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Just Google it! Digital literacy and theepistemology of ignorance

Ibrar Bhatt & Alison MacKenzie

To cite this article: Ibrar Bhatt & Alison MacKenzie (2019) Just Google it! Digital literacyand the epistemology of ignorance, Teaching in Higher Education, 24:3, 302-317, DOI:10.1080/13562517.2018.1547276

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2018.1547276

Published online: 20 Feb 2019.

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Just Google it! Digital literacy and the epistemology ofignoranceIbrar Bhatt and Alison MacKenzie

School of Social Sciences, Education & Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland

ABSTRACTIn this paper we examine digital literacy and explicate how it relatesto the philosophical study of ignorance. Using data from a studywhich explores the knowledge producing work of undergraduatestudents as they wrote course assignments, we argue that a socialpractice approach to digital literacy can help explain howepistemologies of ignorance may be sustained. If students arerestricted in what they can know because they are unaware ofexogenous actors (e.g. algorithms), and how they guide choicesand shape experiences online, then a key issue with whichtheorists of digital literacy should contend is how to educatestudents to be critically aware of how power operates in onlinespaces. The challenge for Higher Education is twofold: tounderstand how particular digital literacy practices pave the wayfor the construction of ignorance, and to develop approaches tocounter it.

ARTICLE HISTORYReceived 18 May 2018Accepted 8 November 2018

KEYWORDSDigital literacy; epistemologyof ignorance; literacy studies;ignorance; higher education

Introduction: literacy, knowledge creation and ignorance

Over the last 15 years, the broad and interdisciplinary field of Literacy Studies has turnedits attention to digital literacies and language online (e.g. Barton and Lee 2013; Gillen2014). This growing body of work has explored what digital literacy looks like in particularlocalised contexts such as college classrooms (Bhatt 2017a), gaming environments (Gee2014), and university student experience (Gourlay and Oliver 2018). And while therehas been some notable research which has examined writing in Higher Education andits role in the work of knowledge creation (e.g. Tusting et al 2019) there has, as yet,been little that has examined specifically the relationship between practices of studentdigital literacy and the social production of ignorance – a field of inquiry that is outlinedin detail below.

In this paper we argue that Literacy Studies, through its empirical work and ethno-graphic commitment, should engage with epistemologies of ignorance in understandinghow ignorance can be maintained, produced and re-produced through practices ofdigital literacy in the everyday lives of individual users of technologies within theirvarious networks and institutions. Our focus here is on Higher Education, and our datais drawn from a study of digital literacy in university campus sites. Using ethnographic

© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group

CONTACT Ibrar Bhatt i.bhatt@qub.ac.uk School of Social Sciences, Education & Social Work, Queen’s UniversityBelfast, 20 College Green, Belfast BT7 1LN, Northern Ireland

TEACHING IN HIGHER EDUCATION2019, VOL. 24, NO. 3, 302–317https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2018.1547276

interviews alongside a detailed videography of the writing process, the study examineshow students in different disciplines (STEM, Computer Sciences, Arts & Humanitiesand Business courses) attempt to make sense of the plethora of information they encoun-ter online. This includes how they search for information, engage with it critically (or not),and make evaluative judgements about its credibility and relevance to curricular work andassignments. We explore how students appear to engage in digital literacy practices whichdemonstrate forms of non-culpable and strategic ignorance. But first, we orient the generalreader to our twin theoretical bases: first, a ‘social practice’ approach to digital literacy, andsecond, epistemologies of ignorance, particularly in relation to the power of algorithms todetermine, produce and maintain knowledge.

Literacy and knowledge production

Literacy Studies emerged through a series of seminal works (e.g. Street 1984; Baynham1995; Barton and Hamilton 2012) which collectively presented a social theory of literacy.This theory foregrounds the idea that literacy is always associated with, and realisedthrough, ‘social practices’ rather than a purely formally-schooled understanding ofcorrect language. This means that literacy is always embedded within social activities, issocially situated, and mediated by material artefacts and networks. Germane to itsmethods is to focus on what people actually do with texts and technologies, and how lit-eracy practices are connected to getting things done in everyday life. Literacy research,therefore, invites careful and ethnographic attention to social acts of meaning ascribedto everyday practices of reading and writing.

Literacy Studies begins with the local and everyday experience of literacy in particularcommunities. It is rooted in people’s intimate experience with text and this is not alwayspredictable from one person to another. There are also different literacy practices indifferent domains of people’s lives, whether through, for example, formal learning, reli-gious activity, or family life. Literacy is, therefore, to be understood in a pluralisticsense: ‘literacies’ to which, in addition, digital media also adds plurality; and how studentsuse digital technology will vary across different social, age, and subject groups. Students arefaced with an increasing range of digital platforms with which to work, and an oftenunpredictable set of social and material resources which shape their writing and knowl-edge production. This is particularly salient in institutional environments where there isoften an attempt to standardise curricular work by organising it around a virtual learningenvironment (VLE) that all are mandated to use, and large computer suites.

Researchers working within Literacy Studies have examined, in various ways, the cul-tural connections between the nature of knowledge (how it is produced, valued, andbequeathed), and the literacy practices of particular communities. Through LiteracyStudies, we have come to know how literacy is intrinsically connected to how societiesoperate and are organised, how institutions, groups and individuals organise their livesand make sense of the world, and how these realities are produced and re-produced inand through practices of literacy.

Literacy, therefore, cannot be seen outside of the powerful interests and agencies whichseek to define it in particular ways (Tett, Hamilton, and Crowther 2012): literacy is a profi-table and fertile resource which can be sponsored, bought and sold, and regulated, sup-pressed or withheld (Brandt 1998). As Brandt defines it, the ‘sponsors’ of literacy are


‘any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, aswell as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy – and gain advantage by it insome way’ (1998, 166). Whether they are community leaders, academic institutions, ortechnology companies, they ultimately control ‘the ideological freight that must beborne for access to what they have’ (168).

Sponsors also shift over time, and where the chief sponsors of literacy were once reli-gious institutions who controlled how and where literacy was taught (and still do in manyparts of the world), they have since been eclipsed by new sets of sponsors in the guise ofbusinesses and the digital technology industries. These new actors have shaped current lit-eracy demands in ways which are relevant to this research, as we will discuss below.

Brandt’s ideas are relevant in today’s digitally infused world where information isorganised and made accessible to those who seek it online through search engines suchas Google. Companies such as Google, through their computer code and artificial intelli-gence systems, are among today’s highly influential ‘sponsors of literacy’. Their digitalplatforms are conduits of economic and political forces which regulate and establish thevalue and agentive potential of people’s digital literacies as they use those platforms(Noble 2018).

Drawing from a social practice approach to literacy, this study examines digital litera-cies as ‘the constantly changing practices through which people make traceable meaningsusing digital technologies’ (Gillen and Barton 2010, 1). A social practice approach todigital literacy does not, therefore, assume a deterministic and predictive relationshipbetween digital media and students’ writing and study practices. As Gillen and Barton(2010, 1) caution ‘many mistakes – at the design, commercial and indeed theoreticallevels – are made through assuming that there is a straightforward relationship betweenwhat a new technology can do and how – or even whether – it will then be used’.Instead, a social practice approach to digital literacy begins with detailed exploration ofdigital literacy in the lives of those who use technologies over and above an a priorinotion of ‘what works’. In this respect, a social practice approach to digital literacy isset apart from related perspectives (e.g. ‘information literacy’ and ‘media literacy’)which conceptualise literacy as a metaphor for autonomous skills which can be acquiredand transferred from one domain to another. A social practice approach is important ininstitutions, such as universities, where large-scale investments are made in new digitaltechnologies, and where there seems to be little or no examination of what digital literacyactually looks like in practice for students and staff. The ways in which learners embrace asuite of institutional technology is not always reflected in the intentions of investors or pol-icymakers who will likely evaluate its use exclusively within broad instructional frame-works which tend to define digital literacy through a categorical classification ofsomething which students have (or have not), rather than something which they do(see Gourlay and Oliver 2018).

Further, ignorance of how digital technologies work, how users’ online activities can beused to the advantage of the platform owners or sponsors without the users’ knowledge,and, indeed, how the internet appears to be structured so as to encourage people who enterit to confine their browsing to opinions they already accept, is not always well understood.Similarly, how people make sense of the voluminous amounts of information online is notstraightforward. The sheer extent of online information necessitates its ‘pre-curation’(Bhatt 2017a), or filtering, by algorithms before it is consumed by online users. Yet,


ignorance of how digital technologies and online platforms do this has resulted in ritua-lised practices of digital literacy which must be examined critically and not taken forgranted as mere everyday online practice. As we shall shortly demonstrate, some formsof ritualisation are necessary, and relate to how an online user accords epistemic trustto actors (e.g. teachers, search engines) as they seek information for learning and knowl-edge production. But an exploration of students’ ritualised practices with digital media canhelp uncover asymmetrical relations of power in moments of digital literacy and where,and how, epistemic trust is being granted.

