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My posthuman, possibly cyborg, awakening.

Well, this penny has taken an awfully long time to drop!! But I guess you don’t go around talking about philosophical paradigms everyday of the week. It’s just when you’re engaged in PhD research you’re more or less expected to situate your research in one. Having said that, I now recall that posthumanism was pretty much the focus of #EDCMOOC, e-Learning and Digital Cultures, that I did way-back-when, when I said I’d “forgo any attempt at putting my thoughts down about ‘redefining the human’ and the implications for education of such a paradigm shift”. Well, it looks like I can’t duck that one any longer as my focus of study, selfOER, seems to be increasingly pushing me in that direction and to consider what it means to ‘be open’ and indeed to ‘be human’.

As you may know, I’ve already conceived my research topic, the practice of selfOER, from a sociomaterial literacies perspective and as a sociomaterial assemblage, that is a relational coming together of human and non-human actors in an actor-network theory (ANT) way of thinking. Because I’m interested in how selfOER gets enacted and how subjectivity of the self is constructed, not only materially but discursively as well, I’m also drawing on Foucault who, because of his critique of structuralism and it’s focus on language, often gets labelled as a poststructuralist. Indeed, ANT can also be considered in poststructuralist terms, so it’s no wonder that I didn’t see the posthuman, or the cyborg, coming sooner. It was rediscovering ‘Cyborg Literacies and the Posthuman Text’ by Lesley Gourlay (2011) that stirred this deeply sown seed and prompted my turn to the posthuman. And I have to say that the omens are looking good because hadn’t I just checked out a copy of ‘Simians, Cyborgs and Women’ (Haraway, 1991) when Bonnie Stewart, in her awesome keynote at ALT earlier in the week, calls out Haraway’s cyborg as a possible way to understand the relationship between technology and open practices and perhaps as a way to deal with the political implications.

Clearly, I’ve got a lot of reading ahead of me in order to understand how such a theoretical orientation can be applied to my research and help understand what’s happening in practice. However, it’s fascinating, not least because it requires a lot of recalibrating of previously held assumptions.

So, how/why does posthumanism redefine the human, and what are the implications for digital and open education? Quickly, drawing on thinking from poststructuralism, feminism and science and technology studies, posthumanism builds on critique of the humanist project that’s underpinned much of Western thinking for over the last 400 years or so and calls into question what it is we mean when we speak of the human. In particular, it de-privileges the human and considers them alongside nature and the technological other, and in doing so it brings into question the essentialism and autonomy of the human subject, which in turn has implications for how we view human agency.

There are a number of reasons why humanism is being called into question. These range from the ‘Death of Man’ thesis in which Foucault asks whether we are closer to gods or to apes; the generic postmodern/feminist critique that sees humanism as a mechanism of elite white male hegemony and the ecological critique that considers actions predicated on humanist assumptions as destroying the planet etc. Indeed, in the last 12 months or so, the anthropocene has been declared, which proposes a new epoch dating from the commencement of significant (detrimental) human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems.

Equally, with the rise of artificial intelligence and accelerating technological mediation, what it means to be human is also being questioned. Mind you, as Professor Steve Fuller points out, ‘it is very difficult to define what it is to be human’. It turns out that ‘humanity’, as a social category, has variously been defined throughout the ages (ancient, medieval and modern).

In relation to education then, the implications of this discussion and the critique of humanism are clearly profound. Rather than ‘bringing out’ the potential of the individual subject (Biesta, 1998), it may well be that education, viewed  in terms of assemblages, is more about ensuring the creative ‘gathering’ of human and non-human actors (Edwards, 2010).

Therefore, as Sian Bayne (2016) asks, “how, as researchers and scholars, can we move beyond the humanistic orthodoxies which assume the individual – the human subject – to be a rational actor in possession of a pure agency which allows it to view the world from a position of autonomy and disconnection from its material and discursive contexts?” (p.83). Well, I don’t know, but it would seem that I’m about to start giving it a go!


  • Defining Humanity (2009) [Film]. University of Warwick, TEDX.
  • Bayne, S. (2016) ‘Posthumanism and Research in Digital Education’, in The SAGE Handbook of E-learning Research
  • Biesta, G. J. J. (1998) ‘Pedagogy Without Humanism: Foucault and the Subject of Education’, Interchange, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 1–16
  • Edwards, R. (2010) ‘The end of lifelong learning: A post-human condition?’, Studies in the Education of Adults, vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 5–17
  • Gourlay, L. (2011) ‘Cyborg literacies and the posthuman text’, Workshop on New Media, New Literacies, and New Forms of Learning, December. Retrieved from: http://blogs. ubc. ca/newliteracies/files/2011/12/Gourlay. pdf
  • Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, London, Free Association Books.

An open reply, realisations and a request #selfoer #CR2518

This post is first of all a reply to Suzan Koseoglu’s recent post Boundaries of Openness, which continues the conversation about the self as an open educational resource, #selfOER, that she and Maha Bali have been developing since #OER16. It’s a conversation that I’m glad to say I’ve been welcomed to join, after I instinctively took up the idea as the focus of my PhD study having watched their recorded GO_GN webinar back in February. Since then, not only have I been developing my fledgling ideas about how to research this, but so too have Suzan and Maha. So this post kind of outlines a bit of my thinking on this as well. It turns out that we might be taking two ‘completely different readings’ on this, which, wouldn’t you know, just so happens to be the name of Suzan’s blog. 🙂 After outlining a few realisations about how I’m going to conduct my study, the post finishes with what amounts to something like a ‘negotiating access’ request to the open community.

OK, so Suzan’s question was “if you were to research the open self how would you define the boundaries for research and participation”? First of all, what attracted me to the concept of selfOER was that it seemed to be a great example of a sociomaterial assemblage; that is, it combines a human actor (the self) with non-human actors (texts and technology etc.). All very actor-networky (ANT) I know, but I’m interested in this because literacies studies are starting to see the production of texts as sociomaterial practice (Goodfellow and Lea, 2016; Gourlay and Oliver, 2013), and the concept of selfOER that Suzan and Maha advance foregrounds textual practice as the way in which the self might become an OER. Citing Catherine Cronin, they say

simply by engaging in public activities (e.g., blogging, Tweeting) we open ourselves to an authentic audience where our work and ideas “can be read, viewed, used, shared, critiqued and built upon by others” (Cronin, 2014, p. 408).

In terms of defining boundaries, what’s interesting about an ANT perspective is that it takes a a relational view, or network perspective, that sees boundaries between the social and material, or human and non-human, as emerging from the strength of their relationships. Defining boundaries or, in ANT terms, cutting the network is clearly tricky. And I don’t see boundaries easily. I want to be free to explore everywhere and everything, so no wonder an ANT perspective appeals to me.

However, I’ve got to develop a conceptual framework for my study so, just for now, I’d better identify a few boundaries. It’s no surprise that how the self is conceived in all this is crucial. What’s interesting is that in considering selfOER as an assemblage, I was drawn to thinking about how the self was constructed in this. So I started to think about subjectivity.

Subjectivity is different to identity. It’s about how individuals are ‘subjected’ to outside forces such as economics, the law, society, the circumstances of history and the physical world in general, and consequently how they’re made subjects of these forces. From this perspective it’s not so much what kind of OER you’d like to be, but rather what kind of OER you can be.

Some of you might be starting to see that this presents a post-structuralist take on things. Following the work of Michel Foucault, it signifies the ways that individuals must situate themselves in relation to power and the role that discourse plays in constructing the subject. I just read an article by Katia Hildebrandt and Alec Couros that neatly discusses this very thing – applying a post-structuralist, or Foucauldian, lens to digital identity. Rather than possessing a core identity the individual, or subject, is discursively constituted and re-constituted within the productive relations of power and knowledge. Within this there are technologies of power that act upon the subject and technologies of the self in which the subject acts upon them self. Undeniably, this perspective can present a more restricted, or challenging, view of individual agency than some might usually be comfortable with.

It’s interesting to think what synergies and divergences our two investigations will bring up. I was interested to follow Suzan’s reading of Parker J. Palmer’s, The Courage to Teach. I have to admit, I’d never come across his work before, but what struck me, in the quick skim that I did, was his reference to self knowledge, which seems very similar to Foucault’s idea of self care, a technology of the self in which the individual essentially might speak, think and write them self into particular ways of being. Discourse, as explained by James Paul Gee, has similarly been identified as a key dimension of identity formation.

Part two of Suzan’s question was about the boundaries of participation in relation to researching the ‘open self’. Great question. Just last week or so I wrote ‘observer-participant’ as part of my proposed methodology. However, events have subsequently made me realise that this isn’t right. As the proposed research is about people being open, and is in the context of an open community, the fact that I had interviewed an open practitioner as part of my pilot study quickly became open knowledge, which furthered conversation with further members of the community. This made me realise that I’m seen as a member of the open community and that an observer-participant role just wouldn’t wash. I’m a participant, observing and trying to make sense of the development of openness as practiced by individuals, and as I’ve also come to realise, this brings with it a whole bunch of responsibility. Extra responsibility that requires great care, precisely because it is in the open.

For example, in setting up my pilot study one participant, Rebecca Hogue, someone who identifies herself as a selfOER, blogged about her objection to being asked to participate anonymously in such a study.

I find it odd/annoying when I’m asked to participate in a research study about open practice, then the consent form for the study says that all identifying information will be removed and my contribution will be anonymous. To me this is a huge contradiction. The study is looking at practices that I do in the open, and yet my participation in the study itself is not allowed to be open.

Rebecca made the point that she didn’t want her data to be anonymized. Moreover, as I quickly came to realise, it’s difficult to guarantee that anything taken from the internet can be totally anonymous. Ethical guidelines have been developed over time for good reason, as any identification and interpretation risks causing harm. New contexts, like this, clearly present a challenge. I spent some time thinking about the implications of this. It’s on a Google Doc, if you want to take a look.

Being open requires a level of vulnerability, which thankfully I’ve been able to summon in the past, and which has brought its rewards. However, researching selfOER as a participant observer seems to require that I make myself vulnerable all over again. What’s more, I’m also asking individuals in the open community to make themselves vulnerable too, and possibly others by association.

After attending #OER17, I have Laura Czerniewicz‘s words ringing in my ear, ” what is it that we’re not seeing?” Well, I would ask first, “have we looked at ourselves”? Others too have asked the open community to engage with the construction of the subject (Knox, 2013) and to take up critical approaches (Bayne et al., 2015). Indeed, the open community is responding, as #OER17 stands testament.

I listened to a podcast by Catherine Cronin at the weekend where she spoke about the risks and rewards of open education and how things are changing so fast that we have to learn by doing and that we have to do this both individually and collectively. So, I guess what I’m asking is if the open community is OK with the idea that I’ll be researching selfOER, or the open self, and that this will mean my participation essentially involves two aspects: Helen the participant and Helen the critical observer.

I welcome your thoughts.

    • Bayne, S., Knox, J. and Ross, J. (2015) ‘Open education: the need for a critical approach’, Learning, Media and Technology, vol. 40, no. 3, pp. 247–250 [Online]. DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2015.1065272.
    • Goodfellow, R. and Lea, M. R. (2016) ‘Literacy and the Digital University’, in The SAGE Handbook of E-learning Research, London, SAGE Publications Ltd, pp. 423–442
    • Gourlay, L. and Oliver, M. (2013) ‘Beyond the social: digital literacies as sociomaterial practice.’, in Goodfellow, R. and Lea, M. R. (eds), Literacy in the Digital University: Critical Perspectives on Learning,  Scholarship and Technology., London, Routledge, pp. 79–94
    • Knox, J. (2013) ‘Five critiques of the open educational resources movement’, Teaching in Higher Education, vol. 18, no. 8, pp. 821–832 [Online]. DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2013.774354.
    • Hildebrandt, K. and Couros, A. (2016) ‘Digital selves, digital scholars: Theorising academic identity in online spaces’, Journal of Applied Social Theory, vol. 1, no. 1 [Online]. Available at

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The True Power of Working Out Loud #WOL #WOLweek

Blimey. That was some year!! I’ve had no time to blog as I’ve been thrashing away under the workload of a research masters (MRes). It’s been a full-on year, but I’m happy to say that I’ve passed, and I’ve learned tons in the process.

My dissertation was a bit of a pragmatic choice. As you know, I’ve been following/advocating Working Out Loud for a while and since we’d covered discourse analysis on the MRes, I thought I’d put the two together. So that’s how I came to do ‘An Investigation into the Phenomenon and Discourse of Working Out Loud’.

During this, I was asked if I’d like to join a ‘random’ Working Out Loud Circle (a small peer support group that follows the principles of Working Out Loud as you work towards a personal/professional goal). However, the random circle proved difficult to get going as people couldn’t commit when it came down to it. Not to worry, this is where serendipity kicked in as I noticed Sue Beckingham was talking about Working Out Loud in one of her presentations. So I asked Sue if she’d like to join and see what she thought of the circle format, to which she promptly agreed and, even better, she managed to persuade a colleague, Hala Mansour to join me and Robyn Santa Maria in forming a WOL circle. Despite scheduling difficulties that come with life-in-general the circle quickly became a supportive environment in which to develop and work towards our goals. The circle prompted the following blog posts from my fellow conspirators:

The Soft/human Side of Working Out Loud!

A virtual cup of tea.

Reflecting on #WOL.

They pretty much give you a flavor of what Working Out Loud and being in a circle is all about, full of warmth, kindness and general bonhomie. And this is why the findings from my discourse analysis are so depressing. Let me explain.

It’s so depressing.

In my research I used the concept of discourse as put forward by Michel Foucault. That is, discourse is the production of knowledge through language. Foucault contends that we can only have knowledge of things when ‘things’ have meaning, and meaning is constructed within discourse. Akin to a body of knowledge, or system of representation, a discourse consists of groups of related statements that cohere in some way to produce meanings and these meanings have real world effects. It’s discourse that produces the objects of our knowledge, such as Working Out Loud. Moreover, discourse governs the way in which an object can and cannot be talked about and what’s more, it puts forward a particular version as being ‘true’. Conceding that knowledge is produced through discourse leads to the realization that discourse involves relations of power. What counts as knowledge, and how is this determined?

Foucault further argues that discourse not only constructs objects, but it also constructs subjects. That is, discourses create subject positions that individuals can accordingly take up, effectively specifying ways of seeing and being in the world. Such a conception has implications for individual agency. Foucault argues that institutional discourses prevail over human agency. He considers institutional discourses to always bear power, and that the production of knowledge can never be separated from institutional discourses and their practices, which serve to control professional practices and defend them from alternative expressions of power.

OK. Now that I’ve (hopefully) explained that head wreck, let me tell you what my analysis revealed.

It revealed that the discourse of Working Out Loud is constructed by uniting a discourse of social business and a discourse of personal development/self-actualization. In what seems to be a direct appeal to one’s humanity, the word ‘help’ appears, like a rash, across both discourses. By conflating different meanings of the word help, or intentions of who or what is being helped, it means that the primary subject position created in the Working Out Loud discourse effectively aligns individuals’ personal development/self-actualization with the realization of business goals. In this analysis, it seems that Working Out Loud represents an expression of what Foucault calls biopower. Although Foucault coined the term in relation to how modern states control subjects through the subjugation of bodies, some contemporary scholars are starting to identify biopower as a form of workforce control. They contend that the everyday life qualities of individuals are increasingly being indexed to the needs of the organization and that this essentially amounts to a form of self-exploitation. This is strong stuff, and to understand it you need to see the historical relationship between capital and labour and the evolution of techniques of control within the workplace.

In the classic studies by Weber and Marx, the de-humanizing aspect of work is a defining element because it was thought that the qualities that make us human weren’t required in the productive process. Now, as work processes have become more focused on the customer and value-added productivity is derived from personal and social aspects of the workforce, organizations no longer need command and control methods to constrain or separate individuals from non-work aspects of their life. Rather, biopower is the new order of the day because it seeks to capture individuals as they already exist and utilize our whole selves, or ‘life itself’ in the service of work.

I told you it was depressing. Mind you, having said that, I still can’t help but like Working Out Loud, after all it contains the very best of human nature, it’s a crying shame that it’s being used against you in these neoliberal times. The upshot is that I’m now more attuned than ever to power and politics and to contemporary methods of control in society. Consequently, I’m wondering about the big picture and what I can do about it. I’m also wondering how others develop critical sensibilities and what they propose to do about it, or is that what we think they can do about it. 🙂

Although it was quite an effort, and despite it being a thoroughly depressing analysis, I enjoyed this research project. I must’ve been crazy taking a topic that doesn’t significantly figure yet in the literature and combining it with a difficult methodology. Any way, moving on, for my PhD I’m going to work on a project that focuses on how professionals in the finance sector learn to make, or recognize, ethical decisions in times of rapid and complex change (Brexit). That’s sure to be another big learning adventure, and I’ll just have to see to what extent it’s possible to Work Out Loud.

References: Fleming, P. (2014). Review Article: When ‘life itself’ goes to work: Reviewing shifts in organizational life through the lens of biopower. Human Relations, 6 7(7), pp. 875-901. doi: 10.1177/0018726713508142.

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