Some thoughts on a seminar by Professor Brian Detlor

I had the privilege of attending two seminars by Professor Brian Detlor last week. The first of these, at iDocQ 2018, recounted Brian’s work on Digital Storytelling. However, this post is about my reaction to his seminar to the School of Computing on Promoting Digital Literacy: A Social Lab Approach.

This post is the first of two – the second will be an attempt to crystallise my thoughts about e-voting that bubbled up after Brian’s seminar. However, for now, this post is an attempt to show why Brian’s seminar was such a positive experience for me, but it is not an attempt to record all that Brian said. My reactions are in blockquotes.

Brian’s seminar

Brian’s seminar was about (1) ‘The set up and roll out of a Digital Literacy Social Lab (DLSL) in Hamilton, Canada’; (2) ‘Plans to conduct research on digital literacy initiatives led by public libraries’. Social (innovation) labs are ‘a new approach to solving complex social problems such as poverty, chronic disease, and climate change’ (Hassan, 2014). They work by ‘a broad and diverse set of people and organizations experiment[ing] with various approaches to solve these problems and learn from each other over a sustained period of time about what works best’. Further, they ‘Involve diverse stakeholders, including the people impacted’ and ‘address social problems at the root-cause level, not the symptoms’.

Two UK organisations that might be interested are the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals, and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, who have done a lot of work to help people and organisations develop digital skills.

To me, it only makes sense to include the people who suffer from any social problem in such work. After all, only they can tell you if any proposed solution is working. And I am always interested in anything that makes the world work less awfully.

Brian’s basic reason for creating the DLSL is simply that ‘Digital Literacy is important. As the world becomes more digital, it is essential that individuals become more digitally literate in order to fully participate and thrive in society.’ According to Julien (2018), being digitally literate leads to:

  • more positive health outcomes
  • better access to government services
  • participative governance
  • workforce development (improved job performance, employment)
  • bridging of the digital divide.

Point 2 of Julien’s list was my first link from Brian’s seminar to Online Identity Assurance. If access to government services ends up depending on digital identities, then digital skills will be needed to create and curate those identities. Further, as more and more services become Digital by Default or Digital First, those without digital skills are likely to be left behind.

Concerning point 3

  • I’m clearly interested in information-literate hyperlocal government, much of which is done digitally. (Here’s a ‘personal’ example.)
  • I’m looking forward to assessing the impact of our digiCC workshops, which brought together community councillors so they could share digital solutions that worked for them with each other, and so we could learn more about what really works.
  • I’m also interested in participatory budgeting, a form of direct democracy – and that can be done online.

I can’t say much about point 4, but I’ll bet my colleagues John Mowbray and Lyndsey Middleton can.

Digital literacy comprises two sets of broad skills:

  • skills to operate and utilize digital technologies such as computers, tablets and smart phones
  • skills to access, create, use, and evaluate digital information.

The second skillset sounds to me very much like ‘traditional’ information literacy, except that information comes on-screen, not from books. And as Annemaree Lloyd has implied with her work on literacy of the body, information can come from just about anywhere.

Brian then talked about some sample projects. All of these seemed very worthwhile, but the ones that particularly interested me were

  • A project that introduces seniors to the use of iPads and the creation and sharing of videos
  • A project that researches the need for culturally relevant English as a Second Language (ESL) programs delivered through technology
  • Using Digital Storytelling in Public Library Makerspaces to Promote Digital Literacy among Digitally Disadvantaged Groups. Two of the groups Brian mentioned were people who are currently in prison and people who have recently come out prison.

I’d so love it if my mother could record things digitally – she has some fascinating stories, particularly from being a refugee during her childhood.

The second project reminded me of my mother’s tale of arriving in the UK as an 8-year-old, unable to speak a word of English, and of her work as an ESL teacher. This and the third project also reminded me of Annemaree Lloyd‘s work.

The third project also reminded me that, at least in Scotland, a significant proportion of ‘acquisitive’ crimes are committed by a small population. I’ve heard them described as mainly unfortunates who just don’t know anything else. Anything that can break this ‘addiction’ to crime gets my vote. This project also uses Delone and McLean’s Information Systems Success Model, for which I have a sneaking fondness. Also, the word ‘makerspace’ reminded me of an example I encountered thanks to my personal hyperlocal government work.

Brian’s research plans include ‘investigat[ing] the factors affecting the success of digital literacy initiatives carried out by [a large public library] in partnership with community stakeholders. He intends to use Activity Theory in this research.

I’m very grateful to Brian for his precedent that inspired our use of AT in research about community councillors’ information literacy. As I understand it, the AT approach acknowledges that people and social situations are paramount. For me, this is a clear link back to the start of Brian’s seminar: the importance of including the people who suffer the issues under investigation, and of looking at their circumstances for ways to make things better. (I’m pretty sure Brian said this during his presentation.)

What came next?

Brian asked School of Computing members for their opinions, and for ideas on how Scotland could get involved. I had a few ideas, so I emailed Brian a stream-of-consciousness brain-dump. Some of that is included above. Other thoughts included:

  • Glow, a digital environment for Scotland’s schools, which might provide relevant lessons about getting young people into digital.
  • How a Scottish Bank and Google teamed up to promote digital skills in community organisations. Other UK banks have their own digital skills outreach setups too.

However, thoughts about e-voting then bubbled up. Adding those would make this post too long, so please click on to the next post!


  • Hassan, Z. (2014). The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving our Most Complex Challenges. San Francisco: Berritt-Koehler Publishers.
  • Julien, H. (2018). Digital Literacy in Theory and Practice. In Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology, Fourth Edition, (2243-2252). Khosrow-Pour, M. (Ed.). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

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