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.
At the SEDA Conference ‘Using Technology to Enhance Learning’ it was good to see recognition of the value of transition into higher education activities and the need to address support for digital literacies. The concept of support for transition needs little explanation but defining the term digital literacies can be challenging. Inevitably we use phrases like ‘preparing students for a digital world’ often without consideration of all the prerequisites this entails. In a Keynote speech ‘10 years of technology enhanced learning – how far have we (really) come?’ Helen Beetham spoke of the role of public education to prepare students for a time in the future. In an increasingly digital society, it should go without saying this requires support for graduate attributes of the digital kind. At the moment the vehicle for technology enhanced learning has multiple wheels and all of them round. There is a lot of replication across the sector, much of it through individual pockets of excellence located within the Library, Student Support or Study Skills – where preparing students for a digital world remains a bolt on extra rather than any adjustment to curriculum design appropriate for the university in the 21st century. It will be interesting to watch the current round of JISC funded projects as these contain the proviso of embedding digital literacies as a whole institution approach.
Resistance to digital pedagogy is often disguised and conferences like these are useful for surfacing the issues. I attended a session on podcasting where staff followed guidelines to keep file length to under 5 minutes yet student responses included ‘ they’re too long’, ‘I’ve got too much else to do’, ‘I don’t have time,’ ‘I don’t like podcasts’. The myth of the digital native continues to be laid to rest. In another session we looked at teacher education where staff have opportunities to be students, in this case actively engaging with content creation, rather than content consumption, and using a range of Web 2.0 tools. Responses were inevitably mixed and it was interesting to see how in an age of ubiquitous PowerPoint, there are still many educators for whom this is a bridge too far. Supporting staff to be digital learners is key to this conference and it would be a shame for it to be a one-off theme. SEDA is for Staff Educational Developers so participants re seeing both sides of the digital divide. It’s not tech-heavy but tech-aware; accepting the necessity for digital ways of working and working on ways to make his happen. Recognition of the issues around digital literacies are being surfaced but we need to be sure the solutions are accessible and involve the enthusiasts who remember what techno-fear feels like as well as the technologists who are pushing at the boundaries with their digital hearts and minds.
Talking to a group of level three online-journalism students about digital divides. The group made accurate suggestions for what digital divides might look like, including incompatible file formats, unequal access to computers in different parts of the world and people having access problems with content. All perfect examples of digital inequities and discrimination.
I’m suggesting it’s the responsibility of the Web Workers (eg developers, designers, content creators etc) to ensure accessibility and a student asks if accessibility should be the responsibility of the user instead. That’s a really good question. We all want to be independent and in control of our lives via all the appropriate tools. In an increasingly digital society, we want equal access to online communication, information and entertainment. So should web workers design content to be accessible, or should the technology have an interface which translates the digital data uploaded by the developer into customised content for the user?
The BBC My Display http://www.bbc.co.uk/accessibility/mydisplay/ trial seemed to be a step in this direction. My Display encouraged users to customise the text and colours to suit their own preferences, with these choices being stored as a cookie for the next time.
Multiple reasons given for the My Display trial being withdrawn. These included the new and unexpected complexity of digital resources, content being delivered by IP on multiple platforms, operating systems and browsers delivering more customisation features, cloud computing requiring bigger solutions and the move from static webpages to database driven webs with live feeds and richer interactions. The list goes on and the conclusion was the My Display trials were neither flexible nor scaleable enough ‘to cope with the growth, technical diversity and ambition of the BBC’s digital services’.
So although we have the access technology to ensure 100% accessibility on the part of the user, it looks like we are moving even further away from the focus on accessible content. This is close to other recent developments which try to shift responsibility for access onto the user. The re is the growing expectation that people should adjust their browser settings and the move towards directing users to separate accessibility web pages; ‘solutions’ which assume a confidence and competence with navigation, form fields and web jargon which many simply haven’t got. These answers are as unworkable as the My Display solution. At the present time it looks like it keeps coming back to the need for inclusive digital content in the first place.
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.
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.
The idea of digital narratives or digital storytelling is not new. The University of Gloucester has a section on Digital Storytelling under Pedagogic Tools and Guides and I’d like to investigate this further; digital narratives as pedagogical tools for combining critical thinking with reflective practice. Not just the skills involved in making your own narrative (selection, rejection, sequencing, synthesising, presenting) but also peer assessment and sharing across disciplines and cultures as a means of discovery and enquiry. Apart from the opportunity for exploring creativity and acquiring multiple digital literacies, the scope for internationalisation may also be worth considering. Here’s a link from Daniela Gachago from Cape Peninsula University of Technology who I met at the recent Diversity Conference The video is a digital narrative from Nonhlanhla Nyingwa and her words, music and images combine to create a powerful story.
