Conceptualising the Digital University: The Intersection of Policy, Pedagogy and Practice, by Bill Johnston, Sheila MacNeill and Keith Smyth

This account of the contemporary digital university outlines opportunities to construct a more progressive learning environment and culture, says Simon Horrocks

March 28, 2019
Computer screens in office
Source: Getty

I can’t escape the feeling that it is a little perverse to explore the conceptualisation of the digital university through the medium of 250 or so black-and-white pages in that most hallowed and traditional artefact of higher education, the printed book. No clickable links, no data visualisations and not a GIF in sight. Maybe the natural audience for this work will gravitate towards the electronic version. Even then, given the authors’ passionate and persuasive argument for digital culture as a way of making universities more open, more democratic and more engaged with the wider world, it seems ironic that this volume is not itself available under a Creative Commons licence.

While this contradiction is straightforwardly acknowledged by Bill Johnston, Sheila MacNeill and Keith Smyth, it points to the very real constraints that face anyone wishing to challenge the neoliberalist political economy of higher education that the authors posit as so damaging. Their extended (and fairly familiar) polemic may surprise a few readers who are attracted by the title alone. While I fully recognise their account of the false promises of digital disruption and transformation, as well as the all-too-regular default to technological determinism when new systems are introduced to universities, I suspect that many people will want to skip straight to the final section, which outlines clear opportunities to construct a more progressive digital environment and culture.

Despite deep concerns about the prevailing political and policy context in which Western universities operate, the authors point to several digital developments that are genuinely beneficial to the student experience and the impact of higher education beyond the (pay)walls of academe. These include open textbooks, which have helped to reduce the cost of study, particularly for students in North America, while encouraging a more fluid concept of knowledge production and dissemination. Likewise, in a few short years, we have seen a sea change in attitudes towards Wikipedia, which was initially reviled by many academics as an unreliable source that students used lazily and uncritically. Today, some universities are employing a Wikimedian-in-residence in a direct move to increase the quality and quantity of information available not just to their students but to anyone around the world with access to the internet, addressing in many cases historical prejudices along, for instance, ethnic or gender lines.

There are a few conspicuous absences that stop this book from being a full account of the contemporary digital university. In particular, I was surprised not to see some coverage of Moodle as an open-source virtual learning environment that, in theory at least, provides a genuine alternative to proprietary systems. And although the narrative is squarely focused on pedagogy, there is no discussion of the evolution of disciplinary practices, such as the digital humanities and digital sociology, that themselves are wrestling with many of the fundamental challenges outlined in this book, not least neoliberalism and the pervasive influence of mega tech corporations. There is cause for optimism, then, as we return to the digital tyranny of our overflowing inboxes.

Simon Horrocks is leading a strategic review of online education at the University of Edinburgh.


Conceptualising the Digital University: The Intersection of Policy, Pedagogy and Practice
By Bill Johnston, Sheila MacNeill and Keith Smyth
Palgrave Macmillan, 288pp, £69.99
ISBN 9783319991597
Published 12 March 2019

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