limited and in order to grow they needed a backbone anchored in more powerful machines. This was only possible through collaboration between science-based networks in government, and the student hacker communities in the universities. The second lesson that Castells derives from his analysis is that the early Internet was shaped as the users of the network became producers of the technology by adapting it for their own purposes. The source of the Internet’s strength was its openness. For example, the development of the world wide web was only possible because Tim Berners-Lee was supported by the Internet community and his project stimulated by contributions from hackers all over the world. Some of these contributors went on to commercialise the web, seeing it as a space of enormous opportunity, while others, including Berners-Lee continued working in the public interest.

One interesting side effect of the openness embedded in the culture of the early hackers is that changes to the network were communicated back to the whole world in real time. This is the reason why the Internet grew – and continues to grow – at unprecedented speed. When the Internet was first conceived, it was made open as a way to learn and share, designed to provide people with the power to free themselves both from governments and corporations (Castells, 2003). Thus, the internet emerges as a tool of liberation, expressive of individual freedom produced through the practice of openness both in its technical architecture and its social organisation (Castells, 2001). However, at the same time, the network was also influenced by the contributions of government-based entities with an interest in controlling the network, and entrepreneurs focused on commercialising it. Without the cultural and technological contributions of these early groups, the Internet may have been very different today. The Internet has been robbed of its historically open architecture. What we currently have is a theoretically open network, infiltrated by capitalist and governmental motives that disregard openness as crucial for the Internet to continue to be an instrument in acquiring knowledge, aiding innovation, and encouraging democratic engagement (Castells, 2001).

Back to the present where we can now better understand our current predicament in the roots of our history. Unlike the early days of the Internet that saw little distinction between the users of the Internet and the creators of the Internet, we could reasonably ask how much development in the domain of educational technology is being driven by teachers? How are we contributing back to the network, ensuring that the tools developed by third party organisations are designed with learning in mind, rather than shareholders? It is increasingly clear that education is influenced by a Silicon Valley narrative proclaiming that more technology is always the answer to whatever problem we’re currently experiencing – as well as for some things that we didn’t know were problems. More servers, more apps, more data, better algorithms and more integrated services mean that we’ll be able to make better choices (Morozov, 2013). Maybe we don’t need better relationships with students, we just need more technology. How much time did that student spend on the page? At what point did they exit the book? The emphasis is a preoccupation with the instrumental use of knowledge, where it is “prized for its control value — its use in mastering all dimensions of the classroom environment.” (Giroux, 2011; 33).

Castells said that “the Internet is indeed a technology of freedom – but it can free the powerful to oppress the uninformed, it may lead to the exclusion of the devalued by the conquerors of value.” (Castells, 2001; 275). While the world wide web is considered to be relatively open – we can still create personal spaces through blogs and social networks – our freedom as online agents is limited by governments and corporations (and, as we have seen here, universities). When the intentions of these corporate and government actors are made clear, one questions how freely the self can be extended in this conceptually liberating spaces.

We had an opportunity to choose the open web over the LMS. To choose creativity and opportunity over limitation and constraint. But we made poor choices because we – the teachers – were not involved in the process of building the web we need for democratic and critically informed learning spaces. This is why we have third parties who control our digital learning environments, who profit from our work and the work of students, and who allow learning materials to exist on their servers only as long as it makes financial sense (Gillmor, 2014). “We’re in danger of losing what’s made the Internet so important: a decentralised platform where people don’t need permission to communicate, create, and innovate” (ibid.). The open web has increasingly become the corporate web and despite their frequent invocation of “personalisation” in learning, these technologies “present users with a very restricted, restrictive set of choices of what they can do, of who they can be.” (Watters, 2014).

Marshal Mchluhan said that the medium is the message, and that new communication paradigms change what can be imagined and expressed. The printing press didn’t just mean that we could do better calligraphy, and the web is not just a more efficient telegraph (Campbell, 2009). We didn’t realise that we could use the web to transform, instead of simply to transmit. Jesse Stommel has said that “remote proctoring tools can’t ensure that students will not cheat. Turnitin won’t make students better writers. The LMS can’t ensure that students will learn. All will, however, ensure that students feel more thoroughly policed. All will ensure that students (and teachers) are more compliant.”(Stommel, 2016). “We can’t get to a place of listening to students if they don’t show up to the conversation because we’ve excluded their voice in advance by creating environments hostile to them and their work” (Stommel, 2016).

Audrey Watters (2014) has asked if we’ve even considered the implications of adopting tools that surveil and extract and control students? What happens to identity formation under these circumstances? What happens when we give students little leeway in expressing themselves as learners online? What are the implications of adopting tools that give students only a small range of avatars and status updates and profiles and backgrounds? Education technology has become a new and powerful way to demand conformity from students – and to demand they play out that conformity in the classroom (Watters, 2014). The Internet is no longer a free realm but is instead a contested space, where a new battle for freedom in an increasingly digital society is being fought (Castells, 2001).

As teachers we need to ask, what are we going to bring to that battle?


  • Laurillard, D. (2007). Foreword. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds). Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: designing and delivering e-learning. Abingdon, Oxon. Routledge
  • Berner, M., Graupner, E. & Maedche, A. (2014). The Information Panopticon in the Big Data Era. Journal of Organization Design, 3(1):14-19.
  • Campbell, G. (2009). A Personal Digital Cyberinfrastructure. EDUCAUSE Review (44)5.
  • Castells, M. (2001). The Internet Galaxy. Oxford University Press.
  • Castells, M. (2003). Communication Power.
  • Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish.
  • Gillmor, D. (2014). Why the Indie Web is so Important.
  • Giroux, H. (2011). On Critical Pedagogy. Continuum. The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London SE1 7NX.
  • Morozov, E. (2013). To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. Public Affairs.
  • Stommel, J. (2016). Against Counteranthropomorphism: The Human Future of Education.
  • Watters, A. (2014). Beyond the LMS. Hack Education, September 05.

Critical digital pedagogy: Command and control

Update (22-02-17): This post has been modified from the original. Changes include updated in-text citations, minor grammatical improvements and an added reference list.

Yesterday I shared the background for this short series on critical digital pedagogy, as well as the initial abstract I submitted for the chapter. Today I’m sharing the first complete draft of the first section of my CPN book chapter on the topic.

“There is no such thing as a neutral educational process.”

Freire (2005)

As society and the health systems within it become increasingly complex and the needs of populations change accordingly, we are seeing increased calls for transformation, not only in how health systems are managed but in how health professionals are prepared to work in those environments (World Health Organization, 2013). The ability to drive change in complex systems is a function of the ability to generate and connect ideas, and then implement new processes based on them. Not only do these activities take time but they are highly social, as success often depends on who we work with. In other words, teams are not only important for effective work but also for the kinds of generative, creative work that 21st century problems require (Jarche, 2016). And yet health professions education continues to follow traditional lines of thinking and implementation, based in a pedagogical model that not only ignores our understanding of how people learn best, but also fails to consider the changing needs of the communities we serve (Frenk et al., 2010). The knowledge and skills required to work with wicked problems in complex systems are so diverse that it is impossible for a single individual or profession to make any appreciable impact (Fraser & Greenhalgh, 2001). Taking this into consideration, it seems pertinent to ask if our current education system is capable of preparing physiotherapy graduates to not only work in such environments, but to thrive.

The positivist ideology that permeates all levels of education can be seen in the way that teachers view knowledge, the way that knowledge is mediated through teaching methods, and the way students are taught to view knowledge. In this paradigm, knowledge is seen as being objective, bounded and something “out there” that can be neatly packaged and delivered to students (Giroux, 2011). Specifically, knowledge is treated as an external body of information that is produced independently of human beings; universalised, ahistorical, and expressed in technical language that is value-free. Knowledge is therefore not only measurable and decontextualised but also impersonal. From a positivist point of view, knowledge is defined in terms that are verifiable and aimed at achieving goals that are unquestioned. Teaching in this positivist paradigm is usually discipline- based and categorises content into discrete compartments; domains of objective facts that can be collected and arranged in the interests of empirical verification (ibid.).

Ilich asserted that schools initiate students into a world where “everything can be measured, including their imaginations” (Illich, 1970; 29). The message we send our students is that what counts is measured, and anything that is not measured does not count. This approach sees our students “reduced to cheerful robots” by an instrumental rationality that removes notions of justice, values, ethics, and power from the classroom (Giroux, 2011; 3). Efficiency and control are uncritically accepted as appropriate educational goals and then used to promote curriculum models that enshrine them as guiding principles. The objectification of students through measurement and their reduction to numbers in a spreadsheet by a positivist pedagogical model leaves them with little reason to generate their own meaning in the curriculum, or to evaluate their own learning experiences. When this point of view is used to guide curriculum design, our pedagogies are necessarily informed by the same notions (ibid.).

Teachers working from a positivist perspective tend to see teaching as an act of depositing information into the minds of their students. When we confuse teaching with talking to students who passively receive information, the content of the narrative is lifeless and decontextualised. Freire (2005; 71) says that our “words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity”. This pedagogical approach emphasises the sonority of the words, rather than their transforming power and turns the student into a container to be filled. The more the student meekly allows themselves to be filled, the “better” they are. Education is therefore an act of depositing, where the teacher issues facts that are received, memorised and repeated by the student (Freire, 2005). In this banking model of education, Freire describes knowledge as a gift to be given to those who do not have, by those who do. The teacher is presented to the students as their opposite – knowledgeable, authoritative and powerful – and students must then begin working to imitate and resemble their oppressors. Having been inducted into this system, students believe that the more treatment there is the better are the results. They begin to “confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.” (Illich, 1970; 4). Once they have allowed their imaginations to be dulled by the curriculum, they are conditioned to accept – maybe even need – institutional planning on their behalf, leading to stagnation through education (Coles, 2014).

Education has long been used as a tool of oppression in society and it is no accident that classrooms resemble prisons. In addition to the physical appearance, schools mirror prisons in other ways too. Students are kept under observation, classified and tracked with numbers, and required to conform to professional and disciplinary norms that limit expression of their personal identity. In addition, there is no copying, no noise, and no chatter; the crowd is abolished (Foucault, 1977). hooks (1994) has suggested that teachers’ power over students dulls their enthusiasm and cultivates an obedience to authority, where students are managed in an assembly-line. Indeed, classrooms seem designed and optimised to keep a population under control, and Illich went so far as to describe schools as places of confinement, “preparing students for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.” (Illich, 1970; 34). In the classroom, knowledge and authority rest within the teacher who stands at the front of the class. Students are arranged in rows, and must listen to the teacher who is the source of (the right) knowledge. Occasionally students may raise their hands and ask to be allowed to speak. Once these lessons are learned, students lose their incentive to develop as independent beings.

In order to better understand how the system manifests power in the classroom it is useful to consider Jeremy Benthem’s notion of the Panopticon, a building with a tower at the centre from which it is possible to see each cell in which a prisoner is incarcerated. Power should be visible but unverifiable, so that individuals always see the tower but never know if, or from where, they are being observed. The Panopticon therefore guarantees the functioning of power, even when there is no one actually asserting it (Foucault, 1977). Over time, we develop passive learners because this is the only option available to them. There is no possibility of expressing oneself or of questioning the status quo. Most students (and teachers) accept this situation as an inevitable aspect of the system, coming to believe that they are impotent to control or change it in any way. The layout of the classroom and the way that control and authority are vested in the teacher seems purposively designed to develop within students an awareness that “their words have been stolen from them” (Freire, 2005) and that the system – including teachers – cannot be trusted.

Health and education systems are increasingly recognised as complex adaptive systems that are characterised by high levels of uncertainty and constant change as a result of rich, non-linear interactions that cannot all be tracked (Bleakley, 2010). This means that complex systems are inherently ambiguous and uncertain, and that they lack predictable outcomes or clear boundaries. As systems have become more complex and integrated at the beginning of the 21st century, it is no longer possible for single individuals or even single disciplines to work effectively within these systems (Frenk et al., 2010; Bleakley, 2010; WHO, 2013). We must therefore ask if our classroom pedagogies – rooted in a positivist paradigm that sees knowledge as objective and independently verifiable – are suited to prepare graduates to thrive in complex, adaptive systems. Our pedagogies are instrumental, geared toward memorisation, conformity and high-stakes assessment, leading to classrooms that are what Giroux (2010) has called “intellectual dead zones”, as far removed from expanding the imaginations of students as one can imagine. If the positivist view of the world is assumed it leads to a perception of teaching and learning as objective and value-free. When this point of view becomes a guiding principle of the curriculum, it influences our pedagogy so that teaching and learning practices are inherently bound by the same notions.

Education should be aimed at cultivating “…citizens who are critical, self- reflective, knowledgeable, and willing to make moral judgments and act in a socially responsible way.” (Giroux, 2011; 3). It must therefore be understood as a process of emancipation guided by a pedagogy of liberation, as well as the cultivation of the intellect. But instead, teaching and learning have become fragmented processes reduced to a series of predetermined and lifeless gestures, stripped of it’s moral component, striving only for accountability and measurement. Institutions of higher education are increasingly associated with “market competition, conformity, disempowerment and uncompromising modes of punishment”, informed by corporate ideologies, standardised, managed, and reduced to job training sites (Giroux, 2010). Educators are increasingly frustrated by “a system that values assessment over engagement, learning management over discovery, content over community, outcomes over epiphanies. Education has misrepresented itself as objective, quantifiable, apolitical.” (Stommel, 2015).

Where some have suggested that the use of technology in the classroom is an opportunity for educational transformation, others have argued that we have missed that opportunity and have instead used technology to further reinforce our authority and control over student learning. The use of technology has simply become a more powerful and efficient means of oppression in the classroom.


  • Bleakley, A. (2010). Blunting Occam’s razor: Aligning medical education with studies of complexity. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice,16(4):849-855.
  • Coles, T. (2014). Critical pedagogy: schools must equip students to challenge the status quo. The Guardian.
  • Fraser, S.W. & Greenhalgh, T. (2001). Coping with complexity: Educating for capability. BMJ, 323(7316):799-803.
  • Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Edition. Continuum. The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London SE1 7NX.
    Frenk, J., Chen, L., Bhutta, Z. A., Cohen, J., Crisp, N., Evans, T., … Zurayk, H. (2010). Health professionals for a new century: transforming education to strengthen health systems in an interdependent world. Lancet, 376(9756), 1923–58.
    Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish.
  • Giroux, H. (2010). Lessons to Be Learned From Paulo Freire as Education Is Being Taken Over by the Mega Rich. truthout.
  • Giroux, H. (2011). On Critical Pedagogy. Continuum. The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London SE1 7NX.
  • hooks, bell (1994). Teaching to Transgress. Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017.
  • Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society.
  • Jarche, H. (2016) Valued work is not standardized.
  • Stommel, J. (2015). Critical digital pedagogy.
  • World Health Organization (2013). Transforming and scaling up health professionals’ education and training.

Critical digital pedagogy: Initial abstract for the chapter

This post is linked to a short series I’ll be sharing on the process of writing a book chapter for a publication by the Critical Physiotherapy Network. I’ll add links to posts as we move forward. In the meantime, here is some background to this post.

Initially the chapter was going to be called Physiotherapy education for the 21st century, but as I worked through the ideas I found myself unsatisfied with the lack of a critical perspective in my thinking. As I tried to find the link between critical pedagogy and online and digital learning, I realised that the original abstract wasn’t saying what I wanted it to. I began by thinking that the chapter was going to look more like the image at the top of this post but it soon became clear that it wasn’t going to work. Anything that was that specific would never age well. Anything I wrote would – like the technology it described – would be obsolete within a few year.

It took me a few iterations to begin linking together the bits and pieces of the texts I was working with, including Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), hooks’ Teaching to Transgress (1990), Giroux’s On Critical Pedagogy (2011) and a few others. But when it started to come together I was hopeful that my choice to switch direction would pay off. I’m still not 100% sure that it’s going to work but over the next few posts I’ll get closer to figuring that out.

Anyway, here’s the original abstract.

The beginning of the 21st century has seen more technological progress than any other time in our history, at an accelerating rate of change. The introduction of robotics, gene therapy and nanotechnology into ever increasings domains of health care, combined with advances in computing power, see us on the brink of a new understanding of what it means to be human. As society and the health systems within it become increasingly complex and the needs of populations change accordingly, it seems appropriate to ask if our current education system is capable of preparing physiotherapy students to not only work in such environments, but to thrive. Given the scope of these changes we should expect to see a significant shift in how physiotherapists are prepared for practice. Yet, physiotherapy education continues to follow traditional lines of thinking and implementation that fails to consider the changing needs of society.

In order to graduate professionals who are capable of adapting to complex systems, we cannot afford to continue teaching in spaces that have not changed in 500 years. There is little evidence that physiotherapy educators have acknowledged society’s changing conceptions of therapy and health, nor that they have adapted their teaching methods accordingly. We need to ask ourselves what attributes physiotherapists require in order for them to effectively negotiate the challenges of future working environments and if our current learning spaces help students become capable, effective leaders in complex health systems? As we develop a more nuanced vision of what it means to be human in an increasingly complex world, we must ask critical questions that challenge the profession to think differently about what it means to be a physiotherapist and consequently, how physiotherapy education needs to change.

Who cares about “referencing”?

