A definition of digital competence

I was asked to give my definition of digital literacy (what the EU calls “digital competence”). After reviewing all that reading, previous digital literacy work, blog posts and your helpful comments this is what I came up with:

“A digitally competent person has effective ICT skills, an ability to critically evaluate information, and social awareness. That is to say, they can use the most common technologies to safely find and/or publish digital resources, commonly via the internet. They can critically evaluate what they find, remembering that people and knowledge – even with good intention – can be fallible. They understand internet ‘etiquette’, and consider the appropriateness, consequences and longevity of information before broadcasting information online.”



Email propaganda and digital literacy

The other day I came across one of the best examples of email propaganda I’ve seen in ages. It was a round-robin email and it was sent to me by a friend – himself a very ICT competent man in his 60’s, a senior pilot, currently working abroad teaching adults in a flight simulator environment.

He had, to my mind, done two things that are quite naive in terms of digital literacy (reminder: digital literacy = ICT competence + critical thinking + social awareness).

First, he’d forwarded a round robin email. Surely I can speak for us all in saying that this is just not done! To my mind this showed a lack of social awareness. And yet, having asked several friends and colleagues, this seems to be a frequent pastime of the over 55’s. (Why is this? Suggestions please!)

Second, he had forwarded it without noticing some interesting phrases, sentences and words that I considered to be clues that all was not as it seemed.

Take a look at the email:

This is what I thought:
“Wow, very emotive and evocative language describing her methods of rescue. Very passionate about the cause. Hang on, why mention Al Gore so rudely? Winning the Nobel Prize for a ‘slide show on global warming’? Bit harsh. Hmm, and why mention Obama’s middle name (Hussein) before having a go at his Nobel Prize?

It smelt fishy.
So I did two things: I Googled some of the key facts quoted, and I searched for any previous Web mentions of this email. And do you know what I found?

This email originated as part of a subtle email smear campaign against the Democrats during the US electoral campaign. Hence why it first appeared four years ago (the US elections) and why it’s doing the rounds again.

The story about Irena Sendler is a vehicle to get our attention, the rant about Gore and Obama is a subtle dig to influence our opinion.

In addition, the facts about Irena have been skewed with emotive language and incorrect data – perhaps to manipulate our behaviour and maximise the likelihood of a person forwarding the email.

For more info’ about Irena there’s is a film about her, called “Irena Sendler, In the Name of the Mothers” – for which the filmmaker recorded over 70 hours of interviews with Irena before her death. You can also read more about this email from another blogger (Sept 2010) here.

So what was my conclusion? This example happened to have attributes that raised my suspicions, but there have got to be loads of examples which I don’t notice. Makes you think about the power of good marketing and social influence huh.


What does it mean to be “digitally literate”?

Today I was asked to describe what it means to be digitally literate.

I decided to take a risk and to do this without reaching for a book or a previously written report or article. I also tried to describe a component of digital literacy that I haven’t mentioned in previous talks or reports – something I’ve here called “transformational skills”. This is an evolving concept and might be totally rubbish – so bear with me!

Anyway, this is what I came up with. What do you think? What have I missed? Do you agree/disagree? Please feel free to add your descriptions below.

A description of a digitally literate person
A digitally literate person is someone who can integrate and communicate in the digital – particularly online – world. They have the following four qualities: basic ICT skills, the facility to critically evaluate information, a good level of social awareness, and transformational skills.

Let’s look at each in turn:

1. ICT skills:
A digitally literate person should have a sound knowledge of the most commonly used technologies, ICT software and hardware resources, and a knowledge of how to use such resources to e.g. access the internet and find/publish information online.

2. Facility to critically evaluate:
A digitally literate person should ask themselves about the origin of digital information they find: to question the author, the medium of publication, and the possible reasons for publication. They should consider the time, place and cultural context that the information was published in, and the likely effect it had/will have when people are exposed to it. They should consider checking key facts and/or searching around the information for other sources and points of view. They should be aware that people and knowledge – even with good intention – can be fallible.

3. Social awareness
They should know how to interact appropriately with other people via digital technologies. They should consider the impact and longevity of digital information that they are considering publishing, and protect others from being mis-interpreted (whether it’s posting embarrassing photos of colleagues to Facebook, or blogging pictures of your child with a visible name and school uniform logo).

4. Transformational skills
A digitally literate person should be aware that the pace of technological change and quantity of information in today’s society is so great that they are unlikely to ever be master of any single skill or subject. They stop thinking about success only in terms of mastery, and instead also include facilitation and communication.
They are self-motivated to seek and share information, to learn new skills, and – at least initially – experience new information with an open mind. They are not only aware of things that they do not yet know about, they are also aware that there are even more things that they ‘don’t know they don’t know’. They are prepared to evolve and transform themselves through their lifespan.


Digital Literacy in a EU context

Having first started work on issues relating to digital literacy in 2008-9 I’ve tended to focus at a national (and mainly schools-related) policy level. When I completed a review on digital literacy for Becta in 2009 I had no idea that the EU was about to start a two year project to investigate what they call ‘digital competence’.

I’m chuffed to have been invited to Seville at the end of this month to talk to the EU project officers. In preparing for this I’m learning a lot about the EU’s perspective on digital literacy. I thought it might be handy to blog some of this, not least because it’s helped me to get to grips with all the policy and acronyms!

EU policy, digital literacy, and the eight key competences
In 2000 the EU Council concluded that a European framework should define the new basic skills to be provided through lifelong learning, as a key measure in Europe’s response to globalisation and the shift to knowledge-based economies. They emphasised the need for us all to realise that now – and for the foreseeable future – “people are Europe’s biggest asset”.

Member states developed the idea of ‘key competences’ as part of their lifelong learning strategies. They envisaged that such competences, once identified, could become embedded within the educational policy of all member states – both within initial school-based education, teacher-training, adult and work-based learning, and in support for the disadvantaged.

In 2006, after what I can only imagine to be hundreds of hours of meetings (!) they identified 8 key competences which “all individuals need for personal fulfilment and development, active citizenship, social inclusion and employment”. The 8 competences are as follows:
1. Communication in the mother tongue
2. Communication in foreign languages
3. Mathematical competence and basic competences in science and technology
4. Digital competence
5. Learning to learn
6. Social and civic competences
7. Sense of initiative and entrepreneurship
8. Cultural awareness and expression

It is the fourth of these – digital competence – which encompasses what we call ‘digital literacy’. They broadly define digital competence as “the confident, critical and creative use of ICT to achieve goals related to work, employability, learning, leisure, inclusion and/or participation in society“.

Once identified, the EU Joint Research Centre (JRC) were tasked with completing work packages to clarify the issues relating to each competence. Digital Competence was given to the JRC’s ‘Institute for Prospective Technological Studies’ (aka the JRC-IPTS!). Specifically, the JRC-IPTS have been asked to identify and validate a Europe-wide definition, a key components ‘framework’, and implementation roadmap for digital competency.

The EU “Digital Competence” Project is ongoing. They have completed a thorough literature review, and have published a summary document which also proposes a ‘conceptual model of digital competence’.

Phew! OK, so where do I come in? Because in 2009-10 I completed a very similar (smaller!) project for Becta…

The Becta v EU project structure
The Becta (2008-10) and EU (2010-12) projects were/are very similar: both started with an international review of current thinking (links here to summary, full review, catalogue of evidence), and both wanted to create a framework/model that describes how to teach people to become digitally literate.

There are some slight differences between the projects: Becta’s focus was to then create resources for schools, developed mainly by Sarah Payton and her team from Futurelab – for example see their “Digital Literacy across the Curriculum” handbook and Professional Development resource page. I also created a couple of Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 introductory packs for teachers and students (see separate blog post).

The EU project is instead focussing at a policy level; aiming to identify how to implement this framework into formal and informal education in practice – hence why they have organised a consultation between digital literacy folk and policy holders.

Do you have anything you want to say about the EU Digital Competence findings so far?
It’s this EU consultation that I’ve been invited to at the end of this month. I’m currently trying to review the UK’s current status in this regard, for example by talking to the Jisc team about their ‘Developing Digital Literacies’ project, and Sarah Payton about her British Library ‘Digital Pathways’ work.

I would be really interested to hear any thoughts you might have about the EU Digital Competence work. My aim is to act as a facilitator, and I hope to create links between the EU project and initiatives/people here in the UK.

(To ease any furrowed brows, I hear-by publicly promise not to nick any ideas and pass them off as mine own – this is an altruistic process!)


Digital literacy 1: Googling Aussie medical students

Whilst reading through the March 2011 copy of BJET (British Journal of Educational Technology) I came across an interesting study which raised issues relating to digital literacy. As a reminder, ‘digital literacy’ is a combination of functional ICT skills + critical thinking + collaboration and social awareness, primarily when online.

Terry Judd and Gregor Kennedy from the University of Melbourne asked medical students about the resources they used for biomedical inquiries. Interestingly, they discovered that students greatly relied on Google and Wikipedia. This was despite the students also rating these resources as the least reliable of the information resources available to them. The free and easy access they had to online peer-reviewed journals was the least used online resource.

Judd and Kennedy went on to say that:

    “Students’ use of all sites’ search tools was unsophisticated. Despite being avid users of online information and search tools, the students targeted in this study appeared to lack the requisite information-seeking skills to make the most of online resources.”

This is worrying for two reasons: first because these young medics are going to be our doctors all too soon, and I want them to know the correct information before they start practicing on me! Second, because it goes to show that a lack of digital literacy skills are present in young people from all academic strata.

Perhaps more controversially, I think it also suggests that Universities need to promote better use of online journal portals, and that those portals themselves should make inroads to become more usable and visually appealing (often the interfaces are horrific). As a visual example, which of these two pages would you feel most likely to engage with when you’re quickly looking for information?

Web of science login

Web of science login screen

Google homepage

Google homepage

The problem with portals like Web of Science, in my opinion, is that they are almost too sophisticated. Sure, the librarians who helped to design them are a whiz at boolean searches, but I bet 98% of users have no idea, and more to the point are almost always looking for resources that need a simple search option.

You can read the abstract and access the full article here.


Latest journal of Educational Technology – does asynchronous contact on VLEs increase grades?

Some interesting articles in the most recent issue of British Journal of Educational Technology.

One article suggests that student coursework grades are higher when they use a VLE supported by synchronous contact and advice with tutors. Interesting result but I am a little unsure of the methodology. These are the findings (with my comments in brackets):
1. Before students had access to the Backboard VLE their coursework grades were lower. (But this could be an order effect – students didn’t understand the subject as well last year as they did in their second year.)
2. Students who never used Blackboard had significantly lower grades on the assignment than the students who had used it. (This is very likely to be due to keen students bothering to use the VLE whereas weaker and less engaged students do not. So the presence of the VLE itself isn’t the cause of the difference, it just correlates with it.)
3. There was a positive relationship between the number of online discussion messages read and the grade achieved on the assignment. (Again, the keener students are more interested, read more, and thus do better.)
4. Both the students who asked questions and those who just read the questions and answers (‘lurkers’) ended up with significantly better grades than they had done before Blackboard was introduced. (This is interesting, because it illustrates that you don’t have to contribute to discussions – good students can be lurkers!)

With a lot of educational research it is difficult if not impossible to design a truly robust experimental design. This means that order effects (such as point 1 above) and confusion between correlation and causation often confound the data and can confuse the reader. So it’s always worth reading research findings with a little bit of caution. With the above, the VLE may well be causing a positive difference, but it’s important to be realistic about other ‘confounding variables’ as well.


Digital literacy resources for teachers and students

There’s been some Twitter chat from @dajbelshaw about Digital Literacy that has sparked some discussion, notably thoughts of operationalising Digital Literacy (see Doug’s blog – top marks for doing some thinking on a Sunday!).

This reminded me about some resources that I made for Becta just before they were quangoed. Our aim was to create some useful resources for teachers and students to use, which could easily be incorporated into existing teaching practice. (Change management methods here – unfair to ask teachers to get to grips with a new concept AND change the way they work… this method only ever grabs the attention of those keen ‘early adopters’).

OK so I am taking the initiative here and will upload these resources seeing as Becta are no more. Please don’t expect rocket science – I wanted to start gently – just explain to teachers and students what Digital Literacy is and offer a framework that can assist them to grasp the basics during lessons.

The link to the resource pack (zip file) is at the bottom of this post. Resources include:
1. Powerpoint for a teacher to show other teachers at staff meetings
2. Word doc one-pager explanation of digital literacy for teachers
3. Two versions of a digital literacy resource for either primary or secondary students, which contains a tick list of things they should be able to do, and a ‘test yourself’ with links they need to evaluate.
4. A framework for incorporating teaching of digital literacy into everyday practice (based on the framework first shown in my talk at the Oxford digital literacy conference).

Please feel free to use/tweak them if you want (I haven’t checked all links for example, and these were made last year). I would really appreciate your thoughts:

Digital Literacy resource pack for teachers and students


Subject matter experts – manage them carefully or suffer the consequences!

I had to chuckle when I read Tom Kuhlmann’s recent post on his Rapid E-learning blog.
Tom talks about the problems that can often occur when we try to manage subject matter experts (SMEs), saying:

“I’ve worked on projects where it was almost impossible to get the SME to concede anything… there were times I wished I had an elearning mediator who could talk to the SME in a way that I couldn’t”.

He then identifies three things he wishes he could say to SMEs:

  1. People don’t care about what you know as much as you do.
  2. New learners don’t need to know everything you know.
  3. Tell me what actions learners need to able to do, not what you think they should know.

This certainly resonates with me, but I hope that one of my core skills is to be this kind of mediator.

Learning information is a journey, and writing any learning materials involves story-telling along that path. Learners often need to know one step before the next can make sense. The problem is that whilst SMEs hold the vital information that is needed, they may have forgotten the route and order they used to get there.

Another issue is raised by the personality of many SMEs. Invariably, someone inside the organisation will decide who acts as the SME. Interestingly, I have often seen senior management choose someone who has been vocal (even possibly resistant to change) as some form of appeasement gesture. Those chosen are frequently relatively senior, male, with long-standing tenure in the organisation, a history of being relatively outspoken, and with a track record of wanting to be involved and partially in control of projects that relate to them.

There is no doubt that this person is an expert and has much to offer. However, the practicalities of working with this individual can sometimes cause problems during development of e-learning, even more so if several such SMEs then need to try to work together!

For these reasons I would always recommend that effort is spent forging a good working relationship with your SME. This means choosing the right person to shadow them, avoiding tech speak (unless they are interested) and instead focusing on:

  1. Asking them to remember the tricks and pathways they used to learn and retain vital information.
  2. Identifying ‘dark matter’ – those vital nuggets of information that somehow never make it into written source manuals.
  3. Challenging them to explain issues that just don’t make logical sense.
  4. Identifying the difference between what is supposed to happen in theory, and what usually happens in practice.

Alternatively, you can always consider also asking a newly qualified person to be your SME – they may well remember the much-needed order along the pathway, whilst your senior SME will be better able to identify the subtleties and caveats.


Latest issue of “Journal of Computer Assisted Learning” hits the (virtual) shelves

Some interesting stuff in February’s JCAL, which focuses on the relationship between text messaging and literacy. Interesting to see that there seemed to be a positive relationship between texting proficiency and literacy skills in children and adults across a number of different studies. To quote my favourite study (which has an excellent randomised intervention design!)

“These results show that text messaging does not adversely affect the development of literacy skills within this age group, and that the children’s use of textisms when text messaging is positively related to improvement in literacy skills, especially spelling.”


Change management and e-learning

I’ve recently been spending time reading about change management issues and placing them in the context of e-learning implementation. Nearly all of the problems associated with implementation are down to people and not technology. Thankfully, many now realise that considering learners is key to developing successful e-learning.

Yet so many organisations forget to consider internal stakeholders. As Don Morrison says in his excellent book:

“Adoption is a landmine on the road to e-learning. Other higher profile challenges you can see a mile off: management support, project management, infrastructure, security, vendor selection, system integration. When you’ve dealt with those – and are beginning to feel invincible – adoption will be waiting, ready to undermine everything you’ve accomplished. For e-learning to succeed, employees need to use what you’ve built; more than use, they have to adopt it as a new way of working that is capable of creating a fundamental shift in learning.”

Trainers are often the gatekeepers to learner use of e-learning. IT departments are often responsible for taking control of the management of a LMS after implementation. Yet many of these people are excluded from initial strategy discussions.

There is some fantastic information about IT-based process change in Cameron & Green’s classic “Making sense of Change Management” updated in 2009). The following quote rang very true for me:

“… IT management skills are critical to an organisation’s ability to incorporate the technologies… However, IT staff are often left out of the core decision-making processes and treated as implementers rather than strategists. … “

Similarly, Cameron & Green note that the traditional role of the IT department in an organisation needs to evolve in order to start to understand business strategy:

“The days of the highly specialised in-house technical IT expert are probably numbered… those IT people who can understand technology, be aware of what is ‘out there’ and what it can do for organisations, plus grasp how to create the changes desired by the organisation are highly valuable.”

C&G provide cautionary advice to those considering e-learning implementation in the absence of addressing cultural change:

“Problems come when senior managers and IT people believe that technology will automatically change behaviour. Often the reverse happens: the new technology reinforces the habits and attitudes already present.”

In my experience, time and again I meet companies looking for e-learning solutions, and focusing on comparisons of technology (which LMS, LCMS, VLE, authoring tool, development software?) whilst failing (or avoiding) the consideration of the more intangible questions (what do learners want? How can we integrate suggested changes with the training/IT/business strategy departments? Who can we involve to champion these changes in-house? What are the possible blockers and drivers to implementation?). These are the issues that take a bit more thought perhaps but actually cost very little, particularly in relation to their impact.