Mar 042013

I was privileged to attend a presentation by Inger Mewburn, more popularly known as the thesis whisperer, at Griffith University on Friday night1.  A self-described “product” of the neo-liberal university2, she offered her story of coming to terms with the circumstances in which she found herself. At a time of increasing disruptions in and around universities, I think Inger’s story is valuable reminder to those working in the academy and particularly those on its edges, that complying, accepting your lot in life is not the best game plan. As she put it, to survive she had to learn to become entrepreneurial.

Her presentation was an open and delightfully frank account of the origins and history of the blog she developed to help PhD students in their endeavours. The account was interwoven with the lessons she learned along the way3 and the personal hurdles she had to overcome4. The thesis whisperer blog is now a regular read for many who are undertaking a PhD.  The highly popular blog offers blunt, useful and, more often than not, entertaining advice and insights about all things PhDish.

Inger told her story in the same style she writes her blog. We heard about the beginnings via a conversation with Mark Nottingham and the advice he gave her: be clear about what you do; publish regularly5, keep it short6, and make it useful7. We heard about the now of the blog: the site currently attracts a readership in the thousands from all over the world. We heard about ANU calling her and offering her a job based on her blog. Yes, that’s right, her blog. Not her CV. Not a job application. Not a mate who knew a mate. Not a CV-hunting PVC. But purely and simply on the quality of and generosity in the way she has supported countless PhD folk over many years now. This is not to suggest the the old CV plus interview model will go away anytime soon but it is always at the edges where you first see interesting shifts.

It is easy to read this experience as just another academic blogger who lucked into a job.  That is how the A4 mindset8 would read it. I have a different take.  While keeping her “day job”, however unreliable work was, Inger effectively set up a personal skunk works9. For Inger, it was a space or place totally free of the oversight of bean-counting university managers10.  Yes, she invested a large amount of her time and intellectual capital into it. Yes, it, like all blogging done well, was hard work. The important thing is that if she had tried to do this within a university frame it would have been subject to controls, maybe even a bit of policing (how dare you give away our intellectual property, the IP we are paying you to produce).

Having a plan B or a skunk works project, or many of them, is a characteristic of people who are judged to be successful and creative. Frans Johansson makes this argument is his recent book11. I’m of the view that this way of working, of building and testing lots of little skunk works projects will eventually come to be recognised as an important part of doing useful, productive knowledge work12.

But back to the talk, to briefly point to some of the ideas she offered in the seminar.  She spoke of new forms of publishing, drawing on Gabriel Tarde’s work, of metrics as soft power, of the CV being replaced by Google and her work as edupunk. She pointed to Martin Weller’s pedagogy of abundance, the absolute importance of a digital presence13, and the role of blog posts and tweets in multiplying the number of downloads of papers and citations.

While many of these notions circulate in the academic blogosphere and beyond, it was a powerful experience to have all of these notions14 drawn together as Inger recounted her story. At one point, Inger spoke briefly of MOOCs as an indicator of some of the disruptions Higher Education is experiencing.  It is on this point that I want to leave Inger’s excellent self disclosure of DIY academia and contrast her approach with the typical approach of the modern Australian university.

MOOC panic is now commonplace in many Australian universities15. To the A4’s the MOOC is a mysterious phenomenon. It is a fuzzy kind of threat or perhaps it isn’t. It seems familiar16 but the business model seems not to add up. What is missed in the panic is that the universities and academics who set up the first MOOCs did so by building a skunk works. MOOCs were not part of the vision or plan of any university. They began as experiments, probes, something to try.

What have Australian universities done? They have played the lemming card.

Me too. We can do that. We want one of those. We can be MOOC-savvy. We’ll have five servings of MOOC please.

The lemming card is not new when it comes to thinking about the role and place of IT in Australian higher education. Many years ago, I was puzzled by a sudden change in IT policy in the university in which I was working. Over a beer with an IT-savvy mate, I asked about the shift. He pointed out that there had been a recent meeting of VCs and what is likely to have transpired was that our VC had to put up with another VC bragging about what “his” computer system could now do. Our VC unsure and embarrassed about what “his” system could do came back to discover that his didn’t. He’d then want to know why it didn’t. He would then demand “his” system do what the other VC’s system could do but to go one better so that it did more than the other VC’s system17. Playing the lemming card, at least with respect to IT policy in universities goes back some way it appears. So what can we expect as MOOC panic becomes MOOC me-too-ness?

