Lincoln blog 2011

Embedding Open Educational Resources (OER) Practice in Institutions is a £50,000 project funded under the HEFCE/JISC/HEA OER Programme: Higher Education Institutional Change (HEIC) Strand.  The aim of the project is to support Open Educational Resources (OER) policy and practice as a whole institution approach here at the University of Lincoln. Six project teams have been set up to look at how OER can be used to support different aspects of the student experience and I will be coordinating their progress over the next year. The six project areas are:

  • Supporting Transition with OER
  • Using OER to introduce the processes of reflection/critical thinking in Year One Semester One.
  • Exploring the use of OER for embedding ‘employability’ in the undergraduate curriculum.
  • OER and e-portfolios for students and practice educators or mentors on undergraduate and postgraduate work-based learning award.
  • Exploring and embedding the use of OERs on PGCert/HE…and beyond.
  • Project Six: Behind the Scenes: supporting OER as a whole institution philosophy.

Alongside scoping, using and repurposing OER, the HEA will run an internal Change Academy programme at Lincoln. This process includes specific development opportunities for the team leaders and an ongoing support network for all team members. The Change Academy programme supports both rapid innovation and capacity-building for longer-term change and aims to provide creative environments to focus on planning and developing strategies for lasting change. This will be an excellent way to expand the outcomes and successes of  individual projects across the wider departments and Faculties while working towards the institution wide adoption of the philosophy and practice of OER.  In doing so there will also be opportunities to surface the associated digital literacies requirements of students and staff and address inclusive digital practices.  A win-win situation!

Further details about the programme can be found at the project blog

I’m writing this because of a blog post I saw yesterday which claims to reveal social charity incomes e.g.

  • Scope – 101 million pounds
  • Mencap – 194 million pounds
  • RNIB – 135 million pounds
  • Leonard Cheshire – 155 million pounds

Unfortunately, this isn’t referenced. However, the Charity Commission for England and Wales reveals a total annual income of all registered main charities exceeding £26billion and that seems to be a lot of money. However, the real rationale for this post lies in the accompanying text. Still unreferenced but I know it echoes current research e.g. the Scope ComRes survey showing attitudes to ‘disabled’ people have deteriorated , and the recent report uncovering disability hate crime No Hiding Place. So  although there are no sources, I’m quoting from the blog directly.

  • There is a stigma associated with being labelled as ‘disabled’;
  • Being labelled disabled can impact on your ability to get, and keep, a job;
  • Being disabled is not seen in any way as a positive personal attribute by the wider society.

How do you read these statements? I think they contain a potential ambiguity which is damaging to the individuals concerned. The word disabled is described as being attached to the person by a label. You can label something without it necessarily being correct or appropriate, so this isn’t necessarily calling the person disabled, but what is missing is the next stage where the reader needs to be reminded we are disabled as much by a hostile environment and social attitudes as by our diversity or difference.

The Disability Rights Movement  called for a Social Model of Disability to replace the existing Medical Model. They wanted to show how we are disabled by external barriers – in the built environment and in cultural attitudes and misconceptions – which fail to cater for a broad enough range of diversity and difference. This approach does not deny the reality of impairment – it is about calling for social change in order to reduce barriers to access and participation and a starting point is the language we use.

I know it sounds pedantic but there are key differences between the phrase ‘being disabled’ and ‘being disabled by society’. It’s an important distinction and one which needs to be kept in mind.

The NUS report Student Perspectives on Technology  was released last year. Out of the findings has come a neat little Charter called Technology in Higher Education containing ten recommendations for the adoption of digital technologies within higher education.

It’s interesting how the impetus for change is coming from the bottom up. The NUS is calling for a modernisation of teaching and learning practices in order to take advantages of the affordances of virtual learning technologies. What is reassuring is that in place of the sector’s initial determinism of early promises of transformation, the Charter recognises the need for investment in staff development and practical support for both staff and students in order to make the most effective use of digital ways of working. The calls for accessibility and inclusion, a regularly revised ICT strategy and holistic management of expectations with regard to the use of the technology are equally welcome. The ten recommendations can be found below. Here’s hoping there are enough open doors and signposted routes onto the relevant decision making processes for the NUS to ensure they can all be adopted.

  1. All institutions should have an ICT strategy that is regularly revised
  2. Institutions should invest in staff development and should give recognition to the effective use of technology in learning
  3. All staff and students should receive comprehensive and appropriate training and support
  4. Institutions should consider the accessibility and implications of technology-enhanced learning for all student groups
  5. Innovative use of digital technology should be supported by the curriculum design process
  6. Administration should be made more accessible through the use technology, including e-submission, feedback and course management
  7. Institutions should understand and highlight the link between technology-enhanced learning and employability
  8. Using technology to enhance learning and teaching should be a priority when making investment decisions
  9. Institutions should conduct wider research into student demand and perception of technology
  10. Digital technologies should enhance teaching but not be used as a replacement to existing effective practice

Keynote Three (SEDA Conference) was apt for a conference on using technology to enhance learning. Titled ‘Fables and fairy tales – how can technology really enhance learning?’ it was presented remotely by Susannah Quinsee from City University London. Using excellent pre-prepared audio and visual resources, Susannah led an exploration of the myths around the application of technology to learning. Key to this were group activities on the use of technology as a transformative tool for enabling interaction with learners.

Firstly we were asked to consider cases where technology hasn’t worked. Second Life was mooted. The hype has died down and while many universities have invested in a Second Life campus, there seem to be less examples of good practice; for no presentations at the conference had included Second Life.  Secondly we took on the role of Luddite or Enthusiast in order to examine the arguments for and against technology. In my group the Luddites argued that technology supported behaviours which were shallow, superficial, bite-sized, anti-social, breakable and could lead to losing sight of traditional academic values. The enthusiasts argued that face to face sociability was a myth, online communities of practice were powerful aids for learning, the ease of digital access facilitated flexible learning opportunities, virtual discussions offered scope for review and checking understanding, technology could make learning fun, blended learning offered complementary tools which could enhance the learning experience, support independent learning and help students become more reflective, deeper and enquiring learners. Phew! On paper the enthusiasts were certainly in the lead.

The final part was a Skype Q and A session with Susannah, who was due to give birth to twins at any moment. Intermittent sound problems could have reinforced the anti-technology argument but to see and hear Susannah in real time countered this more than sufficiently. The Keynote surfaced what for me were many of the key themes of the conference.

  • Staff need time to engage with new ways of working; staff development funding is essential to make this time possible and institutions need to invest in opportunities to make this happen.
  • Social media can replicates and reinforce the power of group learning
  • Technology for learning does not replace face to face teaching; it is complementary to it.
  • The phrase digital natives and digital immigrants is the most unhelpful concept ever (I would suggest maybe outdated rather than unhelpful. Culturally specific at the time, it was a useful way to draw attention to the issues. A decade on, the divide still exists, but attention is now on the quality of the ‘native’s engagement’)
  • Digital literacies are fundamental to graduate attributes and teacher education. The sector needs to invest in bridges which cross digital divides.
  • Ideally, the digital component in teaching and learning should be taken for granted rather than highlighted but we have not got there yet.
  • Digital teaching and learning is integral to teaching and learning in higher education and all teacher education programs should contain content relevant to the world of the digital learner.

All conferences have value but in terms of supporting staff using technology for teaching and learning on a day to day basis and this was one of the most useful I’ve attended. It would be a shame if it were to be a one-off event because  SEDA have an important role to play in raising awareness of digital divides and creating bridges to cross them.

Keynote Two, with Jane Hughes from Wolverhampton University, addressed the role of technology in teacher education programmes, suggesting there is not enough support for acquiring the digital literacies essential for learning in a digital age.  In an echo from the first keynote, Jane reiterated the requirement for educating citizens of the future. We need to be equipping students for living and working in a digital society.

Inevitably this vision of adopting brave new digital worlds is countered by the risks involved in making changes in the current ‘risk-averse’ climate. Also raised was the lack of time and institutional support for moving to new digital ways of working. It’s something of a conundrum because on the one hand there are the advantages of digital engagement but on the other there is the short supply of ‘technologists of the learning kind’ and an even shorter supply of funding for development. Teacher education programmes may need to incorporate digital learning but teaching staff also need an informed basis for adopting new digital ways of working.

The challenge of Web 2.0 tools can be a steep learning curve. Not only do you need to learn through personal application which takes time, it also requires the paradigm shift from students as consumers to students as creators and collaborators in their own learning  experiences. It was interesting to hear several references to ‘Student as Producer’ t the conference where the phrase was being aligned with those digital ways of learning which support student participation in the learning process.

The phrase Blended Learning Advisor was popular as were calls for an approach which begins with existing practices; looking at how technology can enhance through the language of ‘as well as’ rather than ‘instead of’.  A clear message was for staff educators who are the users of technology to take the lead, rather than the tied and dyed technologists who may not have the necessary pedagogical frameworks.  There were lots of examples of technology being raised and praised but not always in a scholarly way. This is where teacher education programmes can make a real difference and again ‘Student as Producer’ comes to mind with its ‘Digital Scholarship’ strand.

Overall was the recognised need for an infrastructure which supports the training and developing of digital literacies. These would include the confidence and competence with using and applying a range of Web 2.0 tools and selecting them appropriately to support digital modes of inquiry, collaboration and authorship. I liked Jane Hughes analogy of a jigsaw approach to learning because this I how using Web 2.0 tools can appear. A workshop led by Sue Buckingham and David Walker looked at social media for developing a professional learning network. It demonstrated the value of digital ways of working alongside the fear this can evoke in the uninitiated. The sheer number and variety of tools can be an insurmountable barrier. I’ve been dabbling for some time but hadn’t come across a Twitter Fountain or Drigo, Quora, Nefsis , VoiceThread or Peerwise. It’s this proliferation of content which is paradoxically inviting and threatening at the same time.  However, engagement is often initiated in unexpected ways. It was in this workshop I heard the best advice. Some one said they didn’t want to use Twitter to talk about breakfast but having gained some funding, and something to talk about, they were experiencing the value of the networking tweeting can offer. It’s this experiential approach which can be the most useful key to unlocking some of the cognitive barriers.

Social media can be like finding a tree in a forest. Where do you begin? There are so many possibilities. As a result, digital divides on campus are inevitably widening. There is a real need for more bridges and teacher education programmes, where the lines between staff and students become blurred – as the collaborative and creative possibilities of social media already blur distinctions between teacher and learner – may be one of the more appropriate places to start building.

