It’s been a bit of a rush to get this blog out this week as it’s that busy time of the semester, when teaching duties run up against administrative and research deadlines. Thanks to Tim Fawns for kindly swapping with me and giving me some extra time to prepare! My own experience in the past few years, and more especially since the sudden pandemic pivot has been one of accelerated digitalization and heavier workloads to accommodate the switch to online and digital working. There was an even more sudden return to in-person teaching in September 2021 and an official end put to hybrid provisions in September 2022, which felt brutally regressive and uncaring. The pandemic has been terrible and it is still ongoing, but there is no longer any public mention of the toll of death and illness on people everywhere. COVID-19 placed a magnifying glass on inequalities, injustices, needs and deprivations. The pandemic teaching pivot offered digital possibilities to foster more creativity and flexibility amongst both academics and students. Terrible as the pandemic has been, it has opened up potential for inclusiveness, commonsense, kindness and care, but what are we doing with that increased awareness now?
My educator experiences have in fact been more exhausting, more frustrating and more inequitable. The intensification of digitalization has increased work, and also brought a rising sense of dread and cynicism, that conditions for academic work and study are not going in the right direction. There is an infodemic about the plague of academic cheating, resulting in panicked official responses in the form of statements, trainings and products to detect and control breaches of ‘academic integrity’, but there is little conversation about what academic integrity is for. I can’t help feeling, both for academics and students, that we are not keeping up with being the necessary persons, capable of doing the right things.
The topic of this LTHE tweetchat ‘Digital Capabilities’ comes up at point when our digital tweetchat platform might well be melting down. But what are the alternatives? Most of us have some reservations about most social media platforms, but have carried on using them anyway because of the ways that social media enables us to exist in the digital world and allows us to find information, connect with people and do things. As many flee or prepare to flee a platform in disarray, others do not want to leave, or do not want to be forced to leave, even if they can see their connections and communities going elsewhere.
I come to the topic of digital capabilities from my subject matter – I am a human development and capabilities person and many of my people are members of the Human Development and Capabilities Association (HDCA). There are two distinct sectors interested in ‘capabilities’ –
- the HDCA’s (humanistic) human development
- and capabilities approach and a largely unrelated, business-focused field of organizational capabilities.
The two should not be confused. In the business and management space, there are those who work on ‘dynamic capabilities’ which are about harnessing resources and competences in order to generate higher than expected profits for a commercial organization. The human development and capabilities approach is an ethically focused, humanistic perspective which focuses on the expansion of people’s beings and doings, taking ‘people as the real wealth of a nation’. Digital capabilities take on different meanings, depending on whether you are situating your education within a business-focused approach or within a human-centred approach. This distinction is relevant for the SOTL community, underpinning deeper questions of what, and whom we are educating for. We are often confused and ambivalent about the critical purposes of higher education, especially within the contexts of business schools and business-oriented education.
The human development and capabilities approach sees education in terms of an open ended and pluralistic process – different people have different reasons for valuing different ways of being and different types of doings. In an educational world that is both increasingly narrow and more strictly instrumentalized, humanized digital capabilities ought to concern the development of a variety of ways of being and doing. They should remain open-ended and treat people always as an end and never as a means. Students and educators are in the space of higher education to develop as human beings with a plurality of values and reasons, they must never be treated merely instrumentally – as merely a means for generating profits.
Su-ming is an Associate Professor and Head of Sociology at the University of Galway, Ireland and Visiting Professor at CriSHET, Critical Studies in Higher Education and Transformation at Nelson Mandela University, South Africa. She is Principal Investigator in the Irish Research Council funded project, BCAUSE (Building Collaborative Approaches to University Strategies against Exclusion in Ireland and Africa: pedagogies for quality Higher Education and inclusive global citizenship).