Sunday, April 7, 2024

Climate crisis - why are universities so silent?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

We are in the midst of the greatest environmental collapse since long before human beings emerged onto this planet but the vast majority of governments and obedient citizens have decided that the best strategy is to pretend that there is no threat and continue with business as usual, focusing on short-term profit above future survival. Science denial is now becoming mainstream and the United Nations' reports coming from the world's experts on climate and environmental science are flippantly dismissed as alarmist and governments pay at best lip service with greenwashed statments of fantasy and wishful thinking. Climate activists are ridiculed and often branded as extremists and a "threat to democracy" whilst the governments and corporations that are profiting from actively destroying the world we live in are portrayed as rational and responsible. 

Since the science behind these reports come from the world's universities and research institutes these organisations are worryingly silent in national debates. Instead of fully and vocally standing up for their own researchers and offering a united front against the deluge of disinformation and greenwashing, they seldom if ever make their voices heard. There are some positive signs, such as the EUA's (European Universities Association) A Green deal roadmap for European universities published in October last year..

EUA’s Green Deal roadmap outlines processes and interventions which can boost universities’ impact and visibility in pursuing a climate-neutral, environmentally sustainable, and socially equitable Europe. The roadmap should serve as an inspiration and template for how universities can face the climate and environmental challenge over an extensive timeframe, enabling them to make both an effective contribution and serve as exemplars of sustainable communities.

Certainly almost every university has some kind of environmental/sustainability policy but on the ground there are often only cosmetic changes. Despite the lessons learned during the pandemic about the affordances of digital meetings and conferences we have largely flocked back to on-site conferences and academics, like other professions, are flying far and wide again. This despite all relevant research pointing to the fact that business as usual will have catastrophic societal consequences in the next 20-30 years. If that wasn't bad enough we have the terrifying trend that just when we need global cooperation to solve global crises the world is filled with toxic xenophobic nationalism leading to more conflict and destruction.

These thoughts were given greater perspective last week in an article in Frontiers in Education, “No research on a dead planet”: preserving the socio-ecological conditions for academia, by Aaron Thierry, Laura Horn, Pauline von Hellermann and Charlie J. Gardner. Universities' passivity in this issue will threaten their future existence.

Despite thousands of higher education institutions (HEIs) having issued Climate Emergency declarations, most academics continue to operate according to ‘business-as-usual’. However, such passivity increases the risk of climate impacts so severe as to threaten the persistence of organized society, and thus HEIs themselves.

Universities are of course simply following the societal indifference to our impending crisis, often with a warped pride in being as climate unfriendly as possible, refusing to even contemplate flying and driving less often, eating less meat, consuming less and living more sustainably. Our governments confirm these prejudices as here in Sweden where we are being encouraged to fly and drive more with increasing subsidies to fossil industries. Climate change and environmental protection are guaranteed conversation killers - I have tried! But universities should at least support their own scientists and offer a research-based response to the disinformation.

This dissonance extends to the individual behavior of many academics. For example, the normalization of aviation-based hyper-mobility in academic work (Bjørkdahl and Franco Duharte, 2022). It is even the case that professors in climate science fly more than other researchers, despite the tremendous carbon emissions associated with such activities (Whitmarsh et al., 2020). On a day-to-day basis, most academic staff seem to be maintaining the semblance of normalcy and unconcern. So great is our apparent collective indifference that an onlooker could be forgiven for thinking that we do not believe our own institutions’ official warnings that an emergency is unfolding around us.

It's time to speak out, but not as individuals (vulnerable to the hate and threats that speaking out provokes) but rather as institutions or even alliances of institutions. Universities still carry a lot of weight in society even if it is being eroded by authoritarian politicians. If they do not speak loudly and clearly in support of their own science then they risk becoming irrelevant. It is that serious. I will give the last word here to the authors of the article.

For too long we have allowed a culture of climate silence to dominate in our universities, leading to a misalignment of our priorities from our core purpose and values, thereby perpetuating a maladaptive response to the unfolding planetary emergency and undermining the very future of the higher education sector. Universities have in effect become ‘fraud bubbles’ (Weintrobe, 2021) in which staff and students must construct a ‘double reality’, in order to pursue a narrow social role, trapped in maladaptive incentive structures of increasingly neoliberal institutions. This ultimately serves to reproduce the hegemonic practices, norms and conventions driving socio-ecological collapse. As an academic community we must urgently learn to grapple with the role that universities can play as leaders in the necessary social transformation to come. Our dearest notions of progress, rooted in our desire for the beneficial accumulation and application of knowledge (Collini, 2012), are now both directly and indirectly threatened by the climate crisis.

Maybe I have missed good examples of university action. Please send examples in that case. Happy for all signs of resistance!

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Mass personalisation - when every cafe looks the same

Photo by shawnanggg on Unsplash

Remember when you first used Amazon and they offered recommendations of other books you might like based on what you had bought or browsed on the platform? Often the recommendations were very much in line with your tastes and you discovered new books or music. Google searched for results that matched your browsing, giving you a personalised search service. We felt served, but today we feel used and manipulated by algorithm-driven recommendations that are now extremely commercialised. If you keep getting fed music or literature that you already like you'll never discover anything new. It's a bit like the radio stations that promise to play only hit music - that means you'll never hear anything new until after it has become a hit. The trap of personalisation becomes even more worrying when you show interest in more extreme political views and the algorithms offer you increasingly extreme material until you see very little else. Add to that the power of influencers on social media and our flock instinct and the result is a global streamlining. In the end everything looks or sounds roughly the same.

This streamlining is the subject of a fascinating podcast and article on The Verge, How to save culture from the algorithms, with Filterworld author Kyle Chayka. Kyle is the author of a book called Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture, about how global trends are created on a viral scale, via social media and streaming services.
It’s a book about how digital platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Spotify took over our modes of cultural distribution in the past decade. Algorithmic recommendations, like TikTok’s For You feed or Netflix’s homepage, control the majority of what we see and hear online. Though they promise personalization, the net result of so many algorithms is a homogenization of culture.
Mass personalisation leads in the end to a final common denominator, as in all the trendy cafes, restaurants and BnBs looking very similar no matter where they are in the world.
I was traveling around the world quite a bit and landing in all these different cities, and I would notice that every Airbnb I stayed in had the same kind of aesthetic signature, every coffee shop I went to in Reykjavík or Kyoto or LA or Berlin all had the same stuff in it, and I just started wondering or almost being anxious about why all the sameness was happening
Products, services, trends and influencers pay for ratings in the main platforms and if you press the right buttons you can go viral. Ratings and reviews matter and these can now also be manipulated with the help of AI bots. Some music, books, films etc get pushed more than others. Our personalised services are not as personal as they seem. Our tastes are moulded by the algorithms. The question is how to escape. According to Chayka you need to reconnect with yourself and ignore the recommendations, reviews and like-counts.
Being more thoughtful is a good start. I think what I came out of it with was you want to know that you like what you like because you like it, not just because it was recommended to you and exposed to you repeatedly in a feed. Thinking about your personal taste, having a real encounter with a song or a piece of art or a piece of clothing where you don’t think about how many people liked it, where you don’t think about the Instagram account, where you just sit with your own feelings and have an experience of culture that’s in front of you that’s changing your mind or your soul or whatever, that’s truly what I want people to have. I want you to sit and stare at a painting and be like, “What does this make me feel? I don’t care how many likes it has. I don’t care how many followers the artist has. How am I feeling right now?”

I try by using for example Duckduckgo for searching since it doesn't track me. I get a more diverse set of results than with Google but that is the point. Google frequently suggested my own blog posts or articles whereas I can hardly find them with Duckduckgo! I've stopped using TripAdvisor since since reviews can be written by bots or trolls. I don't use Amazon anymore and my use of Spotify is sinking to the point where I don't think I want to subscribe anymore. We don't need to go completely offline but treat the big tech platforms with extreme care and suspicion. There are alternatives out there.

Monday, February 26, 2024

The "enshittification" of the internet - we know it's bad for us but we're hooked

Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

I frequently consider leaving social media completely but can't quite bring myself to do it. As I have no doubt written before I have so many contacts in there that I would lose and I still get pleasure from the groups I belong to. But you will certainly have noticed over the years how what was once a place to see photos and comments from friends has turned into a stream of adverts and posts (often political or provocative) from organisations you don't follow. At first, the ads on Facebook were often hilariously irrelevant, based merely on stereotypes. As an older male living in a village I saw ads for chainsaws, tractors, hair restorer, Viagra (of course), crypto nonsense and the fact that hundreds of fascinating women are waiting to meet me. They're getting better at finding things I am at least vaguely interested in but the problem is that the platform has become just a random stream of stuff that I never asked for. Basically it has become enshittified.

Enshittification is a concept launched by Cory Doctorow last year in a post about TikTokTiktok's enshittification. In it he argues that all platforms inevitably fill up with garbage due to the greed of the owners. Even if he writes mostly about TikTok the principle seems to apply across the board. A new post, My McLuhan lecture on enshittification, is the script of a recent lecture where he goes into more depth on the phenomenon. In short, the enshittification process goes like this:

It's a three stage process: First, platforms are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.
This rings true for most if not all the tech platforms: Google, Amazon, Facebook, X (Twitter), TikTok,  etc. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were very succesful in getting us all onboard to share our everyday events and interests and we quickly got hooked. But once we were all in there and the platform changed into an ad-based channel we were trapped. If you leave the platform you leave behind all your friends. It's virtually impossible to get all your Facebook contacts to leave all at once and meet up in a new platform. So we stay there even if we begin to hate the place and despite all the scandals and blatant societal damage. Then came the trolls and disinformation channels, destroying even light-hearted discussion threads with the result that more and more became passive users or simply gave up. But still it is so hard to leave and many of us stay in there. I gave up Twitter when it became X but amazingly it is still the default channel for serious media and organisations.

Doctorow offers four factors that could combat enshittification:
There are four constraints that prevent enshittification: competition, regulation, self-help and labor.
The problem is that all of these have disappeared. We could have regulated the tech industry and broken up the monopolistic monsters like the big five. We could have created more genuine competition. We could have legislated against monopolistic takeovers, exploitative labour practices and so on but we didn't. We believed the big tech mythology of the "new economy", cool laid-back leaders, flashy offices and mottos like "Don't be evil". We are no longer customers to these companies, have you noticed how none of them offer any customer service, not even a contact number. We are simply data to exploit. Doctorow sees some glimmers of hope in a renewed interest for privacy legislation, especially in the EU, current labour action against companies like Tesla and Amazon, attempts to curb monopolistic take-overs and suchlike. But we have allowed the industry go run wild for so long it's extremely hard to constrain them now.
The capitalism of today has produced a global, digital ghost mall, filled with botshit, crapgadgets from companies with consonant-heavy brand-names, and cryptocurrency scams.
The internet isn't more important than the climate emergency, nor gender justice, racial justice, genocide, or inequality.
But the internet is the terrain we'll fight those fights on. Without a free, fair and open internet, the fight is lost before it's joined.
We can reverse the enshittification of the internet. We can halt the creeping enshittification of every digital device.
I wish we could mobilise to fight this as Doctorow suggests but first we have to get people to look up from their screens and realise that something is seriously wrong. That is the biggest challenge. 

