Open practice and praxis in the context of the Digital University. #OER18

This week saw the latest in a small series of writing workshops for Bill Johnston, Sheila MacNeill and myself for our forthcoming book Conceptualising the Digital University: Intersecting policy, pedagogy and practice (Palgrave).

Our work on this book has been a very enjoyable slow-burn, originating five or so years ago with the application of Sheila and Bill’s ‘Conceptual Matrix for the Digital University‘, which we used as the key framework to focus and guide the dialogue that was taking place in an institutional-wide digital futures consultation I was coordinating.

This then led us into a series of wider discussions, workshops and short papers in which we further explored the idea of the digital university, developed an emergent model for the ‘digitally distributed curriculum‘, and began to think about the relationships between ‘the digital’, learning and teaching, the location and co-location of the university within our communities, and the furthering of universities and higher education as a public good. Following a conference presentation of our work to date, which Sheila delivered a year or so ago, the opportunity to author a book for Palgrave presented itself.

We’re now into the final three months of writing our book (Conceptualising the Digital University: Intersecting policy, pedagogy and practice), and the latest of our periodic writing retreats this week has been extremely useful in underlining the key narrative threads that will run through the text. Foremost amongst these is a ‘critical pedagogy’ perspective in which ‘praxis’ (a commitment to challenging and changing that which needs to be challenged and changed) is presented as a necessary, ‘no-option’ counter to currently dominant neo-liberal policies and practices pertaining to the purpose of the university and higher education, and to techno-centric notions of the role digital technologies might play in delivering educational content, organising and managing the educational experience of our learners, and offering competitive advantage and market share to higher education institutions. There has been pizza, snow and laughs along the way this week, but our resolve to say ‘no’ to the current state of affairs remains and Paulo Freire has come further to the fore within our discussions about what we hope to propose about the place of ‘praxis’ in relation to the Digital University.

Ahead of completing our book, we are presenting some of our thinking in relation to the above at the forthcoming #OER18 conference in Bristol this coming April.

The title of our talk for #OER18 – in which we’ll offer elaborations on both the ‘Conceptual Matrix for the Digital University’ and our thinking on the ‘digitally distributed curriculum’ – is Open practice and praxis in the context of the Digital University. Our abstract for our session is below. Paulo will be on our minds.

Selection of texts being consulted in writing 'Conceptualising the Digital University'

Some of the sources we’re drawing upon for ‘Conceptualising the Digital University’. Paulo Freire is tagged with the most post-its, saying something about the direction the book is going in.

 

Open practice and praxis in the context of the Digital University

Abstract for #OER18

What is the ‘Digital University’? And what might it be? Despite the increasing ubiquity of the term, and many attempts at relating what ‘digital’ means within the context of the university and Higher Education, the concept of the digital university remains diffuse.

It is not our contention that digital technologies and practices are under challenged within current discourse on the concept of the digital university. To the contrary, we can look towards robust theory and research in areas including digital literacies development (Goodfellow and Lea, 2013); digital technologies in learning and teaching (Selwyn, 2014); and administration and governance (McCluskey and Winter, 2012).

Instead, and accepting that we are still at a stage of relative infancy in understanding the wider possibilities and implications of digital technology and practice within Higher Education, we contend that emergent attempts at defining and conceptualising the digital university are partial, tending to locate the digital in current institutional structures and processes within the university, instead of asking how the ‘digital’ challenges those structures and processes, and how in turn they can be reconfigured or reimagined.

Extending previous work in the development (MacNeill and Johnston, 2013) and application of a conceptual matrix for the digital university (Smyth, MacNeill and Johnston, 2015), our aim is to propose a more holistic, integrated account that emerges from exploring the intersection between policy, pedagogy, digital space, and open educational practice.

At the forefront of our narrative, and our critique of institutional and sectoral policy in particular, is the concept of praxis as applied to educational contexts i.e. “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed” (Freire, 1970, p. 126). Here we will question the extent to which digital technologies and open practices can allow us to rethink where the university, our curricula, and the educational opportunities the university provides are located and co-located, in order to support more inclusive educational models and approaches, and to further extend higher education as a public good.

Our conclusions will be synthesised within a revised conceptual matrix for the digital university, and a related model for the distributed curriculum, which we hope will support further dialogue and critique, and pragmatic action, relating to the development of open education, the harnessing of digital space, and democratisation of learning opportunities.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Goodfellow, R. and Lea, M.R. (Eds.) (2013) Literacy in the Digital University: Critical Perspectives on Learning, Scholarship and Technology. Routledge.
MacNeill, S. and Johnston, B., (2013) The Digital University in the Modern Age: A Proposed Framework for Strategic Development, Compass, University of Greenwich. Available online [last accessed 22.11.17] https://journals.gre.ac.uk/index.php/compass/article/view/79/121
McCluskey, F.B. and Winter, M.L. (2012) The Idea of the Digital University: Ancient Traditions, Disruptive Technologies and the Battle for the Soul of Higher Education. Policy Studies Organisation.
Selwyn, N. (2014) Digital Technology and the Contemporary University: Degrees of Digitization. Routledge.
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.

