Educational Technology & Society 2(4) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

Embedding the Acquisition of Technological Literacy: A Case Study

Darien Rossiter
Faculty of Arts
Queensland University of Technology
GPO Box 2434, Brisbane, Queensland 4001
Australia
Tel: +61 7 3864 2731
Fax: +61 7 3864 1810
d.rossiter@qut.edu.au

Kerry Bagdon
Division of Information and Academic Services
Queensland University of Technology
GPO Box 2434, Brisbane, Queensland 4001
Australia



ABSTRACT

Technological literacy is essential for students learning in an educational environment that is increasingly emphasising the use of technology. This paper reports on a number of issues involved in the embedding of technological literacy at an institutional, faculty and individual level. At the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), an integrated approach to the acquisition of technological literacy is being developed, funded by a three year teaching and learning grant. The Technological Literacy Project, Building a Foundation for Flexible Delivery, is premised on a cross disciplinary and collaborative approach, focusing on building a strategic approach to enhancing students' technological literacy. The project outcomes include the development of a suite of web-based resources for academic and support staff to use with students, comprehensive findings from an evaluation of these resources and a series of surveys of students' computer usage and reported technological literacy, and an emerging set of strategies to diffuse and sustain this initiative across the entire institution.

Keywords: Technological literacy, professional development, integrated approach, web resources



Introduction

In recent years there has been much talk about the concept of widespread or ubiquitous use of educational technology, prompting claims that, " Information technology, as a function and as a resource, has in fact entered the pedagogical mainstream" ( Green, 1996).

There is indeed evidence of a trend towards increasing adoption of new technologies for both on- and off-campus learning (Green, 1995; McNaught, Phillips, Rossiter and Winn, forthcoming), but many academic staff remain sceptical of wildly optimistic or overstated claims of technology use. An ongoing and critical examination of the subject is therefore warranted, particularly examining the question of whether such trends will continue or whether these usage patterns can be sustained.

One of the arguments which supports a sustainable trend is that the present changes are being driven by forces from within and beyond the education sector. Thus, the greater diffusion and integration of technology in higher education (Gilbert, 1996; Green, 1996; Hearn, Mandeville and Anthony, 1998) is underpinned by a range of social and economic forces, such as globalisation and internationalisation of education and training, which are impacting not just on the education sector, but across many other industries as well, eg. health, finance etc. (Yetton and Associates, 1997; Cunningham et al., 1997; Review of Higher Education, 1998). For better or worse, it can be argued that higher education is, therefore, increasingly adopting ‘market driven’ rather than social justice values, and seeking ways of realising efficiencies through use of technology to reach greater numbers of students.

Efficiency, however, as a factor to justify or sustain the trend towards ubiquitous use of technology, is not acceptable as the sole driver for change within universities. For example, the majority of staff and students seek an educational rationale, such as the ability to qualitatively enhance the learning process. Educational evaluation is now beginning to provide a substantive body of evidence of such learning outcomes, but before such potential can be realised and before information and communication technologies are embedded into curriculum and delivery, a number of fundamental and systemic issues must be addressed.


Fundamental issues

The aim of achieving a widespread or ‘critical mass’ (Rogers,1995; Markus,1990) of educational technology use, extending beyond the innovators and early adopters, can only be realised if the needs of later adopters and mainstream staff are identified and addressed. Typically the needs, attitudes, skills and attributes of innovators differ from those of later adopters. Innovators, for example, are more comfortable with risk taking, while later adopters tend to seek more collegial and professional support and prefer to be shown new skills, rather than using a trial and error approach (Rogers, 1995; Kirkton, 1993). These differences are highlighted in the individual’s degree of comfort or preferences towards the acquisition of technological literacy skills. Technological literacy, indeed all literacies – academic and information - continue to be a significant barrier to the uptake of technology to enhance quality teaching and learning (McNaught, Phillips, Rossiter and Winn, forthcoming).

The fundamental issues with respect to integration or embedding of technology in teaching and learning practice apply throughout all levels of an organisation (institutional, faculty/school and individual) and include the need to:

  • recognise literacy as a core skill for independent resource based and lifelong learning;
  • develop and implement system-wide strategies to improve students’ literacies and, in particular, technological literacy for both staff and students;
  • provide relevant support to students to enable them to become effective learners in a variety of contexts - independently and in groups;
  • address more effectively the ongoing professional development and training needs of all staff; and
  • devise and implement appropriate organisational change strategies.

Technological literacy

What is it?

A broad definition of technological literacy is the skills, conceptual understandings and dispositions which enable students to use effectively physical and information technologies for academic, research and vocational purposes (Dyrenfurth, 1991).


Figure 1. Key elements of technological literacy

Figure 1 illustrates the relationship between these elements, nesting together to form an interdependent whole. Each element influences the other, with the whole influenced by environmental factors such as the student's previous experience and the institutional context. Different elements may come into prominence throughout the different stages of the learning process. If this is understood and accommodated, a flexible learning program can be designed which enables the particular needs of each student to be addressed from an individual perspective. Students may engage with the learning process at different levels - some may prefer to focus initially on skills and build later on conceptual understandings, they may be semi-comfortable with Word and happy to plod along, but dead scared of email. So they are plunging in a number of times and from different places, depending on factors such as previous experience, motivation and learning preferences.

This concept of technological literacy transcends narrower interpretations, which emphasise basic computer skills or competencies, and embraces many of the notions which underpin academic and information literacies. For example, rather than merely acquiring the operational skills to use an internet search engine, a more comprehensive view of technological literacy includes the ability to plan an effective search strategy and to assess critically the value of the information retrieved. In this sense, there is considerable overlap between technological literacy and the information and academic literacies required to successfully undertake tertiary education and to participate effectively in lifelong learning. The relationships between each of the literacies is represented in the following diagram.


Figure 2. Relationship between technological, information and academic literacy


Building block of effective use of educational technology

Increasingly, technological literacy is becoming a lens for the beginning scholar, through which academic and information literacies are first revealed and later focused or honed. As such, technological literacy is now an essential foundation stone of contemporary teaching and learning approaches, such as self directed and flexible learning (Mason, 1994; Harasim, Hiltz, Teles, & Turoff,1995; Gilster, 1997). Yet too often, the lack, or the extreme diversity, of technological skills among students hampers the learning opportunities offered by teachers and acts as barrier to effective learning for many students.

For pedagogical, structural and economic reasons, therefore, technological literacy is now seen as a key generic capability for all graduates and a vitally important workplace skill, "All tertiary graduates should be information and communication technology literate in their chosen fields of study and expertise by the year 2000" (Information Industries Taskforce, 1997, p.79).


Strategies to address technological literacy in higher education

Institutional, teacher and student approaches to the acquisition of technological literacies have not always been well co-ordinated nor have they been based on up-to-date research. The institutional approach, for example, has traditionally been efficiency driven, providing standardised, centrally-run skill-based courses - although increasingly basic skills training is being outsourced. The standardised training approach places the onus largely on the student to acquire these competencies independently from their formal coursework studies. Generic training programs, however, are often subject to criticism as being less effective, either because skills are taught out of context or because they offer "too much too soon" or "too little too late" (Australian National Training Authority, 1997).

Students, on the other hand relate a variety of informal and formal learning strategies based on need, opportunity and availability of appropriate training options (Queensland University of Technology, 1998). Many students, however, report ad hoc learning arrangements - from family and friends, for example, or by trial & error. When academic staff, therefore, are confronted with a situation where their students have inadequate technological literacy skills, they typically have had one of three options:

  • to refer students to generic skills courses;
  • to attempt to teach the requisite IT skills themselves, irrespective of whether they feel competent or have the resources to do so; or
  • to ignore the situation.

An alternative approach to improve students’ technological literacy is through an "infused" or integrated approach (Ferron,1993; Tapper, 1997), where computer literacy is integrated into subjects or courses and taught in a timely and contextually relevant fashion.


Technological Literacy: A Project Based Case Study

Background

The Queensland University of Technology (QUT) is a multi-campus university, this year, 1999, celebrating its tenth anniversary. Its history, however, dates back 150 years during which time it has built a strong reputation for an emphasis on teaching, practical application of knowledge and close community and industry links. Shortly after its establishment, QUT merged with the Brisbane College of Advanced Education, and it has now emerged as Australia’s sixth largest university with over 30,000 students. During the past decade the university has distinguished itself through a number of achievements, such as innovative use of technology in teaching and learning, and especially with respect to its pioneering role in the development of computer based education. In recent years the university has adopted a strong student centred approach, actively supporting ways of enhancing flexible teaching and learning options for all academic programs including the use of online technologies.


The Technological Literacy Project: Building a Foundation for Flexible Delivery

Underlying Philosophy:

Against this background, QUT is developing a new institutional approach to enhance students’ technological literacy, funded initially over two and half years by a university teaching and learning grant scheme. The approach is based on an integrated model Ferron (1993), but it also seeks to complement the generic skills courses and the individual efforts of staff and students already in place throughout the university. In this way, appropriate existing resources and strategies are incorporated into the new approach, the intention being to avoid ‘re-inventing the wheel’ and to nurture an inclusive, rather than competitive, philosophy towards technological literacy development. Thus, while there are a number of course based examples of an integrated approach across the higher education and training sectors (eg. Tapper, 1997), this initiative seeks to build on this concept by identifying and developing resources and strategies to facilitate the mainstreaming of an integrated approach across the entire institution.

From the outset, this initiative was premised on a strong collaborative ethos and, to date, has actively involved staff and students from five faculties and the Division of Information and Academic Services. The diversity of experience, skills and attitudes of the contributors has been central to the overall goal of embedding the acquisition of technological literacy, involving innovators, reluctant users and those with expertise in the fields of instructional and graphic design, computer programming, librarianship, teaching, staff development, educational evaluation and research.


Project Overview:

The aim of the project has been to provide a system-wide framework for flexible teaching and learning by developing a suite of resources and strategies which QUT academic and professional support staff can use to enhance students’ technological literacy. In particular the specific goals were to:

  • develop a suite of generic web-based resources & strategies which can be adapted by staff to a discipline specific context;
  • collect and evaluate information about the technological literacy skills, dispositions and usage patterns of staff and students, and benchmark this data to inform decision making throughout all levels of the university; and
  • disseminate this information widely and raise awareness of technological literacy as an essential student attribute, defining more carefully what it means to be " technologically literate" within the QUT context.

Development of resources

The web based resources ("LitKit") comprise of three principal components:

  • an annotated resource bank of useful web sites from within and beyond the university;
  • a set of ‘modifiable’ templates which academic staff can "infuse" into their subject units; and
  • a series of case studies and exemplars which offer examples of good practice’ and useful contextual information to assist staff who are contemplating how they might use the "LitKit" resources.

This is represented in figure 3.


Figure 3. Overview of TechLit resources


Resource Bank:

The resource bank, "LitKit", consists of a number of technological literacy relevant web sites, grouped under categories of "studying", "communicating", "finding" and "using" electronic information (figure 4).


Figure 4. "LitKit" home page

Staff are encouraged to contribute to the resource bank and especially to include an annotation about the usefulness of the site and any contextual information about its use. The intention is to capitalise on existing useful resources and importantly to develop an ongoing sense of ownership by the QUT community of the resource bank, thus minimising many of the limitations of other databases reported by users, which ultimately lead to their demise. In particular, new research (McNaught, Phillips, Rossiter and Winn, forthcoming) has revealed a number of factors which restrict university staff from using such databases, including inadequate or biased information about a resource and lack of ongoing maintenance, leading to outdated materials. The usefulness of the annotations, we believe, will therefore prove to be an essential key to the long term value of the LitKit resource bank.


Templates:

To date, there are four templates, presented to students as ‘online tutorials’: "Finding Relevant Internet Information", "Communicating via Computer", "Creating and Presenting Text" and "How to Use a Computer". The content of the templates addresses not only specific computer skills, such as how to use an email or an internet bowser, but also includes a basic introduction to information or academic literacies. For example, the "Creating and Presenting Text" template deals not only with wordprocessing skills for academic and scholarly writing (technological literacy), but also discusses the purpose of writing and different writing genres – essays, scientific reports, journal or newspaper articles (academic literacy).

The development of the templates was very much influenced by the philosophy which has underpinned the overall initiative; that is a collaborative approach which attempts to address the needs of the majority of potential users rather than, say, just those of the early adopters. Thus the concept of adapting or modifying the templates, by adding discipline specific examples, is a fundamental aspect of the templates.

The development process might best be described as an evolutionary one which has spawned a number of unanticipated outcomes. An important outcome has been the professional development role experienced by all those who have been associated with the development and trialing of the templates. Four interdisciplinary teams of academic and professional support staff with diverse backgrounds and experience came together to develop the content of the templates, while those with particular skills in web and instructional design were given the responsibility of producing the actual resource.

This process was a new one for many of the staff involved and clearly did not always follow the more conventional or efficiency based development ‘model’, but it did generate rich understandings about the ‘mainstreaming’ of educational technologies, which are beginning to have wider significance across the university. This will be explored in greater detail later in the paper.


Case Studies and Exemplars:

The case studies and exemplars are in the initial development stages and the project team is in the process of conducting an environmental scan to identify further examples. The purpose of the exemplars is to provide "good practice" guides, examples or hints of effective ways to improve students’ technological literacies. The case studies aim to give university staff a feel for the contextual and real life issues involved in the use and integration of resources. The case studies hopefully will be rich in valuable experiences, both positive and negative, anecdotes, stories or narratives. Both the exemplars and the case studies are designed to offer all staff, but particularly later adopters, strategies and assistance in the transition from traditional teaching roles and practices to newer and less familiar teaching and learning environments.

All these resources are accessible through the "LitKit" web site, although the case studies and exemplars are seen primarily as a staff resource and therefore reside in the staff entry area of the site. The resource bank and the templates constitute "off-the-shelf’’ resources which academic staff can infuse into their unit curriculum, but students can also use them in a stand-alone capacity. The efficacy of this dual option is currently being assessed, and indeed, all of these resources are undergoing ongoing evaluation, and as such, at the time of writing, are considered to be at the prototype stage.


Evaluation

Evaluation of templates:

Two of the templates have undergone extensive evaluation during semester 1, 1999 (and this will continue during the remainder of the year) – informing the ongoing development and updating process. Once again, staff from different faculties with a range of attitudes to and experience of using technology, trialed the templates with their students. The students also with diverse backgrounds (mature age and school leavers, on-campus and distance education) used the templates in stand-alone situations or integrated into subject units, where unit assessment was closely tied to the use of the templates.

A range of evaluation methods was used to gauge staff and students’ reactions including questionnaires, focus groups, interviews, keeping of journals or diaries, standard university course/ unit evaluation processes and informal feedback. Early findings from this evaluation suggest that in a stand-alone context off-campus students valued most the web-resources, and also that student learning outcomes were enhanced more when lecturers provided them with the rationale, context and discipline specific examples to accompany the basic template. In other words, many students, particularly first year undergraduates were less enthusiastic about doing the online tutorials unless it was related to unit objectives and assessment. Furthermore, many of these same students, especially beginning undergraduates, were also reticent to do the non-skills-based academic and information literacy components of the templates, unless the purpose for such information was articulated by their lecturers and tutors. This may well reflect the larger generic questions facing all universities; issues associated with expectations about university study, literacies and graduate capabilities.

The evaluation process is providing interesting anecdotal insights into the emerging study patterns of students, as evidenced in this quote from an off-campus student logged at 9.50 pm, at a Melbourne internet café,

"I’m not too familiar with this type of computer work yet but I think it is a great way to teach people how to use the various skills. I found it very user friendly"

and this from a first year undergraduate education student,

"CMC (computer mediated communication) is extremely convenient as it allows students to access it at any time … The second reason I find CMC an excellent option is because it is comforting. Perhaps this is a lame reason, but it is nevertheless a strong one in my mind. It is a support network – or a place I and other students can turn to when we need to learn something or assess where we have gone wrong".


Environmental Scan and Surveys:

The purpose of the surveys was to collect demographic and other data which could be used to provide data for benchmarking purposes and to inform decision making across the university, at an institutional, faculty and individual level, and to inform the development and maintenance of the LitKit resources. To date, three student surveys and one staff survey related to technological literacy have been conducted within QUT. Surveys of students from several faculties were carried out in the first few weeks of semester in 1997 (700 students); 1998 (500 students) and 1999 (1100 students). The survey questions sought information about: students demographics; computer access and usage patterns; self reported computer skills and broader technological literacy competencies; attitudes, learning preferences and patterns.

Findings from the surveys indicated, for example, that the number of students with access to computers away from the university was increasing, in 1997 – 80 percent had access, 1998 – 86 percent and in 1999 – 88 percent. Furthermore, a more dramatic trend was evident for this group with respect to internet access away from the university with a 19 percent increase from 1998 to 1999. Reflections on how students learnt about computers were especially revealing for while 57 percent had previously learnt most about computers informally, only 23 percent indicated that they preferred to learn it this way, the majority reporting that they would rather learn using more formal or structured modes.

This data has proven invaluable with respect to development of resources and will prove increasingly vital to the overall strategic planning needs of the university as flexible and other technology based forms of education are gradually embedded in mainstream practice.

An academic staff survey (109 respondents) was conducted in 1998 and another is planned for 1999. Some of the key findings from 1998 were that the overwhelming majority of staff saw technological literacy as an essential generic attribute for all QUT graduates (99 percent), supporting both the current institutional strategic direction with respect to graduate attributes and the project team’s assumptions about the ongoing importance of technological literacy. There were, however, wide ranging staff views about the competencies of students, especially school leavers.

In relation to essential skills such as word processing and communication and information search over the internet, with many staff (60 percent) believing that students were already ‘computer literate’. This was not supported in general by the student surveys, where for example in 1999 only 44 percent of students reported that they were able to manage computer files effectively. In addition, 93 percent of staff surveyed believed that all students needed to know how to effectively search and retrieve information from the Internet, and yet only 50 percent of students in 1998 reported that they were confident to do so.

The staff survey revealed another important finding in terms of strategic planning – that when asked a basic question about their preferred way for students to acquire technological literacies only 53 percent supported an ‘integrated’ approach, but this figure climbed to 75 percent when asked if they favoured such an approach if appropriate resources and support structures were available to assist them. This confirms the initial findings from the evaluation of the templates, where students were more enthusiastic about using the online tutorials when academic staff provided the framework and rationale to do so.


Dissemination

A crucial part of the initiative to embed the acquisition of technological literacies, has been disseminating information about the web resources and the evaluation findings. Typically, in a number of projects, the failure to disseminate and promote information has been a common failing.

The members of Technological Literacy Project team have given seminars and workshops to staff and key groups across the university. In particular, we are seeking to inform the various Teaching and Learning Committees, key groups with the responsibility for planning and developing strategic pedagogical approaches and responses at school, faculty and institutional levels. In recent months there has also been an increased emphasis on conference presentations, articles and reports for the media.

Beyond these conventional ways of disseminating information, each of the team members has actively sought to identify, within their own sphere of daily activity and influence, potential opportunities for technological literacy to be discussed and promoted. In this way dissemination of information can be informally introduced into conversation, added to the agenda of regular school meetings, or referred to in newsletters. It is this level of information sharing and reporting, in tea rooms as well as in meeting and board rooms, which we believe is essential if technological literacy is to move onto the list of mainstream institutional priorities.


Embedding the Technological Literacy Project

One of the most useful outcomes of this project is the evidence which has emerged with respect to the number of ways in which technological literacy can be embedded into the teaching and learning environment of the university. At the institutional level, there has been recognition that student acquisition of technological literacy, as one of the total suite of literacies, is an essential generic attribute. Certainly leadership and institutional support is vital to the long term success of a project and the embedding of its key components, but within the culture of a university a top down approach alone is rarely successful. Therefore it is important to have a bottom up approach as well, to gain support from the majority of staff, many of whom are somewhat sceptical (as indicated in the findings from the staff survey).

Professional development, training and adequate staff support are crucial to the mainstreaming or widespread adoption of new technological literacy strategies approaches. It is essential, however, that professional development programs are targeted at the right level. University wide seminars and workshops meet the needs of some staff, but other staff, especially later adopters, are seeking more personal or local options. In particular, there has been strong support for ‘workgroup’ or school based programs and workshops which can demonstrate to individuals, the value or potential benefits of a new approach to technological literacy acquisition. In other words individual members of academic staff must be able to ‘legitimise’ such an approach within their own personal value system and to see realistic ways of integrating it into their own units. It is only when a ‘critical mass’ of staff members have reached this point that the approach will have become self sustaining and ‘embedded’ into curriculum and teaching practice.

Evaluation of various aspects of the project has been a particularly important way of demonstrating the potential worth of this approach to academic and professional support staff. As the project has progressed it has been evident that merely disseminating information about the technological literacy resources or the project in general, is less convincing, especially to mainstream staff, than being able to provide sound evaluation data about use and learning outcomes. The evaluation findings, therefore, have become a ‘vital’ tool for diffusion of the new approach.

At the intermediary level of the faculty or school, one of the most important findings has been the need to plan a ‘whole of course’ approach to the integration of technological literacies into curriculum. The acquisition of literacies through a whole of course approach should be developed at the faculty level and approved by individual unit co-ordinators, rather than managed in an ad hoc fashion by individual lecturers or tutors. Unit co-ordinators, lecturers and tutors however, need to be able to choose from the resources and strategies offered institutionally to construct the most appropriate program for their students.

Finally, the immediate issue relating to the embedding of this technological literacy approach is managing the transition from project status to mainstream university practice and core business. During the latter phases of the two and half year initiative the focus has become less on development and more on connecting with and bringing on board relevant groups (eg. library, professional support services, faculty teaching and learning committees). The intention is to enable the appropriate areas (academic, management and professional support) to assume the ongoing responsibility and maintenance for the various elements of the project; including the development and maintenance of the web resources, ongoing research and dissemination, benchmarking of key survey data and so forth.


Conclusion

The widespread adoption of effective strategies and resources to improve students’ technological literacy must be aligned to the broad teaching and learning goals of the university. Technological literacy therefore underpins the majority of initiatives the university may adopt now, and in the future, with respect to teaching and learning. The devolution of the ideals associated with the technological literacy project and the ability to create an ongoing sense of ownership and responsibility for technological literacy at all levels of the university, will prove to be a key factor in bringing about enduring change and embedding the acquisition of technological literacies into curriculum and teaching practice.


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