Digital Literacy is Dead, Long Live Digital Literacy

Originally presented at OUCC and CANHEIT 2016 as an Adobe Spark page, this presentation asks how do we effectively engage with our users to communicate with them about Information Security, Being Creative with Technology, and general “Good Housekeeping”?

Header image by Bonnie Tung, OCAD U Digital Painting and Expanded Animation Student, OCAD U GradEx 101.

How do we effectively engage with our users to communicate with them about Information Security, Being Creative with Technology, and general “Good Housekeeping”?

How do we gain a greater understanding of their needs so they can lead a vibrant academic life? One of the underlying, underserved and misunderstood missions of an IT department is around engaging its users: and not just communicating about the inner workings of IT and the services it provides, but about digital technology in general. Often we fail to understand the ever changing eco-system of users and their needs. Learn how to connect (and how not to connect) with faculty, students and staff, leverage your LMS to build On-Boarding Courses, run Security Awareness Campaigns, BYOD, grease the wheels of creativity and engagement, and attempt to do all the things.

What is Digital Literacy?

A digitally literate person will possess a range of digital skills, knowledge of the basic principles of computing devices, skills in using computer networks, an ability to engage in online communities and social networks while adhering to behavioral protocols. – Wikipedia

Here, George Siemens talks about how Digital Literacy is important specifically for faculty:

George Siemens on Digital Literacy
Trudy Elmore, OCAD U Digital Painting and Expanded Animation, GradEx 101

Digital Literacy is undead.

When I was growing up, I relied on books, manuals and video resources to learn about computers. TV Ontario’s “Bits and Bytes” program with Luba Goy and Billy Van was a formal introduction to computer basics for the average person. But I’m not your average person.

Bits and Bytes with Luba Goy and Billie Van on TVOntario.
Via, Commodore History.

Perhaps this is an old idea.

We all want our users to understand what a computer is, how it works, so with practice one can have an intuitive relationship with it. My high school computer science teacher lived in a binary universe of users and programmers: perhaps also the world set up by the movie TRON.

There is a new category of creators called “makers”, which is frankly is a better category. Once America defined itself on a being a producer culture until it switched to being a consumer culture in the post war boomer era. Perhaps it’s swinging back.

Maker culture is the new Programmer?

Absolutely. The idea of a programmer is just being framed in updated terms for this generation. It’s a more inclusive, broad term that can be applied to Internet of Things programming with Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Processing, Scratch and all sorts of different contexts. It can apply to 3D Printing with Makerbots and other tools.

Compute Canada Raspberry Jam @ CANHEIT 2016

In some ways, nothing has changed.

Generally speaking, we use some of the same methodology today, with YouTube,, Blogs, Google, Codeacademy, O’Reilly, MOOCs from EdX,, manuals and training sites. With the internet, there is mass sharing of content through blogs, Github, pastebin and 3D maker sites. However, in spite of the deluge of material, it’s clear that people don’t always gravitate to these resources.

“There is a difference between being digitally native and digitally literate. My new students find out quickly that their high degree of facility with cell phones and social media is simply not enough.” – April O’Brien, Ph.D. student in Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design and a Graduate Teacher of Record at Clemson University

Digital Literacy is undead because it’s happening everywhere and nowhere.

Digital Literacy is not always in an active, planned, goal orientated way: at least not by IT Services organizations. I’m sure that Librarians feel this way sometimes: the Library always existed, but for whatever reason, people chose not to take advantage of it.

What are the essential elements of Digital Literacy?

Doug Belshaw has a very detailed framework “8 Elements of Digital Literacy” for what it means to be “digitally literate”, but I’m going to boil it down to what I think the Top 3.

1. How to learn, engage and use with digital tools and networks.

This is a mash up of Belshaw’s Cognitive and Confident elements.

2. How to be constructive and creative with those tools and networks, and how to express new ideas to an audience.

Here are Belshaw’s Creative, Constructive and Communicative elements.

3. How to demonstrate a criticality towards how those tools operate in our society.

And finally, Belshaw’s Critical and Civic elements here in one idea.

IT Professionals can chafe at the user who does not understand the basics of file system management or backup. Or who succumbs to a phishing scheme with a crude looking web form. But they are missing the point: that is the least sophisticated level of digital literacy, use of the tools.

“Despite the widespread agreement on the importance of digital media literacy, training in the supporting skills […] the lack of formal training is being offset through professional development or informal learning, but we are far from seeing digital media literacy as a norm.”

– 2014 NMC Horizon Report

It is easy to despair over our users being caught by malware or who neglect to back up their data. It’s sometimes harder to see how sophisticated and evolved our users are. We become more concerned about the mechanics of low level use of the tools, rather than how sophisticated they are.

“This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that digital literacy is less about tools and more about thinking, and thus skills and standards based on tools and platforms have proven to be somewhat ephemeral.”

– 2014 NMC Horizon Report
Jean de Mers, “Conspicuous Consumption”, OCAD U Illustration Student, GradEx 101

How do IT Services organizations engage in Digital Literacy?

1. By providing access to tools and services

2. By providing training and support

3. By providing strategic leadership to the academic and administrative leadership of our institutions

Providing tools is the meat and potatoes of IT Services work. We consult, recommend, and purchase computers, software, subscribe to online services, and then we deploy and support them. We play well in this space and this is what we often benchmark. However, we sometimes struggle to provide good training and support.

Herein lies problem. It’s a challenge to meet Digital Literacy Goal #2 (being creative with the tools), and #3 (being critical) seems very difficult indeed. Let’s take a deeper look at the ways we engage our users.

Is engendering creativity and criticality with the tools within the scope of an IT Services organization?

Approach #1: Laptop Programs at OCAD U

Our data shows that actively supporting a BYOD program at your institution vastly helps students.

OCAD U’s Laptop Program provides software and support for students bringing their own laptops to OCAD U for their learning and instruction in art and design. Laptop are the primary computers used on campus, in specific courses, studios and open areas between classes.

Students buy a laptop, preferrably an OCAD U recommend laptop (see below), or use the laptop they already own if it meets our minimum requirements.

We support students on campus through a IT Services Help Desk, including troubleshooting, software imaging support and on-campus Apple repair support

While we always hire IT people with creative backgrounds, we’re seldom able to provide in-depth assistance to students looking for specific application support help.

Here we’re providing tools and technology: something that IT departments are used to doing. So assisting our students become more digitally literate, but we’re focused on access to tools at this level. However, it’s effective: see the graphs below.

We also have a Faculty Laptop Program, which has been very successful, but not in all the same ways as the students.

Approach #2: Self-directed Digital Skills Building. Statistics

Almost two-thirds of students use, and clearly their use is connected to curricular cycles.

OCAD U adopted more than 3 years ago when it became clear that the traditional formal TA led tools training delivery model was not working: students had different levels of preparedness and complained about either the pace was too slow or too quick. Logins and Videos Watched for 2015-2016

The good news is that students are working hard to learn Adobe Illustrator and Rhino, areas that they think they are weak in.

We’re adding Solidworks for the Industrial Design students this year in response to demand for it from the students.

Approach #3: On-Boarding Courses

When paired with face-to-face events, on-boarding courses for students work well. It’s another story for faculty.

After being introduced to the idea of “on-boarding courses” we thought we would build one for students in our Laptop Program for two reasons. First, we needed a way to introduce students to the Laptop Program and build awareness of services, and teach them how to backup their data and stay secure. Second, we needed a place to put information about our Apple on Campus discounts for students that was behind some authentication. So we built a course in Instructure Canvas, and provided a self-enrol link. You can see a public version of this course below.

We put a lot of work into the course with videos about the program, and even the staff.

79% of students would recommend the course to First Year incoming students at OCAD U

Students found the course useful to learn about the Laptop Program, how to get help and were less interested in backup and security.

Students were not interested in the faculty “Sage Advice” videos.

We don’t necessarily know why. How about faculty?

Faculty don’t necessarily watch videos about their peers.

I made a series of videos with faculty talking about their teaching practice. These have not caught on like was hoping: only 278 views on YouTube.

Faculty are significantly less motivated to learn in this format. Why? We’re not sure, but it probably has something to do with generational preferences and what they’re accustomed to.

Approach #4: 1-on-1 and Small Group Student Events

Students are much less interested in small group or 1-on-1 events.

We’ve tried two experiments over the past year to attempt to engage with students: IT SALON, and we participate in the Long Night Against Procrastination.

We pursued IT SALON at the encouragement of faculty, Chairs and Deans. It didn’t work.

The group sessions tended to be a bust: they were too general. Students seem motivated by the assignment at hand right now, and if this tutorial doesn’t relate at just the right time, it doesn’t work.

I learned a lot about our curriculum by working 1-on-1 with students. Many of the 1-on-1 sessions were with First Year students, and I was able to effectively assist them. However, many of the problems they encountered were with the curriculum design in a particular course. Thus I learned, I was working at the wrong end of the problem.

The Long Night Against Procrastination works well for students. It’s just not a great platform for application support or assisting with digital literacy.

What we learned from the Long Night Against Procrastination is that students who participate are usually in their advanced years of study, and it is very difficult to lend them direct support.

Something that I would like to try in the new year, is meeting students where they already are: in student driven organizations who want to learn IT Skills. Or coordinating with academic events.

Approach #5: Cybersecurity Design Competition

Awards competitions require and engage digital literacy skills at all levels.

In 2015, OCAD U ran a Cybersecurity Awareness raising poster design competition for students. Really, it was an unbelievable success, with more students providing great ideas to fuel interesting ways of approaching the problem of keeping students secure.

The Canvas Course was the perfect way to engage the students: their competition submissions were uploaded as an Assignment in Canvas (LMS) with a hard deadline, and it was a perfect platform to communicate details about the competition.

We worked directly with the Associate Dean of Design who was familiar with running design competitions and understood well how to structure them, and how to motivate students.

Part of what made the course so successful was that it had an intrinsic motivator (cash prizes) but also engaged the higher Digital Literacy functions of the students: they had to employ their creativity and criticality in order to win the competition.

Adobe Design Achievement Awards

OCAD U students have been semi-finalists, finalists and winners in the Adobe Design Achievement Awards. The Awards allow students to be recognized internationally for their work.

Lessons Learned

Our graduating students are highly digital literate, just perhaps not in the way that IT Services departments wish or intend. By and large, that’s a good thing.

In fact, our students are far more digitally literate than we could hope. Our students are making amazing work. They don’t always know how to backup their data or stay secure on the internet, but they have figured out to do a great number of other things with their laptops, software, creativity and a critical eye. We forget the generational conditions of our audience and their learning habits: they want to play, and are less concerned with Bits and Bytes. Who can blame people for not understanding the incomplete IT systems we support: even the best have confusing user-interfaces and sometimes fail.

Nicolle Lalonde, Women’s Work: Lady Ava Lovelace. Illustration Student, OCAD U GradEx 101

Strategies that have extrinsic motivators (marks, money, awards, public accolades) as well as intrinsic motivators work best.

The Identity Crisis Security Awareness competition is a good example of this. Students could engage using Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, as well as higher level digital literacy skills such as being creative and critical at the same time. Students could claim ownership over an idea and see it to completion.

Meaghan Way, The Architecture of Escapism. Illustration Student, OCAD U GradEx 101

Faculty and curriculum best convey the higher order creativity and criticality required for full digital literacy.

IT Services organizations can provide strategy, ideas and leadership, but we cannot inspire students, or create learning communities like the faculty do. And really, it’s not our mandate in spite of all our best intentions. Thus, it’s best to embed ourselves in the curriculum development process with faculty, Chairs and Deans. I participate in curriculum planning processes, and I’m also a part of a number of Senate sub-committees. We should ask how technology will be used in this course? How can we support it? How will it evolve over time? How can we partner with faculty to meet some of our goals?

Consult our faculty and staff as deeply as our students and develop strategies to engage and assist them.

It’s clear that we know much more about students needs than faculty or staff needs. We also know which strategies with students work well, and why. It’s because we ask them. In our Digital Campus plan, we’re starting a “Focus on Faculty” strategy to learn more about what faculty value, and where they want assistance in meeting their professional development goals. As well, we need to invest more time with our staff to learn about their barriers, and make them more productive.

Thank you.

And thanks to the OCAD U students for making wonderful work. I’ve tried to provide credit and attribution where possible.