• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Literacy in the Digital Age: Part V


May 26, 2011


Okay, enough big picture, let’s get down to brass tacks as my 7th grade teacher, Sister John Margaret, used to say. I will now focus on the details of digital literacy. Strictly speaking, “digital literacy,” as it is called among educators, is knowledge of the technology per se, “packet-switching,” which is the magic at the physical layer of the network, and instruction on how to use devices that run on semi-conductors that transmit “digitized,” or broken into bytes, information. Obviously, the technology alone is not earth shattering. It is the uses to which we have put it, the “applications layer,” or the way those uses have changed our business practices or personal lives.


Napster and Facebook, sexting and YouTube blow our minds not because we are fascinated by the source code, but by the ability to access music, find friends from high school, see someone’s body parts on a cell phone or watch as a cat does acrobatics two clicks away from saying it ain’t so. That laws cannot keep up with these uses has become well known. The peer-to-peer debacle taught us that lesson. Sexting continues to teach us in the saddest way when we find teenagers who have acted badly, to be sure, by sending photos of ill-clad girlfriends to 200 of their closest friends and then wind up on sexual predator lists circulated nationally.


That cultural norms, such as privacy, change as a result of what we do with this kind of technology should also not come as any surprise. We are still in an uproar over what students post on Facebook. Neither the kerfuffle of outrage over the last several years of students’ partying posts nor Mark Zuckerberg’s much touted “privacy settings," were enough to settle the confusion over what is the right approach to social media. Do I go completely vanilla so no one believes my profile? Do I not create a profile, in which case people might think I have something to hide, am boring, or at least a little creepy? How much is too much, or not enough, or the right kind of private and public persona?


The National Labor Relations Board has recently ruled that Facebook is like any other public forum. An employee can express themselves about workplace matters and cannot be fired for cause. But what if they criticize their boss, let’s assume the criticism is true, and the boss retaliates not by firing them but by further minimizing their hours, giving them the worst shifts or placing them in the lay-off queue no matter what the workforce performance? Could the same fuzzy uncertainties be raised about the difference in a grade between student A and student B over a Facebook or Rate-My-Professor posting? How do we resolve these queries?


Digital moves to information fluency when the focus moves to media. But no matter how facile the technology to manipulate or flashy the format, within the halls of academe, the norms, policies and goals of the academic community prevail. It is, let us acknowledge, a world in but not of, the market and legal world of regular society. Where “law” lays down the floor of rules, academia has “policies.” For example, copyright infringement is a legal and policy violation; plagiarism is an academic concern. It goes to the root of our enterprise: original thought and acknowledgement of the work of those shoulders upon which our institutions have stood for centuries.


Thus, information competency or media fluency – whatever the specific term -- creates an expectation that a student use information technology resources responsibly and intelligently for academic purposes. If no other issue announced the need for this education, academic integrity did. The kind and quality of plagiarism that instructors detected increasingly in student work over the last decade went from water-cooler conversations to alarm bells rung in faculty meetings throughout the country. It was there that decisions about investment in detection software took place. The long spectrum of plagiarism made the issue difficult to address. Some plagiarism could be chalked up to intellectual sloppiness, technological facility of search, cut and paste functions as well as a lack of education in the K-12 sector establishing appropriate boundaries and expectations for what constituted proper academic research, thought and expression.


Innocence soon blurred into malevolence as we learned of paper mills where a simple Internet search function and a credit card would suffice for much of a student’s grade. Campus intranets on which instructor’s manuals served up the answers to homework problems sets exist on almost every campus, and the texting of answers during exams among friends or fraternity brothers became de rigeuer. Legitimate use does not mean just because you can do it you are allowed to do it, but often that message comes as the result of an incident, not before it.


It was for all of these reasons and my collective experience guiding students through tutorials on digital devices, copyright, plagiarism, and privacy issues in particular, that I sought to create at Cornell University a Digital Literacy site. http://digitalliteracy.cornell.edu/ We have devoted specific chapters to those particular issues. Collaboration with my colleagues at Cornell University Libraries added a chapter on research that seeks to take students deeper than Google, introduce them to academic databases of the world and a wealth of information that lies in the digital bowels of our vast collections.


The most important lesson is the evaluation of sources. When I was a student, we took so much for granted. Collections librarians acted as gatekeepers for quality, and reference librarians directed way-word students, such as myself back in the day, to the correct card catalog, floor or section for me to explore. There were no rabbit holes to fall into given the physical layout and intentional control that librarians had over their space. Now it is more a matter of educating students on how to discern with intelligence and critical inquiry not only what they find on the Internet, but also where they are looking and what lurks behind “search.”


Underlying evaluation practices, such as peer review, must be explained even to undergraduates, so that they can connect the dots of citations and locations of their placement in relevant journals as a measure of quality. More critical still yet is getting them to understand the business models that undergird popular Internet search engines. Google’s AdSense is #1 case in point. If a student does not know that advertising dollars are why a Google search is “free,” and that as a result, placement of information is paid and therefore NOT an indication of its intrinsic merit based on an objective, not-for-profit, peer reviewed scholarly review, then run out of this room and tell your students today. And by the way, if anyone wants to know the difference between Google’s mission statement to “organize the world’s information” and ours, in a nutshell, there it is.


Now that we have excoriated students, let’s put the mirror up to ourselves for a few minutes. Has the Internet thrown us – faculty and administrators -- for a loop because we do not want to acquire basic digital skills? If lassitude is not the problem, are instructors befuddled about how to transfer established formats for teaching and research into newer media? Are the challenges to libraries in collections, curation and scholarly publications perplexing us into paralysis?



No matter, may I offer a quick and dirty reply? Create a serious and robust information literacy program. Run all of your faculty and relevant staff through it. Not just Loyola, but this is my sincere wish for every college and university. And don’t be surprised if a course on information literacy raises profound questions about (at least) undergraduate pedagogy (because it tends to have the greatest degree of passive learning). Challenging that paradigm might be the real obstacle to the use of technology that innovative educators face in our halls of academe, because the genuinely transformative potential that technology has on teaching and learning scares the pants off of personality types invested in incumbent methods and power models threatened by these new modalities. Remember: technology transfigures us, but that does not mean we always like what we see.



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