Digital Literacy Across the Curriculum: Is it desirable? Is it possible?

December 11, 2009 by

I spent a few years as a graduate fellow in a Writing Across the Curriculum program, and in my current full-time position as an instructional technologist I continue to collaborate frequently with WAC. In the time I’ve spent in close contact with the WAC program, I’ve come to find great value in some of the principles that lie at its core:

  1. The ability to write is of central importance to nearly all fields of study
  2. The various kinds of writing that are valuable in different disciplines can only be taught by practitioners of those diciplines
  3. There is a close connection between the way one writes and the way one thinks, such that explicit focus on writing techniques can result in increased academic clarity in general
  4. These considerations demonstrate that the position of writing is too integral to academic study for the teaching of writing to be the responsibility of composition programs and English departments alone

WAC programs are then organized in such a way as to provide tangible support for the teaching of writing, in the form of lesson plans, faculty development, pedagogical resources, and so on. And WAC’s mission is explicitly pan-departmental: one of the central tenets of the WAC philosophy is that students will only really learn to write if writing is meaningfully integrated throughout the entire curriculum.

I want to take seriously the idea that the WAC point of view can and should be applied, more or less wholesale, to the teaching of digital literacy.

There are a lot of problems to be worked out. First, I’d like to explore the extent to which the argument behind WAC can be adapted for digital literacy. Different disciplines require different kinds of engagement with the written word; likewise, we should be prepared to enumerate the different ways that the disciplines will require digital fluency (ranging from software know-how to programming skills to content filtering to multimedia composition to comfort with networks). I’d also like to flesh out the kinds of concrete support systems that would be required to make a digital analog to WAC function, be it faculty development or technology-intensive sections or whatever. And there will be the problem of politics: how do you argue to reluctant faculty and administrators that digital literacy education is as important as writing education? Here too I hope that we can look to WAC for strategies.

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About Boone Gorges: Handsome. Cunning. Wisconsinite.

10 Responses to Digital Literacy Across the Curriculum: Is it desirable? Is it possible?

  1. Erin Bell on December 16, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Taking from #2 and #4 on your list of WAC values (and maybe subbing “writing” for “computing”), I think some professors are happy to let librarians (or tutors, or whoever) do basic technology instruction, just as they are fine letting English departments teach basic college writing skills. To some extent, this makes sense since class time is limited and the core need is to focus on content. By the time undergrads have finished a few semesters and begin taking upper division courses in their major (where WAC usually kicks in I think), they should be ready for advanced, content-specific writing and criticism.

    However, when it comes to technology training, it seems to end with whatever is the most rudimentary skill needed to survive (maybe attaching a file to an email or using MS Office and EndNote). What if we took a similar approach to WAC and said by the time you are taking that upper division humanities course, you should be comfortable writing for the web and have at least a basic understanding of HTML/CSS, servers, etc? These prereqs could be handled outside the department, but then built upon with more advanced work that is directly related to the field of study.

    As someone who provides instructional and tech support for digital projects in the classroom, I think the biggest barrier to making those projects even better is that most students have absolutely zero experience with this stuff so they make predictable (and forgivable) mistakes. They lack the judgment that comes with being able to use/build/evaluate digital objects and resources, and often they lack the vocabulary needed to discuss it. And most of the time, we rob them of the valuable learning experience that is making something, breaking it on accident, and then figuring out how to fix it (who is really willing to give their students that kind of access?). The worst part is, they could accomplish so much with a one semester course in “College Computing” (or something) that it would literally open up a new world for instructors that want to leverage technology in their classrooms and research. With continued emphasis in specified courses (Computing Across the Curriculum?) digital content creation by students in higher education would blossom.

    I could go on and on, but basically, I love this idea, and look forward to hearing more.

  2. Doug Lambert on December 18, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this post all week. What I came to this morning is to break down the elements of literacy. As I see it, literacy includes reading, writing and an essential “arithmetic” of identifying the audience to whom you are writing. Perhaps that could be called “voicing” or “contextualization”.

    So for digital literacy, I’m wondering what would be the parallels to reading, writing and understanding of audience? Perhaps Familiarity/Savvy/Up-to-dateness, Application and Programming skills, and “Ability to synthesize different digital tools to solve problems”?

    This topic sparks threads I’m interested, including backing up and asking what we want to do and why with digital technology, digital technology as a set of “tools” as opposed to an end in and of itself, and also notion of computer “fearlessness”, which I’ve observed as the essential element between the e-literate and the less so… looking forward to talking about some of this. Thanks.

  3. Boone Gorges on December 22, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Thanks so much for the feedback. My proposal is very much about brainstorming a provocative topic, so I’m very happy to hear your ideas about how to expand, correct, and hone the central idea.

    A theme that I detect running through both Erin’s and Doug’s comments is that the kinds of skills I’m pushing here are not monolithic. Though I didn’t stress it in my blog post, I couldn’t agree more. Doug, your suggestions for how we might describe different kinds of “digital literacies” are a great start. Looking for direct correlates of traditional literacies in the digital, as you have, is a nice political strategy, since it’s more likely that you’ll convince a large proportion of the academy of the importance of digital literacy if you can show how it is, at its core, made up largely of the traditional literacies that we all already value. I don’t want to deemphasize the literacies that may be totally new to digital media, though: literacies surrounding mashups (both consuming and creating); understanding of how technologies like search engines filter and mitigate our access to knowledge; the effect on knowledge creation of massive networking; etc.

    In any case, it’d be extremely helpful to come up with a sort of hierarchy of abilities that we think are valuable for students. Here’s a model from my own campus, Queens College: WAC spearheaded a project to formalize the college’s goals surrounding the teaching of writing, framed by the question “What do we want our students to be able to do with writing by the time they graduate?” The document was then ratified by the Academic Senate, lending it a certain wait and officialness. (The problem with making such a document for digital literacies is, of course, that their constant evolution makes it more difficult to get a good sense of what’s really valuable and what’s just trendy.)

    Erin, I love your suggestion that some of the skills involved might be quantified as “basic” and thus taught in a required, dedicated lower-level class. This isn’t so different from the idea of a compulsory composition or “Introduction to College Writing” course for freshman, which is already in place at many schools.

  4. Boone Gorges on December 22, 2009 at 9:58 am

    Ooh, and one more thing: A piece in the NYT yesterday made me think that maybe an idea like mine is picking up steam: The piece is surprisingly nuanced, and it gives some good references for work (like Snow’s The Two Cultures) that might serve as a nice theoretical framework for a digital literacy movement.

  5. fvanhorne on December 22, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    As a (recent) librarian for a for-profit technical school, I applaud this idea. So many of our students struggled both with basic literacy and with digital literacy. As the librarian, a large part of my job was tutoring students not only on how to construct sentences, but technology instruction as well. That school was also a special case, as so many students had been out of school for so long and had forgotten much of what they’d learned in high school. An integrated literacy approach would be far more effective in improving those students’ educations. I look forward to this session.

  6. jamesdcalder on December 30, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    Boone, as you know, I am really interested in this idea. I think its something that most (if not all) THATCampers would agree with. Obviously, as shown by the other comments, I think there is a lot of discussion to be had about what Digital Literacy Across the Curriculum would entail. One thing I would like to think about is, if we created some sort of document outlining what this would be, how would we go about implementing something like this? What types of institutions would be willing to try this type of thing? Ect., etc. I don’t what, what does everyone think?

  7. Lewis Ulman on January 1, 2010 at 10:03 am

    Hi, Boone. You might be interested in using the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN – to document digital literacy across the curriculum at various institutions. I don’t think we have any structured collection of digital literacy narratives tagged by discipline in the archive, but you could hold events on campuses to collect such narratives and preserve them in the archive to help document curricular arguments.

  8. Boone Gorges on January 12, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Great link, Lewis.

    Jim, it’d be great to walk away with something concrete that acted a sort of action plan. The conceptual problem, though, is that it takes years to get any real plan moving in a university setting. The kinds of literacies that we’re interested in here, though, are such that they are constantly changing. Ten years ago it would have been a no-brainer that knowledge of HTML tags would be a must-have, but it’s not clear whether that’s true anymore. (Certainly you don’t have to know assembly code these days, which would have been an absolute necessity for the digital literacy of 30 years ago.) So any list of goals that we create might have to be dual-layered: one layer containing the specific literacies that we want students to develop, and another containing the reasoning that led to the first layer. That way, when technology changes in such a way that the first-order skills are different, or are ranked differently in terms of importance, we’ll have a consistent methodology for rethinking the goals.

  9. Boone Gorges on January 13, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    While I’m taking notes here in this comments section, here’s a brief but potentially helpful articulation of “21st century literacies” from NCTE:

  10. Amanda French on January 16, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    Boone, as you know, I’m interested in this, too — recently, working on the “Digital History Across the Curriculum” project (said curriculum is for a very small graduate program in Archives and Public History), I looked around for some guidance on what digital skills grad students in the humanities *ought* to have, but I had no luck. Jeff McClurken and I differ on whether to teach HTML to grad students in history, for instance — I say yes, but I don’t have any real proof that the reasoning that leads me to think that is valid.

    Which is just to say that I’d be very interested in contributing to a document of the sort you describe.

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