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Developing digital researchers: developing digital literacy at research-intensive universities

Over the next couple of months you will start to see evidence of our first year’s work emerging on our project web site. We are currently editing video interviews from postgraduate researchers and staff, supporting our PGR interns to complete their case studies and learning materials, and working up some of our own resources. These include an app that builds digital learning activities from Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives, and a couple of magazine-type quizzes to help students identify their digital research and digital learning styles. More seriously, we are building a resource that we hope will be useful both to researchers as they get to grips with digital technology in the research process, and to research-intensive institutions as they develop strategies for enhancing digital know-how. The two stakeholder groups we are addressing share an interest in embedding into the curriculum a range of research-like activities that use digital technology in meaningful ways.

Some of the ideas we are working with are these.

Repertoire: We have discovered that there is not one set of digital capabilities that reliably defines a graduate. The digital practices that enhance study and scholarship are highly subject specific, and even within subjects there are aspects of personal identity or style in the technologies used (or refused) and the ways that individuals deploy them. So we see developing digital literacy as a matter of acquiring a repertoire, a range of technologies and uses of technology that are readily available to the individual and can be combined to achieve specific purposes. In a given setting, a digitally literate student/researcher has options and can make choices. Having this repertoire, the literate individual can also encounter new technologies confidently, and make critical judgements as to their value and purpose. The development of this repertoire is highly influenced by the curriculum and by subject experts, but driven also by personal aptitudes, attitudes and identities.

Hybrid activities: The activities we see our postgraduate interns engaging in are hybrid forms, based  on what they know of research and methodology in their subject area, and what they know or intuit about the capabilities of digital tools. In some cases digital method is intrinsic to the research area – text encoding and analysis in English, use of video in performance studies or audio in interview-based research, digital data capture in biological experiments, model building in maths. In other cases, we see PGRs adopting generic technologies of web services and mobile apps that just make the research process easier. Traditional research meets the ‘we’ve got an app for that‘ generation.

Digital pioneers are scholarly pioneers: Partly because of this attitude, PGRs can be change agents in their research teams and communities. We have found evidence of PGRs developing new methods – often independently of their supervisors – around: data capture (e.g. using personal digital devices, cloud solutions to upload and data management); data visualisation and presentation (e.g. use of video, animations, and a variety of graphical visualisation apps); virtual collaboration (e.g. using a blend of public and institutional services); and digital networking and career building.

Digital discernment: Despite the last point, closer acquaintance with digital technology does not necessarily lead to more enthusiasm for it. In fact several of our interns describe themselves as more sceptical – or at least more discerning – in their use of digital technology after an intensive period of skills sharing and reflection. This relates to the issue of repertoire, as a larger range of experience with digital technology allows a more critical attitude to specific examples of technology in use. Also, the fact that digital technology creates efficiencies in the research process may allow researchers to focus more attention on those tasks that only a human researcher can undertake – generating ideas, discerning patterns, thinking, communicating, demonstrating value, making sense.

Digital scholarship vs digital literacy: At a highly research intensive institution it often opens more doors to talk about digital scholarship – embracing research and the highest levels of academic achievement – than to talk about digital literacy, which is associated with formal education at a much earlier stage of life. However, some subjects are are spawning highly specialist areas of scholarship that have digital methods at their heart, and the ‘digital agenda’ can become identified with those scholars exclusively. For us as a project, ‘digital literacy’ is not a specialist option but a set of practices that all graduates of a subject area can expect to have encountered. At a practical level, digital specialists can inform and transform the culture of a department, but they should not be the only people responsible for progressing its digital capabilities.

Research-like activities: Our area of focus for the remainder of the project will be embedding some of our findings and resources into taught programmes. The way we expect to do this is to take some of the hybrid activities we have observed among our PGRs and work alongside academic staff to develop similar activities that can be embedded into taught modules, allowing students to experience digital technologies in the context of meaningful scholarly activities.

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