Digital Professionalism

2016 FAB2 – Opening the Arms

2015 FAB1 – Unfolding the Arms

2014 Social Purpose Spaces

2016 FAB2 – Opening the Arms

Are you on Facebook?  It’s a comment many of us use quite naturally now on meeting someone new, common parlance simply because so many of us are.  Statistically, if you’re reading this, you’re probably a Facebook user, even if you have issues with the platform, its security, its algorithm theft, its ubiquity.  If you’re not – you are probably doing something more interesting.  But, geek that I am, what interests me is the number of people who fold their arms and say, “I’m rubbish at IT” – and yet operate smoothly on the intuitive platform of the world’s most famous social media site.

Facebook is sophisticated tech. You set up a profile, decide your security settings, upload photos and video. You share posts and like comments, tag people in, make nuanced decisions about what to share and what to keep to yourself. You probably operate across a number of devices, going to events, joining groups, opening up links. You might even market your business on Facebook or search for lost friends. If you spend any time on Facebook at all, you’re probably tech-savvy. Yet transport those skills to an educational or work setting and suddenly you’re back at square one – ‘rubbish’ at IT.

As colleagues @plookit and @ali_longden start work on the FAB 2 Project ‘Opening the Arms’, I’ve been thinking about last year’s FAB 1 and what we learned about how to support students’ and colleagues’ digital literacy. FAB 1 was an eye-opener. Through Thinking Environment interviews – carefully structured to enable each participant to think for themselves – we found out things we could never have guessed, including the way digitally unconfident people nonetheless fluently incorporate Facebook into their lives. FAB 1 enabled us to identify a simple model of digital resilience, which we’ve been trying to implement this year:

model of digital resilience

With upwards of 200 students on our Social Purpose Teacher Education Programme, the Digital Nurses have been busy describing processes (‘First Principles’) and explaining why (‘Purpose’). ‘Support’ will be ongoing, particularly via Yammer (the first process we encourage ‘Fluency’ in). But none of these will lead to ‘Digital Resilience’ if we get the line between spoon-feeding and self-efficacy wrong.

What is it that enables some people to power on through, whilst others give up? Conventional explorations of ‘resilience’ focus on the strengthening potential of setbacks, of exertion past the point of comfort, feeling the mental burn of a high-intensity workout. In FAB 1 we identified untrue limiting assumptions (“I’m rubbish at tech”), throwing rocks in the path of progress. These assumptions come from poor training, from workplace bullying, from the counterproductive narrative of digital ‘natives’ and ‘immigrants’. They dissolve confidence.  Listening to myself, my colleagues, my students this week I became aware of how we use language sometimes…

“Yammer is down.”

“It won’t let me in.”

“The site’s not working.”

When we (I do it!) use language like this, we give ourselves permission to stop trying – and our digital resilience weakens a little. I wonder whether it would be irritating or supportive (maybe both!) if as Digital Nurses we suggested reframing the words:

“I can’t get into Yammer.”

“I can’t get in.”

“I can’t figure out how to get into the site.”

Does that make a difference? Switching the language from passive to active in this way can be empowering, there’s something about the phrasing which communicates to the brain that solving it is in our hands. In the way that we collectively articulate the language of values on the TeachNorthern programme, perhaps we can support one another to use active language when we get stuck with tech.

There are technical things I’m noticing too. I’m realising how many people rely on shortcuts to get where they want to be – bookmarks or keychains for passwords. Not only is this a risky strategy in terms of losing it all at the next update, neural pathways for the long way round never develop, making mastery difficult. And, underneath, confidence is still rocky because it all feels a bit like shifting sands. There are some platforms where I still feel I got lucky if I get in.  Apparently* it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery (of any skill) and if we bypass the chance to practise…hey ho.

Personal digital resilience can  be distilled to two key messages, neither of them rocket science:

  1. Use active, empowering language.
  2. Do things the long way round.

In the meantime, you can rely on us to spell out the first principles, ensuring you understand the purpose and to support your developing fluency in any way you need.  Together, we can nail this.

