critical digital literacy, critical thinking, digital literacy, information literacy, terminology

The continuing trouble with terminology…

Guest post by Dr Jane Secker

Jane at the JCS conference

I wrote two chapters in Katharine and Jo’s fabulous book, but it’s the one on terminology that I have kept returning to recently. This chapter started life as a paper I delivered as part of a symposium in December 2015 at the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) conference. In fact both Katharine and I were part of this symposium and one of the themes of SRHE conference that year was digital literacy. We were invited by Liz Bennett from University of Hull where I delivered a short paper examining different perspectives on digital literacy. In my paper I focused on how the term digital literacy overlapped with information literacy, which was a field in which librarians had been working for over 40 years.

A few weeks ago I attended the first JCS Online conference, entitled ‘From Digital Literacy to Independent Learning’. JCS Online licence digital resources for the school sector (such as JSTOR and the Gale Cengage newspaper collections). I was honoured to be the opening keynote and started my talk focusing on terminology. I wanted to explain how in my mind information and digital literacy were the same thing. I ended my keynote with a digital literacy challenge to win a copy of Digital Literacy Unpacked, which was awarded to the person who tweeted a selfie at me, with the best statement about why digital and information literacies matter. Well done to Wellington Library for quick thinking and a great quote!

Information and digital literacies matter because we need all people of all ages to be able to critically evaluate the vast quantities of information they encounter.

However, what surprised me was how so few of the delegates, who were largely school librarians, had been to a conference where these issues were discussed in detail. Come to LILAC I urged them, this is what we talk about here all the time! As Chair of the CILIP Information Literacy Group I was surprised that more of them were not members. I’ve been wondering for a while if it might be the terminology that had put them off? The idea that simply switching from talking about information to digital literacy might lead people to engage with an event was fascinating – what is it about the word digital that draws people in? In fact at JCS we spent a lot of time talking about how to foster independent learning skills and critical thinking and far less time talking about technology. But again I reflected on terminology. And I know even within higher education we often operate in silos. As I said in my keynote, collaboration is an easy word to say, but it’s really hard to make it happen and I know since moving into educational development, there are still many misunderstandings in my new profession about what they think librarians or learning technologists might do. Perhaps digital literacy does act as a bridge though, because it’s a new term, not clearly owned by one group?

I find myself using a Venn diagram of overlapping literacies that I created in 2011 increasingly frequently and starting talks with the phrase ‘I call this information literacy but you might call it something else’ and then explaining what it is. But increasingly I feel that I have spent too long arguing over terminology, when it’s the substance of what we are talking about that really matters. However as a former librarian (does one ever recover?) I know terminology matters a huge amount! If we call it information literacy and someone else thinks this is media literacy or digital capabilities it makes doing a comprehensive literature search really difficult. And it can mean that your research goes unnoticed if someone doesn’t know the terms that you use. I have been suspecting for a long time this is what is happening to all the work that librarians do in this arena.

I’ve talked myself around in circles over terminology over the years, alternating between not worrying about what we call it and incessantly worrying that calling it information literacy hasn’t helped us get out of the library bubble. In the era of misinformation and fake news we have to ensure that these abilities are at the heart of our education system, because while I know not one thing can save us, technology alone certainly will not! I gave the delegates at JCS a reading list, which includes two books I’ve read this year that I’d recommend to anyone – Safiya Nobel’s Algorithms of Oppression and Jamie Bartlett’s The People vs Tech. Both books highlighted why we need everyone to be taught how to think critically, to know how to assess and evaluate all forms of information they come into contact with. To understand ethical issues of how to use and attribute information appropriately. Everyone attending JCS Online was in no doubt of the need for these abilities to be embedded across our education system but (again as I said in my keynote) there is going to be one simple solution. It’s going to take a lot of effort, a lot of negotiation and a lot of grappling with terminology to make this happen. Perhaps what some are calling ‘critical digital literacy’ might unite and save us? Who knows, but let’s not allow terminology to be another barrier towards working collaboratively to ensure we are developing learners with all the critical abilities they are going to need to thrive in the future.

creativity, critical thinking, digital literacy, fake news, social digital literacy, terminology, Uncategorized

Digital literacy unpacked launch event

On 8th November we were delighted to welcome some of our lovely authors to the Open University Library to celebrate the publication of Digital literacy unpacked.

Following lunch and cake, we were treated to a series of talks from five contributors to the book – Jane Secker, Clare Killen, Josie Fraser, Caroline Tagg and Geoff Walton – covering terminology, coaching, critical digital literacy, and creative use of digital practices in schools. It provided the ideal inspiration for the finale to the day, led by Mark Childs – a splendidly creative depiction of the student digital literacy journey, using lego, plasticine or drawing.

