Digital Champions: back to the classics to think forward

We presented our Digital Champions, peer-assisted learning project at this year’s HEA Social Sciences 2014 conference. The theme was Education for the Futures.

HEA Digital Champions project

HEA Digital Champions project: Y3 Champions passing on tips and tricks to Y1 students

I loved designing our Digital Champions poster as the process was a testament to the power of collaborative working. From drawing to design skills we called on colleagues’ expertise and talent. Choosing Prometheus, the god that stole fire (knowledge) for the humans, seemed an apt metaphor for the work of Digital Champions. Prometheus was also a trickster figure – we saw parallels between our Champions passing on the tricks and tips of the trade, being third-year students, to those in the first year.

Presenting our Poster at the HEA Social Sciences 2014 Conference

Presenting our Poster at the HEA Social Sciences 2014 Conference: Tünde Varga-Atkins, eLearning Unit and Beryl Stanley, Library, University of Liverpool

A summary of our project is also documented on – we are currently putting together our project report for the HEA.

We have also had a mini-celebration with the Digital Champions – saying an emotional goodbye to them (I am not in the UK for the graduation ceremony 🙁 ), the original project team also reunited with Emma Thompson popping in from Manchester for a catch-up.

The Digital Champions (Laura, Emily and Bradley - bottom) and the project team (Tunde, Emma and Simon). Missign: Beryl (taking the photo) and Adam (Champion)

The Digital Champions (Laura, Emily and Bradley – bottom) and the project team (Tunde, Emma and Simon). Missing: Beryl (taking the photo), Dave (getting the video ready) and Adam (Champion)

Project report to follow shortly. It has been a pleasure to work with the Champions – we are very proud of them to have done so well as Champions and as students in their third year –  and I really look forward to working with the next Champions next year!

Tünde Varga-Atkins, eLearning unit, University of Liverpool

Digital Champions HEA pilot: supporting Year 1 students with academic transition

A pilot project entitled “Supporting transition with peer-assisted learning and digital stories” funded by the HEA, has been running this year at the University of Liverpool’s Management School. Two digital stories from the third-year Digital Champions are now available on writing assignments, which can be used as useful resources for first-year students.

Digital Champions

Digital Champions

Story 1. Digital Champions: From one book to fifty citations:  Tips on effective assignment writing
Story 2. Digital Champions: Breaking the 2:1 (or 2:2) barrier for writing assignments (Parts 1-5):

A bit more about the Digital Champions project and its progress

The project, based on a peer-assisted learning model, aims to support the transition of first-year students in their academic study and employ them with skills that would benefit them beyond graduation. So far we have engaged 4 third-year students, Emily, Laura, Adam and Bradley,  to run  drop-ins for first-year students on making their academic study easier. The above digital stories were created by the students that summarise their tips for first years in academic writing.

What next: we will evaluate the pilot for wider adoption and also investigate students’ perspectives on micro-certification, such as OpenBadges, as a way of recognising their skill development. We aim to present this project with a poster at the HEA Social Sciences Conference 2014, which this year is on the theme of ‘Teaching Forward: The future of social sciences’. We have also been discussing links with other institutional peer-assisted learning initiatives, and naturally, certification of Digital Champions may link to developments around HEAR (Higher Education Achievement Report). Similar peer-assisted learning projects with a digital angle have run successfully at other universities, e.g. see the ePioneers programme at Oxford Brookes.

For more information: contact Tünde Varga-Atkins at University of Liverpool.


Digital Champions: Laura Cash, Emily Evans, Adam Byrne, Bradley Griffin
Project team:

  • eLearning Unit: Tünde Varga-Atkins (co-lead)
  • Academic lead: Simon Snowden, ULMS (academic lead)
  • Library: Emma Thompson (co-lead), Beryl Stanley
  • Multimedia: Dave Hocker


Are these examples of digital literacies? Discuss…

This blog post invites you to consider 3 examples and identify: are they examples of digital literacies? If so, in what way? If not, why not? This task is the one Oxford Brookes’ Rhona Sharpe, a pioneer in digital literacies research (LLiDA, SLiDA),  asked us, the participants of the HEA-organised day, entitled “Changing Learning Landscape —The role of digital literacies in supporting continuing professional development in HE contexts“, to consider, which I attended on the 29th May in Birmingham.

The task worked well on the day to get us into thinking what digital literacies are. Rhona Sharpe’s presentation on the day can be found on slideshare.

Example 1: Baby talks with cat on iPad

Example 2: a student’s writing who uses a blog to make them public

Legoscratch site 

Example 3: iPad Cafe : students from York St John meeting up and discussing useful iPad apps

iPad Cafe , York St John UniiPad Cafe , York St John Uni

iPad Cafe , York St John Uni

Can I ask you to do the same? Please consider:

  • the baby (Example 1),
  • the young pupil (Example 2) or
  • the York students iPad Cafe (Example 3)

Do the examples demonstrate digital literacy? Yes/No? Why?

Please post and share your responses and respond to that of others.

Thank you!


Tünde Varga-Atkins, eLearning Unit, University of Liverpool


PGR View: Taking the Plunge into Social Media

For the 2013 Humanities and Social Sciences First-Year Development Workshop, I offered a new session that explored how academics are using social media in order to raise their research profiles.  The participants were first-year postgraduate researchers and it was clear from listening in to the pre-session chats over coffee that they had some firmly cautious opinions about using social media as part of their research practice.


The session was kicked-off by Lisa Hawksworth, from the Sydney Jones Library, who discussed case studies of researchers who have successfully used social media to highlight their work to the wider public.  The session then became an open forum that focused on questions that I asked participants to explore before the workshop.

Two-weeks before the workshop, I set a task for participants to find profiles of three researchers in their field of study and critically assess how they were using social media.  During the forum, they revealed their findings which offered insight into how academics use social media to both establish and maintain their profiles amongst fellow academics and the wider public.  Some participants were surprised to find that well-established professors in their field were consistently using social media. Reflecting on the profiles they found, the wider group wondered whether such busy academics had assistants to help maintain the high level of engagement with social media that they encountered.  Some even pondered whether PGRs were providing technical support!

Regardless of who is actually maintaining Twitter feeds, Linkedin profiles, blogs or other forms of social media, participants recognised that senior academics value social media as a means of promoting their research areas and individual profiles.   However, when asked whether they would follow in the footsteps of ‘the good and great’, there was a sense of hesitation in defining when and how they would engage with social media.

The majority of responses suggested that time and content concerns were an important factor in their decision to engage with social media.  Some of their responses were:

‘It is something I would have to carefully manage.  It would take up so much of my time and I’m already busy!’

‘I’ll wait until I have something worth saying, but yes I would definitely use it’

For others though it was hesitation to ‘take the plunge’ as a creator of social media:

‘I’ve never tried it in a serious way as a contributor, but I am definitely a consumer’

So what barriers do PGRs encounter that prevent them from actively creating social media?  It might have something to do with their immediate working environment.  According to the authors of the Handbook for Researchers and Supervisors: Digital Technologies for Research Dialogues, the decisions of whether postgraduate researchers embrace social media as a means of sharing information, collaborating and disseminating their research to the wider public and other researchers are often based on the attitudes of their supervisors. [1]   Such attitudes and or preferences for only certain types of social media can have either a facilitating or hindering effect.

The responses I heard during the workshop made me wonder whether workshops that offer a safe environment where PGRs could encounter and explore how to make the leap from consumer to creator would help alleviate the general anxiety that some researchers may feel towards employing social media.  While there are resources available for PGRs, such as Vitae’s The Engaged Researcher and the Research Information Network (RIN): Social Media: A Guide for Researchers it seems that a little handholding to explore best practice would be beneficial.  But moreover, this also suggests to me that workshops for supervisors would also support and shape how the next generation of researchers engage with social media.

I am keen to learn whether any supervisors are interested in such a workshop!  If so, please leave a comment.

Dr Aimee Blackledge, Researcher Developer

Developing Digital Literacies at the University of Liverpool

Libraries, Digital Literacies and labels… LILAC 2013 conference

Digital Literacies

Steve Wheeler

What is the difference  between Digital Literacies and Information Literacy? As a librarian Information Literacy is my bread and butter, although I acknowledge it doesn’t trip off the tongue of those outside the profession. Information Literacy is defined by the Professional body for Libraries, CILIP as:

“knowing when and why you need information, where to find it and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner”

So, where does Information Literacy end and Digital Literacy begin? Is there even a difference? Does it matter?  I don’t think the labels matter at all, and we can waste far too much time navel gazing and agonising over them.

