Digital Literacy

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This week was the first week of fall classes at my institution. While it has been fraught with technology issues like a massive Zoom outage, Blackboard lockout, and Kaltura/MyMedia crash, it has also been exciting to meet my new students and begin some of the conversations central to our courses. In particular, I am excited to explore the topic of Digital Literacy with my Honors students in a Community-Engaged section this fall. When I first designed the course to focus on issues of digital literacy, digital access, and the digital divide, I could not have predicted that we would embark on our journey in the midst of a pandemic and using exclusively digital methods. I had imagined meeting face-to-face with my students twice a week, having guest speakers in our classroom, and facilitating the in-person community engagement that my students would experience with our community partners. None of this is possible any longer, so we must forge a different path.

As this blog demonstrates, I have been interested in work with digital for most of my academic career. Only the past few years has my attention turned to digital literacy and access—and it began with a single student at another institution telling me that she could not get the formatting quite right on her papers. She was writing them all on her smartphone because she didn’t have a computer at home and our university computer labs were always packed with other students (on top of which, she worked two jobs while going to school which left little time to find alternate solutions). That short conversation changed me and my teaching in fundamental ways. Significantly, it forced me to think expansively about the concept of digital literacy and access. Like many instructors (even still), I was lead to believe that younger people had some natural proclivity for digital technology that older generations lacked because we did not grow up with that technology. Although I am technically a millennial, I didn’t have a cell phone until I was 16 and, even then, all it did was place calls. I didn’t have my first laptop until my sophomore year of college. In high school, most of my instructors insisted on hand-written assignments even if we had access to a computer/printer (only in graduate school did I finally ditch my “white-out” strips). I resisted getting a smartphone for years after they became available and only buckled when the GPS was stolen out of my car.

When I became a teacher, I carried the idea of my students having more digital fluency than me for years thanks largely to thinking like the infamous “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” by Mark Prensky whose metaphor of natives/immigrants is problematic for a number of reasons as well as an inaccurate assessment of the complex and dynamic landscape that is digital literacy. Only now, after many conversations with students, do I realize that in spite of my “late arrival” to many of the digital technologies we use today, I actually received more specific instruction in how digital technology actually works than many of my current students have (members of the so-called “generation Z”). In my experience, students arriving at college have vastly unequal preparation for using digital technology for educational or professional purposes. Some students come to me already knowing how to code websites. Others do not know how to change a file format or that pressing Ctrl+F will open a word-search window.

Did you catch Montana’s vote in the Democratic National Convention Roll Call? (Starting at minute 23) They were the only state to really call out the inequities facing Americans when it comes to digital access. The young woman casting the vote is a college student now completing her senior year at home who says, “Some days, I can’t even get a video to load or an email attachment to send. Without reliable internet, there’s no remote learning, no virtual doctors’ appointments, and just try starting a small business.” She is advocating for rural broadband—focusing specifically on the infrastructure required by many Americans to simply have access to a reliable internet connection. However, access does not necessarily equal literacy, so we need to tackle the Digital Divide from both angles.

In our first Honors class, I asked the students “What does it mean to be digitally literate?” I also asked, “Do you consider yourself digitally literate?” There are, of course, “official” criteria that researchers and policy-makers use to answer this question, but I am interested in what my students think and feel about digital literacy and where exactly that “bar” should be.

Ngram Viewer Graph of the term "digital literacy" from 1980 until 2019 showing a steady increase in use in published works in English

The above Ngram Viewer graph shows a steady increase since 1980 in the term “digital literacy” appearing in books written in English and published in the U.S. The graph does not include any data after the year 2019. You will note a significant jump after smartphones arrived on the scene in 2007. In recent years, one of the focal points of research on the digital divide has been on the ubiquity of smartphones and how being able to use one does not signify “digital literacy” proper. Smartphone ownership has risen while computer ownership and broadband internet subscriptions have declined–presumably because of the cost difference which is substantial. Of course, as my student who writes her papers on her phone can attest, it is not optimal for individuals to be solely fluent/reliant on a single tiny screen for educational and professional (and perhaps even personal) purposes. This has never been more evident than now thanks to Covid-19.

My Honors students and I have not discussed the potential impact of Covid-19 on issues of digital literacy and the digital divide yet, but I look forward to hearing how they perceive issues of digital literacy and access changing in this new era of remote living. Up until very recently, I have felt myself to be in a minority of researchers whose concern is for those being left behind on our march of “progress” to a digital world, but it has been encouraging to me to see more and more of my colleagues (and the wider world) realize how unequal it has been this whole time now that we are all forced into our current circumstances.

You are welcome to read more about my work and teaching on this site, leave comments on this post, find me on Twitter @litambitions, and/or you can get in touch with me through my contact page.

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