Moreover, given that internet platforms are designed by corporations, they will beinfluenced by motivations, values, and intentions that are embedded in their architecture(Origgi 2012). However, because that design is often diffuse, it is difficult to know whom toquery when these features become manifest or troublesome: there is little accountability ortransparency, and it is difficult to exercise agency. As Eubanks (2018) observes ‘we haveremarkably limited access to the equations, algorithms, and models that shape our lifechances’. We have ceded much of the decision-making power to automated eligibilitysystems and ranking algorithms which control who has access to financial support andprotection (insurance, mortgages, and welfare payments), and which particularly affectspeople of colour and low income communities, though no-one is immune.

Without knowing just how such platforms work, how to make sense of complex algor-ithms, or that data discrimination is a real social problem, students may not be the auton-omous and agential learners and pursuers of knowledge they believe themselves to be. AsNoble (2018) argues, the monopoly status of a relatively small number of internet searchengines, along with the paid promotion of certain sites, means that students engaged inseemingly benign online searches may actually be lacking in important knowledge prac-tices with respect to online learning and browsing: how knowledge is produced, spon-sored, valued – or withheld.

The study of ignorance

Epistemology is, very simply, the study of knowledge and justified belief. Ignorance, bycontrast, is generally taken to mean the absence or lack of knowledge or awareness,and so it seems counterintuitive to talk about the epistemology of ignorance. How is itintelligibly possible to bring these two seemingly antonymic states together? However,ignorance is not mere lack of knowledge, a benign gap in knowledge or some epistemicoversight that needs only to be filled or rectified. Epistemologies of ignorance is, rather,an ‘examination of the complex phenomena of ignorance’ (Sullivan and Tuana 2007, 1):how it is actively constructed and sustained for the purposes of domination or exploita-tion, or for epistemic advantage; how it is sponsored and regulated (Brandt 1998); usedwittingly or unwittingly to distort, suppress or withhold knowledge (O’Neil 2016); and asa substantive epistemic practice in itself in which ignorance is wilful and socially accep-table (Alcoff 2007). Frye (1983, 118), writing of racialised ignorance, has argued thatignorance ‘is not a simple lack, absence or emptiness, and it is not a passive state…[it] is a complex result of many acts and many negligences’. Ignorance is, therefore,something which is performed as a social practice, is often ritualised and, as we willshow, it has a complex role to play in the writing and knowledge creating work of uni-versity students.


Yet, epistemic ignorance also has value. For example, it is good epistemic practice to bestrategically ignorant and highly selective in the things we know or seek to know in orderto remain epistemically functional, particularly now that most of us are almost exclusivelyimmersed in information-dense digital environments. We do not, for example, need toknow how many blades of grass there are in a square metre (though a gardener might)and we rarely need to know the specific set of instructions that constitutes a given algor-ithm. It often makes sense to grant epistemic authority and trust to those with expertiseand reputation, and who are known to be epistemically responsible. We often judgewhat to believe on whom to believe, and to make these judgments we rely on criteria ofplausibility, consensus, relevance, and credibility, among other things. In digital informa-tional environments these criteria may also include online rankings, ratings, and the orderof search results, such as those provided by Google. Google, the search engine that seemsto be synonymous with the internet (Noble 2018), is judged by many users to be reliableand trustworthy, though we argue below that this is not always the case. The Pew Internetand American Life Project (Purcell, Brenner, and Rainie 2012) reported that 73% of searchengine users say that most or all the information they find through search engines is ‘accu-rate and trustworthy’ and 66% of users regarded search engines are a ‘fair and unbiasedsource of information’ (3).

Reputation also helps when we are ignorant or uncertain. In information-dense onlineenvironments, information is useful, according to Origgi (2012), only in conjunction withreputation. It fashions collective processes of knowledge and is a ‘criterion’ (416) forextracting information from these online systems. Understandably, given our pervasiveepistemic interdependence, and finite time, ‘good epistemic conduct needs to be under-stood as the maintenance of appropriate balances of knowledge and ignorance, inoneself and also in relation to others’ (Fricker 2016, 160). Reputation, as an ‘essential epis-temological notion’ (Origgi 2012), may help keep that balance.

However, while it is not possible or practical to know everything, ignorance may rep-resent a culpable failure to put effort or skill into knowing something one ought to know(Fricker 2007). Asymmetries of power in the context of the digital environment influenceattributions of epistemic authority: whom we afford credibility excess or deficit based on,for example, reputation, and finite time and resources. Following Anderson’s (2017)analysis, such attributions of authority can impact on general models of knowledge; theepistemic standing of knowers or producers of knowledge (the reputation or ranking ofplatforms such as Google); whose claims various epistemic communities, such as students,will accept, and ought to accept as credible; and how this affects the distribution of knowl-edge and ignorance in society by algorithms, or other sources of information, such as ajournal, newspaper or a course lecturer.

Given recent revelations about Facebook, we should know by now that our data can bemined and used without our knowledge, and therefore consent. Epistemic practices maylack know-how (skills) and propositional knowledge (know-what), and, of course, motiv-ation. Many undergraduate students are often passive consumers of what they are taughtor told, or have read. They grant, reasonably, epistemic credibility to their lecturers, as wewill discuss below. Like many of us, they are also often passive consumers of online infor-mation and search results, again, as we will discuss below.

Online searches are conducted through a series of steps, algorithmically mediated,which are implemented by programme code (Noble 2018, 37). Regarded as neutral


because they are algorithmic and scientific, these mathematical formulations are evaluatedthrough procedural and mechanistic practices which include tracing hyperlinks amongpages. This is defined as ‘voting’ which describes search results that move up or downin a ranked list of websites (Noble 2018, 37). Most are automated or happen throughgraphical user interfaces that allow people who are not programmers to engage insharing links to and from websites (37).

Noble (2018), among others (e.g. O’Neil 2016; Eubanks 2018), has pointed out that,contrary to the belief that online platforms like Google are objective and neutral, oreven infallible, discrimination is embedded within their very computer code and artifi-cial intelligence systems, and that these can mask and deepen inequality, as well asrender the user less agential than she thought. The mathematical formulations thatdrive automated decisions are not ‘benign, neutral or objective’ (Noble 2018, 1). Thedesigners themselves have values which may promote prejudice as Noble (2018) docu-ments with respect to persistent and widespread racial profiling, sexism and misogynyonline.

Worryingly, institutions like schools, universities, and libraries are increasingly beingdisplaced by, or are reliant on, web-based tools such as Google (Noble 2018) becauseusers think of them as public resources that are free from commercial interest and bias– which they are not. Google is an advertising company, and search results producedthrough it reflect the values and norms of the company’s commercial partners and adver-tisers. Consequently, search results play a powerful role in granting or reinforcing beliefsin the epistemic authority of, as we argued above, general models of knowledge; the epis-temic standing of knowers, whose claims various epistemic communities accept (or not) ascredible, and how this affects the distribution of knowledge and ignorance in society(Anderson 2017).

Why should this be a matter of concern? One reason is that algorithms are creating‘new asymmetries of power’, and are perceived as being better knowers of ourselvesthan we are (Origgi and Ciranna 2017, 303). Data mining, is a useful example. Theinterpretation and processing of data, makes a number of correlations through whichthe interests of the users are individuated to anticipate future actions. These predictiveprofiles are the essential ingredient of online marketing strategies – and of which usersmay have no knowledge. At the time of writing, we have learned that our identities arevirtual objects that companies can buy and sell without our knowing, or without ourvoices being heard or taken into account (Buttarelli 2018). The ways in which wesearch for, use and communicate information through the web, and the roles andeffects of search engines, has been, and remains, largely unknown to most users. Weare largely ignorant of the effects and uses of our cognitive outsourcing and online moni-toring, on our status as competent informants, or that we have online avatars (Origgi andCiranna 2017, 305). Since algorithmic procedures are determined by the owners of theplatforms according to their interests, a profile of a user can be created using personalisa-tion algorithms, by collecting and storing tracks based on browsing history, IP addresses,social network activity, email content, and key words in search engines (307). Theseavatars are potentially partial, and may not present what the person wants to be knownabout herself or represent who she fully is (Origgi and Ciranna 2017). Not only mayusers be ignorant of what is happening, but they may also not know what their rightsare or the uses to which this passive mining of data is being used. As we are increasingly


coming to understand, such ignorance is not a benign gap in knowledge. We should ques-tion how corporate ‘sponsors’ (Brandt 1998) of digital literacy, companies who dominatethe internet such as Google and Facebook, are benefitting (economically and in otherways) through users’ ignorance of their platforms.

We have an hermeneutical gap about predictive online profiling and attributions ofrights and duties which are not yet the subject of full debate since a significant numberof users may not know, and therefore cannot name, the potential and actual harmbeing done to them. We currently lack hermeneutical resources to talk about theseissues and develop awareness of our rights of our profile which are, at present, whollyin the hands of the platform, and this is the case even when users, such as students, areengaged in seemingly benign searches for information to write an essay.

Students who are novices within a particular knowledge-based community or academicdiscipline will understandably rely on the directions and guidance of other actors, such aslecturers, leading to an inevitable asymmetry of power. Academics often warn their stu-dents about the quality and veracity of information they obtain from the internet. Studentsare often told to undertake rigorous searches in subject-specific repositories and rely onrefereed literature, rather than trust more accessible treatments of a topic available inWikipedia or in alluring YouTube videos, both of which will likely appear at the top ofstudents’ search results.

Despite the warnings, as we will see from the accounts below, students in varying waystrust and use a variety of strategies to manage the wealth of information they find online.How they come to trust and select those strategies, and how they manage information, cantell us much about their knowings, and how those epistemologies manifest in their prac-tices of digital literacy. Yet how university students actually go about writing their assign-ments, how they seek out and discern information as part of their study practices hasremained remarkably under-explored. As we have all increasingly come to realise, andhave argued above, the internet is not the infallible and neutral repository of informationwe recently believed it to be; so how do students learn whom or what to trust to help themnavigate through the epistemic gaps in their curricular work? This is one of the key areas ofinvestigation in a current study of digital literacy in Higher Education, as we will nowdiscuss.

A research project on digital literacy in higher education


The research was situated across disciplinary sites (STEM, Computer Sciences, Arts andHumanities, and Business subjects) in two universities in Northern Ireland. The researchaims to develop a critical understanding of university digital literacy policy versus actualityand for the purposes of this paper, four students’ case studies (from a total of ten) wereselected for analysis and discussion. Students were recruited through lecturers known tothe primary researcher, and student networks online, and selected to represent each ofthe faculties and disciplinary groups across both universities, and, as far as possible,gender, ethnicity and diversity of disciplinary subjects.

To capture the diversity and richness of digital literacy and writing practices of the stu-dents, a combination of the following methods was used:


(i) Focussed interviews were conducted with each student participant. Initial interviewswere a pre-assignment ‘walk-around’ interview of the student’s campus to examinehow study habits are mediated by their material environment, particular campustechnologies and official learning spaces.

(ii) After the initial interview, each participant conducted a screen recording of a courseassignment task. Through this method we were able to record the iterative processesof writing and online practices (searching, composing and revising). This data collec-tion technique is substantiated in other research into digital literacy and writing (seeBhatt 2017b).

(iii) This was followed by a post-assignment discussion of the writing task and the stu-dents’ history of use with digital media over the course of their life. This follow upinterview allowed us to ask the students to reflect on the assignment task they hadjust done, and also to examine how their confidence and practice with digitalmedia and online behaviour evolved over time. The students were asked abouthow they sought information online; how they assessed the veracity and authen-ticity of search engine results; and how they judged the trustworthiness of theinformation.

(iv) Additionally, software which captures quantitative patterns of digital behaviour (e.g.time spent on tasks and sub-tasks like web searching) was also obtained from the par-ticipants during their assignment writing.

From these data we were then able to capture a detailed impression of the digital lit-eracy practices of the students, both during a specific session of assignment writing andin their academic and social practice more generally.

Ethical challenges

Ethical issues relating to this research were fully examined and approved through the insti-tutional ethical review process. Specific challenges emerged which relate to the use ofdigital data obtained from participant’s machines, namely points (ii) and (iv) above.Therefore, during the screen recording, participants were given the option to ‘pause’ therecording whenever they wished. Screenshots with identifiable information were alsoedited to protect participant identity, and no identifiable information was captured inthe data logs of computer use. All software was uninstalled from a student’s machineimmediately after a writing session was completed.

Preliminary findings

For the purposes of this paper, we will focus specifically on those features of the casesexamined thus far that relate to how the students searched for information online whilewriting their assignment tasks, and how they discerned the quality of that informationin their writing. Since ignorance, as argued above, can manifest in ritualised practices,in this section we will show how it emerges through practices of digital literacy and thecomplex role it plays in the writing and knowledge creating work of students. We willalso explore the extent to which students were reliant on their lecturers’ judgements


and decisions about what is acceptable and credible for their work. The student casesexamined in this paper come from: ‘Kim’ (Cinematic Arts), ‘Rahat’ (Economics),‘Nusrat’ (Medicine), and ‘Phil’ (Politics & Philosophy).

Kim (Cinematic Arts)

Kim is a first year student of Cinematic Arts. The assignments she receives for her courseare varied and include such genres as script writing, visual story-telling, coding, and shortessays.

When writing her assignments, Kim very rarely goes beyond the resources uploaded byher lecturer in the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). We can view this practice of thelecturer as a form of ‘curation’ (Bhatt 2017a), which is ‘when certain actors guide theassignment writing along a certain path and place boundaries around the task to regulateits outcome’ (144). These curated resources are the basis of the course content in the formof slides from lectures, pdf files and links to online readings. This curation is important forKim, as it helps standardise, and in some ways ritualise, the writing practices necessary forassignment completion.

Throughout the interviews, and substantiated in the screen-recording of her assign-ment, Kim emphasised how reliant she was on the curation work of the lecturer,arguing that ‘If a teacher sends a reading to us, I’ll trust it. I don’t know why, but youjust do’. She would even email the lecturer to request resources when she was notsatisfied with what she was given. This is because, as she states, ‘If I am the one whofound it myself, I would be sceptical about it’. Kim lacks epistemic trust and confidencein her own skills and knowledge, and so accords epistemic credibility to her lecturer.

But in the rare instance where she felt the need to go outside the framework of her lec-turer’s carefully curated resources, she attaches value to the results only if the searcheditem (a key word, concept, story, for example) appears at the top of search engineresults. In terms of any epistemic judgements she makes, the greater the congruitybetween websites in what they report and rank, the more likely she is to accept that infor-mation and incorporate it into her assignment.

A kind of discernment did, however, emerge in her pre-assignment group task. Theassignment that was screen recorded was on the subject of visual storytelling. A pre-assignment task involved a group discussion online where Kim was able to garner infor-mation from a group of fellow students about the topic. Much of the recording is spentwith Kim writing and flicking back and forth from ideas she had collected in the groupchat prior to the actual writing of the assignment (see Figure 1). This was a recordingof an online group chat by which she could access a record of the group’s collectiveideas. She had curated this information from the group members, her epistemic commu-nity, and was able to draw from it as she wrote the assignment rather than search forcontent online.

Kim values this kind of pre-assignment group interaction over and above informationthat she finds online. Her scepticism about seeking information online and her trust of thepeople around her, to whom she attributes epistemic authority, is well encapsulated in thisquote from an interview: ‘There’s a lot that you read on the internet that’s not what youactually hear from other people outside of your computer’.


Rahat (Economics)

The research was carried out in the early stages of Rahat’s degree in Economics, when hisassignments usually consisted of short pieces on topics with a 1–2 weeks’ deadline. Forexample, at the time of screen-recording, he had completed a 600-word assignment onThe Great Depression for which, as he told us in a pre-assignment interview, ‘All theresources that we needed were on one website that I used. I didn’t do much reading…it was all online’.

In this respect, Rahat’s approach to writing for assignments does not differ considerablyfrom Kim’s. The lecturer gives him links to websites for each individual assignment, andsometimes this will be a single link with all the important readings on it. His lecturerwould usually explain the readings in class and then double up by sending them viaemail to the students to make sure: ‘It’s all in the email’. Rahat also explained that hewould rely on it a lot, arguing that ‘it’s the best guidance because the lecturer has readthrough it’. Understandably, and unsurprisingly, Rahat places epistemic trust in his lec-turer to guide him to the best reading. Rahat also applied the same level of trust to his lec-turer’s tweets, considering them to be on a par with thought leaders and publiccommentators in the field of Economics. He benefitted from his lecturers’ social mediaupdates, and therefore reputation, because they provided a broader view of the subjectthan the lectures.

When asked if students should be wholly reliant on the information provided by theirlecturers he said, ‘No, because I think that would be too much spoon feeding. I think thatstudents need to do their own searches as well’. However, on this occasion, this was notborne out in Rahat’s actual practice.

Figure 1. Kim spends most of her time flicking back and forth from ideas she collects in the pre-assign-ment group chat.


If further and more extensive reading is required for an assignment, Rahat will searchvia his preferred search engine, Google, by typing in the title of the assignment task andclicking on the results that immediately relate to this. This he explained as follows: ‘I wouldtype in the main title of what the essay is about, and scroll down, and whatever I think thatI can relate to and understand easily, I would go with that’. On the surface, Rahat uses fewcomplex thought process and concepts in the search since he uses his essay title, andreadily accepts results that closely match it.

Rahat was unable to describe other filtering processes. What seemed to matter was thatthe filtering of search results was related to the extent to which the information he receivedwas relevant to his assignment rather than its academic credibility. As with Kim, he alsofavoured top search results and judged the credibility of these based on their popularity,and, hence, assumed reputation.

Nusrat (Medicine)

Nusrat is a second-year student of Medicine. The assignments he has to complete for hiscourse are varied in nature, and include write-ups of scientific practicals and short essayswhich require prior reading and research. When he has to write an essay, he steadfastlylimits himself to academic sources only. He told us that:

I wouldn’t be using Wikipedia. I’d be looking at papers from PubMed. Often I’ll just type inthe subject matter on Google and it will give me links to different websites, which I know haveacademic papers on. So things like PubMed, things like Cell, things like ScienceDirect, thoserenowned websites.

He is fairly confident when it comes to independent study practices, including his ability tosearch for, and select information for his course. He explained that:

I know what I’m searching for. Even if the lecture might not be that detailed, I would still usethat lecture as a guide of what I need to know. For instance, I was learning about femalereproductive physiology and the PowerPoint for that wasn’t that detailed. But I found therelevant chapter in a physiology textbook and I was able to fill in the missing pieces andmake sense of it.

Here, Nusrat emphasises his confidence in making sense of information that he feels islacking in his lecturer’s course content. He also sees this as part of the practice of learningon his course: ‘The assignments we usually get will be stuff that they’ve touched upon in alecture, but maybe the purpose of the assignment is to make us go into it further’.

His strategy is to target academic databases for information, like PubMed, a database ofacademic reports on life sciences and biomedical topics, for sources that may be lacking inhis lecture notes. Most of Nusrat’s web searching is channelled through these databasesand they are his primary source of information. His assignments will predictably relatedirectly or indirectly to this content. Another reason that explains his need to foster prac-tices of independent searching is given as follows: ‘In all honesty, sometimes PowerPointsare not that good’, in which case he describes himself as ‘able to adapt and find anotherway’.

We see examples of this during the screen recording of his assignment which was on theportrayal of mental illness in film (see Figure 2). As he began the task, Nusrat accessed therecommended readings from his lecturer’s notes. He then searched online for ‘movies and


mental illness pubmed’ highlighting the desire to direct his results towards ‘pubmed’. Therecording reveals that he did not read any report deeply at this point, but merely skimmedto see which films had been analysed for their portrayal of mental health issues. It is onlyafter viewing multiple results of films such as ‘Beautiful Mind’, ‘Logan’, and ‘The Hours’ inacademic articles that Nusrat decided to target these films for analysis in his own assign-ment. In a post assignment interview he clarifies his methods as follows:

It’s always hard finding that initial paper but once you do, that leads onto finding otherpapers. It’s like once you find that one paper, then it just becomes a lot easier from then on.

The question here is about trusting what has been analysed before in previous research.Nusrat outlines his trust in selected online materials as follows: ‘if you go onto awebsite and the article looks poorly produced, or informally written, or only one authorhas written it, that would make me turn away from it’.

Phil (Politics & Philosophy)

Due to the nature of his course, Politics & Philosophy, Phil, a first year student, recentlyjoined Twitter in order to keep up to date with news and current events, as they inform hisongoing written work. Having used Twitter in the past, he stopped using it because of theamount of time it was taking up. He then began re-using it more strategically to keep up todate with political events and news for his course. After experiencing an overwhelmingamount of variety of news through Twitter, Phil decided to subscribe to GuardianOnline for the news relevant to his course. In this way, he felt able to manage the multiplesources of news he receives by relying on Guardian Online for, as he assesses it, journalisticquality, integrity and news that is consistent with his political inclinations.

Figure 2. Nusrat tries to target solely academic databases for information through Google searching.


This management of his news information sources is essential for two reasons: it isinformation which will contribute to his development on his Politics & Philosophycourse, and Phil currently has little interest in consuming information which is indirect conflict with his political views. Phil’s practices mean that he is engaged in aform of strategic ignorance: to be epistemically functional, there are things or views ofthe world that he does not want to, or cannot know. However, though Phil’s decisionwas strategic, relying only on one source of news information is not, perhaps, best practice.By deciding to channel all his news through Guardian Online, however reputable, he ritua-lises his practices and ensures non-exposure to views different to his own.


Kim, Nusrat, Rahat, and Phil all offer interesting insights into the varied practices of digitalliteracy emerging in undergraduate work. They differed substantially in the way that theysearched for, managed and discerned information for curricular work. Both their simi-larities and dissimilarities call for explanation. What do these practices of studentdigital literacy imply for our understanding of ignorance discussed earlier in the paper?

Kim and Rahat typically follow the detailed guidance specified by their lecturers andboth are careful to produce work which only draws from the resources provided as partof course materials. When each of them felt the need to search for information beyondwhat was provided, Kim and Rahat tended to rely on search results that appeared in mul-tiple locations as a criterion of authority. Nusrat, in contrast, casts a much smaller net inhis searches for information. His self-reports and assignment recording revealed a muchmore focussed practice of information searching, and a certain amount of confidence inhis ability to use other sources to ‘fill in the missing pieces’ from lecture notes. Nusratattempts to understand the curricular task he is set. Clearly, most of what he producedin the course of writing his assignment was through this kind of self-discovery, with infor-mation filtered through his own assessment of its importance and credibility. For Kim andRahat, the lecturers seemed to be the ultimate epistemic authority.

These and numerous similar observations led us to the conclusion that all the students’writing and information seeking practices were ritualised – that is, motivated mainly by aneed to adhere to the rules of the game. Building on the notion of curation described earlier,ritualised practices of assignment writing are about defining the sequence of events for taskcompletion in such a way that the expectations (for students and lecturers) are clear andrelatively habituated. Ritualised practices can be sustained through the common experienceof the instructional practices of schooling prior to graduate study, and an examination ofthem can tell us much about how epistemic trust is accorded in online practice.

Ritualisation directs teaching and, rather than encouraging students to cultivate skills ofdiscernment and trust in their own judgement, has the potential to restrict research prac-tices on account of high levels of epistemic trust in certain actors, be they lecturers, searchengines, or news websites. This can constrain and restrict students’ practices of infor-mation gathering, and thereby sustain ignorance of alternatives. But can and should weexpect anything more from undergraduate students? Would doing otherwise result in cog-nitive overload? Ritualisation can be an essential part of inducting a student into the formsof knowledge creation necessary within a given discipline. It is itself a form of non-culp-able strategic ignorance, and can help situate a student’s literacy practices as a novice


within their discipline. But such habits could, conversely, create a tendency to be unreflec-tive and habituated in research practices, and leave students over-reliant on, and passiveusers of, the decisions of popular search engines, with all the dangers that entails, as wediscussed earlier.

All four students felt obliged to complete their assignments through ritualised practicesof digital literacy. Their assignment writing is an activity whose significance rests in itsmanner of performance, as much as in its end product. For example, Nusrat relied on cri-teria of journal ranking, number of authors, and quality of presentation to make judge-ments of plausibility, relevance, and credibility. Kim and Rahat viewed multiplecitations of information as something which renders the results epistemically trustworthy.The idea that multiple sources which say the same thing equates to corroboration and vali-dation is an idea which has its origins within the academy, but cannot be assumed ofonline searches for the reasons we recount above.

Some kinds of ignorance or knowledge practices are not mere oversights. We havelimited time and resources and it is rational to grant credibility to epistemic authorities,as these students clearly demonstrated, and to trust on the basis of reputation, expertise,and so on: epistemic dependence is necessary and unavoidable. Phil, for example, know-ingly channelled his news through the Guardian Online website, entering into a particularset of debates which delineate his belief formations in order to manage his finite time andresources. Yet, while Phil’s decision is strategic, even necessary, it entails a particular kindof epistemic dependence on a particular set of views – perhaps we could even think of thisas invested, if strategic, ignorance of alternative world views.

The literate activity of students in digital environments is supported and shaped bypowerful historical, social, and economic forces, or ‘sponsors’ of digital literacy who,through their digital platforms and technologies, offer users both opportunities andthe potential to constrain and suppress. How students, therefore, make use of theseopportunities, and how they come to make sense of the constraints and workthrough them (or not) is a challenge facing educators. As technology is an integralcomponent of learning, students must be supported in developing a critical awarenessof how power operates in online spaces, and how ways of thinking and being are cul-turally produced and re-produced, and sponsored. If students are restricted in whatthey can know because they are unaware of how exogenous actors (e.g. algorithms)actually work, and how they guide their choices and shape their experiences online,then it becomes important to educate them to be critically aware during theirdigital searches for information, research and critical argument, and to educatethem to be reflective about their ritualised practices with digital literacy. The challengefor Higher Education is to understand how particular forms of digital literacy practicespave the way for the construction of ignorance, and to develop mechanisms thatcounter it. To do this requires critically examining student digital literacies in lightof epistemologies of ignorance.


This research was supported by a grant from the Society for Research into Higher Education(SRHE). We would like to thank the following people for their commnents upon earlier drafts:Sadia Khan, Tess Maginess, Christine Bower, and Jennifer Rose.


Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.


This work was supported by The Society for Research into Higher Education.


Ibrar Bhatt http://orcid.org/0000-0002-3577-1257


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  • Abstract
  • Introduction: literacy, knowledge creation and ignorance
    • Literacy and knowledge production
    • The study of ignorance
  • A research project on digital literacy in higher education
    • Methods
    • Ethical challenges
  • Preliminary findings
    • Kim (Cinematic Arts)
    • Rahat (Economics)
    • Nusrat (Medicine)
    • Phil (Politics Philosophy)
  • Discussion
  • Acknowledgements
  • Disclosure statement
  • References

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