Is Digital Literacy a Done Deal?

Recently I and a number of my colleagues were discussing the possibility of a curriculum and center based around addressing and supporting undergraduate students’ interactions with academic technologies (defined broadly).  [Note that we used the term “digital fluency” to describe the skills, attitudes, and understandings we thought students needed in an information-rich, multimedia, often-changing, electronic landscape though “digital literacy” and “information literacy” get at many of the same ideas.]

One of the critiques that arose was the notion that these concepts are already in place, that they were already being added to most higher ed and K-12 curriculum, that students already understood how to use digital tools; in other words, that the digital literacy of students, if not accomplished, was well on its way.

So, I’d like to propose a session in which we would create a list of the skills, approaches, the fluencies that we think students should have by the time they complete their formal education.

Then, let’s discuss whether or not we think students’ digital literacy is truly being achieved.  If so, why and how?  And if not, then let’s come up with concrete steps we can take to address these issues.  How can we effect some of those changes?  In the interests of not just yacking, we could split into 2-4 groups each with a specific plan of action to work on.  [Off the top of my head I see outlines of white papers for education departments, blueprints for a Digital Fluency Center (Center for Digital Learning?), sketches of a humanities (or more more broadly based) curriculum, grant proposal ideas, etc.]

Anyone interested in being part of this session?


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  1. Luke

    Thanks for proposing this, Jeff. I’m interested.

    We might also do some brainstorming and make some recommendations about how to approach and intervene in the varied institutional structures that impact our ability to get this type of work done.

  2. Amanda French

    Absolutely. And note connection to previous session proposal on “Where are the mini-yous,” too.

  3. Jennifer Bengtson

    I am definitely interested in this topic. I think that the achievement of digital fluency is patchy and uneven. Some people get this kind of education. Some people (i.e. poor people from crappy school districts) simply don’t. And if we want to help disadvantaged students go on to be successful in college and life, helping them to become digitally fluent might be an important part of the formula.

  4. lcc.gatech.edu/~rwhitson3/wordpress

    I agree with Jennifer. Are there standards for digital literacy? I found an interesting model for discussing media literacy in Clay Shirky’s Mediactive project (mediactive.com/). Shirky has the interesting argument that in order to be “literate” in a digital age, one must also become a critical producer of media rather than just a consumer.

    But he approaches the issue from the standpoint of journalism (i.e. with all of the information/news/blogs out there, how can we know what is true and think critically about the issues of our time?). Your project seems a little broader than that.

  5. JenServenti

    Would considering standards offered the International Society for Technology in Education (www.iste.org/standards.aspx) be a useful addition to the conversation? Admittedly the standards are from 2007, but they might be helpful in framing the issues.

  6. Ted Demura-Devore

    As a high school teacher in a private school with a fairly well-estabished one-to-one program, I think the students need this (as do the teachers). As Jennifer notes, digital literacy is uneven, and this holds true for resource rich environments, too. I’m regularly trying to find things to piece together like this to rethink my history courses, how I should be approaching them, and what skills to focus on (in which order). Another element of this that is attractive to me, is the idea of defining what students should be able to do at the end of their formal education. This might also lead to a statement of what professors would like to see their students able to do when they arrive.

  7. Jeffrey McClurken

    Thanks for all the initial feedback and contributions to my sketchy original idea. In addition to ISTE’s standards which are a good starting place for the expectations for K-12 Digital Literacy, a group of us at UMW came up with the following broad-based goals we thought students should accomplish by the time they finish their undergraduate education.

    — Students will be able to consume digital information by successfully locating high quality digital information using the Internet and library databases; by safely and effectively exchanging information and ideas online; by using digital information in an ethical manner; and by understanding the social, legal, and cultural issues surrounding the use of digital information.

    — Students will be able to express ideas with digital information and media by creatively using digital text, media, and data; by working collaboratively with online digital tools to produce new information resources; by identifying and evaluating digital tools needed for the design and development of projects; and by applying digital technologies in meaningful ways across various disciplines of study.

    — Students will be able to analyze digital information and technologies by evaluating the quality of digital information; by identifying typical components of technology tools and anticipating how to use them; by developing a self-reliant approach to solving technology and information challenges; and by creating digital
    artifacts specific to content objectives and concepts.

  8. thowe

    This is a very interesting proposal, and I’m definitely interested in participating–I have a couple of thoughts, and I’d love to hear what others think about whether/how they integrate with the consume/express/analyze model Jeff just sketched out. It seems like providing a more defined sense of what kinds of materials (images, sounds, and so on) can be legitimately used (and under what circumstances) would be helpful to students–the information is out there, but in different places. Also, students tend to have a very incomplete conceptual schema regarding citationality and fair use, as it is; I would relish a collaboratively produced resource that condenses and renders accessible the debates, for high-school or incoming college students.

  9. Kalani Craig

    I love this idea, and I’m curious to see how the dialogue in education on computational thinking can adapt to humanities and how humanities can contribute to the list that’s in progress. There are some fantastic foundational resources that have come out of the learning sciences. These focus on the differences between fluency and literacy, which are really apropos for humanities folks, as well as provide a good list of foundational skill sets. The nice thing about these is that they’re largely oriented toward definitions that withstand the test of time by focusing on skill sets that allow students to adapt to new technologies rather than on specific technologies.

    See ctforeveryone.wordpress.com/report/ and “NRC. 1999. Being Fluent with Information Technology. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.” at ctforeveryone.wordpress.com/resources/ .

  10. Jennifer Sano-Franchini

    I don’t know if I would say that anything is a “done deal” and I personally don’t know a lot about what’s going on in K-12, but there is a huge body of scholarship (in computers & writing, digital rhetoric, rhetoric & composition, and I’m sure other areas in education) that’s been coming out since the 90s about digital literacy & multiliteracies that I don’t think we should overlook. (The New London Group’s “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies,” DigiRhet’s “Teaching Digitial Rhetoric: Community, Critical Engagement, and Application,” and Stuart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age are just a few that immediately come to mind.) How these ideas are actually being implemented I’m sure varies from institution to institution and place to place.

    That being said, I totally agree with Jennifer that access and the digital divide continues to be a huge problem and this is something I would be interested in talking about.

    Also, not sure if this helps, but Michigan State University has the WIDE (Writing in Digital Environments) Research Center (wide.msu.edu), which might be worth looking into if you’re thinking about establishing some kind of institutional presence (full disclosure: I’m at MSU but not affiliated with WIDE :).

  11. cybernetickinkwell.com

    I’m also really interested in participating in this discussion–great suggestion, Jeff. I’d love to look at how the different educational levels (primary, secondary, and higher ed) have defined digital literacy, where those definitions overlap and how they differ in scope and scale. No doubt some very specific and prescriptive guidelines have come out of many institutions, but so too have there been vague and basically unhelpful ones (e.g. “students should be comfortable on computers.”) How is digital fluency discussed in a way that is actually helpful? No matter the approach, as others have pointed out the implementation is probably pretty spotty. And when will the notion of digital fluency as a specific effort fade away? Will it ever be so integrated into the larger curriculum at all levels as to need no formal effort on anyone’s part outside, perhaps, the elementary levels?

  12. Tad Suiter

    I am *very* interested in the questions being raised here, and would definitely want to participate in this session.

    But I also feel the need to point out that rubrics of “literacy” tend to be very culturally normative, and have the danger of being used to exclude certain groups.

    Not that we shouldn’t discuss what our expectations should be, what we should want to get out of students, etc. But how can we formulate rubrics of computer literacy in a way that comes closer to teaching methods of critical engagement, maybe, than reinforcing the privilege of advantaged students?

    (This is sort of a side-issue to the main conversation, of course, but always something worth keeping in mind when we make prescriptive standards… Who are we putting at a disadvantage? What privileges are we undergirding? Etc…)

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