Tag Archives: Women in Tech

Knowledge Activism: Representing the History of HIV and AIDS activism on Wikipedia⤴


This is a transcript of a talk I gave for the University of Liverpool School of the Arts “Making a difference in the real world” series. 

My name is Lorna Campbell, I’m a learning technology service manager at the University of Edinburgh and I’m also a Trustee of Wikimedia UK, and today I’m going to be talking about Wikipedia as a site of knowledge activism, the representation of queer and marginalised histories on the encyclopedia, and particularly the history of HIV and AIDS activism.  And I’ll also be introducing some of the people who have inspired me on my own journey to becoming a knowledge activist.Slides are available here: Knowledge Activism

First of all I’d like to start with a few acknowledgements.  I know acknowledgements usually come at the end, but as I’m going to be talking about the work of colleagues whose knowledge activism has been deeply inspirational to me, I want to speak their names up front.  So I’d like to thank

  • Áine Kavanagh, Reproductive BioMedicine graduate, University of Edinburgh.
  • Prof Allison Littlejohn, Director, UCL Knowledge Lab & Dr Nina Hood, University of Aukland.
  • Ewan McAndrew, Wikimedian in Residence, University of Edinburgh.
  • Tara Robertson, Tara Robertson Consulting.
  • Tomas Sanders, History graduate, University of Edinburgh.
  • Sara Thomas, Scotland Projects Coordinator, Wikimedia UK.

Wikimedia UK is the UK chapter of the Wikimedia Foundation, the international not-for-profit organisation that supports the Wikimedia projects, of which Wikipedia is the best known.  Wikimedia’s vision is to imagine a world in which every human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.  This is not just a statement it’s a promise of inclusivity.

Wikipedia itself needs little introduction, the free encyclopaedia is the fifth most visited site on the internet, with over 6 billion monthly visitors.  English Wikipedia alone has over 6 million articles and there are an estimated 52 million articles in 309 languages supported by the site as a whole. 

Wikipedia is not just a repository of knowledge in its own right, it’s also a source of information for others services such as Google, whose 92 billion visits per month dwarfs Wikipedia’s paltry 6 billion. Amazon Alexa also draws much of its information from Wikipedia. Whenever you ask Alexa a question, there’s a good chance that the answer will come from Wikipedia.

In the global knowledge economy, knowledge is power, and Wikipedia is the largest repository of free, open and transparent information in the world.  Consequently, it’s perhaps no surprise that Wikipedia is censored to various degrees by numerous countries and regimes throughout the world, and outright banned by several including Myanmar, China, and Turkey. 

Having access to a platform where we can all access reliable, high quality information for free has never been more important in this age of disinformation, fake news, and government sanctioned culture wars.  How information is created and consumed matters like never before, and understanding how knowledge is created on Wikipedia can help people to understand how they consume and reproduce information.

This is one of the reasons why we believe that Wikipedia is such a powerful tool for developing critical digital and information literacy skills. At the University of Edinburgh, we believe that contributing to the global pool of Open Knowledge through Wikimedia is squarely in line with our institutional mission to share knowledge and make the world a better place, and that Wikipedia is a valuable learning tool to develop a wide range of digital and information literacy skills at all levels across the curriculum.  So the first person I want to introduce you to is Ewan McAndrew, the University of Edinburgh’s Wikimedian in Residence, who works to embed open knowledge in the curriculum, through skills training sessions, editathons, Wikipedia in the classroom initiatives and Wikidata projects, in order to increase the quantity and quality of open knowledge and enhance digital literacy.  Creating Wikipedia entries enables students to demonstrate the relevance of their field of study and share their scholarship in a real-world contexts, while contributing to the global pool of open knowledge.  Engaging with the Wikimedia projects also encourages both staff and students to become knowledge activists; not just passive consumers of information but active creators of knowledge.

For example, this article about high-grade serous carcinoma, one of the most common and deadly forms of ovarian cancer, was created by Reproductive Biomedicine student Áine Kavanagh as part of a Wikipedia assignment in 2016.  This article, including over sixty references and open-licensed diagrams created by Áine herself, has now been viewed over 120,000 times since it was published 5 years ago. It’s hard to imagine many other undergraduate student assignments having this kind of impact. Not only has Áine contributed valuable health information to the global knowledge commons, she has also created a resource that other students and global health experts can add to and improve over time. Creating resources that will live on on the open web, and that make a real contribution to global open knowledge, has proved to be a powerful motivator for the students taking part in these assignments. I’m not going to be talking primarily about Wikimedia in education today, but if you’re interested in finding out more, our Wikimedian in Residence and Wikimedia UK have recently published this book of case studies which you can download: Wikimedia in Education.

I want you to hold onto this concept of knowledge activism though. Just because Wikipedia is a free and open resource that anyone can contribute to, doesn’t mean that everyone does.  Wikimedia’s problems with gender imbalance, structural inequalities and systemic bias are well known and much discussed. On English language Wikipedia just over 18% of biographical articles are about women, and the number of female editors is somewhere around 16%. Some language Wikipedias, such as the Welsh Wicipedia, fare better, others are much worse.

 In order to warrant a Wikipedia entry, subjects must be notable and the encyclopedia has extensive policies and guidelines that are used to assess notability, with some domains, such as academia having additional supplementary requirements.  A topic, subject or individual is presumed to be suitable for a stand-alone article only when they have received significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject.  As proof of notability, articles need to be supported by reliable secondary sources.  Without sufficient citations, articles run the risk of being flagged for deletion by Wikipedia’s volunteer administrators.  The problem of course is that the bench marks for notability are invariably based on the lives and careers of cis white Western men.  This problem is compounded by the fact that it’s much harder find good quality reliable sources for marginalised groups who are frequently omitted and elided from the historical and the published record.  And this is not just a historical problem. Women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ individuals are still written about less often and cited less frequently.  And the danger here is that we end up with a feedback loop where things that are more visible on Wikipedia, become more discoverable in google, and are written about more in the press, and therefore become more visible to the public, and are written about more on Wikipedia, because you now have more secondary sources.  The danger is that the visible become more visible and the invisible risk disappearing altogether.

So the next person I want to introduce you to is Professor Elizabeth Slater, and I hope some of you have heard of her as she was the first female professor to be appointed to the Garstang Chair of Archaeology here at the University of Liverpool, and you have a research laboratory named after her that was opened in 2015.  Professor Slater didn’t have a Wikipedia entry until I wrote one for her in 2017 as part of Ada Lovelace Day, the annual event celebrating Women in STEM.  And the reason I chose to write about Liz is that I studied with Liz as an under graduate Archaeology student at the University of Glasgow.  I thought Liz deserved an entry because she was one of the few women working in a very male dominated field and I’m pretty sure she was the only female professor of Archaeology in the UK in the early 1990s.  

Although the entry I wrote about Professor Slater was approved by an Admin, a process all new pages go through, I was a bit miffed that a paragraph I had included listing various committees Liz had sat on was removed by the Admin because “we don’t usually include routine academic service (committee memberships etc.) in biographies”.  Of course the point is that participation on high level committees is not necessarily “routine academic service” for many female academics, whose contributions to their field of study are frequently overlooked.  For example, Liz was the only female academic on the 2001 RAE panel for Archaeology. 

Another example of an academic who fell foul of Wikipedia’s notability criteria was Dr Donna Strickland. Dr Strickland, an optical physicist at the University of Waterloo, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2018, and there was something of an outcry when it was revealed that she did not have a Wikiepdia entry until her Nobel laureate was announced.  To make matters worse, the reason that Dr Strickland didn’t have an article wasn’t that no one had bothered to write one.  The reason she had no article was that a new editor had written a draft article but an administrator had decided that it didn’t meet the notability criteria as the references did not show sufficient coverage.  The conclusion that many people drew was that Dr Strickland had to win the Nobel Prize in order to be considered notable enough to warrant a Wikipedia entry.  That wasn’t entirely true, it’s likely that if the original editor had added more citations to the article, it would have fulfilled the notability criteria.  They didn’t though, in fact the editor only made two edits before disappearing from the encyclopaedia all together.  And this highlights another problem, new editors can easily be discouraged if their first articles are flagged with requests for deletion.

This incident caused much debate and soul searching within the Wikimedia community.  The Foundation’s CEO Catherine Maher posted a twitter thread that acknowledged Wikipedia’s systemic biases and structural inequalities, but at the same time commented:

“Curators, academics, grantmakers, prize-awarding committees, and all other gatekeepers — you too are responsible. When you do not recognize, write about, publish, or otherwise elevate women, queer folks, people of color, and others, you erase them and their contributions.”

As it stands, Wikimedia reflects the worlds biases and structural inequalities, and it needs all of us to work to redress these imbalances.

Despite Wikipedia’s gender imbalance being an acknowledged problem, that projects such as Wiki Women In Red, which aims to create and expand Wikipedia biographies about women, have sought to address, too often those who attempt to challenge these structural inequalities and rectify the systemic bias, are the subject of targeted hostility and harassment.

The Wikimedia Foundation are well aware of these issues and has been undertaking a Movement Strategy exercise to shape the strategic direction of the movement to 2030.  Enshrined in this Movement Strategy, are the key concepts of Knowledge as a Service and Knowledge Equity.

Knowledge as a service, is the idea that Wikimedia will become a platform that serves open knowledge to the world across interfaces and communities.

And knowledge equity, is the commitment to focus on knowledge and communities that have been left out by structures of power and privilege, and to break down the social, political, and technical barriers preventing people from accessing and contributing to free knowledge.

The Movement Strategy includes ten recommendations which acknowledge that Wikimedia communities are not yet representative of the diversity of the world. They neither reflect the diversity of people working with knowledge, nor the diversity of knowledge to be shared. Among the common causes for the gender gap, and other gaps in diversity of content and contributors, is the lack of a safe and inclusive environment. This limits the work of existing communities and is a barrier for new people to join, including women, LGBTQ+ people, indigenous communities, and other underrepresented groups. In addition to the Movement Strategy Wikimedia also recently launched a new Universal Code of Conduct, which is intended to make Wikimedia projects more welcoming to new users, especially underrepresented groups who have too often faced harassment and discrimination.   It’s too early yet to know how much impact this Code of Conduct will have but it’s certainly a much-needed step in the right direction.

In a 2018 article titled “The Dangers of Being Open” Amira Dhalla, who at the time led Mozilla’s Women and Web Literacy programs, wrote:

“What happens when only certain people are able to contribute to open projects and what happens when only certain people are able to access open resources? This means that the movement is not actually open to everyone and only obtainable by those who can practice and access it.

Open is great. Open can be the future. If, and only when, we prioritize structuring it as a movement where anyone can participate and protecting those who do.”

This lack of equity in the open knowledge domain is significant, because if knowledge is to be truly open, then it must be open to all regardless of race, gender, or ability, because openness isn’t just about strategies and services, openness is about creativity, access, equity, and social inclusion and enabling us all to become fully engaged radical digital citizens.

Radical Digital Citizenship, as defined by Akwugo Emejulu and Callum McGregor, moves beyond the concept of digital literacy as simply acquiring skills to navigate the digital world, to a re-politicised digital citizenship in which social relations with technology are made visible, and emancipatory technological practices for social justice are developed to advance the common good.

Talking of radical digital citizenship, is anyone familiar with Dr Mary McIntosh?

Mary Susan McIntosh, or Mac as she was known, was a sociologist, feminist, political activist and campaigner for lesbian and gay rights in the UK.  McIntosh’s earliest research was in the field of criminology and the sociology of homosexuality and she was a member of the Criminal Law Revision Committee that lowered the age of male homosexual consent from 21 to 18. McIntosh was also among a small group of lesbians who contributed to the founding of the London Gay Liberation Front and she co-authored their Manifesto in 1971. Along with a group of feminist colleagues, McIntosh founded the journal Feminist Review in 1979 and she was also an active member of Feminists Against Censorship, a group of sex positive feminists, who argued against censorship and radical separatist feminist critiques of pornography, and who defended sexual expression and the right to produce sexually explicit material.

Despite McIntosh’s important contribution to gay rights here in the UK, she didn’t have a Wikipedia entry until I chose her name at random from a list of articles to be created as part of an International Women’s Day editathon in 2017. I have to confess I had never heard of McIntosh before writing her Wikipedia entry and I was shocked that such an important activist and foundational thinker had been omitted from the encyclopedia. Sadly, this was hardly surprising, as queer history is not well represented on Wikipedia.   What really struck me about McIntosh though, was that her omission meant that an important contribution she made to the field of sociology was also overlooked.

In 1968 McIntosh published a paper called “The Homosexual Role”.  Based on a survey of gay men in Leicester and London, this paper argued that rather than being a psychiatric or clinical pathology, homosexuality and same sex relationships were influenced by historical and cultural factors, and that “homosexual” is a social category coercively imposed on some individuals for the purpose of social control. This paper has been described as being crucial in the shaping the theory of social constructionism, a theory later developed by, and widely attributed to, Michel Foucault.  However McIntosh’s formative contribution to this field has been widely overlooked.  Although I created the biographical article for McIntosh, I haven’t really got sufficient understanding to edit the article on social constructionism to include her contribution to the field, so I’m hoping that someone who knows more about social constructionism than I do will pick this up.  Also if you’d like to know more about Mac, the British Library has some fabulous oral history interviews with her that were recorded before her death in 2013 at the ripe old age of 76.

In order to address the omission of queer histories, lives, and experiences, Wikipedia has an LGBT+ User Group that aims to encourage LGBT+ cultural organizations to adopt the values of free culture and use Wikimedia projects as tools for strengthening queer communities, and to increase the overall quantity and quality of this LGBT+ content in all languages.  The user group supports a range of activities including Wiki Loves Pride, and Wikipedia for Peace which, among other things, runs editathons to coincide with the Europride festivals.  In 2019, I was able to attend the Wikipedia for Peace editathon at Europride Vienna as part of a group twelve editors from all over the world who created and translated 113 new articles on LBGT+ topics in a range of European languages and uploaded hundreds of photographs of the Europride parade on Wikimedia Commons, making a significant contribution to improving equality, diversity and queer representation on Wikipedia.

It was while taking part in the Europride editathon that I noticed that the history of HIV and AIDS activism in Scotland was completely absent from the encyclopaedia.  Scottish AIDS Monitor and PHACE West, two prominent AIDS awareness organisations, had no articles at all, and although an article already existed for Derek Ogg, the founder of Scottish AIDS monitor, it only touched on his legal career and made no mention of his important AIDS activism.  This omission was all the more glaring in light of the belated public conversation about the impact of the AIDS pandemic sparked by Russell T Davis’ tv series It’s a Sin, which was broadcast earlier this year. So when the University’s Disabled Staff Network and Staff Pride Network decided to run an editathon for LGBT History Month in February this year, I suggested HIV and AIDS activism in Scotland as a topic.  The Network were keen to address this omission, and HIV Scotland also came on board to support the event, and I’m pleased to say that six new articles were created and several others improved, making a significant contribution to representing the history of HIV and AIDS activism in Scotland on Wikipedia.  I finally got to create an article for Scottish AIDS Monitor, and along with one of the other participants we were able to add images of some of the SAM ephemera we had lying around. But of course there is still a huge amount of work to be done, even in the coverage of prominent AIDS / HIV topics.  For example although an article exists for Gran Fury, the New York activist and artist collective, only 3 of the original 11 members have their own articles and there are numerous other activists, organisations, films, plays and artworks that are still missing.

Shortly after the HIV Scotland editathon, I also created a Wikipedia article for Jill Nalder.  And Jill is the next person I want to introduce you to. Jill Nalder is an actress, activist, and friend of Russell T Davis, who inspired the central character of Jill Baxter in It’s A Sin, and who played the fictional Jill’s mother in the tv series. Nalder became involved in HIV/AIDS activism while living in London in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis. With other members of the West End theatre community, Nalder organised fundraising campaigns, including cabaret shows and performances, to raise money to support AIDS awareness and research.  She also supported HIV positive gay men and made numerous visits to AIDS patients in hospitals around London, something we see the fictional Jill doing in the series.

Now I know that there has been some criticism of It’s A Sin for stereotyping women as carers, and for centering the experiences of cis woman rather than gay men, and while there’s a discussion to be had there, I do think it’s important to acknowledge the many women who played an important role in awareness raising, fund raising, befriending and yes, caring for, people living with AIDS from the earliest years of the pandemic.   If we don’t remember the contribution of these women, and also the experiences of women who contracted AIDS at a time when they were told it was impossible, it’s easy to assume that they simply did not exist.  

I witnessed a stark example of this, just a few weeks after our HIV Scotland editathon, when the Staff Pride Network ran an event on International Women’s Day 2021 on the role of women in AIDS and LGBTQ+ Activism. The event brought together speakers, several of whom were HIV positive, to share their experiences of the earliest days of the AIDS pandemic. While listening in to the event I tweeted one of the participant’s criticism of the absence of HIV+ women in Its A Sin, which immediately prompted this response: 

In the period this is set it was clearly pointed out to Jill that it was of little or no concern to women. So while the theoretical risk was there in the case of injecting users and factor 8 recipients there simply were no HIV+ women – why rewrite history?

And yet there I was listening to two women who had contracted HIV at the very time the series was set, so I guess it depends on whose history you’re trying to write.  

This is just one of the reasons why it’s so important to include and represent the experiences of marginalised individuals, particularly women, people of colour and trans people, who are so often elided from the historical record. If we record their lives and stories, it makes it that little bit harder to deny their existence.

Although I am a lifelong advocate for open knowledge that is diverse, equitable and inclusive, it’s important to acknowledge that openness is not always in the best interests of those who are marginalised and who have experienced multiple intersecting forms of discrimination.

The next person I want to introduce you to is Tara Robertson, an intersectional feminist who uses data and research to advocate for equality and inclusion.  Tara has worked for many years in open source technology communities, including as Diversity and Inclusion lead at Mozilla, and her work on trans inclusion has been featured in Forbes.  I was introduced to Tara’s work at a conference a couple of week’s ago and I want to share it with you now, with her kind permission. In a 2016 keynote titled “Not all information wants to be free” Tara highlighted examples of when it is not appropriate or ethical for information to be open to all.   One example was the digitisation of the lesbian porn magazine On Our Backs, which had been digitised and released under Creative Commons licence by Reveal Digital, an organisation that aims to “bring together fragmented documentary material from under-represented 20th century voices of dissent.”   Although initially excited by the digitisation of On Our Backs, Tara became worried about friends who had appeared in the magazine before the internet even existed. Consenting to a porn shoot that would appear in a queer indie print magazine is a very different thing to consenting to having your image shared online under open licence. Tara undertook extensive research visiting archives, reviewing contracts and copyright legislation and interviewing women who modelled for the magazine.  She was concerned that open licence enables feminist porn to be remixed in ways that could appropriate the content and actually demean these women who had never consented to their image being used in this way.  One woman Tara interviewed commented

“When I heard all the issues of the magazine are being digitized, my heart sank. I meant this work to be for my community and now I am being objectified in a way that I have no control over. People can cut up my body and make it a collage. My professional and public life can be high jacked. These are uses I never intended and I still don’t want.”

As someone who is passionate about knowledge activism and the representation of queer history in open culture, this really gave me pause for thought, particularly as I had recently created a Wikipedia entry for another lesbian porn magazine Quim, which was co-created by a former On Our Backs photo editor.  And it also made me wonder about the ethics of sharing all those Europride Vienna photographs on Wikimedia Commons. Those queens and leathermen might have been happy for me to take their photograph on a euphoric summer afternoon in Vienna, but that doesn’t mean they consented to their image being shared under open licence on one of the largest repositories of open images in the world, for anyone to download and use for any purpose they see fit.

If knowledge equity is the dismantling of structures of power and privilege that prevent people from accessing and contributing to free knowledge, it must also respect the rights of marginalised groups and individuals to choose not to share their knowledge and experiences.  As Tara has pointed out, the ethics of openness are messy; it’s important that we balance the interests of open knowledge with respect for individuals and the right to be forgotten.

