Making and breaking habits: ATU keynote

Last week I had the pleasure of attending and keynoting at the ATU (Atlantic Technological University) Digital Education Conference. It was my first face to face conference in over 2 years, the first time I had been on plane for over 2 years, the first time I had been out of Scotland for over 2 years. So I was a bit worried (stressed?) about travel and being with people before I left. However everything went very well, and it was so lovey to catch up with old friends and new in person.

One of the great things about being given a keynote slot is that you have the luxury of time. For that hour you have the opportunity to speak about something that will hopefully spark off some thoughts and maybe even actions. In my talk I really wanted to provide some time for reflection, not just on the conference itself, but on the experiences of the last couple of years. As we transition back to more on campus activities, are we really giving enough time to consider how we use our physical and digital spaces effectively?

Hybrid/hyflex approaches are being suggested but how do they actually work effectively? Are our physical spaces suitable for that type of learning experiences? Apart from trial and error how are staff learning to design their activities for more mixed mode delivery? What about our students -are we working with them to really understand what works for them as we design learning activities? We all learnt a lot during lockdown about online learning.

The great online “pivot” happened very quickly but what are we pivoting back to? Metaphorically speaking, has our learning and teaching sofa got stuck going round that tricky corner on the staircase in our transition back to not quite fully on campus delivery?

graphic recording of my talk by Maia Thomas

Having spoken at last year’s (fully online) conference I was able to revisit some of the questions around wellbeing – it was quite an interesting comparison. People seemed to be glad to be seeing students and each other in person, but there is still uncertainty, particularly about engaging students. It’s mental health awareness week this week, so this week might be a good starting point to start having these type of conversations around hybrid learning and teaching with colleagues and students.

At this stage I think it is really important that we don’t succumb to what I’m calling “pandemic amnesia” We need to make time to critically reflect on what we have all experienced, how we are all coping and recovering from that experience, so we can start to develop practice and staff development opportunities that meet the needs of our current context.

Many thanks to Carina Ginty for inviting me to speak, and to all her team at ATU for all their work in putting on a great conference and dealing with the challenges of hybrid delivery so professionally.

Reflections on “Universities and post pandemic digital praxis: critically reframing education and the curriculum” webinar

NB This is a co-authored post by Keith Smyth, Bill Johnston and myself.

Last September, we contributed a blog post to the Special Collection organised by Post-Pandemic University to celebrate the centenary of Paulo Freire’s birth (Johnston, MacNeill and Smyth, 2021). Our post set out to contemplate how Freire’s ideas, including his critical perspectives on technology, marginalisation and empowerment, resonated with the state of education during the pandemic responses of 2020 and the on-going disturbances of 2021/22. 

Our post, and the ideas explored within it, were an extension of our ongoing research, scholarship, and reflexive dialogue concerning the purpose of higher education, and the place of critical digital education practice and praxis, as captured in our book ‘Conceptualising the Digital University’ (Johnston, MacNeill and Smyth, 2019). While our book was written prior to the pandemic, we were interested in using our post for the Post-Pandemic University collection to consider how a Frierian lens could be applied to reading the pandemic, and to consider the extent to which key aspects of our own thinking about ‘the digital university’ were applicable in the context of education within the pandemic.

We were encouraged that there was also a resonation with the thinking of others, when after the publication of our blog post we were invited to present at the Warwick International Higher Education Academy to lead an online seminar to share more of our thoughts on Freire, dimension of digitally enabled education, and universities within and beyond the pandemic. 

Our seminar was titled ‘Universities and post pandemic digital praxis: critically reframing education and the curriculum’, and we were pleased to be joined for it by educational practitioners and researchers from a range of roles and institutions across the sector. 

We framed our seminar, as we framed much of our own work, against Freire’s ideas as put forth in ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ (1970) and particularly ‘Education for Critical Consciousness’ (1974). Against this backdrop, and within the overall themes we set to explore in the seminar, the seminar provided us with an opportunity to revisit the models we had created for our book exploring the concept of the digital university. This included our ‘Conceptual Matrix’ for the digital university, and our model of the Digitally Distributed Curriculum’, both of which we developed as a response to critically reframing higher education and digital education praxis against neoliberalist practices and structures.

Given the rapid shift to fully online delivery of learning and teaching, and the challenges and inequities in the organisation of and access to education revealed through the pandemic, we sought to question whether our models remained relevant. We believe they do.

Conceptual Matrix for the Digital University (original form)

Of course the context has changed, but we think our original ‘Conceptual Matrix for the Digital University’ (developed in 2012) does still work in articulating the various dimensions of practice and permeations of space within which digital educational practice and digital spaces for engagement can be framed. Over the past 2 years, the ‘Digital Participation Quadrant’ of the original matrix has come sharply into focus. While we are still grappling with the question posed by Collini (2017) around what universities are for, in order for us all to work out what we actually need to do, our ‘Revised Conceptual Matrix for the Digital University’ (produced for our book) offers a further refinement of our thinking, and of where academic development and organisational development need to intersect.

Revised Conceptual Matrix for the Digital University (Johnston, MacNeill, Smyth, 2019)

During the seminar, after exploring the above, we undertook two activities to support participant dialogue around the changes to the delivery and support of learning and teaching they had undertaken and experienced in their own responses to the pandemic. The first activity was more of a reflection on what they had done (or had been done to them!), what worked, what didn’t and more importantly what they now want to develop moving forward.

Using a padlet wall we used five categories (‘the shredder’, ‘the shop window’, ‘the greenhouse’, ‘the pantry’, and ‘the museum’) to capture participants’ experiences. In summarising what was sharded back, there were some key themes that emerged. One was the recognition that in the beginning of the pandemic, there was a proliferation of responses and interventions that while well intended, perhaps resulted in “throwing everything at [our] students”, leading to confusion and cognitive overload for students around where, when and how to use different online spaces and tools. Variations on what are broadly being referred to as ‘hyflex’ approaches were also highlighted, with a preference from students for engaging in either one mode or the other. Conversely hyflex was also highlighted as an area that was “in the greenhouse” developing, but with related issues of staff workload, student expectations, cognitive overload all being highlighted as areas to explore.

Developing communities of practice, the use of collaborative tools such as padlet, and more purposeful approaches to technology were also highlighted as now being core elements of practice. So too was the continued development of online staff development opportunities. It was felt vital that our institutions and the wider sector develop ways for staff to appreciate the online experience from a student/participant perspective. And, if hyflex approaches are going to be developed, that meaningful opportunities are given to staff to allow them to experience a hyflex approach to then develop their approaches to it within their own disciplinary context, and so that there is an experiential evidence base to how staff are engaging and supporting their own students..

The other model we developed in our book which we explored in the seminar is that of the Digitally Distributed Curriculum. We conceived this model as a way to reconceptualise the purpose, activities and location of the curriculum in the context of higher education as a public good, and of extending engagement in how the curriculum is enacted through digitally-enabled and open practices. The model us focused around the values of praxis, public pedagogy and participation, linked to ‘enabling dimensions’ and then the pedagogic approaches, interventions and actions that enact the digitally distributed curriculum.

Digitally Distributed Curriculum (Johnston, MacNeill, Smyth, 2019)

In our piece for the Post-Pandemic University, and through our activities in the seminar, we feel that our take on the Digitally Distributed Curriculum does still have relevance, perhaps increasingly so post-pandemic. Within the seminar, we undertook an activity to explore an instantiation of the model using three of the aforementioned ‘enabling dimensions’ of the model, namely coolocation (which we reframed as ‘co/dis-location’ in recognition of the dislocation caused during lockdown), co-production, and porosity.

In terms of co-location, our discussions in the seminar concerned how everyone was dislocated from the physical campus and experienced the challenges of working and studying from home. These were particularly acute in the first lockdown, when it created pressures on space as well as access to technology and digital connectivity. On the other hand, this forced dislocation also brought about an enrichment of the digital landscape (for those who could access it). Suddenly systems that were not much used before had to be used by everyone. Other systems (hello Zoom) also came to the fore.

There was a consensus that there was a huge level of activity focused around the co-production of resources, for and with students as well as for staff development. There was a renewed and extended focus on accessibility and flexibility. Pedagogical approaches had to be adapted and people had to try, adapt, and further refine new approaches. The internal narratives around learning and teaching were also felt to have changed, and are changing still as we seek to learn from the challenges of the pandemic while retaining and building upon the increased opportunity to engage, and to engage flexibly and more fluidly, in learning and teaching that were created in the response to the pandemic.. However, as we pointed out, the dominant political narrative around “proper university learning” does still seem to be firmly entrenched in the ‘on-campus’, in the lecture theatre, on the importance of the lecture and what we might recognise as traditional ‘one-to-many’ teaching. Or what Paulo Freire himself described and would recognise as ‘the banking’ delivery method.

