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Shock of the old 2009 @ Oxford University: Digital Literacy

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Mira and I attended the Oxford University annual Shock of the old event on thursday 2nd April.

This year’s timely theme was “digital literacy”, ill defined concept though it is. It comes in the wake of the Horizon 2009 report, which notes that “[T]here is a growing need for formal instruction in key new skills, including information literacy, visual literacy, and technological literacy.”

Melissa Highton (Head of Learning Technologies Group, Oxford University) introduced us to the day by reminding us that the most important thing is to define our terms before we can even think to speculate about what the hell we have been doing, we are doing, and/or we should be doing with respect to “digital literacy”. Is digital literacy a subset to information literacy or the other way round? And what implications does either alternative mean for e-Learning practitioners? She suggested that good old “information literacy” was simple to manage and work with, since it was all about the text, which – unless she means it in some sort of Foucauldian/ Derridean sense of everything is text – is of course bollocks. Information is not the same as text and text is not the same as information.

The first keynote was delivered by¬† Lynne O’Brian, Director of instructional technology at Duke University, introducing the Duke Digital Initiative, which basically consisted of a scheme that handed out ipods with uploaded learning materials to all “freshmen” (shouldn’t that be “freshpersons”), so that they could continue their learning beyond the classroom. One of the outcomes she wanted to share with us was that it’s important to “take the long view on evaluation”, i.e. not to worry too much about measuring educational benefits of new technologies introduced, since nobody ever demands this kind of proof of educational effectiveness from chalkboards. I’ve never been a good social scientist and I find evaluation a drag – but even I know that it’s a necessary practice, so her “advice” sounds like a cop out to me. But it’s possible she simply meant to ward off impatience, not to ward off evaluation.

Dr Tabetha Newman (consultant to BECTA) gave an interesting (i.e. strong on theory) resume of a literature review on digital literacy she recently did for becta, which summarised the difficulty of finding appropriate and agreed upon definitions for our theme du jour (de l’annee), “digital literacy”, especially in contrast with “media literacy”. The review should be available online, but I can’t find it.
Tony McNeill from Kingston University …regaled us with enthusiasm about how students can use the new web 2 technologies to be critical in their thinking. He brought up the idea that educational technology was simply “old wine in new bottles”, for the serious question is surely this: where is the change? Where is the evidence that all these lovely web 2 technologies are making us rethink teaching methods and change them? His slides were quite popular as I found out over a well-deserved coffee. Maybe not the most accessible, but visually exciting.

After coffee, Phil Gravestock and Martin Jenkins from Gloucester, presented on the challenge of “evaluating digital story-telling”, which showcased great student work, but got us no closer to answering – how *do* we evaluate – and assess – student work that is no longer about essays? Of course this isn’t a new question at all. We’ve been assessing art portolios as well as dance, music, theatre performances for, like, forever!

Palitha Edirisingha & Ricardo Torres Kompen, from Leicester University and Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya (Spain) respectively, regaled us with ways of overcoming VLE fatigue by using web 2 techs to create PLEs for students. How did they do it? Short answer: Flock. Flock! I need to give Flock another look. They certainly made it sound easy enough to pull together any amount of web two technologies according to student needs and desires, although we need to consider that monitoring and facilitating actual learning in this myriadic approach could be very taxing on the teachers!

Josie Fraser’s presentation was concerned with how society as a whole might meet the challenges that new technologies present. Naturally, twitter, facebook et al do not only bring benefits and advantages but also present possible risks. The point is not to give in to moral kneejerk reactions (ban it all!), but to endow ourselves with the ability to calmly and critically use and enjoy these technologies. The concern is also about how we manage our various online “identities” – a thorny issue. As an example, just search for the term “drunk” on twitter and see how many people quite happily (and possibly quite inebriatedly) tell their lurid stories of drunken woe: not managing to keep the private and the public separate. Digital literacy should be thought of as the skill to work, learn and thrive within highly distributed environments where there is risk, and not avoid these risky environs.
The post-lunch keynote by Miles Metcalfe (Head of IT R&D @ Ravensbourne College) was entertaining and well performed.

During all these presentations I performed an experiment on myself to “see what it would be like to be someone else”, because I suck at doing more than two things at once (to wit: listening, reading slides, thinking about what is being said, taking notes, whispering to colleagues, observing participatnts in front of me web surfing, and balancing laptop on lap: how much do I actually take in?). So I followed and took notes on the conference on twitter, using the hashtag #shock09. It requires quite a bit of concentration but might prove to be an excellent way of keeping track collaboratively – other “twitterers” making meaning for you, summarising what *they* hear in 140 characters, and archiving it for later retrieval (for example to write a blogpost on it). The question of course is if you don’t miss vital parts of the actual conference, since you are in essence “chatting in class”. How do others do it? How can they be so quick? Some of them don’t even touch-type! The point of the experiment was not merely self-serving. If this is what students do, then it isn’t a bad idea to know what it is actually like. I persevered throughout the day and probably missed a lot of the real meat of presentations. Often, it felt like being in school and passing around notes (including the feeling that it was really much more fun than the boring things I *ought* to be listening to. Oops). By the end of the day, I wanted to add “#shock09” to every one of my thoughts. Conclusion: such web 2 immersion can turn you psychotic in a trice.
Fergal Corscadden, of Stranmills University College caused quite a stir when he suggested in his presentation that he hated twitter and thought that the way learning technologies jumped on web 2 technologies to try them out for educational purposes was embarrassing like “your dad dancing at a party”. Although I agree with him in part – we shouldn’t encroach on the fun/ social spaces that students occupy and turn them into learning opportunities – his attitude was highly conservative and closed-minded.

As one twitterer put it: “if you weren’t interested in checking out new tools & practices ypou’d be a pretty rubbish edtech” – and that’ s in less than 140 characters! In the meantime, us twitterers had sent #shock09 into the trending sphere (with comments coming from a bemused rest of the world “wtf is #shock09?”), and soon after I am told that I am top trendsetter… Which only means of course that I twittered way too much and way too fast and tagged it all with shock09. “Top trendsetter” is way too grand a term for that.

There were two more presentations, on modelling by Howard Noble and Ken Kahn (Oxford University Computing Services) and a particularly good final presentation by Chris Davis (Department of Education, University of Oxford) illustrating how students really use new technologies. It was based on actual reserach done with students – asking them how they use these technologies, where and how much and, crucially, how they learnt how to use them. It confirmed as well as confounded expectations and assumptions and Chris Davis concluded that we need to provide appropriate technologies and opportunities for their use, as well as guidance on how to use them, whilst giving enough space for children to learn and experiment on their own. Finally, that we might need to provide some kind of media literacy education in formal education.

For any more information, you can have a look at all the tweets tagged shock09.


Written by Sonja Grussendorf

April 4, 2009 at 11:06