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.

Acknowledgements

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.

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.

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.

 

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 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.