In terms of porosity, our explorations in the seminar led us to that there was an increased awareness and use of more open or ‘openly’ approaches. Many individuals, institutions and organisations mobilised to share guidance, examples and educational resources that would support the collective response to the pandemic (for example ALT, and OneHE). Publishers even opened up resources. But, in true beware of Greeks bearing gifts fashion, some publishers of academic material and educational development resources only allowed materials to be openly available for a relatively short period of time. How to sustain and pay for access to resources, tools and technologies that were made openly available, or that budget was found to allow greater access to, is a question that many universities are still grappling with. More positively, developing a richer range of digitally-enabled assessment was felt to have allowed more ‘open approaches’ to assessment that afforded students the opportunity to create, share and keep some of their work in digital formats, and had enabled us to move further towards aspects of the Digitally Distributed Curriculum model that relate to the curriculum supported the development of digital artefacts that can openly share knowledge of value beyond the university, and to students as digital scholars.

Moving forward, what does this all mean? How can we develop approaches to learning and teaching post-pandemic that, as one colleague asked, are “adequate for out time”? How can we create meaningful space and time for staff and students to reflect, convalesce and grow? Learning to live with Covid, and of the ongoing challenges of the pandemic is, as we are all experiencing right now, complex and challenging. Fluctuation infection rates necessitate the continued need for flexibility of access to and within education, and for continued structures of care across society for those at high risk. There is no ‘normal’ to go back to, but there may be a new way to reconfigure education post-pandemic. We feel there is, and our seminar concluded with optimism that this may just be possible.

Thank you once again to Warwick International Higher Education Academy for the invitation to offer our seminar, and to all those who took time out to participate. WIHEA have made our slides and a recording of the seminar available online.  


Collini, S. (2017). Speaking of Universities. London: Verso.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Freire, P. (1974). Education for Critical Consciousness. London: Continuum.

Johnston, B. MacNeill, S. and Smyth, K. (2019). Conceptualising the Digital University: intersecting policy, pedagogy and practice.  Palgrave.

Johnston, B., MacNeill, S. and Smyth, K. (2021). Paulo Freire, University Education and Post Pandemic Digital Praxis:

Universities and post pandemic digital praxis: critically reframing education and the curriculum: WIHEA seminar slides

Just a short post to share the slides from a presentation Keith Smyth, Bill Johnston and myself gave at a webinar organised by WIHEA early this week. We took the presentation to further explore some of the issues we raised in a short post published last year by the Post Pandemic University to celebrate the centenary of Paulo Friere’s birth, and also to revisit our previous work around the concept of the digital university.

This is just a marker to share the slides as quickly as possible. During the session we got lots of feedback from delegates around changes they have experienced during the past 2 years and over the next couple of weeks we have agreed to analyse the rich feedback we got from participants during activities in the session, and publish a more in depth follow up post.

We were delighted with the open and thoughtful responses we received throughout the session, so thanks to Letizia Gramaglia and the team at Warwick for giving us the opportunity and platform to share our thoughts.

Freire, university education and post pandemic digital praxis – part of the Post Pandemic University centenary celebration

It’s been a bit quite here on this blog lately, doing lots but doing lots that it’s hard to share about here! Anyway one piece of writing I have been involved in recently has just been published so it’s as good an excuse as any for another post here.

My regular writing partners Keith Smyth and Bill Johnson and I have written a piece for the Post Pandenic University’s centenary celebration of the birth of Paulo Freire. Our piece “Freire, university and post pandemic digital praxis” builds on some of the key concepts we developed for our book. In this short piece we put forward a case for a more critically informed approach to university development. We propse that:

Critically, and most importantly, there is an opportunity now – an opportunity that is under threat if universities and politicians seek a rapid return to pre-pandemic practices – to critically engage in what the “new normal” for universities actually could be, and to create a Freirean ‘new normal’ understanding of what a university education experience is, who the university is for, and how the educational work of universities can benefit wider society”.

You can read the full article here.

#WalkCreate: a different view of a research project

I try to keep both sides of my professional practice separate, but there are inevitable intersection points. This is post is one of those. As you know, dear reader, during lock down last year, walking became a really important part of daily life. Partly because it was the only thing you could do, particularly in the first lock down. Making time to get away from the screen and get outside became increasingly important to well being too.

