Findings: personal and peer support for learning literacies - 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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Findings: personal and peer support for learning literacies

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Asked about support for learners’ personal literacy development, all but one respondent interpreted this in terms of PDP. In FE this was structured around Individual Learning Plans while in HE the e-portfolio system was typically the focus. In many universities the ICT system was the only institution-level provision, with learner support being completely devolved to course or department level.

Good practice in supporting PDP included:

  • Introduced at induction and forming a core element of the induction process
  • (FE particularly strong on) initial skills assessment or self-assessment
  • Linked to personal tutorials (i.e. tutors make active use of the e-portfolio system)
  • Involvement of careers and linked to CV building and employability (again FE particularly strong)
  • Integrated into courses/modules (highly variable in practice) e.g. through
    • learning contracts
    • tailored modules or sessions on personal/professional development
    • reflective diaries, logs, videos

Problems that can arise:

  • Unpopular with students (several mentions: ‘hated’ in one case)
  • Variable expertise and commitment in schools and departments – all departments cited as committed to PDP were vocational/professional (health, business, education)
  • Where tutorial model is strong, skills and time resources of individual staff members can be an issue (though most auditors were extremely positive about this aspect of support)

Delivery of PDP often involves central services staff either as additional resources for learners to access at need, or to help deliver sessions: academic (learning) support and careers staff are most likely to be drawn upon. Most institutions also offer tutorial support, via subject tutors (typical in HE) or personal development and guidance tutors (typical in FE). Where this relationship works well, learners’ needs can be assessed and addressed in a holistic way: ‘beneath the formal processes (which are often unpopular), there is a rich level of support from individual tutors which is often where the transformative stuff happens’. At the one institution where PDP was not a formal process, this was because the tutorial system has a very strong tradition, and is intensively resourced through top-up fees: ‘tutors are closely involved in the progress of each of their undergraduates throughout the whole of their period [of study], and support and foster their intellectual and personal development’

Student mentors were mentioned by only one audit institution as a resource to support learners’ reflection and planning. There were also vanishingly few examples in practice (see snapshots review below) of PDP processes being effectively linked in with curriculum processes, such that teaching and learner support could be made more responsive to the prior experience of individual learners or a particular cohort.

Expectations of learners’ prior skills and literacies

FE institutions take a far more proactive approach to assessment of prior skills, with comprehensive initial screening and guidance to learners on appropriate courses and support services. With the exception of English language requirements for overseas students, few HE institutions seem prepared to set out generic entry standards, devolving responsibility to departments through the course requirements and admissions system. From a widening participation perspective this reluctance is understandable, but at the same time there is recognition that learners are being failed, with consequences for retention further down the line.

  • ‘entry criteria are only a crude measure of skill, and teachers often express astonishment at “what their learners can’t do”‘
  • Anecdotally, there is an expectation that students will arrive with a certain level of academic study and IT skills, although it is being recognised that this is not the case and measures related to the impact of this assumption on retention have been introduced
  • we are beginning to recognise that significant numbers of our home students may not have English as their first language and therefore need additional support

Learning contracts were mentioned several times in this context. Although these focus on learners’ responsibilities rather than their capabilities, where they are used they do foreground expectations around study and provide an opportunity for learning literacies to be discussed.

The following are therefore ‘assumptions’ or ‘expectations’ rather than formal requirements – a situation which in itself is not conducive to learners’ development! ICT and information skills were among the most frequently mentioned, suggesting that there is a widespread assumption that students entering HE will have a reasonable level of competence in these areas.

  • the ability to learn and develop skills
  • general academic skills (3): writing; self- and time-management; an understanding of ‘what HE is all about’
  • IT/ICT skills (4)
  • Info/digital/ICT (2): ‘There is an assumption that they are able to engage with Information literacy, Digital literacy, Critical literacy, ICT skills, Information skills, Communication skills, Technology practice: at a level commensurate with entry to HE’. ‘to utilise digital and information resources appropriate to their subject discipline’

Several auditors were frank about the lack of support for learners who failed to live up to these expectations. Resources most mentioned were:

  • [+academic staff in lectures and assignment briefings (again, feedback not mentioned)

There were attempts to look at service level provision by academics – but it was one way – and the academics were blamed publicly if the students didn’t work.+]

  • [+informal opportunities to access central services e.g. drop-ins, self-study materials

There is a learning agreement for students who access one to one support for skills… which encourages them to be proactive in terms of their own development+]

Informal and peer-supported literacy development

Asked about informal opportunities for learners to develop their literacies, half the auditors listed the resources that could be accessed from central services. The other half offered reflections on how, in practice, learners gain confidence and capability. These reflections are of course speculative – this would be a whole research programme in itself – but they do tie in with findings from the JISC Learners’ experiences of e-learning programme, that there is an extensive informal curriculum of shared resources, peer support and individual work-arounds by which learners meet the requirements of the formal curriculum (Creanor et al., 2006). They are so central to this study that they are reproduced here:

  • friends, peers, other students (7)
  • tutors (informally e.g. by observation and modelling, ‘chatting’)(3)
  • trial and error, practice (3)
  • web (Google) (3)
  • Facebook (2)
  • Family (3)
  • Print resources (1)
  • Work colleagues (1)
  • ‘ or just ignore it in case of English language …though buying course work is also a solution we see used to attempt to overcome this’.
  • reading manuals for software and hardware operation …
  • I’m not sure anyone felt that they did develop these skills and literacies. They use the basic resources via Google and teach each other if they discover something useful.
  • According to our 2008 Freshers survey 95% of our students use social networking tools e.g. Facebook but we do not know that they use it for developing skills and literacies.

Some institutions, noting the value of peer support, are trying to encourage this more formally, and we asked about this.

Types of peer support (existing or under consideration)

None/just considering4
Student ICT support/helpdesk4 (one ‘in development’)
Within-programme buddies/mentors (some programmes only)7
General student buddies/mentors3
Students Union involved in support3
Social networks4
Other (Disability Circles of Support, Alumni involved in support)2

Comments in this and other sections of the audit indicate that Facebook is being widely used by students to discuss and share resources for study. Colleges and Universities now recognise this situation, and some are using Facebook pro-actively to support learners during work placements and in the process of transition. At most universities, members of teaching staff are free to set up social software groups to support course activities outside of the institutional learning environment, though there are issues around ownership of data and perceived encroachment on learners’ ‘private’ online spaces. The picture is more contested in FE.

Personal technology and literacies

Both the Learning from Digital Natives (LDN) project and the JISC-funded Learner Experience of e-Learning programme have highlighted the pervasive nature of technology in learners’ lives, and the potential benefits of using familiar communication, information and networking, ideally on personal devices such as mobile phones, i-pods and laptops. We therefore asked auditors about provision for learners to use personal technologies in institutional contexts.

FE colleges are in a particularly constrained situation because of their status in loco parentis to learners under the age of 18. However, at one of the two colleges in our audit, wireless access and social software were available for students to use across the campus.

On the evidence of this audit, most universities now provide wireless access for learners using their own laptops or other wireless-enabled devices on campus, and support to help them do so. Wireless coverage may be patchy and is often not available in student accommodation.

Many offer social and web 2.0 applications on institutional PCs, and/or allow staff and students to instal and use such software over the network, with limitations (see below). Second to student expectations, the main driver for change in this area seemed to be the practice of forward-thinking staff:

An ever increasing number of teaching staff, and also staff in support areas including the library as detailed in Section 3, are using blogs, wikis, podcasts and other tools and applications to extend and enrich the learning and support experience in ways that are not possible working solely within classroom spaces and the VLE.

Restrictions were noted on the use of video streaming, peer-to-peer networks, support for Macs, and downloading of external services and applications onto institutional machines. Also, software support continues to be limited to institutionally-hosted systems such as email and the VLE. Given the value of social networks and online services, particularly in supporting transition and peer learning, it is encouraging that ICT support policies are under review at many of the participating institutions.

Qualitative review of snapshot data

Two of the six examples submitted in the learner-led category were from FE colleges and one from the schools sector, where forward-thinking practice is taking place at key transitions and on the boundaries between formal and informal learning. (Birmingham Schools, Carnegie College, Writtle College). Key points of interest from these three examples:

  • Technologies in the hands of learners, such as Flip cameras and PDAs which they can physically handle, and software such as social networking tools with which they are already familiar, can give learners more confidence in a learning situation (but while this lowers barriers of confidence, it is not enough to enable deep learning)
  • Learners have different skills and practices, particularly when it comes to technology. Without formally identifying mentors and mentees, peer learning can take place quickly in the context of exciting and motivating group tasks.
  • Mentors and mentees both experience learning benefits, though different in kind.
  • All the examples focused on whole-person development with personal and interpersonal skills to the fore.
  • None of these examples was formally assessed: learners defined their own goals or projects and achieved recognition for a wide variety of different outcomes.
  • There were no problems of learner motivation reported in these cases: on the contrary, there were positive findings about learners’ engagement and enthusiasm.

The closest University equivalent to this kind of peer-supported practice came from Bradford’s DevelopMe! initiative. A ning-based site is enabling pre-induction students to meet others, begin the social transition to university, talk about their expectations, and be introduced to some of the expectations that they will have to meet as students. The success of this initiative is clear not only from the level of engagement and positive evaluation findings, but the number of other institutions taking a similar approach. This multi-layered snapshot is well worth reading in full.

Wrasse at the University of Plymouth, the LexDis ‘ideas for e-learning’ resource at Southampton, and STRIDE at Hertfordshire (included in the ‘curriculum’ category) represent a more structured approach to peer support. Materials provided by learners are edited and collated by central services staff. The value and credibility of the materials are amplified through selection and commentary, and users are further supported with search facilities and guidance materials relating to specific aspects of study. This is very different from the web 2.0 model, not least in the effort and resources involved – all three received some form of external funding to support development – but it does send a very strong message that staff take learners’ experiences seriously. All have been positively evaluated by learners.

If provision is to be credible to learners, integrated around the real challenges they face, and focused on effective practice rather than on component skills, we would expect it to look much like this. Explicit examples of practice from learners’ own perspective (‘this is how I did it’), are validated by the commentary from tutors (‘this is why it was effective’). These learning resources then need to be coupled with opportunities for learners to review and adapt their own practices in the context of meaningful tasks.