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DigLin: The Digital Literacy Instructor

  • Date published:
    9 December 2021
© Friesland College

Programme summary

Programme Title DigLin: The Digital Literacy Instructor
Implementing Organization Friesland College (Netherlands)
Location 100+ countries
Language of Instruction Host country’s language or L2 or foreign language
Date of Inception 2013
Programme Partners Northumbria University (UK), Granada University (Spain)
Funding Friesland College
Annual Programme Costs Undisclosed
Annual Programme Cost per Learner USD 30 for Dutch;
free for English (requires registration)
and Spanish (open access)
Annual cost of the digital tool Undisclosed
Digital tool(s) used

Log files[1], photos and audio files, computers, tablets, phones

Target population Adult migrants with limited or no schooling or literacy in their first language who are trying to learn the language of the host country
Learner age 12+ years
Learner to instructor ratio 1:20, but could also be used for self-study
Target skill(s) Literacy and digital skills, literacy in a multilingual context, second-language literacy and learning, self-motivated learning
Impact 8,000–10,000 users each year
Programme website https://app.diglinplus.nl/(Dutch – license needed)
https://en.diglin.eu/ (English)
https://app.fcsprint2.nl/menu/24 (Spanish ABC)

Background

In 2018, 2.4 million migrants arrived in the European Union (EU) from non-EU countries (Eurostat, 2020a), motivated by a combination of economic, environmental, political and social push factors in migrants’ countries of origin, and pull factors in migrants’ destination countries. The EU’s economic and political stability is a significant pull factor for many migrants (ibid.). In 2018, Spain was one of the top hosts of migrants from non-EU countries, receiving a total of 507,000 migrants. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is home to 347,000 migrants, the Netherlands to 96,000, and Finland to 16,000. These migrants come from countries such as Morocco, Venezuela, India, Pakistan, Iraq and Russia (ibid.). In addition to these voluntary migrants, the EU hosts refugees who are forced to seek protection from persecution and violence in their home countries. In 2015, the EU received 1,282,000 asylum applications, mostly from Syrian refugees. Most asylum seekers resettled in Germany, Spain and France (Eurostat, 2020b).

For both migrants and refugees, learning the official language of their host country is key to their social and economic integration. In fact, proficiency in the official language can increase migrants’ labour income between 5 and 35 per cent (Gazzola, 2017). However, for migrants with already low literacy skills (the adult literacy rate in Pakistan, for example, is 59 per cent), learning a second language can be daunting (World Bank, 2018). In 2013, over 562,000 migrants from non-EU countries were unable to use at least one of the official languages of their host country (Gazzola, 2017), severely limiting their employment prospects and ability to engage with local residents.

With technology constantly evolving, developing digital skills can also increase migrants’ employment opportunities and their ability to use online resources, such as healthcare and electronic money management tools. The migrant workforce often lacks these skills too, however: in Iraq, India and Pakistan, for example, less than 50 per cent of the population uses the internet (World Bank, 2019).

The ‘Digital Literacy Instructor’, DigLin, is an online platform designed to increase digital literacy and second-language acquisition for adult learners. Available worldwide, it is currently being used by adult learners in over 100 different countries. It is administered by Friesland College (Netherlands) in collaboration with Northumbria University (UK) and Granada University (Spain).

Friesland College (FC) is a regional training centre for secondary vocational education and training (VET) and adult education. It offers a variety of full- and part-time training programmes to more than 9,000 students. Formed in 1996, FC is an open educational institution divided into seven schools, each focused on a particular business sector.

Northumbria is a research-rich, business-focused, professional university. It is based in the heart of Newcastle upon Tyne, northeast England. The university has over 30,000 students from 131 different countries and over 210,000 alumni. Research within the English-language programme covers a wide range of areas, including research into first- and second-language acquisition and learning; applications of language and linguistics in real-world contexts; socio-linguistics; language variation and change; theoretical linguistics; and the evolution of language and communication.

The University of Granada (UGR), meanwhile, has over 60,000 students and offers a wide range of courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level. UGR’s Modern Language Centre teaches Spanish to migrants. Its Centre for Development Cooperation Initiatives (CICODE)[2] coordinates with local NGOs and delivers training to teachers employed by organizations that teach Spanish to newcomers but lack qualified staff. UGR staff members work as volunteers with NGOs in Granada to provide classes for marginalized adult migrants who, without legal residency status, cannot access public education.

The first two institutions, along with other EU partners, collaborated to launch the international DigLin project in 2012, with EU funding from the Grundtvig Lifelong Learning Multilateral Project Scheme. Since then, the programme has expanded to include more languages, including Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German and Spanish.  

Overview of the programme

DigLin provides free, contextualized and individualized online learning materials to enhance the literacy and lexical and grammatical skills of second-language learners with limited education. DigLin’s materials are aligned with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which is divided into six levels of language proficiency: A1 (‘beginner’) through to C2 (‘proficient’) (COE, 2021). Most users begin DigLin at the pre-A1 CEFR level, i.e. they are unable to understand and use basic expressions in conversation in the target language.

There is a dearth of pre-A1 learning materials for adult students with low literacy skills in host countries’ classrooms, as the majority of such materials are aimed at children. Without access to the appropriate learning materials, adult students often use materials designed for higher CEFR levels, which omit the foundational phonological (how sounds come together to form words) and orthographic (how the sounds of a language are written) techniques that help learners move through the CEFR levels towards advanced proficiency. Additionally, classes for low-literate learners often include students from many different CEFR levels, making it difficult for teachers to meet learners’ individual needs.

The goal of DigLin is to use innovative methods and technology in teaching and learning in order to reduce the disparities in learning outcomes that affect disadvantaged learners. DigLin designs learning content that develops learners’ decoding skills, i.e. their ability to recognize the letter-sound relationships and patterns that make up a word in order to understand its use and meaning. DigLin resources are accessed via an online program that requires an internet connection; however, it can be used by learners in their own time or provided in a more structured manner in a virtual classroom where the teacher assigns DigLin materials to students. DigLin began with pre-A1 programmes for four languages (English, Dutch, Finnish and German) and has since expanded to include Spanish and French. The content has also expanded from pre-A1 to B2 level (‘upper intermediate’).

Programme objectives

The programme has four main objectives:

  1. To provide concrete solutions to enhance the decoding skills of adult literacy learners at the pre-A1 CEFR level by employing advances in technology and findings from second-language acquisition research to inform design and content.
  2. To provide an individualized route to learning and development through materials that are customized and responsive to each student’s unique progress.
  3. To enhance learner autonomy by providing learners with materials that encourage them to work by themselves or with others, whenever and however they want.
  4. To enhance the linguistic and digital skills of these adult learners in order to help them integrate into the host country.

Learners

DigLin’s learners are adult migrants who have limited or no schooling and/or literacy in their first language and who are learning the language of their host country. Learners come from over 100 different countries, with the majority located in Europe (see Table 1 and 2).

Country

Percentage of total learners

Netherlands

91%

Belgium

5%

Spain

0.5%

Germany

0.4%

Austria

0.3%

Indonesia

0.2%

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

0.19%

United States of America

0.18%

Switzerland

0.16%

Hong Kong, China

0.10%

Table 1. Top 10 locations of learners using the Dutch program (May 2020–May 2021). (Source: Google Analytics of the Diglin Platform)

Country

Percentage of Total Learners

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

38%

Netherlands

16%

Finland

15%

Austria

8%

France

7%

United States of America

6%

Canada

2%

Australia

1%

China

0.6%

New Zealand

0.5%

Table 2. Top 10 locations of learners using the English program (May 2020–May 2021). (Source: Google Analytics of the Diglin Platform)

In an evaluation conducted between 2012 and 2015, DigLin found that learners who had never used a computer before experienced minor difficulties when navigating the program. However, the simplicity of the software allowed them to adapt quickly and build digital literacy skills such as using a keyboard and computer mouse.

Learner enrolment

Although DigLin is publicly accessible, the majority of learners are introduced to it through their teachers or a language institute in their host country that supports migrants. From there, students may either continue to use DigLin independently or under the supervision of a teacher who assigns them DigLin lessons. 

Learner assessment

Although all students have access to the full range of DigLin content, a preliminary assessment is usually conducted by a language institute in order to assign learners to the appropriate DigLin level. DigLin encourages teachers to have high expectations of their students, and to assign learners to a programme whose level slightly exceeds their current language level.

Nearly every DigLin exercise is a form of assessment and provides learners with immediate, automated feedback. For example, if students type the wrong letter into the text box, it will turn red. DigLin’s technology tracks users’ behaviour as they work through the different exercises and analyses their correct and incorrect answers in order to provide tailored feedback. In addition to this digital assessment, learners are also evaluated in a teacher-directed environment via non-DigLin testing provided by their school. 

Despite these assessment measures, DigLin does not follow a linear progression in learning in the same way that levelled coursework would. An essential component of DigLin’s design is its ability to be tailored to individual learners, allowing them to move between resources as they need instead of following a plan dictated by a teacher. Even within a single DigLin exercise, the learner is presented with many choices: they can click on a picture, play a soundbite, click and drag letters to different places, and so on. In brief, the learning process is not formulaic. This has the advantage of accommodating a wide variety of learners but makes it more difficult to track students’ progress because each user’s interaction with the programme is different. Individualized learning is important for these learners, however, because it accommodates the diverse skills and abilities that they bring to the programme, ranging from no literacy at all in the second language to some oral literacy acquired through their journey to the host country and while waiting for access to language classes.

Teaching and learning approaches

DigLin’s pedagogical approach is based on the FC-Sprint2 concept, used at Friesland College (FC) and developed by Jan Deutekom in 2008 (Deutekom, 2021).  FC-Sprint2 is based on two fundamental approaches:

  1. A learner-focused approach: control moves from the teacher to the learner. The teacher is an organizer and facilitator rather than an expert imparting information to the student. The student takes responsibility for his or her own education;
  2. An autonomy-focused approach: learners are provided with resources to learn independently rather than complying with pre-established learning routes set by the programme. Asking a teacher for help is seen as a last resort.

The principles of FC-Sprint2 place high expectations on the students from the start, which is intended to motivate them to rise to the occasion, and make learning an active rather than a passive experience. Instead of being the primary source of information for students, the teacher’s role is to help motivate them, and to encourage their innate ability to achieve their learning goals over time and with continued effort.

Figure 1. Chart illustrating the principles of FC-Sprint2  .Source: Jan Deutekom

Figure 1 illustrates the  FC-Sprint2 principles (from left to right). Learning begins with the teacher setting clear and high expectations of students. The latter then consult resources in order to achieve the stated expectations. Finally, students present their learning outcomes to the teacher.[3]

DigLin‘s compatibility with mobile devices makes it easy for learners to access it anywhere and at any time, thereby increasing their autonomy and control of their learning experience. DigLin technology provides immediate feedback to learners in accordance with their unique needs as they interact with the program, allowing them to correct their mistakes quickly. Students have access to the full platform from the start and are not required to ‘unlock’ different levels in order to progress. This agility makes DigLin more relevant to the students compared to a traditional classroom, where a teacher delivers content in a linear fashion and at the same pace for everyone.

