Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Do online communities depend on digital skills for their success?

Back now from an absolutely stunning holiday in Iceland - for those of you able to get there! it is a must! But more of that in another post.......

My work on behalf of my African client has repeatedly brought up stark contrasts in the development of learning between Africa and the northern hemisphere environments. It has also highlighted the massive differences between the supposedly more sophisticated and emerging economy of South Africa, the continent's apparent powerhouse, and the creativity in the use of technology enabled solutions evidenced in some of the world's most poverty stricken and least developed places. One of the consistent themes in all those situations is the degree of digital skill available to learning professionals in seeking to help their clients - whether executives of a European corporate, students in a South African university or a pregnant lady in rural Tanzania.

A new post about the levels of digital awareness, skill and patterns of usage in the UK's massive Open University suggests that the dominant factor amongst its students is nothing to do with age, and even the hardware and platforms employed are secondary to the student's motivation.

"What the researchers do find interesting and worthy of further study is the correlation – which is independent of age -- between attitudes to technology and approaches to studying. In short, students who more readily use technology for their studies are more likely than others to be deeply engaged with their work.
“Those students who had more positive attitudes to technology were more likely to adopt a deep approach to studying, more likely to adopt a strategic approach to studying and less likely to adopt a surface approach to studying.” (
Cheryl Brown and Laura Czerniewicz ( found that only 22% of students entering university in South Africa were computer illiterate, but that virtually all of them were mobile literate. So what is the meaning of digital literacy? The reason is that computer access (whether desktop or laptop) is very restricted in poor communities and bandwidth costs restrict things even further. Students therefore use the medium that is available to them and which they can afford. There are many good examples in South Africa of creative use of the social media in back-channels to supplement both face to face and formal learning presented through mobiles. In South Africa there is a high penetration fo Smart phones, especially amongst young people.
In East Africa, where there is virtually no access outside the commercial and urban world to computers and where Smart phones are economically out of the reach of a large proportion of the population, there are amazing examples of simple mobile telephony being harnessed as a cheap, easy to use and accessible means of delivering learning.
The Open University study shows a different picture if looked at in the light of computer versus mobile literacy, with the younger generations using more mobile technology than their older counterparts, but not necessarily from the basis of skills - rather more about the natural medium each group uses in which to communicate.
What is apparent in all three of the scenarios is that
  • Students commitment to learning is the dominant motivating factor - overcoming apparent shortcomings in both technology and skills
  • Provided there is accessible technology, access and content - students will adapt and learn
Terrie Lynn Thompson's work at the Digital Opportunity Trust shows the same kind of conclusions from a global study (
What Terrie Lynn's post goes on to illustrate is that some simple re-arrangement of curriculum and presentation can give great advantages in the take-up and application of formal learning
So how does this apply to online communities?
For me, the lessons are clear. It starts with the motivation to learn. Whether it is
  • the frequently seen situation of several students to a desk, sharing a pencil and a single sheet of paper in a rural African school, but with the guidance and leadership of a committed, enthusiastic teacher who inspires the student
  • 100 children in East Africa gathered around a single TV to watch a virtual classroom maths lesson, guided by a teacher to answer questions after the broadcast
  • Mastercard's phenomenal take-up rate of their leadership programme once htey opened it to all employees globally in real time that entailed people around the world logging in at all hours of the day and night
  • the student back-channel using Twitter to help one another understand a face to face university lecture
  • a British primary school class of 9 year olds creating their own Facebook community to provide excellent homework responses on a mutual help basis (much to the chagrin of the teacher who was initially outraged by perceiving that the kids were simply copying!)
  • Telecomms artisans and technicians using mobile phones and YouTube to record their experiences real time to help their colleagues learn
  • learning professionals coming together through informal and open access communities to share experience, ask questions and explore issues eg
the medium is secondary to wanting to learn. In seeking to develop learning communities that work we need to be conscious of what is possible in terms of platforms and media - and to choose from those that are possible, ones that will make the intended participants feel comfortable and empowered.
Recent posts about the accuracy and relevance of Prensky's 90:9:1 participation model then become irrelevant other than as guideline. London Business School's study of the highly successful Capgemini consulting company's Yammer community indicates a 98% lurking population, which on analysis is made up of professional consultants using the community simply to access high quality information posted by their colleagues and the company's thought leaders (amounting to about 0.03% of the community). Paul Schneider's post ( suggests that Prensky may be out of date as the digital community has developed as a concept, suggesting rather a 70:20:10 model. Again what is clear to me is the need for relevance and appropriateness - choosing a medium which works for the content it is designed to encompass, the skills and comfort levels of the participants, and the accessibility of the technology.
These are challenges indeed for the modern learning professional seeking to help those s/he works with to work smarter. These are just some of the things we need to be as Champions in a world of Social Continuous learning

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