Book review: ‘Conceptualising The Digital University – The intersection of policy, pedagogy and practice’
This is a timely book because it is really asking some big questions about what is the whole point of higher education and how does the digital university fit in to the current HE landscape. It really puts the evolution of the digital university in the context of the changes that have taken place over the last 30 years or so. Over this time, universities have morphed into the neo-liberal political terrain. Key aspects of marketization have been introduced by successive governments of all political persuasions. Universities now compete within a market place to recruit the ‘best’ students and the income they generate. For many, students are now considered to by consumers in at least some aspects of their education. New providers, now with an explicit profit motive are entering this market who have a very different value system from the more established universities. Overseeing this quasi market are new regulatory bodies like the Office for Students and ranking of universities is now de rigueur and universally accepted as the norm by many commentators of the sector. Universities with deep pockets aim to be number one whilst others with less resources are aim to be the one that doesn’t fail first.
The authors of this book note this is the context that the digital university has evolved into and they are very critical of these trends. They have taken their inspiration from Stephen Collini and asked the crucial question ‘What are universities for?’ For them, the purpose of a university is to develop a more humanist conception of education where value is put on the overall development of the student. Where they can realise their full potential, not just as an asset in the labour market but as someone who can contribute fully to society in all aspects of life. These humanist values of universities are being overtaken in the UK by increasing neo-liberal policies aimed at ‘accountability’, increasing fees and the shift to students as consumers of education. The book starts with a critique of these trends but the real strength of this book is that it goes on to provide some alternative visions and strategies for resisting these trends and ends with a tremendous quote from Jimmy Reid’s inaugural speech as rector of Glasgow university:
“A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement”.
At the heart of the authors’ understanding of the digital university is a conceptual ‘matrix’ that consists of four components; digital participation, information literacy, the learning environment plus curriculum and course design. As the authors note, none of these concepts is novel in themselves, but bringing them together and analysing their interrelationship provides a holistic way of understanding the digital university. Digital participation involves public engagement by universities to increase wider participation and encourage the notion that universities are a public good for the whole of society. Information literacy is the notion that students develop their digital literacy skills to improve their academic potential and capabilities to achieve their own personal development. The learning environment is both the combination of the digital and physical spaces that exist within and beyond the university. This is more than just the institution’s virtual learning environment, here the notion of the ‘porous’ university is explored in some depth. Curriculum and course design is in turn shaped by ‘constructive alignment’, assessment and the move to more recent developments, such as digital analytics.
Wrapped around this ‘matrix’ are two key concepts that stand in direct contrast and contradiction to the neo-liberal university. Firstly, the concept of ‘open education’ places collaboration, sharing and cooperation back into the educational mix. Through open publishing, open source software, and open educational resources and practices higher education practitioners are challenging the neo-liberal dream of a consumer driven system. The book is littered with many good examples of open education where staff and students are the co-producers working to create a ‘digitally distributed curriculum’.
The second major strand that the authors promote with some vigour is the idea of critical pedagogy which originates in the educational philosophy of Paulo Freire. Here notions of what should be studied are not solely dictated to by the job market but what is best for the full development of the student. This type of learning requires a range of educational practices and processes that puts the student at the centre of the educational process with the goal of not just creating a better learning environment but a better world. Students are encouraged to reflect and be critical on what and why they are learning and how digital tools can help them do this. This is not the type of aspirations that you usually get when reading most current commentators of learning technology in higher education!
Integrated and meshed into their conceptualisation of the digital university are other aspects of what is possible. I especially liked the chapter towards the end of the book on the ‘Academic Developer as a open provocateur’. Building on the ideas outlined in earlier chapters of the book it is argued that academic developers, not matter what their job titles are (Educational/Academic Developers, Learning technologists, etc.) can promote and disseminate the twin concepts of open education and critical pedagogy to provide a meaningful learning experience that will equip students in all aspects of their lives once they leave university.
Overall this book is a refreshing breath of air because it does show there are some clear alternatives to the current trends that are happening in the university sector, in other words ‘there is an alternative’. The key ideas of the book, the ‘conceptual matrix’, the ‘digitally distributed curriculum’ and the concepts of the open education and critical pedagogy are illustrated with a variety of interesting examples. For some the variety of examples and ideas might be a bit overwhelming on first glance but they are worth pursuing and exploring in more detail. Ultimately the neo-liberal trend in our universities will probably have to be reversed by bigger forces like changes in the political ideology of governments or resistance from broader social movements but what this book does give are some clear alternatives of what we can do in the ‘here and now’ to make education a better or more worthwhile experience.
‘Conceptualising The Digital University – The intersection of policy, pedagogy and practice’ by Bill Johnson, Sheila MacNeill and Keith Smyth is available from Palgrave Macmillan publishers or from Amazon.
Chris Rowell, Academic Developer in Digitally Enhanced Learning, London South Bank University, @chri5rowell
If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member