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Thursday, November 8, 2007

The New Web Literacy

I've just given a seminar to my research group (The Learning Societies Lab) on the notion of the New Web Literacy, how e-learning systems should change to support it, and what we should be doing as e-learning researchers to enact and understand that change.
I have wanted to present something on this topic ever since I went to ICALT earlier this year. There seemed to be two groups of people present at the conference: practitioners that had discovered Web 2.0 applications and were having great fun experimenting with them, and more traditional e-learning researchers still exploring the cornerstones of traditional e-learning thinking (Virtual Learning Environments, SCORM, Learning Design, Learning Objects and the like).

My thought was that the excited practitioners are like the Nouveau Riche of eighteenth century London. Back then new money was flooding into the Capital from the colonies and into the hands of people who weren't used to having it. For the first time the Old Money, established families in the Gentry and Aristocracy, were faced with people with a different mindset who were experimenting with their wealth, exploring new forms of literature and music, and engaging with architecture and fashion with no regard for the established rules or structures. At ICALT I thought I saw an analogy in the form of the Nouveau Technorati (New Technical People) - who didn't respect the old rules of the e-learning world and instead were eagerly experimenting with the new generation of Web 2.0 technologies.

I began to wonder what the underlying cause of this was - what is it about blogs, wikis, social software, resource sharing and tagging that strikes such a chord? I'm not the only one left wondering:

The quote is from Time Magazine, when they broke with convention and voted "You" person of the year, 2006. I think they perfectly captured the zeitgeist, and cut straight to the key issue about these technologies - which is that they are about empowering their users, and giving the ownership of technology back to You.

But who is "You"? Surely the claim isn't totally Universal? Diana Oblinger starts to tease this apart in her work on understanding the new students. She talks in generational terms about the attitudes of students.

We've got used to the Baby Boomers (people in the demographic upsurge that followed the World Wars, and who had their teenage years in the sixties and seventies) teaching Generation X (the disaffected young people who rebelled against the dominance of the boomers, and who had their teenage years in the eighties and nineties). An important distinction between these generations is Computer Literacy, which Boomers need to learn, but which Gen-Xers grew up with. Diana Oblinger makes a case for the emergence of a new generation that she calls the Millenials (but who have also been called the iPod Generation, or Generation Y), who have their teenage years in the 2000s.

Millenials have not just grown up with computers, they have grown up with the Web, and are used to being connected and having information at their fingertips. They also have a radically different approach to participation and privacy that sets them apart from the Gen-Xers, I think that a good term for this attitude and openness is Web Literacy.

As far back as 2000, people were noticing a different mindset emerging in students. Jason Frand listed a number of characteristics:
  • Computers aren't technology - just part of the furniture
  • Reality is no longer real - or perhaps Unreality is no longer Unreal - students view activities in the virtual space as being as real as things that happen in their physical lives
  • Multitasking is a way of life - they have become used to multiple information channels
  • Internet is better than TV - they are the first generation to watch less TV than their parents
  • Nintendo over logic - they prefer to try something out than have it explained to them
  • Staying connected - they are used, through mobile phones and broadband, to being connected to each other and the information world at all times
Marc Prensky has a great way to talk about the differences between Millenials (who have this mindset) and Boomers and Gen-Xers (who don't), he talks about Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants.

It is interesting to focus on the different attitudes to education held by Digital Natives and Immigrants. The argument is that Immigrants are much more passive that Natives, and prefer their learning experience to be structured, focused and based on individual experience, while Natives prefer a multi-tasking, random-access approach to information which is much more interactive and collaborative. They also see learning as a natural part of their world, rather than an unnatural adjunct.

If we take these characterisations of our students we can then look at how our current e-learning technologies match up with them to find out if we are providing the sort of support that our Web Literate students actually need.

E-learning at the moment is dominated by the notion of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), these are monolithic systems that provide a single port of call for students and where they can get access to resources, receive notifications about course events and interact with their teachers and peers. It seems obvious that this kind of structured experience, owned wholly by institutions and teachers, does not fit the kind of flexible, random-access mindset of the new Web Literate students.

(above image is from a generator at

Actually VLEs have fulfilled an important need. For a number of years the potential of technology has exceeded practitioners ability to use the technology (making course notes available online for example), this technology deficit decade (from around 1995-2005) was well served by VLEs, but their time is probably over.

Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) are an alternative vision that have emerged in the last few years. PLEs explode the functionality of a VLE, the idea is that a PLE is a learning management system used by a student to draw together data and functionality from a wide range of other applications and services. For example, to gather resources from online repositories such as Flickr, news feeds from sites like Technorati, and more specific information from portfolio servers and institutional Student Information Systems.

Examples of PLE software include the early Colloquia system (a kind of desktop learning organiser), PLEX (an organiser that is integrated with a variety of online services), and more recently Elgg (an open source social networking system).

But you could go further. Flock is a new Web browser that understands the APIs of a number of key websites, this allows some very powerful data integration (such as dragging photos from Flickr into Facebook to share them with friends), and NetVibes offers a sophisticated way in which to build and customise a homepage that uses a wide range of widgets to draw information together. This effectively means that one can imagine an extreme PLE made up solely of publicly available Internet applications and services. For example, NetVibes can display calendars constructed of shared iCal files (so imagine if institutions published timetables, coursework deadlines and exam schedules in this format), displays RSS (what if courses had an RSS feed?) and has widgets for key social sites like Facebook (perfect for organising group work).

We can thus see an e-learning spectrum, from VLEs where the institution has almost total ownership, through PLEs, to entirely Web-based systems, where it is the students who have the ownership of their learning experience.

The problem is that we could take this argument a lot further. If we say that students can build their own learning experiences using open online applications, then surely they can do the same thing with content, drawing on online tutorials, help files and examples, creating ad-hoc learning groups using goal-sharing systems like 43-things, and building an independent portfolio of work. In this world, all learning is informal, and the institutions role is purely as an acreditor.

I accept that there is a place for this kind of learning (after all, we don't stand intellectually still after our University days are over), but I think that just as student ownership matters, so does institutional ownership. Institutions have values that they pass on to their students, and provide a service that guides and supports students to achieve a high quality of learning in a relatively short space of time. It is this spirit - and the access to the professional staff that embody it - that constitutes the added value of an institution, and which students are willing to pay for.

So the question is how could we support student ownership of the experience, without throwing away the institutional ownership of the provision?

I think that the answer is to keep the system in the cloud, in other words institutions provide a number of loosely coupled tools that can be appropriated by students or staff as needed. To make this work the tools have to be functionally focused and have open applicability so that they are easy to incorporate into peoples working spaces, and can be used flexibly in as many different ways as possible. To be successful I also think that it's necessary for these tools to exist as a public service, but also to be available as open source solutions so that Institutions can run them locally and thus guarantee a certain level of service to their students and staff (in a similar way to the email systems they run today).

I'm currently trying to create a Learning Societies Toolkit, which packages of number of applications with these characteristics that have been developed in the Learning Societies Lab here at Southampton, and am also intending to create public versions of them so that teachers and students at institutions without the capability (or inclination) to move forward in this way have a way in which to access them.

Before I finish its worth drawing attention to a marvelous piece of work undertaken by the Digital Ethnography department at Kansas State University, under the supervision of Prof. Michael Wesch. The following video presents the result of 200 students surveying themselves using a collaborative web authoring tool (Google Docs):

Its a very evocative video, but I don't entirely agree with the conclusions (that a solution to personalised learning is to return to chalk and talk teaching methods). I think that instead we could concentrate on building e-learning systems that don't try and enclose students in a safe but suffocating environment, and instead look at building systems that empower both teachers and students, helping them to interact and support one another in an open, flexible way.

It's time to reclaim the virtual learning environment.

The VLE is dead, long live the VLE!


Shakeel said...

nice presentation Dave!

My two cents worth.. When the world was shifting from digital illiterates to digital immigrants, questions regarding digital divide were raised and fears were raised by the academic fraternity that good old laid rules and procedures will not be followed 'properly'. Anyway the change arrived and was accepted widely. Emails became official source of communication and Wikipedia, the standard reference. Lessons must be learnt from this change that we have already witnessed and should be used to predict the needs and requirements of Millenials.

PS: have a look at "Schools of Future" at

Dave Millard said...

A few people have mentioned the danger of a new digital divide and in the talk I did say that if we introduce a concept of Web Literacy, then it follows that there must be a notion of Web Illiteracy to match it.

I agree that these divides do tend to heal naturally, but that doesn't mean that they don't have a serious impact initially that should be managed. I'm also wondering if Web Literacy may be different from Plain Old Computer Literacy in that its not just-based on technical familiarity, but requires a willingness for users to give up something of themselves - to participate in, and trust, the network. I'm a Computer Science Lecturer, and I think pretty familiar with the technology, but even I find that bit difficult!

I've spotted a number of other blog entries this week on this topic, in particular Niall Sclater raised some interesting points about the ability of students and teachers to manage a loosely coupled set of tools.

Dave Millard said...

I think there must have been something in the air last Thursday. Check out this blog post by Martin Weller in which he puts together a nice list of why an institution might want to ditch a traditional VLE for a loosely coupled toolset, and also what are some of the technical and social challenges.

wonkydonky said...

So I feel someone needs to play devil's advocate...

Who’s going to educate the teachers on how to use (and keep up to date with) the multitude of tools you approach implies? Also I think there is a natural repulsion by students away from anything with an institutional slant. When professors start posting on your blog, writing on your wall or txting you, it’s time to move social networking sites!

I agree that we haven’t found the answer but I think the situation is much more complicated then your blog implies. It’s not a matter of us vs them, students vs institutions, or old vs new generations. Essentially the internet revolution has stepped up a gear in the last few years and will continue to evolve with ever more rapid progress. When everyone on facebook hears of the new craze it will take over in a matter of weeks rather then months, and after that days and then after that…, well we will truly become a networked society and all our divisions will blur.

I see a slightly different possible future. With course materials freely available online to all, students will be able to freely pick and choose what and where they like to learn. However what has always remained crucial is the human interaction that lecturers provide. Institutions would make available course material (openly to everyone) using whatever publishing medium is available but only those students that stay the course would receive an accredited award. Universities need to get out of the ‘let’s trap them into using these tools’ mindset and instead learn to release more power to the students. Students will pick and choose the tools they need and if they need more help they will be the ones to get the lecturer involved. After all students have chosen to attend that university and it’s in each student’s best interests to get the most out of that decision. I think such a trend would be a return to more traditional views of universities as containers of minds – and it’s this (much more then any technology) that is an institutions biggest asset!

Dave Millard said...

wonkydonkey - I'm not sure that's a devil's advocate position, because I agree with you! You're speculating further into the future than I was, but isn't your emphasis on an institution's cerebral assets just another take on my very last point - that we should be building systems that help teachers and students communicate in a flexible way, rather then systems that distance them by locking them into a rigid relationship.

You raised two other issues. The first was about student's resenting any institutional invasion of their online social spaces. I think that there is no arguing with this (and in fact mentioned it in my seminar), for example the Guardian ran an article reporting on a JISC exercise that highlighted this very issue. We have to respect the student's personal space, and we just have to acknowledge the fact that the boundary can be a virtual one.

The second issue was about the difficulty teachers might have with adopting a toolkit rather than a single system. I think that you are right to a certain extent that this will be challenging. Teachers are mostly Computer Literate, which means they wont have a problem with using each tool - the problem is that Web Literacy goes beyond this. It is not only about being able to use the technology, but is instead about having the confidence to define your own digital environment and being comfortable about moving some aspects of your life into a public digital space. One open question is how much we can allow students to do this without requiring teachers to do the same.

For me the point is that the e-learning landscape is radically changing, and that as e-learning researchers we have to move with this change or our work risks becoming irrelevant. This seminar (and post) was not trying to promote this change, it was saying that it's already happening - with teachers as well as students - and we need to look at the underlying drivers in order to tackle the challenges and build appropriate systems.

I naturally concentrate on the technology because I am foremost a technologist, but I'm not someone who thinks we should have technology for technologies sake. In that I completely agree with you; what students want most from us - is us!

Emma said...

Bother. That video has gone. It was there this morning & I got distracted while watching it.
The first was about student's resenting any institutional invasion of their online social spaces. I think that there is no arguing with this (and in fact mentioned it in my seminar),
I guess it's pretty much like the fact that when I was at University, I didn't expect to see lecturers in the bars etc. However, you would have a sociable chat with them by the coffee machine in the break between sessions and/ or when a college tutor invited you to a social event.
The other thing, of course, is that no-one forced us to take notes - we did if we chose, in our own way.
It's difficult now to work out how to get students to participate without either you/them feeling that they're being forced into using a tool they're not happy with. (I'd have objected had I been told that all my notes needed to be kept on A4 paper in a folder... The fact that I chose to do that was fine).

.mrsdurff said...

"Teachers are mostly Computer Literate" - on what planet?

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