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Public notebook

The future of digital literacy

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The concept of digital literacy – the ability to use the web and digital media effectively – was brought to my attention by the work of Howard Rheingold, online culture pioneer and edge thinker par excellence. In an interview with Education blog Edmondo, he explains how digital literacy is evolving. Everything he talked about before – literacies of attention, participation, crap detection, collaboration and “network know-how” stands, says Rheingold…

…but is multiplied by the migration from the desktop to mobile. Next up: finally, technology catches up with the dream of virtual reality and many of the attention problems will be multiplied and a new issue of distinguishing digital and physical reality will enter. More and more commercial and political interests are learning how to use digital media to deceive and manipulate—much faster than people are learning crap detection.

At Brilliant Noise we’ve been developing learning programmes for clients like The Financial Times and TUI around digital literacy – we talk about “digital mindset”, but it is the same thing. In the interview Rheingold’s four tips for teachers (and parents)

  • Encourage critical thinking. Ask students to find questionable and reliable websites and tell you why they are.

And I’d extend critical thinking to all areas of one’s life in relation to digital. Why are you using the tools that come as standard on your computer or phone, or that your company issues? How does using a spreadsheet, PowerPoint or word processing software change the way you think when you are working? Which is best? Have you tried outliners, mind-maps or offline tools for organising information and your thoughts?

  • Encourage attention to attention. When you open your laptop in class or look at the screen of your phone, try asking yourself why you are doing it.

This is an extension of critical thinking, and also brings in elements of mindfulness. It’s very easy to get stuck in less useful habits of using digital tools. Personally, I turn off all notifications on my phone and computer, bar text, phone and calendar – and I put the attention hungry apps like Twitter, Instagram and email on the third page of my phone, so I have to make a conscious decision to go and use them. It’s really helped to cut down semi-involuntary app use (but not eliminated it).

  • Encourage participation. Comment on a blog, make a correction on Wikipedia, reblog on Tumblr.
  • Encourage collaboration. Work on a collaborative document, participate in a virtual community.

These two tips work well together. I encourage working together with colleagues to try out new behaviours and tools, with the objective of seeing if they work for you as individuals and as a team. Bookmarking tools like Diigo are particularly useful for this, or collaborating on a Google Doc article together, if you don’t use that already. Digital literacy grows with a combination of experience, critical thinking and reflection. You need to use digital tools rather than just read about them or have them explained in order to really know how they work.

Brilliant to read more of Howard Rheingold’s thinking – he has been a consistent inspiration to me personally and professionally. If you’d like to find out more about his work, I recommend his book Net Smart and he also runs courses – the next one is on cooperation theory.

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Public notebook

Strategy and the UK General Election 2015

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Image: Poor taste or poor strategy? A mug bearing one of Labour’s 2015 election pledges.

I’m interested in the role strategy played a role in how the parties behaved in the General Election that has just concluded. Strategy – when it is done well – gives organisations a clear answer to the question: how can I use the limited resources I have to achieve the result I want.

Looking at strategy won’t give us all the answers to why the election result was a surprise – when 45 million people get to make a decision together we should be careful to remember what John Tooby calls “nexus causality” (in layman’s terms explanations for events are never as simple as we’d like to think).

Comparing two accounts of the strategy of the two main parties – Labour and the Conservatives (now the two main parties in England, at least) there are signs that one got its strategy very right and the other very wrong.

Discussing the Labour strategy, Martin Kettle in the Guardian says:

It has always been clear that Miliband has been following a targeted electoral strategy. The generous view is that he believes that, after the financial crisis, there is a winning coalition to be built from core Labour voters, disillusioned Liberal Democrats and middle-class sympathisers with the poor. But last night it became clear that this strategy has quite simply failed.

If this was the Labour strategy it was a wishful thinking at best, at worst it was a vague vision passed off as a strategy. People think that visions are a good thing in strategy, often mistake them for strategy, but in the merciless, street-fighting reality of an election, visions are messages, stories to inspire, they are not effective ways of focusing resources.

The analysis was vague, the resolution equally so. No matter how much energy and resources Labour activists could muster it was going to be squandered on a “strategy” that had a lack of focus and direction.

Labour should publish it’s failed strategy, if it really had one, so that Miliband’s successors can learn from their mistakes.

The failure of Labour’s approach is even strarker when you compare it with the actual focus and discipline of the Conservative strategy, planned and delivered by political consultant Lynton Crosby and Chancellor George Osborne.

Here’s Kiran Stacey in The Financial Times on how the Tory campaign began:

Despite polls showing the Tories in a dead heat with the opposition Labour party, Mr Crosby was in ebullient form. “He told us everything was in our favour,” says an MP who attended. “As long as we made the campaign about the economy and Labour leader Ed Miliband’s weakness.”

Mr Crosby, who cut his teeth in the world of macho Australian politics, had studied the data and knew victory was in the Conservatives’ grasp if they could just win over a few thousand voters in a few dozen marginal seats in England.

What the Conservatives did was deliver well on both halves of the strategy equation: the analysis and direction were right, but then they implemented their plan without losing their nerve even when almost everyone else was telling them they were wrong.

This election was a very close run thing – for all the rejoicing in the blue camp about a majority, it is still wafer thin. Nonetheless, it is far better a result than anyone, bar the leadership of the campaign expected.

Confidence in the strategy waxed and waned in the tense six weeks that ensued — and the strategy itself sometimes wavered. But yesterday morning his approach was vindicated as the Conservatives confounded expectations by sweeping not just to victory but to a majority in parliament.

“The campaign managers were always confident that we could get there, but that confidence was not always shared at the top,” says a Conservative strategist. “Lynton was right all along.”

The Tories learned from their mistakes in 2010 and ran a more focused, consistent campaign in 2015. Labour did not learn from 2010 – it just replaced its leader and substituted wishful thinking for strategy.

People who are disappointed with the General Election result would do well to push for more effective leadership and better strategy from the Labour party. As professor of strategy Richard Rumelt put it in a paper on bad strategy for McKinsey:

The only remedy is for us to demand more from those who lead. More than charisma and vision, we must demand good strategy.

A final point on leadership. There was a strange trope on Twitter along the lines of “if only people voted for policies and not personalities”, as if the ability to develop and then deliver policy would be completely separate from personality. We may not have presidential elections in the UK, but backing a party is rightly affected by voters’ views on the leadership and whether they would be an effective leader for the UK.

New leadership might be hard to come by without a lot of new recruits to Labour, if we’re to believe Paul Mason of Channel 4 News the party hasn’t got the right people to think this through:

Miliband’s inner team had almost no outriders in the press, no co-thinkers in academia; they had support among artists and film directors, but always half-hearted….

Labour […] is waking up to something much worse than failure to win. It has failed to account for its defeat in 2010, failed to recognise the deep sources of its failure in Scotland, and failed to produce any kind of intellectual diversity and resilience from which answers might arise.

Ironic to think that a party that values diversity suffers from a lack of diverse brain power. It certainly needs to promote political and intellectual immigration into its own ranks if it is to rebuild its ability to win elections.