Critique EdTech Education Technology Thought Bubble Work Out Loud

Literacy and the Digital Self

I’ve been mulling two separate ideas over the last week – but I have a nagging feeling that they’re somewhat related.

The first is that “digital literacy” is a poorly defined concept and there’s a significant gap between the idea and the reality.

I’d suggest that there’s a significant difference between learning software and becoming literate in digital technology – yet the two are more often than not considered the same. One is said to signify the other but to me the way we learn to use technology is akin to learning to memorise a book rather than learning to read it. Learning to read requires us to learn the mechanics, vocabulary and grammar – it’s developing knowledge and understanding of the way things are constructed that allows us to become literate.

With technology we seem to just skip that process and in its place we memorise processes and technique that are specific to a certain circumstance (application, operating system, version) which aren’t transferable across contexts. Without an understanding of the mechanis every new technologies requires tremendous effort to learn, just as it would to memorise a book. However, if we become literate in digital technology – if we’ve learnt how to read – new applications, systems and software can become akin to picking a book off a library shelf and instantly being able to make sense of it. While the story, the character, even the way language is used might be different our literacy allows us to make sense of it. It’s not about homogenisation but rather the skills to adapt to complexity, variety and diversity.

I’m on board with the idea that digital literacy is something vital for 21st century society. I feel that it can equip us with the tools and knowledge to become active in determining our technological future rather than just responding and adapting to the technology placed in front of us. The big caveat here is that it requires effort – quite a lot. Becoming digitally literate requires a similar effort to learning to read – taking years to develop and improve through incremental exposure to new concepts and increasing complexity.

The other idea is that of creating a student centric technology ecosystem.

I’ve been toying with the idea since the end of last year and it came from thinking through the concept of transferring ownership and custodianship of data back to students. It’s been fuelled over the last month by the blog discussions from Jim Groom, Mike Caulfield and others collated in this post from Ryan Brazell. Their discussion and suggested frameworks are similar to what I had in mind for a system that would transfer ownership and control back to students in terms of their data and the content they generate as part of their studies. Think blog + LinkedIn + eportfolio + badge backpack rolled into one but managed by the student not a commercial entity looking to commercialise data. Think then about integration of this system into institutional systems (LMS, student admin etc) via APIs using profiles that the students have control over. They can decide levels of access institutions can have to their data as well as things like preferred communication channels and contact details. This kind of system could work with the traditional LMS but it would be transform it into an aggregator, returning it to the status of an actual management tool, rather than the source and container of all content. It would create a distributed ecosystem of self managed services performing a range of functions from identity management to online publishing, records of learning and displays of achievement. This would work just as well for staff within the education sector too – and could form part of establishing their digital literacies. Essentially it decouples the student from the confines of institutional systems while also supporting the institution in providing more seamless and collaborative offerings. It opens universities to new models of working, collaborating and the associated income streams possible.

But … (and in this case it’s a big one) … this system would require greater digital literacy to get off the ground than say an LMS, especially in terms of executive management. It’s a huge shift away from how digital technology has been sold and has worked in the past. It’s a move away from the control, concentrated resources, monolithic system and captive data that most institutions are used to (perhaps depend on) to something open, distributed, personal and fundamentally mobile. It’s a situation that this cartoon I retweeted sums up perfectly:

Perhaps what links these idea together is what I perceive as the mismatch between rhetoric and reality.

We want students and staff to be more digitally literate but that currently is equated to knowing software or performing rudimentary tasks not an understanding line mechanics of the digital environment. We want personalised learning but think that we can achieve this by containing students within the LMS rather than on the web and by measuring vast amounts of data rather than actually giving students the power to make their own informed decisions. The intended outcomes aren’t reflected in what is being done, even on a strategic level at most universities, let alone what happens in the majority of individual classes.

Putting this all down in this post is an attempt for me to come to terms with what I’ve been thinking. It’s not particularly clear – but it’s a description of events that I see as the come into focus. I’m not trying to be pessimistic – instead its my way of licking my finger, sticking it in the air and trying to see where the wind is blowing.

I’m not pessimistic on what lies ahead – far from it. The work that people like Jim Groom and the team behind Domain Of Ones Own have been doing actually fill me with hope – because someone out there is doing something. I’m also interested reading Mike’s posts because I can see at least someone is starting to develop a vision for what’s next. The work ahead is about trying to draw a line between the two!

Thanks to @jimgroom, @holden & @ryanbrazell for sharing your work so openly!


By Tim Klapdor

Passionate about good design, motivated by the power of media and enchanted by the opportunities of technology.

15 replies on “Literacy and the Digital Self”

Is this “mismatch between rhetoric and reality” an #ascilite2014 paper I smell?

IMHO, the problem you identify – “greater digital literacy…especially in terms of executive management” – is a key barrier. Perhaps a bigger barrier is the inertia created by that limited literacy as it’s translated into organisational structures, job descriptions etc. It’s the whole “grammar of school” problem.

I’m just starting work with a couple of co-authors pushing this barrow in some (what will become #ascilite2014 papers) including offering some ways forward. Ideas which tend to link very nicely with the thoughts in the other posts you point to, in particular Ryan’s idea of “caring about the now”

Actually Ascilite2014 wasn’t on my mind when writing this – it only clicked when you mentioned it! A subconscious prompt perhaps. I agree with your post – that contextualised experiences is the only way we can move forward on making substantive change. I think that there’s dialogue that’s missing to enable this – and going back to your post – its the inclusive dialogue that actually allows you to actual map out the context rather than it be a directive and follow the standardised plan.

I think Ryan has it right – we need tankers and tug boats – but I have a feeling that if we don’t get some of this dialogue happening we’ll see tankers drifting back out to sea and just be left with a bunch of tugs with nothing to do.

Just to make explicit another interest I have in this topic. I’m keen to figure out how I can help pre-service teachers taking a course I teach to become digitally literate. To help them bridge the “significant difference between learning software and becoming literate in digital technology”. Here’s one story why this is important for me.

I’ll potter around this question when time permits over the next couple of years, so interested in hearing anything you come up with.

How about students doing a connectivist type MOOC, using their blogs to reflect on progress & collect open badges for evidence of participation. They do the learning, others give the feedback when awarding badges…less work for you. I did #etmooc last year, Alec Couros and his team are certainly credible. It was a fabulous introduction to digital citizenship, tools etc. I can’t recall if there were badges to collect along the way but more MOOCS are providing them now. Just a thought 🙂 Alec is about to run another one with his students & I believe he’s opened it up to the public.

Hi Tim, your post is like music to my ears. I have a “Domain of My Own”, signed up for it last year & transferred my existing blog over. From afar Tim Owen & Jim Groom have been wonderful with their support. For several years now I’ve been building my PLE and believe it’s the way to go for teachers & students. I pull my “web presence” to my home on the web, have full control over it & use it for ongoing professional learning. (great for my annual teacher’s registration). It’s my portfolio, reflective journal, place for curated streams, virtual backpack etc. I wish my daughter had a her digital identity well on the way when she finished Uni last year.

Thanks for your comment Penny! It’s great to hear about your experience with DoOO and I agree that it’s the right solution given the times – particularly for those in education! I think many people have got so used to putting all their data and information into other peoples (corporate) systems the challenge will be actually trying to reverse the trend. Positive experiences like yours are vital to change peoples perceptions so keep up the good work!

Thanks Tim, under Shirley’s supervision the work will continue 🙂


It’s you who have been awesome, you jumped on board right away, and it’s great to hear it is working out for you. At some point this Summer Tim and I are going to start actually framing the academic community that is emerging from Reclaim Hosting, and therein will be the magic!

Jim I’ll be following your Edu guru magic with interest. Re resources for the Reclaim Hosting project is there a “go to” place for all tips, tutorials etc. I watched your “Building with Howard” videos last year to get started, they were excellent.

“Essentially it decouples the student from the confines of institutional systems while also supporting the institution in providing more seamless and collaborative offerings.”

YES, this x1000. I recognize that, back in the day, part of the allure of being at a college or university was having free access to a technical infrastructure that you couldn’t get easily (or sometimes at all) outside of the ivory tower. Those days are long gone, and yet somehow we’re still acting like we’re doing students a favor by giving them Blackboard accounts. Puh-leaze.

You’re spot on with the “mismatch between rhetoric and reality” — while there are individual institutions who are resisting the MegaMOOC model, we have as a whole allowed the mainstream discussion over the last several years to become all about Coursera, edX, etc. I’m not a fan because I think -OOCs don’t actually help us move toward a more equitable EDU. But the bigger problem is that administrators, trustees, and others with only a cursory knowledge of education or edtech see those simplistic solutions and think “oh no, we aren’t keeping up with the Harvards!” They don’t see the smaller pockets of real innovation. Or, if they do, they take longer to understand and people don’t actually engage or apply their critical thinking skills. Oh the irony …

[…] This workshop is what UMW’s DTLT has been laying down to faculty, students, and staff for the last year and a half. It’s becoming second nature. What’s more, we have the documentation to support it. Think of it as a practical roadmap for Tim Klapdor’s beautiful articulation of the literacy involved in creating the digital self. […]

Hi Tim, David, Jim, Ryan and of course, Penny. Penny and I are working together on her PhD (I am her principal supervisor) and it’s wonderful to read your comments. I have established (with Penny’s expert help) a community using a number of digital tools to satisfy my/our need to have a vibrant, safe online learning community outside the constraints of the “establishment”.

My desire was to have my PhD students (there are now 3 working in this environment) come together relatively seamlessly and share ideas, insights, resources, etc. and experience the joys of collaborative thinking and writing very early in their doctoral journeys. This process also enables each individual develop their digital literacy skills in an authentic space and place. As a scholar and disciple of transformative learning, this approach to learning and teaching enables me to live my philosphical perspective and having students like Penny to work with is an exhilarating experience (so far!). Power to the open movement!

Really nice to hear about this kind of initiative Shirley. Wondering what you think about all academics being bought into such a scheme? Seems like a win – public publishing space that they control, increasing digital literacies, collaborative spaces … sounds like what academia is looking for.

[…] After that session I presented about the work happening at UMW with Domains of One’s Own in a very big room. The presentation was a further exploration of the “Domains in the Afterglow” talk I did at Baruch two weeks ago. It was tighter than the Baruch talk, and I integrated a five-slide skreed against the learning management system I lifted directly from Brian Lamb’s brilliant writing on the topic in an article we’ll be publishing in EDUCAUSE Review‘s next issue. I also worked in a cartoon and two concepts from Tim Klapdor’s brilliant post on “Literacy and the Digital Self”: […]

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