Some highlights from the day are featured here. Presentations will be shared via this blog as soon as we can make them available.

Meanwhile, here are two videos that give a flavour of some of the topics under discussion:

Facebook, filter bubbles and fake news (Caroline Tagg and Philip Seargeant)

Mio my son (created by Danish schoolchildren and shared by Geoff Walton and Mark Childs) – the inspiration for our own versions of the student digital literacy journey.

A future post by Mark Childs will expand on some of the learning from the AMORES project. This found that school pupils’ motivation to engage with literature increased when they retold the story to an audience of their peers using e-artefacts.

critical thinking, digital literacy, fake news, social digital literacy

Fake news and the need for ‘social’ digital literacy

Over the next few weeks we will be featuring posts from some of the contributors to Digital Literacy Unpacked. The first article is by Philip Seargeant and Caroline Tagg.

The phrase ‘fake news’ has been popularised in recent years as a result of changes in the political landscape, both in the UK and the USA. Lecturer in English Language and Applied Linguistics, Caroline Tagg, and Senior Lecturer in English Language and Applied Linguistics, Philip Seargeant, reflect on the conclusions of the recently published interim report on ‘fake news’ by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, and the UK government’s response.

An earlier version of this post originally appeared on the OU News website on 1 August 2018

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

On Tuesday 23rd October 2018, the UK government issued its response to the interim report on fake news, published by the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee. Much of the Committee’s report’s focused on the reform and regulation of electoral practices in the era of social media. However, as language and education specialists, we were pleased that it also recognised the need for ‘a unified approach to digital literacy’, including changes to the school curriculum and a public information campaign. The government’s subsequent response, while skirting many of the recommendations, did highlight its own commitment to ‘ensure that all citizens – not just those in full or part-time education – have the digital literacy skills needed to spot dangers’. In this article we reflect on the findings – and limitations – of this aspect of the committee’s interim report, focusing specifically on the role that higher education institutions can play in tackling the phenomenon.

Exploitation of personal data for the purposes of propaganda

 The DCMS’s enquiry was set up in January 2017 to look at ways of combatting the ‘widespread dissemination … and acceptance as fact of stories of uncertain provenance or accuracy’. As the enquiry developed, a particular concern for the committee became the way that data is used and shared, and its exploitation for purposes of propaganda. For this reason, much of the report focuses on the influence of technology – and the companies and organisations which work with this.

In an interview we conducted with the select committee’s chair, Damian Collins, he pointed to areas where he felt government was able to act to combat the current situation. These include transparency around online information, data protection laws to ‘check that [companies are] holding data in a way that complies with the law’, and ensuring that social media companies have a legal ‘responsibility to curate that space in a responsible manner’. These issues are now explicitly laid out in the report, with most recommendations involving changes to electoral law and regulation of social media companies.

Why do we share fake news?

But technology is only one part of the equation. It is also important to understand why people share false stories, and the effect this type of misinformation actually has on people’s actions. After all, the spread of misinformation online is related to how people use sites like Facebook – and this is shaped by the fact that Facebook is, first and foremost, a social space.

The report recognises this, citing the evidence we gave to the Committee in January that ‘to many people Facebook was not seen as a news media site, but a “place where they carry out quite complex maintenance and management of their social relationships”’. As our research shows, when people post to Facebook they potentially address a range of different social ties, from close family members to colleagues and acquaintances. It can be a tricky process to manage these various relationships all at the same time while not offending or upsetting anyone. Because of this, what someone shares or likes is often determined as much by the ties they have with their network as by a strict evaluation of its credibility.

Digital literacy – the fourth pillar of education

For this reason, as we argued in our own evidence to the committee, any solution to the problem needs to include educational measures alongside technological ones. In line with this, the report rightly recommends that digital literacy become ‘the fourth pillar of education, alongside reading, writing and maths’ in the school curriculum and that this requires co-ordinated action between the Departments of DCMS and Education, funded in part by an educational levy on social media platforms.

The vital role of Higher Education in providing digital literacy skills

This is all very welcome. One limitation, however, is that the measures focus too narrowly on data management and technology’s role in the spread of information. Our research suggests that, along with the current recommendations, education should also include what we call social digital literacies. Alongside traditional digital literacies skills, we need to provide greater critical awareness among the general public of how our social interactions and relationships play an important part in influencing our decisions regarding what to share or like – and how this in turn can contribute to the circulation and visibility of news in the online environment.

A second limitation of the report is that the educational measures it sets out fail, as yet, to envisage a role for higher education in equipping people with the digital literacy skills necessary for tackling fake news. This can hopefully be reconsidered, not least because, given their out-reach programmes and use of online resources, higher education institutions like the Open University are very well-placed to reach the government’s key target of equipping all citizens with the necessary skills, not just those within the education system. Furthermore, not only do UK universities have a great deal of experience in teaching digital literacy skills, but one key area taught in higher education is precisely that set of critical reading and thinking skills that social media users require if they are to learn how to evaluate online news and identify false information, and to appreciate how these might be shaped by their social concerns. For the recommended ‘unified public awareness initiative’ to be successful, it needs to include this critical element which will enable people to adapt their skills both to changes in technology and to developments in the on-going attempts made to mislead them.

critical thinking, digital literacy, frameworks, information literacy, terminology

Digital literacy unpacked is out!

We’re very pleased to announce that the book is now out, and available through a number of retailers, which you can find by doing a quick Google of the title. Full details of Digital literacy unpacked are on the Facet Publishing website.

I was talking to a close family member and they – reasonably enough – asked ‘so, what is digital literacy’? It seems a good starting point for our first blog post, because it’s a question with no straightforward answer. In many ways, it’s why we wanted to put the book together. If you were to count up the person hours spent attempting to come up with a definition, it would probably run into several years.

Trying to answer this question has also been the impetus for the creation of numerous frameworks over the last few years, including the Open University’s Digital and information literacy framework. More recently, Jisc has developed its Digital capabilities framework, with a whole range of supporting resources to promote the development of digital capabilities (or fluency, or confidence, or literacy) for staff and students. Clare Killen’s chapter on ‘Collaboration and coaching’ provides an overview of some of the frameworks and approaches that exist. Josie Fraser’s case study of ‘DigiLit Leicester’ is an example of using a framework in practice, as well as of promoting the creation and sharing of open resources.

Language is important to get a shared understanding, and this is addressed in the book by several contributors through discussion of terminology and definitions. Gilster (1997, cited in Jane Secker’s chapter on ‘The trouble with terminology’, 2018) saw digital literacy as ‘literacy in the digital age’. It includes skills, but goes beyond these to encompass context-specific practices, attitudes and behaviours. At the heart of digital literacy is the ability to think critically about information, interactions and tools in a digital environment. This has clear synergies with the updated CILIP definition of information literacy:

Information literacy
is the ability to think
critically and make
balanced judgements
about any information
we find and use.

(Information Literacy Group, CILIP, 2018)

Given that so much information is accessed online, it’s clear that digital literacy and information literacy go hand-in-hand. A number of our contributors – including Philip Sergeant and Caroline Tagg (Critical digital literacy education in the fake news era) – allude to this aspect of digital literacy with particular reference to social media. It is highlighted by Bonnie Cheuk in her chapter on ‘Transforming the workplace’, though as she points out, different words may be used to describe information literacy in a workplace setting.

In terms of educators’ practices, digital literacy puts learner needs at the centre, focusing on the process of learning as much as on the output. This aligns with the approach to learning design adopted by many educational institutions, including the Open University. Developing the digital confidence of educators opens up opportunities for more creative teaching and learning. This is articulated in chapters by Chrissi Nerantzi and Norman Jackson (#CreativeHE) and Liz Bennett and Sue Folley (D4 curriculum design workshops). These playful, immersive and creative learning experiences are also discussed in chapters on children’s learning, by Geoff Walton et al. (Digital literacy in UK and European schools) and Dean Groom and Judy O’Connell (Digital games).

Librarians and other professional staff have a key role in curating the digital tools and resources that exist, and supporting educators and students to use them (Joe Nicholls, ‘Unpacking digital literacy’). In fact, as Charlie Inskip points out in ‘Developing library staff digital literacies’, librarians should be centre stage when it comes to promoting the digital capabilities of their stakeholders. Students themselves are essential partners in the process of identifying and developing digital capabilities and one approach to this is set out in Jane Secker’s chapter on ‘Students in the SADL’.

Another important dimension of teaching and learning in a digital world is copyright, which  – as Chris Morrison in his chapter on ‘Copyright and digital literacy’ points out – is about much more than just compliance. Copyright literacy enables creativity and sharing, whilst protecting the rights of creators.

Finally, we should not forget those who are excluded from participation in a digital society, and Adam Micklethwaite makes the case powerfully in his chapter ‘Onwards!’ for a systematic approach to helping everyone to develop digital confidence and digital skills.

The term ‘digital literacy’ is a kind of shorthand which takes in all the many aspects of engaging in a capable, critical and discerning manner with technology and online spaces. We are proud to share the exciting work of our expert contributors, and over the coming weeks you will be hearing their voices on this blog.