To return to the theme of knowledge activism, I want to highlight some research undertaken by Professor Allison Littlejohn, Director of University College London‘s Knowledge Lab and Dr Nina Hood, of the University of Auckland.  Allison and Nina evaluated the experiences of participants at some of the University of Edinburgh’s very first editathons, which focused on the Edinburgh Seven, the first group of matriculated undergraduate female students at any British university. The Edinburgh Seven began studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869 and, although they did not win the right to graduate at the time, their campaign raised a national political debate about women’s right to access university education, which eventually resulted a change to the legislation that enabled women to study medicine at university in 1876.  The Edinburgh Seven were finally awarded posthumous degrees by the University in 2019, 150 years after they matriculated and four years after the editathon that raised awareness of their campaign.  Seven current undergraduate medical students accepting the degrees on their behalf.

Allison and Nina observed that as participants grew into the editor role they began to recognise their personal responsibility for representing historical people and events that have been traditionally under-represented. The editors recognised how new media forms are continuing to perpetrate existing cultural inequities, and that by becoming knowledge producers and information activists, they were able to challenge and redress these inequities.  Inherent in this role is the exposure of structural and systematic biases and the removal of barriers to the creation and dissemination of information.

Many of Wikimedia UK and the Wikimedia community’s activities focus specifically on challenging these structural and systematic biases, by working to redress gender imbalance, centre marginalised voices, diversify and decolonise the curriculum, and uncover hidden histories. Some inspiring examples include the Wiki Women in Red editathons; Women in STEM editathons for Ada Lovelace Day and International Women’s Day; supporting minority and indigenous languages through the Celtic and Arctic Knot Conferences, the annual international Art + Feminism campaign, LGBTQ+ editathons at Senate House Library as part of their Queer Between the Covers Series, Digitising Africa in the Dancehall at the Africa Centre, Protests and Suffragettes in Glasgow, the award winning Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Wikidata project, and Wikimedia UK’s own Closing the Gender Gap campaign.

Projects such as these provide opportunities to engage with the creation of open knowledge and improve knowledge equity. And what is particularly gratifying is that, as Allison and Nina’s research highlighted, creating open knowledge, often inspires people to further knowledge activism.

So the last person I want to introduce you to tonight is Tomas. Tomas was an undergraduate History student, who spent the summer of 2017 working with us at the Open Educational Resources Service at the University of Edinburgh, as an Open Content Curation intern. While he was working with us, Tomas also took part in a Wiki Women in Red edition run by our Wikimedian in Residence, Ewan, and he was so enthused that he went on to run a successful Wikipedia editathon for Black History Month with the student History Society.

As part of that editathon Tomas created a Wikipedia entry for the Mangrove Nine, a group of British black activists tried in 1970 for inciting a riot in protest against the Metropolitan police targeting The Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill, west London.  This trial was significant because it was the first judicial acknowledgement of racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police. Tomas’ article languished somewhat after he created it, with just over 5,000 pageviews in the two years from 2017 to 2019. Interest picked up last summer, most likely as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd. Then in November last year pageviews shot up to over 17,000 in a single day.  That was the day that Steve McQueen’s drama Mangrove aired on BBC television as part of his critically acclaimed Small Axe series.  McQueen’s drama causes a resurgence of interest in the case of the Mangrove Nine, and where did viewers turn to find more information?  Google and Wikipedia.  And they were able to find out more about this important event in British black history because an undergraduate student committed to knowledge activism created that Wikipedia entry three years previously.

Talking about his experience of engaging with Wikipedia in an interview with our Wikimedian in Residence, Tomas said

“The history that people access on Wikipedia is often very different from the history that you would access in a University department; there’s very little social history, very little women’s history, gender history, history of people of colour or queer history, and the only way that’s going to be overcome is if people from those disciplines start actively engaging in Wikipedia and trying to correct those imbalances. I feel the social potential of Wikipedia to inform people’s perspectives on the world really lies in correcting imbalances in the representation of that world. People should try to make Wikipedia accurately represent the diversity of the world around us, the diversity of history, and the diversity of historical scholarship.”

And one of the lovely things about Tomas’ knowledge activism is that it didn’t end when he left the University, three years after he graduated, Tomas turned up at the HIV Scotland editathon we organised in February this year.

All these stories I’ve highlighted are examples of knowledge activism; the commitment to representing diverse and marginalised lives and histories on the world’s largest source of free and open knowledge, and the dismantling of obstacles that prevent people from accessing and participating in knowledge creation. Ultimately, this is what knowledge activism is about; counteracting structural inequalities and systemic barriers to ensure just representation of knowledge and equitable participation in the creation of a shared public commons.  

So how can you get involved and become a knowledge activist?  First of all you can reach out to Wikimedia UK to find out about activities and events they’re supporting.  With many editathons now taking place online, it’s easier than ever to learn how to edit.  For example the Wiki Women in Red editathons run by the University of Edinburgh’s Wikimedian in Residence every month are free and open to all.  And Ewan and one of his student interns, Hannah Rothman, have also created this comprehensive set of resources to help get people started with editing, so please do take a look.  And of course you’re also welcome to get in touch with me if you have any questions, or you’d like any further information about how to get involved with the Wikimedia projects and start your own journey to becoming an knowledge activist.

Open Practice in Practice⤴


Last week I had the pleasure of running a workshop on open practice with Catherine Cronin as part of City University of London’s online MSc in Digital Literacies and Open Practice, run by the fabulous Jane Secker.  Both Catherine and I have run guest webinars for this course for the last two years, so this year we decided collaborate and run a session together.  Catherine has had a huge influence on shaping my own open practice so it was really great to have an opportunity to work together.  We decided from the outset that we wanted to practice what we preach so we designed a session that would give participants plenty of opportunity to interact with us and with each other, and to choose the topics the workshop focused on. 

We began with a couple of definitions open practice, emphasising that there is no one hard and fast definition and that open practice is highly contextual and continually negotiated and we then asked participants to suggest what open practice meant to them by writing on a shared slide.  We went on to highlight some examples of open responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the UNESCO Call for Joint Action to support learning and knowledge sharing through open educational resources, Creative Commons Open COVID Pledge, Helen Beetham and ALT’s Open COVID Pledge for Education and the University of Edinburgh’s COVID-19 Critical Care MOOC

We then gave participants an opportunity to choose what they wanted us to focus on from a list of four topics: 

  1. OEP to Build Community – which included the examples of Femedtech and Equity Unbound.
  2. Open Pedagogy –  including All Aboard Digital Skills in HE, the National Forum Open Licensing Toolkit, Open Pedagogy Notebook, and University of Windsor Tool Parade
  3. Open Practice for Authentic Assessment – covering Wikimedia in Education and Open Assessment Practices.
  4. Open Practice and Policy – with examples of open policies for learning and teaching from the University of Edinburgh. 

For the last quarter of the workshop we divided participants into small groups and invited them to discuss

  • What OEP are you developing and learning most about right now?
  • What OEP would you like to develop further?

Before coming back together to feedback and share their discussions. 

