Mapping Digital Literacies & Piloting Critical Digital Literacy Instruction in GE Writing Courses, Digital Pedagogy FLC 2014-15

Instructor: Chris Werry, Rhetoric and Writing Studies

Summary: Rhetoric & Writing Studies Professor Chris Werry set out to discover levels of digital literacy amongst undergraduate students in order to address related pedagogical challenges by creating curriculum and providing a data base of resources for writing instructors to draw upon. First, Werry conducted research via surveys, reflections and interviews focused on assessing students’ engagement with and level of sophistication using various digital resources. Surveys also questioned students’ own interest in actually learning how better to use digital skills in school, with a majority indicating a desire for their educations to include instruction in digital tools to search, navigate, research, evaluate, bookmark and annotate. Werry then revised the Course Learning Outcomes for eight sections of RWS 100 to pilot curriculum incorporating digital literacy skills, including specifically focused modules, such as “Search Literacy.” He also created a wiki with tools and resources for instructors to use when teaching these skills, and plans to further research and build on these for wider applications in undergraduate writing programs.

Final report

What I Did

I researched students’ digital literacy practices, attitudes and skills, in order to pilot the introduction of critical digital literacy in first year writing classes, and build a collection of resources for teaching this. Student data was gathered through surveys, reflections and interviews. It was collected from students in first year writing classes, and from students in an upper division RWS course who possess “advanced” digital literacy skills. 125 students were selected to complete paper survey forms containing 60 questions. Of the 125 students, 95 completed the surveys.

The data was generated in order to:

  1. Map students’ digital literacy practices, attitudes and skills
  2. Guide the integration of critical digital literacy skills into RWS100: The Rhetoric of Written Argument
  3. Help the RWS department pilot reconfigured student learning outcomes which include critical digital literacy skills
  4. Support the process of creating online materials and teaching resources to teach critical digital literacy

The main survey focuses on the following questions:

  1. What are students’ most common forms of engagement with social media resources?
  2. Which digital resources are students using most often to read, write, socialize and interact?
  3. What purposes, attitudes and assumptions accompany students’ use of social media resources?
  4. To what extent are our students’ digital literacy practices similar to those documented in recent research studies?
  5. When we compare first year students’ use of social media with those of more experienced, “sophisticated,” upper division undergraduate students, what be seen?
  6. Definitions of digital literacy often include the ability to search, store, tag, annotate, network, curate and analyze texts. To what extent do our students show facility with these skills?
  7. To what degree do our students appear familiar with skills and knowledges integral to critical digital literacy?
  8. To what extent are students interested in learning critical digital literacy skills as part of their general education classes?
  9. Do student uses of new media present “bridging” opportunities, ways of leveraging existing practices in order to support key academic writing/reading/research/thinking skills?

I also developed a template wiki containing tools and resources writing teachers can use to teach critical digital literacy. This platform can be duplicated so many teachers can use the same collection of resources. These teaching resources include material on search literacy, site/author evaluation, rhetorical analysis of web pages, social bookmarking, tagging, annotation, and the curation of online materials for writing and research projects.

How It Went

The data we have generated so far give us useful insights into many of these questions, but only partial glimpses of others. Preliminary findings indicate that first year students use a small number of tools and services often, but rarely use most other tools and services (this contrasts with more experienced, “power users.”) Texting, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat are (at present) by far the most commonly used social media services. A smaller number use Twitter and Tumblr.

First year students far less frequently blog, create content for wikis, post comments to web sites, compose fan fiction, read or contribute to newsgroups/listservs, create web sites, videos or music. Most first year students have limited knowledge of key digital literacy skills such as search, annotation, tagging, bookmarking, curation, web site analysis, web genre knowledge, etc. In this regard SDSU students resemble other students their age in comparable academic institutions.

SDSU students who are older, more sophisticated “power” users of digital media are more skilled in their understanding of web genres, search literacy, and their ability to tag, store and curate material that they can use later in their writing and research. They are more adept at gaining information from social networks, and at finding ways of “bridging” their personal and academic use of social media tools and resources.

When SDSU students do engage in more “advanced” digital literacy practices, such as creating content for a blog or wiki, this is not usually self-sponsored; rather, it is usually because it was required by a teacher.

First year students access news stories primarily through Facebook (40.7%), news aggregator sites such as Yahoo News or Google News (23.26%) or a specialized news site such as CNN or BBC (20.9%).

Students do not appear to have effective strategies for annotation, retrieval & curation of materials they find online. Most use “stand alone” bookmarks. Many paste useful links into MS Word, and some even hand write web addresses on paper. Students do not seem to have many effective strategies for “reading to write” online. This is an issue that could be addressed in several RWS100 assignments.

A little over half our students feel they are not well equipped to evaluate the credibility of web pages, and most students have limited knowledge of how to use the advanced functions on search engines and specialized tools such as google scholar.

Most students (87%) believe undergraduate education should include instruction in how to use digital tools to search, navigate, research, evaluate, bookmark and annotate sites and texts.

What I Learned

This pilot survey confirms some of the “limitations” in student digital literacy identifiable in recent studies and reports with respect to search, annotation, curation, etc. However, preliminary results suggest that these limitations may be as much a function of limited rhetorical knowledge, limited knowledge of print and web genres, and lack of forms of background knowledge often assumed of “digital natives.” They also appear a function of students not being explicitly taught these skills in their earlier education.

Going forward, we would like to build on this pilot and address more ambitious questions, such as: How do first year writing students conceptualize digital literacy? How can teachers move students toward a more aware, reflexive, critical understanding of new media writing and reading? How can writing classes foster digital literacy that helps support key academic writing, reading, research, and thinking skills? How can writing programs expand general education through the addition of critical digital literacy? How can writing programs best develop tools and resources to teach critical digital literacy skills? How can writing teachers draw on work in the digital humanities to support digital literacy? We plan to implement a more complete survey in fall 2015. This will be conducted online, and will include data collected from writing teachers about their experience teaching these new skills.