NB this is Helen's text only from the joint keynote with Rhona Sharpe, JISC
Innovating e-Learning 09.
In our keynote we are addressing mainly the first question posed to us in theme one:
What are the needs and expectations of learners using technology in their learning,
and how should we respond to them?
We want to debunk a couple of myths about learners and technology, and replace
them with a more nuanced understanding of what learners want from educators.
This theme is timely in light of the government's Higher Ambitions report, one key
theme of which is that learners should be treated more like consumers of education.
We should welcome Lord Mandelson's statement that 'the key drivers of change
should be students, and student expectations', though the fact that he made that
statement to the CBI, rather than the NUS, suggests that his money might be on some
other customers of the university product.
But I think we should also exercise caution when we place 'student expectations' at
the heart of our offering, and that is particularly true of technologies in learning
where it has become something of a mantra. A consumer model sees learners' needs
and expectations as one and the same thing: find out what learners want and deliver
it. But we know learning isn't like that. (Quote on slide: “a consumer revolution for
students”, from Higher Ambitions: the future of universities in a knowledge economy)
At an individual level, if we see learning in the highest sense as self-realisation, self-
transformation, we see that needs may be met by challenging expectations, and that
both will change if deep learning is taking place.
At a societal level, it sounds as though the people with the sharpest stakes are being
given an opportunity to have more say. Which is a good thing of course. But we are
failing if we let 'just in time, just for me' define the limit of our ambitions for higher
In fact in July this year the Nuffield report on 14-19 education offered a strong
critique of the consumer model as it has come to predominate in that sector – the
sector where our students needs and expectations are to some extent being forged.
(Quote from slide: The consumer or client replaces the learner... [and] as the language
of performance and management has advanced, so we have lost a language of
education which recognises the intrinsic value of pursuing certain sorts of question...
From Education for All: the future of education and training for 14-19 year olds)
So I think we need to look beyond the somewhat obvious suggestion that we respond
to learners' needs and expectations. We need to ask: how are they being framed? And
at present the needs and expectations of digitally capable learners are subject to a
number of myths and mantras. Also: are they the same thing? Can needs be met in
education by having expectations challenged? Might that in fact be a part of what
education means? And if we believe that, how can we avoid charges of patronage,
normalisation, elitism, being ‘supply-side’ driven...?
Can we still be responsive while having an agenda of our own – a collective agenda –
for higher education and the role of technology in higher learning?
(Hand over to Rhona)
Rhona has talked about one of the myths, concerning learners' expectations. I'm going
to look at a second one, concerning learners changing needs. The digital nativism
story is at one level a story about a low demand from learners for their digital
literacies to be formally supported and progressed.
Now there are are many versions of the digital natives story, from Prensky's original
article in 2001, through Susan Greenfield who was quoted in the Daily Mail earlier
this year as saying that young people's brains were being rewired, to Sue Bennett's
claim that it's all an academic moral panic. I have tried to distil out the claim that I
think is most relevant to our topic here today. Please click YES or NO to indicate
whether you agree with this or not.
(Statement on slide: Young people who have been immersed in digital technologies
('digital natives') have more advanced learning practices and capabilities than earlier
generations. Do you agree? Yes/No)
Results (most people said no)
OK, so what if I had asked a similar question, whether digital natives have
DIFFERENT learning practices and capabilities?
Results (more evenly split, slightly more said yes)
So I think we can accept the amassing evidence that learners are not as digitally
capable – not in general, and certainly not in relation to their learning – as the
discourse of digital natives has made out. While at the same time also accepting that
these learners use technology for social and personal ends which have an impact on
their lifecourse planning, their goals, and their expectations of formal education.
What practices are going to be empowering for them – and what practices are HE
and FE are uniquely placed to provide, when so many experiences that can lead to
learning are freely available on the internet?
The Nuffield 14-19 review, which I mentioned earlier, started from this question:
what counts as an educated 19 yr old? And the study I was involved with earlier this
year, the JISC Learning Practices for a Digital Age project, started from a similar
place. We asked: What capabilities will today's learners need in 2020? We drew on a
lot of different future scenarios for this aspect of the study, and I suggest you go and
read it there if you are interested, but for me it was very exciting to see how even
very hard-edged technology-based companies, when asked to think about the future,
start to think in terms of change, uncertainty, blurring boundaries, multiple identities
and roles – and how as individuals we navigate change, we make it work for us.
(Statements on this slide, expressing some of the likely conditions for which
education must prepare learners:
• economic uncertainty
• high competition for employment in the global knowledge economy
• increased alternative, contract-based and self-employment
• inter-disciplinarity and multi-role work teams
• climate change, increased migration
• a networked society and communities
• multi-cultural working and living environments
• digitally-enhanced environment: geo-tagging, embedded data
• blurring boundaries of real/virtual, public/private, work/leisure
• increasing ubiquity, availability and reusability of digital knowledge
• distribution of cognitive work into (human+non-human) networks
• personal 'cloud' of information, personal/wearable devices
• rapid social and techno-social change)
You'll notice that I haven't used the words 'digital' or 'literacy' so far, I've only been
talking about capability and need, which is quite deliberately motivated. When we
undertook the LLiDA study we wanted to think in the broadest possible way about
learning literacies for a digital age. The first of these quotes comes from 2006, the
intro to Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age, when Rhona and I were arguing that
all learning takes place in a digital society – a society where digital forms of
knowledge predominate – even if it is characterised by for example a reluctance to
engage with technology, or a strong preference for face to face learning (that
preference is meaningless without the alternative). (Quote on slide: We are not
rethinking some part or aspect of learning, we are rethinking all of learning in these
new digital contexts).
The second quote comes from the 2009 LLiDA report where we seem to be arguing
the opposite, that in time nothing will be 'digital', but precisely because the digital
wave will have passed – we are so immersed in it, it is no longer worthy of comment.
(Quote on slide: As knowledge is increasingly accepted as being multi-modal, always
potentially capable of digital capture and sharing, then the significance of 'the digital'
as a separate space for living, learning and working may recede)
The point of this reluctance to name the digital is not because it isn't important, but
because when we are fully immersed in the digital the questions about learners' needs
are not only the obviously digital - can they use a search engine – but also questions
like these at the top. (Questions on slide: How will we manage multiple identities in a
world where public and private are being redefined? How will we act safely and
responsibility in hybrid spaces? The pyramid model also appears on the slide with
'creative appropriation' highlighted at the top, reference hand-out 'developing e-
learners'). Questions fundamentally about learners' identities, what they have
creatively appropriated to themselves from their learning experience, that gives them
resilience and capacity to cope with change.
OK I'm going to force a completely unfair choice on you at this point. The only one
of these options that I think might need a moment's explanation is the third one,
where it is the 'critical' that is critical, rather than the 'literacy'. I think this is
fundamentally a question about values – and questions about values are always unfair
and difficult – because in an ideal world the answer would be 'all of these'. But I am
going to ask it anyway. I'm going to ask you not to think too hard, in true pop
psychology style, and I hope you're going to play.
(Question on slide:What would you describe as the priority outcome for graduates in
A high level skills for a knowledge economy
B creative production of ideas in multiple media
C critical information and technology literacy
D digital participation and citizenship
E personal and social resilience)
(Post results: C was the strongest contender)
That's interesting, and I'd like to take this debate into the online discussion area where
I'm sure we could all add our own version of what should be at the top of the
pyramid, but if we have some sense as a community about what's up there, that's
Now to come down the scale a little, Lou McGill did a lot of work for the LLiDA
project reviewing what capabilities are currently being supported, or what the
existing competence frameworks say should be supported, and we came up with this
rather neat three-way classification.
At the one end are what you might call the traditional study skills, which have a lot of
cultural value attached to them in universities and colleges. At the other end you have
the skills with technology, some of them being acquired informally by learners in
non-academic settings, some of them still very likely to be encountered for the first
time in the classroom. These, we know, are changing constantly – there are
commercial and social drivers - and institutions in general are bad at change. So there
is a danger for these skills to be framed in terms of us and them, the different
generations, the teachers and the learners, the innovators and the traditionalists, the
geeks and the gowns. In the middle you have a very interesting set of capabilities
which we have called information and media literacies. Librarians have engaged very
strongly in this area, for a long time, and have a discourse and practice of supporting
information literacy. But technologies and technical practices at this end are changing
the nature of academic and professional knowledge at this end, and we see some of
the playing out in the middle, for example a growing awareness that sharing and
creating and co-creating knowledge are essential capabilities for the digital age, and
not just the lone researcher sitting at a computer looking for information.
Multimodality is a key term that is coming to the fore – Gunther Kress has argued
that it is no longer enough to be able to communicate ideas in words. We are also
finding the idea of criticality being applied to this set of skills. David Buckingham
has defined this term very richly and I recommend his work to you also, but we have
chosen to use two phrases to encapsulate their thinking: critical reading and creative
production. (References uploaded to discussion area: David Buckingham's home page
at London Knowledge Lab http://www.lkl.ac.uk/cms/index.php?
option=content&task=view&id=349; David Buckingham (2003) Media Education:
Literacy, Learning and Contemporary Culture:; Gunther Kress on multi-modality, a
Kress G. (2003) Literacy in the New Media Age, Routledge)
So going back to the developmental model, if we map these different areas of
capability to the different levels of the model, we can arrive at a set of practices that
define, in some fairly limited but still potentially useful ways, the effective practices
of learners in a digital age, and what progression from access through skills
development to situated practices might look like, on the road to creative
appropriation and self-transformation (reference handout: literacies mapped to
development pyramid). And it would be good to see some discussion about the value
of this approach, and possible uses it might have.
