Frances Bell

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Digital literacies in HE : constructive dialogue between teachers and students

Digital literacies are relevant to anyone who works, learns and plays in the digital media landscape – most of us want to do all those things as well as we can. It’s quite difficult to some up with a simple definition of digital literacies – in fact Doug Belshaw has come up with a whole thesis that moves from What is Digital Literacy? to What are Digital Literacies? (thanks for pluralising me Doug)  Much of the discussion is framed around the place of digital literacies in formal education, generating questions (for me) such as:

Should digital literacies be embedded in the subject curriculum or be the province of librarians or learning developers?

What are relevant digital literacies for teachers and how do they acquire them?

How can students leverage their existing digital practices to benefit their studies?

Putting my cards on the table, I led the development and delivery of  Year 1 UG module called Emerging Technologies whose curriculum includes the contexts of  study (developing personal learning networks) and work (the impact of social media on organisations) with lots of practice and critique for the students. I have for a long time been interested in the relationship between students’ and teachers’ learning practices, particularly with respect to emerging technologies. Of course, these learning practices could take place in formal education or in any area of everyday life.  More recently, I have been thinking about the ongoing development of digital literacies as a dynamic process since new technologies will emerge, and existing technologies will change (eg Facebook’s privacy).  It may be more useful to use Schon’s work on the reflective practitioner to look at practice across work, study and play contexts – everyday life- and how learning can cross these contexts via reflection.

Considering the practice of ‘teachers’ and ‘students’ I came up with this diagram for a session with colleagues at Salford. I, like Jeff Swain and Abhay Adhikari, am interested in the role of conversation in learning about ‘doing’ emerging technologies.

Digital Literacies v1

First attempt at modelling digital literacies as a conversation

However, I wasn’t completely satisfied with it: I seemed to be getting bound up between the ‘roles’ of teacher and student and the ‘activities’ of teaching and learning so I have had another go and here is version2.

Digital Literacies v2

What I am trying to say  that for all of us in our everyday life in the digital media landscape, we engage (at different times and with varying degrees of effectiveness) in innovating, learning, modelling and reflecting.  Teachers (or librarians or learning developers) who want to have a constructive conversation with students about digital literacies (that I am characterising as effective practice in the digital media landscape) will need to achieve sufficient learning via innovation and reflection to do their key role activity of modelling (and encouraging reflection).    Students (and their listening teachers) can benefit from this constructive conversation by reflecting on their everyday practices, helping them bring what they have learned in an everyday context to their context of study in HE.

Although I did get this positive response to my lecture that covered personal (learning) networks, I tend to think that effective practice in personal learning networks comes via doing it then reflecting on it. Maybe my lectures are about marketing the ideas.

Mint lecture

Tweet from student during lecture

Anyway, I would love your feedback on these ideas so I can reflect on them before my contribution to the JISC online conference next month.

#change11#diglit#jiscel11digital literacyreflection

francesbell • October 21, 2011

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  1. Digital literacies in HE : constructive dialogue between teachers and students | eLearning, Medical Education and Other Snippets |
  2. PatParslow (@PatParslow) October 21, 2011 - 6:23 pm Reply

    Nice post, thanks. I think I agree – my take on this was (which lacks the nice diagrams you have)

    I am not against either embedding DigLits in curricula or stand alone modules (and plan to do both as I aim to take over my institution…) but I do also think that the rapidity of change in the technological landscape means that everyone really needs to take ownership of their learning and their learning goals with regard to DigLits – which brings us to teaching them how not to be afraid and how to learn which your dynamic dialogue and modelling model embodies.

  3. Digital literacies in HE : constructive dialogue between teachers and students | Digital Delights |
  4. dkernohan October 21, 2011 - 10:09 pm Reply

    Great post – love the idea of seeing students as reflective practitioners. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Digital literacies in HE : constructive dialogue between teachers and students | Adult Literacy |
  6. francesbell October 22, 2011 - 11:02 am Reply

    @Patparslow thanks for the link – we are on the same page I think.

    @dkernohan I like old ideas that work. We could argue that student reflective practice would bring digital literacy in its wake but I do think there is a place for teachers modelling effective (digital) practice in their subject disciplines and their domain of scholarship.