For more on this theme please watch this interesting discussion between Camille Francois (Columbia University) and Meredith Whittaker (President, Signal) on Al Jazeera, AI and Surveillance Capitalism. They discuss the surveillance economy, the effects of AI and how we can combat it.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Seeing is not believing


Following on from my last post on the web becoming a digital landfill site, here's more reason for concern. The limited release of Sora, a new AI generated text-to-video application, shows how fast this technology is developing and the terrifying potential it offers for disinformation Watch the video above where Marques Brownlee presents and discusses the demo videos released by OpenAI Sora and compares them to the hilariously inept AI-generated videos of just one year ago. He points out that there are still tell-tale signs of AI in the videos but in many cases you need an experienced eye to spot them. Most people, however, will not even suspect that the films are not real and if we consider the astounding improvements that AI-generated applications have made in the last year we can expect near perfection in the coming year or so.

AI-generated content is of course completely based on existing, copyrighted content but at the same time makes copyright legislation irrelevant. Why use human models in the fashion industry when you can generate totally realistic digital versions? Why pay people or companies for photos, music, graphic design, advertising copy or whatever when you can generate it yourself in seconds for free? I already see lots of ridiculous AI images in my social media feeds and at the moment they're extremely obvious but what happens when I can't tell the difference anymore? No amount of digital literacy is going to help unless you're prepared to analyze the content in depth. We are fast approaching a time when you simply can't believe what you see, hear or read. We could regulate the use of AI and have strict guidelines but that would mean governments taking responsibility, standing up to big business and cooperating globally. Can you seriously believe such a development given the nature of today's governments and power structures? I certainly can't but I would love to be proved wrong.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Will AI turn the web into an information landfill site?

Photo by Shardar Tarikul Islam on Unsplash

Until now we have believed that most of what we see on the web is reliable information and we have developed digitalliteracy skills to fact-check and identify trustworthy sources. With the rapid deployment and advancement of AI, however, I wonder if we are soon reaching a frightening tipping point where it will become impossible to tell fact from fiction and where the lies and disinformation drown out the truth. "Truth is behind a paywall but the lies are free" is a valid comment on today's media landscape and I am afraid that this will get even more pronounced as AI-generated content floods the net.

AI tools can write increasingly plausible news stories, reviews, articles and summaries complete with references and it is easy to be impressed by it all. Often the content is good but there are many cases of so-called hallucinations where the application simply invents things and passes them off as fact. Without considerable knowledge in the field it is very hard not to believe what you read. There are plenty of people using AI to spread propaganda and disinformation with news channels, blogs and sites full of AI-generated content. These are of course free to access unlike serious news media who rely on subscriptions to survive. As more AI-generated content fills the web the new AI-applications will of course trawl the freely available content on which to base their new production. Could this lead to a web that looks like a gigantic landfill site, full of toxic waste?.

A recent example of the wild imagination of AI-applications was in an article in the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter (in Swedish but here's the link). The writer asked an AI-generator, Bard, to describe the careers of the children of the famous Swedish artist/designer couple Carl and Karin Larsson. The answer was well written and detailed but completely wrong. The oldest son actually died at the age of 18 but according to Bard he had a long and successful career as an architect. The careers of the other children were also fabricated. The writer checked the facts from other sources but how many of us would simply accept the AI-generated answer as the truth? What happens when search engines offer us links to AI-hallucinations in the first 20 search results?

A post by Ian Betteridge, The information grey goo, raises the alarm on this threat. He states that anywhere content can be created will ultimately be flooded with AI-generated words and pictures. New AI applications will feed off the old AI content and the mix becomes increasingly inaccurate, resulting in what he describes as AI Grey Goo, a swamp of rubbish:

This is the AI Grey Goo scenario: an internet choked with low-quality content, which never improves, where it is almost impossible to locate public reliable sources for information because the tools we have been able to rely on in the past – Google, social media – can never keep up with the scale of new content being created. Where the volume of content created overwhelms human or algorithmic abilities to sift through it quickly and find high-quality stuff.

Traditional digital literacy skills are not enough to deal with a disinformation overload. We risk a situation where nothing on the web can be trusted. Services like customer reviews, so important to retailers, restaurants and the tourist industry will beome trashed since the bots will be doing all the reviews.

It will be possible to create a programme which says “Find all my products on Amazon. Where the product rating drops below 5, add unique AI-generated reviews until the rating reaches 5 again. Continue monitoring this and adding reviews.”
If we can no longer trust any text, photo or film what on earth can we believe? The trustworthy sources are increasingly forced to charge for access since good journalism costs money to produce and so only the already converted will be able to access fact-checked and scientific content.
With reliable information locked behind paywalls, anyone unwilling or unable to pay will be faced with picking through a rubbish heap of disinformation, scams, and low-quality nonsense.

