Skip to content

Context is key: unlocking the chains of semiotic meaning for HE digital literacy #oldsmooc

Week 2 of OLDS MOOC focuses on context and asks:

  • What is learner context?
  • How do learners’ contexts affect the ways they interpret and enact learning designs?
  • How can we use context in learning design?
  • How can we personalise designs to individual learner’s needs and contexts?

In order to understand the importance of context in learning design the use of personas (see Nielsen, 2007), force maps in scenarios (see Mor, 2012) and the ecology of resources design framework (see Luckin, 2010)  were offered as ways to understand and design for learners’ context. To start, we were asked to develop scenarios and personas for those involved in the learning design. 

So, whilst my “design partner”, Jane Challinor, developed the persona of a “traditional” undergrad student, I developed the persona of a mature student. It seemed to work really well and it helped kickstart our thoughts relating to context. At this point, Jane noted that we needed to add some new personas to the scenario as we have to recognise that without wider acceptance within HE of the need for digital information literacy, the module that we plan to develop isn’t going to achieve the transformation that we’d like. Here, I was able to provide a number of interviews that I’d conducted with HE lecturers that helped develop new, wider, personas and locate our design project in its situated context. 

Then, Friday’s task (already Sunday), directed me to “share and scan resources about contextual approaches to learning design”. Here, I chose to look at two resources, “learner-centered teaching” by Phyllis Blumbeg and “cognition, context, and learning: a social semiotic perspective” by Jay Lemke. Scan!! It took me all day Sunday. Admittedly, I didn’t just scan the article relating to situated cognition because it really did start to provide me with some valuable connections relative to our specific context. Literacy, you see, is not just a matter of skill or competency, it’s a social and situated practice, as I’m reminded by Doug Belshaw’s work, “context is key” (p. 222). Lemke explains context in terms of ecologies; “material environments endowed with cultural meanings; acting and being acted on directly or with the mediation of physical-cultural tools and cultural-material systems of words, signs, and other symbolic values” (p.2). He goes on to point out that how individuals act, or react, depends not just on what other parts in the ecology does to them, and what they in turn do to the other parts of the ecology, but on what these doings mean to the individual, and that these meanings of things vary from person to person and from context to context (p.2). 

Going on to describe context more accurately as an ecosocial system, Lemke says that in order to understand its behaviour you have to take account of economics, politics, and other sorts of cultural beliefs and values. He also notes that ecosocial systems have histories; histories, which in some cases matter to their present reactions, and sometimes matter to new systems of their kind “not yet born” (p. 6). Interesting stuff, seeing as the context of this design project is one of change (disruptive) set within higher education, or the academy. That is to say, an institution with a deep-rooted history and one which carries immense cultural meaning today. Even so, Lemke’s article also notes that although ecosocial systems have a relevant history, they’re also developmental systems that have a trajectory of development where each stage sets up conditions without which the next stage could not occur. 

Another interesting point that the article raises, relative to the design project’s goal of developing digital information literacy within an undergraduate Health and Social Care course, is the question of the mix of beliefs and values at play in our context; beliefs and values relative to academia and being a student, or lecturer, and the beliefs and values relative to being a health and social care practitioner. How conducive, I wonder, are either of these fields to adopting practices that align with the open web and the ideologies that the web embeds? 

digi grad
Digital Scholar

In addition, the students within our context are, to some degree or another, developing identities as academic scholars and/or health and social care practitioners, and what’s more, they come to our context with previous and other identities, with learnings gained from participation in other communities. So the question that arises is how in this case do we add digital literacy practices to the mix and how will these practices be received in relation to the identity, digital, or otherwise of those involved. 

Now, turning to a particular objective of the course, namely the development of specific digital literacy practices in order to support and/or improve the academic practice of sourcing information and referencing, Lemke’s article offers an interesting point that links practices to the development of identity within a Community of Practice (CoP). Giving the example of maths, he relates how the teaching of maths came to lose its chain of semiotic meaning; how very specific practices like naming, finger-reckoning, verbal counting and cardinal quantifying are linked together, and how through this linking of practices and their recapitulation that aspects of an individual’s identity may be developed. Such fragments of practices represent a small scale chain that links the social practice and activities with their historical formation. If, as in the case of maths, these practices become increasingly abstract, less context-specific, they run the risk of leaving behind what it was that was being counted in the first place (people, pebbles, sheep…); it leads to practices where the principle element is just a number. As such it also leaves behind the identity links for many students, thus creating a “discourse and repertory of practices to which they [the students] literally do not know how to relate; from which, to them, theirs and all human identities are excluded” (p.10). As Lemke’s article noted, some branches of learning do not help students construct identities in relation to their practices, they simply display the practices. I think this is highly pertinent to the practice of academic referencing and the production of academic texts. The historical links of this practice are no longer visible to many students, never mind the fact that currently within the context of higher education there’s no real recognition of the digital element already present in the construction of an academic essay. It’s still widely regarded as a traditional text. The essay-as-finished-text appears today very much as it would have done thirty or forty years ago, but through its production and the practices that students, or lecturers, engage in, the essay-as-social-practice has been utterly transformed by the digital. (Gourlay, 2011, p. 2). 

Therefore, to be truly effective, it would seem that our learning design must not just take this into account but actually seek to make visible again the links pertaining to academic practices and their historical formation, only now recast to show the digital elements that have evolved to form the latest part in the chain of semiotic meaning.

Returning to the course (and it’s “optimistic” schedule), the OLDSMOOC Daily 11 in summarizing Sunday’s learning activity noted that within the OLDS MOOC people are “still discussing context, exploring differences between ‘situated learning’ and the Ecology of Resources” (my emphasis). At this stage, I don’t know what the differences are; it took me so long just to consider the situated meanings pertinent to my design context. However, the synopsis in the OLDS MOOC brief stated that “the EoR Design Framework can be used to help understand learner context and support the design of learner centered interventions and/or technologies that fit contextual constraints and exploit available resources”. In which case, it seems that an EoR approach would be particularly beneficial here. I haven’t actually got down to the nitty gritty of applying the EoR design framework to this scenario yet, but in a way I’m glad because having caught up with the convergence session from yesterday, I can appreciate that the real effectiveness of the design framework is in its participatory aspect and that it envisages the learner as designer, or co-designer. For me, this again harks back to the work of Doug Belshaw when he argues for the co-construction of definitions of digital literacies, or in this case the development of a learning design for digital literacies. If the various forms of ambiguity and meaning surrounding the topic are not embraced and developed in conjunction with all those involved anything that gets designed “is likely to either be so vague as to be meaningless, or so specific that it is irrelevant” (p 222).

Image Source:


Belshaw, D. (2011) What is Digital Literacy. Available at:

Gourlay, L. (2011) Cyborg literacies and the posthuman text. Available at:

Lemke, J. (1997) Cognition, context, and learning: a social semiotic perspective. Available at:

Published inDigital LiteraciesLearning Design


  1. Penny Bentley Penny Bentley

    Thanks for filtering some of the finer points for me:)

  2. Hi Helen, references sound interesting and using the term “ecology” as an analogy for learning context is really compelling.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *