«1 Digital literacy in higher education: The rhetoric and the reality Lorelle J. Burton, Jane Summers, Jill Lawrence, Karen Noble, and Peter Gibbings ...»
Digital literacy in higher education: The rhetoric and the reality
Lorelle J. Burton, Jane Summers, Jill Lawrence, Karen Noble, and Peter Gibbings
This chapter examines empirical data to address the rhetoric of the digital native as a competent and
digitally literate learner. The chapter also questions the reality of the notion that a digital delivery
platform is easy to navigate and facilitates positive learning experiences. Data from surveys of students
studying both on-campus and via distance education (or online) at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), a regional Australian university, provides useful insights into the literacies of digital natives and will help to debunk the myth about digital learning being quick and easy. The findings indicate that most distance education students identified concerns about how technology supported their learning and were frustrated by information and communication technology (ICT) issues. For example, while those classified as digital natives did display high levels of digital literacy, this result was not confined to a particular age group. Interestingly, the students in this sample who could be classified as “digital natives” (under 30 years of age) did not prefer the distance or online mode of study; they preferred to study on-campus (60%). In contrast, the “digital immigrants” (those over 30 years of age) preferred the distance/online mode of study (57%). Both groups showed a high degree of experience with, and confidence in, their ability to engage with the various digital technologies. Evidence presented in this chapter will help universities to put in place appropriate and timely interventions to enable students to develop and apply digital literacies to support their learning. Specifically, guidelines for educators on how best to embed digital literacies into an online pedagogy, and recommendations for establishing effective learning management systems to support online education, are provided.
Introduction Two interrelated myths arise from Australian higher education’s responses to an increased emphasis on technological delivery. One myth stems from the view that tertiary education students are digital natives who have universal and uniform digital experiences. This myth presumes that the technological experiences of these students are homogeneous and linked to a sophisticated knowledge and understanding of information and communication technologies (ICTs). The second myth emanates from the idea that the internet is a panacea for the issues of increasing costs of higher education and increasing demand by students for authentic and interactive learning opportunities. The assumption here is that technology underpinning online learning is quick, easy to use, can be accessed by everyone, and is appropriate for all learning activities.
Such myths risk overlooking a complex mix of technology-based skills, knowledge and preferences among student populations and need scrutiny. Firstly, what is the reality about students’ digital learning abilities and, secondly, is a cost-effective, digitally delivered learning platform able to transfer knowledge and facilitate effective learning? This chapter explores the assumptions underlying these two myths. The research literature will initially be reviewed followed by a review of students’ perspectives, measured via online surveys conducted at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), a regional Australian university. The survey was part of an innovation called DART (Diagnostic and Reflective Tool), an enabling tool devised to assist students to identify and build their individual digital learning capabilities. The survey data provides useful insights into the pervasiveness of digital literacies possessed by commencing tertiary students.
Myth 1: The digital native
The term “digital literacy” was originally used to refer to a minimal set of technical skills that enabled users of technology to operate effectively and to perform basic tasks (Buckingham, 2010). This functional definition specifies the basic skills required to perform particular operations. However, it fails to recognise that digital literacy now means more than just the technical skills involved in using a computer. It also means knowing how to do online searches or send emails. Computers and other mobile devices have evolved past being simply machines that provide quick information retrieval. These devices provide opportunities for self-expression, play, and communication and act as a medium through which personal relationships may be experienced. Smart phones, for example, are now marketed as lifestyle companions, not communication devices. Thus, a person’s ability to learn effectively in a digital world needs to consider a wider range of skills and literacies than just technical proficiency (Buckingham, 2010; Pegrum, 2011). Digital literacy also comprises effective problem solving skills, critical thinking and communication skills, creativity and self-regulation along with an understanding of culturally and contextually-based practice in the use of, and engagement with, digital technologies (Bawden, 2001; Beetham, McGill, & Littlejohn, 2009; Buckingham, 2010; Lankshear & Knobel, 2008). Indeed, most educators now agree it is useful to conceptualise digital literacy as a series of characteristics rather than as a discrete and static checklist of skills. Further, these characteristics are likely to change over time as new skills and literacies emerge in response to changes and evolution in technology (Hockley, 2012; Pegrum, 2011).
The characteristics of students are an important consideration. Prensky (2001) proposed that digital natives are those born in the millennial generation (i.e., after 1980), have grown up with digital technology and have been immersed in a digital world. Prensky (2001) argued that digital natives learn differently from those born in earlier generations (i.e., “digital immigrants”). According to Prensky, digital natives typically come from media-rich households; they readily use the internet to access information and multi-task using ICTs to carry out a range of activities. In an education context, digital natives have been found to be active, experiential learners, who engage readily with a wide variety of information as long as it is provided quickly and preferably in graphical form (Burdick & Wills, 2011; Ng, 2012). For this group, using and understanding technology is likened to being a “first language” and digital immigrants can never catch up because life experiences before the technology continue to influence their capacity to develop the required digital skills (Prensky, 2001). If one accepts Prensky’s (2001) central thesis, we can assume that digital natives should be able to transfer these digital literacies developed over their lifetime effortlessly into learning. Similarly, digital natives are expected to effectively use learning technologies to improve educational outcomes. However, this does not appear to be the case with many educationalists in both the secondary and tertiary sectors claiming that digital natives are unable to effectively or intuitively use technology for learning in either school or university curriculums (Ng, 2012). Thus, in an education context, the myth that digital natives should know and be able to use educational technologies almost intuitively and certainly more effectively than their older counterparts is not supported by empirical and anecdotal evidence. Two questions then arise. Firstly, is there a problem with the digital native classification? Secondly, is the context in which one learns these digital skills an important aspect influencing how one uses educational technologies?
Many have debated Prensky’s (2001) central premise that being born in a particular time period reliably predicts digital literacy (Burdick & Wills, 2011; Helsper & Eynon, 2010). Such critics argue that digital natives can better be classified by what one can do with technology rather than when one is born.
These researchers suggest that breadth of use, experience, gender and educational levels are more important predictors of internet and technology savvy than a birth date (Burdick & Wills, 2011; Helsper & Eynon, 2010). Researchers have also noted that even though digital natives have grown up immersed in technology, using this technology for learning requires different skills and strategies than just using the technology for socialising or for routine tasks (Aziz, 2010; Margaryan, Littlejohn, & Vojt, 2011; Ng, 2012). Indeed, many digital natives are inexperienced in using technology for learning and do not seek out and explore the use of educational technologies as part of their everyday lifestyles. These are skills that need to be taught and need to be linked to an outcome, such as studying for a degree (Aziz, 2010;
Margaryan et al., 2011; Ng, 2012). Finally, there is no empirical evidence to show that just because digital natives have grown up in a technological world their brain structures differ from digital immigrants (Brown & Czerniewicz, 2010).
Although learners can be classified in terms of their cultural and generational characteristics, one cannot assume that the younger generation, simply because they have been submerged within the digital learning context since birth, have had a uniform digital upbringing and possess a high level of understanding. We need to move away from the idea of digital natives and other assumptions about students’ capacity for digital learning, to examine how technological knowledge and/or experience may be transferred to learning. This involves recognising where assumptions have been made about students’ digital literacies, including stereotypes about mature-age learners, “Gen Y-ers”, first in family to study at university, and rural and/or remote students. It should not be presumed that school leavers have had broadly universal experiences or have a sophisticated knowledge and understanding of ICTs.
Nor can it be presumed that that mature students or those from rural and remote locations have low levels of digital experience and skills. Such generalisations risk overlooking a more complex mix of technology-based skills, knowledge, and preferences among the student population (Kennedy, Judd, Churchward, Gray, & Krause, 2008).
An important alternative focus involves determining how levels of experience with technology can be understood, developed, and translated to better support digital learning. Indeed, Kirkwood and Price (2005) argued that “few students have high levels of competence across a wide range of applications” and that “familiarity with the use of email does not imply expertise in rigorous online debate and discussion” (p. 271). Similarly, Lorenzo, Oblinger, and Dziubam (2006) noted “today’s students are not just the traditional-age Net generation, nor have they all had the benefit of state-of-the-art, ubiquitous technology…higher education [institutions] comprises a highly diverse and growing student body with a wide variety of information literacy capabilities” (p. 4). It is uncertain whether the Net generation knows how to employ technology-based tools strategically to optimise learning experiences in higher education (Kennedy et al., 2008). It cannot be assumed that incoming students’ age or remote location implies anything in particular about their ability to adapt to digital learning environments. It is indeed possible for mature age learners, people from earlier generations, to acquire and develop the digital skills that those born since 1980 are assumed to have acquired organically. These points reinforce the need to focus on supporting students in transferring whatever previous experience they may have with ICTs and digital environments to optimise learning outcomes at university.
Digital natives in higher education: The rhetoric Digital natives are assumed to learn differently from past generations of students (Prensky, 2001). For example, Prensky (2001) argued that digital natives are already fluent in the use of digital technologies, regardless of context, and subsequently do not require digital literacy support. Digital natives or the Net generation, are young people said to have been immersed in technology all their lives, imbuing them with sophisticated technical skills and learning preferences. Immersion in this technology-rich culture is said to have influenced the skills and interests of digital natives in ways significant for higher education (Aziz, 2010; Margaryan et al., 2011). Bennett, Maton, and Kervin (2008) suggested that digital natives have a different way of thinking and processing information, reflecting their high standards of technical skills after being exposed to technology for their whole life. Prensky (2001) added that digital natives require a different way of communicating, reflecting their desire to move faster and in a more random fashion. This view is supported by evidence from learning based on computer games, which require their users to deal with multiple sources of information simultaneously within a constantly changing context (Apperley & Walsh, 2012). While this ability to multitask appears to be more comfortable for young people, the effectiveness of multitasking in a learning environment has been questioned as it may result in cognitive overload and loss of concentration (Helsper & Eynon, 2010). Additionally, while there is a wealth of information available online, it is uncertain whether digital natives have the skills or tools to critically assess the quality of the information they access, an essential skill in higher education (Helsper & Eynon, 2010). Commencing students’ ability to use the internet varies according to their ability to locate, evaluate, and use online information with many possessing low self-reported perceptions of skills in this area. A finding further supported by Eynon and Malmberg (2012), who reported that that the quality of information seeking performed by digital natives was often shallow and without scholarly merit.
There are assumed differences between digital natives— those with technology integrated into their everyday lives, and digital immigrants— those who have had to learn technology more progressively.