Going Digital by Knowing Digital

College and universities ramp up initiatives to help students think critically and learn more about digital tools -- but faculty members and administrators don't always agree on the approach.

March 13, 2019
 
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No student will pass through higher education without seeing or using digital technology. A few years ago at Keuka College, in New York, administrators decided their students needed more than just exposure.

“Of course our colleges are using technology in the classroom, and it’s great,” said Tim Sellers, Keuka’s associate provost of academic innovation. “We want to take it a little deeper and provide a middle ground between simply using technology and becoming a computer scientist.”

By way of analogy, Sellers says not everyone who drives a car needs to also be an auto mechanic -- but “if you can understand a little bit about how the car works, you can be a lot more creative with the car in ways that inspire your own passion.”

Keuka is one of several institutions using digital literacy as a frame for a stronger focus on using technology tools in classrooms. Such initiatives require support from faculty members, who can be reluctant to rethink their approach to teaching or incorporate new material into their learning objectives. They also require investment of time and resources to figure out how best to integrate digital literacy concepts into curricula.

Leaders of these initiatives see those challenges as vital to overcome. Sellers said he believes many students arrive at college without a sophisticated critical perspective on tools they’ll be using for the rest of their lives.

“They’re incredibly good at using technology and incredibly poor at understanding how it can be used,” Sellers said. “We’ve essentially given them a Ferrari and they’re driving it around a parking lot at 12 miles per hour.”

‘An Evolving Beast’

Keuka's ongoing flirtation with the concept of digital literacy has taken several different forms, illustrating the challenge of figuring out where this aspect of an academic experience belongs.

The process at Keuka started almost half a decade ago with the now former president Jorge Diaz-Herrera, a former computer science professor who saw value in teaching students problem solving through the lens of computational thinking. He urged Sellers and a team of administrators to infuse a philosophy of digital literacy into the academic culture at Keuka.

“Being in New York State, where there’s a liberal arts college everywhere you can throw a stone, we thought this was a great opportunity for us” to stand out, Sellers said.

Getting faculty members on board has been a lengthy effort that’s still ongoing. At first, Sellers often found himself challenging faculty members who asked when the institution would be done updating its technology infrastructure. Sellers replied to them that “constant upgrades [aren’t] a flaw but a feature.” Instead of waiting to take action until the pace of changes slowed down, he said, it’s always time to try something new.

Some institutions approach technology initiatives with a goal of creating a consistent digital experience for students campuswide -- “we’re a Mac school, we’re a PC school,” as Sellers put it. But with conviction, he convinced the college’s IT staff to abandon that mind-set.

“Biodiversity makes an ecosystem more stable over all,” Sellers said. “We don’t want monoculture.”

Early on, the institution offered small learning grants -- up to $2,500 per year -- to faculty members interested in exploring how digital literacy might play a role in their disciplines. One faculty member purchased software to supplement her teaching; another collaborated with a colleague on creating a curricular pathway that included digital literacy elements. Funding support helped build momentum for faculty buy-in, Sellers said.

If Sellers could start over laying the groundwork, he would come to faculty members with a less “prescriptive” tone. Some instructors didn’t -- and still don’t -- understand the definition of the term “digital learning” and resisted being told how to revamp their courses.

“We would go out there and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. Let’s go in and change the gen eds, let’s go in and change programs, let’s be very prescriptive from the very beginning and we’ll tell you how,’” Sellers said.

Keuka’s approach to digital literacy is still evolving. Between 2015 and 2018, the institution offered a digital learning minor -- six courses that instruct students on the basics of analytics, coding, digital storytelling and data visualization, culminating in a capstone course in which students exercise the skills they’ve gained in a semester-long project related to their major.

But last fall amid major administrative changes at the institution, the digital learning strategy changed. The six courses still exist, but now they're offered stand-alone, or as part of other degree programs. Fewer than 10 students completed the minor, though some classes generated more interest than others.

The institution's broader focus, meanwhile, has shifted to training students on using digital tools during their introductory courses at the institution, in hopes that the skills will inform their upper-level work.

"We’re spreading it around a little more," Sellers said.

Serving Diverse Students

Digital literacy efforts can have particular impact at a historically black college, according to Eli Collins-Brown, who just wrapped a two-year stint as director of the Center for Transformative and Innovative Instruction at Winston-Salem State University, part of the University of North Carolina system. Many of her students there come from underprivileged backgrounds and lack basic competencies that could be essential in the professional world, she said.

Last summer, administrators at the institution spearheaded a systemwide contract with Adobe to provide the company’s Creative Cloud services free to all faculty, staff and students. Collins-Brown believed the tools could lay a foundation for a strong digital literacy push that wouldn’t be overly expensive.

Administrators last June hosted an Adobe-sponsored boot camp for staffers in the institution’s teaching and learning center, IT department, and media services lab. The broader goal is to encourage faculty members to think about more dynamic ways to engage students, and for students to become proficient using digital tools in ways that will serve them beyond graduation.

First-year students at the institution are now in the second semester of a required first-year experience course, which includes digital literacy assignments during the first semester and a "signature project" during the second semester in which students present a principle of social justice using Adobe Spark pages.

“We’re really trying to get people to realize nobody reads 10-page research papers or 35-page white papers,” Collins-Brown said. “We consume information in these sorts of snapshot ways.”

Digital literacy is spreading throughout the Winston-Salem curriculum as well. Students in a general chemistry course assemble current events blogs that help them learn the intricacies of the Spark tool while beefing up their science knowledge. A writing instructor has transformed her course into a project-based format that examines the digital-print divide and its effect on how information is transmitted and perceived.

As with the Keuka initiative, the Winston-Salem experiment has received mixed reviews from faculty members. Many view it as “a distraction,” Collins-Brown said. Still, more than two dozen instructors requested access to the Adobe license last fall, and several ended up revamping assignments and incorporating more tools into their pedagogy. One instructor incentivizes students to use an app called Flipd to limit recreational activities on smartphones during class time.

“Our goal is every single student will be exposed to some sort of digital literacy assignment by the time they completed their bachelor’s degree,” said Collins-Brown, who started this month as director of a faculty development team at Western Carolina University.

Administrators at Winston-Salem took inspiration from Todd Taylor, Eliason Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for whom digital literacy initiatives have become a specialty. He defines digital literacy as "not just the ability to operate the machines, but to be able to effect change in your world by leveraging these powerful technologies."

A decade ago, Taylor pitched to his supervisors the idea of requiring digital literacy skills to be mandatory in the curriculum for his department’s writing program. He got buy-in fairly easily from his institution’s CIO, who shortly thereafter partnered with Adobe for licenses to its Creative Cloud suite. Taylor has been assigning students tasks on Adobe software ever since, and he’s currently on leave from teaching to consult with Adobe as a traveling fellow.

Initiatives like this cost money and require administrative support, but they’re crucial to students’ future success, according to Taylor.

“There isn’t a single industry that digital transformation isn’t redefining,” he said. ”I want my students to be prepared to play a role in that and to have other people tell them what to do.”

Who's Driving?

Instructional designers and academic support staff can play a critical role in creating interest around digital literacy, according to Jenae Cohn, academic technology specialist at Stanford University. At last month’s Educause Learning Initiative conference in Anaheim, Calif., she presented, alongside her colleague Renee Hewitt, an instructional designer at the University of Kansas, on the importance of rejecting the narrative that students are “digital natives.”

“Students coming into college have increasingly diverse ranges of experiences with navigating different sets of digital environments,” Hewitt said. “Just because you can do one kind of web application well doesn’t mean you can do a different kind of web application well.”

Cohn likes to use the term “digital fluencies” to describe the difference between the ability to use technology and the ability to critique it. Turning on a computer and opening an internet browser is using technology. Understanding the domain of the website and assessing the design require a deeper understanding.

Librarians do some work to educate students along these lines, particularly when teaching them how to search for legitimate research materials, Cohn said. But she wants to see more open discussion in classrooms about how students use certain search engines and when they should and shouldn’t rely on them.

Cohn envisions writing instructors asking students to construct essays about how and from where they consume information, and science instructors urging students to interrogate the difference between looking at a virtual-reality model of a human body and a hand-drawn sketch. At her own institution, Cohn has been teaming up with faculty members to offer in-class workshops on these topics.

“A question we can help them think through is ‘Why?’” Cohn said.

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