The autonomous model of digital literacy?

On 20 March this year, I joined my head of department, Ann Hewings, in contributing to a cross-faculty staff seminar on using e-learning and large datasets for digital literacy development with undergraduate students. Unsurprisingly, there was discussion of digital humanities resources: in particular, the online Old Bailey Proceedings, 1674-1913, introduced by Francesca Benatti, and the Open University’s own Reading Experience Database, discussed by its director, Shafquat Towheed. Two librarian colleagues, Katharine Reedy and Sam Thomas, also spoke, explaining the Open University’s award-winning Digital and Information Literacy framework – in effect, a cross-disciplinary, skills-based curriculum to be studied by every Open University student alongside the knowledge- and skills-based curricula associated with each qualification pathway – and arguing that literacy training of this sort is most effective when integrated with substantive course content. Sam was kind enough to illustrate this point mainly with online activities that she and I had developed together for U214 Worlds of English – the mid-level undergraduate module that Ann and I were scheduled to speak about. (Ann was the chair of the team that produced U214; I played various roles on the team, including co-ordinating the online activities.) However, from my point of view, the most interesting presentation was the long opening talk by Robin Goodfellow of the Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology. Robin’s ESRC-funded Literacy in the Digital University seminar series has provided valuable insights into the conceptual and ideological basis of digital literacy and digital literacy training, and I’ll cover his talk last because it serves to problematise what the rest of us were talking about.

The library’s part of the seminar came right after Robin’s, and began with Katherine Reedy’s explanation of the Digital and Information Literacy framework and how it had developed from its predecessor, the Information Literacy framework. The DIL framework establishes exactly which competences a student is expected to develop at each stage of undergraduate and postgraduate study. Katherine brought along a neat set of cards for use in module design and staff training: each card dealt with a specific skill at a specific level, and I’ll be trying to get hold of a set for the module production team I’m currently assigned to. Sam Thomas’s presentation followed this and was entitled ‘Developing digital and information literacy during module production’ – essentially, it covered the ways in which the ideas Katherine had introduced were being put into practice. In particular, Sam emphasised the desirability of building in digital and information literacy from the very beginning of a module’s planning stage (not something I’ve ever done, but something I’ll have a chance to put into practice with the new advanced undergraduate module I’m contributing to). Sam also discussed the need to avoid duplicating what modules situated earlier in the same qualification pathway have done, and the importance of pedagogy. By this she meant the embedding of digital and information literacy in a variety of activities with close integration with course content, and the first examples she used were drawn from U214 Worlds of Engish. (Our collaboration on U214 seems to be being held up as an example of good practice at the moment: the same examples cropped up in a training session I attended later in the same week.)

Sam began with a focus on the ‘Digital texts’ activity that she and I had worked on together. This guides students to compare and contrast the various editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales on Google Books (sort-of free), Project Gutenberg (decidedly free), and Early English Books Online (not free at all, but subscribed to by the library). The aim is to train students to make intelligently critical use both of what has been paid for on their behalf and of what is freely available online. (I note that it also fits in with the module content in that students encounter it in the same week as a chapter (Allington and Hewings, 2012) dealing with Jerome McGann’s concept of bibliographic code (McGann, 1991), Gunter Kress’s concept of multimodality (Kress, 2010), and the differences between printed and digital/digitised texts, with a page from the Canterbury Tales being among the examples used in the discussion of typography.) Sam then moved on to consider a later activity from the same module, this time involving comparison between encyclopaedia entries on ‘literacy’ in Wikipedia and Oxford Reference (formerly Oxford Reference Online). Importantly, this activity moves beyond the (admittedly important!) recognition of deficiencies in the Wikipedia article and, to a lesser extent, in the Oxford Reference article to look in detail at how Wikipedia articles and scholarly publications are created, and why Wikipedia’s own policies recognise the latter as more authoritative. As Sam showed, the evaluation of sources – ‘thinking about where information has come from and why it is there’ – has an important place in the digital and information literacy framework, and (through the subject matter of ‘literacy’ itself – a topic addressed in several units) is in this case closely integrated into the module’s knowledge-based curriculum. The activity concludes by showing students how to edit Wikipedia articles and inviting them to improve that particular one: something that was important to me in co-creating the activity because it emphasises that taking a critical attitude towards individual Wikipedia articles does not mean being negative about the Wikipedia project as a whole (indeed, it is essential to the very idea of Wikipedia). And while I can’t claim to discern the specific influence of U214 students on the ‘literacy’ article’s subsequent revision history, that isn’t really the point: while it would be nice to think that the activity could have inspired someone to perform a public service, its real purpose was, as Sam said, ‘getting students to think critically about their own role as consumers and creators of digital content.’

Sam then moved to another project she’s been working on: the Open University’s Foundation Degree in Early Years. The library’s involvement began with the teaching team’s drive to improve student satisfaction, which is understood to require both providing students with the required skills and teaching them to articulate what they’ve learnt so that they know they’ve benefited from each module in the degree: a point I hadn’t considered before. Perhaps more importantly, there has also been an effort to tailor the skills training precisely to the needs of students enrolled on this specific programme of study. It is a vocational degree, with 78% of students already being employed in the field, mostly studying for career reasons. Account was taken of the roles that graduates of the programme actually end up doing, so that digital and information literacy training can be tailored to student aspirations. For example, a typical task which an Early Years graduate might carry out in a professional capacity was found to be ‘devising and producing visual aids and teaching resources’. An appropriate skill was identified: carrying out effective Google searches. So training in this specific skill will be incorporated into the curriculum through guided online activities. It’s a great example of what one can do if one knows one’s students well enough – which is not easy in e-learning.

I’ll cover the rest of the presentations in less detail because they were much more subject-specific. Ann kicked off ours by explaining what corpus linguistics is, and I spoke about the e-learning activities Sam and I had created in order to introduce corpus linguistics to mid-level undergraduates using free online tools (principally Google Ngram Viewer and the Brigham Young Corpus of Historical American English). Our presentation aroused sufficient interest that we were subsequently invited to lead a seminar on corpus linguistics for the Digital Humanities group, which will be especially interesting for Ann and I, as – so far as I know – we have never considered ourselves to be digital humanists (just people who use, and teach the use of, computer technology within the context of what is sometimes configured as a humanities discipline).

Francesca Benatti introduced a free resource that has not yet been integrated into Open University teaching: the Old Bailey Proceedings Online. What stayed with me was not the resource’s sheer scale and potential, nor its convenient integration with Zotero, nor even its integrated GiS (locations of e.g. defendants’ street addresses can be plotted on a 17th century map of London), but Francesca’s emphasis on its limitations: even though the optical character recognition error rate is now under 1%, that’s still a huge number when the dataset is so big; mark-up is a form of interpretation; Old Bailey trials are not representative of all trials; etc. This point was underscored with a quote from the official website: ‘The more users understand the process by which the text has been processed on this website, the better they will understand the results of their searches.’ (Old Bailey Online, 2012: n.p.) Students have to be helped to see through the convenience and coolness of digital resources – a habit that becomes more important (and perhaps also more difficult to acquire) the more seamless and intuitive the interfaces become. This seeing-through was also an important element of the ‘Digital texts’ activity discussed above: most of the available digital editions of The Canterbury Tales (and all of the free ones) are highly problematic.

Shafquat Towheed’s presentation was on ‘Using the Reading Experience Database to develop e-learning’, and it concerned a non-assessed voluntary activity provided under ‘extra resources’ for students of A230 Reading and Studying Literature (a mid-level undergraduate module). The activity is offered to students after they have worked through non-voluntary teaching materials on Robert Louis Stevenson, a video on 19th century reading practices, and a set text by Stevenson. It begins with a short essay on Stevenson’s reading (Towheed, 2012; available to the public as part of an OpenLearn module) that is extensively supported by evidence from the Reading Experience Database. This is followed by guidance in accessing the database, performing a Stevenson-related search, and reflecting on findings. What interested me most about this was the focus on the construction of knowledge: by performing searches of the Reading Experience Database, students can come to understand how the various pieces of evidence on which the initial essay was built were located and assembled.

As I said above, I’m leaving the first presentation until last. Robin’s talk was entitled ‘The “digital literacy” metaphor’ – which was usefully challenging for those like me who had basically charged into the production of digital literacy teaching materials in a mad rush to get them finished in time for the next cohort of students, without having thought about the central concept long enough to notice that it was only a figure of speech. ‘Literacy’ originally referred to something quite specific, i.e. the production and use of text, but as Robin pointed out, it is now used as a metaphor for the competences involved in all kinds of practices, giving rise to such widely divergent concepts as ‘visual literacy’ and ‘business literacy’. This immediately made me wonder about the appropriateness of conceiving computer-based competences in terms of literacy, but Robin went on to argue that the metaphor is useful because it enables connections to be made with the critical work on text-based literacy carried out by anthropologists and ethnographers, especially Brian Street (1984). (And again, I kicked myself – because Ann’s and my teaching materials on literacy cover Street’s work, but I hadn’t for a moment reflected on its implications for the digital literacy training activities that I was simultaneously involved in designing for the very same module.) As Robin argued, Street’s critique of the ‘autonomous model of literacy’ (i.e. the conception of print/manuscript literacy only as a set of skills in which individuals achieve varying levels of proficiency) should remind us to go beyond the basic questions of ‘What skills are needed?’ and even ‘What is the community context?’ to ask ‘Whose life chances are being enhanced through the development of these skills in this context?’ Higher education tends to think only in terms of imparting skills, and ducks the question of how digital literacy serves to separate people out, including some and excluding others (see e.g. Goodfellow, 2011 for discussion of a clear example). Naturally, I started to ask myself about the degree to which the training materials I had co-created were predicated on an ‘autonomous model of digital literacy’. Had I attempted to do anything more than to develop skills that had seemed important to me from my point of view as a professional academic? Perhaps, to a limited extent, I had – weren’t there hints of that in the Wikipedia / Oxford Reference activity, for example? – but without having previously articulated the question in this way, I couldn’t be sure.

In questions afterwards, Ann’s and my faculty colleague, Jim Donohue asked Robin whether digital literacy could act to bring people together as well as to separate them out. Robin responded: ‘Yes, in the sense of “Those of us who can do this are all together.”’ Jim challenged him: ‘Some people would call that “education”.’ Fair point. On the one hand, the net effect of educational systems is to reinforce hierarchies and reproduce inequality from one generation to the next; on the other hand, education provides competences that can potentially boost the life chances of members of disadvantaged groups (albeit generally by training them to act as members of other groups). Paulo Freire (2000 [1968]) proposed a solution to this paradox, but it involved creating an entirely new context for learning – and one which was very, very unlike a university (perhaps especially in the current era). For me at least, these issues recalled research on how non-professional production of digital content (the centrepiece of claims for the liberatory potential of Web 2.0) is determined by social class, for which educational level is an effective proxy (Schradie, 2011). As professionals working in a higher educational context, I asked, is it possible for us to challenge digital literacy as a marker of distinction and exclusion, given that one of higher education’s functions is precisely to institutionalise distinction and exclusion? Robin answered that if we are going to try to challenge it, ‘we’ll run up hard against the university’s employability agenda.’

Much to think about.


Allington, Daniel and Hewings, Ann (2012). ‘Reading and writing in English’. In: Allington, Daniel and Mayor, Barbara (eds.). Communicating in English: talk, text, technology. London: Routledge. pp. 47-76.

Freire, Paulo (2000 [1968]). Pedagogy of the oppressed, 30th anniversary edn. Trans. Myra Bergmann Ramos. New York / London: Continuum.

Goodfellow, Robin (2011). ‘Digital literacy events: revisiting the twitter debate’. Accessed 10 April at:

Kress, Gunther (2010). Multimodality: a social semiotic approach to contemporary communication. London: Routledge.

McGann, Jerome J. (1991) The textual condition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Old Bailey Online (2012). ‘How are the proceedings different when read online?’, version 7.0. Accessed 1 April 2013 at:

Schradie, Jen (2011). ‘The digital production gap: the digital divide and Web 2.0 collide.’ Poetics 39: 145–168.

Street, Brian V. (1984). Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Towheed, Shafquat (2012). ‘Robert Louis Stevenson’s reading’. Accessed 2 April 2013 at: