Technology Use in Higher Education

Recently, I read this great post/document on the challenges of advancing digital literacy in higher education.  You can see the blog post here and get access to the full report here. There are a number of important points the report makes, but the one that struck me the most was this:

“A 2016 Pew Research Center’s study indicates that the digital divide in the US is no longer just about access to technology but rather fluency in using it. Socio-economic status is certainly a factor with low-income households unable to afford high-speed broadband and the latest devices, but only 17% of adults report being active learners who are “confident in their ability to use digital tools to pursue learning.” Indeed, the productive and innovative use of technology encompasses 21st century skills that are vital for being successful in the workplace and beyond. Higher education institutions must prepare students for a future where learning new digital tools is an intuitive process.”

The digital divide has normally been discussed in terms of people who have access to technology and people who don’t (or who have limited access). This could happen for many reasons but the most prominent ones are socio-economic status and where you live (urban, rural, etc…).  But, as is noted above, now we have this added layer of those who know how to use it and those who do not (or who are limited in their technology use). And within the group of people who know how to use technology we now must consider what we use that technology for when we use it in our teaching. From the report:

“While the first wave of campus technology, such as learning management systems, supported one-way communication from the institution or instructor to students, the latest incarnation of educational technology emphasizes two-way communication along with content creation — cornerstones of digital literacy.”

Think about it…what does technology in higher education typically do? Are what does the technology you are encouraged to use allow you to do? You probably have a learner management system (LMS) where you can post information and have discussion threads. You can use, as I have done, apps like Remind where you can text information to your class or to a specific student (so much better than email unless you have a lot to say). I also use Wikispaces to house my syllabi.

digital-toolsThese tools all have there benefits and drawbacks like anything else. However, at there core it’s all about communication. You use the LMS to post your syllabi (side note: I’m only guessing at what you use your LMS for; I actually don’t use one by choice because I found it to be terrible). You might have discussions on your LMS, but that still falls under communication that is mostly one-sided and in no way about content creation – I assume.

Moving Into Content Creation: What Does It Mean in Higher Education?

If we agree that content creation is a critical aspect of being digitally literate, then we have to come to terms with some things:

Students of all levels and ages do not come to class digitally literate.

They just don’t. You cannot assume that because someone is of a certain age that this has implications for what they do/do not know and can/cannot do. In general, what I have found is that most of the students I work with would not be considered digitally literate. Yes, they have some digital skills. Yes, some are digitally literate. But most are not, and it is common for students to panic when use of digital tools are a core feature of a course. Add in a layer of content creation via digital tools….someone is going to have a panic attack. Just be prepared for it to happen.

If you use digital tools, you will have to provide some support. Sometimes it’s in a how-to form. Sometimes it’s reminding people they can google things. Sometimes it’s emotional support.

Faculty Probably Do Not Have the Skill Set Either

From where I sit, most faculty would not be considered digitally literate. This is not necessarily an issue. Because, like the students, anyone can learn. Where the problem lies is when faculty want to ignore becoming digitally literate and/or flat out do not want to learn. It is helpful to have a certain level of interest. Because this kind of work requires a shift in thinking. It’s not just about learning how to use a tool. That is certainly a piece of it. But then there is this notion that how you use the tool in your teaching is important. Can you use it for 1:1 communication? Sure. That’s not hard and requires little, if any, shift in thinking. Can you use it for content creation? That requires a shift because….

Content Creation Requires a Major Shift in Education

Content creation comes with it what is noted in the report as “creative literacy.” It requires shiftteachers and students to be able to use digital tools to access information but that, as a result, lead to students creating better content. This means that faculty have to shift off the model of giving quizzes/exams/papers. I’m not saying don’t do any of that. But if that’s all you do then getting to this point is going to happen slowly – and that’s ok. The traditional model of what class looks like, what the role of the instructor is, and what students do will shift.

Additionally, shifting students from passive consumers of content (take the test and then move on or even forget the information) can result in some resistance. Resistance may not be a fair or accurate term. It’s my interpretation of some of the behaviors I’ve seen when I’ve asked students to do things differently in classes. Different could range from simply using digital tools to communicate information to having students create and share their work publicly. For the record, I’ve had students tell me they learn more when asked to use digital tools to create content. But I’ve also had them tell me that they would prefer to learn in a traditional, passive manner even though they believe they would learn less. Why? They say it’s more comfortable. Apparently they are willing to learn less and remain comfortable if given the option.

What Does This Mean?

First, go read the report. It will get you thinking.

Second, take a look at Bryan Alexander’s (one of the reports authors) page. One of the things he offers is a great sounding book club. I know I’m gonna start participating in it.

Third, be realistic about what changes you can make in your instruction to support a digitally literate environment. The report outlines three different models and discusses what it means to take them up in practice. You don’t need to shift into content creation mode. It’s a gradual development (I think).

Finally, don’t expect everyone to cheer you on if this isn’t the norm at your university or the particular program you work in. Doing this work means shifting your practice. Not everyone will get it. Some of your students will be very excited but, again, not all of them will. Some will flat out hate it because it is so different that they become uncomfortable. You will be pushing boundaries, and that is what is so very exciting.

One Year Ago Today

Two Years Ago Today



Alexander, B., Adams Becker, S., and Cummins, M. (2016). Digital Literacy: An NMC Horizon Project Strategic Brief. Volume 3.3, October 2016. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

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