Grappling with the digital divide

Students are increasingly 'transliterate', communicating across a range of technologies. Can academics keep up? Hannah Fearn asks

August 14, 2008

Research has a habit of turning up surprising or controversial findings, and none more so than this: Britain's universities are populated with illiterates.

Academics at De Montfort University are researching the nature and impact of a new kind of literacy: the sharp end of modern communication known as "transliteracy". The term describes the ability to read, write and interact on a range of platforms. Think of the media's teenage stereotype, a young girl watching Hollyoaks on television while simultaneously discussing its plotlines on the social networking site Facebook, listening to music on MySpace and texting her friend to discuss home study.

The term "transliteracy" was coined by Alan Liu, a professor in the English department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, whose research on the subject is being carried out across University of California campuses. The project will establish working groups from across academic disciplines to study online reading and shared technology.

At De Montfort, Sue Thomas, a professor of new media, is more interested in the impact that transliteracy is having on higher education and pedagogy. In these terms, many academics are in essence illiterate, says Thomas. Most would admit it, even taking a certain pride in their part-removal from the world of e-communication. This matters if they find their teaching relationship with hyper-transliterate students breaking down because of an inability to communicate fully with one another.

Thomas believes that if academics cannot show themselves to be transliterate, they will lose the respect of their students. "University is about sharing knowledge," she says, and students expect it to be carried out on their terms, in the ways they are used to. "There is still a huge cultural barrier for some people. We find quite often that librarians and e-learning staff are very open to this, but when you go within the humanities and you look at traditional areas such as English, there is a real resistance to technology."

Ron Barnett, professor of higher education at the Institute of Education, admits to being virtually computer illiterate, which he blames on his age. Yet he agrees that the lack of transliteracy among academics could affect teaching.

"I think there is probably a gap of knowledge... Anecdotally, it seems that many young people are able to handle multiple information streams from a variety of sources," Barnett says. "We're moving into an arena in which human beings are able to handle a number of digital or electronic data sources all at once. This is a new kind of human being.

"We're in the transitional stage here. Within the academic community, we have people who are at varying levels of capability and preparedness to move in that direction. Students expect their institutions to be engaging with them electronically, but they're still being communicated with largely through A4 sheets of paper."

Sir David Melville, former vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, is chairing a committee looking at the impact of the "Google generation" on higher education. The committee has found that 95 per cent of students are members of an online social network and that more than 50 per cent already have a blog or website. These transliterate students arrive with a set of assumptions about how they will use these skills in their education. They do not expect to be disappointed.

Melville says academics need to look at using a range of technologies when they teach, and that universities must get up to speed with Web 2.0 technology at an institutional level.

"It does lead to a rethinking of the balance between the value of the face-to-face work and the ability to do a lot of other things effectively, and taking the advantages as appropriate; students can now go on to a social network and create something for their work - a study group perhaps."

These new technologies, so central to many young people's lives, can offer engaging learning opportunities. Tutors could encourage and monitor discussion about their subject between pupils and ensure that they are sourcing the most accurate and useful information online.

"Students, I think, will do this, and the key question is for staff to help to make it more effective in terms of the quality and dissemination of material," Melville adds. "Students lack those critical skills. They have got used to getting huge amounts of material in this way, but not very critically."

To teach students how to be critical in their approach to learning through technology, tutors need to understand it and to be relaxed about using it themselves. Although institutions are attempting to address these problems by providing training for their teaching staff, they come up against academic apathy.

"The pedagogical distance between students and staff is an important one," says Barnett. "There are a lot of conferences going on, but they tend to be largely attended by the already initiated and the converted. Things are moving technologically more quickly than we're acknowledging in our reflective conversations across the sector."

The ability gap also raises important questions about the pedagogical boundaries of study in the digital age. Should tutors be expecting, even demanding, that students communicate with each other electronically? Communication tools such as Second Life, the web-based virtual world, involve creating alternative identities. Should students be expected or required to generate these for themselves?

These are difficult questions for individual tutors to grapple with alone. Barnett believes that it would be useful for the Higher Education Academy to explore these issues. At De Montfort, Thomas says transliteracy is being built into the curriculum across the university. When she speaks to other national and international institutions, she gets a good reception. Institutions want to make changes.

"The response tends to be, 'This idea makes sense. Why didn't we think about it before?'" she says. But still academics are digging in their heels. "The e-learning people work really hard to get lecturers to come along to sessions about blogs and wikis, but nevertheless it always seems to be the same faces. It seems to be very difficult to break that barrier and get through to the next level of people. It's a question of getting people to follow that lead."

Academics will eventually be forced to take note because the gap of understanding will lead to further confusion. One of the most tangible dangers of the chasm is a loss of authority over plagiarism. As Thomas explains: "Lecturers who maybe don't understand the web very well will probably be very stressed about recognising plagiarism. Students are also very stressed about wanting to use the web as a resource but are worried about being accused of (breaking rules)."

Thomas believes that as transliteracy shoots up the higher education agenda, academics will be forced to adopt new forms of communication in their teaching. As an indication of how seriously the issue is being taken, the National Union of Students has confirmed that it is carefully monitoring attitudes towards communication and technology.

According to James Soutter from the multimedia consultancy firm Precedent, the first step is to remove the snobbery that stands in the way of progress. Academics not used to technology struggle with the idea that they should be participating in this form of communication. "I expect there is a feeling that those academics with a presence on the web are seen as populists," he says. Academics have been left behind. In other industries transliterate communication is not just an advantage but an absolute necessity. In many skilled fields, prospective employees are now expected to bring a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation to job interviews.

Academics are not the only ones struggling with genuine transliteracy in higher education. Although students coming out of secondary education may be more proficient in social networking, blogging and gathering information online, they are not always as good at communicating traditionally. "That's compounded with the argot that they have developed from text language, which tends to slip into their written work," Soutter says.

The problems combine to create a potential miscommunication between the two groups. But Soutter adds that arguments emphasising a generational or cultural gap between academics and their students run the risk of suggesting that the problem is bigger than it is.

Academics are often excellent traditional communicators; good lecturers know how to distil and transmit information in a limited amount of time in an engaging way. The most transliterate are no different, they simply know how to make contact on a wider range of levels. It should be simple to ensure that academic staff know how to use new technological tools.

Soutter rejects arguments about the emergence of an entirely new language. "None of the research groups that I have participated in," he says, "has ever really diverted from the use of what we could call normative English.

"It has struck me recently that there is almost an evolutionary advantage to people who know how to communicate well."

We can see this most clearly with internet dating, he suggests, observing that the best communicators have a Darwinian advantage when looking for a partner using new technologies. The old rules apply within a new context.

Although lines of communication must be open and flowing for the tutor-student relationship to thrive, there is no suggestion that technological communication, an essential part of transliteracy, will replace human contact in teaching best practice.

"I don't think we're going to see a great move towards the use of the medium as a form of instruction in higher education," Soutter adds.

Melville agrees. "Students still want face- to-face contact. They value that. They say that new technology is perhaps not to do with learning, although they do spend two or three hours a day on the web. They don't necessarily see the connection between teaching and learning in that particular way."

David Nicol, deputy director of the Centre for Academic Practice and Learning Enhancement at the University of Strathclyde, believes there is work to be done to prove the benefits of new technology for modern pedagogy, not just for academics but for students as well.

"It's not just about using the tools, it's about using the tools effectively. We've got to bridge the gap between informal learning using digital technology and formal learning in the institution," he says.

The university's digital information office already supports academics who want to bring new technology into their classes.

At the University of Derby, the vice-chancellor is a convert. John Coyne joined the online networking site Second Life and created a digital identity for himself to state publicly the institution's commitment to transliteracy. He signed a contract with a major IT provider within Second Life as well as on paper.

"It's something of considerable interest to the university in terms of how we might have to adapt our pedagogy going forward, and the greater diversity of means by which students will wish to engage with learning," he says.

He describes the future cohort of undergraduates as the "Bebo generation". Transliteracy, he says, is essential if universities are to teach a generation of students who are "inquiry rich, time poor".

Academic staff at Derby are already experimenting with teaching classes within Second Life, not just in the IT and computer games departments, but in psychology and education studies too. The university will also offer academics access to support and training where requested.

"We're trying to anticipate the kinds of challenges that may be pushed upon us as an institution," Coyne says.

Derby may be something of a leading light in promoting academic transliteracy, but there is still a long way to go before the higher education sector can call itself transliterate. Even for the converted, stumbling blocks remain.

"While I was on the walkabout in Second Life, I bumped into another avatar (online persona) and it was one of my lecturers. He was surprised to discover his vice-chancellor there," Coyne explains.

"We engaged in a conversation, but I think he realised my avatar was being directed by a student colleague when he asked me a question. Apparently I responded by saying, 'Cool.'?

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