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.  

References

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: https://postpandemicuniversity.net/2021/11/09/paulo-freire-university-education-and-post-pandemic-digital-praxis/

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