9.8 Digital Literacies

Author: Sean Afnán Morrissey 


Technology is transforming nearly every aspect of our world, and higher education is no exception. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and the role of technology in confronting existential challenges such as maintaining teaching and research activity during a significant period of campus closures and disruption, has only served to reinforce this point.

In most societies however, a rapid increase in the use of internet-enabled technologies, from computers and smartphones to the so-called ‘internet of things’ (e.g. Xia, 2012) has, for some time, been reshaping people’s attitudes and behaviours (e.g. Ofcom, 2018), but also what students expect from a university education. And by ‘students’ I do mean all students, not just the so-called ‘digital natives’ (Prensky, 2001) who were born after 1984!

With 93% of students owning a laptop and 30% of students owning four or more smart devices, it is unsurprising that students expect safe and reliable access to WiFi (Jisc, 2019). Most want to be able to use their own devices for learning (ibid.). And, crucially, they expect a university degree will prepare them to do well in the digital workplace (ibid.). This last point is worth elaboration.

While much has been made of the digital dependency of Millennials and members of Gen Z, research suggests that increased use of technology in every-day life by children (e.g. Livingstone et al, 2011) and students (e.g. Kennedy and Fox, 2013) does not necessarily lead to generations of digital literate people. Kennedy and Fox’s study found that students use of technology – even in the context of their studies – tended to be limited to the consumption of content rather than the creation of content for academic purposes (ibid.: 76). The graduates of tomorrow will therefore need support in developing the digital skills that will benefit them throughout their lives and within the 21st century workplace.

Reflecting on work in the digital age, it is telling that over 90% of new graduate jobs require digital literacies (Jisc, 2012). Even people engaged in relatively low-skilled occupations now require digital skills to navigate through highly mechanised and digitised workplaces (Gekara et al., 2017: 12). Furthermore, future trends suggest that by the middle of the 21st Century, work will have become increasingly network-oriented, project-based and technology intensive. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has only served to intensify the use of technology at work. In order to flourish in this environment, today’s graduates will require particular digital competencies to collaborate virtually and across disciplines, keep pace with new technological innovations and perform roles that may not yet exist (e.g. Stormer et al., 2014: 24).

Digital Literacies

All of this suggests that higher education institutions have an important role to play in developing students’ digital literacies. According to the Higher Education Academy, digital literacies are ‘the capabilities required to thrive, i.e. be an effective and responsible participant, in a digital society’ (Higher Education Academy, 2017). While the term accommodates certain key operational and technical capabilities, it is, in the words of Paul Glister who coined the term, much more about ‘mastering ideas than keystrokes’ (Pool, 1997: 6). Digital literacy also has socio-cultural dimensions that necessarily change with time (Montebello, 2016). The following table illustrates this further.

Operational Capability Digital Literacy
Operate a smartphone and access the internet Assess the accuracy and reliability of information online
Communicate across different platforms Make informed decisions about, and use different tools to create, something new
Maintain an online profile Manage a digital identity and stay safe and healthy online


According to key texts from the literature, being digitally literate:

  • implies the ability to find, evaluate and manage increasing amounts of information on the internet (ECORYS, 2016) and to assess the reliability of information;
  • suggests capability in using digital tools to communicate (US Educational Testing Service for Higher Education Environments, in Lankshear & Knobel, 2006), choosing the most appropriate tool for the task at hand;
  • speaks to the attitudinal, social and emotional skills or dispositions deemed necessary for the internet (Gekara et al., 2017: 12) and a commitment to lifelong digital learning and development (Littlejohn et al., 2012);
  • demands problem-solving skills and the ability to negotiate legal and ethical issues, including security and issues of privacy and copyright (Gekara et al. 2017: 12); and
  • involves managing one’s digital identity and issues of health and well-being

Digital Literacies in Higher Education

In order to effectively embed digital capability development across an institution, a coordinated approach to multiple institutional strategies must be in place (Jisc, 2018: 4). For Schneckenberg (2010: 245) these strategies must engage leadership and management, to encourage, support and incentivise the use of digital technology through strategy and policy. They should address the design and development of learning environments, which greatly influence teaching, learning, collaboration, assessment and feedback activities; all of which can assist students to cultivate digital capabilities. And they should support staff to develop digital capabilities. While ‘digitally fluent staff can implement innovative pedagogical practices such as flipped learning, digital curation, and [mobile-learning] techniques, and use open educational resources’ (HEA, 2017) to support students’ digital literacies, Abrahams’s research (2010) has identified a number of barriers to technology adoption amongst staff in higher education. These include perception; resistance to change; technological support; financial support; infrastructure; knowledge/information; and technophobia (ibid.: 44).

The Role of Academic Development

Although educational developers (who may or may not have words like ‘education’, ‘academic’, ‘developer’ or ‘advisor’ in their job descriptions) do not, in most cases, interact directly with students, their work is so situated that it can impact knowledge and practice right across an institution, in ways that support the acquisition of digital literacies in staff and thereby allow students to acquire and demonstrate digital capabilities.

Through their engagement with professional networks and organisations[1], academic developers maintain an awareness of the wider HE landscape. They are often personally committed to developing their own digital literacy and are amongst the first to innovate and model digital capabilities on behalf of the staff that they train and support. In this connection for example, members of the Academic Development team at the University of Strathclyde recently became certified members of the Association of Learning Technology (CMALT) and delivered papers at ALT conferences.

At an institutional level, a keen working knowledge of strategy and policy enables Academic Developers to implement and deliver on University priorities through a number of staff development opportunities. The University of Strathclyde, for example, is explicitly committed to ‘seamlessly blending physical and digital environments for all students’, and the Academic Development team has made a concerted effort to offer staff development programmes via a blended mode of delivery. This allows them to utilise and demonstrate digital tools, model the many affordances of the Virtual Learning Environment and experiment with digital innovations such as learning analytic dashboards and cloud-based collaborative tools.

Furthermore, under the banner of the Strathclyde Teaching Excellence Programme (STEP) a suite of resources has been developed to support staff ‘move forward with technology’. A reflective blog invites colleagues across the university to share and disseminate examples of good practice. This is supported by a curated bank of online resources, journals and text books.

The Academic Development team also coordinate and deliver a range of development opportunities in collaboration with professional services colleagues across the institution. Currently their offering includes:

  • digital skills development sessions that cover a range of topics from social media for academics to flipped classrooms and technology-enhanced approaches to assessment and feedback;
  • a credit-bearing module titled ‘Teaching and Learning Online’;
  • seminars and expert masterclasses that serve as horizon-scanning exercises. In recent years these have addressed concepts such as Virtual Reality in teaching and learning, sticky campuses and assessment tools for STEM subjects;
  • structured pathways to professional accreditation (including Certified Membership of ALT); and
  • a series of peer support networks covering special digital interests such as game-based learning, social media in teaching, and a system for teaching and assessment using a computer algebra kernel (STACK).


Digital literacy is a complex, multifaceted and evolving phenomenon. Higher education institutions can play a key role in digital literacy development and academic developers are often pivotal in supporting staff to develop their own digital capabilities, leverage the potential of learning environments and respond to digital strategy and policy. Although they seldom work directly with students, academic development can shape many of the conditions, structures and practices that support and promote digital capability development across an institution.

Useful Resources

There are a number of useful resources for mapping digital capabilities for staff and students in higher education:


Abrahams, David. (2010). Technology Adoption in Higher Education: A Framework for Identifying and Prioritising Issues and Barriers to Adoption of Instructional Technology. Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education. 2. 34-49.

ECORYS (2016) Digital Skills for the UK Economy [Internet]. Available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/492889/DCMSDigitalSkillsReportJan2016.pdf [20 December 2019]

Gekara, V, Molla, A, Snell, D, Karanasios, S & Thomas, A 2017, Developing appropriate workforce skills for Australia’s emerging digital economy: working paper, NCVER, Adelaide.

Higher Education Academy (2017) Digital Literacies [Internet]. Available from: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/digital-literacies [18 December 2019]

Jisc (2012) Developing Digital Literacies: Briefing Paper [Internet]. Available from: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/publications/briefingpaper/2012/Developing_Digital_Literacies.pdf [01 December 2019]

Jisc (2018) Delivering Digital Change: Strategy, practice and process [Internet]. Available from: http://repository.jisc.ac.uk/6800/1/Jisc_Digcap_Senior_leaders.PDF [16 January 2018]

Jisc (2019) Digital experience insights survey 2019: findings from students in UK further and higher education [Internet]. Available from: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/reports/digital-experience-insights-survey-2019-students-uk  [8 December 2019]

Kennedy, D., & Fox, R. (2013). Digital natives?: an Asian perspective for using learning technologies. International Journal of Education and Development Using Information and Communication Technology, 9 (1), 64-79

Lankshear, J. C. & Knobel, M. (2006) Digital Literacies: Policy, Pedagogy and Research Considerations for Education. Digital Kompetanse, 1: 12-24

Littlejohn, A., Beetham, H. and McGill, L. (2012), Learning at the digital frontier: a review of digital literacies in theory and practice. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 28: 547-556

Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Gorzig, A., & Olafsson, K. (2011). EU kids online II: Finalreport 2011. London: London School of Economics & Political Science

Montebello, V. (2016). Digital Literacy in Post-certification Healthcare Education. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice. Vol 4, Issue 1, pp. 26-35.

Ofcom (2018) Decade of Digital Dependency [Internet]. Available from: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom/latest/media/media-releases/2018/decade-of-digital-dependency [14 December 2019]

Pool, C. (1997), A conversation with Paul Gilster. Educational Leadership, 55 (3), 6–11

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives digital immigrants. On the Horizon. NCB University Press, 9(5), 1e6.

Schneckenberg, D. (2010) ‘What is e-Competence? Conceptual framework and implications for faculty engagement’ in D. Schneckenberg & U. D. Ehlers (eds) Changing Cultures in Higher Education: Moving ahead to future learning. London: Springer

Störmer, Eckhard & Patscha, Cornelius & Prendergast, Jessica & Daheim, Cornelia & Rhisiart, Martin. (2014). The Future of Work. Jobs and Skills in 2030: Key Findings Report. UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

Xia, F., Yang, L. T., Wang, L. & Vine, A. (2012) The Internet of Things: Editorial. International Journal of Communication Systems, 25, 1101-1102

[1] In the UK, this might include organisations such as AdvanceHE, the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA), Vitae, Jisc, the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), Student Partnerships in Quality Scotland (SPARQS) and Scottish Higher Education Developers (SHED)


9 The Real Deal

Home page

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *