Handouts – Beware the sell by date

As we were discussing digital literacies in our PBL group recently, we started talking about what teachers of online/distant courses can do to improve students’ digital literacy. We agreed that digital literacy greatly enhances online learning such as enabling students to access resources and collaborate beyond the classroom (Keegan, H. et al 2009).

But how do teachers of online courses get all their students up to scratch so that nobody feels left behind, isolated, frustrated and eventually drops out? How do you teach digital literacies?

One suggestion was to use handouts. Give students handouts about how to use Twitter, G+, Hangouts, Collaborate, Google docs, Storify etc and they’ll become digitally literate.

This took me back to my student days. I used to love it when lecturers gave us handouts. It meant we didn’t have to take notes. Or concentrate. Or think. We had the handout which solidified All I Need to Know About This in a once-and-for-all format. The subject was closed. The handout was the last word.

This led me to think that such a static form of teaching content was probably inappropriate in an environment where the very meaning of literacy is changing so rapidly (Belshaw 2012). Today’s handout will be obsolete so quickly – but how’s the student to know that? It won’t send a notification to the student’s inbox alerting him that paragraph 3 of the handout is no longer valid! How will the student update their understanding and skills if they are used to waiting for handouts?

We create a dependency and that’s not going to enable them to become digitally literate for life rather than for yesterday.

If I reflect on how I have worked to develop my own digital literacy in recent years, I find it  is always self-directed and usually starts with an online search for the latest tutorials (always check the dates though!). If I encounter a problem, I’ll go online to find an answer. For example, I discovered at the start of this course that Collaborate no longer worked on my Mac because of various secret updates it didn’t tell me about. It wasn’t a problem Salford’s IT helpdesk had come across so they couldn’t help. But I did find the answer on the San Jose University website in their Blackboard Collaborate recently-updated FAQs!

Similarly, I’ve used G+ and hangouts a lot since starting this course. I’d never used them before. As it happens, I was a fairly early adopter of G+ but lost interest because nobody I knew was using it so it was pretty lonely and I couldn’t get a feel for how it could help me. I went back to twitter which was where I felt comfortable.

I always promised myself I’d look into Google Hangouts because they sounded pretty cool but I was just too busy to invest the time into doing that.

Then suddenly I find myself having to organise group discussions online and G+ and Hangouts now seem the answer to all my needs! As a result, I am suddenly no longer too busy and I have invested time into finding tutorials online, looking at forums etc to answer all the questions I have. I’ve updated my digital literacy with the new knowledge I need for the latest task.

So I think it’s not simply a case of “teaching” our students digital literacies with a set of handouts or similar static information. I think we need to create the motivation that makes them want to learn this new stuff (Belshaw 2013) otherwise they’ll just see it as another time suck.

Then we need to foster in students the ability to Google their way out of any situation. The knowledge they need doesn’t sit on a handout waiting for them to look at it. The knowledge is being created, updated, remixed and shared every second online all around the world.

I now need to think how we might actually foster those behaviours and whether there is anything in my current practice which encourages or discourages this.


Belshaw, D. (2012). What is’ digital literacy’? A Pragmatic investigation(Doctoral dissertation, Durham University).

Belshaw, Douglas Tedx Talk YouTube. Available TEDxWarwick – Doug Belshaw – The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies Accessed 13.10.13.

Keegan, H et al (2009) ‘Mentoring For 21st Century Skills – It’s all about the Learning’ University of Salford


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