Developing the Digital University

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Findings & Lessons Learned

It is still early days for the project to be drawing any final conclusions but here are some of the lessons we have learned about developing digital literacy in a research intensive institution like the University of Exeter.

Digital literacies are discipline-based: There is not one set of digital capabilities that defines a graduate. The digital practices that enhance study and scholarship are subject specific, and even within subjects there are aspects of personal identity or style in the technologies people use. So we see developing digital literacy as a matter of acquiring a repertoire, a range of technologies and ways of using technology that make sense in a subject setting and that can confidently be extended as new tools become available

Digital scholarship is a hybrid expertise: The activities we see our postgraduate interns engaging in are based on what they know of research and methodology in their subject area, and what they know about digital tools. In some cases digital method is intrinsic to their research area: text encoding and analysis in English, use of video in performance studies or audio in interview-based research, digital data capture in experiments and fieldwork, model building in maths. In other cases, they are using generic technologies such as web services and mobile apps to make the research process easier.

Digital pioneers are innovating their subject areas: We have found postgraduates using their personal technologies in novel ways for: data capture (e.g. using personal digital devices, cloud solutions to upload and data management); data visualisation and presentation (e.g. use of video, animations, and a variety of graphical visualisation apps); virtual collaboration (e.g. using a blend of public and institutional services); and digital networking and career building. In findings new uses for technology they are also acting as change agents in their research area.

Digital literacy is critical: Better understanding of digital technology does not necessarily lead to more enthusiasm for it. In fact several of our interns describe themselves as more sceptical users - or at least more discerning ones - after an intensive period of skills sharing and reflection. It seems that a larger range of experience with digital technology allows a more critical attitude to specific examples of technology in use, and a better appreciation of the limits as well as the benefits of digital methods.

Digital literacy is about values: In the course of the project we have heard students speak out against the 'distractions' of the digital, academic skills advisers worry about the impact of digital media on students' writing, and staff describe digital information as fostering speed over quality of thought. A digitally literate organisational culture will consider the impacts of technology on the quality of academic life, as well as on its efficiency. Digital technologies also bring new ethical questions to light. Reframing academic values for an age of information, acting safely and ethically in virtual environments, and being aware of the potential for public and private spaces to collide, are all aspects of digital literacy in academic contexts.

Digital scholarship is for everyone: At a highly research intensive institution it often opens more doors to talk about digital scholarship - embracing research and the highest levels of academic achievement - than to talk about digital literacy. Some subjects are are spawning highly specialist areas of scholarship that have digital methods at their heart, and the 'digital agenda' can become identified with these. However, we would like to think that digital research practices can be appreciated by all students of a subject area. At an organisational level, digital specialists can inform and transform the culture of a department, but they should not be the only people responsible for progressing students' digital capabilities.

Research-like activities: Our area of focus for the remainder of the project will be embedding some of our findings and resources into taught programmes. The way we expect to do this is to take some of the hybrid activities we have observed among our digital pioneers and work alongside academic staff to develop similar activities that can be embedded into taught modules, allowing students to experience digital technologies in the context of meaningful scholarly work.

Digital pioneers are effective change agents: Our early research found that digital habits are very often acquired from peers. The project has allowed us to amplify the peer effect by working intensively with a small group of identified change agents, both online and face to face. It has also proved to us that digital pioneers are effective communicators and love to talk about what they do. The challenge will be to cascade this process more widely, for example through online networks like the Facebook group established in Social Science, and more showcase events like the one we pioneered in Humanities.

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