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Decolonising the curriculum in our distance learning environment

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On 21 March 2019 I attended a seminar that was co-organised by UCU, the University and College Union, and the university BME (black and minority ethnicity) staff network. 

I attended for a couple of reasons: firstly, I'm broadly interested in diversity having carried out research into technology and accessibility and have a hidden disability, and secondly, one of my colleagues, Mustafa Ali, was going to be giving a talk. It turns out that Mustafa couldn’t make it to the talk, but what follows is a summary of some of the key things that I took away from the event

HE sector perspectives on decolonising the curriculum

Aravinda Guntpalli, Senior Lecturer in public health defined the term decolonisation as “freeing a country from being dependent on another country”. This could be understood in terms of political, social and economic dependence. Another comment I noted was that terminology and language has a legacy which imposes a particular view about how the world works.

Aravinda’s talk also included some statistics: in the OU, only 10% of students are BME.  It’s important to note that there is a significant attainment gap between white students and BME students.

Towards the end of her presentation, we were introduced to the history of the decolonising the curriculum movement, which has its root in the Rhodes must fall campaign (Wordpress) in 2015.  There was also a reference to a UCL campaign called: why is my curriculum white? (NUS website)

I made a few notes during the Q&A session. A question that I noted down was: ‘how can we decolonise?’ A response that I recorded was that it’s necessary to consider the process of teaching, the materials that we use to teach, and the learning environment that we establish. The voices that are exposed and valued can and will differ between subjects. It is important to consider which voices are exposed.

Reflections

The most striking point that I took away from the session was the extent of the attainment gap between white students and BME students. (I’ve asked Aravinda for an official reference; I’ll update this blog when I’ve done a bit more reading and research).

I found the history of the Rhodes must fall campaign interesting. As I was listening I remembered attending a widening participation conference some year back, which I wrote a couple of blogs about: Widening Participation through Curriculum Conference blog of day 1, blog of day 2.

I remembered something about the co-creation of curriculum, a collaboration between students and a lecturer at Kingston University. This was something that I summarised briefly in the penultimate paragraph of the blog about the first day of the conference. I then had a thought: this whole subject, of relevance and potential bias within materials has a history that obviously goes back a lot further than the events of 2014.

I attended this UCU seminar after attending another seminar in the school of computing and communications. My colleague, Michel Wermelinger had been giving a talk about one of the fundamentals of computer science: algorithms. During a part of the talk, he shared a case of where a Google algorithm was misclassifying images and producing results that were considered to be deeply offensive. A popular article, entitled: Rise of the racist robots – how AI is learning all our worst impulses (The Guardian, 2017), presents a number of case studies.

I once had a call with a student who said something that was both a comment and a challenge. He said: “all the module materials are written by white people”. I started to mentally work through all the names of the academics that I knew who had worked on the module that we were discussing. I had to agree with him. He did have a point. I also understood that although computers are mathematical machines, algorithms are created by people and are fed with data, which are also chosen and created by people. Bias has the potential to affect all disciplines.

When we were into the Q&A session and delegates were discussing what we might be able to do, my mind wandered to the module that I’m currently studying (or, should I say, trying to study!): EE812 Educational leadership: exploring strategy. A question that came to mind was: was that module doing anything to consider different context? I then remembered that it had a whole series of case studies from different contexts: from England, from Singapore, from South Africa and from India. Differences in practices and perspectives were being exposed to learners so they could think about how they related to (and differed from) their own contexts. One view of difference and diversity is that is can be a constructive and a critical tool, from where we can understand and appreciate different perspectives.

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