Creating creative digital literacy or creating digital dependency?


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Jisc Digital Capabilities Framework

Digital literacy and in turn digital capability is something that I care a great deal about.

Part of my working life involves supporting and exploring  the development of digital capabilities. The work that Helen Beetham, Sarah Knight and many others at Jisc have done around developing definitions that have evolved into a digital capabilities framework is an essential part of my “digital toolkit.”  I’m always on the look out for other resources that I can add to said toolkit.

Earlier this week  I spotted via twitter  that the NMC had produced a Strategic Brief on Digital Literacy .  Full of expectations my heart sank when I read this:

“Digital Literacy: An NMC Horizon Project Strategic Brief was commissioned by Adobe Systems to explore an increasingly pressing challenge for United States higher education institutions: advancing digital literacy among students and faculty. Unfortunately, lack of agreement on what comprises digital literacy is impeding many colleges and universities from formulating adequate policies and programs. . . . Adobe’s support of this publication is significant as their technologies are increasingly being adopted by colleges and universities to foster greater digital literacy, particularly the Adobe Creative Cloud and the design, production, and storytelling apps it encompasses.” (my emphasis)

So before I even read the report my guard was up that there would be a bias towards Adobe products. I should state I don’t have anything against Adobe per se. I use, and at times encourage others to use Adobe products, and not just for reading PDFs.

I’m was intrigued as to how the report would address the “lack of agreement on what comprises digital literacy”.  Feeling confident in those nice people at NMC  I was sure that some reference would be made to the great work going on here in the UK around digital literacy.  After quick skim of the document I couldn’t see anything – however this exchange on twitter did indicate that the Jisc work was indeed included.

On closer inspection, I still can’t find it – there is a link to some work at Leeds Beckett which refers to Helen Beetham’s early digital literacy model, but I can’t find anything else.

This is the point where I wish I was Audrey Waters and could write an elegant, informed take down of why I find the approach of this report so wrong and why we, those of us who work in the education sector, need to be involved in the creation, critique  and control of the narrative around educational technology.   Bear with me as I give it a shot.   At this point I’m  tempted just to say ADOBE PAID FOR THIS REPORT AND IT IS ALL ABOUT SELLING THEIR PRODUCTS UNDER THE GUISE OF DEVELOPING CREATIVITY AND DIGITAL LITERACY.

There are differences to between the US and UK Higher Education sector/market (I have to add that every time I write market in relation to education a little piece of my soul dies).   I think the difference of intent between a virtual learning environment and a learning management system is significant.  It frames how we describe our interactions particularly in formal learning.  Learning environments are not just digital, they are physical and personal too. We are all our own learning environments. I am noticing that more people here in the  UK are talking about the LMS. Is this a sign of technological imperialism or global homogenisation? Probably a bit of both. The north American narrative voice  is loud and has lots of dollars behind it. Again as I was reading this report he old adage of America sneezing and the rest of the world catching cold did spring to mind.

As well our differences there are similarities and digital literacy is one.  I was disappointed that the report made no mention of the work that Jisc has been supporting  in the UK for a number of years now around supporting understanding of digital capabilities, the student experience and leadership. No mention of their definition of digital literacy, no mention of their framework.  That’s not to say the references that are made aren’t valid, I just find it odd that it’s not there. Particularly if  “a lack of agreement on what comprises digital literacy is impeding many colleges and universities from formulating adequate policies and programs”.  In terms of building a community of practice, again something that the report recommends, we have done this in the UK.

So whilst the overall conclusions and  recommendations are actually pretty sensible. The undertone of “smart “ collaborations, technology companies leading the way, buying a suite of “creative” products to allow students to be “makers” troubles me greatly. Buying into a system doesn’t automagically make you, or a University digitally literate or creative. It’s knowing when and how to use/buy/move on that does.  Whilst the Adobe creative suite of products is undoubtedly powerful, it also creates another set of dependencies for organisations and individuals. “Smart collaborations” between education  and technology companies really need to figure out what the potential implications of those dependencies are.

Digital literacy  is one of our  greatest weapons against the monsters of technology. We can let them dismantle it and sell it back to us.


  1. Thanks for writing this Sheila. I had seen and saved the NMC Horizon Report but hadn’t read enough of it to register the Adobe issue. I think that you hit the nail on the head when you said “It’s knowing when and how to use/buy/move on that does [make you digitally literate]” Your post is very relevant for me because I am planning an abstract for OER17 that looks at Digital Literacy and Inequality. Because of that, I do want to question ( a teeny bit) that the concept of what digital literacy is can or should be completely agreed. Engaging with a concept within a Community of Practice can keep it fresh,as long as the CoP can retain openness to new ideas and that can be a challenge in times of threat. So I am hoping to do a bit of disagreeing 🙂 in the nicest possible way

    • Hi Frances – thanks for the comment, and I’m all for a bit of disagreement and debate😊 I think digital literacy is an evolving concept, and its definition(s) does need reviewed. I’m not sure if it is a threshold concept but there is an element of troublesome knowledge in there, which can only be a good thing, right? paper for OER17 sounds great

  2. Brava, Sheila! Thanks for writing this and for calling out not just the U.S. and corporate/techno-centrism of this report but the lack of adequate and critical research also. Digital literacies are always situated in specific contexts – no engagement with this essential aspect of digital literacies in the report. As both you and Frances acknowledge in your comments, what we need is more nuanced, critical and research-informed work on digital literacies –like the Jisc work by Helen Beetham, Lou McGill, Alison Littlejohn and others– in order to address the challenges we face. Thanks again, Sheila… and love the sound of your paper, Frances. Getting fired up for OER17 🙂

  3. Don’t think everyone on this side of the pond is ignorant of Jisc. Thanks for hitting hard on this; i had the same reaction to that intro. Before reading the report I did a search in “Adobe” and it came up 25 times. “Sponsoring” / “Supporting” a report is far different from “Commissioning” and to me, casts a serious doubt of rigor on the research.

    To suggest one platform suite of tools offers the answer ignores so much reality. Or the idea that “smart partnership between campus departments and off-campus entities” are essential, followed by a chart IOC Adobe products.

    As your title suggests, digital literacy is not being literate in one set of tools. Being literate is knowing the concepts the tools should support, knowing how to find answers, knowing how to find alternative tools. This was one of my favorite aspects of teaching ds106 that we did not mandate tools. Students used what they had available, or open source tools we (and they) suggested. This meant I was teaching ideas, not software. I was not writing How to do X tutorials in Photoshop, students were finding those, sharing, or making their own.

    Thanks again for taking a stand.

    • Thanks for the comment Alan. And yes I know many people in your neck of the woods know about Jisc -I’m not getting at you guys:-) NMC do too, which again struck me as really odd as they don’t mention them here but do in other reports. You are exactly right, we need to teach concepts not tools. People need to be able to assess tools – not just for what they can do, but what they cost, their sustainability. Life is about making choices, our role as educators is to help people be as informed as they can so they can make appropriate ones.

  4. This was an Audrey-quality post, Sheila. Thanks for writing it. I have been working for a while on a mapping of how different countries and institutions are strategically addressing digital literacies and JISC work is top of that list. The US folks are (as usual?) more fragmented. That report needed critique and thanks for writing it.

  5. Yup. It’s basically rubbish. Not only is the good work in the UK missed, so also is the work in plenty of other countries. Bit of a fluff piece for Adobe that anyone with a google search restricted to US websites could have come up with.. or am i just grumpy?

  6. Doesn’t seem to be agreement in the U.K. on whether we are talking about literacy or literacies? Does it really matter? Also interested at the observation about VLE vs LMS. Does calling this “institutional technology” a VLE instead of a LMS really mean that you’ve bought into corporate/techno-centrism? Does using the “right” term really matter? While I too am critical of the North American narrative, I’d also hate to see “ed tech” discourse descending into PC speak. Using the term literacy or literacies, LMS or VLE, instructional or learning designer (etc. etc.) does not by itself necessarily imply that you are digitally capable. We need to look beyond words and into practices. Which, I think, was the main point of your article.

  7. Hi Sheila,

    For me, as with learning analytics, this is about the learning conditions that the educator creates for the use of digital tools. You can get students doing mind-numbing things in iMovie, or creative things. It’s all about the assessment regime, and the pedagogy. That’s the tectonic shift we need to see in all levels of the system. And people don’t change quickly…


    • thanks for the comment Simon. Agree entirely with your points and encouraging “leaders” to think that buying some adobe or any other product isn’t going to make that change happen is very misleading.

  8. Well said Sheila. At a first read the NMC report seems troubling, especially as it doesn’t appear to bring clarity to the problem it claims to be solving i.e. defining digital literacy.

    Catherine’s point about digital literacies being situated and contextual should be a cornerstone of any work in this space. The report unfortunately implies that making some digital tools available is a solution without explaining how. For instance, “(Students should be) able to not just critically understand the problem, but also produce solutions to problems. … The value of that skill carries across all fields of academia. We’re repositioning what the student is by providing access to some of the state-of-the-art tools.” There is a clear dissonance in this statement – thinking is equated to tool use. Problems can be solved by having some nice media.
    Paul Gilster noted that digital literacy is about mastering ideas, not keystrokes. The report has a danger of promoting an idea that becoming skilled at media production (using Photoshop, InDesign, etc) equates to developing digital literacy.

    I do agree with the report when it promotes digital literacy as curriculum. The sense that these literacies should be embedded within what and how we teach is important. This comes from the contextual nature of digital literacy and the situated practices that we have in disciplines. Aligned with this I believe that we need to be careful that digital literacy isn’t taught as a topic.

    As a final point, the product placement at various points in the report could be used in a lesson on critical reading!

  9. Thanks for a great post which really does capture my reaction when I saw the NMC release of the report into my newsfeed and I read the Adobe link and introduction. I used to always share NMC reports into my own network, but I have stopped doing this of late as I think there has been a shift in NMC itself of late, at least that is how it seems to me.
    The comments here are also worthy of reading and praise, although I also want to bring out that the these seem to be rather US v UK centric as well. However there are many really great insights, so thank you to those who commented as well.
    Thanks for calling this out Sheila, in my opinion this really is “less pidgeon” enough as a post (smile).

    • Thanks for your comment, and indeed for highlighting the quality of the other comments that have been left. I think it’s a pretty international split tbh. I love being less pidgeon too:-)

  10. Yup could not agree more – Welsh framework worth a look and I think there will be a paper from English Government before Christmas on place of digital competencies in schools and post 16 vocational reforms – In Scotland we are just waking up to fact that Whitehall have changed the UK vocational landscape – Scotland only one of home nations not currently reforming college and work based qualifications

    • thanks Joe. That’s interesting about Scotland particularly given the profile of “digital” just now. Maybe time for some more lobbying around things other than infrastructure!

  11. Thank you, Sheila and others, for your thoughtful responses to our report, Digital Literacy: An NMC Horizon Project Strategic Brief. We welcome different ideas and points of view. It has always made me proud that the NMC Horizon Project is fueled by a chorus of diverse perspectives from our community of expert panelists and collaborators.

    Industry is part of the very fabric of the NMC. We strive to bring together different learning sectors — higher education, K-12, libraries, museums, and industry. If we are going to advance important concepts like digital literacy, there needs to be a rich dialogue between Higher Ed and industry. Put another way, we cannot afford to be silos.

    We are committed to being unbiased and represent the landscape as it is. All of our partners encourage us to present them with ideas are counter to theirs. They’re looking to the NMC community for feedback. The digital literacy report itself is not product-driven. Its focuses on categories of tools (digital video, digital image manipulation, etc.), citing a range of exemplars that leverage all different strategies and tools.

    Our research found that digital literacy is still a nebulous area — as evidenced by the different perspectives being voiced; by the more than 400 responses we received to our initial survey to the NMC community; by our research into the literature; and through our discussions with digital literacy leaders. While some definitions and models are more compelling than others, none has won out conclusively.

    The report and accompanying survey was commissioned as a glimpse into the US landscape. We publish many global and regional reports, and only some are US-focused. JISC was not intentionally omitted as they are featured as a shining beacon in most of our reports. We simply tried to stay focused on the US angle.

    We can certainly learn more from the work JISC is doing. If there is an opportunity for us to highlight and share that work or, even better, collaborate, we would be very keen to do that. Perhaps we could work together on a global follow-up brief. There is more work to be done.

    At the end of the day, we’re all here for the same reason — to help students succeed. We’re all in it together and we’re on the same team.

    Again, thank you for sharing your perspective. The NMC is a better organization because of the ideas of people like you. Please keep sharing.

    Many thanks and all the best,

    Samantha Becker
    Senior Director, Publications & Communications
    Director, NMC Horizon Project
    New Media Consortium

    • Hi Samantha

      Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post and the comments it generated. A global collaboration sounds like a great idea. Digital literacy is certainly a global discussion area.

      Best wishes


  12. Microsoft Educator Community has curriculum and teacher training materials called 21st Century Learning Design. Hope this resource helps you!

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