Engaging the Digital Generation in Academic Literacy
10th Annual Learning and Teaching (ALT) Conference at Middlesex University

Tuesday 29th June 2010

The conference theme is both timely and relevant as the  ‘literacies agenda’ is being discussed at length on various HE mail lists in relation to the graduate academic literacies/abilities/skills required of 21st century learners.  As such, the conference theme attracted staff from both support services (careers, language, library) and academic staff involved in curriculum design – both from within the University and from outside.  The following provides a summary of the day:

Tara Brabazon, Professor of Media, University of Brighton: Digital Dieting - a guide through information obesity 

Tara Brabazon set the tone of the day – her performance was both ‘electrifying’ (as Agi Ryder from CLQE so aptly put it) and entertaining. Tara Brabazon is my hero and has done much for librarians and libraries in the last decade with her provocative THE articles and her advocacy of the importance of academic staff collaborating with librarians to teach information literacy.  Brabazon literally unpacked the term ‘information literacy’ for the audience in the most entertaining way talking about the problems of information obesity (the information explosion) and the tendency of students to use Google as their first port of call often with detrimental effects. The importance of using appropriate keywords to retrieve information sources appropriate for academic study was of utmost importance (for not having the right keywords was tantamount to ‘information starvation’ and many metaphors on food and dieting were used by Brabazon to highlight this point).  Brabazon was emphatic about the importance of moving students beyond shallow surfing and out of their comfort zones because this is when learning takes place.  She also emphasised the need for information literacy to be embedded into the curriculum and for teaching staff to ensure that tasks which embed these skills, for example, the annotated bibliography, are assessed stating that students only pay attention if they know they are going to be examined or assessed.  Of course, the highlight of her presentation was her praise of librarians and libraries in supporting staff and students.

Steve Wheeler, Plymouth University: Digital Tribes and the Social Web - How Web 2.0 will Transform Learning in Higher Education

The second keynote speaker was Steve Wheeler who is an Associate Professor in Learning Technology at the University of Plymouth.  Wheeler‘s informative and enjoyable presentation focussed on the impact of Web 2.0 or the social web and how students interact with each other and the corresponding implications of this for teaching and learning.   According to Wheeler, the use of the emerging technologies in social interaction/networking e.g Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Flikr etc has resulted in the formation of digital/virtual communities or tribes e.g.”Flikrites”, “Facebookers”, “Wikipedians”, etc.  and the survival of such tribes is no different in the virtual world, i.e. survival of the fittest:  “Wikipedians” ensure their content on Wikipedia survives regardless of the number of times it is deleted by the “Deletianists”.  Digital tribes have digital behavours which must be considered in order to understand their impact on teaching and learning in HE.  Interestingly, the three key human attributes for learning – cognition, communication and co-operation are facilitated by the Web 2.0 tools such as blogs (for reflection which demonstrates analysis and synthesis of information), social networking (used for communication) and wikis (used for collaboration).   What younger students expect is to be able to use these tools for learning anytime, anyplace and anywhere, in a personalised learning environment (PLN) to match their needs.  This certainly is food for thought – especially with respect to enabling students to create their own PLNs which allow aggregation of information and academic support to suit individual students’ needs.

William Wong, Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at Middlesex University What matters (?)

The last keynote address given by our very own EIS Professor William Wong was full of questions – as the title of the keynote address suggests.  This is not surprising given that Professor Wong is a researcher.  Professor Wong’s talk began by asking whether the “Google Generation” (which was alluded to by all the previous keynote speakers) really does exist, especially as so much of the world, including many parts of the UK, does not have Internet access.  His warning was that we should not change our teaching strategies wholesale until we understand the real impact of technology.  Wong sensibly suggested that what matters is that we teach our children/students our values and in this respect, questioned whether technology hinders and gets in the way of learning: “If we are going to set Twitter-size assignments, we are going to train Twitter-size brains”.  And, with respect to our current systems, we can only learn from our experience and from the research (bearing in mind that findings in the developed world do not reflect the needs of learners in the developing world).  Professor Wong gave many examples of the current research on user/information seeking behaviours and highlighted results from various studies in his presentation, e.g. the CIBER reports, the PEW Foundation surveys, the JISC-sponsored UBiRD (User Behaviour in Resource Discovery) study, the development of an interactive visual search engine INVISQUE and the research on visual analytics at the Interaction Design Centre at Middlesex University.


There were many workshops scheduled on the day and Vanessa and I had the pleasure of attending Tara Brabazon’s morning workshop on “Podcasting Postgraduates” which was fun, lively and productive.   Brabazon is a firm believer that the audio allows for greater absorption of the message and that visuals allow attention to stray.  She played many examples of podcasts created by her own students which had assisted them in presenting/reflecting on their work, talking about their research and preparing for their PhD vivas.  Podcasts are easy to create and if short enough in duration (e.g. approximately 2 mins) can be sent via email as MP3 attachments.  Many of the participants, including myself, created a short podcast by introducing ourselves and sharing our thoughts on how we can use podcasts in our work.  I think the use of podcasts in providing feedback to students on their search strategies or suggesting resources they can explore could be considered by librarians – certainly, for our remote users, this will provide them with a much more personalised service if they have the technological know-how and equipment to receive and use the podcasts.

The afternoon workshop was Steve Chilton’s “Learning to Learn Online”.  The subject of this workshop was particularly interesting for me as I have been discussing how best to embed academic literacies (information literacy, digital literacy and critical thinking skills) into the e-learning environment with staff in WBL and in E-Learning.  Chilton provided an explanation of the pedagogical structure underlying the proposed module which is being developed to address graduate skills, i.e., the competencies  students need to survive in the workplace.  Chilton’s premise that learning is doing and understanding comes after reflection was widely accepted by the attendees.  He suggested embedding a number of activities into this module which will help develop graduate skills. One such example requires the student to read an essay and to write a write a 100-word précis which must then be further reduced to a ‘Tweet-able’ 142 characters.  I could see many ways in which the literacy issues can be addressed in this module but I believe that unless this work is embedded and assessed (and this assessment does not have to be summative), it may have little impact on the learning.

                                                                                Nazlin Bhimani