I recently attended the LILAC (Librarians Information Literacy) conference, in Manchester along with 800 librarians, mainly from the UK, but with increasing numbers from other countries. Many of the papers dealt with Digital Literacies – in fact this could easily be re-branded a as a Digital Literacies conference.  The first Keynote speaker was Steve Wheeler from Plymouth University, where I used to work; @Timbuckteeth on Twitter.

His keynote, and others from the conference are on the LILAC YouTube Channel now. The phrase that really stood out for me from Steve’s talk was  “Digital Wisdom”. Isn’t that what we all need? The wisdom not to tweet something stupid, the wisdom to ensure that your digital footprint is accurate and not damaging to your career, and the wisdom to choose the appropriate tool for the job in hand. This is not just “skills”, or even knowledge – it’s a way of thinking in a digital age. I took away some useful further reading from this keynote – a debunking of Prensky (2010) Digital Natives concept from Kennedy et al (2010), which concudes there is nothing special about the knowledge and skills of the so called  “Net Generation”. young people are no more able to learn and live in a technological age than the generations before. Instead of being especially adept at using technology, many are in fact basic users. This chimes with my own experience of students and indeed younger  family members. Just because you are young, it doesn’t mean you automatically “get” technology.

Steve Wheeler at LILAC 2013, Manchester University

Kennedy, G., Judd, T., Waycott, J., & Dalgarno, B. (2010). Beyond natives and immigrants: Exploring types of net generation students. Journal Of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(5), 332-343.

Prensky, M. (2010). Teaching digital natives : partnering for real learning / Marc Prensky ; foreword by Stephen Heppell. Thousand Oaks CA ; Corwin, 2010.






Thinking through wikis

As a dyed-in-the-wool geek, I was very happy to join the Digital Literacies Working Group and contribute from the perspective of an academic involved in quite a bit undergraduate teaching; as a recovering Facebook addict and all-round party planner, I offered my thoughts particularly on the use of social media and networking. What follows are my musings on a first year module I created, and how I’ve used a group project to enhance digital skills, and used the digital tools on which the project is based to enhance research skills. (Spoiler alert…the short version of what follows is: students create an encyclopedia website through VITAL’s wiki tool, and hopefully come out better able to do dissertations in later years.) At the very least, it should serve as an illustration of technology-enhanced academic practice at undergraduate level, and hopefully generate some ideas for others, and some feedback on the concept at my end!

When I first started working at the University of Liverpool’s School of Music in September 2005, there was an intriguing discrepancy between the two main undergraduate programmes in the department. One–a BA in Popular Music–made a third-year dissertation a compulsory element, and to prepare students for that project, there was a second-year module called Researching Popular Music. The other–a BA in Music*–did not make a dissertation compulsory, but it remained available as an option.

* By “Music”, undergraduate degrees generally mean western art, “classical”, music–odd, since presumably other types of music are also music, but there it is…

So, for those students wanting to write a dissertation on New Labour’s use of Britpop in the ’97 election campaign, or misogynistic hip-hop lyrics, there was second year guidance as to how to conduct an independent project of 10,000 words; meanwhile, those wanting to write about the contribution of Samuel Wesley to nineteenth-century organ music, or the impact of the Reformation on English church music…well, they pretty much went it alone. At the same time, there was no consistent instruction in bibliographic methods, referencing techniques, and other core ‘study skills’ expected of undergraduates and not previously taught at school.

In an effort to fill some of these gaps and better equip students for the transition from school and college to independent research, we introduced a compulsory first year module–MUSI100 Studying Music–in 2008. After a semester of core ‘study skills’ (using the library, note-taking, critical reading, bibliographies, etc. etc.), students undertake a group project over the whole of the second semester. In years past, the task was to create a wiki in VITAL for a hypothetical audience of first year music students all about the study skills and learning literacies they’d need to develop.


Not only did the students consolidate the skills covered in semester one, but they enhanced their group work and project management. But the reason for the wiki as a vehicle (as opposed to anything else–a presentation, for instance) was in no small part to make the task somewhat more engaging than it might otherwise have been…

This year, I have changed the project so that the medium of the wiki and the digital workspace are a more integral part. Now, groups are given a number of subject-specific topics to choose from, and they develop a wiki site about that topic:

  • ‘Genre’ as a concept in music
  • The history of music notation
  • A genre of music (choose one…) under a political regime (choose one…)
  • ‘World music’ in relation to western cultures

Still, project management skills are tested; still, groups have to work well together and deal with the inevitable freeloaders; still, they engage on some level with the digital medium.

