The Co-op Uni: From Pedagogy to Governance and Back

Despite having banked with the Co-op for most of my adult life, being a member, and using its services, I don’t know much about the Co-op Group, and as Chrissi Nerantzi and I walked to the Co-operative Quarter in Manchester it was odd to pass 1 Balloon St Manchester, whose only previous life for me was in the completion of direct debits. We were heading towards the Co-operative College along with 90 or so others to attend “Making the Co-operative University: New Places, Spaces and Models of Learning” .

selfpFigure 1: The Co-op Uni, A long time coming, An idea whose time has come, Ronald Macintyre, CC BY SA 4.0

I admit I struggled through the day with the question that kept rattling through my head, if a Co-op University is the solution, what was the problem in the first place. It was a question that arose from a sense that many of the people here were disaffected with Higher Education, and articulated it through the lens of losing their own jobs. A mood that obscured other problems, and for me clouded the day somewhat until, I was able to read the blog Chrissi put together, and go away and think about it. In thinking about it I pulled “Building a Co-operative: A Business History of The Co-operative Group, 1863-2013” of the shelf. Written before some of the groups recent troubles it has a tone of, this is our time, and I recollected how at the start of the day we were told the time was right for a Co-op Uni,  a tone that reminds of many struggles in a state of becoming, where success is perpetually immanent.

So, having thought about this immanence, my mind settled on the pedagogy workshop I attended, and the question of whether I attended the right one, should I have gone to governance, a thought process I tease out below.

One of the key aspects for me from the day were the questions around co-design/production, when people talked about it I couldn’t get the sense whether it was brought up as a novel approach, or a just as good practice. I suspect the former, and this was a surprise as it has been fashionable with the Higher Education Academy and Quality Assurance Agency for some time, albeit with little traction within the academy, a thin participation I blogged about  a couple of years ago (see here ).  Where I suggest learner co-design as articulated in a context where the learner is a customer, leads to the application of co-design models from the private sector, so called Service Design Logic, which is thin participation and does not address underlying social and structural relations within education. However, that simply describes the problem, how do we move beyond that.

selfpFigure 2: The Pedagogy Subgroup Questions, Ronald Macintyre CC BY SA 4.0

One view, which I have tried to explore in the past in relation to widening participation, is to see learner’s engagement as academic labour, learning involves everyone doing work, they need to have the skills to do the work, the opportunity to express that skills, and to be able to benefit from the value which accrues through this shared labour. My original analysis focussed on the barriers experienced by some learners as the look to do this work (see here ), it was really a thinly veiled Marxist analysis of adult learning. However, having attended the event I see where co-operation could lead, and perhaps unblock some of the issues which have made co-design/production in HE an unreachable aspiration.

I have long been interested in participatory design, in particular its roots in labour movements in Scandinavia, here it was called co-operative design focussed on how workers, managers and academics might work together to design work process’s (for a critical reading from OU academic and Co-op Tech person Steve Walker see here). I do not draw attention to the historical development of participatory design, or the connection to labour movements idly. Could a Co-op University be an organisation that was just as concerned with the organisation and power relations in work finally see the application of co-operative/participatory design to Higher Education. Perhaps it could. Perhaps the thin sense of this approach that has informed co-design, which takes some of the practices but filters them through a commercial logic will be undone by a co-operative logic. I take Richard Hall’s point regarding the sense in simulating a thing whose image of itself is predicated in unequal power relations. However, perhaps the co-operative model, the flattening of power relations within the whole academic community might be the thing to turn learner engagement into something more than a rhetorical device. With the flattening of labour relations within the broader academic community, i.e. a change in governance relations, ushering in many of the pedagogic ones that remain unrealised.

Clearly lots of things need to align before perhaps becomes real. Some of the things that seem to clear to me are a need to connect with Labour movements more broadly, Workers Education Association of course, but also Trade Union Learning. I would also ask those in this space to reach out to those in Open Education, not just the Open University, or those in Open Education Resources/Practices, though clearly they have much in common, in particular similar challenges.  With lessons from the former about sustainability and the latter about emerging models of provision and accreditation as organisations like University of the People and OERu  look to establish challengers as well. But also the wider Open Education movement, for example, “The Jane Austen” series by Casey and Greller (see here for a recent update) which draws inspiration from Art Schools to combat neoliberalism , or Alex Dunedin harking back to ragged schools though the Ragged University , or the miners libraries and weavers reading groups.

Talking of further reading Joss Winn from Lincoln University has produced a bibliography see here



Affect, Messiness and Values in Learning Design: Reflecting on the Alzheimer Society Ireland Showcase

Start at the end

At the end of an excellent day organised by The Alzheimer Society of Ireland, Flexible Education Norway and Ic Dien a further education college in Belgium, we went upstairs to a computer lab, something I had imaged no longer existed. We gathered round PC’s to review the module created by the team to support family carers of people with Dementia – see the project website for further information.

A small group of us started to talk our way through the site, asking questions like, will this be screen reader compliant, does the flow work here, how do I get back, is it clear what to do on this page, should the title here be changed to make the purpose clearer. What gave us the sense we had a legitimate right to comment, to second guess the designer. Well, for one he had asked us to second guess him, to sense check the module. So how do we know, what do we base our judgement on as we talk through our questions, we use words like “I think”, “I feel”, we talk about familiar forms which we think “work” we draw out positive and negatives experiences. Experience counts both ways, it can be used “in my experience” to call on patterns “you know” work, and also lack of experience, and “I am not familiar with this but …” Bringing the less sure user into the narrative.

This seems to touch on something that came up through the day, about how one decides on what to do. In our work creating online material with the aim of enabling individual transformation for values based organisations, how is it we know? Does working with values based organisations make any difference, does it make a difference that the learning is informal? Isn’t it just learning, or at best online learning we need to consider? When people talked about their judgement, how they knew, what informed decisions, it was not the online that carried the most weight but experience of learning and working directly with clients, people grounded their comments in real and imagined learners. Talked about how they felt, whether they felt something was right and fitted with what they knew of the learners and organisational values, and when things didn’t feel right and asking themselves why. Of course it is just as important to ask questions of the comfortable decisions as the ones that are troublesome, but what it emphasised for me is the personal craft of creating a course.

Never knowingly neat and tidy

The sense of learning in these contexts as a messy problem with complex, incomplete and clumsy solutions emerged at the start of the day.  It was great to hear the explicit recognition of the difference between a project plan, a neat timetable of discrete activities, and the reality. The need to inhabit all the phases at the same time, patterns  of activities blur into each other, for example, in design you look back to your experience and forward to the live course,  and as you do you are conditioned by production. Or, in writing you move to and from the image of the learner you started writing for, the one you are bringing into being through writing and looking forward to what it will enable them to do and how you will know if it has worked. These cycles are not captured in linear project plans with set start and end dates. Uncertainty is useful, it makes you question things, the need to keep changing, asking yourself what is the right thing to do, recognising the temporality of solutions. So it was useful to see this at the start of the day with Gibbs Reflective cycle as a project management methodology, it was quite a clear and bold statement in a world of online learning design which often talks about Agile or other such methods.

Figure 1: Kari Olstad Flexible Education Norway talks about Gibbs Reflective Cycle as a Project Management Approach, Ronald Macintyre CC BY SA 4.0


It was bold, and even bolder because it asked us to consider how well project management methods borrowed from tech company’s suited values based organisations, or indeed any organisations development of learning materials. Certainly some do, if I replaced clumsy temporal solutions with “rolling beta”, it probably is similar enough, and within “sprints” in software development are we pretending people are not reflecting on their practice. However, I think what was different and the risk with some of the linear models where “reflection on action” is not explicit is the tendency to look down, to focus on the plan, on the detail, and not “look up”, to place what you are doing in its broader context, the values of the organisation, the needs of the learner, and crucially what learning enables them to do.

Just to close thanks to Fergus Timmons Alzheimer Society of Ireland for inviting me and sense checking this account of the day.

Here is a link to my own presentation

Best Wishes



Reflecting on a day in Govan: Voluntary Sector Studies Network Border Crossing

A couple of weeks ago I spent a day in Govan at the Pearce Institute a place with a story all of its own and a fitting veneue for the Voluntary Sector Studies Network foray into Scotland, a first foray for them, and a first attendance at one of their events for me. The theme was Border Crossing,  #VSSNBorders and the background, well #Brexit and #indyref2.


Figure 1: Govan as the Centre of Strathclyde, Macintyre, 2017, CC BY SA 4.0

But first we were treated to a history of Govan, in particular its role at the centre of the Kingdom of Strathclyde and as home to the famous “hog backs” housed in Govan Cathedral. It was probably a bit light on the industrial history, so not much Rab C Nesbit, or Swing Hammer Swing, which might dominate our present imagination, and more on its pre and just industrialising past.

It was a useful way to start, getting us to think about temporality, space, place and meaning. It particuarily resonated with the first group of talks which looked at super diverse neighbourhoods, and the role of some places in always being places where newcomers arrived by Claire Bynner followed by a paper on volunteering and civic engagement by young people whose families had migrated from other places.