Expect to see more lemming cards played over the coming months and years. Expect to see no skunk works at a university. Expect to see more academics adapt better to the changing conditions than the institutions to which they are attached. Expect the continuing emergence of the punk academic18, maybe punk academies. Expect, perhaps, the emergence of the fully neoliberal university consisting entirely of managers, a management-intensive university19. This is a university which runs like clockwork. There are no students, no academic staff to make life complicated. There is though, a wonderfully efficient hierarchy for decision making, policy promulgation, reporting and lemming card playing20.

Academics like the thesis whisperer don’t play the lemming card. They understand that replicating what others do is not very clever in this hyper-networked knowledge environment. It was heartening to see so many PhD students listen to Inger and engage her in conversation about her way of working. I hope the odd A4 person there learned a little also.




  1. The presentation was recorded. I don’t know if it is to be made publicly available. []
  2. 11 years as a casual academic. []
  3. To me, it was good example of what I have been calling public learning or, better, learning in public, that is making the messy details of what she learned and how it happened, public. This is in contrast to the usual way in which advice is offered, that is, as a neat, tidy account of what to do and what not to do. []
  4. She spoke, for example, about the difficulty of learning that she had to, as she put it, give her stuff away. []
  5. Memo to self. []
  6. 2nd memo to self []
  7. Many memos to self []
  8. Folk who use digital stuff but still think in terms of paper []
  9. The term skunk works is commonly used to describe projects set up by companies conscious of the conservative/conforming logic that controls the running of most enterprises. Projects are set up completely removed from the oversight of routine management. The oversight of managers limits what can and cannot be done and thought about. If it does not fit the strategic plan or mission statement it does not happen. Note to strategic planners and mission statement writers this is a pre-condition to playing the lemming card-see below []
  10. Not all managers count beans. The good ones manage the beans and manage up, not the people notionally working for them. I’ve been lucky to work with some wonderfully supportive folk. To me, the perfect manager is a kind of cross between Dee Hock and Ricardo Semler []
  11. Johansson, F. (2012). The click moment : seizing opportunity in an unpredictable world. New York: Portfolio/Penguin. []
  12. It’s how Google and businesses of that ilk work. Sadly, in the “modern” Australian university most “innovation” is planned, controlled and managed. []
  13. As Joi Ito recently put it in an interview for Wired, “In the old days, being relevant was writing academic papers. Today, if people can’t find you on the internet, if they’re not talking about you in Rwanda, you’re irrelevant.” []
  14. Notions that find little resonance among those of the A4 mindset. []
  15. It is not represented as panic but, in the best traditions of corporate managerial spin, it is represented as “we know what is going on, we are prepared; we have it under control. []
  16. It looks like distance education but on a huge scale []
  17. The image of little boys having a competition to see who could pee higher up a wall comes to mind. []
  18. For the A4’s, freelance academic with attitude. []
  19. There are a number of institutions that have these attributes: we can’t afford more staff, we need more managers! []
  20. Apologies to Yes Minister for the blatant steal. []
 Posted by at 11:22 am
Nov 222012

I am curious about the various Facebook-like bits of software loosely called “social”1 but which, Facebook-like, they gather folk and try and support connections2 and sharing, all the while trying to make a $. It was on one such site that I responded to a query by Cathy Brown3 on a LinkedIn forum, Technology in Education. Her question was WHAT are we educating our students for? WHAT is the purpose of Education?

Skipping the many decades of scholarship that have chewed on this thorny question, there was, nevertheless, some interesting conversation that followed. I thought that while in the see all, know all mode I’d share the little scribble here and add in elaborations that I was unable to on LinkedIn.

The reason this species has come to dominate the planet is that we are learning machines. Very efficient ones. Social neuroscience folk suggest the brain gets bombarded with ~11 million bits of info per second4. The conscious mind deals with a very tiny fraction of that. A lot of stuff is on auto pilot, aka the unconscious. I think it is important to acknowledge we have brains that have not been under selection pressure for somewhere between 2.5 to 0.5 million years – depending upon which source you like. We’ve done good though. All this cool stuff. Having wee discussions on sites like this :).

Education, like a lot of organisations has a vested interest in keeping alive the problems for which it was invented (this is a Shirky argument5 ). Cathy is right. I’d burn the lot of it. Way too much snake oil, silliness and faddism that gets in the way. Bottom line is how do oldies with all their weird baggage help little folk cope with a world the we oldies have stupidly allowed to happen? (Pick any set of dumb things we have done or allowed to happen – you get the drift).

Also throw out words like education, teaching, learning, words that gloss what is going on. Tough I know but we did OK without them for a very long time as humans. We did tell stories though. We are good at stories. We didn’t use a Powerpoint to communicate where the herd of food on legs was or where the herd that saw us as food on legs was. We told stories.

There is so much invested in the formal practices we call education that trying to fix it is just a waste of time. I have the utmost respect for the heroes in the trenches aka teachers who do their best every day under ridiculous conditions to help little people. Education, like a lot of bureaucracies is about survival of education the institution. The kids are an excuse to keep doing it. Education is amazingly good at doing the same thing over and over, keeping practices that were invented a very long time ago alive. What is forgotten is that the practices actually had a good reason way back. No one ever asks does it make sense to do it now6.

For me the interesting bits are at the edges, it’s where interesting stuff happens7. Mitra, Khan … lots of interesting stuff that illustrates how dumb the formal system really is.

So a couple of things I think are worth mulling if we are to rethink how oldies ought to help youngies begin to make their way in the world.

1. Support and encourage curiosity and skepticism. We are born with a huge capacity to take in all kinds of stuff to make sense of things. Why do have have organisations that are brilliant at killing that? We are less good at being skeptical, particularly about our own skills/talents/value. As Mlodinow argues8: the mind is a pretty good scientist (curiosity) but a brilliant lawyer (good at creatively filling in missing bits to “help” make sense of things to “our” advantage).

2. Maybe point out that there are lots of different sand pits9 in the world in which bunches of folk come together curious about something, trying to make sense of it, make a buck out of it or whatever. All kinds of labels for them – let’s call them groups without implying any essential attributes other than some shared interest in something. Sometimes sand pits have little wars10 . And, it is OK to play in more than one sand pit even if the big people in a sand pit might try and discourage you.

3. Four important sand pits or collections of sand pits are what Kevin Kelly calls the GRIN technologies11 . (Geno, Robo, Info, Nano). These are buggers of things – improving exponentially12, feeding off one another etc. etc., giving us new versions of hardware and other junk every few months but equally opening up new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking about this funny little species called homo sapiens13.

4. Develop a sensibility about elephants in the room. For me, the bloody machines are a huge elephant, i.e. computers of various kinds, soft hard and in between that increasingly do the work humans do. The key issue here is twofold: be wary of helping youngies do stuff that machines either are good at now or soon will be; think very carefully when we delegate work to a machine. We don’t now. We are really bad at it. IMHO the future of the species depends on us getting much better at it. The history of technology has much to offer here.



  1. I prefer to limit as much as possible lazy attributions like this []
  2. another tricky word []
  3. She runs Virtual Teacher. []
  4. According to a textbook on human physiology, the human sensory system sends the brain about eleven million bits of information each second. However, anyone who who has ever taken care of a few children who are all trying to talk to you at once can testify that your conscious mind cannot process anywhere near that amount. The actual amount of information we can handle has ben estimated to be somewhere between sixteen and fifty bits per second. – Mlodinow, L. (2012). Subliminal : the revolution of the new unconscious and what it teaches us about ourselves (1st ed.). London: Allen Lane, p. 33 []
  5. Pink: You say something else about organizations that I found especially compelling—about their instinct for self-perpetuation.

    Shirky: Well, organizations that are founded to solve problems end up committed to the preservation of the problems. So Trentway-Wagar, an Ontario-based bus company, sues PickupPal, an online ride-sharing service, because T-W isn’t committed to solving transportation problems. It’s committed to solving transportation problems with buses. In the media world, Britannica is now committed to making reference works that can’t easily be referred to, and the music industry is now distributing music that can’t easily be shared because new ways of distributing music undermine the old business model.-Shirky, C., & Pink, D. (2010). Cognitive Surplus: The Great Spare-Time Revolution. Wired (June), np. []

  6. For a good chuckle have a read of: Peddiwell, J. A. (1939). The Saber-Tooth Curriculum. New York: McGraw-Hill. []
  7. Johnson, S. (2010). Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation. London, England: Allen Lane. []
  8. As it turns out the brain is a decent scientist but an absolutely outstanding lawyer. -Mlodinow, Leonard (2012). Subliminal : the revolution of the new unconscious and what it teaches us about ourselves (1st ed.). London: Allen Lane, p. 201. []
  9. multiplying by the minute with the Net- from crochet to particle physics []
  10. My economic ideas are better than yours. []
  11. Kelly, K. (2010). What Technology Wants. New York: Penguin. []
  12. Do folk really get what that means? []
  13. For me – just apes with language and social skills []
 Posted by at 11:43 am
Aug 122012

In recent times, an issue that has come to occupy the interests of some academics and some of the senior leadership/management of universities in Australia1 is the emergence of new forms of doing Higher Education (HE) and, doing education more generally. These new forms are at the edges of the HE environment2.  The appearance of a growing number of experiments in HE is one indication that things are shifting. Beneath these developments are technologies that continue to improve exponentially. Taken together, this makes for a new ecology for learning and teaching. In what we might call a digital educational tundra, the mega fauna that will come to dominate are unlikely to be universities as we know them.

Predicting things is always a risky move. Our experience, particularly when new technologies appear, has been to get things spectacularly wrong. As McLuhan so eloquently put it:

The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.

The rise of MOOCs and other related forms of doing HE has prompted a broad range of responses in universities. Almost invariably, the new is read in terms of what has existed for hundreds of years. Contemporary adjectives3 are routinely added to give the impression that the organisation has all of this new fangled stuff under control and can leverage it to advantage. Having lived through thirty years of technological change in education that has delivered such mind-numbingly conservative resources as the learning management system (LMS), it is easy to understand the complacency of many about recent developments.

If however, as some imagine, the development of MOOCs is a harbinger of the kind of disruption that mobile telephony brought to the telephone industry4, the mindsets of those who lead/manage universities are ill-prepared to see these developments in anything other than corporate university terms. The framings and logics generated by the traditions and practices of the modern university5 and, more recently, embellished by the adoption of practices from management science6 makes university responses predictable and reactive.

Credentialing may appear to be one of the elements of HE that could survive a rearrangement of the HE environment. But here also we can see more rear-view mirror thinking. Recognition of prior learning is suggested as part of a way to come to terms with the completion certificates being issued by some MOOCs. This positions the new as something to be adapted to and accommodated. Rather than tweaking the existing system, thought might be given to examining both the origins and current use of these things called qualifications. Attention might also be given to emerging practices in hiring. Relying on bodies like the AQF to somehow provide protection from what might develop would be naive. I am reminded here of the example James Boyle gave in his keynote address to the Beyond Broadcast conference in 2006. Boyle made the point that we allow those who have the current business models to rule whether or not a new business model is legal. As an illustration, he imagined asking the whale oil companies if the new technology for lighting, electricity, was legal.

Q: So is this electric light stuff legal?

A: No, no, no, no, no.

Disruption to qualifications is, I believe, a scenario that HE institutions need to rehearse. Of course none of this will happen overnight, but just as academic publishing moved from demonstrations in front of reliable witnesses7 to the now familiar peer-review process of publishing, so it is not outside the realms of possibility that new ways of credentialing and acknowledging learning will emerge to challenge the status quo. Denial is neither a robust nor sensible response.

Working towards mindsets that differ sufficiently from those that operate so successfully in the contemporary HE environment is not easy. Establishing a facility that could literally be allowed to think outside the box, uninfluenced by the bureaucratic controls of the parent company is a problem that is familiar to many businesses. A solution to this problem was developed during World War II by the aircraft manufacturer Lockheed. The name of that original project, skunkworks, has become a label for similar projects since.

The important point in all of this is that the technologies that support developments like MOOCs are improving, as I suggested above, exponentially. Exponential change is not something we are particularly good at thinking about. The improvements are accelerating, not improving at constant speed! We don’t need to predict what will or won’t happen. We can be sure that the reactive approach which currently characterises HE thinking in Australia simply won’t suffice. It’s horseless carriage thinking. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When all you have is a LMS …

  1. I am more familiar with the machinations of institutions in Australia than those in other parts of the world. []
  2. Some of these experiments would not be recognised as part of the HE environment by some. []
  3. The terms virtual, online and now, cloud come to mind. []
  4. The work of Clayton Christensen and his colleagues and the notion of disruptive and sustaining innovations is important here. []
  5. William Clark’s Academic charisma and the origins of the research university, offers a rich and detailed account of many of these. []
  6. The oxymoronic nature of this term is lost on those who oversee the over management of universities in Australia. []
  7. See, for example, Shapin, S., & Schaffer, S. (2011). Leviathan and the air-pump : Hobbes, Boyle, and the experimental life. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. []
 Posted by at 3:43 pm
Aug 082012

Surfing and in my case, body surfing, brings to mind a number of memories and experiences. There is something about catching a wave with a perfect left or right break that picks you up and propels you ahead of the white water behind. These moments have been all too rare for me, given the vagaries of the ocean, the winds, tides coupled with the opportunities to get to the water when there is an off-shore breeze and a good swell running. I have chosen this as a metaphor to mull, scribble about and hopefully draw attention to what I have called the educational imaginative.

Education, to me, is a broad label that not only refers to what goes on in institutions whose business it is to offer formal classes, like schools and universities, but it includes the panoply of activity in which individuals alone, in groups and organisations undertake learning something. There is much to be said here and hopefully I’ll get around to some of it on this little blog.

I take as a beginning point the educational unimaginative and sadly most of the formal education that takes place can be thus categorised. This is usually despite the heroic efforts of teachers to inject something different into systems that have not changed for hundreds of years. Most systems are overseen and controlled by managers, some of whom are ex-teachers. Imagining that such a system can be easily changed is, as a good friend pointed out to me, akin to expecting useful advice from bank tellers about the introduction of ATMs in the 1970’s. I don’t want to dwell on the difficulties of doing anything imaginative in these settings. Suffice it to say that there is interesting and imaginative stuff going on is to the credit of hard working teachers and despite the systems in which they work1

So what interests me is the stuff that is happening at the edges so to speak. Edges can be fecund places, as Steven Johnson2 reminds us. What are edges and what are not, may often be a matter of perception. I find the term useful and appropriately descriptive for the kinds of educational activities that I want to write about in this blog.

Exponentials can be tricky things to understand. To take a simple example, a quantity that doubles every year will be twice the original value in a year, four times in two years, eight times in three years and so on. The reason this mathematical property is important is due to the observation that a good deal of computing and related technologies appear to follow exponential trends. The best known of these observations is called Moore’s law. It derives from the observation that computer “power”3 roughly doubles every eighteen months and roughly halves in price. It is not only with computing and related technologies that we see such improvements as Kevin Kelly4, Mark Stevenson5 among others observe. Kelly writes about the GRIN technologies (G for Geno, R for Robo, I for Info and N for Nano). While there is always a lot of hep about developments in these fields, the improvement in their base technologies continues exponentially.

To take an illustration from Ray Kurzweil6, he estimates that based on calculations per second as a measure that around the year 2023 we will be able to purchase a $1000 computer which has the computational equivalent of the human brain and by the year 2059, a $1000 computer with the computational equivalence of the entire human race. Kurzweil’s paper from which those estimates are taken offers a well argued elaboration of exponentials and some of the implications of living in an era of accelerating change.

What’s all this got to do with education? To return to my surfing metaphor, these rapidly developing technologies are akin to the influences that produce waves of various size and quality. To me, education will increasingly have to learn how to surf these waves as they pop up unexpectedly. Some will offer that delicious ride to the shore, others will be monsters you need to dive beneath to escape being trapped in the washing machine conditions that ensue when it breaks, yet others will just bounce you about with little prospect of movement or pleasure.

So the question for me is, do we teach folk to surf, to deal with the conditions that appear to change more and more rapidly or just leave them to paddle in the shallows watching others make magic on the water, surfing the educational imaginative?






  1. I scribbled a longer rant about these matters as they pertain to Australian schooling some time back. []
  2. Of Where Good Ideas Come From fame. []
  3. I use the term loosely but you notice it when you replace a machine that is three or four year old with a current one. The improvement in processor speed is typically of the order describe by Moore’s law. []
  4. Kelly, K. (2010). What Technology Wants. New York: Penguin. []
  5. Stevenson, M. (2011). An Optimists Tour of the Future. London: Profile Books. []
  6. Kurzweil, R. (2001). The law of accelerating returns. Retrieved from []
 Posted by at 5:08 pm