Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Elites of Marginals


Reading Time: 6 minutes

This idea of the “elites of the marginals” has been brewing in my head for quite some time.

And then in preparation for the #dlrn15 conference, Bonnie Stewart wrote this blogpost where she asked this:

What effects do you see digital networks having on inequalities in higher ed? What sociocultural implications do networked practices hold for institutional practices? What are universities’ responsibilities to students who live and learn in hybrid online/offline contexts?

So I wrote my response soon after

And I focused on the difference between inequality of access vs outcomes – as Laura Czerniewicz says, providing access is no guarantee of equality of outcomes. I also talked about the (obvious?) intersectionality of privilege. When we talk about someone’s privilege or disadvantage, we label a certain dimension of their identity while ignoring others. And privilege is contextual. Wearing a headscarf in Mecca is different from wearing it in Cairo and different from wearing it in London, from Houston, from Paris. And our perception of our privilege or lack thereof is contingent upon our own worldview. Motherhood is not an automatic disadvantage until you start to realize the immense patriarchal attitudes it brings out in other people who suddenly don’t feel it’s sexist to impose on women their image of what good motherhood should be.

But I digress. What I want to highlight in response to Bonnie’s post and George Siemens’ tweet asking:

our question: How might we create collaborations that mitigate the conservation of advantage?

I.e. How do we not reproduce inequality?

And I want to suggest that most attempts to avoid reproducing inequality only creates a new power imbalance because every attempt can only address a limited number of dimensions of inequality but never all. Let me give examples.

Connectivist MOOCs. They subvert the content expertise of a few and distribute this over the knowledge of many. Yet even if the facilitators of these experiences don’t become superstars in their own right (superstars for being inspiring and personable, and these are not bad things), participants in these spaces are in no way equal – neither in terms of access nor outcomes.

Facilitators and participants in these virtual learning spaces are often (not always) dissenters in their f2f context. They are marginalized with their ideologies and ideas, if not in additional ways. When they get together online they offer each other strength which helps them keep going, keep believing that they are not crazy, that one day they might make an impact, make a difference. Their passion and common interest bring them together and as they gel together they become… something. A community? Something else? And that new something? It has the same people coming over and over again. Some of them, the ones who have certain characteristics like strong digital literacy and are digitally extroverted, present, eloquent, generous, they start to have a place. In a cMOOC we are not all created equal. We are all writing in English. We are all expressing ourselves publicly. Two things not all people in the world are able or comfortable to do. Once you cross these two hurdles, you are faced with this: although we can all speak equally (to an extent) we are not listened to equally. Some people will have their blogposts retweeted more often. Some will receive more comments. Some will be constantly thanked and referred to by course participants and facilitators. And this will never be everybody. It will only be a few. A few, possibly, with a certain personality. Those become the elites of the marginals. And not everyone can be that. And not everyone necessarily ASPIRES to that because it’s exhausting.

Hybrid Pedagogy is such a space – created for critical, dissenting voices, providing supportive community. What happens, though, as this community grows, is that within it there are people who become the elites within those spaces. They are the elites of the marginals.

And what happens when you attempt to diversify? I don’t say this in an offensive way. You diversify by adding in someone like me, semi-privileged. I am #edtech’s “token international” because even though there are a few Arab/Muslim voices out there, they mostly reside in the West. Not so me, and this makes me exotic. I am grateful for the space to write here, and on Prof Hacker. I truly am. But I recognize that at some point it crosses the line of privilege and I have become an elite of the marginals.

I think the #dlrn15 conference was all about that. The keynotes, the attendees, many of them elites of marginals.

I think Virtually Connecting is like that. We made it to enhance virtual access to conference conversations. To reach people marginalized in certain ways. Yet again, there are inequalities of access. Those who speak English, have good enough Internet for hangouts, have the confidence and digital literacy and time and timezone convenience and audacity to ask to join. And then this. The marginals who participate? Already semi-privileged grow in their privilege. Virtually connecting, which is meant to be open and friendly and still is (we get new volunteers daily, now people we never heard of) enables participants to talk to more privileged people at conferences (often keynotes who are themselves marginals who rose to elites of marginals) and then the virtuals become themselves less marginal. I think back to #altc and how Jonathan Worth, during Q&A after his keynote said “Maha Bali is in the house” and how people came up to talk to me after. Elite (of some exotic kind) of marginals.

And yet. And yet i think it is inevitable that this happens. That every attempt to subvert power will bring with it new power dynamics.