***DELIGHTED TO ANNOUNCE*** The 2016 FAB REPORT is now available here.

*according to Malcolm Gladwell, not sure if he based this on good science or not…

2015 FAB1 – Unfolding the Arms

The Brief for ‘Unfolding the Arms’ (The FAB Project), funded by ETF via EMCETT

model of digital resilience

As digital pioneers, we have become used to reading resistance in the folks we try to work with, whether that’s in a CPD session, at a staff meeting or just in passing conversation.  It takes two forms:  that facial expression observed when the person you’re speaking to isn’t listening, is just waiting to speak and, when sitting down, firmly folded arms.  Over the past, post-FELTAG year this observation has become first a search-1metaphor for digital resistance and then the title of our latest Education and Training Foundation funded peer-led action research project:  the Folded Arms Brigade, or #FAB.

FAB aims to work with a small number of digital resisters, to try and get to the bottom of what’s holding them back.  As we learned in last year’s Reflexion Programme, some educators would rather leave teaching than engage digitally and there’s nothing we can do with them except show them the door*.  We learned, too, that this is by no means the majority of the Folded Arms Brigade.  Most teachers want to do the best job they can, even if that means adopting practices that terrify them.  They just don’t know how.

So this is our idea.  Talk to six (or seven, or eight) educators, who feel any sense of dread, impostorship or resistance when thinking tech.  Ask some carefully crafted, genuinely open questions, shut up and listen (this is what interviewing in a Thinking Environment looks like). Then, whilst the data is being analysed, offer each person generous enough to give of their time some one-to-one coaching with the Digital Nurse, to help them break through something that’s holding them back.  Finally, ask them how they are doing and present the findings in some technology-enhanced way.

At best, we’ll learn some important insight into what causes those arms to fold.  At worst, eight (or seven, or six) generously minded people will have had a bit of help with something that scares them.  What’s not to like?

Follow FAB on twitter via @plookit and @teachnorthern, as well as with the hashtags #FAB, #FELTAG and #DigitalNurse.  We’ll keep you posted!

*Harsh?  Reflect on how well they can be preparing their students for twenty-first century life.

Highlights from the Research Report

The full report (with a more flowing narrative!) can be downloaded here as a pdf and here as a Word document.

Research Methodology

Our intention was to ‘go deep’ with this qualitative research project and uncover untrue limiting assumptions which may apply to others experiencing similar resistance.

We chose to carry out interviews in a ‘Thinking Environment’, based on the work of Nancy Kline (2009)[1]. Thinking Environment applications are designed to tease out those untrue limiting assumptions which may even be unknown to self, but which, thoughtlessly, prevent us from making progress.

Each participant was asked the question:

What are you assuming that is stopping you becoming more confident with using tech?

Four drawings of folded arms
(c) 2012-15banditofshadows

With each participant, the words flow at first and then dry up; with the generative Attention of the listener, silences are allowed to lengthen and the deeper thinking emerges. In conventional interviewing, the silences would be interrupted with a further question, derailing the participant’s thoughts. The Thinking Environment allows the thinking to be the respondent’s own.

Research Findings

Two themes emerged around the subject of resistance:

  • Untrue Limiting Assumptions
  • Impostor Syndrome

Four themes gave clues about achieving digital resilience:

  • First Principles
  • Purpose
  • Support
  • Fluency

Untrue Limiting Assumptions

Several participants mentioned lack of capacity in older age as an untrue limiting assumption; musing on whether age was a factor in their lack of ease, and reaching a consensus that yes, it slowed things down, but it didn’t stop deep learning taking place.  The notion of digital resilience, where learning to do one thing strengthens confidence (and neurological pathways) when it comes to learning the next thing, is helpful here and is the golden thread running throughout this research.

Other untrue limiting assumptions were more personal. “I’m forever trying to prove that I’m not thick,” said Anna. “Then I come to a stumbling block such as tech, which is a biggie for me, and I have to prove it all over again!” Participants reflected that even when they had left behind the need to prove to others that they were competent, the need to convince themselves often remained. Hitting that ‘tech barrier’ keyed into deeper untrue limiting assumptions, even for graduate Anna.

For some participants, ‘I’m rubbish with tech’ becomes an untrue limiting assumption in itself. “I’m fine with Facebook,” Maisie says, almost in passing, as though she is not in fact comfortable manipulating one of the most sophisticated social media platforms in the world. Relying on her kids to make sure she’s safe online, Maisie is clearly not on top of all Facebook’s affordances, but the way in which she almost disregards it as a skill, worrying rather about her anxieties with Excel, begs a question about what digital literacy actually is for her. Only Caroline acknowledges that, “Facebook…has helped a lot, I supposed, helped me get some confidence around IT.” Similarly, Jenny draws a distinction between being digitally resilient at home, where she “was left to play around with it” and where her use of technology had purpose, and at work, where “it just becomes a burden.

Received thinking drowns out social media as a digital learning tool, and the smartphone as a pocket computer, and focuses instead on classroom hardware. Is it possible that the tools at work are not always fit for purpose and that this has a negative effect on personal digital resilience?

Primrose uncovered an interesting assumption, one which she’d already begun to deal with (with the help of her students): that technology lacked human warmth.  In a values-led social purpose teaching environment, perhaps an emphasis on human values would form a useful context for digital resilience training?  Claire and Caroline both uncover and address untrue limiting assumptions during their thinking; both are determined to master digital literacy, but are often overwhelmed. “You just learn one thing and there’s another coming out!” Digital resilience includes an acceptance of this, a sense of self-belief that you will figure out what you need to know.

It’s impossible to under-estimate the impact of untrue limiting assumptions can have on an individual’s life. Caroline believed that she could not pursue her ambition to train as a teacher because she wouldn’t be able to “work it out.” Thankfully, the provision of the Digital Nurse (bespoke online support) at Northern College means she has been able to reverse this assumption.

Impostor Syndrome

Impostor Syndrome has its roots in the assumptions that I shouldn’t be here and someone’s going to find me out. These are powerful limiting assumptions for educators whether in training or not.  For Claire it played out in the messages she was trying to send out via social media:  “I’m not sure that what I want to say is what other people will want to listen to.”

Jenny was one of a number of people to mention others’ ability to ‘blag’ their digital prowess.  Primrose echoed this:  “I think a lot of people are more frightened of tech than me, they just hide it better.”  For Primrose (and others), the fear of being ‘found out’ reached its zenith whilst teaching.

As long as she avoids technology in her teaching, Primrose can wear a mask that keeps the impostor syndrome at bay. This key finding is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to teaching confidence. It’s possible that, for some people, using tech becomes the distillation of Impostor Syndrome, the uber-Impostor, a challenge too far. Primrose wasn’t the only respondent to talk about digital literacy as being an additional responsibility, rather than an integral part of teaching in the FELTAG age.

If digital resilience could be blended more smoothly into teacher education programmes, this might help change the language of a sector where learning has still to be specified as e-learning to indicate a digital element. There is a sense of either/or thinking throughout the findings, which echo that of public discourse (at conferences, in staff meetings, on Twitter).  This false dichotomy is difficult to break down. It appears again when thinking about using technology in participants’ own teaching. Both Primrose and Anna are able to hide behind the “no facilities in the classroom” line, forgetting that the digital age affords the possibility of going beyond the classroom walls in terms of the learning space.


Impostor Syndrome carries into thinking around training and support.  All the women evidenced examples of “feeling silly” when they ask for help; often sensing the irritation of others who are trying to help them. Jenny was not the only respondent to cry out for time:  “I need time, my own time in which to learn how to go through each step, and having the support network to enable me to do this.”  This is how Jenny built her digital resilience at home, but it’s not possible for her to do the same at work, where she feels judged for not knowing. Kirstie echoed her experience: “What I feel is it’s a really useful tool and yes everyone should be made to learn it, but in a way that suits them and the way they learn, and not just because it’s there.”

There were no good practice examples of formal training; for these women, the standard ‘computer course’ was as ineffective as having someone look over their shoulder as they tried to get to grips with a new application.  Online courses didn’t advertise an accurate pitch.

What seemed to work best for all the respondents was a process to build digital resilience whereby:

  1. they were initially shown what to do/given the information to have a go for themselves, ideally in their own space/on their own device
  2. they had a play around to develop a basic understanding, with a supportive environment around them to ask questions if they were stuck
  3. they generated their own individual questions for coaching support, in order to secure a personalized progression
  4. they had ‘lightbulb moments’ as their resilience strengthened.

The phrase which kept occurring was “in my own time.” All respondents reported a qualitative difference between generating their own questions and being told what to do. A number of respondents mention “lightbulb moments”, all of which occur after trying something for real, having worked it out for themselves with help given only when they asked for it.


Maisie echoes a plea from all respondents: that the initiative should have a real purpose for them. Kirstie’s comment that she shouldn’t be asked to use an application “just because it’s there” is telling.  Having learned how to use Dropbox, Kirstie then had no need for it:“Quite often I don’t need to have that skill in the future and it’s like muscles, if you don’t use them, you lose them, so if I don’t need to use Dropbox…everything I’ve learned is gone.

Claire identified that one of the things missing from standard ICT courses, the very first step, was identifying a message:  “What we don’t do when we train people up in social media is say right, let’s deal with what do you think your message is and let’s get it out there.”  Not only would this dog-wagging-tail approach give an application purpose, the return on social media could help build confidence and enthusiasm. The learning from any course which operates in a vacuum, working on sample contexts only, will falter when faced with real-world untidiness, before the digital resilience is built up to push on through.

Applications taught for the sake of it, lacking purpose – the ‘tail-wagging-dog’ approach – not only go nowhere, but from the testimony of our respondents they actively build resistance.


Fluency, as defined by the respondents, is about having chance to practise to a level of mastery which is enough to banish the Impostor and also having the autonomy to use technology when they judge it to be for the benefit of their students. It’s also about having the confidence to negotiate new boundaries around their work.

However, there are other assumptions at play, exemplified by Anna’s question:“How can technology be natural?” To Anna, natural is the kind of learning that she grew up with; technology is grafted onto that. Primrose echoes this in her comment that technology is, “…trying to be something else on top of being a good teacher.” Anna is not the only respondent to talk about doing tasks twice in order to incorporate ICT; for different reasons (fear of losing her work), Primrose does the same.Learning in the FELTAG age has the potential to be very different from the kind of education the respondents had been used to. “I don’t do it enough to be fluent,” says Claire and Caroline finds her initial excitement diminishes as the learning sweeps past: “…it goes too fast and I’m too old to learn…your brain hurts learning it all and taking it all in, and you think, “I learned that, and I learned that”…and there’s always something else. Just trying to keep yourself up to date is tricky.

Kirstie is pragmatic when she talks about choosing her work carefully so that it’s the face-to-face education that she loves. What’s maybe not coming so naturally to respondents’ thinking is the potential for blended learning; so much of the discourse around digital literacy seems to be binary in the sense of either (tech)/or (face-to-face). The dog-wagging-tail approach to digital resilience suggests that you would only use technology if you could do what you wanted to do with people, better, and somehow this message is not getting across.

First Principles

The final theme of the FAB Research was hidden in plain sight. Quite simply, all but one of the respondents felt that they were missing the basics – and until they gained a more fundamental understanding of what we have called here ‘First Principles’, there was no way their digital resilience could grow.  Examples were given of ‘tutors’ (formal and also informal, such as family members) who begin explanations at a point where a level of basic knowledge was assumed. Frustration quickly follows incomprehension. The pace of this first step learning was often too quick. Participants repeatedly said that if they were shown the basics then left alone (“in my own time,” said Jenny), purposeful learning took place.

Hardware was cited as being a particular nuisance. “All those cables…,” sighs Claire, whose challenge doubled when she switched her laptop from PC to Mac. Maisie points out the frequency of interface-changing software updates, operating across devices, and the setting up of wifi-only printers: “I just find that such a mission!”

 The language of technology was an issue for many participants.  New uses of old words proliferate: “An icon is someone you look up to and value,” said Anna. “What they meant was, ‘this little picture’. I didn’t know where I should be looking.” Even though participants had – in some cases – achieved a veneer of digital competence, panic set in that any lack of fundamental knowledge would at some point make its mark; the “Impostor Syndrome” mentioned elsewhere in this paper. Maisie said she often felt overwhelmed by the amount of information available on the internet. Curation skills are so necessary to 21st century digital resilience – and rarely taught.

Several respondents mentioned specific issues around choosing and uploading photographs.  Issues of copyright were mentioned, alongside the technicalities and again that sense of purpose – how can I make an impactful choice? Maisie talked about not being able to do “the simple things”, looping back again to that notion of the Impostor. Her quote, below, powerfully illustrates what happens when the barrier comes down:

“It’s simple things like that actually that I find really confusing…like setting up a gmail, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t want to do it…I can’t do it, I don’t like it. Why can’t we do this on Hotmail?”

The asking why, such a powerful element of digital resilience needs to have a place to go.

Primrose’s resilience was deeply scarred from having lost her work. “I was told, you’ll never lose your work – and I lost the lot. Where was this cloud? I didn’t know how to find the cloud.”  Caroline, too, worried about the “clouds disappearing”. Primrose also had concerns around “what was private and what was not,” which she had no way of addressing. At the very least, a space to explore the basics (perhaps physically so in terms of connecting up cables) seems imperative if people are to move to a greater degree of digital resilience.

FAB Recommendations

What emerged on reflexion was a model of digital resilience; a series of building blocks practical enough to be addressed:

model of digital resilience

Our recommendations are centred around the provision of digital resilience training, with an acknowledgement that one size certainly does not fit all. Whilst all participants talked about ‘training’, none talked about ‘a training course’. We therefore propose that for 2015-16, as part of the TeachNorthern programme, we develop (in the context of values-led, social purpose education):

  • ongoing rhizomatic ‘treasure trail’; Yammer (used by all TeachNorthern participants) as a launchpad for pre-written trails around First Principles, such as curation, uploading photographs, and storage.
  • periodic rhizomatic ‘pop-up’ courses, eg four weeks in duration with a theme per week. This could suit a more nuanced subject, such as internet safety or social media, and could be planned or opportunistic.
  • planned practical sessions (perhaps monthly) to look at hardware or other First Principles issues. Small numbers, workshop-fashion – but would need attendance commitment to be viable without charge.
  • continued services of the Digital Nurse as an online resource. In fact, a number of Digital Nurses are now available to be on call. A case needs to be made for the cost-effectiveness of this vis a vis standard tutorial support.
  • consider developing an initial ‘digital resilience’ session to run across all courses, mindful of a) tight timescales on the Level 3 courses and b) students being in a position where they repeat this.

We also plan to further articulate the TeachNorthern blended approach, which combines the face-to-face intense discipline of the Thinking Environment processes with the use of freely available social media in a Community of Praxis.


[1] Kline, N. (2009). More Time to Think. Burley-in-Wharfedale. Fisher King.

For more about the Thinking Environment see:

TeachNorthern blog:

Time to Think (the Thinking Environment network):

[2] For more about the Community of Praxis see:

[3] Brookfield, S.J. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass.

[4] The file extension poster in The Northern College Library and Learning Support Centre was identified as being particularly helpful.

2014 – Social Purpose Spaces

For the project report, see here. This was our first project and it was fundamental to all that has followed since.  Despite the length of the project report (we still thought we had to do it that way), we learned one simple lesson.

That different voices were amplified in different spaces, and that our Community of Praxis could genuinely be the key to diversity.

This small, action research project gave us the confidence to carry on doing what we do, and also gained us our spurs as researchers.  Thanks ETF and EMCETT for the opportunity.