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Something Important is Going on With Data: Educators’ Search for Political Agency to Act as Professionals in Complex Datafied Contexts

In a vision of what critical data futures might look like, Neil Selwyn’s (2021) starting point is Couldry and Mejias’ (2019, p.336) observation: “something important is going on with data”. Selwyn attempts to disentangle the array of meanings of data and its processing and use in the current datafied society, proposing for each cluster possible data futures so that we might make sense of future social issues relating to digital (big) data. This is indeed a courageous endeavour. Several attempts to make sense of data, its processing and its use in social science research have given rise to a plethora of discourses (Milan & van der Velden, 2016; Raffaghelli, 2020). The initial concerns developed toward a compelling need to overcome the data divide and take part in mining the richness of data for empowerment (Baack, 2015; D’Ignazio & Klein, 2020). This line of thinking was quickly followed by more critical approaches towards pernicious data-driven practices, the hidden new economic paradigms (Zuboff, 2019), and the concomitant injustices embedded in the algorithmic control of, for example, essential welfare services (Eubanks, 2018; O’Neil, 2016). Overall, different authors have reflected on the problems of metrics and quantification and the false promise of objectivity, which had been already scrutinised in the past decades concerning policy evaluation and political action, management, development, and other socio-political and economic interventions (Muller, 2018). Notwithstanding the breaking news (Financial Times, September 2021), the UK is launching a consultation to remove article 22 of the EU data protection regulation proposing to remove the human review of algorithmic decisions required by GDPR. Of course, this shows how there still is a push towards objectifying in the name of efficiency important decisions that impinge on an individual’s overall well-being. Education has not been exempted from the phenomenon of datafication (Williamson, 2017; p.9). In order to tackle the problem and its consequences, debates on data literacy started to arise (Raffaghelli & Stewart, 2019) as the source of skills and knowledge to better deal with a datafied society. However, it was soon noticed that such an approach had limitations, given that education was just another engine of a technocratic approach to social development. Thus, more than technical skills were needed to reflect upon the hidden structures of the socio-technical system. Knowing practical skills to deal with data will not enable us to think about what is underpinning this datafied reality, the invisible uses given to data in HE institutions, and what tools and knowledge are best to expose the hidden mechanisms that drive these data-driven systems. Thus, a new dimension emerged from the debates concerning data literacy, namely the critical dimension much in line with Freire’s pedagogical proposal (1978). This dimension can enable the individual to interact critically with the different aspects listed above that shape students’ social reality (a datafied present and future) with the intention to transform it (Tygel & Kirsch, 2016; Markham, 2018; Jansen, 2021). However, placing the concept of critical data literacy in the context of the postdigital (Jandrić et al., 2018), where the digital moves covertly to the background and slowly disappears from our view, requires a vision that transcends a mere critique and embraces concrete actions (Andersen, Cox, and Papdopoulos, 2014, as cited in Jandric et al., 2018) to support educators to embrace the socio-technical and political complexity described above. In this regard, several authors are pointing at the idea of re-politicising data literacy (Jansen, 2021) and understanding the intrinsic relationality of technologies and particularly of educational technologies, where the political action, regulations, economic interests, and business models are deeply entangled (Castañeda & Williamson, 2021). We ask how educators place themselves as ‘political agents’ given that education is called to act within the complexities of the datafied society? As a result of engaging with societal problems and the education praxis, the educators strive within relational data infrastructures and discourses in search of their positionality and perspective of professionalism. In this chapter, the authors build over the dialogue with other educators while validating the design of an open educational resource -DataPraxis- a website with content and tools that supports the educators’ pedagogical activity to cultivate and foster critical data literacies. We discussed with 12 colleagues (invited speakers and participants in one of our four strategic partnership institutions) about the role of data in society and educational practices while building a vision of professionalism as a means to participate in defining new utopias (of fair data usage for empowerment and creativity) or resisting existing dystopias (of data injustices and colonialism). Our analysis of the conversations brings to light the diverse efforts to develop political agency as educators envision, as Selwyn (2021) did, new alternative data futures. Indeed, we found convergent often followed by divergent elements in such approaches, including their efforts to fight against cognitive capitalism and different forms of data injustice; their attention to data monetisation and its resistance through engagement in open-source technologies and data sovereignty discourses. These participants' discourses shape a half-weaved tapestry with knots and entanglements that require further attention, critical debate and collective interdisciplinary work, as much as peer support in their and our effort to grasp the inherent complexity of the datafied present and future. We discuss our findings in light of the concept of “data culture” as a space where complexity can be grasped and hopefully addressed. While searching for political agency, the educator makes sense of their educational approaches to data as seen in the classroom, educational institutions, and the local and the global context. These practices thus are inscribed in time and space where the data culture serves as context but also as the product of meaning-making processes, understanding polysemic and relational assemblages of data as a complex phenomenon.

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Caroline Kuhn
Bath Spa University, UK

Juliana Elisa Raffaghelli
University of Padua, Italy

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