Designing for Matters of Concern in the Post-Pandemic University

Christoph Richter, Heidrun Allert, Christine Bussian, Lars Raffel & Norma Reichelt

The Covid-19 pandemic has not only triggered a hasty uptake of digital technologies and platforms in higher education, but also rendered visible the still prevailing idea of technology as being simply about the ‘enhancement’ of existing practices. However, when thinking about the post-pandemic university, it is not sufficient to talk about the measures that we need to simulate pre-existing ‘educational normality’, but to reconsider the instrumentalist and representationalist notions of knowledge that are symptomatic for current conceptions of both formal learning and digital technologies. Putting strong emphasis on what Latour has called matters of fact, respective accounts construe knowledge as a disinterested object and institutionalized learning as enculturation projects that impose some future ideal on present human subjects and activities. Yet, these notions of knowledge and the corresponding enactments of learning and digital technologies, apparently fall short not only in light of the uncertainties produced by Covid-19, but also the current ecologic, democratic, and humanitarian crises we are facing collectively. They fall short in that they disregard the performative nature of our collective epistemic practices and believes, including those that form the base of those digital technologies that are driven by the ideals of output quality and computational autonomy. Following up on the ideas of Latour, Fenwick & Edwards, and others, we would like to outline a vision of educational practices and technologies that are geared towards matters of concern,: towards a collective struggle, an active engagement with the world and each other, in which canonic ideas are challenged and new relations forged. To make this vision more concrete, we set fourth four issues we deem particularly relevant for the development and enactment of respective scenarios and technologies in the post-pandemic university.

Moving beyond Representational Notions of Knowledge

The first issue relates to the regimes of authoritative knowledge, to the ways of knowing that are taken to be legitimate, consequential, worthy of discussion, and useful for justifying actions by people engaged in accomplishing some concerted task. The neoliberal policies, that have shaped today’s universities, not only forced researchers and educators to focus on knowledge that is supposedly useful and exploitable in a knowledge economy, but also altered the epistemic practices, the very rules, conventions, and normative commitments through which knowledge becomes legitimized, questioned, and contested, as argued for example by Moutsious. In particular, the neoliberal governmentality came along with a bias towards a realistic perspective on knowledge, assuming that the essence of things can be properly represented and hence communicated and shared with others in an objective and methodologically controlled manner. Imprints of the inclination towards such a representational notion of knowledge can be found for example in the preference for modes of articulation that lend themselves towards abstraction and formalization (and hence to computation), in the idea of a (disciplinary) knowledge base amenable to standardized and manualized forms of instruction, as well as a deep trust in the algorithmicity of scientific procedures. Being built on the very same premises, it is no surprise that these ideas closely correspond with the current educational technologists’ visions that aim to leverage means of natural language processing, machine learning, artificial intelligence and learning analytics as basic technologies for the post-pandemic university. However, if our intent is to move beyond the transmission of presumed ‘matters of fact’, we have to develop new sensitivities to the polyphony of epistemic practices and invite our students to follow and plunge themselves into the various ways, knowledge is created within and outside academia. We should refrain from the idea that there is some basic body of knowledge, students need to be acquainted with before they can engage in any sincere discourse, but instead encourage them to trace and challenge the ways the most basic disciplinary ideas, concepts and facts became produced in the first place. In a similar manner we need to collectively inquire into the ways in which (digital) technologies render certain ways of knowing (il)legitimate and sensible.

Moving beyond the Dominant Design of the Centralized Educational Platform

The second issue is concerned with the pragmatic mediation of the learning processes, the social and technical mechanisms that grant or restrict access to technical, social, cultural, and epistemic resources, as well as the setup and characteristics of the institutional and technical infrastructures that are made use of. With the spreading of the Covid-19 pandemic in winter 2020 universities were forced to rethink and adapt their portfolio of digital technologies and the respective technical infrastructure. Looking for solutions that could be rolled out and scaled easily, universities not only launched trainings for their employees to make effective use of the educational technologies previously installed, but also bought in new digital services, to accommodate the increased need for online lectures, seminars and other course formats. In many cases this situation allowed commercial digital learning platforms and service providers to jump in and offer their ready-made products, accelerating the ongoing shift from the ‘open web’ to the ‘platform’ and turning it amenable to the efficiencies of techno-capitalism. In fact, the dominant design of educational technologies is still based on the idea of a hierarchically organized, operationally closed and centrally managed system, that provides both teachers and students with all the tools, resources and information considered necessary for their learning endeavours. Yet, if we aim to overcome the idea of education as an enculturation project and want to provide students, researchers, and teachers with a socio-technical infrastructure to engage in truly open-ended inquiries and pursue their collective epistemic interests, we cannot restrict ourselves to particular educational technologies of any kind, but have to reconsider the social, legal, and technical protocols on which these are build. In particular, we would have to devise social and technical protocols that allow for the creation of decentralized platforms, in which people have direct control over the data and resources they want to share as well as the tools they want to use, as suggest for example by Mansour et al.. In addition, we would also need to envision and enact new social mechanisms for the collaborative creation and governance of the common knowledge resources that will emerge out of these enquiries.

Moving beyond the Notion of Learning as an Individual Endeavour

The third and closely related issue touches upon the seeding and cultivation of social relations and networks in support of the learner’s epistemic efforts. Envisioning a post-pandemic university that is centred on ‘matters of concern’ requires not only to enact more inclusive, boundary-crossing, and networked forms of participation, but also to transform the established power-relations. However, the Covid-19 pandemic revealed that despite the mantra-like call for inter- and transdisciplinary collaboration, as well as social and civic responsibility, the institutional logics of the 21st century university are still largely driven by the acquisition metaphor of learning. The idea of learning as a process of individual acquisition, be it of knowledge, skills, or some other type of resource, is evident for example in the disciplinary compartmentalization, the modularization of study programs, as well as in the regimes of admission and examination. Learning here is essentially seen as an individual process that takes place in the confines of some predefined social arrangement, in more or less randomly assigned groups of students who meet for a predefined period of time to engage in some given academic tasks or topics. As these institutional logics do not require a common interest or concern, there is also no need for a collective lifeworld that would transcend the boundaries of a particular module or course. Consequently, it is only reasonable to withhold student visa in case courses are offered online only. In contrast, construing education not as an individual, but as a collective endeavour, we would have to think of social and technical arrangements that are open to all those who have an interest in what is at stake, even though we might not know who that actually will be. We would also have to explore new forms of boundary-crossing participation and to link them back to processes of democratic deliberation.

Moving beyond Solutionism

The fourth and maybe the most challenging issue, finally, relates to the processes through which the post-pandemic university will take shape. These processes are reflexive in that they refer to the university not as something objectively given, but as a ‘matter of concern’, as something that we have to envision, care, and struggle for collectively. As has been argued for example by Teräs et al., even though immediate reactions and short-term solutions were necessary in the wake of the emerging pandemic, we need to be careful not to fall prey to solutionism, to assume that technology or some other measure would take us back to an imaginative normality. If we take the university itself to be a ‘matter of concern’, we need to refrain from the idea that education is something to be managed and controlled by means of design and intervention. Instead, the formation of the post-pandemic university needs to be understood as an ongoing endeavour in itself. Just as the process of education is nothing to be overcome or completed, the university is nothing to be fixed or solved, but something that can only evolve in anticipation of a worthwhile and desirable future. In line with Grossberg, this endeavour might call for a new model of pedagogy, a pedagogy of articulation and risk, that refuses to assume ahead of time that it knows the appropriate knowledge, language or skills, […] a contextual practice that is willing to take the risk of making connections, drawing lines, mapping articulations, between different domains, discourses, and practic. By the same token it also requires us to have a close look at the processes through which educational technologies emerge and see educational technologies […] not just as instrumental means but as moments in ongoing processes of the design of education.

While the four design issues we discussed here are grounded in our current R&D efforts aimed at new forms of collective epistemic engagement in digital environments, we hope that they can also provide a useful starting point to ponder on the university in a state of crisis more generally. In particular we hope that they might spawn new explorations into educational scenarios we deem promising.

Prof. Dr. Heidrun Allert is Professor for Media Education and Educational Computer Science at Kiel University.

Christoph Richter, Christine Bussian, Lars Raffel and Norma Reichelt are Researchers in the Institute of Education at Kiel University.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Prof. Dr. Heidrun Allert is Professor for Media Education and Educational Computer Science at Kiel University.

Christoph Richter, Christine Bussian, Lars Raffel and Norma Reichelt are Researchers in the Institute of Education at Kiel University.

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