In my last post, I reproduced the charter the NUS has produced on Technology in Higher Education. This post will look in a bit more detail at the ways the Digitally Ready project seeks to address the points made in that document.
As an initial observation, it is great to see that there is such a close match between the views formulated within our project team and the policy group at the NUS. I feel that this bodes well for a collaborative, integrated approach within the University of Reading to move the digital literacy agenda forward.
Taking the points individually:
1) All institutions should have an ICT strategy that is regularly revised. I believe it is absolutely essential, especially given the rapidly changing technology landscape, that the institution recognises the very real importance that the strategy needs to be regularly revised. However, it should also be recognised that a well formulated policy need not change dramatically. Ideally, the policy will embed natural technological progression and provide a mechanism for this to be embedded in teaching, learning and administrative practice without having to re-write the policy every couple of years. The policy should be flexible enough to reduce the administrative over-head implicit in frequent review, while also providing enough of an aspirational framework to motivate staff and students to engage with new technologies to enhance their learning and employability.
2) Institutions should invest in staff development and should give recognition to the effective use of technology in learning. The University of Reading already has a significant body of training courses for staff, which will be detailed in our baselining process, but there is always room for reviews of provision. It is also possible that more could be done to encourage staff to take up the training opportunities available to them. Existing ‘Digital Heroes’ engage with new technology and adapt pedagogical approaches to benefit their students without any specific institutional recognition. However, it is likely that there are others who are more likely to get involved in working digitally if encouraged by the potential recognition, and a scheme of awards for effective use of technology in teaching and learning may help raise the profile of the cases of best practice we see in the institution.
3) All staff and students should receive comprehensive and appropriate training and support. The NUS document goes on to say “All training should be properly accredited…”. In an ideal world, being able to provide all stakeholders in education with comprehensive, appropriate training is obviously highly desirable. However, pragmatically, this may not be cost-effective or achievable – especially within a dynamically changing socio-technical arena. The delays typically inherent in achieving accreditation may also mean that training courses lag behind the actual learning needs.
Currently, I think Digitally Ready is looking to achieve a more open learning plan, which is more readily adapted to the individual needs and to changing technology than I would infer from the NUS’ charter. The aim is to provide a pragmatic approach to delivering improvements in digital literacy, rather than to aim for a (possibly unobtainable) ideal.
4) Institutions should consider the accessibility and implications of technology-enhanced learning for all student groups. I think that is a reasonable statement. I was a little unhappy that the list of different groups in the NUS document includes students with disabilities as the last in a long list, but that is merely a matter of emphasis. We have quite a bit of experience of engaging with students with a range of disabilities, and from a diverse set of backgrounds and modes of engagement. Although, personally, I would not say we always get it right, it seems to me that UoR staff have a good record of learning from the experience and generally have the right attitude about providing learners with a ‘level playing field’. By focussing on methods designed to help learners evaluate their own skills and needs and discover ways to acquire appropriate skills, rather than dictating a specific set of modules, I would hope that we will be empowering everyone to improve their digital literacy competences.
5) Innovative use of digital technology should be supported by the curriculum design process. And, I would add, vice versa. The wording of the NUS charter avoids use of terms such as ‘continuous improvement’, but they hint at this as a concept. Appropriately enhancing learning design through the use of technology to support learning is not only desirable in our technological world, but increasingly necessary both in terms of sustainability and quality. Providing staff with the skills and confidence to be able to use technologies in innovative ways to enhance the way they work and deliver learning support will be a key feature separating the most successful institutions from the rest over the next decade.
6) Administration should be made more accessible through the use of technology, including e-submission, feedback and course management. UoR has made significant progress over the last 5 years in streamlining student facing administrative procedures by bringing them online. I would not try to argue that the systems used are perfect (as I write, I am not sure whether the timetabling system has been brought back online, for instance, after experiencing several days of problems), but they are, in general, moving in the right direction from being totally paper based and rather intransigent. There is a lot more which could be done to improve communications through use of technology, as well as using it to remove obstacles to efficient and effective working practices for both staff and students. Digitally Ready is probably not in a position to directly impact in this area, but the more digitally literate the staff and students are, the higher their level of expectation will be, and the greater the pressure on the institution as a whole to improve the use of IT in all avenues of endeavour.
7) Institutions should understand and highlight the link between technology-enhanced learning and employability. “Embedding the acquisition of digital literacy in the curriculum is essential as students face an increasingly competitive job market”. Actually, I don’t think that is the best reason to describe why acquisition of DigLit skills should be embedded, but I certainly agree that both elements of the sentence are true. The best reason for embedding within the curriculum, in my opinion, is that the use of the skills is embedded in every day life, both in leisure and work, and separating them out as a field of ‘academic’ study in some way creates a false picture. Additionally, small ‘bites’ of digital literacy skills can be embedded with relative ease in curricula and staff responsible for particular subject areas are generally best equipped to recognise which skills are most useful for their students in a particular context. Equally important in terms of the job market is the ability of students to be able to show-case the skills they have, and increasingly this will be as part of their Digital Identity.
8 ) Using technology to enhance learning and teaching should be a priority when making investment decisions. I would argue that any investment decisions should prioritise enhancing learning and teaching, and one part of that should be with regard to technology use. This is an area UoR has been investing in, with more learning spaces with access to wifi, for instance and with a consistently high number of computers available on campus. Although it may be unachievable (due to IT security issues), it would be useful if the institution could look at providing a wider range of tools on these computers, to encourage exploration and learning, but as more and more students bring their own computers, laptops, tablets and smart phones this may become less relevant.
9) Institutions should conduct wider research into student demand and perception of technology. Although there is a risk in saying this, student ‘demand’ should not always drive institutional policy. There are many students who essentially want to achieve graduation without actually learning anything, and I can not help but feel it would be inadvisable for an institution to pander to this sort of demand! However, it is vitally important to have more research into student (and staff) needs, both now and for future generations. If the NUS can suggest anywhere we can find the money to finance that…
10) Digital Technologies should enhance teaching and learning but not be used as a replacement to existing effective practice. It is unlikely that at Reading we would be in danger of replacing existing effective practice with digital technologies, but it is a reasonable point which needs stating. There is a legitimate argument that digital technologies which perform as well as existing effective practice could be considered, to help staff involved in teaching reach the numbers of students necessary. However, it should also be recognised that digital technology is not appreciated by everyone (“I don’t like e-Learning, it’s silly” as one respondent put it), and a range of practice is required to be able to facilitate everyone to achieve the best they can.