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]
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.


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.