Thanks and acknowledgements for ‘Conceptualising the Digital University’

Long before we got to the point of having an opportunity to write the book that became ‘Conceptualising the Digital University: The Intersection of policy, pedagogy and practice’,  Bill Johnston, Sheila MacNeill and myself benefited from early discussions and dialogue about the idea and implications of the ‘digital university’ with a great many colleagues across the sector. As our ideas developed, we drew further guidance and inspiration from a number of friends and colleagues in particular.

In our Acknowledgements section for the book, which we are sharing below, we have tried to thank everyone who helped, informed or inspired us. Many of those named below may not realise they had an impact on our thinking, others we have already thanked directly for the important contributions they made. We thank each and every one again, and if we have inadvertently missed anyone out we give our sincere apologies and equal thanks for helping shape our ideas and what we cover in the book itself.

Over on Sheila’s blog, you can read about our initial plans for open access publications relating to the key themes in the book and also read the testimonials for the book that a number of respected colleagues were kind enough to offer after an advance reading.


The writing of this book has very much been a discursive process and the culmination of many discussions and dialogues around the vague concept, questionable assumptions, and actual realities of realising any sort of vision and plan for the “digital university”.

Collaboration has been at the heart of this book, and the thinking and ideas we present within it. A series of blog posts by Bill and Sheila in 2011 prompted Keith to get in contact in 2012 about a project he was leading, which led in turn to our collective endeavours in further exploring the concept of the digital university, and the place of ‘the digital’ in Higher Education. Our efforts in doing so have encompassed our own joint dialogue, reflections and writing, our further reading and research, and crucially also the dialogue we have had with colleagues across the sector, through workshops at a range of universities, and through presenting our thinking, as it developed, at a number of conferences, symposia and events.

Now, six years later, we have this book.

Finding and developing our shared critical understanding of the concept of the digital university has been a challenging and humbling experience, and one which saw our own thinking move away from questioning the concept of the ‘digital university’ to also questioning the purpose of universities, and Higher Education, in relation to the constraints, purpose and possibilities of digital technologies, spaces and practices, and in relation to the ideas and ideals of critical and public pedagogy, openness, and democracy. As we have contextualised our understandings, we have given each other hope in a shared critique which we in turn hope our readers will share and use as a starting point for many more critically informed discussions, based on a shared recognition of the need for critical love and hope to challenge the neo-liberal dominance of our age.

There are a number of people we need to thank. Firstly the team at Palgrave Macmillan for recognising the potential for a book in our work, and their continued support throughout the writing process. Our work draws from many sources and we are continually inspired by all of our professional networks and the encouragement we have received from our peers at conferences where we have presented our work, and the opportunities that we have been given to publish our work. That has given us the faith to carry on and develop our thoughts from conversations and debates into this most tangible of outputs, a book.

We’d like to give special thanks to some key colleagues and friends. We warmly thank Antonia Darder for her immediate and continued engagement, support and critical love for our work. We were fortunate to meet Antonia at a pivotal point in the preparation of our book, and the time we spent with Antonia, both learning from and being inspired by her, left an indelible mark on our thinking and across the final version of this text. We also thank Helen Beetham, Catherine Cronin, Alex Dunedin and Martin Weller for taking the time to read the book and for their generous endorsements of our work. Their own respective work has had a significant impact on our thinking and the structure of this book, as has the work of Mark Johnson who introduced us to the concept of Value Pluralism which we explore at several points.

There are almost too many other people to thank, and we realise frustratingly that we cannot put a name to everyone we have had the benefit of speaking with as we have developed our work. However, we would like to give a special mention and thanks to a number of colleagues and friends who have supported and encouraged us as we started to clarify and structure our ideas into the form that they are now presented, or with whom we were fortunate to have important discussions at important points of our journey. In addition to those already mentioned above, we thank Gordon Asher, Linda Creanor, Jim Emery, Julia Fotheringham, Peter Hartley, Jennifer Jones, Ronnie MacIntyre, David McGillivray, Neil McPherson, Beck Pitt, Frank Rennie, Peter Shukie, John Alexander Smith, Panos Vlachopoulos, David Walker, Gina Wall, and Nicola Whitton.

In the above context, we extend a particular thanks to Richard Hall. Chapter 8 of our book, as indicated in the chapter, incorporates and extends material published in the paper Hall, R. and Smyth, K. (2016) Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education, published in the Open Library of Humanities. We are grateful to Richard and the Open Library of the Humanities for allowing us to repurpose this material in our narrative. Richard also draws upon aspects of the aforementioned paper in his recent book ‘The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside the University’ (2018, also published by Palgrave Macmillan).

To our respective families, thank you for your patience and understanding and tolerance of lost weekends over the past year. Thanks also to colleagues at Glasgow Caledonian University and the University of the Highlands and Islands for your support and understanding at points where our work on this book had an impact on other activities. Finally we’d like to give a special mention to the Black Isle Bar in Inverness for providing a welcoming space for warmth, laughter, pizza and the occasional glass of red wine.

In solidarity, love and hope.

Recently published – Conceptualising the Digital University: The intersection of policy, pedagogy and practice

Well, it’s almost exactly a year since my last blog post. I blog sporadically, so it’s likely no one has noticed! It’s not good practice to blog so infrequently, although I have a good reason. Around this time last year, my friends and colleagues Bill Johnston, Sheila MacNeill and myself were undertaking, in earnest, the writing of our book on the concept of the Digital University. Our work on this book was a slow burn, following a number of engagements, initiatives, conferences, short articles and much dialogue with ourselves and trusted colleagues across the HE sector.

Our intention from the outset was not to to frame the notion of the ‘Digital University’ in relation to digital efficiencies, economies of scale, or market outreach, but instead to try and develop a more holistic conceptualisation that scrutinised and positioned ‘the digital’, and digital education practice, in relation to democratising access to education and extending universities, the curriculum and higher education as a public good. Critical and public pedagogy came to the fore in writing the book, influenced by the ideas of Friere, Giroux, and coming to meet and know the inspirational Antonia Darder.

Why have I not blogged in a year?

Partly because, over dinner and a glass or two of wine at one of our vital and convivial writing retreats, I resolved not to blog until we had finished writing our book. Similarly, you may notice elsewhere on this blog that I didn’t really undertake any talks or conferences during 2018. Not beyond a few internal ones within my own institution. Head down, fingers to the keyboard! That didn’t help me meet our agreed deadlines on time, but it definitely helped me meet them around about on time!

Image of front cover of the book "Conceptualising the Digital University - The intersection of policy, pedagogy and practice"

Our book, Conceptualising the Digital University – The Intersection of Policy, Pedagogy and Practice, is now out. It was a real labour of love, and I loved and learned in working with Sheila and Bill on the book. We’ll be blogging about and presenting ideas from the book in the coming months, and looking forward to further developing our ideas – and being challenged of course – in dialogue with friends and colleagues.

In the meantime, please find below the short synopsis of our book…

Despite the increasing ubiquity of the term, the concept of the digital university remains diffuse and indeterminate. This book examines what the term ‘digital university’ should encapsulate and the resulting challenges, possibilities and implications that digital technology and practice brings to higher education. Critiquing the current state of definition of the digital university construct, the authors propose a more holistic, integrated account that acknowledges the inherent diffuseness of the concept. The authors also question the extent to which digital technologies and practices can allow us to re-think the location of universities and curricula; and how they can extend higher education as a public good within the current wider political context. Framed inside a critical pedagogy perspective, this volume debates the role of the university in fostering the learning environments, skills and capabilities needed for critical engagement, active open participation and reflection in the digital age.

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]

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.