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 http://www.ragged-online.com

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 http://surface.syr.edu/chancellor/1

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 http://www.ragged-online.com/2012/10/developing-social-capital-promises-knowledge-exchange/

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.

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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] http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=422371

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] http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=422371

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] http://www.universitas21.com/news/details/32/rethinking-international-higher-education-curriculum-mapping-the-research-landscape

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.