Education Trends

Long Road Ahead for Digital Literacy in Higher Ed

Higher education institutions today face an increasingly pressing challenge: advancing digital literacy among students and faculty, according to a new report from the New Media Consortium (NMC). “Digital Literacy: An NMC Horizon Project Strategic Brief” aims to “establish a vision of digital literacy and serve as a call to action for higher education leaders across the United States.” Commissioned by Adobe Systems, NMC researchers surveyed more than 450 education leaders, faculty and staff to assess the current landscape of digital literacy in higher ed.

Technology has become ubiquitous in today’s colleges and universities, integrated into “every facet of campus life to enhance course design, course materials and interactions between learners and instructors,” the report noted — yet many students still struggle to use the technologies and tools available to them. A recent Pew Research Center study found that just 17 percent of adult learners are “confident in their ability to use digital tools to pursue learning.” In other words, their digital literacy skills are not keeping pace with the proliferation of technology on campus and in the workplace.

“Higher education institutions must prepare students for a future where learning new digital tools is an intuitive process,” the report urged. Yet NMC researchers found that a lack of consensus about what comprises digital literacy is impeding colleges and universities from enacting effective policies and programs.

“Discussions among educators and library professionals have included the idea of digital literacy as equating to competence with a wide range of digital tools for varied educational purposes, or as an indicator of having the ability to critically evaluate web resources — a component of information literacy,” the report noted. “However, both definitions are broad and ambiguous, making digital literacy a nebulous area that requires greater clarification and consensus.”

To help establish some common ground, the report offers three main models of digital literacy:

  • Universal Literacy: A familiarity with using basic tools (such office productivity software, image manipulation, cloud-based apps and content, and web content authoring tools);
  • Creative Literacy: Encompases all aspects of the previous model, adding more challenging technical skills (video production, audio production, animation, programming) “that lead to the production of richer content,” along with digital citizenship and copyright knowledge; and
  • Literacy Across Disciplines: Diffused across different classes in appropriate ways that are unique to each learning context (like a sociology course, for example, that teaches interpersonal actions online).

Samantha Becker, senior director of publications and communications for NMC and lead author on the report, recently spoke with co-author Bryan Alexander in a Future Trends Forum video chat. She explained that in developing the report, NMC aimed “to understand where the NMC community of higher education leaders stood in terms of digital literacy — from their perceptions, to how it’s impacting faculty and students, to finding out what’s missing.”

The survey revealed that when it comes to the balance between digital consumption (reading, watching, listening) and digital production (designing web pages, editing videos) at their institutions, roughly half of respondents think that “creativity in the form of content production” and “critical consumption” are vital to any definition of digital literacy.

Additionally, more than 90 percent of respondents said that “web searching” was the most important technical skill to learn, followed by digital media (more than 80 percent) and Office productivity tools like PowerPoint and Word (close to 75 percent).

When asked what “soft” or social skills play the most important role in digital literacy, respondents pointed to critical thinking (more than 85 percent), problem-solving (more than 75 percent) and creativity (almost 70 percent) as the most important skills. Collaboration and copyright knowledge were also seen as important (approximately 62 percent and 64 percent respectively), with citizenship surprisingly polling on the lower end (almost 45 percent).

Explore the NMC report in depth: In a recent blog post, consultant and futurist Bryan Alexander provides a behind-the-scenes look at what went into the creating the digital literacy report. He also shares survey participants’ thoughts on the future of digital literacy in a supplemental blog post.

As for where digital literacy instruction occurs at an institution, no one site predominated, but classrooms, curriculum and libraries seemed to be the most-referenced spaces. Faculty members are the most likely to implement digital literacy at an institution (according to more than 60 percent of respondents). In addition, 50 percent of respondents indicated that librarians are instrumental.  

At the strategic level, the survey found that higher ed institutions “are not frequently enough committed to advancing digital literacy in their underlying missions, offering little in the way of campus-wide or considered support.” More than a third of respondents (36 percent) said their institutions lack digital literacy initiatives. Instead, more than 35 percent of support for digital literacy comes from individual efforts, which can lead to scalability and consistency challenges.

The report also incorporates information from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Pew Research Center and American Library Association. “[With those components] along with survey data, the interviews and the literature out there, we were able to establish some potential models and recommendations to help people think about creating effective initiatives,” Becker said. In particular, NMC encourages colleges, universities, libraries and museums to:

  • Engage in strategic implementation to level up their digital literacy work;
  • Create policies and practices that recognize and emphasize students as makers, not just knowledge consumers;
  • Build industry-education partnerships (with Udacity and Coursera, for example) to provide students with workforce skills and training; and
  • Develop smart collaborations with public and academic libraries, museums, cultural organizations and more.

“Instructors need support to integrate [digital literacy] into the curriculum,” Becker said in the forum. “It’s important to have constant conversations with people outside a campus, from instructional designers to library professionals to CIOs and leadership. It’s really about having those open discussions and finding ways to bring people in from outside industry, government and museums as resources.” Digital literacy is constantly evolving, emphasized Becker: “The more open the conversation [about digital literacy], the better, especially because digital literacy is an area that is materializing around the world.”

“And something that doesn’t happen nearly enough is finding ways to incorporate student voice,” Becker added, “whether it’s surveying students to get a sense on what their needs are.”

“Digital literacy on the one hand is an empowering force that lets students learn more, express more and become more thoughtful members of the community,” Alexander commented. “On the other hand, you see something where universities, campuses, libraries and museums have been doing a lot of work trying to keep up the infrastructure – technology going in in order to support all of this. That last part is critical. We have a lot of work cut out for us.”

To view the full report, visit the NMC site. Further information on the study is available on the Future Trends Forum site.

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