Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

January 13, 2017
by Maha Bali

Striving for Digital Gold as Digital Alchemy #NetNarr

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Digital gold. Remixing cogdog photo Virtually Connecting is Fun flickr photo by ma_bali shared under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

I don’t know much about alchemy, let alone making stuff up about digital alchemy… but I really did want to contribute to today’s Daily something from #NetNarr and because my video recording went chipmunk voice, I’m lucky that I had recorded the audio, so here it is… and I made an image as well 🙂

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January 9, 2017
by Maha Bali

Institutional Frustration

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Gosh I really need to get this off my chest.

So there was a time before I got my PhD and became faculty, before committees and taskforces.

For some odd reason, the institution asks us to do these committees and taskforces and put forth these processes. We discuss them with other faculty in different areas and decide together on something. And then no one wants to follow it. And then you’re like supposed to be the policeman of something you never even wanted to do in the first place.

I am trying to figure out if

  1. We should not interfere in the first place. I am a faculty developer offering non-judgmental support. I don’t want to work with someone who doesn’t want to be worked with 
  2. Interference should come from whoever at the top wants this stuff and can get folks to do it because really, I couldn’t care less.
  3. Faculty should be more involved. I don’t know how coz you can’t involve everyone 
  4. Governance is important and we should do these processes….but something in the process of creating the processes needs to change

It’s probably #4. What I don’t understand is…when people create processes then they themselves (or people who know the processes well) work in parallel outside of the processes. Ok wait. I understand why someone would prefer to NOT follow process. What I don’t understand is why people create them then when someone doesn’t follow it, no one cares. They just shrug. Which means this:

  • People create processes that some people follow (or these processes become barriers and people don’t do stuff)
  • Some people don’t follow process and get what they want coz no one stops them

So processes are a privilege that some people don’t follow and other people respect and the processes can become barriers or headaches for them. But not the others.

And in all of this… I don’t wanna be part of this game that I don’t understand. 

If someone consistently doesn’t follow processes they know well about or even helped set up, it’s gotta be either

  • They’re above the process
  • They couldn’t care less about the process
  • They maliciously put processes for other people to stumble on but theu themselves can move faster 

So…. Why?

If there’s a workaround for everything why can’t we just be honest about subjectivity and processlessness and just live in honest chaos. 

I am guessing like 2 people in the world will understand what this post is about. Unless everyone finds this as frustrating as I do.

January 6, 2017
by Maha Bali

Open Peer Review – Final batch of MLA keywords (including one of my curations)

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I’ve been working with Mia Zamora on curating the Network keyword (you may have seen our crowdsourcing call earlier) for the MLA Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities project (it feels like a book, but it’s more a collection of keywords). It’s an awesome project because different “curators” basically take a keyword they know a lot about, and explain what it is really briefly to potential newbies, and they curate 10 digital artifacts that someone new to the field could use to help them teach it.

We struggled a bit with choosing just 10 artifacts, and I blogged about that…because at some point I started to feel it was important to be “inclusive”. However, there were so many limitations on what could and could not be accepted for as an “artifact”… so some things got relegated to “additional readings” and some things had to be removed, or got referenced in the Works Cited but were not themselves key items. I hope we’ve done the keyword justice, keeping in mind that there was a different keyword “community”.

The extra awesome aspect of this is that, over phases, batches of keywords are “released” for open/public peer review – so anyone can give feedback on a keyword and the authors can then review based on that feedback. I’ve given feedback in previous batches – this is the last batch:

Final Batch of keywords: Open Peer Review Ends February 1, 2017

  • Authorship
  • Community College
  • Curation
  • Diaspora
  • Digital Divides (Annemarie Perez)
  • Disability
  • Future(s)
  • Gaming
  • Hashtag
  • Indigenous
  • Labor
  • Language Learning
  • Network (Mia Zamora and me)
  • Social Justice
  • Storytelling (Bryan Alexander)
  • Visualization

Only those keywords marked “Under Review” are open for comments at this time.

If this is your first exposure to this collection, you may be interested in PAST curations by some awesome people… like…

  • Hybrid (Jesse Stommel)
  • Affect (Liz Losh)
  • Race (Adeline Koh)
  • Annotation (Paul Schacht)
  • Access (George Williams)
  • Failure (Brian Croxall and Quinn Warnick)
  • Play (Mark Sample)
  • Online (Amy Collier)

And many more – these are just ones I’ve looked at myself and remember well… but you’ll find many more great ones there – useful for you and for anyone whose teaching you support 🙂 Love this project.

And looking forward to your feedback on ours 🙂

December 30, 2016
by Maha Bali

On Facebook, Driving and Control

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The digital isn’t magic. It isn’t mysterious. It’s regular human communication astride a new medium. There’s no need to make it more than it is. No need to lie or elaborate. Because in the digital, there’s wonder enough.

Sean Michael Morris 

This potentially rambling (but I have a hunch potentially enlightening) post is inspired by a comment Mike Caulfield wrote in response to a comment I wrote on his blog …anyway, where he compares the need for digital literacies in the age of fake news and Facebook…with driving and safety. What Mike says, I think, is that driving can cause death and one can try to reduce deaths from driving in two ways: train people to be better, more responsible drivers, or work on safer cars and roads. Obviously a combination is best. I am gonna take this analogy a little off on a tangent. I will explain in a minute.

This post also inspired by some recent discussion on Twitter around Facebook and what it means to stay or leave and how we should resist Facebook’s hegemony. (too many tweets and people involved to name, but initiated by Chris G, and includes Stephen Portell, Kate Bowles and Chuck Pearson among them).

So let me just say something about myself before I take Mike’s analogy into Facebook and all that

  1. I am a hypersocial person who is also an only child. This means I am really good at enjoying being alone, and simultaneously am energized by being with people. In my current personal circumstances with a young child (and previous circumstances of living abroad or being on maternity leave), social media is CENTRAL to my wellbeing. I understand this isn’t everyone’s situation 
  2. I don’t drive in Egypt but I drove almost every day for many miles when I lived in Houston and loved it. Driving in Houston was necessary. Driving in Egypt would have more cons than pros imho so I don’t do it and instead use my commute time to work to get lots of reading and writing done (that’s 3 extra hours of my day that you now know the secret to)
  3. I have a blogpost for DML CENTRAL coming out soon entitled Fake News Isn’t Your Main Problem (i put the link in when it went live). I won’t repeat the arguments of it here. It was written just before xmas holidays so that’s why it’s not out yet

On Driving

So here’s the way I am taking the driving analogy, ok? I will start w what I wrote to Mike as a comment on his blog

Egyptian women drive normally, but sometimes start late; patriarchal arguments against driving are “I trust you to drive well but don’t trust other people on the road”. Which is a fair argument, until you realize people who aren’t driving still trust someone else to drive FOR them, so that’s actually one more person you give control over to…so the argument breaks down and the solution would be to not go out at all (?). I went off on a tangent here but it might be a useful one. We don’t need to accept the premise of other people on the road, of course, or else we would all probably go crazy. 

Now…what I am saying here is that whether or not you drive, there will be others on that road. If you aren’t driving, you are still at some risk of being run over as a pedestrian or of getting in an accident no matter who is driving. Correct? You may not be as responsible personally when you aren’t behind the wheel, granted. So you could avoid blame. But harm, no.

There are probably a range of reasons why people kill others while they’re in the driver seat. I am guessing they have names in laws, but range from intentional murder/assassination to irresponsible (drunk/tired driving) to medium skill level given tricky circumstances (e.g. someone jumps ahead of u and ur reflexes are too slow, or icy roads or such) to things really not within the driver’s control.

My Analogy w Digital Literacies and Facebook 

Bear with me here and don’t blame Mike coz I just took his metaphor and used it for something else entirely.

I think Facebook has (as far as my knowledge goes) done some intentional harm in terms of fake news during US elections. For which it should be accountable and for which it should take responsibility.

I think there’s a lot of irresponsible behavior on Facebook by individuals. Posting things w/o checking its sources, posting mean things, bullying, creating negative social dynamics. There is also a lot of low-skill mistakes. Like not realizing even after you read a post that it’s not credible. Ok?

So now I want to say two things:

  1. Teaching people to detect fake news, focusing digital literacies on information literacies is important but only addresses the symptom. That will solve some problems of people who are normally responsible but didn’t have the skills
  2. The irresponsible people or those who intended harm won’t benefit from the digital literacies piece. Their problems are more deep-rooted

Facebook didn’t create people’s extreme political views, it didn’t create intolerance, or hatred. It gave people room to express them to wider audiences when before that, they were private or semi-private thoughts/expression. Because so much of it is public or as public as social media goes, people find echo chambers that help them believe they aren’t alone and helps them keep going, fuels them.  Sometimes to dangerous levels like recruiting terrorists.

Social media didn’t create any of these monsters. These monsters would have found some other medium one way or the other.

And so back to driving. It kills people. But for the most part, it doesn’t kill people. It doesn’t exist to kill people. Neither car manufacturers nor government building roads want roads to kill people. And still, as a person driving a car you have choices. Which car to ride. Which road to take. How responsiby to drive and how to react to other drivers not within your control. So much is not within your control.

Facebook isn’t as innocent as the car/road manufacturers.

But we, as users of the Internet and social media have to be aware of how much is within our control and influence and how much is not.

For the most part, I don’t fool myself about Facebook. It’s got some sinister behavior w some really weird, probably sinister intentions. I used to be more naive and am still quite naive, but I am more careful w how I use Facebook. But Facebook, like driving, gets me from point A to point B. My Egyptian PLN isn’t (mostly) on Twitter. It’s on Facebook. If I left Facebook my entire PLN would be Western-based. I couldn’t have survived 2011 w/o Facebook. I may leave sometime. I’m not married to it, and Mastodon opened my mind to the idea of someday having social networks of our own, without algorithms and commercial/political interests of others. At least we could set our own. Someday.

But while we are on Facebook we have some amount of control. I (mostly) don’t check the algorthmically decided timeline, I just check my notifications (reverse chronological i presume). I do the same for Twitter. 

I understand that exposure to headlines that are fake even if we don’t click on them may be subliminally influencing me. I get that. But the problem is much deeper.

People who want to leave Facebook because they don’t like what people are saying on it? Those people EXIST. Half of the US voted for Trump (even if he had lost, that statistic would have been similar). Same for Brexit.

The problems are deeper and they’re in our societies and they are HUMAN problems. They aren’t digital. It’s just that digital is the medium of our time, and so the shape of our human interactions are influenced by it. But the ugliness and ignorance are there and they are real, and it isn’t because of one guy called Zuckerberg. 

During Egyptian political upheaval we had similar controversies on Facebook. People unfriended each other in droves. But you know what really matters? The conversation we can no longer have at dinner tables because people’s views are so divided and no one wants to listen to the other. 

And I don’t want to lose sight of what Facebook currently does to help me connect with people. For the most part, I tolerate it because it has its pros. When I find alternatives or its cons drive me nuts enough, I will leave. Or they may kick me out like they did to others. You never know.

 i have to go. This isn’t fully finished… But partway. Willing to listen to critique 

December 29, 2016
by Maha Bali

Favorite Education Videos from 2016

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Here are some videos I watched in 2016 you don’t wanna miss (playlist here if you don’t want the annotated version below)

  1. Ruha Benjamin’s ISTE keynote. Hands down the best keynote I have watched this year. It’s like 4 keynotes in one. Concept of discriminatory design stuck with me most.
  2. DML 2016 Ignite talks (& day two). This is a series of talks, almost all of them really powerful (incl Kate Green, Christian Friedrich, Robin DeRosa, Remi Kalir and more). They’re available as separate videos but I like them together, and if you’re interested in seeing Gardner Campbell warm up the crowd with dancing…(I heard from several people that Gardner worked to prepare the speakers really well…and it shows! They were amazing).
  3. Amy Collier’s DigPedCairo keynote (even though I watched it live; this link isn’t on YouTube but should work) really made me cry and I will always remember it for that. And for inspiring me to assign my students a “develop your own learning taxonomy” blogpost 
  4. Josie Fraser and Mark Summons for me was a favorite closing Plenary at OEB16 where they used the human spectogram (one of my favorite workshop type activities) to open up discussion about people’s opinions on digital literacies. I just watched that this morning and really enjoyed it. Great to know it’s been done at a conference Plenary as I am a fan of hacking conference formats. They asked really good questions and participants had really insightful responses across the spectrum
  5. Closed Doors. TEDxCairo Women talk by Nahla Al Nimr (Arabic). I won’t spoil it, but a life changer for me
  6. The panel on ethical online learning that took place as a UMW townhall just before OpenEd16, with the likes of Kate Bowles, Sean Michael Morris, Liz Losh and Alan Levine, facilitated by Jesse Stommel, you can imagine how rich that conversation was.
  7. Workshop at DigPedLab UMW Inclusive Globally Networked Learning (by Kate Bowles, Paul Prinsloo and myself) followed by a VC Hallway conversation w Chris Gilliard, Annemarie Perez, Sherri Spelic and Miriam Neptune as first-time onsite buddy. 
  8. #digciz week 3 for its timely discussion of the role of critical digital citizenship in America following police violence against African Americans
  9. Should edtech have an Ethos? by Jim Groom and I at AMICAL because it was the first time I could speak so critically and freely in front of my colleagues 
  10. ePatients Launch for highlighting the importance of engaged patient behavior as a form of citizenship 

Not talks but great short videos to use in teaching:

  1. Microaggression: what kind of Asian are you (thx Bonni Stachowiak) 
  2. Digital privacy: Mind-reader reveals His gift (thx Nadine Aboulmagd) 
  3. Decolonizing SOAS: Student Perspectives (thx Paul Prinsloo) 
  4. Ken Bauer’s video explaining how to create Google hangouts w new YouTube Live! That was a life saver for vconnecting 
  5. Systems of Adversity TEDTalk by Rusul AlRubail
  6. Ryan Derby-Talbot TEDxTalk on first-person learning in mathematics 
  7. UpFront TedTalk – new approach to thinking of generosity as a keynote speaker
  8. This silent video on schooling/deschooling shared via Facebook: Alike (thx Caroline)

Wow, that’s a lot more videos than I had originally intended (I used YouTube history to help job my memory. Didn’t uhh realize it went THAT far back!)

Again, here’s that playlist

December 26, 2016
by Maha Bali

On Noticing Absence in Algorithms part 2

Reading Time: 5 minutes

This post comes mins after the previous one on noticing absence. After I published it I realized I had a couple more things to say..but I think they deserve their own post. I may or may not finish it right away.

This one is about computer algorithms of the kind we talk about a lot in edtech. I am reading Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neill (i was heading off to continue reading it then had this brainstorm).

Let me repeat this piece of information. I studied Neural Networks as an undergraduate and my computer science graduation thesis was a neural network (with population-oriented simulated annealing as a genetic algorithm to optimize it, but never mind). I say this because those algorithms that are “black boxes” to us are some evolution of this now almost 15-year old concept I used to know.

Here are thoughts on absence 

  1. Yes. The programmer who wrote the code doesn’t actually know how the algorithm processes the information. Because the programmer doesn’t tell the system what to do with the data. It allows the system to learn from the “training set” data until it’s good enough to then work with “real” data and get sufficiently accurate results. It’s complicated to understand and explain. But believe me on this one. They really don’t know. I mean someone could probably trace it but it wouldn’t be humanly comprehensible, for the most part. I know there’s more to it than what I studied 15 years ago and fuzzy logic and stuff, but the basics are the same because I continue to find this in everything I read 
  2. How on earth did they teach us this stuff and not once had a discussion about ethics of it? I wonder if they do that now, or if computer scientists are meant to be asocial amoral human beings? All the ethics we were taught was about intellectual property. Seriously. 
  3. What matters about bias in algorithms are three things,imho:
  • The training data you give it can have bias/absence. E.g. if u r trying to predict breast cancer survival and u give it only data from white women in Wisconsin, it will probably not work if breast cancer behaves differently for non-white women, or outside Wisconsin). Moreover if u give it human results to adhere to, and those results are biased, it will learn that bias. An example I heard recently related to hairstyles and how googling something like appropriate vs inappropriate hairstyles produced racially biased results. Because apparently Google learned from clicks that people tended to prefer certain results
  • Programmers have some choice over which dimensions of data to feed a system to learn from. Take this scenario from my head. If Amazon (which in reality btw seem to have a straightforward non-black-box stupid algorithm that seems transparent to me) wanted to create a smart algorithm to give u recommendations, it can choose whether or not to take into account other books u have bought, who else bought those books, what else they bought (it already does this) but it also has a choice to include book reviews you wrote about books you DIDN’T buy through Amazon (it currently does not, I believe). It could focus on what price range you usually buy (and keep recommending cheaper books if u tend to buy them – it may already be doing that). It may choose to record dates and in which case it might recognize ur xmas shopping patterns differ from usual. It may record ur postcode and recognize when an author was visiting your city for a book signing. Whatever. In any case, it may miss an important factor. Or include an insignificant factor. And feeding those into neural networks may or may not cause the network to create false correlations. I remember a teacher who once found that student clicker numbers correlated w grades or something. I said probably the ones in front row have similar clicker numbers (coz distributed from uni to them for that class together) and are good students 
  • Programmers have choice over how to optimize the network and when to tweak it. How much human agency to let in. Cathy O’Neil’s book and Facebook’s algorithm both made me realize how often we seem to be asking people to conform to the algorithm vs judgment and agency of people. And that’s the worst thing there is, really, for me.

At OEB16 (I watched some recordings) there were a couple sessions on AI. A debate on whether Artificial Intelligence could replace teachers, and a keynote talk or such by a German, Tarek Besold.

Donald Clark listed features of a good tutor then ticked off how they could be  done via AI. Tarek did similar things with creativity and teaching again.

Neither of them accounted for things like human connections, empathy, feelings, social interaction as important aspects of a teacher-student relationship. Tarek didn’t account for enjoyment or self-fulfillment in creativity . 

When we focus on cognitive, measurable aspects of what teaching and creativity are, we help ourselves imagine them as replaceable by machines. When we remind ourselves that humanity has many more dimensions than cognitive, that there are emotional and social dimensions and that there is agency (as Nell Watson said in that AI debate), that is when the conversation becomes meaningful and the answer has got to be no. Machines won’t give you hugs and life you up when you’re down. A human behind a machine might, though. 

I remember the excitement a few years ago over automatic grading software (esp w MOOCs). The problem for me isn’t whether the tools are accurate or resemble any teacher’s actual grading but:

  1. The inhumanity of asking students to write for a machine audience! If what we want to do is machine grade students writing then we aren’t asking them to write anything meaningful in the first place. Absence of a purpose or understateding of the rea goal of a writing assignment. 
  2. The inhumanity of forgetting the importance of emotional aspects of giving feedback and the impact of those conversations on students’ confidence, motivation, wellbeing 
  3. The often ignored aspect that a teacher needs to grade hundreds or thousands of a certain assignment for the machine to learn their approach. First of all, I almost never assign the same assignment twice. I tweak it and often change it drastically each semester. For good reason. Even if I had 1,000 students this semester and that was enough training data, it wouldn’t work next semester. Even if i didn’t change the assignment, I might actually evolve the way I grade. I actually LEARN from reading student assignments and I learn how to teach them better. Machines, analytics, they may give me partial perspectives on that, but very partial and predictable according to what someone else told the algorithm to look for and look at, and what some training data told it was the right way to weigh that data. I would rather trust my own judgment 

I need to stop and sleep now 🙂 or read a little of that book that got me on this track!

December 26, 2016
by Maha Bali

On Noticing Absence (also #OER17)

Reading Time: 5 minutes

These days I am thinking a LOT about noticing absence. This is inspired by 3 things: a quote from a book, my child’s response to another book, and my teaching this semester. It’s making me wonder if this might be relevant to my future teaching and OER17 keynote.. And vconnecting. 

A. The quote

Here goes the quote by Boris Vujicic:

There is a tendency to think a glass can be either half full or half empty. But there is a third option; the glass is always full. It may not be full of a liquid but what is not liquid is [gas]*. We usually measure only what we can see. The truth of the things is often hidden from us, like the invisible [gas] that fills the glass” ~ Boris Vujicic (in his book, Raising the Perfectly Imperfect Child)

Good quote, right? It has lots of resonance with ideas of invisible things that matter. Hidden curriculum. Absence of women and minorities in academia. Absence of certain search results if an institution is blocking access (digital redlining). Absence (or lack) of content in certain languages on the internet. But also, when absence is indeed a thing that is…well…present. Or meaningful. Like silence. Silence in dialogue need not be a negative/bad thing. Nor is it necessarily one thing. Silence can mean agreement (in Egyptian colloquial we say silence is agreeing) or it can mean resistance. Or it can mean reflection. Or it can mean mourning together (moment of silence). Or it can mean a shift from one direction of conversation to another. Think about how in education we “measure” participation by the frequency and quality of someone’s talking/writing and almost never by how wisely they choose to abstain from talking. Think of all those annoying ppl in committee meetings who would make everyone feel better by their silence. Or absence. Will come back to this in the 3rd section

Thinking also of whitespace in visuals. Whitespace is IMPORTANT. The absence of too much stuff on a page makes it better, more beautiful sometimes. And there are ads that even manipulate the whitespace to make it more prominent (will find that link).

Also thinking of babies (held a baby for a while the other day). That age where their teeth are absent is adorable. I also remember the first time a child bit my finger and I realized how precious that absence of teeth was with younger kids.

