A conversation with Helen Beetham around digital literacies

Helen Beetham got in touch recently asking for a conversation about some work she’s doing with Jisc. I jumped at the chance as she’s got an extremely sharp mind - particularly when it comes to digital literacies.

Although I wasn’t expecting her to do so, I was delighted when Helen informed me that she’d created a transcript of most of our discussion. She’s also been kind enough to give me the go-ahead to post it here.

Splashy animal

In what follows I reference my work around the eight elements of digital literacies as expressed in my e-book. Helen began by outlining the particular project she’s working on, expressing how difficult it is to define ‘digital literacy’ as a fixed set of terms.

Doug: That’s something I realised from my work – people always want to problematise terms and pick apart what you mean by ‘e-safety’ or the ‘civic element’. That’s why I ended up with an approach that means ‘come up with your own definitions’. Which means people either have the conversation for themselves and that is productive, or they decide not to have the conversation and just to accept that it isn’t tightly defined.

Helen: Well we came up with some icons for the Jisc seven elements. And I quite like that. I like the icon, with just a name, and then quite a bit of text – four lines or so – which gives you enough room for some of the complexity, some of the ‘sometimes it’s this, sometimes it’s that’ you need. But people don’t have to accept those four lines, they can just use the icon and write their own.

Doug: I like the very generic view you have – it’s more of a direction of travel than a definition.

Helen: That’s possible. What’s interesting to me is what is coming over the horizon, what is changing that means people have to do something in this space. And one of the things that we’ve done with the seven elements, the one that was ‘research and scholarship’ is now ‘innovation’ to recognise that some people might be innovating the organisation itself, its processes, and not just in their own research. There are quite a number of innovation frameworks coming from industry now. Having been at Mozilla for a while, do they have a model of innovation?

Doug: I think a model is something you have when it’s not already embedded in everything you do. Or when someone senior writes a book about it. Innovation is just what you do at an organisation like Mozilla.

Some of this stuff people could mandate and have programmes around – i.e. “you are not competent in this, so we can send you on a programme”. But if it’s a mindset it’s very hard to do that - and innovation is a mindset not a skillset. I’m not saying everyone is going to use a competency map to mandate that people should do stuff, but there will be people who want to use it for HR purposes. So being clear about which are mindsets and which are skillsets is useful. I never considered that until this school in the US started using my eight elements and the divided it into four skillsets and four mindsets. It seemed really obvious. I like it as an approach because people get hung up on functional low level definitions and want to add a ‘fluency’ thing on top.

Helen: Perhaps for me that bit would come down more to levels. For example within the development pyramid, ‘functional skills’ at the bottom with ‘practices’ and ‘identities’ built on them. So maybe mindsets are further up towards the top of the pyramid. But you could apply that to all of the eight elements, I think.

Doug: The Jisc seven elements diagram looks almost like a flower to me - and then what you’re describing is maybe flowers within a flower – skillset, mindset and values.

Helen: I like that. Three petals. You could apply that across all of the elements yes but in a flatter way than the pyramid implies.

Doug: In most people’s mind digital and web literacies might be the same thing but actually with the web it’s a more concrete thing -s everything you access through a browser. Digital literacy is so difficult to get hold of. Web literacy is a very different approach because everything on the Web Literacy Map has to be something for which you can actually create an activity. For example around ‘Accessibility’, the learning activity has to be ambiguous enough to be contextualised but specific enough to do the work. I’ve never been able to do that with digital literacies because the digital is so indefinite. The boundaries are so blurred that it’s very hard to say anything that someone else doesn’t come along and say the opposite.

Helen: [Laughs] Well you just have to say it louder! No, that’s making me think, because for me I think the digital is actually quite a concrete thing too. I mean, we need to keep track of the fact that these technologies are real, and they change things in specific ways. So maybe what we need to do is to focus on those changes and what they mean, that horizon scanning bit.

Doug: One of the things I’ve been thinking about since leaving Mozilla is that people didn’t all arrive at that organisation with these ninja skills – they were employed to do something, but they might never have seen GitHub before they got there. So how did that learning take place? The thing is that they had enough skills to be able to pick things up, to have that mindset of trial and error. And a lot of it was almost in a playful, jokey way. Peer play, hanging out and seeing how it works. The opposite of an institutional programme of identifying your weaknesses and giving remedial support.

Helen: Yes, but for me that remedial support has to be there to pick up people who would otherwise fall through and just not be able to participate. You need a certain level of confidence Beyond that, then I think you quickly move into what should be a peer space, with the time and resources for exploration. To move from knowing how to use the technology to using it to solve real problems.

Doug: I’m trying to steer the organisation I’m currently consulting with away from the po-faced and super-serious way of doing things. I have had a limited life of interacting with academics but the ones who have written loads of books and highly respected articles tend not to be po-faced; they tend to be playful. So you don’ t have to be super-serious to be a successful academic. We should allow that, we should insist that they are playful because that is what works.

I don’t know if you saw Bonnie Stewart’s thesis defence, but she did it via a Google Hangout. That was so good - it’s how academic work should be. She was explaining things in a serious way but she was humorous at the same time – it was the best academic thing I’ve seen in a long time. If you were to deconstruct all the skills and the mindset that went into her being able to do that…

Helen: Well, but I think a lot of those skills and mindsets would not be specifically digital. And you know that I have tried in my way to push digital literacy away from the very literal IT skills and towards that is needed to learn and work in a digital setting. But we can’t push so far that way that the digital ends up being everything. That way you lose the ability to say anything concrete about what the digital actually means. I am a materialist at the end of the day. I think if you change the means of knowledge production, you change the practices that are possible in specific ways. We can’t afford to stop talking about that, even though the tendency is for it constantly to be made invisible through familiarisation.

Doug: No, we can’t take our eye off the ball yet. The question comes up time and time again: “can’t we just call it ‘literacy’?” – and you can see how everyone in the room is sympathetic to the argument. But it’s like teaching ICT across the curriculum: in the end if it’s everyone’s responsibility it just doesn’t happen.

Questions? Comments? I’m @dajbelshaw on Twitter or you can email me: mail@dougbelshaw.com


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Update (29 May 2013): I’m delighted to announce we’ve been given the go-ahead from the Mozilla Hatchery to pursue this idea further! I met Vinay Gupta in person for the first time recently. He’s a smart guy that counts the the US and UK... Continue →