One of the paradoxes of higher education is the gap between students’ fluency in technology and their ability to use digital tools to further their own learning. College students may spend most of their waking hours “connected,” but they spend most of their online hours socializing and consuming entertainment. They don’t necessarily know the best way to use mobile devices for educational purposes.
They lack, in the parlance of our day, “digital literacy.”
Enhancing Digital Literacy on Mobile Devices
The New Media Consortium’s 2016 report, “Digital Literacy: An NMC Horizon Project Strategic Brief,” based on a survey of more than 450 instructors, staff members and leaders in higher education, calls for a more deliberate, cohesive approach to digital literacy.
One major tenet is teaching students how to go from media consumers to media creators, while teaching faculty how to develop technology-enhanced content that pushes learning forward. This approach reflects what employers say they need: individuals who can think critically about problems and take an active role in solving them.
Yet other research suggests that institutions may need to do more to ensure that students, even digital natives, have the support they need to leverage educational technology effectively. A group of University of Central Florida instructional designers surveyed students about their use of mobile devices and found that of the 15 most frequently used apps, most had nothing to do with education — social networking apps, not surprisingly, were the most popular, followed by music and social media apps. But students do use their mobile devices, especially their smartphones, for learning. They research topics discussed in class; access course materials; communicate with instructors and fellow students; and use institutional, educational and productivity apps.
In the UCF research, few instructors required students to use mobile devices for assignments. But when they did, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Students often encountered logistical and technical issues with course-related apps, and they didn’t have ready access to support. This echoes the discrepancy about students’ fluency in digital media. Requiring students to use mobile devices doesn’t mean they’ll instinctively leverage them effectively, nor can they always troubleshoot when problems arise. That’s an important finding for faculty and IT departments.
As mobile devices become more integrated into course work, staff will need to provide adequate training and tech support for both students and instructors.
Best Practices for Improving Digital Literacy
Initiatives like these are always a work in progress. As NMC notes in its report, members of the higher education community have different visions of what digital literacy looks like. It may mean one thing to a literature professor and something else to an engineering expert. Yet, as one respondent noted, what we think of as “digital literacy” is, in the modern world, simply “literacy,” and it encompasses a wide range of skills and applications.
So, how do we get there?
NMC recommends four best practices:
- Engage in strategic implementations
- Focus on students as makers
- Build industry-education partnerships
- Develop smart collaborations
Together, these practices can lead to learning spaces and experiences that are rich, diverse and deeply rooted in real-world applications. Such spaces may be inside or outside a classroom, and such experiences may differ significantly from traditional approaches to pedagogy.
In this new realm are compelling ways to engage students in the skills they need to become effective citizens, employees and community members.
This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.