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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Digitalisation, Assetisation and the Future of Value in Higher Education

by Rob Cuthbert

Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster) led a seminar hosted by the SRHE South West Regional Network/International Centre for Higher Education Management at Bath University on Wednesday 19 February 2020.

The SRHE South West Regional network, convened by Rajani Naidoo (Bath) and Lisa Lucas (Bristol), never disappoints, and this seminar was the perfect antidote for a windy wet Wednesday in the West, with a brilliant presentation by Janja Komljenovic, co-Director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Evaluation at Lancaster University.

The presenter declared her research interests in digitalisation and marketisation, and made a convincing case that these things should be seen as two aspects of the same HE phenomenon: digital infrastructure is “the hidden architecture of HE”, citing Ben Williamson (Edinburgh). An introductory tour d’horizon of educational technology in its manifold apps and applications in HE showed us the range of the possible, but this was no more than scene-setting, creating a platform for what was to come. Higher education has conceived of markets as if they were driving commodification and making the value of HE no more than something that can be measured in a price. Komljenovic wants us to achieve a radical reframing, in which commodities give way to assets, and price gives way to rent. Market-making in HE is, she argues, a process of assetisation, not commodification, drawing on a wide range of sources from many disciplines, not least Kean Birch’s ‘Towards a theory of rentiership’.

Assets differ from commodities in many respects, but in particular they change the way we should think about ownership, monetisation and value. Digital assets can indeed be owned, but are more likely to be licensed or rented out than to be purchased outright. Some have argued that digital data are the ‘hot’ 21st century product that occupies the place in the global economy which oil had in the last century. But the analogy is deeply flawed: monetisation of HE assets involves subscription not pricing, and the uses to which assets may be put are subject to contractual restrictions, quite unlike the buyer’s freedom to do as they please with a barrel of oil once purchased. And value is not backward-looking, bought and paid for, it must have a future orientation – higher education is not something that can be banked, its value lies in its potential to deliver in the future. Hence one direction for research is to explore the nature and value of emerging HE assets, who owns them, who can charge for their use, and on what terms.

Dynamic experimentation means that edtech may be oversold. Something touted as the new disruptive technology can prove to be overly ambitious when held up to the light, with the latest disappointments being MOOCs’ original claim of free access to high quality education and, it seems, the blockchain university. Digitalisation is different, and it indeed calls for new ways of understanding the higher education enterprise. The seminar challenged us to reconstruct our understanding of what a higher education market might mean in a digitalised world, to rethink what we understand by ‘value’, and to re-examine what we understand by ‘university’ – and whether the university itself is a sustainable platform for whatever HE may become in the 21st century. What a treat.

Rob Cuthbert is the editor of SRHE News and Blog.


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Practising a Pragmatic Critical Pedagogy in Higher Education

by Mona Sakr

Reflections on a workshop hosted by the SRHE Academic Practice Network

At a workshop on 8 May 2019 in the SRHE offices Jennifer Bain and Juliet Sprake (Goldsmiths University) shared their emerging conceptualisations of a ‘pragmatic critical pedagogy’. Their ground-breaking approach comes about as a way to grapple positively with the tensions and affective dissonance that critical pedagogues encounter in the contemporary HE landscape, characterised as it is by neoliberal definitions of learning as consumption and the relentless emphasis on ‘student satisfaction’. What do we do with the uneasiness we feel? How do we move from our experiences of discomfort? Bain and Sprake shared in this workshop the spaces that they have created as a response to these questions, and, in particular, innovations emerging through a research and teaching project that they have conducted with partners in the Philippines.

The approach presented in the workshop hinges on the infusion of critical pedagogies with principles and processes that are essential to design education. Bain and Sprake argue that working with design mindsets and methods can enable us to find and make the micro-adjustments to practice that allow critical pedagogies to flourish in a potentially stifling wider climate. Through design, we can grapple with the contradictions and complexities we encounter as researchers and teachers without falling into a pit of despair. Through the design process, we identify responsive actions to the disjunctions and the dissonance. As we move against and around dominant neoliberal discourses of ‘learning as consumption’, the design process can inspire us to move on to the ‘what next’.

As participants in the workshop, we had the opportunity to try out for ourselves the design infused critical pedagogy that Bain and Sprake advocate. What Bain and Sprake call ‘pragmatic critical pedagogy’ was put to work in small groups where we decided on a particular problem statement relating to the research-practice culture of universities; statements such as ‘collaboration is time-consuming’ or ‘teaching-led research is undervalued’. We were then prompted through a series of design-focused questions to see the opportunities for design at work in the statement. We applied particular design mindsets (such as ‘optimism’ or ‘empathy’) to find new ways of seeing the problem. The point was not to ‘unsee’ the contradictions, tensions and frictions, but rather to see them from a different perspective, inviting new avenues for action.

Reactions to the task were enthusiastic. Discussion after the activity suggested that participants appreciated how the design nature of the task invited participants to launch into genuine and open dialogues with each other. At the same time, as you would expect, new points of tension emerged. What does the design process do to the affective dimensions of  critical pedagogy? Do design mindsets (such as ‘optimism’) override affective dimensions that might be a vital part of critical pedagogy? What happens to the anger, what Freire calls the ‘just ire’ (Freire, 2004), that comes with disjunction and dissonance? What happens when we push beyond despair to occupy an artificially induced space of optimism? How much of the design approach privileges working within the constraints and conditions of our situation (designing for an audience and to a brief), and therefore enables micro-adjustments that align with, rather than challenge, the status quo?

It is exciting to see that Bain and Sprake are currently extending their research, with support from the British Council, to look at how pragmatic critical pedagogies might play out on digital platforms. As they observed in the workshop, digital learning tends to be designed around behaviourist principles of learning, rather than tuning into the foundations of critical pedagogy. It will be fascinating to see how their explorations as part of the project ‘A Sustainable Framework for Design Thinking in Education’ might begin to unsettle the dominant models of digital learning and help to move the sector forward. 

SRHE member Mona Sakr is Senior Lecturer in Education and Early Childhood at Middlesex University. Her latest book is Creativity and Making in Early Childhood: Challenging Practitioner Perspectives.

Reference

Freire, P. (2004). Pedagogy of indignation. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.