Students and digital literacy

Even though born in the digital age, many students lack digital skills.

by Trent M. Kays

We live in the digital age, where digital technologies are prevalent and used for a multitude of circumstances. All around the world, the importance of digital technologies in overall global contexts, as well as within specific cultural contexts, are apparent. For example, digital technologies, like Twitter, have played an integral role in the Arab Spring revolutions that have swept across several countries in the Middle East. It is quite possible that the Arab Spring may not have happened without the aid of digital technologies, like social networking sites. This highlights the significance that these types of technologies play in present cultural contexts and will play in future cultural, societal and political circumstances.

However, despite the prevalence of digital technologies, digital literacy is lacking, especially within the university. There are few courses actually focused on digital literacy, and many of the courses that do exist often can be found in departments with a heavy writing focus. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does lead one to wonder why more departments don&undefined;t offer digital literacy courses. So, why is digital literacy important in university curriculum and contexts?

Digital literacy is not something that is inherent. It is not something you&undefined;re born with and something you automatically and fully understand. Laura Gurak, in her &undefined;00” book &undefined;Cyberliteracy: Navigating the Internet with Awareness,&undefined; suggests, &undefined;Cyberliteracy means voicing an opinion about what these technologies should become and being an active, not a passive, participant.&undefined; Gurak&undefined;s terminology of &undefined;cyberliteracy&undefined; could now more aptly be described as &undefined;digital literacy.&undefined; Indeed, Gurak&undefined;s argument is still valid and integral to digital literacy, despite being over a decade old. Becoming an active participant and actively aware of the technology one engages with on a daily basis is critically important.

Moreover, a term that often ignorantly flies from the mouths of pundits, politicians, academics and other newspaper columnists is &undefined;digital native.&undefined; A term coined by Marc Prensky in &undefined;00”, the concept of digital native is often used to explain those born in the digital age and those who are more at ease with and aware of digital technologies. Unfortunately, the term is often corrupted and used by many to suggest that those who are digital natives are digitally literate. This is a myth, especially when it is assumed that traditional college students are digitally literate, since all were born in the digital age.

As a writer, writing teacher and writing researcher, I&undefined;ve run into this myth many times. I have always worked from Gurak&undefined;s position, and I encourage my students to not only be consumers but critics of digital technologies. These skills are important because the future only holds more pervasive technologies, and the ability to understand, navigate, critique and improve digital technologies will help students become critically aware contributors to society. However, what if students don&undefined;t even know how to blog?

I recently asked my students to create a blog and use that space to reflect weekly on what we&undefined;re doing throughout the semester. I received a flurry of questions from my students, and when I asked how many of them had blogged before, only about &undefined;5 percent of them raised their hands. I was stunned and confused. It was then that I was confronted with my own assumptions about the so-called digital natives. I assumed that everyone had at least blogged before because blogging technology is almost archaic in the world of digital technologies. Blogging isn&undefined;t necessarily a difficult digital technology to understand or engage with, but I wondered how students could make it so far in college without ever having created and employed a blog.

I think this is telling of the built-in assumptions about digital natives and how little the university does to ensure students are aware of and critically engage with digital technologies. The example of my students, while catching me off-guard, is a disheartening example of a serious failure in curriculum. Certainly, the use of digital technologies in every course is not required or even practical, but I&undefined;d expect them to have created and engaged with at least one blog by the time they make it to an upper-level course. I don&undefined;t think that&undefined;s too much to ask.

I don&undefined;t blame the students. When you&undefined;re born into a society that prizes technology and privilege, it&undefined;s not surprising that many aren&undefined;t critically aware of the digital technologies they encounter. However, critical awareness and thinking are key tenets of every university curriculum. There are built-in promises that a university will help hone the critical skills of students so those students can then interact with and apply them to the world outside the university. This should include digital technologies because it is a great disservice to students to only ensure narrow understandings of critical writing, reading and thinking are incorporated into curriculum and university culture.

As Gurak points out in her book, &undefined;Technologies have consequences,&undefined; and digital technologies are no exception. It all comes down to whether the university wants to produce digitally capable and literate citizens or citizens firmly rooted in critically underdeveloped views of technologies. If the university doesn&undefined;t encourage and maybe even mandate digital literacy, then students will be ill-equipped to understand the technologies of the future, to critically engage with said technologies and will be lost in the digital forest.