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.

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.


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.

Academic development and technology in the next 5 years

I was recently invited by two colleagues to write a short reflection on how I thought academic development would evolve over the next five years, with respect to supporting and taking forward good practice in technology-enhanced learning. My reflection is one of a number that they are collecting for inclusion in a book chapter they are currently working on.

The request was a timely one, as it came on the same day I was dipping back into the e-textbook version of a handbook I co-authored a few years ago, the second edition of which had coincidentally been published 5 years previously. I was revisiting the handbook – a practical guide to using educational technology written partly for the Masters programme we were running at the time – in order to share a few ideas for online collaborative learning activities with a colleague who was redesigning one of their undergraduate courses.

Cover of Pedagogy and learning technoology: a practical guide In looking back over the handbook I was pleased to see that most of the guidance it offered still stood up pretty well 5 years down the line, possibly because we tried to write the handbook primarily from a learning and teaching rather than a technology perspective.

However in simultaneously looking back 5 years while thinking ahead to the next 5, I can’t help but feel that the key challenges we face in trying to encourage academics to use technology in their learning and teaching practice really haven’t changed that much. Establishing a dialogue with those who are reticent or reluctant, or who simply don’t see the need to use technology in their practice, remains a concern. So too does contextualising the use of technology in learning and teaching to the different discipline areas that the willing or curious are coming from. Time and direct support for academics go hand-in-hand as another constant challenge and barrier.

There are also new challenges to be acknowledged and addressed if our universities are to make effective use of technology in learning and teaching, a critical one being the creative ways in which young learners are being engaged with and through technology in school.

The specific challenge that my colleagues put to me, in writing my reflection for their forthcoming book chapter, was to “Describe in 300 words the role you envisage academic development will play in the next 5 years within higher education institutions, and the sector more widely, to drive pedagogical innovation supported my technology?

Quite a big ask for 300 words, and a good lesson in writing concisely. One I failed, but only by fifteen words.

This was my response:

In the next five years, academic development will continue to play an important role in how we engage academics in effective digital practice and the sharing of that practice. We will see further diversification in how academic development is ‘delivered’ and facilitated online, and we will see more creative use of institutional PG Cert programmes to engage academics in experiencing then applying digital approaches to their own teaching and student support activities.

However, the degree to which the above happens will vary considerably between institutions, depending on institutional strategy, leadership, and the extent to which a general culture of enhancement in learning and teaching is shared, embedded and celebrated.

A critical enabling factor here will be whether the enhancement of learning and teaching is appropriately resourced. Many institutions will not move beyond their current position of trying to engage a greater number of staff in making use, or slightly more effective use, of the VLE and other institutional educational technologies. This is where much of their academic development effort around technology-enhanced learning will remain focused, very possibly to the exclusion of important emerging areas.

Institutions that invest appropriately in academic development, and who are alert to the potential of using digital approaches in making learning and teaching more creative, inclusive and sustainable will move farthest in the coming five years. These institutions, and their academic developers, will also be cognisant of the benefits and opportunities of digital scholarship, and digital engagement in scholarly and professional communities, for improving the outreach of the institution and extending the learner experience beyond the physical walls of the campus and virtual silos of the VLE.

Academic development, as an area of practice and a community of practitioners, will have an important role to play in the Higher Education sector in ensuring that current discussions around the development of digital literacies for students begin to focus on discipline-specific digital literacies.