Join a conversation about ‘digital literacies.’ What do they mean to you?

Join the digital literacies conversation here

Background: digital literacies are difficult to define. They describe many different things and this flexibility can be a strength or a weakness. The strength is the opportunity for drawing attention to key issues around digital ways of working. The weakness is the potential for misinterpretation; digital literacies can be different things to different people. When it comes to describing them where is the best place to begin? JISC says they define those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society.  If you’re looking for a pragmatic approach this isn’t very helpful but it does offer the scope for a broad view and with something as fundamental as communication that wider analysis is crucial.

The shift to digital practices has happened very quickly and the associated confidence and competencies have become complex. Digital literacies are much more than the ability to word process an assignment or access email. These are important graduate attributes but the management of digital lives and the presentation of our selves online are important too. If we’re to provide appropriate support and resources, we need to know where best to target them.

You are invited to use the comment box below this post to say what digital literacies mean to you or if you prefer a less public option, click this link   I look forward to hearing from you.

Using Technology to Enhance Learning

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.

Getting Started 2011

Getting Started logo

Getting Started is an initiative which supports students new to higher education. Access to Blackboard (BB) is given prior to enrolment where there are materials about getting organised for coming to university and an introduction to academic practices. This year, Getting Started is bigger than ever. All undergraduates who have accepted an offer of a place have been invited and there are also Faculty Sites with welcome messages and subject specific information. 

The rationale for Getting Started is indisputable. Research into the reasons first year students withdraw cites lack of preparation, in particular for the academic side of university life. Getting Started began prior to this. It was originally set up as a support mechanism for mature students who had been out of education for some time and had concerns about returning to learning. Getting Started offered communication channels alongside preparatory materials. Feedback showed this was much appreciated. Students reported they felt better able to cope with the new challenges which lay ahead.

We know transition support is valuable and it works. We know non-Getting Started students have said – with the benefit of hindsight – how useful it would have been for them. The HE experience, with its emphasis on critical thinking and reflective practice, is a pivotal point in anyone’s life. It offers the potential for change through new experiences but these can be daunting if you don’t know what to expect. Coming to university is a bit like running a marathon; the more you train the better you’ll perform on the day. Higher education is a challenge especially if you are unprepared for the reality of becoming an independent learner. Introducing the some of the principles of academic practices before arrival seems to be one of the best ways of offering new students the opportunity to hit the ground running and get off to the best possible start.

For more information about Getting Started, or to access the transition materials, please contact

Yorke, M. and Longden, B. (2008) The First Year Experience of Higher Education in the UK. HEA.

Graduate School Conference 25th February 2011

Live blogging can be an effective tool as demonstrated at the Graduate School Conference ( but there’s also value to be had from reflection and blogging after the event. I felt the conference was a huge success and the high number of people returning to the auditorium at 4.15 was testament to a great day. I can’t select a highlight – there were so many!

Anyone who’s attended a student based conference will know the value of an eclectic range of presentation content and style. The mixing and matching of subjects and expertise provided audience experiences which were in turn provocative, intellectual, surprising, entertaining and above all educational. I learned so much – all of it relevant and interesting. Limiting presentations to quarter of an hour and maintaining good time keeping meant the parallel sessions ran well. The Arts, Sciences and Humanities were all represented and the attendant mix of home and international students with academic and support staff provided opportunities for discussion on a wide range of issues. The conference theme was networking and that was indeed the primary function of the day.

 I think, on reflection, what I took away and has stayed with me, is the importance of balance. Opening the conference, Mike Neary quoted Castells on how we are all living in a networked society with increasingly digital lifestyles and ways of working.  Mike suggested increased levels of contact through digital networks is leading to disconnection on the ground. The sense of community is getting lost. The processes of online social interaction are not only gaining dominance but are becoming divisive, leaving behind those with analogue roots and privileging the manipulation of digital communication and control. Ironically, the participation in digital networks is ultimately a solitary one. What is missing – and is needed – is the balance between digital and human interaction. Together they make a whole and that lies at the heart of the university experience; opportunities to take disparate approaches and put them together, to investigate alternative practices, try something you’ve never done before, learn something you didn’t know but which adds quality to your life.  Well run, well organised, student-based conferences like this one offer the essential exposure to difference which reminds us that diversity really is what it’s all about.

