Findings: support for literacies in courses and curricula - 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: support for literacies in courses and curricula

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Developing literate curricula

From the audit, typical practice for course review, (re)validation and approval offers several opportunities for literacies to be considered:

  • Multi-role teams involved in review: individuals likely to have different expertise in subject-specific and generic literacies

A pro-forma for each stage of the development process and review process, which typically includes question(s) about generic skills and attributes

  • approval by internal (school/faculty/dept) committee and by a higher committee or body of the institution e.g. quality, academic standards

Staff involved in the development and validation process usually include:

  • Programme/module leader
  • Other teaching staff
  • Subject librarian
  • Learning/teaching expert
  • One member of academic staff from another faculty
  • One external member

Also sometimes included:

  • employers, professional bodies (consultative role) (4)
  • student reps (3)
  • guidance and support staff (3)
  • e-learning/technology staff (3)
  • teaching fellows (2)
  • senior admin staff (registry, academic affairs, programmes manager)
  • core skills staff

We collected the following good practice indicators from our audit responses:

  • specific skills, such as library and information skills, are typically being taught at the stage in a course when students need to use them
  • earlier input [i.e. before mandatory approval] into curriculum design from outside the department is often sought by course teams on an ad hoc basis and often where good individual relations exist between academic staff and central services
  • The Guidance and Support Manager advises on the guidance and support implications for the programme…. the Core Skills staff advise on the core skills for the programme.

However, problems were also identified:

  • the espoused view is a course team consisting of subject specialists plus some pedagogic input and instructional design. In use however is … largely down to module leader.
  • Typical feedback on a module design is “Yes”. Just a single word, so no real engagement with the process.
  • Can encourage tick-box approach though the ‘central services [staff on course teams] try to get academics to… not treat it as tick-box exercise’
  • Getting literacies and skills into programme documentation is only the first step to embedding them in learning, teaching and assessment

Opportunities and challenges at the level of individual programmes are explored in more detail in relation to the exemplars of practice (below).

Asked what learning skills and literacies needed to be considered by course teams at their institution, the auditors revealed an extraordinary diversity of practice. Several indicated that no skills or literacies were required, though one thought this might actually be an incentive to interesting discussions at module level. Others were cynical about the degree to which mandated requirements were discussed in any depth (see ‘tick-box exercise’ above).

Among those institutions that did lay down requirements (typically via the relevant pro-forma), there was almost no consensus as to what should be mandated, aside from the relative prominence of employability (1 in 3). The skills mentioned were:

  • scholarship
  • study skills (2)
  • research skills (2)
  • independent learning/lifelong learning (3)
  • writing (2)
  • communication (2)
  • reading
  • numeracy
  • core skills
  • problem solving
  • working with others
  • creative thinking
  • critical and analytical skills
  • IT skills (3)
  • information literacies (2)
  • skills for ‘blended learning’ or ‘e-learning’ (2)
  • sustainable development
  • citizenship
  • subject specific skills (2)

Prominent features of this list from the perspective of our study are:

  • diversity – only employability mandated for consideration in more than 3 institutions
  • continued influence of govt key skills agenda on the terms and language in use

A complete re-modularisation process was the driver for change at one institution: [As part of the revalidation process] module descriptors … had to clearly articulate how the module would embed the development of specific learning skills and literacies… Similarly, programme documentation (e.g. definitive course document, programme specification; validation documents) must clearly articulate the learning skills and literacies that are relevant to the design and content of the programme, and must also map them to specific modules within the programme.

Another university had adopted the SEEC level descriptors and QCA key skills framework (since 2002) with which every programme and module must comply. This can be compared with the two institutional strategies described above, where frameworks were developed specifically to meet the specific mission, vision and culture of the institution.

In most cases, however, responsibility was devolved much more locally to departments. Subject benchmark statements and professional or statutory body requirements were heavily relied on in several institutions, while in others literacy issues were addressed around assessment requirements ‘which are usually based on past practices’: transferable skills were ‘only included in course documentation where they are explicitly assessed’. Three mentioned ‘minimum’ VLE or MLE requirements as having an impact on how courses are described: a case of standardisation of practice coming about through use of an ICT-based system to support delivery.

Approaches to provision in the curriculum

In practice there appear to be 3 broad approaches to literacy provision in the curriculum:

  • Institution-wide or curriculum-wide programme (usually portfolio-based) covering e.g. study skills and research skills (FE), ‘information literacy, referencing, written communication, and research and evaluation skills’ (HE) with relevant skills being practised within modules. Portfolio typically not assessed – though elements of it may be used for assessment in participating modules – but seen as part of employability agenda for graduates. Benefits from – and can be driver for – joined-up thinking across the institution.
  • Programme-specific modules, or module components, addressing e.g. core/key skills, subject-specific skills, study skills, research methods, employability, personal and professional development. Within a modular programme, tailored components and even individualised pathways can be built around these elements. Delivery is typically by central services staff, so assessment and motivation can be issues: effective tailoring to the curriculum depends on good relationships with academic staff.
  • Literacy provision fully integrated into modules and/or programmes of study. Usually assessed, e.g. by portfolio or simply by incorporating literacies into assessment criteria for module assignments. Depends on highly engaged and committed academic staff, prepared to rethink their own practice around changing literacy requirements. Easier to bring off in professional/vocational programmes that are already competence-based.

There is not enough information in the audit data to assess the pros and cons of the different approaches, and nor are institutions necessarily choosing one approach over another on a rational basis. Some auditors noted that different schools were pulling in different directions, making it ‘difficult for people to know what’s going on’.

These different approaches do place different requirements on central services staff, whose attention needs to be balanced between:

  • direct generic provision (to all students on a referral or self-referral basis)
  • direct provision within programme contexts (may be largely generic or adapted in consultation with academic staff)
  • supporting provision in modules and programmes (providing generic expertise to a subject-specific learning experience)
  • building capacity of academic staff to support literacies in their own teaching and tutorial work

They also entail different approaches by academic staff. In one institution, departments develop skills-based modules in areas in which they have particular expertise, then make them available across the institution:

The School of Computing offers an option Introduction to the Web that has a strong focus on developing digital literacy skills including basic web page design, evaluating content credibility, and using web 2.0 tools including social networking. This specific module is a one of a suite of co-curricular modules that can be taken by students across the University. Other co-curricular modules offered from across a range of Faculties and Schools include Creativity, Innovation and Enterprise, Effective Learning & Career Development, and Information, Communication and Society.

At another, ‘contextualised technology skills’ are taught by course tutors with the support of specialists, ensuring staff and students alike build their confidence: ‘Course Tutors introduce learners to the VLE at the start of their course and introduce them to Personal Learning Plans, Induction materials, and use of Blogs, Wikis, Voicethread, Bebo, Facebook, Youtube’.

Asked about delivery and assessment of learning literacies in the curriculum, 3 out of 14 respondents knew of instances where central services staff were involved on an equal or nearly equal footing with subject-specialist staff, though not involved in assessment. In the remaining cases their role was supportive.

Asked about whether academic staff had support to integrate literacies effectively, the overwhelming answer was ‘yes, in principle’. This came through input to certificated learning and teaching programmes, workshops, e-materials, exemplars of good practice, mentoring, drop-in sessions, briefings and consultancy to curriculum teams, and peer support. Where more detail was given, the staff development often had an ICT tools focus, suggesting the trojan mouse strategy is alive and well.

Provisos and problems included:

  • but do they know about it? (all provision for staff except PGCerts tends to be voluntary)
  • not clear who identifies and articulates need
  • cultural issues (clearly identified by one respondent as differences of knowledge, vocabulary, approach, and institutional status between academic and central services staff)
  • unfamiliarity of learning development and learning literacies, as concepts and practices
  • (related) issues of institutional power and recognition:’some colleagues who are still locked into the “possession of knowledge as power” syndrome and won’t share toys or know-how’
  • time-poor staff
  • perception that ‘it’s not their job to get [learners] ready for learning – should come with learning skills’

Our questions about different approaches to delivery did not produce any clear account of benefits but highlighted issues such as:

  • Assessment – when, how, and by whom are literacies assessed? What weight is attached to them?
  • Compulsory vs elective modules – some evidence that compulsory skills modules are disliked by learners and can create problems of retention and motivation
  • Cohort-based provision, or support for learners as/when they need it?
  • Timing – some evidence that front-loading skills and literacies is less effective than introducing and revisiting them over a course of study
  • Going native: Subject librarians are now commonplace, and faculty/school based e-learning advisors and study skills advisers are becoming more so. Do central services staff need to acquire subject specialism, and do academic staff need to be seconded to build capacity for literacy development in their ‘home’ context?
  • New models? Access, foundation and work-based learning programmes were particularly likely to be cited as examples of good practice in embedding skills for learning, e.g.: The Access to HE course has 90 minutes/week study skills, tutorial and IT (each). [This year we plan to] embed digital literacies such as online research and collaborative learning using Web 2.0 techologies as part of a revised course. Could these models become catalysts for a broader awareness and understanding of literacy issues?
  • Feedback – not one auditor mentioned feedback to students, or general assessment, as mechanisms for supporting literacy development, suggesting that the model of provision within courses (unlike student-centred services) may be somewhat instructivist. Academic staff may be used to giving feedback around course content, but not around an individual learning development agenda.
  • Academic staff engagement, commitment and resources: rethinking programmes of study around the competences learners need, particularly where those competences are changing (e.g. in response to new digital opportunities) places large demands on academic staff. The rewards need to be clear: a discourse of scholarship, innovation and reflective practice may be more productive than a skills and literacies agenda.

Finally we asked auditors why departments were successful/motivated, or unsuccessful and unmotivated, in relation to embedding literacies into the curriculum.

 Opportunities and motivators  Risks and disincentives
 Institutional initiatives and commitments:

  • Retention
  • Employability
  • transferable skills
  • widening access
  • use of ICT in the curriculum
  • ‘flexibility’ in the curriculum
  • learning experience

External bodies

  • Standards set by professional bodies
  • requirement for evidence-based practice in the professions


  • recognition of the changing way in which knowledge is being created and shared, and in how people are communicating, socialising and learning
  • scholarship of teaching (well recognised MA course in L&T) changing attitudes


  • graduates of PCCert L&T courses changing attitudes in departments
  • champions in depts, especially academic leaders/directors of study
  • a genuine and widely held view that it is the responsibility of subject groups as part of their academic teaching
  • right mix of new and experienced staff (in a unit or dept)
  • staff with a personal interest in literacies, pedagogy, new technologies
  • support from teaching fellows


  • low scores for teaching quality in NSS
  • high failure rates
  • higher expectations e.g. as a result of fees
  • students with an obvious need for literacies to be included in their programmes
  • challenging or demotivated students
  • larger numbers of international students/disabled students/direct entry students with explicit skills requirements
  • needing to open up (postgraduate) market
  • need to help students find good work/life/study balance
 Institutional practices

  • Reduced contact time means less time for practise and coaching

External bodies

  • Qualification Authorities requirements have prevented integration of learning literacies into some areas


  • General discipline knowledge prioritised over skills/literacies
  • intertia, desire to maintain comfort zone
  • distrust of staff from outside dept lack of respect for staff from central services


  • Time and resource pressures
  • Student numbers
  • Perception that students should not be admitted until/unless they have certain skills
  • Perception that students already have these skills Study skills seen as low status
  • Lack of confidence in own capabilities (e.g. ICT in HE and general literacy in FE)
  • Unaware of support available to them


  • Dislike of skills-based modules
  • Unaware of support available

Qualitative review of snapshot data

The snapshots of literacy practice in curriculum contexts were more varied than those provided by central services staff. Only 3 dealt with information literacies, and these confirmed findings above, e.g. the need for continued embedding and revision throughout the programme (Bedfordshire), and the importance of assessment. Motivation of students was much higher at Edge Hill, for example, where timetabling of literacy sessions and assessment of literacy tasks helped students to see them as ‘a key part of the curriculum’. Relying on students to self-assess their own information literacy requirements is risky: ‘It was a little depressing to discover that many students even at level 2 are still relying on Google for their information and that many of them do not see the relevance of information literacy to their studies.’ (Bedfordshire) Research confirms that students are complacent about their own information skills, and that this is one area where their confidence is usually misplaced.

The remaining snapshots cover some interesting literacies and hybrids:

  • Learning to learn /ICT 2 (1 PLE/PDP, 1 blogs)
  • Academic practice 3 (1 international)
  • Acad/ICT 1 (wiki)
  • Acad/info 1 (referencing)
  •  Media/information 1
  • Communication skills 1
  • Digital literacies (teachers’ professional development, in both cases quite ICT focused) 2
  • Digital/media 2 (both fully embedded)

Most of the examples fell into the second category of embedding, i.e. central services provision around specific skills/literacies being added into existing programmes, usually with some tailoring to context.We did not find many type 1 (portfolio building) examples of embedded provision, though the Leicester Personal Learning Environment fell into this category and is interesting for being based in a scientific curriculum.

Those that fell into the third category (rethinking of programmes of study) were in fact of two slightly different types.

  • digital literacies provision represented a move towards the ‘digital’ within a programme already strongly based around professional competences (e.g.)
  • the underpinning academic knowledge and knowledge practices being rethought in the context of new digital opportunities (though in practice there was a fairly direct link between programme content and professional practice in all of these cases as well).

We are particularly interested in this third type of embedding, not only because it seems to be the most challenging but because it represents the most radical impact on the curriculum and the practice of learners and academic staff. So we have looked at these examples in particular detail.

Oxford Brookes’ ‘Communicating Architectural Understanding in Video’ describes how their use of digital video became ‘essential to students synthesising their understanding of a building and conveying the sense of a building in 3D’. The affordances of the video medium in relation to the conceptual challenges of the subject were clearly grasped by the tutor, and in the revised module the digital tools, the knowledge medium (video) and the conceptual task were fully integrated from induction through to assessment. Students were able to see the value of the digital artefacts they had produced in terms of their professional portfolios, as the use of video also reflected a shift in professional practice.

At Warwick, Theatre Studies students explored different theatrical spaces through the medium of second life. ‘Virtual presence and embodiment are digital literacies’ also shows commitment to rethinking curriculum knowledge in terms of broader changes in the media landscape. In this case, however, students’ engagement with the ‘new’ medium was less extensive, and the medium itself was more tenuously linked with their final professional practice. Perhaps because of this, students spent most of their time engaged in ‘playful’ activities as they became accustomed to the affordances of SL itself, rather than addressing the questions they had been posed. Proficiency and confidence in the medium were explicit learning outcomes here, but the snapshot highlights several dangers: tutors cannot assume that students will arrive with virtual skills, or will be able to transfer such skills from leisure environments to academic environments, or will have a critical enough understanding of different environments to appreciate their different affordances for sense-making.

‘Ducktectives’ at Writtle College (also categorised as learner-led) was a learning experience on several levels. A collaboration between a landscape design tutor and a new media designer, who clearly learned much from each others’ design practices, it involved students of landscape design engaging with school children to develop a shared understanding of a playground site. Digital technologies in the form of GPS and PDAs were used, but only as part of a game that the students devised to help children express their ideas and engage with the design process. Students’ proficient use of the technologies were a prerequisite but the task focused on their creativity, client-facing communication skills and problem-solving capabilities.

All three of these examples involve disciplines of physical space, and begin from an awareness that the meanings of physical spaces are changing as the ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ intersect. The implications of this awareness are so radical that the arising curriculum and learning activities are also radically changed: digital technologies become embedded aspects of the learning context, content and medium.

Further lessons about embedding came from the TVU example: ‘We get it wrong: this helps us fix it’. The snapshot describes a structured approach to the development of advanced academic skills at years 3 /4 (UG), which includes:

  • ‘students being supported in recognising they are becoming members of an academic community with expectations of them’.
  • Taught sessions on critical skills, with intensive tutor and peer support
  • A follow-up with practical tasks in the context of students’ core discipline. ‘Previous findings indicated that while students understood these critical skills at the time of explanation, they faced challenges in subsequent independent applications.
  • Use of self-study materials (RLOs [Re-usable Learning Objects]) during the practice phase, these materials being carefully structured at a small level of granularity, so they can easily be incorporated into the personal development process.

Several snapshots not included in this category in fact represent the first type of ’embedding’ we identified, i.e. a whole-institution approach. Bradford (‘DevelopMe!’) and Hertfordshire (‘University Rocks!’) engage students in thinking about their learning skills from the outset of their studies – in the case of Bradford before they have even arrived on campus. As the exclamation marks underline (!), both have focused on motivating and engaging students first, and on specific skills only once students are involved in the self-assessment process and excited about the opportunities of study. Key lessons include:

  • use young staff and student mentors to engage new students
  • keep it relevant to students’ real lives
  • use technologies that will be familiar from students’ leisure use of digital networks
  • allow learners to identify their own concerns and expectations
  • embed the learners’ voice into every aspect of literacy provision – keep listening to what learners expect, fear, hope and need from their experience of learning