When Bringing Your Own Device Isn’t Enough: Identifying What Digital Literacy Initiatives Really Need

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Device ownership alone doesn't make people digitally literate; rather, digital literacy is about how and why they use devices to achieve particular goals and outcomes.

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Credit: JohnTV / Shutterstock © 2018

According to the 2018 EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 95% of undergraduate students own a smartphone and 91% own a laptop. This near-ubiquitous ownership of these devices might suggest that digital literacy is mainstream, but just because students own digital devices does not mean that they've developed digital literacy.

Definitions of digital literacy can include the ability to use and access digital devices, but studies from the past decade tend to deepen this definition. A commonly cited definition from Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel asserts that digital literacy is "shorthand for the myriad social practices and conceptions of engaging in meaning making mediated by texts that are produced, received, distributed, exchanged etc., via digital codification."

More recently, scholars including Jennifer Sparrow have suggested even adopting the term digital fluency instead of literacy in order to capture how students may need the "ability to leverage technology to create new knowledge, new challenges, and new problems and to complement these with critical thinking, complex problem solving, and social intelligence to solve the new challenges." In other words, it's not just owning the devices that makes you digitally literate—it's how and why you use those devices to achieve particular goals and outcomes.

Believing Digital Familiarity Implies Intrinsic Knowledge

In spite of the fact that definitions of digital literacy push educators to consider how students use devices, many instructors in higher education still think that just because students own devices, they know how to use them for academic contexts. There can be a false assumption that students who grew up with technology are successful using it across contexts and in multiple areas—including in their college classes. In fact, two-thirds of faculty think that students are prepared to use software applications, but students themselves express discomfort with applying these tools for learning. The norms, applications, and protocols required to engage in digital research, reading, and writing require explicit instruction. Even if students know a lot about using social media applications, conducting basic online searches, navigating online shopping platforms, or playing games, they do not necessarily know about the specific tools, applications, and workflows required to be successful in a digital academic environment.

Several factors contribute to this disconnect between tool usage and academic skill development. For one, students are often not exposed to how to use and navigate databases for research, how to create projects with different digital tools, or even how to communicate and collaborate flexibly to meet the needs and interests of diverse groups. Not all students are required to take any type of course in computer skills or computer application, and while many primary and secondary schools now give students access to devices such as iPads or Chromebooks, rarely do they receive formal instruction on how to use these devices.

Next Steps: Building Digital Skills in Academic Spaces

On college campuses, it is not always clear where students go to access training for these skills. Sometimes, this training can be located in libraries; at other times, it may be offered in dormitories. Regardless, instruction in digital literacy acquisition is often inconsistent, both from campus to campus and even among students on the same campus. On top of that, many faculty do not integrate digital skills in the context of their subject or discipline because they are not comfortable with technology themselves, nor do they have the time in their courses to cover this area.

If the teaching and learning community is to take digital and information literacies seriously as one of the ELI Key Issues in Higher Education, then instructors need additional support to help students discover, curate, share, and publish information in a digital age. In order to develop digital fluency in academics, instructors need to integrate digital teaching practices that make clear to their students the connections between the appropriate technology, tool, or skill and place those connections within the context of the subject matter and the academic discourse community.

So, what can colleges and universities do to respond to digital and information literacies as a key issue in higher education?

For starters, instructional designers are key players who could take a more visible role in higher education to support educators in bringing explicit instruction on digital literacy engagement into their classes. University staff in instructional design and educational/faculty development spaces consult with instructors, lead workshops, and develop support documentation on a regular basis. People in these roles could be more empowered to have conversations with the instructors they support around building in particular lessons about, say, data privacy when students are working with databases or search engine algorithms when conducting academic research for a class.

Douglas Belshaw can be a source of inspiration for understanding how his essential elements of digital literacy may contribute to the development of students' digital fluencies. In particular, some practices may include:

  1. Integrating the use of different applications and platforms so that students obtain practice in navigating these spaces, learning how to locate relevant and reliable information. For example, guiding students to specific databases that provide articles, books, etc., for your discipline may improve information and digital literacy. This is critical because most students default to Google search and Wikipedia, which may not be where you want them to explore topics.
  2. Developing student's ability to curate content and how to follow academic integrity guidelines for citations and references.
  3. Establishing the norms and purpose for effective communication in a digital academic space.

Colleges and universities need to help students become expert learners because they will be responsible for their own learning. That means they need to decide what knowledge they are missing and where to find reliable sources to obtain it. It is increasingly important that students become digitally fluent in order to move beyond digital skills and toward digital practices.

This post is part of the 2019 ELI Key Issues series, which focuses on the top five teaching and learning issues as cited in the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative's recent community survey.

Jenae Cohn is an Academic Technology Specialist at Stanford University.

Renée Hewitt is an Instructional Designer at the University of Kansas.

© 2019 Jenae Cohn and Renée Hewitt. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.