First Monday

Fostering digital and scientific literacy: Learning through practice by Patricia Dias da Silva and Lorna Heaton

Despite the rapidly growing body of work on public participation in citizen science, what and how participants learn by participating has received limited attention. This article uses a digitization project underway at the Marie-Victorin Herbarium to explore the learning process of adult volunteers and show how scientific and digital literacies are constructed simultaneously and socially. In the process of digitizing the Herbarium’s collection, volunteers draw on existing resources, including digital tools and sources, as well as create and share their own intermediary resources, thereby facilitating future work and enhancing informal learning. Individual goals — such as acquiring new skills or extending knowledge — are connected to the goals of the community — the production of a quality reference that will be available to everyone online. Volunteers are learning by doing, however, the lessons they learn extend beyond their local, situated context and may have a global and future impact.


Fostering digital and scientific literacy
Digitizing the Marie-Victorin Herbarium’s collection
Discussion: Learning at the Marie-Victorin Herbarium




As part of the digitization project underway at the Marie-Victorin Herbarium (Montréal), volunteers are photographing the plant collection while entering information on the specimens into a database that follows international standards in biodiversity research. Driven by both the need to verify information and curiosity, these volunteers develop strong research skills and increase their knowledge not only of botany, but also biodiversity conservation, history, geography and information technologies themselves.

The photographs and associated information are shared online, making them available to a wide range of actors, from scientists to government authorities, artists and amateur botanists. They thus become resources themselves in a diversity of contexts. Digitizing collections and making them available online is part of a wider trend in science, namely the development of large international and interoperable databases. Unlike most initiatives of this type, photographs are taken and information is compiled by non-specialists. Many of them have no formal training in botany as well as limited prior experience in working with database and image software or doing research supported by online tools. This is only made possible by the increasing usability of these types of software, as well as easy access to multiple sources, namely encyclopaedias, scientific publications, official records, and user-generated content.

Yet, online research has its limitations in fostering scientific literacy and not all volunteers have the same technical skills. When faced with difficult problems, it is not unusual for volunteers to experience a sense of frustration and become more aware of a certain lack of expertise. However, they rely on each other and the collection coordinator to overcome their hurdles, turning them into opportunities to learn together. They also see the digitizing of the collection as a work in progress. Making the specimens available online through open licensing means that others may contribute to improve the content of the database. Even a small piece of information about a specimen can provide a basis for future knowledge production that motivates the volunteers to continue their collaboration.

This article addresses learning by adult volunteers in a digital context. It focuses particularly on the learning of skills that we refer to as digital literacy and scientific literacy, and on the relationships between the two. Using one specific case as an illustration, we will show how the extent and reach of learning goes beyond task- or tool-specific learning, although it is sparked by the need to use specific tools and accomplish specific tasks. We aim to show how becoming digitally and scientifically literate is multi-faceted and multi-directional. Starting with the goal of being able to do something in an authentic situation (a practical accomplishment), volunteers “scale up” their learning and extend it to other contexts. In this, they are helped by the resources they explore and assemble.

Digital sources emerge as important resources, but we also highlight the importance of previous life experiences in allowing learners to expand the scope and significance of learning and make connections. They are also helped by one another. In this article, we place special emphasis on the social nature of this learning, even in digital contexts. Learning emerges as a collective practice: mentoring, impromptu lectures and simple conversations are an intrinsic part of learning, and resources — both found and created — are always shared for the benefit of the group and the institution.

Why is this important? In digital contexts, widespread availability and access to online resources makes participation in science by “ordinary people” more feasible than ever. This work further extends our understanding of scientific (and digital) literacy as resource-based along the lines of Roth and Lee (2002). In this view, encouraging/promoting digital and scientific literacy is very much a question of facilitation and of providing favourable conditions that enable learners to engage actively (whether consciously or not) not only in their own learning, but in that of their local community, and of the community at large. By examining scientific and digital literacy in conjunction with the literature on adult learning, our case confirms the importance of learning in informal situations and its social character. It extends thinking on the importance of assemblage or bricolage and of intermediary resources in this process. Finally, it invites us to think about how to reconcile the prospective orientation of learners with the situated, local perspective that dominates the learning by doing literature.



Fostering digital and scientific literacy

Learning by doing

A hundred, or even fifty, years ago, learning was widely viewed as something that happened in school. Children were taught by adults and when they left school, they took their place in society as knowledgeable, productive citizens and workers. Today, the increasing pace of social change requires that people continually adjust to unfamiliar and complex situations, and that they learn new facts and skills throughout their lifetimes, however. It is increasingly recognized that learning can take place in multiple settings and contexts, and that it is not always the result of activities structured for that purpose (Brown, et al., 1989; Head, et al., 2015). Media and information technologies, particularly the computer and Internet access have opened up new possibilities for lifelong learning and for learning outside the classroom or instructional situations.

Several characteristics tend to set adults apart from children in the way they learn. Adult learners often (1) have well developed self-concepts and can direct their own learning, (2) are motivated to learn by internal rather than external factors, (3) have a reservoir of life experiences that they can use as a resource, (4) are problem-centered and interested in immediate application of knowledge (Knowles, 1975). Given these particularities, informal self-directed learning is particularly important for adult learners. Knowles’s (1975) characterization has been widely reproduced since the 1970s, as adult educators have developed an understanding of adult learning as systematic and widespread, occurring as part of adults’ everyday lives and usually without an instructor or a classroom. Rooted in John Dewey’s (1938) theory of learning from experience, informal learning and learning by doing outside the classroom have become major research topics as appreciation of the diversity and breadth of what counts as learning have expanded.

Informal learning, often seen in contrast with formal learning, is frequently defined as learning that takes place outside explicitly designed learning situations. This encompasses a large variety of situations and activities, from talking and sharing ideas with others, to participating in clubs and extracurricular activities, to on-the-job training (Fenwick, 2008) and apprenticeships (Lave, 1997; Lave and Wenger, 1991). Informal learning as a category typically includes self-directed learning (intentional and conscious), incidental learning (unintentional but conscious) and socialization (often unintentional and unconscious) (Schugurensky, 2000). Marsick and Volpe’s (1999) review of informal learning in the workplace led them to characterize it as: integrated with daily routines, not highly conscious, with an element of chance, an inductive process of reflection and action, and linked to the learning of others.

Their analysis of a number of empirical studies on informal learning led Colley, et al. (2003) to argue that all learning situations have attributes of both informality and formality, however. They suggested that these attributes can be examined analytically in relation to process, location and setting, purpose, and content. Werquin’s (2010) report to the OECD also proposed a continuum approach, situating formal learning at one pole, informal learning at another, with non-formal learning lying somewhere in between. Deliberately teaching oneself to use a new piece of software but without a defined timeframe or specific attribution of resources is an example of the latter.

The interrelationship between formal and informal elements seems particularly relevant in situations where formal and informal learning practice interact, such as in voluntary work contexts (Livingstone, 2008). Although there have been many studies on voluntary work, few have addressed how and what volunteers learn. In 2006, Duguid, et al. [1] affirmed that “The research literature on the extent, modes and effectiveness of volunteers’ acquisition of new skills, knowledge, attitudes and values, and on the relationship between formal, non-formal and informal learning in this process, is scarce.” A decade later, this is still largely the case despite a growing body of work on learning focused primarily on civic engagement or service learning [2]. For example, Mündel and Schugurensky (2008) surveyed volunteers engaged in community organizations and found evidence of three main types of learning: instrumental learning, interpersonal learning, and learning about the role and importance of volunteering. Whatever the context, research on learning through volunteer work points to a strong connection between the association’s mission and the content of what is learned (Duguid, et al., 2013).

Scientific literacy

The concept of scientific literacy has always been hard to define. When it first emerged in the 1950s, it referred to a set of cognitive objectives: learning scientific facts and learning about the scientific method. In the 1980s, researchers became interested in explaining how individuals constructed their scientific knowledge based on their experiences. More recently, attention has turned to scientific literacy as an emergent feature of collective activity. In this third perspective, authors such Eijck and Roth (2013) argued for understanding natural sciences as dynamic and complex, where scientific knowledge is developed as a result of contributions from individuals with diverse backgrounds and prior knowledge. For example, Roth and Lee [3] reported on an ethnographic study of a community

“featuring different types of citizens who walk a creek, interact during an environment-oriented open-house event, discuss water problems, collect data, and have different conceptions of human-environment relations. The case studies show that collectively, much more advanced forms of scientific literacy are produced than any individual (including scientists) could produce.”

In this context, developing scientific literacy is more about creating opportunities for it to emerge from collective activity, than about teaching basic facts and skills to individuals.

How (and where) to best to develop scientific literacy? In a report published by the National Academies, Bell, et al. (2009) indicated that everyday experiences in informal settings contribute to people’s knowledge and interest in science. Such environments “are generally defined as including learner choice, low consequence assessment, and structures that build on the learners’ motivations, culture, and competence” [4]. Falk and Needham (2013) identified freely chosen, informal adult learning experiences such as watching videos or reading science books, and using the Internet as the strongest predictors of scientific and technical knowledge, far ahead of socioeconomic factors or years of formal schooling. Workplace experiences related to science and technology were also major contributing factors. They found that much learning takes place through consulting online resources and through informal interactions with friends, family, clubs, and other groups. Miller (2010) also discussed the importance of informal learning resources, particularly Internet-based resources, in a “just-in-time system.” This suggests the prime importance of resources or assets as foundational for scientific literacy (e.g., Falk, et al., 2007; Roth and Lee, 2002). It also requires that we consider the social interactions in learning situations.

Citizen science projects both mobilize resources rich in scientific content — online and off-line — and foster social interactions imbued with learning potential. Citizen science involves members of the public (non-professional scientists) collaborating with professional scientists to conduct scientific research (Wiggins and Crowston, 2015). It has been widely promoted as a means for engaging individuals in scientific activity, and in doing so, increasing their scientific knowledge and skills. The ability to learn, to make discoveries and to teach have all been identified as motivations for participating in citizen science (Domroese and Johnson, 2017; Raddick, et al., 2010). Indeed, knowledge exchange or mutual learning seem to play a key role, “specifically, through systems of informal mentoring, where the most experienced teach the less experienced” [5]. Yet, previous studies on the impact of participation on scientific literacy (Crall, et al., 2013; Cronje, et al., 2011) suggested some gains in terms of topic knowledge and limited improvement of scientific process skills and literacy. Overall, learning in citizen science has been less a topic of interest than motivations or engagement.

Digital literacy

The most consistent, recurring concern regarding information technologies has been how they may generate or intensify various inequalities (social, political, educational, and so on) — the so-called digital divide. The current widespread diffusion of digital media has helped refocus the debate from questions of access and benefit to problems of skills and usage (Dijk and van Deursen, 2014). Already in the turn of the century, some work provided a complex portrait of what “access” to digital technologies should mean. Clement and Shade (2000, 1996) first drew attention to the multiple facets of the concept of access by talking about an “access rainbow.” In a context where digital networks are increasingly central to daily life, they situated digital literacy as a key component of access, alongside access to and affordability of bandwidth and devices. They cited Neice (1996), for whom “A person’s relative degree of digital literacy will enormously influence their participation in and access to the information techno-structure” [6]. Clement and Shade argued that digital literacy

“is more usefully viewed as encompassing a broad range of knowledge and skills. Knowledge includes an understanding of the various types, sources and uses of global networked information; the role of networked information in research and problem solving; and systems whereby information is stored, managed, and transmitted. Skills include the ability to retrieve specific sorts of information using a range of tools such as search browsers and online databases; the ability to manipulate, enhance, or increase the value of information; the ability to purchase and configure local systems and then troubleshoot [...]; the ability to analyze and resolve both professional and personal services that increase the quality of one’s life through actively creating as well as passively consuming information” [7].

Gurstein (2003) specifically distinguished “effective use” from access. For Gurstein, the challenge was making sure that people can do locally significant things with the technologies available to them: “what is significant is having access and then with that access having the knowledge, skills, and supportive organizational and social structures to make effective use of that access and that e-technology to enable social and community objectives” [8]. He insisted that knowing how to perform a series of discrete tasks cannot in and of itself constitute effective use but that these actions must always be seen in local context and in relation to their purpose. These early works pointed to several key components of digital literacy: knowledge, operational skills, a supportive social context.

Like scientific literacy, the concept of digital literacy has multiple definitions (Lankshear and Knobel, 2008). Over the years, as digital media have diversified, digital literacy has grown to encompass a variety of competencies beyond the simple manipulation of hardware and software, or the ability to decode multimedia texts. Indeed, it may be more appropriate now to talk about a plurality of digital literacies. For Jones and Hafner [9], “‘digital literacies’ refers to the practices of communicating, relating, thinking and ‘being’ associated with digital media. (...) At times this will involve mixing and matching the tools at hand in creative new ways.” In order to effectively use digital technologies/media, people are called upon to develop abilities and skills such as quickly sorting though and evaluating large quantities of information, making connections between disparate ideas and domains of experience, or creating coherent paths through a series of linked texts. Such skills often rely heavily on seeing or creating strategic relationships between data, which requires an overall understanding of the digital environment. Researchers increasingly consider subjects such as understanding privacy, ethics and intellectual property issues (Mackey and Jacobson, 2011), managing social identities and relationships (Jones and Hafner, 2012), or evaluating content critically (Landry and Basque, 2015; Mackey and Jacobson, 2011) as important components of digital literacy.

Dijk and van Deursen (2014) have suggested a typology of “digital skills” to describe how people interact with digital media. In their classification some skills, such as navigating using hyperlinks, understanding file formats, menus, buttons or site maps, are related to the operations or format of the Internet. Technical proficiency in these basic operating skills is only the tip of the iceberg of digital literacy, however. Dijk and van Deursen’s classification is much richer in describing content-related Internet skills, which they subdivide into four categories: information, communication, content-creation and strategic skills. Their distinction is “sequential and conditional,” meaning the latter cannot be mastered if the medium-related skills are lacking. Whether we refer to digital literacies, digital competencies, or digital skills, the key point is that they are essential for meaningful participation in a society that is increasingly information-driven. Participation includes economic, educational, political, social, cultural, spatial (geographical mobility) and institutional participation.

The Web and associated technologies and applications are so omnipresent in many daily activities that, especially for adults, digital literacies are learned, perhaps more than taught. Many authors stress the importance of social context of developing digital literacies and the context of use. For instance, Mackey and Jacobson (2011) highlighted the importance of production, especially collaborative production, in learning and improving literacy. Dijk and van Deursen (2014) indicated that outside work, most people learn digital skills informally, through self-study or with informal assistance. Thus, it is largely by participating that Web users extend their competencies, and are better able to evaluate the content they use and produce, as well as amplifying their participation possibilities.



Digitizing the Marie-Victorin Herbarium’s collection

An herbarium is a collection of preserved plant specimens, usually dried and placed on sheets of paper and classified according to scientific nomenclature of a given family, genus, and species. It serves many different purposes, from scientific research on the plants, their evolution and taxonomy, to more applied research, such as impact studies, for instance, in determining the layout of a road. It hence provides key resources for the study of biodiversity and climate change, informs conservation policy as well as plays an important role in education (Lane, 1996).

Most, if not all, herbariums dream of the complete digitization of their collections (Flannery, 2012; Heaton and Proulx, 2012). A digital record helps protect the collection from deterioration and therefore guarantees its durability. The digital format also makes the collection accessible at a distance and offers possibilities for interdisciplinary research. Finally, digitization provides an opportunity to make a systematic inventory of a given collection. At its most basic, digitizing collections data involves entering information on various specimens into a database. Increasingly, however, digitization projects worldwide are integrating images into their records. In many cases, the collection is digitized by an institution’s staff or by outsourcing the process to private companies which guarantee the quality of results. Nevertheless, the engagement of the public may accelerate the process while increasing awareness and contributing to educational goals (Ellwood, et al., 2015).

The Marie-Victorin Herbarium (MT) in Montréal is a remarkable collection, both in terms of size and reputation. Established in 1920 with the donation of his personal collection by Brother Marie-Victorin (1885–1944), F.S.C., a Catholic monk and noted botanist, it now contains close to 700,000 specimens of vascular plants primarily from Eastern Canada, particularly Quebec and Newfoundland. The Herbarium is also home to many international specimens, namely from North America, Europe, and Cuba, and to a number of key collections of specific plants, making it an important resource for botanical research.

Since 2012, the MT has been housed in the Biodiversity Centre of the University of Montréal within Montréal’s Botanical Garden. The Biodiversity Centre was built in conjunction with a larger project to provide Canada with a pole of excellence and a network of researchers in biodiversity, Canadensys ( Canadensys’ goal is to offer free, universal access to the information contained in biological collections via digital infrastructures. The digitization of the Herbarium’s collection took place in this context. In early 2014, the MT introduced a process based on the photography of specimens [10], with the goal of increasing the speed of online publication. They also began using a relational database application for the data entry component of the process.

Since digitizing a collection is very intensive in terms of resources, the Herbarium recruited and trained volunteers that are responsible for most of the phases of the process and who supply an important source of labour — the equivalent in time spent to that of three or four full-time employees. Most volunteer once a week for either a full day or a half-day, but a few come more often. The work of digitization is done on site at the MT. In calling on volunteers, the Herbarium was following the long and strong tradition of volunteering at the Montréal Botanical Garden. For 40 years, through the Amis du Jardin Botanique de Montréal, individuals have volunteered in various capacities, including at the Herbarium. The new process was improved throughout the year, in particular to ensure the quality of both the images and the database entries. In an important milestone, the Herbarium released the first images of its collection on Canadensys in October 2014, each one with a complete database entry.

We observed the digitization process over the course of six months in 2014, followed by two months of participant observation in early 2015. During this period, we interviewed eight volunteers and four professionals/members of the paid staff. In this article, we have given them pseudonyms to preserve their anonymity. We analyzed our observation notes and interview transcripts collaboratively during our research project’s meetings.



Discussion: Learning at the Marie-Victorin Herbarium

Scientific literacy

To complete the database entries, volunteers start by extracting as much information as possible from often multiple labels, stamps, and handwritten notes on each plant sheet. But the plant has a bigger story to tell, extending beyond the preserved specimen in front of them. Peter goes online to see what the plant looked like, while it was still alive and before its transformation into a collection item. He cannot stop and smell the flowers, but he takes his time to admire their photographs. Louise uses the Internet to get to know the collectors, the countries they travelled to, the books they wrote, their affiliations and personal histories, but also the wider historical context in which these collections took place. In one case, she makes an amusing discovery she is quick to share: one collector provided inspiration for Jules Verne’s writings.

These seemingly “lost in space” or “wandering” moments in the volunteers’ day-to-day activities are not the musings of individuals more interested in irrelevant aspects of their work than the task at hand, however. Seeing what a plant looks like when alive may provide important information about how it flowers and how the drying process alters plants. In the second case, Louise is learning about procedures, professionals, and institutions involved in collecting botanical specimens. Volunteers often have only initials, shorthand, or poor calligraphy on specimen labels to guide their work. Knowing a collector’s trajectory (story, history, background) helps determine whether it was really that person who collected that plant and other plants during the same period and in the same place. The next time Louise and Peter come across similar specimens, they will need less time to understand their labels and thus to complete a given database entry.

These vignettes reflect the most basic aspect of scientific literacy that concerns content learning: scientific literacy as learning scientific facts, techniques, and method. Discovering information about plants, botany, and herbaria is an important part of learning at the MT. The volunteers’ backgrounds are diverse: a few have degrees in biology and related areas, but did not necessarily work in their field of study. Volunteering at the Herbarium allows them to extend their knowledge of these areas. Others worked in areas such as management, medicine, and accounting, so they are just beginning to master unfamiliar notions and practices.

Another view of scientific literacy focuses attention on the process of its construction. In this, it echoes much literature in learning theory, particularly adult learning theory. Volunteers learn as an intrinsic part of their day-to-day work routines at the MT. Some of it is self-directed — intentional and conscious: they want to learn more about plants, collecting, and herbariums and they are keenly aware that they are adding to their knowledge base. Other learning may be incidental: as we saw through Louise’s experience, there are many unexpected discoveries, not related to a specific problem and with no immediate “practical” use.

While a large proportion of this learning is informal (Marsick and Volpe, 1999; Schugurensky, 2000), learning situations at the MT mix informality and formality. This is particularly salient because of the nature of the institution. Herbaria typically have a strong educational vocation (Lane, 1996), and the MT is a collection of the University of Montréal. In fact, students work side-by-side with volunteers, and there is a lot less “free choice” in their learning. It is not a classroom, however. The curator and the collection coordinator sometimes deliver impromptu “mini-lectures,” usually triggered by volunteers’ curiosity regarding the work at hand. What is more, some volunteers seek to further their “on-the-job” learning by attending — alone or in groups — workshops and conferences on botany, botanical gardens, collectors, and so on. Some of these events are organized by the Amis du Jardin Botanique or by University of Montréal researchers, while others are unrelated to the Herbarium context. Both the Herbarium’s staff and volunteers propose these learning opportunities.

At times, learning is more structured and assumes the form of a mini-apprenticeship. Annabelle learned how to mount plant specimens with a former volunteer and is now responsible for training new volunteers. The process she experienced and now employs is close to that described by Lave (1997) as “way in” and “practice.” Way in is a period of observation during which a learner watches a master and makes a first attempt at solving a problem. Practice involves refining and perfecting knowledge in use [11]. New mounters are introduced gradually to the complexities of the task: as they master simple, low-risk parts of the process, they “graduate” to more complicated activities. Their learning is situated in authentic activities (Lave and Wenger, 1991) as they practice first on easy specimens and gradually work their way up to more challenging situations.

Annabelle herself is very attentive to opportunities for improvement. As the mounting expert at the MT, she accompanied the collection coordinator during a visit to another herbarium, where she was able to observe and inquire about their methods, which she then adapted to the MT’s needs and practices. She watches YouTube videos and probes the Internet to see how it is done in other herbaria, particularly given the evolving needs of the digitization project. Since she is not at the MT everyday and recurrent training sessions would be unmanageable, she has created a mounting manual that is updated as procedures change. The manual contains images accompanied by instructions and is placed beside the mounting workstations. By defining a standard for mounting and developing this shared reference, Annabelle also guarantees a certain level of quality without having to continuously check novices’ work.

Several points concerning content- and method-based aspects of scientific literacy at the MT deserve particular attention. Firstly, increasing scientific literacy starts from a task-related activity but rapidly spreads outward. Curiosity and problem solving are key drivers in this largely self-directed quest. Finally, learners draw on a variety of resources, some of them digital. These characteristics echo Marsick and Volpe (1999) who highlighted integration with daily routines and the element of chance in informal workplace learning. Volunteers’ content learning is firmly grounded in the actions of everyday situations (Anderson, et al., 1996; Brown, et al., 1989) and is often triggered by a problematic situation, such as how to interpret a specimen label. Questions arise in activity, but volunteers frequently continue to explore even after they have answered their immediate question. This makes their tasks more interesting and motivates them to continue. Others, like Annabelle, may be seeking continuous improvement.

MT’s volunteers share an appreciation and love of nature, and this engagement is, for many, part of their life path and their everyday lives. Gardening, agriculture, summer camps, nature hikes, family activities, reading on plants, and even plant identification have been present in their lives “for a long time,” “since early in my life,” “always.” On the one hand, this helps them direct their learning. On the other, their reservoir of life experiences serves as a resource, enabling them to relate new pieces of information to previous knowledge and experiences. The volunteers’ motivations, culture, and competence are thus brought to bear (Bell, et al., 2009; Knowles, 1975). The collection coordinator regards their expertise and life experience as valuable and suggests activities that build on their strengths and resonate with their personal interests.

Once their natural curiosity is piqued, the exploratory process flows and surpasses the intended goal. On the Internet, the hypertextual structure of information facilitates serendipitous discoveries (Ertzscheid and Gallezot, 2003). Key structural affordances (Gibson, 1979; Norman, 1988) of the Internet such as its links, indexing, and searching invite and facilitate certain actions such as exploration, while making others, such as synthesis, more difficult. This will be explored more fully in the next section. Following Hutchby (2001), we suggest that enacting a technology’s affordances is always socially situated according to the objective at hand. Learning is “part-of-the-job,” since solving present and future problems implies both acquiring new knowledge and applying it in similar, subsequent situations. The ultimate result is the construction of a base of knowledge that is highly contextualized. It contains not only specific pieces of information but also elements that will be useful in evaluating and interpreting their applicability in similar, future situations.

As we saw with Peter, Louise, and Annabelle, the Internet is a key source of information on plants, collectors, herbaria, and processes. Various sites act as prime resources for MT volunteers’ informal learning. This is in line with the scientific literacy literature that highlights the importance of resources or assets as foundations for scientific literacy (Falk, et al., 2007; Miller, 2010; Roth and Lee, 2002). But volunteers also mobilize other resources that are closer to home, such as when they consult a reference book, or ask a question of another volunteer, the curator or the collection coordinator. Particularly when they solicit the expertise of the collection coordinator, they will often get more than they bargained for: a question about the location of specific specimen may be answered with information on the type of soil that the plant prefers and why it MUST be located in a narrow geographical band because of the geology of the region. They will take away as much or as little as they can. The cumulative effect is the enrichment of a base of knowledge and more in-depth understanding of the relations between different natural phenomena.

Volunteers draw on existing resources to complete their tasks and to satisfy their curiosity. They also create new resources and share them. This concern for “fixing” knowledge and transmitting it indicates an inductive process of reflection and action (Brown, et al., 1989; Marsick and Volpe, 1999), as well as a concern for the learning of others. Annabelle’s mounting manual is an excellent case in point. Another example is the manual developed by Sophia and Emma to help those photographing specimens deal with difficult cases. Unlike the mounting manual which outlines a standard procedure, the photography guide is primarily a compilation of exceptional cases and the solutions developed to deal with them. Other resources facilitate access to and sorting through the masses of pertinent information available on the Web. These range from lists of useful tools, to bookmarking useful sites, to additions to the database’s controlled vocabulary. These intermediary resources, discussed in the next section of this article, are customized for the local situation and facilitate the volunteers’ work. What is more, they are a collective production: they evolve with practice and the contribution of many individuals.

Seen in this light, developing scientific literacy at the MT is about more than increasing an individual’s level of scientific knowledge. It is sometimes characterized as a collective activity (see Roth and Lee, 2002; Eijck and Roth, 2013). Clearly, this is the case daily at the Herbarium, whether it involves collaboratively developing shared resources, sharing discoveries and marveling over a particularly beautiful specimen, or asking questions of more experienced volunteers. But collective scientific literacy at the Herbarium can also be interpreted in wider terms. For Roth and Lee, “people learn by participating in activities that are meaningful because they serve general, common interests and thus contribute to the community at large, rather than making learning a goal of its own” [12]. One of the goals of a herbarium is “to gather new knowledge, and to process that knowledge for the benefit of society and biodiversity itself” [13]. Among the studies that have focused on learning and volunteering, most noted a strong correlation between an association’s mission and what its volunteers learn (Duguid, et al., 2013), not only in terms of content but also in terms of values, attitudes and dispositions as well as the larger social context. At the MT, scientific literacy goes beyond learning about plants and procedures and extends to awareness regarding the ties between the institution and society and the conservation of biodiversity.

When David donates his private collection to the MT in order to guarantee its preservation, he discovers that he can volunteer at the MT and continue to contribute in other ways. Sophia believes that the Herbarium plays a crucial role in protecting our shared natural heritage. She sees the volunteers’ digitization work as a small piece of the larger picture, a small contribution that will help that heritage leave the storage cabinets and become known. Annabelle is worried about the future of the planet. For her, a herbarium tells us about the past and allows us to contrast it with the present and project to the future, namely in terms of protecting biodiversity. Emma highlights the lessons a herbarium like the MT can teach about climate change and disappearing ecosystems.

As with other natural history collections (Lane, 1996), research is part of a herbarium’s mission. These volunteers recognize the MT’s role in the production of scientific knowledge, and in that sense, they acknowledge their own participation in making science. Since specimens are catalogued and not just stored, the MT functions as a library that researchers and students can explore. For Emma and Annabelle, the digitization project expands the Herbarium’s reach and opens up that exploration to the international stage. Louise characterizes online crowdsourcing of digitization as a move towards democratization that she believes could help the Herbarium. For her, widespread public participation means that the rules, the ways of doing science, are changing.

Rather than being taught about how a herbarium works and its role in scientific research and protecting biodiversity, the volunteers experience it directly and daily, in authentic activity (Brown, et al., 1989). They are there when researchers come to the Herbarium looking for specific specimens to study. They are there when professors bring their students or when someone is working on their master’s or doctoral thesis. They are there when a ministry official seeks to know what the MT has on a certain species or area. They are there when another herbarium asks to borrow specimens and sometimes participate in preparing the loan. Such projects organize the work carried out at the Herbarium and introduce the volunteers to the multiple facets of the Herbarium’s mission and the diversity of actors that require information on its plants. Their awareness of global issues such as climate change increases, and conservation concerns at the local level become even more concrete. The disappearance of plants confronts them as they manipulate specimens that can no longer be found in Quebec. The fact that the volunteers see themselves as part of something larger helps them embrace projects they understand are important for the MT and the community it serves.

Digital literacy

Christine has both worked and volunteered at other institutions that are digitizing their collections, but it is her first hands-on experience with photographing a collection. The collection coordinator trains her and Katherine, a volunteer who is also a biology student, in the procedure: how to take the photograph, save it with the help of image-editing software, and link it to the respective database entry. Both volunteers already have experience in entering information into the database. Working on the database can sometimes be strenuous and frustrating. It requires meticulous volunteers and is not for everyone. Despite their suitability for the task, the collection coordinator introduces them to photographing specimens because he wants to allow them to develop an additional skill and provide a change of pace.

Although many responded to the call for volunteers for the digitization process, the coordinator soon realised that few people could work on the database, and that not everyone was cut out for the photography either. Georeferencing is considered to be the most demanding task, since it implies the most strategic connecting and decision-making. Even if training is provided, the coordinator prefers volunteers that already display some mastering of medium-related skills, since their tasks imply content-related skills, especially regarding information retrieval and treatment: volunteers need to be able to define the problem, choose possible sources, formulate search queries, select and, finally, evaluate information [14]. Personal attributes such as patience and attention to detail, and volunteers’ previous knowledge (education, professional experience, language abilities, travels) contribute to the efficiency and accuracy of activities such as transcribing or georeferencing (Ellwood, et al., 2015). For the MT’s collection coordinator, these attributes and expertise are decisive in recruiting volunteers to data entry.

Literature on digital literacy often highlights two intervening variables: age and education (Dijk and van Deursen, 2014). Most of the Herbarium’s volunteers are retired, and therefore of an older generation. According to the literature, they should thus be less likely to master information technologies. However, many possess professional or technical training and a post-secondary diploma and, as noted above, their work at the MT is a part of a wider set of practices tied to nature. As Knowles (1975) notes, adult learners are not empty vessels and they can draw on resources from their life path. This serves them well in developing higher level digital skills which “require background knowledge, experience, practical know-how, and creativity” [15]. These authors argue that age can contribute positively to higher level Internet skills (such as information and strategic skills) once the basic operational skills have been mastered: the problem resides in reaching that threshold. The age of those working in data entry is then offset by their level of education and their experience, both professional and personal.

Regardless of their previous experience with information technologies, most volunteers are digitizing a collection for the first time. As they learn the procedures involved, they start to realise the potential of software and online resources, but also the limits of such tools and how to deal with them. For instance, the fact that FileMaker Pro, the relational database application, has no “undo” button discourages volunteers from being too hasty while changing information in the database. They would rather double and triple-check before deleting or correcting a field. They are developing what Dijk and van Deursen (2014) refer to as operational and formal skills.

One of the layers of Clement and Shade’s (2000) “access rainbow” concerns the software tools available to users. In the case of the MT, FileMaker Pro is more user-friendly than other database applications, especially for volunteers. Although several related tables make up MT’s database, few volunteers are aware of the complexity of its architecture. They enter the required information onto forms, whose model differs according to the task being carried out. Within each model, fields and groups of fields are colour-coded, for both aesthetic and functional reasons. The models are also adaptable, changing according to the needs of Canadensys, the Herbarium, and volunteers. Dropdown menus with controlled vocabularies provide set choices and limit the need for judgement calls, ultimately increasing both speed and accuracy. The user interface to the database is thus highly simplified and corresponds closely to the tasks underway. In choosing to configure the software in this way, the Herbarium aligns itself with design recommendations to facilitate the appropriation of technologies (Norman, 1988; Preece, et al., 2002).

The Internet is both the ultimate destination of information contained in the database and an important source of information for completing it. Clement and Shade (2000) note that to benefit from the Internet as a resource requires an understanding of global networked information and its sources, its role in research and the systems that organise and structure it, as well as a set of skills to enact this understanding. While searching, users have to decide on the relevance and sufficiency of their findings as well as on the adequacy of the format and delivery mode of the information (Mackey and Jacobson, 2011).

At the MT, volunteers engage constantly in this type of evaluation as they mobilize different online sources for different tasks: John uses Google maps to identify municipalities, Annabelle watches videos to improve mounting, Louise dives into Wikipedia to find out more about collectors whose name she discovered through the Index of Botanists ( of Harvard University’s Herbaria and Libraries. Volunteers explore both resources prepared by scientific and government institutions — including documents, tools, and databases — and less official sources, such as user-generated content and travel Web sites.

The Internet’s informational and interactional affordances of linking, searchability, indexing invite particular cognitive and communicational uses. Nicolas Auray (2011) has argued that the Internet is fundamentally constituted by the reorganization of action around exploration. Volunteers make connections and create a path through sources, thereby establishing “strategic relationships” between the data found online, to use Jones and Hafner’s (2012) expression. For these authors, “information is most usefully seen not as a collection of ‘facts’, but as a social practice[16]. In turn, Dijk and van Deursen (2014) would say volunteers are employing their “strategic skills” by mixing multiple sources. This synthesis implies continuous decision-making and aims to achieve a specific goal — completing each specimen’s entry as accurately and thoroughly as possible. Volunteers sometimes note the paths and the reasoning they followed in order to arrive at their deductions. Paper notes are usually destroyed once a solution is validated, but comments in the database remain. In both cases, writing notes consolidates this processual knowledge [17]. Notes also provide insights into alternate ways of approaching a problem for the coordinator and other volunteers.

The quality and usefulness of all sources is verified by extensive cross-checking. The validation process includes thorough online searches, but extends beyond them. It may be necessary to return to the specimen sheet to resolve inconsistencies. Peter highlights the importance of being attentive while filling out each entry since it affects future use. Making the information available online makes him feel all the more responsible for the exactitude of entries, since they then become a resource for others who may not be able to easily return to the source if questions arise.

As volunteers’ discoveries of “good sources” become part of standard practice, they are recorded and become resources for the entire community. For instance, the collection coordinator bookmarks and includes the most significant sources in the database. John maintains a list of useful tools for georeferencing, which he publishes on a Web site for internal use. This volunteer draws from his background in geography as well as from his continual online searches. He also contacts the people responsible for the resources when he finds problems or has suggestions for their improvement. Sophia and Emma developed and maintain a manual for the photography procedure that started out as notes they took for themselves. As mentioned above, it describes how to deal with difficult cases, for instance, how to visually link the images of a plant so large that it takes up four specimen sheets. These intermediary resources are customized for the local situation. For example, while Harvard University Herbaria Web site has a comprehensive and authoritative searchable index of botanists and collectors, not all are likely to be represented in the MT collection. Volunteers’ discoveries help the digitization process directly, but also spill over to inform “analogue” procedures, such as mounting specimens.

These compilations of experience and expertise are produced and updated collectively. They have two major advantages in terms of content. Firstly, the shared pool of sources means that volunteers avoid to continuously having to find, select and assess the trustworthiness of Web sites and the usefulness of tools. Adding sources to the database enables information to be retraced and a measure of quality control. If a resource is later found to be inadequate, data entries can be reviewed. Secondly, the selection and sorting — of preferred resources, controlled vocabularies — performed by the intermediary resources considerably simplifies volunteers’ decision-making (no need to know official names and variations), while promoting standardization. This further enhances the quality of the database records and ensures data interoperability. Materials such as lists and manuals increase effectiveness and help lessen frustration, while further facilitating the volunteers’ appropriation of digital resources.

The resources created by volunteers also document their learning by doing and their “trial and error” process. In doing so, the volunteers give structure to informal learning and therefore overcome some of its disadvantages, such as the inability to repeat a solution. For Dijk and van Deursen (2014), such difficulties limit the usefulness of informal learning for acquiring digital skills. Trial and error in particular can “be a laborious, frustrating, inefficient, and ineffective method” [18].

Selwyn, et al. (2006) argued that adults learn how to use information technologies from different sources, in different contexts with varying degrees of success. It is a process of “bricolage,” at the intersection of the individual and the social. The Marie-Victorin Herbarium reflects this confluence of intervening factors that combine differently for each volunteer. Sophia and Emma always work as a duo. They claim they are more effective and can improve their procedures by pooling their skills and ideas. Louise feels she is improving her skills by exploring online tools to help her interpret foreign language labels. Since she is the only one doing this type of work, her exploration relies primarily on trial and error. In using FileMaker Pro, however, Louise can count on the other volunteers and the collection coordinator, as well as on communal resources, to help her.

Specific volunteers are regarded as “local experts:” they are “close at hand [and] are approachable and knowledgeable about both the technological capabilities and the task requirements” [19]. Peter helps with computer-related problems as well as with specific procedures. Other volunteers turn to him so as not to overburden the collection coordinator with questions. Sophia and Emma support volunteers that are less adept at photographing specimens. These “local experts” help train new arrivals, answer questions, suggest improvements and create reference materials.

Although most of the volunteers are using digital tools and resources, they are all working together at the Herbarium. This configuration reminds us of public investments in institutions such as libraries, museums, and community centers to promote information technology use and digitally-based learning (Selwyn, et al., 2006). In addition to providing physical access to technologies, these public sites offer incidental support for specific operations that some community members may have difficulty learning alone (Dijk and van Deursen, 2014). Volunteers at the MT help each other whenever needed and enjoy the sharing environment, including those who prefer to carry out their tasks alone. Co-presence also allows volunteers to benefit from other volunteers’ knowledge and experience as well as to check information with the collection coordinator. Since computers are placed side by side, these exchanges can occur without interrupting the flow of work. Nearby volunteers may also overhear an exchange and file away information as potentially useful for later.




Discovering information about plants, botany, and herbaria is an important part of learning at the MT. This most basic aspect of scientific literacy is only the tip of the iceberg of what volunteers learn as they participate in the digitization project, however. In this article, we have shown how scientific and digital literacies are constructed simultaneously, and that this is a collective as well as an individual accomplishment. Increasing scientific literacy starts from a specific task-related activity — photographing specimens or completing their database entries — but rapidly spreads outward. Curiosity and problem solving are key drivers in this largely self-directed quest. Volunteers draw on a variety of resources, some of them digital. Intentional learning is complemented by incidental discoveries, the result of exploration that is facilitated by the hypertextual, linked structure of the Internet.

In navigating through a diversity of online sources, volunteers need to develop and mobilize operational and formal digital skills. Given the complexity of the tasks at hand, they are also called upon to evaluate and synthesize information, higher order digital skills that require a degree of judgment. In this activity, they are guided by their past experiences (all the richer given their diversity of paths), other volunteers’ knowledge, the staff’s expertise, and the original source material — the specimens.

Volunteers draw on existing resources to complete their tasks but they also create new resources and share them. Lists of useful tools, bookmarking of useful sites, and additions to the database’s controlled vocabulary act as intermediary resources to facilitate access to and sorting through the masses of pertinent information available on the Web. Procedure manuals are developed from experience, enriched with information found online, and updated regularly. The volunteers’ concern for “fixing” and transmitting knowledge through the creation of such resources is evidence of their learning and of their concern that others should benefit from it. Produced collaboratively and incrementally, the goal of these resources is to facilitate future work.

Much of the literature on learning by doing focuses on the locally and temporally situated character of its activities. While volunteers’ learning is firmly grounded in the everyday and is often triggered by a problem or a puzzle to solve, it is also oriented towards the future. Volunteers keep track of their solutions or file away new pieces of information with a view to their potential usefulness in similar, subsequent situations. They seek to increase their knowledge and skills so that they will be better able to act next time. In this sense, learning is “part-of-the-job” for them as individuals. This future orientation extends to what they are producing as well. Volunteers attach great importance to the accuracy and completeness of each entry since even a small piece of information about a specimen may provide a basis for future knowledge production.

Digitizing the Herbarium’s collection emerges as a collaborative activity. Digital and scientific literacy skills are usually attributed to individuals, but the organizational and social context amenable to mutual aid in this case is key in promoting effective use and the successful pursuit of the community’s goals. Both scientific literacy and digital literacy stem from collective activity, and each volunteer’s learning is linked to the learning of others.

Digitizing the collection also involves engaging volunteers and staff with the broader impacts of the work carried out at the Herbarium. In addition to allowing volunteers to participate directly in authentic scientific activity, it fosters awareness of the relationship between the Herbarium’s multiple missions and global issues like climate change, conservation, and the preservation of biodiversity. Armed with this understanding, volunteers develop a shared commitment to producing a quality reference and making it accessible worldwide on the Internet via Canadensys. They see themselves as part of something larger that transcends the local situation and that should persist across several generations. In this collective activity, they are driven by the desire to contribute to the community, as well as by a desire to increase their scientific knowledge and digital skills.

At the Marie-Victorin Herbarium, self-directed learning and learning by doing play a central role in helping volunteers to make an effective use of digital technologies, including to enhance their scientific literacy. Training, “local experts” and intermediary resources documenting solutions and sharing sources all help reinforce this informal learning and make it a collective activity. The result is a rich learning environment in which volunteers are able to increase their ability to participate in today’s digital society. End of article


About the authors

Patrícia Dias da Silva is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Communication at the University of Montréal. She is currently involved in a project on participatory science and the use of digital media in the context of biodiversity. She is a member of the Laboratoire de communication médiatisée par ordinateur (LabCMO) and the Centre interuniversitaire de recherche sur la science et la technologie (CIRST). Her main research interests include online video, political economy of social media, freedom of expression as a digital right and the digital commons.
E-mail: p [dot] dias [dot] da [dot] silva [at] umontreal [dot] ca

Lorna Heaton is associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Montréal. Her research focuses on the collaborative use of information and communication technologies. Recently, she has been exploring the implications of Web 2.0 and user-generated content, particularly in biodiversity sciences.
E-mail: lorna [dot] heaton [at] umontreal [dot] ca



The Marie-Victorin Herbarium is a case study of the research project “Reconfigurations of scientific work: Contributions of amateurs and information technologies in biodiversity” (2013–2016), funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and coordinated by Lorna Heaton. We would like to thank the Herbarium’s staff and volunteers for their generosity in welcoming us and answering our questions.



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7. Ibid.

8. Gurstein, 2003, section “Access and beyond.”

9. Jones and Hafner, 2012, p. 13.

10. In preparing to move to the Biodiversity Center, the Herbarium made an inventory of 22,000 plants that was digitized into a spreadsheet and later published in Canadensys as its first dataset in July 2013.

11. Lave, 1997, p. 21.

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15. Dijk and van Deursen, 2014, p. 147.

16. Original emphasis, Jones and Hafner, 2012, p. 20.

17. On the value of writing for deepening learning in formal contexts, see Langer and Applebee, 1987.

18. Dijk and van Deursen, 2014, p. 113.

19. Clement and Shade, 1996, p. 12.



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Editorial history

Received 22 December 2016; accepted 16 May 2017.

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This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Fostering digital and scientific literacy: Learning through practice
by Patrícia Dias da Silva and Lorna Heaton.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 6 - 5 June 2017