Towards an imperative of togetherness and co-creation

by Patric Wallin

Patric Wallin is an Associate Professor at the Department of Education and Lifelong Learning at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). In his research, he uses situated and transformative learning as entry points to explore how to create educational spaces that enable students to make meaningful contributions to research and society, and how traditional student teacher positions can be challenged through partnership. By re-considering the relationship between undergraduate teaching and academic research, he wants to re-establish the university as a place for collaboration between students and academics with the common purpose to co-create knowledge and meaning.

The influence of markets and businesses on education has greatly changed the language used in education, and as Giroux (2002, p. 426) pointed out “one consequence is that civic discourse has given way to the language of commercialism, privatization, and deregulation.” It is through the emphasis of the free market and market driven agendas that neoliberalism reshapes education with the aim to increase its efficiency and promote individualism, competition, and consumption in society. For the higher education sector, concrete examples are the conceptualization of students as consumers, the obsession with assessment and control, the increasing importance of rankings, and the emphasis on university branding.

As a result, the dominant imperative that emerges within this higher education landscape is an imperative of transaction, competition and opposition. By foregrounding students as consumers in a marketized higher education landscape, with a focus on individual performance in a competitive environment that presents serious equity concerns, students, teachers and other actors in higher education are positioned in opposition to each other rather than moving in the same direction. This is further escalated through the increasing use of surveillance technology in higher education to monitor, manage, influence and control students (e.g. Collier & Ross, 2020). While this is not new and has been discussed in great detail, I am wondering if the current pandemic can help us to see short comings and challenges in higher education more clearly – and maybe, as I want to hope, provide the necessary impulse for change.

To illustrate how students and teachers are positioned in opposition to each other and how the pandemic has led to even more extensive use of surveillance technology[1], I will use final exams as an example here. There are, however, many other areas, where this has become obvious during the pandemic. Both locally here in Norway and Sweden, as well as in other countries around the globe, it appears from public debates, opinion pieces, and social media feeds that a major question during the pandemic has become how we can avoid cheating and have control over the exam situation. Grounded in an imperative of transaction, competition and opposition, technology companies promptly offered their solutions in form of online proctoring systems to verify the identity of students at a distance and ensure that students are not cheating or getting unauthorized support during exams. Fortunately, I have not seen proctoring companies succeeding here in Norway, but what I hear from friends and colleagues in other countries is frightening[2]. This mistrust and the presumption that students will cheat just because it might be possible is deeply problematic and potentially devastating for the relations between teachers and students.

I will, however, not discuss the obscenity and tastelessness of these systems nor all the problems that come with them here. Rather, I argue, that regressing to this kind of systems reveals the underlying problems that we have in higher education. If the value that a university provides is perceived by the students to be merely a final diploma and stamp, and teachers understand themselves primarily as guards that control and assess student learning, I argue that we have a much bigger problem than that a small number of students might consider cheating. One might rightly point out that higher education has been in a crisis for decades, but the current pandemic provides a different type of urgency and forces actions. It is my hope that it is through the current pandemic and the perceived urgency that we can reconsider habits and routines on a broader scale.

I have hope that most students and teachers are actually at the university, because they want to learn and become part of a disciplinary community. From this starting point and building on Freire’s idea that ´teaching must begin with solving the teacher/student contradiction, by reconciling the opposite poles, so that both parts are both teachers and students at the same time´, I think we can move towards an imperative of togetherness and co-creation in higher education. An imperative that emphasizes the collective instead of individuals, trust instead of accountability and shared responsibility instead of control and surveillance.

As Taylor (2017) points out: ‘What makes higher education spaces significant is that… they still perhaps offer greater openness for the emergence of new ethical subjectivities, and greater spontaneity for co-constructing teaching and learning relationally through joint action’. Maybe, the current pandemic can help us to reclaim these opportunity spaces and co-create a counter imperative to dominant neoliberal discourses, grounded in ideas from contemplative education (e.g. Roeser & Peck, 2009), dialogue (Shor & Freire, 1987), and partnership (e.g. Cook-Sather, Matthews, Ntem, & Leathwick, 2018). An imperative that celebrates values such as humility, vulnerability, curiosity, open-mindedness, open-heartedness, and caring for others.

I argue that it is of utmost importance that educators together with students use and extend the spaces that higher education offers to counteract neoliberal, domesticating, and technocratic threats to meaningful partnership. Students and educators need to co-create spaces that allow them to challenge traditional and predictable paths of education through dialogue. And maybe most importantly, these spaces will allow us to re-imagine higher education in a time where it is increasingly difficult to think radical and dream of a different society. With this in mind, I think that we, as PaTHES, also should think about how to include students in our dialogues about philosophies and theories of higher education, how to include their perspectives and ideas in our work, and how to create spaces that celebrate togetherness and co-creation.

Collier, A., & Ross, J. (2020). Higher Education After Surveillance? Postdigital Science and Education, 2(2), 275–279.

Cook-Sather, A., Matthews, K. E., Ntem, A., & Leathwick, S. (2018). What we talk about when we talk about Students as Partners. International Journal for Students as Partners, 2(2), 1–9.

Giroux, H. (2002). Neoliberalism , Corporate Culture , and the Promise of Higher Education : The University as a Democratic Public Sphere. Harvard Educational Review, 72(4), 425–464.

Roeser, R. W., & Peck, S. C. (2009). An Education in Awareness: Self, Motivation, and Self-Regulated Learning in Contemplative Perspective. Educational Psychologist, 44(2), 119–136.

Shor, I., & Freire, P. (1987). A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Taylor, C. A. (2017). Ethically important moments in the higher education space of appearance: Renewing educative praxis with Arendt. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 49(3), 231–241.



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