Conceptualising the digital university – sharing the testimonials


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My fellow authors Keith Smyth and Bill Johnson and I have been delighted with the response to our recently published book Conceptualising the Digital University: the intersection of policy, pedagogy and practice. The download figures we can see from the website are very encouraging.

We are actively working on some open access papers around key themes of the book but whilst we are working on these and wait for reviews we know about to come out, we thought it would be good to share the testimonials for the book given to us by some respected colleagues who got early access to the book.

Our thoughts about the book have been influenced by many people in our community and over in Keith’s blog we are sharing the acknowledgements section in the book as a way of saying thank you again to many colleagues and friends who have been inspired, challenged and supported our work.

I read this book with a sense of both recognition and urgency. This is not a manifesto about utopian digital futures, but rather a provocative invitation to re-think higher education and its role in increasingly open, networked, and participatory culture. Written in a language of “hope and critique” (Giroux, 2011), the authors use the lenses of critical pedagogy and praxis to offer a compelling case for troubling the existing boundaries of universities – and thus for greater openness and democratic engagement within and beyond higher education. The questions and analytical frameworks proposed by the authors should stimulate much dialogue and debate by educators, academic developers, policy makers, and all interested in the future of higher education. A vital and timely book.  – Dr Catherine Cronin.

This timely work examines the power of the digital in context with what is hap- pening to education today, and in particular to Higher Education. Understanding education in terms of human development, it is comforting that narratives of education as a public good are being related through the digital. We live with the golden promises of technology to emancipate and extend social and intellectual benefits to the many, however this thinking needs to be matched with the practi- cal details whilst not shying away from critique of expanding a successful mono- culture. Just as with the industrial revolution before, our technology industries are proposing revolutions which lead us round the same circle, down the same paths of behaviour. Scrutiny of formal education reveals how learning has been commodified and narrowed; just as we have come to consume the natural world we have come to consume education. This book provides robust analyses and alternative envisioning to the consumption of education exploring how technol- ogy can be used as a tool to open up vital opportunities to everyone, as well as essential vistas to those in the academy if it is not to atrophy as an intelligent organ of human society. – Alex Dunedin, Ragged University.

This is a timely and necessary book. All universities are in some form negotiating their relationship with the digital context they now operate within – what does it mean for students, staff, ways of learning, methods of research and the role of the university in society. What and how should we teach in order to give students the appropriate skills to operate as effective citizens in a digital world? These are all questions which the higher education sector seeks answers for. The issue is that often the answers to such questions are provided by those with a vested interest – technology vendors or ed tech consultants. What this book does is place these types of questions within a meaningful and well reasoned framework. The book addresses this in three sections, looking first at the broadly neo-liberal context within which the digital university operates, and what this means. In the second part, how the digital university might be conceptualised and practically implemented is considered. Lastly, the authors address how such a digital university is situated within a social context. By addressing these elements, a comprehensive, critical and nuanced picture of the digital university can be established, rather than one determined by a technological perspective alone. It is therefore essential reading for anyone with an interest in the digital evolution of the university. – Professor Martin Weller.

We’ve been waiting for this: a book-length critique of the ‘digital university’ that gives full attention to the political context. Johnston, MacNeill and Smith explore the role that digital technologies have played in corporatising the academy, from the curriculum to learning environments, and from business models to terms of academic employment. They’re hopeful enough and engaged enough in the wider world to also show how alternative digital pedagogies and strategies might be pursued, reframing higher education as an open, critical and democratic project. Helen Beetham.

Available now – Conceptualising the digital university: the intersection of policy, pedagogy and practice

So after a couple of years talking the idea around, another year or so getting a decent proposal together for a publisher, and about 9 months of writing, our book Conceptualising the Digital University: the intersection of policy, pedagogy and practice is now published.

Writing the book has been quite a journey for myself and my fellow authors, Bill Johnston and Keith Smyth. We have been working, presenting and producing papers on the topic of the digital university for a number of years now. I think the first joint blog post Bill and I wrote about it was back in 2012. Having the time and support to be able to write a whole book is undoubtedly a big perk of “the job”, but it is still a bit of a labour of love and lost holidays/weekends. When I get an actual hard copy that will be all but forgotten.

Our intent for the book was not to give a blueprint for what a digital university is, or should be. Rather it is an exploration of the current neoliberal context universities (particularly in the UK) are working in. What we have attempted to do is to provide a critique of current and potential developments based underpinned by critical pedagogy. Or as the blurb puts it

Despite the increasing ubiquity of the term, the concept of the digital university remains diffuse and indeterminate. This book examines what the term ‘digital university’ should encapsulate and the resulting challenges, possibilities and implications that digital technology and practice brings to higher education. Critiquing the current state of definition of the digital university construct, the authors propose a more holistic, integrated account that acknowledges the inherent diffuseness of the concept. The authors also question the extent to which digital technologies and practices can allow us to re-think the location of universities and curricula; and how they can extend higher education as a public good within the current wider political context. Framed inside a critical pedagogy perspective, this volume debates the role of the university in fostering the learning environments, skills and capabilities needed for critical engagement, active open participation and reflection in the digital age.

The role of open education does feature heavily in the book. However we were caught in the open paradox in terms of making this open access. One of the first discussions we had with the publisher when they approached us was around an open access version of the book. However, that option was just not financially viable for us, we didn’t (and still don’t) have spare £10k. We could have self published, but to be honest having the pressure of a contract and publisher deadlines meant that we actually wrote the book and didn’t just have great conversations every time we met. We managed to do both – though at times the chat was very distracting! We are now working with the publisher to try and get some chapters of the book openly available.

We see the book as just the start of even more conversations and debate around the future of universities. There were many areas we just didn’t have the space to cover adequately. However, we are looking forward to working through some of our ideas/approaches at a workshop at the OER19 conference in April. If you are interested in reviewing the book you can request a review copy here and if you do, please let me know.

Weaving our way around the complex tapestry of strategy, practice and policy, in learning technology: ALT Scotland meeting

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This week saw the annual ALT Scotland group face to face meeting. This year’s years location was the stunning new City of Glasgow College campus. What a learning space that is!  You can see more here – it really is every bit as good as the video illustrates.

As well as chairing the morning sessions, my colleague Professor Linda Creanor, also presented an overview of institutional strategic developments on digital learning here at GCU.

Linda use the analogy of weaving to describe the way our team (Academic Development) has to move across the institutional loom weaving  between, above, below the various threads of strategies and policies that support enhancing practice and the adoption and the effective use of learning technology.  As the day progressed I think this analogy became more resonant for me. A lot of the threads we are working with are quite delicate, and to create an effective pattern we need to be quite expert weavers. That expertise can’t just be replaced by automated services. There maybe some high level patterns that we can share across the sector, but as they say but devil is always in the detail. And it’s the details, the human interactions, that really matter in providing effective learning.

As ever there were a really good mix of presentations from across the sector, touching on some key issues many of us are facing including: VLE procurement, with updates on the recent Scottish national VLE procurement framework; GSA (Glasgow School of Art)  also shared their decision and plans to change their VLE; copyright (this time from my library colleague Marion Kelt).

The first two presentations of the afternoon focused on lecture recording.  Presentations from the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow shared their developing policies and practice.

Edinburgh are in the process of developing an institutional wide policy and share some of the issues they are grappling with including opt-in or opt-out, copyright, is it capture or recording? longevity  and storage to name but a few.  This work is being driven as part of their overall student enhancement and engagement work.

From Glasgow, we actually got to hear the student voice about lecture capture.  Students want it. They can’t understand why, if the tech is in place, lecturers wouldn’t want to do it. Students will record parts of lectures anyway as revision aids.  Conversely though in the discussion it became apparent that students prefer more active, participatory forms of learning and teaching – not just traditional passive lectures.

This illustrated so clearly to me some of the underlying tensions around the use of technology. Lecture capture can be really useful, but it isn’t a magic wand. It costs a lot to provide a comprehensive system, and unless there is equally investment around thinking about the most effective ways of using that technology there is a danger of perpetuating the same old, same old.

Effective use of video is much more than just recording the traditional 1 hour lecture. Lecture capture sh/could be the catalyst for more flipped approaches, for more blending of shorter (at times) video based resources, for more in class active engagement.  But that requires rethinking of time, preparation, f2f, and online time. Many people are doing just that, but again they are weaving in and around of the neat 1 hour time pattern. 1 hour prep, 1 hour delivery (or maybe 15 minutes) , 1 hour follow up.   That needs to change.  Increasingly I am having conversations about rethinking of time in relation to learning and teaching.

The final presentation of the day came from Joe Wilson who gave us a round up of a number of open education conferences and events he has attended recently as part of the Open Scotland group. You can read more here and here .

Joe also highlighted some of the international open initiatives that are growing apace and have significant government support. Oh,  the irony of hearing that the Moroccan government have just published an open education policy based on the (community led)  Open Scotland Declaration, yet here in Scotland we are still finding it so hard to get the Scottish Government to engage in a meaningful way around open education policy.

All in all a really interesting and useful day in a great location. Presentations will be online from the ALT website over the coming days.

Whose app (or map) is it anyway? #HEAVandR

Early this week my colleague Evelyn McElhinney and did our first visitors and residents mapping workshop for the current HEA Online Residency in the Disciplines programme.

The student co-hort we met with were all post registration health professionals, who are undertaking professional CPD courses here at GCU.  We had a good mix of participants both in terms of age and gender and in attitudes to using technology. From the self confessed luddites (always makes me smile when people use that term in a self derogatory fashion in relation to their own perceptions of “being rubbish at technology”, the original luddites were all highly skilled people) to those who seemed pretty confident about where and when they are online.

As we stated in our bid, one of the reasons we wanted to be part of this programme was:

“Effective online engagement is particularly relevant to health care professionals, who are bound by professional codes of ethics. The increasing use of social media for professional and public engagement requires them to develop understanding of the interactions between professional and personal spaces.”

True to David White’s experience, as our participants were developing their maps, some really interesting questions and discussions emerged, particularly around the use of apps. Is interaction with an app visitor or resident behaviour? Of course that very much depends on the app, and you connect to other services/online spaces with it. If you are for example using a fitness app to collect data about yourself is that resident behaviour or just a private record? As we were dealing with health care professionals, this led to another discussion about boundaries of personal and professional technology. If you have a say, blood pressure app on your phone should you use that with patients, or should you only use authorised apps and devices?

This led to another discussion or perhaps more accurately a series of questions about the whole quantified self movement and learning analytics. In terms of health care, in certain cases self monitoring can be very powerful. But if we all are recording everything on our Fitbits (or whatever) should that data be collected and stored by, the NHS? What are the practicalities never mind the ethics involved in that?

Lots to think about and I’m sure it wasn’t all just sugar and e-number induced nonsense.

Picutre of blank v&R map with biscuits and sweets
Essential kit for v&r mapping

Exploring the digital university – next steps digital university ecosystems?

Regular readers of this (and my previous) blog, will know that exploring the notion of just what a digital university is, c/should be is an ongoing interest of mine. Over the past couple of years now my colleague Bill Johston and I have shared our thinking around the development of a model to explore notions of the digital university. The original series of blog posts got very high viewing figures and generated quite a bit of discussion via comments. We’ve developed the posts into a number of conference presentations and papers. But the most exciting and rewarding development was when Keith Smyth from Edinburgh’s Napier University contacted us about the posts in relation their strategic thinking and development around their digital future. Which in turn will help them to figure out what their vision of digital university will look like.

For the past year Bill and I have been critical friends to Napier’s Digital Futures Working Group. This cross institutional group was tasked with reviewing current practice and areas of activity relating to digital engagement, innovation and digital skills development, and with identifying short term initiatives to build on current practice as well as proposing possible future developments and opportunities. These will be shared by Napier over the coming months. Being part of the Napier initiative has encouraged me to try and develop a similar approach here at GCU.  I’m delighted that we have got senior management backing and later this month we’ll be running a one day consultation event here.

Earlier this week Bill, Keith and myself had a catch up where we spent quite a bit of time reflecting on “our journey” so far.  Partly this was because we have another couple of conference paper submissions we want to prepare.  Also as we now have a very rich set of findings from the Napier experience we needed to think about  our next steps. What can we at GCU learn from the Napier consultation experience? What are the next steps for both institutions? What common issues will emerge? What common solutions/decision points will emerge?  What are the best ways to share our findings internally and externally?

As we reflected on where we started we (well, to be precise, Bill) began to sketch out a kind of process map of where we started (which was a number of lengthy conversations in the staff kitchen between Bill and I) to where we might be this time next year, when hopefully we will have set of actions from GCU.

The diagram below is an attempt to replicate Bill’s diagram and outline the phases we have gone through so far. Starting with conversations, which evolved into a series of blogs posts, which evolved in conference papers/presentation, the blog posts were spotted by Keith and used as a basis for the development of their Digital Futures Working group, which is now being used as an exemplar for work beginning here at GCU.

Stages of the Digital University Conversation

I am more and more convinced that one of the key distinguishing features of a digital university is the ability of staff and students to have a commonly shared articulation and experience of the digitally enabled processes they engage with on a daily basis, and equally a shared understanding of what would be missing if these processes weren’t being digitally enabled. You know, the digital day of student, lecturer, admin person type of thing, but not visions written by “futurologists”, ones written by our staff and students.  Alongside this we could have the daily live of the physical spaces that we are using. So for example we could have overlays of buildings not only showing the footfall of people but also where and when they were accessing our wifi next works etc.

Now, I know we can/could do this already (for example we already show access/availability of computers in our labs via our website) and/or make pretty good educated guesses about what is happening in general terms. However it is becoming easier to get more data and more importantly visualise it in ways that encourage questions around “actionable insights’ not only for our digital spaces, digital infrastructure but our physical ones too. Knowing and sharing the institutional digital footprint is again central to the notion of digital university.

Alongside this, by using learning analytic techniques can we start to make see any correlations around where and why students are online? Can we understand and learn from patterns around access and engagement with learning activities?  Are students are using our uni provided spaces and wifi to do the majority of their uni work or to download “stuff” to listen/watch/read to on the bus? Are they just accessing specialist software/kit? Does it matter if they all have Facebook/youtube/whatsapp open all the time if we are confident (through our enhanced data driven insights) that they are successfully engaging with our programmes and that they have the digital literacy skills to connect and collaborate with the right people in the right spaces (both on and offline)?

As we were talking one word kept coming.  It’s maybe a bit old fashioned, I know they were all the rage a few years ago particularly in the repository sphere, but we did think that mapping the ecosystem of a digital university could be the next logical step. The ecosystem wouldn’t just be about the technology, infrastructure and data but the people and processes too.  Via the the SoLar discussion list I discovered the  Critical Questions for Big Data  article by Danah Boyd and Kate Crawford. As part of their conclusions they write:

“Manovich (2011) writes of three classes of people in the realm of Big Data: ‘those who create data (both consciously and by leaving digital footprints), those who have the means to collect it, and those who have expertise to analyze it’. We know that the last group is the smallest, and the most privileged: they are also the ones who get to determine the rules about how Big Data will be used, and who gets to participate.”

In terms of a digital university, I think we need to be doing our utmost to ensure we are extending membership of that third group, but just now there is a need to raise awareness to all about how and where their data is being collected and to give them a voice in terms of what they think is the best use of it.

What a digital university will actually look like will probably not differ that much from what a university looks like today, what will distinguish it will be the what happens within it and how everyone in that university interacts and shares through a myriad of digitally enabled processes.