Literacy in the Digital University

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A talk given by Dr Robin Goodfellow for the Teaching and Learning Research Group of the Open University (TLRG).

Robins starts by talking about what literacy is. It is apparently not as obvious as it may seem. Commonly literacy is understood as reading and writing skills. Another definition is that in a digital environment literacy means reading and writing but in relation to the interaction with the technology medium, and this is the field of engagement of the New Literacies approach. Robin’s definition of literacies is even broader than that, it has to do with the various practices involved in academic life, such as writing journal articles, creating power point presentations, dealing with emails, writing blogs, filling in institutional forms, and the list goes on and on. There are technical skills involved in all of these, and using appropriate language for an academic context is also part of the skills required for engagement. What these definitions have in common, however, is that all these tasks involve creating texts. Texts not as only print or written language, but videos, images etc.

All these activities involve not only the person that the texts are directed to but also all the other people involved in using these documents, creating them etc. There are relation of power involved all the way through these practices (e.g. peer review process of accepting a journal article). Literacy then is about social practices, and the kind of texts and kinds of power relations that are envisaged in a digital university. He asks: What kinds of skills constructs the idea of the digital university, given that all universities nowadays are engaged in digital practices?
How can practices such as Facebook-ing, Tweeter-ing, Tagg-in, Second Life-ing be better understood? Research on this is at an ’embrionic’ phase, he argues.

Robin is now looking into some of the current research that deal with the discourses that are embedded in these new social practices in academia. There are two streams about research in this area: the stream that tries to support the traditional academic practices, and the stream that is keen to foster the use of technologies at the university because the new generation of learners will most likely want to see this happening as they are already used to using technologies.

Robin mentions OpenLearn’s final report in which two types of learners for open educational resources are identified, the voluntary learner and the social learner. Besides the OER reference, he mentions new universities practices related to the web 2.0 and the whole questioning whether the university will remain to be a university. Is the university going to be ‘IT’ centred rather than ‘academic’ centred? He wonders.

The key question for Robin and his project is: What is the relation of established academic discourses and practices to the emergent ones of informal and practitioner learning in digitalised contexts?

In order to investigate this question there is a project called Literacy and the Digital University, funded by ESRC and promoting a seminar series to discuss these issues. Robin mentions another project, the Digital Literacies in Higher Education. This project investigates how digital literacies drive new practices in teaching and learning at the university.

In various universities digital practices penetrate from various sides, but ‘reading’ still seems to be one of the top skills that learners need to do in academia. What is driving pedagogy in these contexts then? It is not the technology but rather the validation of the students’ work that comes from the students and from the institutions themselves, he argues. The institution themselves are creating the digital universities and not only the external influences coming from business, e-commerce, etc. Students also do a lot of writing in the university, and that remains a key skill in academic practice.

Robin argues that the central relation of power in this matter is the ‘persistence of conventional academic values and practices’. He suggests that this is what needs to be looked into in order to understand the emergent practices of the digital university. Why do we need to engage in the understanding of the new practices? Because we need to understand the traditions of what kinds of knowledge are valued and why; we need to understand the new practices that we request our students to do and understand why we do so. Robin questions how these new practices go with the traditional roles that universities traditionally have: at the core of the university is the authority of knowledge, without it there is nothing else the university can offer. Can knowledge be authoritative and accessible at the same time? Universities inform public debate, ideologies and the perception of whose interests are at stake within the construction of knowledge. One of the main reasons for the existence of the university is also the validation of knowledge.

Robin asks what kinds of texts are produced in the new digital scholarship practices. How do we validate this new digital scholarship? These are questions he suggests need attention in academia.

Overall, a talk that provides food for thought at various levels of academic practice!

For more information on the Literacy in the Digital University: