Conceptualising the digitally distributed curriculum at #SOLSTICE19

On Wednesday 5th June this week I’m presenting at the annual SOLSTICE 2019 e-learning conference at Edge Hill University, which is organised and run as a joint conference by Edge Hill’s SOLSTICE Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (@SolsticeCETL) and the Centre for Learning and Teaching at EDU (@CLTatEHU).

The joint SOLSTICE and CLT conference at Edge Hill is long since a well established event, running early each June and featuring a range of internal and external speakers. External speakers include a number of Visiting Fellows and Visiting Professors attached to the Centre for Learning and Teaching, not least Professors Sally Brown and Phil Race, Professor Peter Hartley, Simon Thomson and Sue Beckingham, amongst other experienced colleagues in the fields of learning and teaching, academic development and digital education practice. I count myself fortunate to also be in a Visiting Professor role at Edge Hill University, as I have benefited in various ways through learning from the work of the aforementioned folks and, in some instances, collaborating with them.

I have also been fortunate to know and learn from Professor Mark Schofield, Dean of Learning and Teaching and Director of the Centre for Learning and Teaching at EDU, in a range of ways over the years. This includes Mark’s time as External Examiner for a Masters programme in blended and online education I used to run, many years ago now and while still definitely very wet behind the ears. As they are want to say around Merseyside way, and as Mark has said a few times, ‘I knew him as a lad, you know’.

As with the previous occasions I’ve been lucky enough to attend since the early 2000’s, the SOLSTICE and CLT 2019 Conference Programme looks excellent. I’m particularly looking forward to a number of sessions that between them are exploring key concepts, ideas and approaches relating to creativity, inclusion and resilience in relation to learning and teaching and digital education practice.

My own session for the conference this week is on the topic of ‘Conceptualising the digitally distributed curriculum’.

Title slide for presentation on the topic of 'Conceptualising the digitally distributed curriculum' for SOLSTICE 2019 Conference

There is something of a continuity here too, as the session is partially a follow-up to my presentation at SOLSTICE 2017 titled ‘Situating digital space and place within the Porous University‘. The previous session drew, in part, upon an initial and very emergent model for the digitally distributed curriculum that Bill Johnston, Sheila MacNeill and myself produced as part of our collaborative research, dialogue and reflective practice around a re-imagining of the concept of the ‘Digital University’ in relation to digital practice, space and place, for further extending universities and Higher Education as a public good.

Two years down the line, our work in the above area has been synthesised into a recently published book which Bill, Sheila and myself have co-authored, and within which we are offering a revised Conceptual Matrix for the Digital University and a much more fully developed model for the Digitally Distributed Curriculum which is founded on the values of praxis, participation and public pedagogy.

I’m looking forward, once again, to attending the SOLSTICE conference and to sharing and discussing the ideas about the ‘Digitally Distributed Curriculum’ that Bill, Sheila and myself have been developing. The abstract for my session at #SOLSTICE19 is below.

Conceptualising the digitally distributed curriculum

In a previous session at SOLSTICE 2017, which focused on the role of digital space and place in the context of the ‘porous university’, Keith Smyth explored the idea of the curriculum as a co-operative space within which digital and physical spaces for learning intersect to support greater engagement within, through and beyond higher education institutions. Part of this exploration included what was, at the time, an initial and emergent model for the digitally distributed curriculum.

Drawing upon subsequent work that has led to the further refinement of this idea (Johnston, MacNeill and Smyth, 2018), in his session for SOLSTICE 2019 Keith will present and explore the concept of and a related model for the Digitally Distributed Curriculum which is based on the values of praxis, participation and public pedagogy, and which is constructed around the four dimensions of co-location, porosity, co-production and open scholarship. The pedagogical implications of the Digitally Distributed Curriculum – which include student engagement with digital public knowledge domains and the relationship between institutional and self-selected physical and digital spaces for learning – will be key points for discussion amongst participants during the session itself.

Johnston, B., MacNeill, S. and Smyth, K. (2018) Conceptualising the Digital University: The intersection of policy, pedagogy and practice. Cham, Switzeralnd: Palgrave MacMillan.

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.

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.

 

Reframing Open in the context of the Digital University – Part 2

In the first of the two blog posts that accompany our presentation at #oer16, Sheila MacNeill introduced our work exploring the idea of the Digital University that we have been undertaking with our colleague Bill Johnston. The catalyst for our work was the Conceptual Matrix for the Digital University that Sheila and Bill produced, and which we then applied in scoping and carrying out a strategic ‘digital futures’ consultation in my previous institution (Smyth, MacNeill and Johnston, 2015).

In Part 1 of our posting, Sheila discussed the need to take a broader look at what ‘open’ might mean and the limitations that are inherent in conflating ‘open’ with ‘online’. Sheila also introduced the idea of ‘third space’ in the context of bridging formal and informal learning and institutional cultures. The concept of ‘third space’ is one that is becoming increasingly central to our thinking about the nature of the Digital University, and in previous posts here on my own blog I’ve been trying to unpick what ‘The University as a Third Space’ might mean in practice.

In thinking about the Digital University, the idea of ‘third space’ (which can be interpreted from a number of different perspectives) has been useful to us in conceptualising the university as a located and co-located space; one that exists within and across physical and digital spaces that can be both inside and outside of the institution itself. The metaphor of ‘the leaky university’ (Wall, 2015) is one we find useful in thinking about open and openness, and where physical and digital spaces meet or diverge. In a similar vein, Ronnie Macintyre at OEPS has recently initiated a discussion on ‘the pourous university’ and we hope to be collaborating with Ronnie and OEPS to organise a symposia on this in the very near future.

Our work in exploring the Digital University has also led us to think about the curriculum as a located and co-located space, with multiple points of connection between learners, and which is ‘leaky’ or ‘porous’ with respect to the academic work of our learners and the extent to which this can resonate beyond the university. We see parallels here with the idea of students as producers or co-creators, which within the context of the Digital University might be framed around the notion of students as digital public scholars.

Within the ‘digital futures’ work we undertook at Edinburgh Napier University, our consultations with academics, professional services colleagues and the students themselves led us towards the idea of ‘the digitally distributed curriculum’ as an organising concept for thinking about digital and open practice, and for thinking about the location and co-location of the university and the curriculum.

DigitallyDistributedCurriculum

Our initial and ‘imperfect’ thinking on the ‘digitally distributed curriculum’ (DFWG, 2014)

 

Our thinking about what would characterise the digitally distributed curriculum, and how it would be instantiated, was very nascent and ‘imperfect’ when we first outlined it (DFWG, 2014). However, going forward we are further scrutinising what the various dimensions of the digitally distributed curriculum might be, and how as an idea it might help us to further understand open in the context of the university and digital practice. From a critical perspective, we may seek to frame this within a deconstruction of the curriculum in Higher Education (Hall and Smyth, 2016) including an identification of the various ways – technological, cultural, pedagogical – through which the curriculum is ‘bounded’ within the university.

Sheila has also been leading us in exploring the overarching idea, and implications, of ‘digital university ecosystems’ as another valuable lens or ‘organising concept’. In thinking about ecologies, openness, and engagement, we are particularly mindful of the need for further qualitative research into the experience of learners and academics who are engaging in open education, and which specifically addresses the challenges of ‘being’ within open education contexts. The application of phenomenographic, ethnographic and other participatory methods and approaches would seem particularly important to advancing the research and evidence base relating to open education. The work of colleagues like Chrissi Nerantzi, and the establishment of communities including the Global OER Graduate Network, points towards an emerging body of research (and emerging group of researchers) who will advance our understanding.

We look towards what we can learn from them, in what is still a gloriously messy area.

DFWG (Digital Futures Working Group) (2014) Digital Futures Working Group: Recommendations: April 2014 (Final Revision). Edinburgh Napier University.

Hall, R. and Smyth, K. (2016) Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education. Open Library of Humanities. Vol 2, No 1. Online [last accessed 19.04.16] DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/olh.66

Smyth, K., MacNeill, S., and Johnston, B. (2015) Visioning the Digital University – from institutional strategy to academic practice. Educational Developments, Vol 16, No 2, pp.13-17.

Wall, G. (2015) Future Thinking: Imaginative Expectations for the Leaky University. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, Vol 3, No 1. Online [last accessed 19.04.16]
http://jpaap.napier.ac.uk/index.php/JPAAP/article/view/153/html

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.