Reframing Open in the context of the Digital University – Part 2

In the first of the two blog posts that accompany our presentation at #oer16, Sheila MacNeill introduced our work exploring the idea of the Digital University that we have been undertaking with our colleague Bill Johnston. The catalyst for our work was the Conceptual Matrix for the Digital University that Sheila and Bill produced, and which we then applied in scoping and carrying out a strategic ‘digital futures’ consultation in my previous institution (Smyth, MacNeill and Johnston, 2015).

In Part 1 of our posting, Sheila discussed the need to take a broader look at what ‘open’ might mean and the limitations that are inherent in conflating ‘open’ with ‘online’. Sheila also introduced the idea of ‘third space’ in the context of bridging formal and informal learning and institutional cultures. The concept of ‘third space’ is one that is becoming increasingly central to our thinking about the nature of the Digital University, and in previous posts here on my own blog I’ve been trying to unpick what ‘The University as a Third Space’ might mean in practice.

In thinking about the Digital University, the idea of ‘third space’ (which can be interpreted from a number of different perspectives) has been useful to us in conceptualising the university as a located and co-located space; one that exists within and across physical and digital spaces that can be both inside and outside of the institution itself. The metaphor of ‘the leaky university’ (Wall, 2015) is one we find useful in thinking about open and openness, and where physical and digital spaces meet or diverge. In a similar vein, Ronnie Macintyre at OEPS has recently initiated a discussion on ‘the pourous university’ and we hope to be collaborating with Ronnie and OEPS to organise a symposia on this in the very near future.

Our work in exploring the Digital University has also led us to think about the curriculum as a located and co-located space, with multiple points of connection between learners, and which is ‘leaky’ or ‘porous’ with respect to the academic work of our learners and the extent to which this can resonate beyond the university. We see parallels here with the idea of students as producers or co-creators, which within the context of the Digital University might be framed around the notion of students as digital public scholars.

Within the ‘digital futures’ work we undertook at Edinburgh Napier University, our consultations with academics, professional services colleagues and the students themselves led us towards the idea of ‘the digitally distributed curriculum’ as an organising concept for thinking about digital and open practice, and for thinking about the location and co-location of the university and the curriculum.


Our initial and ‘imperfect’ thinking on the ‘digitally distributed curriculum’ (DFWG, 2014)


Our thinking about what would characterise the digitally distributed curriculum, and how it would be instantiated, was very nascent and ‘imperfect’ when we first outlined it (DFWG, 2014). However, going forward we are further scrutinising what the various dimensions of the digitally distributed curriculum might be, and how as an idea it might help us to further understand open in the context of the university and digital practice. From a critical perspective, we may seek to frame this within a deconstruction of the curriculum in Higher Education (Hall and Smyth, 2016) including an identification of the various ways – technological, cultural, pedagogical – through which the curriculum is ‘bounded’ within the university.

Sheila has also been leading us in exploring the overarching idea, and implications, of ‘digital university ecosystems’ as another valuable lens or ‘organising concept’. In thinking about ecologies, openness, and engagement, we are particularly mindful of the need for further qualitative research into the experience of learners and academics who are engaging in open education, and which specifically addresses the challenges of ‘being’ within open education contexts. The application of phenomenographic, ethnographic and other participatory methods and approaches would seem particularly important to advancing the research and evidence base relating to open education. The work of colleagues like Chrissi Nerantzi, and the establishment of communities including the Global OER Graduate Network, points towards an emerging body of research (and emerging group of researchers) who will advance our understanding.

We look towards what we can learn from them, in what is still a gloriously messy area.

DFWG (Digital Futures Working Group) (2014) Digital Futures Working Group: Recommendations: April 2014 (Final Revision). Edinburgh Napier University.

Hall, R. and Smyth, K. (2016) Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education. Open Library of Humanities. Vol 2, No 1. Online [last accessed 19.04.16] DOI:

Smyth, K., MacNeill, S., and Johnston, B. (2015) Visioning the Digital University – from institutional strategy to academic practice. Educational Developments, Vol 16, No 2, pp.13-17.

Wall, G. (2015) Future Thinking: Imaginative Expectations for the Leaky University. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, Vol 3, No 1. Online [last accessed 19.04.16]

Within, across, and beyond: ‘third spaces’ in tertiary education

This post is presented in two related parts. Part two relates to the title.

Part 1. Overview of a recent learning spaces design event

The context for this post is the Space to Succeed event held by Architecture and Design Scotland back in the autumn. Organised as part of a wider programme exploring developments in architecture and design over the last decade, the Space to Succeed event brought together a wide range of delegates to explore challenges and developments in the design of learning spaces.

The focus of Space to Succeed was mainly on the design and configuration of physical learning spaces (e.g. schools and campuses, and the spaces for learning within them), although with a strong emphasis on where digital learning tools and spaces are located within and between the physical.

I was one of five invited speakers that included colleagues from the schools sector, public bodies and industry, and between us we covered a fairly broad range of themes and issues.

Maggie Barlow, from Space Strategies, presented on the topic of ‘Creating quality spaces to nurture learning’ and discussed her work with education authorities to help them reconceptualise the design of schools to ‘catalyse new ways of learning’. Rethinking learning space design was also central to the talk by Ciarian Bauer. Ciarian discussed the Bridge 21 programme at Trinity College Dublin, and their work to date in designing reconfigurable classroom and collaborative learning spaces.


The presentations that chimed most closely with my own were those by Ian Stuart, discussing his work leading the development of the national school’s intranet GLOW on behalf of the Scottish Government, and by Angela Edwards of Inverclyde Council. Ian discussed the potential for enhancing the learning experience of school pupils by making more effective use of their mobile phones as “personal supercomputers”, and he strongly challenged ‘turn it off’ policies and the tendency within schools “to create special rooms for technology to happen within”. Ian also discussed the relationship between more creative use of digital tools and spaces within education, and the development of learning within and for wider community contexts. Angela Edwards addressed a very specific community, that of Inverclyde, in a rich talk that covered learner needs, de-population, and the challenge of ensuring that new and existing spaces within communities are used in ways that directly connect and impact on culture, curriculum, wellbeing and employment.

I touched upon similar themes to Ian and Angela in my own talk for the event, which addressed the concept of ‘third space’ in relation to further and higher education, digital and community engagement, and where the curriculum is located and co-located.

The outcomes of the Space to Succeed event – including recordings of the talks outlined above – were recently made available at

In addition Architecture and Design Scotland has produced a collection of reflections from their wider programme of events, and this includes short articles to accompany the Space to Succeed presentations

With the permission of Architecture and Design Scotland, the reflective piece relating to my own talk is shared below. This is the unedited and slightly longer version of the piece submitted for the publication, and it expands upon a number of issues that I’ve written about in previous blog posts.

Part 2. Within, across, and beyond: ‘third spaces’ in tertiary education

How might we conceptualise the nature of our educational spaces – both physical, digital, and intangible – within the context of further and higher education? Furthermore, how might we think about learner engagement within and across our educational spaces, and the relationship between our formal educational spaces and the communities within which our educational institutions sit?

From a personal perspective, there are two important propositions that frame my own thinking here. The first concerns the somewhat intangible space that is the curriculum. We know and experience the curriculum through the artefacts, activities, resources and people that the curriculum is instantiated within and communicated through. However, here I suggest that our notions of ‘curriculum’ are often bounded by assumptions of space and place in programmes of study, and of space and place within the ‘hard’ and virtual walls of the institution.

My second proposition concerns the burgeoning open education movement within particularly the higher education sector, and the promise that this originally offered to harness open online approaches to widen access to higher education on a previously unprecedented scale. This early promise has failed to transpire, and instead open online education initiatives have served mainly to amplify access to higher education for those who already have a higher education, rather than to offer opportunities to engage in further and higher education for those who are aspiring to engage. Here I suggest a need to refocus the open education debate so that it is not framed so strongly in the context of open online education, and instead provides a focus on our physical spaces and locations.


The concept of ‘third place’ or ‘third space’ is an important one in thinking about the above. Drawing upon the seminal work of Ray Oldenburg (1989), some of the key characteristics that define third space include: their location as spaces within our community that are ‘not home’ and ‘not work’; as spaces where social difference and diversity is embraced; as spaces where those who may not otherwise meet may come together; and where there is a sharing of knowledge and experience for a collective good. When we think about the concept in relation to formal tertiary education, we may extend the idea of ‘third space’ as spaces for learning and collaboration that exist between and across particular courses and course cohorts, between and across formal and informal learning communities, and between and across the university, local communities, and wider society.

The idea of ‘third space’ is central to the rapidly developing alternative higher education movement in the UK, and is both explicit and implicit in the work and ethos of initiatives and collectives including the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, the Free University Brighton, and the Ragged University. Common to each is the creation and facilitation of free higher education and adult learning opportunities within the community, situated in collaborative and collegiate spaces – or annexes – that sit out with formal higher educational institutions.

We can also look towards similar initiatives within the digital domain. This includes the work of the charity Lead (Linking Education and Disability) Scotland, and their Thinking Digitally course which offers a negotiated, peer-supported, online opportunity for learners to research and then produce a digital artefact relating to a topic of their choosing (for example a subject they would like to study or an area they would like to work in). The learners then have the option of being formally assessed at college level for the digital and information literacies they have developed in the process. A similar widening access ethos is embedded in the development of Community Open Online Courses (COOCs) (, with the COOCs platform providing “a place where anyone can teach and learn anything for free”.

What we see in the examples above, manifested in various ways, is an ‘unbounding’ of both the curriculum and tertiary learning opportunities from the physical and virtual walls of the formal educational institution, and a ‘co-location’ of the curriculum within our wider communities.

While further education colleges have been more pro-active in extending the college and the curriculum to the wider community, there has been much less of a tradition of this within higher education. This does not sit well against the idea of higher education as a public good, and one that can benefit not just our learners, professions and industries, but also wider society itself.

There are, however, examples that illuminate what is possible when we reconceptualise our formal higher education spaces and what we expect to happen within and beyond them. The Student as Producer initiative at the University of Lincoln, and Student as Change Agents at University of Exeter, have both reconceptualised the curriculum and teaching and assessment practice to position students as active researchers and influencers of change, and producers or co-producers of ideas, resources and interventions that often have a broader social purpose and resonance.

