Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Elites of Marginals

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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 http://blog.mahabali.me/educational-technology-2/inequality-of-access-vs-outcomes-how-we-measure-what-we-value/

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.

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.

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