Shaping the university in a networked era

The University of the Arts London is a dynamic environment containing a heady range of teaching and learning practices. What all of these approaches have in common is that they have to (if they aren’t extra curricular) negotiate the structures required to validate and quality control higher education degrees in the UK. As soon as any course considers the digital (beyond posting content in the VLE or teaching a specific software) they discover that they are caught between network and hierarchy.

CC –

To put it another way, they are caught between the Web and the Institution which operate on radically different principles. For example, within the institution the course tends to be the root organising principle with students grouped within it, whereas online the individual is the root, or the centre, and connects to groups. This is significant difference and while in recent years the university sector has claimed to shift focus onto the students (for example the emergence of the ‘student experience’ as an institutional concept) the core mechanisms of the university remain relatively unchanged.

One very good reason for this is because universities operate at scale. The other reason is that, again in recent years, universities have rightly been required to consider, and respond to, issues of diversity, inclusion, sustainability and equity. It takes a significant amount of ‘structure’ to create an equitable environment at scale. [What I have seen of ‘agile’ networked approaches to learning are often highly exclusive, favouring those with agency and various forms of privilege. I see similar effects when education is undertaken at scale in the digital but in a non-networked manner, for example MOOCs]

There are many examples of courses and groups negotiating the tension between the network and hierarchy successfully at UAL but they tend to have four characteristics in common.

  1. They are the smaller courses, with lower student numbers
  2. They are led by individuals with a clear understanding of the value of working in a networked (often Resident) manner
  3. The teaching team are happy to use a combination of institutional and Web-based platforms as appropriate
  4. Much of the networked activity is not formally revealed to the institution for fear of it being shut down

On point four, it’s of great interest to me how an institution (I’m taking in general terms here, not specifically about UAL) approaches the networked environments and practices. Most institutions now understand there is value in the network but often kill that value in the process of institutionalising it. For example, most Social Media policies stifle, rather than promote, the use, and potential value for the institution of staff being active in Social Media. On the other hand we are all aware of the ideological compromises, risks and potential exclusivity of many networked approaches such as running a course via Facebook.

My day job as Head of Digital Learning is at the nexus of these issues and tensions. For me it’s about designing ways of supporting networked approaches at scale (and articulating the value of those approaches) while keeping connected to the institution at key points (for example summative assessment). I don’t believe we need to redesign the whole institution to make this work but we do need to reconsider the principles our teaching and learning is based on. A few ‘design’ principles that I’d recommend:

  1. We need to find ways of operating in a networked manner which can work at scale but which don’t assume that technology is the ‘answer’ in of itself.
  2. We need to positively incorporate networked approaches and stop thinking of the digital as only ‘that thing we have to do because we have run out of floor space’, or ‘that thing we do because there are “too many” students’.
  3. We need to stop designing our courses with the underlying notion that the face-to-face is the course and the digital is only there to support the face-to-face. (most students spend more time learning online than face-to-face no matter how high their ‘contact’ hours are)
  4. We need to frame ‘independent’ study as much more than ‘doing the homework’ or (in keeping with the point above) what you do in between face-to-face sessions.
  5. We need to acknowledge that the network (the Web) exists and design our courses accordingly.
  6. We need to acknowledge that using disciplines as a primary mode of structuring our institutions has serious limitations for students in a digital era.
  7. Given the point above, we need to acknowledge that students operate in a much larger information and communal (possibly collaborative) environment than the university itself.
  8. We need to redesign the way we formally capture the design of courses and the way we articulate these designs to students while still being mindful of diversity, inclusion and equity.

There are two projects currently directly responding to many of these points at UAL: Modual, run by Fred Deakin and UAL Futures, run by Luke Whitehead. There are also numerous examples of courses at UAL which are well aware of these themes/issues and do a great job of negotiating tensions between the network and the hierarchy to the benefit of their students. In my role I attempt to identify inclusive uses of networked approaches and look for ways to embed this in the quotation of the university.

We are brilliant at working in an agile, networked manner in activities which sit alongside the machinery of running and awarding degrees – we also know what ‘good practice’ looks like within courses. Our challenge is in creating institutional structures (hierarchy) which can encourage and support those approaches while holding them in an open hand.


I am helping to run a, free, open to all, ‘Platform’ event on the 1st of December at Chelsea college of art entitled ‘Critical Creative Digital: Shaping the university in a networked era’.  (do sign-up and come along if you can make it)



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *