Emerging themes from JISC Digital Literacy Projects

I recently sat in on two JISC Digital Literacy webinars run as part of the Developing Digital Literacies programme. I’ve written reports on them both (here and here) but in this post I’m trying to draw together emerging issues and themes. I work in a university library, supporting students and researchers, so am inevitably involved in information and digital literacy. I also sit on the University’s Digital Literacy Steering Group which is looking at skills for administrative staff. So my interest in digital literacy is quite broad ranging and it’s great to hear about activities in this area.

The two webinars covered HE and FE separately, but I sat in on both as it’s interesting to hear how issues are being approached in different sectors. Not all of the projects were presenting and they have yet to deliver their outputs – final reports are due this summer – so conclusions are tentative, but I found some key themes emerging. Some of the issues are very familiar, but others not so much.

  • Location, location, location.  Approaches are being tailored at different institutions and also within an institution. Institutions are developing their own definitions and models of digital literacy that work for them (eg Greenwich 5 Resources model), but even then strategies need to be flexible. The University of the Arts London highlighted in particular how they have varied their approach depending on the department/college/subject etc. I expected approaches to vary but was a little surprised at how new definitions and models are being created – I would have thought it would be easier to market something that is already recognised and established, but it seems that tailoring is proving to be common. I wonder if the same trend is being observed across HE and FE?
  • Digital champions/heroes/e-guides. Using individuals embedded within departments/sections to provide examples of good practice and a source of support was common across HE and FE.
  • Communities of Practice. These were also common but implemented in different ways. The communities at UAL were self-identified so it will be interesting to see how they compare to other more ‘guided’ communities. Coleg Llandrillo found they had the ‘Creepy Treehouse‘ problem with some of these more directed communities – meaning that communities set up by tutors were viewed with suspicion by students. Colleg Llandrillo also experimented with a range of platforms to support communities, not being limited only to a single institutional platform.
  • Accreditation. Use of accreditation in FE through the units at the Open College Network for both staff and students – would this work in HE where accreditation is a more complex issue?
  • Confidence vs competence. The confidence of staff and students often outweighs their actual competence. This issue is regularly found in research into information literacy, so it’s not surprising to see the same with digital literacy. Worcester College had demonstrated evidence of this by testing staff and students and then comparing this to survey responses.
  • Tasks vs technologies. How to approach the problem – focus on technology or what you are trying to do with the technology? Or does it depend on the learner? I suspect the answer is both approaches should be used depending on what’s most likely to succeed – some like to find out about a technology they’ve heard of, others need to see the benefits to their role. However, with a technology focus are there more dangers of reaching only the bottom levels of Beetham & Sharpe’s learning literacies development pyramid, i.e. access, awareness and functional skills, and not affecting practices and attitudes? Most projects were aiming for institutional embedding, thus implying a close link to practice, but some of the staff development offers were technology focussed – how is the link drawn between technology and practice? Some can make that leap for themselves, but others need to be convinced of the value of a particular technology in their role. I’ll be interested to see more detail of how specific digital literacies were addressed.
  • Providing a variety of delivery methods for training.  Some projects are finding face-to-face successful whereas others are using online delivery. Once again does this depend on ensuring the right method for the learner? However, provision is usually constrained by the resources available.
  • ‘Empowering’ staff and students. For example, the student change agents at Greenwich, the self-identified communities at UAL and the micro-projects at Reading. Ensuring that learners are part of the solution and that digital literacy isn’t just ‘done’ to them seems a successful approach.
  • Embedding within CPD processes. I’m really interested to see how digital literacy has become embedded in for example, appraisal and PDR processes – Plymouth in particular highlighted achievements in this area, along with successes via accreditation in several of the FE colleges.
  • Marketing ‘digital literacy’. This wasn’t really touched upon, but I’m curious to know how widely the term ‘digital literacy’ has been used. Has this proved a popular term or is it confusing?
  • Motivation. How to motivate staff and students to improve their digital literacy? In FE the use of accreditation and certificates for course completion were cited, alongside minimum requirements for digital provision within courses. Ultimately most of the projects were aiming to embed digital literacy, thus providing drivers through strategy and CPD processes. I’d really like to hear more about how these institutions ‘sold’ digital literacy to their institutions, both at strategic and individual levels, especially given the difficulties regarding evidence of impact…
  • Evidence of impact. Digital literacy hard to measure and evidence but has impact – this view was presented by Prof Neil Witt from Plymouth, quoting Lou McGill from the Curriculum Delivery Programme Synthesis: “whilst impact on the whole institution is harder to measure and present as evidence, but has much more significance in terms of sustainability and embedding. Funders should continue to value this ‘softer’ evidence”. This is a point that I think is crucial to winning over digital literacy sceptics and remains a challenge. The Reading project did describe a body of evidence as a key output so it would be interesting to see what they found.
  • Opportunism. Taking advantage of organisational changes to implement digital literacy initiatives (Reading & Plymouth). Here at Newcastle University it’s our Digital Campus  programme driving change.
  • More about change than skills? While digital literacy presents obvious staff development issues relating to use of technology, these projects are showing that it is also about changing attitudes and cultures. There’s no point in having the technology available if it is not used or not used well.
  • Programmes not projects? The range of activities carried out within the projects indicates that they are more like programmes than projects.
  • Sustainability. How will these projects ensure long term impact? UAL has secured further funding and Reading has achieved genuine buy-in from the senior management.
  • No one size fits all solution. Success requires a range of approaches, with no single solution, including top-down and bottom-up approaches.

Digital literacy can be seen as too big and too complex to address, so it was good to see the projects looking like they are achieving some success and I hope they deliver some practical guidance. As the presentations given were brief, there was not much detail on the specific digital literacies that were being addressed – I’m looking forward in particular to hearing about how the critical aspects of digital literacy are being tackled.

The next JISC digital literacy webinars are:

Supporting the development of staff digital literacies,
Thursday 21 March, 12.00-13.00

Implementing the UKPSF in the digital university,  
Wednesday 17 April, 13.00-14.00

Also the following events run as part of the Changing the Learner Landscape programme at the HEA are of interest:

Where are we now with digital literacies? 14 March 2013, University of Exeter
Influencing strategy and change to embed digital literacy, 30 April, Leeds
Influencing strategy and change to embed digital literacy, 21 May, London
The role of digital literacies in supporting CPD, 29 May, Birmingham

Finally, I’ve discovered the Digital Literacy Project Index on the JISC Design Studio where the projects place their outputs so far, so that’s worth keeping an eye on.

Lots of exciting activity around digital literacy at the moment!

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4 Responses to Emerging themes from JISC Digital Literacy Projects

  1. Pingback: Rising to the digital literacy challenge in FE: JISC webinar, 28th Feb 2013 | hblanchett.com

  2. Sarah Davies says:

    Great summary, Helen! I’m really glad you’re finding the webinars and the projects’ work interesting. Re terminology and ‘selling’ digital literacy, I think terminology has been adapted for different contexts – Coleg Llandrillo are finding ‘digital practices’ effective, and in more research-led contexts ‘digital scholarship’ may have more resonance. But overall I think the projects have found that after a year and a half of talking about digital literacies, publicising digital heroes or effective digital practice in other ways, and encouraging mini-projects to explore what it means for individual services and disciplines, the term is generally being accepted.

  3. hblanchett says:

    Thanks Sarah – that’s useful! I quite like ‘digital practices’, but as you say, awareness of digital literacy is increasing so hopefully it’s now more widely understood.

  4. Pingback: Schools, social media and digital literacy | Alyson's Welsh libraries blog

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