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.

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.