2018-11-03 11.48.40 (edited-Pixlr)

This is the second of five blogposts that I’m writing as coursework for a teacher training course on open networked learning (ONL). In my previous blogpost, I reflected on the deeply flawed concepts of digital natives and digital immigrants after attending a workshop on teaching digital history. The topic of today’s blogpost is sharing and openness in higher education and it’s inspired by an experience I had while attending the ECREA conference in Switzerland last year.

2018-11-03 11.48.40 (edited-Pixlr)

Feeling offline in Lugano, Switzerland

A visit to a non-EU country is a reminder of what European travel used to be like before the Commission outlawed egregious roaming fees. Using data on your phone is forbiddingly expensive and since the hotel Wi-Fi in Lugano was agonizingly slow I did not log on to Facebook for a while (for privacy reasons, I never used the app). Then after 24 hours of Facebook absenteeism, I received an email. Apparently, my behaviour was so unusual that the algorithms got all worked up and alarmed. The email briefed me on everything I was missing out on and kindly suggested that I return to the platform. Which alarmed me. Having never seen such an email before, I thought ‘wait a second, haven’t I ever been off Facebook for more than 24 hours?’ I probably had, who knows how old this algorithm was, but nevertheless: This was the moment when I decided to do a cold turkey and terminate my addictive relation with the SoMe behemoth.

I had been primed to quitting Facebook one year earlier when reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. Newport’s point is that the world is full of distractions. We’re living in an attention economy where companies vie to capitalize on our attention. Meanwhile, to secure a good income one must be able to solve specialized tasks too complex for computers. Which requires lots of concentration, or deep work as Newport calls it. So if you want to use social media, be conscious of the negative impacts it has on your ability to concentrate. Facebook’s email sent after 24 hours of absence made me acutely aware of the oceans of attention I had offered the company over the years and I decided to call it quits.

The point of this anecdote is that we must know exactly what we’re doing and why when we integrate openness in our courses. I am all for greater openness and sharing at a structural level. In Sweden, course descriptions and reading lists are usually available online, making it relatively easy to get inspiration from the course design at other universities. This is not the case in France or Germany, but field specific sites such as the Digital Humanities course registry seek to overcome this issue at a global level.

Similarly, sharing course slides is a no brainer for me, although it requires careful attention to copyright issues. However, when we ask students to share and be open in our courses things get complicated. We should not encourage students to volunteer their scarce attention capital to GAFA, when in fact what we really want them to do is deep work. Making students tweet or blog as part of a course might help them hone communication skills, but it also entails important privacy issues and risks distracting them from the essential learning goals (Tony Bates: Teaching in a Digital Age, pp. 398-99). Moreover, it raises data management issues.

A decade ago, long before anyone had heard of GDPR, I ran blogging exercises with European Studies students at Lund University (more on that in Swedish here).


Screenshot of defunct student blog

The blogs included the bios of young students who have since made successful international careers in communication and PR. A few years back, some former students requested to have their data deleted from the sites, which made me take down the site entirely to protect everyone’s privacy and right to be forgotten. At the same time, the historian in me believed that what was once published ought to remain accessible for future historians. So much historical online content has already been lost to posterity as Ian Milligan reminds us in his excellent new book (History in the Age of Abundance). Should I really contribute to this deletion of historical sources myself, even though student blogs from the early 2010s are hardly of any greater significance to the history of the 21st century?

The sites remain offline, only for me to see when I log on to WordPress. Here, they reside to remind me that any course design involving public student output needs conscious data and privacy management.


  • Bates, Tony. Teaching in a Digital Age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning. 2015.
  • Milligan, Ian. History in the Age of Abundance: How the web is transforming historical research. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019.
  • Newport, Cal. Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. Hachette, 2016.
Deep work and open learning