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The HEA-funded event ‘Digital Literacy: Building Learning Communities in the Humanities’, organized by Dr Clare Horrocks (Liverpool John Moores University), was an excellent forum for discussion for colleagues and experts in the HE sector to provide thought-provoking examples and to share ideas and good practices on how to build learning communities and to develop new and original strategies to improve digital literacy among both undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Interdisciplinarity, multimodality, communities of learning, communication and public engagement were the predominant themes of the day, explored and discussed through a variety of stimulating case studies. A more detailed summary of all the speakers’ presentations is available on the Arts and Humanities HEA blog.

All the presenters shared innovative practices and I personally found some of them extremely stimulating.
Plenary speaker, Professor Richard Andrews (Institute of Education, University of London), discussed the impact of digital literacy on the future of research in Humanities and Social Sciences. He examined the implications that multimodal productions and digital publishing would have on the HE Institutional procedures if such products were finally (and fully) accepted as official submissions for final examination (particularly in case of MPhil and PhD theses).
Anna-Marjatta Milsom’s PhD project Picturing voices, writing thickness: a multimodal approach to translating the Afro-Cuban tales of Lydia Cabrera is simply fascinating as an example of such multimodal products. Her project consists of a multimodal artefact comprising two parts: a written thesis and a DVD-Rom (necessary requirements for submission at Middlesex University, where this student was enrolled). What the project looks like (once one accesses the DVD-Rom provided with the hard copy of her thesis) is a gem of aesthetically pleasing wit: an interactive page shows somebody’s office desk, full of folders, notebooks and anything else one can expect to find on an office desk. Mostly everything is clickable and each click opens a pop-up which shows different sources that the student used for her research (for example, a click on a folder labelled as “photos” reveals a set of illustrations and portraits which, together, provide a sort of visual biography of the author). By clicking on the screen of the computer visible on the aforementioned virtual office desk, the file containing the “traditional” thesis (the same one submitted in hard copy by the student for her final examination) opens and one can read it, but through the screen of that virtual screen (a metathesis?) Since this was a PhD project on translation, there is an additional meaning conveyed through this multi-layered format: the translating process should be considered in a much more nuanced way than just providing a written text in the place of another.

While works of this type are extremely engaging and will definitively open new research directions, there are issues with what the HE sector allows as official submissions for PG examinations. Moreover, one should also consider the implications and risks of publishing innovative research as an open source, as this might have an impact on the Research Excellence Framework requirement and therefore on the employability of those researchers within the HE system. Professor Andrews also considered the impact that these new multimodal products would have on modes of dissemination, including library reception. An interesting example of developments in this direction is DART-Europe, a partnership of research libraries and library consortia who are working together to improve global access to European research theses.

Dr James Baker, Curator at the British Library, also discussed multimodal thinking and presented a wide range of activities promoted by the BL to stimulate independent research strategies among PG students. Initiatives such as the Mechanical Curator, the Flickr platform of over a million images and the BL digital scholarship blog, among others, are excellent tools to stimulate public engagement and the development of learning communities of different types. Developing a more functional approach to digital resources is fundamental to creating knowledge for different communities and different audiences. Dr Baker shared his slides for this presentation, which are available here.

Dr Helen Rogers (LJMU) took the discussion a step further, discussing how we should train both undergraduate and postgraduate students to understand, use and somehow control social media to disseminate academic research. As her two very successful modules “Writing Lives” and “Prison Voices” demonstrate, blogging could be used as an effective learning tool and as a mode of assessment. This would encourage the students to see themselves as producers and public historians. Dr Rogers pointed out the need to embed more writing skills tasks into such modules, so that those research blogs could be also used as reflection blogs by the students, who could (and should) use them to improve their communication and writing skills even before the final product is published in the public domain.

Other papers delivered during the day focused on digital resources, teaching and learning strategies to encourage students to produce digital objects and to become critical readers of digital resources which are already available in the public domain (see Dr Shannon Smith’s presentation brief on the HEA blog).

A lively debate followed these very thought-provoking presentations. The potential benefits which may result from the effective implementation of these original, inspiring and challenging ideas, coupled with everybody’s enthusiasm and willingness to develop new teaching and learning strategies are immense. However, we all agreed that Institutional support at different levels is fundamental to allow all this to happen. Official recognition of the time dedicated by members of staff to create such initiatives and develop them throughout their modules; availability of basic resources, such as making IT suites available to students during contact hours or special provisions for those students who may want to use their own technological devices are some of the key points which need to be addressed in a broader discussion.

Colleagues from Humanities and Social Sciences are actively working within their individual institutions, and sometimes in collaboration, to develop projects aimed at developing both staff’s and students’ digital literacy skills, which would encourage public engagement while defining different types of learning communities. It seems to me that this is a promising starting point!

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