August 11, 2022

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Navigating European education in times of crisis? An analysis of socio-technological architectures and user interfaces of online learning initiatives

Introduction

As a territorial, political, monetary, and educational alliance, Europe has faced several crises that led to ongoing conflicts about, and changes in, its borders (e.g. Börzel and Risse, 2018). European education policies have generally remained constant in this matter, as they are steadily coupled to the “European project” of creating a European Education Area (EEA) “in which learning, studying and doing research would not be hampered by borders” (European Commission, 2017: 11). Accordingly, successive Erasmus programs have, over the last decades, pursued student mobility and inter-university collaborations across national borders (European Commission, 2020b). Notwithstanding, these programs consistently keep to the principle of subsidiarity, which means that they set out non-legislative initiatives while national governments and institutions hold principal control over education policies (European Commission, 2017). More recently, these initiatives also include online learning, following the rationale that online efforts aid the transcendence of educational practices over national and jurisdictional borders without explicitly interfering in national policies (European Commission, 2018). In this sense, these online learning initiatives appear to enact the European project in a particular way.

Conflating with this continuous project, European policies also include initiatives that aim to remediate crises in a more timely and temporary manner, and often with other interests regarding the borders of Europe. For instance, to remediate the so-called “refugee crisis,” the European Commission (EC) devised an action plan with quick measures for the integration of “third country nationals” in and beyond education, including online learning initiatives again (European Commission, 2016). Unlike initiatives in the Erasmus+ program that encourage and arrange cross-border exchanges, these crisis-remediating initiatives are devised as a means to “manage” unplanned border crossings. Furthermore, these crisis-remediating initiatives are financed in urgency and for a fixed number of 3–4 years, which contrasts the long-term planning of intermediate Erasmus+ programs. This shows how these online learning initiatives perform a different European policy, with other spatial and temporal implications for the borders of Europe.

Along these lines, this study builds on literature that approaches such initiatives as policy actors that bring a variety of (visions of) European education spaces into being, rather than passive tools that allow people to connect across a “given” European space (e.g. Lawn, 2001; Romito et al., 2020). This study aims to expand this literature by addressing the related, but relatively underacknowledged, research concern of how these European policy initiatives manifest particular times too (see also Barbousas and Seddon, 2018). Altogether, this means that the study intends to understand how EC-funded learning initiatives, linked to the project of a “borderless” EEA and/or the “refugee crisis” introduce new forms of spaces and times for European education. In its address of this question, this study focuses on two exemplary online learning initiatives that are funded by the EC. The first initiative, called Online Linguistic Support (OLS), is a platform that was initially developed for Erasmus exchange students but also included refugee students within a timeframe of 3 years. It is, for these reasons, initially approached as a policy actor that is explicitly related to the long-term project of the EEA as well as to the remediation of the refugee crisis. The second initiative, named Blend-in, is a mobile application that addresses refugees and their support workers, and that has been funded for a fixed period of 2 years. Therefore, it is initially approached as a policy actor that is explicitly related to the remediation of the refugee crisis.

In what follows, the theoretical-conceptual framework of this study is set out. Social topology is thereby positioned as the main thread that guides a focus on the role of bordering practices in the enactment of European spaces-times, with explicit attention for the operations of digital technologies in recent European education policies. Drawing further on the literature on socio-technological architectures and user interfaces, the theoretical-conceptual framework lays out the argument that navigations on user interfaces constitute concretizations of bordering practices. The paper continues by setting out the methodological design, which centers around active navigations on user interfaces of the online learning initiatives. Two consecutive sections present findings for the two respective online learning initiatives, including descriptions and interpretations of different stages in the navigations. Finally, a dedicated discussion addresses the initial research aims and considers how the theoretical and methodological positioning of this study allows research(ers) to engage with European education, its bordering practices, and its related forms of space-times through the enactment of projects, crises, and crisis remediations.

Theoretical-conceptual framework

Borders and crisis (remediation)

The theoretical assumptions of this study are based on social topology, which has inspired various fields of research to examine intricacies of borders, space(s), and time(s). Social topology departs from an understanding of borders as stable, unequivocal delineations cutting up a “given” space, and rather considers borders as manifestations of complex, ongoing practices that produce spaces and times (e.g. Mezzadra and Neilson, 2012). By acknowledging these practices (henceforth: bordering practices) as ongoing and in movement, social topology integrates temporal and spatial implications of borders and consequently relates these to different forms. For example, “topographical bordering” is considered a practice that makes space frozen in time, and thus generates spaces in static forms of nations, territories, or regions (Hartong and Piattoeva, 2021). Other bordering practices, like those involving international mobility and transnational exchanges, are understood for their temporal evolvements. In this vein, they are approached as spaces-times that generate forms in continuous movements, like ecologies (Hartong and Piattoeva, 2021). As digital technologies are inherently dynamic and interactive, social topological studies assign an important role to them in the materialization of these latter kinds of bordering practices and changing forms (e.g. Grommé and Ruppert, 2020). Studies inspired by social topological premises have, in this regard, illuminated and discussed how digital technologies in European border management systems engender multiple evolving forms of “contemporary” Europe (M’charek et al., 2014; see also Pollozek and Passoth, 2019). For example, such studies point at the digital identification at “hotspots” on the edges of European territory that allow continuous monitoring, and governance, of “who” can go “where” (Pollozek and Passoth, 2019). In spatial terms, these digital systems thereby generate centralizing and selective bordering practices that, tailored to the personal data and trajectories of people, generate personalized forms of Europe. Next to this, studies have addressed how these border management systems appeal to a “crisis” as a way to realize an emergent situation that, indeed, requires a specific, tailored, and temporary “management” of movements (van Reekum, 2019). In this way, it can be said that these digital technologies enact two-speed and particularized forms of Europe that contrast temporary crisis management for migrants against a long-term project of a borderless Europe for “natives” (van Reekum, 2019; Grommé and Ruppert, 2020).

Parallel evolvements can be recognized in the field of European education policy. That is, European education policies have increasingly appealed to different (financial, health or migration) “crises” to argue for the urgency of particular and personalized forms of learning, often by digital means (European Commission, 2020a; see also Mangez and Vanden Broeck, 2020). The overarching rationale is that these forms are more flexible than traditional classroom instruction, and would thereby allow educational institutions and learners to respond to changes in society and to continuously renew themselves (Mangez and Vanden Broeck, 2020). Although it concerns other issues regarding digital technologies, crises, and forms of European education, this study assembles them as entangled manifestations of recent European policies that portray complexities of bordering practices, spaces, and times, and how they may entangle the manifestation of online learning initiatives.

Socio-technological architectures, user interfaces, and navigations

To deal with these complex entanglements, the study directs its gaze toward the socio-technological architectures of online learning initiatives, with fourfold implications for this study. First of all, this gaze allows zooming in on the distinctive operations of platforms, websites, and apps, often referred to as technological architectures, which is important for focusing on the spatiotemporal effects of online practices (e.g. Helmond, 2015; Light et al., 2018). That is, a platform architecture is characterized by constant data exchanges that make up “agile” (i.e. constantly renewed), interoperable (i.e. connected to other platforms), and personalized (i.e. adjusted presentation of information based on personal data) relations. This is in contrast with architectures of websites, which are built on fixed HTML arrangements, without possibilities for interoperability or personalization, resulting in more static presentations of information (Helmond, 2015; Plantin et al., 2018). Architectures of apps either emulate more website-like or platform-like operations, but necessarily rely on compatible operating systems of larger tech companies, their hard- and software, and their models for data exchange (see Light et al., 2018).

Second, the focus on socio-technological architectures implies a recognition for recursive relations and negotiations between technologies and i.a. web designers, tech companies, and users that undergird online learning initiatives. This is important for understanding the political operations of these online learning initiatives (see also Williamson, 2018). To give an example, focusing on the way that tech companies and (trans)national organizations draw on personal data inquiries of online platforms, and how these are positioned as “obligatory passing points” into navigational structures, demonstrates how new authority figures arise (Poell and Van Dijck, 2016; cf. Callon, 1984). That is, these tech companies, organizations, as well as digital technologies themselves, gain authority as they, only through their engagement with users, set preconditions and limitations to “where” and “when” people can go online (Poell and Van Dijck, 2016). This shows how social-technological architectures, by arranging (inter)actions between people and technologies, turn into policy or political actors themselves.

While these operations largely overlap with those of data infrastructures, a third implication of the focus on socio-technological architectures is that it guides this study in its focus on forms. That is, emerging studies on data infrastructures have characterized them by their ability to connect different systems through flows of digital data, which makes them necessarily expansive, and positioned “in between” distinct projects and programs (Hartong and Piattoeva, 2021; Sellar, 2015; Williamson, 2018). What makes socio-technological architectures distinctive is that they are sets of these data exchanges that that “hold together” in a specific way (cf. Light et al., 2018; Decuypere & Simons, 2016). In other words, and in line with the social topological focus of this study, socio-technological architectures are products of data infrastructures that, through different bordering practices, make distinct forms. The work of Bratton (2015) illustrates this by, on the one hand, the image of socio-technological architectures as multi-layered forms. In this image, (user) interfaces are mediating layers that arrange interactions between users and i.a., big tech companies and (non-)governmental organizations, again positioned as distinct layers at different “sides” of user interfaces. On the other hand, this work sketches the image of socio-technological architectures as envelope forms that, like the outer shell of a building, hold together “inside” relations (i.e. between users and organizations), while these also necessarily connect to an “outside” (Bratton, 2015). In sum, these images render how socio-technological architectures make up forms that, by themselves, arrange political relations. Moreover, considering the position of user interfaces as continuous mediators between users and other organizations, they can be understood as borders or border zones within these socio-technological architectures per se (see also Drucker, 2014; Galloway, 2012).

This relates to the final reason for, and implication of, the focus on socio-technological architectures, which concerns their materialization of spaces and times. That is, this study follows the arguments of November et al. (2010) who equally draw on the position of user interfaces as mediators between users and various (producers of) technologies. They particularly consider visualizations on user interfaces as “signposts” (e.g. pinpoints on maps, hyperlinks) that, rather than trying to emulate “the outside world,” operate as references to pieces of information and to the “lines of production” that follow up on each other. For this study, this means that signposts can be considered as visible expressions of socio-technological architectures. The main point they make is that these signposts on user interfaces set up navigations that, through their dynamic engagement, generate multiple spaces-times (November et al., 2010). For this study, this means that bordering practices made through socio-technological architectures, and spaces-times they produce, are concretized by such navigations. It is in this way that socio-technological architectures of online learning initiatives are scrutinized, that is, as policy actors that institute forms of space-time through bordering practices and that can be analyzed through navigations on user interfaces.

Methodology

Following this rationale, the methodology of this study is centered around a careful design of active navigations. In what follows, it is explained how this design integrates a purposeful selection of online learning initiatives, a navigation protocol, and a process of building analytic reconstructions.

