Developing digital literacy: trial and error?

An ongoing longitudinal study “Digital Visitors and Residents” has found “that learners develop a variety of digital literacies often through a social trial-and-error process, without the direct support or advice of their educational institutions” (press release, report (pdf)).

This is unlikely to come as a surprise to staff directly involved in teaching and learning, of course, and forms part of the framework of the concepts of the Personal Learning Network and the Personal Learning Environment.  Informal learning accounts for a large part of all our learning, and with the rapid rate of technological innovation we are experiencing it is unlikely that any institution or individual can hope to provide education, or even training, to support the variety of literacies, tools and contexts necessary for people living, learning and working in a digital society.

In the first phase of workshops we have run for students at UoR, based on the experiences of surveys, focus groups and observation of students’ digital literacies (skills, behaviours and attitudes towards using digital technologies in all aspects of their lives) over the last 7 years, we have highlighted different ways people learn new technologies, and prompted learners to start to take ‘ownership of their learning’.

Many people resort to learning ‘by rote’; from mastering their times tables and spellings,  which provide useful short cuts as basic literacies, to taking detailed notes on how to format a paragraph in Word a particular way (which is a lot less useful!).  ‘Learning’ specific instances of how to achieve a goal (i.e. memorising a particular task) is only useful if it provides the basis for working out the pattern of how something is done.  Where people have received the message that this is a useful way to learn, they end up parroting content; a mode of ‘learning’ which is supported by many assessment methods, unfortunately.

The other extreme is a random approach, trying X and seeing whether it achieves goal Y.  Very few people actually do this, except in extreme frustration when they cannot find the functionality they really want, but it has been observed.

In between there are two rather better approaches; exploring new systems through trial and error, looking for the next step from a local, context specific position, and methodical exploration, where the learner steps back and explores a tool to discover what it can do for them in a structured way.

Most people appear to take the trial and error approach.  This is often because of demands on their time, and because we don’t teach anyone to take a more detached view.  In the terms of the Digital Visitors and Residents model, people tend to take a ‘Residents’ approach, providing a detailed local knowledge of the parts of a package that they use, even if they do not use the system very often.  The ‘Visitor’, by contrast, is more likely to use a map (a manual, or received wisdom from a training course) and focus on a specific task, often without fully understanding what else the tool (system, software, website etc) might be able to do for them.

The trial and error approach, based around solving the problem with the local knowledge available tends to lead to people using less than optimal ways of using systems, becoming trapped in ways of working through habit, and because they know a method works to get form A to B.  The entirely goal oriented approach of looking up how to achieve task X often leads to people missing out on other more productive ways of working too – it tends to lead to a blinkered approach with distractions (which might actually be rather useful) being firmly put to one side.

The most effective users of systems would appear to be those who use systems with a mixture of building a methodical overview, coupled with exploring around specific ways of working, finding alternatives routes to achieve their goals.  The main question, of course, for many of us is “How do they find the time?!”.  Some are prepared to dedicate personal time and effort, whilst others make use of the efficiency gains from previous successful experiments with systems.  This, of course, is only sustainable if the technology is used to facilitate a culture of continuously improving working conditions, rather than trying to foist more work on people.  In academia, at least, using technology to buy people time so they can do what they do best – think – is an important goal to keep in mind.

About patparslow

I am a researcher in the School of Systems Engineering, working in the fields of social media, digital identity and learning. I have previously worked in IT training/education, land survey, civil engineering, IT support, and as a software engineer.
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