Roundhouse Student-led Conference on Critical Theory and Education

Last Tuesday, I attended the Roundhouse Conference on Critical Theory and Education, organised by students at the University of Leeds, who run Roundhouse: A Journal of Critical Theory and Practice. It was a great, inspiring day that reminded me of what it was like to be a student1 and why students are well-placed to affect change in universities, whether it’s pressure from the outside or covertly from the inside.

Rather than simply moaning, there was some good negative critique about the role of universities with both staff and students shifting between anger, despair and inspired subversion of the neo-liberal agenda.

A few things in particular caught my attention on the day. The first followed Mike Neary’s talk during ‘The State of Pedagogy and the University’ session. He referred to the ‘student as producer‘ and this phrase kept returning throughout the day as staff and students seemed to like it. The conference itself was a good example of student/staff collaboration and there were no apparent hierarchies in the running of the day. Students were more than capable of organising, moderating and running a day-long session that critically discussed pedagogy, the role of the university and how it might be transformed.

Secondly, the current industrial dispute at Leeds over job cuts, was a recurring theme during the round table discussions over the course of the day. This helped ground the theoretical critique in a real crisis that staff and students at Leeds are actually part of.

Thirdly, there was a discussion about parallelism, with one of the speakers saying that there was no hope of meaningful reform and that the time has come to contemplate the end of the university as a site of critical thinking. He argued that by remaining within the university, we collude in our own oppression and suggested that new autonomous spaces needed to be created apart from the agenda of neo-liberal education. There was some sympathy with this view, although another speaker referred to the time when Charles Clarke questioned the state funding of Medieval History in favour of subjects that benefit the economy. The point being made was that parallelism would still serve the interests of the State by removing the responsibility of funding ‘uneconomic’ subjects. In effect, parallelism would act as a form of efficiency under the neo-liberal agenda.

Finally, I was really pleased to hear about a couple of student run initiatives at Leeds:

The Peanut Gallery, an autonomous student-run social centre.

I hope they can keep this running as it sounds like there’s pressure to close it down.

The most inspiring aspect of the day for me was learning about The Really Open University, which “sets out to change the expectations that people have of university life, and by extension the rest of our lives.”  The conference was leafleted with a recent copy of The Sausage Factory [PDF], describing their launch.

The public launch of ROU took place on March 2nd, when over fifty students, staff and members of the larger community came together to discuss, ‘What is a Really Open University?’ This group was brought together by a recognition of the need for alternatives to the current educational system which puts everything – teaching, learning, our daily lives – up for sale, and makes efficiency drives such as the current budget cuts seem inevitable. Through a collective and participatory process, this group developed several vision statements about what education without restraints would look like.

The Really Open University website has opened my eyes to how students are using the web for education-related activism. The Really Open Union site is a good example that brings together initiatives elsewhere. I agree with Leon’s comment on the Roundhouse blog that The Really Open University is a good example of putting theory into action and should be supported.

  1. It’s been ten years since Graduate School and I don’t have much contact with students in my current role []

ALT-C 2008: A different approach.

Today, I took a different approach to the conference and relaxed. I usually take the approach of trying to attend as many sessions as possible and absorb and report back on as much as I can.  However, I’ve found that this approach quickly leaves me exhausted and somewhat removed from the rest of the conference as it allows little time for reflection.

So, my third day in Leeds was a much more enjoyable and stimulating one as I attended sessions, picking up on one or two things that were being presented and following threads and tangents that I found online and from talking with people.  One term that I’ve heard mentioned a few times is ‘lifestream’, that is, an aggregation of online activity into a timeline that can be shared with others. You can see my lifestream by going to this page. You’ll see that following a conversation I had at F-ALT08, I looked again at OpenID and setup my own personal website as an OpenID server, learning a great deal at the same time.

You can also see that I joined identi.ca, an open source microblogging site like Twitter, and found details on setting up Laconica, the software behind identi.ca, on my own server and potentially, the Learning Lab. My experience using Twitter at the conference has really demonstrated the value of microblogging within a defined community as a way of rapidly communicating one-to-many messages and engaging in large asynchronous conversations.

In the morning Digital Divide Slam session, we formed small groups and with two people I’d met previously at the fringe events, created a ‘performance’ that reflected on a form of digital divide. We chose ‘gender’, and produced this (prize winning) video which is now on YouTube.

During the second keynote, I drifted off and began to think about e-portfolios and aggregating our online social activity into a profile/portfolio that is controlled by the individual and is dynamically updated. I’d heard about the Attention Profiling Markup Language (APML), and spent time considering whether this could be used or adapted for aggregating a portfolio of work and experience. APML is primarily aimed at individuals’ relationship with advertisers and at a later F-ALT session was able to discuss the suitability of APML or an APML-like standard for aggregating a portfolio of work. Consequently, I’m developing an interest in this area and in other online relationships that can be made between people (see this link, too) and the data that we generate through purposeful and serendipitous online activity.

Having listened to quite a lot of discussion about web2.0 applications over the last few days, I’m even more pleased with the decision to use WordPress as a platform for blogging, web publishing and collaboration in the Learning Lab. With WordPress, we’re able to evaluate many of the latest social web technologies and standards through their plugin system.  This flexible plugin and theming system has led to the development of an entire social networking platform based on WordPress, called BuddyPress, and because it’s basically WordPress with some specific plugins and clever use of a theme, it can use any of the available WordPress plugins to connect to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and other popular web 2 services.  I’m looking forward to watching BuddyPress develop.

In the evening, we attended the conference dinner at Headingley Cricket Club. It was a great location, with good food and excellent service and while sitting next to one of my digital slam partners, he showed me JoikuSpot, an application that turns a mobile phone into a wifi router. There on our dinner table, he ran Joiku on a 3G Nokia phone and provided wifi access to his iPod Touch. What a great way to share high speed network access among friends, while meeting at a cafe or park to discuss work or study.

I was impressed. The Learning Landscape had extended to the cricket ground.

OpenSim, OpenID and Open Microblogging

My second day in Leeds for the ALT Conference 2008 and I’m really excited about three open source applications that I’d like us to evaluate when I return to Lincoln.

Yesterday’s OpenSim – A pre Second Life taster workshop demonstrated the potential of having our own OpenSim virtual environment, either as a way to orientate new users to Second Life or actually develop a Virtual World, confined to the university network.

Today’s Hood 2.0, it’s a Web 2 world out there, introduced Laconica to me. This is an open source microblogging service, that would allow us to effectively reproduce a Twitter-like service, but within the confines of the university. I think for us, this has an advantage over Twitter because of the privacy issues surrounding the use of public microblogging services. It does also have the ability to hook into Twitter (and soon, Facebook), if desired.

During the F-ALT08 Edublogger session this evening, I met David, who works on identity systems as Eduserv. We talked about OpenID and how it can easily be set up to serve as an identity provider for one person or an entire organisation.  I’ve taken his advice and now run an OpenID server on my personal website (it took less than 30 minutes to install and test). I’ve also been looking at OpenID plugins for WordPress and indeed the Learning Lab blogs could act as OpenID providers for anyone with a blog. I need to speak to ICT Services about the issues surrounding this on an institutional scale, but for me personally, I’m really impressed with how simple the process was to regain more control over my own identity online.

Finally, on a different note, the Keynote this morning was by Hans Rosling of Gapminder. He gave a very similar presentation to the one on TED, which I encourage you to watch for beautiful visualisations of statistical data relating to social, economic and environmental development.