Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Digital University (part 2)

This is a reconstruction of the second post I made in February as it seems to have been lost: Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe (2007) have argued that digital technologies constitute a new context for learning and teaching for several interrelated reasons:

  • The technologies themselves and their availability in advanced industrial countries;

  • the social and cultural changes related to these new technologies (e.g. Castells 1996);

  • the consequent epistemological changes affecting what counts as useful knowledge and how knowledge is produced, circulated and consumed;

  • the nature of work and the growth in demand for qualifications from universities;

  • the way the changing nature of work affects universities in relation to faculty and their work and the relationship between universities and their students;

  • the changing nature of the students entering university.

The term Digital University is one that although poorly defined can be taken to apply to all university functions as they are revised to make use of digital technologies and accommodate their impacts. This suggests a two way process in which universities, and various bodies within and beyond them, actively seek to develop new modes of working that make use of the new possibilities that digital technologies make available and at the same time accommodate to changes deriving from the deployment of digital technologies, which are outside of their control, but which have direct consequences for university operations. The main areas of change involving digital technologies include all main university functions:

  • Teaching

  • Learning

  • Research

  • Library services

  • Management, administration and working practices

The term also offers an alternative to other attempts to grasp the nature of change using terms such as the Virtual University (Ryan et al) or the Global Virtual University (Tiffin and Rajasingham 2003) and it avoids the presumption that digital technologies are somehow less real than other forms of mediated contact. Finally the idea of the digital can provide a kind of stability in a period of rapid change. The digital, as a general technological form, has affordances that are more stable than the specific technologies developed using digital technologies. Boyd argues that four properties arise out of the digital nature (bits) of new technologies in this context:

  • Persistence: Online expressions are automatically recorded and archived.

  • Replicability: Content made out of bits can be duplicated.

  • Scalability: The potential visibility of content in networked publics is great

  • Searchability: Content in networked publics can be accessed through searching.

It is of course possible to generate further affordances of the digital, such as manipulability, the capacity to edit, mash and reform digital artefacts. The interesting feature of the use of the idea of affordance by boyd is the way she directs attention to relatively stable features of digital technologies and elaborates how these features shape peoples participation in a relatively new Web service and the way this structures networked publics. I have separately tried to capture the changes connected to digital technologies in relation to education in the following list:

  • Time shifts – Computer networks used in education affect the usual time patterns of education. Many courses delivered across networks are asynchronous.

  • Place – The introduction of mobile and ubiquitous computing devices have begun to make the idea of education occurring at anytime, anyplace, and anywhere seem more feasible.

  • Digital preservation – The outputs of synchronous and asynchronous activity are easily preserved in transcripts, logs and a variety of other forms including the archiving of web casts and audio interviews/podcasts.

  • Public/Private boundaries – The preservation of what would otherwise be ephemeral materials alters the boundaries between what is public and what is private. Tutors can now view and preserve the details of student’s interactions during group activities, making these available as tools for assessment.

  • Forms of literacy – The still largely text based world of networked learning has generated new forms of writing that are neither simple text replications of informal conversation nor are they formal written texts. The integration of images and audio into digital environments has suggested new forms of multimedia literacy.

  • Content – The boundary between content and process is shifting. Blogs and wikis can provide elements of content and cut and paste re-use is common practice. The idea that there is a clear distinction between activity/process and artefact/ content is becoming strained. (Jones and Dirckinck-Holmfeld 2009 p10)

Once again the feature I would draw your attention to is the relative stability of this list in relation to the constant change in technologies, tools, digital devices and networked services. Many of these features were applicable in the early years of educational use of the Internet (see for example Harasim et al. 1995). Acknowledging the contextual nature of users’ interpretations of technology does not mean succumbing to the idea that technology once fixed in place has no role in shaping the nature of use. Hutchby argues that:

“The concept of affordance has been applied to technology in the sense that: technologies possess different affordances, and these affordances constrain the ways that they can possibly be ‘written’ or ‘read’ (Hutchby, 2001, p. 447).

It is this sense of constraint that I wish to convey here. Technologies are indeed read by their users, but the reading is constrained by the features of the technology and the technological infrastructures that have been put in place.

The Literacy & Technology 'Onion'

There is a discussion about digital literacy going on in Cloudworks at the moment as part of an OU event.  I wanted to say something about definitions, using the diagram below, but couldn't immediately see how to embed the picture into a Cloudworks message, so I've posted it here instead (since worked out how to do it in Cworks too).

This diagram...

...is a simplistic view of the developing media context against which literacy education is set. 

...is an ‘onion’ because it represents the building up of layers of context one on top of the other (ie: one layer gradually becoming the next one, not being superceded by it).

...represents layers of media communication practice, each characterised by a governing principle (trying hard to avoid the p word) and each associated with a 'literacy' label.

