Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Occupying digital space

Thanks to the enlightened policy of the Open University Press I can make available the text of my recent chapter Occupying Digital Space, originally one half of a chapter (the other half written by the wonderful Mike Neary) in John Lea's edited book Enhancing Learning and Teaching in HE. If you enjoy my piece I encourage you to buy (or ask your institution to buy) the book.  It includes lots of wonderful practice-based case studies and opinion pieces alongside academic points of view on pedagogy in the C21st. Plus as an academic writer I want to promote a publishing house that allows me to make my work openly available to everyone who can benefit. Here's my conclusion.

Enhancing Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Engaging with the Dimensions of Practice
Virtual space is continuous but not identical with real-world space. As educators, we are particularly interested in how meanings, feelings and identities, social actions and economic values are transacted in digital space, and as I have tried to show, these
transactions reproduce the inequalities, power dynamics and oppressive institutional practices of real-world space. Some aspects of virtual space disguise these continuities and make it difficult to adopt a critical stance. These include the radical separation of designers from end-users, the fact that actions are narrowly constrained but alternatives
are literally unthinkable within the interface, and the ‘natural’ and ‘frictionless’design ideal. All are good reasons why we should foster in our institutions, among our colleagues, and most importantly in our students, a critical approach to digital technologies
and their uses. How we approach this will depend on our disciplinary resources, but we should be in no doubt that it will become more difficult for students to do this with their own resources, as they become more naturalised to living in a hybrid world.

Just like real-world spaces, virtual spaces can be co-opted against their original designs, or can be designed differently – collaboratively with students, for example, or in ways that are radically incomplete. And while real-world spaces can only be redesigned after much investment and long processes of consultation, in which radical ideas can easily be lost, virtual spaces are agile and reconfigurable. Personal learning environments, cloud services, community solutions and peer-to-peer networks are already deeply connected into the institutional infrastructure, introducing potential fault-lines and spaces of alternative play. Alongside virtual environments that reproduce
an instrumental and managerial idea of the university, we can set alternative virtual spaces such as Coventry’s Disruptive Media Lab or the Ragged University project and its various affiliates, online and physically located. Against the virtual pantechnicon we can imagine the hybrid university as a network of loosely affiliated spaces, some allowing for safe exploration and identity work (‘walled gardens’), but with doors always opening onto other institutions and cultures, onto different ways of
knowing, and onto an open landscape of knowledge in public use.

Read my chapter in full here.


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