Student transitions to, within and beyond Higher Education. Special Issue of JPAAP.

Over the last few months I have been working with Lorraine Anderson (University of Dundee) and Roni Bamber (Queen Margaret University) to co-edit a new Special Issue of the online, open access Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice (JPAAP).

The theme of the  Special Issue is Student Transitions and the issue has been published in partnership with the QAA Scotland to capture work resulting from, and relating to, the current national enhancement theme of Student Transitions which is now drawing to a close. The Special Issue, which was launched this week at the 3rd International Enhancement in Higher Education Conference, features a range of full research papers, case studies, opinion pieces and ’emerging work’ articles relating to multiple challenges, issues and dimensions in the transitioning of students to, within, and beyond HE.

The production of the Special Issue itself was made possible by by Kirsteen Wright, editorial officer of JPAAP based at Edinburgh Napier University, and by the Special Issue copy editors Tonje Hefte (@TonjeHefte) and Douglas Walker (@D_M_Walker91) who are students on the MSc Publishing course at Edinburgh Napier University.

The Special Issue is now online and you can read our editorial for the issue below.

Editorial

Welcome to the Special Issue of JPAAP on Student Transitions. The inspiration for this Special Issue is the current national Enhancement Theme of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for Higher Education, Scotland, and we are delighted to bring you this Special Issue in partnership with the QAA Scotland.

JPAAP has come to develop a wide readership in recent years, and for colleagues who are unfamiliar with the Enhancement Themes their purpose are to enhance the quality of the student learning experience within Scottish Higher Education through a co-ordinated period of enhancement activity that is focused on a specific developmental theme. Every Higher Education Institution (HEI) across Scotland engages with the Enhancement Themes, through internal and cross-institutional initiatives. The Enhancement Themes are managed by the QAA Scotland in collaboration with a Theme Leaders Group (TLG) comprising institutional and student representatives from each HEI in Scotland.

The current Enhancement Theme of Student Transitions has been running for the last three academic years, since summer 2014. The work for the theme is currently drawing to a close, and will be marked by the 3rd International Enhancement in Higher Education Conference to be held in Glasgow from 6–8 June 2017, and also by the publication of this Special Issue.

While this Special Issue of JPAAP is brought to you in conjunction with the current Enhancement Theme of Student Transitions, and indeed features several articles that relate to work undertaken in Scotland as part of the theme, we are delighted to also feature a number of contributions from colleagues based in universities across the UK and Australia.

Within this Special Issue, one of our largest issues to date, we are pleased to feature a rich range of original research papers, case studies and reviews, opinion pieces, and On the Horizon articles which report on emerging work. Between them, the full papers and other articles within this issue address several important dimensions of Student Transitions to, within, and beyond Higher Education.

Widening participation and the articulation of students from further education to higher education are addressed in the respective papers by Neil Speirs and colleagues from the University of Edinburgh, and Debbie Meharg and colleagues from Edinburgh Napier University.

The capturing of the student voice to ease transitions into and through Higher Education is the focus of the case study by Hope Christie and Karl Johnson, while other important dimensions of peer support and social integration are addressed in the papers and articles by Rick Hayman and colleagues from Northumbria University, Sidonie Ecochard and Kirsteen Wright from Edinburgh Napier University, and Shona Robertson from the University of Dundee.

Transitions within the undergraduate student journey are explored by Celine Caquineau and colleagues, in their consideration of assessment practice and transitioning to Junior Honours, and by Margaret-Anne Houston and Lindsey Carey from Glasgow Caledonian University who look at the academic reintegration of final year students following work placements and study exchanges.

Supporting the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate study, and student experiences of becoming postgraduates, are to the fore in the contributions from Jessica Bownes and colleagues at the University of Glasgow, and Charlotte McPherson, Samantha Punch and Elizabeth Graham from the University of Stirling. Furthermore, in the case study by Jennifer Scally and Andrea Cameron from Abertay University, you can read about the experience of an undergraduate student who transitioned to becoming a postgraduate research student through interning as a research assistant.

Student transitions beyond Higher Education and into employment and professional practice, in areas including veterinary nursing and teaching, are explored by Patricia Logan and colleagues who represent a number of Australian universities, and by Donna Dey, Angela Lindsay and Patricia Thomson from the University of Dundee.

Cultural and intercultural dimensions in student transitions are the focus of the literature review on the challenges faced by international students that has been contributed by Sidonie Ecochard and Julia Fotheringham from Edinburgh Napier University, and in the opinion piece on ‘multilingual mindset’ by Argyro Kanaki from the University of Dundee.

In the second of our two opinion pieces for this Special Issue, Mike Murray and colleagues ask “Are career academics gatekeepers to students’ tacit knowledge?”, while in the remaining case study paper that we are pleased to feature Josephine Adekola and colleagues from the University of Glasgow report their work to support students in making the transition to blended learning.

Perhaps fittingly, in the remaining contribution to be mentioned Ashley Dennis and colleagues present their research into stakeholder perceptions of the current QAA Scotland Enhancement Theme of Student Transitions, including recommendations for future Enhancement Theme activities.

