Social or Professional?

Attending the Developing Digital Literacies programme start-up meeting was an excellent way to get an overview of the projects within the strand. Each project had 2 minutes to describe their approach and planned activities. (The 2 minutes were strictly managed by Marianne Sheppard’s lightly avant-garde use of a ‘barking dog’ alarm.)

All of the projects had also created posters which lined the room with varying levels of text, graphics and diagrams. Reading the posters and discussing them with project team members I was struck again how broad the notion of digital literacy was. On closer inspection I discovered that it was possible to identify a key phrase on each poster which was indicative of that particular project’s underlying approach to developing digital literacies. These phrases made visible two standpoints:

1. Digital literacy as professional practice
Key skills or approaches which can be closely mapped to professional goals or standards. There is a sense here that digital literacies will be defined in terms of ‘competencies’ and that they should sit in a larger professional framework or tool-kit.

2. Digital literacy as a social practice
The notion that digital literacy is closely tied to identity and that there is not a hard line between the professional and the personal. The approach here is usually more individualistic and based on ideas around becoming a legitimate participant in experiential spaces.

Generally I would expect the professional practice approach to be ‘top-down’ while the social practice route is likely to facilitate or make visible ‘bottom-up’ activity. I’m not certain that this will be the case though as the link between these underlying approaches and actual project activities is likely to vary significantly.

I have captured the key phrases from the posters and mapped them on a continuum spanning from the professional to the social.

Professional Practice

“Developing professionalism in the digital environment”

“…professionalise the digital literacy of teaching administrators”

“…develop a range of short qualifications for both lecturers and students in digital literacy…”

“…a set of core graduate attributes, including Digital and Information Literacy”

“For work and employability. For learning. For the future.”

“…involving students as ‘change agents’ in design and delivery of the curriculum”

“Students as ePioneers”

“Personal Actualisation and Development through Digital Literacies in Education”

“Digital literacies as social practice”

Social Practice

This is of course a crude mapping and I’d be interested to hear from projects if they feel they have been positioned incorrectly or if the phrase I have chosen is not a fair representation.

Digital Literacies spectrum

My own ‘Visitors and Residents’ project which aims to support a number of JISC activities is developing an mapping tool which contains an vertical axis with the terms ‘Personal’ and ‘Institutional’ on it. For early stage students the distinction between the personal and the institutional is marked but as they progress through their educational career we envisage this compartmentalisation blurring.

It is certainly not the case that digital literacies as a social practice or as a professional practice can be mapped directly to the personal and the institutional but there may be connections. For example:

The web gives us the technical capability to collapse geography and to blur traditional role boundaries but the extent to which this is actually taking place culturally is difficult to quantify.

Whatever you views on the questions above it’s important to recognise that staff and students are already employing many successful digital literacies. We need to understand what these are and in what context they are being used if we are going to ‘develop’ them or if we want to embed new modes of engagement. The digital literacies we consider to be crucial must be positioned relative to user owned literacies that have already ‘disappeared into use’.

Start of the JISC Developing Digital Literacies programme

@PatParslow reading a poem at #jiscdiglit! (CC BY dougbelshaw)

@PatParslow reading a poem at #jiscdiglit! (CC BY dougbelshaw)

The JISC Developing Digital Literacies programme is a two-year commitment by 12 colleges and universities funded to explore digital and new literacies in their institutions. After a successful programme startup meeting in early October, the projects have begun their initial activity.

Nine of the twelve projects have active project blogs, with the remaining three setting them up as a matter of priority. Some highlights from initial blog posts can be found below with the Exeter CASCADE project giving a useful brief overview of the startup meeting.

Greenwich have taken a slightly different approach in that they have set up a social networking site with blog features called DLinHE (Digital Literacies in Higher Education). As is appropriate to the subject matter, it is very conversation-oriented. An early post, for example, encouraged discussion around defining ‘digital literacy’:

We are entering a contested area here, folks. Each of us probably has a different definition of what we mean by DL depending on our discipline and context. Even the term ‘literacy’ is problematic, for example, library and information professionals would most likely be infuenced by information literacies and look to the (revised) Sconul pillars for a competency framework, others by media literacies, etc.

This early definition stage is where many projects are at. The Bath PriDE project ran a think tank event recently with their Faculty of Engineering and Design and the participants came up with the following definition of digital literacy:

A digitally literate person in the Faculty of Engineering and Design should be proficient in retrieving, managing, evaluating, sharing and presenting relevant information supported by access to the appropriate hardware and software.

As Vic Jenkins notes in a comment to that post, there may be “a natural tendency to focus on more generic or familiar skill sets… when participants first approach ideas around digital literacy.”

Developing digital literacies is certainly an iterative process, as University College London have discovered (emphasis in original):

The digital department is itself both a social practice and an active process. We cannot ultimately look at the literacies of one the TAs alone; we should think of distributed digital literacies across the department. As the literacies of TAs improve,  what is the effect of the other participants in the departmental social practice; the students and particularly the academics?  Can the students own literacies be enhanced by interacting with a ‘switched on department’? Will academics, relieved of basic digital management  have the time and inclination to engage more fully with online activities? What effect could this have on course design?

These are certainly exciting times for the projects involved in the JISC-funded programme, but also for those who are looking to do something similar in their institution. Be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed for updates and follow the hashtag #jiscdiglit on Twitter!