Drawing on research on second-language acquisition, DigLin designs its learning content to develop learners’ decoding skills, or the ability to recognize the letter-sound relationships and patterns that make up a word in order to understand the word’s use and meaning.  These skills are practised using 300 words – mostly nouns – in the language the student is learning and can be supported with photographs (rather than abstract drawings), which is helpful for learners with low literacy. The vocabulary, comprising monosyllabic and polysyllabic words that vary in difficulty, is learned through 70+ different exercises, which include 4,500 photos and 10,000 audio files (see Figure 2).

Credit to Friesland College

Figure 2. Example of a German-language lesson for beginners, featuring audio, letters and photographs. Source: Diglin German Platform

Recruitment and training of facilitators

While DigLin‘s focus is on building learning resources, some language institutes who use DigLin train teachers to facilitate the material. These teachers can be either paid, volunteers, full-time or part-time depending on the language institute. These classroom settings usually feature one or two teachers for 20 learners. While DigLin does not recruit or train teachers directly, it does support an active community of DigLin educators on Facebook. This online community has about 1,300 members in multiple countries who exchange teaching techniques, ask questions about the  FC-Sprint2 approach, and give feedback to improve DigLin materials.

Technology: Infrastructure, management and use

In order to provide immediate feedback to learners, DigLin uses its own behaviour-tracking technology to track every action learners take as they interact with the program and to enable immediate feedback. During the initial project (2012-2015), DigLin recorded every action learner took in real time using log files and analysed the data to ascertain the relationship between learners’ actions in the program and their understanding of the content, and consequently made targeted improvements to the learning materials. (Young- Scholten et al 2021, Naeb & Sosinski 2020a, and Naeb & Sosinski 2020b) 

These detailed records are also used to provide feedback to teachers and students and thus improve their learning outcomes. Students have access to their behaviour log and can see how many attempts they needed in order to answer a question and receive a higher score on an exercise. This instant feedback is especially important for learners who have not developed study skills from formal education. DigLin has found that this instant feedback mechanism motivates leaners to take control of their educational experience, as they can examine their progress and determine what they need to do in order to achieve a higher score. This autonomous behaviour  learned through DigLin can then be transferred to other life skills and educational endeavours that the learner may pursue.

At the time of its creation, educators expressed doubt as to whether DigLin’s technology would be suitable for learners with low literacy. However, teachers and students alike quickly learned how easy the digital platform was to navigate. The learning exercises developed by DigLin include a combination of the following:

  • Writing letters by tracing them on the screen,
  • Learning to spell by dragging and dropping different letter combinations in order to form a word and, at higher levels, creating phrases and sentences by dragging and dropping words;
  • Learning to match letters and sounds, and to pronounce words by recording them and comparing the recording with a native speaker’s voice;
  • Developing vocabulary by viewing text, clicking on a word to hear it and viewing a photo describing the word.

These exercises utilize gaming principles such as timers and points for correct answers. Learners can ‘play’ the exercises numerous times in order to obtain the highest possible score. Unlike traditional language learning lessons that teach explicit language ‘rules’, DigLin uses interactive exercises to expose students to implicit patterns in the new language, which they can then recognize and learn. DigLin believes that understanding implicit language patterns is more helpful to learners in everyday language use than traditional grammar lessons that are difficult to recall outside the classroom. 

Figure 3 shows an example of one of the drag-and-drop exercises for DigLin Spanish. Feedback is instantaneous, as the letter bounces if it is dragged to the wrong position. Both photos and sounds guide the reader to the correct combination of letters. The photos provide the learners with context so that they can assign meaning to the vocabulary that they are learning and master the content faster.

Credit to Friesland College

Figure 3. Example of a drag-and-drop exercise for DigLin Spanish.[4] (Source: Diglin Spanish Platform)

Programme impact and challenges

In 2020, DigLin was recognized by Germany’s Gesellschaft für Pädagogik, Information und Medien e.V. (Society for Pedagogy and Information, GPI) and received the Comenius EduMedia Award for exemplary digital education content.

In 2014, DigLin evaluated the learning outcomes of students after engaging in Dutch and Finnish DigLin exercises for at least 10 hours. It analysed interviews and questionnaires with teachers and students, and user behaviour-tracking technology to show that students’ language competency improved significantly compared to that of a control group of students using traditional language learning tools that involved listening to audio recordings and performing repetitive tasks. DigLin continues to rely on routine questionnaires and the Facebook community of language teachers to collect feedback and evaluate the impact of the programme.

One challenge that DigLin faces is the constant need to balance ensuring access to learners and maintaining financial support for the programme. So far, the most popular language is Dutch, with over 642,000 log ins over the past year. Because of the high number of users, DigLin has begun charging USD 30 for yearly access. It has been able to introduce this charge without compromising user numbers; in fact, DigLin has seen a rise in usage of the Dutch program after introducing the annual fee. It has found that, when students and teachers pay for DigLin, it becomes their primary learning resource and they spend more hours using the program. In turn, the income enables DigLin to develop more content. For now, DigLin programmes for other languages remain free to users, although some require users to set up a free account in order to use the program.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented both opportunities and challenges for DigLin’s technology infrastructure. Globally, governments, schools and language institutes have shifted their focus to online learning. This has resulted in some of DigLin’s learners receiving donated laptops: for example, a poll conducted by the organization shows that almost all ISK schools have provided their students with laptops or tablets,[5] while several adult learning organizations have reported that their literacy groups have similarly been equipped with laptops or tablets. Learners who previously used DigLin when attending a language institute in person averaged three or four hours a week on the programme. After receiving laptops that enabled them to use DigLin at home, their weekly usage increased to 10 hours. In 2020, there were approximately 24,000 log ins from 1,000 users of DigLin English, and 642,000 log ins from 7,000 users of DigLin Dutch.

However, some learners lacked the digital literacy skills to use DigLin on their own with their new laptops. For example, learners who had previously used DigLin in person at learning institutes relied on public computers with login information for general use, i.e. they did not have individual DigLin accounts, and thus struggled to register a new account and log in on their personal laptop at home. Many teachers overcame this challenge by sharing their login credentials with students to use at home. This allows students to access the program but limits how accurately DigLin can measure the activity of its user base.

Testimonials


 ‘I work for a charity in Southampton, UK, which provides ESOL (English as a second language) lessons and supported internet access. I started using DigLin with a gentleman who approached us for English classes at the end of the summer term, just as things were shutting down for a couple of months. He worked with it for a few weeks while waiting for classes to start and it gave him the jumpstart he needed. He was just starting to get a bit bored and wanted things to read that had some meaning – and then all this new content started appearing on DigLin. Wow! Just wow! I've just started another couple of learners on it and suggested to colleagues that we need to use it more alongside lessons for those who have some catching up to do with literacy.’

– English teacher, United Kingdom



‘I started using DigLin with refugees in our pre-employment programme and it is fantastic. It’s fun, it builds computer skills, and it began to expand their vocabulary, listening and writing skills as well. I’m so grateful to have this resource.’

 – English teacher, United Kingdom



‘DigLin makes a difference because you get more answers and feedback from the computer than the teacher can ever give you. The teacher is busy with other things and other students. The computer is there for me. The computer is my private teacher.’

– Somali learner of Dutch aged 30 with two years of schooling in Somalia, The Netherlands   



‘I like working with DigLin because it is fun and I can do it alone, without the teacher. I think I learn more by doing it myself.’

– Guinean learner of English aged 21 with three years of schooling in Guinea , United Kingdom



‘Software like this stimulates [you] to think by yourself and to make the decisions on your own.’

 – Somali learner of Dutch aged 29 with no previous schooling , The Netherlands


Stakeholders and partnerships

DigLin received start-up funding from the EU’s Grundtvig Lifelong Learning Programme until 2015. The funder evaluated the programme in 2015 based on criteria such as project management, financial management, sustainability, and software quality and development. DigLin received a cumulative score of 9.5 out of 10. Today, DigLin receives most of its funding from Friesland College, and some from user fees. Additionally, DigLin collaborates with a private publisher to manage sales of the programme to customers.  

Future plans

DigLin aims to expand its offerings by using existing templates to create programmes for other languages. It is also working to create programmes at higher CEFR levels, as its courses currently stop at B2 (‘upper intermediate’).

References 

Council of Europe (COE). 2021. The CEFR levels. [online] Available at: https://www.coe.int/en/web/common-european-framework-reference-languages/level-descriptions [Accessed 25 October 2021].

Deutekom, J. 2021. Blog Jan Deutekom. Onderwijs, FC-Sprint2 en belevenissen [Education, FC-Sprint and experiences]. [online] Available at: http://www.jandeutekom.nl/ [Accessed 17 March 2021].  

Eurostat. 2020a. Migration and migrant population statistics. [online] Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Migration_and_migrant_population_statistics [Accessed 17 March 2021].  

Eurostat. 2020b. Asylum statistics. [online] Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Asylum_statistics#Main_countries_of_destination:_Germany.2C_France_and_Spain [Accessed 17 March 2021].  

Gazzola, M. 2017. Language skills and employment status of adult migrants in Europe. [pdf] J-C. Beacco, H-J. Krumm, D. Little and P. Thalgott. eds. The Linguistic Integration of Adult Migrants / L’intégration linguistique des migrants adultes: Some lessons from research / Les enseignements de la recherche. De Gruyter/Council of Europe. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110477498-040 [Accessed 17 March 2021].  

Naeb, R & Sosinski, M. 2020a. Technology- Enhanced Learning (TEL) in the LESLLA Context. in M Planelles Almeida, A Foucart & M Liceras Juana (eds), Perspectivas actuales en la enseñanza y el aprendizaje de lenguas en contextos multiculturales. Colección Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades, Thomson Reuters Aranzadi, Navarra.

Naeb, R. & Sosinski, M. 2020b. From Sounds to Words: Technology-Enhanced learning Tools to support Low-Educated Adults learning to Read/ De los sonidos a las palabras: el aprendizaje asistido por tecnología para desarrollar la lectura de migrantes adultos. In Nieves Gómez López, Juan M. Fernández Campoy (eds) Las metodologías didácticas innovadoras como estrategia para afrontar los desafíos educativos del siglo XXI / Innovative Teaching Methodologies to address the Educational Challenges of the 21st Century.  pp. 239-255). Dykinson, Madrid. 

World Bank. 2019. Individuals using the internet (% of population). [online] Available at: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/IT.NET.USER.ZS [Accessed 17 March 2021].  

––––. 2018. Literacy rate, adult total (% of people ages 15 and above). [online] Available at: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.LITR.ZS [Accessed 17 March 2021].

Young Scholten, M., Naeb, R., & Sosinski, M. 2021. Antiguas y nuevas ideas para el apoyo educativo de los migrantes adultos vulnerables. In N. Gómez López y J. M. Fernández Campoy. (Eds.), Educación en grupos vulnerables./Education for Vulnerable Groups.  Octaedro, Madri

Footnotes

[1] Log files: User behaviour tracking technology

[2] See https://cicode.ugr.es/.

[3] For a video explaining the FC-Sprint2 philosophy and how it is used in DigLin, see https://vimeo.com/522731056.

[4] Available online at https://player.vimeo.com/video/421436990?app_id=122963.

[5] An Internationale Schakelklas (International Transition Class, ISK) is a school for young people from abroad which they attend for an average of two years after arriving in the Netherlands before transitioning to the formal education system. For more information, see e.g. https://iwcn.nl/newcomers/settling-in/education/international-schools-2/.

For citation please use

Last update: 9 December 2021. DigLin: The Digital Literacy Instructor. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (Accessed on: 26 November 2022, 14:11 CET)

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