Analysing digital literacies – four headlines

One of the recent activities of the Visitors and Residents project has been the development of an analysis framework to help us to gain a deeper understanding of how our participants are engaging with technology for their learning. During the process of coding our interviews we noted down recurrent underlying themes and used these as headlines for the framework. We query the data in NVivo using our original coding e.g. “(ANY: Social Media, Facebook, Twitter, Blog) AND (ANY: Authority, Relevance, Reliability)” – the results are then mapped into the framework which captures the nuances of participants views and motivations.

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Getting involved in discussions at a couple of JISC Developing Digital Literacies project cluster meetings I found myself using the high-level themes from the framework to respond to reporting from the projects. I was tentative about this as the framework is still evolving but the feedback from the cluster meetings was positive so I promised to make the high-level themes available as a reference point to help structure evaluation and/or dissemination. What follows is a brief review of the four top-level themes in our framework:

1. Genres of participation

This is the overarching perspective with Visitor (web perceived as a collection of tools) and Resident (web perceived as a series of co-present spaces) as the principle genres placed at either end of a continuum of engagement (see our First Monday paper). With regard to digital literacies it’s possible to equate the ‘skills’ based (learning the essential functionality of technology) approaches with Visitor and the more experiential/personal-professional identity approaches with Resident. Of course there is no hard-line between these genres of participation, for example many of our participants use social media only for organisational purposes. They are using an apparently Resident technology in a purely functional, Visitor manner. Having said that for reporting or evaluation it’s often useful to initially separate skills based approaches from experiential approaches as measuring their ‘impact’ requires different methods.

2. Attitudes

In the Visitors and Residents project we are exploring ‘motivation to engage’. Often the participant’s motivation is influenced by an underlying attitude or ideology. This can be as simple as not trusting ‘crowd sourced’ resources or as complex as their views on what ‘learning’ is or should be. For the most part these attitudes will not have been closely considered or deconstructed by participants and in some cases simply boil down to forms of prejudice. Good examples of areas which can be highly attitudinal and effect motivations to engage are:

  • Views on the authority and role of Wikipedia and other non-traditional sources.
  • Views on the legitimacy and validity of academic blogs and blogging.
  • Views on the role of social media as a valid space for learning.
  • Views on the relative authority of various media e.g. the ‘a printed book always has more authority than a blog post’ stand-point.

The majority of these areas can be related back to issues of credibility which is proving to be a very useful concept to ‘take the temperature’ of many of these underlying attitudes. What is or isn’t credible in the service of learning and academia is highly contested and has been massively broadened and disrupted by the affordances of the web. There are some very interesting tensions between credibility and convenience emerging from our data which we hope to explore further.

3. Transition points

Whether a particular ‘moment’ or a slow incremental slide it is useful to consider what factors encourage or force individuals to shift their mode of engagement. The majority of the transitions we see in our data are from a Visitor to a Resident mode as the Visitor mode tends to be the ‘default’ state in an institutional context. However we do have examples of participants who have transitioned back into a Visitor mode having found a Resident approach to be inefficient, distracting or uncomfortable. Good examples of transition points include:

  • Geographically relocating – engaging with social media to keep in contact with remote friends and family or students from a previous institution.
  • Course requirements – assessment being attached to a Resident mode of engagement such as blogging.
  • Social tipping point – participants discover that the majority of their peer group are organising social events via social media and so they have to create a profile to ‘stay in the loop’
  • Professional identity – participants decide that it is of value to be ‘active’ online and to develop a visible online profile around their professional role.
  •  Efficiency – participants discover that a Resident approach is ultimately a reasonably efficient/effective way to gather trusted sources and to further their thinking.

A key factor here is the participant’s attitude towards open practice. Being required by an institution to post work in ‘open’ online spaces is counter to most participant’s experience of the educational process. While they might be happy to be part of, for example, a student run Facebook group attached to a course that is very different from being required to engage in a Resident manner. If a participant is generally suspicious of ‘open’ they are unlikely to make any transitions and they are also less likely to trust non-traditional sources (or a least admit to using them…).

4. Management

This again is useful to consider via the genres of participation. The methods participants develop to manage their engagement with technology tend to vary based on whether they are in a predominantly Visitor or Resident mode in a given context. Often participants in a Visitor mode want to retain control over what they engage with and when. There is a desire to keep their time and their roles compartmentalised so that work and personal activities remain distinct making it easier to predict the time and effort that will be required when they log on. Participants with a compartmental approach tend to decide what they want to achieve before they go online. In contrast to this the almost inevitable decompartmentalisation that is an effect of Residency means that participants in this mode are more likely to go online a ‘see what’s happening’. The principle management issues for the Resident mode are likely to be around addiction, distraction and the artful maintenance of the blurred boundaries between differing roles and personas e.g. the perennial ‘do I friend my students?’ conundrum.


These high-level areas have been a useful in making-sense of our data and we are busy discussing more granular sub-themes. I hope you find them a useful starting point when considering digital literacies and reviewing your approaches to facilitating new forms of learning and teaching practice online.

The project is also designing a four session learning resource based around these thematic areas. It will be an Open Education Resource under an appropriate Creative Commons licence and we hope that in the first instance it will be a helpful resource for staff developers and those involved in professional development programmes. We will be releasing a first draft of the structure of the ‘course’ for comment in the next few days so watch-this-space.


The future is not quite real-time

In a discussion with Lawrie Phipps (@Lawrie) I was reminded of something I was thinking about last year around the advantages of not quite real-time (NQRT). It’s one of the few genuinely unique affordances of the web. Asynchronous communication has been with us since cave painting and synchronous since two people first clapped eyes on each other. What is relatively new is the cultural acceptability of having anywhere between 10 seconds and 10 hours between contributions to a discussion or conversation (although between 10 seconds and around 5 minutes is the more interesting time-frame).

Egg Timer
Photo by Ian Barbour:

I’m thinking here about ‘Instant’ messaging, a Twitter stream, a Facebook wall and even ‘rapid’ emailing or forum posting. For example, I can receive a text message in Skype, check the web for information or speak to a colleague in the room and then respond. It’s powerful because it doesn’t demand the immediate attention of a f2f encounter or a ringing phone and it also gives me time to gather my thoughts/cross check information.

Not quite real-time is the main reason why most people are wittier, cleverer and all together more attractive online than they are f2f (note, I say ‘are’ not ‘appear to be’ – the web is real and so are the things that happen there…). It’s also a key reason why more people are comfortable to be perfomative on Facebook walls and in Twitter streams i.e. visible social interaction. This is a communication mode in which we feel a sense of interpersonal connection but also have some level of control over pace/timing. It’s a powerful because it’s social but doesn’t aggressively demand attention. This is why text will always be the dominant visible form of communication online and why many of us chose to not put our cameras on when Skyping.

The downside of NQRT is when it’s used as part of a focused event or discussion with more than two participants. In these cases the pace tends to increase rapidly until NQRT becomes achingly close to f2f speeds (4 seconds is about the maximum time between responses in a f2f conversion ) and the thinking-time gaps are crushed. When this happens the quickest thinkers and fastest typists win-out (or those who have pre-prepared text which they paste in…). This is why text-chats are often feel so exclusive, especially in an educational context – the usual suspects take the floor. It could be one of the many modes of engagement which erode when shifted from a personal to an institutional context?

It would be fascinating to study the nature of NQRT communications because it appears to be unique to the web and a relatively new cultural phenomenon. What is effect of NQRT on maintaining relationships and/or supporting communities? Is it a more inclusive form because it levels out the playing field and those who like to muse before expressing themselves can be part of the flow or is it fated to always speed-up and lose its advantages as soon as a discussion becomes interesting? It’s certainly something that warrants research, assuming a practical methodology could be developed…