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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Marcia Devlin


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Reconsidering university education. Again

by Marcia Devlin

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to higher education being moved en masse to remote and online learning in a compressed timeline. Limited returns to on campus learning are evident in Australia depending on disease outbreak levels and health advice in local areas, but the bulk of current university learning continues via digital means for now. This shift has challenged universities and educators to think about how best to facilitate digitally-mediated learning. We also have an opportunity to reconsider university education a little more broadly.

The pandemic is occurring in the context of: increasing global political tensions; shifting economic powers; prevailing societal inequalities; significantly changing social norms; and climate change and environmental and ecological damage that puts our very existence as human beings at risk. Higher education is occurring in the same context.

Having a keen eye on the grand challenges and wicked problems of our times, and on our global context is – or should be – central to the purpose of a university and to its core activity of education. We’re probably all too busy and exhausted from the demands of coping with the pandemic to think this through carefully right now but I have begun to wonder whether we should at least try to make a start. Questions in my mind include: Why do universities exist? Do our purposes need to be tweaked or redefined What should we be doing while we wait for things to return to ‘normal’? Do we want things to return to ‘normal’? If not, what are we doing about changing the course of history?

In 2016, Schleicher suggested we needed to prepare graduates for jobs that have not been created, to use technologies not yet invented and to solve new social problems that have not yet arisen. The potency of ideas like these seems to have been heightened as we watch global movements of various kinds take place and we choose which ones to support and which to resist.

The rapid and ongoing development of new knowledge drives our knowledge-based world. Since it is no longer possible to offer students everything they need to know for the future, some innovative educators have conceptualised new pedagogies that leverage modern technologies to engage and interact with current and emerging knowledge. These new pedagogies help students to find, analyse, evaluate and apply what is relevant to them at the time and for the task or question at hand. These
new ways of educating have at their core an increased sharing of power between educator and student. Methods and approaches deployed include discussion groups, peer assessments, using social media and feedback opportunities including students supporting students. Not a lecture in sight. Or if so, it’s pre-recorded and offered as optional background digital material.

These future-focused pedagogies are a lot about educators about becoming innovative and entrepreneurial in the face of our collective large-scale, complex problems as a globally connected set of societies and economies. They are about developing in students the spirit of risk-taking, creative problem-solving and learning from failure so that learners can: be prepared for a complex world; purposefully make judgements and decisions; base these judgements and decisions on changing situations, evolving, incomplete evidence and unpredictable situations; manage their own learning throughout life; and contribute to creating their own futures.

And now all of the above needs to be done online, at least for the moment.

In 2018, the UK Joint Information Systems Committee outlined the required digital capability of educators as incorporating: ICT proficiency; information, data and media literacies; creation, problem solving and innovation ability; the ability to communicate, collaborate and participate, a commitment to learning and development; and an understanding of identity and wellbeing in the digital space.

Simple? Hardly.

And impossible for even the most outstanding educator to undertake and achieve on their own, even with the plethora of existing and new resources on offer to help improve online teaching and learning.

To do all that is required, for the future that is so much more uncertain than it was even a few short months ago, university educators will increasingly need to collaborate. Collaboration with peers in team-teaching, with external associates who bring up-to-date industry, workplace and professional understanding and with librarians, educational designers, digital systems experts, students and work integrated learning specialists will be increasingly necessary to effectively design, build, teach and assess useful university courses.

As the pandemic effects paradoxically appear to shrink and expand time concurrently and many of us begin to think deeply about why we are all here, I’d suggest the fundamental purpose of higher education needs an airing and some re-consideration. We have the necessary resources, incentives and best minds to do this work – it’s a matter of turning our attention to it now.

Marcia Devlin is a former University Senior Vice-President and Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, current Adjunct Professor and was named as one of The Educator Higher Education Top 50 educators for 2020.


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Academics in the Digital University

By Ibrar Bhatt

I was honoured to organise, introduce and chair this SRHE digital university network event on 22 February 2019 at Queen’s University Belfast. It was the second Digital University Network event to take place here at Queen’s and I hope that it becomes a new tradition for both the SRHE and QUB.

The event hosted three papers, from varying perspectives, to discuss the issue of digitisation and how it has affected the professional work of academics. Since most research on digitisation tends to focus on students, there is now a justifiably growing body of work which examine the impact of digitisation on academics, especially in light of new practices of knowledge production, knowledge distribution, and, more broadly, academic identity formation in current times. In other words, what it means to be an academic and to do academic work.

The event began with the team of the ESRC funded ‘Academics Writing’ project (David Barton, Mary Hamilton (both Lancaster), and myself (QUB)), outlining how digital media and digitisation policies are shaping the knowledge-producing work and professional lives of academics in new and unexpected ways. One focus of this talk was email and how to manage it and experience it as part of professional life in academia. Much of the discussion which emerged was around how universities are managed and how, if at all, academic labour is divided. You can read more about this project’s findings in our new book Academics Writing. I worked on this project and found that it was a great induction into the academic working life!

This was followed by Katy Jordan’s (Open University) paper, which drew on three of her recent projects. The projects  focused on academics’ use of social media platforms for networking, how these engender different types of impact, different types of professional connections and relationships, and how these relate across different discipline groups. Notably, one of Katy’s many findings is that academic online spaces are not ‘democratising’ spaces, but rather spaces where hierarchies are reflected and in some cases algorithmically perpetuated.

Mark Carrigan’s (Cambridge) paper explored how the proliferation of platforms is reshaping social life, particularly in relation to the social sciences and their role within and beyond the university. Among the various perspectives critically explored by Mark were ‘project time’ in academic work, ‘amplification-itis’ where pursuit of online popularity is an end in itself, and overall ’acceleration’ in the academy as a result. You can find out more about Mark’s work here.

The papers together presented arguments about how many of these new practices, brought about through digitisation but also given impetus by deeper changes such as the marketisation and massification of HE, are becoming key indicators against which academic professional success is being measured, with online profiles being factored into an academic’s reputation and potential to influence their own field. This event, therefore, critically explored some of the challenges faced by new and established researchers in understanding what the ‘digital university’ portends for the future of the academic workforce and for scholarly work in general. The scope is quite vast so we hope to cover this theme again in future events to include more international perspectives.

All three sets of slides for the papers are available here.Ibrar Bhatt is a Lecturer in Education at Queen’s University Belfast, a member of the SRHE’s Governing Council, and a convener of its Digital University Network. His recent publications include the following monographs published by Routledge/T&F: Assignments as Controversies: Digital Literacy and Writing in Classroom Practice and (co-authored) Academics Writing: The Dynamics of Knowledge Creation. He tweets at @ibrar_bhatt


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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 Continue reading