Findings: central services - LLIDA
Introduction to the study describing terminology choices and the reasons behind the study.
digital literacy, learning literacy, learning, education, digital capabilities, skills
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Findings: central services

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Thirteen auditors described at least four central service teams with responsibilities for learning and digital literacies: seven described at least six. As with strategies, this may indicate the breadth of concern with literacies, and/or a fragmentary approach to implementation. In all, 71 different central service teams were described to us across the 15 institutions. Four were excluded from the following analysis on the grounds that they provided support solely to academic staff (though more on this later). Many supported several high-level literacies, and this overlap is reflected in the raw score below showing Literacies supported by central services.

Academic practice 15
Learning to learn 12
Information literacy 20
Media literacy 1
Communication skills 2
ICT 20
Employability 11
Citizenship 4
Access 8
English 2
Maths 1

We have added a new category of access which included widening participation and outreach work (e.g. ‘Get Ready for University Study’) along with disability support. We found eight examples, five in combination with another high level literacy term. English and Maths might be included under the same umbrella. These are highly learner-centred services, designed to help individuals overcome barriers to study. We could therefore tentatively bracket them with the ‘learning to learn’ services described below.

Four included the term ‘digital literacies’ in the text describing service function, and of these we analysed 2 as supporting ‘information literacies’ and two as supporting ‘information/ICT’ in combination.

Unlike the strategies section, auditors had little difficulty identifying and expressing which literacies were supported by which services. One would expect a better understanding of and focus on practical needs among staff directly involved in provision, but there is the potential for the clearer differentiation of roles, functions and terminology at services level to get in the way of joined up thinking.

‘learning support’ and ‘academic practice’

We identified 15 services that were providing academic practice support, and 12 that were providing ‘learning’ support. Only one service did we struggle to differentiate, as it was described simply as providing the ‘whole range of academic/learning literacies’. Therefore either a ‘real’ differentiation exists, or there is a divergence of terminology which mirrors our analytical framework. (We have not yet analysed whether the academic/learning divide falls along pre-1992/post-1992 lines.)

Some support for a real world differentiation of functions is given in the data, so for example ‘learning support’ is more likely to be provided through workshops and IAG, and much less likely to be provided in collaboration with academics through input to specific modules or courses. It is also slightly more likely to be provided by email or telephone (learner-centred technologies?) and less likely to be provided at drop-in sessions.

Learning support is also more likely than academic practice to be supported by services with a hybrid remit, so for example 4 of the 12 were providing learning support in conjunction with ICT and two in conjunction with employability. Where academic practice is supported in hybrid contexts, there is much less clarity about its affiliation: 2 for information literacies, 1 each for access and communication, and one very generalised service supporting academic practices (to include) access, information and ICT capabilities. While the sample size is small, it gives some support to the existence of two discrete discourses around learning literacy, and two different models for supporting learners:

A comparison of ‘learning support’ and ‘academic practice’

Learning support Academic practice
Summary: student centred, focused on students’ own practices (at best – can also focus on students’ individual needs or deficits) |Rationale: learners need practical strategies for fitting learning into their lives | Recognises learners have existing practices and other commitments: learning as lifepath and personal development Summary: often subject centred, typified by work in collaboration with academics, focused on practices of the university and its component disciplines e.g. research skills, methods, academic writing | Rationale: learners need explicit guidance on what is expected of them in academic context(s) | Recognises that the practices of the academy, including its information and communication practices, can be challenging: learning as apprenticeship
Example from audit: ‘General help and guidance with learning issues (often underlying emotional issues)’ Example from audit: ‘Research skills for referencing, sourcing and evaluating literature/materials for subject discipline work’
More likely to be supported through: Workshops | Information, advice and guidance | Telephone/email (learner-owned technologies?) More likely to be supported through: Collaboration with academics on modules and programmes | Drop-in support
Likely to be hybridised with: employability, ICT Less likely to be hybridised: no clear pattern
Asks: ‘who is this learner and what are their personal barriers to learning more effectively’? Asks: how can academic practises be made clearer and more accessible to learners?

ICT and information literacy

We found 20 instances of each term – showing that in at least some institutions there is more than one service supporting information literacy, and more than one service supporting ICT – but 8 instances of overlap i.e. information literacies and ICT skills being supported by a common service. Information literacy was more likely to be associated with academic practice, and ICT with learning to learn (significance not tested). All services supporting information literacy in isolation were based in the library, while all services supporting ICT in isolation were ICT/IT services, central or devolved. Where the two were supported in tandem, the service titles reveal some interesting relationships and trajectories:

Bringing ICT/info services together to provide more joined-up support to learners (4)

  • Learner Support Centre
  • Customer services
  • Learning Support Services (Library-based)
  • Learning Development

Understanding ‘information’ in a more joined-up way (3)

  • Information & Research Development
  • Learning Information Services
  • Information Services (Computing/ Learning Technologies)

e-learning or learning technology as unifying concept (2)

  • Centre for Learning Technology (CLT)
  • Information Services (Computing/Learning technologies) (again)

This last trajectory is also supported by the observation that the four e-learning or LT services cited in the study all supported a hybrid info/ICT or learning/ICT agenda.

Employability and citizenship

There were 12 services described as supporting employability, of which 2 also served access requirements, 2 supported learning generally, and 1 supported ICT skills. In four instances ‘citizenship’ skills were also supported (but see below): there were no examples of citizenship being supported separately from employability. In most cases, employability was a secondary term to some other term. In all three cases where employability was supported in isolation, the service was described as careers. The number of instances of citizenship were skewed by three entries from one institution (indeed from one school of the one institution) and the one other instance occurred in a ‘guidance and support’ service offering a unique blend of ‘citizenship, self-employment, and enterprise skills, finance, SAAS and UCAS training’, suggesting that the term is in limited use.

Media and Communications Literacy

The very low level of support for media or communications literacies is borne out by analysis of the snapshots (see next section). The term ‘communication’ appears 6 times overall in the text of responses about central services, three times in the context of a concern with employability – including the one time ‘communication skills’ are given as a separate category – and three times in the context of academic practice, i.e. scholarly or academic communication. It also appears, of course, in the ‘C’ of ‘ICT’. It may be that the idea of communication is so embedded in these other literacies that it is of limited value to insist on it as a separate area of development. The same may be true of ‘collaboration’, completely absent as a term from this list, despite the number of strategic statements (12) which expressed a commitment to learners’ communication/collaboration skills.

Media literacies as a term would appear to have an even more limited and specialist meaning. It appears once, where it is used to mean ‘Use of equipment and facilities [cameras, audio and video editing facilities] for all students and those specific to departments such as creative media’ The term ‘critical’ appears twice, in ‘critical thinking’ (general academic literacy component) and ‘critical understanding’ (of information). It is difficult to interpret either use as implying the critical approach to media production practice that is usually meant by the term ‘media literacies’. We conclude that this is a discourse that has not entered into service provision, and/or that there is a gap in provision such that only learners on highly specialised media courses receive support in understanding issues surrounding critical ‘reading’ of media texts, and creative production.

Modes of provision and support – overall

The overall modes of literacy support are listed in descending order of frequency: with the exception of those issues already explored there were no immediately apparent differences across the different literacy types, and few surprises.

How central services staff support learning literacy development

Information, advice and guidance 52
Online resources 48
Workshop(s) 48
Staff development (support for staff supporting students) 43
Email or telephone support 41
Induction session(s) 36
Drop-in services 36
One-to-one tutorials 33
(Input to) specialist module(s) 31
Assessment/diagnostic service 24
Other 20

The ‘other’ modes of provision included:

  • Printed resources (x5) – we had omitted this essential and widespread form of self-study from our list
  • (Small) group briefings (4, all from one institution) – perhaps something between a drop-in service and a workshop, with support tailored to the needs of a (self selecting?) group.
  • Specific support for users identified as having disabilities (x2)
  • Peer mentoring (x2): student mentors who work with new and less experienced students to support their literacies development.
  • Virtual/online/web resources – included in our list but augmented with several more specific examples: resource sharing and ‘best practice sites’ (we need to clarify that these were aimed at learners and not staff!), online chat, model Cvs and application forms, web pages, digital learning objects, self study materials, wiki’s, blogs, podcasts. Also a number of specialised portals and web sites were cited e.g. ‘Information literacy online resource – this is designed to help students to locate, access and evaluate information’ ‘A web portal gives links to opportunities within the university to develop skills.’
  • Access/outreach/induction – Recruitment and induction are proving key points in the learning lifecycle for literacy interventions. Examples included:
    • mentoring schemes of current students visitng their past college to raise aspirations of college based students
    • an intensive 7-week Preparation for Higher Education programme
    • pre-orientation courses
    • All first years are required to undertake a key skills diagnositc test during induction week. They are then advised as to which sessions might be useful in supporting their literacy/numeracy key skill development
  • Personal/wellbeing service – one example of a ‘wellbeing service’ integrating counselling support with support for learning and study skills

Support for academic staff in departments is also clearly a significant part of these services’ work. In addition to the 31 services providing input to specialist modules, auditors used the ‘other’ category to tell us about consultancy to departments, input to curriculum design and teaching, collaborations with teaching teams, and staff development. This focus on support for staff suggests it is seen as prerequisite for effective support of student literacies, particularly in taught programmes, as dealt with in the following sub-section.

Qualitative analysis of snapshots

Of the 15 examples submitted in the ‘Central services’ category, 9 concerned information literacy, 1 info/ICT, 1 numeracy, 2 academic skills (same university), and 2 general learning skills (same university). The information literacy examples help to confirm that the discourse and component skill-sets for information literacies are well established, detailed, sensitive to context, and widely recognised. Staff are confident enough to experiment with different forms of provision and generally have good communication with academic staff. The snapshots confirm feedback from the audit that practice in the area of information literacy support is well established and well regarded.

Four themes emerged from these examples:

Modular provision: ‘bite-sized’, ‘pocket-sized’ resources on different aspects of information literacy are non-intimidating to students, and can be studied flexibly as required. They are also highly flexible and repurposable by different staff and in different teaching/learning contexts (Edinburgh, Napier, Leeds Met)

Multiple media, including e.g. podcasts, videos and interactive tutorials (Kingston College) to suit different learners, and playing to the different strengths of print and screen delivery (Leeds Met)

Outreach: whether into faculties (City of Bristol College, Coventry) or into the wider community (Bedfordshire), information specialists need to act as ambassadors, target local needs, and be prepared to tailor their offering to different demands. Being on the spot really helps, as do student ambassadors

Integrated: Cornwall College outlined some key lessons from delivering a fully integrated ICT and learning skills programme: Regular and mandatory tutorials, offered in a medium convenient to the learner; small study groups with regular face to face meetings for motivation and support.

In this category, the LSE example showed central services staff sharing expertise with ‘mixed ability’ academic staff and PhD students, defining ‘digital literacy’ as proficiency in finding and using information using a variety of tools and services including web 2.0 applications.. This approach recognises that the relevant expertise is unevenly distributed in the academic population, and offers an interesting counterpart to the peer-mentoring approach taken by several of the learner-led exemplars.

No snapshots of practice were concerned with employability, which suggests either that our communications failed to reach the departments most closely associated with this area (careers), and/or that there is a problem in joining up institutional strategies with practical interventions to support learners.