Tag Archives: philosophy

Backpacks, badges and epistemology: an interesting conversation that leads to happily ever after

Grant (2014) asks in the title to her book about digital badges, “What Counts as Learning?” This succinctly expresses the question of higher education and explains the continuing interest in badges, and in learning technologies in general. The fact this is less explored, gives me an opportunity to explore both learning technology and epistemology.

I have developed a new MA Education course module, “Philosophy and policy of higher education”. In this 20 credit level 7 module the question: “What counts as learning?” will be explored. That is the seductive game higher education plays: a chance at determining or being among the determiners of meaning – what counts as learning – for a generation or so. To extend the “play” metaphor to a stage on which higher education acts, higher education as an institution and its practitioners as individuals seek to occupy the limen, the space on the edge between consensual suspension of belief in order to “live the dream”, and the world as it is, explained. More critically for those in the game it poses the question about one’s own underpinnings, one own “will to power”, or academic identity or even life.

Badges are something like brand propositions and to some extent depend on other similar propositions. Like many brand propositions their link to truth is explicitly unattested. The badge can only serve as a conversation starter. Like travel badges on a backpack seen on an overnight Eurail while sleeping in the vestibule: “So when did you go to Sweden?” Most universities have a t-shirt and sports kit with a name and often a crest or logo. Some might serve the question: “Were you at Malmo?” To which an answer might be “No, it is a good hoodie.” But could also be, “Yes, for ice-hockey in 2009.”

Possibly the internet will work like the cold vestibule of a Eurail under an ex army coat, and when we see badges on a site we may start that interesting conversation that leads to happily ever after: life, love, career, changing the world? Or same as it ever was. That conversation about changing the world? Because as it is now, the foundations of meaning sometimes appear both unsound and cruel, not just one or the other.


Grant, Sheryl. 2014. What Counts as Learning: Open Badges for New Opportunities. Kindle. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. http://dmlhub.net/publications/what-counts-learning/.

Usurpation of the University?

Transcendence – transgression – is the modality of human being in the world… The urge to transcend is the most stubbornly present … attribute of human existence (Bauman 2002, 222-23).

Last August I discussed a symposium to be held at the Australian Philosophy of Education Society with David Aldridge. That never happened but this note is what I was thinking of at the time.

Is transcendence as transgression a usurpation? We expect it is and is and is to be celebrated.

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The “enhancement debate” and TEL

Beginning a critical exploration of “enhancement”.

The “enhancement debate” clearly (to me) must be addressed within the scope of technology enhanced learning (TEL) debates. TEL is largely seen as an instrumental means of making the individual person (human being) more effective and efficient in the information economy, maybe more compliant to employability and managerial norms as well as possibly resistant to collectivist and democratic or redistributive urges. TEL discussions often focus on the capacity of the technology to enhance, and the person to be enhanced largely through an individual’s own capacity to use or even master learning technology. The person is often understood as a decontextualised individual, with inadequacies to be remediated or skill levels to be increased largely through their own efforts, assisted by appropriate training and development programmes largely focused on using tools.

However set against this fairly common conception of the person and their relations to learning technology are various streams of more critical engagement (as set out by Van Den Eede 2015) from the transhumanism of Bostrom to the democratic humanism of Feenberg. Bostrom (2009) provides a definition of enhancement:

An intervention that improves the functioning of some subsystem of an organism beyond its reference state; or that creates an entirely new functioning or subsystem that the organism previously lacked. (89)

… which if the capacity to use certain tools or technologies is a “subsystem” and a human being is “an organism” and a “reference state” is a certain level of competence, then, I suggest this encapsulates “enhancement” sufficiently to both include TEL and to be included in discussions of TEL However, considering the individual “organism” or person as the object of the enhancement is only part of the landscape. Seeing TEL as an individual concern and an individual remedial (enhancement) challenge is simplistic and potentially problematic both for the individual and for groups (institutions, communities, etc).. As Feenberg (2009) suggests

… community is the primary scene of human communication and personal development. It is in this context that people judge the world around them and discuss their judgments with others. Any technology that offers new possibilities for the formation of community is thus democratically significant. (81)

Van Den Eede (2015) suggests that:

we must learn to see ourselves as hybrid blends of flesh, mind, materials, machines, information, values, institutions, relations, and processes. (152)


Bostrom, Nick. 2009. ‘Dignity and Enhancement’. Contemporary Readings in Law & Social Justice 1 (2): 84–115.


Feenberg, Andrew. 2009. ‘Critical Theory of Communication Technology: Introduction to the Special Section.’ Information Society 25 (2): 77–83.


Van Den Eede, Yoni. 2015. ‘Where Is the Human? Beyond the Enhancement Debate.’ Science, Technology & Human Values 40 (1): 149–62.


Usurpation: the condition of the university?

Usurpation might better be seen as the condition of the university than as a problem for any particular aspect of that complex phenomenon: higher education today.

Taking Subramaniam, Perrucci, & Whitlock’s (2014) theoretical framework of social and intellectual closure we might see usurpation as – in parts and in places – an ameliorating response to both micro and macro-political movements that lead to closure. I suggest that we might take this further into a space which can only be opened and kept open (rejecting closure) by the usurper who by choice lays him/her self open to being ursurped and indeed facilitates the process of ongoing transformation, which is the driving energy of the academy.

In making this argument I draw on Popper’s (1996) positivism, Kuhn’s (1962) understanding of development in disciplines and Bhabha’s (2004) third space theory.

The pattern of usurpation described by Subramaniam, Perrucci, & Whitlock’s (2014) applies to any attempt to enter a power structure –  a university is a power structure – by agents desiring that power, whether to address wrongs done to them by that power structure and its relatives, or simply to seize more of whatever is going. When the usurpation is successful the usurper assumes the mantle of the power structure and then defends it against subsequent usurpation.

So we see entryism into disciplines of minoritarian or post-colonial themes: Women’s Studies, for example. We see traditional promotion routes to professorship usurped by teaching pathways (an interesting one Subramian et al spotted, which casts me as usurper!). We see the student experience usurping scholarship.

But as Kuhn should remind us: this is the way it works! The English curriculum which is so exercised by usurpation by Media Studies, itself was an entryist program usurping the Classics. And as Popper should remind us, this is to be celebrated. The problem is not usurpation but closure, which might be seen as resistance to being usurped.


  • Bhabha, H. (2004). The Location of Culture. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Popper, K. (1996). The Myth of the Framework: In defence of Science and Rationality. London: Routledge.
  • Subramaniam, M., Perrucci, R., & Whitlock, D. (2014). Intellectual Closure: A Theoretical Framework Linking Knowledge, Power, and the Corporate University. Critical Sociology (Sage Publications, Ltd.), 40(3), 411–430.