Frances Bell

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Jargon at JISC Innovating e-Learning 2011 Online Conference

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The issue of jargon came up at the JISC online conference more than once today.  This was my first involvement at the conference, and I was asked to contribute to 2 sessions on digital literacies. Despite many other commitments and a stinking cold, I enjoyed both sessions that seemed to generate a rich discussion amongst participants (as it was a closed conference, I can’t share the recordings or discussion links with you).

Of course, my view of the sessions was not universal;)  It became clear that some participants  found the terminology being used inexact and alienating (smiling as I realise this term may be deemed to be jargon).  One particular issue was around the terms (digital) competency and digital literacy(ies). In my job as facilitator, I picked up a reference to this from the Elluminate session chat and fed it back as part of a reply.  This thread developed and highlighted that competence and literacy are terms used in very different ways in different communities.  Some participants from FE (for non-UK non-education folk that means Further Education, tertiary education, vision outlined here) found the use the terms ‘literacy’ and ‘competence’ as being completely different to how they are used in FE sector. At the Friday session, I was ticked off in the chat for using the term ‘user’ as it has connotations of drug user.

So why does any of this matter?  If we come together at conferences, in order to share ideas about ( in this case) innovating in e-learning,  then real dialogue has to take place if we are to achieve this.

I am using the term ‘dialogue’ in the sense that David Bohm used it – briefly, to share and create meaning through words rather than to argue and debate our own ‘truths’, short explanation here, entire book here

It is clear that different vocabularies (particularly when terms are used in contradictory ways) can be obstacles to dialogue but I sense that some of the complaints about jargon are pointing to wider frustration about communication processes.  As Paul Becque says ” Bohm may have suggested that we are often talking about the same important things but get psychologically trapped in attacking and defending how we define and articulate these things.”  I wonder if we were all talking about the same things but the process was somehow faulty at times. I am pleased that the exchange caused me to think about my own communication (I was supposed to be a facilitator after all), and I’d like to offer the space of this blog post, if anyone wants to share their thoughts.  Who knows? we may create some shared meanings.

And now I think it’s important that we iterate multidisciplinary paradigms – just kidding;) I got that from plugging ‘digital literacy’ into  Here are some of my thoughts about communication with respect to ‘digital literacies’ – whatever that means.

Yesterday’s exchange me to think about why I use the term ‘digital literacy’.  I was definitely using it in 2009, and think that I adopted the term to cover work that I was already doing in curriculum development, based on my beliefs in the need for experiential learning of new technologies, and the value of such learning activities in providing opportunities for critical reflection (studded with my then educational jargon).  Adopting the term led me into writings and communities that resonated with me and helped me to develop my thinking and educational practice. I know that I would not have used the term ‘computer literacy’ as for me, that had negative connotations from my own children’s experiences at school and college in the 1990/2000s.

I re-read my recent blog post on digital literacies as constructive dialogue and realised that although I use the term Digital Literacies in the title of the model, I don’t use it within the model, nor is it a term I would use with students. I wonder what jargon I use with them – ‘digital media landscape’ is a contender.

My last thought is about the feasibility of a common agreed vocabulary – I don’t think that is feasible or even (probably) desirable). Different communities do use different vocabularies, and when they get together for a project, they might usefully agree a glossary of terms for the project but vocabulary standardisation would be just too controversial and too much effort, I think.  In 2007, Stephen Downes posted on Why The Semantic Web will fail and I suspect that there more reasons than he identifies.

I would love to hear what you think, particularly anyone who was at #jiscel11.

#change11#jiscel11digital literacyjargon

francesbell • November 26, 2011

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  1. Jonathan Vernon November 26, 2011 - 3:23 pm Reply

    I’m constantly dismayed as someone from the corporate sector who finds academics and many of their stakeholders talking, as if in a private code, by repeatedly using terms and acronyms that mean nothing at all except to them. What is lacking are basic communications skills: who are your readers? Now speak in a way that they can understand, in words and phrases THEY not just your peer group of academics will understand.

    • francesbell November 26, 2011 - 4:37 pm Reply

      Thanks Jonathan. I would think most people try to communicate clearly with their audience. Just like I found someone who objected to my use of the word user do you might find someone who finds the word stakeholder off putting. The question is what do we do about it – encourage questions and feedback? agree a common vocabulary? I am not just an academic but a teacher who tries hard to be understood by the students and, importantly, to listen to them.
      Were you at the JISC Conference? I would be interested to hear of any examples of clear communication.

      • Pat Parslow November 27, 2011 - 1:52 pm Reply

        Buffy is a stakeholder, and users are not people on drugs but those who exploit others’ emotions. Terms are the bits between holidays, and what most business people mean by ‘communication skills’ are, in fact, broadcasting skills (but not in a radio or TV sense).

        Who are my audience? Any and everyone who can understand or make their own meaning from what I say. What is my ‘mission’? To encourage people to expand their minds and explore ideas, not just take things in bite-sized, ‘management summary’, Janet & John style format.

        Personally, when I come across an acronym that I don’t recognise, I either try to figure out what it might mean, given its context (which is rather fun), or if the context is dull, make something up (generally crude, and a lot more fun). Oh, or I make use of my communication skills and ask.

  2. Graham Attwell November 26, 2011 - 4:31 pm Reply

    I work much of the time in different countries in the European Union. Most of the time we use some form of European English to communicate (of course the one language group who cannot be understood are native English speakers 🙂 ).

    And of course different communities and people from different countries have different understandings and meanings attached to words. In answer to Jonathon I am sure there are many words and acronyms used in the corporate sector which educationalists would struggle to understand.

    So there is no easy way out – just by banning ‘jargon’. Instead we have to spend some time to understand each other and develop shared meanings. That takes time and effort – and thought from all sides in and between different communities and peer groups.

  3. Neil Sourgeon November 26, 2011 - 5:05 pm Reply

    Hi Frances, Neil here and I was at jiscel11 and was disagreeing with some of your ideas. Probably as much then too briefly and over argumentatively because we were within the ‘conference space’ and also because, coming as I do from a strictly pragmatic and functional Further Education (FE) basis, I have to always use language ‘as she is spoke’ rather than what I know disparagingly, but always with tongue in cheek, I always refer to as ‘PHD Speak’. HE people fall into this so very often without really realising they are doing it. In your own piece above – which by comparison with many is a model of clarity byb the way, you still use “articulate”, “resonated” and “negative connotations”, all of which are guaranteed to ‘turn off’ and ‘raise the hackles’ of the average hairdressing or motor vehicle lecturer in a busy college. There are doubtless extremely good arguments for use of what I would consider to be this prissy and precise language, but it really can get in the way, just as much as their use of technical jargon such as: psi, VRQ, FS, NOx, Chinon, EFA, Weft and Keratin may do for those outside these two particular vocational areas.

    Nor am I using those two deliberately as stereotypes, although I have deliberately chosen them as shorthand for the vocational aspects of FE which are, it has to be admitted, some of the most go ahead areas of practical innovation with regard to the use of technology in education. And I am a computer scientist and know that these two areas far exceed my own disciplines ‘normal’ use of technology to support learning and understanding. Both groups of students led by these folks, who probably never give a ‘lecture’ in their working lives, will be looking closely at and recording work on their mobile phone cameras, connecting with Sir/Miss via facebook, submitting assignments which are, at least in part, video based, downloading learning materials in video and audio form, and discussing the finer points of their learning with others almost certainly via SMS in the industry and colleagues studying in other colleges and undertaking apprenticeships in workplaces, alongside them.

    Now I would be the first to admit there is a huge difference between the use of Jargon to exclude and it’s use as ‘technical shorthand’ between fellow professionals within a given sphere of industry. Every young apprentice has been sent to collect a ‘long weight’ or ‘a tin of fog’ – it is part of the initiation process into their new occupational area and should actually be encouraged. It is for this reason that many of us actively encourage the building of class based glossaries through ‘words of the week’ and similar strategies. These should ideally start right at, and even sometimes in advance of, induction periods and extend throughout the first semester to ensure that all necessary jargon is thoroughly defined and explained.

    This however is very different from conferences and inter-sectorial meetings where the ability to confuse and bemuse must be resisted at all costs. We all know that when writing a formal paper we use clarification processes endlessly to ensure complete understanding by the audience, and the more general an intended audience, the more specific we have to be about precisely what we mean, but this does not necessarily mean making the language more complex, indeed I would argue that it requires the precise opposite. If ‘digital literacy’ means, as I believe it does, learning to use the current technology with facility and skill, then surely the right word ought to be competence. And why digital? We do not teach children to read only digital clocks, we also expect them to read analogue ones. The shorthand symbol for a clock is an analogue clock face not a digital one. So why does our literacy have to be digital? Is everyone to learn binary? It seems to me, not at all ignoring David Puttnam’s comments regarding oracy, that numeracy, literacy and presumably digital literacy, [what we in FE have long known as ICT literacy (the ability to use current ICT tools with facility)] are the keys not only to learning but also these days to accessing knowledge. Where in the past my parents and teachers taught me to use indices in encyclopedias efficiently, today’s children need to be taught to search and access information ‘in the cloud’ efficiently and accurately.

    So having set the scene perhaps I can now accurately comment upon your comment: “It is clear that different vocabularies (particularly when terms are used in contradictory ways) can be obstacles to dialogue but I sense that some of the complaints about jargon are pointing to wider frustration about communication processes.”

    I think that there are real issues in effective communication between the different sectors such that, for example, really interesting and useful research efforts being undertaken in HE, which have real resonance and value if they were used in ACL, WBL and FE, not to mention the schools, may not have a really effective channel of communication ‘downwards’. I was myself utterly amazed that many people do not even see what I would consider the universal channel of communication, namely the Times Educational Supplement, and discovered, to my surprise, that there is another ‘version’ of this publication, aimed only at the HE sector. No wonder we ‘down below’ have no real idea what you folks ‘up there’ are doing. Nor, unlike yourselves, do many of us in FE manage to get to one conference every year – although I gather in HE that would be considered a minimum CPD requirement. Not only do we have to persuade a line manager that it is important for our development, but also cover for classes needs to be sorted with busy colleagues and then HR have to be persuaded to free up the cost of the ticket (no chance if this is over £100) and the travelling expenses. Now I am sure that HE people have similar frustrations, but few of you teach, I am told, 23-28 hours per week as is normal in FE, and most of you work in large departments where ‘trading’ time with a colleague is relatively easy. If you are the only History Teacher or one of just two English Lecturers in the college with a full teaching load, such exchanges are difficult, perhaps impossible. Therefore I would plead for better channels of communication than are current, clearer expressions of what you are doing when discussion with ‘outsiders’ and, if a university department is working on something that they believe could be of value to others, then perhaps deliberately go out of your way to give copies of reports and findings to your local FE college, your local ACL providers, your local WBL people to allow these key ideas to permeate into our networks more easily.

    • Paul Richardson November 26, 2011 - 8:01 pm Reply

      I didn’t find the injunction to avoid ‘jargon’ particularly helpful. Jargon is not just a ‘thing’ which anyone can recognise, and everyone can agree about. In fact, it is not of itself a useful term, in my view. One person’s jargon is another person’s language of academic discourse. Each discipline has a distinct terminology which ‘outsiders’ won’t necessarily understand. It was ever thus, and I have no problem with that. However, it is incumbent on everyone to use language which they judge that their audience will understand, and if their judgement is faulty then members of the audience have a right to tell them – providing that they have tried at least a little bit to meet the speaker half way. If that takes them out of their comfort zone, then so be it. When does learning ever happen inside people’s comfort zone? Let’s just dispense with the word ‘jargon’, and simply ask people to explain stuff again. I think that is what children in a classroom would normally do…

      • Pat Parslow November 27, 2011 - 1:57 pm Reply

        And not just of academic discourse – jargon is part of a lingo for a group; whilst it is bad if it excludes people who could be usefully be involved in a discussion, it allows precise, targeted reference to concepts. Except, to be fair, in the case of things like “Digital Literacy” which is rather woolly.

        And I couldn’t agree more about nudging people out of their comfort zones and encouraging some debate – how else are people going to build understanding (aka learn, but not to be confused with training themselves or being trained to parrot stuff they could just as well access from a book or online)

  4. francesbell November 27, 2011 - 9:24 am Reply

    Dear Neil, Thanks for your detailed reply. Your last paragraph contains some very useful suggestion on how HE and FE teachers could benefit from more communication (I’d see this a 2 way, being keen to learn how the vocational areas are using technologies). Two of the SLiDA case studies were from FE Colleges see and Salford where I work was another. An FE lecturer is a student in my class Emerging Technologies (taught with two colleagues to 250 students via lecture, tutorial, drop in and online), so I will definitely be pursuing some of this with her, and look for opportunities to meet staff from feeder colleges.
    However, I think we’d be better off following Grahame’s advice on investing effort in understanding each other, than relying on trying to find some agreement on what is ‘plain speaking’. I smiled to see that you regard my use of ‘resonated’ as an example of ‘prissy and precise language’ whilst you use the word ‘resonance’ – a fine distinction surely? Believe it or not, I used to work in FE (and schools before that) and I just about worked out that WBL is Work-Based Learning and had to resort to Google to find out that ACL is Adult and Community Learning
    For me, the real learning point from this conference was that term ‘digital literacies’ is confusing to FE colleagues, many of whom would prefer to use the term ‘competence’. Clearly Helen Beetham was already aware of this confusion and she uses the term capabilities. I’ll be feeding back to JISC on this issue to reflect on how future sessions can be improved.
    I would very much value engaging in debate with you and others in this area (as I can see significant differences between us based on what you say about ICT literacy). Some good questions (for me) would include:
    How we can we make effective use of current and emerging technologies in work, study and play?
    How can we shape technologies?
    Where and how do we learn about using and shaping technologies?
    Educators are privileged to work with the nurses, mechanics, hairdressers, politicians, etc. of the future and I think it is our role to encourage them to use technology effectively AND to question its impact on the world.

  5. ellen November 28, 2011 - 10:02 am Reply

    As someone who works in FE, has worked on JISC projects and is one of the SLIDA Digital Literacies case studies (Abingdon and Witney College –, I am very happy to see this issue debated. Research is the life blood of HE and the vocabulary I have encountered reflects this. We all exclude someone when we assume that they will understand our acronyms.

    One of the things that appears to me to have changed over the past 8 years is that HE is no longer just talking to itself. JISC has been in the forefront of opening out the research to include FE and ACL (adult and community learning) and perhaps we are reflecting that in this discussion.

    I can give you an example of talking to an ‘older’ university when I was project managing a JISC project and saying, “This project will be different because you will be disseminating to a wider audience through workshops, not just lectures at a conference.” I think that this message – that there is now a wider audience for the research, that we can have debates like this. It isn’t about ‘dumbing down’, it’s about clarifying.

    Just for the record, we do call our Digital Literacy Induction just that, though it is also called ‘DALLI’ (screen has gone and I can’t read wjhat I’m typing….

  6. ellen November 28, 2011 - 10:03 am Reply

    Sorry – DALLI – Digital and learning literacy induction – which is obviously easier to remember.

    Next year, it will be updated to include digital identies – a good suggestion that came out of the session – many thanks for that and this, Frances.

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