I know that AI can and will be used to further research and to benefit science, but the negative consequences, in my opinion, far outweigh the positive. We risk the prospect of quality content being hidden behind paywalls whilst the "free" web will be an information landfill. But, like Pandora's box, it's probably too late to close the lid. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Looking back - inspirations and highlights

Photo by Kalle Kortelainen on Unsplash

Oh dear, I realise that I have rather neglected my blog in recent months. After so many years of writing a post every week and sometimes more frequently I feel a bit ashamed at the long breaks this year. Since retirement my engagement in the world of educational technology has faded somewhat and I am finding other interests to fill my life. However, maybe it's good to look back at my journey over the past 15 years, remembering people and events that have inspired me and somehow summing up the experience. Since no one will have read the story through all those hundreds of blog posts through the years, here's a short retrospective.

I stumbled into higher education in 2004 after many years in adult education and corporate training. I got a job as coordinator of distance education and found the whole concept fascinating. I was inspired by the idea of higher education becoming available to all and not just for those who are able to move to campus and study full-time. I was sure that this vision would inspire governments to fund a shift in higher education towards lifelong learning and widened participation, driven by the development of digital technology. My focus was on trying to promote the benefits of distance education and persuading colleagues to offer more distance and online courses. I had a steep learning curve to understand the complexities of higher education. As a student I didn't really pay any attention to how the university was run or who does what so I felt completely lost at some of the meetings and discussions I attended in my first couple of years. Some aspects of academic life are still a mystery to me quite honestly. I made many mistakes but hopefully learned from most of them.

Inspirational visit to Canada

As I became more familiar with the field I began getting involved in networks with colleagues from other universities in Sweden and through this I got the opportunity to go on a study visit to Canada in October 2005. This was a life-changing visit, or at least career-changing. We visited universities in Vancouver and Edmonton to learn more about how they were offering distance and online education. We saw media production departments with over a hundred employees creating online course material at a time when we had no such unit. The most inspirational institution was Athabasca University, based in a tiny town in the wilds of Alberta but offering online education to students all over Canada and beyond. The idea of a distance university was never implemented in Sweden and I saw a model that we could implement if there was the political will. We had a great meeting with representatives from the university including one of my educational heroes, Terry Anderson, whose work got me really thinking about this new world I had stepped into. 

We also heard a lot about a new concept for us in the form of social software (later social media) and wondered how we could use this in education. I came home laden with notes, references and links and spent the following months investigating all sorts of digital communities and tools. We were busy getting acceptance for learning management systems but I was more interested in the future and started wondering what wonderful things we could do with these new social networks like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter as well as collaborative writing tools, blogs and wikis. As is often the case with visits like this I came home full of enthusiasm and was eager to tell eveyone about all the new things I'd seen and heard. But it's hard to transfer that enthusiasm to colleagues who are often already overworked and focused on current deadlines and priorities. 


Another landmark event for me was my first EDEN (European Distance and E-learning Network) conference in Dublin in 2011. This was my first real taste of a major international conference in educational technology and it gave me the chance to listen to and meet some of the big names in the field as well as further developing my network. Once again, I came home with masses of references and ideas to follow up. Read my blog post on the conference and some memorable quotes. Since then I have participated in and contributed to many EDEN activities and have benefitted greatly from the expertise and experience of fellow members. The value of organisations like this was to realise that I wasn't the only person who thought that digital technology was a key to the development of education. The sense of community is so valuable when you are still trying to make sense of things and the presence of respected researchers and professors confirms that the field is not just a passing trend. 

Inspirational institutions

Over the years I been able to visit many universities around the world and opened my eyes to other ways of working with online and distance eduation. I realised that even if we have different cultures and contexts we all has so much in common in terms of how to apply educational technology in a pedagogical manner. Some visits were thanks to European or Nordic project funding whilst others were due to invitations to speak at conferences. 

One of the most inspirational was in my homeland, Scotland, namely the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI). Their decentralised structure with 13 partner colleges and around 70 learning centres spread around the sparsely populated highlands and islands of Scotland inspired several projects in the hope of awakening interest in a similar model for Sweden. I particularly loved the way the boundaries between campus and distance have been blurred or even erased and the focus is on providing access to higher education wherever you live and with options for how you want to study. I have written several posts about UHI in this blog, most recently after a visit in 2019 as well as older visits such as in 2014.

I have always found the concept of open universities particularly interesting as the best way to open up education to all. Distance and online are essential features of these institutions since few of their target group can afford to move to a campus for several years. I have always admired people who study later on in life and manage to transform their lives through education without leaving their home area and thereby contributing to the survival of rural commuities. I have visited several open universities around the world. For example, Allama Iqbal Open University based in Islamabad, Pakistan, offering a mixture of distance and campus education to an annual enrollment of over a million students. Although the courses have a lot of online content and interaction it is simply not feasible to have everything online since so many people have limited or no internet access. I visited their publishing and mailing centre where enormous numbers of course books and compendiums are sent by post all over the country, making them one of the Pakistani post office's biggest customers. They were very much involved in digital content production and their staff were as well informed on developments as my colleagues back in Sweden but they had to offer a combination of digital and analogue in order to reach out to as many students as possible. Read my post on this visit from 2018.

In a similar vein was my visit to another open university working in difficult circumstances, Al Quds Open University, based in Ramallah in Palestine but with campuses aorund the West Bank and in Gaza. I was impressed by their TV studios and the fact they offered courses via broadcast TV to complement their online content. The difficulties of travelling between the different campuses made digital technology an essential part of all operations. I wonder how their institution will recover after the current brutalities in the West Bank not to speak of the appalling destruction going on in Gaza. Read more in my post from 2018.