I know digital story telling is not new. The Internet is full of them. But I wonder if we could make more out of the processes and in doing so put critical reflective theory into practice – while maybe even having some fun. Not everyone will agree. The thought of having to manipulate multiple digital media clips will not go down well with many staff and students. But we’re living in a digital society in a digital age and graduate attributes must include digital literacies alongside transferable skills of critical thinking and reflective practice. Involvement in the creation and sharing of your own digital narratives – which could also be a digital cv or digital portfolio – must be worth consideration as part of subject curriculums.
For more information: ‘Using digital storytelling to develop reflective learning by the use of Next Generation Technologies and practices’. JISC (2009) Reflect 2.0
Digital Storytelling and its pedagogical impact in the HEA (2009) report Transforming Higher Education through Technology-Enhanced Learning
Income generation has become the new job criteria and on the line between Desirable and Essential it feels closer to the latter. The JISC Digital Literacies Call4 was my first experience of seeing through a bid application from start to end – or should that be ‘start to send’ – when the final process is an irretrievable click. Pressing the send button on an email is the digital equivalent to dropping the letter into the post box – something else from the analogue world to tell our children about! A colleague said the other day there’s no excitement about the post arriving any more and they’re right. Another human activity has been replaced by a virtual one. Communication defines us as human yet we are using more and more inhuman ways of interaction.
But back to JISC World and the business of ensuring we engage effectively with increasingly digital ways of working. JISC use the definition of digital literacies as the capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society. We added ‘constantly changing social practices’ to this because digital literacies are more than digital activities. They’re about who we are and we are work in progress. We never quite finish being who we could be. Instead, we’re continually evolving, living mostly in a state of getting there rather than arriving. After two weeks of living with a JISC Bid I still see digital literacies more as unique individual characteristics than sets of skills or abilities (although of course these are component parts). What has become clearer is the enormity of a whole institution approach to what our bid describes as ‘enabling enhancing and embedding digital literacies’ at Lincoln. A strategy for digital inclusion will be a challenge but I’m confident it can be done. Defining digital literacies as social practices brings in the key higher education attributes of critical thinking and reflective practice. To be critically digitally literate is to be socially responsible. I see this as a real opportunity for an integrative approach across the university, not just computer science and social science coming together but for all disciplines to find common digital grounds supporting genuine cross-departmental partnerships.
Digital literacies are about a lot of different things. They’re about making choices. They are personal, flexible, and continually changing. They are a reflection of how you operate in a digital world. Above all digital literacies are social.
Last week I went to a Meyer Briggs Personality workshop. I didn’t agree with my result. ISFJ. I wanted INTJ. I liked the strapline better, ‘competency + independence = perfection’. Yep, that’s me! You can’t really do a MBPT in an hour but there is a connection to digital literacies. The workshop stressed a powerful message, one which is easy to forget. We are all the person we are and the person we have learned to be – and it can be almost impossible to separate the two. Digital literacies as social practices are the same. As individuals, we become who we have learned to be and that process derives from the society in which we live. In order to conceptualise digital literacies in this way, it may be helpful to look to the past rather than the future.
Much is written about literacies; media, information, digital – they all tend to be treated as separate entities which they’re not. You wouldn’t separate handwriting from spelling, punctuation and grammar – they’re all part of what it is to be literate. But your opportunities to develop confidence and competency with handwriting are influenced by your environment. Think back to first learning to write. The process was influenced by where you lived, the school, family attitudes – both to literacy and your new found abilities, how much you could afford to spend on pens and paper, what your friends said and what they did – both in school and out – and what ever else was going on in your life at the time. On top of that were your own thoughts and feelings – you may well have preferred diagrams or numbers instead of letters and words.
To be digitally literate is as much about us as people and how we relate to the social environment as it is about being ‘taught’ a specific skill. We need to support the learning process, and put in place opportunities for developing effective digital competencies, but we also need to recognise the wider picture. Digital literacies are open ended. They are contextual, they reflect the duality of self and learned behaviours. They are subjective. They exist on a continuum and we shift around it – we perform – we adopt and adapt – just like we do in all other areas of life where we have multiple roles and identities. We own our digital literacies. They are as personal as our handwriting; it helps if it’s legible but other than that it’s a unique characteristic. So it is with our digital life; ultimately it is helping us to define who we really are.