Gently down the stream(ing): Can digital literacy help turn the tide on the climate crisis? 

Gently down the stream(ing): Can digital literacy help turn the tide on the climate crisis? 

The ubiquitous availability of digital content and web services has transformed the way we live, work, and learn (List et al., 2020). Technology provides us with tools to manage and accomplish work, content to entertain us, and applications to document, store and share our lives online. It is within this context that digital literacy features prominently in policy documentation and educational literature, recognising digital literacy as an essential skill for 21st-century living (Pérez-Escoda et al., 2019). However, as we stand on the precipice of climate disaster, is it time for digital literacy to focus its attention on the impact our increasing digital activity has on the environment?

Environmental impact of users’ digital lives

In education circles, conversations around the impact of educational technology on our environment have begun in earnest (Facer & Selwyn, 2021), however, this is less evident regarding the use of digital content and tools in our day-to-day lives. The usage of streaming services, for example, has soared in recent years and while providers such as Netflix have improved efficiencies in these services, their carbon footprint is still significant (Stephens et al., 2021).

Our music consumption habits have also shifted away from physical media, but overall greenhouse gas emissions from storing and distributing music online have doubled since 2000 (Brennan, 2019). Social media activity continues to increase at a remarkable pace, and a significant carbon cost (Perrin, 2015), and popular apps like TikTok and Reddit have a disproportionately large carbon footprint. Our regular scrolling of ‘news feeds’ contributes carbon emissions equivalent to a short light vehicle journey, per person, per day (Derudder, 2021).

This online activity, coupled with our desire to store data in the cloud, means data centres account for 1% of the global energy demand (Obringer et al., 2021). The continued desire for the latest phone is also costing more than our wallets, with the environmental impact of the device lifecycle being well documented (MacGilchrist et al., 2021). Current figures suggest that over half of consumers in many EU countries renew their devices every 18 – 24 months.

In our work environment, too, our digital impact must be acknowledged. While conferencing platforms such as Zoom come with great environmental benefits when compared with face-to-face meetings and conferences, further efficiencies can be achieved by challenging ‘camera on’ policies. A seemingly innocuous task like sending 65 text emails can cost as much carbon as a short car journey, and when factors such as attachments are considered, the cost is even higher (Duncan, 2022). This snapshot reveals just some of the impacts of our digital lives, some of which our students are unaware of.

Current focus of digital literacy and digital literacy frameworks

An acknowledgment of the need to develop our students’ digital literacy has existed since Gilster (1997) first coined the term and defined it as “the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of [digital] sources”.

Definitions of digital literacy have remained remarkably consistent in the decades that followed, focusing on the ability to source, evaluate and use digital information. In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis on content creation and communicating using digital channels. However, academic definitions of digital literacy lack any real focus on the environmental cost of our digital activities. In fact, there is little evidence of this aspect of digital literacy being discussed in academic literature.

There are many digital literacy frameworks available to help academics and other users understand digital literacy and its competencies. Only the UNESCO and DigiComp frameworks refer to the environmental impact of technologies and their use, and this is nestled under the ’digital safety’ strand. The range of digital literacy frameworks (e.g. DigiComp, UNESCO, JISC) and volume of journal publications suggests that academics and policymakers are committed to the development of digital literacy, however, it appears that the impact of our digital lives on the environment has been largely left out of the debate. 

Shifting our focus

Calls for action to avert a climate catastrophe are becoming more strident. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (2022) paints a very troubling picture regarding the widespread and severe impacts of climate change. We must act now. We must adapt our practices and become more sustainable in everything we do.

I believe we can refocus our attention on digital literacy to guide our students to being more critical users of technology and understanding its impact on our world. Using familiar language and strategies, we might encourage students to identify their current digital activities and analyse their carbon footprint, before evaluating areas where improvements can be made. Students could be encouraged to construct new meaning from their investigations by capturing trends associated with work, study and social practices, and communicating these findings with a wider audience.

This shift in focus is essentially a repurposing of what we already ask our students to do with regard to digital content, but targeted at addressing the authentic and urgent issue of climate change. While frameworks such as DigiComp and UNESCO should be commended for including environmental impact, further development of this area should be encouraged.

Digital literacy frameworks should provide a detailed scaffold which encourages a multidimensional understanding of digital tools, their impact on the environment, and consideration of actions that can be taken to affect change. Developing this aspect of digital literacy would increase students’ awareness of the ‘cost’ of technology and promote a more critical use of the tools and services they use in their day-to-day lives.

Conclusion

The coming years present major challenges for society to tackle the climate emergency. It is crucial that we shift our mindset and begin to understand the impact our actions have on the environment, and make the necessary changes to recalibrate our relationship with nature.

Changes are required in all aspects of our lives, from energy and waste, to the provision and rewilding of natural spaces. While a refocussing of digital literacy and digital competencies in this way is not the panacea to the situation, it can act as a move in the right direction, one more component of our lives where we begin to understand and address our toll on the environment.

