Assembling ‘the digital university’

Lesley Gourlay

“And it’s just like, you just end up completely bogged down without any sense of …progress or achievement or, you know, there’s not even, it’s not even like kids get a tick, you know, when they’ve done, you know, when they get a sum right they get a tick … I just can’t cope with it, I just can’t do it. As far as I’m concerned it’s very easy to just forget all about it. It just sits in the computer somewhere or other and I don’t know what I need to do and what I haven’t done, I have no sense of how to organise my work.”

— Student Interview

The exponential increase in the use of mobile networking technologies and digitally-mediated communication has lead to profound changes in study practices in higher education, as meaning-making takes place in increasingly digital, multimodal, dispersed and intertextual formats. However, the complexities of these changes are masked by apparently unproblematic binaries in educational thought and policy, such as the distinction between the ‘face-to-face’ and ‘e-learning’, a form of thinking critiqued as ‘digital dualism’1. Arguably, mainstream understandings of the relationship between technology and the university have come to rely on simplistic assumptions about students on one hand, and utopian fantasies on the other invoking the apparently unbounded ‘transformative’ potential of digitality.

L: The Newsam Library, Institute of Education, University of London.
R: Student image, ‘I read some materials for my course in the bathroom.’

However, this viewpoint neglects the day-to-day social practices which serve to constitute ‘the university’. Lectures, books, MOOCs, webpages, virtual learning environments, notes, diagrams and essays all involve entanglements with linguistic and increasingly multimodal texts in the struggle for meaning-making. The centrality of these semiotic practices is largely elided by mainstream accounts of technologies in the academy, and texts (particularly the digital) are rendered as ‘innocent’ repositories, stripped of situatedness, materiality and embodiment. The integrity of the ‘face-to-face’ as a primarily analogue, synchronous space marked by physical copresence has also become increasingly blurred and ‘posthuman’ in its nature2, where the human and nonhuman interact3, a powerfully reflexive relationship already explored by media theorists4, who has argued that the media system of the university constitutes the institution, epistemologies and the subject positions of social actors.

A UK Government research study at the Institute of Education, University of London5 has investigated student perspectives and day-to-day practices, working with 12 postgraduates over a year. The students created diagrams, photos or videos to represent their engagement with technologies, explored in a series of interviews. The students’ responses to the overwhelmingly complex semiotic landscapes of higher education resulted in complex inter-relationships with technologies and texts. Drawing on sociomaterial perspectives of education6, we found students constantly negotiating and recreating highly ephemeral physical and temporal assemblages of device, human and text in order to inscribe and make meanings. Their accounts revealed repeated translations of texts between digital and print formats, with a range of strategies used to interact with texts, make new meanings and generate their own texts in highly complex and often mobile networks which were in constant flux. Students adopted a range of stances towards the technology, from ‘combat’ with seemingly threatening forces of surveillance, to active and creative ‘curation’ of texts through a bricolage of highly individual semiotic networks. The notion of ‘the university’ was not confined to the material campus, or the official digital spaces of the institution, but instead was a space which was constantly made and remade anew, which was assembled. These findings seem to undermine ‘common-sense’ distinctions between user/device, material/virtual and author/text; and ask us to grapple with new understandings of ‘participation’ and ‘authorship’ in the digitally mediated university.

  1. Jurgenson, N. (2012) When atoms meet bits: Social Media, the Mobile Web and Augmented Revolution. Future Internet, 4, 83-91 []
  2. Hayles, N. (1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. London: University of Chicago Press. []
  3. Gourlay, L. (2012) Cyborg ontologies and the lecturer’s voice: a posthuman reading of the ‘face-to-face’. Learning, Media and Technology 37(2), 198-211. []
  4. Kittler, F. (2004). Universities: wet, hard, soft, and harder. Critical Enquiry 31(1): 244-255. []
  5. JISC (2013) Digital Literacies as a Postgraduate Attribute? []
  6. Fenwick, T., Edwards, R. & Sawchuck, P. (2011) Emerging Approaches to Educational Research: Tracing the Socio-Material. London: Routledge. []
Dr Lesley Gourlay is Senior Lecturer in Culture, Communication and Media at the Institute of Education, London.