Whether you have been engaged directly with the work of the current Enhancement Theme on Student Transitions, are engaged in your own practice and research relating to student transitions, or are simply looking to learn more about some of the work underway across the sector, we hope that this Special Issue will be of some relevance and value to yourself and colleagues.

With thanks equally to our contributing authors, reviewers, editorial officer, and the publishing students at Edinburgh Napier University who worked on this Special issue and made it possible.

Guest Editors

Dr Lorraine Anderson, University of Dundee
(Deputy Chair Enhancement Theme Leaders Group)

Professor Roni Bamber, Queen Margaret University
(Chair, Enhancement Theme Leaders Group)

Professor Keith Smyth, University of the Highlands and Islands
(Professor of Pedagogy)

 

 

Situating digital space and place within the Porous University

Over the 5th and 6th of June I am at the joint SOLSTICE and CLT Conference 2017 at Edge Hill University. The programme is a rich and interesting one, as it always is at this event, and features a range of speakers from across and beyond the UK.

On day two I will be presenting a guest speaker session, drawing inspiration from discussions and debate at the recent Porous University Symposium (#porousuni).

The title of my talk is ‘Situating digital space and place within the Porous University’ and the abstract is provided below.

Situating digital space and place within the Porous University 

Framed within the concept of the ‘Porous University’ as one which values open engagement in the sharing and development of knowledge, and where formal boundaries are fragmented and intersect, this session will explore how digital space and place can contribute to the porosity of our universities in established and emerging areas of educational practice. These include:

•             Bridging informal and formal learning opportunities
•             Learning across cohorts and communities
•             The curriculum as a co-operative space
•             Students as public scholars

Within the above context and areas of practice, an important question concerns the extent to which we can apply ‘third space’ thinking to: re-conceptualise the university as a place of education; extend the ways in which digital spaces and places can supported distribute collaborative learning; and explore where physical and digital spaces for learning can intersect to support greater engagement within, through, and beyond higher education and higher education institutions.

While this session is unlikely to fully answer the ‘third space’ question above, the examples to be drawn upon point towards what is possible when we mindfully situate digital space and place within contexts of open, co-located and co-operative approaches to education.

The Porous University – A critical exploration of openness, space and place in Higher Education

I am helping to bring together the above titled event, which will take the form of a two-day symposium to be held at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Inverness, on the 8th and 9th of May. The symposium is being jointly organised and hosted by the Open Educational Practices Scotland (OEPS) project and UHI, in conjunction with a number of colleagues from across the Higher Education sector in the UK.

The symposium will be structured around a series of short provocations leading into further discussion and debate. We will be inviting participants and contributors to share their views online in the run-up to the symposium, as well as capturing and then sharing the dialogue that takes place during the symposium itself. We also hope to identify ways in which participants and contributors can extend the dialogue beyond the event, which could potentially include joint initiatives and publications although any potential outcomes will be determined by the direction the discussions and deliberations take.

We have a number of contributors confirmed already, and I have included below the general outline for the event and link to the full call for participation (closing 11th April).

Outline

This two-day symposium arose out of a series of conversations and reflections on the nature of openness within Higher Education. It started with the observation that openness is increasingly seen as a technical question, whose solution lies in employing the low transaction costs associated with digital technologies with open licences to open up academic content to new groups of learners.

Where critical voices have engaged this partial reading they have often rightly critiqued the degree to which this is truly open, for example, drawing on older traditions of open to question the freedoms free content allows for those already distanced from education.

However, other questions also arise in a critical reading of open, and these include:

  • What does open mean beyond releasing content?
  • What is the role of open academics in dealing with problems ‘in the world’
  • How should staff and students become learners within community contexts, developing and negotiating the curriculum based on those contexts?
  • What would it mean for openness as a way to allow new voices into the academy, to acknowledge knowing and ways of knowing outside the academy, and where can and should our open spaces – both digital and physical – intersect?
  • If we are to advocate allowing learners’ experiences and organisations to inform the academy how open should academics be to the influence of private capital?

These are the kinds of questions, amongst others, that we want to explore in this symposium.

Please see the full call for contributions and participation for further information about the symposium, including contributors confirmed thus far, how to register to participate in person or online, and guidance on proposing a ‘provocation’ for the symposium.

 

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.

DigitallyDistributedCurriculum

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: http://doi.org/10.16995/olh.66

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]
http://jpaap.napier.ac.uk/index.php/JPAAP/article/view/153/html

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 http://www.ads.org.uk/decade-space-to-succeed-outcomes/.

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 http://www.ads.org.uk/decade-a-collection-of-reflections-to-mark-10-years-of-ads/.

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.

Curriculum_and_space_propositions

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) (http://coocs.co.uk/), 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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Dscx4h2l-Pk

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.

References

Cormier, D. (2008) Rhizomatic education: community as curriculum, Innovate: Journal of Online Education: Vol. 4, No. 5. Online [last accessed 23.08.15] http://nsuworks.nova.edu/innovate/vol4/iss5/2

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 http://www.enhancementthemes.ac.uk/docs/publications/curriculum-directions-decisions-and-debate.pdf?sfvrsn=8.

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] http://infed.org/mobi/curriculum-theory-and-practice/

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.