TECH4ALL#2: e-cologies of digital learning

Activity: Academic Talks or PresentationsOral presentationResearch


Recent research, including internal research carried out at the University of Northampton (UoN), such as the first reiteration of TECH4All project, and a survey to students by the Learning Technology department, challenges the assumption that there is a digital generational gap between students and teaching and student support staff. Rather, there is much diversity in regard to the digital literacy, competence and fluency of both. TECH4All also showed how technology to support learning is used differently by different users and for different purposes. Following the success of TECH4ALL, the Institute for Learning and Teaching funded the TECH4All #2 project to address the above points, in particular the need to know more about the e-cologies of learning, by combining evidence-based results with targeted dissemination workshops to academics, professional staff and students from undergraduate to PhD level.

Despite much policy, advisory and research based work on digital literacy (DL), there are still gaps in our understanding about the nature of DL. Gilster (1997: 2) defined DL broadly as ‘“the ability to both understand and use digitised information”. Belshaw (2012) identified 4 types of DL: visual, technological, computer, and information. While for a while there was an assumption DL, competency and fluency varied in quality and effective use depending on the age of the user (see debate about ‘net generation’ Tapscott, 1997; ‘digital natives’ Prensky, 2004), later research has provided a more subtle understanding, challenging in part these assumptions. Findings from TECH4All and further discussion with colleagues and students have confirmed to us that different groups of users at UoN have different degrees of DL competency and fluency across Belshaw’s 4 domains and that the generational gap is a notion which requires some challenge. In particular, the range of competencies and fluency of DL across users (academics, professional services and students), the TECH4All team has become aware that such differences have an impact not only on the quality of the Active Blended Learning (ABL) provision implemented by the university as part of its digital transformation, but also, and probably more importantly, on the effective exploitation of the ABL format for the purposes of teaching and learning, and preparing students for employment in a digital knowledge economy.

The TECH4ALL#2 project is therefore located at the intersection of a number of contexts. On the one hand, there is the context of providing students with the learning experience which would prepare them for employment. On the other, we are also aware that awareness and fluency in digital skills and competencies are also essential requirements in a digitalized and Artificial Intelligence led world in regard to being a digital citizen aware of personal rights (e.g. personal safety), but also digital responsibilities.

In making sense of this fast evolving set of contexts, and focused on the specific context of UoN, the projects avails itself of the notion of e-cologies of learning, and more specifically in regard to learning in higher education, of the notion of ‘learning ecologies for Lifelong Learning’ which Sangra, et al. (2019: 1615) define as ‘a means to provide an integrated
conceptualization of learning as a complex phenomenon bridging formal, non-formal and
informal learning experiences’. Within this context, the paper used the findings to explore how learning and teaching in an online, digitally-heavy environment is on a spatial, generational and professional continuum of competence, fluency and skills.
Specifically about UoN, the team has identified the following challenges:
1. Different users are unaware of the training available across the university to support their DL. The provision has been defined as ‘disconnected’.
2. Assumptions about different groups’ DL capability have been challenged during workshops and presentations.
3. Students on the team have identified gaps in the way in which they are supported to make full use of the ABL by developing a broader DL capability

Methods/methodology (400)

TECH4ALL#2 is a project founded on the collaboration between undergraduate and postgraduate students as researchers, Head of Learning Technology department and an academic lead. The project took a pragmatic and flexible mixed methods approach able to adapt to ongoing changes to both external policies and their impact on both policy and practice in the institution. While ‘messy’ on the surface, the adaptable process enabled the core team to expand their reach across the institution and work more closely with key stakeholders and gatekeepers as they became aware of the project, its aims and likely impact on the student learning experience.

Within the overall participatory approach, the project is deeply embedded within a student voice paradigm which extends to providing students with opportunities to learn about doing research while formally employed as researchers. The partnership is therefore conceived as

“a collaborative, reciprocal process through which all participants have the opportunity to contribute equally, although not necessarily in the same ways, to curricular or pedagogical conceptualization, decision-making, implementation, investigation, or analysis” (Cook-Sather, et al, 2014, pp. 6–7).

Drawing from UoN based tools for assessing DL, competency and fluency (e. g. annual survey of staff and students’ digital skills), and on JISC’s Seven elements of digital literacy the aims of the project were:
• To enhance Active Blended Learning approaches by examining perceived and factual digital literacy, competence and fluency across staff and students
• Provide a map of current training and support provision
• Use findings to deliver workshops to user groups to disseminate the findings and seek their feedback to
• Develop user-friendly tools and recommendations for UMT and other parties

Data have been collected through student (682 responses) and staff (ongoing) surveys, one to one interviews with 10 key stakeholders in the University responsible for devising teaching and learning policies, and/or implementing them through the application and teaching of digital skills. Data is currently being analysed in preparation for the next stage of developing workshops for students and staff on the project findings and participatory selection of best practice recommendations able to contribute to institutional policy and practice change.

Expected outcomes (300)
Data from the student survey show that 74% of students rate themselves very or quite confident in trying new technologies. Overall 70% of students rate the university as being good in providing them with the opportunity to learn how to use digital skills for learning, provide training and support, and embed digital skills in daily teaching and learning. Overall, they evaluate the shift toward digital transformation and ABL as a positive move. Feedback is also positive on the support and training provided, although more is needed to support broader digital skills, such as using specialised software, creating digital materials and managing digital identity.

In relation to e-cologies of learning, the student survey shows that while students make use of affordances provided by the University (e.g. databases, repositories, recorded lectures, e-portfolios, etc), 43.6% also use of a variety of resources (e.g WhatsApp, Google docs) which are either the results of personal search initiative or learned by engaging with other students.
Views are more mixed in relation to their lecturers’ digital skills. While some lecturers are effective in using digital skills, others are perceived as not being up to date with the knowledge and skills required. This view is echoed by some of the interim interviews carried out so far.

We expect that data from the staff survey and full analysis of the interviews will add more details to how the learning and application of digital skills are supported. We also expect to find more detailed evidence of the varied e-cologies of learning which students and staff make use of. The findings have the potential to challenge a) the artificial boundaries between formal, informal and non-formal digital learning spaces; and b) the perceived digital generational gap and the assumptions that students and staff bring to teaching and learning.

Intent of publication
British Journal of Educational Technology

References (400)

Belshaw, D. (2014) The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies [Internet]. Available from: [15 June 2015].

Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felten, P. (2014). Engaging students as partners in teaching and learning: A guide for faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gilster, P. (1997) Digital Literacy. New York: Wiley Computer Publishing.

JISC (2018) Developing digital literacies. Available from (accessed 22 January 2020)

Prensky, M. (2001) Digital Game-Based Learning. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sangra, A., et al. (2019) Lifelong learning ecologies: linking formal and informal contexts of learning in the digital era. British Journal of Educational Technology, 50 (4), 1615-1618

Tapscott, D. (1997) Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Period23 Aug 202028 Aug 2020
Held atECER 2020, Educational Research (Re)connecting Communities, 23-28 August, University of Glasgow (Online due to COVID19), United Kingdom
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Digital competencies
  • digital skills
  • e-cologies of learning
  • Digital Transformation
  • higher education