Prioritizing Digital Literacy in Higher Ed

Capturing the inspiration at the 2019 Adobe Creative Campus in San Jose.

The evolution of digital literacy and its rapid rise in higher education has become an area more institutions are looking at to improve student success and develop the critical skills students need when graduating into a transformed digital workforce.

As higher education institutions continue to develop strategies to better prepare students for the evolving modern workforce, educational leaders must support faculty, and faculty must cultivate digital literacy in themselves and their classrooms. Here are some key factors to consider for fostering digital literacy as learned at the 2019 Adobe Creative Campus in San Jose, California, April 8-10.

Improved student experience in learning

Today’s students are more in tune with how they expect to learn new skills. Fostering digital literacy in the classroom empowers students to become knowledge creators versus just knowledge and information consumers. It crosses all disciplines, whether those courses are in the sciences, liberal arts, humanities, business, engineering, or anything in between.

Valentina Arismendi, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sophomore who was spotlighted at the conference, has used digital tools to personalize her experience — in and out of the classroom. In school, she’s used Adobe Creative Cloud in political science, computer science, and business, three subjects one wouldn’t expect to see digital literacy being fostered.

With a learning experience driven by digital tools, Valentina created personalized projects and an attractive digital portfolio to help her succeed in a future profession.

“It’s all been implicit learning — effortless,” she said. As part of Generation Z, “no one really taught us how to use a website or a mobile app. Somehow we figured out how to use everything.”

Her digital skills have also allowed her to collaborate outside of the classroom. For example, Valentina’s friend and classmate had a business idea, and Valentina was able to use her digital skills to create the brand guide, wireframe, and more using Adobe XD.

“Adobe products have transformed the way I’ve learned inside the classroom,” Valentina said.

Pat Steenland, a member of the writing faculty at UC Berkeley, is fostering digital literacy in her students, some who are considered academically vulnerable, by helping them use digital technologies to enhance their learning experiences.

“We bring students into a relationship,” Pat said. “We give them the tools and also intellectual connection.” The right tools plus intellectual guidance give students the skills they need to dig deep. They pursue primary sources and end up discovering much more than they felt they could in a traditional essay.

How a digital foundation can work in tandem with traditional teaching models

The top three skills in demand in the modern workplace are complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity, said Todd Taylor, associate chair and director of the writing program at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But is the educational experience helping students develop these skills? That depends.

“Majors don’t lead to careers in most cases,” said Vincent Del Casino, interim senior vice provost at the University of Arizona. “A lot of engineers I graduated with went to work as stockbrokers. But that doesn’t account for other skills students are developing. Teaching and learning happen everywhere in the university environment. It’s about soft skills.”

Considering that the No. 1 priority for 4,000 professionals surveyed by LinkedIn was soft skills training, it’s worth considering that traditional lectures may not always be the only appropriate teaching method.

“The way we use to do things isn’t adding up anymore,” Todd said. “What we want to focus on is putting tools in the hands of students.”

It’s about switching the mindset from digital technologies as tools to digital technologies as instruments. While tools are used to get the job done, instruments can be used to see the world differently, Todd said. And while lectures deliver information, fostering digital literacy prepares students with the skills they need for the transforming workplace. Together, traditional teaching methods with a foundation of digital literacy prepare students with needed soft skills such as creativity.

If creativity has risen as the most important soft skill students need, how can faculty encourage the divergent or creative thinking required in the modern workplace?

Like switching from a tools mindset to an instruments mindset, bringing students’ creativity to the surface might require a change. Vincent suggests that faculty switch from thinking about creating to thinking about interpreting. He then put attendees to work asking them to use the supplies provided to interpret a flower.

“You have a bag with a series of tools,” he said during his keynote address-turned-creative-activity. “Scissors, paper, crayons, glue stick. With these tools, interpret a flower [rather than create a flower]. It’s easier to interpret than create. Interpreting doesn’t create boundaries around what [the process or product] should be. Flowers are all different. And every creation is really an interpretation anyway.”

Scanning the variety of projects created by the attendees — some three-dimensional, some artistically drawn, and one even portraying a bag of enriched flour — Vincent pointed out how no two interpretations were the same, yet all were equally creative and fulfilled the assignment. An apt illustration of how, using the same tools, students will inevitably create something entirely different from their classmates.

How can educational leaders set an institution’s vision to incorporate digital literacy?

“Students demonstrate that a university education is so much more than the courses they take,” said Vincent. “Their education is also about the relationships they build, the experiences they create, and the struggles in which they engage.”

This perspective may present a challenge for faculty — how can they balance grading fairly, creating a positive student experience, and assigning challenging work?

“The future of where we are going to go is being tested,” said Vincent. “How is… the support we provide to faculty preparing students for what the workplace will be like when they graduate?”

One way to create an environment in which digital literacy can thrive is by allowing faculty the flexibility to re-evaluate the way they grade, making sure it supports the institution’s digital literacy goals. This may mean being stricter in some areas and more lenient in others; but no matter what it ends up meaning for your institution, faculty need to know it’s OK to make changes.

Another way to create a digital literacy-friendly environment is by intentionally inviting innovation in students and faculty. As Todd said, “There’s real power in the invitation for innovation.”

This invitation acts as a catalyst for fostering digital literacy across disciplines. For example, in UNC first-year English courses, students are taught to write in multiple modalities, and faculty are encouraged to focus on the student experience.

Fostering that multi-modal learning, faculty should then rethink the way they grade and encourage creativity in their students.

Faculty are encouraged to cultivate digital literacy in themselves

Who better to foster digital literacy in students than digitally literate faculty? The Creative Campus event was full of ideas of how faculty can cultivate digital literacy in themselves. Here are a few:

When students graduate from our institutions, we want them to have the power to use digital tools to solve problems, create innovative projects, and enhance communications. We want them to be prepared for the digital transformation happening in the workplace. The life-changing power of digital literacy is becoming more important, building on the skills students are learning and creating a personalized learning experience for each one. As Vincent said, “A university education is so much more than the courses [students] take. It’s about the relationships they build, the experiences they create, and the struggles in which they engage.”

As institutions continue to prioritize digital literacy, it’s important to continually create a culture where digital literacy can thrive. What would this culture look like? Cultures supportive of digital literacy embrace flexibility, look forward to the future, and allow mistakes. They focus on student experience, combine traditional with nontraditional methods, and encourage faculty to improve their own digital literacy. When institutions foster digital literacy by creating a culture where it can thrive, their students will be ready for the evolving workplace.