Digital overload, choice and consequence

digital wave image

There’s been an interesting debate in the TEL-Team this week over online communication. It’s set me thinking about information overload and how many channels we can be expected to simultaneously manage. This led to thoughts around digital capabilities. It didn’t take long to conclude reluctance to adopt new ways of working is not necessarily a matter of digital confidence. It’s about choice and consequence.

image of a red pill and a blue pill symbolising choice

We’re expected to manage work loads. This involves making choices about when and where to communicate online. The ubiquity of email makes it a hard act to follow. We complain about volume but most of us have devised methods to cope.

emial inbox menu showing 99999 items

Any alternative doesn’t take the place of email. It sits alongside it, doubling the need for checking, reflecting and response and represents additional workload. When it came to adopting additional social media for internal communications, the TEL Team responded in different ways. If we apply the Residents and Visitors analogy, some were residentials, slotting the new channel alongside existing ones while others adopted a visitor approach, using it as and where necessary. Others were reluctant to use it at all. This reaffirms how digital engagement is ultimately about choice.

martini logo with the words anytime, anyplace, anywhere

Social media is the epitome of the internet effect. Like the Martini add, wet. We can be connected to anyone – anytime – anywhere – but only if they are also part of the digital shift. It’s easy to make assumptions about engagement but ultimately we make choices about what works best for us. Decisions are based on assessment of investment versus payoffs. If the initial expense offers what seems like poor returns then adoption is unlikely to take place. For new ways of team working to be effective, they have to be meaningful. Without personal reward, change is unlikely to last beyond initial trial and taste.

question mark made up of jigsaw pieces


So where does that leave us now? I think it may give insight into the wider issues around digital adoption. The TEL Team are a talented group of people with individual specialisms and expertise. We’re all comfortable with being online but still choose to engage in different ways. So if eight digital professionals can demonstrate such disparate responses to adopting a new communication channel, what does this tell us about VLE adoption across a large university campus?  Is reluctance more about digital overload than digital resistance? What are the consequences of  choosing not to change? The answers to some of the bigger questions around digital capabilities may be closer to home than we realise.


digital wave image from
email inbox from 
red pill blue pill image from 

digital dilemmas

image of different faces

The word digital is busy. Not only does it casually prefix a host of other words (e.g. graduate attributes, citizens, skills, education) contemporary digital developments are leaving most of us behind. If students aged 18 are not arriving at university already equipped to make critical use of internet resources and devices, who within HE is going to support the development of appropriate digital graduate attributes, such as those identified in the Jisc report on Technology for Employability? The recent surge of activities around Visitors and Residents has been doing excellent work in challenging the idea of young people as digital natives. However, it is doing little to recognise and surface the NAYS, those who have Not Arrived Yet. The theory of VLE as tools to extend and enhance student learning falls flat when it comes to practice, never mind how they might also support the development of professional communication, collaboration and safety in online places.

The problem is digital development has been segregated rather than integrated. Its always the responsibility of someone else – student services, learning development, the library, ICT departments – it’s never situated within core curriculums. Most of the support for digital ways of working is optional meaning students can graduate with the same digital habits they bought into university 3-4 years previously. Why is this?

The thinking about digital aspects of higher education is not joined up. Digital competence is translated into being ‘techie’ while responsibility for becoming digitally capable is too often perceived as sitting with someone else.  All the work being done to include digital ambitions within strategic directions and investment in operational  TEL teams risks falling into big black holes which suck in excuses and  extenuating circumstances for non-engagement and exclusion.

When it comes to the effective use of digital tools for learning and teaching, the digital divides are widening. It’s not just in HE. Schools are focusing on programming rather than generic ICT while ‘There are still 12.6 million people who lack the basic digital skills to succeed in our increasingly digital society and this week’s budget focus …seems to be on digital infrastructure at the expense of skills’ 

This lies at the core of digital diversity. Until the focus shifts from systems implementation to the people using them on a day to day basis to support and enhance learning and teaching practice, then nothing much is going to change.


image from 

Visitors, Residents and a third option – the NAYs

When it comes to digital practices, visitors and residents describes two modes of internet usage. Residents are comfortable online. Visitors do what needs to be done, then leave. Which are you? Until taking part in a V&R activity I thought of myself as resident. It was interesting to realise these can be interchangeable and maybe there are times we need to back-step from residency to more of a visitation approach. Also, V&R is not the whole picture.

White and Le Cornu use the analogy of an untidy garden shed to distinguish between V&R practices. The visitor will have a task in mind, go to the shed and choose the most appropriate tool. Task completed, visitors return the tool and shut the shed door before, I like to think, going indoors for tea and toast. To stretch the analogy further, visitors are unlikely to sit in the shed rummaging around for no specific reason. If they found another person there’s more chance they’d raise an alarm than settle down for a random chat about topics of mutual interest. The shed might go days or weeks without being visited whereas a resident would be comfortable walking into the shed of a stranger and engaging in discussion with whoever happened to be there. Residents might leave a couple of post-it notes on the shed wall, alongside other people’s lists, photos, video links, reminders about the dentist and an invitation to dinner. The more you think about it, the more reinventing the internet as a shed has potential.

visitors and residents slide from SRHE Conference presentation
visitors and residents slide from SRHE Conference presentation

The Visitors and Residents activity invites reflection on personal and institutional use of digital technology. This is mapped across 4 quadrants divided by 2 continuum’s; V&R plus personal and institutional/professional.

example of V&R map
example of V&R map from

Whereas Prensky suggested either/or divides between digital natives and immigrants, the V&R duality is more flexible. You can be a visitor in one area and a resident in another, depending on criteria like motivation and the digital traces you leave behind.

I expected my map to reflect residency. If you promote technology it helps to have used it. But lately I’ve been conscious of how the internet blurs lines between work and non-work time. I found changing institutions an interesting opportunity to rethink my digital practice, making conscious choices over which tools to keep and which to abandon, while in some areas like email I’ve backtracked and applied more of a visitor mode. It’s unlikely I could have reviewed and revised my digital practices in this way without a major lifestyle shift.

Residency is defined as ‘the act of establishing or maintaining a residence in a given place’ while visitation suggests a more functional approach. Both include being online. A third category needs to be included. This is the NAYs, the Not Arrived Yet’s.

extending the V&R continuum
extending the V&R continuum slide from SRHE Conference presentation

This area includes the reluctant or resistant – the digitally shy – who resist the VLE, are not present on social media and don’t have mobile internet devices. This could also be interpreted as aspirational, as in ‘I would like to – but need support and resources to make it happen’.

While applying V&R to learning and teaching, it must be remembered how beyond the educational sector, there are an estimated 17 million people in the UK who have no internet connection or are unable to make relevant use of it. Here neither residency nor visitation is a possibility.

As more people are caught up in the social impact of the internet and pressured into digital ways of working, the assumption everyone is more or less at the same starting point needs to be challenged. Whether it’s with regard to institutional learning and teaching strategies or central government policy and practice, it’s too easy to assume a higher level of visitor status than exists. On the other side, maybe we should be rethinking some of our residence practices too.

Melissa Gregg in Work’s Intimacy (2011) describes blurred lines between work and non-work as ‘presence bleed’. Always on call, answering emails and responding to social media 24/7 has become possible but is it desirable or expected? Foucault’s work on the regulation of behaviour through internalising social norms comes to mind, in particular disciplinary power and techniques of the self. Who hasn’t been caught out taking a sneaky look at their mobile under the table or in the loo? Mapping our digital ways of working onto the V&R quadrants is useful, but of even more value is how it encourages you to take a long hard look at your digital practices in the first place.