A conversation around what it means to be a digital university

Over the past 18 months I’ve been having a series of discussions with Bill Johnston (a colleague of mine here at Strathclyde) around notions information and digital literacy and of what it means to be a digital university.

We moved from a series increasingly long, and wide ranging ad hoc “in the kitchen/pub” chats to slightly more formal meetings with the idea of writing a paper. However, as the months have passed, we’ve actually come round to the idea of extending our conversation in a more informal way, and (hopefully) to a wider audience via this blog.

In this post, I’d like to introduce you, dear reader, to Bill and the some of the key questions and issues we’ve been been working on.

Bill Johnston is recently retired, but he is still an active Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Strathclyde. Bill has spoken, researched and published in the areas of critical thinking, educational perspectives on the student experience, curriculum design, and information literacy. Together with Sheila Webber, he developed a credit bearing Information Literacy class for Business School students at Strathclyde University. They also completed the ground breaking and influential study of UK academics conceptions of information literacy.

Early on in our discussions we agreed that using an information literacy framework would provide a unique lens to explore a number of internal and external drivers for institutional change and to explore notions of the term “digital university”. We felt that exploration of this overarching term offered the potential to act as a catalyst for fundamental change throughout an institution from administration to teaching and learning. We deliberately chose not to use the term “digital literacy”, as we felt that at the institutional level, the more holistic notion of a digital university was more encompassing. It was also a term we were both hearing being used both in our own institution and by others. However, we both found it was being used in a very narrow context, mainly relating to digital technology like repositories and/or VLEs. Digital literacy, is also a term that although increasingly being used in HE (e.g. the JISC Developing Digital Literacies Programme) it is still not commonplace, and digital literacy is often seen as narrow, computer science related skills, as exemplified by Michael Gove’s recent speech, and not as a developing set of wider ranging competencies as identified by Josie Fraser’s excellent response. Bill and I also believe that digital literacy is an extension of information literacy, and that one cannot exist without the other. So, the “literacy” of the digital university is the literacy of information. This in turn raises wider social issues of digital inclusion and the role universities can play in the wider community, but more on that angle in a future post.

We felt that information literacy could act as a gateway to creating dialogue at the institutional level as it provides the means, knowledge and skills needed to allow meaningful interactions between people, digital content and technological systems. In other words, it affords a way to allow optimization of digital participation and measure progress. Furthermore, in true abstract writing style 😉 , using an information literacy lens provides us with a means to produce a coherent outline of a digital university and suggest strategic developments of the digital infrastructure, learning environment and management culture required to fully achieve the potential of the digital technologies. We are also both convinced that a truly digital university only occurs where there is a fusion between technology and staff/student developments driving innovation and creativity.

The diagram below shows an integrated view of the topic areas of a matrix we have been developing. We feel that these areas are key for strategic conceptualization of provision of the required functionality for any 21st Century University.

Information literacy based planning matrix

Some key questions we’ve identified around these topic areas include:
• What constitutes an information literate learning environment? The physical campus? The VLE? A mix of both? What are the common understandings of information literacy ?
• How can we understand the requirements for the provision of institutional learning environment for the next 10 years?
• What are they key operational requirements from digital infrastructure? To support:learning, teaching, research and management? What balance is required?
• What type(s) of infra-structure is actually needed?
• Is key data about courses easily available for a variety of purposes including marketing, formal reporting requirements such a HESA, KIS?
• Is there ubiquitous, stable wifi connection; refurbished physical teaching and learning spaces as well as state of the art research facilities?
• What are the key digital literacy skills needed by both staff and students currently?
• What are the key digital literacy expectations for/from students and staff?
• What will be the key digital literacy skills needed by both staff and students in 10 years time?
• How can institutions begin to distinguish their unique features and make them explicit to increasingly demanding student (customer) requirements?

Over the next few posts, we’ll begin to expand more of our thoughts behind the matrix, organisational issues and digital inclusion. We’re also very interested in hearing other views, so please, share any thoughts you may have in the comments section.

*Part 2
*Part 3
*Part 4
*Part 5

8 thoughts on “A conversation around what it means to be a digital university”

  1. Dear Sheila and Bill, I really liked your idea. I also feel that the notion of supporting ‘transistions’ is important to include. This would examine the ways in which digital universities work with, and support students as they enter, and leave university, with appropriate attributes for work or further study. We are hoping to get some answers about the transition into graduate level work (and subsequent curriculum redesign) from our APT conference which this year is called Employer Engagement in a Digital Age.

  2. Hi Sheila, I completely agree with your statement, “a truly digital university only occurs where there is a fusion between technology and staff/student developments driving innovation and creativity”. The idea of Digital Literacy started to develop long before it was picked up by the universities and, from what I remember from all those years ago, always embraced the concepts of innovation, creativity and citizenship. I worry that sometimes the universities are blinded by information and loose sight of our broader responsibilites to students (and staff) to prepare them for their future lives in an increasingly digital world.

  3. Thanks for your comment Tim, we’re hoping that this series of posts can help widen the discussion and get people thinking about wider connections.


  4. Hi Tim, “what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun”! Your comment is a useful reminder. Many universities are now embracing a ‘graduate attributes’ curriculum, at least in principle. This explicitly names such things as working with emerging technologies/developing digital literacy. In practice many of us are finding it difficult to embed this with any speed, as it really requires a change management programme across the whole university and its partner colleges. Anna Jones (Glasgow Caledonian University) thinks that developing attributes can only really be done within the subject, – some universities e.g Macquarie, Sydney are undertaking a compete curriculum review to make sure that attributes are assured. The OECD are developing a (PISA equivalent) test called AHELO (Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes) that aims to assess what students in higher education not only know but what they can do upon graduation, i.e its a direct evaluation of student performance with the ability to rank universities in a world market. I look with interest to see what impact it may have on universities and on the development of digital literacy (however this is defined) but we may have no option anyway!

  5. Hi Simon, from experience I can quite agree with you that the required changes need, “a change management programme across the whole university”. Having worked both within and with different disciplines I also agree with Anna Jones. You do have to make these changes relevant to specific disciplines, the culture of each discipline has to be taken in to consideration and the development of digital literacy does have to be embedded within the curriculum. The changes are very fast and those of us who are helping to direct the changes have to hop, skip and jump to keep up with them (keep ahead of them). Rather than “interested” in what will happen to universities, I am concerned/worried that many universities will not move quickly enough. Will many universities disappear because the whole of their focus is on the current economic and political pressures instead of on this “unimportant” thing called digital literacy?

  6. Hi Simon/Tim

    Thanks for your useful, timely and relevant comments. Tim I share you concerns re universities not moving fast enough. That’s one of the reason we developed our matrix, to see if it could be used raise some key issues and allow people to start thinking at a more holistic level.


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