Wednesday 25 June 2014

Blog Every Day in June Day 25 : Detaining (digital) immigrants: Rethinking digital literacy learning

Elliott Bledsoe is the Digital Producer at Regional Arts Australia. As today's guest contributor he is discussing the barriers and attitudes towards digital literacy, as well as a great new initiative called 'Digital Drop-In' co-hosted by RAA in 2014.
You can follow him on twitter @elliottbledsoe

Recently I was having a conversation with a 77 year old woman about digital technology. She was almost aggressively resistant to ‘those technologies’, asserting that she knew ‘nothing about them’ and ‘wasn’t interested in them’. After a carefully managed exchange, I threw a question to her that changed the direction of our conversation: Do you have a digital television? Of course she did, broadcasting in Australia is now digital only. I followed up by asking if she could find the shows she wanted to watch when she wanted to watch them. When she said, ‘Yes’, I informed her that she had digital literacy skills, because she can navigate to broadcast content using the menu of her digital television. Even the most technology resistant person has some digital literacy.

This kind of scenario is illustrative of one of my concerns with digital literacy learning opportunities. Many of the opportunities currently available require prior digital knowledge before attending (even without realising it). This requisite prior knowledge creates a barrier to attendance and fails to adequately accommodate the breadth of digital literacy learners, especially those who have low literacy.

But I am jumping ahead of myself. The backstory is this: I recently became the first Digital Producer at Regional Arts Australia (RAA), the key national body representing those working with and for the arts in regional and remote Australia. The role performs a lot of functions, including to increase digital literacy—knowledge about and the use of digital technologies such as computers, smartdevices and the internet—in the arts in regional, remote and very remote Australia by the end of 2014. That’s a huge task!

Of course, there are a number constraints on the Project: time, money and distance are the obvious ones. I simply cannot travel to every region in Australia to deliver digital literacy learning opportunities (even if I thought that were the best method of doing so). This left me wondering what I can do to genuinely increase digital literacy in the arts in regional Australia? I knew I had to narrow the scope of what RAA was going to do, but where should the lines be drawn?

It’s worth also nothing that I am a stats geek, so any decisions I was going to make were going to be informed by data. It started out with internet access data. From reading Australian SMEs in the digital economy, Report 1 of Australian Communications and Media Authority’s Communications report 2012–13 series, I found out that 13.15 million adult Australians had access to a broadband connection in their home as of June 2013. That represents a 7 per cent increase from the previous year and a 46 per cent increase since June 2008.

Smartphone and tablet penetration is equally telling. Over 11.19 million adult Australians were using a smartphone at May 2013; a 29 per cent increase from the previous year. Add to this the 4.37 million adult Australians using a tablet as of May 2012 (as reported in Smartphones and tablets Take-up and use in Australia, Report 3 of ACMA’s Communications report 2011–12 series), and you have a lot of people with internet-capable devices. And they are getting online! Of those 11.19 million people with a smartphone, 7.5 million of them had used the internet on their handset; up 33 per cent from May 2012 and a huge 510 per cent since June 2008!

Not only do Australian adults have more internet access points in their lives, but the frequency with which they are accessing the internet is increasing as well. During June 2013, 65 per cent of Australian adult internet users went online more than once (according to ACMA’s Australian SMEs in the digital economy Report). In other words 10.81 million Australian adults went online more than once a day during June last year; a 7 per cent increase from the June 2012 and a 72 per cent increase since June 2008.

It probably won’t surprise you that 18 to 24 year olds and 25 to 34 year olds collectively make up 48% of that 10.81 million internet users accessing the internet more than once a day. But it might surprise you to know that the percentage increase in frequency of internet use per day in the other age groups was not so different to younger users. The table below outlines the increase since June 2008 in internet users in each age group using the internet more than once a day.

Age group
% increase since June 2008
18–24 years
25–34 years
34–44 years
45–54 years
55–64 years
65+ years
Source: Report 1—Australian SMEs in the digital economy, Communications report 2012–13 series, Australian Communications and Media Authority.

The number of home internet connections and internet-capable devices is increasing, and so is the frequency of internet use. Layer over this the average age of residents in regional towns and some interesting questions start to arise. 
Lots of areas of regional Australia have an older population, in part because of young people moving from regional areas to larger population centres in search of employment, education, opportunities and experiences. While there seems to be an increasing return migration to the regions, it is undoubted that a majority of potential digital literacy learners in regional areas will be older people.

So if the digital natives—‘native speakers’ of digital language who demonstrate an inherent digital literacy derived from growing up ‘… surrounded by and using computers, video [and console] games, digital music players, video cams, [mobile] phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age’—have moved out of regional areas, shouldn’t digital learning opportunities in those areas cater to the needs of digital immigrants?

Marc Prensky, who coined the term digital immigrants, describes them as people born pre-digital who have, to a greater or lesser extent, ‘... adopted many or most aspects of the new technology’. But many of the digital learning opportunities I have identified when doing research for this Project required a requisite level of literacy before undertaking them. Take a workshop on Twitter for example; a desire to attend is likely underpinned by an idea of what Twitter is and an idea of how or what it might do for you. If you don’t know one or both of these things, you aren’t likely to register (if you were even aware the workshop was being run at all!) and a barrier to digital literacy learning is created.

Through a series of informal interviews, I identified a number of other barriers that can inhibit individuals from increasing their digital literacy. These include:
  • Entrenched behaviour—The ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ mentality is often relied on when avoiding digital literacy learning. Often categorised by statements such as, ‘What we currently do works just fine’. 
  • Lack of time—Either genuinely not having the time or using not having the time as an excuse to avoid digital literacy learning (especially when coupled with other barriers). Often categorised by statements such as, ‘I would learn how to use Twitter, but I don’t have the time’. 
  • Lack of interest—Either a genuine lack of interest or using a lack of interest as an excuse to avoid digital literacy learning (especially when coupled with other barriers). Often categorised by statements such as, ‘I am not interested in Facebook’. 
  • Lack of relevance—A feeling that the outcomes of digital literacy learning are not relevant to the Learner. This can sometimes be used as an excuse to avoid digital literacy learning (especially when coupled with other barriers) and is directly tied to a lack of leadership and a lack of awareness of the potential of digital literacy. Often categorised by statements such as, ‘I don’t need to use Facebook, I get on fine without it’. 
  • Lack of access—A lack of access to the internet; a lack of access to digital technologies and/or a lack of access to social platforms. Even where access exists, connectivity profiles that suffer from low bandwidth and/or unreliable network fidelity can act as a barrier. Also internet access policies such as workplace internet-usage restrictions can also act as a barrier. 
  • Lack of leadership—In some sectors, a lack of exemplars can act as a barrier. Often categorised by statements such as, ‘No one else is doing it’. 
  • Lack of awareness of potential—A lack of exemplars can also lead to a lack of awareness of the potential of digital technologies, which in turn can act as a barrier. 
  • Fear—Fear is one of the most significant barriers. It could be fear of change, fear of doing things differently, fear of making more work for oneself, fear of being left behind, fear of repercussions (such as job loss), fear of ‘not getting it’ or fear of ‘looking stupid’ for not knowing. These all act as a significant barrier to initiating digital literacy learning. 

With all of this in mind, I wanted to design a digital literacy learning method that had lower requisite prior knowledge and was more responsive to the needs of digital immigrants. I wanted it to be face-to-face and focused on responding to people's specific needs. Also, it was important to me that this opportunity was not a one-off, but would act as an entry point for self-directed digital learning. These principles led me to the decision to facilitate a series of Digital Drop-in events to provide informal digital literacy learning opportunities and develop a Knowledge Base to guide and support self-directed digital literacy learning.

From the end of July till the end of 2014, RAA will be co-hosting Digital Drop-in events. Each Drop-in is designed to be informal but informative. They will be casual, community-led, face-to-face, peer-learning opportunities. The idea is simple: registered Learners sit down over a cup of tea with a member of their community who has digital expertise (the Digital Talent) and ask any question related to digital technologies they like. The Digital Talent provides them with an answer to their specific question. And the whole exchange is held at an organisation, venue or event in the local area.

Of course, this method works best where informative answers to the questions can be given, which is difficult with large groups. So I have designed the standard composition of a session to adhere to this formula: a 60 minute session can accommodate no less than four but no more than six registered Learners, factored on a ratio of two questions per Learner and four to six minutes response time per question.

Although this is not to say there is no flexibility. Depending on the resources, capacity and interest of the Partner and the availability of the Digital Talent, a Drop-in event may include more sessions, sessions of a longer duration and/or more Digital Talent in order to accommodate more Learners. This approach is designed to allow for responsive programing of Digital Drop-in events while ensuring that events meet certain minimum requirements.

To supplement and expand on the Digital Drop-in events, RAA will also produce a Knowledge Base of digital topics. I will not be producing new resources, the time and cost of producing such resources is not feasible and, for a lot of topics likely to come up, useful, well-written resources already exist online. For many Learners it can be difficult to know where to start. If information is not pitched at a level appropriate to the Learner they may become overwhelmed, confused and frustrated; which does not lead to a fulfilling self-directed digital literacy learning outcome.

To avoid a lengthy production process and unnecessary duplication of existing resources, entries to RAA’s Knowledge Base will include a short paragraph of contextual information, examples of the use of that technology in the arts, and a list of recommended external resources ranked in recommended priority order to make it easier for Learners to identify what resources to read in what order. Using case studies and a wayfinding approach, we aim to provide a set of easy-to-produce resources that help Learners to establish foundational literacy in a way that is sympathetic to their incremental learning.

Initial topics covered in the Knowledge Base will be identified and prioritised based on the frequency they are asked about at Digital Drop-in events. This will ensure that the most requested information by Low or no literacy Learners is prioritised in order to reinforce learnings taken away from the Digital Drop-in events and ensuring Drop-ins do not become a one-off intervention.

We are still finalising dates and locations but details will be announced soon. If you are interested in co-hosting a Drop-in, providing your digital expertise at a session or attending a session, please get in touch with me by emailing

-Elliott Bledsoe @elliottbledsoe

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