Digital Agility: Embracing a Holistic Approach to Digital Literacy in the Liberal Arts

min read

A group of institutions is collaborating to identify what digital agility means in the liberal arts and to encourage the use of that definition to guide institutional initiatives that involve digital agility.

person surfing on a wave made of binary numbers
Credit: rudall30 / © 2020

Jenny, a computer science major, graduates at the top of her class. Her professors describe her as intelligent and reliable. She turned in all of her assignments on time and was a model liberal arts student. She took art classes along with her computer science courses, participated in several clubs, and had a part-time job. Jenny was a successful student with a sought-after degree.

When she applies for her first job, however, Jenny struggles to answer how she might use her data analysis skills in context—for example, how she might use data to better understand cyberbullying among adolescents. When her potential employers look online for signs of who she is and what she has done, they find that Jenny was part of a college frisbee club, which may be relevant, but it does not offer meaning. These two things do not disqualify Jenny for the job, but they certainly don't make her stand out.

How could Jenny have been better prepared to move from an academic world, where she felt as if she were gaining meaningful knowledge and experience, to a job where she can apply that knowledge and experience?

What Do Students Need to Participate in Society?

A 2016 Pew Research Center study indicates that the digital divide in the United States is not solely about access to technology; it also is about the ability to use technology to get what we need.1 The study identifies the need for more digital readiness. What does digital readiness mean, and how does one develop such readiness? How do we know when someone is digitally ready, and is the process of becoming digitally ready an ongoing one? Moreover, how can institutions leverage their power to address these issues?

When faculty and staff consider how to prepare students for life after college, they need to address the digital divide, potential deficiencies in functioning in an online world, and possible difficulties transitioning from academics to industry. When thinking about Jenny's example, we could say that she lacks digital readiness. She struggles with applying cumulative knowledge to real-world situations. Jenny could have developed better ways of connecting what she learned in college to issues outside of the academic space and reflecting on these things in a space that would be more visible to outside audiences, including future employers. Having a tech or STEM-related degree does not ensure digital readiness.

Digital agility is the ability to navigate and make meaning amid an abundance of information in an ever-present, ever-shifting digital landscape.

How Can We Encourage Digital Agility in the Liberal Arts?

The liberal arts have steadily been criticized for not preparing students for today's world due to their focus on a breadth of knowledge, the resources (both time and money) spent on building a community of learning, and their strong emphasis on the humanities.2 However, when we look at Jenny's scenario, these criticisms are not weaknesses of her educational experience. Rather, they could be the very things that enable her to articulate and demonstrate how truly outstanding she is.

What if Jenny could describe a project where she had used data analysis, worked with an external partner, and produced an artifact that showed evidence of that work? The liberal arts, which helps students to develop robust and transferable intellectual and practical skills, could leverage the following strategies to help students learn and develop in ways that will better prepare them for real-world scenarios.

  1. Digital pedagogy often creates opportunities for instructors to create non-disposable assignments—assignments that are not designed to be thrown away but rather have a purpose past being required.3 Non-disposable assignments allow students to practice working with digital tools and in environments that have use outside of a particular educational context. Faculty cannot assume that students understand how to use digital spaces and/or leverage technology to complete assignments, but faculty can recognize these as important spaces that students may have explored on their own and create opportunities to build on previously developed competencies within an academic framework. Faculty members at a number of institutions are already doing this, but it's happening in pockets and inconsistently. Let's call out the necessity of working in digital spaces as essential to the way we understand education. As Tressie McMillan Cottom put it, "We need to marry the best of our academic work with the best of edtech. In other words, what would it look like if education technology were embedded in the everyday practice of academic disciplines?"4
  2. Project-based learning fits well within the curricular flexibility of the liberal arts. In project-based work, students apply what they are learning in the context of an engaging experience. Rather than being considered extra or unneeded, digital skills are integrated into the assignment's content and must be used to complete the project. Project-based work often puts students in contexts where they can interact directly with external partners, be they nonprofit groups, community organizations, or relevant businesses. In Jenny's scenario, not only does she need to be able to analyze and visualize data, but she also needs to figure out how to analyze and visualize data for her specific purpose and audience. Building off frameworks that are already in place, like the Association for College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Framework for Information Literacy, Jenny needs opportunities to adjust to different conversations in different knowledge spaces. Opportunities may involve communicating with the partner, asking the right questions to figure out the partner's needs, and then tailoring that work to reflect those identified needs.
  3. External-facing work offers students real situations where, if we imagine what digital agility looks like, they have to adjust to possible new digital environments and approaches. External partners will have their own infrastructures that students must analyze and make decisions around, while peers, professors, and staff facilitate and give feedback within the process. Digital agility is not the ability to know the right way of doing things in mandated spaces and with mandated tools, but is rather the ability to engage, with various levels of comfort, in multiple landscapes and ways of working. Jenny also needs the ability to make decisions about whom she shares this narrative with and why. When the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal became widely known in early 2018, conversations about privacy, platforms, and data entered the mainstream. Discussions about privacy were not only happening in education, they were also taking place in homes and workplaces. People were faced with the question of how posting, filling out online quizzes, and signing up for free accounts might impact their privacy, and therefore, how or if they wanted to engage on social media. Digital agility involves navigating complex online environments and making thoughtful and informed decisions to adjust to wider, shifting cultural circumstances.
  4. Reflection provides a way for meaning-making to happen across individual assignments, projects, and classes. Without the chance to assemble assignments into a larger narrative, each experience lives in its own void. The project we're imagining for Jenny may be just one of several projects she will complete. If liberal arts leaders prioritize interdisciplinary learning and making connections across disciplines, they should consider how to facilitate reflection for Jenny each semester, so that she is in a better position to decide how each experience plays into a larger narrative about her development as an undergraduate student and as a person.

How Can Institutions Build Systems-Level Support?

In order for students to get the most out of their liberal arts education and become digitally agile, institutions need to recognize the urgency in this call to action and identify ways they can facilitate agility at an institutional level. Liberal arts colleges in particular are interested in the ways they prepare graduates to be agile and critical in a digital world—as seen in the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) Rubrics.

A number of liberal arts colleges are collaboratively exploring how to address digital agility. A Liberal Arts Collaborative for Digital Innovation (LACOL)-sponsored workshop about the Bryn Mawr Digital Competencies Framework5 was followed by more formal conversations and the formation of a working group (including Carleton College, Davidson College, Denison University, Hamilton College, Vassar College, Washington and Lee University, and Williams College). Our primary goals are to collectively define what we mean by digital agility in the liberal arts and to use that definition to guide our separate institutional initiatives around digital agility.

Currently, technologists, librarians, and faculty-development professionals are buidling digital agility into the student experience by working within an academic strategic plan to name digital agility as a priority in curricula; utilizing Domain of One's Own as a home for exploring, creating, and reflecting on digital competencies and digital scholarship; establishing committees or groups to oversee such efforts; and formulating formal digital studies programs (both majors and minors).6 These efforts are the beginnings of a more concrete call to action for digital pedagogy, and the skill-building that comes with it, not to be a supplement but rather to be integrated into the classroom experience. Digital pedagogy should not be taught in isolation from other classes and experiences—it should be part of a larger curricular narrative.

It is also essential that students receive guidance and opportunities to reflect on their experiences and curate them as a record of the learning process and for future reference—a practice that will benefit students and, potentially, outside audiences for years to come.

For more insights about advancing teaching and learning through IT innovation, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Transforming Higher Ed blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative page.


  1. John Horrigan, Digital Readiness Gap, research report (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, September 2016).
  2. Adam Harris, "The Liberal Arts May Not Survive the 21st Century," The Atlantic, December 13, 2018.
  3. David Wiley, "What Is Open Pedagogy?" Iterating Toward Openness (blog), October 21, 2013.
  4. Tressie McMillan Cottom, "Rethinking the Context of Edtech," EDUCAUSE Review 54, no. 3 (Summer 2019).
  5. LACOL, "Think Tank on Digital Competencies for the Liberal Arts," October 28, 2017.
  6. Jim Groom, Lora Taub-Pervizpour, Sundilu Richard, Keegan Long-Wheeler, and Martha Burtis, 7 Things You Should Know About a Domain of Own's Own, research report (Louisville, CO: ELI, October 2019).

Beth Bohstedt is Director of Learning and Research Services at Hamilton College.

Sundi Richard is Assistant Director for Digital Learning at Davidson College.

© 2020 Beth Bohstedt and Sundi Richard. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.