Walking has always been a part of my daily routine. I’ve always tried to walk to as many places as possible and not use a car or public transport. But it did take on even more significance during lock down, and my daily walks along the Forth and Clyde Canal where I live inspired an unexpected and enriching source of inspiration for my artistic practice. I created a couple of digital stories about it last year – another intersection point

Walking Publics/Walking Arts  is  a  research project  funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council  exploring the potential of the arts to sustain, encourage and more equitably support walking during and recovering from a pandemic at Glasgow University. Part of the research is “to understand how artists from across the UK have used walking as part of their artistic practice, adapting existing work or using walking as a resource for the first time during COVID-19. What can we learn from artists and how can their expertise be shared to support more people, and more diverse people, to enjoy walking?

I participated in a short survey for artists and I’m delighted that the project has created an online gallery showcasing the varied responses the project has received. It’s been refreshing to be involved in the “other side” of research, and there a few more things that the team have been in touch with me about too which is quite exciting too – great to be asked about a different type of citation!

It’s a really fascinating project and well worth checking out the online gallery and the rest of the project website too. Walking is so important for well being that we need to continue to explore its impact, and also not allow ourselves to get out of the habit of walking as we transition from lock down to whatever this “new normal/flexible working” scenario is.

We need to talk about learning . . . and teaching

Photo by Cody Engel on Unsplash

Throughout the pandemic I, like many of my peers, have been worried by the overriding narratives around education, particularly HE, that have (and still are) being perpetuated by the media and certain parts of government about education. Debbie McVitty has written an excellent piece on WonkHE about this, and the need for for public engagement with pedagogy.

It’s a great article and does encapsulate the issues around internal university discourse, students’ developing understanding of learning, the work and research that is part of contemporary university life and public perceptions i.e. the lecture and the exam. In the article Debbie calls for more public engagement with pedagogy . Whilst this statement from the Russell Group about blended learning is welcome, it does speak volumes that this is needed at all. And, is this engagement?

In the article Debbie goes writes:
“I see this public engagement in pedagogy work less as the responsibility of institutions and organisations than as a possible emergent area of thinking and practice.” . She goes on to say “this would require people to adopt public personas in ways that are not established at scale in the UK.

Whilst scholarship around pedagogy is now an established field, it is still quite precarious. It’s still not universal in the sector to get formal recognition and promotion based on teaching practice. Whilst the number of Chairs related to learning and teaching is increasing, many staff still face issues around getting adequate official time allocation for developing their teaching practice. So much of the engagement with pedagogy is still at an internal level, which makes wider public debate even more challenging.

However, that discussion needs to take place. Even being able suggest that maybe we shouldn’t be asking our children “what did you learn in school/college/uni today” to “how did you learn in school/college/uni today” could enrich parts of wider public discourse.

One thought did come to mind though. Maybe what we need are Professors of Public Engagement for Learning, in the same way we have those roles within science. For example Professor Hannah Fry, Professor of the Public Engagement of Science at the University of Birmingham. I know many people who would be brilliant in a role like this, who are passionate, successful, articulate and steeped in knowledge about pedagogy and are excellent communicators.

As the pandemic has highlighted there is a real need for public engagement around teaching and learning to create informed, evolving conversations around the realities contemporary education. I wonder if any Uni would be confident and forward thinking enough to do this . . .

Living and learning in a time of solitude: GMIT #DigitalEd keynote

Earlier today,I was delighted to give the opening keynote for day 2 of GMIT‘s Digital Education Week. Despite not being able to all meet in person in Galway, it was fantastic to be able join so many people from across Ireland and the UK and be part of the event.

For my talk I wanted to reflect on what we have all experienced in the past year of living and learning through a global pandemic. To use the luxurious position of a keynote to ask some questions about our lived experiences, and what we need to think about going forward. I wanted to reflect on words like isolation, self isolation,solitary, quarantine. These words that are so commonplace now, but pre-pandemic were not really part of our everyday discourse and vocabulary.

What really struck me about the quotes I used at the start of my talk about solitude and being alone (and many others I didn’t use) is how out of time and context they seem right now. In all of them, there is a sense of almost noble sacrifice to solitude. Solitude is necessary for great (artistic) work.  It’s as if they all had to justify the right to be alone, to be solitary to achieve greatness, and an enhance sense of self worth. In our present day context, that seems to me like a very distant, privileged concept from a bygone era.  Enforced solitude is quite a different experience, as we all now know. It’s been hard enough to get out of bed sometimes, never mind reach the great heights of getting dressed!

The realities of living, working and learning from home are bound as much by our physical spaces as our digital ones. I used some of the recent work of Professor Lesley Gourlay to explore this a bit more and talk about the entanglements of our phsyical and digital worlds, and the assemblages we have had to create to “be” at university. Today I thought I might stand to give the talk ( I don’t do much standing these days, do you?) so I created my own assemblage of a lectern using an ironing board, and some boxes. All a bit meta, but actually it work so I might do that again!

my standing desk!

