Coming full (culture) circle at #OER19 – Part 1

This is the first of two blogs posts that accompany the session “Unpacking the geopolitics of open for the strategic development of (HE) institutions and communities – what is a university for?” that Sheila MacNeill, Bill Johnston and myself ran on day one of #OER19 on 10th April. Sheila will post Part 2, reflecting on the outcomes of the session itself.


For the past few years now, Bill Johnston, Sheila MacNeill and myself have been exploring, reflecting upon, and working towards developing a conceptualisation of the ‘Digital University’ that is focused on the extension of universities and Higher Education as a democratic public good, framed within critical education perspectives and concerned with the intersection of policy, pedagogy and practice.

Our work to date, which has involved the development of our ideas through engaging in reflective dialogue with colleagues across the sector (including peers, friends and trusted colleagues in the critical and open education communities), has been distilled into a recently published book (Johnston, MacNeill and Smyth, 2019). In our book, we argue for a rethinking of how digital and open education practices are developed and positioned within and beyond the university. Key points and areas of concern relate to porosity, the nature and location of the curriculum, educational institutions as technology rich spaces within our communities, public pedagogy (Giroux, 2000) and civic responsibility.

As we developed and further refined the proposals now presented in the book, which include a revised Conceptual Matrix for the Digital University and a model for the Digitally Distributed Curriculum, we experienced a pivotal moment in time at the OER16 conference held at the University of Edinburgh in 2016.

At OER16 we presented the original version of the aforementioned Conceptual Matrix and a very nascent version of the Digitally Distributed Curriculum idea.

At the time of OER16, Sheila and I captured how our work with Bill was developing in two linked blog posts. Our posts complemented the session we presented at the conference itself, and explored how our ideas and models concerning the Digital University related in turn to open education and where different forms of (and locations for) digital and open education practice might intersect:

Reframing Open in the Context of the Digital University – Part 1 (#OER16)
Reframing Open in the Context of the Digital University – Part 2 (#OER16)

The discussions we had with colleagues at OER16, and in response to the above posts, clarified our (at the time) emergent and still quite messy thinking and helped us to find a way forward in refining our narrative and ideas. We brought our hopefully clearer, slightly more refined thinking to #OER18 in Bristol last year, which was the first occasion on which we presented our near final versions of the Conceptual Matrix for the Digital University and our Digitally Distributed Curriculum model.

Now, for OER19, we’re coming full circle in presenting the main outcomes of our work.

Title slide for presentation at #OER19 conference. Unpacking the geopolitics of open for the strategic development of (HE) institutions and communities - what is a university for?

The topic for our session at #OER19

While the work and philosophy of the educator and activist Paulo Freire predates the widespread implementation of digital technology, spaces and approaches in education, and the emergence of open educational practices as we currently observe and understand them, Freire and his work (1974, 1975) came to the fore and was a major influence in shaping our own take on the ideas we explore and propose in the book.

The richness of Freire’s work and thinking cannot be captured here, and they are certainly not fully captured in our own book. Indeed, there are entire books that are specifically dedicated to exploring Freire and his writings. Antonia Darder’s ‘The Student Guide to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ is an excellent recent one.

However, one of Freire’s ideas that became central to our own work was that of ‘culture circles’. For Freire, culture circles are an approach and a response in which the contextualisation of education within the wider socio-political context can be revealed through collaborative reflective dialogue in which learners are encouraged to share their own understandings of the world, and to then codify their thoughts and experiences (through words and images) as a basis for further critical discussion.

This, in essence, is the approach we sought to take to our session at #OER19. In the time available, we set out to summarise our own position with respect to the Digital University and to use our Digitally Distributed Curriculum construct as a lens through which participants could identify what it is that should be confronted, challenged and changed with respect to how open education is conceptualised and enacted in our own individual and shared contexts for practice, and within our institutional contexts.

In Part 2 of this post, Sheila will provide a summary of where we got to by the end of the session. Much was shared and suggested, and we thank colleagues for their participation in our session for #OER19. We also thank the OER conference and conference community for providing a critical, collegiate and convivial space for us to share and be supported in shaping our ideas over the last three years.

References

Freire, P. (1974) Education for Critical Consciousness. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Freire, P. (1975) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Giroux, H.A. (2000) Public Pedagogy and the Responsibility of Intellectuals: Youth, Littleton, and the loss of innocence, JAC, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 9-42.

Johnston, B., MacNeill, S. and Smyth, K. (2019) Conceptualising the Digital University: The Intersection of Policy, Pedagogy and Practice. Palgrave MacMillan.

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.

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.