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The Community’s Gestation

From the perspective of the community co-ordinator, Allan Parsons, the gestation of the Oui!Learn learning community has been through a long-running series of theoretical and practical dialogues with Fiona O’Brien, the focus of which is how to develop the educational and/or pedagogic practice of the academic librarian. These dialogues bring to attention certain fault lines running through the organisation and delivery of educational and/or pedagogical practice in higher education, such as, for example, differences between hierarchy/network, closure/openness, private/public, exclusive/inclusive and private goods/public goods. They also highlight the relationships among these differences, materialised in the organisational articulation of managerialism and professionalism, which are pertinent to the debate about the extent to which higher education can be considered a public good.

One marker in Oui!Learn’s pre-history within the University of Westminster was the paper published by Allan in 2010 in Ariadne, entitled “Academic Liaison Librarianship: Curatorial pedagogy or pedagogical curation”. This paper was a consideration of how Westminster’s academic liaison librarian team, led by Fiona, could develop its role within the University, acknowledging the changing parameters within higher education of librarianship and teaching, such changes in part provoked by digital technological change and in part by innovations in pedagogical practices. The paper identified three areas of possible development: towards relationship building with staff and students, that is, building a collaborative learning community; towards curation of (online and off-line) resources, as a kind of open educational resource (OER); and towards developing the team’s educational role through elaborating a more explicit active learning, social learning pedagogy.

Some of the ideas expressed in this article have been incorporated into practice, but in large part they were met with hostility in the form of a studied indifference, perhaps partly because of the language and the style of expression. This line of thinking was later pursued by Allan in the context of the AHRC Developing Research Excellence and Methods (DREaM) project in 2011-2012, recorded in the web post “From liaison, through media performance to performative interaction”, and in the context of open educational resources, as a short term Fellow of the Support Centre for Open Educational Resources (SCORE), a HEFCE-funded project running from 2009-2012 at the Open University.

In an endeavour to elaborate the educational role of the liaison librarian, intertwining pedagogy and curation in a digital networked world, Allan became involved in the founding of a Westminster Higher Education Research Community under the leadership of Pauline Armsby. This spawned a further relationship with Matthew Charles and Steven Cranfield who had established a group under the heading of Higher Education and Theory (HEAT). The meetings of HEAT served as the basis for a number of texts on the pedagogic implications of the work of, among others, Jean-Francois Lyotard [1] [2] [3], Hannah Arendt, [1] [2], Basil Bernstein [1], [2], [3], [4], Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak. These meetings led to an engagement with David Chandler’s Materialisms Reading Group, held under the aegis of the University’s Centre for the Study of Democracy.

At the beginning of the 2015-2016 academic year, Allan became involved in another community of practice, Informed Matters, initiated by Andrew Chesher, which is more focused on art, design and media practices, particularly how these practices have been impacted by digitisation and by networking. The recent focus of this group, however, has moved towards the relationships in higher education among aesthetics, politics and pedagogies, in their digital, material and theoretical aspects, a confluence which may yet influence the direction of development of Oui!Learn.

In February 2016, the academic liaison librarian team and the HEAT group organised an event called “Emerging Learning Ecologies Within Higher Education” held at RIBA which featured two keynote speakers: Shaun Hides, of Coventry University’s Media Department, who offered suggestions as to the kinds of tactics which might be employed to mobilise the new connected media possibilities, such as those deployed at Coventry’s Disruptive Media Learning Lab; and Ad Polle of Europeana, who focused on the digital1418 project as an example of how a digital horizon reconfigures the notion of a ‘library’ as a form of cultural and educational heritage.

This event was the direct precursor of Fiona and Allan’s Change Academy proposal whose central goal was the better utilisation of the University’s existing human, technological and (virtual and physical) learning environments, or people, technologies and places. After the Change Academy residential, this proposal came to be known as iLearn. The reasons for changing the names of the initiative from iLearn to Oui!Learn are explained below.

The Community’s Name

The rationale for the name of the Oui!Learn community is as follows. The Change Academy project from which this proposal emerged was named iLearn by Fiona O’Brien, employing the ‘i’ in a way that has now become conventional to imply ‘information’ and, in a librarianship context, an ‘information literacy’ agenda, such as can be found, for example, in the Camden College iLearn page, the Barnet and Southgate College virtual learning environment page and the Sussex Downs College online portal.

However, when Allan Parsons took over the lead for the learning community proposal he felt that the ‘i’ also had an individualistic connotation, standing not just for ‘information’ but also for the ‘ego cogito’ of the Cartesian tradition, implying a certain methodological individualism, along with a certain (Anglo-Saxon) methodological empiricism.

He felt that there is a distinction to be made between ‘personalised learning’ and ‘individualised learning’. He considers that this distinction is blurred in such statements as can be found in the Sorrell Foundation’s iLearn page, which states that, “iLearn engages pupils in a conversation about personalised learning. This approach to learning develops around the unique abilities and interests of individual pupils, while still adhering to the school curriculum.”

While having an interest in ‘personalised learning’, with certain the caveats, the Oui!Learn community is concerned with the kind of learning that can only be done collectively, such as learning how to collaborate, learning what an ethical relation might mean, learning what a political relation might mean or learning that one’s ‘identity’ is fundamentally relational, and that this relational mode of being is always technologically mediated. This kind of learning concerns not just how to ‘acquire and recall content’ or how ‘to make’, but also how to act, that is, to innovate socially, to question and not just to respond to questions, to inaugurate new social relations and conditions, especially media-technological conditions.

The distinctions that have to be drawn in this context are among methodological individualism and methodological pluralism, independent learning and personalised learning and the recognition that all learning, however independent, however personalised, relies on a communal or social acceptance of its validity and relies on socio-technical infrastructures. Learning, like knowledge, is a collective achievement, realised through interaction. It is a public or communal endeavour. It is developed through dialogue and exchange.

Allan’s initial change, then, was to alter the name to WeLearn. WeLearn itself has been used frequently, for example, on the UN Women’s online learning platform. Staying with WeLearn, however, seemed to embed the notion of eLearn and eLearning too strongly to reflect the community’s overall approach to learning.

This prompted a change of language to have a Franglais title, partly prompted by Allan’s association with the OECD during the 1990s-2000s where English and French are the accepted languages. However, even Oui!Learn, although with a tick above the ‘i’ and without the exclamation mark, has been used before, as a trade mark for an e-learning platform. The connotation of Oui!Learn is that ‘we’ are inter-national and inter-lingual.

The final connotation of the Oui! or Yes! is to the last words of the Penelope section of James Joyce’s Ulysses, ” … yes I said yes I will yes”, to reinforce the positive message of the project.

So, yes, let us learn!

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