Digifest 16: Reflections on JISCs showcase annual event

The risks for education (its pedagogy and purpose) feel high – overwhelmingly high – at technology conferences. And this week’s Digifest from JISC has been no different in this respect. An opportunity for the Further Education and Higher Education communities to learn, experience and share their digital practice it was suffused with possibility, potential and, yes the stakes were high.

Education is at a cross-roads; where the underpinning value of developing digital capabilities is often overshadowed by the imperative to purchase digital tools; where traditional notions of technology as a neutral entity are still espoused; and where there is deep mistrust for digital practice that unbundles learning into informal distributed spaces and away from the centralised infrastructure of organisational control.

And Digifest1 6 embodied all of this. The opening conference piece had all the gloss of a Silicon Valley advert (think Google, Apple and Microsoft) and an enthusiastic narrative founded on the notion of the power and potential of technology. The dark digital underbelly was unacknowledged; in the midst of a surveillance culture (highlighted by the recent battle between Apple and the US government) the reference to ‘the power of protection’ felt particularly uncomfortable.


The power begins with people not the technology, and let’s not forget that power is never evenly distributed. Technology is not in and of itself a democratising force.

But within the context of the conference this video started a conversation about the people and the power differentials inherent in the digital landscape.

  • Donna Lanclos’ (Associate Professor for Anthropological Research, University of North Carolina, USA) presence was invaluable. She deftly foregrounding issues of digital identity, segregated power and the layering of presence that digital tools enable within the sphere of teaching and learning. People and our humanity should drive interaction with the digital and Donna argued for a focus on engagement: It’s what we do with the tools that’s important, how we engage with them and how we use them to influence others.
  • Andrew Harrison (Professor of Practice, University of Wales, and Director of Spaces that Work Ltd) challenged traditional notions of the physical and virtual as distinguishable entities. “Virtual and physical are not opposites they are part of the same thing – when you are virtual you are still situated”. He argued for creative design at a time when our understanding of space, time and place has been changed forever and instability is a constant.
  • Chrissi Nerantzi (Principal lecturer in Academic CPD at Manchester Metropolitan University) argued for playful learning and experimentation (with or without digital tools) as a means of connecting with our essential humanity; our ability to be curious and full of wonder.
  • John Traxler’s (Professor of Digital Learning at the University of Wolverhampton) piece on ‘What killed the mobile learning dream?’ particularly resonated with me. In articulating the slow decline of ‘mobile’ as distinct learning approach he revealed the danger of privileging technology over pedagogy. Mobile has too often been a technological experience in which devices and their capabilities are the focus of the learning. Instead mobile should be about empowering the learner to be mobile –flexibly and contextually
  • Eric Stoller (HE thought-leader and consultant) argued for the development of digital capabilities to overcome barriers to social media use. Perceptions of risk about distraction from learning and the blurring of personal and professional boundaries abound.  ‘Perception of risk largely outweigh what happens in reality BUT the perception still tends to dictate what happens’.

There were times when I wanted JISC to lead the conversation much more strongly. There were some excellent sessions on digital capability and data analytics but it was Digifest’s keynote speakers that provided the most impactful critical thinking and provocations. And there was a phrase that was missing – ‘digital pedagogy’. Admittedly I wasn’t everywhere all of the time but I didn’t hear it uttered at all….

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