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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Web Literacy Revisited

How do modern students study, and how good are they at it? That's the question posed by the emerging topic of digital literacy. Last week I attended the Shock of the Old event in Oxford that addressed this question.

The topic of digital literacy is particular interesting to me because for the past year or two I've been trying to make sense of the new attitude that learners seem to have towards technology, and back in November 2007 I coined the phrase Web Literacy to describe that attitude. For me Web Literacy is not about a person's age or background, and it doesn't refer to their ability to use technology, instead it is more about their "... desire to create an on-line identity, a willingness to forgo some aspects of privacy, and to embrace online relationships as the equal of real ones".

Literacy vs. Literacy

At Shock Tabetha Newman presented a Becta review she is completing on digital literacy, in which she concludes that there are three ways to think about student capability:
  1. Their knowledge of, and skill with, digital tools and applications
  2. Their ability to think critically, and evaluate and analyze information sources
  3. Their social awareness and ability to represent themselves digitally
The first of these is what I would call good old fashioned Computer Literacy, the second is Information Literacy, and the third seems closely linked to Web Literacy. In fact I think Tabetha means it more broadly - so its our social skills and abilities in all learning contexts - but I think its still a pretty good match.

We had a number of discussions about how these things do or don't map onto Generation Y or Digital Natives. Those two terms have fallen out of favor in the last year (partly through overuse, partly because of their shaky scientific origins) but its still useful language with which to discuss the current and impending mismatch of skills and expectations between teachers and students.

My view is that both students and staff actually have a similar level of Computer Literacy, and that recent evidence (and our own experience working with students from nursing and social work) indicates that this is more varied than you might expect for both groups. The real mismatch comes in the other two areas.

Students tend to have poor Information Literacy, but good Web Literacy; this means that they do not have the search and research skills HE courses typically need, they find it difficult to assess information sources, and don't appreciate plagiarism or respect attribution in the ways we might want. However, the same attitudes enable them to interact much more freely online, and they are able to merge their online and digital experiences much more effectively.

Staff on the other hand tend to have good Information Literacy, but poor Web Literacy; this means that they are very good at finding and assessing information online, but are reluctant to participate in online interactions and view the virtual world as a separate (perhaps unimportant) space.

It is interesting to see how there might be a tension between these two skillsets - as higher Information Literacy is likely to reduce the trust and openness necessary to build a high Web Literacy.

The PLE as a Way Forward?

One of the problems that institutions face with Web Literacy is that it means that students are increasingly escaping from institutional IT systems, and learning in-the-wild. For some Universities this is a problem in itself - how do we monitor them! - for others the problem is put in more progressive terms - how do we support them?

At Shock there was a good presentation by Palitha Edirisingha and Ricardo Torres Konpen (from the University of Leicester) about an experiment they have running to help students build their own PLEs from third party tools. For example, how to use the Google Suite of tools, or how to incorporate a number of applications into Facebook to help manage learning. Students reported that the experience had changed their approach to learning, and had strengthened the social relationships between both students and staff, although they had required guidance to deal with the complexity of managing their own learning toolset.

Miles Metcalfe, from Ravensbourne College, gave a spirited presentation on their approach to supporting personal learning by directly supporting personal technology. Rather than help students build an explicit environment, they support them by helping students purchase personal technology and by making sure that their IT systems are open and cope with heterogeneity. This results in funding moving from traditional IT (such as workstations and networks) to personal IT (such as laptops and wireless).

I really liked both of these approaches, they are technically lightweight, but emphasize a need for a supportive atmosphere and an open attitude to student's tool choices.

The VLE and Digital Literacy

Shock was also my first experience of the Twitter soundbite. In reply to someone's comment I noted that the VLE is the last refuge of the digitally illiterate - and then watched as my tweet was retweeted around the world.

It's a pithy note, but I meant it sincerely. If digital literacy is really an amalgam of three skillsets including Social or Web Literacy then how can the VLE, a place where teachers can hide from the greater internet community, possibly promote it.

The VLE is a safety net that supports people who are not fully literate, this could be a good thing but not if by supporting them it also prevents them from developing those skills.


wonkydonky said...

You might like to see this:

"Bloom’s taxonomy for the digital age"

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