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.


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.