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).


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.


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]