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Exploring Digital Fluency at Penn State University

A Q&A with Kyle Bowen

At Penn State University, campus conversations once centered on digital literacy. Now, they're focused on digital fluency. Do these topics sound similar? Here, Penn State's Director of Teaching and Learning with Technology Kyle Bowen explains why the differences may be greater than you think.

"When we talk about digital fluency, the focus is on enabling our students to leverage technology effectively to create new knowledge." — Kyle Bowen

Mary Grush: Penn State is now supporting students in terms of "digital fluency." Why is this different from what you've done in the past?

Kyle Bowen: One of the big things that we are exploring at Penn State is the notion of digital fluency. To that end, it's important to define it, and to compare and contrast it with other, similar types of initiatives.

In particular, we can compare digital fluency with past discussions of digital literacy. Digital fluency is not just a minor shift away from — or another flavor of — digital literacy, but a completely different way of thinking: When we talk about digital fluency, the focus is on enabling our students to leverage technology effectively to create new knowledge.

Digital literacy tends to focus on the what and the how — what tools are being used and how you might apply them. Digital fluency, on the other hand, explores the when and the why — when do I choose to use particular types of tools, and why would that be the most effective way to support students?

Our belief is that we enable our students, not simply to create media or to be more creative, but rather, we support students in such a way that they are defining truly new problems or creating new genres; and, in many cases, they are showing us ways that others can use technology effectively. This kind of thinking is at the core of digital fluency and how we approach supporting our students.

Grush: Even at the undergraduate level?

Bowen: Especially at the undergraduate level!

Grush: Then is this a major shift for the institution?

Bowen: A big part of this work is shifting how we support the institution. Many institutions are actively exploring the space of digital transformation — working to leverage the ways that technology not merely changes, but actually transforms the way teaching and learning happens.

Part of the way this focus can succeed is when we reframe how we, as an institution, approach the support of students along with the support of teaching and learning. In other words, helping connect IT directly with student learning both in and out of the classroom.

Historically, when we explored education technology, or learning technology, it was done from the standpoint of understanding the tool and its capabilities. We envisioned what tools would appear on the horizon, and in some cases we held great hopes for how they would impact teaching and learning.

Since then, as we've matured in our understanding, instead of talking about those things from a technology perspective, we now ask: What are the affordances that technologies will put into the hands of the student?

Grush: What does this mean for the learning technology organization and the learning technologists on campus?

We now ask: What are the affordances that technologies will put into the hands of the student?

Bowen: As technology organizations, that means moving away from presenting a list of technologies as the way you engage with IT, and transitioning that into looking at the ways that students can create, and meaningful activities that faculty employ, with these kinds of technologies to meet learning goals.

Grush: And you are now engaging discussions on campus under the mantle of digital fluency?

Bowen: Yes. We're designing our digital fluency efforts as a framework that is used to engage faculty and students on a range of new topics. We've defined digital fluency as an umbrella term. Within that we break down a series of specific fluencies while creating space for adding new topics as technology evolves.

Grush: So are there specific digital fluencies that enable student learning?

Bowen: Yes. Take for example, the storytelling fluency — to tell effective stories and to do so on a range of different media, with one of the most common being video. For video production, we provide not only the tools — the cameras, software, and so on — but also the support it takes to make it all happen. That's where we can bring to bear systems like One Button Studio, tools like Adobe Premiere, and workshops for students to learn about the process of storytelling in such a way that they can move forward and experiment and explore within that space. This same approach enables new ways to engage students around designing immersive video as well.

Grush: What other fluencies are taking hold?

Bowen: In the same way that the digital storytelling space has matured, what we see on the horizon is a range of fluencies. Some are here today — things like making, with the mindset that a student applies to creating things in the physical world. Also we see things like immersive fluencies, where students may demonstrate ideas in virtual environments, or things that go beyond reality. And as an example in terms of the near future, a lot has been done in the area of digital prototyping. Whereas there is currently a heavy focus on coding, there is a bigger opportunity there, in finding ways to help students understand experience design for digital tools, leading to entirely new forms of engagement.

Grush: What is the impact on the student, at this point in time, as a result of Penn State's exploration of digital fluency? Have you seen real differences yet in the student experience because of this approach?

Bowen: Certainly. We've been exploring how to support students in their creative work for some time, but what we've more recently come to identify is that this exploration can lead to a real change in how we, as an institution, support creativity.

For example, if we look at a goal for the student like developing a storytelling fluency through media of different kinds, we can see that the storytelling fluency has actually become a key part of many courses throughout the institution. We have and support more than 20,000 students a year in the creation of video as part of their coursework, entrepreneurship, and research. Once you've helped students unlock, if you will, that creativity — that digital fluency — then they can apply it to new problems in their career interests. If they want to take on new challenges or define new genres, they are now equipped with the tools to do that.

We can also see a similar effect in other areas, like making, or 3D printing… We approach these fluencies as a part of any academic environment for which they make sense. For example, even for an English writing assignment we can introduce an element of invention, using 3D printing, that will engage students in achieving the outcomes for a given course. At Penn State, this is happening for thousands of students every semester.

We want to continue to scale these things up, without killing the magic that made them possible in the first place.

Grush: What do you see for the future of digital fluency at Penn State? How you make all this scale and normalize, if you will, to become part of the overall campus environment in an ongoing and sustainable way?

Bowen: We want to continue to scale these things up, without killing the magic that made them possible in the first place.

As we look forward into the future, our environment will only get more diverse. Our big question, and our big opportunity is: How do we effectively leverage both the diversity of the technology environment and the scale of the institution?

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