Horizons: Improve Digital Literacy 

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It is easy in our fast-paced and tech infused work and lives to be consumed by the daily barrage of information, problems, and requests. I recently was talking with some colleagues at another higher ed institution about the value of investing in R&D (research and development). I had always considered R&D to be a business term, referring to the secret lab in a drug company developing crazy new products that would be dangerous for shareholders or customers to even know existed.

R&D: My understanding of the value of doing R&D in higher ed was informed by the Three Horizons model for growth (developed by McKinsey & Company) and discussed in Kristen Eshleman’s post, Making Space for the Important. My summary of the horizons are:

Horizon 1 (H1): keeping the lights on and fixing problems 

Horizon 2 (H2): improving services and processes

Horizon 3 (H3): transformative experiments (R&D) 

You’ve heard the maxim: the immediate trumps the important every time, while H1 demands squeeze out the H3 (and often H2). In our lives and work, it is essential to make time for the important H3 stuff to remain innovative, engaged, and cutting-edge.

One such chance to dig into H3 thinking is the Horizon Report: 2016 Higher Education Edition. Each year, the New Media Consortium and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative publish the Horizon Report addressing three categories of trends: solvable/short-term impact, difficult/mid-term impact, and wicked/long-term impact. Although the report lands in my inbox, I wait for the paper copy and sit down device-less to consider what sparks for me and my work.

Here is the first of several trends that I’ll be unpacking over the next couple of weeks.

Improving Digital Literacy: The first challenge is defining “digital literacy.” The American Library Association definition emphasizes technology for information discovery and management, but I like the more holistic JISC definition: Digital Literacy is “those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning, and working in digital society.”

To live, learn, and work in digital society, we need to give our students the opportunity to play, code, critique, unplug, and reflect on the use of technology in education and learning. I work with undergrads and life-long-learning baby boomers, and there is wide range of tech abilities in both groups. Those with less digital literacy often blame the technology – it changes too fast, or it’s too complicated or too invasive. These are all excellent criticisms, and we need to create space to accommodate these conversations. Where else should we be practicing thinking and coding critically than in a liberal education?

Here are some R&D-worthy ideas we could try on my campus:

Digital Fellows – Students are required to use technology every day as they engage with our educational institutions. From discussing in a learning management system to booking a study room to paying for lunch, students are engaged with the technology that the university has selected for them. In tech-speak, students are “users” of all this technology. Why not invite our user/scholars to be critics and caretakers of their own tech ecosystem? There will need to be some group memory provided by the institution, but investments in staffing a digital fellows program would benefit the students enrolled in the program as well as those using the technology that they select, hack, and improve and the professional technologists.

Digital Playgrounds and Sandboxes – Currently, if a student requests a webspace on our campus, they are pointed to a locked-down WordPress instance that discourages customization and prohibits coding. My colleagues at other institutions tell me this situation is common. Reflecting on the development of my own tech skills, I have broken so many WordPress themes (the one on this site included) trying to learn the relationships between CSS and footer files. I’m no coder, but I learned how to start over, try again, and push the limits. Our students need a sandbox where they can play and test out ideas, not just in narrative form, but also in code. Domain of Ones Own projects (CI Keys, UMW.domains) are part of the answer. While the serious coder needs more than a commercially hosted web server, that’s a place to start where students can jump into a C-panel and install WordPress, Drupal, stand up SQL databases or run Ruby. Install, break, fix, and hack.

Digital Communities of Practice – Digital literacy isn’t just about getting your hands on technology. It also requires a community of practice. Our smart phones are often (rightly) blamed for distancing us from in-person social interactions, but hacking is a social act. We need robot and Lego leagues in our libraries and technology centers on campus. These need to be places were students can blow off steam, collaborate, compete, and make the learning visible. We have creative spaces on our campuses–wood shops and ceramic studios–but these often come with restrictions on who can use them, and they are hidden in basements and old warehouses. What if our staff-educators, faculty, and students could come to one place to put their hands on technology, learn from each other, and explore new tech horizons on our campuses?

Check back soon for some more reflections about the Horizon Report.

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