Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

The #dlrn15 Discourse #Resonated #NotResonated


Reading Time: 8 minutes

I’m going to share a story, and I promise it’s relevant to #dlrn15, just give me a chance, OK? If you don’t wanna hear too much backstory, jump to the numbered list at the bottom 🙂

At the beginning of my PhD, I wanted to explore whether critical thinking was truly discipline-specific or generic (one of the debates in the North American field of critical thinking) and so I took a graduate course in the humanities. It was entitled Women in the Quran, and so it was cross-listed as gender studies and Islamic studies. The professor, here at AUC in Egypt, was an American woman (whom I love dearly). I had very little exposure to the humanities in depth (a few literature courses and similar as an undergrad in a liberal arts institution; I did well; I enjoyed this more than computer science, but that’s not the same as exposure to humanities scholarship).

Anyway, the first day of that class, we read something together, and I objected to something. It was a book chapter by an American Muslim feminist writer, and she was quoting a translated version of the Quran to prove a point. And the quote was wrong. The sequence of verses she was referring to did NOT, in fact, go like that. There is only one definitive version of the Quran, so I was perplexed by how she could do that. I only knew this because I read the Quran often and knew lots of it by heart (sadly much of which I have forgotten “by heart”, but still know roughly). The professor was skeptical. I proved it to her the next class session. This was one instance of how a professor who was a scholar in a field (Islam) might know less than an individual who had never studied it, but for whom the thing (Islam) was a large part of her identity and life. Not all Muslims would be able to detect what I did. But some could. The first lesson I learned there was that to be a critical thinker in a discipline, it helps a lot if you actually have the knowledge of the content in order to critique it and evaluate evidence. However, you can sometimes be critical without having all the knowledge. You’d just likely be missing pieces of the puzzle. That scholar, who didn’t open up a Quran book in front of her when she was writing that chapter? That’s just sloppy and worrying.

The second thing I learned a lot from in this class was feminism. I’ve always had feminist tendencies,  and much of it involved rebellion against certain dictates in religion. I recognized a long time ago that it wasn’t just Islam that did this – don’t kid yourself by thinking it’s just Islam that does this. What I learned from this course, and from feminist Muslim scholars whose works we read, is that the patriarchy in Islam is largely based on the fact that the majority of people interpreting the holy books were men. For centuries. This reminds me of the “shoulders of giants” discussion we had at #dlrn15 (and my Trouble with Frameworks article published earlier).

In our panel My Theory Can Whip Your Theory, I said something that seemed to resonate with other people – that I am very skeptical of the shoulders of giants because those giants come from a different context than me. They’re mostly white Western men (mostly dead, too) and they don’t know anything about my life. It’s really also the same for much of Islamic scholarship over centuries that was based on the interpretations of men who do not understand my current context. Btw, the Islamic Renaissance was all about shoulders of giants – translating the works of scientists and philosophers before them, then moving and adding to them. And so it’s important to know what those giants said, or some of it; it’s just colonizing to feel like you cannot create your own theories based on your own context; I’m happy to do so and never have it work for anyone else again. Like, ever.

Why am I saying these two things here? I am saying them because they apply to my perspective on #dlrn15. For me, #dlrn15 is possibly the one conference out of all conferences ever that I wish I could have gone to. So many people I love and respect in one place. I’d be drooling over the possibilities of the conversations there. Almost everyone I knew and wanted to meet was there (except the Hybrid Ped folks, and a few other folks who were at #ICDEUNISA who gave a more global perspective – people like Audrey Watters and Laura Czerniewicz… but I have met Laura … at #altc… but I digress).

There was this one virtually connecting hangout with Catherine Cronin and La ura Gogia where Catherine explained how the conversation was so US-centric and not necessarily transferred well to her context in Ireland. I was smiling as I heard this. I couldn’t respond because my daughter was around me (and I was in-between sessions where I was presenting, so I was giving my husband a break from babysitting). But this is what I wanted to say:

  1. I am here in Cairo, Egypt. Far away from the US or UK. However, I completely understand the conversations taking place at places like #dlrn15 and the Chronicle of Higher Education because my institution is a liberal arts American university; I did my undergrad there, I have been working there since 2003; I lived in the US for a year (but the latter is less important even though it involved a brief part-time teaching thing at Rice U). A lot of what is being talked about actually applies to me. I also did my graduate work in the UK (albeit with very little time spent there) and lived there for almost a year. My schooling was mainly British with British and Australian teachers. I know a lot about UK education. HOWEVER – most people here in Egypt, the ones in the public education system? Their context is completely divorced from all this. Their problems are entirely different. The conversation would seem very different to them
  2. Much of what I consider more dissenting and critical #edtech discourse is really quite US-centric and from my own context does not transfer very well. I had opportunities in my own presentations (hybrid, as my other co-presenters were mostly onsite) to relay some of that… I wonder how many people got opportunities to be there in the way I was? It’s great for me personally that I could; I love that virtually connecting has expanded to include others, giving other virtuals a voice in these conversations… but how many people submit proposals to conferences knowing they are unlikely to attend, and insist on being there live to take part? Rebecca and I were just talking today about the “non-question” of first authorship for me because I never know if I might be at a conference in person, so I stopped asking for first authorship after I had to skip #et4online (for #et4online I claimed first authorship on some things at first to be able to get funding from my univ; I have since stopped doing that)
  3. So let’s take #fedwiki. I love Mike Caulfield. I love that he invited me to join the first #fedwikihappening which I truly enjoyed and learned SO MUCH from. But I have said it before and I say it again. #FedWiki solves some of the limitations of blogging and wikis in general, but there is an underlying assumption of equality that is not real. When we talk about collaborating over content, with people forking parts that they like or resonate with them and leaving parts they don’t? Don’t we know that some people’s “forks” will gain more readership because they are forked by particular people? (it’s like how we look at tweets by someone we respect even if they’re not tweeting their own work). Also – what good are we creating when we allow the underprivileged to keep their own space, and the privileged to keep their own space (by not forking the work of the underprivileged)? I gave this example of the October 1973 war. The English  Wikipedia version tells a completely different story from the Arabic Wikipedia version – even though they use the exact same data. Exact same data. Totally different narrative. That’s what I think FedWiki would produce over controversial issues. I keep my narrative, you keep yours. The more powerful will continue to have more content and more clout and divorce context. I can’t see how FedWiki can find a way around that. I am not suggesting Wikipedia has a way around it (obviously it’s worse because it hides those battles so users only see ONE definitive page – per language, anyway). We went through that process of trying to create a page on Dave Cormier and it was a total #fail. We reached out to Mike Caulfield and he helped us create one for rhizomatic learning (apparently easier to create pages on topics rather than people). Anyway
  4. Let’s take domain of one’s own. I love Jim Groom. I love Reclaim Hosting. Every site I “own” is on Reclaim Hosting. It’s ironic, really, because even though I totally buy into the discourse of domain of one’s own as opposed to the closed-up-gonna-disappear LMS; and the might-disappear-on-you-any-time-geocities history, I still don’t really feel I “own” anything. Take the domain name. So I have a website with my name on it. So? If one year my credit card doesn’t work, I lose the name and everything on it (right?). If I die. What happens if I die? All this content that I have spent years creating? Pfft. It’s not something I “own” unless my children can inherit it. Convince me otherwise? Convince me this is not a problem? ALSO. The actual hosting. You’re not truly self-hosting unless you actually own the server. And who wants the hassle and pain of that, even if they could technical manage it and financially afford it? So really, “domain of one’s own” is basically “a website with your name on it that you have to continually pay someone else for – to host and to keep the domain”. It’s better than the alternative. It just masks something. Most people in my part of the world don’t have credit cards. Heck, some don’t even have bank accounts. Half the people in my country cannot even read.
  5. The affordances of the digital empower me in ways I did not know were possible (as I explain in the Elites of Marginals post) – and yet I am still yearning for praxis (my latest Hybrid Ped column – coming straight from my heart as I question what I’m doing with all this writing and how I can go from where I am now, to making a difference to the huge educational problems in Egypt).
  6. A discussion that took place in a private email discussion is one where I raised the question of how Data Analytics could possibly be used in a way that was not dehumanizing. It was suggested I read Dragan’s work. I know I skimmed an article; I should go and read it in detail; it’s possible I don’t know enough of the field to imagine how someone can use it in ways that are not dehumanizing. All I see is aggregation of data which hides individual humans and their contexts and their feelings and I fail, I completely fail to see how this is a good way of dealing with other human beings. I can see how it might help policy makers with… something. And ok, good for them. I just don’t know how it can have true pedagogical value or be truly about human agency in any way.
  7. Were you there the day Google Drive was down? It was horrible. An absolute disaster. It was like that day you go home and you forget your cell phone at home. All the numbers. All the data. All your life. Same for Google docs. Much of our Virtually connecting planning for #dlrn15 and #olc15 was there… all of the presentations I was working with collaborators on had gdocs or slides somewhere (some had copies on DropBox – whew; erm, DropBox which I pay for so I can have enough space for all my collaborations).

So… there you have it. Not really all my reflections on #dlrn15… but just a different perspective I didn’t get a chance to fully flesh out.

It has occurred to me, though, how on earth everyone I work with in the US and UK have not questioned how come we talk about things in a similar way?

Oh. One more thing. Someone talked about non-dominant voices at #dlrn15, and that even though they were heard out, their ideas got drowned by the majority in the room. It will always be the case that having a dominant view in a room (regardless how many hold it, really) makes it extremely difficult to truly listen to alternative perspective; we often talk about “finding voice” but we rarely (if ever?) talk about listening carefully and finding our… “ears”, I guess 🙂

I love you all


  1. Thank you Maha. This is a breath of fresh air. I find it reassuring. Next I shall read your praxis post.

  2. thanks Simon. It’s a loving critique that I hope will be taken as such

  3. i think this may be my favourite #dLRN15 post. because at its core you are not expecting everyone to see things as you do. which for me was the point of trying to bring ppl together across whatever variant axes we could galvanize conversation on. to me, this embodies what i – just speaking for myself – was hoping for.

    now you probably already thought all this long before the conference. but still. thank you.

    • Thanks Bon. I am not surprised that you found this more helpful than offensive 🙂 because you listen. And it helps me express further. And reminds me to do the same in reverse in my own context (i.e. when i think of public education in Egypt)

  4. How’s the post-colonial mooc coming along, Maha? Seems to me, reading this, that that is where you might be headed, call it the “Lend me your ears” MOOC :).
    Thanks for a great post.
    Love from the rabbit-hole

    • Hi Nick, I have something coming out soon on Prof Hacker about how i tried to work on #digiwrimo to have some poco tendencies. The book chapter itself is nearly done, but i keep not being satisfied enough with it and not submitting, any tips?

  5. Very interesting points here, Maha. The example of the Quran resonated particularly with me. (There is one English translation that mixes up the order of verses and suras – done in England in the late 18th century I believe. I’ve forgotten the name of the translator.)

    The common theme that runs all through your post is cultures, that is human-created phenomenon arising in communities. The Western / Orientalist culture of Quran study built around academic Orientalist traditions is quite different from the Arab Muslim culture of Quran study built around scholastic centers and schools of thought (madhaahib). Each cultural tradition describes its own, constructed reality.

    We find the same thing for Feminism: Western thinkers often think that Feminism is a purely Western phenomenon, since their own traditions have historical roots in the West. But there is an indigenous Eastern Feminism – rooted in Egypt in the 19th century, that is at least as old as the Western movement and largely independent of it – this movement is represented by thinkers such as Rose El Youssef and Qasim Amin.

    Turning to EdTech, non-Western scholar-activists face a dilemma when translating the largely Western experience of EdTech to another social and political context. I think this is less a matter of “language imperalism” than it is of misallignment of goals with fundamental cultural values and expectations. The issue of payent, which you mention from time to time, is an example of this. In Middle Eastern culture, payment in-kind through giving ones time and ones attention to something is often regarded as more valueable than money. These values may not align well with the 99-cents-a-pop ethos of Google Apps, which may actually seem somewhat crass in another cultural context.

  6. For me Maha you are talking in part about (failure to) question assumptions – a bedrock of critical thinking. And it seems to me that resistance to questioning assumptions is as likely in the Facebook group as it is in the lecture theatre and I wonder why?

    • Good question. Why do you think? I should take more time to think about this…my prelim answer is that it’s a lot more work and effort and friction to be critical. And there is like, no END to how critical you can get and the dimensions of it. Which is why being with people different from yourself helps you see different worldviews. Because simply by being themselves they can help you question assumptions. but we need to engage in depth and listen REALLY hard, not just give ppl space/voice and assume that’s enough. And i say “give” intentionally because power dynamics mean some people have more opportunity to give this space. Like Mike Caulfield inviting me to #fedwikihappening for example…

  7. Hi Maha, I just wanted to ask about your comment re Wikipedia “obviously it’s worse because it hides those battles so users only see ONE definitive page – per language, anyway”. If a user logs in and tracks down the talk page, the underlying construction and collaboration can be understood – or at least read – and even contributed to. I know there are lots of issues with Wikipedia and the concentration of contributors, but in my own experience it is possible to contribute i.e. no one is shut out (other than by the struggle to understand the structure and methodology of editing, posting and talking). Am I looking at your comment too superficially?

    • Hey Mandy. Most people don’t realize the background behind the Wikipedia page or that they can contribute. Also, you can face a LOT of difficulty getting anything in edgewise. Lots if feminist research/work done on that topic. We tried to add new stuff last year and someone kept deleting our stuff until we got help from Mike Caulfield who knew the ropes. But I imagine there is absolutely no way the Oct 73 war page could be won by the Arab side, or contain a dual perspective that’s inclusive of it. Dominant discourses in real life spill over. It’s only the Arabic page which is marginal to the English and away from the radar (or at least whose dominant voices are different) that gets to express this. Voice. But no listening. Which is my point. Allowing both the dominant and non-dominant perspective to exist side by side means the non-dominant won’t get heard. In #fedwiki, it means fewer people will fork minority perspectives and you will again end up with the dominant perspective. Just the one YOU agree with. Not necessarily a balanced one representing diff views

      • Hi Maha,

        In #fedwiki you cannot control what people fork from your farm and, to a certain extent, it is reasonable to expect that you will be heard to the extent that you echo the opinions of others, this is how political discourse typically works in real life.

        One difference is that in real life, we do not have a trail of bread crumbs tracing the development and origin of this or that claim. This is not the same as Wikipedia’s edit archive, as Mike Caulfield explains. Because of this feature, #fedwiki might help to balance political discourse a little – or at least orient it more towards what is known and how it is known.

        Because there is no object to be controlled, #fedwiki is more up to this task than a traditional Wiki might be. In some ways this resembles the Internet itself, as a massively distributed network of connections. With #fedwiki, it even be possible to deploy crap detecting spiders – then the battle will be over who controls the spiders. I’m afraid there is no substitute for common sense.

        • Hi Mark,
          I don’t know what your experience of fedwiki is but mine was that the trail of breadcrumbs was very confusing and if I ever tried to identify the ‘source’ of a page, I usually got it wrong. This made for some very interesting cooperative writing experiences and it seems that this vagueness is part of fedwiki culture
          BUT – the feminist in me who has observed various shenanigans on wikipedia isn’t convinced. My concerns chime with what Maha says in 3 above. I think fedwiki equality is going to need healthy scepticism and hard work at the very least.

          • Hi Frances,

            I’m continuing to tinker with FedWiki, mostly because of Mike Caulfield’s promotion of it, which I find quite convincing. The platform continues to perplex me though and I don’t think there’s a large enough user base for it to really do what it’s intended to do.

            I think it’s at a pretty early stage of development and could go anywhere. Somehow, I think the uber-geekiness of it is lost on developers and promoters alike.

            Thanks for “discoverable but not obvious”. This sounds quite reasonable to me. FedWiki’s claim to shepherd consensus rather than impose it also sounds reasonable – though I expect it’s something of an oversimplification.

            • Mark it is actually not as difficult a learning curve as it seems. Once u get the basics it’s not that hard. What’s “early” in stages is the ways of finding things u want if the number of users got too big and lack of notification and mobile app.

              But the claim to solving all of Wikipedia’s major issues is what i have problems with

              • It solves some of Wikipedia’s issues – particularly those related to collective control of the platform which you have already addressed. You raised a question of whether or not minority opinions would not be “silenced” by simply not being forked. I think you’re right – they could and would, but this is the way things are in real life. People repeat (fork) what they hear and agree with all the time. This can spread marginal and crazy ideas very rapidly.

                Certainly, the discoverability of sources may be a small hurdle for this type of thing, but I am not convinced that most people really care about the origin of the stuff they say – if it seems to support some cherished view or position, that’s quite good enough.

    • Hi Mandy,

      Serendipity led me today to Mike Caulfield’s blog post on Federated Education (a keynote he did somewhere or other). Here Mike addresses the underbelly of Wikipedia as well:

      Go to Pt 3: Kate Middleton’s Wedding Dress

  8. I think that people engaging who are different is a resource but that the questioning of assumptions works better as a shared endeavour rather than relying on simply the presence of difference. I agree with you about listening (that was part of my mantra on Rhizo14) but for me it was interesting that the reaction of some from Rhizo14 FB group was that people who had some negative experiences should have spoken up at the time. I think that surfacing differences requires more than people ‘being different’ though this is obviously valuable. For me shared questioning of assumptions requires the construction of a space where all will consciously question their assumptions.

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