  7. Chrissi Nerantzi October 22, 2011 - 1:10 pm Reply

    Hi Frances,

    Thank you for inviting me to comment on your observations, thoughts and reflections linked to digital literacies but also thank you again for facilitating one of our recent Teaching and Learning Conversations (TLC) at the University of Salford (

    I read with interest this post and can better relate to version 2 of your model. The relationship between teacher and student is becoming closer, I think and will become more valuable for both, if we could turn it into a partnership. I always say, teaching is learning and if we don’t model learning, how can we expect from our students to learn. Learning is a wonderful and very human activity, it is actually part of being human – this is how I see it. I don’t understand why some teachers still feel embarrassed that they are learners themselves and feel that it is safer to hide the fact that they don’t know something. I always say ‘I am not a walking encyclopaedia’ – what stops us from embracing reality and admitting openly when we don’t know something?

    Enabling and cultivating open and meaningful conversations is very important, I feel, and has the potential to turn learning into a something that is shared and valued by everybody involved. Stimulating thinking through conversations and interactions is something that Socrates and his student Plato saw of value and practised. Today we have easy to use technologies in our pockets, which we use anyway in our personal lives. What stops us from seeing value in using them for learning and teaching? Is it time to rethink our approaches and design learning experiences based one sound pedagogical rationales fit for the Digital Age? We need to develop digital wisdom and that won’t happen from one day to the other. It wil take some time but requires engagement and experimentation and an open mind!

    I am currently a learner myself in the Creativity and Multicultural Communication MOOC and would recomment anybody to start participating in such open learning activities to keep up-to-date wih what is happening around the world but also connect with individuals and ideas that move our own thinking and practice forward. One of the recent #CMC11 MOOC was around Metaliteracy (an umbrella term for loads of different literacies) which was presented as the overarchiving literacy of the Digital Age. I thought that you might like to have a look at the resources and the recorded webinar which are all available at

    Thank you Frances for making me think about the above.

    • francesbell October 22, 2011 - 4:39 pm Reply

      @Chrissi – thanks for your extensive comments. It’s such a privilege to be able to blog and develop our ideas in the company of others, learning from them, and that’s the culture I want to develop in my interactions with students – that I can learn from and with them as well as them learning from and with me. I had an amazing experience this week in a Masters class where we were looking at power relations between IS developers/implementers and users and clients. When we looked at whether technological artefacts could exercise power, a student came up with Turnitin as an example. What a rich discussion ensued from that example of technology embedded in our context of teachers and students. Believe me, we were all learning;)
      MOOCs abound at the moment, and I am struggling to keep up with #Change11 but I might share this exchange with those MOOCers

  8. Chrissi Nerantzi October 22, 2011 - 5:15 pm Reply

    Hi Frances,

    I think it is a privilege, as you say, if we are open and see value in these conversations.

    After posting (and noticing my spelling mistakes), I continued to reflect on your post and what I had written and would like to add that the conversation among teachers is also a vital part of learning. Do you think there is room in your model to capture this as well?

    Power relations is an interesting topic. How can we get rid of them when we access and make judgement of students’ learning? Could formative, peer and self-assessment be an answer? Could/Should teachers become guides for more learning? I am wondering. What is everybody else thinking?

    Speak again soon.

  9. francesbell October 22, 2011 - 5:19 pm Reply

    How about I pluralise Teachers and Students? Would that do? I quite like that idea.
    I don’t think we can get rid of power relations but we can acknowledge them and challenge them. They are most insidious when we pretend they don’t exist.

  10. Chrissi Nerantzi October 22, 2011 - 7:05 pm Reply

    Hi Frances,

    Could you perhaps somehow capture

    student(s) > student(s)
    student(s) > teacher(s)
    teacher(s) > teacher(s)

    learning conversations in your model?

    I agree, pretending is not healthy!