But more than that, they are more challenged in terms of the independent research elements–they are, in essence, creating an encyclopedia about their topic, and anyone who’s ever written an encyclopedia entry knows how rigorous your research and writing have to be!! And, even more usefully (to my mind), they are actively encouraged to think through the medium of the wiki.

In a sense, we are dealing with the “affordances” of the tool–a concept my colleague Rob Strachan has been dealing with in relation to creativity, asking how music-making software informs the creative process. (I’ll try and get him to write here one day, but for now, back to the first years….

By situating the research topic in a dynamic environment, where hyperlinks abound and audiovisual media is de rigueur, the research itself is thus afforded different opportunities. No longer are the knots of ideas and the complexes of concepts constrained by the beginning-middle-end form of an essay. And no longer is the content limited to what works on a printed page. Rather, the digital medium allows the cross-linking of ideas, enables video and audio content, and situates the project in the ever-expanding online universe by allowing links to external content–thereby facing students head on with the need to be critical thinkers in response to online sources.

Whether this will contribute in any further way to the quality of third year dissertations is a question whose answer is, by definition, two years away. (And even then, I don’t have a control group….) With a bit of luck, though, all students–regardless of their interests, and regardless of whether they ever even do a dissertation, since that is now optional to all–will have some experience of independent research and the place of the digital world in relation to that.

But since I’m pondering the use value of this project, I wonder…have you ever constructed a website as a research output? What effects did it have on the way you undertook the research? Or even…have you used this kind of project in your own teaching at all? What happened?

I’d be very interested to know whether my hunches are anywhere approaching correct, so do leave a comment!

Dr Freya Jarman, Senior Lecturer, School of Music

Using technology to support social sciences research

This is a ‘share the technology‘ post as I have stumbled upon a very quick method to transcribe interviews. As a small deviation form my original paper, I did a bit of  a presentation on this at the ALT-12 conference. It generated a good deal of interest.

Technology you need:

The process:

I recorded participant interviews using the Livescribe pen. This allowed me to both annotate and audio record. These recording are then saved as searchable PDF documents when loaded onto computer.

So the technology already imports my handwritten text into Word (with quite impressive results).

Next I plugged in the pen to ear phones and replayed the interview. Synchronously I spoke what I heard into Dragon Naturally Speaking (voice to text software) which types what you speak into Word – with excellent results. Because the audio recording is linked to written annotations on the digital player if I missed a bit, or misheard, I could easily replay it by tapping the pen on the relevant part of the page. The page also has control option (that you tap with the pen) to speed up, slow down or jump through the audio recording.

So that was that. I transcribed a 40 minute interview in about 50 minutes.

If anyone’s interested in the research,  Online reading practices and decision making processes in expert (PhD student) readers you can read a bit about it here.  The ALT12 presentation, Does technology enhance research processes in online reading and decision making practices? is here.


“I thought you would use prezi, PowerPoint is so 2005”

“I thought you would use prezi, PowerPoint is so 2005” wrote a lecture participant as a comment on Helen Beetham’s recent lecture at our university on ‘Making sense of learning in a digital age’.

PowerPoint vs Prezi?
PowerPoint vs Prezi?

This comment juxtaposes two kinds of presentation software, Powerpoint and Prezi,  and places them on a spectrum of ‘old’ and ‘new’ with the implicit value judgement that ‘old’ is bad, ‘new’ is good. But is that how we should judge technology? Or is the question rather: When is it best to use Powerpoint, what is it good for; and when is Prezi better to use?

Or in other words, for effective learning (and teaching) it is being critical about our use of technology that should count – exactly as Helen Beetham expressed in her guest lecture.

To me, Powerpoint as a presentation software is useful when you have a logically ordered talk that yields to a sequential presentation. Prezi, however works best when you have either a visual metaphor or arrangement for ordering your talk or when zooming in and zooming out has uses for your topic. Helen’s presentation worked in a way that she conjured up images, images of the haunted university, the constant scholar, which worked best as freeze-frame images – exactly the strength of PowerPoint. (Prezi would have worked only if she had a unifying metaphor of the haunted house and zoomed in into its various compartments.)

So thank you, anonymous commenter, you made me think critically about when I would be using PowerPoint and when I would be using Prezi in the future: the kind of critical digital capability that Helen Beetham talked about.

And if you are reading this blog, can you add either your thoughts on the above quote? Or the way you decide on a tool or technology when you do a presentation? How do you decide which tool to use?

Thank you,


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!