Is Digital Literacy Dead?

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Among the many sessions I participated in at this year’s CHNM THATCamp, one of the most interesting to me was on the future of “digital literacy,” proposed by Jeff McClurken. The concept of digital literacy has continued to show up in University missions, QEPs, “outcomes,” and general pedagogical discourse–I know I’ve routinely encountered it in discussions about Composition 1 and 2 at Marymount, though we use the phrase “informational literacy.”

The premise of the session was the problematic sense that the concepts, attitudes, and skills of digital literacy are already organizing early education, and therefore, in college, students naturally have a familiarity with those concepts, attitudes, and skills. Partially, this seems to be a branch of the “millennial” and “digital native” arguments, which we all know are over-generalizations that misrecognize the pervasiveness of facebook use as a sign of critical thinking driven by digital embeddedness. (There’s the 2010 Cenage study, to start with, though there are some concerns about its source and methodology; if you have more links central to this debate, post them in the comments!)

The core ideas of digital fluency include, broadly, the ability to consume digital information, express ideas digitally, and analyze digital information. The  UMW QEP learning outcomes are particularly useful as a model, and they provide some helpful language if you’re interested in developing assignments. As I reflect on our crowdsourced notes, though, one of the things that strikes me is this portion of the UMW QEP:

Faculty will demonstrate a proficiency in teaching with digital and information resources by:

  • identifying specific digital resources which are relevant and important to the subjects they are teaching
  • understanding how digital resources can be used to create effective and progressive learning environments
  • improving and enhancing existing curriculum with the integration of digital tools and resources
  • developing assessment techniques and tools for student work that uses digital resources

This is perhaps the most important keystone in any university-wide approach to digital fluency, and it is unfortunately true that many faculty in higher education are not, themselves, digitally literate. A lot of this may stem from the pipeline effect of academic education and the tenure process. How do we begin to bridge this divide, bringing the conditions of possibility for student-centered digital literacy to the table? The discussion at THATCamp revolved generally around ways to address, integrate, and build digital fluency at our institutions, and two really interesting points emerged.

One of the most foundational impediments to full integration is linguistic–the continued distinction between an unmarked, prior, normative “literacy,” on the one hand, and a marked, secondary, different “digital literacy,” on the other. Today, it is no longer practically possible to be literate without being digitally literate, even if we don’t recognize literacy as digital literacy. What would happen if we functionally re-signified “literacy”?

The second point that we discussed was the fact that while we, as faculty, expect our students to radically shift the way they think about, for instance, eighteenth-century British novels (remember, of course, that most have never encountered any–outside, perhaps, of Robinson Crusoe–before your class). Students are understandably frightened of unfamiliar material, unfamiliar categories, unfamiliar language, unfamiliar methods. And yet, we expect them–rightfully–to leave the class with the unfamiliar having become, in some measure, familiar. It’s not okay for students to remain static in their thinking. Why, then, is it the norm for faculty?

Be uncomfortable, try something new, and sell that attempt to your colleagues. “Try again, fail again, fail better.”

What kind of a university would yours become if this were the case? What are the impediments failing better? And are those anxieties real anxieties, or are they what Amanda French called “the Perils of Pauline”? Is the faculty rut a symptom of the fear of academic openness?

Quotations from collaboratively-authored Google Doc

3 thoughts on “Is Digital Literacy Dead?

  1. Very interesting! I wasn’t able to attend the session, but I wonder what place coding has in “digital literacy.” Should undergraduates, for example, be able to use html, css, python, etc? I really like parts of Howard Rheingold’s notion of “network literacy” that – for example – literacy isn’t just about being able to read stuff on the web. It’s about learning to participate, how to participate, how to collaborate, how make stuff, and how to distinguish credible information on the web from the morass of falsehoods.

  2. After reading your comment, Roger, I was led back to the proposal sessions, as I was convinced I’d commented on something like this. To date, I haven’t found what I was looking for, but I did find something close from Mark Sample’s session proposal on critical code studies:

    My interest in code studies is pedagogical as much as it is methodological. Code is not just for coders. I believe that as digital humanists, we need to teach everyday people, and in particular, nonprogramming undergraduate students, what Michael Mateas calls procedural literacy.

    I think you’re quite right about the need for everyone to have at least some basic knowledge about how what is seen comes to be seen on a webpage–a structuralist approach to literacy, given the digital nature of contemporary literacy. I’m looking forward to reading up on Rheingold’s idea of “network literacy”–thanks for passing it along!

  3. “Today, it is no longer practically possible to be literate without being digitally literate, even if we don’t recognize literacy as digital literacy. What would happen if we functionally re-signified ‘literacy’”?

    Jargon can have a rather truncated half-life, and as you posit, “digital literacy” may soon give way to simply “literacy,” with the digital component being understood. In a recent presentation at the UVA Scholar’s Lab, Jeremy Boggs asserted that there is likewise no need to distinguish “digital humanities” from the more conventional disciplines (paraphrasing here): “Was there some point at which we started calling it ‘pencil humanities’ or ‘typewriter humanities’?” A tool is a tool is a tool…

    The term “digital” arguably possesses a certain raw energy and implied level of complexity that some find intimidating. Fear is the handmaiden of change. But moving out of our comfort zone is how we grow; we should encourage others to stretch as we challenge ourselves. Let’s resolve to “fail better”!

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