Literacy in the Digital University

Liveblog notes from a presentation by Robin Goodfellow. Part of an ESRC Seminar Series on Literacy in the Digital University, which has its own blog. Of course. Also has an ordinary dull website.

(Robin’s notes and PowerPoint are available – to OU people – on the Knowledge Network)

Update: Andreia Santos also liveblogged the session.


There’s an idea that literacy is the ancient idea of being able to read and write – the intuitive concept. A lot of the digital literacy literature takes this approach too, with a deficit model of individual (lack of) competence. But others argue it’s not about skills (new literacies), it’s learning a new set of communication skills.

Robin’s approach is different: starting from a list of reading/writing activities that academics might have to do – PowerPoint presentation to committee, review of a journal article, comment to student forum, etc etc. There are technical skills involved here. More importantly, they are the creation of texts in communities. (Text in the broad sense – something taken beyond a single activity – so lots of things can be texts.) Fundamentally, they are all social practices. Tied up with power relationships.

What is the digital university?

Doesn’t exist yet, and it won’t be called that when it does, it’ll just be a university. Question is what kinds of social practices, and how will they be mandated? Our understanding here is embryonic.

Many ideas: net-gen/digital natives, dumbing down, universities need to step up, OER view of conventional learners vs social learners. Learning 2.0/Seely Brown etc – long way from trad university. Martin Weller ‘is the revolution justified?’. Digital scholarship (Borgman). Unbundled university (Katz).

Exploring established practices and emergent ones

Set as a research question, set out as a seminar series. Four projects drawn from:

  • Literacies for Learning in FE (Lancaster and Stirling)
  • Digital Literacies in HE (OU)
  • Learning Literacies for a Digital Age (Glasgow Caledonian)
  • Putting Web 2.0 to work – new pedagogies for new learning spaces (Edinburgh and Strathclyde)

Promoting new research in to practices, four seminars.

OU digital literacies work.

(Mary Lea) Ethnographic, 3 institutions, diverse contexts, 34 students, interviews, field notes, web pages, documents, photos. Learners did lots of diverse activities, mostly what you’d expect, but some ‘hard work’ things like recording CDs and scanning documents. But this doesn’t make their universities into digital universities.

Key points – the importance of reading: vast quantities, different to non-digital. Learners adept at drawing on complex, hybrid, textual genres. Learners discriminate between personal and curricular spheres. What they do is driven by tutor and course guidance – the institutional mandate. Contrast to the view that it’s all coming from the students, or business: it’s not, it’s from the university.

Robin looked at assessed tasks as written genres – generally, when you’re assessed, you have to write. The construction of what is good is still very traditional/conventional – argument, analysis, coherence, critical evaluation, etc.

Literacy in the emerging digital university is about:

  • Transformative new digital communication practices
  • Institutional mandating of new digital practices
  • Persistence of conventional academic values

Need to look at these persistent values, and whether they are going to be changed.

Academic Values and Web cultures

From Helen Beetham’s seminar, the first in this series. Social practices of the academy contrasted with the net.

Academy is about truth, epistemology, dialogue, roles and rules – fundamentally text-based communication/argument & critique. The ‘net’ is about use value (is it useful, rather than is it true), currency, proliferation, virality, just-in-time knowledge, multiple media/bricolage.

(Note to self: there’s some really interesting stuff in Levi-Strauss on the problems facing both bricoleurs and engineers that’s probably worth mining in this context.)

Hard to match the two views. Except Calhoun (2006) has ideas about how they can be connected – Habermas’ notion of the public sphere – reasoned collective choice by informed citizens. Public debate is about ideology, universities do that. Robin thinks we must keep focus on in whose interest ideas are being constructed. Institutional.

(Note to self: Really interesting post/modern idea about expertise/knowledge being simultaneously more important in the knowledge economy – it’s the key currency – and less important – you can find it online/hire it in from wherever.)

Digital scholarship

Themes from OU work – open processes of publishing and reviewing, digital tools for research and teaching, reward for reputations built online.  Focus is on output, not process.

Literacies critique of digital scholarship as literacy: must ask, what kinds of texts are produced digitall in the process of scholarly activity? Which communities are validating these tets as scholarship? How are ‘critique’ and ‘argument’ manifested in textual practices which are validated as digital scholarship?


Lit meets TEL at LiDU!

Big Twitter debate on the LiDU blog. Instance of putting Twitter stream up on the wall behind presenter – vigorous discussion about whether that should happen or not.

Next seminars – March 1st 2010 Glasgow Caledonian University; October 14th/15th Open University.


Me: Remark: the sky is not falling in here. Question – What makes it literacies as opposed to other social practices? And why ‘Literacy’ singular now, when it was always plural?

Robin and Mary: Literacies being explored. Focus on texts valuable, pull in ideas from e.g. applied linguistics, universities exist and are constructed by their texts.

Andy Lane: Social practices in communities – Communities of Practice. Is the Academy one community, or a constellation? And academics are not the only members of the community. Parallel with the Polity, and professions.

Robin: Good questions. With Bourdieu hat, Academy as a social field, large constellation of communities in Wenger’s terms. Large social fields which are self-regulating but in struggle. Seeing a threat to HE, breaking down of boundaries between education and commerce and entertainment, and so on. Broader paranoia (!) looking at HE as a social field under threat.

James Aczel: Said very little about what is learned, and treating discipline as unproblematic. Is it there in Physics? Is this practices in Education, rather than across the academy?

Robin: It’s both. Different in History and Physics Depts. But public mission of HE – which is shared – means you can generalise to some degree. Public intellectuals can come from any discipline, engage the public in critical discourse.

Jon Rosewell: Lot of writing driven by assessment – are we just being conservative here? Complaint from student about having to hand-write an OU exam as a completely inauthentic experience. Is it only our assessment that’s keeping things anchored?

Robin: You might be right.

: Often online digital discussion required to be on VLE so it could be assessed. Assessment is paramount. (As ever!)  ‘Critique’ to students means whatever they think it means to the assessers.

Paul Clark: Texts situated in a community with power relationships. What about private diaries and journals? Are they texts?

Robin: Yes, they could be. If nobody ever sees it, then whether it’s a text or not is irrelevant. (For Robin) it has to be social for it to count as a text. Can of course imagine a reader, and that gives it a textual feel.



Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.

3 thoughts on “Literacy in the Digital University”

  1. Great report, very glad to see some of the work done by Robin Goodfellow here out on a blog – the OU at the forefront of spot-on research.

    Would love to see some of this trickle down into programmes such as the MA in Online and Distance Education, though.

  2. In fact he is – I have just withdrawn from 2 courses based on frustration over lack of sharing (courses are based on freely available government reports, accesibility guidelines etc.).

    So I am just very glad to see Bourdieu and Wenger crop at least into research-driven activities, if not into teaching.

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