Developing digital literacies in the Curriculum

We know from research and practice surveys that students develop good digital strategies when they use technology in meaningful ways. Embedding digital capability into the curriculum aligns it with students’ aspirations

and helps them make sense of technology in an academic context. For staff, the sense of being overwhelmed by digital possibilities can be managed through a focus on what is important in their subject area. But what does a subject-specific digital literacy look like and how can it best be developed?

Defining subject-specific digital literacies

Subject areas are distinguished by their research methods, teaching methods and scholarly or professional cultures, and these all influence the uses made of digital technology. Not surprisingly, in baselining digital literacy, JISC DDL projects found different patterns of software/service use across departments. There were, however, large areas of common ground. In defining the digital literacies of a subject area we need to describe not only the specialist tools – such as design software, data capture and analysis tools, GPS, digital instruments – but also how more general technologies are put to specialist uses. For example, digital video is common across a range of subjects but is used very differently in drama, social psychology and veterinary studies.

At the University of Bath, Faculty Learning Groups have been engaged in defining a ‘digitally literate graduate’ for their disciplines. This has not only produced useful mappings for programme teams but has helped staff to take ownership of the digital agenda.

Developing subject-specific digital literacies

Most programmes of study include practice in specialist digital technologies/techniques, though we have found it important to introduce new methods only when they are needed, and then to ensure students find the process meaningful e.g. generating real data sets to use in SPSS workshops, or writing wiki pages that will contribute directly to an assignment.

Subject practitioners may be less comfortable introducing generic technologies, or may feel they should be dealt with outside/alongside the curriculum, e.g. in separate sessions on e-safety, information skills, building a digital profile etc. It is important that teaching staff work in partnership with other professionals to embed good, academic use of systems and services. Otherwise not only will they struggle to help students but they will be giving the message that these issues are not part of the ‘main business’ of the curriculum.

Emerging curriculum case studies from projects across the JISC Digital Literacies programme show how different subject teams are approaching this challenge. There are also a number of useful staff development materials such as cue cards for embedding digitally-rich activities.

Building capacity in departments.

Academics are aware that digital technologies are changing crucial aspects of their subject area, from data capture through research management to scholarly communication. They need the confidence to share those excitements and challenges with their students, and to explore new approaches to teaching with the same interest – and with students as collaborators. This requires an environment in which risk is rewarded and innovators can find support.

Junior academic staff and PGRs can be particularly valuable champions, as they tend to be both digitally and academically literate and are at a point in their careers where a specialism in digital scholarship may be an advantage. It is also important to build bridges between local interest and central expertise, for example by involving subject librarians and e-learning specialists in curriculum design.

Opportunities for discussion and exchange are critical to building capacity. These might include faculty seminars, lunchtime showcases, awaydays, focus groups, and championing of best practices via awards and online case studies.

Further resources

The JISC Design Studio is being used to collate resources and outcomes from the Developing Digital Literacies programme. Thematic pages include developing academic practice, developing digital literacies in the curriculum, and general staff development resources.


Helen Beetham, for the Jisc Developing Digital Literacies programme

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