New Project: Embedding Digital Literacies in HEIs

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Orla Murphy and Donna Alexander working on laptop computer at the School of English PhD Slam in University College Cork
Photograph taken by Tomas Tyner. Dr Orla Murphy and Dr Donna Alexander, UCC, 2011.

I recently began a new position as the DARIAH Ireland Postdoctoral Researcher. I am based in the discipline of digital arts and humanities in University College Cork. The project, Embedding Digital Literacies in HEIs, is headed by Dr Orla Murphy, director of the digital arts and humanities programmes in UCC. DARIAH (Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities) is an EU ERIC (European Research Infrastructure Consortium). As such, DARIAH offers a research infrastructure that is active, engaged and collaborative.

The place and function of digital literacy in higher education has been a cornerstone of my teaching philosophy and practice for many years. I am particularly interested in removing the false barriers that are often set-up to argue that digital initiatives are irrelevant, unnecessary or too complex for students and subjects, and in moving beyond the “digital skills” silo that operates at a complete disconnect from the “why” and “what for” that are integral to developing strong digital literacies. Yoram Eshet-Alkalai’s paper, “Digital Literacy: A Conceptual Framework for Survival Skills in the Digital Era” (2004) provides a useful definition of digital literacy that

“involves more than the mere ability to use software or operate a digital device; it includes a large variety of complex cognitive, motor, sociological, and emotional skills, which users need in order to function effectively in digital environments. The tasks required in this context include, for example, “reading” instructions from graphical displays in user interfaces; using digital reproduction to create new, meaningful materials from existing ones; constructing knowledge from a nonlinear, hypertextual navigation; evaluating the quality and validity of information; and have a mature and realistic understanding of the “rules” that prevail in the cyberspace.”  (93)

I have written about some aspects of digital pedagogy and digital literacy on my blog here and here and here and here. My recent publication on “Twessays and Composition in the Digital Age” in Hybrid Pedagogy exemplifies some of my techniques for scaffolding modules with digital literacies.

The day after I accepted the position I also found out that I have been nominated by a student for a President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, and one of the categories that the students selected in the nomination form is digital literacy. I was also nominated under “assessment of/for/as learning, innovative pedagogies, responding to feedback and in the embedding research in the curriculum.” Endorsements of digital literacy inclusion from students is demonstrative not only of the appeal of such approaches, but also the need for them.

The OECD Adult Skills Survey showed that only 25% of Irish adults perform at the upper end of the technology skills scale compared to the 34% international average. While not everyone needs to be able to code, everyone should be able to understand the basics, like identifying different file types and portable storage devices, performing basic functions and editing of documents, understanding the basics of privacy settings on social media and cloud storage platforms, attaching files to emails, and understanding when opening a file attached to a received email is not a good idea. These are just a few areas in which a surprising number of people are not confident or proficient (the ECDL have a short digital literacy survey that you can take here).

Postgraduate students seated in groups in the Digital Humanities Learning Space participating in a Wikipedia Editathon
Postgraduate students participating in a Wikipedia Editathon in the Digital Humanities Learning Space in UCC, 2016. Photograph taken by Donna Alexander

This also links with the “digital native” myth. I remember being surprised in recent years when I had to explain what a URL was to a room full of 17/18 year olds. I have also had to explain how to save a document as a PDF, and what a JPEG is. We can forget so easily that, like the nuts and bolts of grammar and punctuation, when time and energy is not put into educating people about these things, they will not just become common knowledge. People have different intelligences and not everyone is capable of simply picking things up as they go along. The overused and untrue adage, “sure, they grew up with it” is a cop-out.

Moreover, doctoral programmes need to provide robust and effective graduate training programmes that account for the fact that a significant percentage of postgraduates who choose to undertake doctoral research now will not find permanent jobs in academia. As long as universities continue to take on these students above and beyond their capacity to provide scholarly careers for them, they need to ensure that they can compete in other career paths. The infographic at the bottom of this post outlines some key categories of digital literacy that need to be addressed in order to adequately prepare people for work in the 21st century.

Embedding digital literacies is not just about planting basic skills in the middle of random course and modules. It’s about integrating knowledge of “how to,” “why” “in what context” and “what with” so that we can cope with and participate fully in education, work and leisure activities that are becoming more and more intertwined with and guided by the digital. I’m looking forward to researching these issues further, collaborating with staff and students to determine the best approaches to integrating digital literacies with existing programmes, and experimenting with TPACK methodologies.

This infographic was sourced on

Digital Literacy


  1. Sounds good…definitely get in touch re ‘All Aboard’ which is a national project. It started out with four partner institutions getting it up and running, but the plan from the Forum is for it to be used across the entire sector. Feel free to use any of its resources and indeed to contribute new materials/ideas.

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