Open Thinkering


Tag: ICT

On ‘rigour’ in definitions of digital and web literacy.

Update: For the latest information on the Web Literacy standard work, head to

TL;DR version: If we define rigour as something that’s ‘unchanging’ and ‘objective’ then it’s almost impossible to be ‘rigorous’ about digital and web literacy. Instead, I propose that instead of being rigorous that we’re relevant, even if that’s at the expense of some objectivity.

Here’s an interesting one. I occasionally get corralled into Twitter conversations as someone who knows about something or other. Today, it was Miles Berry after being asked why the new draft National Curriculum should include ‘digital literacy’. The assumption by his interlocutor (Bruce Nightingale) was that in order for a subject to be included in a programme of study it should be ‘rigorously defined’ with a ‘body of knowledge’ behind it.

When I asked whether rigour means ‘has a definition everyone agrees on’ Bruce pointed me towards this blog post by Jenny Mackness on ‘academic rigour’. The conversation quickly became too nuanced to do justice in 140-character bursts, hence this follow-up blog post. I hope Bruce has time to reply.

In Jenny’s post she talks about finding definitions of ‘academic rigour’ unsatisfactory. I’d suggest that’s because it’s a kind of Zeugma, an ambiguous term. But let’s just focus upon ‘rigour’. The Oxford English Dictionary (probably the best place to resort when faced with knotty problems of definition) gives the etymology of ‘rigour’ as:

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman and Middle French rigour, Middle French rigeur, rigueur (French rigueur ) inflexible severity, severity, harshness (12th cent. in Old French), strict application (of laws) (13th cent.), feeling of tingling or prickling (a1365 in medical context), (in plural) repressive measures (15th cent.), cruelty (15th cent.), harshness that is difficult to bear (end of the 15th cent., of cold, etc.), exactitude, precision (1580) and its etymon classical Latin rigor unbending quality, stiffness, rigidity, numbness, numbness of the body in fever, unyielding hardness, frozen condition, quality of being stiffly erect, tautness, inflexibility, sternness, severity, uncouthness < rig?re to be stiff (see rigent adj.) + -or -or suffix. Compare Old Occitan rigor (1461), Catalan rigor (14th cent.), Spanish rigor (13th cent.), Portuguese rigor (14th cent.), Italian rigore (a1320).

I can’t help but think when I see words like ‘harshness’, ‘cruelty’, ‘exactitude’, ‘precision’, ‘rigidity’ and ‘inflexibility’ that we’re using the wrong word here. Applying such stringent measures to an ambiguous term like ‘digital literacy’ is problematic as ‘digital’ pertains to many different referents. To talk of rigour (as defined above), then, is verging on the ridiculous.

But does a lack of rigour around a subject, topic or idea make it less valuable? I’d suggest not. Instead, I’d suggest it’s the terminology we’re using that’s problematic. Let’s take another example: the idea of academic ‘impact’. What, exactly, does that mean? You may well be able to draw up a framework or points for this or that, rewarding academics for performing certain activities and publishing in various places. But what about obvious areas of ‘impact’ that lie outside of that rigid framework? Rigour does not mean relevancy. Sometimes the problem is with the tools you are using rather than the thing you are trying to describe. It’s OK for things to be nebulous and slightly intangible.

Having spent several years of my adult life delving into the murky world of new literacies I’d suggest that (for example) helping young people learn how to use digital devices, how to think computationally, and how to stay safe online are extremely relevant things to be doing. Can we boil these activities down to things to be learned once for all time? Of course not. It’s hard enough when you’ve got a single referent (e.g. the Web)

So, in conclusion, I’ll see your definition of ‘rigour’ and raise you a ‘relevance’. Not everything that is valuable can be measured objectively. Nor should it be.