  11. francesbell October 22, 2011 - 7:11 pm Reply

    Thanks Chrissi – going to need to think about that one;) Spicy pork kebabs needing my attention now

  12. Digital literacies in HE : constructive dialogue between teachers and students | Wikimedia in Collaborative Education |
  13. catherinecronin October 23, 2011 - 7:57 pm Reply

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking blog post, Frances — and for the insightful comments, all. Reflecting on the two diagrams, I agree with Chrissi that you’ve captured much complexity in v2. I happen to like the singular names, as I think this highlights the fact that these are roles, rather than individuals. I’d also suggest that “Student” could be changed to “Learner”. Often in HE, the Teacher role is embodied by the lecturer and the Learner role is embodied by the student, but not always; as you and Chrissi have highlighted, the relationship can (and should) be more fluid. In a Professional Skills module I am currently teaching, which focuses on communication, digital literacy and social media, students share resources and reflections (on Twitter & Google+) and will give presentations and create various forms of multimedia. In many of these activities they operate in the Teacher role; their their fellow students and I are the Learners. Using a diagram like this with students is a great idea, Frances — to make explicit, through discussion, our assumptions about teaching and learning, and power relations.

    With Teacher/Learner (rather than Teacher/Student) roles, the diagram could encompass learning amongst educators, too. We learn from one another: we operate in Teacher and Learner roles at various times — it is a fluid, encompassing both formal and informal learning. I’m not participating in the current MOOC, but I was fortunate to participate in Howard Rheingold’s Introduction to Mind Amplifiers course earlier this year. Teaching, learning and power was shared — it was a deep learning experience for me.

    I think this comment is long enough! I’m working on a blog post, Frances, and will link to your post here. I Iook forward to continuing the conversation with you all.

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  18. Ilene Dawn Alexander (@IleneDawn) October 25, 2011 - 4:54 pm Reply

    Hi Frances – Fully with Catherine on the learners/teachers naming, and with the cyclings of learning, reflecting, modeling, listening central to supporting the primary roles you suggest – teachers – modeling; learners – learning. In my Tcg in Higher Ed course, I seem to be calling learning “cognitive and affective thinking” and saying in place of teachers “all who provoke and support your growth as learners.”

    I think the learning-thinking shift comes from thinking deeply this term about the agencies involved in learning and what it is these provoke – ideally and actually; I hope what it provokes is thinking, which I see as more agentic, involving multiple agents, based on change in thinking provoked by learning that’s become engaged and evaluative over passive and receptive.

    The teachers broad naming comes from knowing that my role as “teachers who’s been designated primary responsibility for the course” works only at its best because my on-the-ground PLN of student services, library, center for teaching, and academic/careers advisors come into the room with me as teachers, and are the folks who become the primary teachers when students and I are not in the room.

    In any case, what I really wanted to share here is my on-going proposition that when we focus on the “digital” (generally vs “analog”) technologies that we miss a rich history of learning how teachers, learners, thinkers have always claimed and shaped PLNs and agentic education from new technologies. For me it began with the ditto master in grade school, then in middle school it was the camera and thermofax (which could sorta reproduce the black & white images), while high school introduced the stack of computer cards and high-powered microscopes (with cameras in hand) that let us sort and share data, then it was computer-based typesetting machines and local printing presses and higher powered computers, cameras/darkrooms and science equipment (well beyond calculators that did trig and calc stuff easily), and xerox machines that let us copy what we’d typeset and photographed. At every technological step some teacher took up the change, brought it to students so that in the classroom we made something of the new tool – thinking the whole time together about what and why and how that tool either made us think in new ways or let us provoke others thinking in new ways.

    Perhaps this is why I think that 50-somethings are far wiser and skilled digital natives than those who we meet as teachers, whether pre-kindergarten or postgraduate students.

  19. David Preston (@prestonlearning) October 26, 2011 - 11:37 pm Reply

    Thank you for this! I teach high school English and this year I am partnering with students to extend their understanding, learning networks and digital/IRL citizenship capabilities through the use of social media. You can see our current course blog here:

    All feedback welcome, the use of social media in learning presents a constant crowdsourcing opportunity.

  20. Digital literacies in HE : constructive dialogue between teachers and students | Interactive Teaching and Learning |
  21. francesbell October 30, 2011 - 5:26 pm Reply

    I am pleased that this post is still attracting links on Twitter. I don’t quote agree with Ilene and Catherine about renaming Students as Learners because I want the dialogue to be between teachers and students, and the diagram recognises that teachers can also be learners. Anyway, thanks for the rich interaction – it has inspired me to continue to develop these ideas.

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