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Supporting Information Age Literacy in Higher Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

An enlightening March 20, 2012 post on the Edudemic website by Kim Stavropoulos outlined the eight essential skills needed for students to be leaders in the Information Age (IA). While Stavropoulos based her list on the skills needed for students to be successful in the popular field of digital marketing, they are nonetheless valuable to examine as a general focus for higher education students. Here is her list, with commentary focused through the lens of digital literacy, and suggestions for how the development of these skills can be supported in higher education.

1. Passion for digital
KS: "Being up to date with technological information is key and includes understanding the basics of desktop computing, computer security, HTML, search engine optimization, web analytics and content management systems" (Stavropoulos, Edudemic, 20 March, 2012).

Literacy Analysis: Understanding that we live and interact in a digital world and being confident and comfortable leveraging digital technologies to live, work and play is one of the core elements of being a literate individual in the IA. In addition, because of the rapid pace of technological change, an individual needs to be self-motivated enough to continually explore and self-teach new hardware and software as they come online. Without this "passion for digital," an individual is quickly left behind.

Support in Higher Ed: Full integration of technology in the classroom and an expectation that students will use the latest tools and mediums to research, synthesize, and present information is critical to inspiring them to be full participants in digital life. Instructors also need to model these behaviors by using the latest technology in their own communication, teaching, and research, and through their expectations for students to use and share new technologies, as appropriate, in class.

2. Analytical thinking and application
KS: "Students need to be able to scan and sift through information and determine what the important information is, and what should be omitted" (Stavropoulos, Edudemic, 20 March, 2012).

Literacy Analysis: Living in a constant barrage of media and information through smart phones, the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, etc., it is important for students to not only become proficient at evaluating information, but also at monitoring and controlling their exposure to the constant onslaught.

Support in Higher Ed: Creating assignments which require students to search for and evaluate information from a wide variety of sources, both digital and print, is one way to begin to develop an understanding for the usefulness and veracity of information. Requiring the use of specific sources and media is one way in which faculty can model the information evaluation process for students. In addition, targeted lessons which introduce students to high-quality sources within the field help support an understanding of what that information should look, sound, or feel like.

3. Critical thinking
KS: "Students and working professionals, in any field, need to be able to think for themselves, learn on their own, understand and assess facts and figures and engage and interact positively within a team environment" (Stavropoulos, Edudemic, 20 March, 2012).

Literacy Analysis: This skill combines several different aspects of IA literacy into one. Critical thinking and information evaluation are skills that need to be cultivated in an information-rich world. In addition, the ability to function within a team, both locally and at a distance is critical in a system which functions on collaborative meaning making.

Support in Higher Ed: Engaging collaborative teams of students in problem-based or project-based learning with authentic tasks, clients, and outcomes helps to accomplish these goals. Realistic interactions within a team and with clients helps create accountability, forces students to think creatively to solve problems, and promotes teamwork.

4. Communication skills
KS: "Effective and succinct verbal and written communication skills in a medium in which people do not have the time to delve into heavy and convoluted content, is essential" (Stavropoulos, Edudemic, 20 March, 2012).

Literacy Analysis: In a mixed-media world students need to develop proficiency in all modes of communication, spoken, written, and emerging digital ones. Being literate in the traditional sense (reading and writing) is inadequate when information is received through a wide array of channels and needs to be disseminated back through those channels. There is no single best type of literacy in the IA.

Support in Higher Ed: Instructors should utilize mixed media in their course-related communication, in the presentation of class material, and in the requirements for student work. These modes of communication should include traditional writing and oral communication, as well as digital media such as Twitter, video, podcasting, web curation, and new modes as they arise.

5. Understanding the "bigger picture"
KS: "Students will garner success from their understanding of the bigger picture" (Stavropoulos, Edudemic, 20 March, 2012).

Literacy Analysis: Digital literacy, in particular, is integral to almost all other human systems because of its ability to facilitate communication and interaction among those systems. Our social, political, economic, education, and other societal systems rely on, or are strongly influenced by, technology, and having an understanding of this interaction is essential to functioning in the IA.

Support in Higher Ed: Faculty should strive to provide students with an understanding of the interactions between complex systems and subsystems that affect areas of relevance to the content of their courses. Requiring student work which explores these complex interactions also helps students to gain a working knowledge of the "bigger picture."

 6. Accountability
KS: "Be accountable for your actions and learn to accept change in a fast-paced digital environment in which transformation is inevitable and necessary" (Stavropoulos, Edudemic, 20 March, 2012).

Literacy Analysis: The transparency and easy access to information available online makes it possible for those with strong literacy skills to exercise a great deal of power, and students need to be aware of the possible effects of that power – personal, cultural, economic, political, etc.

Support in Higher Ed: Professors should work to make students aware of the complex power relationships that are at play in the digital world by making explicit the relationships of power that are at play within a given area of study and the appropriate and inappropriate uses of such power.

7. Be solutions-oriented
KS: "The digital arena focuses on solutions-oriented approaches to business problems; maintain enthusiasm in your approach and aim to provide sustainable technological solutions to business goals, with passion and consistency" (Stavropoulos, Edudemic, 20 March, 2012).

Literacy Analysis: Digital tools are solution-oriented. Their purpose is to create and disseminate information, which is also the primary function of most IA systems. Students must develop proficiency in using digital tools, critical thinking, and big picture knowledge to craft innovative solutions to real problems.

Support in Higher Ed: Faculty can support this development by designing lessons and assignments which require students to use real technologies to develop solutions to real problems, for real clients.

8. Find exceptional mentors to inspire you
KS: "Seek out encouraging and established people in the digital world who will willingly monitor and assess your continued growth with positive and constructive feedback" (Stavropoulos, Edudemic, 20 March, 2012).

Literacy Analysis: IA literacy can only be developed by actively participating in social interactions and by using technology tools. Because computers and the Internet are tools that require user input and interactivity in order to work, learning about them requires a learner to be an active participant in their own knowledge formation. Many new technologies also require and facilitate social interactions, making them perfect vehicles for participating in virtual communities of practice.

Support in Higher Ed: Students can be encouraged to participate in online communities that allow them to engage with real practitioners in a given field or to work with actual clients through communication media. They can also engage in online mentoring in regards to developing technical skills that will support all of the above. Faculty should direct students to both types of resources or require participation in active professional digital networks in the field under consideration.

Further Considerations
While it is unlikely that you will be able to incorporate all of the above suggestions into your classes immediately, adding one or two can make a difference in helping your students become well-rounded 21st Century leaders. These skills are all excellent reflections of the types of literacy that is critical to being a successful member of the Information Age, and they are applicable to any field. There are, however, several other skills needed to be a literate individual in an information-based society. For further reading about how you can support the development of 21st Century literacy skills in your students, see the article, Technological Literacy as a Designed Experience.

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