Scope And Definitions

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For the purpose of this study, our understanding of ‘learning literacies’ encompasses the range of practices that underpin effective learning in a digital age.

We are using the phrase ‘learning literacies for a digital age’ rather than ‘digital literacies’ to indicate that we are open to finding major continuities in what makes for effective learning and in how institutions should provide for it, while at the same time foregrounding a context in which what is required of learners is changing, perhaps fundamentally.

We use the term ‘(underpinning) practices’ in the hope of side-stepping some of the debates about definition and philosophy that beset literacies research, and in particular the 'paradigm contest' between cognitive and socially situated accounts of learning. Our focus in the study is on the pragmatic challenges that face learners and the institutions and educators that seek to support their development in practice as more capable human beings.

We understand the term ‘literacy’ – in contrast to other terms such as ‘skill’ or 'competence' – to involve:

  • a foundational knowledge or capability, such as reading, writing or numeracy, on which more specific skills depend
  • a cultural entitlement – a practice without which a learner is impoverished in relation to culturally valued knowledge
  • communication – expressing how an individual relates to culturally significant communications in a variety of media
  • the need for practice – acquired through continued development and refinement in different contexts, rather than once-and-for-all mastery
  • a socially and culturally situated practice – often highly dependent on the context in which it is carried out
  • self-transformation - literacies (and their lack) have a lifelong, lifewide impact.

Drawing on the work of the JISC Learners' Experiences of e-Learning programme, we use the term ‘effective learning’ as characteristic of ‘capable, self-aware learners with the capacity to participate in learning using technologies and approaches of their own choosing’. However, we recognise that 'effectiveness' can only properly be understood in relation to particular contexts and goals. Some of the policy statements we examine in Section 4 offer alternative or complementary versions of our definition: indeed it is characteristic of HE institutions in particular that they should develop their own account of what makes for effective learning, just as individual learners will measure effectiveness against their own values and agendas.

We use the term ‘digital age’ as a shorthand for technical, social, economic, cultural and educational contexts in which digital forms of information and communication predominate. In this study and its recommendations we explore how literacy provision might adapt to fit graduates for living and working in such contexts.

Throughout, we see effective learning practice as arising not only from technical competences but also from the learner’s previous experiences (Goodyear and Ellis, 2008), from dispositions such as confidence, self-efficacy and motivation (Philip, 1991), and from qualities of the environment where that practice takes place, including of course the available digital technologies (Engström, 1999).


Our desk review acknowledges that significant work has already been undertaken, and is being undertaken, in the area of digital literacies. Outcomes of the review are found in sections two and three. The data collection element of our study acknowledges that data essential for future policy and planning in this area, particularly evidence of how UK HE and FE institutions are already responding to the need for change, is not available in the literature. The data collection methods are laid out in more detail in Section 4. They comprise:

  • An audit of current institutional provision for learning literacies and key institutional drivers, barriers and reflections
  • A collation of brief case studies or exemplars of forward thinking practice across HE and FE
  • Consultation with key players in the sector:
    • a working group of institutional representatives who were involved in the study throughout
    • four public workshops at which methods and findings were checked out with self-selecting researchers and practitioners (Longbridge, Glasgow, Lancaster, Edinburgh)