This morning you were perhaps awoken by the sound of your smartphone’s alarm blazing menacingly. You reached over to where your device was laying on the nightstand, silenced it, then spent a few minutes mechanically scrolling through your Facebook news feed and responding to WhatsApp messages. Every single day we employ our smartphones, tablets, laptops, and the like, with the objective of garnering knowledge about the world around us. In this modern era, it is evident that technology plays a functional role in all societies, and, more often than not, its use is triggered by personal need for information. Engaging in this type of activity brands today’s youth as digital natives (Levy, 2016), but this does not necessarily equate to them being digitally literate. Since technology is always evolving, it can be realistically hypothesized that it will continue to be a dominant feature of education in the future. On this note, can university students be academically successful without being digitally literate? If not, how can students’ digital literacy be developed to support technology-enhanced learning in tertiary institutions?
Digitial Literacy Explained
Though there is no universal consensus on the definition for digital literacy, there exist several proposed explanations which seem to fall into either of two categories. The first focuses on users only as consumers of digital information, while the other concentrates on users as both consumer and creator of content.
An early example of the former is noticed in Gilster’s (1997) explanation of digital literacy as “the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers”. This definition may have been suitable during that time, because technology was predominantly used in business settings, and not so much in people’s personal lives. So, once they were able to perform simple tasks using technology (e.g. printing a document), they would be considered digitally literate. On the contrary, many of today’s tertiary learners were introduced to technology primarily in a way that would entertain them and allow them to communicate socially (Ventimiglia and Pullman, 2016). They were raised in an environment driven by technology, and are thus naturally able to use digital tools (Alexander, Adams and Cummings, 2016). Unfortunately, this only creates an illusion that they are digitally literate, and does not mean that they are confident users of same in educational contexts (Alexander, Adams, Cummings, 2016; Levy, 2016).
Possessing digital literacy far supersedes merely being digital natives. For example, at the tertiary level, students are expected to be able to access educational resources via course containers, interact with their lecturers and peers through discussion boards, and conduct meaningful research using online search engines or digital databases. It requires that students are able to utilize the various technologies in the appropriate manner for a given context, so as to “find, evaluate, create, and communicate information” (Alexander, Adams, Cummings, 2016). This requires that they are competent in using both their technical and critical thinking skills in order to achieve this outcome. A digitally literate student is then able to, for instance, “critically evaluate information encountered on the web” (Alexander, Adams, Cummins, 2016).
So why does it matter?
Following Donald Trump’s success in the US presidential election, there was quite a bit of buzz regarding fake news and how social media sites were contributing to the circulation of it (Seargeant and Tagg, 2016). In fact, Adams, Cummins, Davis, Freeman, Hall and Ananthanarayanan (2017) reveal that students at the undergraduate level struggle with determining the validity of the information shared via such platforms. Seargeant and Tagg (2016) advocate that higher education (HE) institutions should be held responsible for facilitating the development of the digital literacy of their students, so that they may become more critically engaged citizens existing in a digital sphere. Such development could equip students with the practices which would contribute to their success in the academic arena.
Building digital literacy in higher ed
Cultivating digital literacy was reported to be one of the six notable challenges impeding the use of technology in higher education for this calendar year (Elemes, 2017). This is so, since producing digitally literate graduates requires that HE leaders enforce digital literacy practices right across the curriculum (Adams et al., 2017).). This would equip students to discover and assess information online, perceive issues from a digital point-of-view, mature into self-directed learners, and quickly grasp an understanding of new technology and software (Ventimiglia and Pullman). One strategy for effecting digital literacy practices could be through collaboration between faculty and campus libraries as it relates to curriculum design (Alexander et. al, 2016). Though such libraries have always been instrumental in supporting universities, it is suggested that they can play an even greater role in developing students’ digital literacy skills (Alexander et. al). Instead of putting on occasional digital literacy sessions, the library could become more deeply involved in the design of curricula to facilitate development of related competencies on an ongoing basis. Faculty and the libraries could decide on the set of targeted competencies that they wish for each student to have had developed upon completion of each course.
Enabling blended learning
The MEd in Early Childhood Education is just one of several blended learning programmes scheduled to begin by September 2017 at the University of the West Indies. Blended learning is one mode of instruction, which has gained recognition with the advancement of digital technology. It involves both an online and face-to-face component in learning and teaching, and can be beneficial in combatting some of the challenges presented in the brick-and-mortar classroom (eg. convenience of learning anytime and anywhere). A recent study revealed that successful learning in such a setting requires that learners are digitally literate so that they may adapt well to the unconventional learning environment (Tang and Chaw, 2016).
Now for a quick recap…
Possessing basic literacy skills has been an essential facet of the human existence for ages, therefore it would be frustrating to live in today’s fast-paced world without being able to read and write. In the same way, it would be challenging for students to enjoy the vast possibilities of technology, within the educational context, without being able to use it to efficiently manage the information available at their fingertips. It is imperative that higher education institutions put university-wide practices in place for advancing students’ digital literacy. This way, they will be well-equipped with the know-how that will heighten their potential of experiencing academic success. The development of all related competencies could allow for the employment of learning models which are either enhanced or entirely driven by technology. When these are the sort of graduates produced by universities, what more could employers ask for?
Written by Xavaunik Brown-Clarke, MA Teaching Student at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus
Adams Becker, S., Cummins, M., Davis, A., Freeman, A., Hall Giesinger, C., and Ananthanarayanan, V. (2017) NMC Horizon Report: 2017 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.
Alexander, B. Adams Becker, S., and Cummins, M. (2016). Digital Literacy: An NMC Horizon Project Strategic Brief. Volume 3.3., October 2016. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.
Elmes, J. (2017, February 16). Six significant challenges for technology in higher education in 2017. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/six-significant-challenges-technology-higher-education-2017
Gilster, P. (1997). Digital literacy. New York: Wiley Computer Publications.
Levy, L. (2016, May 2). 11 Digital literacy myths, debunked. Retrieved from https://rossieronline.usc.edu/blog/digital-literacy-myths/
Seargeant, P., and Tagg, C. (2016, December 29). Fake news: the solution is education, not regulation. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/fake-news-solution-education-not-regulation
Tang, C. M., and Chaw, L. Y. (2016). Digital Literacy: A Prerequisite for Effective Learning in a Blended Learning Environment? The Electronic Journal of e-Learning , 14. Retrieved from http://www.ejel.org/volume14/issue1
Ventimiglia, P., and Pullman, G. (2016, March 7). From written to digital: the new literacy. Retrieved from http://er.educause.edu/articles/2016/3/from-written-to-digital-the-new-literacy