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 ‘bounded’ curriculum?

What is the nature and purpose of ‘curriculum’ in Higher Education?

And what, ideally, should it be?

I have found myself increasingly challenged by these questions recently, partly through engaging in a collaborative project that has involved exploring the nature of the university with respect to digital practice, and partly through helping scope a community education initiative that has dual aims around i) widening access to higher education, and ii) harnessing the education programme in question as a means for adult learners to address key social issues within their community.

In the very broadest sense, we can think of curriculum as comprising the range of learning opportunities that are offered to learners by their educational institution, within the context of a planned course or programme of study (e.g. Macdonald, 1977; Print, 1993). However, beyond this generalisation, ‘curriculum’ is a contested concept that can be defined and enacted in a range of ways that place different emphases on what curriculum is, where it is located, and who it is for.

In a wide-ranging overview that considers what curriculum means for informal and formal education, Mark Smith (1996, 2000) PPPPdrew upon the work of Grundy (1987) and other prominent curriculum theorists in distinguishing between: curriculum as a body of knowledge to be transmitted; curriculum as product i.e. a means to achieve certain ends in students; curriculum as a process of interaction between teachers, students and knowledge; and curriculum as praxis.

Freire (1970, p. 126) defined praxis as “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed”. On viewing the curriculum as praxis, Grundy (1987) suggests that “the curriculum itself develops through the dynamic interaction of action and reflection. That is, the curriculum itself is not simply a set of plans to be implemented, but rather is constituted through an active process in which planning, acting and evaluating are all reciprocally related and integrated into the process” (p. 115). As for how curriculum as praxis might manifest itself within learning and teaching, then a focus on collective understandings, an emphasis on human emancipation, and linking values to interventions designed for a ‘collective good’ are key considerations (Smith, 1996, 2000).

When viewing the curriculum as praxis, we are essentially positioning the curriculum – and formal education – as a means to improve society and the human condition. There are important synergies here with the notions of ‘outside curricula’ and ‘public pedagogy’ (Schubert, 2010), and more broadly to higher education – and the right to access higher education – as a public good.

Central to the ethos of public pedagogy “is the need for critical educators to act on the belief that academic work matters in its relationship to broader public practices and policies” (Giroux, 2000, p. 34). There are clearly implications here for the role of academics as public scholars, and also the extent to which our curriculum, and the activities of the curriculum, provide our learners with both a voice as public scholars and a platform or means for contributing to social action.

We can see examples of higher education curricula being enacted in this way within the sector, the widening access programme alluded to in my introduction being one, and the Student as Producer at the University of Lincoln being a notable example of an institutional initiative.

However there is scope to go further.

I mentioned at the outset of this post two recent experiences that have challenged me to think about the nature and purpose of curriculum in Higher Education, about what it is and what it could be. A third important influence has been Richard Hall’s recent critique On dismantling the curriculum in higher education, in which Richard addresses how we might realise a curriculum that is engaged, that recognises diverse interests and contexts, and which – crucially – is “full of care”.

There is much to be taken from Richard’s work, and I’ll be returning to it. However what I took from it in the first instance was this question – in what ways does our organisation and instantiation of the curriculum within the university limit the curriculum, and education, from being a collective good?

I think we can partly answer this question by looking at some of the ways – pedagogical, technological, cultural – through which the curriculum is intentionally or otherwise ‘bounded’ within the university.

I offer below some initial thoughts on this, albeit thoughts very much still in development

1) Our idea of what the curriculum is, and could be, is too narrowly defined within notions of what the university will offer or provide to their students by way of courses and course content. In their considered 2012 review of curriculum models and conceptions for the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, Julia Fotheringham and colleagues look at issues of ownership and participation, and implications for wider society, but where the locus of control of the curriculum is still very much with the institution, accrediting and awarding bodies, and policy makers. Richard Hall, in his recent post discussed above, observes this in a far more eloquent way than I have just expressed it.

2) The modularisation of higher education curricula can result in fragmented learning experiences that are limited to, and kept within the confines of, module and programme cohorts (Savin-Baden, 2008). Unless we are mindful to ‘design in’ interdisciplinary and cross-cohort learning (e.g. within and across formal, informal, and professional learning communities) the organisation of the curriculum within a modularised system arguably simplifies the complexity of the real world. In turn it simplifies the range of ways in which knowledge is created, shared, challenged, and re-created outside of formal higher education.

