Making sense of learning in a digital age, report from a guest lecture by Helen Beetham

This is a long overdue blog about a fantastic and challenging Halloween day-experience with Helen Beetham, consultant for the JISC Digital Literacies programme (amongst other talents and expertise) who came to deliver a guest lecture (slides) and workshop at the University of Liverpool. The event was hosted by our Developing Digital Literacies Working Group and Educational Development.

helen lecture ghost image

In front of a 70-strong audience of Liverpool academics, Helen explored the uncanny relationship between digital know-how and academic learning. Asking us to conjure up the image of a haunted university, full of students who are more capable using digital technologies, she asked us, academic scholars: “What are we fearful and hopeful about?” in this haunted house?

Helen Beetham lecture - audience discussion

Helen Beetham lecture – audience discussion

Participants were encouraged to respond with their fears and hopes via twitter (#livdiglit) and on post-it notes. Among staff fears were losing the value of face-to-face teaching or the skill and time to keep up: “Fearful I will become the granny who can’t keep up” or that “inferior technology replaces it”. The hopeful envisaged a better student learning experience: “More interactive/interesting lectures. More opportunities for learning outside the classroom”, or excitement and empowerment through engaging with technologies: “I stay excited about materials and opportunities and capable with technology”. Others hoped for “creativity and inclusivity” and that “students are partners in technology”.

Helen then went on to challenge the audience as to what would they do in this haunted house to get rid of the ghost? Yes, as you see on the above image: by questioning it! Linking back to her dichotomous theme between technology and academic learning, Helen conjured up two images: that of “the wonderful digital future” of usable and personable devices with frictionless adoption, and of the “constant scholar” who although noticing changes in media and technology, remains unobservant about significant disciplinary changes.

Questioning the ghost: What questions is your discipline asking of technology? What questions is technology asking of your discipline? Helen Beetham lecture.

Questioning the ghost: What questions is your discipline asking of technology? What questions is technology asking of your discipline? Helen Beetham lecture.

But, she continued to ask: “Is this really the case?”, drawing us into examining each side, and offering ample arguments and evidence that students do need guidance in technology adoption for their learning and that knowledge practices are changing as a result of technology. (See her slides 18-19 for these arguments.)

The haunted university

The haunted university

So what does this haunted story tells us? What are the practices that underpin effective learning in a digital age? In Helen’s (ample!) experience these effective learning practices emerge from authentic disciplinary activities and tend to be a hybrid of the formal/informal, creative/productive as well as critical,  requiring “a confident but also  a critical attitude to ICT”. But…there are challenges….and opportunities.

What if we allowed students to respond to authentic tasks but also allowed them to bring a range of technologies to solve it? In one example by Exeter University students on the CASCADE project, students reflected on, discussed and produced a video for data visualisation. This is a really good example of how a scholarly, authentic task can be given to students, to which they work out an appropriate response by working together as a group and drawing on their digital experiences and skills. Does/Would it matter that the academic staff member may not have known this particular technology response?

Helen Beetham, as promised, concludes that for critical [digital] literacy you need a synergy between academic values and practices (the constant scholar) and digital know-how. As for the latter, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you as academic scholar need to have all the digital know: you can also consider harnessing that of your students. A good conclusion to close for all concerned!

Flexible Learning Space , Central Teaching Laboratory, University of Liverpool

Flexible Learning Space , Central Teaching Laboratory, University of Liverpool

Hope you got a good feel for the event (workshop blog to follow), and if you want to learn more about Digital Literacies at the University of Liverpool, please check out our website and its members and/or contact us. We have a couple of digital stories available too. And we can’t close this blog without mentioning the Flexible Learning Space, at the Central Teaching Laboratory, where the day’s events took place. It was an apt choice with great facilities and felt like a truly mobile, flexible and digital learning environment and great support from the CTL team!

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