Source: Building digital literacy in the classroom

One of the most prevalent myths about undergraduate students currently matriculating is that they are born digital—so called ‘digital natives.’ These students, the story goes, have been using computers for as long as they can remember. They have grown up using digital applications for everything from completing homework assignments to ordering take-out. They cannot remember a time before the Web (or even before Facebook) because the Web has been a fact of life since the start of their lives. The apparent truism of the ‘digital native’ becomes more and more pronounced with each new incoming class of college freshmen—that is until all of the ‘digital aliens’ (i.e. anyone born before 1994) are either retired or phased out of the academy. The technological acuity of incoming students may seem intimidating for digitally-inclined faculty, who may want to assign digital assignments or utilize digital resources but feel that, in the digital realm, they have more to learn from their students than vice versa. How should faculty make use of digital resources in classes where the students are already thoroughly tech savvy?

While younger students may know their way around a computer, this does not mean that they are fully digitally literate. As with every myth, the ‘digital native’ narrative has some basis in fact, but is mostly perpetuated by a deeper set of social forces. Perhaps ‘digital aliens’ have spun the story of ‘digital natives’ out of an anxiety induced by the overwhelming wave of technology development witnessed over the past 30-plus years. Every week brings another hyped platform or tool and younger students seem to readily adopt each new thing before faculty are even aware of the penultimate trend. Digital adaptability, however, should not be confused with digital literacy. Students may have a great aptitude at parsing Twitter (if they haven’t already abandoned Twitter for Snapchat), but this does not mean they know how to search an online database, build a 3D model, or georectify an image.

Digital skills are increasingly essential for virtually all professions, whether formally part of the ‘information economy’ or in more service-oriented industries. We might broadly refer to the development of this skill set as ‘digital literacy,’ and although what all this entails is certainly subject to frequent and dynamic change, a college education should equip students with digital literacy as part and parcel with more traditional skills like critical thinking and effective communication. Even though I’m framing ‘digital literacy’ as a distinct body of skills, I would also suggest that these skills, today, cannot be separated from things like critical thinking and effective communication. The ability to create or read a visualization of a data set, for instance, necessarily combines all three of these skills. The overall point is that educators need to be thinking of ways to incorporate digital skill-building into their courses to prepare students for careers and lives in a networked world—and also that these digital skills are developed just as any other critical skill, which is not through a process of osmosis gained by immersion into the digital realm, but through carefully considered exercises, readings, and discussions.

As suggested, students and faculty alike already use digital tools and resources everyday for classwork, lectures, and discussions. Students create powerpoint presentations and access readings and research materials through online databases. To truly develop digital literacy skills, however, requires assignments and activities that encourage critical reflection on the tools being used. For example, students in a medieval art history course might spend time in class using the resource Mapping Gothic France1 to research the history of Gothic architecture in Western Europe. An assignment for this class might have students create their own versions of a similar map of medieval built structures. As part of this assignment, students might be asked to critically reflect on the choices they made in creating their own digital maps: what did they chose to include or exclude? what metadata did they need to create when making the map? how has creating the map influenced their understanding of Gothic architecture? A class lecture and discussion around this assignment could also focus on the history of map making, drawing connections between medieval map making practices, satellite imaging, and GIS data. Working together, this assignment, critical reflection, lecture, and discussion could help students to both deepen their understanding of the course material while also learning crucial skills for manipulating geographic information. Key to this, though, is that students are not only learning the how-to behind digital tools, but also learning to think critically about the role of the technology itself in the production and exchange of knowledge.

Digital literacy means not just being able to use digital tools, but to also understand how they work, what underlying mechanisms drive them, and how this influences the input/output of data and the dissemination of information via the tool. This does not mean that everyone has to be computer scientists and develop to the ability to create/understand the code that drives these tools (although some familiarity with code and technological infrastructure doesn’t hurt), but this does mean that everyone should have some understanding of the relationship between a given digital tool and what’s going on beneath the screen.

Although digital humanities is firmly established as a discipline, the field is very much under construction. The discourse is live as to how digital projects should be defined, what constitutes authorship in an increasingly collaboration-driven environment, and what skills current students should be developing to prepare for future careers.2 These debates will be staged at conferences, in journal publications, and through blog posts and social media—but they will also be worked out in the classroom. Digital pedagogy is a huge part of this debate, and educators can contribute to this by developing, discussing, and sharing the lesson plans and digital assignments they are using in their classes. Only a small portion of undergraduate students will go on to a career in the academy, as digital humanists or otherwise, but all of these students will go on to live and work in a world where digital literacy is essential.


[2] See for instance this white paper released by PressForward and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media: Joan Fragaszy Troyano, “Discovering Scholarship on the Open Web: Communities and Methods,” April 1, 2013,