Pure fantasy

A report by Universities UK, Active Ageing and Universities: Engaging Older Learners, suggests that a new target for higher education should be the ‘retired’ as they may represent ‘crucial future activity for universities’. Yet another avenue of widening participation under Mandelson’s mandate for the expansion of new routes into higher education.  Last week at the Lord Dearing Memorial Conference, the man with the plan said: Part-time degrees, shorter and more intensive courses all offer the potential to lower student support costs, use resources more intensively and improve productivity.

This is pure fantasy. The word technology was avoided in this keynote although I suspect it lay behind the reference to alternative modes of study especially since current policy borrows heavily from the DEMOS Edgeless University report on the reasons why HE must embrace technology. If this is the case, then to say that changes in course delivery will cut costs is the wrong message.

Technology alone is not enough; as anyone who has worked in this field over the past decade can testify. Confidence and competence with computers can never be assumed for either staff or students. Resistance is alive and well and not without good cause because what the techno-addicts fail to recognise is that for many people virtual delivery involves change in practice and that requires more support – not less. It’s not a question of an ICT Helpdesk, valuable as that is, but , for staff in particular, pedagogical support for the transfer of teaching and learning from on-campus to the personal computer,  to the small screen netbook, or even smaller mobile phone; the moving from face-to-face interaction to media delivery.  As well as ensuring learning development support for traditional academic practice, there is the need to ensure digital literacy for both staff and students. Understanding authenticity and citation with search engines. Accessing electronic journal databases. Utilising the academic value of tools such as refworks and turnitin, blogs and wikis and constructing electronic portfolios. All this under the umbrella of virtual pedagogy; the change in the relationship between student and teacher as the lecturer becomes the facilitator of the vast breadth of knowledge sources on the Web and no longer the sole gatekeeper of subject expertise.

Then there are the issues around course design and validation, the requirement for inclusive practice and provision of alternative formats. Let me know what I’ve missed. How can we quality assure such a major change in direction? If all this can be done using existing resources as well as cutting costs, then those who care about the future of higher education should be very scared indeed.

Teaching in Public

I’ve been reflecting on the concept of Teaching in Public; the proposed theme of the second CERD book. Googling it only returned the C-SAP 2007 Conference Teaching in Public, the Future of HE . It looks like CERD have identified a gap in the market.  So what does Teaching in Public mean? With so little out there then this is an opportunity to offer our own interpretations. Suggested strands are Education as a Public Good, The Student/Teacher Nexus and Teaching as a Public Activity; all retaining the student/teacher dichotomy. 

My interest is the impact of the Internet and the development of OER. For example the Open University’s OpenLearn which includes a course on Creating OER  and an OER wiki Other examples of what I would call Teaching in Public are MIT Open Courseware, TED Talks , Wiki Educator  and Connextions.  Add the P2P virtual university and there’s a lot out there. There are issues around assessment and accreditation but no doubt that the future of higher education is digital. Like it or not we live in a Web 2.0 world. Teaching in Public is a move from pedagogy to folksomony. Traditional educationalists should be feeling afraid. Those yet to engage with the technology should be feeling very afraid.

OER (via the Internet) does more than challenge the status quo of HEIs as the gatekeepers of knowledge. OER (and the Internet) open up communication and access to information; the keys to educational opportunities. The primary issues then become digital divides (ensuring equality of access) and digital controls (transmission via cables rather than humans). Is this where the future of HE lies? If the themes include ‘public good’ and ‘public activity’ then access issues are paramount. Digital data not only requires good bandwidth it’s notoriously inaccessible to anyone with sensory, motor and cognitive impairment.  Along with the employability agenda, will the primary role of the HEI shift from the transmission of knowledge to the critical evaluation and correct acknowledgment of sources that are already freely available?  

I’ve few political bones and even less economic ones so will leave those implications of OER on teaching in public to others more qualified, but will offer this; the move to a digital platform, as envisaged by Digital Britain  is a mass imposition of change in practice, something notorious for creating resistance. If there should develop an underground movement of analogue protestors, what impact would that have on the future of higher education?

one stop digital shop

I haven’t yet worked out how Julian gets his blog entries to appear on Facebook but it works. Several times I’ve picked up on something there that I’d have otherwise missed. The idea that you have a single thread like FriendFeed capturing and sharing all your activity online makes sense. So how long before you have a single place in which to conduct all your online activity? In a digital world, where a multiplicity of separate activities can be bought together under a single URL, then maintaining a multitude of Web 2.0 type applications in the first place is starting to feel a bit old fashioned.

This was going to be a post about the residents (digital natives) and visitors (digital immigrants) debate that I picked up from Julian but as this stands well on its own I’ll blog about that next time.

to blog or not to blog….(again)

My last post title is an apt description regarding this blog though most of September – seen but not heard (but has anyone noticed? That remains the pertinent question). The season of mellow mists and Mabon is also time for reflection; I’ve enjoyed the challenge of blogging and the occasions when there have been responses. But overall I doubt its future.

If we blog for a reason other than pure self expression then it’s like any online discussion or new ‘web 2.0’ type tool; only adopted if it is a requirement or can be shown to do something better than it is done now.
I blogged because I could; because I work with a talented colleague who set up the facility and ensured technical support was readily available. I blogged because, as a subscription payer for my own domain name and host, I appreciate the value of free self publishing on the internet. The concept of a digital divide rising out of differing means and ability for virtual communication is a core area of interest as is the construction of online identity. So blogging for me was a gift. An opportunity to find my voice and write succinctly not just on my work, but also those areas on my life where the barriers between work and non-work get blurred, (although non-work life remains mostly invisible on these pages)

Keeping up with other people’s blogs is a separate issue. As if maintaining your own wasn’t time intensive enough then to follow fellow bloggers on a regular basis is well nigh impossible. I collect my rss feeds into Netvibes and set it as my home page but the numbers of unread posts continue to rise inexorably.

Throughout the year the question of why we write blogs has been of regular interest to me. Perhaps that’s the wrong question. Maybe it should be why do we read them? Voyeurism? Curiosity? Self promotion? Ambition? CPD? I haven’t thought about it this way round before. Or maybe we need to look at the reasons people have for not writing them; our office colleagues for example. Think about it laterally. There could be some interesting answers and new light to be shed on the mystique of the blogging phenonema.

VLE v web 2.0

The debate over digital learning platforms in HE often focuses on the choice of technology. It misses issues around supporting engagement with digital learning and the production of quality assured, inclusive content. Those involved in the VLE v Web 2.0 discussions should look backwards as well as forwards. A decade ago, in the wake of the Dearing report into the future of higher education, and the government’s Harnessing Technology,  funds were made available to embed VLEs across the sector, but with little attention to the resource implications for staff. Failure to see the resourcing of virtual learning as important as the provision is with us still. In 2009 we are in strikingly similar position to that of ten years ago. The Edgeless University and the government’s Digital Britain report advocate increased reliance on internet based communication and opportunities for virtual higher education experiences. JISC supports a greater use of Web 2.0 type technologies as appropriate tools for meeting the diverse needs of an ever increasing diversity of students. As budgets are cut it’s perhaps inevitable that the question of value for money is raised.

The death of the VLE headline is not new but criticism can be skewed and fail to reflect the wider picture. The source is often from the 3Cs corner; Computer Confident and Competent where a RTFM philosophy (or in these days WTFV) only serves to widen the digital divide. Narrowing the gap between those comfortable with a keyboard and those still at the pen end of the digital continuum should be a priority.

The old fashioned and clunky VLE may be uninspiring to some but for the majority it is a prerequisite to engagement and offers a ‘way in’. Web 2.0 tools require digital literacy and that takes time to learn. We are far from a situation where these skills are universal. Whether a VLE is replaced by PLEs made up of learners own preferences, or an institutionally provided set of customisable tools, there will still be a requirement for an entry level environment that enables rather than disables both staff and students. The support implications, and their cost, of any virtual learning platform should be a key issue. Without this there is little chance of encouraging the levels of digital engagement required for the virtual provision of high quality and inclusive higher education experiences.