Changing contexts - LLIDA
Introduction to the study describing terminology choices and the reasons behind the study.
digital literacy, learning literacy, learning, education, digital capabilities, skills
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Changing contexts

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The nature of work is changing, not just for the growing numbers of graduates directly employed in the ‘digital’ industries (est. 1,500,000 ). An estimated 77% of UK jobs involve some form of ICT competence, requiring updating of skills as technology changes. Global digital networks are also having a profound impact on how organisations recruit the expertise they need. A recent TLRP report on Education, Globalisation and the Knowledge Economy (2008) notes that British graduates are competing for high skills, high value jobs on a global stage, in which graduates from emerging economies have several advantages. As the performance gap narrows rapidly, differences in labour costs are narrowing far more slowly, giving companies greater scope to extract value from highly skilled people in different locations. Thus ‘ it can no longer be assumed that even British-based corporations will choose to employ British graduates if the same talent is available at lower cost elsewhere. Colleges and Universities in emerging economies are expanding faster than those in the UK and arguably expanding smarter, learning lessons from other education systems without the same brakes on organisational and cultural innovation.’

This report uses the term ‘digital taylorism’ to describe the trend towards division of labour in the service and intellectual industries, dissecting what used to be coherent professional roles down to the level of discrete projects or even tasks. This is described as ‘a power struggle within the middle classes, as these processes depend on reducing the autonomy and discretion of the majority of well-qualified technical, managerial and professional employees. It encourages the segmentation of expertise based on ‘talent’, in ways that reserve the ‘permission to think’ to a small proportion of employees [or non-employees] responsible for driving the business forward. Middle-class labour is also becoming less secure as digital networks make it easier for tasks to be contracted out on a piece-meal basis , loosening the ties between businesses and employees. One likely outcome of the current recession is a restratification of middle-class occupations.

Although estimates of the number of people likely to be employed in the ‘knowledge economy’ vary, it seems clear that individual working lives are becoming more complex, unpredictable, and inter-woven. There is a greater requirement for workers to be independent, self-motivated and self-evaluating, as well as a tendency for individuals to move jobs and careers more frequently and to be in fixed-term or flexible contracts (Naswall et al, 2007). Learning for life is no longer a policy buzz word but a requirement for individual economic well-being.

Opportunities for learning are also changing and by most measures becoming more numerous and openly available. Open educational content is burgeoning thanks to several high-profile initiatives by leading global universities. Not only have digital technologies become widespread in formal education, but non-educational organisations are waking up to the potential of ICT to capture and communicate know-how (see e.g. Senge, 2006), while practical and social knowledge Is shared almost continuously via the social web (Downes, 2005, Anderson, 2007, Alexander, 2008, Walton et al, 2008). A complication is that ICT skills are particularly likely to be acquired through self-study or informal assistance from colleagues, relatives and friends . Informal/non-formal learning has achieved a new prominence in educational discourse, to the extent that it has almost become the measure by which formal learning is judged.

Ideas about the value and purpose of formal education have undergone a revolution in this environment. Academic content is no longer a unique selling point, and institutions are rebranding themselves around accreditation, flexibility, and the learning experience. Models of education as a bespoke service to learners are readily available in the e-learning literature and are supported by some of the technical developments that have recently been made (e.g. e-Portfolios, personal competence management systems ). As graduates face a period of increasing uncertainty about their employment prospects, they are also looking for opportunities to practice and demonstrate their value to potential employers. In this environment, a first degree is no guarantee of ‘graduate’ employment, and varieties of postgraduate CPD are booming. Finally, an increasingly complex landscape of post-16 provision is hastening modularisation and standardisation of qualifications. All of these trends are promoting a more competence-based approach to the curriculum, in which notions of literacy have more purchase.

The nature of knowledge is changing, so that what counts as useful knowledge is increasingly biased towards what can be represented in digital form, and/or applied to immediate problems and situations. Many scientific and research enterprises now depend on data being shared in the almost instantaneous fashion enabled by the Internet, while the sheer processing power available to researchers is ushering in new methods of investigation and in places whole new disciplines and genres of knowledge. At the same time as digital scholarship progresses, the rewards and recognition for scholarship become less certain. The outcomes of creative and intellectual work are more freely available than ever before, the logic of many market sectors is towards openness and collective knowledge bases, and conflicts over intellectual property, access and licensing are becoming acute.

The texture of social life is changing, with more and more people conducting and sustaining relationships via digital media. Many social practices, from purchasing to voting to registering for healthcare, can now be conducted online. In its recent statement on ‘Digital Britain’ , the Government expresses an active intention to enhance this trend, and lists ‘media literacies and IT skills’ second only after access to the internet as a requirement for building a society of ‘empowered and informed consumers and citizens’.

Trends shaping technology and community, from Wenger et al (2005), are:

  • Fabric of connectivity – always on, virtual presence
  • Modes of engagement – generalised self-expression, mass collaboration, creative re-appropriation
  • Active medium – social computing, semantic web, digital footprint
  • Reconfigured geographies – homesteading of the web, individualisation of orientation
  • Modulating polarities – togetherness and separation, interacting and publishing, individual and group
  • Dealing with multiplicity – competing services, multi-membership, thin connections
  • New communities – multi-space, multi-scale, dynamic boundaries, social learning spaces.

In a related fashion, communications and media are changing profoundly and rapidly, with the new social media and gaming technologies being embraced by innovative educators (Martin & Madigan, 2006, Lankshear & Knobel, 2008). However, whilst the forms of communication and media are clearly significant in shaping thinking and knowledge work, recent research on learners has suggested that their engagement with digital media is more complex than the ‘digital natives’ discourse would imply (Bennet et al., 2008, Hargittai & Walejko, 2008). In this space, the idea of multimodal literacy (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2001), understood as a complex set of critical and social practices, has largely replaced the discourse of ‘learning styles’ (e.g. Kolb, 1984, Honey and Mumford, 1982), which tended to imply a fixed set of capabilities or preferences on the part of the individual .A critical engagement with ideas in different media, once an aspect of specialist courses such as media studies, is becoming understood as an essential skill for navigating the information age, at the same time as novice learners’ lack of criticality is being widely lamented.

Closely related to this last point, literacy practices are changing. Writing has moved from a paper-based to a largely screen-based medium (Kress, 2003), and associated searching and editing software have profoundly changed the way in which writing is typically constructed (Cushman, 2004). Images and video are also increasingly used to access and communicate knowledge (JISC/British Library, 2008). Collective intelligence and amateurisation are key terms for the new ways knowledge is being constructed through social media.

Changing technologies are dealt with in more detail in the futures section, but present trends include:

  • Institutional technologies giving way to learners’ personal technologies and personal access to third party (or ‘public’) services
  • Large-scale, stable applications giving way to small scale apps and services, some in constant beta mode
  • Trusted content sources giving way to personal aggregators
  • Online articles giving way to blog entries and tweets
  • VLEs giving way to learner-owned or -shared spaces for collaboration and knowledge building

All this places greater onus on learners to choose, use and manage their own technologies, develop their own working spaces and practices, and find their own learning communities. It also puts enormous strain on institutional ICT support and ICT skills provision. In fact, it is clear that institutions are simply not resourced to keep pace with the rate of socio-technical change, such that they can claim to support whatever technologies learners bring into the learning situation. ‘We know, we teach you’ may no longer work as a paradigm for ICT skills provision.


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Future scenarios