Aisha Walker

Thinking onscreen

7 July 2015
by Aisha

Diet pills and digital learning

Many claims are made for the benefits of using digital technologies in education. For example, a recent post on the JISC blog (Crawford-Thomas and Bloxham 2015) argues that “The learning experience needs to be compelling and engaging to capture and keep learners’ attention, and using technology can actually be one of the most effective ways of doing this.”   Conole, in 2008, compared digital ‘fast learning’ to ‘fast food’ but enthusiastic endorsements of technology are more similar to advertisements for diet pills and slimming aids where the small print says “May aid weight loss when used with a calorie controlled diet and regular exercise”.

Research into digital technologies for learning is often based on short-term interventions. For example, from the ‘online first’ section of the Journal of Computer-Assisted Learning (JCAL) there is a paper by Labus et al (in press) reporting on an intervention to embed a social game into an e-learning environment (Moodle). This was a quasi-experimental study in which two groups of students worked with resources and activities in Moodle. One group was given the game, which included learning and formative assessment activities, whilst the other group had no additional resources. At the end of the intervention, which lasted for one semester, both groups of students were given an assessment and the intervention group was also given a questionnaire to explore satisfaction with the game. The study found that students in the intervention group scored higher marks on the assessment and thought that the game was interesting and motivating.

Another JCAL online first paper, Mo et al (in press) attempts to address the ‘short-term intervention’ problem with a study in which the experimental group was given supplementary digital tutoring for a year and a half. The study found that the students continued to find the digital materials and activities engaging and that, on tests, they scored more highly than students in the control group. The authors claim that this study shows that improvements in motivation and learning persist even once the novelty of using digital tools has worn off.

The two examples above have been chosen simply because they are in the online first section of a well-regarded journal. They illustrate two of the major problems with research in the field of ‘digital learning’. The first is problem of short-term studies. Although Mo et al specifically wanted to look at persistence, 18 months is still relatively short-term. In that time, students may become accustomed to using the digital program but they are aware that it is still not part of the everyday educational experience. The second problem is that in both cases the treatment group was given additional resources whilst the control group was not. This is similar to giving one group of people diet pills whilst giving nothing to the control group. An effective trial of diet pills would give the real medicine to half of the participants whilst giving dummy pills to the other half (ideally, a random double-blind trial). Double-blind research is not possible in education but if one group of learners is given additional materials, activities or tuition then the other group needs to be given something similar otherwise the only valid conclusion is that supplementary resources enhance learning.

Claims that digital tools enhance learning need to be examined as carefully as miracle diet claims. For example, Crawford-Thomas and Bloxham (2015) claim that digital gamification will create “lessons that actually maintain attention, aid retention and improve performance over the long-term”. However, they link to a JISC article which points out that gamification may reduce motivation and have an adverse effect on work quality (JISC 2014). Studies such as Labus et al are similar to crash diets in that it is easy to see an effect in the short-term which may not necessarily be sustainable in the longer term. Learning gains may not persist and there might even be a detrimental impact on, for example, motivation. Even a slightly longer study (or diet) does not necessarily demonstrate that the effects are sustainable and will lead to long term learning gains (or weight loss).

The central point of Conole’s 2008 paper (and many others, both before and since) was that digital tools and resources must be embedded in pedagogy in order to achieve long-term change. Long-term weight loss requires lifestyle change that includes both exercise and healthy diet but the changes need to be made in a way that fits the individual and her/his context. Similarly, effective use of digital technologies requires them to be used within a pedagogic approach that fits the learners, the domain and the context. Digital tools for learning need to come with the small print: “May aid learning when used with a well thought-through approach to learning and teaching”.


Conole, G. (2008) “New Schemas for Mapping Pedagogies and Technologies” Ariadne Issue 56 (accessed 7th July 2015)

Crawford-Thomas, A. and Bloxham, J. (2015) “Five Reasons Why You Should Go Digital”

JISC (2014) ‘Gamification’ in Crowdsourcing – the wiki way of working (accessed 7th July 2015)

Labus, M. Despotovi?-Zraki?, B. Radenkovi?, Z. Bogdanovi? and M. Radenkovi? (in press) “Enhancing formal e-learning with edutainment on social networks” Journal of Computer- Assisted Learning. Article first published online: 29 JUN 2015 | DOI: 10.1111/jcal.12108

Mo, L. Zhang, J. Wang, W. Huang, Y. Shi, M. Boswell and S. Rozelle (in press) “Persistence of learning gains from computer assisted learning: Experimental evidence from China” Journal of Computer- Assisted Learning Article first published online: 4 JUN 2015 | DOI: 10.1111/jcal.12106

