Student transitions to, within and beyond Higher Education. Special Issue of JPAAP.

Over the last few months I have been working with Lorraine Anderson (University of Dundee) and Roni Bamber (Queen Margaret University) to co-edit a new Special Issue of the online, open access Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice (JPAAP).

The theme of the  Special Issue is Student Transitions and the issue has been published in partnership with the QAA Scotland to capture work resulting from, and relating to, the current national enhancement theme of Student Transitions which is now drawing to a close. The Special Issue, which was launched this week at the 3rd International Enhancement in Higher Education Conference, features a range of full research papers, case studies, opinion pieces and ’emerging work’ articles relating to multiple challenges, issues and dimensions in the transitioning of students to, within, and beyond HE.

The production of the Special Issue itself was made possible by by Kirsteen Wright, editorial officer of JPAAP based at Edinburgh Napier University, and by the Special Issue copy editors Tonje Hefte (@TonjeHefte) and Douglas Walker (@D_M_Walker91) who are students on the MSc Publishing course at Edinburgh Napier University.

The Special Issue is now online and you can read our editorial for the issue below.

Editorial

Welcome to the Special Issue of JPAAP on Student Transitions. The inspiration for this Special Issue is the current national Enhancement Theme of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for Higher Education, Scotland, and we are delighted to bring you this Special Issue in partnership with the QAA Scotland.

JPAAP has come to develop a wide readership in recent years, and for colleagues who are unfamiliar with the Enhancement Themes their purpose are to enhance the quality of the student learning experience within Scottish Higher Education through a co-ordinated period of enhancement activity that is focused on a specific developmental theme. Every Higher Education Institution (HEI) across Scotland engages with the Enhancement Themes, through internal and cross-institutional initiatives. The Enhancement Themes are managed by the QAA Scotland in collaboration with a Theme Leaders Group (TLG) comprising institutional and student representatives from each HEI in Scotland.

The current Enhancement Theme of Student Transitions has been running for the last three academic years, since summer 2014. The work for the theme is currently drawing to a close, and will be marked by the 3rd International Enhancement in Higher Education Conference to be held in Glasgow from 6–8 June 2017, and also by the publication of this Special Issue.

While this Special Issue of JPAAP is brought to you in conjunction with the current Enhancement Theme of Student Transitions, and indeed features several articles that relate to work undertaken in Scotland as part of the theme, we are delighted to also feature a number of contributions from colleagues based in universities across the UK and Australia.

Within this Special Issue, one of our largest issues to date, we are pleased to feature a rich range of original research papers, case studies and reviews, opinion pieces, and On the Horizon articles which report on emerging work. Between them, the full papers and other articles within this issue address several important dimensions of Student Transitions to, within, and beyond Higher Education.

Widening participation and the articulation of students from further education to higher education are addressed in the respective papers by Neil Speirs and colleagues from the University of Edinburgh, and Debbie Meharg and colleagues from Edinburgh Napier University.

The capturing of the student voice to ease transitions into and through Higher Education is the focus of the case study by Hope Christie and Karl Johnson, while other important dimensions of peer support and social integration are addressed in the papers and articles by Rick Hayman and colleagues from Northumbria University, Sidonie Ecochard and Kirsteen Wright from Edinburgh Napier University, and Shona Robertson from the University of Dundee.

Transitions within the undergraduate student journey are explored by Celine Caquineau and colleagues, in their consideration of assessment practice and transitioning to Junior Honours, and by Margaret-Anne Houston and Lindsey Carey from Glasgow Caledonian University who look at the academic reintegration of final year students following work placements and study exchanges.

Supporting the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate study, and student experiences of becoming postgraduates, are to the fore in the contributions from Jessica Bownes and colleagues at the University of Glasgow, and Charlotte McPherson, Samantha Punch and Elizabeth Graham from the University of Stirling. Furthermore, in the case study by Jennifer Scally and Andrea Cameron from Abertay University, you can read about the experience of an undergraduate student who transitioned to becoming a postgraduate research student through interning as a research assistant.

Student transitions beyond Higher Education and into employment and professional practice, in areas including veterinary nursing and teaching, are explored by Patricia Logan and colleagues who represent a number of Australian universities, and by Donna Dey, Angela Lindsay and Patricia Thomson from the University of Dundee.

Cultural and intercultural dimensions in student transitions are the focus of the literature review on the challenges faced by international students that has been contributed by Sidonie Ecochard and Julia Fotheringham from Edinburgh Napier University, and in the opinion piece on ‘multilingual mindset’ by Argyro Kanaki from the University of Dundee.

In the second of our two opinion pieces for this Special Issue, Mike Murray and colleagues ask “Are career academics gatekeepers to students’ tacit knowledge?”, while in the remaining case study paper that we are pleased to feature Josephine Adekola and colleagues from the University of Glasgow report their work to support students in making the transition to blended learning.

Perhaps fittingly, in the remaining contribution to be mentioned Ashley Dennis and colleagues present their research into stakeholder perceptions of the current QAA Scotland Enhancement Theme of Student Transitions, including recommendations for future Enhancement Theme activities.

Whether you have been engaged directly with the work of the current Enhancement Theme on Student Transitions, are engaged in your own practice and research relating to student transitions, or are simply looking to learn more about some of the work underway across the sector, we hope that this Special Issue will be of some relevance and value to yourself and colleagues.

With thanks equally to our contributing authors, reviewers, editorial officer, and the publishing students at Edinburgh Napier University who worked on this Special issue and made it possible.

Guest Editors

Dr Lorraine Anderson, University of Dundee
(Deputy Chair Enhancement Theme Leaders Group)

Professor Roni Bamber, Queen Margaret University
(Chair, Enhancement Theme Leaders Group)

Professor Keith Smyth, University of the Highlands and Islands
(Professor of Pedagogy)

 

 

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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.

The University as a third space?

Ray Oldenburg’s (1989) influential work on third places (or third spaces) within communities has been pivotal in encouraging sociologists, civic leaders and activists to look critically at how our public spaces for congregating (e.g. museums, cafes, pubs, parks, even barber shops) can provide a locus for democratic discussion and debate, community action, creative thought and expression, and importantly also for frivolity, friendship, and harmonious interaction.

The concept of the ‘third space’ has also become central to current thinking and a burgeoning movement of direct action in providing more inclusive alternatives to tertiary and adult education out with the confines of the systems, structures, policies and expectations of the higher education institution, and the systems, structures and policies under which higher education institutions are themselves governed.  The groups and collectives leading the way in providing alternative higher education in the UK include the Social Science Centre in Lincoln who provide free, co-operative access to higher education at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and more recently the Free University Brighton who are currently exploring how to offer a free degree.

Over the last two years or so, I’ve been privileged to come to know and experience the work of the Ragged University. Working at the nexus between formal and informal education, the Ragged University is active across the UK (particularly in Edinburgh and Manchester) in utilising ‘third spaces’ in the community to create opportunities for the sharing of knowledge and facilitation of learning.

Based upon the philanthropic tradition of the Ragged Schools of the 1900’s, and the Madras ‘peer teaching’ or ‘mutual instruction’ method pioneered by Andrew Bell, the Ragged University provides opportunities (in libraries, pubs, and other public venues) for scholars, academics, artists and artisans to share their knowledge and experience with peers who have similar interests, a simple curiosity, or a hunger and thirst to learn. Encapsulating Oldenburg’s vision of the third space, you find free food, drink and music are an important feature of Ragged University’s events, ensuring that hunger and thirsts of other kinds are also provided for. The Ragged University are also active online, and finding increasingly creative ways to reach out digitally in realising their motto that “knowledge is power, but only when it is shared”.  I’ve been fortunate to share many discussions with Alex Dunedin, the ‘Principal Janitor’ of Ragged, and my own outlook on education is all the richer for that.

Alex often describes the Ragged University as providing ‘an annex’ to formal education, rather than an alternative. As someone working in formal higher education who has also been involved in community education initiatives – some but not all of which would have been supported in my formal role – I could readily identify with this. An ‘annex’ can be seen to provide a neutral space for academics to do something that relates to their discipline expertise, and which may or may not be directly related to the work they do within their formal role in their institution. It takes away arguments around ‘either or’ and creates an ‘as well as’.  In my own experience, and in speaking with colleagues who are seeking to engage through the opportunities that initiatives like the Ragged University provide, that’s important for many community-minded academics who may want to do something away from the constraints, expectations or even scrutiny of their institutions.

Screen shot from Ragged University website

The Ragged University’s website http://www.ragged-online.com

Regardless of whether we talk about third spaces for learning and teaching as ‘annexes’ or ‘alternatives’, their inclusivity is arguably as empowering and enriching for those academics who come into the space to share their experience as it is for those who come into the space to learn.  In this respect the engagement of academics in third spaces may also, in some way, lessen the frustration or constraint that they may be feeling over the lack of opportunity their own institution provides in allowing them to be educators in a broader sense of the word. This is critically important, as the willingness and freedom of academics to engage in third spaces for learning and teaching provides the opportunity to offer more inclusive and participatory forms of education (formal and informal) than many higher education institutions often allow for.

However it also raises another important, perhaps controversial, question.

Does the engagement of academics in third spaces for learning and teaching redirect our energies, at least in part, from a critical challenge we should be tackling – which is to confront the internal barriers and externally imposed confines that stand in the way of universities becoming places for adult learning that are non-discriminatory with respect to qualifications, aspirations or personal means? This is not to suggest that universities should become all things to all learners, but to underline the fact that many of our universities could do so much more to allow access to their campuses, courses and resources for those learners that aspire to be there, and for academics (and scholars from the wider community) who are seeking a space to share their knowledge and experience with whomever may be interested. In short, could the university become a ‘third space’ for alternative forms of learning in the communities where they are based? Could we look towards what our educators are doing in the ‘third spaces’ for learning that they are creating and engaging in, and re-purpose the university as a space for alternative educational practices?

During her time as Chancellor of Syracuse University, Nancy Cantor (2010) directly addressed this very issue in arguing for a reconceptualization of universities as third spaces in the community and as “anchors in our communities…that can not only model from afar the inclusive practices of our diverse democracy but those that engage as agents of transformation” (p. 2).

Leaving aside the rhetoric that inevitably characterises institutional strategy within any university, there is common ground here with the ethos and outlook of organisations like the Ragged University, and the point Alex Dunedin and Susan Brown (2012) make in asserting that “The promise of inclusivity is something which we think needs to be substituted by action – everyone is a stakeholder in knowledge capable of participating in the intellectual activity of civic society.”

Unfortunately the strategic rhetoric of inclusion, community engagement and outreach is rarely fully realised in the educational practices of many universities – certainly not to the extent being exemplified by alternatives and annexes such as the Ragged University. Universities are also resource-rich but risk averse. These two factors are not unrelated, and so for example the reluctance to move beyond the delivery of largely nine-to-five courses to predominantly full-time registered and fee-paying students goes some way to explaining the corridors and rooms of dead space that characterise many university campuses come the evening, weekend and between semesters.

I recall a personal experience from some time ago, when a colleague and myself were attempting to organise a free programme of educational events aimed at disadvantaged young adults in the local community where the campus was based. Rooms and dates were identified across a number of summer evenings, and colleagues from different subject disciplines were ready to dedicate their time, only for our efforts to falter at the insistence of the estates department that someone had to pay for the hire of the rooms. These were classrooms and labs that were not otherwise being used, and they remained silent and unused that summer.

When I look at the pivotal work of the Ragged University, and comparable initiatives, I feel at once both inspired and frustrated as an academic that is seeking to make a broader educational contribution, but who like others has largely had to go out with the formal institution to do this.

Universities need to challenge themselves to properly define their relationship to the communities within which they sit. In doing this, they need to move beyond broadly-worded aspirations and strategies relating to public engagement and civic responsibility, and instead commit to and help drive a culture of action and active partnership between their institution and their wider community.

Individuals and communities will continue to persevere regardless (and perhaps in spite of) the stance our universities take. However, depending on the position that they take many universities may find themselves left behind in the wider social mission (rather than business) of education.

For many of the educators who work within their walls, and who deal on a daily basis with the policies, procedures and bureaucracies of higher education, the reality is that many universities are extremely effective at keeping academics busy without letting them do enough.

Or enough that matters.

Cantor, N. (2010) Academic excellence and civic engagement: constructing a third space for higher education. Office of the Chancellor. Paper 1. Syracuse University. Online via http://surface.syr.edu/chancellor/1

Dunedin, A. and Brown, S. (2012) Developing social capital: from promises to knowledge exchange. Paper presented at Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) 8th Annual Conference 2012. Online http://www.ragged-online.com/2012/10/developing-social-capital-promises-knowledge-exchange/

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.

Is unschool cool?

Last week I was fortunate to attend Ascilite 2012 as part of a visit to New Zealand where, with colleagues, I also facilitated a series of workshops around technology-enhanced learning and professional standards in HE. More of that later, and I’ll certainly have more to say about Ascilite which was extremely interesting on many levels.

For now I’d like to offer a few reflections sparked by the keynote Dale J Stephens (@DaleJStephens) offered on day two of Ascilite, and which he titled ‘The End of the University’.

In his keynote, Dale Stephens recounted his experiences of being unschooled. Not to be confused with home schooling, the concept of unschooling (as originally conceived by John Holt in the 1960s, and later addressed in broader philosophical terms by Illich and then more recently by Gatto) is focused around the lived experiences of learners, including their play, social interactions, and work experiences. Dale Stephens spoke passionately and with conviction about the richness of his unschooled learning, and the feelings of being constrained, unchallenged, and dissatisfied that he later experienced when he attended college.

This, in part, led to Dale leaving formal tertiary education and founding UnCollege – ‘a social movement for self-directed Higher Education’. Although a relatively new initiative, pencilUnCollege has gained considerable interest and momentum. Against the backdrop of bleak figures Dale shared on the financial realities of attending university, and his examples of bright young adults who have adopted an uncolleged approach to their education and professional development, the basic mantra of UnCollege, reflected in the title of Dale’s forthcoming book (Hacking your education: ditch the lectures, save tens of thousands, and learn more than your peers ever will, 2013) encapsulates a tantalising alternative.

It is an alternative that our colleges and universities would be very foolish to ignore. However I think we need to question the extent to which being unschooled, and the uncollege, is a viable and realistic alternative for a broad cross-section of learners. I don’t believe it is, and there were three aspects to Dale’s talk that underlined this for me.

The first was the publicity material for the upcoming UnCollege Gap Year programme that right up front posed the question ‘Are you smart as hell?’. I think this is a question that is just as relevant to unschooling and certainly to uncolleging generally, and to which we can also add the questions ‘Are you as confident as hell?’, ‘Are you as motivated as hell?’ and ‘Are you as entrepreneurial as hell?’. My concern here is not for the smaller minority of individuals who could answer ‘Yes’ to these questions, but for the larger number who are seeking to expand their options and outlook through education but whom would not have the confidence, prior experiences, natural attributes, or self-certainty to say ‘Yes’ to these questions.

The second aspect of Dale’s talk that prompted me to question how widely applicable unschooling and uncolleging might be focused on the experiences Dale generously shared around the supportive network he had around him through his unschooling, and which had largely enabled it. Supportive parents (a teacher and engineer) and a wider network of mentors, tutors and critical friends. Whether we are unschooled or not, such networks of family and friends are central to human wellbeing. However the harsh reality is that not every young person has these networks in place, and even where they do the networks themselves are sometimes volatile and fragmented. In such circumstances school, college, and even university become safe places within which the individual can experience structure, support, stability, and the space to make sense of things both academic and otherwise [1]. To paraphrase Professor Beverly Oliver (@pvclfdeakin) in her closing keynote at Ascilite 2012, our colleges and universities also serve a role as the ‘place where learners become that which they want to become’. We may talk about learners hacking their education in general terms, but we won’t anytime soon be talking about learners hacking their way to being a social worker, a nurse, a dentist or lawyer.

The third aspect of Dale’s keynote that concerned me somewhat was the (admittedly intriguing and quite progressive) example of an intensive bootcamp that guaranteed to turn participants into experienced, employable web developers in nine weeks. At the cost of 10K US dollars.  Dale’s point that this is less than the cost of a degree in the USA was fair. However, if you’re a young person with an aptitude for computing from Muirhouse in Edinburgh, Moss Side in Manchester, or Cannon Park in Middlesbrough, would you have the equivalent of 10K US dollars? With limited or no access to your own IT, would you even know you had an aptitude for computers without attending school, the local library, or a college evening class?

In addition to the fact that the example above raises serious questions around when the ‘alternatives’ we offer might become more commercialised than the mainstream, I would like to suggest that those who most need our support in terms of accessing education don’t need to be supported in being unschooled or uncolleged. They need instead to be supported within our schools, colleges and universities by capable and sensitive educators who are driven by values of equality, personal development, equivalence of opportunity, empathy and, dare I say it, even altruism.

Altruism is arguably more of an ideal than a value, and it has become an unfashionable one. It is also contested within education. If we go back to Holt, who rightly argued that the school system puts learners in competition with one another, we may even view altruism as folly. However many educators do have something of an altruistic outlook within their work, and altruistic reasons for being educators. We can’t afford to overlook that, because at the centre of altruism is hope. Hope for, and commitment towards, those learners who would most benefit from what formal education can provide. In the current climate, a reframing of altruism is critical.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not criticising Dale Stephens, his work or ideas. They are important. They help us confront failings within the education system, and I applaud what Dale and his colleagues are doing. However at the same time as we applaud we need to reach out a hand to those learners for whom the unschool, uncollege or ununiversity will never be an option. Not due to who they are or what they are capable of, but because of who they are and what they are capable of.

[1] For further, far more eloquent thoughts on some of the issues touched upon above you may want to read Mark Johnson’s (@mwjtweet) blog starting with his Sept 2012 post Attachments, metagames and anxiety in the university. Richard Hall (@hallymk1) does just as an impressive job of pinning HE up against the wall and asking what it should be for.

Gatto, J.T. (1992). Dumbing us down: the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling. New Society Publishers.

Holt, J, (1964, 1982 revised) How children fail. Pitman.

Illich, I. (1971) Deschooling society. Harper and Row.

Stephens, D. J. (2013, forthcoming) Hacking your education: ditch the lectures, save tens of thousands, and learn more than your peers ever will. Penguin USA.