Embedding digital literacy

Posted on: 22 November 2012
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There is widespread agreement across Higher Education that the digital literacy of our students and staff will be critical in a future where technology will pervade the learning and teaching experience. What is less agreed is what we mean precisely about the term digital literacy?  Without understanding what it is we want students and staff to be able to do or understand it is difficult to see a clear path to ‘embedding’.  Possibly however one currently gains a sense that there is agreement forming that meaningful digital literacy is about being confident to grapple with and work a way through new tools and systems as they continue to emerge at the alarming pace that they do. In addition what is key for education and employment is the capability to grasp how new tools and systems can and are being used within the context of one’s subject area or profession.

In most institutions different subject areas, different departments and very definitely, individual staff, will have their own views about how best to ‘give’ students the skills they need to be successful in their chosen area of study. Many will instinctively react strongly against the notion that some sort of generic digital literacy skills course can suffice for their students. As with many things this is a bit of a non-argument as in reality most people, to succeed, need generics and specifics with most things they need to know about or learn. The premium approach is to provide a generic base upon which subject specialisms can build and on top which individuals can layer their own specific and personal knowledge of what information technology does for them.

The real key to embedding is getting a shared institutional understanding of what everyone can offer in helping to make an individual a capable and continually evolving user of IT. That everyone includes the institution’s ethos, it includes what the institutional staff (including the most senior) say about and do with technology, it is linked tightly to how technology is used to deliver the curriculum and of course it is intimately tied up which each and every student’s experience of IT inside and outside of the university environment.

For the reasons above projects such as the Digital Literacies in Transition project, led by the University of Greenwich, which is seeking to draw together the views of a whole range of stakeholders to get some shared understanding, are critical. The whole idea of thinking of digital literacy as something that must evolve and develop as students transition from one phase of their life cycle to another is one that is much nearer to a meaningful definition of digital literacy than one which leads to a focus on which software or systems they must know and understand.

The transformations project on Digital Literacy at Westminster is a member of the CAMEL group meeting regularly to discuss the Greenwich led project and see how what the CAMEL institutions can learn from each other and in turn feed into the overall aims of the Greenwich project. A key objective that the transformations project shares with the Digital Literacies in Transition project is the development of a shared institutional understanding of digital literacy. This is needed first so that meaningful ‘face-value’ statements and objectives can be made in relevant strategic plans for the future. These must have universal buy-in and be linked to a clear idea of the way in which the curriculum will be delivered and made use of by students. More than statement however, the idea d digital literacy needs to be inherent, and therefore embedded, in all that staff and students do.

Gunter Saunders

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