Why do we teach our students how to reference? Mendeley, EndNote, Refworks, etc. all do it for you. In my experience the emphasis for students in higher education is almost always on what the citation looks like and not on the work the citation does. When it comes to learning about referencing for students, the focus is almost always on:

  1. Plagiarism: If you don’t reference, you’re stealing.
  2. Format: If it doesn’t conform to [insert style guide], it’s wrong.

This is problematic. The first point begins with the assumption that our students are cheats and frauds. I prefer not to go into the relationship with that as a starting frame of reference. The second point is irrelevant because style guides explain exactly how to format the citation and software formats it for us.

What matters is that students understand the underlying rationale of attribution and of building on the ideas of others. I’m way more interested in talking about ideas with my students, than on where the comma goes. Instead of talking about the importance of referencing maybe we should aim to instil in students a love of ideas. Sometimes those ideas originated from someone else (citation required) and sometimes those ideas are your own. What does the world look like when we use ideas – some our own and some from others – to think differently? That seems like a more interesting conversation to have.

Writing about the software that I use to write

Note: I started writing this post more than a year ago and have regularly pushed it back in the queue. It began as a list of text editing software that I thought might be useful for people who are stuck using MS Word but has since grown beyond a simple list.

I like to think that I write a lot. I’m not nearly as prolific as I’d like to be but I think I do a decent job of getting words onto the page, either here on the blog, journal articles, research proposals, lengthy emails to students, conference presentations, or notes in workshops I attend. I thought I’d give an overview of the different places I write because I know that many of my colleagues think that Microsoft Word is the only option, which makes me sad.

Web-based editors

There is a certain appeal to the idea of writing tools that are web-based. They’re always up-to-date, you don’t have to worry about backing up or even saving, and they don’t burden you with too many features that you’ll never use. By and large, they get out of the way and let you write. Of course, the downside is that you have to be online to use them, which isn’t always possible.

The first service I tried was Draft. It has some amazing features (great for productivity, rather than power), is regularly updated and has a really nice UI that gets out of the way when it’s not needed. My only concern is that the offline access isn’t entirely intuitive and is still under development. I tend to use Draft to get the ideas out of my head and onto a “page”. It has a really minimalist interface, and with the browser in full screen mode, I can just write without any distractions. Once I’ve put as much as I can into Draft, I export the document as a plain text file and either move it into a desktop editor or something like Google Drive (if it’s something I’m going to share with others).

Draft aims to not only provide you with a writing service, but to help make your writing better.
Draft aims to not only provide you with a writing service, but to help make your writing better.

I should probably also mention the Google Drive app, which runs on Android and iOS devices, as well as through the browser. While Google has made enormous improvements in the file management features of Drive and the new Docs has done a lot for offline access, native editing of Word documents and collaborative writing, it sometimes feel like it’s trying to kill a mosquito with a cannon. However, if you need your writing editor to do heavy lifting, then Drive and Docs may be good choices for you.

I use Google Docs / Drive regularly as part of various collaborative research projects I’m involved in, as well as some classes that we team teach. While I think it’s probably best in class when it comes to collaborative writing and editing because of the range of services (Docs, Sheets, Forms and Slides), the online requirement can be problematic. The early versions of the Docs app on iOS and Android were also a bit clumsy. However, Drive is constantly getting better and it is now a service that I really can’t live without.


Desktop editors

I also do a lot of more formal writing for research projects and for that I have always used a combination of LibreOffice and Dropbox to sync between machines. However, there’s a growing movement among academics who are switching from writing in Microsoft Word (or LibreOffice) and simply using markdown and plain text editors. If you’re thinking that, as an academic, Word has features that you absolutely must have, it seems that with a little bit of thought, you can avoid it completely.

I’ve also worked with Focuswriter, Gedit, and ReText on Linux, and MarkdownPad on Windows. They’re great text editors (as opposed to word processors) that I use almost solely for the initial stages of my academic writing and I’ve switched almost entirely to text-only editors for the original drafting of my work. One of the huge advantages of using text only is that I can edit any document on any device. Dropbox keeps them all in sync and every device can edit text. I do however, still use LibreOffice for the final editing of documents.

As you can see, Gedit is a very simple text editor.
As you can see, Gedit is a very simple text editor.

I should also note that I recently moved all of my note-taking to Evernote. What I really like about Evernote is that it has native desktop and mobile clients, as well as being browser-based, which means I can use it anywhere to capture almost anything.

Mobile editors

On mobile devices it’s a bit more complicated because there are literally hundreds of options. Also, the tools that are available for mobile are often not cross-platform, which means you really do have to go with text editors. I wanted something that integrated with Dropbox – which is where I keep all of my writing – and that allowed me to edit in plain text. Without going into the details of all the writing apps I’ve installed (and subsequently uninstalled), I finally settled on Plaintext on the iPad and Jotterpad X on my Nexus 7 and HTC One X. They’ve got the right balance between useful features that make writing easier and light enough that I can just write and not get distracted with features.

JotterpPad X running on an Android tablet.
JotterpPad X running on an Android tablet.

Something that has become very clear to me while writing this post is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between a desktop, web-based or mobile writing app. Services like Drive (with it’s associated Docs, Sheets and Slides) are easily accessible across all three, and with the offline access available in Chrome and on mobile, it’s hard not to think seriously about moving there altogether.

Moving between consuming and creating: Thinking about workflow


I use Pocket a lot. It’s not unusual for me to have more than 500 articles saved to read later, which to be honest, causes me a bit of anxiety. It’s a list of “things to do” that I know I’ll never finish. But I keep adding stuff to the list because I know that it’ll be interesting when I get around to reading it at some point. The recommendation from the guys at Pocket is not to think of the reading list as a list of things to “get through”. Rather, think of it as a queue of reading that you know you’ll never finish.

The key is to think of it like a Netflix queue. You are never overwhelmed or concerned about the number of items in your Netflix queue. You just keep putting things in there because you know that when you have the time to view something, you can guarantee you’ll have something great in there that you’ve been meaning to check out. If you view Pocket as a todo list then you better hope you have a LOT of free time.

– Nate Weiner

But this doesn’t work for me because it’s not the finishing that bothers me, it’s the cognitive space that the list represents. It’s the psychological load knowing that in that reading list are things that I’ve made a mental note to do something with. There are things in there that relate to projects I’m working on or to ideas that I want to develop. For me, Pocket isn’t just a reading list…it’s a thinking list.

That led to me start looking around for others who have had similar issues. I liked Emmanuel Quartey’s post (“Getting to Pocket Zero“), where he explores how Pocket is positioned as a reading app and how, if it were reconceptualised as a content creation app you would change how you use it.

Emmanuel Quartey's suggestion as to how Pocket could actually be used i.e. it's not just about reading great content.
Emmanuel Quartey’s suggestion as to how Pocket could actually be used i.e. it’s not just about reading content.

I’ve found this exact problem in my own use of Pocket. When I’m reading I’m often struck with a thought that I want to develop, or that links to another thought from another article (that is also probably also saved in Pocket). At the moment, I’m stuck trying to copy and paste quotes, links and my own thoughts from Pocket to Evernote. But what if I could create those links and drafts right from inside Pocket?

I’d like to be able to highlight passages within articles and then tag those passages only. Instead of thinking of the article as being a single entity (“the article”) we should understand that an article is created from words, sentences and paragraphs, and that each of those constructs are not only pieces of the whole, but can be complete ideas in themselves. By tagging these discrete items (words, sentences or paragraphs) we can add metadata (the tag name or description) to them that then allows us to perform operations on the item.

For example, “Create New Article from Tag” would take all of the tagged items at either the word, sentence, paragraph or article levels (with original URLs) and paste them into a blank editing space, with the option of rearranging, annotating, commenting and publishing into another space (maybe WordPress). What about “Share this Tag with others”? I could allow others to read the sections I’ve highlighted, and give them options to add their own thoughts comments in the same space. It’s not difficult to see how this could really make a reading app like Pocket far more powerful as an idea-curation-app.

As it is, I’ve tried to deal with the issue by moving my reading / thinking / writing process from Pocket into Evernote. I have a set of “Project” folders in Evernote that are mainly writing and research projects that I have going on at any one time. As I read something in Pocket that is linked to one of the projects I’m busy with, I share the article (the full article) to the relevant project folder in Evernote, tagging it and adding additional notes. When I have time, I go into the project folder and edit the articles I’ve saved. From there, I move the idea / note into the main note in the folder, which is where I integrate the ideas from the various posts. Evernote allows me to share project folders and with that enable collaborators to edit notes in the folder. It’s not perfect but it works for me right now.

What does it mean to be a book?

Recently I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a book. What makes a book, a “book”? I’m willing to bet that when you see the word “book” you think of a physical container for words that are printed on paper, bound within covers and sits on a bookshelf. Wikipedia agrees with you:

A book is a set of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of ink, paper, parchment, or other materials, fastened together to hinge at one side. A single sheet within a book is a leaf, and each side of a leaf is a page.

It seems that the physicality of a book has a lot to do with its book-ness. In other words, when we think of a book it’s usually as something that we can hold. This makes sense in a historical context because writing in books was an evolution of previous systems that allowed the recording of words and ideas onto some kind of natural material e.g. tablets (clay, not Apple). When you actually think about it, maybe the only reason we think of books as printed collections of words is because for the past several hundred years that’s all they were. Maybe we think of a book as a collection of words printed on bound paper because that is all we have ever known a book to be.

If we consider the design principle that form should follow function we see that the purpose of a thing should define it’s form. In other words, if the purpose of a book is to record and preserve ideas with the intent of sharing them at scale with others, then we should choose a form that allows us to most effectively achieve that function. For most of our recent history, printing words onto paper was pretty much the only way that complex ideas could survive the death of a person. While oral traditions of preserving and sharing ideas are also valid, they don’t scale when it comes to sharing with very large numbers of people.

We should be asking what technology currently exists that enables books to take on a form that allows them to better achieve the function of storing and sharing ideas at scale over extended periods of time? Why do we still think of a “book” as a thing that sits on a shelf, when digital tools enable us to create new forms of books that are better suited to achieving their function. And I’m not talking about PDFs as digital versions of books. The PDF version of a printed book differs only in degree from the printed version and its fundamental properties are generally the same. For example, the PDF is “better” than the print version because we can make more copies at a lower cost. This property makes the cost of distribution (i.e. copying) of PDFs essentially zero. But besides decreasing the cost of efficient distribution, how else is the PDF of a book different to a printed book?


What if “books” could be more than a collection of printed pages (whether the “print” and “page” is ink- or pixel-based)? What if, instead of thinking of books in terms of their physical properties (i.e. what they look and feel like) we think of them in terms of collections of ideas that are stored and shared over time (i.e. what books are for)? Now we’re talking about separating the function of a book from its form, and digital technology is inherently suited for this. In the default idea of “book”, form and content are intricately tied together. Words are collected into sentences, paragraphs and chapters, and printed onto pages. The words and the pages are inseparable.

“Digital” allows us to abstract ideas out into smaller collections (much smaller than chapters), which can be shared, modified and repurposed far more easily than 20 printed pages collected into a chapter. Instead of thinking of words, sentences and paragraphs as collections in a chapter, we can think of them as discrete ideas – down to the “word” level – which can then be categorised and presented as such. It means that we could, for example, allow for readers to search for ideas and abstract concepts, rather than just words. Imagine putting together a custom textbook that is made of excerpts or ideas from a variety of other books that are created this way, in a similar process to what we can currently do with books created in Wikipedia. Imagine if readers could download and share, not only single chapters of a book, but single ideas?


“Digital” means that we can separate the form and content of writing so that we can focus on creating content leaving computers to focus on form. Machine readability is what allows me to write a blog post in plain text and leave the formatting and presentation of my content to the WordPress theme that I have installed on my blog. It’s what allows my content to show up, stripped of formatting and design, in your Pocket reader when you save it to read later. It’s what allows you to subscribe to my posts and have my content show up in whatever format and device you choose to receive it in.

Machine readability allows affordably serving the information to a wider variety of users (in a presentation that they can understand), where users may be humans or machines. This requires the ability to recast abstractions in new instances quickly and cheaply (that is, without time-consuming reworking), which generally requires automation rather than person-hours of labor.

Responsive design is the idea that content will take the form of whatever device you’re using to access it, and has become a foundational principle of modern digital design. If you’re a content creator, you need to ensure that your work is going to take whatever form the content consumer requires it to. If they’re on a 20 inch monitor, it needs to look as good as it does on a 4 inch phone screen. Try making a PDF do that.


This is the power of separating out content and presentation. How a thing looks is different to what it does. So we come back to the idea that a book is a container of ideas, not words, which means that the way in which the ideas are expressed, stored and shared need have nothing to do with the ideas themselves. A book therefore, does not actually need to be a book.

Now that we’ve separated form from function, what does that allow us to do with the “collection of ideas” (i.e. the book)? Well, for one thing, it removes the requirement that ideas are presented linearly. When you can break up the ideas into discrete items, they can be remixed, distributed and presented in non-linear ways e.g. using hyperlinks to connect different ideas in different places. It also means that the “book” can be presented and shared as either a physically printed volume, an ebook, an audiobook, a website, an RSS feed or an email newsletter.

By using digital tools, we lose nothing (we can still print the book) and gain several advantages that print simply cannot provide. For example, you could make sections of the book available to be distributed as embedded content or as streams of content (via RSS) rather than PDF pages. One practical benefit of this is that further distribution is possible in very simple ways. Just like a tweet can be embedded in any website, a section of content from the book could be embedded into any other media. Think what this would mean for generating discussion and debate around your content, as opposed to emailing a PDF of a whole book around.


Finally, on a more pragmatic level publishing a book – not just as an ebook but also as a website, RSS feed, or mobile app – provides the following benefits:

  • You can include animations, audio interviews, linking out to external content, and embedding videos.
  • Digital text can be converted to audio via text-to-speech software, creating access for people with disabilities.
  • The separation of content and presentation means that you could edit and update content via a content management system, which means that errors can be corrected at no cost, and the updated content is propagated through the system, changing automatically whenever it is viewed.
  • New chapters could be added or modified over time at no cost. There would be no need for updated editions that are distributed in cargo containers to other countries because every instance of the “book” is the most up-to-date version.

Taking all of the above into account, what is the value of publishing a physical book in hard copy? I honestly can’t think of any reasons that are not rooted in legacy or simple momentum, for us to seriously consider printing words onto paper, binding them together and shipping them around the world. I think that in order for us to most effectively share our ideas with others is to ask what it means – in a digital age – to be a book?

Abstract for RCTs in educational research

There seems to have been a resurgence in calls for the use of systematic reviews and randomised controlled trials in educational research lately. There’s a lot to like (in my opinion) about RCTs in certain contexts because of how they are designed.  For example, when you want to figure out the effect of variable A on variable B, it’s a very useful approach because of the randomisation of the sample and the blinding of assessors and participants.

However, the method doesn’t translate well into most educational contexts for a variety of reasons, usually in the form of arguments for how RCTs in educational research are unethical and logistically difficult. I recently wrote a position paper with a colleague from Rhodes University where we looked at the argument against RCTs where we basically ignore the arguments just mentioned. We focus instead on how using an RCT pre-supposes an understanding of teaching and learning that is at odds with what we know about how learning happens. The article will be published soon in the African Journal of Health Professions Education. Here’s the abstract:

Randomised controlled trails (RCTs) are a valued research method in evidence-based practice in the medical and clinical settings. However, the use of RCTs is associated with a particular ontological and epistemological perspective that is situated within a positivist world view. It assumes that environments and variables can be controlled in order to establish cause-effect relationships. But current theories of learning suggest that knowledge is socially constructed, and that learning occurs in open systems which cannot be controlled and manipulated as would be required in a RCT. They recognise the importance and influence of context on learning, something that positivist research paradigms specifically aim to counter. We argue that RCTs are inappropriate in education research because they force us to take up ontological and epistemological positions within a technical rationalist framework that is at odds with current learning theory.


Thoughts on my first article for The Conversation

I pitched 3 ideas for articles to The Conversation: Africa at the end of last year, one of which was picked up to develop and publish. A few days ago I gave the go-ahead for it to be published and am happy to report that it is live. It’s called Technology is no longer a luxury for universities – It’s a necessity. My original title was a William Gibson quote: “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed” but I gather the editor decided on something more accessible.

There are a few things that were different to what I was expecting, in particular the amount of input that the editor provides. I was expecting something more like critical feedback in the peer review process but it was actually more like having a co-author at times. This worked out well for me since I didn’t want to feel like I had to put in the same amount of time that I would for an academic paper. It was nice to have someone else try out the ideas and to actually make the changes to the article.

I was also surprised that the editor selected the header image. When I’m blogging I’m used to spending a bit of time trying to find a good picture that works with the post, so it was strange to see the final article with an image already included. This is both positive and negative. Positive because I didn’t have to spend the time finding a graphic with the right permissions (I suppose this is the main reason the editor takes on this responsibility), and negative because I may not like the selected picture, although this is obviously something that can be discussed.

All in all, I enjoyed the process, especially the very quick turnaround time from the initial submission of the idea to the final publication, which would have been even quicker had we not had the #FeesMustFall movement at the end of 2015. I am also impressed at the reach of the publication, which you can see in the screenshot below. That’s not bad considering it was only published this morning. Finally, The Conversation makes it very simple to republish articles on your own site – providing the source code for the piece – which you can copy into your own blogging platform. I’ll be doing that in my next post on this blog.

The Conversation 2016-01-12 10-53-04