The next two slots were concerned with voluntary organisations, Matthew Dutton long term study of how voluntary sector organisations position themselves in relation to the state, a state that which might be argued to be failing (otherwise they wouldnt need to exist), but at the same time is the only source of succour and funds their activities was really interesting. Katey Tabner also dealt with inbetweenness in her presentation, looking at the role of infrastructure organisations that have sprung up to support community groups who have taken up the offer of “Community Empowerment”. An interesting space, where in my personal experience the state often looks to transfer risk to communities and the organisation that arise or have been funded by the state to support this often exist in the kind of uncertain space highlighted by Dutton.

Now back to the Border Crossing. The talk that made a big impression was the one by Gareth Morgan on charity law across the jurisdictions. Which as well as being delivered at break neck speed also had the pointed question of whether VSSN was a registered charity in Scotland, as it might need to be if it planned to continue its own border crossing

Ronald Macintyre

#OEPSForum4 Reflections

By Ronald Macintyre (OEPS project), originally posted here

This the fourth of our OEPS forums was focussed on change.  The focus was based on the feedback we had received from previous events, that the OEPS community wanted an opportunity to talk about and reflect on the changes they felt were needed at all levels and scales, from the individual to the national. I led one of the afternoon sessions, it was called “Open education and digital engagement through a widening participation lens”. When I reflected on ‘what change’ and how to put together something meaningful around big terms like Open Education, digital, and widening participation what struck me was the sense in which we often think of how they relate to each other, as enablers, as conditional statements, and as dilemmas.  For example, in the widening participation world, digital technologies and assumptions about ubiquitous access and digital literacies can act as a barrier, at the same time if we are to promote social justice we need to ensure we reach into the digital world. Or we talk about (or at least used to) digital technologies as enabling OER.

Of course my own reflections are based on my context, a context that conditions the way I approach questions. In the workshop I tried to be open about how my context framed the way I address issues and view change. Suggested context (for me) is made up of three things:

  • Our role, what we do and how we (and others) see our role, as facilitator, teacher, builder, or decision maker (all overlapping).
  • Organisational culture, “it’s what we do around here”
  • Personal values, what I believe the value of education is, and how I think about the role of education in creating public value.

Using the following template I asked people to write in a post-it:

In my Context [describe your context] I understand/think of the role of digital technology/open education/widening participation [delete as applicable] as enabling …. [Fill in the blanks]

Crude I know. But here is some of what people said:

  • In my context in eLearning the role of digital technology in open education is enabling but difficult to roll out and increase engagement.
  • In my context as an eLearning manager, University Leftie, I understand the role of widening participation in terms of enabling equality of opportunity
  • In my context as a lecturer I think the role of digital technology as enabling wider student engagement and breaking down barriers through unlimited access
  • In my context s an education adviser in virtual learning, educator, open organisation, Third Sector strategy, policy developer in virtual learning the role of open education as enabling as many health and social care professionals to improve practice on [health issue]

Just a small selection, but they capture the themes, a sense of interlinked nature, with one enabling but creating tensions around another.  Access was prominent, of course open is about access. But we also see concerns and tensions between access to and engagement with, questions about participation and what being open does in the world. In the second exercise we started to tease out those dilemmas and tensions, again crudely I provided a set sentence as an example.

For me the role of digital technology in Open Education is …

For me the role of digital technology in Widening Participation is …

Slightly over the post lunch lull at this point people were getting warmed up, the comforting hubbub of a workshop where people were thinking and talking, and the papers ended up flooded with post it notes.

  • For me the role of digital technology in widening participation is ambiguous access/participation, potentially one useful component
  • For me the role of digital technology in widening participation is like another chance to market
  • The role of digital technology in widening participation is as a tool not a solution
  • Digital technology in widening participation is another way to engage unreached people, a way to provide different learning styles
  • The role of digital technology in widening participation is providing access to education
  • For me the role the digital technology in widening participation requires more digital literacy education
  • Digital technology has the potential to democratise learning but we might just look at cats

Some useful aspirations, and some reservations, what came across in the statements was the sense of digital as part of series of tools, a tool whose position was ambiguous, and not just because of the cats. There is sense of open and online unrealised potential, that it is a challenge which needs to be grasped. In the final exercise we looked at what had to change about their context to enable us to realise our ambitions. I explained that I tend to end up describing a problem and stating some aspirations when I engage in thinking like this. Again using my crude fill in the blanks I asked them to consider

If [open education/digital technology/widening participation] is to enable then …. [Insert here what needs to change in your context] needs to change

This drew some interesting and challenging responses

  • If open education is to enable wider participation then; a whole organisational change is needed to focus on unreached groups rather than focus on “warm contacts”
  • If digital tech is to enable widening participation we need to be willing to value the open and share our work, e.g. be prepared to be filmed talking about our work
  • Top down policies and leadership to allow for OER to be a priority in Educational Institutions
  • Change in context, self-select organisations whose values reflect your own in order to achieve the changes you want!
  • If digital technology is to enable open education then digital literacies need some improvement in the local context (i.e. staff training)
  • If open education is to enable furthering the goal of the common good then the policy ‘open is not the default’ needs to change to ‘open is the default’!

These are the challenges, some top down, buy in from management, open as default, stop using open as way to market “warm contacts”, start getting serious creating a culture of open (or move on as one suggests), engage proactively in digital participation for staff, the learners you do have and more broadly. Some of the things are facing in, a mix of bottom up capacity building and cultural change and top down policy (I will spare reading the post-it suggesting SFC gives more money). Others are about turning to face out, what open does to blur the boundaries between the classroom, the online and the wider community.

It was all a bit rushed, and people wanted more time to talk through the ideas that were emerging, it meant I missed out the last exercise in each of the workshops. So below is the closing exercise.

To close I thought I would ask you to share one of my “What ifs” And invite you to jot down some of your “what ifs” regarding digital technology, open education and widening participation.

Based on Rogers, E. (1962) Diffusion of innovations. Free Press, London, NY, USA, Public Domain

We know a little bit about innovators and early adopters, they tend to be well educated and have good incomes, they tend to be societies ‘haves’.

If I think about my context I suppose a lot of what we try to do is push things along the segments:

What if I do not accept the benefits of an innovation (like free open online education materials) are not shared equally.

What if I do not accept this distribution is “normal”

I am not sure what the answer is to this, but sometimes you do not have answers to these “what ifs”, they simply are about thinking outside “the facts”, not accepting the context, and looking at how to drive change.

I invite you to note your “what ifs” and share, and to keep thinking about this.

Green Man Festival Aug’08

The ultimate wet weekend in Wales. From Scotland to the Brecon Beacons by public transport with a couple of backpacks and our trusted Terra Nova tents – a voyager (2 person) and a solar minor. We slept in the voyager and took erected the flysheet of the solar minor as a store for food and wet clothes.

Last year we came with kids and our family tent. Was not totally enthused by the line up this time. However James Yorkstone, King Creosote were a must see. The Fence Collective are a bunch of acoustic musicians (with occassional twiddling electronics) fae Fife. Playful in an what can be a serious beardy folk scene – KC’s set ended with a comedy song, and James Yorkston invited an Green Man regular on stage to do vocals – backing provided by his son in arms.

I was also keen to see the national – the highlight of this particular wet weekend.  I will admit to listening to this band repeatedly while cleaning the house and washing up as the kids bounce around.

Also on Sunday was Little Wings I was looking forward to this lo-fi brocken vocals set. Cool, wet, the green man cafe with smuggeled ale we expected it to be busy. Only a handful of people caught this shambolic set. Out of tune borrowed guitar, forgotten vocals, but somehow endearing, somehow despite the thin crowd and damp atmosphere it was a nice way to finish the festival.

Next year – probably not. I think we might try ‘End of the Road’

to the lighthouse- cornwall july’08

On a wet July day we set of through the dunes. In the novel ‘To the lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf the family travel to Skye. Godvrey lighthouse is the actual lighthouse, that and the cafe at the were our destinations. On the way we wandered through the dunes, stumbeling through the ruins of an ordinance factory.

We approached Gwithian and the nature reserve huge stacks of Sea Holly sprung from the dunes.

Continue reading “to the lighthouse- cornwall july’08”

Social Learn

Just back from a Web2.0 event in rural Buckinghamshire. Flat farmland and red brick. No opportunities for exploring the areas natural heritage. Plenty other things to think about.

The idea that learning is a social activity and that feeling part of a learning community is key to engaging and retaining learners is quite well worn. It is something that a distance learning deliverer like the Open University takes very seriously. Social Learn is an OU project that is exploring the form and function of social networking and Web2.0 tools to develop learning communities. It draws on the open learn programme (free but not accredited learning resources) and it exploring some fairly interesting ideas. Especially regarding giving content away and selling services – like student support and accreditation.

It was an intense few days. The workshops had presentations running while like top stuck fingers twittered or blogged or added to discussion threads on the ning network. I feel the most exciting element was the idea that free and intuitive technologies could be pulled together to create your own personal space. A facebook/igooogle/blog/wiki/forum/all sorts of different things for the learner. Beta will be out in July, so we will see what it feels like.