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Digital Literacy: the time is nigh

Thoughts from the Cardiff One By One Digital Literacy Lab

Each museum is going to have a reckoning with digital literacy.

Unfortunately, this reckoning will not be in the face of a single violent event which can be tackled decisively. Instead, it will be a slow decline in relevance and sustainability that requires a strategic and thought-through remedy.

If you’re not trained in using your digital catalogue, you are wasting time. If you don’t know how to structure your website properly, you’re driving away your users. If you’re not talking to people online, your competitors are instead. If you can’t use Microsoft Word, you will fail at life.

Tackling digital literacy is not easy, though. At a very practical level, many people simply don’t know where to start or, worse, don’t see the need in tackling the issue at all.

The One By One Project

So when I first heard of the One by One project, ‘a 30 month national digital literacy building project for UK museums of all sizes and types’, I thought: great, here is a project which could set a definition of digital literacy for the museums sector.

One By One is being funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and led by the University of Leicester and Culture 24, supported by a range of museums, strategic sector agencies and academic partners.

A personal frustration of mine is that whenever I mention digital literacy a lot of people assume I’m just talking about social media.

Being able to point to a sector-wide definition of key terms, skills and best practice to work towards would save us all a lot time. My hope is that One By One will provide a blueprint for organisations at the beginning of their digital transformations, and aspirations for those further along.

This is their stated aim, but also their biggest challenge. A digital literacy framework which covers the smallest volunteer-run museums to the largest national museums — as well as accounting for the legal and cultural differences between the individual nations of the UK — is no easy task.

To figure it out they’re working in five phases, each led by different organisations:

I came in on Phase 2. This phase recognised that many reports have been written on digital skills gaps, but none had ‘defined what these skills are nor what the most effective and sustainable interventions to realise these could be.’

To help puzzle it out the One By One team invited museum digital people to three digital literacy labs held in Brighton, Edinburgh and Cardiff. These explored digital literacy frameworks and how they could be applied to museums, using a Design Thinking approach.

The Cardiff Digital Literacy Lab

Our workshop in Cardiff was the last in these three, meaning the good people in Brighton and Edinburgh had already explored digital literacy models in other sectors and sussed out a range of digital skills, leaving us to apply what they learned to scenarios of different museums.

Digital Literacy frameworks need a framework to understand them all.

What this meant in practice is we got a quick grounding in digital literacy frameworks in other sectors, and were then given a task of trying to categorise fifty different words and phrases relating to digital skills.

These words and phrases included everything from ’Critical Thinking’ to ‘Empathy’ and ‘SEO’. Each of our four groups interpreted the task differently, and it was immediately obvious that digital literacy is both integrated with normal ways and concepts of working but also forms a set of distinct skills. For instance, good communication and empathy are part and parcel of a well-functioning team, but there are software, services and ways of working which can help. On top of that, though, someone needs to know how to run the website. It was also clear that there are some skills which absolutely everyone needs (email, MS Office), those which are specialist (building and maintaining websites) and those which help the whole organisation (communication tools).

It only gets tricky when you realise that a curator in a small museum may need the specialist skills which in a larger museum would be left to a specialist, such as writing a technical brief for a web feature.

Ross Parry then let us into the One By One team’s current thinking, which is that they think of digital literacy as split into competencies and capabilities, with literacy the overarching understanding of the two. Ross explained competencies as being able to do something proficiently with tools, and capability as performing tasks with an intention and agency. An example of a competency is being able to write and publish a blog on Wordpress, but a capability is being able to run a Wordpress site. Encompassing both competency and capability is literacy, which is self-awareness of the two and how to utilise them properly. (If you’re scratching your head, then they explain themselves far better than I can on their website.)

Our second task was to design a digital literacy framework for a specific museum in a specific situation. One was a national or large regional museum, one a local authority, one a rural museum with a lot of buildings, and my team had a small museum with 2.5 staff and a lot of volunteers.

Our frameworks came in varying shapes and sizes, from caterpillars to rivers.

This task proved how hard any digital literacy framework was going to have to work. Our team was quite clear that for an overstretched small museum which relies on volunteers, the practical benefits in term of money earned, time saved or visitors through the door need to be at the forefront. Other museums with more capacity could focus on overarching strategy, but all came down to needing someone to push through the change. All frameworks also built in the cyclical nature of digital skills, with constant evaluation and review.

I left Cardiff with the same thoughts I went in with: museums need to improve digital literacy to remain relevant and sustainable.

Museums, however, often have to rely on a person or small group to be agents of change in tackling digital skills, mindsets and systems— whether that’s from below, from management or from Boards. For those agents of change to succeed, they need to be articulate the challenges, the benefits and the way forward. A common digital literacy framework will help with all three, but I don’t think it can ever be useful without a will to change within each museum. It takes time, effort and a long, hard, strategic look at yourself in the mirror to figure out which bits of digital competencies, capabilities, technologies and systems are worth investing time, effort and money into.

A digital literacy framework is essential, but it’s then up to us to make it useful.


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