Turn it off and on again: digital literacy in college students

What happened to digital literacy and competency? 

I’ll start this post with some examples of declining digital and computer literacy that me and my colleagues have noticed just in the past academic year with students.  

  • Tried to turn on a lab computer via the monitor, not the tower 
  • Manually added spaces for double-spaced paper 
  • Hitting spacebar to create indents 
  • Not being able to find their downloaded PDF 
  • Saving everything to desktop/not using file directories 
  • Unable to use browser (only uses phone applications) 
  • Not understanding how to navigate Microsoft OneDrive vs computer file directories (or: why doesn’t my paper show up on the computer?) 

I’m sure a lot of these, along with many other examples, sound very familiar to academic librarians. Although the IT Help Desk is just a few feet down from the Library Service Desk at my library, we become tech support in so many ways. The technical understanding of computers, programs, and how they work just isn’t there in many young adults, which might be surprising to some. Surely, the kids who have grown up with technology are good at it, right? They’re “digital natives”? Many a librarian, academic or otherwise, could tell you that that’s not the case.  

The 2018 International Computer and Information Literacy study showed that only 2 percent of students scored at the highest level of computer and information literacy (Fraillon et al, 2020). Yet, Global Web Index’s report on Generation Z says that “[they] are clocking up nearly 7 hours a day online” (2019). Those of us who work in universities, whether as faculty, staff, or otherwise, need to remember that students using technology for interaction and leisure doesn’t necessarily translate to familiarity with tools for academic or professional work. As an example: If I’m on TikTok all day, why would I then know how to use Microsoft Word for APA format in my paper? If I am posting stories to Instagram and direct messaging people, why would I know the difference between cloud storage like Google Drive and the hardware storage of a laptop? 

It’s easier for me to think about this in terms of my own experiences. I had a computer basics class in high school where I learned about the different mechanical parts of a computer, what the abbreviations KB, MB, and GB mean, among other things that I ultimately use every day in my professional and personal life. Someone who came even 2 or 3 years after me at my same high school didn’t have the same thing. Chromebooks were just gaining traction during my senior year, and they were fully implemented a few years after I left. I firmly believe that the rise of these sort of limiting products has limited the digital literacy and competency of today’s students, but perhaps exploring that relationship can be saved for an entirely different blog post.  

I think the ultimate problem with digital literacy is not necessarily the lack of technical knowledge, but the lack of curiosity. Oftentimes when students come to the desk for help with formatting a paper, they haven’t attempted to figure it out themselves. One way to address the lack of curiosity and digital literacy is something many librarians are already doing: modeling inquiry. We perform reference interviews to get more information about the question or issue at hand, and often times, we are figuring out technology issues along with the patron. I am always telling students exactly what I do – no, I don’t remember this off the top of my head, I Google things about programs constantly. Even in our instruction sessions, we model curiosity and exploration; I purposely try not to have canned database searches, because I know how messy research is. Students might not yet. If they see that a librarian can get a “no results found” search or something that isn’t as relevant, they might feel better about continuing to try in their own research process. They can also learn how to search the web for their problems – how many times have you Googled something, gotten completely irrelevant results, and had to change or add keywords? This first attempt is where I find that students might stop, if they do try to figure it out. It’s okay if they can’t find the answer and come ask us anyway – I just want to empower them to try.  

Although they’re of a generation who is quite familiar with technology, everyone’s experience varies. This is why I don’t really like the term digital native (Prensky, 2001). I prefer the term digital learner – none of us are born knowing natively how to use these tools, but they and we are born learning them (Gallardo-Echenique et al, 2015). Since every student comes to us with different backgrounds, experiences, and access, we should focus our efforts on modeling and teaching with inquiry and curiosity. As fast as technology changes, having a solid foundation of curiosity will benefit students for the rest of their lives.  

References 

Fraillon, J., Ainley, J., Schulz, W., Friedman, T., & Duckworth, D. (2020). Preparing for Life in a Digital World: IEA International Computer and Information Literacy Study 2018 International Report. Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-38781-5 

Gallardo-Echenique, E. E., Marqués-Molías, L., Bullen, M., & Strijbos, J.-W. (2015). Let’s talk about digital learners in the digital era. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 16(3). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v16i3.2196 

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1108/10748120110424816 

Unveiling the Deceptive Duo: Inclusive Access and Equitable Access – A Threat to Student Choice and Library Reserves

Academic libraries have a new battle on the horizon: inclusive access and equitable access. These two models are the newest ventures of bookstore vendors to get students to purchase costly textbooks and other course materials. Stealing library jargon to disguise the truth, bookstore vendors are advertising inclusive access and equitable access as being a positive move for universities. These models, however, are far from it.

Inclusive Access

Bookstore vendors market this option as being convenient for faculty and students as students are guaranteed access to course materials on the first day of class. Sounds great, doesn’t it? At first glance, it appears to be truly inclusive; however, this option is deceptive. When faculty choose to use inclusive access, they select their textbook and/or access codes for homework as they normally would. Then, instead of students purchasing these materials on their own, students are billed an additional charge for their tuition to include the cost of the course materials. This means students lose the ability to buy used versus new as well as shop around for their course materials (e.g., Amazon). According to these vendors, they do provide students with an “opt-out” option. The problem with this “opt-out” option is two-fold. One, the ability to “opt-out” is not communicated clearly to students. Bookstore vendors tend to use intimidating language that ultimately prevents students from opting out. Two, if students “opt-out” of an access code needed to complete their homework, they are unable to submit their homework; therefore, they will likely fail the class. How is that inclusive?

Equitable Access

While I had heard of inclusive access, the equitable access model was unbeknownst to me until recently. According to bookstore vendors, equitable access is a model that, like inclusive access, ensures that all students have access to their required course materials on the first day of class. Prior to classes beginning, students would receive a box of all of their needed materials. Again, this sounds great, doesn’t it? The catch is found in how students are billed for these materials. Once faculty make their textbook and course material selections, the university divides the total cost of all faculty-selected items amongst all students. Then, every student is charged the same “textbook cost” fee as part of their tuition and fees. While this may be beneficial to students majoring in subjects such as chemistry or accounting, majors notorious for high textbook costs, this is a huge disservice to majors with historically low textbook costs, such as English or history. This model also takes away the ability for students to shop around for cheaper alternatives to new textbooks and provides zero transparency in how much their materials actually cost. This means that a student who could purchase all of their textbooks used for a total of $30 could instead be charged $600. How is that equitable?

Contract Limitations for Academic Libraries

In addition to the effect inclusive and equitable access models have on students, the contracts to implement them can severely impact and even eliminate libraries’ efforts in providing course reserves and other textbook support to students. For instance, one bookstore vendor’s contract explicitly prohibits libraries from purchasing a copy of a course textbook to place on reserve in the library for students to check out. With the equitable access model, libraries would be completely written out of the textbook equation. If universities began shifting towards these models, my position as an Affordability and Digital Initiatives Librarian, as well as similar positions, would be eliminated, and the major strides made in providing true equitable access to textbooks through academic libraries would come to a halt.

Federal Intervention

The good news is that the Department of Education is aware of and currently discussing these misleading models. As the Biden-Harris administration works towards adopting more open policies, they have turned their focus towards higher education. More specifically, on January 2, 2024, the Department of Education released six issue papers with proposals for more student-friendly policies. One of these papers propose to “eliminate the provision allowing institutions to include the cost of books and supplies as part of tuition and fees.” If passed, this proposal would be a huge win for academic libraries.

You can find out more information about the Department of Education’s movement to restrict these models at https://www2.ed.gov/policy/highered/reg/hearulemaking/2023/program-integrity-and-institutional-quality-session-1-issue-paper-cash-management-final.pdf

Holding Space for Students

Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome Stephanie Sendaula to the ACRLog team. Stephanie is an On-Call Reference Librarian at Mercer County Community College, West Windsor campus. Her professional background includes a transition from librarianship to publishing and back again, with a sideline in freelance writing. Her research interests include outreach, instruction, and information literacy.

We’re in the midst of summer and in anticipation of the beginning of the next academic year, I’ve been reconsidering the concept of space. This is a subject that has been covered on the ACRLog earlier this year, when Maura Smale asked how we can better shift services and spaces to meet students’ needs.

I have been thinking along the same lines, with a specific focus on how the library can meet the needs of community college students who are in a transitional stage in their lives. In my case, I’ve been seriously considering the needs of community college students who may be the first in their family to attend college, who are often living at home while working part-time and attending school part-time, who are often responsible for caregiving for older relatives and younger siblings in addition to managing their coursework, and who often speak English as a second or sometimes third language. 

I keep these nuances in mind since I remember how I felt as an undergraduate student, intimidated by the imposing rows upon rows of stacks. I think about how overwhelming it can be to walk into a library and immediately see imposing desks for reference and circulation, and not know where to turn because you can’t differentiate one from the other. I consider how intimidating it might be to approach a desk and ask a question, even if library staff happen to look like you.

I also consider the recent update from the ACRL Academic Library Trends and Statistics Survey, which was discussed at a session at ALA Annual in Washington, DC in June 2022. Among other figures, the survey cited the decline in reference desk visits while circulation checkouts remained stable, as well as a decline in the circulation of print materials while the circulation of digital materials increased. That also rings true for my experience as a reference librarian at a community college.

How does this tie into space? Reflecting on the needs of the community I serve, I am often wondering how the library can better utilize space to serve students’ needs, both physical and virtual. For students who might be apprehensive to visit the library, how can we meet them where they are? In terms of physical space, are we taking advantage of our limited physical space in order to house collections that are relevant and up-to-date?

Thinking of virtual space, do we have enough technological resources in order to accommodate the number of students who lack a private computer at home and rely on library computers or cellphones in order to complete their assignments? When thinking about space, I’m also considering the needs of students who physically visit the library, but frequently utilize options such as chat reference and libguides.

These questions are often rhetorical since, similar to other libraries, there is always something that we could be doing more of, or something that we could be doing better. The challenge is often: Where do we start? What small steps can we take in order to ensure that students feel the library is an approachable space, both in terms of physical appearance and online resources? What can I, as a reference librarian, do in order to ensure students that library staff are there to assist them when they don’t know where to turn? 

My answer to this question is to develop radical empathy–a social justice concept of actively striving to better understand and share the feelings of others–and to consider how I would approach the library if I were a student (and how I approached the library when I was an undergraduate student). To be honest, I often avoided the library since I was often scared to approach, and I was overwhelmed by the numerous virtual options to connect with library staff. It was often easier to ask a friend for help, and have them guide me to wherever it was that I needed to go, whether that was finding a specific course reserve or navigating a public computer.

Thinking back to the ACRL survey, I’m also keeping this in mind as more students check out items digitally instead of walking across campus, depending on where they’re coming from, in order to find course materials. It’s not just space, it’s also time and convenience. We’re all stretched thin, and that includes students, who are juggling multiple responsibilities at once during a difficult time in their lives–an ongoing pandemic and, for many students I serve, a move toward four-year institutions or an entry into the workforce. Space can mean a lot of things, but it often comes back to, How does the library hold space for the students it serves?

Playing with Fall Planning

Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome Jade E. Davis to the ACRLog team. Jade is Director of Educational Technology & Learning Management at the University of Pennsylvania Library. She leads a team committed to strategic technological innovation in library spaces, student engagement, play, teaching, research, and learning support. She was previously the inaugural Director of Digital Project Management and Columbia University Libraries. She has a PhD in Communication studies with a focus in media, technology and culture from UNC Chapel Hill. Her research looks at new modes of knowledge production, how digital information complicates information literacy, the ethics of digital knowledge production, digital media & learning, and empathy culture. Prior to earning her PhD she worked in digital project management and production, a digital humanities lab, and HASTAC.

Happy Fiscal Year 2022-23 to those who celebrate! On my team we celebrate by beginning our fall planning. I started my current role at the beginning of the remote phase of the pandemic. A significant portion of my work, to date, has been attempting to counterbalance burnout (of staff, students, faculty, etc) with new ways of bringing our community into our work, and thinking differently about how we approach our work. For the part of my team that manages our Commons spaces we are focusing on undergraduate engagement and something that has caused some organizational tension: play. There are three reasons for this.

  1. Supporting students, especially undergraduates, supports the health of the University.
  2. Play is a low-stakes, high-reward way to bring people together. 
  3. Play can be cultivated given the Academic Library’s super power*.

*The Academic Library’s Super Power According to Jade

The Library is a central part of the university with access to a plethora of resources, material and flexible spaces. Our engagement with patrons is not bound by time in the way courses are. We can create many of our own assessments without the baggage of grades. We know why our audiences are here: to learn and create knowledge. We can participate in and create co- & extra-curricular activities, and experiential learning through play that facilitate the generation of new ideas and approaches which, in turn, supports the mission of the University.

Why Now?

A pattern we’ve seen when we look at surveys of faculty now is faculty feel they have less time for research and service given their own pandemic+ burnout. Faculty, graduate students, and other lecturers feel they are spending more time providing support to students, not just for course material, but in general as students try to figure out how they fit into the campus community. Generally there is a sense that the remote period or other dynamics (there are so many dynamics right now), have led to student disengagement, which we are seeing reflected in patron counts. This is where play comes into play.

I like to call “play” a total empowerment move because it addresses so many things. It creates a space where people are able to meaningfully engage social dynamics and take risks with controlled consequences. It allows for creativity, exploration, discovery, and joy for participants and staff. In my experience it also reminds people that they play all the time by doing things like playing with ideas and finding solutions to problems. There is a good amount of research on play and learning/pedagogy, and there’s been a recent uptick in looking at play in Higher Education. I’ve put together a talking points table that I use to walk people through how play-empowered libraries, students, and culture & society are better able to navigate our current context and develop resilience and shared purpose based on takeaways from the research. 

Play Empowered

LIBRARIESSTUDENTSCULTURE & SOCIETY
Are inclusive engagement spaces by design. They allow multiple ways to engage. This creates a safe space for exploration and experimentation.Are allowed to be more vulnerable, take risks, and play with ideas including their own positionality and power without fear of failure.Imagine and create different worlds because we know we can be in the world together differently.
Create community within the University. Students are accountable to themselves  and to each other.Practice being part of a paraprofessional community through  low stakes, high reward socialization.Understand that society is a network/global and our choices produce results and consequences.
Cultivate a productive and positive  orientation towards the moment and “failure” by experiencing surprise and delight through experimentation without the risk or anxiety of getting a bad grade.Navigate unexpected obstacles or changes because experimenting with different solutions, materials, and expertise is possible and encouraged.Recognize that current problems are temporary but require intentional engagement through collective action to be remedied.
Empower students to define their own success by making space for multiple destinations and ways of getting to the end.Have agency to imagine and design the future relevance and applicability of the material and skills.Assess their positionality and subjectivity by asking who am I in this? What is my impact? What are my choices? Who or what am I adding to, taking from?
Allow for and validate emotional responses & reactions in learning and coping through taking detours and non-linear pathways.Fully engage in the process of learning by acknowledging feelings of accomplishment, joy, and levity, in addition to stress, overwhelmedness, and other emotions/feelings.Become lifelong learners

The Work Right Now

Like many libraries, we had an exodus of staff during the pandemic. Once it became clear that the burnout being experienced was going to exist in waves, I rethought some of the roles on my team. This fall will be the first semester with Program Coordinators of Technology and Play. It was a title I campaigned for because it attracted people who already understood “play” as a powerful mode of engagement. To date, they’ve carted equipment and material from the Maker Space to the main Library to host some very successful pop-ups. The pop-ups allowed them to meet students, faculty, and staff semi-organically, and see what would be interesting for specific populations while still being fun for the staff. We are planning to expand these across the Library and bring in other units in the fall because they were so successful. And we are just starting to put together our fall plans. They’ve been given my one rule for cultivating play:

Design an experience YOU will be excited to be a part of. 

So, how about you all? Are you planning any play-filled activities or events to reintroduce patrons to your spaces and resources in the fall?

Thinking About Space, Still

About a year ago I was knee-deep in scheduling focus group sessions with students at one of the colleges at my university, along with my fellow team members as part of our Data Doubles research. The focus groups were terrific — I always appreciate the chance to talk with students and hear their perspectives, in this case on data privacy and learning analytics. Recently I’ve found myself thinking about one student in particular. We’d shifted the focus groups from in person to online, and with campus access still restricted at our university last Spring, most of the students were zooming in from off-campus, some from laptops, others from phones. As we progressed through the questions and discussion in one focus group, I noticed that one of the students had moved from sitting at a table to walking outside. And a few minutes later, that student climbed onto a bus, swiped their MetroCard, and sat down with their phone and laptop, all the while continuing to participate in the focus group during their bus commute.

I’m sharing this anecdote in part because it’s still, even nearly a year later, amazing to me that the student could so seamlessly move into a commute while thoughtfully considering and responding in our discussion. But now that we’re back on campus more fully, I’m also thinking more about space, and how the library’s spaces can meet needs for students that may have changed since the pandemic began.

ACRLoggers have written a lot about space over the years, both before and since the pandemic, and I confess that I am almost always thinking about space when I’m in the library where I work. Like so many academic libraries at institutions with high enrollments and space constraints (sometimes but not always in urban areas), pre-pandemic we were regularly one of the most crowded spots on campus; at our busiest students sat on the floors when all chairs were occupied. Pre-pandemic we were also a nearly completely in-person college, with I believe less than 10% of courses offered fully online. This semester we’re closer to 50% in-person, 50% online, and while it has been truly lovely to see more students in the library space this year, our onsite use is not nearly what it was before March 2020. And in many ways that’s fine — every student who wants a seat can get one, and it’s much quieter in the library, too, which I know many students really appreciate.

Perhaps the biggest shift we’ve seen (and I’m sure we’re not alone in this) is the drastic reduction in demand for our physical computer labs in the library. I’ve heard from the director of academic technology that she’s seeing something similar in the other computer labs on campus, too. While a huge change (and, honestly, a relief from the long lines we used to have), it’s not entirely surprising to see this shift: lab use is down, but we have many, many more students bringing their own laptops to work in the library. Printing is also down, and it’s clear that our terrific tech team’s efforts to implement printing from students’ own devices, beginning before the pandemic, are meeting the needs of students who do still want to print their course materials.

The return to our physical space has also meant a return to students sharing feedback with us. It’s been gratifying to read students’ comments, which have been overwhelmingly appreciative sprinkled with occasional grumbling about the noise of students taking their online courses in the library (and we’re likely going to restart lending headphones). We’re also back to our pre-pandemic practices of walking through the library to take a headcount a few times each day, and continuing to observe how students are using the space. It’s clear to us that students who are taking both in person and online classes aren’t necessarily coming to campus as often as they did before the pandemic, how can we shift services and spaces to better meet their needs? And the library is still in need of a renovation. I’m looking forward to revisiting our renovation proposal — especially for one underused area that might be reimagined for more student seating — and thinking about ways that we might make our space more accommodating and flexible for multiple different kinds of use by students.