Past Event details

The Digital University, Social Justice and the ‘public good’

Friday, 16 February 2018

The Digital University, Social Justice and the ‘public good’

A one-day seminar hosted by Queen’s University Belfast, and supported by the Society for Research into Higher Education.

Great Hall, Lanyon Building, Queen’s University Belfast, University Road, Belfast, BT7 1NN

This one-day event is a space for dialogue on social justice, the ‘public good’ and the imperatives and priorities of ‘digital learning’ in HE. It brings together scholars from across a range of standpoints and disciplines, who will each seek to interrogate a dominant narrative around digital citizenship, digital literacy, and open learning and argue about what these concepts might mean when (re-)framed as a project for social justice and the public good. 

The speakers will critically reflect on the concrete challenges and material struggles that are faced with digitisation in the contemporary university – including over the raison d’être, cost, and accessibility of Higher Education. Topics to be discussed will include, but not be confined to:

i) New configurations of teacher-student relations in online undergraduate and postgraduate programmes

ii) Digitisation policies set against the context of austerity cuts and internationalisation

iii) Learning analytics

iv) The struggles for equality and justice in the Global South and North


Session 1:

Mind the Gap: Digital Literacies Off the Rails

Professor Mark Brown

Director, National Institute for Digital Learning, Dublin City University


In this presentation I begin with the metaphor of planes, trains and automobiles to critically reflect on the past, present and future of digital education. I then build on this metaphor to critique the growing call to develop so-called digital literacies for successfully living, learning and working in the new knowledge economy. In critically reviewing the burgeoning literature in this area, including a variety of colourful matrixes, wheel charts and multi-dimensional diagrams (which look easy on the eyes but often lack explicit theoretical foundations), I tell a mingled yarn of the seductive promise of competing models and frameworks for digital literacies.

The intention of comparing and contrasting a number of frameworks across Europe, the UK and the USA is to expose an inherent flaw in most definitions and uncover several tensions that characterise the digital literacy movement. In metaphorically going off the rails beyond fancy, flashy and flimsy frameworks my talk attempts to explore the uncharted terrain of digital literacies. It illustrates that what we define or understand as digital literacy is messy and far more problematic than reflected in most of the models and frameworks for digital skills, literacies or competencies.

Set against the uncomfortable reality of today’s digital skills gaps I encourage people not to lose sight of the transformative mission of digital literacies for active citizenry to help reshape our societies for better futures—for all. My objective is to raise greater critical awareness of the problematic nature of digital literacy and support deeper understandings of the powerful macro-level forces at play in the drive to produce more digitally skilled learners, workers and citizens.

Session 2:

Critical Digital Citizenship: Lessons in Higher Education

Dr Callum McGregor

Programme Director: MSc Social Justice and Community Action / Lecturer in Education, Institute for Education, Community and Society (IECS), University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland


Drawing on arguments developed alongside Professor Emejulu (
Emejulu and Mcgregor, 2016), I will discuss digital citizenship in the context of my experience with the MSc in Social Justice and Community Action, focusing on the ways in which the programme’s curriculum, assessment and pedagogy productively aligns with citizen action for social justice across a range of contexts. I will critically reflect on the concrete challenges that the programme has faced, operating in the context of a Russell Group University. I will bring relevant theoretical resources to bear on these practical challenges by addressing digital citizenship as part of a wider ‘war of position’ located both ‘in and against’ the academy, in the context of local austerity cuts on the one hand, and internationalisation on the other.

Session 3:

From Lagado to Lagos: Social media and pedagogy in online learning

Dr Tess Maginess

Senior Lecturer (Education), School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland


This presentation focuses on new configurations of teacher-student relations in online undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. I will begin by contextualizing the need for new configurations within a broader discussion which focuses on the ideological manipulation of language. And the most obvious ways in which this manipulation is taking place is online, especially in social media. I will argue that, as young people turn to social media sites on their mobiles, there is a danger that the consumerist and transactionalist neoliberal outlook of universities in the global north are conspiring with a zeitgeist of speed in which no real critical reflection or scrutiny is encouraged. This will lead me to a consideration of the differing purpose of universities, globally. Important lessons can be adduced from the orientation of universities both within the global North and South where there are different emphases on how the modern university ought to serve the community and even the country.

The second part of the presentation will ask, what can we do as educators? Teachers firstly, need to critique, initially, the bounded idiolects of their own disciplines and move from that to a quiet questioning of their own hegemonic positioning as passive purveyors of an internalised neoliberalism. Secondly, teachers need to be more imaginative about how online learning can incorporate the ‘real world’ of the students – principally social media. Thirdly, if the implications of the dialogical pedagogy which online learning engenders are further explored, opportunities open up for greater metacognition and reflexivity in learning. This is about encouraging students to critically and creatively examine social media as a learning medium which includes deeper reflection on ‘cyberlect’ and beyond that, the language of political and media discourse.

It was Jonanthan Swift who first ‘modelled’ a computer in his Academy of Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels (1727). I will conclude with the outrageous idea that a new configuration of students and teachers might include a ludic outlook; humour, irony, play; slagging, sconsing, complication in the eyes. I will propose that learning might actually be enjoyable and richly understood; not  as a sufferance, a passport to supine private wealth generation, but, as an expansion and a deepening of what it is to be human, connected and engaged with global justice and citizenry.

About the speakers: 

Mark Brown is Ireland’s first Professor of Digital Learning and Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) at Dublin City University (DCU). Mark is also an Executive Committee member and Fellow of the European Distance and E-learning Network (EDEN) and chairs the Innovation in Teaching and Learning Steering Committee for the European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU). He also serves on the Board of the Irish National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

More on Mark

Callum McGregor is Lecturer in Education at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the intersection of education and social movement activism.

More on Callum here

Tess Maginess main fields of interest are literature and lifelong learning, especially among mature students and non-traditional learners. She has conducted a number of action research projects in the community using creative approaches (film, drama, multi-media forms) to create ‘education’ around difficult issues like mental health/illness.

More on Tess here

Audio podcast recordings of the presentations given by the above three speakers are available from the following link:

Network: Digital University
Date(s): Friday, 16 February 2018
Times: 11:45 - 16:15
Location: Queen´s University Belfast
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Event Files
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Dr Tess Maginess, Queen´s University Belfast
From Lagado to Lagos: Social media and pedagogy in online learning
Professor Mark Brown, Dublin City University
Mind the Gap: Digital Literacies off the Rails
Dr Callum McGregor, University of Edinburgh
Subverting the digital fetish: Reflections on the possibilities for critical digital citizenship in HE
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