Finally, to draw the workshop to a close, Catherine ended with a quote from Rebecca Solnit, which means a lot to both of us, and which was particularly significant for the day we ran the workshop, 3rd November, the day of the US elections.

Rebecca Solnit quote

Slides from the workshop are available under open licence for anyone to reuse and a recording of our session is also available:  Watch recording | View slides.

Ada Lovelace Day: Dr Isabel Gal⤴


This year for Ada Lovelace day, I wrote a new Wikipedia page about Dr Isabel Gal, a Hungarian paediatrician and Holocaust Survivor who, in 1967,  was responsible for establishing a link between use of the hormonal pregnancy test Primodos and severe congenital birth defects.  I came across Gal quite by chance via the @OnThisDayShe twitter account, which aims to “Put women back into history, one day at a time.”  

A quick google showed that while there were Wikipedia entries for Primodos and for Baroness Cumberlege who led a review into the drug, there was no entry for Gal herself.  Which is all the more astonishing given the extraordinary and tenacious life she led.  Gal, a Hungarian Jew, survived the Holocaust after being interred in Auschwitz along with her mother and two sisters, all of whom survived.  Her father however died in Mauthausen concentration camp.  After the war, Gal studied to become a paediatrician at the University of Budapest and married mathematician Endre Gal.  During the Hungarian revolution of 1956, Gal and her family fled to the UK, after being smuggled out of Hungary into Austria.  What I didn’t know when I started writing the article was that Gal re-qualified as a doctor at the University of Edinburgh.  According to her daughter-in-law, who wrote her obituary for the Guardian, she found Scottish accents easier to understand than London ones.  I haven’t been able to find any information online about Gal’s time in Edinburgh, but I’ll be contacting the University’s Centre for Research Collections as soon as I get back from leave, to see what they can dig up. 

In 1967, while working at St Mary’s Children’s Hospital in Surrey, Gal published a short article in Nature magazine highlighting a link between Primodos, a hormonal pregnancy test marketed by the German drug company Shering AG, and serious congenital birth defects.  She also pointed out that the test used the same components as oral contraceptive pills.  Despite taking her findings to the Department of Health,  the Committee on Safety of Medicines, and the government’s Senior Medical Officer, Bill Inman, her warnings were ignored, partially as a result of concerns that they would discourage women from taking oral contraception.  Primodos was banned in several European countries in the early 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1975 that a warning was added to Primodos in UK, and it was only withdrawn from the market in 1978, for commercial reasons.  A long running campaign by the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests, and the discovery of documents revealing that Shering had concealed information relating to the dangers of the drug, eventually resulted in a government review that found that there was no causal association between Primodos and birth defects.  However Theresa May, who was then prime minister, ordered a second review led by Baroness Cumberlege, which published its findings earlier this year and concluded that there was indeed a link and that the drug should have been withdrawn from use in 1967. 

Gal believed she was blacklisted as a result of her campaign and after being repeatedly turned down for senior positions, she eventually left the medical profession. She died in London in 2017 at the age of 92, two years before the Cumberlege review vindicated her findings. 

Interviewed about the review’s findings, Theresa May said she believed that sexism had been partially responsible for the authorities failure to act. 

“I almost felt it was sort of women being patted on the head and being told ‘there there dear’, don’t worry. You’re imagining it. You don’t know. We know better than you do….I think this is a very sad example of a situation where people were badly affected, not just by the physical and mental aspect of what Primodos actually did, but by the fact that nobody then listened to them…”

A Skye News investigation in 2017  revealed that Inman, who had originally stonewalled Gal’s efforts to have the drug withdrawn, and whose own research showed an increased risk of birth defects among women who had used hormone pregnancy tests, had destroyed his research data, “to prevent individual claims being based on his material”.   

Dr Gal’s story, and her omission from Wikipedia, are sadly typical of many women scientists whose contributions have been stifled, stonewalled, ignored, elided and written out of history.  It’s very telling that while Gal didn’t even have a red link, Inman has an extensive and glowing Wikipedia entry, which makes no mention of his role in the Primodos scandal or the fact that he destroyed evidence relating to the case.  However with the publication of the Cumberlege  Review and a new Sky documentary, Bitter Pill: Primodos, there has been increased interest in Gal’s role in highlighting the dangers of hormonal pregnancy tests.  I hope her new Wikipedia entry will help others to discover Dr Isabel Gal’s amazing story, and bring her the recognition she deserves. 

Open At The Margins: Critical Perspectives on Open Education⤴


“When we think this question “who appears?” we are asked a question about how spaces are occupied by certain bodies who get so used to their occupation that they don’t even notice it… To question who appears is to become the cause of discomfort. It is almost as if we have a duty not to notice who turns up and who doesn’t” – Making feminist points, Sara Ahmed.

Open at the Margins book coverThis week saw the launch of the Rebus Community’s publication of Open At The Margins: Critical Perspectives on Open Education. Open At the Margins is a global collection of diverse critical voices in open education curated by Maha Bali, Catherine Cronin, Laura Czerniewicz, Robin de Rosa and Rajiv Jhangiani. The collection aims to centre marginalised voices and ask critical questions of open education relating to community, equity, inclusion, rights, privileges, privacy and academic labour. All the chapters included have already been shared through informal channels, often as conference sessions, keynotes or blog posts, and several of them are pieces that have had a profound influence on my own journey as an open practitioner, including Audrey Watters From “Open” to Justice, Catherine Cronin’s Open Education, Open Questions, and Chris Bourg’s Open As In Dangerous. And there are many, many more chapters by authors who I deeply admire and respect, which I am looking forward to discovering.

I’m humbled to have a piece of my own included in the collection. The Soul Of Liberty: Openness Equality and Co-Creation is the transcript of a keynote I gave at the CELT Design for Learning Symposium, NUI Galway in 2018. This was the third in a series of three related keynotes that included The Long View: Changing Perspectives on OER (OER18 Conference) and Exploring the Open Knowledge Landscape (FLOSS UK Spring Conference). All three pieces explored the different domains, communities and cultures that make up the the open knowledge landscape, and highlighted the problem of systemic bias and structural inequality in a wide range of “open” spaces.

The title, The Soul of Liberty, comes from a quote by 18th century Scottish feminist, social reformer and advocate for women’s equality in education, Frances Wright.

“Equality is the soul of liberty; there is, in fact, no liberty without it.”

The piece questions what we mean when we talk about openness in relation to digital teaching and learning spaces, resources, communities and practices.  How open and equitable are our open online education spaces and who are they open to? And it explores how we can engage with students to co-create open education spaces and communities that are more equitable, inclusive and participatory.

The above quote from Sara Ahmed, which appears in the introduction of Open at the Margins, really resonated with me because it echoes a passage from the Soul of Liberty.

