Digitally literate, digitally confident?

Building the digital capacity of Irish HE — Open Call for Collaboration

Ireland’s National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning has recently launched a call for proposals on the topic of ‘building digital capacity’ in the HE sector. The call asks for collaborative bids from consortia to tackle a number of identified priority areas and where possible to reflect the overall current ‘enhancement theme’ of ‘teaching for transitions.’

Of course, one of the challenges is such schemes is the development of consortia and if previous Higher Education Authority funding schemes are anything to go by, there’ll be a lot of last minute emails, little chats in the corner at coffee breaks during meetings, phone calls between senior managers, etc. Politics will creep in, inevitably, in terms of plans for mergers, regional clusters and the like. Some disciplines with more established cross-institutional relationships will be in a better position to bid than others more disparate. All part of the way in which academics and managers amuse themselves during the summer months as the deadline looms just before the start of the new academic year!

Such informal networking is all part and parcel of contemporary higher education, but it can often lead in practice to somewhat random alignments and outcomes. Not that this necessarily matters if the scheme is carefully managed, similar project proposals are nudged together at a later stage and results are shared openly. However, it would be interesting to consider an alternative approach that encourages real collaboration from the earliest stages of proposal development, particularly since this is about improving the overall quality of teaching and learning across the entire sector, rather than conferrring advantage on particular institutions or groups.

What about an Open Call where ideas are traded and institutions indicate particular strengths, resources and interests that they can bring to bear; where others can indicate an interest in focusing on a number of potential projects and where effort and enthusiasm is more effectively distributed? Is such at all possible in practical terms? I don’t know. I suspect it would require a shift in culture, a realisation that kudos can be acquired through collective endeavour rather than ‘winning’ more funding from the scheme than rival institutions. It might be argued that the overall level of funds available in this scheme is (relatively speaking) quite modest and so where better to try such an approach?

Convinced? Or, not sure, anxious about showing your cards in a competitive process? Well, perhaps that’s just our previous conditioning taking hold and we need to reframe, to consider this not as competitive but genuinely collective. In practical terms, what is the best way to deal with the distribution of funds, who is identified as ‘lead’ coordinator and other issues would need to be resolved, but surely it isn’t beyond our shared intelligence to develop mechanisms and protocols?

We could try a first attempt by picking a fairly standard, almost ‘off the shelf’ topic that appeals to many and see what scope their might be either for a sectoral bid or a network of interrelated work-packages. Here goes.

Digital Literacies is an umbrella term which has come to cover the knowledge, skills and attributes necessary to function successfully (whether as a private citizen, employee, student or scholar) in this technology-dependent era. The levels of awareness, skills and, indeed, confidence are hugely variable between individuals and across participant groups within higher education. Such literacies are increasingly being considered both within the curriculum and as generic graduate attributes. They form part of the routine training for researchers (particularly if our definition, rightly, encompasses information literacy) and also feature in many programmes in academic practice for lecturers and tutors. There has been less focus on these aspects in the training of ‘non-academic’ staff, except perhaps those within library and information services, yet these are significant groups upon whom much of the operation of the institutions depends.

There is a substantial and growing literature on the topic, contestation of terminologies and strategy, as well as numerous case studies, reports and analyses. If we are to adopt a pragmatic (and hopefully fruitful) approach to building such knowledge, skills and confidence across Irish HE we need to be cognisant of this previous work, appreciate that there will be a need for further piloting of programmes and initiatives, and be flexible and responsive to the varying needs of the different potential constituents (future and current students; academic, technical, research, administrative staff; managers, etc).

Potential topics or activities in this broad theme, then, might include:

  • Collation, summarising and review of existing literature and previous work (including specific frameworks and identified competences) focusing on that relevant to the Irish HE context.
  • Identification of existing and planned local initiatives (and lessons learned) and mapping of how these issues are addressed in different institutions. E.g. whether embedded within subject disciplines, the remit of the Library, computing or learning support services; the extent to which they are explicitly addressed in programme outcomes, skills modules or listings of graduate attributes.
  • Tools for auditing skills, knowledge and confidence levels of students and staff in the identified sets of such literacies. These would include checklists for individuals as well as for departments, groups, institutions.
  • Approaches to awareness raising, training, confidence building, extending digital practices targeted to differing audiences or more generally. Successful previous work augmented with new and innovative approaches which might ‘reach the parts others fail to reach’ and including nuancing language and style to the various ‘sub-cultures’.
  • Curation and development of resources and materials for training and support, including those which can be embedded within programmes and existing training and competency frameworks.
  • Means of assessing, recording and demonstrating skills and knowledge accrued. Much work, for example, has been done on the use of Digital Badges and many institutions in Ireland are already using these in their programmes. A more collective and coherent approach to badge development would make things considerably simpler for learners.

There are many other possibilities, no doubt, but are colleagues in other institutions interested in developing specific shared proposals on these themes? Links to other sectors and international partners/advisors already exist in these topics and again these would be invaluable contributions to add to the pool, alongside some of the scholarly work undertaken by colleagues.

If interested here’s an open document for comments, suggestions and indications of interest. Please note, by virtue of proposing this approach I am not necessarily proposing to ‘lead’ a project (that’s up for discussion), just looking for ways of facilitating new approaches to collective endeavour.

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