Interesting things are happening – a window has opened

Dr Dean Lockwood recently gave some lectures where he reflected on Student as Producer in the context of digital media theory. Go to the Student as Producer site for the full paper. Here’s a very brief excerpt.

Interesting things are happening – a window has opened. Let’s focus on the university. For a couple of decades and more, higher education has increasingly been pushed towards running on a business model, a market model, in which the student is understood as a consumer. The current struggle over tuition fees highlights the extent to which this model is in crisis, in common with the market model more generally. Many are arguing again, just as they did in 68, that education must be politicized, connected back up to struggles against exploitation. Here, at Lincoln, the institution of the university itself is showing signs of moving this way, or at least there is an initiative, an experiment, at large within the university which is based on the argument that those who teach can no longer remain politically indifferent. Mike Neary, our Dean of Teaching and Learning, has even gone so far as to call for an agenda for ‘revolutionary teaching’, what he calls a ‘pedagogy of excess’ (see bibliography).

This agenda has become dominated by an organizing principle for teaching and learning which goes by the name of ‘Student as Producer’, which I want to say a few words about.

Pedagogy, Technology and Student as Producer

I was recently asked to present a paper to the university’s Teaching and Learning Committee about the role of technology in the context of Student as Producer. The paper was well received by the committee and I have been asked to draw up a Business Case  which will be presented to the Academic Board and then, hopefully, for final approval by the Executive Board. Unlike this paper, which is pretty high level, the Business Case will go into more detail about what we actually propose to do and how. Comments very welcome. Thanks to my colleague, Sue Watling, for  help with the section on ‘digital inclusion’.

Pedagogy, Technology and Student as Producer


Student as Producer will have a significant impact on the work of both students and staff at the university and this paper briefly addresses the strategic role of technology and teaching and learning within the context of Student as Producer. In summary, we argue that the university can lead the sector in re-engineering knowledge creation and sharing through the open development of edgeless social learning networks, based on a methodology of peer-to-peer innovation and a commitment to digital inclusion and critical, digital literacy.

Student as Producer

Student as Producer is underpinned by progressive pedagogical theory which asserts that students can and should be producers of their social world by genuinely collaborating in the processes of research, teaching and learning. Student as Producer has a radically democratic agenda, valuing critique, speculative thinking, openness and a form of social learning that aims to transform the social context so that students become the subjects rather than objects of history – individuals who make history and personify knowledge. Student as Producer is not simply a project to transform and improve the ‘student experience’ but aspires to a paradigm shift in how knowledge is produced, where the traditional student and teacher roles are ‘interrupted’ through close collaboration and a recognition that both teachers and students have much to learn from each other. Student as Producer is not dependent on technology but rather on the quality of the relationship between teacher and student. The extent to which technology can support, advance and even progressively disrupt this relationship is therefore key.

Critical, digital literacy

Increasingly, the language of digital networks is that of ‘users’ who produce and consume ‘content’. With the availability of ‘free’ Web 2.0 tools, we are told that anyone on the web is a potential publisher of content for someone else to consume. The message from The Edgeless University (2009) is increasingly typical: In the world of Web 2.0, universities are being positioned as distinctive “resource providers” i.e. research outputs, lectures and podcasts on iTunesU, Open Access institutional repositories and and Open Educational Resources, with the expertise to “validate learning”. Student as Producer both challenges and leverages this ‘abundance’ of open resources by articulating a “pedagogy of excess”, whereby the student is encouraged and supported in being not just a student-consumer but rather a productive, critical, digitally literate social individual. In this view, technology is inclusive and understated, advocated by the institution primarily to develop the individual’s critical, social understanding and abilities which they apply to their learning and in this way technology does not become an end in itself.

Digital inclusion

Digital divides, both within higher education and beyond our institutions, derive from the social shaping of technology where technical design and implementation is influenced by organisational, political, economic and cultural factors (Bjiker and Pinch 1984, Williams and Edge 1994). Technological ‘innovation’ is often the subsequent means whereby wider social inequalities are reproduced and reinforced. For example, operating effectively within a Web 2.0 environment privileges a narrow range of access criteria and assumes pre-requisite levels of digital confidence and competence. Those who fall outside of these parameters are digitally excluded and disempowered. In the development of critical, digital literacy, Student as Producer can raise awareness of the nature and effects of inequitable digital practices and in doing so, encourage socially responsible individuals who are then able to challenge exclusive practices and ensure inclusive ways of living in society.

