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If we assume that necessity really is the mother of invention, then the problems of delivery that arose when the Covid-19 virus crisis hit UK higher education represented a golden opportunity for advocates of digital technology in education to showcase its benefits. As universities rushed to move their provision online, there was an inbuilt assumption that students and staff had both the skills and the confidence to ensure that the experience of the student was not compromised by this change. That confidence, however, was not always well placed, with the reality being somewhat different.

While there have been a great deal of useful ‘how to’ articles published recently that cover the mechanics of setting up and using digital technology (see for example Sanger, 2020), ensuring that students and staff are digitally literate is a rather more complicated process. Knowing how to set up remote delivery is a starting point towards competency in digital technology, but Buckingham (2010) talks about how digital literacy is about more than the processes: instead, it is about the complete integration of digital technology into our lives. Prensky’s (2010) seminal work suggested that many of our students are digitally literate and might be classed as ‘digital natives’, but that assumption can be seen to be deeply flawed.

We are currently undertaking a large-scale (n=370) project looking at the digital skills of both staff and undergraduate students in UK higher education, and initial results suggest that the student body is hugely disparate in their perceptions and abilities. A significant proportion of our students are Chinese, and have grown up with the world’s largest 5G deployment, facial recognition and businesses adopting AI to satisfy Chinese daily needs. They are used to facial recognition technology being used for payments and identification in hotels and transportation. They will be in the same class as students with far less developed skills. Yet the rush to online delivery assumes the homogeneity of the student population, and that knowledge of how to interact digitally equates to literacy.

‘Many assume that skill on social media, email and with mobile phones equates to digital literacy: this might lead to greater confidence with engaging with online material, but it is not a predictor of true literacy.’

A key finding relates to students’ perceptions of their digital literacy. While home students rate their skills more highly than international students do, closer analysis suggests that this is an incorrect belief. For many there is an assumption that skill on social media, email and with mobile phones equates to digital literacy. While this might lead to greater confidence with engaging with online material, it is not a predictor of true literacy. Again, the comparison with Chinese students is revealing. While students who grew up in the Chinese education system rated themselves less able than their UK counterparts, observing them it was clear that their skills were more developed. For example, most use assistive technology such as iPad styluses for note-taking, and word processor software Grammarly to improve writing. In part this can be put down to virtues of humility and modesty that have been taught in school and by family for years, but it is also clear that they see digital literacy in a different way to home students.

The digital literacy of lecturers also needs to be assessed. Again, it is important not to generalise but there is evidence of a gap between the skills they have and the requirements of a digitalised provision. This is magnified by an assumption held by lecturers that shortfalls in their literacy will be compensated for by students – an assumption that our previous findings suggest is misguided in some cases.

The picture emerging from our research is one of misapprehensions. The first is that the move to digitalised learning will benefit the entire student body: in reality, some will struggle and need extra support. This group often mistakes competency in the mechanics of digital technology with true literacy. The second is that providing staff with instructions will automatically equip them to be able to support the needs of students digitally, and that any gaps will be filled by the students themselves.

While UK universities have rightly been applauded for the speed of their response to the Covid-19 crisis, the belief that they and their students have truly embraced digital literacy and become conversant in everything that this entails is a flawed one: in reality there is still some distance to go before that claim can be verified.


Buckingham D. (2010). Defining digital literacy. In B. Bachmair (Ed.), Medienbildung in neuen Kulturräumen. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Prensky, M. (2010). Teaching digital natives: Partnering for real learning. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Sanger, C. S. (2020, March 13). Teaching intelligence: How to take your classes online. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from