Research terrain

The purpose of the methodological design was to select online learning initiatives supported by the EC, with at least one directly related to the long-term European “project” (i.e. encouraging bordering crossing, financed through Erasmus+ program) and one positioned as a “crisis remediation” (i.e. managing bordering crossings of “third country nationals” and financed through a temporary and urgent finance scheme). Related to the conceptual framework, an overlapping goal was to select initiatives built on different socio-technological architectures, thus seeking initiatives that distinguish platforms, websites, and apps, and involve different organizations. The selection process started by exploring a “catalog” called MOOCs4Inclusion, which is a result of an EC-commissioned study that maps existing online learning initiatives for migrants and refugees (see Castaño Muñoz et al., 2017). This catalog encompasses a PDF document that presents all mapped online learning initiatives, through short introductory texts and standardized tables with indicators (i.a. “launching date,” “duration,” “target audience,” “purpose,” “financing model”) (see Vrasidas and Miliou, 2016). Furthermore, an interactive catalog is presented on a website (https://moocs4inclusion) with computational filters that allow searching within particular categories (i.a. “MOOCs,” “online courses,” “apps”), and thus allowed screening for different socio-technological architectures. Accordingly, the first selected initiative (Online Linguistic Support, henceforth: OLS) was filed under the categories “MOOCs” and “online courses,” and encompassed a website and a platform that requires a personal account. In the catalog document, indicators stated the launching date (July 2016), duration (3 years), purpose (language learning), target audience (refugees), and funding scheme (Erasmus+). Furthermore, an introductory text stated that it was also included in a long-term program for Erasmus exchange students, while temporarily including refugee students. Accordingly, OLS was considered to be directly related to the European project as well as implemented to remediate the “refugee crisis.” The second selected initiative (Blend-in) was found under the category “app” but was presented together with a link to a website. The catalog further specified the launching date (November 2016), duration (ongoing and from November 2016 to November 2018), purpose (social inclusion), target audience (refugees, migrants, and support workers), and financing program (Erasmus+). Based on this information, it was related to the remediation of the refugee crisis with indirect relations to the European project. Together, these two initiatives set up a research terrain that allowed scrutiny of overlaps (i.e. crisis remediations; website architectures) and parallels (i.e. distinctive relations to the European project, and app or platform architectures) (see Table 1).

Table

Table 1. The two selected initiatives (blue = OLS; red = Blend-in) mapped on a ‘research terrain’, which demonstrates overlaps (OLS & Blend-in include crisis remediations and websites) and parallels (OLS as related to the European project and a platform architecture; Blend-in comprising an app architecture).

Table 1. The two selected initiatives (blue = OLS; red = Blend-in) mapped on a ‘research terrain’, which demonstrates overlaps (OLS & Blend-in include crisis remediations and websites) and parallels (OLS as related to the European project and a platform architecture; Blend-in comprising an app architecture).

Navigation protocol

The methodological design further included a protocol for active navigations to guide the process of data collection. This protocol was informed by the “walkthrough method,” originally set up to analyze navigations on user interfaces of apps (Light et al., 2018). The walkthrough method inquires researchers to take the position of a “regular user” to document their interactions with the user interface, while interchangeably slowing down to interrogate the socio-technological architecture making up these interactions (Light et al., 2018). This means that the method supports the theoretical-conceptual framework of this study, focusing on the amalgam of architectures, user interfaces, and navigations. The walkthrough method further informed the study to distinguish three “stages” in navigations (i.e. registration and entry; everyday use; suspension, closure, and leaving). Coupling these three stages to two modes of navigation (regular user interactions and slowed down interrogation), a navigation protocol was developed that consisted of six “parts” (see Table 2). This navigation protocol was taken up by the first author to guide active navigations through the selected online learning initiatives. Queries for “regular user interactions” directed her focus during navigations, and were recorded through series of screenshots, audio memos, and (digitally) written memos. “Slowed down interrogations” structured her reflection after the navigations, and were recorded separately through digitally written memos. Together, the screenshots, audio memos, and written memos comprised the data that informed the analysis.

Table

Table 2. Overview of the navigation protocol, organizing six ‘parts’ of the active navigations.

Table 2. Overview of the navigation protocol, organizing six ‘parts’ of the active navigations.

Reconstructions

The methodological design also included a systematic plan for analysis, focused on making reconstructions of navigations. These reconstructions implied, first of all, highlighting pieces of data resulting from “regular user interactions” (i.e. screenshots, audio fragments, memos). Based on the theoretical-conceptual framework, these highlights purposefully singled out “signposts” (i.e. references on the user interface) that guided navigations and thereby concretized bordering practices. The highlights were made through iterative cycles of reading the data while writing reflective memos to guide a critical gaze on this process. Second, the reconstructions implied textual and visual descriptions of the “regular user interactions.” That is, textual descriptions were focused on (relations between) signposts on the user interface (i.a. (hyper)text, icons) while visual descriptions comprised screenshots and sketches of the user interface that showed how these relations were made. The logic of the assemblage was deployed as a methodological tool to render relations between signposts as navigations and to address the coherence of navigations beyond a (seemingly) successive order. In this way, we intended to do justice to the social topological angle in this study (see also Ceulemans et al., 2014). Third, reconstructions implied interpretations of the assembled navigations. These interpretations link together the descriptions, the data of the “slowed down interrogation” and theoretical resources to bring the role of the socio-technological architecture(s), their bordering practices, and resulting forms to a conceptual understanding. The following two sections present the reconstructions, each starting with a brief portrayal of the online learning initiatives as they come forward from (policy) documents. Subsequently, these sections present reconstructions by registration and entry, everyday use, and suspension, closure, and leaving as stages in the navigations, with descriptions and interpretations following up on each other. A visual-textual overview gives an account of interpreted bordering practices and forms (see Table 3), to support comparison across stages and the online learning initiatives. Visual and textual accounts allow non-linear readings of this paper, and thereby aim to do justice to the social topological complexities of the navigations.

Table

Table 3. A visual-textual overview of bordering practices and forms that resulted from the interpretations of navigations, organized by the different stages of the navigations.

Table 3. A visual-textual overview of bordering practices and forms that resulted from the interpretations of navigations, organized by the different stages of the navigations.

Online Linguistic Support (OLS)

The first selected initiative, Online Linguistic Support (OLS) was characterized as a policy actor in the long-term European project as well as in the remediation of the refugee crisis (see Table 1). The Erasmus+ Programme Guide aided an understanding of its relation to the European project, as it explained how OLS provides obligatory language assessments for Erasmus exchange students to test their (improvements in) language proficiency before and after their “mobility activities” and optional online language courses to support language learning throughout the mobility period (European Commission, 2020b). The document further explicated that “sending” higher education institutions authorize access to the OLS platform by disseminating “assessment licenses” or “course licenses,” which also allow keeping records of students’ achievements on the platform. The MOOCs4Inclusion catalog itself, as well as the study report that informed it, gave insight into the relation between OLS and its remediation of the refugee crisis (Castaño Muñoz et al., 2017; Vrasidas and Miliou, 2016). This document explicated that a maximum of 100.000 licenses was made available for refugees across Europe within the timeframe of 2015 and 2018. These specific licenses were also disseminated by higher education institutions and included, by default, an obligatory first language assessment, an optional final assessment, and access to courses, for a maximum duration of 13 months.

Active navigations for this study were performed through an “assessment license” for Erasmus Exchange students and were spread over two sessions. The first was conducted in August 2019, and covered initial exploratory navigation through OLS, its registration procedure, and a “first assessment.” The second session was conducted in December 2019 and covered the final assessment as well as a (re)investigation of the entire website and platform. As the dissemination of licenses for refugees had stopped from 2018 on, given the end of the funding period, navigations through these licenses could not be examined.

Registration and entry

The first assemblage of navigations was made by the presentation of the “home page,” based on the main URL (https://erasmusplusols.eu/en/, the English language format), which allowed scrolling and clicking through a menu bar, images and (hyper)texts (see Figure 1). Clicking on tabs “About OLS” and/or “OLS for Refugees” in the menu bar led the navigation to pages with new texts and images, which provided (additional) information about the initiative. Among other things, text on the “About OLS” page stated that Erasmus exchange students should contact their coordinator and that they, consequently, would receive an invitation email to activate an account for this platform. Text on the “OLS Refugees” page stated that supporting organizations for refugees should contact the nearest institution to communicate the email addresses of interested candidates and language(s) they wish to study. This was accompanied by a map with “location markers” leading to contact details of relevant institutions (see Figure 2). Starting from this map, a new assemblage of navigations was made through an email correspondence with the institutional administration that was positioned as the nearest institution on this map (i.e. the affiliated university of the researcher). Through this correspondence, a license (for assessments and without courses) was granted to the research team, initially set in English but changed to French upon our request. The license was materialized by an invitation email with an “Activate your account” button. Clicking this button led the navigation to a series of registration pages that presented empty data entry boxes (i.a. name, gender, date of birth, nationality, mother tongue, country of destination, and start- and end date of mobility) and pre-filled data (email address, affiliated institution, “type of mobility” and “learning language”), all by default in English (see Figure 3). Furthermore, it included a checkbox to agree with the “Terms and Conditions,” concerning the liability, copyright, and code of conduct on the platform. The privacy statement, in turn, was accessed through an outgoing hyperlink and this demonstrated that data were treated according to GDPR, were used for communication and research purposes by the platform itself as well as the European Commission. The registration was finalized when all data entry boxes and this check box were filled and a blue button “Save” was clicked, which lead to an overview of the inserted data in a “Mobility Dashboard.”


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Figure 1. The “Home page” shown on the user interface when opening the URL https://erasmusplusols.eu/en/ on August 2019. The flag on the left upper part is a static image, the logo of the initiative. The text on the top operates as “menu bar.” The (hyper) text “Home” is connected to the current page, “About OLS” leads to an informational page about OLS, “OLS for refugees” leads to a similar page about the possibilities for refugees, “Support” leads to a platform with FAQ. The (hyper)text “English” yields a drop-down menu, showing 24 languages that can be selected as default languages for the main features on the website. The words LOG IN and START NOW are both hypertextual buttons that lead to a page that inquires an email address and a password (i.e. introducing the platform). The three pictograms on the bottom of this screenshot can be clicked too, and consequently, generate “in-page” changes in texts and accompanying photos. As said, this home page has changed, as it does not include the tab “OLS for refugees” anymore.1


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Figure 2. This map is presented on the “OLS for Refugees” page during the navigation in August 2019. The markers on the map link to all institutions that distribute licenses to access OLS. When clicking on a pin, contact details of the related institution appear on the left panel. The left panel is also organized through computational filters, which filters markers of all “OLS for refugees”-related institutions (captured by this screenshot) or only of “National Agencies.1


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Figure 3. Screenshot of the second registration page (i.e. “Edit Mobilities”) in series of three pages, made from the personal account of the first author. It shows the pre-filled data entry boxes (sending institution/organization, type of mobility, language to test), as well as those boxes inquired to be filled out. The sending institution is covered with a black marker.1

The first assemblage of navigations stages interactions with a stable construction of hyperlinks, images, and text, which characterizes the technological architecture of a website (see Helmond, 2015). Throughout the navigations, (hyper)texts act as references to coordinators, supporting organizations, and institutions, which are respectively positioned as contact persons, administrators, and locations on a map. More specifically, they are delegated to act as “obligatory passing points” that gain authority to grant or reject students’ further movements to the platform through the dissemination of licenses (cf. Callon, 1984). This shows how these institutional actors are integrated into the socio-technological architecture, in which they are delegated with the responsibility to “manage” movements of students within their institutional borders and the “outside” platform. However, users are delegated with the responsibility to contact the administration. In this sense, OLS deploys mediating bordering practices that organize the negotiation of continuing institutional forms on the one hand, and ecological forms that offer more flexible “opportunities” beyond the borders of the institution on the other hand (see Decuypere & Simons, 2020). The renewability of these spaces-times is thereby marked by the shifts and mediations of responsibilities between institutions, individual organizations and students.

The second assemblage particularly demonstrates a transition toward a platform architecture, characterized by the exchange of (user) data (see Helmond, 2015). The personal account, and the Mobility Dashboard, thereby act as references to the assessment license that is necessary to access the platform. In turn, the license is positioned as an “obligatory passing point” in the socio-technological architecture, as it gains authority to determine whether, when, for how long (cf. mobility duration) and whereto (cf. what language, what course) users move through the platform (see Poell and Van Dijck, 2016). However, the specificity of the process of registration implies that Erasmus exchange students are invited to actively co-construct their mobility, as they can fill out their language, host country, and mobility duration through data entry themselves. Refugee students can only indicate their language of preference via their supporting institutions. The mobility duration and host country, however, are set by default. This generates differentiating bordering practices that, rather than interweave, separate flexible ecological forms for Erasmus Exchange students and bounded institutional forms for refugee students (see Decuypere & Simons, 2020). In this way, OLS enacts a “two-speed Europe” (see also Grommé and Ruppert, 2020), that is still renewable for “natives” while “given” and temporary for “others” during an emergency crisis.

Everyday use

The navigations of everyday use through OLS were arranged into an assemblage that, in turn, was initiated by the “Start” button on the Mobility Dashboard (see Figure 4a; underneath the “First assessment”). This button inaugurated a series of pages (i.a. explaining the assessment process, testing the audio function, arraying four different parts of the assessments), each time introducing a “next” page by a blue “confirmation” button (e.g. “I understand,” “Let’s go” or “Validate”). Throughout these series of pages, a continuously stretching orange line on the top of the user interface showed the relative position toward the end of the assessment (see Figure 5). The assessment was completed through a “Validate” button, which led the navigation through to a “Results” page (see Figure 6) with a “Continue” button leading back to the (slightly changed) Mobility Dashboard. From this moment on, the Dashboard included a statement on the optional language course and availability date of the final assessment (see Figure 4b).


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Figure 4. (a) On the left side is a screenshot of the Mobility Dashboard before the first assessment. The “Start” button is a hypertext that leads to the first assessment, and the text below indicates until what date this can be done. This button is the only hypertext that can be clicked within the Mobility Dashboard. (b) On the right side is a screenshot of the Mobility Dashboard after the first assessment. The level resulting from the assessment is shown and a PDF document with the test results can be downloaded. The text for the next two steps has changed, stating that the sending institution needs to be contacted to request access to the language course, and the availability date for the final language assessment is shown.1


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Figure 5. A screenshot of a question-page in the series of assessment pages, with on the top of the screen an orange line indicating the relative position toward the end of the assessment, on the upper right corner a cross to “leave” the page and on the right lower side the “Validate” button.1


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Figure 6. The “results” page. The colored ball indicates the level of French of the student, based on the assessment, while the text explains what this level implies, as well as how these levels differ per part of the test. The text “Take a quick survey” leads to a page with several questions on the assessment, the button “Continue” as well as the “x” on the upper right part of the page lead back to the Mobility Dashboard.1

This assemblage reiterates the features of the platform architecture, including its “agile” and personalizing operations (i.a. continuously stretching timeline; updated Mobility Dashboard). In this constellation, the Mobility Dashboard installs a “starting point” as well as an “endpoint” that simultaneously acts as a reference to the (datafied) achievements of students and their licenses (see also Decuypere & Simons, 2020). While the stretching line and the successive “Validate” buttons give the appearance of a linear timeline, the Dashboard enacts an obligatory passing point that structures students’ movements in circles without possibilities for interventions of institutions, teachers, peer students, or other educational actors. In this way, the socio-technological architecture of OLS establishes enclosing bordering practices that generate individualized forms (Nail, 2016). Moreover, as these assessments rest upon differentiated licenses for Erasmus students and refugee students, with different levels of flexibility and/or “fixity,” OLS comes forward as a policy actor that generates more possibilities for adaptation within a European project, while it is temporary and fixed when relating to a time of crisis (cf. Nail, 2016; Plájás et al., 2019).

Suspension, closure, and leaving

Navigations that enacted suspensions, closures, and/or leaving were arranged into three assemblages. The first assemblage of suspension was continuously performed throughout assessments, especially by a small cross on the upper right corner of each question-page (see Figure 5). Clicking this cross yielded a pop-up window (“Progress will be saved for 15 days”), with a hypertextual button (“OK”) that led back to the Mobility Dashboard. From here, the “First assessment” was pursued through a “Continue” button. The second assemblage of suspension was operationalized by a period in-between the first and final assessment, in which there were no operative hyperlinks in the Mobility Dashboard. Only at the indicated end-date of the “mobility,” an email with a link to the Mobility Dashboard was sent, which showed that there was an operable “Start” button underneath the “Final assessment.” A third assemblage specifically enacted closure and appeared after clicking the “Validate” button in this Final assessment. As all assessments were finalized, the only possible activities in the Mobility Dashboard involved clicking the “Download results” button. According to the “Support platform,” the Mobility Dashboard would remain accessible in this format for at least 13 months after logging in, which would mean that the account was still “active.” Moreover, the Privacy Statement explicated that personal data would be retained for 2 years and anonymized and aggregated data were stored for the whole duration of OLS, provided that the user did not ask for de-activation or deletion of the data.

These three assembled navigations demonstrate, again, the central position of the Mobility Dashboard as an obligatory passage point in the socio-technological architecture of OLS. As visible in these navigations, it structures when, where, and how navigations are suspended or continued, while continuously “leading back” to itself (see Light et al., 2018; Poell and Van Dijck, 2016). As such, the Mobility Dashboard re-enacts enclosing bordering practices that, in these cases of suspension, have short- and long-term implications. That is, in the short term, the Mobility Dashboard acts as a reference to real-time records of students’ achievements and simultaneously structures where/when they need to “continue,” and thereby result in closed “feedback loops” (Decuypere & Simons, 2020; Williamson, 2018; see also Nail, 2016). In the longer term, data retainment policies show that the socio-technological architecture of OLS “holds” (data of) users is retained even when they move “away from the screen.” Both these implications generate forms of (data) envelopes, that is, they generate a user “inside” the architecture, that is continuously connected to “outside” (Bratton, 2015; cf. Light et al., 2018). Particularly because Erasmus students can “activate” their account by logging in, while the account of refugee students is closed after a default period of 13 months, this shows again how the socio-technological architecture of OLS installs a “two-speed” Europe with extensive possibilities within a European project and delimited, fixed possibilities in times of crisis (Grommé and Ruppert, 2020). Yet over the whole, it also stresses that OLS generally holds students within closed trajectories, rather than in continuous streams of renewal.

Blend-in

The second selected initiative, named Blend-in, was characterized as a policy actor in remediating the refugee crisis (see Table 1). To understand its relation to this policy, the website of Blend-in was consulted through the link in the MOOCs4Inclusion catalog (http://blend-in.eu/en/) On this website, a page titled “Outcomes” presented hyperlinks that, respectively, led to the presentation of Blend-in an app store, the download of a PDF document with a handbook for support workers, and the download of two reports on the development of the app. The handbook stipulated that the app was purposed to support pre-departure and post-arrival orientation for refugees and migrants, especially at stake for national authorities of four countries (i.e. Greece, Italy, Malta, Cyprus). The two reports integrated a needs analysis and initial testing of the app. Another page, titled “News,” included several “deprecated” hyperlinks, which could be attributed to the fact that funding had stopped from November 2018. After this initial exploration, navigations were decidedly focused on the app, the central outcome of the initiative, and operable although funding had stopped.

Registration and entry

A first assemblage of entry into Blend-in was arranged by conditions to enter the app. That is, after clicking the hyperlink on the Blend-in website that led to the app store page, it appeared that the app store was linked to one operating system (OS) and, therefore, urged navigations to continue on a compatible mobile device. The app store further demonstrated, among other things, that the app held permissions to gather data on users’ network connections. After clicking the “Install” and “Open” buttons in this app store, navigations were pursued without registration or a link to a personal account. A second, interwoven, assemblage of entry was made by the layout of the app store presentation (see Figure 7). This layout included various images and texts that substantiated quantitative (e.g. ratings, numbers of downloads), qualitative (e.g. descriptions, visualizations), and categorical (e.g. age ranking, category education) indicators. One of the few clickable hypertexts was the central “Install button” that, after being clicked, changed into an “Open” button and, in turn, led to the “Welcome page” of the app (see Figure 8a).


                        figure

Figure 7. An abstraction of the Blend-in page in the app store, shown from a mobile phone with a compatible operating system. The logo and title of Blend-in are shown on the top of the display, followed by the name of the main developer. Underneath the title, the display shows respectively a rating (on a scale of 0–5, with one decimal point), the number of reviews on which this rating is based, the number of downloads, and an age rating label. Below, the “Install” button is materialized by a colored bar that, when pressed, leads to the download and installation of the app. The button then splits in two, with on the left side an “uninstall” button and on the right side an “open” button. Underneath the Install button is a series of visualizations of the app, that can be moved by sliding the finger over the touchscreen. Followed by the text “About this app” is an arrow that, when clicked, leads to a new page with more elaborated specifications and reviews. Below is a short introductory text, and a small textbox framing the word “education.” What follows is a section “ratings and reviews” with a graph with quantitative ranking (1 out of 5 stars) and a series of individual rankings (including the name of the reviewer, the number of stars, the date of the review and a textual elaboration).


                        figure

Figure 8. (a) This is the “Welcome” page, that is, the first page presented when opening the app. The “I” icon in the left corner is a hypertextual button, leading to a general information page on about the project. The rectangles with the country names are also hypertextual buttons, leading to country-specific pages (see Figure 8b). (b). This is the page that appears when tapping “Italy” in on the “Welcome” page (see Figure 8a). The colored bars are hypertextual. Tapping on them leads to a (country-specific) institution-specific page (see Figure 8c). Each country-specific page comprises the same sort of images and (hyper)texts (i.a. a topographical map of the country, symbols and references to institutions). (c). This page appears when tapping “Education” on a “country-specific” page (see Figure 8b). The video is embedded in YouTube and plays when tapping the arrow. The page presents a text about the organization of education in European countries. When scrolling vertically, there is a section with “Useful links” to country-specific institution-specific information, and “General resources” with hyperlinks to international, mainly European, websites about education.2

The first assemblage of navigations gives expression to interactions with an app architecture, including its reliance on a particular operating system and, thus, on particular devices (Light et al., 2018). As a result, it implies a socio-technological architecture in which (products of) related tech companies are positioned as “obligatory passing points,” gaining authority to select who can navigate the app (i.e. who holds this device) and on what conditions (i.e. permissions to gather data) (Poell and Van Dijck, 2016; Light et al., 2018). Similar to “hotspots” in European border management systems, this implicates centralizing and selective bordering practices (cf. Pollozek and Passoth, 2019). Nevertheless, as the socio-technological architecture of Blend-in does not integrate personal accounts, it installs a stable channeled form that, unlike individualized forms in OLS, is similarly selective to all users and allows them to see the same presentations on the user interface.

The second assemblage of navigations is arranged by images and texts that act as references to various concepts, quality indicators, and values (November et al., 2010). One central reference is made to “education,” which renders a relation between this app(store) and the public institution of education. This shows how the app deploys mediating bordering practices in between public and private spheres (Drucker, 2014). Moreover, the central position of the Install button rationalizes entry into this app as an individual opportunity that is only “a click away.” In this way, the socio-technological architecture of Blend-in establishes ecological forms that, similar to OLS, prioritize individual opportunities, while appealing to institutional forms of education (Decuypere & Simons, 2020). In this vein, Blend-in operates as a policy actor that addresses the “management” of movements, during a time of crisis, in an individualized manner.

Everyday use

Everyday use of the Blend-in app was rendered into one coherent and stable assemblage of navigations through various intersecting hyperlinks. First, four hypertextual buttons with names and flags on the “Welcome” page led to pages that display information on one of the four countries and that, for this reason, can be considered country-specific pages (see Figure 8a). On their part, these country-specific pages include hypertextual buttons (with icons and names) linked to pages with information on specific institutions (e.g. education, health, employment) within these countries, and can henceforth be considered (country-specific) institution-specific pages (see Figure 8b and c). Then, these institution-specific pages contained partitioned pieces of text, outgoing hyperlinks (i.e. embedded in “View page” buttons), and hyperlinks to PDF documents with linguistic translations, which could be navigated by clicking and scrolling.

Since these assembled navigations are arranged by a stable set of hyperlinks, images, and texts, without possibilities for personalization, they materialize the typical features of website architectures (Helmond, 2015). More particularly, these “signposts” act as references to countries and institutions (i.a. images of flags, country names, maps) that can be followed in different successive directions (see also November et al., 2010). Within this stable construction, the socio-technological architecture of Blend-in materializes simultaneously “topographical and topological moments of bordering” (cf. Hartong and Piattoeva, 2021). That is, on the one hand, this renders fixed, mapped images of countries and thereby re-installs forms of nations (Hartong and Piattoeva, 2021). Particularly as references to institutions are positioned “in” these country-specific pages, the socio-technological architecture OLS, as a policy actor, pursues the principle of subsidiarity that prioritizes national authority over institutional policies, including education (European Commission, 2017). On the other hand, this enacts various ways of being mobile across borders and between nations, and thereby makes up ecological forms that are spanning over, and entwined with, forms of nations (Decuypere & Simons, 2020). In this way, the socio-technological architecture stages Blend-in as a policy actor that is focused on the European ambition toward a “borderless EEA,” while simultaneously delegating authority to national governments (Decuypere & Simons, 2020). Moreover, through the position in the stable constellation of hyperlinks, Blend-in renders these national-ecological forms as “given” similarly to all users, unlike OLS, which differentiates possibilities for flexibility and adjustment.

Suspension, closure, and leaving

The act of leaving the Blend-in app was arranged by two assemblages of navigations. The first assemblage included the “exit,” “back,” and “delete this app” buttons on the control panel of the mobile device which, respectively, stopped operations of the app, re-directed navigations to the “home screen,” or removed the app from the device. In the absence of a personal account, there was no option to remove personal data. A second assemblage performed leaving through outgoing hyperlinks, namely, the “View page” buttons on the “institution-specific” pages (see Figure 9). These hyperlinks directed navigations to the web browser, which showed websites of related (inter)national institutions, including European departments and directorates (see Figure 9a and b). In some instances, these hyperlinks generated messages that “the website no longer exists.” Clicking the “back button” in the web browser toolbar then led the navigations “back” into the app.


                        figure

Figure 9. (a) This is a screenshot of a country-specific, institution-specific page. Each button “View page” leads to a website, presented in the browser (e.g. see Figure 9b). (b) An example of a website that is linked to the “View page” button in the section “General resources,” and how it is presented in the web browser.2

The first assemblage of navigations re-articulates the app’s technological architecture, and its intricate interweaving with (the control panel of) a particular operating system and/or mobile device (see Light et al., 2018). Concerning the socio-technological architecture, this equally stresses the position of tech companies as “obligatory passage points” who gain authority in structuring the navigations even up until leaving the app (Poell and Van Dijck, 2016). This demonstrates mediating bordering practices between Blend-in as a publicly funded app and the private tech companies in charge of the operating system which, in turn, re-iterates the conflation of institutional-ecological forms. More specifically, it renders the Blend-in app as a (policy) actor that necessarily involves the private sector, and thereby has to delegate part of its responsibilities to “renew” and/or enclose itself (European Comission, 2016; but also Lawn, 2001).

In the second assemblage, the outgoing hyperlinks demonstrate references to (European) education institutions. More specifically, their position at the “end” of the navigation involves these institutions in enclosing bordering practices: they surround the “inside” of the app while also marking an “outside” (cf. Nail, 2016). Particularly, it shows how European institutions “hold” this app together even when users are moving “outside” and, in this way, install distinctly European envelope forms (cf. Bratton, 2015). The presence of the inoperative links further marks Blend-in as a typical European project that, through its definite status, is loosely coupled yet “out of sync” with ongoing, long-term programs (see also Vanden Broeck, 2020). As such, it shows how Blend-in is a policy actor invoked by an emergent crisis, with limited possibilities for continuous renewal.

Discussion

This study addressed two online learning initiatives funded by the European Commission, which are positioned as policy actors in the long-term project of creating a “borderless” European Education Area and/or as policy actors in the remediation of the so-called “refugee crisis.” The study aimed to contribute to existing research focused on the policy enactment of European education spaces through, among other things, digital technologies (e.g. Lawn, 2001; Romito et al., 2020) while including how such policies and technologies implicate particular times (Barbousas and Seddon, 2018). In this vein, the European project is understood as an ongoing program that invokes an educational “crisis” to call forth continuous renewable and personalized learning trajectories, and that thereby encourages (cross-border) mobility, while the refugee crisis is positioned as an urgent and temporary occurrence asking for the “management” of uncontrollable movements. Social topology was adopted as a theoretical and methodological lens to zoom in on bordering practices made through digital technologies in online learning initiatives, and to scrutinize how these engender entangled spaces-times. The theoretical-conceptual framework further specified a focus on socio-technological architectures and implicated user interfaces, and argued how navigations on user interfaces concretize bordering practices of these digital technologies. Following this argument, the methodological design of this study was centered around active navigations through two selected online learning initiatives. The findings are formulated to give focused accounts of navigations in these two respective online learning initiatives.

The first initiative, OLS, was commissioned to encourage language learning among Erasmus exchange students, yet temporarily included a limited amount of refugee students. Therefore, it was considered as a policy actor that was initially related to the European project, but that was also temporarily integrated in the remediation of the refugee crisis. Navigations on the user interface of OLS demonstrated a central role for educational institutions in organizing entry and registration, next to digital technologies like the Mobility Dashboard and related “licenses”. These technologies differentiated learning paths for Erasmus exchange students and refugee students and thereby allowed the former to constantly co-construct their mobility while granting the latter a default and temporary pathway on the platform. This showed how the socio-technological architecture of OLS involved bordering practices that conflated and separated institutional and ecological forms. Next to this, the Mobility Dashboard individually structured navigations and “held” students’ data throughout everyday use and suspensions of the platform, which generated individualized and data envelope forms. These forms stipulate how OLS, as a policy actor, has set out flexible yet still enclosed spaces-times when related to the European project, while it produced a fixed and given space-time when related to the crisis remediation.

The second initiative, the Blend-in app, was focused exclusively on migrants and refugees and was financed for a fixed term of 2 years. For this reason, it was considered to be explicitly linked to the remediation of the “refugee crisis.” Characterizing the app architecture, navigations appeared to be co-organized by technologies of private tech companies, which rendered a stable channeled form upon entry, and institutional-ecological forms that mediated between the public “inside” and a private “outside.” Nevertheless, as mainly national institutions appeared along navigations of everyday use and European institutions emerged when leaving, this showed how Blend-in involved bordering practices that made forms of nations as well as ecological forms, and European envelope forms that continuously related to them. Ultimately, Blend-in was characterized as a stable arrangement that, as a policy actor, generated a “common view,” and thereby did not continue personalized approaches toward migration management during the refugee crisis. In addition, it operationalized the temporary nature “refugee crisis,” as it was not continuously renewed or updated, and therefore was thereby “out of sync” with European projects. Altogether, this implied that the socio-technological architectures of both initiatives, and the navigations they manifested, substantiated the European project as a policy orientation toward ongoing and flexible spaces-times, while the remediation of the refugee crisis geared toward temporary, “given” spaces-times.

The contribution of social topology to this study, as a theoretical and methodological lens, comes forward in the recognition of bordering practices as ongoing spatial and temporal enactments. With the focus on the entanglement of spaces and times, social topology showed interchanges between fixed forms of nations, institutions, and website architectures, and constantly moving transnational, personalized, and ecological forms as well as app- and platform architectures. The methodological design of active navigations implied, accordingly, active involvement in these bordering practices. This means that the study recognizes how, first of all, the selection (criteria) yielded a bordered research terrain, which focused on a specific area of concern. More specifically, while addressing relations between policies, technologies, and people, the focus was merely on their visible appearance on the user interface. Second, premises that informed navigation protocols distinguished different positions and stages in navigations (i.a. regular vs slowed down use; registration and entry, everyday use and suspension, closure and leaving), which implied bordering practices that engendered segmented temporalities and spaces. Finally, navigations were rendered into reconstructions, including descriptions of assembled data pieces and related interpretations. In this sense, navigations brought together “frozen” data fragments into different sequences and reshuffled temporalities, while finally turning them into texts and visualizations that are, necessarily, “snapshots.” In this vein, this paper cannot do justice to ongoing movements and fluidities made through technologies in these online learning initiatives. Through detailed elucidations on the methodology and by compiling non-linear readings of texts and visualizations, the study has still aimed to support the transparency and rigor of the study. That is, it has aimed to show how exactly it engaged with these bordering practices, and thus with the making of spaces-times.

Against this background, the study recognizes how the formulated findings generate multiple possibilities for EC-funded online learning initiatives to evolve, rather than singular static representations. These possibilities, in turn, give pause for thought to consider current directions in Europeanizing education policies. First of all, the findings point to various redistributions of responsibilities for education. The social topological lens specifically guided a gaze on the (inter)changing positions of institutions, (trans)national policies, and tech companies as “obligatory passing points” (Callon, 1984; Poell and Van Dijck, 2016), and stipulated how this generates confusions of institutional and ecological spaces-times, public and private spheres, national and (trans)European spaces-times. In this vein, the study raises questions on how to organize educational responsibilities through digital technologies. As an indefinite answer, the study particularly considers how practices enacted through projects and continuous data exchanges allow educational practices to be organized between (trans)national, on- and offline, and public-private spheres, and, as such, allow for constantly renewable spaces-times (Hartong and Piattoeva, 2021; Vanden Broeck, 2020). Second, the findings highlight possibilities for differentiated learning trajectories and related implications for (non-)European students. That is, this study calls into question whether online learning initiatives materialize movements that delineate a “common” European education space or draw more on the tendency to generate personalized spaces (EERJ Initiative Group, 2015; Romito et al., 2020). Moreover, it interrogates how European policies draw on digital technologies to establish border regimes that, ultimately, favor particular mobilities of particular (European) people (M’charek et al., 2014; van Reekum, 2019). This study thereby shows how personalized “management” of mobilities through digital technologies, for example through “agile” platforms, could provide new opportunities to deal with contemporary changes, although this requires constant care and maintenance of relations between (inter)national environments (Decuypere & Simons, 2020). By highlighting these possibilities and related questions, this study considers broader discussions beyond the specific cases that are being studied. That is, it aims to interpose the relatively short development of digitalization in (European) education, in which digital technologies have been positioned as “flexible” solutions in times of crisis. Particularly, it questions whether these technologies are flexible per se, and who benefits from their flexibility. The study thereby stirs up discussions on how European online learning initiatives could integrate long-term visions with crisis remediations and, accordingly, could support continuously renewable educational spaces-times.

Declaration of conflicting interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Funding
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

ORCID iDs
Karmijn van de Oudeweetering https://orcid.org/0000-0002-8856-7145

Mathias Decuypere https://orcid.org/0000-0002-0983-738X

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Karmijn van de Oudeweetering is a PhD researcher at the Methodology of Educational Sciences Research Group (KU Leuven, Belgium). Her research focuses on Open Education initiatives in Europe and beyond, drawing on social topology to understand what sorts of spaces-times these initiatives bring into existence. The research is furthermore interested in developing innovative qualitative methods to scrutinize these online phenomena.

Mathias Decuypere is an Assistant Professor at the Methodology of Educational Sciences Research Group (KU Leuven, Belgium). His main interests are situated at the digitization, datafication and platformization of education; and how these evolutions shape distinct forms of educational spaces and times.