So: ubiquitous print was one of the first forms of mass media, and reading & writing is at the heart of all 'literacy'...

Mass media communications, which came to include the internet, changed the relation between ‘reader’ and ‘writer’ and brought multimodality and criticality into education in the form of media literacy...
The information ‘explosion’ generated by the spread of internet technology and new knowledge practices (commercial, journalistic, educational, scientific, governmental etc.) brought the concepts and practices of information literacy into education
So far so good, but the layer of the onion that is currently growing (represented by Web 2 & 3, mobile communciation, ubiquitous computing etc etc) is hard to characterise at this early stage. Various suggestions for its governing principle have included:

Networked Individualism (eg: Wellman, see  http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol8/issue3/wellman.html);

Sociality (e.g. Boyd, see http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2007/03/16/web_123.html);

Connectivism (e.g. Downes, see http://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html);

Digital publics (e.g. McNely, see http://www.digitalcultureandeducation.com/uncategorized/dce1023_mcnely_abstract_2010/).

We are all busy exploring these practices at the moment, and their relation to the comparatively well-understood principles of the print, mass media and information layers is not at all clear.

We might, for example, go with Engstrom's notion of mass 'object-centred sociality' (see http://www.zengestrom.com/blog/2005/04/why-some-social-network-services-work-and-others-dont-or-the-case-for-object-centered-sociality.html). Educating for a world characterised by social connections between people, centred on shared objects, will shape digital literacy practices rather differently from their information, media, and print literacy predecessors. See, for example, Howard Rheingold's musings on 'participatory pedagogy' and literacy (http://freesouls.cc/essays/03-howard-rheingold-participative-pedagogy-for-a-literacy-of-literacies.html).

So digital literacy might have to wait for a definition, until we can see what kind of practices we are educating for (and through).

The LLIDA project's digital literacies curriculum development framework maybe gives us a bit of a start, prompting us to ask where in the curriculum learners get the opportunity to:
  • participate in hybrid (digital/f2f, learning/professional/academic) networks
  • input to the design of their personal or group learning situation
  • develop awareness of audience, purpose, genres, means of production
  • develop awareness of digital rights and responsibilities
  • understand how digital practices produce new ethical issues
etc. All aspects of sociality on the expanding surface of the onion!

Chris' Jones post on the 'Digital University'

[This is the text of the comment that Chris added to the 'Slot Reserved' created for him below, since he wasn't able to post it himself]

I recently wrote a draft paper for a visit I'm making in February to the OU Japan. Part of the paper examined the term digital university and I thought I'd share it here. I think it is a thin term that isn't commonly used, but it might have its uses as I mention below.

The term Digital University suggests a binary distinction between new information and communication technologies based on computing and analogue technologies up to and including television and telecommunications. The analogue world covers many epochs and a variety of technologies but the use of the term digital marks the shift from the electronic world of TV and early international telecommunications based on analogue systems to the world that emerges from the pervasive application of digital technologies and computing. In this regard it is perhaps worth remembering that the idea of the global village and the information society largely preceded the spread of personal computing and widespread digital networks.

Whilst mainframe computing was beginning to have an influence by the 1960s most of the ubiquitous technology prior to the late 1970s was analogue in form. There are few academic references for the idea of the Digital University. The most prominent is the edited book of that name published as part of the Computer Supported Cooperative Work series in 1998 (Hazemi, Hailes and Wilbur). The book is very much a creation of its time and focuses on the use of the World Wide Web (WWW) and collaborative methods in all the areas of work involved in a contemporary university. These areas are identified as research, teaching, support and management. The book contains little theoretical development concerning the term digital university, indeed the term itself, although the main title of the book, only appears three times in the book’s index.

Digital University is therefore a term that needs some further development, and the elaboration of an adequate working definition, for it to be useful for our purposes. The digital university is undoubtedly a recent phenomenon, related to the widespread deployment of computing and digital communications technologies and their integration into day to day university procedures.

Early terms used to discuss the changes taking place often focused on the computing aspect of the new technologies, making use of terms that are still current such as Computer Assisted Learning, Computer Supported Collaborative learning etc. These were supplemented by new terms when the balance of technologies shifted towards the new communication technologies associated with the Internet. The idea of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Networked Learning and the ubiquitous term Information and Communication Technologies belong to this period. In turn they were followed by the deployment of the WWW and the widespread use of e-learning to cover all aspects of the introduction of digital and networked technologies.

More recently the focus has moved to Web 2.0 (Sclater 2008) and the use of new networked communication technologies such as Social Networking Sites (SNS), blogs and wikis. Without labouring the point the argument being made here is that the idea of the Digital University encompasses some significant developments in terms of the available technologies and the ways in which we have thought about the technologies themselves and the kinds of educational affordances that they enable.

Part 2 to follow ...