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Digital Literacies at Plymouth University

Project: Student Experience Enhancement through Driving the Plymouth Embedding of Digital Literacies (SEEDPoD)

Institution: Plymouth University

Programme: Developing Digital Literacies 


" The impact [the project] has had on strategy, process and institutional structure has resulted in an embedded, sustainable approach to institutional understanding and adoption of digital literacy"


This is an edited version of the project's institutional story (final report). Please refer to the original for details of all references and additional information.




Plymouth University has been committed to investigating and embedding digital literacy for a number of years. It was identified as a priority in the University’s 2008-2012 Teaching and Learning Strategy and a number of digital literacy areas were investigated in 2010 by a Jisc funded Building Capacity project.


The SEEDPoD project has built on earlier work by undertaking a range of activities including:

  • Audit of systems, policies, infrastructure and data
  • Collating views from academic and support staff on use of, and practice with, existing software and hardware systems and identifying digital literacy concerns
  • Surveying staff and students, and running focus groups around the current and future use of technology, confidence in using technology and identifying digital literacy and other support needs
  • Recommending institutional change on digital literacy issues around:
  • Infrastructure
  • Support
  • Curriculum Design


Plymouth like many HE institutions has been through a rapid process of change following the publication of the  ‘Students at the heart of the system’ White Paper. The process and outcomes of these institutional changes resulted in a number of key opportunities that allowed the SEEDPoD project to make a significant impact on the embedding of digital literacy in to many key areas of the institution. These included:

  • Strategic: to ensure digital literacy is part of new institutional strategies
  • Process: to embed digital Literacy into new and existing processes, such as the recently introduced Performance Development Framework
  • Sustainable: to embed into digital diteracy into Curriculum Design 
  • Restructuring: to design and implement a digital literacy support system that impacts on all areas of the institution – students, academic and professional support staff


These changes have been made possible because the project was able to utilise unexpected opportunities by providing evidence, advocacy and direction. It has been successful in embedding digital literacy into Plymouth University’s key corporate strategies.


These strategies contribute to Faculty/School Plans, which, through the Performance Development Framework, create a focus for staff digital literacy development needs. These are then fed through to appropriate support services, a significant part of which is offered through a new department - Academic Support, Technology and Innovation (ASTI). The recommendation for the ASTI structure was also based on the SEEDPoD baseline recommendations. ASTI is made up of the SEEDPoD project team, Learning Technologists, and the newly created roles of Information specialists and Digital Skills Developers. In total ASTI has 35 members of staff and includes the following functions:

  • Strong focus around digital literacy
  • Faculty support via Learning Technologists based centrally and in the faculties
  • Part of Technology and Information Services, to facilitate embedding and sustainability of innovation 
  • Single point of entry all digital literacy training, support and resources
  • Developing a new Curriculum Design approach
  • Focus on community development


The opportunities taken by the project and the impact it has had on strategy, process and institutional structure has resulted in an embedded, sustainable approach to institutional understanding and adoption of digital literacy.  


Headline achievements


The most outstanding impact of the SEEDPoD project has been its effectiveness in embedding the digital literacies agenda into a range of areas of the institution.


It has been successful in providing the evidence and advocacy to get digital literacy into the key statements of Plymouth University aims that are its

  • Digital Strategy
  • Teaching, Learning and the Student Experience Strategy 2013-2020
  • University Strategy 2020
  • Academic Partnerships’ Digital Strategy


These strategies contribute to Faculty and School Plans and the new Performance Development Framework (PDR), which replaces the appraisal system, draws on these plans to focus staff development. Digital literacy needs are identified through the PDR and fed to appropriate support.


SEEDPoD has also been active in this area in proposing improvements to how support will be accessed by both students and staff. Outcomes from this include:

  • Single point of access
  • Unified digital literacy courses booking tool
  • Digital literacy skills module for students for 2014
  • ASTI working group for digital literacy support for postgraduate students
  • ASTI working group for digital literacy support to new Plymouth students at induction
  • ASTI working group to examine how best to communicate and engage with stakeholders


ASTI (Academic Support, Technology and Innovation) itself came into being as a result of the findings of the SEEDPoD baseline report and the Plymouth 2015 Review of University services.


Another area that will have a huge impact on the Plymouth student experience in the next year is that of curriculum design. The audit carried out by this project revealed a number of issues resulting in the formation of the Curriculum Design and Development Task and Finish Group chaired by PVC Teaching and Learning. This is now incorporated into a new SEEDPoD Plus project that will be making changes to curriculum processes and data management as part of the Plymouth University Curriculum Enrichment Implementation Group.


The project has run 20 digital literacy workshops and webinars that have examined digital literacy through the lens of a particular piece of technology, in this case an iPad. This was chosen due to its perception by staff and students as a cutting edge piece of technology and that a number of schools and faculties have introduced them for teaching purposes. The ’Talking about iPads/Digital Literacies’ workshop has also been run as webinars for SEEDPoD partner, ALDinHE.


Key drivers


When the project was conceived, Plymouth University recognised that digital literacy, to a greater or lesser extent, was having an impact on all staff, students and institutional practice and it had already undertaken a small scale digital literacy  review as part of its 2009-2012 Teaching and Learning Strategy. This work highlighted areas for development, such as the need to better integrate university strategies and priorities into the process of course design, monitoring, review and validation and to ensure consistency of the use of technology across all programmes.


There was a need to build on this by undertaking a wider and deeper study to investigate the digital literacy needs of a range of stakeholders and to identify a range of appropriate interventions required to make a step change in adoption of the digital skills across our stakeholder groups and to promote the 'normalising' of digital literacies as an integral part of the student experience across the University and partner further education institutions.   


Strategic drivers

Plymouth's 2009-2012 Teaching and Learning Strategy addressed the role Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL). Specifically this centred on provision of flexible access to materials, support for staff to teach flexibly and providing the necessary infrastructure necessary to enable these aspirations.


A TEL action plan was developed as part of the University’s Teaching and Learning Strategy[1] to address the requirements of the University’s strategies and priorities whilst maximising the effectiveness of institutional investment into TEL and to exploit the outputs and outcomes from our externally funded projects. It aligned the University with the HEFCE strategy, Jisc vision and the Higher Ambitions Report as this alignment will assist in aligning the University with best practice from the HE sector.


The primary activities arising from the mapping of priorities in the TEL action plan were:

  • aligning University of Plymouth TEL services to national recommendations and good practice in areas such as e-assessment, e-portfolio, podcasting and exploiting web2.0 technologies
  • the use of OER and the introduction of a Learning Object Economy
  • further utilisation of TEL in assessment processes, including feedback
  • enhanced and co-ordinated staff development across the University to support the embedding of TEL and associated pedagogies
  • assisting the University in creating digitally literate students and staff


Changes in these areas should be mediated by developments in the areas of unifying strategic priorities and stakeholder engagement and development. Building on the experiences of JISC funded UsPaCe project and the Higher Education Learning Partnership (HELP) CETL work into Communities and Communities of Practice, SEEDPoD aimed to develop cross-institutional, sustainable and scalable communities of stakeholders, linked to suitable support materials and resources.


Existing Skills and Practice

Digital literacy has a much wider scope than skill acquisition. It should equip students and staff to maintain and grow their ability to use and choose from a wide range of digital media for the purposes of communication, collaboration and knowledge acquisition - all vital facets contributing to employability in the 21st century. Indeed there is ample evidence of the centrality of digital skills and practices to many, if not most, professions (e.g. Technology Insights, 2011) but that graduates are not adequately prepared to fulfil this aspect of their future careers (e.g. Researchers of Tomorrow).


Whilst there were pockets of excellence within Plymouth University, digital literacies were not sufficiently embedded within teaching or staff's own practice to be regarded as mainstream. Staff were finding problems in doing so because of a systemic lack of support and supporting structures. Responsibilities were not defined and there were no institution level commitments to guarantee learners parity of experience and opportunity in relation to digital literacy.


Curriculum Design and Delivery

Just prior to the SEEDPoD project, the Jisc funded BCUP project found that students at this institution experienced a lack of consistency within academic programmes across a range of services e.g. accessing lecture materials, lecturer skills and preferences. It also noted a failure to differentiate across programmes where this would be beneficial to allow different:

  • kinds of communication and collaboration
  • professional ICT tools
  • modes of access to learning materials
  • evidence gathering and recording for learning outcomes
  • use of personal devices
  • choice of study location
  • teaching styles
  • modes of assessment and feedback

This was exacerbated by uneven provision across the campus buildings and partner institutions. 


Institutional Champions

The importance of taking a whole institution approach to digital literacies was embraced and advocated at high level by several key senior managers including Bill Rammell the Deputy Vice Chancellor with responsibility for the student experience, and internationalisation, Professor Pauline Kneale, Pro Vice Chancellor Teaching and Learning, and Professor Mary Watkins also Deputy Vice Chancellor. Other senior managers who have been key to the success of the project are Professor Neil Witt, Head of Technology Enhanced Learning, Ajay Burlingham-Böhr, Interim Chief Information Office 2011-2012 and Mark Stone Associate Professor, Head of UK Partnerships in Academic Partnerships and a project team with considerable experience of Jisc projects and large education related projects.



The baseline audit carried out as part of the Jisc funded Building Capacity project produced a number of recommendations for further action to assist in the embedding of digital literacies in to the curriculum delivery (short term) and design (long term) processes of the University. 


BCUP also noted that students could be effective drivers for encouraging the embedding of digital literacy into academic practice, e.g. a module with good use embedding of digital literacy that ran across several programmes prompted students to ask why all modules on their programmes weren't the same. 


Organisational context


The Institution

The University is based in the South West of England and has 30,000 students and 3000 staff, most of which are based at its Plymouth campus. It has one of the largest and longest established HE in FE partnerships in the country, which was identified as an area of good practice by the QAA. The Partnerships Faculty brings together the strengths of an increasingly research-informed University with the local and vocational focus provided by FE institutions across the South West and has developed a genuinely collaborative approach to ensuring high quality learning for all HE students. The University is committed to harnessing and exploiting new technologies to enhance the teaching and learning experience in all its forms.


Plymouth aspires to be the enterprise university and, in partnership with business and the public sector plays a distinctive role in the development, application and exchange of knowledge in the city, the region and beyond. Lifelong learning, employability and workforce development are intrinsic elements within its strategies.


It is currently revising its Teaching and Learning Strategy. At this time, key themes are that the University will be responsive and opportunist, reflecting the changing needs of individual, professional bodies and the workforce. This is reinforced by the commitment to extend its provision to better support employers and those currently in employment and to harness and exploit new technologies that enhance the teaching and learning experience.


The University has voiced its commitment to digital literacies through at senior management level. According to the Vice Chancellor, Professor Wendy Purcell[2] it aimed to place emphasis on innovation and ...

  •  use of technology in course delivery, assessment, and learning resources
  • employability
  • entrepreneurship and social enterprise
  • flexible pathways - part time, modular - which technology can help to knit up
  • e.g. PebblePad - given digital literacy skills
  • placements, internships, work experience - again which technology can support
  • global citizenship


Partner institutions

University Plymouth Colleges (UPC) faculty is a partnership with 18 institutions in the South West of England. The partnership consists of mostly colleges of further education that are offering higher education in further education (HE in FE) validated by Plymouth University. UPC covers a vast area running between Gloucester, Weymouth and Cornwall and in the last academic year approximately 10,000 students were registered, though since many were part-time, the FTE (Full Time Equivalent) figure was around 7,000. These awards include around 350 Foundation Degrees, 80 HNCs (mostly “embedded” in the former), 5 HNDs, 15 Bachelor's degrees and a variety of CPD offers of up to 60 credits. 


Plymouth University is responsible for assuring academic standards of these programmes part of which includes ascertaining how students will interact with technology, particularly in relation to mode of delivery.


Project Staff

The project was made up of team members, already in place, with experience, knowledge and networks gained from a range of externally funded, technology and partnerships related projects. These are shown in Table 3.1 of the final report.



The Association for Learning Development in Higher Education (ALDinHE) is a professional association for Learning Developers that evolved from a Jisc mail discussion list. Members are interested in helping students to develop their study academic literacies, of which the digital element is recognised to be increasingly important.



A wide range of stakeholder groups influenced the development of the project.  Table 3.2 of the final report gives an overview and a brief indication of their roles.


Baseline audit

Persistent themes have emerged from consultation and conversations with staff and students at a range of levels and from a variety of services and faculties. In relation to existing digital literacies, it was a point of agreement that students and academic and support staff come to the university with very different levels of interest, competence and confidence in the use of ICT. Yet there was no institutional norm related to digital literacy, or even an institutional definition until the start of the SEEDPoD project, just an expectation that staff will either have the skills to support students, or individuals will be able to obtain these skills through academic practice or personal development.


The factors that influenced an individual’s future development vary according to:

  • personal interest
  • what is brought to their attention
  • what is used directly as part of their programme of study
  • module choice.


However, a number of factors unduly influenced an individual’s access to, and the development of the skills and practice associated with digital literacy. In part this was due to a confusing choice of tools and support that:

  • tend to lack visibility
  • can be fragmented
  • lack coherence
  • sometimes overlap


This highlighted the need to promote tools and systems and the context in which they can be used. Also there was a necessity to ensure the correct level of support available to all users.


The use, relevance and efficacy of systems also required review to ensure access to a portfolio of systems, tools and support that meet user needs. In some instances, important university-wide systems had no or vaguely articulated ownership therefore no one took responsibility for maintenance and development. This highlighted the requirement for governance for all systems and the need to ensure developments are sustainable and can be embedded in on-going strategic developments.


Section 3.5 of the final report provides further details around the following areas:

  • Strategy, policy
  • Curriculum design processes
  • Human resources
  • Technology environment
  • Student support
  • Staff support
  • Student baseline practices
  • Staff baseline practices
  • Curriculum design and delivery


The project Baseline Report provides a fuller explanation of the findings. 


Models Used

The SEEDPoD baseline work was framed around the LLiDA institutional audit tool (2009) to give interviews a consistent and comprehensive scope. It was adapted to be relevant to faculties and to university services. Those who took part were given the Jisc definition of digital literacies. None felt the need to reflect on this but focussed on the aspects that were most relevant to their level and role.


The Beetham and Sharpe (2010) framework has also been a useful means of thinking about

  • The scope of digital literacies as they transition from skills to practice
  • The breadth and specificity of digital literacies as they apply to differing contexts.


Project approach


Conceptual Models

In addition to frameworks mentioned above, the Jisc digital literacy definitions were used as the basis for the work of this project. However, over time, it became apparent that these can be usefully grouped the roles of a consumer of digital content; a producer of digital content; and as a practitioner in the digital world . Each of these roles draws on a combination of the seven elements of digital literacy. 

Stakeholder engagement and communication

Stakeholders have been engaged in a variety of formal and informal ways, which have transitioned over the life of the project. These have included project website, blog, Twitter account and RSS feed for awareness raising.


SEEDPoD has worked alongside a community of senior managers, academic and professional staff and given a voice to student stakeholders in the University and partner college and feeder institutions.


At the outset there were semi formal interviews and focus groups that were a means of engaging stakeholders, students and staff, and helping them to see skills and practices in relation to eLearning in the wider and more holistic context of digital literacies.


Other engagement and communication activities are shown in Table 4.1 of the final report.


There would have been significant and varied stakeholder engagement activities through the pilots. However the Plymouth 2015 review provided an unanticipated opportunity to bypass piloting and gave the project team a unique opportunity to implement institution-wide changes with the support of the University’s senior management team. This is discussed more fully in Section 4.8.


Strategic change

Normalisation of digital literacies has been a cornerstone of the Plymouth learning experience. This required not only the inclusion of digital literacy in relevant strategies but also that this was translated into action through project engagement with a limited number of University areas identified by the baseline study. These key areas were identified as curriculum design, staff development and Performance Development Review (PDR). The means of achieving changes to both policy and practice was to be producing evidence to support SEEDPoD recommendations and to communicate this at multiple levels, from senior management down, within the University. Identifying appropriate individuals, arenas and messengers would be an important and urgent task for the project.



Without the supporting technological infrastructure, there would be only limited value in having digital literacy embedded into strategy and practice. Providing an appropriate environment, however, is a journey and not a destination therefore a follow up to a 2011 survey for staff and students would explore the direction developing technology use and practices and allow recommendations for the future.


Developing people

Digital literacy only being one of number of agendas competing for the attention of staff and students, the project took the view that strategic change would hold the key to widespread acceptance. If successful in this respect, it would be necessary to ensure that individuals would be able to develop their own digital skills and practices.


Whilst developing students as champions or change agents, either individually or in groups is hugely beneficial for those concerned, but would be unsustainable beyond the life of the project. It also presented a knowledge management challenge in that at the end of their course, that expertise is lost.


Also, though the project planned to create materials, these quickly date. It was felt that in Plymouth’s case a bigger challenge to developing digital literacies was access to and discoverability of support and materials by developing a single point of entry for all digital skills linking to sustainable and embeddable resources, activities, cases studies etc..


See section 4 of the final report for further discussion of project management issues and evaluation approaches.




Visit the SEEDPOD Project Website for details of all project outputs. These include resources around:


Digital Literacies

Digital Tools

iPADS workshop

Postgraduate reseacher skills

Video Case Studies


Further outputs and deliverables are detailed in section 5 and appendix A of the final report including the outcomes and impact of these. 


Sustaining and embedding


See Table 7.1. of the final report.


Lessons learned and reflection


“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” (attributed to SunTzu ‘the Art of War’)


These summarise the facets of the projects that it is felt maximised impact. They will contain nothing new or unique, the challenge is to recognise them for what they are and use them to their best advantage. This, however, is easier said than done, and often only time will tell whether something or someone is an opportunity or a threat. Having evidence and the conviction to act on it is high risk but can bring high rewards.


Digital literacy audit and contextualisation

Disciplinary differences is still an area of interest but finding a means of using them proactively remains a challenge for the moment. An appropriate audit tool should enable learners to identify what they need to develop but equally importantly, it should help to articulate what skills they have and to what level. The latter is an important aspect of employability evidenced by the pervasive nature of technology in the most professions.


Investigation of existing tools has shown them to be too superficial to be useful or too detailed to be practical. Also the more detailed an audit, the more likely it is to be too specialist for widespread application.


Definitions can be a distraction

It is possible to get side-tracked by the need to precisely define literacies. The two problems with this are

  • Technologies, practices and skills are constantly evolving e.g. the iPad has gone from non-existent to an industry standard tool in some branches of the Arts within the space of 3 years.
  • A description can have different meanings for different audiences.
  • Relevant literacies vary in content and level from module to module.


Taking a broad brush approach, such as talking about the literacies needed to enable production or consumption of digital material, or using a piece of widely used technology can be a gateways to helping different groups think about what literacies means for them.


Senior manager buy in is essential

Although getting digital literacy included in high level strategy is not a guarantee of impact, no enduring change of this sort is achievable without it. Influencing strategy is impossible unless senior managers can be convinced that your vision has merit. See quotation above.


Evidence, evidence, evidence

Senior managers are influenced by hard evidence. They don’t have time for long reports; a two page executive summary of baseline recommendations - not an original deliverable – was a useful document to have available. 


Change can be good

Change can work to a project’s advantage as it creates voids to be filled and frees off otherwise stuck systems.


Use every opportunity

The team used major changes at the institution as an opportunity to input in to the shape and direction of new policies, strategies and processes in the areas of technology, curriculum design and staff recruitment/development. These were all areas identified in the baseline study as being key influences on the degree to which digital literacies would become embedded in the Plymouth student experience.


Use existing networks

Creating something new is risky and brings sustainability problems. Working through existing groups or communities of interest increases the likelihood of having impact beyond the life of the project. Transference of ownership is less problematic when there is a ready made group to continue the work.