I think it is ok and inevitable, but there are two things to do with this (that I can think of):

Recognize and be vigilant of emerging new power dynamics and do not pretend our attempts at inclusion have succeeded. Dave Cormier does this when he reminds us that every we creates a “them”

Find ways to subvert the subversion further or ways to empower more voices. For example with DigiWriMo, it’s a huge step for me to have been asked to facilitate – but the first thing I did was invite two others to co-facilitate with me, and the second step was to ensure the guest contributors were diverse (and still it is elusive and still they are all in some way elites of marginals, but of different margins and different elites)

One thing that we do need to remember is that even when we become elites of marginals, we are still marginals elsewhere. Getting together to support each other is both valuable and conducive to change because the common ground we have enables us to take our ideas deeper, as opposed to our regular f2f conversations where we face so much resistance we can only get so far after so long.

So it matters, for example, that I can tweet “elites of marginals” and people i know online “get it”. If i said this at work, it might take me an hour to explain. But just because a few understand it, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Or that I got it “right”. It does mean that there are a few people who will engage with me on it and maybe help me refine it.

Echo chambers? Sure. Listening to Lee Bessette on periscope yday and later on a vconnecting hangout… i know Lee well and we talk a lot and so the ideas weren’t new. It’s not that they aren’t valuable. It’s that I have been reading her and interacting with her for long enough (and seen her presentation beforehand!) so the ideas come easily to me. But they were not always so. They developed as I got to know her and work with her. And that’s not at all a bad thing. It’s just not the end of it.

We make mistakes if we ever believe that our attempts at subverting inequality will survive. No grand narrative of equalizing access or outcomes is possible. We can only tackle some accessibility and some inequality at any one time. And we should celebrate that, we absolutely should, but we should not overlook its limitations. Where possible, one of the things elites of marginals can do is invite more marginals into their circle because the bigger that circle, the more access you can have, and the better you will see new perspectives that might enable you to improve more access. So this is what happens when Hybrid Pedagogy adds more editors to the team. They can’t possibly add people who totally go against the journal’s values, but a new team brings different ideas because even though we have some common ground, it’s not our entire individual identity. Same for virtually connecting. Whoever joins already shares something with us, but is also different in other ways and can add value to us by being a different person in our team. Same for

So…what? The digital creates new elites? You already knew that 🙂


  1. Aren’t elites by definition marginal?

  2. I got so much from this post, Maha. I think we can’t stop trying to enlarge the group of voices just because we inevitably create exclusions. New elites are okay as long as being elite isn’t their reason for congregating and as long as they are generous. I was going to say that marginals deserve to have somewhere to meet people who get them but I know that ‘deserve’ wouldn’t be appropriate – you know what I mean. These words of yours ring true for me, very much so:
    Getting together to support each other is both valuable and conducive to change because the common ground we have enables us to take our ideas deeper, as opposed to our regular f2f conversations where we face so much resistance we can only get so far after so long.

    Thanks Maha, great post.

    • Thanks Tania! Your comments on posts like this one always add something that you say much clearer than me. Generosity & purpose matter. Thank you

  3. This is a struggle every online network/community/system that I have been part of has grappled with — how to keep the doors as wide open as possible for as diverse a global group of learners as possible while still respecting the space and intent itself. I suppose at some point, a few are “chosen” to speak out for the “many” and they officially or unofficially become that elite voice you so artfully deconstruct here, Maha. It’s important that we all do what we can to make sure barriers to entry are low, that the ethos is one of welcome for all, and that we acknowledge that maybe we aren’t always doing nearly enough … because human nature has us falling into pockets of comfort most of time. Let’s keep the doors open wide and learn from each other, not just from the voice that sounds like our own voices. Every space has the potential to be a rich space of learning and understanding.

    • I also know ur thinking of these same issues, Kevin, and we’ll live thru them together as a team w Sarah in digiwrimo. The listening to voices that don’t sound like ourselves is important.. But how well do we really do it? It took me ages to truly listen to what Frances was saying about exclusion in rhizo14 and now it’s all i can think about!

      • I guess we keep as open a mind as possible, and keep our eyes open for unexpected ideas to acknowledge and appreciate and share outward. If you are one of those “elites,” then use your connections and voice to make a difference by highlighting what you see. And we probably need to recognize the reality: no learning space will likely reach the highest goals of full inclusion and diversity of voices/experiences. That doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying.

  4. I am not so much interested in identifying the marginals as I am in building a new airplane while it’s flying. And isn’t every marginal just part of larger context, a bigger and bigger subsuming ecosystems until we realize that we are all part of the same life raft, planet Earth? Having said that I just finished a hangout with CLMOOC folk about the issue of diversity and how to become more central in the lives of more folk. We came to some conclusions that we might try and among the most interesting and basic is to talk and listen to those on the margins F2F.

    I think a grand narrative is not only possible, but absolutely necessary. One of my favorite authors is Thomas Berry and this quote is one of my favorite quotes from him: “It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories.” (The Dream of the Earth, p. 123) And if we are not attuned to the future’s call, its feedforward loops, then we are doomed to repeat the old tales of matriarchy, patriarchy, hierarchy, folksonomy in a death spiral as the earth crumples beneath our feet. I suppose that might be one of the stories we need to broadcast: bring the margins together or else.