23 April 2015
by Aisha

The Grey Traveller: a story for language teachers

Once upon a time there was a traveller. He wasn’t young but he wasn’t old either and he wandered from village to village. His clothes were grey and always perfectly kept with not a tear nor a stray thread to be seen. No dust clung to his shoes and his hair was always perfectly combed. Wherever he went he liked everything to be just so. He would dust a chair with his handkerchief, tidy the room around him and in his presence people were very careful how they spoke, fearful of making mistakes. People found his company dull and tiring so they tended to avoid him and only invited him into their homes when they felt they had no choice. Despite his love of detail and perfection, the Grey Traveller had a sensitive nature. He knew that people did not like him and it made him feel sad.

In the same region there was another traveller, a woman. She wasn’t young but she wasn’t old and she wandered from village to village in a swirl of bright clothes made of silk and velvet. Sometimes there were tears or rips in her clothes and sometimes her shoes were dusty but nobody noticed. The vivid colours and rich fabrics drew all everybody’s attention. Her eyes sparkled with joy and wherever she went, people threw open their doors and welcomed her inside to fill their houses with laughter and merriment. The Grey Traveller saw this and it made him feel even sadder.

One day, the two travellers met on the edge of a village. The Grey Traveller was hungry and lonely. The Bright Traveller took pity on him. “Come and hide under my cloak”, she said “let’s travel together”. With gratitude the Grey Traveller nestled under her velvet cloak and since that day they have wandered from village to village together. Wherever she goes, he is with her and they are welcome into all the houses where she creates fun and laughter and he secretly makes everything perfect.

You know these travellers well. The Grey Traveller is better known to you as ‘Grammar’ and the Bright Traveller as ‘Story’. Wherever you find a story, there will be some useful grammar hiding under her cloak.


This story is an adaptation of a traditional folk tale about Truth and Story which I first heard from Professor Mike Wilson of Loughborough University.

21 April 2015
by Aisha

Music of the trainline

One of my small daily pleasures is hearing the station announcements for the trains to Carlisle.  As the train travels westwards it moves across a period of early British history: from the Saxon villages of Shipley, Bingley and Keighley across the dales (valleys) to the Viking world of  ‘by’, ‘kirk’ and ‘thwaite’.  Beyond Long Preston, of course, this is the famous Settle-Carlisle Railway which runs along some of the highest, wildest and most beautiful parts of England.  The wildness and beauty of the landscape is echoed by the names of the stations from the cosiness of the Yorkshire towns and villages to the remoteness of Cumbria.

Stations to Carlisle

Long Preston
Kirkby Stephen
Lazonby and Kirkoswald

‘Settle to Carlisle Railway’

by Mike Donald, performed by Robbie Ellis

1 April 2015
by Aisha

Digital literacy or competence: why does it matter?

I imagine that people reading or hearing my argument for ‘digital competence’ rather than ‘digital literacy’, ask why the terms matter. Surely, they say, what is important is that people have the necessary skills to use digital tools regardless of what those skills are called. However, in my view, not only is ‘competence’ a more effective model but using the term ’literacy’ creates confusion between digital skills and modern literacy.   The digital world provides both tools and sites for literacy practice and much of our reading and writing today is digital. For example, student coursework assignments at all levels are typically produced digitally. At the university where I work, all assignments are submitted online through our VLE so it is no longer possible for a student to submit a handwritten essay. An increasing amount of news media is accessed online; for example, the 2014 OFCOM ‘Internet Citizens’ report stated that 51% of UK adults use online news at least once a month whilst the 2013 figure was 47%. Online news is not only text, of course, the news sources included in the OFCOM report may include video and online TV channels. However, every newspaper has an online presence and TV news channels have text-heavy websites (BBC News is a good example). People write messages to personal and professional contacts through email, social media and SMS and, according to OFCOM (2014) “Blogging websites are visited by over half the internet population and survey research finds that almost a quarter say that they comment on blogs” (p8). OFCOM also claims that, in 2014 Wikipedia was used by half of all UK internet users “equating to over 24 million unique users” (p70). Some students still handwrite lecture notes but it is not uncommon to see laptop and tablets used in class (even though, as Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) show, digital notetaking may not be as effective for learning). Diaries, shopping, greetings cards… all are available in digital forms and many digital games include substantial written text. In summary, this is a huge amount of literacy in digital contexts.

‘Literacy in digital contexts’ could be referred to more simply as ‘digital literacy’ but this is not the same as the wide ranging skill-set (collaboration, identity management and so on) that may be included in portmanteau definitions of ‘digital literacy’, such as the JISC framework. If reading and writing on screen are different from practicing those skills on paper, and there is evidence of difference (e.g. Liu, 2005, Mueller and Oppenheimer 2014) then teaching needs to accommodate screen literacy as well as print literacy. Note: difference does not mean that one mode is necessarily of lesser quality. Nonetheless, if, for example, it is true that reading on screen is not as effective as reading from print (as argued by Carr, 2010, amongst others) then this may be due to a lack of appropriate literacy education rather than inherent properties of print vs digital media. However, if there is no effective construct of ‘digital literacy’ (AKA literacy in digital contexts) then it is difficult to design appropriate teaching and assessment. The current stretching of the term ‘literacy’ to include career management, online safety, programming and so forth means there is a risk that true digital literacy skills – reading and writing multimodal, multiregister, onscreen texts – will be lost in the crowd.


Carr, N. 2010. The shallows: how the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember. London: Atlantic Books.
Liu, Z. (2005). Reading behavior in the digital environment: Changes in reading behavior over the past ten years. Journal of Documentation, 61(6), 700-712
Mueller, A. and Oppenheimer, D.M.  (2014). `The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking’. Psychological Science 25(6):1159-1168.
OFCOM (2014) Internet Citizens 2014: Use of selected citizen-related online content and services 27 November 2014 OFCOM (Independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries) available from accessed 1st April 2015

12 March 2015
by Aisha
1 Comment

Digital literacy or digital competence?

The terms ‘digital literacy’ or ‘digital literacies’ have been in use for some time now to refer to the skills required for using digital tools. Although in common parlance people often say “I’m not computer-literate” to claim that they don’t know how to use computers or other digital technologies, “digital literacy/ies” refers to a wider set of skills or knowledge. For example, Hague and Payton (2010) define digital literacy as the ability to make, represent and share meaning in different modes and formats; to create, collaborate and communicate effectively and to understand how and when digital technologies can best be used to support these processes” (p5). The importance of these skills and knowledge is unarguable but if ‘advanced skills’ replaced the words ‘digital literacy’ then the definition would still make sense. This is because “the ability to make, represent and share meaning in different modes and formats” and “to create, collaborate and communicate effectively” are the skills now expected of an educated person and specific to neither literacy nor digital contexts.

Another definition, from JISC (2014), is “the capabilities which fit someone for living, learning and working in a digital society”.  JISC presents a model with seven components including ‘media literacy’; ‘information literacy’; ‘communications and collaboration’; ‘ICT literacy’ and ‘digital scholarship’. Scholarship, information literacy, collaboration and communication are undoubtedly important academic skills but they are not practiced in exclusively digital contexts or only with digital tools.

To take one example, delivering a good presentation requires the ability to organise ideas and to develop an argument. In addition, an effective presenter needs to be able to speak with confidence and in a way that engages an audience. However, when giving a presentation it is not essential to use digital tools and it is possible to be an excellent presenter with no knowledge of how to use presentation software. It is also possible to be very skilled at creating PowerPoint slides or Prezis without being able to develop an argument or to address an audience. Therefore there are three distinct sets of skills and knowledge in giving a digitally-supported presentation: a) developing the argument and content; b) creating support material and c) performing to the audience. Although we have a general expectation that we all now do our own typing etc., these three facets of a presentation could be carried out by different people. Indeed, for greatest impact it might be better to have each task performed by a specialist.

The task of ‘creating/developing content and argument’ is a cognitive process that requires domain knowledge and clear thinking rather than understanding of how to use digital technology. It also includes finding and incorporating information and it is true that this often involves digital tools (web or library catalogue searches for example) and digital sources (websites, electronic journals, e-books). Being able to conduct an electronic search is a digital skill as is being able to use reference management software such as EndNote or Menderley. However, evaluating information; knowing how and when to paraphrase or quote; synthesizing diverse sources into an argument and knowing how to use/create citations and references are not digital skills; these are academic skills which may be used in digital or non-digital working contexts. The term ‘information literacy’ is sometimes used to refer to the skills required for evaluating information, whether digital or non-digital.

The problem with the broad concept of ‘digital literacy/ies’ is that it confuses non-digital skills and processes that might make use of digital tools, with the skills required to use the tools. I became aware of this confusion when working on a project to explore non-construct-relevant unintended sources of difficulty in proposed tests of ICT in UK secondary schools (Threlfall et al 2007). It seemed that one of the problems with the proposed tests was lack of a clear construct to measure: what it means to be ‘good’ at ICT. The curriculum, and hence the testing, confused procedural knowledge and skills with broader aspects of literacy and communication. Following this, Walker (2007) proposed a model of ‘ICT competence’ based on Canale and Swain’s (1980) model of communicative competence. In Walker and White (2013) this model was slightly revised and renamed ‘digital competence’.

Model of digital competence from Walker and White (2013)


The model contains four components.

  1. Procedural competence: this might be termed the ability to ‘press the correct buttons’. It is the knowledge/skills needed to use a specific piece of hardware/software but does not imply skill or talent with regard to content. For example, a user may know how to use all of the functions of an image manipulation program without having ‘an eye’ for the creation of an artistic picture.
  2. Socio-digital competence: being able to choose and use the appropriate tools and language in a given social context. Professor Dorothy Bishop provides a good example of lack of socio-digital competence in her blog post about communicating with her mobile phone company. The customer service centre asked Professor Bishop to tweet her name and account details in order to resolve a problem even though Twitter is clearly not an appropriate tool for this task.
  3. Digital discourse competence: the ability to carry out extended tasks using digital tools. For example, a student essay involves research, planning, writing and submission and each of these sub-tasks requires different tools. A writer with a high level of digital discourse competence will be able to choose tools appropriate to each task and integrate them in ways that make the entire process as smooth as possible. Extended tasks also require linguistic discourse competence, of course, and in some cases may involve switching between codes or languages.
  4. Strategic competence: as in Canale and Swain’s model, this is the ability to tackle problems, repair mistakes and compensate for gaps in knowledge.

In practice, digital competence must co-exist with communicative competence; traditional literacy; language and domain knowledge. In some cases, the digital competence is the least important aspect because if domain knowledge and language skills are not present then digital skills cannot compensate. Digital competence, can therefore, also be domain-specific and it cannot be assumed that “the ability to make, represent and share meaning in different modes and formats; to create, collaborate and communicate effectively” in one domain (or language) will necessarily translate to any other.


Canale, M. and M. Swain. 1980. ‘Theoretical Bases of Communicative Approaches to Second Language Teaching and Testing’. Applied Linguistics 1/1: 1–47.

Hague, C. and S. Payton (2010). ‘Digital literacy across the Curriculum‘. Slough, Futurelab. accessed 12th March 2015

JISC (2014) Developing students’ digital literacy
accessed 12th March 2015

Threlfall, J.,N. Nelson,, and A. Walker. 2007. Report to QCA on an investigation of the construct relevance of sources of difficulty in the Key Stage 3 ICT tests. London: Qualifications and Curriculum Agency

Walker, S. A. 2007. ‘What Does it Mean to Be Good at ICT?’ School of Education Research Conference, University of Leeds 14th May 2007. Available online from British Education Index <> accessed 12th March 2015.

Walker, A. and White, G. Technology Enhanced Language Learning: connecting theory and practice Oxford: Oxford University Press


Ferrari (2012) presents another model of digital competence which included ‘information management’; ‘collaboration’; ‘communication and sharing’; ‘creation of content and knowledge’; ‘ethics and responsibility’; ‘evaluation and problem-solving’ and ‘technical operations’. (Ferrari, A. Digital Competence in Practice: an analysis of frameworks JRC Technical Reports, Luxembourg, European Commission accessed 12th March 2015).

5 March 2015
by Aisha
1 Comment

The authority of writing

I stumbled across a supermarket leaflet on its way to the recycling bin.   The leaflet was promoting post-new year ‘healthy’ special offers such as fruit chunks and yogurt-coated flakes. Leaving aside the question of why a leaflet dated early January was floating around my house in mid-February, my eye was caught by this tip: “Take a break. Ensuring you eat right is vital but exercising is equally as important. Taking fifteen minutes on your lunch break for a brisk walk is great – and it’s free!” This is undoubtedly sensible advice but the reason that my attention was grabbed was not because I need more exercise but because of the way that written publication conferred authority. “Go for a walk” is an obvious tip and one that anyone might give to a friend of colleague. When it appeared in print, however, my first assumption was that the text had been written by an expert in health or medicine even though, almost certainly, the entire leaflet was composed by marketing staff.

One of the most significant digital age phenomena is the quantity of published written material now available and this has been the case since the first days of the worldwide web. It has always been possible for anyone to create and publish a website and now it is almost as easy to self-publish an e-book which can then be sold through distributors such as Amazon or to create a professional-looking paper or leaflet. The problem of evaluating website information has been recognised for many years and there are several guides available, often published by university library services. For example, Edinburgh University has a very good example which advises students to think about aspects such as audience, authority, accuracy and currency. The University of Leeds has an “Information Evaluation Checklist” in the form of a downloadable pdf which applies the questions to any form of information including books.

The ability to evaluate information is often seen as an aspect of ‘digital literacies’ but, as the Leeds resource indicates, it applies equally to non-digital texts. It is often called ‘information literacy’ and is an important aspect of literacy in general. Digital texts do not carry more authority than non-digital texts; it is the air of professionalism conveyed by print that confers authority. The problem of authority can also be seen, to some extent, in YouTube videos. However, the background seen in video helps to convey information about the authority of the content. For example, somebody recording with a bedroom webcam does not have the appearance of an expert even if that person is a world-renowned professor. Finding a recording space that suggests professionalism can be tricky but with online print, however, it is easy to present material in a way that indicates expertise. As Arthur in Cabin Pressure: “But there’s this website that makes it really simple, even if you’re completely clueless. You can make it play music, and the words flash, and, you know, put in things like the line of dancing aeroplanes – you know, make it look … make it look really professional.”* Arthur’s design, of course, contains several elements that we now understand as visual indicators of amateurism such as flashing text and animated images. On the other hand a plain background without decorative images, equally easy to create with “this website that makes it really simple” conveys instant professionalism whether it is merited or not.

As I have said elsewhere, there are good quality academic blogs where the authors have genuine expertise, even renown and the challenge for students is to distinguish between those texts and others which, on the surface, appear to be of equal standing. This caution should also be applied not only to e-books and other electronic texts but also to paper.  As academics and teachers we have always told students to be wary of grey literature but my encounter with the supermarket leaflet was a reminder of how easy it is to forget that print does not equal authority (and that I need to be more pro-active with recycling paper at home).


25 February 2015
by Aisha

Resources for language teachers

This week I presented two professional development webinars for Oxford University Press.  During the sessions I asked participants to suggest resources that they would recommend and the response was fantastic!  Here are all the links from the webinars.  Oxford University Press maintains its own list of teacher resources at

Links from 26th February

Links from 25th February

24 February 2015
by Aisha
1 Comment

Language Skills in a Digital Age

This is the presentation that accompanied my keynote at the Tunisia TESOL Second International Conference.

Digital technologies are not only tools that we use ‘to do things’ but also provide important sites for communication and literacy. In the digital age much of our day-to-day personal and professional communication is mediated by technology, for example: email; social media such as Facebook or Twitter; ‘video’ games and online/mobile messaging and telephony. We read online: newspapers; blogs; Wikipedia and we write emails, blog posts and status updates. We talk and we listen not only to individuals but to online radio, YouTube videos and to podcasts. We use digital tools for shopping, banking, travel and, not least, for learning. When using digital tools we may be communicating with people that we know but there are many circumstances in which digitally-mediated communication takes place between strangers. The ways that we use language in these digital settings may be different from the ways that language is used in face-to-face or paper-based contexts and this has implications for the teaching of language. In addition, in online settings, several language skills may be used within one interaction as when speakers switch between speaking and writing chat messages during a Skype call. In this talk I considered whether there are new or different language skills needed for digital-age learners and what the implications may be for teaching.

5 January 2015
by Aisha

Twelve Days of Giving: Refugee Action

The Christmas story begins in Bethlehem but ends with the mass murder of infants and the holy family becoming refugees when they flee to safety in Egypt. Refugee Action supports refugees and asylum seekers who come to the UK.  The charity offers legal advice; helps people to find homes; supports wellbeing and provides specialist support to women refugees.  At various times in my career I have had the privilege of working with refugees/asylum seekers and will never cease to be astonished and humbled by the courage that people show when they find themselves rebuilding their lives in a strange country.


4 January 2015
by Aisha

Twelve Days of Giving: Unicef

The Christmas story has a dark side. The Wise Men called on King Herod to ask for directions to the birthplace of the new King.  Herod was afraid for his own throne and power  and so he ordered that every boy under the age of two, in the Bethlehem area, should be killed.  This story is remembered in the Coventry Carol but is usually omitted from the readings in carol services.  However, because of this part of the Christmas story, Christmas should be a time to remember children in danger or need. The goal of  Unicef is that all children should have a safe environment, clean water, enough food, health care and education.