Society for Research in Higher Education: digital literacy event

Last week I was busy, presenting on Friday at the Society for Research in Higher Education event. I was running a workshop with Moira Bent, on behalf of the RIDLs coalition. This was the second event where we ran a workshop on digital and information literacies, the RDF and the concept of the ‘Informed Researcher’ for groups outside the library sector. Many of those attending on Friday were educational researchers, educational developers, postgraduate researchers and lecturers. When we asked the groups to break into discussions on what they thought digital and information literacies were, what it meant to be an informed researcher and how they were supporting researchers in their own institution to develop in this area, I have never known such as noisy round of discussions! I think we gave them plenty to think about, but also I hope that people took away that there is a lot that librarians can offer in the way of expertise in this field. We had a great debate on what the term information literacy meant – what is information? And what is literacy? Was digital literacy a broader or narrow term? But most importantly what should we be doing in this area to ensure everyone has these capabilities.

The afternoon saw presentations from Mary Lea and Lesley Gourlay who discussed the work of new literacies and academic literacies, how research into digital literacies is an extension of this. They spoke about their research using Actor Network Theory as a way of understanding what is happening. This allows us to understand literacies as a social practice that occurs in powerful and emerging networks. Mary felt that the JISC definition of digital literacy reduced it to functional skills. Lesley has been working on the JISC Digital Literacy project at the Institute of Education around digital literacy as a postgraduate attribute. She spoke about how universities are clustered around activities with texts and that texts have become entangled now with devices that meditate much of the text. She quoted the work on posthumanism by Hayles, where the status of the face to face is placed in radical doubt. As part of the JISC project they have interviewed students and asked them to draw their day to day activities which reflect a network of practice. Lesley talked about how reading practices are very different and that non-human actors have agency. Some of this research clearly requires some further reading on my part, but a fascinating insight into what I had previously thought to be a fairly typical JISC project!

Finally Bronwyn Williams from the University of Louisville who is visiting professor at the University of Sheffield currently, spoke about popular culture and students’ online literacy practices. He first showed a video made by one of his students which remixed music and images in a highly creative way and then asked us what do you need to understand to be able to create such a video? The technical skills? The knowledge of cultural references, of IP issues? Bronwyn talked about the digital practices that students use outside the classroom including textual poaching and mosaic and how they can apply these in the classroom.

Quoting the popular images of students as lazy, shallow, short attention span. Can’t read and write etc, Bronwyn then went on to consider one student, Ashley, who contributes to fan forums and has written over 40,000 words! But she did this for fun and did not associate it with work, and her teacher did not know. So there is a disconnect between what is happening in and outside the classroom.  In fact students use multiple modes of communication and it is not true to say students don’t read and write – they just don’t read and write in the way that has cultural capital (e.g. books). He observed that there is a lot of print on sites such as You Tube (for example comments).

Bronwyn spoke about audience and how this is something students think about when they go online. Am I going to be misread? Arguably we have always done this – with posters, t-shirts, our bookshelves and record collections. But the difference online is the person is not there. People see ‘you’ without seeing you so you become disembodied. Irony is also important so students have to ask if this is serious or if there is a joke behind a posting.

The idea of textual poaching comes from Michel de Certeau (1984) When we are reading we are looking for new material to appropriate and reuse. Now we can do this very easily and publish it using digital media. Quoting a video put together by students at the American University of Beirut over fees being raised, the video used references to the film 300, which is part of popular culture.

Mosiac and rhetoric: rather than gathering information from a single text to support an argument, this has been replaced by gathering information from a variety of sources. A student will spend a lot of time researching for example whether to go to a movie from a variety of sources. In these practice the line between reading and writing is very blurred. Student can move from reading to composing and these are not distinct activities. But these practices challenge traditional concepts of authorship. Texts are not complete and they can be amended.

What is clear is that students don’t hang up their other life behaviour up when they come into the classroom. So how can we help them make connections between in and outside the classroom? Everyone knows something and many students are putting forward their own point of view, creating content. Not all students are doing this but many of watching this material if not creating it. These practice creates some tensions and students are often less familiarity with print genres so we need to explain how academic texts are set up. IP questions are raised when sampling and quoting – the distinction between these practices needs to be explained. Finally Bronwyn stressed that we need to ask students about their practices and to focus on affordances – different media do different things well. We also need to help students connect new practices to existing practices. He finally concluded that teachers should think about goals and ideas – then technology.I couldn’t agree more!


2 thoughts on “Society for Research in Higher Education: digital literacy event

  1. Thanks Jane for this account of what sounds like a really stimulating workshop. I am particularly interested in Bronwyn Williams’ paper and how there is a disconnect between the practices and skills being used inside and outside the classroom. Lots to consider and definitely more reading to do. Maria

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