3) The institutional systems and technologies through which we organise and ‘deliver’ the curriculum often place unhelpful space and distance between learners. Particularly problematic is the information architecture of most Virtual Learning Environments, where by a student is typically represented by a matriculation number that is linked to module and programme codes that in turn determine (at least partially) which learning resources, spaces, and peers each individual is allowed to access. In this respect the student records system and the VLE might be viewed as working in combination to ‘design out’ opportunities for learners to easily cluster around shared needs and interests, and to collaborate across disciplines, levels of a course, and across formal and informal boundaries.

4) Or 3a. ‘Clustering’ is important. For learning, wellbeing, social interaction, and social action.

5) The assessment practices embedded within our curricula often limit what our learners are allowed or able to do with their own intellectual property. Too many forms of assessment result in the intellectual work of the learner remaining within the institution. The problem and challenge here is not simply one of allowing our learners to more easily share their work (as an e-portfolio, blog or personal domain might do). Instead it about who our learners are producing assessed work for, and the purposes for which they could be sharing the knowledge, artefacts and resources they create. I would return here to the notion outlined earlier of our students as public scholars – and as digital public scholars – who are contributing to, and helping to develop and create, public bodies of knowledge. Or who are engaged through the activities of the curriculum in directly addressing a problem, issue, or need for the application of knowledge and skill within their own or another community.

6) The curriculum is often limited in acknowledging and celebrating diverse needs, views and practices by being too narrowly defined in cultural terms, usually through being bound by the dominant cultural context within which the curriculum has been devised. The recent article by NUS journalist Mariya Hussain (2015) on the Why is my Curriculum White? campaign at University College London is a timely read in this respect. And the Why is my Curriculum White? video produced by the students at UCL is a timely watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Dscx4h2l-Pk

7) Emerging notions of the distributed curriculum, including different conceptions of ‘the community as curriculum’ (Starratt, 2002; Cormier, 2008) offer useful ways of thinking about the nature of the curriculum and how the curriculum can be further reimagined and repositioned within the narrative of higher education as a public good. With further development, the notion of the community as curriculum (and of the curriculum as community) may provide a nuanced extension to the notion of curriculum as praxis.

8) In considering the curriculum as a conduit for education as a public good, we need to reframe the current debate around open education, and open educational practice, so that it moves away from addressing (almost exclusively) open online education, and begins to challenge universities to make greater use of their physical spaces as open spaces for learning. If education is a public good, then universities have to be good (and certainly much better than present) at using both their physical and online spaces for wider engagement.

I’m going to return to some of these ideas, particularly in relation to the notion of the distributed curriculum and of curriculum as community, once my thinking is a little clearer.

References

Cormier, D. (2008) Rhizomatic education: community as curriculum, Innovate: Journal of Online Education: Vol. 4, No. 5. Online [last accessed 23.08.15] http://nsuworks.nova.edu/innovate/vol4/iss5/2

Fotheringham, J., Strickland, K., and Aitchison, K. (2012) Curriculum: directions, decisions and debate. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. Online [last accessed 23.08.15 http://www.enhancementthemes.ac.uk/docs/publications/curriculum-directions-decisions-and-debate.pdf?sfvrsn=8.

Freire, P. (1970 in 2000) Pedagogy of the oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition. 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.

Grundy, S. (1987) Curriculum: Product or praxis? London: Falmer Press.

Macdonald, J. B. (1977) Value bases and issues for curriculum. In A. Molnar and J.A. Zahorick (Eds.) Curriculum theory, pp. 10-21. Washington, DC: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Print, M. (1993) Curriculum development and design. NSW: Allen and Unwin.

Savin-Baden, M. (2008) Learning spaces: creating opportunities for knowledge creation in academic life. Maidenhead: Open University Press

Schubert, W.M. (2010) Outside curricula and public pedagogy. In J.A. Sandlin, B.D. Schultz, and J. Burdick (Eds.) Handbook of public pedagogy: education and learning beyond schooling, pp. 10-19. New York: Routledge.

Smith, M. K. (1996, 2000) Curriculum theory and practice, the Encyclopaedia of Informal Education. Online [last accessed 23.08.15] http://infed.org/mobi/curriculum-theory-and-practice/

Starratt, R.J. (2002) Community as curriculum. In K. Leithwood and P. Hallinger (Eds.) Second international handbook of educational leadership and administration, pp. 321-348. London: Kluwer Academic.