“We all need to be aware of the fact that open does not necessarily mean accessible. Open spaces and communities are not without their hierarchies, their norms, their gatekeepers and their power structures. We need to look around our own open communities and spaces and ask ourselves who is included and who is excluded, who is present and who is absent, and we need to ask ourselves why. Because nine times out of ten, if certain groups of people are absent or excluded from spaces, communities or domains, it is not a result of preference, ability, or aptitude, it is a result of structural inequality, and in many cases it is the result of multiple intersecting inequalities. Far too often our open spaces replicate the power structures and inequalities that permeate our society.”

I think we still have a long way to go until the our open spaces and communities really are open to all, however Open at the Margins makes an important contribution to opening up these spaces, dismantling hierarchies, and centering voices that have been marginalized and excluded. I’d like to thank the editors for their commitment to this cause and I am excited to see what kind of conversations are possible as a result.

Sustaining an ethic of care⤴


On Friday 13th of March I wrote a blog post called What Comes Next, which marked the end of the last round of UCU strikes and looked forward to my return to work the following week. Five days later, in response to the rapidly worsening coronavirus pandemic, my university advised all staff and students to leave campus and work from home, and the following week the whole UK went into lockdown. I think it’s fair to say that at that stage none of us could possibly have imagined what came next.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, it may be a cliché, but rarely has it been so true. In the fifteen weeks since lock down began, it’s been nothing short of inspiring to see the superhuman efforts of colleagues right across all sectors of education to ensure that teaching and learning could continue, while respecting the unique stresses and anxieties that we’ve all been facing in these Unprecedented Times.

Learning technologists have become the new superhero/ines, putting the technology in place to enable teaching continuity, upskilling academic colleagues to help them transition to online teaching, figuring out the practicalities of hybrid teaching, and working out the logistics of making it a reality at scale, all while dealing with the uncertainty that, for all the planning and modeling, we don’t really know what’s going to happen in September, and beyond that, what will happen in the longer term.

And all this effort has taken place against a back drop of hot takes from ed tech gurus, CEOs and journalists, who persist in comparing “traditional” on-campus face to face education to online learning, despite decades of evidence based research that direct comparisons between the two modes are unhelpful at best and specious at worst. Every day my twitter feed is full of educators and learning techs responding with tired outrage to articles claiming that online programmes require less staff, less skill, less effort, less funding, while providing an inferior learning experience and questionable outcomes.  

It’s as exhausting as it’s infuriating. Particularly when colleagues who were striking over precarity, inequality and workloads at the beginning of the year, returned from strike and immediately shouldered increased workloads without question or complaint. Meanwhile the pandemic has only exacerbated the inequalities that already exist in the system. Journal submissions from women scholars have fallen off a cliff, fixed term teaching contracts have been terminated, disproportionately affecting women, BAME colleagues and early career academics, and women are still carrying the invisible emotional burden of a system and a society under profound stress.

We’ve all had to adapt to the new normal and to do what we can to get by. But my concern is that the new normal still isn’t normal, and perhaps more importantly, it’s also not sustainable.  This level of physical, mental and emotional labour can’t be sustained in the long term without it taking a considerable toll.

As lockdown begins to lift, and we all start to breathe a tentative sigh of relief, my fear is that the delayed impact of that burden of labour will make itself felt just at the point when we have to step up a gear. Lifting of lockdown isn’t an opportunity to relax and get back to normal, it’s the start of a long uphill race with no visible finishing line in sight.

Academic colleagues, and the professional services staff who support them, face an astronomical task to prepare their courses for hybrid delivery, and to open the university to new and returning students in September. The online pivot, that all out sprint to ensure teaching continuity at the beginning of lockdown, has turned into a marathon and there are serious concerns whether we have the strength, stamina and resilience for it.

At the beginning of lockdown my own institution placed the emphasis squarely on communication, care and continuity, and by and large it has responded to the unique challenges of the pandemic with compassion and sensitivity. I sincerely hope that we don’t loose sight of that ethic of care as we move out of lockdown towards a new academic year that will be unlike anything we could ever have experienced or predicted, because that’s when we’re really going to need it the most.

Open Letter to Editors / Editorial Boards⤴


(This post was originally shared on femedtech.net.)

The FemEdTech collective is calling on the Editors and Editorial Boards of scholarly journals to acknowledge and mitigate the disproportionate impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic on women researchers and scholars. Multiple voices have highlighted the escalating impact of COVID-19 on women’s scholarly productivity, and hence the quality and representativeness of the research and scholarly work published during this global pandemic.

In order to support authors and reviewers, we are asking Journal Editors to consider these issues while reviewing submissions and commissioning editions during and after the COVID-19 crisis.  We therefore, call upon Editors to:

  1. State on their websites the special measures they will take to support women researchers and scholars during this time. For example, editors may delay calls for special issues.
  2. Promote gender balance by inviting potential authors to submit papers written by both female and male authors and prioritise papers written by women, particularly where they are single or lead authors.
  3. Ensure that revision and review timescales are flexible and take into consideration the additional schooling, caring and community responsibilities which fall disproportionately on women.

To evidence this call for action, we note that:

In the longer term, these factors are likely to have a significant impact on women’s career progressionand may increase their precarious work situation, as they take on more of the emotional labour of caring and pastoral support, labour that is rarely acknowledged or rewarded in the same way as research outputs and publications. We encourage Editors and Editorial Boards to help ameliorate the effects of the pandemic on women’s scholarly contributions and careers.

We acknowledge that these issues can also have a significant impact on the publication record and career progression of BAME colleagues, differently abled academics, and other minorities but data on this is more scarce. Staying Power, published by UCU in 2019 , reported on Dr Nicola Rollock’s research that interviewed 20 of the only 25 black female professors in the UK (that’s 0.1% of all professors).  A recently published book Data and Feminism, available open access as well as in print, is informed by intersectional feminist thought. The book goes beyond gender: to question who has power and who has not, and to support challenges to those differentials of power.

If nothing else, we ask Editors to read our letter and the articles linked to increase their awareness of these issues. Thank you for listening.

(Link to post about sharing this letter)

OER20: Care, hope and activism⤴


CC BY, Bryan Mather

The OER Conference is always one of the highlights of the year for me.   It’s the only open education conference I attend regularly and I’m privileged to have been present at every single one since the conference launched at the University of Cambridge back in 2010.  So needless to say, I was gutted that the f2f element of this year’s conference had to be cancelled, despite knowing that it was unquestionably the right thing to do.  I know from experience how much work and personal investment goes into planning the OER Conference and what a difficult decision it must have been for ALT and for co-chairs Mia Zamora, Daniel Villar-Onrubia and Jonathan Shaw.  That initial feeling of loss was tempered by ALTs announcement that they would be moving the event online, an ambitious plan, given that the conference was barely two weeks away.  I was always confident that ALT could pull off this #pivot as they already have a wealth of experience facilitating online conferences, through the annual winter online conference, and as an already distributed organisation they didn’t have to cope with the scramble to set up remote working that may other organisations and institutions faced.  What I didn’t expect though was for ALT and the conference co-chairs to deliver an entirely unique event.  They didn’t just move the planned face to face conference online they completely transformed it into a new, original and completely free online experience that welcomed over 1,000 registered participation from across the globe.  And please note, the OER20 conference wasn’t just free as in speech, it was also free as in beer, so if you participated in the event, either listening in to the presentations, or even just following the hashtag online, please consider making a donation to the conference fund.  Every little helps to support ALT and cover the cost.

Of course the theme of the conference, The Care in Openness, could not have been more timely or more prescient.  The whole notion of care has taken on new weight since the outbreak of the Covid pandemic.  Care has literally become a matter of survival.  The only way we will get through this is if we care for each other, and if we protect and value those that care for us.  

If I was to pick two session that for me, really embodied this ethic of care it would have to be keynote sava saheli singh and Mia Zamora in conversation, and Frances Bell talking about the femedtech quilt project.  Both sessions featured films that provoked a really strong, but very different, emotional response.  Screening Surveillance’s Frames is a deeply unsettling tale of surveillance, commodification, dehumanisation and alienation.  Powerful, challenging and disturbing, watching Frames is a profoundly uncomfortable and thought provoking experience. The subsequent discussion brought to mind Jimmy Reid’s immortal address on becoming rector of the University of Glasgow in 1972; Alienation

“Society and its prevailing sense of values leads to another form of alienation. It alienates some from humanity. It partially de-humanises people, makes them insensitive, ruthless in their handling of fellow human being, self-centred and grasping.”

This quote particularly resonates with me.  So much has changed in the 50 years since Reid’s address, but so much remains the same. It is the system of capitalism that is still so often the root cause of our dehumanisation and alienation. Industrialisation may have given way to surveillance capitalism, but digital technology is simply the latest mechanism for our alienation. 

sava ended her brilliant keynote session with a much needed call for compassion and action:

“We need to approach everyone with compassion…All of us are activists now.”

It was a huge privilege to hear sava and Mia in conversation, and my only regret is that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to meet them in person. I hope that will happen one day.

Nowhere is that compassion and activism more visible than in the making of the femedtech quilt, a craft activism project and a material manifestation of care led by the indefatigable Frances Bell.  Frances produced this beautiful film about the making of quilt and it’s safe to say that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house after watching it.   Like the quilt itself, the up-swell of collective emotion was “beautifully imperfect, imperfectly beautiful.”


I find it hard to put my profound appreciation for this project into words, but Su-Ming Khoo spoke for many of us when she thanked Frances for giving us all “somewhere to put our connection and our gratitude”.

My other highlights of the conference included….

The launch of the University of Edinburgh and Wikimedia UK’s Wikimedia in Education handbook.  Edited by Wikimedian in Residence, Ewan McAndrew, this free, open licensed booklet brings together 14 case studies from educators across the UK who are already integrating Wikimedia assignments in their courses and classes.   I know how much work has gone into the production of this booklet so it was great to see it being launched. I’m sure it will be an invaluable  and inspirational resource that will encourage educators to see the huge potential of integrating Wikmedia projects in education.

Staying with the Wikimedians, Wikimedia UK’s Scotland Programmes Coordinator Sara Thomas gave an impassioned talk on Wikimedia and Activism.  I love listening to Sara present, she always makes me want to storm the barricades! Sara reminded us that learning and creating open knowledge are always political acts. Creating knowledge encourages agency, but access to information alone does not result in enlightenment. Knowledge is nothing without literacy and information literacy is crucial for participatory democracy.

I also really enjoyed Bonnie Stewart and Dave White’s thoughtful and compassionate session on Designing for Systems of Care: Can Open Pedagogy Scale Caring? Dave spoke about the dangerous grey area between surveillance and care, and argued that personalised, individualised learning is actually reducing our agency, our self-direction and self-determination. We’re at a point where the tech sector appears to be telling us “we’ll care for you and personalise your experience, if you tell us everything about you.” But we can’t use technology to lock everything down, we need to create a culture of trust now more so than ever.

I made one very small contribution to the conference this year, a short alt-format talk on open practice and invisible labour, which you can read here and listen to here.  Sadly this talk became all the more relevant with news reports yesterday afternoon that hundreds of university staff on precarious contracts have been made redundant by the universities of Bristol, Newcastle and Sussex.  As my colleague Melissa Highton succinctly put it “This is why we strike.

There is always a strong social element to OER conferences and there was a risk that this would be lost with the move online.  However the conference team excelled themselves and, if anything, this was one of the most social and inclusive conferences I’ve participated in, ether on or off-line.  The social bingo was hugely popular and a great use of Alan Levine’s fabulous TRU Collector SPLOT. (If you enjoyed playing OER social bingo, you might like to support Alan’s work by contributing to his Patreon.)  The KarOERke was also priceless.  Anyone who knows me will know that karaoke is my idea of HELL. I can barely even bring myself to watch it, never mind participate!  However, I had great fun dipping in and out of the online KarOERke on ds106.tv.  My only regret is that I missed Lucy Crompton-Reid singing Kate Bush.  The final rousing chorus from Les Mis was something to behold though.  Y’all are daft as brushes.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the OER20 though was that none of the emotion and connection that is so characteristic of the OER conferences was lost. If anything, this was heightened by the #unprecedented global situation we find ourselves living through.  Suddenly these tenuous temporal connections we made with colleagues from all over the world during the two days of the conference, felt more important than ever before.  A valuable lifeline, and a network of care, hope and activism that connected us all at a time of uncertainty and isolation. Ultimately these are the things that matter and these are the things that will see us through.

What comes next⤴


Today marks the end of the current round of UCU strike action and it’s been an unsettling few weeks in more ways than one. I didn’t join the strike until half way through the first week as I had already agreed to present a keynote at the Wikimedia in Education summit at Coventry University before the strike dates were announced. This is the second time I’ve broken a strike to participate in an event of this kind and in both instances it wasn’t a decision I took lightly. However as the event, and my keynote, had a strong focus on equity and social justice, and addressed some of the issues that the UCU strike has been highlighting, I took the decision to go ahead.

Since then I’ve withdrawn my labour from my university and have done what I can to support the strike. I haven’t been picketing because I can’t afford the travel costs on top of the eye watering loss of wages, but I’ve been trying my best to observe the digital picket, by not tweeting anything directly related to my work at the University of Edinburgh. Although I’ve continued tweeting information related to the strike, and sharing posts on #femedtech, withdrawing from the open education community on twitter has been quite an isolating experience.

Because I work part time for my university, I also contribute my labour to several other oganisations on a voluntary basis, so I’ve continued to participate in some events and activities in a personal capacity, however it’s been a constant struggle to decide where to draw the line. So, for example, although we didn’t plan any Open.Ed activities for Open Education Week, which fell in the middle of the strike, I did participate, as a member of the #femedtech network, in an asynchronous event Open Policy – Who cares? organised by the ALT Open Ed SIG.  Was that the right thing to do? I have no idea. I also participated in two VConnecting Missed Conversations that explored some of the themes we discussed at the ALT / Wikimedia DE Open for a Cause event in Berlin in December, wrote a blog post about “women’s work” and the femedtech quilt, and an article about the labour of care in Higher Education for WonkHE.

Care was one theme that emerged repeatedly during the strike. Care for ourselves, care for our students, care for our colleagues, care for our profession. And now that diligence of care is going to take on a whole new dimension as we do our best to care for each other in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Going back to work next week in these exceptional circumstances is going to be difficult and challenging for everyone so I hope we can hold onto that ethic of care over the coming months.

Sharing the Labour of Care⤴


This article was originally posted on WonkHE under the title We need to recognise where the burden of care falls in higher education.

Most of us work in higher education because we care; we care about our students, our colleagues, our subject specialisms, we care about learning, and we care about sharing knowledge.  Many of us even care about our institutions, even if that care is increasingly unreciprocated.  Our profession is distinguished by emotional commitment, compassion, and a strong ethic of care, but this burden of care is unevenly distributed across the academy.  This critical and largely invisible labour routinely falls to those who are already marginalised in the system; women, people of colour, early career researchers, those employed on precarious and part time contracts, those on lower pay grades.  Caring has always been regarded as women’s work, and as a result, the labour of caring is habitually devalued and taken for granted.  There is an assumption that caring is low skilled work, that anyone can do it, but of course that is far from true.  Despite the toll taken by the exploitation of this invisible labour, we all continue to do our best, to go the extra mile, to pick up the pieces for our students and our colleagues, which inevitably leads to stress, anxiety and burnout. In a timely twitter thread about the current round of UCU strikes, Máiréad Enright pointed out that

“There is emotional labour involved in knowing and being reminded that others will have to face the everyday crisis, because you aren’t there. It’s important that we recognise that this emotional labour is part of what’s distinctive about the neoliberal university. We govern ourselves and each other through emotion. Disunity, competition and compulsory individualism in the university ensure that.”

The reason many of us are striking, to protest universities’ failure to protect our pensions, and adequately address the gender pay gap, unrealistic workloads, and increasing casualisation, is not because we don’t care about our students and those who rely on our emotional labour, it’s because we care too much. And I am fully aware of the irony that I am writing this article while allegedly on strike. Withdrawing our emotional labour is a hard thing to do.

As with many other aspects of our employment and our practice, much of this burden of emotional labour has become mediated through and exacerbated by technology.  Whether it’s spending weekends answering e-mails from distraught students, peer reviewing journal papers and conference submissions, writing blog posts, taking part in twitter conversations, contributing to hashtags, writing Wikipedia articles, or keeping up with social media.  In a provocation recorded as part of Open Education Week, Leo Havemann argues that there is a lack of appreciation for the kind of labour and expertise involved in digital practice.  All too often digital labour is unrecognised and unrewarded invisible labour.  Of course there is a gendered aspect to digital labour in higher education too, which is largely unacknowledged and under researched. A notable exception is research undertaken by the Association for Learning Technology to analyse the results of their sector wide ALT Annual Survey through the lense of gender.  ALT’s research has provided some evidence of different priorities for men and women particularly with regard to dedicated time and recognition for career development.

While much of our invisible labour may be undervalued by our institutions, grass roots initiatives have sprung up to acknowledge, celebrate and support the contribution our digital and emotional labour makes to education.  One such initiative is femedtech, a reflexive emergent network of people learning, researching and practising in educational technology. The femedtech network is informal, unfunded, and cross sector and our resources are our passion, kindness, knowledge, enthusiasm and volunteer commitment. Our name, femedtech (feminist education technology), aligns us with a critical perspective on education and technology. We are alive to the specific ways that technology and education are gendered, and to how injustices and inequalities play out in these spaces.

Despite the burden of care that we carry, there is strength and solidarity to be gained from shared labour and a sense of community and belonging that traditionally derives from women’s work.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the femedtech Quilt for Care and Justice in Open Education project.  Created by Frances Bell in collaboration with members of the femedtech network, this craft activism project takes its inspiration from the themes of the 2020 OER Conference; The Care in Openness.  Women and men, from all over world have contributed quilt squares representing personal reflections on care, openness and social justice. You can find out more about the femedtech quilt project here https://quilt.femedtech.net/

#femedtch quilt, CC BY, Lorna M. Campbell


Association for Learning Technology, https://www.alt.ac.uk/

Enright, M., (2020), #UCUstrikes twitter thread, https://twitter.com/maireadenright/status/1234456632681168896?s=20

Femedtech, http://femedtech.net/

Femedtech Quilt for Care and Justice in Open Education, https://quilt.femedtech.net/

Havemann, L., (2020), The need for supportive policy environments, https://flipgrid.com/f61bc14c

Hawksey, M., (2019), #ThinkUHI #BalanceforBetter look at enablers/drivers for the use of Learning Technology (#femedtech), https://mashe.hawksey.info/2019/03/balanceforbetter-look-at-enablers-drivers-for-the-use-of-learning-technology-femedtech/

OER20 Conference: The Care in Openness, https://oer20.oerconf.org/

University and College Union HE Action, https://www.ucu.org.uk/heaction

Openness, Precarity and Equity⤴


As part of Open Education Week, the ALT Open Education SIG and Femedtech facilitated an asynchronous event Open Policy – Who cares?  The organisers invited provocations from members of the open education community in the form of Flipgrid videos and writings on femedtech.net. This is my contribution. 

I’ve worked in the domain of open education for over ten years now and I passionately believe that publicly funded educational resources should be freely and openly available to the public.  In fact this is one of the founding principles of the Scottish Open Education Declaration.  When we talk about open policy the focus tends to be on “open” and “free”, however I think what is critical here is “funding”, because as we all know, open does not mean free. If we want to support the creation of open knowledge and publicly funded open education resources, then the education sector has to be supported by adequate funding and, perhaps more importantly, by equitable working conditions.  And this is where problems start to arise; at a time when casualisation is endemic in the UK higher education sector, too many colleagues are employed on exploitative precarious contracts.  This is why we are currently in the middle of a period of sustained industrial action that is protesting universities’ failure to make significant improvements on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads.  If you are a teaching assistant employed on a fixed hourly rate that doesn’t even begin to cover the preparation time for creating your teaching resources and lecturing materials, it’s hard to make the case, ethically and morally, that you should release your resources under open license, because you’re effectively giving your labour away for free, and very few marginalised workers have the privilege to be able to do that. So while I still believe that we do need more policy around open education, and that we have an ethical responsibility to make publicly funded educational resources available to all, we also need equitable working conditions that will enable us all to contribute to the shared knowledge commons.