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.
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 Another human activity has been replaced by a virtual one.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.
As a BB system administrator I’m used to being on the receiving end of perceived problems rather than lavish praise. After all, it’s only when something doesn’t work that it gets attention – which is then usually from a negative point of view. You don’t praise a tool when it lets you down. But in all fairness, many criticisms of BB do turn out to be explainable errors. As a VLE it’s well embedded across the institution with the majority of courses having a presence and plenty of innovative online collaborative learning experiences.
It takes time to embed change. The move from the Virtual Campus involved a different way of working with different systems integration – it wasn’t going to happen overnight and it didn’t. But we’re getting there and the majority of staff now use BB on a regular basis.
I feel the need to defend BB from its critics. Yes – it’s a corporate behemoth of VLE but we don’t use it to its full capacity. Yes – it’s not the most visually exciting of environments but it isn’t meant to be, it’s a means to an end, not the end itself – that comes from the ways in which it is used. And yes, it may look like a repository of digital documents, but that shouldn’t be used against it. The recent JISC 3 R’s report Recruitment Retention Results supports the provision of electronic information saying
‘Resources in digital format (even simply class lecture notes) are inherently more flexible and accessible than paper-based resources, supporting differentiation and a range of learning styles.’
So uploading documents to BB is good practice, it’s supporting diversity and enabling users to take advantage of the inherent flexibility of digital data to be customised and personalised to suit individual preferences.
We should be proud of BB. There are a great team of people supporting it and we should take advantage of its affordances rather than being overly critical. At the end of the day it does what it’s meant to do and talking to staff and students across the university shows that – it does it quite well.
Within 24 hours I’ve had not one but two encounters with accessibility issues. Both demonstrated negativity towards the concepts of reasonable adjustment and alternative versions in relation to teaching and learning resources. This is my resulting rant and reflection – please check out the links at the end. You just never know, one day the thread of your reality may be cut without warning!
Some background: ten years ago I worked in community education and set up a number of computer training rooms for people with disabilities; the work was funded with short term project grants – which is indicative of the reality for the socially disabled – where support and training is dependent on charities and the kindness of strangers. I am continually reminded that the situation with regard to respect and consideration cannot be said to have significantly improved over the past decade.
Over a year ago the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) was subsumed into the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). There is growing debate over whether this has been in the best interests of people who struggle with seeing, hearing, mobility or cognitive impairments (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7643844.stm)
Why is this relevant here? Well, as a public institution, the University of Lincoln has a duty to ensure it can demonstrate proactivity in anticipating barriers to access. However, a recognised need to be inclusive is not enough to ensure institutional change. Across the HE sector, disability support units are rarely integrated into teaching and learning units and the locus of disability awareness continues to exist on the periphery. For me accessibility is about removing barriers to participation and engagement. That means a holistic attitude towards the creation of accessible content. It’s not something that can be bolted on either as an afterthought or because someone has had to request an alternative version.
All staff should be aware of this single page document produced by the JISC legal team Accessibility Law for eLEarning Authors
Staff should also visit Accessibility in Learning produced by JISC and TechDis in conjuction with the Quality Improvement Agency (QIA). This new online resource looks at eight categories of users; those who have difficulty seeing, hearing, understanding, concentrating, manipulating things, communicating with others, accessing text and who are dyslexic – and provides practical guidelines practical guidelines for making learning materials more accessible.
The information is out there; the responsiblity for acting on it is down to the individual.
If you still need convincing read some of these accounts from students accessing higher education. Go to ALERT (University of Bournemouth) and DART (Loughborough University) and the most recent JISC funded research at LExDis (University of Southampton) to sample the student experience first hand.
I attended the Stepping into Literature conference in Second Life, organised by Learning Times. This was an all day event designed to investigate the effectiveness of immersive environments as teaching and learning tools. Do 3D sims have affordances for disinterested students? How ‘sticky’ is Second Life?
The JISC report Learning in Immersive worlds prepared by Sara de Freitas suggests that the game and simulation based learning has the potential to transform the way teaching and learning is developed. After the Stepping conference I felt I had ‘learned’ on so many different levels. What ever your discipline; student, teacher, technologist, designer, librarian – I think it would be hard to deny that virtual immersion can be a powerful tool in the learning process.