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 

Digital Musings on the High School to College Transition

This year my kid is a senior in high school, and we’ve spent the past month recuperating from the flurry of college application activity last fall. As should not be a surprise, college admissions have changed lots since I applied to colleges in the pre-internet era, though I somehow still found parts of the process surprising.

It’s 2019, so of course all colleges use online applications. All of the schools my kid applied to accepted one of the common applications, which allow applicants to use one platform to submit the same application to multiple schools. My kid took the SAT and several subject tests, which required registering and sending scores to colleges via the College Board’s website. We were also required by his high school to use an online platform to manage their part of the application process — sending teacher recommendations and transcripts — by linking up that platform to the common application platform. And don’t even get me started on the FAFSA.

There are about 1,500 students in my kid’s senior class, and four (4!) guidance counselors. He attends one of New York City’s public specialized high schools and lots of students apply to selective schools, each of which require additional essays, video uploads, or other materials. Throughout this whole process last fall — which we were fortunate to be able to complete in our apartment where we have broadband internet access and laptops — I could not stop thinking about all of the kids in his school who don’t have that kind of access. They’re filling out college applications in the school library, the public library, maybe at their parents’ workplaces. They may have questions; they definitely have questions, it’s a complicated process on platforms that are not always intuitive to use, and they might have to make several appointments with counselors to have their questions answered.

Throughout my kid’s high school years I’ve thought about the digital divide. The classes he’s taken have required multiple accounts on multiple online systems, some provided by the NYC Dept of Education, some homework systems offered by other entities, and of course the everpresent Google for his high school email account. From talking with other parents in and outside of NYC it seems like most K-12 students are required to use multiple different digital platforms throughout their schooling. In our experience there has been little guidance or training for students or parents on how to use these systems, and no way to opt out of their use.

While I’m concerned with digital literacy, and the assumptions that the persistent “digital native” trope encourages us to make about how students use these required platforms, I’m also concerned about data privacy. My kid’s high school and all of these various college application systems have so much information about him and created by him. Each college he applied to required him to set up an account on their system to communicate admissions decisions. How many schools — primary through higher ed — have digital information about students who are no longer enrolled or perhaps won’t even be admitted? Yes, educational institutions retained student (or prospective student) data in the past, but file cabinets full of paper applications in an admissions office don’t have the same information security implications as a digital database.

While it’s certainly been cathartic for me to write out my frustrations, how does this connect to libraries? I continue to keep in mind our students’ experiences with technologies, remembering that they’ve likely had varying exposure to training on digital platforms for school use, as well as varying access to the technology needed to use those platforms. Not every student has a computer with broadband internet access at home. It also feels ever more urgent to me for libraries to strengthen our data privacy practices, a huge issue that we don’t have complete control over, with so many of our digital platforms controlled by vendors. I’m cheered that there are librarians and others doing great work on data privacy issues, including the National Web Privacy Forum (which I was fortunate to participate in), focusing on how we might protect patrons from third-party tracking, and the Data Doubles project, which is examining students’ perspectives on data collection by libraries and institutions of higher ed. I’m looking forward to digging into the results of this work as these projects progress. And in the meantime, perhaps I’ll work with my kid to see what data we might delete from all of these systems once he no longer needs them to have it.

Developing a Campus Framework for Digital Literacy

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Julia Feerrar, Head of Digital Literacy Initiatives at Virginia Tech.

During the summer of 2016 my library began to envision a more coordinated effort around supporting digital literacy on our campus. We began by examining the scope of digital literacy at Virginia Tech and have since developed a framework to help us build towards a shared definition and language for our context.

For me this process has been a really interesting chance to reflect on the relationship between information and digital literacy (as well as media, data, and many other literacies), and to explore perceptions and needs around these literacies on my campus. Building towards consensus around a nebulous, multifaceted concept like digital literacy can be very challenging, but we’ve been able to have some exciting conversations and build connections across campus as we move towards shared understanding.

Our framework

As Alexander et al. illustrate in the NMC Horizon Project Strategic Brief on Digital Literacy in Higher Education, Part II, definitions and frameworks for digital literacy vary, particularly in their emphasis on technical skills, critical thinking and creative abilities, and social or cultural competencies. Considering that these pieces can shift in different contexts, I think that it was important for us to begin with the what and why of digital literacy, before jumping into the how of digital literacy on our campus.

An initial task force within the University Libraries began the work of navigating existing definitions for digital literacy and identifying needs in our context. The task force was particularly influenced by Jisc’s Digital Capability Framework, which positions digital literacy as “capabilities which fit someone for living, learning and  working in a digital society.” We discussed these capabilities as including engagement with a variety of digital tools, types of content, creation processes, and decision-making. The ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education and  its emphasis on students as “consumers and creators of information who can  participate successfully in collaborative spaces” was also foundational to our thinking. It was important to us to think about digital literacy as flexible enough to include common or foundational skills related to critical consumption, creation, and collaboration, and to support learners in achieving their own goals for their digital lives.

Following the Libraries’ task force,  we drafted a framework graphic and sought feedback across the Virginia Tech community. We reached faculty and graduate students through existing professional development opportunities as well as by hosting a day-long digital literacy symposium, which also served as an opportunity to build community among those who support digital literacy at Virginia Tech. During these feedback conversations, we asked participants about any elements they saw as missing from the framework draft as well as where  they saw their work connecting to it. With all of this feedback in mind, we revised the framework to a final (for now) version.

Infographic illustrating Virginia Tech's digital literacy framework

This framework represents four aspects or layers for digital literacy at Virginia Tech.

  1. The learner at the center, who might engage with the other  areas in the framework in any combination or order.
  2. Core competencies that each include technical, critical thinking, and social aspects
  3. Key values that connect and contextualize the competencies. I see these as as particularly tied to the why of digital literacy and our hopes for our learners as engaged digital citizens.
  4. Multiple literacies that frame the outside of our framework. I think of the literacies as our lens or lenses on digital literacy.

Navigating literacies

Our framework approaches digital literacy as a kind of umbrella or metaliteracy that includes information, data, media, and invention literacies. While a particular class session, workshop, or online learning module might focus on one of these in particular, they come together to inform the way we think about digital literacy as a whole.

While I find this to be a useful way to think about the relationship between these several overlapping literacies, I want to acknowledge that it is certainly not the only way. As Jennifer Jarson points out in her 2015 post, many of us might conceptualize information literacy as the broader category that includes digital literacy. I think it’s possible to take any number of literacies into the foreground as a lens for others and I find that my own thinking shifts depending on the context. As individuals we might gravitate towards one literacy or another, perhaps depending on disciplinary background, but ultimately I think that looking at them in conjunction can help us to think more expansively about our hopes for our learners.

Our framework in action

Looking forward, our framework will guide the continued development of digital literacy initiatives. Within VT Libraries, I see this framework as helping us with two major activities: more strategically coordinating and sequencing our existing library educational offerings around digital literacy (course-embedded instruction, co-curricular workshops and events, new spaces and  technology for creation) and identifying areas for further development. More broadly, my hope is that our framework will also help us to continue to build shared language and shared vision for digital literacy learning as we continue to build partnerships in support of student learning.

Growing a peer digital learning program

I’ve been working with colleagues at my institution over the course of the past year to launch a peer digital learning initiative. The program kicked off this past August with our “Learning in the Digital Age” pre-orientation program. Each year, my institution offers a few four-day pre-orientation programs to incoming undergraduate students. These programs give interested students the chance to arrive on campus early before orientation, meet other first-year students with similar interests, and connect with upperclass students, faculty, and staff who serve as program leaders. In our “Learning in the Digital Age” pre-orientation, our program-specific goals were to give students hands-on experience with various digital technologies being used for teaching and learning on campus, generate conversation around what it means to a learner and citizen in the digital age, foster awareness of and reflection on personal agency in learning, and invite students to help build our growing digital learning program in the year ahead. In addition to general community building and fun (LED frisbee was a particular hit), and helping students feel comfortable on campus before the semester started. Hats off especially to our student leaders without whom this program would have floundered.

Once the fall semester began, approximately half of the students who participated in the pre-orientation program plus the upperclass student leaders continued on into our Digital Learning Assistant (DLA) training program. A few other upperclass students excited about digital learning joined training, as well. Our primary goal was to prepare students to serve as tutors to other students in need of assistance with digital learning projects assigned in courses. During the fall semester, students in the training program participated in online and face-to-face activities to help advance their knowledge of core digital tools that faculty use most often in their courses for blogging, digital archives and data visualizations, digital mapping and GIS, digital storytelling, and e-portfolios. Each student selected one of these tracks for their first area of focus. We collected relevant readings and training resources and developed “challenges” to help the students develop proficiency in the area. Students gave short presentations as a culmination of their first semester training.

An important part of the DLA training program is to help students not only develop technical skills, but also think about ways they’ll be able to mentor other students trying to learn these tools as well as consider the tools/skills in the context of digital identity and digital literacy. We used a selection of readings (like Watters’ “The Web We Need to Give Students,” Rikard’s “Do I Own My Domain If You Grade It,” and Vygotsky’s “Interaction between Learning and Development”) to jumpstart reflection and conversation in these areas. The challenges students worked on during training, in addition to other activities, asked students to consider these aspects, as well. This semester, the DLAs began offering drop-in hours to assist students, while also continuing their training on both the technology and peer teaching fronts.

As we begin to gear up for year two, we’re thinking about how we’ll refine and revise both our pre-orientation program and our DLA training program. Our program has so far been inspired by our institution’s rich peer learning culture, as well as similar projects at other institutions like University of Mary Washington’s Digital Knowledge Center. We’re also guided by our shared interests in fostering student agency, developing communities for peer learning, and growing critical digital literacy skills and perspectives. I imagine these goals and values are also near and dear to many ACRLog readers, so I’m eager to hear your thoughts. What do you think are the most important questions, concepts, and models for building a peer digital learning program? What activities, readings, and resources do you think are valuable to help develop a peer learning community around technology, digital literacy and identity, and student agency? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Versus / and / or: The relationship between information literacy and digital literacy

For years now, I’ve been working to both simplify and deepen how I think and talk about information literacy. These goals may perhaps seem at odds, but they feel rather complementary to me. Essentially, I’m trying to hone my ideas, language, and examples so that information literacy is both accessible and meaningful to my audience. I want them to recognize information literacy as something in which they are also (already) invested, as something that they also value and seek.

When I look back at that first sentence and see “for years now,” it gives me pause. Really?! It’s taken me years? Well, it’s not so surprising really. There’s always room for improvement, of course, but in part it’s that my own understanding of and work on information literacy is always growing and evolving. As is my understanding of my audience, too.

Recently, I’ve been trying to think more about digital literacy and its relationship to information literacy. Across higher education, momentum for digital learning continues to increase. My institution is no exception.

In a recently “expanded” definition, ACRL describes information literacy as: “the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.” While the tone of ACRL’s earlier definition (the “set of abilities requiring individuals to ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information’”) tended to be more procedural and mechanistic, both definitions highlight the critical thinking integral to the consumption and production of information.

So what is digital literacy then? In his book, published almost 20 years ago, Paul Gilster describes it as “the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers.” For Gilster, the “most essential of the [core competencies of digital literacy] is the ability to make informed judgments about what you find on-line.” As part of “this art of critical thinking,” Gilster also includes among these core competencies reading skills, “assembling knowledge” from “diverse sources,” and search skills. For Gilster, digital literacy is essentially “literacy for the internet age.”

More recent definitions continue in the same expansive vein. ALA’s Digital Literacy Task Force describes digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, understand, evaluate, create, and communicate digital information, an ability that requires both cognitive and technical skills.” Cornell University explains it as “the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet.” UK non-profit JISC defines digital literacy as “those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society. Digital literacy looks beyond functional IT skills to describe a richer set of digital behaviours, practices and identities. What it means to be digitally literate changes over time and across contexts, so digital literacies are essentially a set of academic and professional situated practices supported by diverse and changing technologies.”

Digital literacy is sometimes coupled with media literacy, as in Renee Hobbs’ Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan for Action: “the term ‘digital and media literacy’ is used to encompass the full range of cognitive, emotional and social competencies that includes the use of texts, tools and technologies; the skills of critical thinking and analysis; the practice of message composition and creativity; the ability to engage in reflection and ethical thinking; as well as active participation through teamwork and collaboration.” The Journal of Digital and Media Literacy states that “broadly defined, digital and media literacy refer to the ability to access, share, analyze, create, reflect upon, and act with media and digital information.”

I could keep going. Variations abound, but their essence stays constant. Digital literacy is not a checklist of skills. It’s far more than knowing how to operate a computer or a particular application. Instead it’s about critical thinking and reflection, social and cultural contexts, and identity. Rather familiar territory, no? So is digital literacy just information literacy in a digital only environment? Most definitions seem to at least acknowledge their connection. In library-centric spheres, information literacy tends to be presented as the larger category of which digital literacy is a part. But the reverse seems to be the case in other realms.

Why does this matter? I’ve written before that librarians are translators and that our “unique position affords us opportunities to reach across divides of perspectives, stakeholders, and disciplines.” I’ve also written before about honing how we both communicate and listen in order to connect, find common ground, and seize opportunities. So when I wonder if digital literacy is just information literacy in a digital only environment, I do not mean to diminish or disparage. Instead, I seek to highlight points of intersection, alignment, and overlap. If we’re not talking about precisely the same thing, we’re certainly on the same page. I think it will serve us all well to recognize the difference in our language, but the similarity in and continuity of our teaching and learning goals.

What’s your take? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.