The post is an abridged version of an article in the upcoming (October 2022) issue of the Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy

Key Messages

Society’s use of digital and online content is increasing

Digital literacy is recognised as a set of competencies for this digital world

Our day-to-day use of technology has an environmental impact

Digital literacy definitions and frameworks largely ignore the environmental impact

We should begin including environmental impact in our digital literacy definitions, frameworks, and discussions

Dr Peter Tiernan

Dr Peter Tiernan

Assistant Professor in Digital Learning and Research Convenor for the School of STEM Education, Innovation and Global Studies in the Institute of Education at Dublin City University.

Peter is an Assistant Professor in Digital Learning and Research Convenor for the School of STEM Education, Innovation and Global Studies in the Institute of Education at Dublin City University. He lectures in the areas of digital learning, digital literacy and entrepreneurship education. His current research focuses on digital literacy at post-primary and further education level as well as entrepreneurship education for third level lecturers and pre-service teachers.

Peter was shortlisted for the DCU President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in 2021.

Find Peter on Twitter.

References and Further Reading

A framework of pre-service teachers’ conceptions about digital literacy: Comparing the United States and Sweden https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0360131519303380

Dimensions of digital literacy based on five models of development (Pérez-Escoda et al., 2019) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/11356405.2019.1603274

Digital technology and the futures of education – towards ‘non-stupid’ optimism (Facer & Selwyn, 2021) https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000377071″>https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000377071

Carbon impact of video streaming (Stephens et al., 2021), https://prod-drupal-files.storage.googleapis.com/documents/resource/public/Carbon-impact-of-video-streaming.pdf

MUSIC CONSUMPTION HAS UNINTENDED ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL COSTS (Brennan, 2019) https://www.gla.ac.uk/news/archiveofnews/2019/april/headline_643297_en.html

Social Media Usage: 2005-2015
65% of adults now use social networking sites – a nearly tenfold jump in the past decade (Perrin, 2015) https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2015/10/08/social-networking-usage-2005-2015/

What is the environmental footprint for social media applications? 2021 Edition (Derudder, 2021) https://greenspector.com/en/social-media-2021/

The overlooked environmental footprint of increasing Internet use (Olbringer et al., 2021) ​https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921344920307072?via%3Dihub

Shifting scales of research on learning, media and technology, (Mcgilchrist, et al, 2021) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17439884.2021.1994418

Text Messaging & Emails Generate Carbon Emissions (Carbon Footprint), (Duncan, 2021) https://8billiontrees.com/carbon-offsets-credits/reduce-carbon-footprint/texts-emails/

A Global Framework of Reference on Digital Literacy Skills for Indicator 4.4.2 http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/ip51-global-framework-reference-digital-literacy-skills-2018-en.pdf

Digicomp https://joint-research-centre.ec.europa.eu/digcomp_en

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report https://www.ipcc.ch

Featured Image Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

School Uniform Policy in Scottish schools: Control and Consent

School Uniform Policy in Scottish schools: Control and Consent

A topic that is of continued interest to educational researchers – but also to teachers, pupils, and their parents – is school uniforms. As you may know, there is a marked difference between what pupils wear in school in the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), Ireland and the rest of Europe (recently Malta changed from formal uniforms to tracksuits). We set out to look into the reasons that schools give for having school uniforms.

I conducted the research with thirteen students from across the University of Aberdeen. A week-long course was designed to teach the qualitative data analysis software NVivo while taking part in an authentic research project. This was to provide undergraduates both research skills and experience.

I chose to analyse secondary school uniform policies because the policies are publicly available on school websites and do not involve confidential or sensitive information. We began our work with the identification of school uniform policies, school handbooks, and other information related to uniforms on each school’s website. After uploading the files, we read and coded the materials where we saw the reasons that were given for having a school uniform. Over the week, I benefited from over 300 hours of research assistance while the students learnt NVivo and applied this learning in the project.

Key Findings

Together we identified the different reasons that schools gave for requiring a school uniform. These included:

  • ethos, identity, pride, sense of belonging
  • safety, security/reduce truancy
  • preventing competition/discrimination
  • discipline and reduce bullying
  • employability
  • the reputation of the school
  • financial benefits
  • attitude to learning/improving standards of work

Students noticed more areas of interest, including the formality of the compulsory uniform from informal (no blazer or tie), mixed (blazer or tie) to formal (blazer and tie).

Of the 357 publicly funded secondary schools in Scotland we discovered:

  • 343 schools (96%) require a uniform and just 14 schools do not
  • 320 schools mandate the wearing of a school tie by both girls and boys
  • 235 schools require a blazer to be worn
  • 200 schools ban jeans

Three students have continued to analyse the data in areas of interest they identified, and we are close to submitting journal manuscripts. The students have also been involved in teaching doctoral students and university staff how to analyse qualitative research data using NVivo.

I asked the students to provide a summary of the analysis conducted so far and some of the questions or issues that arose from the research.

Uniform Policies & Gender – by Kirsten Phelps

Our analysis of school uniform policies regarding gender found that there were generally more rules and prescriptive policies for girls. Many policies mentioned the length of girls’ skirts using language that centred on the idea of decency or modesty. This suggests a placing of normative categories on girls and young women using school uniform policies, with those that follow the rules seen as moral/good and those who break them immoral/bad. Most schools in Scotland include ties as a mandatory part of their uniform for both boys and girls. This is notable as ties are not something usually worn in the workplace, or otherwise by women, yet they remain an entrenched part of the British school uniform.

School uniforms and employability discourse – by Annabelle Olsson

 

One specific justification for the uniform, employability, was analysed through the lens of governmentality. ‘Employability’ (Fotiadou, 2020; Moreau and Leathwood, 2006) is a concept referring to the ‘human capital’ – i.e., the skills, knowledge, and personal attributes – that makes an individual more likely to gain employment. Such discourses of employability generally overlook structural causes of unemployment, instead of placing the responsibility on the individual to continuously develop their skills and adapt to a precarious and competitive job market. In the policy documents, we discovered a rationale for the uniform based on such discourses. Fifty-three schools (15%) made linkages between the uniform and the world of work, illustrating a semi-hidden curriculum that implies that pupils should be presentable and employment-ready, conforming to the market and the workplace as well as their subordinate role within it.

Power and control in schools– by Jasper Friedrich

There appeared to be a tension between the practice of enforcing strict uniform policies and the way these practices are justified. While almost all policies include highly detailed regulations (some go as far as specifying the minimum length of girls’ skirts) and strict enforcement measures, justifications tend to focus on ‘soft’ values such as creating a sense of belonging and giving pupils self-confidence. We found it useful to analyse this in terms of Michel Foucault’s theorisation of different historical modes of power . When school uniforms were first introduced in the early modern period, they were what Foucault terms a technique of disciplinary power: one that ‘compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes’. We still very much see this in how the policies homogenize dress while differentiating between girls and boys, creating hierarchies (prefects often wear special uniforms) and excluding those who do not conform.

In contrast, the justifications for these strict uniform policies are often cast in terms of what Foucault would call ‘governmentality’, a type of power that seeks to manage people with their consent instead of controlling them. The emphasis here is on how students will feel more included and improve their ‘human capital’ as a result of wearing uniforms – the uniform is justified not as a convenient tool of administration and control, but rather as a valuable part of the ‘product’ schools can offer parents.

Next Steps

Further analysis of the data set includes looking at the affordability of school uniforms, to what extent religious/philosophical beliefs are taken into account in the policies, and what is in place for pupils who identify as non-binary or who are in the process of transitioning gender. I hope to conduct research in schools that have involved pupils in decisions around uniforms.

I also hope to collaborate with researchers in other countries on school uniforms, dress codes, and appearance policies, so please get in touch if this interests you.

Finally, this project showed how it is possible to combine the teaching of qualitative data analysis software such as NVivo with actual data analysis providing a win-win for the academic and the students involved.

References and Further Reading 

Maria Fotiadou (2020) Denaturalising the discourse of competition in the graduate job market and the notion of employability: a corpus-based study of UK university websites, Critical Discourse Studies, 17:3, 260-291, DOI: 10.1080/17405904.2018.1546606

Marie‐Pierre Moreau & Carole Leathwood (2006) Graduates’ employment and the discourse of employability: a critical analysis, Journal of Education and Work, 19:4, 305-324, DOI: 10.1080/13639080600867083

The Power Thinker – Why Foucault’s work on power is more important than ever

School sends pupils home for wearing unpolishable shoes, no blazer and old footwear – Metro UK

Affordability of secondary school uniform in Scotland – University of Aberdeen (PDF).

Authors

Dr Rachel Shanks

Dr Rachel Shanks

Senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland

Dr Rachel Shanks is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. She sits on the Executive Committee of the Scottish Educational Research Association (SERA) and is the link person with the Educational Studies Association of Ireland (ESAI). She is a co-convenor of EERA Network 6: Open Learning: Media, Environments and Cultures. Rachel is the Programme Director of the BA in Professional Development at the University of Aberdeen and regularly runs workshops on how to use NVivo. Her research interests fall into three main categories: professional learning and mentoring; digital technologies in education; and school uniform/dress code policies. Rachel is also a member of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) and is currently conducting research funded by BERA on teacher preparation and new teachers’ responses to teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kirsten Phelps

Kirsten Phelps

Graduate Student, St Andrews University

Kirsten is a graduate student studying Middle East, Caucasus, and Central Asian Security at St Andrews University. Her interests include social movements and post-conflict transitions.

Annabelle Olsson

Annabelle Olsson

Graduate Student, University College London

Annabelle is a graduate student in Health Humanities at UCL. Her interests include emancipatory education and student wellbeing, social and anthropological perspectives on mental health, and interdisciplinary research methods. 

Jasper Friedrich

Jasper Friedrich

Graduate Student, University of Oxford

Jasper Friedrich is a graduate student at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. He is interested in social and political theory, especially critical approaches and theories of power.