Image CC BY-NC-SA Josh Clark

My response to the ICT Programme of Study consultation

Note that this is my personal view. But I’ve got my Mozilla hat on half-cocked, as it were. 😉


There’s currently a review of the ICT Programme of Study (PoS) underway in England. Tomorrow (Friday 5th October 2012) is the last day to give feedback on the first version of the draft, with a further chance to comment on the full draft in November and then a public consultation in Spring 2013. The review, commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE), is being organised by the British Computing Society (BCS) and Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng).

One problem they’re having particular problems with is what to do at Key Stage 4 (KS4) with 14-16 year olds who are doing specialised GCSEs in Computer Science or Information Technology. If that satisfies the statutory requirement then how should the PoS for KS4 be expressed? There’s also the issue of students who don’t take any ICT-related qualifications at KS4 currently being forced to take a token course.

The points around which feedback is currently sought are:

  1.  What to do with KS4 (see above)
  2.  Other strategic issues
  3.  Personal vision for success in 2016 – what would you see in ICT lessons from KS1 (5-7 year olds) through KS2 (8-11), KS3 (11-13) and KS4 (14-6)

One final thing before I dive in: changing the name of the subject from ICT (‘Information and Communications Technologies’) to anything else would require primary legislation. In other words, it’s not going to happen. As a result, three strands have been proposed in the RAEng report from earlier this year. I quote them verbatim:

  • Computer Science (CS) is the subject discipline that studies how computer systems work, how they are constructed and programmed, and the fundamental principles of information and computation, in both artificial and natural information processing systems.
  • Information Technology (IT) covers the use and application of computer systems including the Internet, to develop technological solutions purposefully and creatively.
  • Digital Literacy (DL) provides a critical understanding of technology’s impact on society and the individual, including privacy, responsible use, legal and ethical issues

My response

As someone who worked in English schools for seven years (teaching some ICT), have subsequently worked in Higher Education with JISC and now work for an IT company (Mozilla) I feel qualified to weigh in on this consultation. I also have an interest as a parent to young children whom these reforms will potentially affect. Finally, I wrote my doctoral thesis on the topic of digital literacies.

I’m happy that the three strands of CS, IT and DL have been proposed, and delighted that the definition of DL proposed involves “a critical understanding of technology’s impact”. I’m also pleased that there’s a specific recognition of the creative use of ICT and a recognition of the value of everyone knowing enough code to be able to tinker.

I do, however, have five specific recommendations:

  1. That the use of ‘Digital Literacy’ be replaced with ‘Digital Literacies’ to recognise the multiple literacies required to be effective in the digital world. For example, web literacies (which I’m currently working on for Mozilla) can be seen as a subset of digital literacies. I go into much more detail on this in my thesis and it also reflects current thinking in the area of New Literacies.
  2. That DL (pluralised) should form the majority of the statutory PoS for ICT at KS4 – and that those who wish to specialise in CS and/or IT be given the chance to do so through discrete GCSEs.
  3. That ICT be linked explicitly to English Baccalaureate (EBacc) subjects in order to raise the status of the subject as well as suffuse those subjects with the excitement and creativity that ICT can bring.
  4. That specific mention be made of the collaborative and emancipatory power of the web. Learning HTML, CSS and Javascript could fall within the realm of DL (pluralised) and provide a coherent route to CS at KS4. See Mozilla’s Webmaker programme for more information.
  5. That specific mention be made of the burgeoning work around Digital Making by organisations such as Nesta and the Nominet Trust, and that such language (of ‘digital makers’ and ‘digital making’) be included in the ICT PoS from KS1 to KS4.

I’d love any to hear any other ideas you have in the comments!

Image CC BY dgray_xplane

In defence of digital literacies.

Guardian digital literacies article

Earlier this week the Guardian Higher Education network published something of mine as Resurrect computer science – but don’t kill off ICT. I had originally given it the title In defence of digital literacies as I didn’t want the focus to be upon Computer Science vs. ICT.

C’est la vie.

There’s some interesting and useful comments – and the opposite of that – on the Guardian site. Please do contribute if you’ve got something constructive to add!


(I also attended #LWF12 this week and have written up my thoughts on it here)