The Society for Research into Higher Education

The Digital University, Social Justice and the ‘public good’


By Helen Crump

The event organised by the SRHE Digital University Network in Belfast on 16 February focused on the theme of social justice and the ‘public good’ and how the ‘digital’ plays out when these concepts are (re)framed within the context of digital citizenship, digital literacy and open learning. The three speakers reflected critically on the concrete challenges and material struggles that digitisation entails and provided a space for developing dialogue.

In relation to digital literacy, Professor Mark Brown of Dublin City University highlighted the proliferation of models and frameworks that exist across Europe, the UK and the USA that aim to capture the nature of digital literacy and offer suitable ways to intervene and thereby produce the skills and competencies deemed necessary to live, learn and work successfully in the knowledge economy. He problematised these in relation to the tension between public and private good. Furthermore, he also noted that these frameworks are problematic in that they largely frame literacy as universal and decontextualized and can be critiqued as being instrumentalist, even though some frameworks include critical dimensions. The question is: how do these frameworks get interpreted and taken up in practice? Professor Brown argued that properly contextualised digital literacy provision would be anchored in real life contexts, and on this point he gave the example of the current debate within Ireland about abortion.

There was much to reflect on in this engaging presentation, and as someone whose ‘subject specialism’ is adult literacy and Essential Skills I found much to agree with. For me, literacy is a person. Literacy has a name. You know them. It is, for example, Pat who is a member of a community group engaged in campaigning against the prospect of fracking in the area. Literacy framed in this way would be critical, meaningful and would deliver the requisite skills and competencies that the frameworks espouse.

Moving on to consider the potential and pitfalls that social media presents in relation to online pedagogy, Dr Tess Maginess of Queen’s University, laid the foundations of her presentation in terms of the ideological manipulation of language that, along with the allure of speed and instant communication, arguably works to present a consumerist and transactionalist neoliberal depiction of universities in the global North. She wondered if an alternative path might be charted with the use of social media. In the first instance, she recognised that this requires teachers to examine their own “hegemonic positioning as passive purveyors of internalised neoliberalism”.

Then Dr Maginess wondered if it were possible to be more creative and incorporate the ‘real world’ of students that social media affords to present learning as fun and knowledge as active, as something that can be used to address issues of social justice and emancipation. Such endeavours, she argued, would in turn provide students with the opportunity to critically reflect on the medium of social media and its role in not just learning but in society more broadly. Dr Maginess pointed out that despite this realisation, she herself was no experienced user of social media, although willing to engage and learn. In offering suggestions for how social media might be used as a creative tool, she gave the example of Storify. Such an example neatly illustrates the thrust of the discussion afterwards, that educators do indeed need to first critically engage in the arena of social media, and Storify is a very current case in point. Storify has recently announced that it is shutting down and users have until May to retrieve their content, otherwise it will be lost.

Moreover, as a private company, Storify has used individuals’ creative content to develop market value, hence the reason it has been sold. Storify2 will now be embedded within the Livefyre Studio platform for which the user must now pay a subscription. Yes, in addition to the advent of surveillance capitalism, the subsumption of social interaction to become digital labour and the agency of algorithms in determining the worldview we are able to access, it has never been more urgent for educators to critically engage in the arena of social media.

Finally, turning to digital citizenship, Dr Callum McGregor of Edinburgh University gave a presentation entitled ‘Subverting the digital fetish: reflections on possibilities for critical digital citizenship in HE’. Here, fetish thinking, taken from the work of David Harvey (2003), is seen as having reifying tendencies in which technology is attributed causative powers and is taken up uncritically, often presented as single bullet solutions to complex matters of structural change. However, applying a theory of fetishism to matters of the digital in HE, although a necessary step, is not in itself sufficient, Dr McGregor argued. “Resisting digital fetishism of the new means we must analyse the old, yet essential, politics of exploitation and expropriation”, he continued. As such, theories that address production and labour processes are also required if we are to properly understand the materiality of the digital, which is often hiding in plain sight.

The event, hosted in Belfast in partnership with Queen’s University, was a tremendous success. It was well worth the trip across the water, especially as the topic had points relevant to my own research and interests. As a PhD research student, I must say that I have found not only the specialist network events but also the researcher development events provided by the SRHE to be an excellent way to develop knowledge and skills and to network within the wider context of HE. I can wholeheartedly recommend becoming a member and making the most of the opportunities they provide.

SRHE Member Helen Crump is a PhD Researcher at the Institute of Educational Technology (IET), The Open University, Milton Keynes. 

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

2 thoughts on “The Digital University, Social Justice and the ‘public good’

  1. Reblogged this on Ibrar's space and commented:
    Reflection on a recent event I organised at Queen’s University Belfast

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