At the SEDA Conference ‘Using Technology to Enhance Learning’ it was good to see recognition of the value of transition into higher education activities and the need to address support for digital literacies. The concept of support for transition needs little explanation but defining the term digital literacies can be challenging. Inevitably we use phrases like ‘preparing students for a digital world’ often without consideration of all the prerequisites this entails. In a Keynote speech ‘10 years of technology enhanced learning – how far have we (really) come?’ Helen Beetham spoke of the role of public education to prepare students for a time in the future. In an increasingly digital society, it should go without saying this requires support for graduate attributes of the digital kind. At the moment the vehicle for technology enhanced learning has multiple wheels and all of them round. There is a lot of replication across the sector, much of it through individual pockets of excellence located within the Library, Student Support or Study Skills – where preparing students for a digital world remains a bolt on extra rather than any adjustment to curriculum design appropriate for the university in the 21stcentury. It will be interesting to watch the current round of JISC funded projects as these contain the proviso of embedding digital literacies as a whole institution approach.

Resistance to digital pedagogy is often disguised and conferences like these are useful for surfacing the issues.  I attended a session on podcasting  where staff followed guidelines to keep file length to under 5 minutes yet student responses included ‘ they’re too long’, ‘I’ve got too much else to do’,  ‘I don’t have time,’ ‘I don’t like podcasts’.  The myth of the digital native continues to be laid to rest. In another session we looked at teacher education where staff have opportunities  to be students, in this case actively engaging with content creation, rather than content consumption, and using a range of Web 2.0 tools. Responses were  inevitably mixed and it was interesting to see how in an age of ubiquitous PowerPoint, there are still many educators for whom this is a bridge too far.  Supporting staff to be digital learners is key to this conference and it would be a shame for it to be a one-off theme. SEDA is for Staff Educational Developers so participants re seeing both sides of the digital divide. It’s not tech-heavy but tech-aware; accepting the necessity for digital ways of working and working on ways to make his happen. Recognition of the issues around digital literacies are being surfaced but we need to be sure the solutions are accessible and involve the enthusiasts who remember what techno-fear feels like as well as the technologists who are pushing at the boundaries with their digital hearts and minds.

Talking to a group of level three online-journalism students about digital divides. The group made accurate suggestions for what digital divides might look like, including incompatible file formats, unequal access to computers in different parts of the world and people having access problems with content. All perfect examples of digital inequities and discrimination.

I’m suggesting it’s the responsibility of the Web Workers (eg developers, designers, content creators etc) to ensure accessibility and a student asks if accessibility should be the responsibility of the user instead. That’s a really good question. We all want to be independent and in control of our lives via all the appropriate tools. In an increasingly digital society, we want equal access to online communication, information and entertainment. So should web workers design content to be accessible, or should the technology have an interface which translates the digital data uploaded by the developer into customised content for the user?

The BBC My Display trial seemed to be a step in this direction. My Display encouraged users to customise the text and colours to suit their own preferences, with these choices being stored as a cookie for the next time.

BBC My Display site image

Multiple reasons given for the My Display trial being withdrawn. These included the new and unexpected complexity of digital resources, content being delivered by IP on multiple platforms, operating systems and browsers delivering more customisation features, cloud computing requiring bigger solutions and the move from static webpages to database driven webs with live feeds and richer interactions.   The list goes on and the conclusion was the My Display trials were neither flexible nor scaleable enough ‘to cope with the growth, technical diversity and ambition of the BBC’s digital services’.

So although we have the access technology to ensure 100% accessibility on the part of the user, it looks like we are moving even further away from the focus on accessible content. This is close to other recent developments which try to shift responsibility for access onto the user. The re is the growing expectation that people should adjust their browser settings and the move towards directing users to separate accessibility web pages;  ‘solutions’ which assume a confidence and competence with navigation, form fields and web jargon which many simply haven’t got. These answers are as unworkable as the My Display solution. At the present time it looks like it keeps coming back to the need for inclusive digital content in the first place.

It began in a small Yorkshire town with a 30 inch monitor and large screen magnification. The intention was to register with the Tesco Online Shopping site  The expectation was half an hour maximum to work alongside Marian who has limited vision and is new to using the Internet.

Step 1 the registration process: enter the email address, postcode and clubcard number. We’re using the clubcard number on a card and will be coming back to this later. At this point I would like to say to Tesco that the link entitled ‘Need Help Registering’ sounds like it is offering ‘real’ help not just a couple of lines of text explaining email means enter your email  address.

Step 2: lots of drop down menus with red asterisks marking compulsory fields. The explanation is in tiny letters at the bottom of the page. Easy to miss especially if you are new to online forms. Name ok. Address not ok. The screen should look like this.

tesco registration form 1

But with high magnification it looks like this

tesco online registration 2

Unable to read the text, or access the drop down function at the end of the form field, this is the point where the mission to register fails – or would do without someone to provide support – which sort of misses the point of accessible online environments enabling personal independence.

There are elements of this page which I like. The text resizes well. The forms fields change colour when active. This is useful and more sites should offer it. I liked how we were sent back to the spot where content had been incorrectly entered and the form fields were clearly highlighted in red with red text instructions. However, the choice of red is unfortunate. I genuinely felt I was being told off for getting it wrong.

Finally we had to agree to the terms and conditions. This posed another problem. The only visible button said No.

tesco online registration 3

You might not think this is a problem but it is. Firstly, how can you tell there is a Yes button hidden on the right. You can’t know what you don’t know. Plus the scroll bars are tiny and merge into the task bar with insufficient colour contrast. Both buttons closer together would be a small step which makes a big difference to the usability of this page.

Having located the button we get a message saying Sorry we are unable to process your registration. We are having a problem with the site and are hoping to fix it soon. Or words to that effect. Unfortunately, there is no way of saving the information so at some point it is all going to have to be keyed in again.  It was a disappointing to say the least.

Next:  Tesco Online Shopping ‘The Saga’ Part 2.

Great day for digital inclusion – or it would be if only the media would report on it. Neil Lewis Chief Executive of AbilityNet has highlighted the need for addressing inclusion  because of the government’s ‘digital by default’ campaign. I’ve searched on the BBC, Guardian, Telegraph and even the Daily Mail websites but the news doesn’t seem to got there yet. (incidently the Daily Mail returns no instances of AbilityNet which suggests it has never referred to the issue of digital exclusion – shame on you!)

This lack of media awareness is critical. The government’s intention for access to information and delivery of services to be ‘digital by default’ is simply not getting enough publicity;  in particular with regard to those 8-9 million citizens the government has identified as digitally excluded.

How is the population being told of the move towards an online welfare state?

How will they find out about the plans to merge all benefits into a single Universal Credit to be applied for, awarded and managed online – unless the media pick it up and run with it?

The government is building a new computer system for this in spite of the failure of the NHS IT project the damming evidence in the System Error report which suggests ‘digital by default’ has all the potential for creating a new digital divide, one which will affect some of the most marginalised sections of society.

If you are digitally excluded you are invisible by default. As the platforms for discussion and debate become increasingly digital so those without access are being denied participation. Last week I spoke to a local group of webdevelopers, and yesterday to a group of Year 1 Social Work students, about the social impact of a digital society. We have to keep chipping away at the mountain of invisibility in order to surface these issues. Social media is one of the best places to begin.  Blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking – we need to get the message out there so those who have the power to make a difference can start to do so.

Last night I talked to the Hull Web Developers about digital inclusion. Here are the key points from the presentation.

For many people with limited mobility and/or sensory impairment, the Internet offers valuable opportunities to maintain independence.

Digital industry has adopted a ‘ME’ Model of computer access; this assumes everyone uses a Mouse for navigation and their Eyes to see the content on the screen. The result is digital exclusion.

In an increasingly digital society, exclusion from digital practices is by nature invisible.

As the government moves towards ‘digital by default’ delivery of information and provision of services, we need to promote ‘access for all’ where access is redefined as ‘quality of access’.

We also need to challenge the argument that inclusive digital design is not worth it. There are millions of people who could benefit from assistive technology if online environments were created with a diverse range of access in mind.

  • 17% of people are born with an impairment – 87% acquire one in later life (Papworth Trust, 2010)
  • 2 million people affected by sight loss; 80,000 of working age, 25,000 children (RNIB, 2008)
  • 9 million people with hearing impairment; potentially excluded from podcasts without transcripts or video without captions or subtitles. (Action on Hearing Loss, 2010)
  • 130,000 people have a stroke each year, @ 63,000 people develop physical, sensory or cognitive impairment and likely to be using assistive technology for accessing the Internet. (Stroke Society 2010)
  • 10 million people living with arthritis; developing restriction of movement and likely to be using assistive technology for accessing the Internet. (Arthritis Care 2010)

The intention of the founders on the Internet was to create a democratic environment where everyone had equal access. This is still an achievable objective.  Digital inclusion is worth fighting for and digital divides can be bridged.

Link to assistive technology videos

The Mann Booker Prize came to town last night. DCB Pierre visited Hull University as part of the Booker Prize Foundation University Initiative.   Under this banner, prominently displayed on stage, copies of Booker prize books are distributed free to first year students across all disciplines. A selection of authors then visit a selection of universities to meet the students and anyone else who’s interested. Last night DCB Pierre met students at Hull.

When the book Vernon God Little won the Booker prize in 2003 I didn’t really get it. I found it hard to align with the narrative viewpoint of a 15 year old US male  being accused of murder and VGL was consigned to the unread list. It has helped to listen to questions and answers about the background to writing the book. Setting it against contemporary capitalism and its continual need for profit regeneration, alongside media manipulation of public opinion, all had the Althusserian effect of instant recognition. I could identify with the bigger picture informing the narrative in a way I’d missed first time around. I also liked how Pierre talked about his relationship with his readers. Two separate entities coming together through a third medium of the book or shared experience of the story. Meeting the author is like joining up the circle.

I’ll try reading Vernon God Little again. Usually I say read the book before the film. In this case, I think it’s helped to listen to the author before reading the book.

Lots of publicity for the Give an Hour campaign. UK digital Champions on Facebook  say it has really ‘caught the imagination of the nation’. There are lots of ‘celebrities’ talking about the benefits of being online and videos showing people being supported through their first encounters with the Internet.

Video clips are heavy emotion. There’s the full-time mum wanting the Internet for communication with her family and who cries with joy at an email and photographs from her sister. There is the grandmother who feels a technological divide growing between her and her 7 year old grand-daughter and wants to stop it getting any wider, and the 100 year old gentleman using a computer and the Internet for the first time and just loving it.

Stephen Fry has pole celebrity position and tells us that not being online is a ‘terrible shame for those who are left behind either through choice or fear or a dislike of new technology’. Fiona Bruce shows an older lady how to find herself (Fiona Bruce) in a programme about Buckingham Palace on iPlayer while Bill Oddie describes himself as computer illiterate and ‘feeling out of touch and lonely’ unable to ‘speak the same language or communicate with the world around him’. There’s lots of repetition of the phrase ‘alienated’ with the overall message being like it or not, the Internet is the language which is being spoken and if you are not involved, you are missing out.