I’m stretching the analogies here. Fyi, the author had a child born with no limbs, but that child went on to live a very successful and fulfilling life. So I guess he’s talking about how the absence of his kid’s limbs at first made him and his wife feel as if the kid is born “half of a person” but that in some way, a different way than limbs, his life became full and fulfilling. Just not the same way other kids. I assume people who have kids w disabilities have similar philosophies. I don’t have the exact same situation but I have important aspects of my life and loved ones that aren’t “perfect” or “normal” but in many ways I realize that the absence of normalcy is filled by other things. And that, in fact, if I had had normalcy in those aspects, other aspects may be missing. Thinking of the child without limbs, and thinking of someone like Stephen Hawking who pretty much has one of the greatest brains but very limited body function – anyway you get where I am going with this.

B.The Book With No Pictures 

Whitney Kilgore sent me a book by B.J.Novak earlier this year with that title. For my little one who is now 5. I honestly thought Whitney was nuts. But I read it to my girl immediately and I discovered these things 

  1. The book encourages parents to make silly noises while reading the book. Reading that book made me realize I hadn’t been reading other books in a very animated way. I noticed the absence of that in my reading approach to my child. I do much better now.
  2. The book also has large font, colorful in some parts,and LOADS of whitespace, and this somehow got my child interested in reading coz the absence of pictures made her realize that text was supreme. Or something. She learned to read her first word “no” sometime when we first got it. She hasn’t been learning to read very fast in general and seems to get confused between lots of letters, phonemes, and wheb text is close together. Now she is older, we read this book yday and the large font, sparse text, seemed to encourage her to try reading more. Keyword is try. She tries much more in this book than other books. She loves the “Little Miss” books and tries to read (they’re too advanced for her, I think, but I read them to her anyway because I find it silly to read a bedtime book that’s just one-word below a picture of an animal – wanna read stories). Anyway. So that book with no pictures rocks

C. Absence in class

I have had one of my best semesters EVER. In terms of teaching. I need to unpack this because during the semester I had a few sessions with high absence (because of a student strike on campus once and heavy rain on another day). It threw me off a bit because I usually have good attendance and the absent students (even the ones with a couple of absences outside those two days) were usually engaged when in class. But paying attention to absences helped me get to know individual students better and by knowing them, better understand the complex realities in their lives that made it difficult for them to attend every class. It was also important to notice how students who were still learning to write in English struggled to submit blogposts on time, but were able to do late submissions that were halfway decent. Because they needed more time (duh. How unfair is it to assign writing assignments to people knowing they have different capabilities and expect everyone to finish at the same time? I’m the one who talks about inequality in assessment all the time; I should either allow them to submit a different format sometimes like a video, or give different deadlines somehow).

Another thing I want to talk to students about is social absence. This is a term I use for online learning to counter the “social presence” narrative. Sometimes u have to be absent. Online, people can’t know for sure if you’re there but silent or completely absent. And so if you’re in a social situation where others are expecting you to interact but you need to be away, the “social absence” thing is to let them know to expect you to be away for a certain time (like automatic email responders, but for social media or LMSs – only not automatic coz those suck).

Which brings me to vconnecting. We have a pretty active Slack community for planning events. And it helps if we know who is and isn’t available to help out at certain events, when they’re able to work on preparations like inviting guests and writing the blogpost and creating the hangouts…when they’re available to run hangouts, etc. Onsite, it really matters who is present and who is absent and some absences are tangible. Like I am so glad we got Alec Couros and George Siemens and Audrey Watters and Kate Bowles and Tressie McMillan-Cottom on VC this year. Their absence from VC was palpable for me. I am also glad we had sessions with students, grads onsite, undergraduate online (well Andrew, but it’s a start). I am glad we notice if our guests are too monolithic (all male or all white for example) or if we are missing certain important voices (and w sometimes do missed conversations for that). 

I am also keenly aware of who is absent on Mastodon vs Twitter vs Facebook and just how the extra character limit of Mastodon allows me to tag more people into a conversation and still have a bit left over to actually write stuff!

So yeah. Absence. We should start noticing it more 🙂 Not that you didn’t already know that 

[added later, after my post on algorithms – if data analytics on an LMS doesn’t account for circumstances in students lives, then, based on my experience this semester, it can’t really tell me why some students aren’t doing well. At all. It can’t possibly account for such complexity without human intervention). 


*I used [gas] instead if the author’s original “oxygen” coz the scientific inaccuracy was distracting me

December 25, 2016
by Maha Bali

You Can Only Sit Beside Two People at a Time

Reading Time: 3 minutes

One of the things you discover when switching between online and f2f networking is that you get to make some difficult choices. I know this one is funny, but it’s also a real dilemma. You know, when you go to the movies with your friends and you get to pick whom you sit next to? Unless you’re part of a couple, you usually get to pick two people to sit next to. I like to talk during movies and that’s something some people love and others hate. So I usually wanna sit next to the people who will talk with me and share my sense of humor. I feel that way at conferences also. I like sitting beside someone I can talk to. Rude? Well we tweet anyway during a keynote and occasionally we do snarky subtweets (I rarely initiate but occasionally participate in those). I remember at ALTC I was probably sitting next to Rebecca but we were tweeting with Martin Weller, Ashley and Sarah (all of us in the same room) and probably someone who wasn’t in the room…

When you are on Twitter you can broadcast your backchannel or pick a handful of people whose Twitter handles fit and others can jump in. But in person, you can only sit beside two people at a time during a talk. And you can only sit with a few people at a roundtable at a time. And it’s limiting.

When f2f at a conference… Do I go to THAT talk where I am interested in the topic, or THIS talk where I love the presenter? Do I go to meet new people or strengthen existing ties? Do I go to the talk with my crowd of people coz they’re all going to THAT talk, or do I stay in the hallway to chat with different people? 

The good news is…sort of… I don’t really think I will have many opportunities to make those choices at #oer17. For one of the keynotes I can’t sit beside anyone as I will be speaking inshallah (!) but I hope to walk around and be close to many people. I have two accepted sessions, a 20-minute one w my vconnecting buddies and a longer panel…and all these have to happen in one day…so I am probably not gonna have loads of free time except like…lunch time and maybe 1-2 conference slots. I just hope all the sessions I want to attend aren’t happening during ones I am presenting!

And hoping to get breakfast and alcohol-free dinner time with friends.

Who frets about such things? I do. Because f2f time with people is precious to me… Because it’s so hard for me to get there and I want to make the most of it and I want to have DM in person with a lot of people. As in, I want in-depth private time with friends. 

I tweeted recently how I felt saying no to a keynote-type invitation. I have said no to all-expenses-paid engagements something like 4 or 5 times in the past couple of years. It gets harder each time. Because there are more people I will miss meeting. And there is also the sadness of recognizing the people who value my voice as an Arab/Muslim woman in a variety of fields (I have been invited to talk open, digital pedagogy, intercultural learning, educational games, digital Humanities – different things,  yeah?) and then not being able to be there to represent… That hurts. When I could, when it wasn’t a keynote invitation, I have suggested others, or suggested working on hybrid presentations with others. And that’s been cool. But it ain’t the same as being there, of course.

December 22, 2016
by Maha Bali

Unpacking Terms Around Equity, Power and Privilege

Reading Time: 8 minutes

The main thrust of this post has been brewing in my head for months now. Basically, it’s that a lot of times, discourses whose end goals are equity, social justice, fighting against oppression, sometimes use terms that don’t exactly achieve their intended purpose. Including my own posts on these topics. Lots of terms we use are loaded beyond what we might mean by them when we actually say them. Terms like diversity, inclusivity, marginality, marginalization, subaltern, dominant, coloniality, colonizing, decolonizing, postcolonial, disadvantaged, privilege, even intersectionality (or what I sometimes termed semi-privilege, before I knew it was called intersectionality). These terms can get really really tricky to use. And sometimes when I’m arguing for something, I’m stuck with which term to use and am unsure if I’m using the right term in the right place. I have a feeling there might be a book (or many) that unpack these terms well. The reason this post is so late is that I haven’t had time to search for that book, and when I try, I get overwhelmed. If you know one, please tell me in the comments (not on Twitter, it’ll get lost on Twitter and not everyone reading this post will benefit).

I can’t, for the life of me, found the post by Tressie McMillan Cottom where she talks about how she asks students to stop using words like “privilege” and instead talk directly about “power”. It makes me think of a really good article by Nicholas Burbules, where he unpacks all the different theories on power in education. It’s awesome.

I’m going to mention the triggers for today later, but for now, let me talk about each term on its own.

Diversity I’ve read in several spaces that the term diversity implies neutrality, that it’s a “nice” term for the dominant to use, and it implies that just having different people with different backgrounds is a desirable thing, because it benefits everyone, including the dominant. The problem with the term diversity, is that it removes power from the equation, really. In my view, you can look at diversity as a good thing from two, very different, perspectives:

  1. Diversity is good because exposure to diversity gives you a better view of things from different perspectives. Because women think differently than men, in some things, because democrats think differently from republicans, in political matters. Because Palestinians think differently from Israelis. Also, because engineers think differently from humanists. The latter is an example of how something can seem neutral and not power-charged, even though there are possibly some power issues there. The gender and Palestine/Israel example is a different level of power altogether that is more obvious.
  2. Diversity is good when we realize that not all views are EQUALLY represented UNLESS we make an effort to represent them, and that the DOMINANT views suppress/oppress the marginal/subaltern views in ways that are oppressive/inequitable. This all seems repetitive. But look at how underrepresented women’s voices have historically been in religious discourse, and how it makes most religions (that I know of, where I mean the monotheistic ones) appear pretty patriarchal if not outright misogynistic. When I took a course on Women in the Quran, I learned about how feminist scholars interpreted Islam in ways more aligned to how I interpret it – and recognized directly why having all-male-scholars is problematic. Note that I said feminist not female scholars – because very often, for a woman to survive in a man’s world, she needs to talk their talk and walk their walk, to conform and repeat back to them what they’re saying, to be accepted in that world. I’m talking feminist scholars who challenge inequity and injustice. And that’s an important distinction. Not diversity of someone who just looks different, but  of someone who has a different perspective and can challenge the dominant one. Usually, one person among many won’t be able to achieve that. Unless superwoman or such.

So if we’re talking about diversity, both of these are important, but the latter is more important as a reason for doing it. The trickier thing is recognizing that diversity is HARD WORK if you wanna do it right. Because integrating people who are different from the dominant majority/perspective is not a matter of plunging them in and expecting it all to work out. There will be tension. There needs to be intentional effort to make this work. To make the voices exist alongside each other, when in reality, having a couple of “diverse” voices in a sea of dominance does nothing to challenge the status quo. This article by Brookfield highlights his pedagogical practice built on the ideas of Marcuse – basically, Brookfield, in his teaching, REMOVES the dominant view in the classroom in order to create space for truly engaging with the alternative perspectives. Giving them EQUAL voice to the dominant, treating them as all equally valid, often serves to reinforce students’ already-held beliefs, since theirs is just one among several. Why should they seriously engage the alternative viewpoint? It’s helpful to recognize how well our percentage diversities reflect the percentage diversity of the population we’re trying to represent. Women are half the world’s population, and they’re clearly underrepresented in almost every professional field; women may be higher in fields like teaching, but that makes it more important  to look at conferences and literature on education and check if women are as highly represented there (I got a hunch they’re not, for the most part). I don’t seek diversity in African American studies. I’m not looking for the white folks who are teaching about race. That’s not necessarily going to help that field. And it’s good to have men who are feminist, it’s important, but I’m not gonna call it a diversity issue if all the people on a feminist panel are women. Because the power issue, in my view, is the important one. And another thing? It’s never good to tell someone in their face that they’re the “diversity hire” or whatever. It’s demeaning and insulting, even if that’s really what you’re doing in a well-intentioned way. I’ve been people’s “token international” for a long time. It’s gotta end somewhere. Hopefully, it ends when you read me closely and find other internationals to follow (except I’m that person who somehow fits in with the misfits so I’m not entirely free of that ideology, but anyway…)

Inclusivity: this is SUCH a problematic term, because it implies there is a thing that belongs to certain people, and they’re being generous by including others into it, by letting others in. You hear inclusion used a lot with reference to people with disabilities. If we’re talking about schooling, this is literally true: schools already exist, and when we talk about “inclusion”, we mean for schools to make efforts to find ways to integrate children with disabilities, to fully include them rather than marginalize or reject them. But when we talk about inclusivity elsewhere… it implies borders and barriers. The thing is, those borders and barriers exist, so there’s no point ignoring them. But it implies also, in a way, “on someone’s terms”, and that’s problematic. When I “include” someone, I include them on my own terms, and that’s not the epitome of empowerment. Inclusivity is better than not inclusivity, right? But inclusivity is not empowerment. When we invite undergraduate students to present at conferences, do they still have to adhere to our formats, our schedules, our discourses? That’s including but not necessarily empowering. Gosh, even empowering is a problematic term. Let’s say that it isn’t fostering agency. (it’s so hard to use a good very before agency because you don’t want to say “give” agency).

Marginalization/Marginality. I feel like marginality implies a center against which a person finds themselves on the margin; whereas marginalization implies a center which actively pushes certain others to margins. It’s a slight difference. I mean, marginality still implies some kind of systemic oppression, but in a more passive way, if that makes sense? For example, I accept my geographic marginality which makes it difficult for me to attend conferences. It’s not that this isn’t a systemic problem (that most conferences in my field take place in the US/Europe), it’s just an unfair fact of life. Marginalization would be if these conference organizers intentionally didn’t allow me to present virtually (this has only ever happened to me once). And the opposite of marginalization is allowing Virtually Connecting in with open arms, or inviting someone like me to keynote, bearing the cost of my travel, instead of pushing that responsibility on me (or my institution) to get me there. I can go to two events a year as a keynote; I could go to one big event (outside the very nearby countries) maximum a year on my institutional funds. Anyway.

Back to this term. You know how writing in the margins looks different? How it’s not as neat as the writing in the center? How it’s squeezed and barely trying to find room to exist? Putting that smack in the center is not at all going to solve any problems. I’ve seen situations where women are used to taking up less space in a classroom than men, and trying to seat the women closer to the front and giving them more space isn’t going to help them take up that space comfortably. If someone isn’t used to speaking, “giving them voice” is not necessarily what they’re looking for, what’s good for them, or even if it is, it’s not something they’ll necessarily know how to take advantage of well… obvious, right?

Decolonizing I kinda love and hate this term. I love it because it recognizes that some issues are remnants of colonization. That’s different from coloniality, which is more like things that are still happening now, outside the political land-stealing that was colonial history. In any case, decolonizing is cool, except when I really think about it really hard and I realize what Homi Bhabha reminds us of: the current individual in Egypt or India isn’t someone who has a “pure” self to go back to that’s different from their “colonized” self. They’re already hybrid. It’s also pretty impossible to progress by completely decolonizing like detoxing. Can we let go completely of Western knowledge and live on local/indigenous knowledge, and really, how empowering is that anyway? I’m more a fan of what Shor and Freire recommed in a Pedagogy of Liberation – that critical pedagogy make work of teaching the dominant ideology/language/knowledge in critical ways, inviting the oppressed to learn it while questioning it (they need to learn it to survive economically at least) – and at the same time, make sure to make space for local/indigenous knowledge/language/ideology, but to still teach it critically (when beforehand, it was probably not taught at all). Edward Said made a big deal of not teaching in nationalistic ways – even in the face of oppression, even when it seems most needed, that’s not really the solution.

So I like the term decolonize in the sense of wrenching power back to the oppressed from the oppressor, but I don’t like it in the sense that it assumes there is some pure form of being that we will find ourselves in, a form that will necessarily be better… and I don’t know that that is the case. But maybe I’m getting it wrong.

Gosh, this article is so long and I haven’t even mentioned the triggers. I’ll leave those for another day, then!

Let me know if you have good references for any of these terms, or comparisons of the terms, or if you have any thoughts on this. I’m still working my way through it all.


Added later. I found this quote about decolonization, and I think it’s still missing something but I can’t put my finger on it. It’s the quote at the beginning of this book by bell hooks 

Decolonization … continues to be an act of confrontation with a hegemonic system of thought; it is hence a process of considerable historical and cultural liberation. As such, decolonization becomes the contestatton of all dominant forms and structures, whether they be linguisttc, disCursive, or ideological. Moreover, decolontzatton comes to be understood as em act of exorcism for both the colonized and the colonizer. For both parties it must be a process of liberatton:/rom dependency, in the case of the colonized, and.from imperialist, racist perceptions, representations, and institutions which, unfortunately, remain with us to this very day, in the case of the colonizer … Decolonizatton can only be complete when it is understood as a complex process that involves both the colonizer and the colonized. -Samia Nehrez

December 22, 2016
by Maha Bali

Reflecting Back on 2016…with love

Reading Time: 4 minutes

It’s the time of year when I start to get my AFR (Annual Faculty Report) ready, realizing as I do that, that it has lots of gaps as to what REALLY matters to me.

(I am skipping over the very personal and political and focusing on the professional).

The writing, the presenting

For example, I would list all my publications, and have an opportunity to comment on my research activities, but I would have no space to comment, probably, on how much hard emotional work went into publishing the two rhizo papers we got published finally this year (after something like 4 rejections). That’s rhizoresillience for you! And I probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to mention how some of my non-peer-reviewed work was much more impactful than my peer-reviewed work. Things like all my Prof Hacker pieces, really, or maybe the fact that our ex-university president reads them (she didn’t when she was here) or that some faculty are using my radical ideas from there, ones I am told not to express too strongly at workshops because they’re too crazy. I get to celebrate my blogging gig with DML, I guess, and probably my continued writing for Al Fanar and my first ARABIC ARTICLE that I wrote myself from scratch in Arabic. 

I can mention all my conference presentations, most of which were AWESOME. I can mention the workshop I did at DigPed UMW with Kate and Paul but who would listen if I told them about the beauty of that process of getting to know and love these two amazing people and how we worked together to make this workshop WALK its TALK. That article needs to be written, I tell you.

How can I express the joy of doing the hybridity workshop at OLC innovate w my VC peeps? Actually, too many VC highlights to even COUNT. I should count my blessings there but they’re way too many. Cherry on top is publishing our first peer-reviewed article on Vconnecting at OLJ. It’s bittersweet for me because my first ever peer-reviewed publication was at JALN the precursor to OLJ. And my first publication on MOOCs was at MERLOT’s JOLT, which merged w JALN to form OLJ. A more (very) personal achievement wa getting my own boss as onsite guest on a Vconnecting session from OEB16 and hearing from her how she wants to stay posted of new events and join our (coming soon) mailing list. (it’s ok that she doesn’t realize i was already informing our department of Vconnecting sessions each time. She didn’t realize what it was).

Where do I explain that some of my best writing was a #DoOO blogpost that takes 1 minute to read (took me 1 minute to write) but got over 50 comments and a response from Audrey Watters AND a blog mention? Not to mention that it is a critical post I wrote while simultaneously inviting half the world to a DoOO Slack community!

Would anyone here really understand the work on Self as OER I did with Suzan Koseoglu? I’m so proud of that work.

Can anyone imagine how cool it was to co-present with some of my idols in PERSON? I co-presented with Jim Groom, Bonnie Stewart and Jesse Stommel and it felt like home. Like we were totally on the same wavelength in ways people who have worked with me everyday for YEARS aren’t. I also co-presented virtually with Laura Czerniewicz (another of my role models, whom I am lucky to have met in person). I need to remember to add all my webinar-type sessions and such on my annual review. And the two podcasts with Bonni Stachowiak. Not sure if anyone cares, but I do.

That I wrote an article on digital literacies that isn’t peer-reviewed but continues to be widely shared (remembering I insisted on getting an open access version of it)

More than anything, I actually think my best writing this year was a poem.I’m Not Angry at You, but I don’t think I can say that in my annual review.

I guess I will write about my keynote invitations, even if no one truly understands what the conference OER17 is about. 

At least they have an idea what DigPed is about because another highlight of my year was hosting DigPedCairo and sharing that experience with many of my local and AMICAL colleagues. I can’t really explain that the highlights of that event was the private time I spent with Jesse and later Bonnie. Or introducing them to my daughter at lunch the day before. I also can’t describe the heartache of losing a couple of participants because they couldn’t get a visa to Egypt. Grrr

I had a few rare opportunities to speak in Cairo that I really valued. At the eLearning Africa conference and at the OpenMed event at Cairo University.

I had a few breakthroughs in my teaching that I don’t think I can really report properly in a formal context

  1. Having students come to my office to discuss their projects and brainstorm together is really useful both for process and product. This us probably self-evident to experienced teachers, I actually don’t know why I hadn’t done it before. I also, for some reason, got to have lots of one-on-ones with my students this semester and they were invaluable as I learned how each of them had different struggles and learned to support each student differently through them
  2. I co-created an Escape Game w Nadine and Sherif for the first time, and learned how difficult it is to make it educational and to describe it to anyone 

Some stuff you don’t really get to talk about. Like all the peer reviews I did for Hybrid Ped and elsewhere. Like writing reference letters for people. I get to mention grants I wrote even if I didn’t get them, so that’s cool. I really don’t know if anyone wants to hear about my learning while writing them.

You know what, I am going to find a way to write this into my formal report, somehow. I will find ways to frame it so that someone understands why it matters. So maybe I won’t mention the high five with Jim Groom or what Bonnie said when she hugged me. But pretty much anything else can be mentioned in some way. 

And I am sure that the moment I hit publish I will discover I had forgotten something really big. I know it. But I am gonna hit publish anyway coz my commute is almost over…and who wants to read the show-off post anyway. 

Thank you for 2016. Especially the vconnecting crew, the DigPedLab crew, AMICAL, Prof Hacker, DML, ALT/OER17, (+ more) and my boss and colleagues for giving me space to do crazy things sometimes. And everyone who has written, presented or given me opportunities to have meaningful conversations this year.


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