Digital Literacy Part 2

November 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

Digital Literacy

There have been many, many times in human history where an upheaval of some kind changes everything, and people have to recalibrate what they know, and how they do things: early agriculture, the printing press, religion, industrialisation, and the silicon chip have all posed new problems and opened up new opportunities for segments or the entirety of the human race at one time or another. During such periods, established wisdom and knowledge are of little use, and fresh maps are needed to chart the way through the unfamiliar landscapes of the new era.

The present modern times pose all sorts of new questions about where we are going and the best routes to take, and the Internet is not the most challenging of these when you consider climate change, nationalism, or global poverty. But it nonetheless is an unprecedented phenomenon and arguably a major element with regard to all the other challenges: a means of communication that operates more or less without boundaries, radically more democratic than any previous form of mass communication, posing scope for human intercourse that is in equal measure thrilling and frightening. But it is still very new: the World Wide Web has been around for less than twenty five years, and that is absolutely nothing in human scale. We should recognise that we are still at the very outer fringes of understanding how the Internet might impact on the distribution of knowledge, power and democracy across the world.

We, adults that is, are certainly not yet in a position to pronounce with any great authority to the young on the significance or value of the online world. Young people are dynamic players on this new stage, and are creating their own means of incorporating it into their lives. Whilst no more wise than anyone else about the implications of their activities online, they are often highly adept at achieving their own needs in their own ways. Certainly as adept as many of their teachers, who are inevitably caught up in schools’ anxieties about the Internet.

Its actual value in schools is quite trivial; a kind of children’s encyclopaedia in which to find the most findable and least challenging knowledge. Educators should instead be grasping the Internet with both hands, and making it the focus of exploration, study and deep use in formal education. It is not straightforward: the particular problem of understanding what this new thing means in our lives, and learning how to manage that, is something quite distinct from the familiar curriculum of formal education. There is no overarching or authorised knowledge of the Internet: it is only knowable in fragments, and in the partial understandings of different individuals and groups. And the solution should definitely not be to act as if we do know all about it by laying claim to expertise under the banner of something posing as authorised knowledge called Digital Literacy.

Rather, formal education should adopt a phenomenological orientation towards the Internet, and prioritise the collaborative exploration in classrooms of the different ways in which different people make sense of it, experience it, act in it, learn from it; and through those explorations, perhaps understand better how we might do those things better, more intelligently. Teachers and pupils, young and old, should bring their own perspectives and experiential knowledge to this exploration in equal measure, with equal respect. The goal has to be far more ambitious than learning how to be safe online: we should accord the Internet the central attention it merits as a defining aspect our modern age, and an indispensable medium of all that we might consider educational. Above all, this should be a democratic endeavour, quite free from the deadening paternalism of anything like Digital Literacy instruction.


Leave out the digital literacy. Part One

May 19, 2014 § 9 Comments

Please read the following very carefully. It is the opening Statement of Purpose to new subject in the National Curriculum for England, computing. And it is positively bursting with goodness:

“A high-quality computing education equips pupils to understand and change the world through logical thinking and creativity, including by making links with mathematics, science, and design and technology. The core of computing is computer science, in which pupils are taught the principles of information and computation, and how digital systems work. Computing equips pupils to use information technology to create programs, systems and a range of media. Building on this knowledge and understanding, pupils are equipped to use information technology to create programs, systems and a range of content. Computing also ensures that pupils become digitally literate – able to use, and express themselves and develop their ideas through, information and communication technology – at a level suitable for the future workplace and as active participants in a digital world.”

Change the world! Or at least maybe find a job. Here are the keys to your digital future. Consider yourselves equipped.

Overblown rhetoric aside, this represents, in epistemological terms, what might be viewed as a very significant shift in traditional British thinking about education. In effect, it proposes that the rigour and discipline of computer programming is capable of providing children with all the things that were once thought to be afforded by a classical education: logical thinking, creativity, understanding, self-expression and empowerment. If Athens was once the intellectual cradle of civilisation, I guess it is now located in a cloud somewhere between Stanford and Seoul.

In the detail of thinking that follows this opening statement, these proposals seem quite attractive, and will certainly resonate strongly with a portion of the school population at least. So, it has to be correct to offer all young people the chance to learn how to “to create programs, systems and a range of content” in appropriate and engaging ways. This could be creative, productive and educational fun, if done well (the prospects of actually being able to provide this high quality computing education right across the system are somewhat less certain). For all the hyperbole of the opening sentence, the basic premise of promoting a child friendly version of computer science is both daring and sound.

But please note: computer science is a discipline in its own right. And like any discipline, there are strict limits to its concerns; the inner logic of the thing. I cannot see why the inner logic of computer science is expected to encompass the notion of digital literacy – a claim that is offered as a final irresistible flourish in the statement of purpose, presumably to reassure us that whilst the baby that was ICT has indeed been thrown out, its bath-water remains:

“Computing also ensures that pupils become digitally literate – able to use, and express themselves and develop their ideas through, information and communication technology – at a level suitable for the future workplace and as active participants in a digital world.”

Computer science concerns the application of symbolic languages to the manufacture of mediated communications and representations. It is, quite evidently, a morally neutral activity which is concerned with making things work well. Digital literacy, on the other hand, is essentially a moral construct that concerns itself with guiding people to use digital media in socially desirable ways, so that they may contribute to the knowledge economy, and not disrupt the moral economy. There is a meeting point for the two, I acknowledge: you can’t be an effective knowledge worker if the code breaks down; but then neither can you send abusive messages on Twitter if the code breaks down. Just because digital literacy comes from the same wellspring as computing, it does not mean that they can be made to serve each other educationally.

This is a fundamental fallacy of false relations – like thinking that if you eat a lot of fish you will learn to swim.

Coming soon – part 2. What kind of digital literacy do we want, if any?


Chris Davies


Breaking Boundaries – Broadening Access

March 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

The second of our ESRC funded Breaking Boundaries seminar series was recently held at the Oxford Internet Institute and our speakers discussed the general issue of broadening access, with a specific focus on Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and Open Educational Resources (OER).  The seminar was led by three speakers: Sarah Porter, Professor Grainne Conole, and Dr Rebecca Eynon.  All three critically engaged with issues surrounding inclusion and the ways in which technology in the form of MOOCs and OER can and cannot facilitate greater access to educational opportunities for people who have traditionally been excluded from them.

Sarah Porter, Visitor at the OII, previously Head of Innovation and part of the senior management team at Jisc, acted as chair for the seminar and opened the session with a short presentation on the historical development of MOOCs, drawing on her extensive practical and research experience in the area.  She particularly highlighted the way in which Gartner’s Hype Cycle can be applied to MOOCs.  The cycle represents four main phases of the adoption of new technologies: the technology trigger; the peak of inflated expectations; the trough of disillusionment; the slope of enlightenment; and the plateau of productivity.  Sarah argued that hype around MOOCs increased significantly during 2012 as they became increasing visible in popular culture.  However, as negative news stories are beginning to emerge, 2013 and 2014 may represent the trough of disillusionment.  The shape the plateau of productivity may take, therefore, remains to be seen.

Following this presentation, Grainne Conole, Professor of Learning Innovation at the University of Leicester, expanded on Sarah’s discussion by exploring MOOCs and OER’s abilities to disrupt traditional educational structures by also contextualizing them within a historical timeline, charting the development of these, and other, educational technologies.  She highlighted the potential false dichotomy between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, arguing through the use of a self-created ‘taxonomy of MOOCs’ that inter-MOOC diversity is highly nuanced.  A key area she raised, that was touched on by all the presenters, was the ways in which high dropout rates from such courses should be interpreted.  Critics of MOOCs often point to such dropout rates as an indication that technology hasn’t necessarily broadened access to the degree that some of the positive discourses suggest.  However, Grainne argued that completion shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as a mark of success, and that with different users bringing different needs and agendas to their courses, they still had the potential to have valid educational experiences regardless of whether the course was fully completed.

Rebecca Eynon, Senior Research Fellow at the OII and Lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, concluded the session with a presentation in collaboration with Nabeel Gillani and Isis Hjorth, focused on conceptualizing interaction and learning in MOOCs.  The presentation offered findings of an ongoing research project that undertook a mixed method analysis of two MOOCs, investigating the different ways in which users interact and communicate within them and how these relate to learner characteristics, experiences and outcomes.  Building on an extensive network analysis, the speakers presented a series of four typologies of learning and learners – just in time learning, just in case learning, life-long learning, and educational access – arguing that each had very specific goals and needs.  Therefore, they argued that recognizing these diverse needs and goals must be considered when discussing the ways in which such technologies should be conceptualized as supporting wider access.

The seminar was very well attended (with a large number of people also following the live stream on the Breaking Boundaries website) and the issues raised by all the speakers were extensively discussed over excellent refreshments provided by the OII following the session.

Recordings of the presentations and copies of the accompanying slides are available on the Breaking Boundaries website.  Don’t forget to come to the final session of this seminar series on Thursday 13th March, Room G/H, Oxford University Department of Education, in which Dr Niall Winters will discuss ICT for Development with a particular focus on the education of healthcare professionals in Kenya.

James Robson

Breaking Boundaries – Digital Inclusion for Digital Communities

February 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

We recently hosted the first of our Breaking Boundaries seminars, titled Digital Inclusion for Digital Communities. Our speakers, Dr Jonathan Tummons, from Durham University’s School of Education and James Richardson of Tinder Foundation, provided us with differing but complementary perspectives on notions of digital communities and digital inclusion. An audience from across departments helped to contribute to the interdisciplinary debate – just the sort of discussion we hoped would take place. Thank you to all who attended -both in person and online – and especially to James and Jonathan for such thoughtful presentations (available to view here).

What follows is a brief reflection on issues raised in the seminar, particularly in light of the overarching theme of the series: the use of technology to break down barriers to learning and participation in society. While approaching the theme from apparently different angles, there was some immediate common ground for our two speakers.

Jonathan is currently a co-investigator based in the UK on a three-year institutional ethnography: Medical Education in a Digital Age, which explores the issues that surround the implementation of a new medical education curriculum enacted across two locations in Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, three hundred miles apart. Jonathan described the simultaneous facilitation through technology of this specially designed university course, and the research activities of the team of digital ethnographers.

In his theoretically informed presentation, Jonathan touched on underlying institutional discourses of equality – the notion that technology could and would provide a parity of experience for students across the two sites. Yet Jonathan reflected on emerging research findings that students at the “satellite” site, who received streamed lectures, were less likely to ask questions and engage informally with lecturers, and were therefore engaging in a different way to those students who were experiencing face-to-face tuition. An audience member contributed some personal reflections after undertaking an online teacher training programme, noting that she felt the technology – despite idealized notions of a “global” classroom – actually represented a barrier to her sense of belonging to the student community, rather than facilitating engagement. We discussed the importance of our own discursive constructions of the communities we choose (or choose not) to join, and the learning that accompanies any new application of technology: competency with one form of technology does not necessarily equate to competency in another. An overarching conclusion, perhaps, was the important mediating role of the physical world, including technical or face-to-face support, and real social relations, in the virtual world.

Similar ideas were reflected in James’ presentation, in which he discussed the work of Tinder to support digital inclusion across the 2800 centres of the UK online network. There are currently 11 million people without basic digital literacy, and those who are digitally excluded are likely to also be socially excluded in a number of ways. While discourses might suggest that digital inclusion leads to greater to social inclusion and can, therefore, break down barriers to participation in society, this picture is highly simplistic. “Online communities can be of obvious and immediate value, providing they give people the opportunity to learn, to share experiences and ideas, to build social capital and feelings of self-efficacy….but those who stand to benefit most from online communities are those who are least likely to use them,” said James. “Engagement is a huge issue,” emphasising the importance once again of physical, real world mediation and the complex skills required to interpret information online. In digital inclusion interventions, “contact must be sustained, tailored, responsive and, above all, human to have the desired effect.”

James called for a move beyond the familiar, straightforward questions about access to digital resources towards new understandings. How does digital inclusion increase social mobility, confidence or self-efficacy, for example? While these softer measures are considerably harder to measure, and less appealing in impact evaluations for funders and stakeholders, perhaps they represent some of the most important boundaries to address through digital inclusion practice. James argues that grassroots organizations and academia have much to learn from each other, with huge potential for collaboration to engage with such questions in the future.

Don’t forget the next seminar: OER, MOOCs and the promise of broadening access to education on Thursday 20th February, 5-6.30pm, at the Oxford Internet Institute. It promises to be a great event!

Women, technology and empowerment

January 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Phumzile M_N & Joy B

The Learning and New Technologies Research Group has just (17/1/14) hosted a presentation by Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka is currently United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, following a distinguished career as an educator and a politician. Having recently received a doctorate from the University of Warwick, she came all the way from New York to Oxford to speak about her own research, and to talk about the work of UN Women. Her research explores ways of using technologies in South Africa to enhance educational opportunity.  With a specific focus on supporting teachers to establish collaborative networks and communities of practice, her study examined wider uses of ICTs through the formation of peer networks, as well as supporting the learning of school students in relation to their own studies.

It is really inspiring to listen to a speaker with such experience, passion and commitment, not only to her own research, but to the empowerment of women across the world. It is also a sobering reminder that, in many communities, women remain disproportionately affected by poverty, exploitation and violence. Gender discrimination means women often end up in insecure, low-wage jobs, and constitute a small minority of those in senior positions. It also curtails access to economic assets such as land and loans. It limits participation in shaping economic and social policies. And, because women perform the bulk of household work, they often have little time left to pursue economic opportunities.

There is a strong belief from the UN and across international organisations that technology has the potential to provide opportunities for the empowerment of women. Such empowering activities might include access to information, education, employment or political engagement. The proliferation of readily available and relatively affordable mobile phones across marginalised communities has placed device at the forefront of many encouraging initiatives: UN Women, UNICEF and UN-Habitat have together launched an online website which also works as a smartphone app to bring together information on support services for women and girls who are survivors of violence. Online and mobile banking services allow women to access affordable and secure banking services, which can increase their financial capability and independence. Mobile technologies have provided women and girls with access to healthcare information and expanded training for rural healthcare professionals. Crucially, a range of initiatives have worked to address low levels of literacy amongst women.

Yet, as I saw in my own fieldwork in a disadvantaged area of Mumbai, women are less likely to own a mobile phone and are less likely to know how to (or be free to) use it effectively to their own advantage. Indeed, ITU estimates that there are 200 million fewer women than men with access to the Internet worldwide (ITU 2013).

And it is more than an issue of equality of access to appropriate digital resources. With access there must be training for girls and women to help them understand and effectively use technology to their advantage, combined with efforts to challenge discriminatory attitudes towards women’s use of technology.

The University of Oxford is well-placed to bring together relevant expertise from a range of disciplines: in developing appropriate technological solutions to well-understood problems; and in working to sensitively trial and rigorously evaluate initiatives. I know many of us are working on research that employs technology to pursue international development goals. Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka reminds us that it will only be in collaboration that we can achieve accessible sustainable innovations to support women’s empowerment through technology. We see Dr Mlambo-Ngcuka’s visit as just the beginning of such a dialogue, and we intend to develop further connections with those working in related fields across the University in the coming months.

Laura Hakimi, January 2013

DPhil Student

Google Glass – dream learning tool or privacy nightmare?

January 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

I work as Director of Learning at Epic, and part of my role is to explore the potential of new communications technologies to support people to learn at work. I’m particularly interested in the potential of mobile devices to support learning and this interest led me to study for a part-time Doctorate with the Department of Education, within the Learning and New Technologies Research Group. The focus of my research is on the potential of mobile devices to help adult learners in the workplace.

As someone interested in mobile devices for learning, I’ve obviously been following recent developments in mobile technology with interest and one of the more exciting advances has to be the advent of Google Glass and similar wearable devices. Google are now trialing their new technology enhanced spectacles, provoking plenty of speculation and debate. This is what Google have to say.

Some of the speculation centers around what people will look like wearing Google Glasses (will they feel cool enough?!) and at Epic, we’re reading Fashionable Technology: The Intersection of Design, Fashion, Science, and Technology with interest. While it’s certainly true that if people don’t feel confident and comfortable sporting wearable technology, it won’t take off, there are other more far-reaching concerns to consider.

It won’t be a huge surprise that I’m an enthusiast of all things techie, so I’m as excited about the potential of Google Glass as I am about the iWatch, gesture-based technology and the various measurement apps being developed by the quantified-self movement.

This year, Epic were fortunate enough to be successful in our application to trial a pair of Google glasses, and I got the chance to try them out for myself. In terms of looking cool, I think I can safely say I failed: I caused some amusement walking around the workplace vigorously nodding my head to reset the view. It was exciting though and within a few minutes I had browsed our website, looked someone up on Wikipedia and made a phone call to a colleague in New York, all without typing anything into a device. The view wasn’t too obstructive and the voice recognition worked well for simple commands, although it didn’t seem to get along too well with my accent for anything more complex.

Some of the potential activities I can envisage for future learners wearing Google Glass include on-the-job performance support for workers learning practical skills such as bricklaying and plumbing or even surgery, or a vocabulary reminder for people learning new languages, helping them cement their understanding in context. On a LinkedIn discussion in Epic’s learning technologies group members suggested support for medical students, prompts for people giving presentations and even help for new skiers! And that’s just taking advantage of the potential that Google Glass can add to your peripheral vision.

Google Glass technology also offers the potential to video record what you can see and to stream it to someone else. This could be hugely useful for learning. For example, apprentices could benefit from this when discussing performance challenges with mentors. This would be a unique opportunity to see through the eyes of someone who is either more or less skilled at performing a task.

But there are also causes for concern. There is a negative potential for future Google Glass wearers to unobtrusively record things in their vision. Tech analysts are not just thinking about the experiences of those people wearing the glasses, but also about the experiences of those people the Glass wearers are looking at. In a future Google Glass wearing society, it is possible that many of us won’t know when and where we are being recorded, who is storing those recordings and what they are doing with them.

It’s one thing to voluntarily decide to take part in recording your performance for the purpose of identifying areas for improvement – athletes do this all the time, as do executives honing their public speaking skills – but it’s quite different to be involuntarily recorded as you take your child to the park, or eat a quiet dinner with friends in a neighborhood restaurant.
While Google Glass is likely to be a great new support tool in the former case, it could also have serious implications for privacy in the latter case, as this article suggests.

If much more of what we do and say can be recorded and stored, it will give more weight to fleeting moments and we will find ourselves on public show at times when we would prefer to lower our guards and relax. Some people have already made the mistake of thinking that conversations on Twitter are like private conversations with friends, and have found themselves taken to court for expressing off-remarks in writing that might have been disregarded or forgotten had they been spoken in the pub. Because our online opinions are stored in the public domain and often remain there indefinitely for anyone to view, they are treated in a different way.

If private moments start to be routinely recorded and stored, then chatting to your friends in a cafe or bar could become more like having a written conversation on Twitter or Facebook, where anything you say can be saved, stored and tweeted around the world or even used in evidence against you.
If Google Glass takes off, it’s likely that etiquette will evolve around using it, in the same way that people are now asked to switch their phones off in the theatre or cinema. Agreements may also evolve about who owns the videos and who may video what.

Still, it’s a sobering thought. Many technologies have potential for harm as well as good, and while I still can’t help but be excited by the potential of Google Glass and keen to keep playing with our pair, I’m also concerned by the potential erosion of privacy.

When it comes to using this technology for training, designers of technology-based training and performance support, and especially executives in Learning and Development departments, will need to give careful thought to formulating policies about what is and isn’t appropriate and what will happen to the data they generate.

An earlier version of this blog appeared on the Epic blog in March 2013.

Education’s Digital Future—Gaming to Learn talk at Stanford University 2013

March 1, 2013 § 2 Comments

Even after three decades of research on combining digital games and learning in schools, the successful turnout at the talk showed that it is still a hot topic today.

The event was organized by the Stanford University Graduate School of Education as part of their departmental seminar and forum. It was also open to the public to allow greater discussion and debate. Indeed, the lecture theater was tightly packed with graduate students, professors, industry consultants, and even parents with babies. This diverse audience clearly shows that we still care about how we play and what we learn from it.

The forum invited four famous key speakers: Malcolm Bauer, Professor James Gee, Professor Dan Schwartz, and Professor Constance Steinkuehler. These speakers offered different perspectives, research interests, and thoughts on policy-making decisions, and shared current developments in the field. The brief answer to the question of what our digital future is: It is still in progress.

The panelists gave an optimistic report of what we have found so far—essentially, that games create good experiences, which may lead to more engagement, interest, and motivation to learn, plus practice at problem-solving skills. Mr. Bauer, the director of assessment at GlassLab Games, gave examples of how fun and learning can be connected through his son’s case of playing a game and solving mathematical problems.

But although there are possibilities and great potential, are these games going to be implemented in schools? The challenges we face today, as Professor Schwartz noted, are that the positive results seen with these games cannot match up with a school’s measurements of facts, normative explanations, and procedures. He stressed that we should measure what counts for good decision-making. On top of that, Professor Gee expressed that we should try to avoid creating games as digital textbooks, but rather use digital technology as an infinite space in which to have a collective intelligence. In other words, we should create a social networking space to discuss and solve problems. He then briefly listed his twenty-three rules for his “Big G” concept.

The forum was also given a little beacon of hope when Professor Steinkuehler mentioned that the Obama administration took an interest in this field two years ago. She stressed that games are architecture for engagement, which is key to learning. She ended on a high note, suggesting that there should be more collaboration among academic researchers, industries, and policy makers, who should work together to make this happen.

For me, this sounded slightly too optimistic and utopian, especially when Professor Mitchell Stevens in the crowd raised questions of desire and the problem of violent games. But I left the talk with one major question in mind: Why is it still so hard for mainstream education to accept digital game-based learning? Should “Big G” really be the solution, as Gee listed in his rules? Surely, there must be different sizes of ‘G’, as people learn things differently.

While I was frowning at this, another audience member walking next to me smiled and jokingly said, “It’s all part of the game.” I realized that even after thirty years of research and development, this field is still fascinating because we continue to question whether or how we should combine digital games and schools. There is no perfect formula for learning, but this solution just sounds more fun than others.

Event Link: