Plugged in or turned off: A critical reflection on the digital literacy of 21st century students in higher education

This post was originally published in EdContexts in Sept. 10, 2015.

Heather and Suzan met for the first time at the Digital Pedagogies Conference (2015) this year. Heather chose the metaphorical title, “Connectivism: Plugged in or turned off? Does Connectivity equal Inclusivity?”, for a paper she co-presented with her colleague, Jane Hunt, in which they critically examined inclusivity in connectivist learning environments. In this post, we use the same metaphor Heather used in her presentation – being plugged in and turned off – to refer to our understanding and use of digital technologies in general.

Since the conference, we have exchanged many e-mails and Twitter messages discussing issues around inclusivity and digital literacy in connectivism, connected learning, and networked learning in general.Through our conversations, we discovered that we shared similar educational visions and concerns with regard to learning on the World Wide Web. We decided to open this conversation to a wider audience because as Freire noted:

Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other. (p. 72)

In this post, we challenge common assumptions about digital literacies and access to technology in the 21st century classes based on our experiences. We hope you will join the conversation too by leaving a comment.

Are you plugged in or turned off? What is the impact of technology on your teaching and learning? If you are like us, you feel simultaneously plugged in or turned off. No matter how hard we try, we still may not be aware of the bigger picture of how digital technologies can enable learning in so many different ways. We seem to be running flat out to keep up with emerging technologies whilst desperately trying to respond to the growing consensus that traditional learning theories are either obsolete or, at the very least, need adapting to meet the evolving needs of the 21st century learner.

Quite rightly, there is a sense of urgency to bring education into the digital age, but we believe caution is needed when introducing new digital technologies and learning theories/approaches aligning with those into our classes. We refer to the assumptions surrounding the digital literacy of our students. Our experience is that the 21st century learner may not be as connected and as technological savvy as one might think. In addition, even if students use digital technologies in everyday life, this doesn’t mean that they are comfortable or experienced in using them for their learning. This highlights the fact that the affordances of digital technology are not being fully utilised or indeed understood by a proportion of the student population. So what are the reasons?

In Heather’s experience of a widening participation context: primarily non-traditional students (mature, low socio-economic demographic) studying at a university centre in the UK,  there are students who are the first in their families to enter higher education and are still very much finding their voices. This directly links to having the self-confidence that they have something to say and, perhaps more significantly, that others will want to hear it. This seems to be more evident in mature students who are often less familiar with the affordances of emerging technology, especially in relation to learning. That is not to say that this is true of all students within that context. One digitally literate student used Twitter very effectively to garner opinion concerning the educational policies of opposing political parties and then after critical analysis, incorporated the results into a poster presentation. This student was confident both in terms of using technology as a learning tool and already having an online presence. Whilst he is certainly not unique perhaps this is where we are in danger of cultivating a one size fits all mentality, despite the fact that not all students, or indeed lecturers, are keeping up with the pace: their digital footprint is barely visible in some cases.

Mature students in particular who have not been born into the digital world (in the context of widening participation), generally have certain fears and expectations about their return to education. Their educational biography is often shaped by a bad school experience, external social/familial/economic pressures and lack of opportunities, which sometimes results in learning anxiety. Often a student who has previously had a less than ideal educational experience and has taken the life-changing step to return to education will be hoping for, if not expecting, a nurturing, supportive experience the second time around.Learning anxiety may be further exacerbated due to economic disadvantage because contrary to common assumptions not everyone has the financial means to buy digital devices or connect to the internet.Therefore, if we are to introduce theories which are more compatible with the digitally connected world in which we live and learn, we will need to take such factors into account. The Connectivist approach, for example, promotes self directed learning where the onus is on the student to build a strong, individualised learning network because ‘learning and knowledge is distributed across nodes’ and then the student has to have the skill to make immediate decisions regarding the currency of that knowledge because the “capacity to know is more critical than what is currently known.” Whilst Heather acknowledges the potential of students plugging into a network which enables them to engage with and analyse diverse perspectives which they would not otherwise have been exposed to, she has also identified challenges that may turn them off. If the student is digitally illiterate, or digitally disadvantaged, this theory may be further alienating which, given the premise of connectivity and collaboration, is quite ironic.

In Suzan’s experience of teaching completely online courses in her program area (learning technologies), her students’ expectations are not that different from Heather’s students. We think this is remarkable considering the differences in the two contexts.  Suzan’s courses are highly social  and encourage students to learn in a community via a social networking platform. Most of Suzan’s undergraduate students (US) have been born into the digital world and are affluent users of social media, but they too have challenges in using technology for their learning. It is common for undergraduate students to take more than four classes during each academic semester (typically equivalent to 12 credits; the expected workload for each credit is 3 hours a week) and work part-time to help with the high costs of college tuition. Students generally choose to enroll in online classes because they offer the flexibility they need to juggle work, study and social life. It is not uncommon for Suzan to see her students responding to discussions and working on class projects late at night until the early hours of the morning. Not surprisingly, many students have limited time to figure out new technologies on their own and need ample time and support to familiarize themselves with their course site and its structure.

The challenges are not merely technical or due to a lack of experience and/or knowledge. Students also have learning anxieties that directly tie into the traditional culture of teaching and learning in higher education. For example, they might feel the pressure to earn a good grade or feel deeply concerned about how they present themselves to others in class discussions and openly shared class projects. For some students using a highly structured classroom management system such as Moodle or Blackboard is more reassuring than a social networking site with loosely defined boundaries.

Last semester, Suzan taught a class in which students explored youths’ use of social media from an educational perspective. Inspired by David Wiley’s call to end disposable assignments, and to encourage students have hands-on experience with an emergent technology relevant to the focus of the class, Suzan asked her students to create a blog (optional;the blog could be open on the web or visible to course participants only) for their independent research projects. But it was challenging for Suzan to explain to her students the ethos of blogging and the necessity of creating something that would have value outside of “class walls.” Some students posted long traditional essays for their blog posts (with course descriptions at the beginning and paper-based citation formats), some students copied to their posts large chunks of content from other sites, some students created beautiful designs ticking every box for the minimum requirements for the assignment, but nothing more. Suzan was struck by the diversity in how students approached blogging – getting rid of the disposable assignments wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be. Students had blogs but not everyone had a voice in them – it hadn’t become a space for them to be present on the web.

How can we help our students have a voice in a networked learning context, informally or otherwise? How can we facilitate a welcoming and a suitable environment for our students: a space which enables each learner to get the most out of their learning experience?

These are not easy questions to address, but we argue that we can at least start by critically reflecting on our assumptions regarding the digital literacy of our students. To be precise, we should not assume that our students have easy access to the Internet and tools/devices; are technologically competent; and are confident in using digital technologies. To be “plugged in,” we have to ensure everyone (teachers included) has access to the tools and competency in using them efficiently. Perhaps, more importantly, we have to nurture students in this process so that, hopefully, they will gain the confidence and willingness to use technology effectively for their learning, and rather than being “turned off,” their learning will extend beyond the confines of the classroom into the connected world.

Without dismissing the need for scaffolding strategies, being connected implies partnership and we believe the best guidance happens when we work alongside our students, when we see ourselves as learners as well. Suzan, for example, could have blogged along with her students to model writing for a public audience on the web and engage in a more authentic dialogue with her students. That way perhaps she could better help her students “develop the awareness, skills, habits and dispositions necessary to take full advantage of the affordances of the web.” Heather could strengthen her own digital presence and become a node in the network, thereby providing a familiar starting point for her students, whilst guiding them to other nodes.

It is important for students to know that we don’t know everything and are still learners ourselves especially with regard to technology. Showing our willingness to explore and attempt new things…sharing our failures as well as successes…learning with and from our students… These are the types of things we might consider in our teaching because we (students and teachers) are all in the same boat with regard to navigating the open sea of numerous, unimaginable possibilities. There will be waves that may threaten to rock the boat or even capsize it and the fear of this (setbacks, failures) is often at the heart of the resistance to change/reluctance to explore those possibilities but connectivity – the idea that we are learning together –offers a lifejacket.

On Networked Communities

Community is a puzzling term: we can talk about communities of practice, communities of inquiry, learning communities, rural communities, research communities… We can talk about so many different communities that it’s, I think, impossible to explain it in one way. But I can try describing one community that I’m familiar with.

I’m doing research on open participants’ experiences in a connected open online course. At first, I thought I could examine their activities through the communities of practice framework. I would look at how open participants went about research writing, the inquiry process. I would examine interactions among participants, find out about common norms, language, the type of knowledge that they produce as a community through shared artifacts. It soon became apparent though, what I was observing didn’t resemble a typical community of practice where “members share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” I wasn’t observing shared practice-other than blogging about issues related to education, which I think is too general to be defined as shared practice. Open participation was so diverse and rich that I had to take a step back and re-think how I might capture open participants’ involvement in the course.

Then I read something Mimi Ito wrote almost a year ago, and everything clicked: Unlike becoming a contributor to Wikipedia or YouTube, Connected Courses is a veritable cornucopia of ways of participating with no central platform. And unlike a community of practice, there is an abundance of different forms of expertise and practices, and social norms that are colliding through a loosely orchestrated cross-network remix, immersive theater where participants are all experiencing a different narrative. Its not a funnel or even a community with coherent practices, but a hybrid network, more like a constellation that looks different based on where one stands and who one is.

This was (almost) exactly what I was observing: participants’ involvement with the course, their presence, was multifaceted and unique. Their involvement was authentic; they talked about things that mattered to them, they brought with them their existing and expanding networks, they organized the course in ways that made sense to them and that suited their busy adult lives.

This, I believe, is also exactly what Catherine Cronin, building on Kris Gutierrez’s earlier work, describes as third spaces–spaces where formal learning skills and the informal skills, networks, and identities intersect and create opportunities for authentic interaction and knowledge building. (This last part is taken from a talk that I’ll give at the Digital Pedagogies Conference 2015.)

So am I observing a community here in the first place? I think, yes, but I believe my context is unique because the course is built upon a strong foundation which encourages community building from within (for example, via faculty and staff blogs). There are multiple communities of practice operating on different levels (faculty, students, the VCU community in general). When open participants join the course and begin participating in the course activities and interact with the VCU community they become part of that community. But at the same time, they have one foot outside the community, creating unique ways of participation and diversity.

I’m struggling with the vocabulary here a little bit. I feel like there’s a lot more that I want to capture than I outlined here, but I just don’t have all frameworks in place yet. So I’ll be reading and writing about third spaces, learning communities and networks a lot this summer to be able to tell a story that is robust and rigorous– something that will make sense from where I stand. Below is an image that I find relevant to think about community in networked places: It is always changing, evolving, regenerating, but there is nonetheless a shared narrative (a series of connected events) that brings people together. Draw imaginary lines between individual leaves and add more shapes and colors to the scene: now the picture is more complete in our mind’s eye. giphy Animated gif taken from here.

Thinking about thinking

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You’re giving a 20 minute lecture and you don’t want your students to drift away while you’re passionately talking about your slides. What would you do? (Let’s say “I wouldn’t lecture my students for 20 min. in the first place” is not an option.) According to the University of Sussex, there is a lot you can do to win your listeners’ attention. You could ask your students to stretch their legs, for example. Or ask them to take notes and give them some time to check their notes with their classmates at some point during the presentation. You could ask them to write down a few questions about the lecture. Learners can discuss a question, take a short test, brainstorm keywords, watch a video clip-the list goes on. One final strategy is to ask learners to reflect on the lecture. For example, you can ask students to “take three minutes to think about what we have dealt with so far” while “stay[ing] quiet so as not to interfere with others’ reflection.”

Reflection is often thought of as a planned activity, a learning strategy, and the list by the University of Sussex clearly illustrates that. It is often an afterthought. The thing is.. all the strategies I mentioned above to engage students are a type of “reflection” as long as we consider students as thinking human beings, consciously or unconsciously. Our reflections could be formal (as in we may be asked to think about thinking) or they could be informal (like asking “are we there yet?” when stretching our poor legs).

I’m not really against the lecturing method, although it may sound like it because of the way I protest against how the University of Sussex frames student engagement during lectures (it all started with a simple search on student reflection in lectures). So after thinking about (reflecting on) the structure of assignments in #thoughtvectors, I am almost convinced that in formal schooling, what matters most is to encourage students to ask questions, get them excited about their learning, and help them see the world from a different perspective. Regardless of the pedagogical model–inquiry based, project-based, lecture, etc.–we need to design the learning activities in such a way that reflection should be understood as part of teaching and learning, at all times. So you might use an inquiry-based approach and but if you don’t really have time to attend to the learner experience and work with surprises, what is the point?

EDIT: I’m now thinking one thing that is missing in my post is metacognition or metacognitive reflection. I also slightly  edited the original post where I talk about reflection in class. I wanted to say something about reflection as a dialogic process, but that’ll probably be another post:)