I have been thinking a lot lately about the nature of digital resilience and digital resistance. I became conscious of it after my observation. The session had been on using bibliographic software, which is as exciting as it sounds. Because of the nature of bibliographic software and database platforms, you have to dart in and out of various database platforms to show how the export function works in each. There is little unity of terms or method. The session was a self-enrol one so there were students from various different faculties across the university. Because each database is different, I tried to cover each one the students identified they use at the start. One or two students fell behind during the demonstration and I had to spend a lot of time catching them up.
Before I embark on what I actually want to think about, let me be clear: I do not subscribe to the notion of digital natives and digital immigrants (Prensky, 2001). I think it is an unhelpful binary that plays into narratives around generational divide that have been routinely criticised elsewhere (Lanclos, 2014). In my experience, age is usually not the most salient factor in how effectively someone uses ICT for something purposeful. Digital technology is situated in the context of a mediated relationship between “flesh and metal” (Braidotti, 2013: 89). It is contextually bound (Brabazon, 2013). Furthermore, digital natives versus immigrants obscures the more subtle aspects of the digital divide in terms of socio-economics, geographical location and its general messiness in reality.
Societal fantasies of boy geniuses in their bedrooms coding apps that will turn into multimillion dollar tech empires, should not be projected onto a whole generation to deny them free access and meaningful support to engage with technology. Based on my experience of working in an FE college, teens from poorer backgrounds and lower educational attainment had limited skills and understanding when it came to digital tech. Moving into higher education and working with postgraduates, I feel this is largely borne out.
So I don’t buy into very simplistic dualisms about ICT skills or digital literacy. The theory is weak, the evidence doesn’t bear it out and neither does my lived experience (Lanclos, 2014). What I do find in my teaching however, are differences in confidence, resilience and resistance. These are often more about mindset than skill, to borrow from the language of the growth mindset (Dweck, 2012).
By resilience I mean giving something a go and trying to find alternative ways of doing something if the first way tried fails. By resistance I mean fearing or fighting the technology, rather than working with it: seeing the technology in a sense of person versus machine, us versus them (for discussion of the blurring of these distinctions in the posthuman era see Braidotti, 2013). In resistance mode, blame plays a crucial part: the student either blames the technology or themselves. Where there’s blame, there’s usually shame. Shame, however it is manifested, is not usually helpful when learning (hooks, 2010).
The Teach Northern team of social purpose educators have produced an interesting model for building digital resilience called the FAB Model. Based on their research into the Folded Arms Brigade of teachers who resist tech and show it through their body language Longden, Monaghan and Mycroft pinpointed four stages or aspects of digital resilience. These are: first principles; purpose; support; and fluency (Longden, Monaghan and Mycroft, 2015). Using this model and the feedback from my observation, I have been reflecting on how to better support digital resisters in my sessions.
To add some context, I teach mainly using computers. Information literacy is not the same as digital literacy but they certainly are inextricably linked in this era. Large amounts of formal information is now digitally mediated. My fear is that digital resisters are so overwhelmed by their relationship with technology, they miss both the information skills of doing we impart and the critical way of thinking about information we seek to share. Students who feel shame about their relationship with technology also introduce a sense of tension, hostility and occasionally anger to sessions. We’ve all been there: someone is trying to help us but our shame pushes us to blame them and lash out to deflect attention away of ourselves. As the FAB study recognised, people who lack confidence with tech often desire the ability to work at their own pace away from the scrutiny of others (Longden, Monaghan and Mycroft, 2015).
Recognising this is what is happening has been important for my teaching. On the one hand it frees me to resist putting myself centre stage in the student’s own drama by accepting that blame; on the other it compels me to match anger/frustration with kindness rather than indifference (hooks, ). An example of this is when a mature student had fallen behind in a session and I came to “catch her up” whilst the rest of the group got started on an activity. She was very frustrated, anxious and blaming everything and everyone in a situation that required no blame. It was interesting how she oscillated almost seamlessly between the software not working or being badly designed, to her not being very good with computers, to me going too fast, to her PC not working like everyone else’s. In amongst this expulsion of negative energy, she could not work out how to open a new Microsoft Word document. This student was a doctoral candidate and full time researcher. Of course she knew how to open a new Word document; she had probably been using MS Word since I was in infant school. But in that moment of frustration and shame she had lost the first principles.
This example has been repeated in a number of sessions I have taken. This particular case was rectified through my kindness: I was firm and didn’t accept the blame she tried to offload onto me but I did make it clear that she didn’t need to portion blame for it. She had come to learn and I would help her every step of the way. This illustrates how important the support element of the FAB mode is. By the end of the session, she was thanking me warmly and generously. She even permitted me a little humour about the situation once it was resolved.
First principles is a difficult concept in my line of work. We work in the paradigm of the one-shot session. If you don’t tell them everything in that hour or two hour window they will ever need to know, you don’t get a second chance next week. This puts pressure on librarians to overload sessions with content (plus a fear among some librarians about actively engaging with students but that’s another conversation). We end up resorting to (or taking comfort in) the banking model of education Freire critiques (Freire, 1993). Again, this is part of a longer conversation about information literacy teaching. But it does impact on our ability to equip students with first principles to get them going and then support their development outside of the session.
In the institutional context, we are a small team of five with a manager, potentially providing skills development work to 30,000 students from first year undergraduates to doctoral candidates. And that’s without considering our commitment to CPD for the two NHS Trusts we are partnered with. In this context, my manager doesn’t want students to have to come back for another bite of the cherry. More broadly, higher education is increasingly suffering from the stranglehold of a consumerist culture. In the neo-liberal climate, students are fee payers and their expectations have changed in line with this. They bring with them now an increasingly instrumentalised and individualised view of education: if they sign up for a session they want to leave knowing everything – they want their money’s worth (Brabazon, 2007).
So reflecting back on the FAB model, particularly for supporting digital resisters, I need a few concrete (and hopefully cogent) ideas to flow back into my teaching. For me, support splits into two areas: during the session and after the session. During the session I believe kindness is probably the key. There are more proactive measures I will take following the excellent advice of my tutor following on from observation. I need to devise a form of initial assessment for ICT confidence and pair students with complementary levels of confidence together – this usually happens naturally but not always. Providing some form of step by step guided activity to help students who fall behind during the demonstrations to get back on track or at least do something worthwhile, is another avenue I am exploring. Support after the session is largely provided through our subject guides which they are orientated to throughout the session. In future, I will make it clear students can book the session again. Returning to first principles in terms of the software sessions, I am looking at splitting the sessions into core and advanced skills as suggested by my tutor after my observation. This is something I am actively discussing with my workplace mentor. I also need to stop making assumptions about students and the first principles of ICT in general.
And purpose. I often don’t dwell on purpose in the session: the students have signed up voluntarily so I tend to assume they know why they want to use the software. Frequently I’m proved wrong on this: in many cases they have been told to use the software by their supervisor and in a number of cases the usefulness of the software has been “over-sold” by colleagues. This is something I need to spend just a little more time on at the beginning of the session to ensure everyone understands what the technology can do for them.
Most of all, I need to remember kindness.
Brabazon, T. (2007). The University of Google: education in the (post) information age. Farnham: Ashgate.
Brabazon, T. (2013). Digital Dieting: from information obesity to digital fitness. Farnham: Ashgate.
Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity.
Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset. London: Robinson.
Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
hooks, bell. (2010). Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. London: Routledge.
Lanclos, D. (2014, October 7th) How I learned to stop worrying about digital natives and love V and R. [Weblog post]. Retrieved from http://www.donnalanclos.com/?p=221
Longden, A., Monaghan, T. and Mycroft, L. (2015). Unfolding the Arms: the FAB project. Retrieved from https://teachnorthern.wordpress.com/fab-folded-arms-brigade/
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5). Retrieved from http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf