Thursday, 25 April 2013

Activity 24: Open learner literacies (& whale sharks)

For this task, we were asked to draw up a set of open learner literacies which cover the types of skill you feel are important for an individual to learn successfully in an open learning context’.

Digital literacies is already a very broad term, encompassing ICT literacy, media literacy, information literacy and visual literacy (Beetham, 2010) among other elements such as creativity, communication skills and online identity curation. So the ‘literacies’ in Open learner literacies, I would argue, similarly traverse different domains. 

One question then, is to what extent the specific context of the open learner (someone using OER, a MOOC, informal or lifelong learning) requires a unique or specific set of literacies, as opposed to those more general digital literacies. It could be argued that open learner literacies are, to some extent, high level digital literacies. For example, looking at this OUdigital literacy framework, it has 5 very general categories of literacy (with OU students in mind):
  • Understand and engage in digital practices
  • Find information
  • Critically evaluate information, online interactions and online tools
  • Manage and communicate information
  • Collaborate and share digital content

These are divided into more specific skills which go from Level 1 (Foundation stage) through 2 and 3, to Masters level. As an example, looking at the first literacy ‘Understand and engage in digital practices’, one of the skills at Level 1 is Demonstrate basic use of a range of tools and websites for finding and recording information online: internet browsers, search engines, copy/paste and download functions. At Masters level there are skills such as Give evidence of proactive participation in academic and/or professional online networks. Perhaps some open learner literacies could be said to extend beyond Masters level, applying as they do to lifelong learning, CPD, MOOC users and so on. For me, this course has demonstrated that to really thrive in a MOOC and OER environment, it’s necessary to have a fairly high level of digital literacy, so it’s interesting to consider whether these OLLs are in some ways simply advanced / high level digital literacies. 

It is also worth considering to what extent open learner literacies are discipline-specific. Every learner is an individual and will therefore have their own particular needs, so to what extent is it possible to come up with a list of OLLs that are generic (applicable across the board)?

I’m not going to draw up a complete set of literacies broken down into particular skills, partly because I think this has been done very well already by others enrolled on the course e.g. Nuala Davis, Wayne Barry, CeciliaRosy, Dave Barr  (not because I’m lazy of course..)  Instead, here are a few considerations of a slightly more abstract nature about what makes an effective open learner:
Tolerance of ambiguity – as an open learner there may be times when things are not spelt out in black and white, there may be confusion as to what to do or how to do it. How do we react to this situation? By experimenting, connecting with others to see what they do, acknowledging that the learning process can be ‘messy’, or by getting angry and rejecting the learning experience out of hand?
Curiosity – a desire to learn and discover new thinɡs, whatever the subject, aɡe, life circumstances etc. This underlying ‘intrinsic’ motivation is one of the most important drivers of any kind of learning. As an example, during this course I’ve had moments in which I’ve suddenly become totally immersed in various links, videos and papers regardless of whether they are directly related to the task I’m engaged in. Why? Because I’m curious to find out more about the subject. (for example, my train of thought doing this task just led me to a TED talk on ‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, even though I won’t be using it for this post or any particular purpose).
Filter-feeding – like a whale shark cruising the ocean filtering thousands of gallons of water to get to the good stuff, the plankton, an open learner needs to be able to filter out what is good and useful for his / her needs and discard the rest. Which of the countless videos, presentations, thoughts, blog posts, articles, tweets and retweets floating around in the internet ocean will nourish the learning, and how to ignore those that don’t? (what is our equivalent of baleen?)
Resilience – related to the idea of tolerating ambiguity, if something goes wrong or a learner comes across difficulty they need to be resilient and persistent. If a browser crashes and a blog post is lost, or nobody comments on an uploaded post or comment, can the learner see the bigger picture, recognise that no technology is infallible and find a way around the problem, learn from the experience?
Digital Bravery vs Digital Maturity – I believe these terms were coined by Rhona Sharpe and Greg Benfield (see this HEA article) although the terms themselves are not expanded on in great detail.
I see Digital bravery as something that many students have, but which many educators lack. Not being afraid to click / swipe / open on a computer or other device, trying things out and if they don’t work, trying something else, partly as a result of growing up immersed in technology and the familiarity which that brings. The Digital maturity (academic literacy + some degree of digital skill) I see as something many students lack but which educators often possess – the ability to critically evaluate online information, use technology for academic purposes apply their ‘crap detector’ to paraphrase Howard Rheingold. If educators can develop their digital bravery and students their digital maturity, we might be getting somewhere. Bringing them together to help each other and co-create discipline-specific digital literacy frameworks would be a useful exercise.
Restricting your network – This is related to filter-feeding, but instead of applying your filter to content, you’re actually applying it to people. A lot of talk is about building up your PLN, following hundreds of people on Twitter, immersing yourself in the blogosphere and social networks, but in fact there is also a need to create ‘networks within networks’. As an example, rather than attempt to read all the blog posts appearing on the h817 aggregator or follow everything going on across the forums etc. , in order to make sense of the content, I found it necessary to be part of a smaller Google+ community which became my first port of call. So this skill is partly about restricting and partly about identifying others who have similar interests and whose ideas and comments resonate with your own context.
Acceptance – being involved in massive online communities means being exposed to many different and sometimes conflicting opinions (which is a good thing). In this environment there’s a need to accept different opinions, or people who might ‘rub you up the wrong way’. Although we might seek out others with whom we share similar opinions, this exposure to different ways of thinking and views is one of the exciting things about open learning.
Identity curation – How good are you at managing / curating your online identity? To what extent do your professional and personal online profiles intertwine? Does your digital identity (or your digital identities) contribute to achieving your learning objectives?
Metacognition – self-awareness as a learner and ability to learn to your own strengths and reflect on that learning process.
Creativity – capacity to experiment and try out different ways of doing things, mashup different tools and to push the boundaries.
Multi-tasking – for want of a better word.. Are there any strategies an open learner can employ to help use their time (which may be limited) productively and to avoid getting distracted? How to maintain focus and concentration when we have countless other distractions – either on our computer or other devices, or going on around us in the ‘real world’.

So, a slightly vague list I know, and I haven’t ‘drilled down’ to the level of more specific skills, but hopefully some food for thought.

Beetham, H. (2010) Review and Scoping Study for a cross-JISC Learning and Digital Literacies Programme: Sept 2010 [JISC] Available at: [Accessed: 24/04/2013]


  1. I really like your drawing together of open learner and digital literacies - and what wonderful ones you outline!

    1. Thanks Sandra - it's definitely work in progress!

  2. Jim this is a very useful consideration of the topic. I'm particularly interested in the inherent suggestion that 'what makes an effective open learner' are skills or attriubtes that can be developed rather than merely personality (individual differences). Is this how you see this, can we develop these irrespective of our individual bent?
    PS - this is the third blog on Blogger I am commenting on this morning only to have the original comment disappear as Blogger didn't support the profile I chose... Resilience Testing? ;-)

    1. Paige - I think a lot of the skills and attributes can be developed, although not all. I guess every learner's an individual so will bring different perspectives and characteristics to any task, but that said, I'd also argue that certain personality traits an individual has may be more or less pronounced depending on the context, for example, the student who is shy face to face may be very eloquent and expansive in an online forum. The interplay between learner literacies and personality is a really interesting area and would be interesting to investigate!

  3. Hi Jim, great post and a really interesting area. I'd not seen the OU Digital Literacy framework before (overwhelming). I'm struck by your emphasis on resilience, maturity, identity and bravery - these are all pretty high level skills. Thanks for the mention too. Nuala

  4. I like your ' few considerations of a slightly more abstract nature' :-) and I also appreciate how you bring together the work of other students and then enhance and expand the ideas for the activity. I have added your blog to my Netvibes page to read future posts.

  5. Jim, besides appreciating the content of your post, which I do. I also appreciate your inclusion of the human factors involved in both digital literacy and openness. I think the language used is very important. For example, part of newer medical training is not speaking "medical speak" when talking to patients but using more commonly accessible language that is more emotionally connecting.
    I think academics in general might need to re think writing and discussing in excessively in the "jargon" of their specific discipline. When doing that, it gives the appearance of talking amongst themselves in a closed community shutting out the "non- speakers" Maybe not the intention, but becomes the result. And in the long run is contributing to less and less people listening, therefore lessening the importance of the "academic" as they become less accessible.