This article is more than 3 years old

For digitally capable students, the sky’s the limit

Mark Andrews distils learning from a global community of universities working to infuse digital literacy into the curriculum.
This article is more than 3 years old

Mark Andrews is Pedagogical Evangelist in Higher Education (EMEA) at Adobe.

“Students will continue to live, work and study in a digital economy – They must be prepared with the tools they need to succeed,” says Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah.

UK readers may be surprised to discover that the state of Utah is known as one of the US hotbeds of technological innovation, with a tech sector that supports one in seven jobs in the state. Digital literacy is, therefore, a cornerstone of the university’s student employability strategy, with digital communication skills infused across curricula in all subject areas.

Talking to university leaders and educators here in the UK, it’s clear that the demands of the digital economy are high on the agenda for developing thinking on how best to enable student success.

Digital literacy is vital to make an impact in the world today. Across professional fields and industries, people harness digital tools to communicate and persuade, to express their creativity, and to collaborate to solve problems.

If students are to thrive in their careers, and contribute to creating a better world for future generations – and many of us work in education because we are driven by exactly that aspiration – they will need to be digitally capable.

But when so much of modern life is mediated by technology, and the technology itself is constantly evolving, it’s not straightforward for educators to decide which technologies should be the focus, how to introduce the issues generated by digital saturation in the classroom, or what might be the best way of equipping students with digital knowhow.

The thorny issue for university leaders is less the why, than the how. How can digital capability be made a reality, at scale, throughout a whole institution? Adobe’s Creative Campus programme enables us to partner with institutions across the world who are grappling with this challenge, and who look to digital literacy as a conduit for making some of the more nebulous skills – communication, creativity, problem-solving – tangible in curricula.

Digital literacy – beyond competence

A common thread among these institutions is that digital literacy is understood as being much more than simple competence with specific digital tools as an end in itself. Digital literacy is the purposeful use of digital tools for pedagogic purposes – to create something new, to present an argument or position, or to shed light on a different way of looking at a problem.

Developing digital skills are very much part of the equation. There’s a lot of evidence now that while students might be highly literate in some technologies, such as social media, this doesn’t prepare them for using a range of digital tools in the classroom or their wider lives.

But education strategies that integrate digital literacy are much more about giving students the space to experiment, and the agency to explore. Digital learning officer Cory Stokes at Utah describes it as “giving students the power to express their innate creativity by giving them creative tools.”

At Swinburne University of Technology, the first Adobe Creative Campus in Australia, the strategic digital literacy programme is underpinned by a curriculum framework that gives equal weight to technology literacy, information literacy and critical literacy. In addition to students learning to select and use the right technologies, they learn about data and knowledge production in a digital world, and to reflectively question the social context in which digital artefacts are made and the ethics of who controls and consumes them.

Grounding digital literacy in wider pedagogic objectives can open up all kinds of educational possibilities, and lead to some surprising results.

Make the intangible tangible

In our recent Skills to Thrive research with Wonkhe, we asked about the skills that UK educators consider to be vital for students to thrive in their future lives. The five that came out on top – communication, critical thinking, problem solving, resilience, and adaptability – speak to educators’ understanding of how to equip students with skills for a complex world.

But these skills have limited meaning in the abstract – They are grounded in disciplinary knowledge and professional practice, and manifested in specific learning contexts. Frequently, while educators have confidence that students are developing these skills through their higher education experience, they are not nearly as tangible to students – or to future employers.

An approach that infuses digital literacy can help students to evidence and showcase other in-demand skills – for example, developing an interactive app prototype in Adobe XD, or research posters or presentations in Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator – and in this journey seeing with greater clarity their own skills development trajectory.

Equity of access to digital capital

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic it has become clear that students have differential access to digital capital – the technologies, connectivity and knowhow that enable rich digital engagement with learning. Universities have responded by equipping less advantaged students with hardware and dongles to support remote learning.

But this can only ever be a sticking plaster. If digital literacy is a core skill for the contemporary workplace, infused throughout the higher education curriculum, means must be found to bridge the digital divide, otherwise it will only widen and impact students’ future career opportunities.

At Winston-Salem State University, the value of investment in digital literacy is twofold: to provide all students access to digital tools; enabling all learners to communicate more powerfully and impactfully. And secondly to integrate these tools into the curriculum. For example, at a compulsory first year experience course students use Adobe Spark to create presentations on a tenet of social justice.

Support student-centred learning

Digital tools such as Adobe Creative Cloud can support active and problem-based learning – the modes of learning that encourage curiosity and creative thinking. The tools themselves are the enabler, not the goal; because they are shared, having this common set of tools and technologies enables learners and collaborators to focus on their project, solving the problem, communicating the story and not the technology making for a powerful suite for collaboration across physical boundaries.

A digital “maker space” within which any learner (or indeed faculty and staff) can tell their story leading to deep and meaningful innovation within programmes and modules. Digital tools offer an enormous range of options for designing pedagogical activities – such as creating podcasts, videos, apps or even augmented reality experiences.

At Teesside University, pro vice chancellor Mark Simpson talks about “digital empowerment” of staff and students as part of the university’s future facing learning strategy. “This is not about forcing digital where it doesn’t belong,” he says. “As an academic you have a range of tools to be used in teaching, and some may be digital. If you give clever people good technology they’ll run with it and create things you couldn’t imagine.”

Resilient pedagogy

“Resilience” has some claim to being the word of the decade – it speaks to an awareness of the pace of social change, the potential for the unexpected to happen and, in light of this, the necessity of developing a core of values, goals and inner strength that can help individuals and communities absorb that change, weather the storm and come out the other side.

As universities emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, much will have been learned about the resilience of existing pedagogic models – not only the sustainability of particular pedagogic practices, but about the affective and behavioural aspects of student engagement under conditions of stress, the role of the co-curriculum in scaffolding students’ learning and the realities of inequities in access to learning.

Infusing support for digital literacy is a necessary element of any resilient pedagogy strategy: as the needs and expectations of learners change, and flexibility becomes the norm, digital tools offer the means to both enable hybrid learning and teaching, and to equip students with skills that will last.

The technologies themselves will evolve, It therefore makes it key that our learners develop confidence in experimenting with technology and finding out how to make it work for one’s purposes. As Sid Dobrin, professor and chair of the English department at Clemson University in South Carolina argues: “To deny students access to the tools that are intuitive, to the tools that in many fields are industry-leading, then basically we’re telling our students, ‘we don’t want you to be literate in a literate world.’”

The Adobe Creative Campus community brings together higher education educators and institutions who are enthused by the possibilities of embedding digital literacy as pedagogic practice. We believe that digital technology can create opportunities for students to collaborate, exercise their curiosity, and tackle unfamiliar problems in creative ways.

This article is published in association with Adobe. Learn more about Adobe and digital literacy here. For more details please get in touch with Mark Andrews, Pedagogical Evangelist, Higher Education (EMEA) at Adobe.


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