Which is true. The problem, as always, is the narrow range of access criteria which is continually assumed. The videos show people using a mouse, looking at a monitor and having fingers flexible enough to manage a keyboard. There are no transcripts and no sub-titles provided; not even one ‘tokenistic’ acknowledgement of access diversity in either the design or the delivery of the content. Give an Hour is a great idea but is ignoring the heart of digital exclusion. In the same way the government’s latest publication Building the Networked Nation: the Last Leap to get the UK Online  identifies four categories of exclusion: the Young, the Old, the Uncertain/Unpersuaded and the Traditionalists, without any reference to users of assistive technologies, so Give an Hour focuses on the mainstream without looking beyond it. Part of RaceOnline 2012, the massive government funded project which is tasked with getting the UK online, it is missing this target audience and showing true digital exclusion at its most unacknowledged and invisible.

G4S are big. They are the ‘largest secure solutions company in the UK and Ireland’* Formerly a merger between Securicor and G4 Security services, G4S are now bidding successfully for a number of government contracts which have nothing to do with security but everything to do with the  provision of social services, in particular the governments Welfare to Work Programme. This is like giving the multinational food processing industries responsibility for health. In the same way that MacDonalds, Coca Cola and Nestle have nothing to do with fresh fruit, salad and vegetables (other than to process them) G4S cannot possibly replace the small organisations like Latitude in Hull who are working at grass roots level right in the centre of communities with the highest unemployment figures. The government calls Welfare to Work supporting families with multiple problems saying it’s issues like ‘drug and alcohol dependency, debt and literacy difficulties’* which are creating barriers to employment and costing £8billion in welfare which neatly ignores the real causes of social exclusion like inadequate access to fundamental resources such as housing, education, health care, decent food and a safe place to live. Local organisations have insight into these issues in a way that no company on the stock exchange with a ‘turnover of more than £1 billion and over 40,000 employees managed from over 80 offices’* can begin to understand.

I visited Latitude to look at the role of the Internet in applying for work. Of the fifty cards on the wall, the vast majority asked for an emailed cv or gave a website address. Those with telephone numbers were all answerphones. Retail companies such as Boots, Asda and Tesco demand online application as do the council. All with tiny print and compulsory requirements like email addresses and telephone numbers, many also include online aptitude tests with pages which have to be completed sequentially. These applications go on for ever demanding high levels of computer skills and confidence. Latitude (whose services are being taken over by G4S) go out of their way to support people; filling in forms, giving guidance on cvs and letters, trying to narrow the digital divide but there are not enough of them and too many people who need help. There is no way online application measures individual ability to do a job; it just shows you can operate a keyboard and with the government moving towards digital by default services and large companies coming in to deliver government welfare programmes, it will not be long before existing marginalisation increase on an exponential scale. The worry is that in an increasingly digital society, increased social exclusion will simply become as invisible as most digital exclusion already is.

My iphone looks great. I love the easy access to the Internet. But I’m not a great App user and am uncomfortable with the Apple closed shop philosophy. You could say the same about the Kindle in relation to Amazon but I bought one for similar reasons. I wanted the experience for myself; in this case the shift to electronic reading. For as long as I can remember I’ve loved books. Turning the pages, turning the corners, pencil annotations; books and their contents have always been important to me. I didn’t expect the transition from paper to screen to be easy but it was – and I love it!

The tipping point was the announcement Julian Barnes had won the Booker Prize for a Sense of an Ending. I’d only used the Kindle on Project Gutenberg but wanted to read this book before the weekend so I looked at my options.

  • Walk into town, pay the shop price, read straight away.
  • Order online and pay less but wait for delivery knowing if it doesn’t fit through my letterbox I’d have to go to the Post Office which is only open 7.00 – 1.00 and I’m away 6.30 to 6.30 most days…
  • Download onto the Kindle from where I’m sitting for half the price and read immediately – or to be accurate – within two minutes.

There’s no competition. Add the size, easy reading and portability of the Kindle and its win win all the way to the Amazon bank. The Kindle cover even makes it feel like a book. The only problem is I’m so used the iphone’s touch screen, I feel the Kindle should respond in the same way and still automatically reach for the screen rather than the keyboard. It’s an interesting example of how behaviour change quickly embeds itself into our unconsciousness.

We are all being seduced by the reality of cut cost and instant access; whether to real world events through Twitter, the happenings of friends via Facebook, or working on content with a variety of collaborative tools, all at the time and place of our choosing. We are  either up front or at the back as digital communication and access to information carries some on and leaves others behind.  If social equality is about the means of participation then digital environments, in spite of their potential to be democratic, are becoming increasingly and alarmingly divisive.

The phrase digital literacies is currently here, there and everywhere. 13 JISC projects  have been funded under the JISC Grant 4/11 Digital Literacies Call  and there is the further invitation from JISC to selected organisations to submit bids to support the JISC Developing Digital Literacies (DDL) Programme.  All great opportunities for successful institutions to get digital literacies on the agenda and establish a whole institution approach to engaging, enhancing and embedding those capabilities which are so essential for living and working in a digital society.

Defining digital literacies is not easy. In their Grant 4/11 Call, JISC propose a neutral definition which follows the lead of the European Union and the JISC-funded LLiDA project: ‘ digital literacy defines those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society’ JISC go on to list a range of literacies including ICT/computer/information and media literacies along with communication and collaboration, digital scholarship, learning skills and life planning –  all having relevance within higher education. Interestingly there is no explicit reference to digital  literacies as social practices.

In August I submitted a bid ‘Getting Started with OER’ under the HEA/JISC UK OER Phase 3 Programme Strand 3: Embedding OER Practice in Institutions. The bid aimed to align the strategic embedding of OER with Getting Started, the University of Lincoln’s institution-wide initiative designed to support the student transition into higher education. Using an existing project as a vehicle is viewed as a strength and there’s no doubt it offers ready made opportunities for embedding new ways of working, and promoting the behavioural shifts required for change. No surprise that my OERs would be concerned with digital literacies. The real surprise was the HEA saying too few applications had been received so they were looking at alternative ways to support the university in taking this bid forward.

I wonder how much the decision was influenced by the subject matter. So many assumptions are made about the digital confidence and competencies of both staff and students but the reality is the digital divide is increasing. As those comfortable with technologies for learning push off into the distance towards a brave new digital world,  so even those with some experience are getting left behind. As for those yet to engage, the divide is becoming a potentially unbridgeable one.

The worry is the continual  social shaping of digital technologies and the assumptions around too narrow a range of access criteria. While I’ve spoken about this within the community, in particular for users of assistive technology, I see it increasingly becoming an issue within the university. The sector focus on digital literacy is critical for both graduate attributes and teacher education – but care is needed that in this flush new world of cash for addressing digital literacies, the existing exclusive parameters of access are highlighted and challenged rather than replicated and reinforced.

Universities must rethink their approach to student digital literacy in the Guardian Higher Education Network puts digital literacy training and critical reflection together in the same sentence.  The word ‘training’ is a bit Pavlovian but applying critical thinking to Internet content and behaviours is an increasingly essential requirement.  I’ve worked in higher education since 2000 and witnessed a growing need to be more proactive in addressing the digital literacies of students and staff, for example in the development of both graduate attributes and teacher education programmes.

When the first virtual learning environments arrived, the sector focused primarily on embedding technology rather than investing in the management of the cultural shift to virtual pedagogic practices. Today, the user-generated content and file-sharing nature of Web 2.0 style technologies, has increased the broader social impact of the Internet, while higher education is currently subject to market forces creating increased interest in online learning, for example the Collaborate to Compete Report to HEFCE. Research findings have raised concerns about levels of digital competence as in the JISC/British Library CIBER Report into the Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future at and the NUS report to HEFCE Student perspectives on Technology.  Key areas are still missing like enhanced quality assurance with regard to digital learning (covered in this blog post)  and the means of ensuring the appropriate digital literacies, including awareness of the parameters of inclusion, are embedded into both the student and the staff experience.

Lots of free publicity for Apple this week, and divided opinions on Steve Jobs

I was more interested in the observation of how Internet traffic about your death has  become the new measurement of your life worth. It seems bringing down Twitter  has become the ultimate accolade.

I have an iphone. It’s been an interesting experience. I wouldn’t have another. Apple is all about design, if you are into that sort of thing. They must be the only company to produce  packaging you really don’t want to throw away. The ultimate in cardboard and consumerism.

Apple’s phones, pods and pads all look special but there is an unpleasant gap between the cost of making them and the price of buying them. Whatever they offer in terms of technology, they are also about elitism and status.

If you have 15 minutes to spare. you can watch Steve Jobs deliver a speech to students at Stanford University  or if you are pushed for time you can read the full script here. Alternatively here’s the essence of his talk.

  • Everything that happens in your life is a series of dots; you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future
  • Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle
  • Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new….. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life…have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

The arguments about the technology will continue but there’s no arguing the potential inspiration of these statements.  Now that’s what I call a legacy.

Sock puppets, twitterjacking and the art of digital fakery in the Guardian reinforces the need for digital literacies as social practices. The examples show the ways we operate online are mirrors – but more about aspirations than true reflections. With varying degrees of accuracy, we can be who we want to be, or even create an identity which is totally false. There is nothing new in this. People have always reinvented their past. What is different is the affordances of the Internet to persuade other people of the truth of your lies, or more worryingly, the lies you tell about others.

I’ve long been interested in construction of human identity. My first piece of postgraduate research used the Internet for communication and information (this was 1999), when opportunities for interaction were limited to textual exchange via email and the chat rooms which derived from early MUDS and MOOS. I had a 56k dial up modem and Web 2.0 hadn’t happened. I remember debates around the freedom offered by online environments for experimentation; how you could present an identity without barriers created through attribution and stereotyping. This was seen as positive but it’s all different now.  Just this week the media has reported fraudsters posing as would-be romantic partners on internet dating sites and pedophile rings use social media for grooming. This article not only lists multiple instances of ‘digital fakery’, it assumes fake identities are reflect negative aspects of our personalities eg sadist, masochist and weirdo. Maybe ‘only bad news sells’ but the degree to which we can post content which is incorrect and edit graphics so they appear to tell a different story has never been so easy. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger says: “The digital age is difficult. We’re in a Foucauldian postmodern world where we can’t tell the truth from fakery.” The need for embedding digital literacies into graduate attributes and teacher education has never been more important.

The Internet supports what US Psychoanalyst Christopher Lasch called The Culture of Narcissism. Writing in the 1970’s, long before the digital revolution, Lasch describes a capitalist society constantly searching for new markets. As the consumerism of material goods is no longer enough, so attention is turned to exploiting the ego; achieving this through the creation of false identities and blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. Lasch describes as resultant new illiteracies as the failure to think critically; something which lies at the heart of digital literacy in the 21st century.

The hope lies in the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ effect; that there will be enough people online to challenge errors and mistakes and that the processes of critical reflective practice, which are integral to higher education, will be applied to all Internet encounters. Within learning technology we say it isn’t the tool. It’s what you do with it that counts. A parallel philosophy for digital literacies could be is it isn’t the message, it’s the interpretation which matters.

Good checklist from WebAIM – worth printing and keeping as a reminder of the basics for digital design and development.  Text version available here

Web Accessibility for Designers infographic with link to text version at

“Don’t only do accessibility testing with content; do usability testing with users with disabilities.” I picked up this Tweet via Nomensa and on the surface the link looked interesting. The principles are great. Don’t adopt an accessibility tick box approach to online content, and rely on automated code checkers, use real people; in particular those who are web users rather than web designers or developers. It’s not rocket science or rocket surgery as described by Steve Krug  author of Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems.

However, on closer examination, the word disabilities is missing from the original source materials, as are assistive technologies, screen readers, impairment or sight loss. Neither the 23 minute video nor the sample chapter mention disability. I think Nomensa added the word because it is integral to their philosophies but in doing so they’ve misrepresented the core message of the book. Steve Krug’s focus is on too narrow a range of access criteria. He is assuming the user is a mouse user and can see the screen.

The concept of usability testing deserves recognition, but the concept of the user has to be broadened to include – in Nomensa’s words – users with disabilities – or in my words – users disabled by society; in particular one which doesn’t recognise a broad enough range of diversity or difference. This failure to look outside the box is the stuff of which digital divides are constructed. ‘Test User Usability’  (TUU? too? Two? the possibilities for a neat acronym are endless) should be a stock mantra for the web world. But the concept of ‘Users’ must representative and has to include everyone if the true meaning of accessibiltity is to be achieved.


Earlier this year the Guardian printed a list of organisations  across the country which are closing or losing services as part of the public spending cuts agenda.  It’s not difficult to see who will be affected or rather who won’t be affected by the loss of valuable community services. Libraries, the Arts, leisure facilities, voluntary groups, support for the homeless, those struggling with addiction, older people, young people, the sick and the unemployed are all now facing the daily realities of having their government grants either cut or taken away.

The development of talking rubbish bins which congratulate you for using them seems not only bizarre but a flagrant waste of resources. The bins are being brought to the streets by Keep Britain Tidy, who are running a Love Where You Live campaign. Keep Britain Tidy   is part-funded by the Government through Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and they work closely with other Government departments, such as the Anti-Social Behaviour Unit in the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Some of the London bins will burst into song when litter is thrown into them, with tunes including I’m Singing in the Bin and Rubbish Keeps Falling on my Head. I don’t get it. Either we are suffering an economic crisis or not. Welfare is more important than hearing Actress Amanda Holden’s recording of “Yes! Do that again!” or former cricketer Phil Tufnell calling out “Howzat!” whenever a piece of litter is deposited. “We wanted to find a way to make bins enjoyable,” says Colette Hiller, director of Sing London who are also involved in the project. I have a suggestion. Forget making bins enjoyable. How about concentrating on people instead?

Government moves to a single point of delivery of its ‘digital by default’ public services (see previous blog post) will not be followed by the NHS. After nearly a decade, the National Programme for IT has failed in plans to provide NHS patients with an individual electronic care record transferable across the UK. In a step which is either backwards or forwards, it’s difficult to tell, local hospital trusts will be able to choose their own systems. Either way, it’s back to square one. A good moment to re-publicise the System Error  report, crucial reading for anyone interested and concerned with government plans for Universal Credit due to rolled out online next year.

Also worth reading is the recent report by Ellen J Helsper (London School of Economics and Political Science) called The Emergence of a Digital Underclass: Digital Policies in the UK and Evidence for Inclusion. Highlighting links between social exclusion and the potential for digital exclusion, a key message is ‘Those who need access to services most, from where the biggest cost savings through the digitisation of services are supposed to come, are the least likely to take these up even when access is available.’  Focusing on quality of access, the report raises issues around literacy, skills and motivation. As if that weren’t enough reasons for exclusion, it fails to mention users of assistive technologies who face additional barriers of cost, support and exclusive design. But the message is clear. The move to digital by default services will inevitably damage the welfare of those who need support the most.

The proposed model for ‘digital by default’ services has been described as revolution rather than evolution. (Directgov 2010 and Beyond: Revolution Not Evolution) Driven by the search for efficiency savings, the proposal is to merge disparate government services into a single point of delivery at the website with all content being produced by a single government department.

“…we believe its time to move onto a new phase of convergence, by rationalizing and converging all departmental websites and their content…onto shared web services, supported by a set of common web standards.” Directgov Strategic Review (2010: 2)

This reinvention of the government online publishing system is estimated to significantly reduce their web expenditure. Presumably in order to afford the cost of the new system being set up to support the application, award and management of Universal Credit next year. This in spite of the recent System Error  report from the Institute for Government Think Tank which documents “too many high-profile and costly failures”(2011: 2) and where “Most attempts to solve the problems with government IT have treated the symptoms rather than resolved the underlying system-wide problems. This has simply led to doing the wrong things ‘better’”. (ibid p9).

On the surface, the language of single site delivery is encouraging; documentation refers to functionality, quality, common content standards and building services around people’s needs. It is technically possible to design and deliver content in a way which allows people to choose their preferred mode of access and these plans to achieve digital-only services by 2015 offer a real opportunity for bridging digital divides.

However, there is also the issue of conversion to ‘digital by default’ services. Called ‘channel shift’, this is a massive exercise in behaviour modification. Persuading people to move from face-to-face to digital ways of working is reminiscent of the arrival of virtual learning environments, and the adoption of digital pedagogies, over a decade ago. In 2011, not everyone across the sector can demonstrate confidence and competence with digital ways of working, and this raises questions about the reality of the government plans. While they are likely to achieve their ‘digital by default’ ambitions by 2015, it is unlikely they will have achieved a state of digital inclusion as well.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission have published their inquiry into disability-related harassment. This is what the media call ‘hate crime.’ It is violence perpetrated against vulnerable members of society who are unable to stand up for themselves or have friends or relatives to protect them. The inquiry highlights ten cases where people died or were seriously injured and the EHRC are calling this harassment.

The OED says to harass is ‘To wear out, tire out, or exhaust with fatigue, care, trouble, etc.’ and the act of harassing is to ‘To trouble or vex by repeated attacks.’

Surely crime towards people disabled resulting in serious injury and death is far more than harassment?  By diluting the language in this way the EHRC are diluting the effectiveness of the message. This is not harassment; it is aggravated assault and murder and those who have lost their lives and been injured in these dreadful ways deserve much better than this.

Off-campus delivery has had something of an identity crisis.  So many names have been used to describe distance learning; collaborative, distributed, flexible, blended, E for electronic, TE for technology enhanced, web-based, open, the list goes on…

The QAA have updated their Code of Practice (CoP) Section 2 (October 2010). If you didn’t know it, this is ‘Collaborative provision and flexible and distributed learning (including elearning)’ and addresses distance education. The document has not been blessed with the catchiest or most intuitive of titles and the QAA have further named it an ‘amplification’; the first time I’ve seen the word used to describe an update or revision. You wouldn’t think of the QAA as a trend setting organisation but there again, nothing can be relied upon these days.

Part B of the CoP Section 2 addresses flexible and distributed learning; not part of the amplification process. To see the latest thinking in this area you need to look at the Commentary and Critique produced by the (deep breath) Quality Assurance and Quality Enhancement in e-learning Special Interest Group (June 2010). Appendix 5 provides the outcomes of the consultation survey carried out on members of the QAQE SIG, including suggestions for change.

At last, it gets interesting. Opinion is divided between those who see the use of technology for education as pervasive, with no need to disconnect the e from the learning either on or off campus, and those who want to separate out the message from the medium and treat them independently.

I’m not sure mergence is the answer. There are too many different issues involved. These are less around the learning technologies and more around the different nature of the learning experiences. Creating stimulating interaction with content, collaborative group work and formative and summative assessment opportunities are all very much dependent on their context. Then there’s transition support, induction, support mechanisms and the processes of evaluation.  Add core issues around critical thinking and reflective practice, numeracy, literacy and competence with a range of digital environments, and you have an eclectic mix of requirements. Higher education is a complex art. What works well on campus is no guarantee for effective off campus delivery and vice versa.

The pre-amplified version of CoP Section 2 is from 2004. As we face the start of 2011/12 there is a real need for sector guidance which focuses on the quality issues around online delivery. For too long staff have been ‘left to get on with it’ when it comes to virtual learning environments often without the appropriate resourcing and support. This is a call for revisiting the issues around the validation of distance courses and in doing so addressing the need for quality assurance and ensuring the appropriate digital literacies are embedded into both the student and the staff experience.

I’ve just been asked this question from a web developer who identifies standard arguments against accessibility as including“too expensive, and takes too long for such a small percentage of users” He then goes onto ask if I’m aware of any kind of figure regarding users who have accessibility requirements when using a computer.

Here’s my reply.

There are some contentious and deep rooted issues here about attitudes to diversity and difference (too expensive, and takes too long for such a small percentage of users????) in a digital society in particular where government is moving towards ‘digital by default’ services underpinned with the perception that communication and information technologies save time and money. Digital divides are the inevitable result if design and delivery favours a narrow range of access criteria rather than principles of inclusive practice.

With regard to users of assistive technologies, no one knows how many there are – or would be – if it were less expensive and more supported – but here are some facts and figures:

  • There are around 11 million disabled adults in the UK, this includes limiting long standing illness. This is equivalent to 20 % of the population
  • 17% people are born with a physical, sensory or cognitive impairment – 83% acquire one in later life.
  • At 2009, there are over 6.9 million or 18.3% of working age people (one in five) who are disabled
  • There are about 2 million people in the UK with significant sight loss. There are an estimated 25,000 children with sight problems.
  • It is estimated that there are almost 9 million people with hearing impairment
  • It is estimated that 130,000 people have a stroke in the UK each year, resulting @ 67,000 deaths leaving a potential of 63,000 people with a physical, sensory or cognitive impairment.
  • There are 10 million people (1 in 5) living with arthritis in the UK; arthritis can cause severe restriction of movement making it difficult to use a computer.
  • Then there are issues around learning disability. Acquired Brain Injury is the largest cause of disability amongst the working age population. There are about 1.5 million – nearly 3 in 100 – in the UK who have a learning disability. Just 1 in 3 people with a learning disability take part in some form of education or training. About 200 babies are born every week with a learning disability

These figures relate specifically to ‘disability’ but I think we need to take a broader view.  Inclusive design/accessibility is not only about ‘disability’; inclusion is about accepting the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender and age. Society promotes increasingly digital lifestyles and ways of working and web developers are in the unique position of being able to make a real difference – we need to ensure that difference is about ensuring equitable digital access rather than being discriminatory.

Michael Hart has died. I heard this via Twitter last night but so far there appears little recognition in the news. This should be a level 1 headline. Hart founded Project Gutenberg  which is dedicated to ensuring equitable access to online content. Named after the Gutenberg Press from the late 15th century, which made possible the mass distribution of printed materials, Project Gutenberg aims to do the same with digital text. Books which no longer have copyright restrictions are digitised and made freely available in a range of formats enabling users to search, read and quote content. The project also invites users to participate. Become a Gutenberg volunteer and be sent digitised pages to proofread and check for errors. Volunteers are also invited to burn cds for people without Internet access. Project Gutenberg espouses the principles of open access while remaining focused on content rather than appearance; a philosophy we are in danger of losing in our current celebrity obsessed culture. It is a fantastic free resource; a legacy from the early days of mergence between the Internet and the World Wide Web and the founding philosophy of democratic access.

“As we move towards a highly connected world it is critical that the web be usable by anyone regardless of individual capabilities and disabilities.” (Berners Lee, 1997)

“…if we succeed making web accessibility the norm rather than the exception, this will benefit not only the disability community but the entire population.” (Dardailler, 1997).

The death of Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, is an ideal time to remember these principles. I hope Hart will be both remembered and celebrated not only as someone who recognised the potential power of digital data for democratic access, but who actually did something about it too.

project gutenberg logo

Berners Lee, T. (1997) World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Launches Web Accessibility Initiative. WAI press release 7 April 1997. Available at

Dardailler, D. (1997) Telematics Applications Programme TIDE Proposal. Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Available at

Blogging again with more examples of digital exclusion – this time about the continual need to update. Many people are using computers with Windows XP and Office 2003 and there’s nothing wrong with that –  if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But browser software is different. We are recommended to upgrade for security reasons but Microsoft are not considering users of JAWS screen reading software. JAWS is the market leader. In proficient hands it offers the potential for ‘as good as it gets’ access to the Internet; the only barrier being the design of the websites – and your browser. The latest version of JAWS is 12.0 It’s been out for some time and there’s a known incompatibility with IE9. Last week I upgraded someone to 12.0 and phoned the supplier’s support desk for the latest information – still incompatible. That’s a discrimination against users of JAWS. But it gets worse. I also upgraded someone from IE7 to IE8 because their antivirus software recommended it. This is a user of an older version of JAWS 8.0. Result? Jaws stopped working. You could get to a webpage but then got the message ‘page has no links’. Answer? Jaws 8.0 is incompatible with IE8. This is where the discrimination becomes exclusion. To upgrade from JAWS 8.0 to 12.0 costs £330. How affordable is that when you have no sight and no employment?

Access to the Internet is an integral part of our daily lifestyles and working practices. If you are isolated at home then email and websites become a vital source of communication and information. The problem is digital inclusion is related to social capital and no one cares if you are digitally excluded if you are already socially marginalised and disempowered. Assistive software should be free. The argument which web developers use to excuse their lack of attention to accessibility – it’s only for a small minority of the population – should be extended to people with sight loss – who have the most to gain from being digitally included. If it’s such a small proportion of the population then it won’t be a big deal to ensure they have the software they need to get online – will it?

Captchas have always been exclusive; firstly it took time to convince  designers an alternative to the visual code was necessary and secondly when audio options were finally provided they were next to useless. If you haven’t tried an audio captcha then you should. They are typical of the tokenistic attitudes which underlie the majority of web design and development. I don’t know what’s worse – content provided in a single fixed format or an alternative version which doesn’t work.

The BBC has come up with the worst alternative yet. Try emailing an article (I tried with an article about pulling the plug on the NHS e-records system after 9 years of failures – I thought the synchronicity was apt!)  To complete the email link process you need to use a captcha. When you select the listen option a QuickTime file opens and initially it sounds good; for once you can actually make out what is being said – but once you’ve listened you realise file has taken over the window with no way of return to the original page where the captcha was in the first place. Nice one BBC. Did you not think to try it out on anyone first?

Getting Started logo

Getting Started is an initiative which supports students new to higher education. Access to Blackboard (BB) is given prior to enrolment where there are materials about getting organised for coming to university and an introduction to academic practices. This year, Getting Started is bigger than ever. All undergraduates who have accepted an offer of a place have been invited and there are also Faculty Sites with welcome messages and subject specific information.

The rationale for Getting Started is indisputable. Research into the reasons first year students withdraw cites lack of preparation, in particular for the academic side of university life. Getting Started began prior to this. It was originally set up as a support mechanism for mature students who had been out of education for some time and had concerns about returning to learning. Getting Started offered communication channels alongside preparatory materials. Feedback showed this was much appreciated. Students reported they felt better able to cope with the new challenges which lay ahead.

We know transition support is valuable and it works. We know non-Getting Started students have said – with the benefit of hindsight – how useful it would have been for them. The HE experience, with its emphasis on critical thinking and reflective practice, is a pivotal point in anyone’s life. It offers the potential for change through new experiences but these can be daunting if you don’t know what to expect. Coming to university is a bit like running a marathon; the more you train the better you’ll perform on the day. Higher education is a challenge especially if you are unprepared for the reality of becoming an independent learner. Introducing the some of the principles of academic practices before arrival seems to be one of the best ways of offering new students the opportunity to hit the ground running and get off to the best possible start.

For more information about Getting Started, or to access the transition materials, please contact

Yorke, M. and Longden, B. (2008) The First Year Experience of Higher Education in the UK. HEA.


Better late than never?

July 15, 2011 | digital dividedigital exclusion 2010equality and diversityvisual impairment  |  Leave a Comment

Digital divides had some publicity this week – the Guardian Professional Housing Network Blog (so if you’re not online you’re unlikely to have read it) ran a piece by James Grant from Joseph Rowntree Foundation called Housing should take the lead on digital and social exclusion. It calls for housing associations to empower tenants by providing internet connections. Great idea. It would certainly be useful and shame the comments are so few. Where are all the advocates for digital inclusion???? But once again, the answer to digital divides is being seen as access. While the article says almost half of those not online are disabled this is merely a statement with no solution. Anyone operating outside the standard MEE-Model of Mouse, Eyes and Ears soon comes up against the triple barriers posed by assistive technology; too expensive, too steep a learning curve and a WWW which is too reliant on visual access.

Yesterday I met the New Media Director and Web Content Developer of a local web design company, Strawberry, who have won the role of redeveloping the HERIB website. It’s a fantastic opportunity for them to get an up-front understanding of inclusive digital design which looks great while still being fully accessible to users with sight loss who operate a wide range of assistive technology. Broadly speaking, this divides into screen magnification and screen reading software – each available in multiple formats and all with a range of pros and cons. I was encouraged by their genuine interest but saddened by how new the concepts of people with visual impairment accessing the Internet were and how far the world of web designers is removed from the reality of  digital exclusion.

Lest we forget – in 1997 at the very start of the WWW, Tim Berners Lee called for equity of access and participation.

“As we move towards a highly connected world it is critical that the web be usable by anyone regardless of individual capabilities and disabilities. The W3C is committed to removing accessibility barriers for all people with disabilities – including the deaf, blind, physically challenged, and cognitive or visually impaired. We plan to work aggressively with government, industry, and community leaders to establish and attain Web accessibility goals.”  (Berners Lee, 1997)

My hope is that partnerships between organisations like HERIB and Strawberry, alongside the advocacy of those calling for greater awareness of the impact of a digital society and its subsequent digital divides, will prove to be the answer;  a case of better late than never.

Berners Lee, T. (1997) World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Launches Web Accessibility Initiative. WAI press release 7 April 1997. Available at



exclusion by language…

July 8, 2011 | digital divideequality and diversityinclusive designvisual impairment  |  Leave a Comment

I’ve been sent a link reporting on an Accessibility Hack Event at Birmingham. This is a great idea – put together the people who are interested in accessibility. We should do this at Lincoln. Here’s a few comments on the blog post.

The affordances of digital data have never been utilised effectively – it’s the optimum opportunity for ensuring equality of digital access but too often the theory gets privileged over practice and the opening promotion video by GPII is typical:

e.g. user is recognised at public access point and now sees large print on ticket machine = one happy user  but…. magnified text requires increased screen size – other wise you need navigational devices which then mean all the information can’t be seen at once… another e.g…..back of seat monitor on aircraft customised to suit user preferences – you can hardly see (or hear) these in the first place – so increased text size is not going to assist…

The ratio between content and monitor size is so relevant but easily overlooked.  I’m working with someone with macular degeneration whose family have bought them a new widescreen Acer laptop all set up to display large tools and text. But email via Windows Live is almost unusable because the screen size doesn’t support the chosen display size. Sounds obvious but unless you’ve tried it….

The idea of providing accessibility rather than having to  adapt to a standard environment has long been a dream of Assistive Technology users. This is why I’m so interested in the idea of ‘intuitive digital data’ which knows how to adapt to the device being used or ideally can provide itself in the appropriate file format as requested – something I believe we are working towards.

A keynote speaker at the event was correct in saying accessibility should be a right for all, and whereas most people see accessibility as about disabled people, it is actually about everybody – then they spoiled it saying the aim is to deliver the best website that is ‘accessible to as many people as possible, a website that is accessible to everyone would just be text, which would be ugly’.

This second statement is both contradiction and backwards step – accessibility is not about as many people as possible – it’s about everyone full stop – and a website which is accessible to everyone does not have to be plain text – that’s the reason text-only alternatives were dropped. A fully accessible website can have pictures and multimedia and interactive forms – it just needs to include the information to be given in alternative formats,  and all content to be correctly and appropriately labeled for screen readers.

An Accessibility Hack Day is a great opportunity to bring people together to talk about important issues. It’s in the nature of digital exclusion to be invisible. But the key issue the blog post raised for me is how the language was indicative of the current cultural shift away from the social model of disability – which sees the external environment as disabling by not recognising and providing for a diversity of requirements (digital disability is an ideal example where we have the technology to ensure 100% access but all the barriers are economic, political etc) and back to the old medical model of disability which saw the reason for lack of participation as being caused by individual impairment – be that physical, sensory or cognitive. It’s concerning how the language of disability is changing with references to disabled people rather than people being disabled by society – you may think this is being pedantic – but it isn’t.

The GPII video says ‘those of us with disabilities often run into a situation where the technology doesn’t work well enough to meet our abilities’. Another presenter refers to ‘people who are severely disabled with motor neurone disease’  These are examples of language use which need to be challenged. The Social Model calls for disability to be seen as something imposed on individuals by society – motor neurone disease is an impairment – and to call someone disabled by it is an example of the old medical model in action. I worked with someone with motor neurone disease whose used a computer for years. But the disease is reducing ability to move fingers and keyboards are designed with the assumption that we will only hit one key at a time.  With a keyguard in place, the computer can be used again (although it means a laptop remains inaccessible).

The solution lies first and foremost in the external environment where the limitations of the technology are the disabling factor. Subscribing to a social barriers model is an essential prerequisite to enabling independence and social participation – in particular with ensuriong digital inclusion.  Technology can be empowering but the problems begin when perceived solutions derive from the viewpoint of the technologist – not the user – we have to step outside of our world and into the life-world of other people in order to experience the barriers to know how best to help remove them.

Finally – the disclaimer at the end of the GPII video sort of says it all.

The contents however do not necessarily represent the policy of the funders and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.  It would have been more encouraging if it had said Accessibility is the policy of the funders and you canassume endorsement!



Digital narratives; not new but still interesting…

July 6, 2011 | conferencedigital literacy  |  Leave a Comment

The idea of digital narratives or digital storytelling is not new. The University of Gloucester has a section on Digital Storytelling under Pedagogic Tools and Guides and I’d like to investigate this further; digital narratives as pedagogical tools for combining critical thinking with reflective practice. Not just the skills involved in making your own narrative (selection, rejection, sequencing, synthesising, presenting) but also peer assessment and sharing across disciplines and cultures as a means of discovery and enquiry. Apart from the opportunity for exploring creativity and acquiring multiple digital literacies, the scope for internationalisation may also be worth considering. Here’s a link from Daniela Gachago from Cape Peninsula University of Technology who I met at the recent Diversity Conference   The video is a digital narrative from Nonhlanhla Nyingwa and her words, music and images combine to create a powerful story.

I know digital story telling is not new. The Internet is full of them. But I wonder if we could make more out of the processes and in doing so put critical reflective theory into practice – while maybe even having some fun. Not everyone will agree. The thought of having to manipulate multiple digital media clips will not go down well with many staff and students. But we’re living in a digital society in a digital age and graduate attributes must include digital literacies alongside transferable skills of critical thinking and reflective practice. Involvement in the creation and sharing of your own digital narratives – which could also be a digital cv or digital portfolio – must be worth consideration as part of subject curriculums.

For more information: Using digital storytelling to develop reflective learning by the use of Next Generation Technologies and practices’. JISC (2009) Reflect 2.0

Digital Storytelling and its pedagogical impact in the HEA(2009) report Transforming Higher Education through Technology-Enhanced Learning



Warning! the Microsoft phone scam is still happening

July 1, 2011 | digital dividedigital literacyvisual impairment  |  Leave a Comment

The Microsoft phone scam is still going strong. It works like this. You get a call from someone saying they’re from Microsoft and they’ve heard from your ISP that you have virus problems on your computer. They then get you to open Windows Events Viewer and display a seemingly scary array of files with red crosses and yellow exclamation marks next to them. They tell you these are viruses and you need to open a certain website and key in a six digit security code – then hey presto they have access to your computer. After pretending to fix everything they ask for a fee and enough people pay this to make the scam a lucrative one. Microsoft will never phone you unsolicited. If you get a call from Microsoft hang up.  More importantly tell everyone you know to hang up because there are plenty of people out there who in all innocence will believe it and think they are acting in their own best interests.

With the sender’s permission I’m sharing this text message from a friend with sight loss who was the unlucky recipient of just such a call. For once, it was a benefit to be using screen reading software which couldn’t cope with the poorly labeled site and she was unable to enter the 6 digit number. Needless to say ‘Microsoft’ didn’t call her back as they promised and left her in a distressed state for 24 hours.

“Got software problems – Microsoft have been in touch and we tried to sort it out. But I couldn’t manage without sighted assistance. This happened yesterday and I really felt like giving the computer up. They are supposed to be calling me back. They don’t know what to do about helping an unsighted person. I daren’t use the computer. ”

It’s all sorted now but there’s still the need to tell everyone you know – if they say they’re from Microsoft its safe to say no thank you and goodbye.

More information here



lest we forget….

July 1, 2011 | digital dividedigital exclusion 2010equality and diversityvisual impairment  |  Leave a Comment

While protests are in the news there’s another – more invisible – coalition led disaster which is causing exclusion and distress on a daily basis. This is the government’s attitude towards people with sight loss who are struggling to operate in digital environments because of insufficient action to ensure digitally inclusive practice and accessible web design. As the government moves towards the online-only provision and management of welfare it’s doing nothing to challenge the increasingly visual nature of the Internet and digital designers assumptions of a narrow range of access criteria (i.e. everyone uses a Mouse, their Eyes and Ears – the MEE-Model). This is making it difficult to impossible for users of assistive technology, in particular screen readers, to have equity of digital access. At the same time it also ensures denial of participation in the public sphere where the platforms for debate and dissent are increasingly digital ones.

Digital discrimination is already a serious problem and will become even more critical as more services look to online provision believing it will increase efficiency and cut costs. Assumptions about access need to be challenged; not everyone can operate an out of the box laptop bought from a local supermarket or a high street retailer and the way in which the government is choosing to ignore this is an issue which needs to be made more public.



From face-to-face to face-to-screen

June 30, 2011 | Blackboard  |  Leave a Comment

Recently I spoken to several people who’ve been asked to create an online version of an existing course but without additional resources or support. This suggests something is still missing from strategic approaches to digital teaching and learning. Over a decade ago, the VLE came in on the back of promises of transformation of teaching and learning while increasing efficiency and cutting costs. In 2011, it seems nothing much has changed. The recent report to HEFCE by the Online Learning Task Force (January 2011) Collaborate to Compete  continues to associate quality and cost-effectiveness with engaging, flexible interactive online resources although there are two noticeable differences between then and now.

The first is the student voice which is suggesting early promises of elearning have not yet been realised. Comments in Student Perspectives on Technology  (October 2010) include concerns regarding ICT competencies of teachers, variation and inconsistency in use of ICT and lack of attention to digital literacies as a whole institution approach. For those who have been bridging the gap between the technology and the pedagogy over the past decade this comes as no surprise. Attention has always been paid to embedding the technology within the systems rather than investing in appropriate training and support for those who will be using it on a day-to-day basis. Moving from face-to-face to digital delivery involves significant shifts in skills, attitudes and practices not least because teaching and learning are social activities. To achieve a successful online equivalent is perfectly possible but requires investment in human computer interaction. The problem with technologists leading technological innovation can be lack of empathy for the non-technologist. This barrier has to be overcome if digital education is to achieve its potential for inclusion.

The second difference is a notable shift in the HEFCE document from VLEs to OERs.  Open Educational Resources have taken the VLE’s place as catalysts for change, ensuring cost effectiveness, high quality content and quality, flexible engagement. The only word which is new is ‘mobile.’ However, OERs remain the preserve of the technologist – the person with confidence and competence with working in digital environments – and therein lies concern of the gulf between the early and late adopters as well as those who have yet to get to grips with education in a digital age. Nevertheless, the report is hopeful. It concludes with recognition of the need for investment in greater engagement with the technical and pedagogical aspects of online learning. We have been here before and failed to cross the gulf between the technology and the pedagogy. Hopefully this time round those lessons will have been learned and appropriate and lasting bridges can be built.



District 6

June 29, 2011 | conferenceequality and diversity  |  Leave a Comment

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District 6 is a community museum which uses story-telling to recover and display memories. It tells the story of the forced removal of an entire black community from Capetown. In 1966 under the Group Areas Act of 1950, District 6 was declared a White Group Area. In the next decade over 60,000 people were forcibly removed to the barren lands outside Capetown known as the Cape Flats and their streets and homes flattened by bulldozers. The District 6 Museum contains the collective memories of their eviction. I don’t know who saved the street signs. Its one of those questions you don’t think to ask at the time. Or the examples of the mass manufactured signs with the messages SLEGS BLANKES and VIR GEBRUIK DEUR BLANKES but these remain stark reminders of the inhumanity of Apartheid. The floor of District 6 is a street map of the area. The tapestries hanging from the ceiling have been created by the people who lived there. The white sheets are an invitation for visitors to write down and leave behind their stories. As an outsider, I can’t comment with any authority because I wasn’t there but I can bring back pictures as a reminder of the need to celebrate diversity and not discriminate against it.



Imizamo Yethu

June 25, 2011 | conferenceequality and diversity  |  Leave a Comment

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You could visit Capetown and believe it is a prosperous city; the streets are clean, the new Victoria and Alfred Waterside offers multiple retail and leisure opportunities and tourist guides go to great lengths to point out the affluent beach apartments and hotels. You could think the democracy which followed Apartheid in 1994 had solved the city’s racial divides – but you only need scratch the surface to see inequality and poverty still exists. Massively. It’s evident in the city where you are advised not to go out alone at night. To walk the streets during the day is to be jostled and asked for money for sick relatives and dying children. On the Cape flats there are miles of shanty towns stretching as far as you can see and opportunities to visit these – in the company of a tour guide – which sounds like an anomaly – but this is cultural tourism at its rawest – there’s no fun or pleasure involved – its dirty and difficult. For hundreds of thousands of people, the hope for a better future after Apartheid remains hope rather than actuality. You have to hold onto hope because when you have so little, there’s not much else. The hope in Imizamo Yethu (meaning “our combined effort” in Xhosa) is with the children along with the school, library and church but when your ‘home’ has no toilet or running water life is tough. While politicians wrangle (and have ‘homes’ with amenities) it’s charitable organizations like the Niall Mellon Foundation in Ireland who are making a difference by building houses with sanitation and electricity. But nowhere near enough to go round. Then there’s the tourist trade. It’s uncomfortable to experience social inequity on a scale like this and not least because you know you are only visiting before returning to a better living place. The difference you can make feels minimal and Imizamo Yetho represents only a tiny proportion of the human struggle for survival. In these finance stressed times, the value of conferences is often questioned but they offer a unique exposure to the human consequences of international politics. At Lincoln, strategic emphasis on internationalization will hopefully further opportunities to promote the sharing of cultural difference and social justice, in both their positive and negative forms. Conferences are bridges in the process of internationalizing the higher education experience. They offer potential opportunities to bring back stories of the stark realities of difference and remind us we are all human. We all want the same things – to be warm and dry, to have food and water and to raise our children in the hope they will have a better life. Conferences are not a luxury; they’re a reminder that higher education in the UK is still a highly prized commodity and that in many parts of the world, turning on the tap is still a privilege and not a right.



Diversity in Organisations, Communities and Nations

June 23, 2011 | conferencedigital literacyequality and diversity  |  Leave a Comment

This link is to my public iGoogle page listing a range of short Assistive Technology videos. These demonstrate the inherent flexibility of digital data to adapt to multiple input and output devices. Link to iGoogle Assistive Technology videos

Here is a link to the presentation slides for ‘Access Enabled Access Denied: supporting inclusive practice with digital data’  DiversityConference presentation slides

For any further conversations please do get in touch at



JISC World

June 9, 2011 | digital exclusion 2010digital literacy  |  Leave a Comment

Income generation has become the new job criteria and on the line between Desirable and Essential it feels closer to the latter. The JISC Digital Literacies Call4 was my first experience of seeing through a bid application from start to end – or should that be ‘start to send’ – when the final process is an irretrievable click. Pressing the send button on an email is the digital equivalent to dropping the letter into the post box – something else from the analogue world to tell our children about! A colleague said the other day there’s no excitement about the post arriving any more and they’re right. Another human activity has been replaced by a virtual one. Communication defines us as human yet we are using more and more inhuman ways of interaction.

But back to JISC World and the business of ensuring we engage effectively with increasingly digital ways of working. JISC use the definition of digital literacies as the capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society. We added ‘constantly changing social practices’ to this because digital literacies are more than digital activities. They’re about who we are and we are work in progress. We never quite finish being who we could be. Instead, we’re continually evolving,  living mostly in a state of getting there rather than arriving. After two weeks of living with a JISC Bid I still see digital literacies more as unique individual characteristics than sets of skills or abilities (although of course these are component parts). What has become clearer is the enormity of a whole institution approach to what our bid describes as ‘enabling enhancing and embedding digital literacies’ at Lincoln. A strategy for digital inclusion will be a challenge but I’m confident it can be done. Defining digital literacies as social practices brings in the key higher education attributes of critical thinking and reflective practice. To be critically digitally literate is to be socially responsible. I see this as a real opportunity for an integrative approach across the university, not just computer science and social science coming together but for all disciplines to find common digital grounds supporting genuine cross-departmental partnerships.


Digital literacies are about a lot of different things. They’re about making choices. They are personal, flexible, and continually changing. They are a reflection of how you operate in a digital world. Above all digital literacies are social.

Last week I went to a Meyer Briggs Personality workshop. I didn’t agree with my result. ISFJ. I wanted INTJ. I liked the strapline better, ‘competency + independence = perfection’. Yep, that’s me! You can’t really do a MBPT in an hour but there is a connection to digital literacies. The workshop stressed a powerful message, one which is easy to forget. We are all the person we are and the person we have learned to be – and it can be almost impossible to separate the two. Digital literacies as social practices are the same. As individuals, we become who we have learned to be and that process derives from the society in which we live. In order to conceptualise digital literacies in this way, it may be helpful to look to the past rather than the future.

Much is written about literacies; media, information, digital – they all tend to be treated as separate entities which they’re not. You wouldn’t separate handwriting from spelling, punctuation and grammar – they’re all part of what it is to be literate. But your opportunities to develop confidence and competency with handwriting are influenced by your environment. Think back to first learning to write. The process was influenced by where you lived, the school,  family attitudes – both to literacy and your new found abilities, how much you could afford to spend on pens and paper, what your friends said and what they did – both in school and out – and what ever else was going on in your life at the time. On top of that were your own thoughts and feelings – you may well have preferred diagrams or numbers instead of letters and words.

To be digitally literate is as much about us as people and how we relate to the social environment as it is about being ‘taught’ a specific skill. We need to support the learning process, and put in place opportunities for developing effective digital competencies, but we also need to recognise the wider picture. Digital literacies are open ended. They are contextual, they reflect the duality of self and learned behaviours. They are subjective. They exist on a continuum and we shift around it – we perform – we adopt and adapt – just like we do in all other areas of life where we have multiple roles and identities. We own our digital literacies. They are as personal as our handwriting; it helps if it’s legible but other than that it’s a unique characteristic. So it is with our digital life; ultimately it is helping us to define who we really are.

One of the reasons I don’t have a television is the quantity of rubbish far outweighed any quality and there was little sign of the original broadcasting promise to inform, educate and entertain. The adverts, with their continual pressure to comply with cultural discursive practices, were particularly galling. I haven’t missed it at all. I want to have some choice over my exposure to media advertising – not have it forced on me. Like this morning – at the cash machine – where in order to draw out cash I had to watch adverts for a well known brand of chocolate biscuits.

This is wrong on so many levels. It’s evidence of further linkages between corporate multinational food companies, the supermarket giants and the banking system. It’s contrary to government initiatives to promote healthy eating and reduce the amount of sugar, fat and salt we consume. You might not have thought ‘chocolate biscuits’ all week but the image is now surfacely and subliminally planted in your psyche. Why weren’t they advertising British apples?

The present government’s Change4Life programme is aimed at combating Britain’s high obesity rate by encouraging people to eat healthier food and exercise more. Then they scrapped the Food Standards Agency and gave the task of promoting healthy eating to food giants like Unilever, Nestle and Mars – who between them just about control the worlds supply of sugar, salt and fat. It’s like asking tobacco companies to run stop smoking campaigns and it’s madness. Or like my good friend and colleague Maria told me this morning, in response to the news that David Cameron’s uncle has said the working classes prefer to be lead by aristocrats,  it’s absolute tosh – which apparently is aristocratic for ‘shite’.

Blackboard Blog

May 13, 2011 | Blackboard  |  Leave a Comment

As a BB system administrator I’m used to being on the receiving end of perceived problems rather than lavish praise. After all, it’s only when something doesn’t work that it gets attention – which is then usually from a negative point of view. You don’t praise a tool when it lets you down. But in all fairness, many criticisms of BB do turn out to be explainable errors. As a VLE it’s well embedded across the institution with the majority of courses having a presence and plenty of innovative online collaborative learning experiences.

It takes time to embed change. The move from the Virtual Campus involved a different way of working with different systems integration – it wasn’t going to happen overnight and it didn’t. But we’re getting there and the majority of staff now use BB on a regular basis.

I feel the need to defend BB from its critics. Yes – it’s a corporate behemoth of VLE but we don’t use it to its full capacity. Yes – it’s not the most visually exciting of environments but it isn’t meant to be, it’s a means to an end, not the end itself – that comes from the ways in which it is used. And yes, it may look like a repository of digital documents, but that shouldn’t be used against it. The recent JISC 3 R’s report Recruitment Retention Results supports the provision of electronic information saying

‘Resources in digital format (even simply class lecture notes) are inherently more flexible and accessible than paper-based resources, supporting differentiation and a range of learning styles.’

So uploading documents to BB is good practice, it’s supporting diversity and enabling users to take advantage of the inherent flexibility of digital data to be customised and personalised to suit individual preferences.

We should be proud of BB. There are a great team of people supporting it and we should take advantage of its affordances rather than being overly critical. At the end of the day it does what it’s meant to do and talking to staff and students across the university shows that – it does it quite well.

Letting go of books…

April 28, 2011 | digital divide  |  1 Comment

The Long Hall in Trinity College Dublin is less a Library and more a museum. You would need a good head for heights to work here; the mezzanine structure gives a whole new meaning to ‘books on the top shelf.’

It’s sad but I believe books have had their day. Just as monastic scribes gave way to the printing press, so books are becoming digital and the Kindle will be spoken of alongside  Gutenburg in the history of communication. We will tell grandchildren about a place called a Library, where we borrowed real books then took them back and borrowed some more; if we were late we had to pay a fine and in a Library you didn’t talk, you were quiet. It was a contemplative place, a bit like a church, only they’re going out of fashion too. Today, Trinity College Library occupies that space between utility and relic. Visiting the Library is tagged onto seeing the Book of Kells and neither are free. Prepaying 9 euros over the Internet makes no difference to the system. You still need a ticket with a barcode. One of many things the Internet can’t do is remove the need to queue.

The Book of Kells, four illuminated Gospel manuscripts, offers a tangible link with the past but you can’t touch it. Over 1200 years old, it represents a heritage from a different age.  What were once valuable and rare sources of communication are now even more so. The Book of Kells lies behind glass in a darkened room, no photographs please, a symbol of a different age when access to what passed as knowledge was limited to church and state. Today we take such access for granted but the nature of the book itself is changing; the idea of an individual volume in your hand is being replaced with a digital reader containing multiple volumes downloaded from the Internet. The Public Library is under threat and not just because of government cuts to front line services. We need to take care because the any-time any-where, instant gratification of digital data comes at a cost.

We need to hold onto our memories of libraries; shafts of sunlight in dusty reading rooms, the card index catalogue, the shelf upon shelf of hardbacks, some borrowed frequently, some never at all, the escape from the noise of the traffic and the bustle of the High Street with the promise of further escape into literature. Humankind has always loved stories.

The Internet is enabling a dangerous social shift. As we moved from oral to print traditions, so the move from analogue to digital culture risks the loss of what was once valued. Books are more than artifacts – they are a symbol of our times. They represent the communication of ideas and without ideas we are nothing. We need to hold onto what matters. Letting go of books is to let go of more than we might realize.

The 8th ALDinHE Conference (the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education) ‘Engaging Students – Engaging Learning’ took place at Queen’s University Belfast 18-20 April 2011. ALDinHE is the organization for professionals engaged in the development of learning within the higher education sector. The provision of Learning Development varies across institutions; some have teams of variously named coordinators, supporters or advisers, both in central positions or placed in Faculties, others have less or none. For the latter, that may be about to change because Learning Development is about to take centre stage. No longer the Cinderella of higher education – with rising fees and increasing focus on the student experience – the ways in which learning can be supported and developed are about to be revisited.

The main problem with Learning Development is a linguistic one. Most people refer to it as Skills – learning skills, academic skills, literacy skills – whatever the prefix there’s no getting away from the subsequent association with deficit or lack and from there it’s a short step to that dreadful word ‘remedial’ – when it isn’t about any of those things. Learning Development is about the qualities which make the higher education experience so unique; critical thinking, reflective practice, independent learning, problem solving, time organisation, motivation, transferable skills – oops there’s that word again – it has to go!

There’s another driver for revisiting and rethinking institutional provision of Learning Development and that’s digital literacy. A colleague has recently asked for a context free description of what is meant by digital literacy. I would suggest analysis, synthesis and evaluation with regard to digital data would be a reasonable start and that Learning Development is ideally placed to support the digital literacy of students (and staff) alongside more traditional higher education requirements. In an uncertain world, one thing we can be sure of is the increasing influence of the Internet and universities need to be at the forefront in making sure the Internet is seen for what it is – a chaos of information with no controls over content and with every day that chaos increases. We need to learn to pick our way through it with care and that requires the sort of critical thinking which lies at the heart of the higher education experience.

Digital literacy will be the making of Learning Development. It’s the opportunity for the profession to stand at the front of the stage and be recognised as a foundation of university education.  If you want to engage students – do it digitally. Learning Development is about to have an identity make-over and ALDinHE will be leading the way.

Quite a lot actually.  Juliet may have said ‘That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’* but you need to choose its substitute with care. Dogwort is the prettiest of spring flowers but would you recognise it? Exactly! Whereas everyone knows a rose even if your only experience is modern hybrids which are all colour and no scent.

Fancy fonts are a bit like todays roses; all style and no substance. Fonts are like people; they have their own characters and personalities. The problem starts when  the font you choose says more about you than the message you want to put across. A disaster in the art of communication.  Naming is a tricky art; a conundrum which lies at the heart of marketing – how best to deliver the message succinctly and with style?

How best to name a staff development workshop where it needs to convey the message that attending is worth an hour or two of your time. I’ve developed a session which looks at working with digital data and ensuring the information we put online can be accessed by everyone, regardless of the ways in which they use their computers. It’s about recognising difference and diversity but in relation to operating within digital environments. Take-up on the sessions isn’t great. Paul Stainthorp has suggested this could be symptomatic of the lack of importance placed on accessibility, usability and access issues in general. I think Paul is right – but public institutions have a responsibility to ensure digital content follows inclusive practice guidelines. Which is why a little awareness raising is not a bad thing. But how best to get the message across?

With hindsight maybe the title Promoting Inclusive Practice with Digital Data isn’t the best of choices. I like the phrase Digital Literacy but first responses suggest it’s making the same mistakes. The meaning is clear to me but I’m not standing outside the box. I like Know your Fonts but it’s not much better – I know what I mean but how can I be sure that meaning is explicit? Maybe there isn’t a title with universal appeal. Maybe we’ve all become too set in our digital ways. I don’t yet have the answer. But you have to appreciate the subtle irony that a workshop about getting the digital message across successfully has a title which is failing to get that message across in the first place!

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

Student as Producer Festival of Learning took place on 31 March 2011. A mixture of student led events took place across all Faculties with a closing Keynote by Dr Monica McLean. In the Science Building, I met students Sam, Kirby, Francesca, Kathryn and Emma, was fingerprinted, had my cells stained with Methylene Blue dye, visited the Blood-Spatter room and Lancelot the skeleton.

Festival of Learning Festival of Learning  Festival of Learning

Up Steep Hill at Chad Varah, with my colleague Andy Hagyard, we met students on the Conservation and Restoration course including Robin, Georgina, Josh, Caitlin, Jess and Benedict who between them were working on a fascinating mixture of objects including an 18th century military helmet, a fragile early 19th century Japanese doll, an early paper map of Saffron Walden, a lacquer and mother of pearl cupboard door and a 1930’s King from a nativity scene at All Saints Church on Monks Road in Lincoln. I also encountered a fully restored 18th century statue of St Dunstan from Goldsmiths Hall London and saw how a wall sized covering from the Beaumont Chapel Hotel in Windsor was being conserved an repainted and mustn’t forget the nearly completed Victorian model boat which will be on display at the student exhibition on 21st May.

Festival of Learning  Festival of Learning  Festival of Learning

Finally, Andy and I called into Thomas Parker House where we met Emily, Mike, Jack and Sam, Creative Advertising Students, and sat in on a Sonic Sound Spaces session with students from Graphic Design. Thanks to Chris Robinson at Chad Varah and to Gyles Linguard and Tim Fabian at Thomas Parker House for making us feel so welcome and taking the time to introduce the students with all their brilliantly creative work and ideas.

Festival of Learning Festival of Learning Festival of Learning

To see all the photos from Conservation and Restoration at ChadVarah,  Creative Advertising and Graphic Design at Thomas Parker House and Forensic Science and Bio-Medical Science in the Science Building visit the Student as Producer website

Beware the Internet, its rotting our brains, or at least reprogramming our neural pathways to work in different ways. So say writers like Nicholas Carr, Andrew Keen and Clay Shirky. The concept isn’t that difficult to believe. As a species we’re designed to evolve and the societies in which we live don’t stand still either – they evolve and morph – as evidenced by changes from oral to print traditions – from agriculture to industry. There’s an inevitability about the digital challenge to the printed page – and whether it’s academic research like the CIBER report or writers like the above named – I can’t help but agree – the Internet is changing the way I work and the way I think and the way I live my life. I’m permanently online and if I’m not I miss it. I’ve become accustomed to Internet access. My mobile technology means I can be on the move and still in touch with email, facebook, twitter, bbc news, igoogle, itunes, local traffic updates, the list is endless. I don’t use Google Latitude but it’s a prime example of digital lifestyle meets social media equals Wow! The only time I’m free of the Internet is when I’m travelling and then I deliberately cut the link; otherwise I can’t absorb the strangeness of different places, I can’t leave behind the problems and the daily grind. I can’t feel a different country and its culture. But the minute I’m home the laptop is on and I’m reconnected.

There is something about the mass of information on the Internet that’s addictive; the continual process of linking, the search for the next bit of content which will have exactly the answer I’m looking. It encourages surface browsing with the resultant sore eyes from too many hours at the screen and a dull headache from a surfeit of mental stimulation and resultant ideas. At least, that’s how it is for me. But at least I know the Internet is a machine. It has no morals or values or empathy. They are our responsibility; it’s up to us to ensure our digital experiences are for the better and not the worse.

We’ve come a long way from the weekly trip to the public library. I’m not suggesting we should go back; revisiting the past is never a good idea. We need to stay in a forward trajectory but we also need to remember our analogue roots. People matter, health and relationships matter, the Internet is no substitute for family and friends.

It’s Friday night and it really is time to open the wine and close down my browser – now where did I put my phone???

Government is promoting cultural change. They’re calling it social action. Otherwise known as giving. They have ‘new technologies at their disposal’ and ‘insights from behavioural science’ with potential to show how ‘obstacles to giving can be overcome’ and ‘tap into our motivation to give’ (p7).  Giving is government’s green paper designed to make givers of us all.

Government recognises it can’t compel people to social action – no, it has to be built from the bottom up (p7) a reference it’s hard to take seriously.  Social action is what local organisations and communities do already –have always done – and will continue to do regardless of the latest government smokescreen for cuts – known colloquially as the Big Society.

Back to the giving report. Don’t worry if giving isn’t your thing. Government recognises that some groups ‘face different barriers to participation’ for example barriers ‘associated with health or disability’ or ‘a lack of time due to caring responsibilities’ (p10). If you identify with these barriers, please don’t think you’re being excluded from any extra-curricular ‘social actions’ on top of your day to day struggles. Government will ensure ‘opportunities to give that are accessible for all’ and what’s more they’re ‘excited by the potential for this created by new [Internet] technologies’ (p10)

Don’t have the Internet? It’s not a problem. But don’t get too excited. Government won’t provide it, you’ll stay digitally excluded. They’re just going to use more ‘traditional methods of providing information’ (p11) about opportunities to give. And don’t go worrying about any lack of ‘organized social action’ in your neighbourhood. Government will ensure those living in less active communities receive the support they need to ‘galvanise’ that social action into happening.

Not yet convinced that giving is for all and all are for giving?

Government has saved the best till last. They tell us (and you can feel the smugness seeping off the page) ‘Spending money on others, including charities, makes us happier than spending on ourselves; we get something back – the ‘warm glow’ that comes from giving.’(p15)

So you heard it here first. Get out there and get giving. Regardless of your personal situation, your health or your lack of facilities, giving will make you make feel good about yourself. Why? Because ‘evolution has endowed us with a social brain that predisposes us to reciprocate acts of kindness (p15).

We’ve also evolved to recognise bullshit when we see it…

The Student Rep’s Conference (2nd March) provided space for students and staff to talk to each other. I hope there’ll be lots of dissemination in online/offline student/staff publications because it was worth it. It’s not that students and staff don’t talk to each other – they do – in lots of different ways – but this event raised the quality of those conversations.

In the afternoon students talked about Student as Producer; the Lincoln led, cross-institutional, project which looks to redesign the curriculum along the lines of research engaged teaching. It’s like UROS has become infectious and spread across the university. Under Student as Producer, the opportunity to apply for a bursary to undertake a UROS project has been reintroduced (closing date 11 March see for details) but the real value lies in plans for restructuring teaching and learning. This is less radical than the language used to describe it. Teaching informed by and engaged with research is not new. The only difference is Student as Producer raises its profile and emphasises research as the primary organising principle of practice.

I’m reminded of a parallel movement across the sector a decade ago;  the push for embedding virtual learning environments. It reminds me because Student as Producer can appear on first encounter as something new and radical, almost verging on unsafe because of the revolutionary language it inspires.  But looking back over the history of technology in education, you see a similar mixture of adoption of new ways of working. Before Dearing, people were already engaging with digital environments, in the way that teaching already engages with research. What’s needed is time. Adoption of innovation is often less about changing practice and more a shift in emphasis on what people are already doing.

Using Roger’s model of diffusions of innovation, Student As Producer is currently with the innovators and early adopters. As it spreads out across the university via events like the Student Reps Conference, and the Festival of Learning planned for the end of March (details here it will pick up more interest from whose practice already aligns with its organising principles. It’s  ‘stickiness’ will increase until the tipping point  is reached. You can see this with technology enhanced learning. At Lincoln, the push towards adopting the institutional VLE has finally got there. Recent surveys conducted by the Student Union and CERD suggest a high level of embedding of Blackboard into daily practice. This has taken time but the shift has happened. Student as Producer is in its early days but given time it will become as ubiquitous as Blackboard has done alongside all its potential opportunities for enhancing the experience of teaching and learning across the whole institution.


Live blogging can be an effective tool as demonstrated at the Graduate School Conference ( but there’s also value to be had from reflection and blogging after the event. I felt the conference was a huge success and the high number of people returning to the auditorium at 4.15 was testament to a great day. I can’t select a highlight – there were so many!

Anyone who’s attended a student based conference will know the value of an eclectic range of presentation content and style. The mixing and matching of subjects and expertise provided audience experiences which were in turn provocative, intellectual, surprising, entertaining and above all educational. I learned so much – all of it relevant and interesting. Limiting presentations to quarter of an hour and maintaining good time keeping meant the parallel sessions ran well. The Arts, Sciences and Humanities were all represented and the attendant mix of home and international students with academic and support staff provided opportunities for discussion on a wide range of issues. The conference theme was networking and that was indeed the primary function of the day.

I think, on reflection, what I took away and has stayed with me, is the importance of balance. Opening the conference, Mike Neary quoted Castells on how we are all living in a networked society with increasingly digital lifestyles and ways of working.  Mike suggested increased levels of contact through digital networks is leading to disconnection on the ground. The sense of community is getting lost. The processes of online social interaction are not only gaining dominance but are becoming divisive, leaving behind those with analogue roots and privileging the manipulation of digital communication and control. Ironically, the participation in digital networks is ultimately a solitary one. What is missing – and is needed – is the balance between digital and human interaction. Together they make a whole and that lies at the heart of the university experience; opportunities to take disparate approaches and put them together, to investigate alternative practices, try something you’ve never done before, learn something you didn’t know but which adds quality to your life.  Well run, well organised, student-based conferences like this one offer the essential exposure to difference which reminds us that diversity really is what it’s all about.

48 GO GREEN is an avant-garde Festival that gives the opportunity to speak up against the ecological destruction taking place on our planet.  Their 48 hour film competition took place last weekend; entrants had just 48 hours to produce a short video. Take a moment to watch this entry. To vote go to where it only takes a minute to register and support local creative talent.