My First Encounter With The Term ‘Critical Friend’

I first came across the term ‘critical friend’ when it was used to describe my colleague Paul Walk when he was interviewed at the JISC-funded Dev8D event. Shortly after the event I noticed the term being tweeted by a number of participants at an e-learning event.

The Critical Friend Network

On further investigation I found the Critical Friends Network which quotes Professor John MacBeath, Professor of Education Leadership, University of Cambridge:

The Critical Friend is a powerful idea, perhaps because it contains an inherent tension. Friends bring a high degree of unconditional positive regard. Critics are, at first sight at least, conditional, negative and intolerant of failure.

Perhaps the critical friend comes closest to what might be regarded as ‘true friendship’ – a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique.

The Critical Friend’s Network has been funded by the JISC Users and Innovation (U&I) Benefits Realisation programme and aims to build a community of shared effective practice for current and future JISC Programme Critical Friends. Membership of the CF Network is open to Critical Friends, JISC Programme Management and project teams as well as the HE/FE sector as a whole.

Critical Friends I’ve Encountered

The term ‘critical friends’ would seem to be self-explanatory. And I find it a valuable concept to describe, for example, the approaches myself, David Sloan and a number of other accessibility researchers and practitioners have been taking over the past four years in our criticisms of the approaches taken by WAI in the developments of guidelines to enhance the accessibility of Web resources.

Peter Murray-Rust is applying similar critical thinking in a series of blog posts on “Libraries of the Future” which will inform his talk at the ‘Libraries of the Future’ debate to be held at the Bodleian Library on 2 April 2009.

We Need More Critical Friends!

I feel we need more critical friends, especially at a time in which organisations will find funding increasingly difficult to obtain. We can see the need for such critical thinking by looking at recent history, such as the rise and fall of the UK eUniversity, from the HEFCE Press Release published in 2002 described the appointment of the senior management team for the “government-backed initiative to provide online delivery of UK higher education courses to students worldwide and to give improved access to higher education for under-represented groups of students in the UK” through to the The Real Story Behind the Failure of U.K. eUniversity (PDF) which described how “The picture behind the public failure of the UKeU is more complex, interesting and salutary than many reports would suggest“.

Frankie Roberto demonstrated how the role of a critical friend need not be resource intensive when he initiated a discussion on the MCG (Museums Computer Group) JISCMail list with the one-word question “Why?” about the launch of the Creative Spaces service by a group of museums. In the email messages  about this newly launched service, questions were raised as to whether the debate was really needed with the complexities of, for example, copyright issues being suggested as a reason why discussions on an open mailing list where not helpful. Paul Walk responded to this by saying:

So, this thread was started by Frankie Roberto asking the question, “Why?”. His approach, a simple one-word question, was criticised – unfairly I think. Implicit in Frankie’s question is a challenge – it invites someone to explain, very succinctly and convincingly what it is that that Creative Spaces (in its guise as a user-facing application) is for. I think this challenge is well made, and deserves to be answered.

Well-said Paul.  And if the general public can listen to, read about and , if they so desire, engage in discussions about complex issues such as sub-prime markets and global warming professionals in the sector should also be not allowed but encouraged to contribute to the discussions about the networked services we are seeking to develop.