The session was recorded so I will add a link to that when it is available, but in the mean time you can view my slides including feedback from participants here.

And here is a screen shot the wonderful sketch note of the talk by Maia Thomas.

Gasta time again #GastaGoesGlobal

Earlier this week I once again joined a great set of speakers (Maha Balil, Leigh Graves-Wolf, Martin Weller, Mark Brown & Frank Rennie) to almost a year to the day, take part in Gastas Goes Global 2. The brain child of Tom Farrelly, Gasta sessions are basically a set of short (5 minute) presentations, with lots of audience participation counting speakers in and cutting them off if they exceed the time limit. You can read more here.

This year the online organisation and facilitation really moved up a notch (tho’ it was pretty impressive last year too). So many thanks to everyone involved in the set up, streaming and feedback of the event. Having a 5 minute time visible on screen was both useful and slightly panic inducing. Particularly when it got to a minute and you still had about another 5 minutes of “stuff” to say!

Another addition this year is an open book to accompany the event. All the speakers have been asked to submit an article based on their presentations. I’m glad of the opportunity to do that as I did have to cut out quite a bit of what I had planned to say. More of that in another post!

In Tom’s introduction he said that one year on, this was a chance to reflect, to review and most importantly share experiences of the past year. One point I wanted to make, but I don’t think I got over as well as I’d hoped is that although it felt like everything changed last year, it also feels like nothing actually changed either. . The oil tanker of education (particularly higher education) is still traveling on the same, well worn route. There hasn’t (as yet) been widespread changes to core curriculum, to our “scheduling” of teaching, to notions of what “being” a student is now. But maybe I just haven’t seen them yet. The disruption of lockdown hasn’t really invoked any radical changes to the overall structures of our education systems. But, again maybe that’s just my interpretation, so please contradict me and challenge me, dear reader.

One element I that I know I did rush through was the importance of community. That has been so important for everyone in and outwith education. The Gasta itself is/was/ such a fabulous example of community action, generosity of spirit, of expertise, of time, of kindness, of care, of good humour and most importantly sharing. For me it was another energising experience. From the focus of care from Maha, to the wonderful poetry to help soothe the soul from Leigh, to the unexpected analogies with Jaws from Martin, all the speakers brought a wealth of stimulating thoughts to the session.

At the start of my talk I said I was tired, but on reflection, I think weary is a more accurate word to use in my context. I’m weary of lockdown, of restrictions, of missing places and people. I’m also wary of what might actually be ahead. There is some hope, but we are not over “all this” yet.

So many thanks to Tom and all team for putting on such a great event.

Here’s a link to my slides, and yes they are the same ones I used last year, which I felt was appropriate, as I’m still wondering “so what now?”

Digital Learning in the pandemic and beyond – embracing a bit of radical uncertainty

This week I was delighted to have been invited to give a vision talk to start the Digital Learning in the Pandemic and Beyond half day conference organised by TechPathWays London and ALT. Over the morning there were a series of great presentations from Techpathways around the work they are doing with schools, from Jane Secker and Chris Morrisson about copyright and online learning, and Alistair McNaught about accessibility.

I used embracing radical uncertainty as a hook for my talk. Over the past 11 months we have all lived through huge changes in how we live, work and interact with each other. In terms of education, there has been a massive shift in delivery, which has put a spotlight on the increasing digital and socio-economic divide in our society. In the UK we take universal access to education as a given, however if you don’t have access to suitable devices and more importantly can’t pay for the data needed, then you can’t access education in an equitable way. As we move forward with schools opening up, we have to learn from what has happened, and not forget that divide. Despite what politicians say, I suspect that there may be other lock downs, perhaps more local and shorter, but if that does happen we need to be ready and able for equitable, flexible learning.

With all that has happened over the past year, if this isn’t the time to be thinking about radical change to education then I don’t know when is. Our children and young people deserve more than “catch up”. They don’t need to be constantly reminded of how much they have missed. They need to be given the opportunity to be part of the discussions about what we all experienced over the last year. They need to see that education is something that is done with them, not to them. We need to be having some radical, open discussions about what is really needed to move forward to ensure that our students can be part the radical solutions needed to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the even more pressing issues of climate change.

My slides are below and as you can watch a recording of the event here. (NB you will have to create a log in to access)