The institution-wide curriculum reform undertaken at the University of Hong Kong in recent years has also shown what is possible when a university radically reconceptualises the relationship between the university, their curriculum, and the wider communities within which both exist. Major projects undertaken through the curriculum that attest to this include architecture and engineering students building a school in a deprived local area, with the back of the building being constructed as a public amphitheatre (or ‘third space’) for community events and activities.

‘Third spaces’ in tertiary education are spaces – or annexes – that extend our opportunities for engaging with learners within and beyond the college or university. Some of these third spaces are physical, some digital. We can also create ‘third space’ within our curricula, if we view the curriculum itself as a space and then ask ourselves where it should be located and co-located. Harnessing the concept of ‘third space’ in tertiary education can allow us to make connections between different groups of learners, allow our students to connect with the wider communities they belong to, and allow our colleges and universities to better connect with the communities to whom they belong.

Oldenburg, R. (1989) The great good place: Cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of a community. New York: Marlowe and Company.

The ‘bounded’ curriculum?

What is the nature and purpose of ‘curriculum’ in Higher Education?

And what, ideally, should it be?

I have found myself increasingly challenged by these questions recently, partly through engaging in a collaborative project that has involved exploring the nature of the university with respect to digital practice, and partly through helping scope a community education initiative that has dual aims around i) widening access to higher education, and ii) harnessing the education programme in question as a means for adult learners to address key social issues within their community.

In the very broadest sense, we can think of curriculum as comprising the range of learning opportunities that are offered to learners by their educational institution, within the context of a planned course or programme of study (e.g. Macdonald, 1977; Print, 1993). However, beyond this generalisation, ‘curriculum’ is a contested concept that can be defined and enacted in a range of ways that place different emphases on what curriculum is, where it is located, and who it is for.

In a wide-ranging overview that considers what curriculum means for informal and formal education, Mark Smith (1996, 2000) PPPPdrew upon the work of Grundy (1987) and other prominent curriculum theorists in distinguishing between: curriculum as a body of knowledge to be transmitted; curriculum as product i.e. a means to achieve certain ends in students; curriculum as a process of interaction between teachers, students and knowledge; and curriculum as praxis.

Freire (1970, p. 126) defined praxis as “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed”. On viewing the curriculum as praxis, Grundy (1987) suggests that “the curriculum itself develops through the dynamic interaction of action and reflection. That is, the curriculum itself is not simply a set of plans to be implemented, but rather is constituted through an active process in which planning, acting and evaluating are all reciprocally related and integrated into the process” (p. 115). As for how curriculum as praxis might manifest itself within learning and teaching, then a focus on collective understandings, an emphasis on human emancipation, and linking values to interventions designed for a ‘collective good’ are key considerations (Smith, 1996, 2000).

When viewing the curriculum as praxis, we are essentially positioning the curriculum – and formal education – as a means to improve society and the human condition. There are important synergies here with the notions of ‘outside curricula’ and ‘public pedagogy’ (Schubert, 2010), and more broadly to higher education – and the right to access higher education – as a public good.

Central to the ethos of public pedagogy “is the need for critical educators to act on the belief that academic work matters in its relationship to broader public practices and policies” (Giroux, 2000, p. 34). There are clearly implications here for the role of academics as public scholars, and also the extent to which our curriculum, and the activities of the curriculum, provide our learners with both a voice as public scholars and a platform or means for contributing to social action.

We can see examples of higher education curricula being enacted in this way within the sector, the widening access programme alluded to in my introduction being one, and the Student as Producer at the University of Lincoln being a notable example of an institutional initiative.

However there is scope to go further.

I mentioned at the outset of this post two recent experiences that have challenged me to think about the nature and purpose of curriculum in Higher Education, about what it is and what it could be. A third important influence has been Richard Hall’s recent critique On dismantling the curriculum in higher education, in which Richard addresses how we might realise a curriculum that is engaged, that recognises diverse interests and contexts, and which – crucially – is “full of care”.

There is much to be taken from Richard’s work, and I’ll be returning to it. However what I took from it in the first instance was this question – in what ways does our organisation and instantiation of the curriculum within the university limit the curriculum, and education, from being a collective good?

I think we can partly answer this question by looking at some of the ways – pedagogical, technological, cultural – through which the curriculum is intentionally or otherwise ‘bounded’ within the university.

I offer below some initial thoughts on this, albeit thoughts very much still in development

1) Our idea of what the curriculum is, and could be, is too narrowly defined within notions of what the university will offer or provide to their students by way of courses and course content. In their considered 2012 review of curriculum models and conceptions for the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, Julia Fotheringham and colleagues look at issues of ownership and participation, and implications for wider society, but where the locus of control of the curriculum is still very much with the institution, accrediting and awarding bodies, and policy makers. Richard Hall, in his recent post discussed above, observes this in a far more eloquent way than I have just expressed it.

2) The modularisation of higher education curricula can result in fragmented learning experiences that are limited to, and kept within the confines of, module and programme cohorts (Savin-Baden, 2008). Unless we are mindful to ‘design in’ interdisciplinary and cross-cohort learning (e.g. within and across formal, informal, and professional learning communities) the organisation of the curriculum within a modularised system arguably simplifies the complexity of the real world. In turn it simplifies the range of ways in which knowledge is created, shared, challenged, and re-created outside of formal higher education.

3) The institutional systems and technologies through which we organise and ‘deliver’ the curriculum often place unhelpful space and distance between learners. Particularly problematic is the information architecture of most Virtual Learning Environments, where by a student is typically represented by a matriculation number that is linked to module and programme codes that in turn determine (at least partially) which learning resources, spaces, and peers each individual is allowed to access. In this respect the student records system and the VLE might be viewed as working in combination to ‘design out’ opportunities for learners to easily cluster around shared needs and interests, and to collaborate across disciplines, levels of a course, and across formal and informal boundaries.

4) Or 3a. ‘Clustering’ is important. For learning, wellbeing, social interaction, and social action.

5) The assessment practices embedded within our curricula often limit what our learners are allowed or able to do with their own intellectual property. Too many forms of assessment result in the intellectual work of the learner remaining within the institution. The problem and challenge here is not simply one of allowing our learners to more easily share their work (as an e-portfolio, blog or personal domain might do). Instead it about who our learners are producing assessed work for, and the purposes for which they could be sharing the knowledge, artefacts and resources they create. I would return here to the notion outlined earlier of our students as public scholars – and as digital public scholars – who are contributing to, and helping to develop and create, public bodies of knowledge. Or who are engaged through the activities of the curriculum in directly addressing a problem, issue, or need for the application of knowledge and skill within their own or another community.

6) The curriculum is often limited in acknowledging and celebrating diverse needs, views and practices by being too narrowly defined in cultural terms, usually through being bound by the dominant cultural context within which the curriculum has been devised. The recent article by NUS journalist Mariya Hussain (2015) on the Why is my Curriculum White? campaign at University College London is a timely read in this respect. And the Why is my Curriculum White? video produced by the students at UCL is a timely watch

7) Emerging notions of the distributed curriculum, including different conceptions of ‘the community as curriculum’ (Starratt, 2002; Cormier, 2008) offer useful ways of thinking about the nature of the curriculum and how the curriculum can be further reimagined and repositioned within the narrative of higher education as a public good. With further development, the notion of the community as curriculum (and of the curriculum as community) may provide a nuanced extension to the notion of curriculum as praxis.

8) In considering the curriculum as a conduit for education as a public good, we need to reframe the current debate around open education, and open educational practice, so that it moves away from addressing (almost exclusively) open online education, and begins to challenge universities to make greater use of their physical spaces as open spaces for learning. If education is a public good, then universities have to be good (and certainly much better than present) at using both their physical and online spaces for wider engagement.

I’m going to return to some of these ideas, particularly in relation to the notion of the distributed curriculum and of curriculum as community, once my thinking is a little clearer.


Cormier, D. (2008) Rhizomatic education: community as curriculum, Innovate: Journal of Online Education: Vol. 4, No. 5. Online [last accessed 23.08.15]

Fotheringham, J., Strickland, K., and Aitchison, K. (2012) Curriculum: directions, decisions and debate. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. Online [last accessed 23.08.15

Freire, P. (1970 in 2000) Pedagogy of the oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition. New York: Continuum.

Giroux, H.A. (2000) Public pedagogy and the responsibility of intellectuals: Youth, Littleton, and the loss of innocence, JAC, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 9-42.

Grundy, S. (1987) Curriculum: Product or praxis? London: Falmer Press.

Macdonald, J. B. (1977) Value bases and issues for curriculum. In A. Molnar and J.A. Zahorick (Eds.) Curriculum theory, pp. 10-21. Washington, DC: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Print, M. (1993) Curriculum development and design. NSW: Allen and Unwin.

Savin-Baden, M. (2008) Learning spaces: creating opportunities for knowledge creation in academic life. Maidenhead: Open University Press

Schubert, W.M. (2010) Outside curricula and public pedagogy. In J.A. Sandlin, B.D. Schultz, and J. Burdick (Eds.) Handbook of public pedagogy: education and learning beyond schooling, pp. 10-19. New York: Routledge.

Smith, M. K. (1996, 2000) Curriculum theory and practice, the Encyclopaedia of Informal Education. Online [last accessed 23.08.15]

Starratt, R.J. (2002) Community as curriculum. In K. Leithwood and P. Hallinger (Eds.) Second international handbook of educational leadership and administration, pp. 321-348. London: Kluwer Academic.

Academic development and technology in the next 5 years

I was recently invited by two colleagues to write a short reflection on how I thought academic development would evolve over the next five years, with respect to supporting and taking forward good practice in technology-enhanced learning. My reflection is one of a number that they are collecting for inclusion in a book chapter they are currently working on.

The request was a timely one, as it came on the same day I was dipping back into the e-textbook version of a handbook I co-authored a few years ago, the second edition of which had coincidentally been published 5 years previously. I was revisiting the handbook – a practical guide to using educational technology written partly for the Masters programme we were running at the time – in order to share a few ideas for online collaborative learning activities with a colleague who was redesigning one of their undergraduate courses.

Cover of Pedagogy and learning technoology: a practical guide In looking back over the handbook I was pleased to see that most of the guidance it offered still stood up pretty well 5 years down the line, possibly because we tried to write the handbook primarily from a learning and teaching rather than a technology perspective.

However in simultaneously looking back 5 years while thinking ahead to the next 5, I can’t help but feel that the key challenges we face in trying to encourage academics to use technology in their learning and teaching practice really haven’t changed that much. Establishing a dialogue with those who are reticent or reluctant, or who simply don’t see the need to use technology in their practice, remains a concern. So too does contextualising the use of technology in learning and teaching to the different discipline areas that the willing or curious are coming from. Time and direct support for academics go hand-in-hand as another constant challenge and barrier.

There are also new challenges to be acknowledged and addressed if our universities are to make effective use of technology in learning and teaching, a critical one being the creative ways in which young learners are being engaged with and through technology in school.

The specific challenge that my colleagues put to me, in writing my reflection for their forthcoming book chapter, was to “Describe in 300 words the role you envisage academic development will play in the next 5 years within higher education institutions, and the sector more widely, to drive pedagogical innovation supported my technology?

Quite a big ask for 300 words, and a good lesson in writing concisely. One I failed, but only by fifteen words.

This was my response:

In the next five years, academic development will continue to play an important role in how we engage academics in effective digital practice and the sharing of that practice. We will see further diversification in how academic development is ‘delivered’ and facilitated online, and we will see more creative use of institutional PG Cert programmes to engage academics in experiencing then applying digital approaches to their own teaching and student support activities.

However, the degree to which the above happens will vary considerably between institutions, depending on institutional strategy, leadership, and the extent to which a general culture of enhancement in learning and teaching is shared, embedded and celebrated.

A critical enabling factor here will be whether the enhancement of learning and teaching is appropriately resourced. Many institutions will not move beyond their current position of trying to engage a greater number of staff in making use, or slightly more effective use, of the VLE and other institutional educational technologies. This is where much of their academic development effort around technology-enhanced learning will remain focused, very possibly to the exclusion of important emerging areas.

Institutions that invest appropriately in academic development, and who are alert to the potential of using digital approaches in making learning and teaching more creative, inclusive and sustainable will move farthest in the coming five years. These institutions, and their academic developers, will also be cognisant of the benefits and opportunities of digital scholarship, and digital engagement in scholarly and professional communities, for improving the outreach of the institution and extending the learner experience beyond the physical walls of the campus and virtual silos of the VLE.

Academic development, as an area of practice and a community of practitioners, will have an important role to play in the Higher Education sector in ensuring that current discussions around the development of digital literacies for students begin to focus on discipline-specific digital literacies.

The University as a third space?

Ray Oldenburg’s (1989) influential work on third places (or third spaces) within communities has been pivotal in encouraging sociologists, civic leaders and activists to look critically at how our public spaces for congregating (e.g. museums, cafes, pubs, parks, even barber shops) can provide a locus for democratic discussion and debate, community action, creative thought and expression, and importantly also for frivolity, friendship, and harmonious interaction.

The concept of the ‘third space’ has also become central to current thinking and a burgeoning movement of direct action in providing more inclusive alternatives to tertiary and adult education out with the confines of the systems, structures, policies and expectations of the higher education institution, and the systems, structures and policies under which higher education institutions are themselves governed.  The groups and collectives leading the way in providing alternative higher education in the UK include the Social Science Centre in Lincoln who provide free, co-operative access to higher education at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and more recently the Free University Brighton who are currently exploring how to offer a free degree.

Over the last two years or so, I’ve been privileged to come to know and experience the work of the Ragged University. Working at the nexus between formal and informal education, the Ragged University is active across the UK (particularly in Edinburgh and Manchester) in utilising ‘third spaces’ in the community to create opportunities for the sharing of knowledge and facilitation of learning.

Based upon the philanthropic tradition of the Ragged Schools of the 1900’s, and the Madras ‘peer teaching’ or ‘mutual instruction’ method pioneered by Andrew Bell, the Ragged University provides opportunities (in libraries, pubs, and other public venues) for scholars, academics, artists and artisans to share their knowledge and experience with peers who have similar interests, a simple curiosity, or a hunger and thirst to learn. Encapsulating Oldenburg’s vision of the third space, you find free food, drink and music are an important feature of Ragged University’s events, ensuring that hunger and thirsts of other kinds are also provided for. The Ragged University are also active online, and finding increasingly creative ways to reach out digitally in realising their motto that “knowledge is power, but only when it is shared”.  I’ve been fortunate to share many discussions with Alex Dunedin, the ‘Principal Janitor’ of Ragged, and my own outlook on education is all the richer for that.

Alex often describes the Ragged University as providing ‘an annex’ to formal education, rather than an alternative. As someone working in formal higher education who has also been involved in community education initiatives – some but not all of which would have been supported in my formal role – I could readily identify with this. An ‘annex’ can be seen to provide a neutral space for academics to do something that relates to their discipline expertise, and which may or may not be directly related to the work they do within their formal role in their institution. It takes away arguments around ‘either or’ and creates an ‘as well as’.  In my own experience, and in speaking with colleagues who are seeking to engage through the opportunities that initiatives like the Ragged University provide, that’s important for many community-minded academics who may want to do something away from the constraints, expectations or even scrutiny of their institutions.

Screen shot from Ragged University website

The Ragged University’s website

Regardless of whether we talk about third spaces for learning and teaching as ‘annexes’ or ‘alternatives’, their inclusivity is arguably as empowering and enriching for those academics who come into the space to share their experience as it is for those who come into the space to learn.  In this respect the engagement of academics in third spaces may also, in some way, lessen the frustration or constraint that they may be feeling over the lack of opportunity their own institution provides in allowing them to be educators in a broader sense of the word. This is critically important, as the willingness and freedom of academics to engage in third spaces for learning and teaching provides the opportunity to offer more inclusive and participatory forms of education (formal and informal) than many higher education institutions often allow for.

However it also raises another important, perhaps controversial, question.

Does the engagement of academics in third spaces for learning and teaching redirect our energies, at least in part, from a critical challenge we should be tackling – which is to confront the internal barriers and externally imposed confines that stand in the way of universities becoming places for adult learning that are non-discriminatory with respect to qualifications, aspirations or personal means? This is not to suggest that universities should become all things to all learners, but to underline the fact that many of our universities could do so much more to allow access to their campuses, courses and resources for those learners that aspire to be there, and for academics (and scholars from the wider community) who are seeking a space to share their knowledge and experience with whomever may be interested. In short, could the university become a ‘third space’ for alternative forms of learning in the communities where they are based? Could we look towards what our educators are doing in the ‘third spaces’ for learning that they are creating and engaging in, and re-purpose the university as a space for alternative educational practices?

During her time as Chancellor of Syracuse University, Nancy Cantor (2010) directly addressed this very issue in arguing for a reconceptualization of universities as third spaces in the community and as “anchors in our communities…that can not only model from afar the inclusive practices of our diverse democracy but those that engage as agents of transformation” (p. 2).

Leaving aside the rhetoric that inevitably characterises institutional strategy within any university, there is common ground here with the ethos and outlook of organisations like the Ragged University, and the point Alex Dunedin and Susan Brown (2012) make in asserting that “The promise of inclusivity is something which we think needs to be substituted by action – everyone is a stakeholder in knowledge capable of participating in the intellectual activity of civic society.”

Unfortunately the strategic rhetoric of inclusion, community engagement and outreach is rarely fully realised in the educational practices of many universities – certainly not to the extent being exemplified by alternatives and annexes such as the Ragged University. Universities are also resource-rich but risk averse. These two factors are not unrelated, and so for example the reluctance to move beyond the delivery of largely nine-to-five courses to predominantly full-time registered and fee-paying students goes some way to explaining the corridors and rooms of dead space that characterise many university campuses come the evening, weekend and between semesters.

I recall a personal experience from some time ago, when a colleague and myself were attempting to organise a free programme of educational events aimed at disadvantaged young adults in the local community where the campus was based. Rooms and dates were identified across a number of summer evenings, and colleagues from different subject disciplines were ready to dedicate their time, only for our efforts to falter at the insistence of the estates department that someone had to pay for the hire of the rooms. These were classrooms and labs that were not otherwise being used, and they remained silent and unused that summer.

When I look at the pivotal work of the Ragged University, and comparable initiatives, I feel at once both inspired and frustrated as an academic that is seeking to make a broader educational contribution, but who like others has largely had to go out with the formal institution to do this.

Universities need to challenge themselves to properly define their relationship to the communities within which they sit. In doing this, they need to move beyond broadly-worded aspirations and strategies relating to public engagement and civic responsibility, and instead commit to and help drive a culture of action and active partnership between their institution and their wider community.

Individuals and communities will continue to persevere regardless (and perhaps in spite of) the stance our universities take. However, depending on the position that they take many universities may find themselves left behind in the wider social mission (rather than business) of education.

For many of the educators who work within their walls, and who deal on a daily basis with the policies, procedures and bureaucracies of higher education, the reality is that many universities are extremely effective at keeping academics busy without letting them do enough.

Or enough that matters.

Cantor, N. (2010) Academic excellence and civic engagement: constructing a third space for higher education. Office of the Chancellor. Paper 1. Syracuse University. Online via

Dunedin, A. and Brown, S. (2012) Developing social capital: from promises to knowledge exchange. Paper presented at Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) 8th Annual Conference 2012. Online

Oldenburg, R. (1989). The great good place: Cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of a community. New York: Marlowe and Company.

Challenging critically not perpetuating the parochial

I recently posted the following on the Global Dimensions in Higher Education project blog. Given the focus of my own blog here, I’m sure my colleagues on the GD in HE project (@GDinHE) won’t mind me reposting it.globaldimensionsinhe_screenshot

In last week’s Times Higher Education (17-23 January 2013), two articles tackle between them a number of stark realities within the dominant Western discourse around globalisation in higher education. In one, Professor Thomas Docherty presents a broad-ranging consideration that questions the relationship of the university to national culture and community, and draws a sharp distinction between ‘scholarly globalisation’ on one hand and, on the other, the contradiction that centres around the rhetoric of post-national promise versus economic competitiveness.

In the second article in question, Joanna Sugden tackles the recent changes in visa regulations within the United Kingdom and the barriers these are imposing on graduate students from out with the European Union. In short we welcome highly skilled non-EU postgraduate students to study at UK universities, and welcome the substantially higher fees they pay in comparison to their EU peers, but in return require them to find a job with a salary in excess of £20,000 (way beyond in certain circumstances) within four months of graduating to remain in the UK. However the position they secure must be with a registered employer that will support their application for the equivalent of the previous two-year work visa that was automatic on completing postgraduate study.

One message that may be taken from both of these articles is that we may be talking global, but the focus of our thinking is often squarely within the local and national context. It is on our institutions and the socio-political climate within which they exist and are sustained, and on increasing their economic viability and growth. In the case of international postgraduates studying in the UK, the message is clear – you are welcome here while paying a substantial cost to attend university, and to remain if you are fortunate to secure a position with an employer who won’t overlook you in favour of similar candidates who do not require a Tier 2 visa.

If being cynical, and realistic, we might look towards the recruitment of international students to UK and other Western universities, the establishment of campuses overseas, and some forms of the now omnipresent MOOC as being primarily or even purely about institutional competitiveness and survival within an increasingly stretched and crowded global HE sector.

However whilst on one level we must address and critique the globalisation of higher education as a capitalistic pursuit concerned with the movement of educational services across national boundaries for purposes of market gain and competitive edge, we can also look towards what a globalised approach within higher education can offer in pedagogical and experiential terms.

Here we can be more concerned with recognising, exploring and harnessing global and cultural diversity within our curricula and educational practices, so as to provide a richer, more democratic educational experience either on campus or online. In asking why we should internationalise and diversify higher education curricula and pedagogy, Welikala (2011) warns against the over use of the term globalisation “which is increasingly used to mean everything and nothing”, and against neo-liberal ideologies that position higher education as being responsible for “the construction of knowledge economies that will save the world from all its burning problems” (p.24). However in providing a more detailed argument than can be usefully summarised here, Welikala does make many convincing points around what a globally and culturally sensitive ‘multi-perspective curriculum’ can offer in addressing global issues collaboratively, developing rich knowledge and values of respect, and in developing the broader skills needed in a world where cultural identities, the nature of work, and our information technologies are continually evolving.

If we see promise and potential in this kind of education, we also need to be aware of the divisive practices in the globalisation and internationalisation of education that must be challenged. McBurnie and Ziguras (2009) warn against the dangers of ‘cultural imperialism’ in which the establishment of overseas campuses, and the offering of programmes informed by other cultural norms and perspectives, may challenge and undermine the nation building purpose of education. We might be particularly mindful here of ‘deficit model’ practices that are all too common to observe, including the wholesale replication of curricula for delivery overseas, and the ‘flying faculty’ phenomena where by institutions send academics to support (often very experienced) overseas educators in learning how to teach their programmes just as they do. This is often without any consideration given to the weaknesses of their own academic practices, or the strengths and appropriateness of their overseas colleagues’ academic practices within their own cultural and pedagogical contexts. Similarly, in distance learning contexts, we might be mindful of online programmes that are offered internationally but are grounded in assumptions about the field or profession that are culturally exclusive and bounded within culturally narrow fields of view.

Dewey (1916) discussed at length the unavoidable tensions within educational systems between the development of the individual, and sustaining the dominant practices, beliefs, industries, and expectations of the nation state. The tensions are heightened when we consider educational systems that extend across nations and cultures, and perhaps the largest threat to meaningfully addressing global and cultural diversity in higher education is that we uncritically seek to perpetuate our own localised pedagogical assumptions, practices and understandings.

As we move into the next stage of developing and piloting the Global Dimensions in Higher Education module, our challenge will be to ensure we create a space for critical deliberation and reflection on our collective and individual practices and assumptions, for exploring global issues in higher education, and ultimately for asking under what conditions does globalisation in higher education serve a greater good for learners and educators than institutions and states?

Dewey, J. (1916, republished 1966) Democracy and education: An introduction to the democracy of education. New York: Free Press/Macmillan.

Docherty, T. (2013) Globalisation and its discontents. Times Higher Education, No. 2084, 17th-23rd January, pp. 40-43. Also online [last accessed 25.01.13]

McBurnie, G. and Ziguras, C. (2009) Trends and future scenarios in programme and institution mobility across borders. Higher Education to 2030 Volume 2: Globalisation, pp. 89-108. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Sugden, J. (2013) Home to roost: UK loses its allure as visa rules deter Indian graduates. Times Higher Education, No. 2084, 17th-23rd January, pp. 20-21. Also online [last accessed 25.01.13]

Welikala, T. (2011) Rethinking international higher education curriculum: mapping the research landscape. Teaching and Learning Position Paper, August 2011. Universitas 21. Also online [last accessed 25.01.13]

Is unschool cool?

Last week I was fortunate to attend Ascilite 2012 as part of a visit to New Zealand where, with colleagues, I also facilitated a series of workshops around technology-enhanced learning and professional standards in HE. More of that later, and I’ll certainly have more to say about Ascilite which was extremely interesting on many levels.

For now I’d like to offer a few reflections sparked by the keynote Dale J Stephens (@DaleJStephens) offered on day two of Ascilite, and which he titled ‘The End of the University’.

In his keynote, Dale Stephens recounted his experiences of being unschooled. Not to be confused with home schooling, the concept of unschooling (as originally conceived by John Holt in the 1960s, and later addressed in broader philosophical terms by Illich and then more recently by Gatto) is focused around the lived experiences of learners, including their play, social interactions, and work experiences. Dale Stephens spoke passionately and with conviction about the richness of his unschooled learning, and the feelings of being constrained, unchallenged, and dissatisfied that he later experienced when he attended college.

This, in part, led to Dale leaving formal tertiary education and founding UnCollege – ‘a social movement for self-directed Higher Education’. Although a relatively new initiative, pencilUnCollege has gained considerable interest and momentum. Against the backdrop of bleak figures Dale shared on the financial realities of attending university, and his examples of bright young adults who have adopted an uncolleged approach to their education and professional development, the basic mantra of UnCollege, reflected in the title of Dale’s forthcoming book (Hacking your education: ditch the lectures, save tens of thousands, and learn more than your peers ever will, 2013) encapsulates a tantalising alternative.

It is an alternative that our colleges and universities would be very foolish to ignore. However I think we need to question the extent to which being unschooled, and the uncollege, is a viable and realistic alternative for a broad cross-section of learners. I don’t believe it is, and there were three aspects to Dale’s talk that underlined this for me.

The first was the publicity material for the upcoming UnCollege Gap Year programme that right up front posed the question ‘Are you smart as hell?’. I think this is a question that is just as relevant to unschooling and certainly to uncolleging generally, and to which we can also add the questions ‘Are you as confident as hell?’, ‘Are you as motivated as hell?’ and ‘Are you as entrepreneurial as hell?’. My concern here is not for the smaller minority of individuals who could answer ‘Yes’ to these questions, but for the larger number who are seeking to expand their options and outlook through education but whom would not have the confidence, prior experiences, natural attributes, or self-certainty to say ‘Yes’ to these questions.

The second aspect of Dale’s talk that prompted me to question how widely applicable unschooling and uncolleging might be focused on the experiences Dale generously shared around the supportive network he had around him through his unschooling, and which had largely enabled it. Supportive parents (a teacher and engineer) and a wider network of mentors, tutors and critical friends. Whether we are unschooled or not, such networks of family and friends are central to human wellbeing. However the harsh reality is that not every young person has these networks in place, and even where they do the networks themselves are sometimes volatile and fragmented. In such circumstances school, college, and even university become safe places within which the individual can experience structure, support, stability, and the space to make sense of things both academic and otherwise [1]. To paraphrase Professor Beverly Oliver (@pvclfdeakin) in her closing keynote at Ascilite 2012, our colleges and universities also serve a role as the ‘place where learners become that which they want to become’. We may talk about learners hacking their education in general terms, but we won’t anytime soon be talking about learners hacking their way to being a social worker, a nurse, a dentist or lawyer.

The third aspect of Dale’s keynote that concerned me somewhat was the (admittedly intriguing and quite progressive) example of an intensive bootcamp that guaranteed to turn participants into experienced, employable web developers in nine weeks. At the cost of 10K US dollars.  Dale’s point that this is less than the cost of a degree in the USA was fair. However, if you’re a young person with an aptitude for computing from Muirhouse in Edinburgh, Moss Side in Manchester, or Cannon Park in Middlesbrough, would you have the equivalent of 10K US dollars? With limited or no access to your own IT, would you even know you had an aptitude for computers without attending school, the local library, or a college evening class?

In addition to the fact that the example above raises serious questions around when the ‘alternatives’ we offer might become more commercialised than the mainstream, I would like to suggest that those who most need our support in terms of accessing education don’t need to be supported in being unschooled or uncolleged. They need instead to be supported within our schools, colleges and universities by capable and sensitive educators who are driven by values of equality, personal development, equivalence of opportunity, empathy and, dare I say it, even altruism.

Altruism is arguably more of an ideal than a value, and it has become an unfashionable one. It is also contested within education. If we go back to Holt, who rightly argued that the school system puts learners in competition with one another, we may even view altruism as folly. However many educators do have something of an altruistic outlook within their work, and altruistic reasons for being educators. We can’t afford to overlook that, because at the centre of altruism is hope. Hope for, and commitment towards, those learners who would most benefit from what formal education can provide. In the current climate, a reframing of altruism is critical.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not criticising Dale Stephens, his work or ideas. They are important. They help us confront failings within the education system, and I applaud what Dale and his colleagues are doing. However at the same time as we applaud we need to reach out a hand to those learners for whom the unschool, uncollege or ununiversity will never be an option. Not due to who they are or what they are capable of, but because of who they are and what they are capable of.

[1] For further, far more eloquent thoughts on some of the issues touched upon above you may want to read Mark Johnson’s (@mwjtweet) blog starting with his Sept 2012 post Attachments, metagames and anxiety in the university. Richard Hall (@hallymk1) does just as an impressive job of pinning HE up against the wall and asking what it should be for.

Gatto, J.T. (1992). Dumbing us down: the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling. New Society Publishers.

Holt, J, (1964, 1982 revised) How children fail. Pitman.

Illich, I. (1971) Deschooling society. Harper and Row.

Stephens, D. J. (2013, forthcoming) Hacking your education: ditch the lectures, save tens of thousands, and learn more than your peers ever will. Penguin USA.