Fostering Digital Literacy in Higher Ed Boosts Faculty Experience and Student Engagement Outcomes

Insights uncovered at the 2019 Adobe Creative Campus at University of Maryland.

Photo by Jakub Mosur.

by Sebastian Distefano

posted on 08-12-2019

Higher education institutions are working hard to prepare students for the future, but how can they know their efforts will be successful? As technology continues to change the workforce, the only way to prepare students is to make sure they are adaptable, equipped with soft skills and digital skills that will continue to be essential in any career.

© Photo by Jakub Mosur.

At the Adobe Creative Campus event at the University of Maryland held June 15-17, 2019, speakers shared their stories, studies, and successes in fostering digital literacy with academic leaders from educational institutions around the globe. As Amir Dabirian, vice president for information technology and CIO of California State University, Fullerton, reported, 90.6% of surveyed first-generation college students said that “learning about Adobe products made me more confident when looking for a job.” Amir believes that fostering digital literacy improves student engagement, student outcomes, and faculty experience.

© Photo by Jakub Mosur.

Student engagement

Becoming content creators rather than just consumers is an important goal for students. However, if that’s all students are achieving, it’s not enough — they also need to fully engage with their coursework, and see themselves in the work, according to Shauna Chung, a Ph.D. student at Clemson University.

For example, CSUF is deploying High Impact Practices (HIPs) where students are actively engaged in the learning process. One HIP is to use Adobe Creative Cloud across curricula. They’ve seen encouraging results so far. Amir reported that the average learning gain of students using Adobe Creative Cloud at CSUF is 18%. Additionally, students involved in HIPs more broadly report greater gains in learning and personal development. Underrepresented students benefit even more when they participate in these practices.

One specific way to use Adobe Creative Cloud for student engagement is to assign digital stories to replace traditional research paper assignments. That’s what Lynn Neal, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department for the Study of Religions at Wake Forest College, did, explaining how telling digital stories increases students’ motivation and engagement. With digital stories, “There’s learning across all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy,” she said, “especially those higher-order skills: synthesis, evaluation, creativity, and teaching.”

Lynn found that students engaged with primary and secondary source texts at a higher level than they had with traditional research paper assignments. And perhaps surprisingly, this assignment helped students become better writers. “Students can hide behind the literature or not really cultivate their scholarly voice [when they write traditional research papers],” she said. “This assignment forced them to cultivate [their] scholarly voice.”

But what if students have a hard time mastering the technology? Does that prevent a positive learning experience?

© Photo by Jakub Mosur.

Jason Farman, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Design Cultures and Creativity Program at the University of Maryland, explained that while adopting new technology can be a challenge, a small shift in perspective can help.

“Students feel like they’ve failed if they’re not masters of [new] technology by the end of the semester,” he said. “We have to get rid of the idea of mastery. … We are constantly growing in these tools and learning them ourselves.”

Jason put this perspective to the test — he assigned students to use Adobe Audition to make podcasts. And he also reduced the number of readings he assigned in his class. This shift was difficult at first because he knew he was leaving out some content that would be beneficial for his students to “master.”

“In the end, I was so glad that I did that,” he said. “We had to dive deeper into those concepts by spreading them across a couple of weeks and doing hands-on projects that led to insights they wouldn’t have had just sitting around a seminar table.”

Student outcomes

As faculty help their students dive deep, their goal is to prepare students for the challenges of an evolving, digital workplace. As Todd Taylor, former associate chair and director of the Writing Program at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said, “There isn’t an industry that hasn’t been radically transformed by the digital space.”

© Photo by Jakub Mosur.

Can digital literacy help? Vincent Fu’s story may shed some light on the idea. As an undergraduate biology student at the University of Utah, Vincent developed digital literacy through Adobe Creative Cloud, creating innovative projects and even serving as an Adobe campus representative. “[Adobe-enhanced educational opportunities] are a perfect set of experiences that complement a degree in marketing or graphic design… but I didn’t graduate in either of those skills,” he said. “How did I go from being in the sciences to doing all these things with Adobe?”

“Digital literacy in any discipline is all about mindset,” he said. “The key lies not in what I’ve been doing but the way I’ve been doing things.” As he fully embraced Adobe Creative Cloud, Vincent’s experience enhanced his thinking and general creative skills, preparing him for any path he chose to pursue.

Shortly after graduation, he was able to use his creativity and design skills in a job in the medical field. Now as a medical student, Vincent has parlayed his digital and soft skills into creating the curriculum for a new digital and social media course at the University of Colorado’s medical school. As Vincent’s experience demonstrates, no matter the discipline, developing digital literacy equips students with skills that help them to be successful in the constantly changing workplace.

© Photo by Jakub Mosur.

Faculty experience

When it comes to adopting technology, it’s not just inexperience that gets in an instructor’s way, said Brad Wheeler, learning experience designer and adjunct instructor at Boston University. Instructors experience extrinsic barriers, such as feeling that there is a lack of support, time, or equipment. They also experience intrinsic barriers, such as a belief that technology is bad for classroom learning.

Because Boston University wanted to make their students more fluent in digital expression, Brad and his colleague Chris Dellarocas, associate provost for digital learning and innovation, knew they needed to help faculty feel more comfortable with digital technology. To reach this goal, they are pioneering a peer-led faculty engagement program that merges education technology with faculty development to include Creative Cloud in the redesigned general education curriculum. Bridging the intersection of education technology and faculty development, Boston University created a model where faculty mentors train their peers.

Through this program, Brad and Chris have noticed that for mentoring to be most successful, faculty mentees need both local and national examples. With this layered mentoring, mentees have exposed themselves to new possibilities. And when faculty members are mentors, they stay more accountable and motivated.

As institutions foster digital literacy through supporting Adobe Creative Cloud across all disciplines, student engagement, student outcomes, and faculty experience improve. Technology continues to impact modern careers, but digital literacy helps students to be adaptable and equips them with soft skills and digital skills that will continue to be essential in 21st century careers.

Read more about how digital literacy prepares students for the future.

Topics: Industry, Education, digital literacy,