Everybody’s talking about the university of the future, but who are the decision makers?

Serious play

It’s been an exciting and thought-provoking week, with creative and transformative energies making waves through the digital education community. As university-led and associated exploratory projects like Codesign16 get underway, there’s a stirring sense of activism in the digital basements of higher education. Not that there wasn’t before, but last Wednesday (16th Nov), at Coventry University’s DMLL Expo: University Remixed I was reminded that we are living through unusual times, where some of the assumptions we had either enjoyed or learned to accept in HE (and the world) are now being challenged and it’s less clear now who or what might drive the future. One thing is strikingly clear, however, which is that digital processes will be targeted as problems, solutions and drivers in educational change whichever direction it takes. The question has to be asked, then, who will be making the decisions?

You know you’re in for a good day when you arrive to a complimentary breakfast buffet and pots of Play-Doh and Lego. The purpose of the University Remixed Expo was to start exploring ideas about what the university of the future might look like… physically, digitally, pedagogically, even politically. And so, attendees from Coventry and other universities engaged in a combination of thoughtfully intertwined activities; from the sharing of experiences and fascinating keynote talks, to playful workshops and installations, the programme was highly engaging and multidimensional.

Our first keynote speaker, Jesse Stommel, Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at University of Mary Washington, set a rebellious tone for the rest of the day. He described a defensive and sharp-toothed online academic community’s response to an article he had written in defence of the least-privileged students and against widespread practices of ‘student-shaming’. The pace, language and dark humour of the story was refreshingly rigorous and unsettling.

Stommel was exposing the ugly reality of how passion for his profession had been attacked on a deeply personal level, with instances of seemingly homophobic undertones. It’s shocking and deeply disappointing to see such vulgar behaviour within the academic community, even if it is online. Digital anonymity may afford us the privilege of free speech, but if educational professionals can’t fashion an argument without resorting to cheap and vulgar attacks, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of society.

I appreciate that as a Learning Technologist, rather than a full-time lecturer, my perspective may lack certain insights, but I was delighted to hear from a fellow optimist championing the use of technology to enhance and celebrate learning for all, rather than manage and control it for the few. The reality, of course, is that while we may be able to discuss the future of the university at events like this, the traditional economies (knowledge, money, power) of UK universities may not afford us the influence needed to effect real change higher up in HE. I am not naive or utopian enough to dismiss the fact that universities are businesses, but that does not neatly equate academics with employees or students with customers. The ecology of a university is far more complex, multilayered and nuanced. Stommel talked about dehumanising practices, like learning analytics and anti-plagiarism procedures. We are no strangers to this issue in UK HE, as I regularly hear and read laments of universities becoming “sausage factories”.  As part of my role, I sometimes attend presentations from learning analytics professionals attempting to promote the benefits of their systems and try to do so with an open mind. Unfortunately, I rarely hear about the pedagogical or experiential benefits that do actually interest me. It’s almost always about things like predicting dropout rates. To me it makes sense that if you put enough thought and effort into the design of the student experience, more students will come and fewer will drop out. But what do I know.

The current political climate presents many questions about the future of higher education systems of the UK and the US. The ‘post-election hangover’ described by our second keynote, Martha Burtis, Director of the Digital Knowledge Center at Mary Washington University, was coldly emotive and almost tangibly unnerving. I share her sense that the things we held to be true no longer are, that our trusted sources of answers are dumbfounded and silent, it’s like we’re still stuck on “…wait …what?” as we still wake up each day to find it wasn’t a dream. And what about our students? How do we advise or reassure them? Burtis shared a domestic argument she’d had about the implications of pro-open and public digital identities and how she lost the argument and changed her stance. The potential value of increased if not unlimited access to individuals’ personal digital data is understandably irresistible to all sorts of organisations, and for more reasons than they tend to cite. Burtis also pointed out the need to question the information at our fingertips, who put it there and especially how come it’s sitting at the top of the search results. Having been awakened to increasing dangers of our digital footprints, she now advocates increased awareness of these issues among staff and students.

In these uncertain times, we are left wondering what to do and whether anything we do will make a difference. As the drivers of change may be increasingly commercial or political, less about learning and more about popularity, it’s easy to feel like your vote, your voice doesn’t matter anymore. Through the promotion of digitally liberating projects like Domain of One’s Own (this is a DoOO blog!), students and academics may be given a voice and take back some control of their digital presence. However, we can all make a difference, argued Burtis, by starting small and asking:


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