One point I would like to make here is that at the strategic level, where you'd hope
that universities would be thinking about the highest level of the pyramid, their
aspirations for learners, we found very little evidence of informed practice. We
reviewed 60 strategies from 16 institution and we found that they tended to focus on
'employability' – occasionally 'graduateness' – both very poorly conceptualised. In all
but two cases there was no sense of, in practice, how the curriculum needed to
change. Of how learners would benefit. Of how they should be supported, challenged
OK so if these are the aspirations, what are the challenges for learners in reaching
them? The LLiDA project identified several, of which the ones in blue here have to a
large extent already been discussed by Rhona and arose from the Learners Experience
research too. (Points on slide: Learners over-estimate their information skills; many
lack general critical and inquiry skills; most learners still strongly led by tutor /
course practices; most learners unwilling to explore or creatively appropriate
technologies) The items in white (points on slide: Separate 'skills' provision poorly
engaged with; learners need support integrating skills at task/practice level; problems
transferring skills from personal/social contexts to study; potential clash of academic/
personal knowledge cultures) I think can be summarised with one idea: learners have
difficulty integrating skills into meaningful practices. In other words moving from the
second to the third levels of our development pyramid. Authentic professional and
academic tasks don't come neatly packaged out into the thinking bit, the information
gathering bit, the using tools bit. You have to apply the tools and the information to
the task and make sense of the outcome. It's that sense making bit – the critical
reading, the creative production - where a lot of learners have difficulty. In their
social and personal uses of technology, learners don't experience this difficulty,
perhaps because the tool and the practice are evolving together – they are techno-
social practices – perhaps because the motivation is intrinsically short-term, it is
simply to participate. But in learning at this further and higher level, the motivation
has to be long-term, it is at some distance from the actual tasks to be accomplished.
And technologies are coming along and redefining existing practices – professional
and academic. There are difficulties in this redefinition for all of us, but one of the
things we think is not helping learners make this important transition is the separation
of different aspects of capability within the institution. Study skills here, assistive
technologies there, widening participation and careers and the library, and few
examples of it being well integrated into the subject they have chosen to study, unless
they have a particularly committed curriculum team and unusually strong strategic
You'll have realised from the time we have left that i'm not going to answer this
question of how institutions should respond to the needs and challenges facing
learners. First I want to leave you room to respond in the chat window. What are
institutions doing well to support learners' needs for learning literacy in the digital
age? What should they be doing?
I do want to suggest three kinds of ways that response might be framed. The first we
have already talked about – how we redefine the capabilities learners need, which
means being very deeply in touch with changes in our own professions and vocations
and disciplines, and the world beyond. (Redefined capabilities, from the slide: Digital
participation, production and enquiry; multiple modes of knowing, multiple media,
multiple communities; self-management of learning, career and reputation; creativity,
innovation and agility...)
Second, we need to rethink the whole process of learning, teaching and support of
learning, and that's what we're here to discuss in this conference. There are some
ideas here drawn from the 40 examples of practice on the LLiDA web site, which I do
encourage you to go and explore (examples on slide: Peer learning, informal learning,
360 degree support and review; authentic contexts for practice, including digitally-
mediated contexts; individual scaffolding and support; making explicit the required
practices of knowledge and meaning-making; anticipating and helping learners
manage conflict between practice contexts; recognising and helping learners integrate
practices; interdisciplinarity and cross-contextual learning; supporting learner-
generated and learner-blended contexts).
But third, and perhaps most important for this keynote, we need to rethink how we
value different kinds of capability in the institution. This is a profound paradigm
shift, for example valuing and rewarding learners own digital practices, while
recognising there are sometimes difficulties for them in operating across cultures.
Paying or otherwise rewarding student mentors is something we see beginning to
happen in many institutions. What that means for staff work and career structure in
terms of rewarding digital professionalism and innovation is an issue for all of us.
There are more thoughts about this in the hand-out on the paradigm shift. (Ref
handout: paradigm shift for institutions).
And I want to finish in this bottom corner, by thinking about how we can't meet
learners needs for resilience and coping with change unless we are meeting our own
needs, unless we are profoundly engaged with the changes in our own professions
and disciplines, and what the digital wave means to them.
If there is a manifesto, it might look like this. (Statements from final slide:
Learning, living and working are understood to take place in a digital society: there is
no separate space of learning which is 'digital'
Learners are blending their own learning environments
There is an entitlement to access and basic skills of learning in a digital age, plus a
recognition of diverse personal goals and needs
Literacies for learning are continually assessed and supported: the emphasis is on
producing digitally capable lifelong learners
The focus is on what formal post-compulsory education uniquely offers
in the digital age