Digital literacies for lifelong/online learning

One area the JISC digital literacies programme did not set out to explore was the capabilities required to learn successfully online. Before the current interest in MOOCs led to a resurgence of online-only provision, the focus was on harnessing digital technologies to the requirements of a blended context, and this was reflected both in the call for project bids and in the ideas which were put forward for funding.

However, projects would not have been meeting the needs of their host institutions if they had ignored the current drive to diversify modes of provision, including via MOOCs, conventional closed online courses, and release of open content. Projects have also naturally been concerned with how the experiences offered to students on mainstream courses of study prepare them for lifelong learning, which will often take place in online settings. So as a programme we can offer some thoughts on the kind of capabilities, practices and approaches that are likely to stand students in good stead when they undertake learning online and/or beyond the boundaries of formal education.

Defining digital literacies for online/lifelong learning

Most general definitions of digital literacy are transferable to informal and online settings. For example, Beetham and Sharpe’s Developmental Model (see also working versions from the Reading and Cardiff projects) suggests that at the highest level of development, a digitally literate person will:

  • create a learning environment that suits my preferences and needs
  • participate actively in global networks as well as in my digitally-enhanced local community
  • plan my own learning journey, using technology to access opportunity, showcase achievements, and reflect on the outcomes
  • (be) critical in my reading of messages in different media, and in my use of different technologies
  • judge digital resources, environments, networks and opportunities for their value to me and others
  • design original projects and generate my own goals, using digital devices/media to help realise them
  • behave ethically in contexts where the digital is blurring boundaries, and with an awareness of digital rights and safety

A complementary model, developed by the SEEDPoD project at Plymouth, shows how learners come to act as effective consumers and producers of digital content and as practitioners in a range of digital settings. Again the elements described are compatible with either a blended or a fully online environment, and with either a formally supported or informal/self-directed context.

Supporting the development of relevant digital literacies

Both models suggest – and our experience bears out – that developing digital literacy requires, first, relatively structured experiences with technology, with clear expectations and goals and support for the technical and social/educational activities to be undertaken. Later, experiences of learning with technology should be extensive and unstructured, with expectations and goals that derive from the subject of study and/or the learners’ own aspirations. With fully online learning, the intensively structured experiences need to be carefully orchestrated. This may be done with a face- to-face induction, with structured pre-course tasks to familiarise students with the technical environment and the techno-social practices of participation, and/or by diagnosing students as ‘ready’ to engage fully in the online experience.

Motivation and self-efficacy are required for all higher learning (see for example Littlejohn et al 2010) but online and lifelong learners need to have these already or develop them early in their course of study if they are to succeed. Again, this presents a challenge to course designers. Lacking the positive reinforcement of live contact, they may provide opportunities for learners to reflect on their goals, or help learners to build support networks online. Our projects have found that familiarity with social media makes it easier for learners to feel supported in online study settings.

A DDL project at the Institute of Education has used mapping to explore the range of ‘domains’ and ‘resources’ that students use to knit together their life and learning. They found that even in predominantly face-to-face settings learners are generating their own distributed environments for study, which give access to resources but importantly also to social spaces in which they can make sense of their learning. Such environments are highly personal, but the programme has found that learners benefit from clear guidance on what is institutionally approved and expected, and from sharing practices with others.

So online learners must be proactive in building social networks around their learning, just as they are in finding information and completing study tasks. Perhaps what is new is that they now have to engage comfortably across multiple platforms/spaces, including spaces not owned and managed for them by the course provider. Especially in the case of open courses and opportunities, learners must understand how to restrict access to material shared on public networks, and also that there are benefits to undertaking some aspects of learning in public. Feedback from students involved in the Exeter Cascade project suggests that most prefer a closed environment when they are beginning to develop their academic/professional identity. Contributing to public forums and web resources and showcasing outcomes are important experiences for lifelong learners, but should not be required until they feel relatively safe and confident in the modes of expression required.

Projecting and managing identities online are essential capabilities not only for demonstrating the outcomes of learning but for participating successfully in a learning community. This has been a focus for a number of projects, including the Digitally Ready project at Reading, WORDLE (which has an online course on developing a professional digital identity – log-in required) and the DIAL project at UAL (which hosted a mini-project on professional online identities). Digital literacies in transition (Greenwich) has mapped how students develop and project identities at key stages in their learning journey, while the SEEDPoD Digital Literacies Guide includes sections on ‘presentation of self’ and ‘digital footprint’.

We have some indications – perhaps ironically – that reviewing, assessing and developing one’s digital presence are best done in a well-supported real-world setting. This may be because students engage more confidently in identity work when they receive immediate feedback and have the tangible support of peers. Certainly this would bear out research that successful online learners are generally those who have had positive experiences of learning in off-line settings, and who already have a digital identity or presence they can use as a resource for study. However, identity work can be done effectively online using tools such as blogs, e-portfolios, and through high-quality feedback.

What institutions and programmes can do

In all cases we find that students learn more effectively when they are fully aware of how they will be learning, what role technologies will play, and what will be expected of them. The Digidol project at Cardiff found this to be such an important element of developing digital capability that they created ‘awareness’ as a new base for the development pyramid. We encourage all programme leaders to address student’s expectations of digital study before they enrol and throughout the induction period.

At the OCTEL webinar on this topic we identified a number of reasons why institutions might diagnose learners’ ‘readiness to learn online’, or more generally their characteristics as online learners. They were:

  • to adapt or tailor provision to the needs of particular learners (adaptive teaching)
  • to signpost learners to resources tailored to their particular needs (responsive diagnosis)
  • to research how well provision is meeting the needs of different learners (quality enhancement)
  • to engage in a dialogue with students, allowing them to adjust their expectations and be more satisfied with their experience (student engagement

Arguably all of these are reasons for institutions to consider learners’ digital literacies at the start of an online course. Issues to be aware of about include technical competence, language and culture (including cultures of learning), individual sensory, motor or cognitive impairments, and learning preferences including the ability to be self-directed in learning. It is important to note that differences in respect of these issues can be treated as problems, or as resources. One reason for thinking about ‘digital literacies’ rather than technical competence is that it turns learners from points on a sliding scale into people with diverse experiences, habits and know-how, some of which may be drawn on to support their and other people’s learning.

General research and local diagnosis both tend to find that online learners are different. They differ in how and where they learn best online, in their reasons for study, in whether they want social and academic/professional spaces to be integrated or kept rigorously apart, and in how well they adapt personal/social capabilities to academic/professional learning. Learners also have the potential to acquire new opinions, ideas and capacities that render them different people from who they were. Principles we have found to hold true for all learners are:

  • Technology changes the relationship between learning and life
  • Aptitudes to learn and aptitudes with ICT are highly context-dependent
  • Learners are not bundles of attributes – they are purposeful and continuously making sense of their own learning
  • Learner differences can be a resource or a problem, depending on how learning is organised. Groupwork, flexible assessments are good ways of valuing learners’ different digital capabilities
  • Work with learners’ digital identities by helping them progressively make their work more publicly visible

Further resources

OcTEL webinar:

Other OcTEL resources:

SEEDPoD resources:

JISC quick guide to online learning:


Littlejohn A, Milligan C and Margaryan, A (2012) Charting collective knowledge: supporting self-regulated learning in the workplace, Journal of Workplace Learning Vol. 24 Iss: 3, pp.226 – 238.

Helen Beetham, for the Jisc Developing Digital Literacies programme

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