A note on the digital university and dislocated politics

In her latest post on the digital university, which focuses upon information literacy, Sheila MacNeill argues that “technological change in the production and consumption of information content” should “not allowed to obscure the importance of developing the educational, ethical and democratic dimension of the digital society”. Thus, information literacy “is portrayed in terms of improving the information behaviours required to access and search various information systems to extract and use information for social, economic and educational purposes.” What this means for our work or labour, and for the society that such work/labour reveals is not developed here beyond MacNeill’s identification of the key strands in UNESCO’s Alexandria Proclamation, which focus upon information for trade or as exchangeable commodity, and literacy for employment or democracy, which I assume is accepted, pre-defined forms of liberal democracy, as opposed to alternatives like communes or workers’ councils or general assemblies.

This begins then to re-inscribe the polyarchic limits to our discussion of the digital and the digital university. I have previously noted that polyarchy

is an attempt to define an elitist form of democracy that would be manageable in a modern society. It focuses upon normalising what can be fought for politically, in terms of: organisational contestation through free and fair elections; the right to participate and contest offices; and the right to freedom of speech and to form organisations. This forms a set of universal, transhistorical norms. It is simply not acceptable to argue for other forms of value or organisation without appearing to be a terrorist, communist, dissident or agitator. Within the structures of polyarchy it no longer becomes possible to address the structural dominance of elites within capitalism, or its limited procedural definition of democracy inside capitalism. Compounding this political enclosure is the control of the parameters of discussions about values or value-relationships like democracy and equality, or power and class, or as George Caffentzis argues over the morality of student loan debt refusal.

So whilst MacNeill and Johnston’s conceptual matrix highlight’s digital participation, it does not move to a critique of what participation is/might be, beyond the limits imposed by western, liberal democracy and the role of the University in that model. That role is framed by business-as-usual, employability, economic growth and the politics of austerity. Thus, it is noted that “Digital participation, in this context, can be seen as a fundamental part of any knowledge economy or information based democracy and therefore has substantial implications for educators. Digital participation needs to be optimized to ensure continued economic growth in parallel with the development of an informed, literate citizenship.” The boundaries of this enclosed debate over digital literacy or information literacy or the knowledge economy or the information society are further revealed in Lawrie Phipps‘ post about White and Le Cornu’s Visitor and Resident’s model, which is limited to enabling institutions “to understand [how] these staff behaviours, perceptions and motivations can help identify which technologies or artefacts can be deployed most effectively to support different types of staff”. There is no space here for a wider digital politics or critique of digital literacy/identity/university.

Our limited perspectives of the digital world inside the University, and what the University is for (business-as-usual because there is no alternative) amplifies the view that academia is locked into problem-solving theory, which is aimed at supporting, interacting with, and adjusting the dominant order. This leads us to the artificial organisation and construction of knowledge, which in turn closes off a revelation of how society works and alienates. It depoliticises and avoids, and it disempowers us in our attempts to transform the world, through a critique of how we experience our life, and how we accept the elite’s interpretive myths/their hegemony over us.

If we are to develop a meaningful engagement with digital/information literacy, connected to models of digital participation and the digital University, we need a critique of the established ideological or intellectual frameworks that enclose this debate. We need a critique of their legitimacy within/beyond higher education. This critique forms a set of political acts, which are also open to critique but which do not simply accept the strictures of neoliberal political economy. Our critiques of what digital participation is/might be within higher education are historically situated, and connected to capitalist work as our living history and our lived experiences.

The work sketched out in models like MacNeill’s/Johnson’s and White/Le Cornu’s becomes important where it offers a possible interface with the world beyond the University, the world in which the University is networked or digitised. Thus, critiques of these models offer ways to connect the work of the academy to the dislocated realities of the world beyond it, which are not simply about employability. Thus, the development of relationships that support participation in re-creating the world needs to connect our digital habitus to the altered realities of global politics, in terms of either the coercive policies of governments or the reaction of Anonymous or occupations or revolts to those policies.

Thus we might usefully re-connect/situate our models of the digital university/digital participation within a world that is:

In the face of this mass of events against extant models of citizen participation inside western, liberal democracy, I wonder whether we can connect our discussion of the digital university to a deeper, radicalised political critique.


There is a point to be made about the individal and the social here. So much of our discourse is about individuals/individualisation that is developed using limited, liberal education terms like personalisation and differentiation. As we talk about individual literacies and participation we tend to neglect the social construction and situation of these things. In fact, we tend to neglect the relational aspects of ourselves. In focusing on the personal or the individual, at the expense of our associations, we risk doing the market’s work for it. We commodify ourselves as wage-slaves who need to develop a competitive edge. Because there is no alternative. If there is one thing that Marx reveals to us it is to remember the social/associational/co-operative. This is why I become more interested in long-term co-operative endeavours that offer the possibility that we might re-frame our relationships using technology. And here I am not sure that I am looking at MOOCs or badges. I think I am looking at #ds106. Not as a fetishised solution. But as a shared sense of the possible and a shared set of relationships in which power might be outed/critiqued/contested, that has implications for participation (as labour-in-and-beyond capitalism) and learning/education/the university beyond the market and enabled, in-part, digitally.

One Response to A note on the digital university and dislocated politics

  1. Pingback: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development » Catch a tiger: Digital Literacies lunchtime seminar 1 March 1200-1300

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