The International Conference on Open and Distance Education was hosted by the University of South Africa this month. Paul Prinsloo put together a truly remarkable set of keynote addresses and invited me to present the opening keynote. I have more than a few reflections, many of which are probably beyond the scope of a post but here we go.
First, let me tell you something. You know how folks seem physically incapable of hosting an event that has any women or non-white people in positions of expertise? Paul and the ICDE organizing committee at UNISA made it look easy.
Not only were the majority of the keynotes women but they hailed from within and beyond the academy, at all academic ranks, from a diversity of viewpoints and disciplines, and came from around the world. And this wasn’t a “diversity” panel or a “diversity” conference. You had scholars at the top of their respective fields, leaders in discourse ranging from development to technology, who also happened to not be white men. The conversation was richer, deeper and better for it.
And, in many ways, Paul and the committee modeled an aspect of my talk: that “diversity” is not the enemy of quality; inequality is the enemy of quality. If you think that diversity and low quality are synonymous that says more about you than it does about people like me. On the rare occasions that organizers invite me to speak because they respect my work and my expertise rather than to perform representation, I think, “yeah they get it”. Paul got it.
My keynote, “The Access Paradox”, built on conversations and research and writing that I have been doing for the past couple of years. My doctoral research, as most of you know by now, was about the political economy of the Wall Street Era of for-profit colleges in the U.S. You cannot tell that story without engaging the role of technology and distance learning and the ideology of “open” as a legitimizing narrative. You also cannot tell that story without thinking through the global systems of financialization, labor, and knowledge production that has set the stage for what Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades call “academic capitalism”, i.e. corporate higher education.
That’s the stage we’re on as we debate open access publishing, open access textbooks, micro-credentials, lifelong learning, learning assessment, flipped classrooms, blogging for learning, domains of one’s own, and so-on and so-on. As a sociologist, education is but one institution that is always engaging all the other big institutions like work and politics and religion and family. It makes sense to me to think about open and distance education in that framework. When I do that I have robust conversations with activist-scholars, organizers, and political actors about education as part of a broader socio-economic affirmative justice agenda.
As I have had these conversations, I have also developed a healthy respect for the context of nation-states. I was really worried as one of few Americans going to South Africa to talk about the role of wealth inequalities to the veracity of educational expansion, face-to-face and online. Kind of like panels full of white dudes, a keynote by an American at a global conference can be interpreted as imperialist and condescending.
I was also very sensitive to being a black American scholar in post-apartheid South Africa at a moment when the demand for educational access is very reminiscent of the civic actions that made possible a black American woman with a Ph.D. Apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994. That’s 22 years ago. I did that math and worried. Who was I to talk about access and paradoxes and inequality at such a critical historical juncture for people with whom I share kinship but not fates?
Preparing for my talk, I decided to focus on the kinship rather than spout platitudes about fates. My people have met that same devil on a different road before. I revisited the literature from post-reconstruction U.S. from black scholars and thinkers. I tried to touch the moment of fear and hope and promise and struggle. What was education for and about in those contexts? There was no Internet but there was technology-aided diffusion and expansion of knowledge. And, there was a discourse about educational expansion: who should have it, what it should look like and what larger justice agenda it should serve.
I also read many South African scholars on labor inequalities, affirmative policies, and education. My crash course revealed concerns that we share: concentrated wealth with racial disparities, political and economic policies that privilege wealth maintenance at the expense of economic redistribution, ideological narratives of individualism at the expense of collective rights, and the specter of peculiar institutions that always entangle education with white supremacy.
And that is what I talked about. I stuck to the rivers and the lakes that I’m used to. I drew on the sociology of education literature that has long interrogated to what extent educational expansion is a universal redress for group inequalities. I
borrowed from work by Justin Reich and his colleagues who have done important empirical work on inequalities in “alternative” forms of education. I built on the work by colleagues Sandy Darity, Darrick Hamilton, Janelle Jones and John Schmitt, and Bonnie Garrity-Fox among many others. And, I echoed a lot of what i have learned from broad-based coalitions like those led by Jesse Myerson and the Grasping At The Root conference.
Whether I got it just right I wanted to say that I believe in education because I have to. That’s different from being converted. I am black and a woman in the U.S. I do not have to be converted. Like the many black South Africans I had the fortune of speaking with, I don’t need the hard sell on the value of education.
What I do need are specifics about how this moment is not like those other moments, those old moments of educational expansion that were shaped by powerful white interests, wealth and racism to expand access without furthering justice.
I took a lot away from the ICDE conference. One black South African scholar said to me, “we thought America was fixed!” I took away that none of us is “fixed” but that many of us, across contexts, are trying.
I also took away that that sociology of education can contribute a lot to and learn even more from the education happening around the edges of formal schooling: assessment, learning science, ed-tech, development, and informal schooling.
Finally, I took away incredible memories and pictures of elephants fighting with bunnies. No other conference I’ve ever attended can top that.