Mapping the Digital Literacies for Succeeding in Higher Education

By Associate Professor Joyce Koh, University of Otago and Dr Kwong Nui Sim, Auckland University of Technology

Information Communication Technologies (ICT) have long been important in supporting academic practices at all levels of formal learning. This is even more so with the global forced migration to online learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the embedding of ICT competency development within content learning is generally weak as there is an implicit assumption and expectation for students to be digitally competent (e.g., Oliver, 2013; Sim, 2018). With the rapid development of digital technologies, higher education students are increasingly facing the needs to manoeuvre varying learning modes including face-to-face, blended, flipped and online.

Students face several challenges in terms of this new normal for digital learning and their digital competencies are becoming increasingly influential for their academic success (Hong & Kim, 2018). The transition from face-to-face to online discussion, for example, may not be seamless as it is commonly found that students have difficulty engaging in online discussions at a critical level in this medium (Koh, Herring, & Hew, 2010). Another emerging example would be the online assignments and/or assessments that form a large part of the learning experiences.

A recent study revealed that the students are still inexperienced or unfamiliar with this practice (Alruwais, Wills & Wald, 2018). In terms of the connection between delivery of the course and the learning design online, it seems to be a challenge for student learning as well (Davey, Elliott & Bora, 2019). Further, with the push to enhance student-centeredness through increased learner flexibility and learning choices (Lea, Stephenson, & Troy, 2003), online materials such as video lectures are increasingly being made available for self-directed study. Yet, it is found that high performing students strategise their access and learning of online materials differently than lower performing students (AlJarrah, Thomas, & Shehab, 2018).  In MOOC-based learning, for instance, the strategies that the learners use to engage the technical and social features of the system for self-regulated and collaborative learning have positively influenced their sense of achievement (Magen-Nagar & Cohen, 2017)

As Castañeda and Selwyn (2018) argued, it is important that we have an active commitment to ‘think otherwise’ about how ICT might be better implemented across higher education settings” (p. 8). However, there is relatively little known about the digital literacies that higher education students need in order to be efficient and effective in their use of ICT. Competencies for using ICT have been understood as the digital literacies needed for one to function effectively in an increasingly technology-driven society (Gilster, 1997; Jones & Hafner, 2012). The various examples mentioned above indicate that general digital competences may not adequately pinpoint students’ readiness for digital learning because the “learning” is influenced by the pedagogical contexts wherein these competencies are being enacted.

The kinds of digital competencies that higher education students require need clearer mapping (e.g. Blayone, Mykhailenko, VanOostveen, & Barber, 2018).  We posit that these could comprise digital technical skills, information literacies to access and use information ethically, as well as media literacies for using, repurposing, and creating digital media (Guzmán-Simón, García-Jiménez, & López-Cobo, 2017; Hong & Kim, 2018), or even the literacies for being able to learn meaningfully with ICT through the use of digital technologies as cognitive tools for higher-order thinking, data manipulation, collaboration, and self-directed learning (Howland, Jonassen, & Marra, 2013).

Students currently need digital literacies to succeed in learning as the pandemic rises and ebbs across different parts of the world. Higher education learning in the post pandemic world may also be highly influenced and shaped by students’ current digital experiences. It is perhaps time for clear mapping of the digital literacies for supporting educational success, now and beyond.


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