How students are using digital literacy to work for community and social change

Adobe’s Digital Literacy Café Webinar engaged college thought leaders in discussion of the ways students transitioned from being consumers of content to agents of change.

2020 will go down as a year of countless inflection points, with one of the more important being the increasing need to address social and community issues. All across the world, voices were raised and stories were shared. These pivotal conversations about social injustice elevated the need to incorporate them into course curricula.

Adobe Education’s first virtual Digital Literacy Café Webinar of the year, “Critical Digital Literacy: Stories of Community and Social Justice in the Aftermath of 2020,” engaged college thought leaders in discussion of the ways students have transitioned from being passive consumers of content to active agents of change.

Guest speakers from Winston-Salem State University, Clemson University, and Mesa Community College shared their unique perspectives, research, and insights. Each underscored how digital storytelling — from short film to social media — was used to create social change by shining a light on racial inequities and providing access to tools that give students agency.

Below are a few highlights from the discussion:

Making a community impact using digital tools

“We have to make sure that young people are engaged in real community practices and organizations to create change,” said Dr. Jack Monell, associate professor and program coordinator of justice studies at Winston-Salem State University.

He emphasized how access to digital tools in academic settings allows students to make an impact in their own communities by addressing real-world issues. Specifically, students at Winston-Salem State University used their digital storytelling skills — to research and address inequities they found locally and throughout the country.

Monell and his students shed light on the case of Ronnie Long, who was wrongfully convicted due to a corrupted trial and spent more than 44 years in prison as a result. Criminal justice students put the power of visual storytelling to work, using tools like Adobe Spark and Adobe Premiere Rush, to raise awareness and amplify Long’s story over time, renewing interest in the case with the North Carolina attorney general’s office as well as North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper. Their efforts contributed to his eventual release and exoneration in August 2020.

Through tackling impactful societal issues, Monell and his colleagues at Winston-Salem State University are preparing students to be responsible citizens. To do so, students need to learn how to shape and deliver information and stories with integrity and creativity within today’s media landscape. They need tools that will help them make a difference and magnify their voice.

Establishing agency begins with greater access to digital tools

Rebecca Rea Ross, a PhD student at Clemson University, shared how students can become empowered storytellers of the systemic issues in our culture through new pathways to express themselves creatively.

“Stories are valid and necessary. They help us understand the world, and they help us understand each other,” she said, noting how removing systemic barriers and enabling people to be heard — especially those who have been oppressed due to their race, gender identity, or socioeconomic status — became her key focus throughout her higher education journey.

Ross explained that by giving students a platform and access to technology that helps them craft their stories, individuals from around the world can develop a deeper understanding of and empathy for cultural and socioeconomic hardships. As someone raised in a stern and deeply religious household, Ross later used Adobe Premiere Pro to create a short film, “Doll/House,” that illustrated the harmfulness of gender oppression based on her own restricted upbringing.

As an educator, Ross has applied what she has learned to help students of all ages and backgrounds use the digital tools that are available to them for storytelling assignments. She emphasizes how understanding the diversity of a learner’s background and circumstances is just as important as providing the digital technology and curriculum.

“One of our responsibilities is to offer scaffolding for our students. We have to make sure that they have access to whatever technology they need, and if they don’t, what can we offer instead,” Ross said. “When I was requiring a paper — I had to make sure that [a homeless student] had access to the computer lab at school — or I would accept a neatly handwritten paper instead. It didn’t matter to me as long as the work was done, and the work was done well.”

As colleges and universities help students build digital fluency to find their voice and share unique stories, they must also ensure that there is equitable access to technology.

Exploring self-Identity through digital learning

In addition to addressing issues of social injustice and promoting individualism, digital storytelling also has the power to uplift communities, a sentiment Dr. Eddie Webb shared when discussing the mission of Mesa Community College’s New Media Lab Experience.

As an English professor, Webb and his team have evolved the school’s language arts curriculum by providing students — many of whom are tribal members — with a safe, encouraging space to prepare for a modern workforce environment while exploring the power of storytelling. The New Media Lab Experience serves as a hub for students and community members to collaborate and create multimedia projects using digital tools like Adobe Creative Cloud.

Webb shared how his passion for telling important stories began with a documentary short film he made at film school about indigenous identity in border towns. The positive reception that he received from the community upon sharing the film on YouTube inspired Webb to pursue storytelling as a medium and eventually to create a space for other tribal members to use digital tools to show what indigenous sovereignty means to them.

Using digital tools to tell the unique stories of people from indigenous tribes and other minority communities enables students to build invaluable digital literacy and creative skills, while also gaining a deeper appreciation for their own authentic identities. “As tribal members [there is] this idea of always having to push back [against oppression] and that’s what we’re getting rid of — it’s not always pushing back, it’s about being who you are,” he said.

For more information on how to integrate digital and creative skills across disciplines and throughout curricula, please visit Adobe’s Digital Literacy resource page.