Keynote Three (SEDA Conference) was apt for a conference on using technology to enhance learning. Titled ‘Fables and fairy tales – how can technology really enhance learning?’ it was presented remotely by Susannah Quinsee from City University London. Using excellent pre-prepared audio and visual resources, Susannah led an exploration of the myths around the application of technology to learning. Key to this were group activities on the use of technology as a transformative tool for enabling interaction with learners.
Firstly we were asked to consider cases where technology hasn’t worked. Second Life was mooted. The hype has died down and while many universities have invested in a Second Life campus, there seem to be less examples of good practice; for no presentations at the conference had included Second Life. Secondly we took on the role of Luddite or Enthusiast in order to examine the arguments for and against technology. In my group the Luddites argued that technology supported behaviours which were shallow, superficial, bite-sized, anti-social, breakable and could lead to losing sight of traditional academic values. The enthusiasts argued that face to face sociability was a myth, online communities of practice were powerful aids for learning, the ease of digital access facilitated flexible learning opportunities, virtual discussions offered scope for review and checking understanding, technology could make learning fun, blended learning offered complementary tools which could enhance the learning experience, support independent learning and help students become more reflective, deeper and enquiring learners. Phew! On paper the enthusiasts were certainly in the lead.
The final part was a Skype Q and A session with Susannah, who was due to give birth to twins at any moment. Intermittent sound problems could have reinforced the anti-technology argument but to see and hear Susannah in real time countered this more than sufficiently. The Keynote surfaced what for me were many of the key themes of the conference.
- Staff need time to engage with new ways of working; staff development funding is essential to make this time possible and institutions need to invest in opportunities to make this happen.
- Social media can replicates and reinforce the power of group learning
- Technology for learning does not replace face to face teaching; it is complementary to it.
- The phrase digital natives and digital immigrants is the most unhelpful concept ever (I would suggest maybe outdated rather than unhelpful. Culturally specific at the time, it was a useful way to draw attention to the issues. A decade on, the divide still exists, but attention is now on the quality of the ‘native’s engagement’)
- Digital literacies are fundamental to graduate attributes and teacher education. The sector needs to invest in bridges which cross digital divides.
- Ideally, the digital component in teaching and learning should be taken for granted rather than highlighted but we have not got there yet.
- Digital teaching and learning is integral to teaching and learning in higher education and all teacher education programs should contain content relevant to the world of the digital learner.
All conferences have value but in terms of supporting staff using technology for teaching and learning on a day to day basis and this was one of the most useful I’ve attended. It would be a shame if it were to be a one-off event because SEDA have an important role to play in raising awareness of digital divides and creating bridges to cross them.
Keynote Two, with Jane Hughes from Wolverhampton University, addressed the role of technology in teacher education programmes, suggesting there is not enough support for acquiring the digital literacies essential for learning in a digital age. In an echo from the first keynote, Jane reiterated the requirement for educating citizens of the future. We need to be equipping students for living and working in a digital society.
Inevitably this vision of adopting brave new digital worlds is countered by the risks involved in making changes in the current ‘risk-averse’ climate. Also raised was the lack of time and institutional support for moving to new digital ways of working. It’s something of a conundrum because on the one hand there are the advantages of digital engagement but on the other there is the short supply of ‘technologists of the learning kind’ and an even shorter supply of funding for development. Teacher education programmes may need to incorporate digital learning but teaching staff also need an informed basis for adopting new digital ways of working.
The challenge of Web 2.0 tools can be a steep learning curve. Not only do you need to learn through personal application which takes time, it also requires the paradigm shift from students as consumers to students as creators and collaborators in their own learning experiences. It was interesting to hear several references to ‘Student as Producer’ t the conference where the phrase was being aligned with those digital ways of learning which support student participation in the learning process.
The phrase Blended Learning Advisor was popular as were calls for an approach which begins with existing practices; looking at how technology can enhance through the language of ‘as well as’ rather than ‘instead of’. A clear message was for staff educators who are the users of technology to take the lead, rather than the tied and dyed technologists who may not have the necessary pedagogical frameworks. There were lots of examples of technology being raised and praised but not always in a scholarly way. This is where teacher education programmes can make a real difference and again ‘Student as Producer’ comes to mind with its ‘Digital Scholarship’ strand.
Overall was the recognised need for an infrastructure which supports the training and developing of digital literacies. These would include the confidence and competence with using and applying a range of Web 2.0 tools and selecting them appropriately to support digital modes of inquiry, collaboration and authorship. I liked Jane Hughes analogy of a jigsaw approach to learning because this I how using Web 2.0 tools can appear. A workshop led by Sue Buckingham and David Walker looked at social media for developing a professional learning network. It demonstrated the value of digital ways of working alongside the fear this can evoke in the uninitiated. The sheer number and variety of tools can be an insurmountable barrier. I’ve been dabbling for some time but hadn’t come across a Twitter Fountain or Drigo, Quora, Nefsis , VoiceThread or Peerwise. It’s this proliferation of content which is paradoxically inviting and threatening at the same time. However, engagement is often initiated in unexpected ways. It was in this workshop I heard the best advice. Some one said they didn’t want to use Twitter to talk about breakfast but having gained some funding, and something to talk about, they were experiencing the value of the networking tweeting can offer. It’s this experiential approach which can be the most useful key to unlocking some of the cognitive barriers.
Social media can be like finding a tree in a forest. Where do you begin? There are so many possibilities. As a result, digital divides on campus are inevitably widening. There is a real need for more bridges and teacher education programmes, where the lines between staff and students become blurred – as the collaborative and creative possibilities of social media already blur distinctions between teacher and learner – may be one of the more appropriate places to start building.
Lots of publicity for the Give an Hour campaign. UK digital Champions on Facebook say it has really ‘caught the imagination of the nation’. There are lots of ‘celebrities’ talking about the benefits of being online and videos showing people being supported through their first encounters with the Internet.
Video clips are heavy emotion. There’s the full-time mum wanting the Internet for communication with her family and who cries with joy at an email and photographs from her sister. There is the grandmother who feels a technological divide growing between her and her 7 year old grand-daughter and wants to stop it getting any wider, and the 100 year old gentleman using a computer and the Internet for the first time and just loving it.
Stephen Fry has pole celebrity position and tells us that not being online is a ‘terrible shame for those who are left behind either through choice or fear or a dislike of new technology’. Fiona Bruce shows an older lady how to find herself (Fiona Bruce) in a programme about Buckingham Palace on iPlayer while Bill Oddie describes himself as computer illiterate and ‘feeling out of touch and lonely’ unable to ‘speak the same language or communicate with the world around him’. There’s lots of repetition of the phrase ‘alienated’ with the overall message being like it or not, the Internet is the language which is being spoken and if you are not involved, you are missing out.
Which is true. The problem, as always, is the narrow range of access criteria which is continually assumed. The videos show people using a mouse, looking at a monitor and having fingers flexible enough to manage a keyboard. There are no transcripts and no sub-titles provided; not even one ‘tokenistic’ acknowledgement of access diversity in either the design or the delivery of the content. Give an Hour is a great idea but is ignoring the heart of digital exclusion. In the same way the government’s latest publication Building the Networked Nation: the Last Leap to get the UK Online identifies four categories of exclusion: the Young, the Old, the Uncertain/Unpersuaded and the Traditionalists, without any reference to users of assistive technologies, so Give an Hour focuses on the mainstream without looking beyond it. Part of RaceOnline 2012, the massive government funded project which is tasked with getting the UK online, it is missing this target audience and showing true digital exclusion at its most unacknowledged and invisible.
My iphone looks great. I love the easy access to the Internet. But I’m not a great App user and am uncomfortable with the Apple closed shop philosophy. You could say the same about the Kindle in relation to Amazon but I bought one for similar reasons. I wanted the experience for myself; in this case the shift to electronic reading. For as long as I can remember I’ve loved books. Turning the pages, turning the corners, pencil annotations; books and their contents have always been important to me. I didn’t expect the transition from paper to screen to be easy but it was – and I love it!
The tipping point was the announcement Julian Barnes had won the Booker Prize for a Sense of an Ending. I’d only used the Kindle on Project Gutenberg but wanted to read this book before the weekend so I looked at my options.
- Walk into town, pay the shop price, read straight away.
- Order online and pay less but wait for delivery knowing if it doesn’t fit through my letterbox I’d have to go to the Post Office which is only open 7.00 – 1.00 and I’m away 6.30 to 6.30 most days…
- Download onto the Kindle from where I’m sitting for half the price and read immediately – or to be accurate – within two minutes.
There’s no competition. Add the size, easy reading and portability of the Kindle and its win win all the way to the Amazon bank. The Kindle cover even makes it feel like a book. The only problem is I’m so used the iphone’s touch screen, I feel the Kindle should respond in the same way and still automatically reach for the screen rather than the keyboard. It’s an interesting example of how behaviour change quickly embeds itself into our unconsciousness.
We are all being seduced by the reality of cut cost and instant access; whether to real world events through Twitter, the happenings of friends via Facebook, or working on content with a variety of collaborative tools, all at the time and place of our choosing. We are either up front or at the back as digital communication and access to information carries some on and leaves others behind. If social equality is about the means of participation then digital environments, in spite of their potential to be democratic, are becoming increasingly and alarmingly divisive.
The phrase digital literacies is currently here, there and everywhere. 13 JISC projects have been funded under the JISC Grant 4/11 Digital Literacies Call and there is the further invitation from JISC to selected organisations to submit bids to support the JISC Developing Digital Literacies (DDL) Programme. All great opportunities for successful institutions to get digital literacies on the agenda and establish a whole institution approach to engaging, enhancing and embedding those capabilities which are so essential for living and working in a digital society.
Defining digital literacies is not easy. In their Grant 4/11 Call, JISC propose a neutral definition which follows the lead of the European Union and the JISC-funded LLiDA project: ‘ digital literacy defines those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society’ JISC go on to list a range of literacies including ICT/computer/information and media literacies along with communication and collaboration, digital scholarship, learning skills and life planning – all having relevance within higher education. Interestingly there is no explicit reference to digital literacies as social practices.
In August I submitted a bid ‘Getting Started with OER’ under the HEA/JISC UK OER Phase 3 Programme Strand 3: Embedding OER Practice in Institutions. The bid aimed to align the strategic embedding of OER with Getting Started, the University of Lincoln’s institution-wide initiative designed to support the student transition into higher education. Using an existing project as a vehicle is viewed as a strength and there’s no doubt it offers ready made opportunities for embedding new ways of working, and promoting the behavioural shifts required for change. No surprise that my OERs would be concerned with digital literacies. The real surprise was the HEA saying too few applications had been received so they were looking at alternative ways to support the university in taking this bid forward.
I wonder how much the decision was influenced by the subject matter. So many assumptions are made about the digital confidence and competencies of both staff and students but the reality is the digital divide is increasing. As those comfortable with technologies for learning push off into the distance towards a brave new digital world, so even those with some experience are getting left behind. As for those yet to engage, the divide is becoming a potentially unbridgeable one.
The worry is the continual social shaping of digital technologies and the assumptions around too narrow a range of access criteria. While I’ve spoken about this within the community, in particular for users of assistive technology, I see it increasingly becoming an issue within the university. The sector focus on digital literacy is critical for both graduate attributes and teacher education – but care is needed that in this flush new world of cash for addressing digital literacies, the existing exclusive parameters of access are highlighted and challenged rather than replicated and reinforced.
Universities must rethink their approach to student digital literacy in the Guardian Higher Education Network puts digital literacy training and critical reflection together in the same sentence. The word ‘training’ is a bit Pavlovian but applying critical thinking to Internet content and behaviours is an increasingly essential requirement. I’ve worked in higher education since 2000 and witnessed a growing need to be more proactive in addressing the digital literacies of students and staff, for example in the development of both graduate attributes and teacher education programmes.
When the first virtual learning environments arrived, the sector focused primarily on embedding technology rather than investing in the management of the cultural shift to virtual pedagogic practices. Today, the user-generated content and file-sharing nature of Web 2.0 style technologies, has increased the broader social impact of the Internet, while higher education is currently subject to market forces creating increased interest in online learning, for example the Collaborate to Compete Report to HEFCE. Research findings have raised concerns about levels of digital competence as in the JISC/British Library CIBER Report into the Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future at and the NUS report to HEFCE Student perspectives on Technology. Key areas are still missing like enhanced quality assurance with regard to digital learning (covered in this blog post) and the means of ensuring the appropriate digital literacies, including awareness of the parameters of inclusion, are embedded into both the student and the staff experience.
Sock puppets, twitterjacking and the art of digital fakery in the Guardian reinforces the need for digital literacies as social practices. The examples show the ways we operate online are mirrors – but more about aspirations than true reflections. With varying degrees of accuracy, we can be who we want to be, or even create an identity which is totally false. There is nothing new in this. People have always reinvented their past. What is different is the affordances of the Internet to persuade other people of the truth of your lies, or more worryingly, the lies you tell about others.
I’ve long been interested in construction of human identity. My first piece of postgraduate research used the Internet for communication and information (this was 1999), when opportunities for interaction were limited to textual exchange via email and the chat rooms which derived from early MUDS and MOOS. I had a 56k dial up modem and Web 2.0 hadn’t happened. I remember debates around the freedom offered by online environments for experimentation; how you could present an identity without barriers created through attribution and stereotyping. This was seen as positive but it’s all different now. Just this week the media has reported fraudsters posing as would-be romantic partners on internet dating sites and pedophile rings use social media for grooming. This article not only lists multiple instances of ‘digital fakery’, it assumes fake identities are reflect negative aspects of our personalities eg sadist, masochist and weirdo. Maybe ‘only bad news sells’ but the degree to which we can post content which is incorrect and edit graphics so they appear to tell a different story has never been so easy. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger says: “The digital age is difficult. We’re in a Foucauldian postmodern world where we can’t tell the truth from fakery.” The need for embedding digital literacies into graduate attributes and teacher education has never been more important.
The Internet supports what US Psychoanalyst Christopher Lasch called The Culture of Narcissism. Writing in the 1970’s, long before the digital revolution, Lasch describes a capitalist society constantly searching for new markets. As the consumerism of material goods is no longer enough, so attention is turned to exploiting the ego; achieving this through the creation of false identities and blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. Lasch describes as resultant new illiteracies as the failure to think critically; something which lies at the heart of digital literacy in the 21st century.
The hope lies in the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ effect; that there will be enough people online to challenge errors and mistakes and that the processes of critical reflective practice, which are integral to higher education, will be applied to all Internet encounters. Within learning technology we say it isn’t the tool. It’s what you do with it that counts. A parallel philosophy for digital literacies could be is it isn’t the message, it’s the interpretation which matters.