Saturday, 27 April 2013

ocTEL Activity 2.2 – Researching themes in learner needs

For this task I’ve chosen to consider the ‘Implications of Digital Literacy’. My current work supporting staff in developing their use of technology for teaching and learning, along with some student experience research I’ve been doing, has brought home the fact that for Higher Education, this area is hugely relevant, extremely complex and routinely ignored and/or misunderstood by senior management.

Initially, I investigated the two suggested resources: the JISC Design Studio pages on Developing Digital literacies and Howard Rheingold’s presentation about 21st century literacies.

I was familiar with the JISC pages, as I’ve been doing a fair bit of research into DL recently and I’ve previously used some of the resources from the site. Nevertheless, this was a good opportunity to take a fresh look. The site provides links to activities and outcomes of the 2 year ‘Developing Digital Literacies’ programme. (July 2011 – July 2013), and it is very usefully divided into Themes and Resources. I found that by looking at the various themes, I was able to break this very broad area down in my mind into more manageable concepts.

The first thing we see on accessing the page is their definition of DL:
By digital literacy we mean those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society. For example, the use of digital tools to undertake academic research, writing and critical thinking; digital professionalism; the use of specialist digital tools and data sets; communicating ideas effectively in a range of media; producing, sharing and critically evaluating information; collaborating in virtual networks; using digital technologies to support reflection and PDP; managing digital reputation and showcasing achievements.'”

The first sentence is often quoted as a very broad definition of Digital Literacy, but the examples given are also useful. The issue of defining DL is  a very large can of worms which, in my view, is not necessarily worth opening... Gillen and Barton (2010) suggest in the introduction to their Digital Literacies Research Briefing Paper:

The term captures an arena of rapidly developing practices, as humans interact with technologies in new ways and for innovative purposes. Many time-honoured distinctions such as between producer and consumer, writer and reader blur or virtually disappear as new syntheses emerge. There are a number of valuable approaches to digital literacies that overlap with one another. Rather than look for clear distinctions to demarcate them, it is perhaps more helpful to look for continuities and commonalities.”

Just as there are different approaches to digital literacies, there are also many different definitions of the term. Instead of getting stuck in a semantic soup, it is probably more productive to simply acknowledge that there is no one size fits all definition, and that for each individual, and each learning and teaching context, there will be some digital literacies which are more relevant and meaningful than others.

Below is a list of points or issues which I came across on the JISC website which chimed with my own experience or views:

  • Digital literacies need to be situated and embedded in the curriculum, rather than introduced in isolation.
  • Discipline-specific digital literacies need to be explored and, where possible, co-created with relevant staff and students.
  • For staff, a focus on Digital Literacies can function as a ‘trojan mouse’, encouraging them towards a broader reconsideration of their teaching and learning practices.
  • Digital Literacy development needs to take in not just teaching staff and students, but also administrative and support staff and senior management.
  • If the focus is too subject-specific, there is a danger that attention will only be paid to particular technologies used in that discipline (e.g. SPSS, CAD etc.) and the more generic, but nevertheless crucial skills will be ignored.
  • Both bottom-up and top-down approaches are necessary in order to develop digital literacies in an institution
  • Building bridges between different departments, faculties and services within the university can enable the sharing of expertise and exposure to alternative views and approaches.

In a teaching context, if we are using a particular technology with our students, I think it is always important to be explicit about why we are using it, how it relates to the learning outcomes and objectives of their course and/or particular graduate attributes. Having a conversation about digital practices can help us to understand more about our learners’ uses of technology and perhaps some of the obstacles they face, and we can also learn from our students. Digital literacy should not be assumed or ignored but should be part of an ongoing dialogue we have with both our students and our colleagues.

Once it becomes clear the extent to which issues around digital literacies affect an institution, its staff, its students, its strategy and its practices, then it should also be clear that it will take more than a few ‘workshops’ to begin to address some of these issues. What we’re talking about really is wholesale cultural change throughout the university. These Seedpod recommendations give an idea of what I’m talking about.

‘Hub and spoke’ models can be useful, but the problem is, if some of the spokes 'break' (i.e. leave the university or are given increased teaching loads), they become less effective. Collaboration between faculties, departments and library services can be very fruitful, as can involving students in co-creating digital literacy agendas. The greatest obstacles in many institutions seem to be time and money (as always) but also a lack of vision and understanding among many stakeholders, especially senior management, of just how fundamentally technology is altering the learning and teaching landscape, and of what it will take to address these seismic shifts in a way that can both benefit students and allow staff to develop their own practice in meaningful ways.

I had to temporarily suspend my critical faculties to get past Howard Rheingold’s jacket and shirt combo in this presentation, but once I did I found that he had a lot of interesting things to say. While the JISC pages are particular relevant to my own situation as a Blended Learning Facilitator and EAP Lecturer at a university, this presentation was of less immediate use, but nonetheless highlighted some pertinent issues. For example, what is the relationship between skills and literacies? 

Rheingold puts forward 5 areas of literacy: Attention, Participation, Cooperation, Critical consumption and Network awareness and suggests that these all work together. He also says that we have gone beyond skills and that it’s necessary to talk about literacies which are ‘skills plus community’ (by which he generally means social media). The community aspect is certainly key – the hype around ‘social learning’, the importance of PLNs and PLEs (Personal Learning Networks/Environments), the crowd and the cloud all mean that we are all connected and members of an increasing number of large and small networks which cut across many aspects of our lives.

Can we consider digital literacies as a set of fairly abstract concepts which contain a subset of more specific skills? Perhaps the literacy remains fairly constant while the skills can shift with the technological landscape? If we use the OU DL framework as an example, one of their 5 literacies is ‘Critically evaluate information, online interactions and online tools’. It is possible to outline a set of skills pertaining to this literacy. E.g. ability to find information about the author of web content, make a judgement about the reliability of content based on further information about the author (e.g. where they work, publications, online profile, mentions by other academics etc.). The tools used to realise these actions could be Google Scholar, Twitter, library resources or any number of others, but the point is, the tools and indeed the skills themselves may change, but the underlying literacies will remain the same.

Digital Literacy Frameworks

OU Digital Literacy Framework Level 0

Finally, I do think that digital literacies frameworks serve as useful starting points. However, ideally there is probably a need to have students and staff working together to produce a DL framework for their particular discipline. 

Perhaps there could be one central framework which attempts to outline a set of generic literacies, but this would be designed to have discipline-specific literacies added to it. I also see no reason why this framework could not include literacies relevant for both students and teaching staff. In fact, I can see merit in identifying, for example, the areas of the framework where teaching staff perhaps have difficulties, and then involving students in helping them to address this gap and vice versa. For example, an informal session run by students on how to create and upload a YouTube video in return for a session run by a lecturer on how to engage your critical faculties in an online search. I can see a place for a type of Digital Literacies Exchange between staff and students which simultaneously looks to co-create more discipline-specific DL frameworks in particular subject areas. But perhaps that's just me being idealistic....

Here are a few resources which I’ve found useful (also on Diigo #ocTEL #diglit):   (Deft Project – Sheffield Hallam University)

Digital Literacies Research Briefing (TLRP) (introduction gives a succinct overview of digital literacy)

Situating Digital Literacies  (useful models from Helen Beetham)

1 comment:

  1. First draft of Web Literacy Standard: