A supportive environment for digital literacy development

There are many studies of how user expectations of institutional IT are changing: see for example the recent Educause review of IT issues and regular surveys from UCISA. The Developing Digital Literacies programme has focused rather on how people acquire the digital literacies they need for academic success, and how aspects of the institutional environment support them in doing so.

IT departments have a powerful role to play, for example in providing the network capacity, data environment and identity management that underpin access to services. Effective academic work demands seamless transition between personal, cloud-based and institutional applications, and the capacity to access all of these from multiple locations. But institutions need to rethink their provision beyond IT services. For example, learning and social spaces must adapt to allow secure use of personal devices and simultaneous real-time / virtual collaborations. Assessment regimes need to provide scope for different approaches to academic tasks, and to reward digital expertise where it is relevant to the outcome. A range of professional staff may be involved in minimising the disadvantages felt by those students (and staff) who are not comfortable in a digital setting.

Above all we have identified that institutions need a sustained dialogue with staff and students about their digital practices, which is not confined to meeting expectations today but also supports emerging practices of learning and scholarship into the future. Guidance on embedding and maintaining such conversations – particularly with students – will be one outcome of JISC’s new co-design approach in partnership with SCONUL, UCISA, RUGIT and RLUK. Here we review some emerging themes.

Bring your own device

Our baseline report highlighted the rise of the ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) culture in universities and increasingly among colleges too. The assumption that personal devices will be used to manage academic work also implies that individuals will use their own software and services and rely to a large extent on their own ICT skills. We have seen BYOD being used as a reason to cut costs, but as students increasingly consider ICT provision and support in their choice of programme we find forward-thinking institutions refocusing rather than reducing their investment. For example, drop-in surgeries can support the range of devices and applications in use better than one-off workshops, and IT-literate students can be particularly effective in these roles. Priorities for technical staff have gone beyond integrating specific applications to developing a flexible data environment and data services which are agnostic as to users’ preferred devices and applications.

BYOD enables staff and students to develop a personal repertoire of technology use. Practices are more readily adopted and refined if they can be transferred easily across contexts. So BYOD has a clear role to play in supporting digital literacy development. BYOD also supports innovation, as it allows pioneers to experiment in familiar settings and with familiar tools. However, a review of BYOD policies among projects has found:

  • Staff and students may be wary of bringing their personal devices onto campus for fear of loss, theft or damage, or because there are not enough work spaces with good network access. This is where small changes to infrastructure can make a big difference.
  • Most institutions do not have the network capacity or appropriate support services to allow a complete switch to personal devices.
  • Infrastructure that supports the use of personal devices is not enough. A BYOD strategy requires consultation, policy development, and the provision of alternatives for those who would otherwise be disadvantaged.
  • BYOD challenges the boundaries of the institution, allowing students to access open resources and collaborate with others remotely while on campus. The core institutional activities of learning, teaching, research and communicating ideas may take place in spaces not monitored or controlled by the institution. There are implications for data security and also for student tracking and analytics.
  • With or without BYOD, institutions need to ensure parity of experience across different campuses and also for students not studying on an institutional campus at all, e.g. at work or home, on placement, studying abroad.

At Cardiff, the approach has been to identity the tasks that staff and students carry out and to map the relevant data/information, ensuring it can be accessed from any device. As users demand more capacity to personalise their digital experience, institutions need to find means beyond branding and the ‘student desktop’ to ensure students identify with their digital offer. Secure back-up, lifelong email and lifelong web space are services that can give BYOD students a sense of institutional belonging.

Bridging the gap between personal and institutional technologies

As personal/social technologies become increasingly easy to adopt, students may actually struggle more to adopt the specialist systems required for success at college or university. However, with practice and support even highly specialised (subject- or profession-specific) tools become part of a student’s personal repertoire. We have evidence of technologies introduced by tutors – such as Endnote, evernote, prezi, LinkedIn, surveying and blogging tools – being incorporated into students’ social lives and personal digital identity, as well as personal tools being deployed effectively in study contexts. Lessons from projects include the following:

  • Expect students to mix and match technologies, and avoid setting up unnecessary barriers. The IoE project has mapped how students are juggling personal/institutional technologies in a positive way to create a preferred environment for study.
  • Institutions need to be flexible about how they communicate. Some individuals like to use one (e.g. email/twitter/google) account for everything, while others manage complex lives by adopting different identities and using different services. Students may develop a professional profile on Linked-In, or open a me@uni facebook account to keep their home and college lives separate.
  • Linking applications allows students to manage their identities effectively and sends an important message e.g. the capacity to sign in using either university or Facebook ID.
  • Personal/social practices with technology are where most students are comfortable. New technologies  will be challenging if they support complex, specialised practices such as referencing, data analysis, design, managing geospatial data. Making academic use of more familiar technologies can help students to bridge the gap.
  • The critical issue is who chooses the tools to be used: whether this is predetermined by the specialism of the application, mandated by the institution, recommended by the tutor/course of study, or preferred by the student. The ideal is for students to gradually take more responsibility for this decision, but the curriculum and specialism will determine how this is managed.

A supportive curriculum context

Projects at Greenwich, Cardiff and Worcester have all explored the educational implications of a BYOD approach, specifically when students are allowed to use a choice of technologies or media to achieve an educational outcome. This presupposes access to devices, resources and know-how on the part of students. Such approaches also challenge the assumption that staff will have (at least) the same level of access and functional skill that students have. Students must be allowed to approach problems and express ideas in ways that teaching staff may not have anticipated. At the same time, staff need to be confident enough in their academic practice to support, assess and give feedback on the diverse solutions that emerge.

Both teaching staff and students themselves tend to over-estimate students’ ICT capabilities. While some students are exceptionally confident – and few are complete novices – still the norm is for students to have used only the basic functions of personal devices and services, and to have limited their exploration of educational media to those required by teachers. There needs to be room in the curriculum for students to identify their limitations and experience good digital strategies, whether modelled by tutors or shared by peers.

We have learned that:

  • Students differ in how integrated they want their learning and personal spaces to be. Teaching needs to be sensitive to these preferences.
  • While public spaces and social networks have their role, consistent use of institutional systems such as the VLE, plagiarism detection and assessment software is the most important factor in students’ digital experience. Integrating features such as blogging into the VLE can reduce anxiety about the use of public spaces, allowing students to focus on the learning.
  • More confident, resourced and resourceful students will look beyond the tools offered to them. These habits can be spread to other students through e.g. groupwork, peer assessment and mentoring, and by making explicit that exploration is encouraged and will be rewarded.
  • Avoid denigrating commonplace practices such as reference to wikipedia. Instead, show how relatively familiar activities – commenting, contributing to blogs/wikis, making a short video or bookmarking – can satisfy educational requirements if the ideas are of an academic quality.
  • Projects at the universities of Reading, Exeter and Oxford Brookes have all encouraged students to develop apps that can be used by other students (cf also TWOLER project at Westminster, summer of innovation projects). This is an excellent way of embedding digital literacies into the curriculum.
  • Activities that require some aspects of student work to be publicly visible online – for example as a wiki page, blog entry or online video – provide resources for employability as well as encouraging students to see digital skills as relevant to their future success.

Supporting new digital practices across the board

Across all the student and staff groups surveyed by the DDL programme, self-directed and informal learning were the mode for adopting new practices with technology. Exceptions to this were complex, specialist technologies – devices such as digital instruments, and software systems such as CAD/CAM, reference management software, data analysis etc – which as we have discussed  require formal induction and structured practice. But even using personal technologies effectively in an educational context requires trial and error, and guidance from successful others is invaluable. So institutions need to consider how to ensure useful digital practices are encountered, adopted and shared. We have found that:

  • Innovators often feel they have to circumvent institutional systems. Policy-makers can help by clarifying which systems are institutionally mandated, which applications beyond those are supported and/or recommended, and what are the limits of tolerance for experimenting with new and alternative solutions.
  • Programme teams should consider the messages they give to arriving students about how they will study and how best to prepare for it, including with digital devices and know-how.
  • Institutions need to create more opportunities for academics and support departments to discuss their digital practices. Opportunities to share might include lunchtime seminars and drop-in sessions, SIGs and mailing lists, departmental meetings, directories of expertise, or supporting digital champions and pioneers.
  • The DIGIDOL cake metaphor highlights that a one-size approach to supporting digital literacy is not appropriate. Digital literacies emerge in specific contexts, to achieve specific purposes, and institutions need a variety of approaches to engage staff and students in effective digital activities.

Questions that all institutions should address:

Are there groups of staff/students who are being left behind or risk being disadvantaged by emerging practices (e.g. BYOD)? How, if at all, are they being supported?

How are students prepared for digital study practices and for making good use of the digital environment? For example is it clear to them that they will need ICT skills simply to enrol on institutional systems, and that they will be expected to be relatively self-sufficient with their digital device(s)?

How are students able to communicate their expectations and needs in response? Does this process include actual dialogue as well as (e.g.) surveys?

How are staff and students encouraged to use new tools and resources, and how are the needs of digital pioneers being addressed?

How are the terms of reference and the activities of IT departments/services changing and how do they need to change further?

Further resources

Design studio

JISC Infokit: Learning Spaces

Helen Beetham, for the Jisc Developing Digital Literacies programme

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member

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