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Digital Literacy Online and Digital Learning

Reading: Becoming digitally literate (Eynon 2021)

Reading notes.

How we support learners from all backgrounds to be able to engage with online learning is of particular interest to me. Online learning can be transformative, it offers the possibility of open access, wide reach, international learning communities and learning for all levels of prior knowledge. In order for online learning to be transformative for all sectors of the population, it must both acknowledge and address inequalities. One of these inequalities is digital skills. There are many skills required of online learners, some of these are functional (how to navigate a platform), some are about working and learning with others online (expected behaviours) and some will be about the learning process (note-making, self-direction). To explore how we, in the online learning domain, can best support the functional aspect, I read Rebecca Eynon’s article in BERJ which provided a concise overview of the current digital skills policy agenda in England and the opportunities for thinking about digital skills in a broader educational context. 

Eynon (2021) described a qualitative study with data from 30 adult learners who were “digitally competent adults from lower socio-economic backgrounds” (p.147) to review their experiences of learning to use the internet. As a fundamental aspect of widening participation in online learning, these basic IT and digital skills are provided through formal and informal learning routes. Eynon’s review of the national agenda for digital skills is particularly useful in understanding why it may be perceived that digital literacy projects struggle to tap into the audiences that they are designed for. 

There are three key issues with programmes of study for digital skills that stood out for me:

  1. Digital skills aligned with transactional behaviours and economic benefits. This is training that is functional, didactic, and centred on the idea that you need digital skills in order to carry out the most basic of tasks for modern living. 
  2. Digital is something ‘done to’ people. Eynon described the dominance of “a small number of very powerful companies” (p.148) and an emphasis of digital skills on “entering types of data” (p.148), which is a comment on the lower position of power of users.
  3. A lack of fostering positive engagement with digital skills based on personal interest. This is in contrast to negative attitudes which come from the requirement to engage with digital services for receipt of benefits, and failure to engage results in significant impact on wellbeing.  

It is this third point that particularly stands out to me. If digital skills learning is positioned as a requirement for accessing fundamental rights, then the association of ‘being digital’ is not positioned in a positive context, but a procedural obligation. Contrast this with the examples Eynon provided of digital engagement for the benefit of individual interests, family and learning, where the “rewards of using the Internet came from the role it could play in achieving something in their life that was meaningful to them” (p.152). This socially connected context of digital skills learning is what Eynon highlighted as a need “across the life course” as technologies, processes and opportunities change.

This social context, I think, provides an answer to some of the challenges of digital skills programmes as isolated and transactional requirements. In the same way that techniques for learning through online discussions can be embedded as part of learning activities, digital skills can be embedded as part of personally motivated activities. Undoubtedly some people, with the means to do so, will have used video calls for the very first time as a result of not being able to physically see friends, family and colleagues during periods of lockdown during the pandemic. In doing so they will have sought guidance from many places, not least the aforementioned friends, family and colleagues. Very few, I would suspect, have actually read the ‘how-to’ guide to Zoom, MSTeams or Google Meet. Yet, how we provide digital skills training as a package of ‘how-to’ may be one of the reasons it falls into procedural learning. One of Eynon’s interviewees described their first foray into the digital world as having the confidence to try things out, and this problem solving approach is what I think is really key to digitals skills development. At least, key at the functional level. Adopting a social constructivist perspective, there may be many opportunities for learning from others, sharing experiences of ‘being new to digital’, offering suggestions and showing what can be done. Showing others how digital skills have been used to enable personal interests would seem to me a very personable, enjoyable and connecting way to learn new skills.

However, when applied to learning online, perhaps there is more we can do. I am of the view that each learner will find the methods for learning that work best for them, but providing that baseline level of instructional guidance enables each learner to begin from the same starting point. This means if you are a new online learner, you don’t have to take a pre-course in digital skills. You have opted into learning something new online and the skills you need to do that are developed as part of the experience. That experience can also be social, learning with others both in terms of course content and how to be an online learner. There are great examples of online communities supporting each other, though these tend to reside in technical domains, but would something similar for adult learning also work? This shifts the digital learning agenda from something that can be acquired like a piece of paper, to something that involves individuals in a participatory experience that is relevant to them.

Reference

  1. Eynon, R. (2021). ‘Becoming digitally literate: Reinstating an educational lens to digital skills policies for adults‘, British Educational Research Journal, 47(1), 146-162.

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