Rethinking Digital Literacies In Higher Education


How do we define the changing parameters of digital literacy? Melissa Venable takes a look at digital literacy: what students need, what employers are looking for and the role of higher education in teaching these skills.

This topic is not new to Inside Online Learning, but it's one that seems to be evolving as technologies advance and new approaches to online delivery are made available. Almost a year ago I described the basics of the new literacies in terms of access, analysis, media creation, and implementation, but last week I was introduced to several much broader ways to think about digital competencies.

How would you describe digital literacy? While your first thoughts may be of computer skills (i.e., hardware and software) in a world where we are increasingly present online - as individuals working, studying, and even enjoying pastimes via the Internet - the concept is getting harder to define.

Doug Belshaw's TEDx Talk ,"The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies [video]," gives us a good place to start. In it the speaker not only names eight elements - cognitive, constructive, civic, critical, creative, confident, and cultural - but also focuses on how these literacies help us to create "remixes" of information and content, and provide us with "new tools" and a "different way of impacting upon the world." Belshaw also mentions the importance of context when discussing literacies.

In the Context of Higher Education

A recent article in The Guardian's Higher Education Network describes digital literacies as "those capabilities that equip an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society" and calls upon colleges and universities to play a larger and more purposeful part in the preparation of literate graduates. It may help us to frame our exploration of the issue with a series of related questions.

What digital literacies are required of students, especially those in online learning environments?

As an online student or instructor, you probably already have an idea of what types of digital skills are required for success in your courses. Michelle Levesque's rwxweb blog identifies 25 web literacy skills organized into the following categories: exploring, authoring, connecting, building, and protecting. These skills cover a range of activities that include technical competency (i.e., using a browser, embedding links), web practices, (i.e., considering audience, understanding public vs. private, solving problems, and concepts that involve ethical considerations (i.e., using open resources, collaborating, and demonstrating etiquette.) While not designed to describe learning, these skills are applicable in many ways within an online course and are also workplace skills.

What do employers want in terms of attributes and skills in college graduates?

In a modern workplace, employees are expected to communicate and be productive through the use of technologies ranging from email to project management systems, whether they are employed in offices or telecommuting. The U.S. Department of Commerce states quite clearly, that "digital literacy is necessary for today's jobs." A unique website, DigitalLiteracy.gov, provides a collection of related resources for learners of all ages focused on the "computer and Internet skills needed in today's global work environment." Among the items available are tools for educators and resources related to workforce skills.**

Employers are routinely asked, through surveys like NACE's Job Outlook, to provide input on what skills are most desirable from a recruiting standpoint. It may not be a surprise to see items that relate to communication, collaboration, and problem solving, all of which are increasingly taking place in digital ways. Are these skills a result of being a college student? In some programs this may be the case, while in others career preparation is not a primary goal of the experience. As an online student or instructor, consider how your program may, in formal and informal ways, develop skills that are in demand.

What is the role of college in helping students to develop these skills?

The questions posed here were all sparked from my recent attendance at an online session titled Becoming Digitally Literate presented by Simon Walker from the University of Greenwich. But it's this question of the college's role that really takes the conversation in a new direction. While the role of higher education has not traditionally included career and job preparation as a priority, it may be time for a change as the goals of students, employers, and societies change. Walker addressed "not only rethinking the capabilities graduates need, but for institutions to positively respond by developing new policies and strategies for curriculum review that will enable them to maintain relevancy." This relevancy has long been linked to student motivation and success, particularly in research of adult learning theory.**

The Discussion Continues

Belshaw's presentation also highlighted a 1957 description of literacy from UNESCO as "a characteristic acquired by individuals in varying degree." In other words, we are not illiterate or literate, but instead fall somewhere in the range of skill levels in between. In terms of digital literacy, this may always be the case as the skills and attributes required for learning and working evolve along with advances in technology.

Think about how these literacies relate to your expectations of higher education. What are the essential elements for you in terms of the digital skills you need to be successful in teaching and learning on or off-line? And how might your experiences influence or have an impact on your career goals?**

This article was originally published on Inside Online Learning.

Image Sources: Einstein; Duke Library

Previously: Paying for College: 2 New Websites Offer New Ways to Find the Funds

Next: Need More Financial Aid? Just Ask!