Friday, 15 April 2011

LIDU Seminar 4 at Lancaster

The fourth and final LIDU seminar was at Lancaster University on April 8th.
This was a smaller one-day affair, intended to allow a more in-depth discussion of 'next steps' for this seminar group.The discussion programme and some of the informal position papers that fed into it are on the series website.

 Lancaster managed to produce some of the nicest weather, and the tastiest lunch, of the series to date. It did produce some in-depth discussion, focused around: a review of what we felt we had achieved in the series, and where it left us individually; consideration of the most appropriate form of publication output; and plans for taking forward a 'Literacy in the Digital University' research agenda. Below is a short summary of these discussions, 2 decisions, and a shortlist of emergent research themes:  

 We began with a discussion of issues around 'digital scholarship' -- a theme introduced in two of the OU-led sessions during the series. Whilst the Open University is the only institution which has formally instituted a digital scholarship development program, there is clearly a wider sectoral relevance in the concept for the development of literacy in the digital university. Most of the meeting participants felt themselves to be involved with the concept in some way, either actively or critically. How do new digital communication contexts impact on, and change our understanding of, what we and our students do as scholars? Are we simply re-conceptualising conventional ideas of scholarship in order to preserve them in the 'digital university', or are we open to the challenge of completely new academic and study practices? Is the conventional notion of scholarship as a solitary, reflective, individual activity still relevant, or will it be swept away by the current 'fetishisation' of digital interactivity?

 The discussion round the Lancaster statement focused initially on the importance of keeping FE in the frame when we are talking about the digital university, with a possibly reduced relevance for the scholarship discussion in this context. This led to a more general debate about what is meant by 'boundaries' and' borderlessness', relating to the relationship between the university and the workplace, the university as a workplace, and wider theoretical questions concerning the body and the technologies that extend it beyond the person.

 The GCU statement generated more discussion around the idea of the digital university as a 'borderless institution', and the kinds of knowledge practices that this might imply. The suggestion that companies and the 'world of work' are challenging the university's 'monopoly of legitimate knowledge' was debated, and the notion of university study and what it means to be a student was revisited. There is an important tension between the idea of permeability between the university and the world of work and the idea of scholarship/studentship. The institutional university as a centre of scholarship is undermined by discourses of e-learning/digital native from both the right (new forms of digitally empowered individualism) and left (new kinds of digital collectivism). But these 'grand narratives'of institutional transformation are relatively meaningless unless they are informed by an understanding of specific learning contexts.

 The Edinburgh statement began with a positive commitment to the possibility of a joint research agenda that addressed the re-conceptualisation of conventional boundaries within the digital domain. They suggested a focus on the 'autodidact'  and linked this to a philosophical move to post-humanism, by which they meant a questioning of humanistic presumptions about agency in assemblages that involve the individual, the social, and the technical. These concepts received some discussion - particularly around the problems that this perspective creates for Education, which is traditionally based on humanist principles.

 The individual statements re-emphasised issues such as: the necessity to start being specific about the kinds of learning contexts that we needed to explore, and the inherent challenges of empirical projects in this field ; the impact of audiences and of issues of trust, for example related to plagiarism; the hybrid nature of texts and social identities in the 'digital university'.

 This session concluded with the question: 'would/could we have had this same discussion at the beginning of the seminar series 18 months ago?'. There seems little doubt that we had all come quite a long way towards being able to talk constructively about learning across the disciplinary gap between 'literacy/language' and 'technology/interactivity'. The gap hasn't gone away, as we still differ over what we mean by key terms such as 'text'. However, we do feel we are all talking into the same conceptual space now. Which wasn't the case at the beginning of the series. So no, this discussion would not have happened then.

 To summarise emergent research themes, I took it on myself to write a list of about six items on the whiteboard. Nobody seemed to object so here is a compressed and annotated version:
  • Scholarship -- what does it mean and who does it identify?
  • The borderless institution -- can it still be a university?
  • Moving beyond humanism -- where is agency?
  • Trust and assessment -- empowerment or threat?
Notice the absence of the words 'literacy' and 'digital'! But to paraphrase the cyborg...

they'll be back...

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