Inspirational people

It would be impossible to name all the people who have inspired me over the years and helped me to better understand the field of educational technology and how it can be applied. However a few stand out and my shortlist has a distinctive Canadian flavour. As I mentioned above an early influencer was Terry Anderson of Athabasca University and in the spirit of the new networked world I discovered the concept of connectivism and openness thanks to people like George Siemens and Stephen Downes. I loved the idea of learning as part of connected networks and that people could learn together by sharing resources, discussing and collaborating. I saw a future where learning was ubiquitous and encompassed a wide range of formats, from traditional campus programmes to non-formal online study groups where the group members could decide together what and how to study. Another early influence was Morten Flate Paulsen from Norway, former president of EDEN and a leading light in Scandinavian distance and online education. I saw that online universities were not only possible but an essential factor in the development of wider access to higher education. 

However, as the years went by I began to realise that our favourite platforms, tools and communities were not as free and open as we had assumed and that they were driven by the same factors that have always existed - profit and greed. Reading Audrey Watters' now defunct blog, Hack Education, opened my eyes to the dangers of educational technology - profiting from our personal data, facilitating surveillance and locking us into proprietary solutions. Her predictions were often disregarded at the time but have proved to be disturbingly true, leading to my own disenchantment with the whole field.

My own blogging habit was developed with inspiration from long distance academic bloggers like Tony BatesMartin Weller, Maha Bali, and Steve Wheeler. I never reached their heights of course but I am amazed at how my posts have still reached far and wide. My greatest thrills early on were when one of my role models actually retweeted a link to one of my blog posts and I saw the number of site views suddenly leap. A simple retweet or like can mean a lot when you're finding your way - never dismiss such things as trivial!

Open Networked Learning

This open online problem-based learning (PBL) course started back in 2013 and I was involved as a course organiser and facilitator till 2022. It was certainly the most complex course I have ever been involved in and is run in collaboration with 12-15 universities in 5-8 different countries. Learners are divided into PBL groups to work through five scenarios on different aspects of learning in collaborative networks, aided by a facilitator and co-facilitator. We always tried to make the course as open as possible, indeed the whole course has a Creative Commons license, even if we had to move some parts behind log-ins later on to conform with the European GDPR legislation on data privacy. The course is still offered twice a year and you can find out more on the course site (Open Networked Learning).

I learned so much from each iteration of the course, both from my fellow organisers and facilitators but also from the participants. No names here but you all know who you are. Thanks so much for that amazing experience and I hope the course continues to develop in the coming years.

Networks and unexpected activities

Over the years I have built up a very valuable personal learning network based on social media activity (my blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and so on) as well as through the various organisations that I have belonged to and worked with. That network was a constant source of inspiration and practical help. Often I could post a question on social media and within hours I had several useful answers with links. One opening led to another and I found myself involved in several committees in Sweden, the Nordic region and internationally as well as lots of projects. Some of these took me well out of my comfort zone, working with people who were far more qualified and experienced, but as ever I learnt a lot and hopefully also contributed constructively. The most notable of those "uncomfortable" activities was being a member of the committee that wrote the standard ISO21001, Management systems for educational organizations. I had no previous experience of ISO and realised what an enormous organisation it is and the meticulous work involved in writing and developing standards. I was immensely impressed by many colleagues' attention to detail and ability to handle the constant revisions and discussions.

So, those were some highlights of my journey. I was able to follow many new paths thanks to the understanding of my university who often gave me the benefit of the doubt in terms of my external activities and projects. Often, I was able to cover a large share of my expenses through project funding and fees. It wasn't all success stories, there were quite a few flops and bumps and I was certainly a bit too hasty and enthusiastic at times, especially early on. I certainly didn't follow any traditional academic path and to a large extent let my curiosity guide me. Somehow I made it through to retirement but I hope I have managed to encourage and even inspire colleagues to try new technology and rethink their practice.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Educational project jargon generator

Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash

Over the years I've read a lot of project applications, project reports and both listened to and given many presentations about projects. Of course they're full of jargon, especially the buzzwords that are current in the field, and it's virtually impossible to be taken seriously without them. But at the same time, they get very quickly tiresome and many of us have amused ourselves during long meetings at making buzzword bingo sheets and seeing how quickly you can fill them.

So, in an unusual example of humour on this blog, I would like to share with you my own jargon generator that you can use in your next presentation or report. Just pick one word from each column and you have an impressive but meaningless phrase that you can drop in almost anywhere. It's also very useful for mission statements and strategy documents.

deliveringdigitaltriple helixsystems
assessingdiversecutting edgeoutcomes
addressing21st centurycornerstonescholarship

Monday, September 11, 2023

Reading around the world - mission accomplished


My top six books: top row Egypt, Poland, Canada, bottom row Austria, Palestine, Barbados

Earlier this year I wrote about my project to read at least one novel from every country and self-governing territory I have visited (see post, Reading around the world, with a little help from my network). I counted 56 of them and I have now completed my task, taking about a year and a half. I have never read as intensively before, not even during my undergraduate years studying English literature. It has been a wonderful experience, especially because I asked friends from each country for recommendations thus adding a personal touch to each book. Some books I chose myself since I had no obvious contacts in that country but the vast majority were recommendations. I had of course already ticked off quite a few countries before I started, namely the UK (hundreds of titles over the years), Ireland, Sweden, Russia, France, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland. 

As I mentioned in my earlier post my only problem country was Liechtenstein. I searched and searched for a novel from there in a language I can read but found nothing. My German is too basic to tackle a novel and the only books I could find were in German. The only book I found was a rather disjointed compilation of folk tales and history complied by a Canadian who had become fascinated by the country. Luxembourg also proved rather elusive and I had to settle for poetry by the excellent Anise Koltz. Maybe I will try a novel in French from Luxembourg though it will be a test of my dormant knowledge of that language. Otherwise I read the vast majority of books in English but also a few in Swedish and Danish.

Since most of the books were recommended by friends they weren't always exactly what I might have chosen myself. Some were tough reading, but they were all rewarding in their own way and this was a good way of widening my choices beyond my own preferences. Although the books come from very  diverse countries and cultures there deal with universal themes: family, home, love, loyalty and their absence. People may do things differently around the world but we have the same hopes and fears. 

My top titles

Many friends have asked me which books I liked best. They all had their merits and it's impossible to make any sort of ranking list but after careful consideration, here is my list of six particularly memorable titles, in no particular order.

Egypt: Naguib Mahfouz - Cairo Trilogy

A magnificent family saga tracing a Cairo family's fortunes through a turbulent period in Egypt's history as it tries to free itself from British colonial rule and the struggle between tradition and modernity. The story is told from different perspectives and shows the tensions between generations and genders. The strict patriarchal order shown at the start is soon shown to be full of contradictions as is the modernist attitudes that develop later in the book. All the characters have their flaws as well as virtues and we develop an understanding for all of them. Three books in one and a major read, but well worth it. Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.

Poland: Olga Tokarczuk - Books of Jacob

An epic novel about the Jewish 18th century cult leader Jacob Frank who claimed to be the Messiah and developed a considerable and devoted following among dissident Jews in Poland and central Europe. Although Jacob is the central figure we learn about him through the eyes of many followers and critics.He has undoubted charm and charisma but is also a manipulating narcissist with no empathy or humility and we have little or no sympathy for him. The book is meticulously researched and the level of detail is sometimes overwhelming, but at the same time fascinating. The atmosphere is dark and intricately described, full of mysticism and philosophical discourse and the lasting impression of the book is more about this atmosphere than the events described.

If pushed I would probably put this one at the top of my list simply because it was so powerful. It's not an easy read and deserves to be reread to really appreciate it but I will certainly never forget it. I can clearly see why Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Canada: Richard Wagamese - A ragged company

A moving and very thought-provoking story of four homeless drifters in a nameless Canadian city trying to survive in the brutal winter where some homeless people freeze to death if they can't find shelter. All four have had tough times, suffered cruelty and bitter disappointment and ended up on the streets. They are survivors but have found strength in each other's company. They spend their days in cinemas watching movies, an escape to other worlds. They get to know a former journalist who still has a home but has lost his bearings in life and also finds solice in the cinema. He then becomes a sort of mentor for the group especially when their fortunes turn dramatically.

One day one of the group finds a lottery ticket that proves to be a jackpot winner and suddenly the group are rich. This could so easily become a rather clichéd novel about how their lives are transformed by unexpected riches but not here. They use their winnings wisely to help them find a new home, not so much physically but more emotionally. It's a touching story about roots, home, love and companionship and although there are some harrowing episodes it leaves a lasting taste of hope.

Austria: Robert Seehaller - Fältet (Eng. The field)

A haunting collection of memories from the occupants of the cemetery of a small Austrian town. Each chapter features memories of people who have recently died and by piecing together these narratives we get to know the town and the events and dramas that have taken place there in recent years. The field in the title is the name the locals have given to the cemetery. Some chapters are inter-related as we read different perspectives of the same event. Some are tales of loneliness and disappointment, others are full of hope and redemption. Some chapters are very short, only a couple of paragraphs, and are impossible to interpret beyond guesswork. I enjoyed the thoughtful and rather melancholic atmosphere of this book. 

Palestine: Radwa Ashour - The woman from Tantoura

The tale of a woman and her family forced to flee from their Palestinian village in 1948 as Israeli forces took over large parts of Palestinian territory. Her father and brothers are killed as are many of the village's men and the survivors head north to exile in Lebanon's refugee camps (where their descendants still live, 75 years later). She is a survivor and brings up her children in exile, always longing for the home that has been forever lost. Tragedy strikes again in the 1982 massacre in the refugee camp of Shatila but once again she manages to survive. It is not so much a political book but the story of a woman's courage and resourcefulness to keep her family going through so much hardship. In the end there is hope since her sons find prosperous lives far from the restrictions of the refugee camps. The woman stays however holding on to her memories of home.

Barbados: Karen Lord - Redemption in indigo

A charming book of magic and wonder, based on African folk tales mixed with Caribbean traditions. In a world where everyday life is influenced by the whims and sometimes mischievous designs of spirits called djombi, a young woman finds a magic stick, the chaos stick. This belongs to the Indigo Lord who desperately needs to recover it because his magic powers are limited without the stick. He eventually finds her and takes her away to far-off places and adventures. They learn to respect each other and the Indigo Lord finds that this mortal is much cleverer than most humans. I loved this book because it was a welcome break from the tragedy and suffering of so many other books. A real feel-good book but with with depth and food for thought.

What next? I will just keep reading more from these countries and maybe widen my search to countries that I haven't visited but where I have friends or countries that I wish I could have visited. This project has opened my eyes to all the literature beyond the Anglo-American tradition that I was brought up on. I would like to read more African literature since all the books I read from there so far have been very rewarding. I need to move south of the Sahara for new perspectives.

The list 

UK, Ireland, France, Sweden, Russia, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland were already well read before this project started.

Austria: Robert Seehaller - Fältet (Eng. The field)
Barbados: Karen Lord - Redemption in indigo
Belarus: Uladzimir Karatkevich - King Stakh’s wild hunt
Belgium: Lize Spit - The melting
Bosnia & Herzegovina: Ivo Andrić - The Pasha’s concubine and other tales
Bulgaria: Georgi Gospodinov: Time shelter
Canada: Richard Wagamese - A ragged company, Jack London - Call of the wild
Croatia: Miroslav Krleza - Harbours rich with ships
Czech RepFranz Kafka - MetamorphosisJaroslav Hasek - The good soldier Svejk
DDR (East Germany): Christa Wolf, - They divided the sky
Egypt: Naguib Mahfouz - Cairo Trilogy
Estonia: A H Tammsaare - Vargamäe, The misadventures of the new Satan
Faroe Islands: Jörgen-Frantz Jacobsen - Barbara, William Heinesen - De fortabte spillemænd (Eng. The lost musicians)
Germany: Alfred Döblin - Berlin Alexanderplatz
Greece: Theodor Kallifatides - Ännu ett liv (Eng. Another life)
Greenland: Niviaq Korneliussen - Blomsterdalen (Eng. Flower Valley)
Hungary: Sandor Marai - Embers
Indonesia:Y B Mangunwijaya - Durga / Umayi
Israel: Amos Oz - A tale of love and darkness
Italy: Tomasi di Lampedusa - The Leopard, Sibilla Aleramo.- A Woman
Jordan: Abdelrahman Munif - Cities of salt
Lebanon: Amin Maalouf - The rock of TaniosIman Humaydan (ed) - Beirut Noir
Latvia: Nora Ikstena - Modersmjölken (Eng. Soviet milk)
Liechtenstein: Tales of Liechtenstein, then and now
Lithuania: Zemaite - Marriage for love
Luxembourg: Anise Koltz - At the edge of the night
Malaysia: Tan Twan Eng - The garden of evening mists
Montenegro: Olja Knezevic - Milena and other social reforms
Morocco: Tahar Ben Jalloun - The pleasure marriage
Netherlands: W F Hermans - Beyond sleep
Oman: Abdulaziz al Farsi - Earth weeps, Saturn laughs
Pakistan: Mohsin Hamid - The reluctant fundamentalist
Palestine: Radwa Ashour - The woman from Tantoura
Poland: Olga Tokarczuk - Books of Jacob
Portugal: José Saramago - Blindheten (Eng. Blindness), Alla namnen (Eng. All the names), Richard Zimler - The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon
Qatar: Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud - The Corsair
Romania: Dan Lungu - I’m an old commie
Slovenia: Drago Jancar - I saw her that night
Spain: Miguel de Cervantes - Don Quixote
Sri Lanka: Romesh Gunesekera - Reef
Switzerland: Friedrich Dürrenmatt - The pledge
Trinidad & Tobago: V S Naipaul - A house for Mr Biswas
Tunisia: Albert Memmi - The desert, Hassouna Moshabi - Solitaire
Turkey: Orhan Pamuk - Snow, The black book
UAE: Maha Gargash - The sand fish
Venezuela: Ana Teresa Torres - Dona Ines vs oblivion
Åland: Ulla-Lena Lundberg - Is

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Digital is never forever - print still matters

Photo by Mayer Tawfik on Unsplash

We have lulled ourselves into a false security that digital content is permanent and have therefore entrusted our society's most important records to servers, often owned by commercial corporations. But as file formats change every few years and new technologies make old ones obsolete, everything has to be converted and updated and some content may be lost on the way. Files can be corrupted or hacked. Our own stores of family photos and videos will probably not last as long as the old negatives and tapes unless we keep updating them. I have several disks and CD-ROMs that have become unreadable. Digital vulnerability is an issue.

A new threat has been added now that we depend so much on cloud storage and streaming. The company that owns the service can at any time decide to withdraw certain services or even delete content. This digital vulnerability is highlighted in an article on SlateWhy 2024 Will Be Like Nineteen Eighty-Four. Users of Amazon's Kindle platform for e-books who had bought George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm discovered recently that the books had been suddenly deleted from their devices. Amazon claimed that there were legal irregularities with the copies and therefore they had to delete them. The users were refunded and the explanation seemed plausible. This has happened with other publications as well but the irony of the two most famous works of a dystopian authoritarian future being suddenly deleted from all devices is alarming. Even if this may have been an honest mistake it shows that these companies have enormous power of the content we can access.

The worst thing about this story isn’t Amazon’s conduct; it’s the company’s technical capabilities. Now we know that Amazon can delete anything it wants from your electronic reader. That’s an awesome power, and Amazon’s justification in this instance is beside the point.
We still have millions of printed copies of these books as well as digital versions on other e-book platforms but if we continue to move towards a completely digital future the risks are clear. Our digital content can be deleted, our accounts can be blocked and our access limited. It's not hard to imagine how this power can be misused. In a rational, civilised society governed by laws that work in the interests of the public good this would be regulated but we don't live in that sort of world today. We have put enormous power in the hands of a few extremely powerful global corporations.
Most of the e-books, videos, video games, and mobile apps that we buy these days day aren’t really ours. They come to us with digital strings that stretch back to a single decider—Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, or whomever else. Steve Jobs has confirmed that every iPhone routinely checks back with Apple to make sure the apps you’ve purchased are still kosher; Apple reserves the right to kill any app at any time for any reason. But why stop there? If Apple or Amazon can decide to delete stuff you’ve bought, then surely a court—or, to channel Orwell, perhaps even a totalitarian regime—could force them to do the same. Like a lot of others, I’ve predicted the Kindle is the future of publishing. Now we know what the future of book banning looks like, too.

One of many disturbing echoes of the 1930s is the growth in banning and even burning books that challenge the narrow-minded values of a government or militant political or religious movement. This is not restricted to authoritarian regimes like Russia, Iran or China but also now in many European countries, both western and eastern. Authorities can try to stop libraries from lending certain books or schools from letting pupils read them or even stop shops from selling them, but copies will always be out there and people will hide them and circulate them even when banned. That's how many important works have survived through years of repression and tyranny. Once printed books are out there it is impossible to be sure that you have eliminated them all.

Digital is different however. In the world of e-books you never really own your e-book, it is dependent on the device or app you use to read it with and that can be upgraded, replaced or disappear completely. When a digital service dies all your content goes with it unless you get advance warning and find a way to download it. My music collection on Spotify exists only as long as I pay the subscription and the company still offers the service. Quite a few songs on my Spotify playlists are shaded in light grey with the explanation that they are no longer available. They haven't been censored or anything like that but we have to accept that content can be withdrawn. If Google pulled the plug on this platform, Blogger, all my blog content goes with it. Digital is never forever.

Digital content is transient and unreliable. It can be deleted without your consent and I'm sure with the growth of AI, all content can be manipulated and changed to better reflect a dominant ideology. We need to preserve knowledge safely for the future and not be reliant on just one medium.Print still matters.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Farewell Twitter - breaking up is hard to do

Photo by Alexander Shatov on Unsplash

It looks like it is time to leave the sinking ship of the app formerly known as Twitter after almost 15 years of tweeting. Elon Musk, looking and behaving more and more like a classic James Bond villain, has succeeded in destroying a major social media channel in one year of chaotic ownership. His strategy seems to be to scare off all serious users and create a new platform, X, for right wing extremism, conspiracy theories and disinformation. In that case he has succeeded. 

However, I'm sad to leave because over the years I have made so many valuable connections on Twitter that have lead to collaboration and new friendships, as well as countless useful links, inspirational chats and moral support. I've met people on Twitter who I have then met at conferences, written articles with and formed projects with. It took me a few years of work to build up a network on Twitter. Many colleagues gave up with it because they had so few connections and didn't work out how to attract more. There was little or no interest in the platform here in Sweden back then so I reached out internationally, following educators I knew and admired and then checking who they followed. That way I built up a network of trusted sources. Then I had to find ways of getting people to follow me otherwise I'd be simply tweeting into a vacuum. I focused on sharing useful content (articles, news, threads) and using hashtags to reach as many as possible. Slowly people started following me and connections began to happen. I followed people and channels who offered useful content for my work and assumed that some of themwould find me a useful contact. I also started using Twitter to generate traffic to my blogs and that certainly helped them thrive. I remember the day one of my educational gurus retweeted one of my blog posts and I saw the sudden peak in page views - I really felt I'd made the big time! That has happened quite often since then but I still get a great feeling when a major name in my field notices what I've done. No names mentioned but I thank you all. 

I have made many exciting contacts and one in particular still makes me smile. I saw a tweet one day from a school teacher in Canada  who had seen a nice Swedish brochure about using Creative Commons licenses in school. She wondered if anyone could translate it to English. I happened to know the person who wrote the original and we very quickly created a new English version and sent it to the Canadian teacher. This then spread and was used in many schools. I then got an invitation from the teacher to meet her class on Skype one afternoon and talk about Creative Commons as well as answering the pupils' questions about life in Sweden. All that because I answered a tweet.

Then there have been all the tweetchats. I have taken part in many of these and organised many too. If you have never tried one before it goes like this. You announce a chat session in advance and a suitable hashtag. At the proposed time you send a tweet with the hashtag welcoming everyone to the tweetchat. Participants "tune in" by searching for the hashtag on Twitter or whatever app you use for it. The participants can then introduce themselves and you can make a few welcoming remarks and repeat the chat rules. The key is that the hashtag must appear on every post. Then you ask a question and wait for responses. As the answers come in you can comment on them and encourage participants to comment on each others' posts. You keep feeding the discussion until the time is up, usually after one hour. It's rather chaotic - some people find it stressful and confusing whilst others thrive. I love hosting but you end up typing almost non-stop for an hour. If you have experienced users the chat just flies along and participants share links, ideas and new perspectives. I will miss this and even if the same thing can be done on other platforms I don't really have the energy to start all over again.

As Twitter implodes into a platform called X it is time for the world's media, institutions, companies and leaders to leave and stop using it as a channel for serious dissemination and discussion. I hope that world politics will no longer be conducted on X. I'm not sure where they should move to though. Do we really trust Meta's new Threads? Is Mastodon able to become a default news source? Or is the new social media landscape too fragmented? Twitter has been an extremely powerful medium for 15 years and it is hard to understand how it could be destroyed so quickly.

Curiously, I have never really seen the dark side of Twitter. Maybe it's due to a combination of being careful who I follow and the algorithms being very effective at feeding me content that I want to see. Anyway, my feed has always been full of education content as well as increasing amounts of climate research and humanitarian posts with almost no trace of the toxic garbage that have made the platform so infamous, especially since Musk turned off all the safety controls. I'm still reluctant to completely switch off because I still get good useful content from both contacts and trusted news media. I've deleted Twitter from my mobile but haven't quite pressed the button to completely exit. Breaking up is hard to do.

PS. I have now deleted my account.