It’s Not All About the Learner: Reframing Students’ Digital Literacy as Sociomaterial Practice

  • Lesley GourlayEmail author
  • Martin Oliver
Part of the Research in Networked Learning book series (RINL)


Digital literacies are an important area of contemporary research and practice. However, policy and research on this topic relies almost exclusively on capability or competence models of “digital literacy”. These decontextualised, cognitive accounts ignore the insights of New Literacy Studies (e.g. Lea and Street. Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), 157–172, 1998), which have shown that focusing on a ‘free floating’ learner, without reference to settings, resources and cultures, fails to explain important aspects of how literacy practices are achieved and enacted. Adopting a sociomaterial account of learning provides an alternative to these narratives about student literacy. From this perspective, ‘literacy’ is an achievement that involves the successful coordination of human and non-human actors—including teachers, other learners, pupils, devices, texts and so on. Drawing on work undertaken as part of a JISC-funded project, we critique mainstream ‘learner-centred’ accounts of digital literacy; outline the theoretical framework on which our work has been based; and present a series of case studies that show how an individual’s ability to act in a digitally literate way depends on much more than an assumed set of stable, internalised qualities. These cases involve data collected by students through multimodal journalling over a period of 9–12 months, and from in-depth interviews that explored what these meant to them. This analysis shows how learners’ practices are shaped by the social and material environments in which they are enacted, and reveals that learners are engaged in an ongoing, improvisatory process of both adapting to the environments in which they work, whilst also adapting these environments.


Digital literacies Sociomateriality Actor-network theory Higher education 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.UCL Institute of EducationUniversity of LondonLondonUK

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