    • I can so see your aversion to postmodernism in this, Terry, and I understand where you are coming from. I won’t to assume you haven’t personally been marginalized in some way or another. But I also don’t think any individual with their limited exposure to the world can imagine what others unknown to them are going through and universalize it. You are a very sensitive person and I know you mean well and I know you make a difference to many people’s lives every day. You care and you have hope. I only disagree on the possibility of reaching everyone in every way because yes we are all on this earth but we are not equal. And not everyone has capacity to find diverse (less privileged) others in f2f. The Egyptian who lives in the US is differently privileged than me. The Christian Egyptian living in Egypt is unpriviliged and when they immigrate to the West this shifts. And there are people you will probably never know because they don’t speak your language. By “you” i don’t mean Terry. I mean any of us. I don’t know if this makes senses. Probably gone on a tangent

      • My whole life might be considered one damned marginalization after another. I have generally refused to let “experts” have the final say in the most important parts of my life: how to birth our children, how to help them learn, what my wife and I should do and share together, how I live on the planet. That has put me all the way out on the limb on a tree deep in woods surrounded by other marginals not elites. We are 7 billion of us and growing in some Malthusian nightmare toward each other. I say we better devise some bigger stories to address that or else. As they say out my way, you can’t swing a dead possum around your head without hitting someone. As for making sense, don’t try too hard when the stakes are so high. I know you care and have hope, too, and that will always be enough to keep misunderstanding at bay. Always.

  5. Very important subject that deserves more thought. For now….
    I accept an unequal position.
    My isolation and lack of status is the discomfort I value.
    Not everyone in the margins seeks escape.
    I prefer to be an outsider and non-belonger and also understand I am privileged to not be imprisoned in this role.
    Be careful of a single marginality and a single elite status, in the rhizome difference functions differently.

    If we are in a position to BE different without being crushed shouldn’t we try that in order to be more human?

  6. “Facilitators and participants in these virtual learning spaces are often (not always) dissenters in their f2f context.”

    This seems an important point to me. If these facilitators and participants aren’t dissenters in their f2f contexts, they most certainly are outliers and innovators. Even if they’re not dissenting, they’re pushing. Their work in open online spaces models experimentation and risk. Even setting aside the f2f contexts, facilitators and participants in cMOOCs are outliers because of the type of online learning they’re engaged in which run counter to xMOOC approaches and dynamics. These facilitators and participants operate in the margins because they see the margins as ripe with opportunity and possibility.

    Your post reminds me that the opportunity and possibility in these people-driven online learning spaces is really rooted in the equity potential of these spaces. In any given online space, issues of status or “celebrity” threaten that potential. Here’s hoping that questions like the one George Siemens asked and the ones you’re raising here become fixtures in the learning design of online opportunities. When we participate or facilitate in the margins, it is our job to leave the margins better, and more inclusive than we found them. In that way, we might beautify and expand these margins.

    • On a farm the margins (the fencerows, the hedgerows, the boundaries, the edges) are where species diversity and complexity reside. They keep the monoculture of modern life from killing Gaia.

  7. Maybe it’s completely natural that people adept at boundary hopping would attract a following and this has nothing to do with exclusion?

  8. Well…exclusion is a two way street. People who are in no way intentionally excluded will take offense.

    Judgement falls onto people without their asking for it and then they are stuck apologizing for seeming to have intended doing something they didn’t. It’s an Alice in Wonderland effect when emergence brings forth all sorts of things and some are uncomfortable.

  9. Pingback: Jim

    • Lol Jenny wine is supposed to be “genuine”, right? I actually pronounce it “jenn-you-win” so it took me a while to get the mistake your voice recognition made 🙂

      So here’s my challenge to you: if you’re publishing raw, where is that response to my blogpost!

      I myself am someone who does not filter much, I can say this:
      A. It’s 90% ok to make mistakes. You end up more productive and it’s worth not filtering. If i proofread every blogpost i’d have half as many blogposts. Because I often write in stolen moments that don’t give me time to proofread
      B. I occasionally make mistakes. Sometimes a typo can change meaning, sometimes I wrote what I meant but I realized I shouldnt have said it. But this happens EVEN in revised pieces. It does. Because we can always change our minds or someone might help us see a different view. It’s easier to be open to that if you’ve not revised too much than if you have. That’s a plus, right?
      C. You can always qualify what you write – like saying, “this might be politically incorrect but…” Or “i haven’t thought this through completely” and that invites conversation. This post already does that

      Looking forward to what you come up with, Jim, because the beauty of your ideas are there, credentials don’t give you ideas. They just give other people the illusion that you’re worth listening to. You inspire me all the time. I’d love to read your raw

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