Online Educa Berlin 2010 Keynote: Building Networked Learning Environments

I was delighted to be invited to keynote at Online Educa Berlin 2010 – one of the world’s foremost e-learning events, which this year attracted well over 2000 learning and training professionals from over 100 countries. I was also happy to get to share a platform with the fabulous Larry Johnson, New Media Consortium’s inspirational Chief Executive Officer. Many thanks everyone who came along and to all the people who came and talked to me or got in touch after my slot – I was really pleased that my topic struck a chord with so many and connected with work going on across the globe.

Talking about networked learning made me reflect on how much my own practice and thinking benefits from the networks and communities I am part of, and the excellent friendships that have come about as a consequence over the years. I wanted to model the benefits of networked learning and use the platform I was given to share ideas, resources and research. One way of doing that was to add to the #oeb10 conversation by posting my key sources to Twitter. A lot of people requested off-Twitter information so I’m following up by posting thoughts and references here.

Digital Literacy and Learning Communities: Supporting 21st Century Learners

Leicester is a large and thriving city, located in the English East Midlands. It’s one of the UKs most ethnically diverse regions, and takes understandable pride in celebrating cultural diversity – regarding it as a strength and a defining characteristic. Leicester is home to a large Asian community, from East Africa, Gujarat, Punjab, Pakistan and Bangladesh, an African-Caribbean community, as well as residents from Eastern Europe, including Poland and Ukraine, and more recently has seen migration from Turkey and from Somalia, Sierra Leone and Cameroon.

I currently live in Leicester and work as ICT Strategy Lead, within Transforming the Learning Environment (TLE). TLE is the Local Authority’s integrated approach to education for 0 to 19 year olds. Our focus is to ensure the City’s current school building programmes delivers flexible, inclusive learning spaces that support the transformation of education – raising standards, and improving the life chances and wellbeing of all our learners. Critically, we view the physical build programme as a bridge to transformation rather than as an end in itself.

Making change happen

My role is to ensure the investment made in ICT is deployed to support our aspirations for learning, learners and learning communities. My priorities are broad – I’m looking at infrastructure and connectivity, Green ICT, as well as ICT to support teaching and learning, the running of the schools, and to facilitate engagement with communities – immediate communities which include students, staff members, parents, governors and local residents, and wider community networks across the city, country and internationally.

If you take a walk through Leicester centre you won’t get the feeling that it is anything but an aspirational, busy and creative city. But many of the city’s children and young people live in comparative poverty. I spend a lot of time looking at connectivity and infrastructure these days, and the ways in which young people can access and gain the skills and confidence they need to fully engage in and shape their world. A significant minority of these children and young people don’t have the advantages of easy access, or of relatives or carers who are themselves confident and critical users of technology. It’s in this context – although there are many other drivers and benefits – that schools have a powerful and essential role to play in supporting and modelling the use of technology. Ensuring the infrastructure is in place is critical – but just making sure connectivity and tools are available doesn’t transform education.

One of the first things I think it’s key to acknowledge when we’re talking about learning landscapes is the reality of the majority of the UK’s engagement with technology as a current and everyday practice. Of course, this is true for many other countries as well, but I’m focusing here on what the research indicates is likely to be the daily experience of many people in my city. We need to shift our perspective from one that looks forward to a future where most people are connected via the internet, mobile and gaming to one that recognises that we are there already – and has already begun to reconfigure our social, cultural, political and economic landscape. Many people will be thinking that I’m stating the obvious here but for a lot of people getting to grips with what the reality of this is – how connectivity impacts on people’s lives in immediate and very personal ways – still seems to be a deferrable abstract concept. It isn’t. We create digital identities online for our children, often before they are born; we meet our temporary and longer term romantic partners, and break up with our existing partners; we create digital memorials to the dead and try and work out what to do with their online identities and assets once they have gone. Digital spaces are social, economic, political and cultural spaces. They are every day spaces, spaces where people live out the dramas and the minutia of their lives.

For me, the three most significant features of the current social landscape within post-industrial countries is the increase in connectivity, the mainstreaming of collaborative online practices and the rise of real time and location based activity. And these are not just significant within a techno-social landscape, but to our understanding of mainstream culture.

For a lot of people, devices are affordable. While we have cheap or free network access in the UK through local libraries, UK online Centres, schools, public wifi provision and internet cafes, personal device ownership and any time access are still salient points. Access shapes how we think about technology, how we use it, and some of the ways in which we are able to relate to other people. It’s easy to compare this to how we’ve used technology historically to augment and develop our relationships – the letter, the telegram, the telephone. However, the internet is characteristically different from these previous technologies. Danah Boyd very usefully defines some of these impacts.

Having a device and a connection to hand supports intimacy within networks, and the ability to take ownership of networks – providing greater opportunity to create one’s own networks, for continuity and development. We need to be mindful that a great deal of current research highlights correlations between socio economic status and access. This isn’t the only barrier to access but it’s a critical and significant one. We need to be aware that as social and economic activity increasingly takes place within networked environments, a significant minority of those who aren’t accessing these environments, or not accessing them with the same level of confidence or able to develop and maintain skills and competencies through frequent access, are potentially being further disadvantaged. This is one of the key reasons why our schools have a critical role to play in not just providing access but in modelling the use of technology which supports the development of digital literacy. Just getting people online doesn’t magically solve socio-economic disadvantage. But supporting all of our children and young people’s ability to have meaningful, useful and safe online interactions means that we don’t further disadvantage some of our most vulnerable populations.

The rise and rise of social networking and media services means that what the majority of people do in their daily lives has changed. They are frequently and routinely checking in and communicating with each other. It isn’t strange for people to check in to their social networks before getting out of bed in the morning, and to continue to do so throughout the day. That’s what a lot of those people who are walking around looking at their phones rather than the traffic are doing. Updating their status, replying to their messages, answering emails, tending to their virtual sheep on Farmville. The always connected aren’t in a majority- we don’t have usb head ports yet. But within post-industrial societies the persistently connected are mainstream.

The prevalence of the status update and the concurrent development of geolocation services and practices stand out to me as important and defining chacteristics of our persistently connected culture.

Microblogging’s huge contribution to mainstream culture might be in its recognition that the laborious assembly of digital artefacts to represent ourselves – the elaborate construction of our digital identity which until recently enabled us to identify a whole genre of social networking services as ‘profile based’, was always going to be of most interest to the person creating the profile. Outside of stalkers, lovers and detectives, most people don’t engage with each other primarily via profile construction. It turns out what people most want to know about their friends isn’t how they imagine themselves to be, but what it is they are actually getting up to and thinking about. They want to have conversations. And conversations feed conversations.

The prevalence of geolocation raises a lot of questions around privacy and safety and the developing relationship of the digital to the physical. I’m personally very excited about the potential of geolocation for education and the kinds of practice crossing the streams engenders. I’m also wary that these kinds of services – especially when linked to real time updates across media – call for an articulate understanding of and response to the e-safety and identity management issues they raise – and without digital literacy on the national agenda we may miss opportunities and mismanaging risks.

Digital Literacies

Investing the younger generation with mythical powers – the skills, competences and confidences that we recognise need ongoing support, maintenance and development in adults, does none of us any favours. I’ve commented many times on how assumptions about Digital Natives are unhelpful. Blanket assumptions about young people’s ability to understand technology by osmosis, and the blunt use of the Digital Native metaphor runs the risk of isolating and further disadvantaging already vulnerable young people.

Recent research has clearly underlined the need to address children’s and young people’s use of the internet, mobile and games technologies in the context of digital literacy.

The EU kids online initial findings, reported in October 2010, highlights issues around the increasingly young age that children go on line, and the range of contacts and relationships young people engage in. It’s well worth a read. It’s interesting to see the role digital space plays in a significant percentage of positive identity development and self expression – 50% of the young people surveyed reported ‘feeling more like themselves online’.

Becta’s research report on Web 2.0 Technologies for KS3 and KS4, published in July 2008 is also well worth downloading before the site is taken down on January 31st.  The report points up young people’s largely pedestrian use of technology, and highlights the role that educators could and should be playing in supporting young peoples engagement as producers, creators, curators rather than primarily as consumers: “Many learners lack technical skills, and lack an awareness of the range of technologies and of when and how they could be used, as well as the digital literacy and critical skills to navigate this space. Teachers should be careful not to overestimate learners’ familiarity and skills in this area. There is a clear role for teachers in developing such skills.”

Digital Literacy is now understood as an essential skill for 21st century citizens, as the effective use of technology is increasingly critical from social, economic, cultural and political perspectives. This is true in terms of the opportunities digital literacy affords individuals, as well as for cities and larger regions.

There are many definitions of digital literacy. In one of the earliest (2006), Allan Martin defined Digital Literacy as

“…the awareness, attitude and ability of individuals to appropriately use digital tools and facilities to identify, access, manage, integrate, evaluate, analyse and synthesise digital resources, construct new knowledge, create media expressions, and communicate with others in the context of specific life situations, in order to enable constructive social action; and to reflect upon this process.”

More recently Becta have defined Digital Literacy as

“…the skills, knowledge and understanding learners need to participate fully and safely in our increasingly digital world.

It is a combination of:

functional technology skills

critical thinking

collaboration skills and

social awareness” (2010)

The characteristics across many of the available definitions are that digital literacy are that:

  • it supports and helps develop traditional literacies – it isn’t about the use of technology for it’s own sake or ICT as an isolated practice
  • it’s a life long practice – developing and continuing to maintain skills in the context of continual development of technologies and practices
  • it’s about skills and competencies, and critical reflection on how these skills and competencies are applied
  • it’s about social engagement – collaboration, communication, and creation within social contexts

I particularly like Bélisle’s identification of three models of Literacy in this context (Bélisle, C. (2006) “Literacy and the Digital Knowledge Revolution” in Martin & Madigan, 2006: 51-67). He defines these as Functional – the functional and practical skills required to function within a community; Socio-cultural – as literacy being meaningful only within a social context, and facilitating access to cultural, economic and political structures; and Transformational – that new ways of seeing and thinking about the world become possible as new cognitive and processing tools come into play. You can find a discussion and application of Bélisle’s models in Martin & Grudziecki, DigEuLit: Concepts and Tools for Digital Literacy Development (PDF)

In terms of Digital Literacy, I’ve come to three main conclusions. Firstly, it is of critical importance not to reduce our perception of and aspirations for digital literacy to skills alone. While skills are important, reducing our aims just to types of skills risks boring everyone to death with short lived, tool specific training which doesn’t address the social and political context of people’s lives or their reasons for engaging with technology.

Secondly, the discussion about what constitutes digital literacy or digital literacies, should, in symmetry with the subject itself, not be perceived as a problem we aim to solve, or a thing we aim to determine once and for all. I’ve had many interesting discussions about the definition and I still think that the fact people want to talk about it, and that there is currency and recognition internationally in the term, is the really important thing.

Thirdly, just talking about the desirability of a local, national or international digital literacy agenda doesn’t necessarily get things done. At some point, we need to agree actions.

Networked learning environments

Supporting critical and confident engagement with technological environments and tools – prioratising the role of networked learning environments –  is a practical way that we can recognise and meet the challenges of our changed social landscape, attend to the issues around inequality and e-safety, and take advantage of the many opportunities for more effective and engaging learning experiences.

One of my current priorities is to support school communities to participate within, develop, create and manage web and mobile-based communities of practice, or Personal Learning Environments. Again – while I’m recognising the theoretical and practical landscapes we are working in I don’t want to get bogged down within this post with definitions. What I’m interested in is supporting the skills and critical thinking about educational engagement in networked environments, and particularly in how educators and learners can use these to support and transfigure existing practice.

Promoting engagement in networked learning practices both supports the development of digital literacy, and ensures that people can create and engage in networks that are specific to their personal needs. It also ensures that resource is spent most effectively – equipping people and communities with the practical and critical skills to determine their own developmental networks. Engaging in practice which supports and helps build capacity into organisations is a good thing at the best of times; during times of economic uncertainty it becomes a critical stratergy. Online communities can be long running, internationally based, and well established; they can also be lightweight, temporary and small scale. Networks can be flexible and distributed, working across a wide variety of platforms, connected through RSS aggregation or curated as necessary. This approach could include a classroom level community – a student wiki focusing on a specific class or project, for example, as well as a city subject hub blog, or an international network of practitioners focusing on a particular curriculum area or educational issue, using a variety of institution and cloud based platforms.

Some schools, school leaders and educators are doing amazing things. It’s my role to support and promote the great work that’s already going on, and to help equip educators and learners with the tools and practices and confidence that will support them in doing even better. Using online collaborative tool and environments is now a widespread, mainstream personal activity. Supporting or learners and staff to use collaborative digital environments and tools in safe, critical and innovative ways should be on the top of all our digital literacy wish lists and informing local and national policy and practice.

Steve Wheeler wrote a post commenting on both my and Larry’s keynotes, in which he finished by noting my persistent optimism. If I am hopeful about the complex challenges we face as educational technologists, it isn’t because of Larry, or me, or any of the people who get to headline conferences and give talks. Amazing as many of them are, it’s because difficult problems will be solved, if they can be solved, by the communities that face them. The best job that I can do at this point is to try and ensure that all of the members of all our complex and many communities and networks get the opportunity to contribute to the process.

Bonus links:

Becoming a Networked Learner, Scott Leslie April 2010

George Seimens asks “What skills/attributes do learners need in order to learn effectively with networked technologies?” October 2009

BBC News A million UK children ‘lack access to computers’ December 2010