Learning landscapes

In itself, technology arguably has no direct bearing on educational outcome. It is the extent to which technology is understood, developed and employed within the overall social and political environment that it contributes to the social wealth, education and overall well-being of society (Downes, 2010). The typical use of technology in higher education ranges from the mundane to the instrumental to the experimental, enabling, for example, the management of courses and assessment through the Learning Management Systems (LMS), the increasingly collaborative cross-institutional nature of research through discipline-specific Virtual Research Environments (VRE) and the creation of Personal Learning Environments (PLE) where teachers and students choose technologies appropriate to their own needs and capacities. Similarly, technologies such as Blackboard, are thoroughly embedded in critical institutional functions penetrating deep into the overall ‘learning landscape’ of the university. Networked technology is now ingrained in the very ‘idea of the university’ and the social production of knowledge. It is used to both intentionally effect change (i.e. innovate) in higher education and respond to change taking place in society (i.e. facilitate). Arguably, it is not a matter of asking “what is the role of technology in higher education?”, but rather “what is the role of the university in a networked world?” (Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World, 2009)

A pedagogy of excess

Student as Producer is perfectly timed to engage with what The Edgeless University states as a “time of maximum uncertainty and time for creative possibility between the ending of the way things have been and the beginning of the way they will be.” At a time when the higher education sector is being privatised and students are expected to assume the role of consumer, Student as Producer aims to provide the student with a more critical, more historically and socially informed experience of university life, which extends beyond their formal studies to engage with the role of the university and their own role in society. Pedagogically, this is through the idea of ‘excess’ where students, undertaking a critical evaluation of their subject and of their role in society, are anticipated to become more than just student-consumers during their course of research and study (Neary and Hagyard, 2010). In practice, a pedagogy of excess re-orientates the roles of staff and students to become producers of an edgeless university and creators of social wealth.

Student as Producer responds to calls for ‘edgelessness’ by asserting a radical agenda for the development and support of technology, extending the networks and spaces that we maintain to become social learning networks or, in Vygotsky’s term, ‘Zones of Proximal Development’ (ZPD), in which social learning has the potential to change the individual and their social context (Neary, 2010). We recognise the centrality of staff and students in “driving further innovation without losing the strengths of the traditional academic environment” (Learning Landscapes, 2009) and this should be coupled with the benefits that networked technology brings to the learning landscape, not only in advancing ubiquitous access to information but also the potential for challenging and re-engineering the relationships between teacher and student engaged in collaborative research.

Peer-to-peer production

To undertake this, we recommend that a flexible, cross-departmental team of staff and student peers are convened to further the research, development and support of technology for research, teaching and learning at the University of Lincoln. The team’s primary remit will be to support the objectives of Student as Producer through technology. To achieve this, it is proposed that the team has an acknowledged research and development role, and that the work of the team is theoretically informed by the progressive pedagogy of Student as Producer so as to engender critical, digitally literate staff and students. To this effect, the team will consolidate and extend the existing collaborative work taking place between CERD, The Library and ICT Services by inviting staff and students from across the university to openly contribute. The team will offer incentives to staff and students who wish to contribute to the rapid innovation of appropriate technology for education at the university, through work-experience, research bursaries and internal and external applications for funding. A core principle of the team will be that students and staff have much to learn from each other and that students as producers can be agents of change in the use of technology in education.


This proposal is supported by recent NUS data, which highlights the need for greater choice in how students learn, concerns around staff ICT competency, and the appropriateness of technology used across courses. (HEFCE/NUS, 2010). Overall, recent reports support the creation of a learning landscape where the distinction between teacher and student is increasingly fluid, emphasising the role of technology to enable collaboration and the co-production of knowledge. The multi-faceted nature of the institution remains highly valued, as does the multifarious role of the teacher. However, due to changes in the production and consumption of information in society, the student’s role is being reasserted in a new form of peer collaboration; one which we might call the ‘student as producer’.

Annual Budget Required

Digital Development Co-ordinator (Grade 8 )

Student/graduate developers (Grade 4/5) x 4

Student bursaries £4000

Staff research grants: £7000

Hardware/Software: £10,000

Conferences: £4000


Bradwell, P. (2009) The Edgeless University, DEMOS.

Downes, S. (2011) Better Education Through Technology.

JISC (2009) Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World.

Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2009) The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education. The future of higher education: policy, pedagogy and the student experience. Continuum, London.

Neary, Mike (2010) Student as Producer: A Pedgogy for the Avant-Garde. Learning Exchange,Vol 1, No 1.

Neary, Mike and Hagyard, Andy (2010) Pedagogy of Excess: An Alternative Political Economy of Student Life. The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer. Eds. Molesworth, Scullion and Nixon. Routledge.

NUS/HEFCE (2010) Student Perspectives on Technology.

Pinch, T. J. and Bijker W. E. (1984) The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other. Social Studies of Science 14, 399-441.

University of Lincoln (2010) Learning Landscapes in Higher Education Final Report.

Williams, R. and Edge, D. (1996) The Social Shaping of Technology, Research Policy Vol. 25, 856-899.

Critical pedagogy as expedient means

During the middle part of my twenties, I studied Buddhism at SOAS, University of London and then at the University of Michigan. A very common phrase found in English translations of Buddhist texts is ‘expedient means’ or ‘skilful means’, from the Sanskrit उपाय upāya. Although I’ve barely read any Buddhist texts for over ten years now, recently this phrase has been coming to mind quite often and it was only when I read the Wikipedia article for upāya that I realised the connection to my current work.

Upaya (Sanskrit: उपाय upāya, “Expedient Means” or “pedagogy”) [1] is a term in Mahayana Buddhism which comes from the word upa√i and refers to something which goes or brings you up to something (i.e., a goal). It is essentially the Buddhist term for dialectics. The term is often used with kaushalya (कौशल्य, “cleverness”); upaya-kaushalya means roughly “skill in means”. Upaya-kaushalya is a concept which emphasizes that practitioners may use their own specific methods or techniques in order to cease suffering and introduce others to the dharma. The implication is that even if a technique, view, etc., is not ultimately “true” in the highest sense, it may still be an expedient practice to perform or view to hold; i.e., it may bring the practitioner closer to true realization anyway.

I’d never thought of upāya as ‘pedagogy‘ but this translation does make sense to me. It is a technique, a practice, a method of instruction, that may further one’s understanding of something, or taught to further the understanding of others. It’s also interesting that the Wikipedia article refers to upāya as the term for Buddhist dialectics. I don’t think this is strictly true as there are examples of upāya in the literature which use parable or kōan for example, but it’s true that in the early scholarly (monastic) texts, negative dialectics is a preferred method of pursuing truth. Nāgārjuna’s Mādhyamaka school of Buddhist thought is a good example of this. The Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism still maintains a tradition of negative dialectical debate in its monasteries.

Although, as I learned to both my interest and frustration, the interpretation of ancient religious and philosophical ideas is constantly open to debate, it is conceivable that upāya might be understood and expressed as a pedagogical praxis of negative dialectics, or more simply, a critical pedagogy. It’s also occurred to me that there might be some value in thinking about ‘expedient means’ in light of Holloway’s work on negativity, his No! and Marx’s ‘negation of negation‘.

No opens. It opens a new conceptual world. It also opens a new world of doing… Our no is a negation of the negation, but the negation of the negation is not positive, but a deeper negation, as Adorno points out. ((Adorno, Theodor 1990, Negative Dialectics, London: Routledge. The quote is from Holloway, John. No. Historical Materialism, Volume 13. Number 4. pp. 265-285.))

The negation of the negation does not bring us back to a reconciliation, to a positive world, but takes us deeper into the world of negation, moves us onto a different theoretical plane.

There’s clearly a lot to clarify and flesh out but, broadly speaking, I think the idea of ‘expedient means’ is a useful way of organising and developing my thinking. In pedagogical terms, what is technology’s dialectic? How might it be used as an expedient or skilful means, which leads to a better understanding of ourselves and our predicament?

To reflect this new approach to my work, which has been emerging since the start of this year, I’ve changed the title of this blog. The previous ../learninglab/joss title no longer made much sense anyway, as the blog is no longer hosted on the Learning Lab.