Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Digital Literacies in Higher Education report - sneak preview!

Mary Lea promised to come back and report on the DLHE project (ESRC) in an earlier post, but I happen to know she's bogged down in lodging data from the project in various databanks at the moment, and as the official report is finished but hasn't appeared on ESRC Today yet I thought I would flag some of its highlights. (Link to follow when it's available).

Mary's report says the research was motivated by the fact that little is known about the digital texts that students encounter in their studies and wider personal lives. In fact quite a lot is thought to be known - they are blogging, facebooking, tweeting, YouTubing, MSNing, texting, and illegally downloading music and videos aren't they? This imagined activity is thought to pose a threat to their ability to carry out more traditional study activities like essay-writing. The project has taken the students side in setting out to discover what exactly they do do with technologies when they are being students - an approach owed to its Academic Literacies grounding, characterised by a vigourous resistance to 'deficit' models of student literateness.

The project has looked closely at the digital texts that students in higher education (and foundation degree bits of FE) negotiate and produce, and at the textual practices that surround their study behaviour, and has found that, by and large, they tend to start with what their teachers tell them to do, and then move on from there. They respond, in effect, to an 'institutional mandate' that is in the process of redefining how knowledge is conceptualised in the university. This foregrounds the digitally-mediated, the use of information from commercial and organisational sources, and personal and professional reflective knowing, alongside more traditional subject-based knowledge.

However, the scope and complexity of the practices that they are developing through their use of digital tools is not being fully represented in the products that they submit for marking. (Many of these assignments are still framed in terms of learning outcomes that have generally been associated with academic writing as it is conventionally thought of. In my own contribution to this research I have been exploring the embedding of academic values such as 'critical/logical thinking' and 'use of evidence' in the course descriptions and assignment rubrics that these students are responding to).

Not everything digital that is institutionally mandated is taken up. The project finds evidence of students resisting engagement with university virtual discussion environments, and sidestepping procedural aspects of academic acountability such as the competion of Personal Development templates.

The report concludes by highlighting the mutability of texts in digital form and the implications of this for approaches to teaching and learning that are still focused on the assessment of final, submitted, products. This emphasis on the textual dimensions of practice is contrasted with perspectives that focus on the technologies and the skills element of practice. The textual lens will remain robust even in the face of the inevitable changes in the tools and technical practices that institutions of higher education adopt as the digital age develops.

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