Teaching How To Learn:
Developing Digital and Information Literacies among International Students in Higher Education

In the 21st Century, our educational environment is changing, not just as new technologies are brought to bear, but as new models of learning take hold in our institutions. Until recently the progress of this educational change has been slow, but, as the video below from AITSL shows, and successive Horizon Reports make clear, education IS changing.  

One factor driving this educational change is the exponential growth of information, and the information networks that exist online. More and more young people, including higher education students, are turning to the internet, not only for communication and entertainment, but for opportunities to participate in new communities, to explore, to create, to share and to learn new things. As O’Connell (2012) points out “The abundance of resources and relationships made easily accessible via the internet is increasingly challenging us to revisit our roles as educators.” The value of somehow incorporating into teaching and learning the sense of empowerment, creativity and social connectedness many young people feel in their digital lives, is becoming clearer with each passing year, and so understanding the skills required to navigate this emerging ecology is critical to education at all levels.

What is Digital Literacy?

When discussing the skills that higher education students need to navigate the 21st century information environment, ‘Digital Literacy’ is, perhaps, the term most familiar to a majority of educators. This has been in common use since it was brought to prominence by Paul Glister in 1997, and expands upon the ‘traditional’ literacies of reading and writing, with the additional skills required to navigate digital formats. The term has been expanded upon, and updated since that time. For example, Bawden (2008) identifies key literacies as:

For the first time, in 2015, a lack of digital literacy has been cited as a “significant challenge impeding technology adoption in higher education”- although it is viewed as solvable – by the Horizon report for Higher education.

What about Information Literacy?

Information literacy is another term in common use to describe the skills required to deal with both digital and non-digital information. This term has, in fact, been in use since the 1970’s (Zurkowski 1974), and also refers to a set of skills used to find, evaluate, manage and create information.

The essential difference between the two is that digital literacy is focussed specifically on the application of these skills to digital technology, and, as a result of the nature of digital media, often taken to be more explicitly focussed on social aspects and collaboration (Open University 2015).

However, in newer models of information literacy (see the ACRL 2015 definition below), this social and communicative aspect is more prominent.

In many approaches to digital and information literacy, such as the ITSE standards for students , or JISC: Learning literacies in a digital age (JISC 2009), it is considered that a blended, evidence based approach to literacies is essential to an effective model when considering teaching or supporting the necessary student skills.

The ISTE standards above include reference to ‘information fluency’ rather than literacy. Once again, this demonstrates the seemingly never-ending rabbit hole that is any examination of the topic of literacies. However, Information fluency is certainly noteworthy, and gaining currency, in its emphasis on the fluid, interactive, participatory and therefore ever-changing nature of the evolving information ecology (Crockett, Jukes, & Churches, 2011;Thomas & Brown, 2011). It also points to the exponential growth of information, and the consequent need for ever greater skills in interpreting, critically evaluating, and managing this ‘infowhelm’ (O’Connell, 2012).

Another noteworthy vein of research into information and digital literacies is the call for a greater emphasis on the socio-emotional aspect (Eschet 2012; Ng 2012). Research, such as that by Amichai-Hamburger & Hyat (2011), suggests that emotional maturity, good social skills, a willingness to share with others, and the ability to discern motivations and deception as among the key features of the new digitally literate user.

Connectivism and Personal Learning Networks

Underlying and related to these changes in literacy concepts is the theory of learning called Connectivism (Siemens 2005; Downes, 2012). This theory proposes that, while our information behaviour may often include searching out reliable connections to information, and then ‘downloading’ Information into our brains, the connections themselves should be considered as “important aspects of learning… and it is through those connections that knowledge is created and critiqued” (Starkey, 2011, p.21). It argues that “Learning … can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing” (Siemens 2005). The concept is captured well by the following quote from Siemens (2005):

Connectivism, as implied by the term, emphasises the importance for educators of developing among learners (and in themselves) the ability to work in collaborative, creative and participatory spaces. It advocates the point of view that teachers should be aiding students in the development personal learning networks (PLNs) as opposed to the teaching of ‘content’ (Thomas & Brown, 2011). As such, it is fundamental to the establishment of life-long and more self-directed learning (Siemens 2005).

What does all this mean for Higher Education?

The importance of information literacy for higher education has been long established. For example, the Information Literacy Standards for Higher Education published in 2000 advised that “the promotion of information literacy augments students’ competency with evaluating, managing, and using information, it is now considered by several regional and discipline-based accreditation associations as a key outcome for college students” (ACRL, 2000).

Fifteen years later, the importance of the ever widening range of skills that a 21st century learner must possess is “increasingly important in the contemporary environment of rapid technological change and proliferating information resources. Because of the escalating complexity of this environment, individuals are faced with diverse, abundant information choices--in their academic studies, in the workplace, and in their personal lives” (ACRL, 2015). They point out that “the sheer abundance of information will not in itself create a more informed citizenry without a complementary cluster of abilities necessary to use information effectively”.

Aren’t we teaching ‘digital natives’?

Having established a need for a blend of technical, cognitive, creative and socio-emotional skills and abilities, we might wonder what our students already know. Having grown up in a digital era, don’t our students already possess many of the skills they will need in higher education?

The idea of ‘digital natives’ (Prensky, 2001) described a generation who, having grown up surrounded by digital technology, and using it regularly in their daily lives, have acquired many of the digital literacy skills required, and are more open to learning new digital skills as a result of a more digital ‘mind-set’.

However, common sense and empirical studies (Bennett, Maton & Kervin, 2008; Thomas, 2011) show that the idea of a generation of uniformly digitally capable students is a myth. In fact, socio-economic status, personal interests, cultural and national backgrounds, and widely varying educational experiences (among other factors), create a wide variety of skill sets and levels. A ‘digital divide’ between those with and without adequate access to digital tools is still very much in place (Haythornthwaite, 2007).

Moreover, while many students may have experience with digital technology for social or entertainment purposes, their facility with more educational, professional or academic uses may be rudimentary at best(Gross, & Latham, 2007). This manifests in the fact that higher education students often self-estimate their digital literacy abilities as high, based on their facility with tools such as google and social networking. However, when objectively tested on more challenging academic tasks such as online research, library and database use, and critical evaluation of validity, the same students often score very poorly (Gross, & Latham, 2007, 2012).

The above issue causes research to be problematic, but there is considerable evidence that the majority of our students are still reaching tertiary education institutions with underdeveloped Information and digital literacy skills (Hart, 2005; Egan & Katz, 2007)

How does all this apply to International Students?

In tertiary education institutions, international students (IS) often represent a significant proportion of the student body, and a vital source of income for those institutions, as well as contributing a rich variety of cultural, personal and educational experiences to the social environment.

However, my own observations, and some qualitative academic research (Badke, 2002; Mehra & Bilal, 2007; Hughes, 2013), seem to suggest that many IS experience significant challenges concerning study-related information literacy skills, coupled with unfamiliar educational practices. According to Hughes (2013, p.127), these challenges “are especially significant in contemporary educational environments where learning is increasingly mediated by online technologies”.

As explained in the previous sections, modern higher education is becoming increasingly open, social and participatory (Conole, 2012). However, research has shown that the educational experiences of IS in their home country often contrast with these models (Ramsay, Barker & Jones, 1999; Robertson, Line, Jones, & Thomas, 2000). IS from Asian, African and the Middle Eastern countries in particular often find the shift away from teacher-centred delivery, to more interactive, collaborative or self-directed learning difficult to comprehend at first, although there is some evidence that they are able to adopt and value this approach once it is understood (Reid, cited in Coverdale-Jones, 2013, p.200).

Research also suggests that international students (IS) generally adopt much more uncritical approaches to using online information, and are less able to identify bias, validity or contrast differing expert opinion (Liao, Finn and Lu, 2007; Varga-Atkins & Ashcroft, 2004, Salisbury & Karasmanis, 2011) . A few studies, such as that by Varga-Atkins and Ashcroft (2004) found little significant difference between IS and local students, but that only 40.8% of all students assessed had ‘adequate’ to ‘excellent’ information skills.

Lack of digital information literacy skills has been shown to cause considerable anxiety among international students (Jiao & Onwuegbuzie, 2001, p.115; Mehra & Bilal, 2013), and in some cases, they view their academic research and information seeking challenges, as more significant than English language difficulties or coping with differing culture and customs (Mehra, & Bilal, 2007).


The starting point for this digital essay was my own experience with international students at a tertiary level, teaching on courses which attempt to boost English language skills to an academic level, and to provide scaffolding for critical academic skills:

It is clear from my review of the literature and research that, in order to succeed in the stated goal of acquiring ‘necessary skills’, we need to consider the evolving nature of 21st century information and digital literacies, and how these could be applied and developed in our course.

The JISC online report titled Enhancing the Student Digital Experience: A Strategic Approach suggests a number of very important questions to consider as I evaluate and develop an organisational approach these issues:

Fickr photo by chrisjones4240 http://flickr.com/photos/130889414@N03/18262600996 shared under a Creative Commons (PD) license

With these questions, the frameworks such as the ITSE standards for students and JISC: Learning literacies in a digital age, and the principles of a constructivism in mind, I believe that a better understanding of our students needs can be achieved.

Background image attribution: flickr photo by tallkev https://www.flickr.com/photos/tallkev/256810217/ shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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