Digital Literacy Summer Camp
My week in Chicago with the digital literacy glitterati.
Monday morning, July 11. It felt like the first day of a new school year. Except that I was waking up in an apartment that wasn’t mine, in a city that I didn’t live in.
Did you know Chicago was originally a swamp? Or that the name Chicago is a French bastardization of the Miami-Illinois word shikaakwa, which means “smelly onion” (garlic or wild onions, to be precise)? I learned this in one of our morning sessions on Day 1. I’ve been coming to Chicago for years, but somehow no one had ever told me this. It was, quite literally, news to me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My first day of the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy (SIDL), which in its tenth year is now officially the longest-running institute of its kind in the US, began with a bicycle ride on Chicago’s Lakefront Trail. I must confess I never fully understood how amazing this trail was until I used it for commuting up to National Louis University in the Loop nearly every day on my bike. I knew of the iconic Lakeshore Drive, of course, and I had seen runners and cyclists meandering alongside the highway on my previous visits to the Windy City.
Until you’ve experienced a trail in all its granularity and inescapable materiality, you can’t fully appreciate it. My favorite part of the Lakefront Trail is how at regular intervals in its nearly 20-mile length there are two paths, one for walkers and runners, the other designated exclusively for cyclists. This makes for a much better (and safer) experience for everyone involved. As Fran, one of my fellow campers and a longtime Chicago resident put it, “whatever you do, don’t walk or stand on the bike path; these are men my age wearing way too much Lycra and going far too fast. They will mow you down indiscriminately.”
Like my daily experience commuting along the Lakefront Trail and learning new tidbits about the Windy City, my week at Digital Literacy Summer Camp could also be characterized as a fresh encounter with something I thought I knew well enough already. The week was filled with experiences and ideas that at first seemed familiar, almost like an intellectual déjà vu (where have I heard this concept before?), but that surfaced with a freshness and vigor that was at times completely new to me.
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For example, I have been working with and around digital literacy—as a concept, as a set of practices, as a method of inquiry, and more—for several years now. While I would hesitate to call myself an “expert,” what with all the baggage and ego posturing that term entails, I feel confident talking about the concept in virtually any milieu. I’ve written about it, I’ve presented on it. I even gave a workshop on digital literacy and racism at the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) annual meeting in Minneapolis this past June.
But the Summer Institute was an entirely new experience for me. I learned about vulnerability in teaching, how to teach students to ask fruitful questions about their learning, and the concept/practice of personal digital inquiry.
The Marshmallow Challenge
My first session of the morning on Day 1 featured the venerable Marshmallow Challenge. If you’re not familiar, the Marshmallow Challenge asks a group of strangers in small groups to assemble a free-standing structure capable of supporting a single marshmallow using dried spaghetti noodles, tape, and a piece of string. (Oh, you also get a pair of scissors.)
Ostensibly, the idea is to break the ice and teach people something important about working together to solve a problem. Most adults perform terribly; apparently kindergarteners are the champs. What I took away from this instantiation of the Marshmallow Challenge was that when we design solutions, we tend to think that we already know everything about that problem without putting ourselves in the shoes of the people for whom we are solving the problem. Our own perspective on the problem is necessary, but not sufficient. We must think about solutions from the standpoint of the user, and it often helps to work backwards from there.
This opening experience set the stage for our biggest project of the week, which was to develop a digital literacy project of some kind that addresses an inquiry question developed by each participant. The boundaries for this project, called our “Design Studio” project, were wide open. Usually, I like to choose a project that can do some work for me in my professional life, so as Day 1 ended, I kept coming back to my research interests in misinformation and disinformation and how I might develop a project where the goal was to gather resources on digital literacy and problematic information that teachers might find useful. At the end of Day 1, I jotted down several notes and ideas about Wakelet and other digital tools, digital curation as a scholarly practice, and how my Design Studio project might do some work for me in my own teaching and professional life beyond the Summer Institute.
The other noteworthy experience of Day 1 was the keynote address, “Digital Literacy in a Partisan Age,” given by Renee Hobbs and Troy Hicks, two luminaries in the field of media literacy. While the broad contours of the talk were familiar to me (partisan misinformation campaigns and political polarization threaten democracy’s core values), I found myself intrigued by the argument that the frameworks we use to determine who to trust are rapidly shifting. Alongside trust, there’s the attention economy, the way authorship has become commodified on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok (as well as quasi-professional venues like Substack), and the overabundance of information in general that tests the limits of our neo-neanderthal brains. (I was prompted by this keynote to purchase a copy of David Weinberger’s 2011 book Too Big to Know, a book I highly recommend and am not sure how it avoided my radar for over a decade.)
The keynote energized me. As I began working my way through the required readings, one that struck me as quite similar to the keynote address was Julia Feerrar’s “Development of a Framework for Digital Literacy,” a recent article that describes how research librarians at Virginia Tech University painstakingly developed a framework for digital literacy using feedback from various stakeholders across campus. The final version of the Virginia Tech digital literacy framework includes six overlapping areas of digital inquiry:
Tools: information and communications technology
Creation: digital creation, innovation, and scholarship
Content: information, data, media, and other emerging literacies
Learning: digital learning and self-development
Interaction: communication, collaboration, and participation
Outcome: identity and wellbeing. (Feerrar, 2019, p. 7).
Not only did I find this framework helpful for my own ongoing research projects and my Design Studio project, but I saw how what Renee and Troy were talking about in their Monday afternoon keynote was largely similar. Digital Literacy, whether we are talking about how it applies to misinformation or digital curation or something else entirely, is always a much more all-encompassing and overlapping enterprise than we take it to be at first glance. There is so much complexity even to something as apparently straightforward as online authorship and digital creation. In short, the keynote on Day 1 solidified my hunch that if we are going to move the needle on the problem of misinformation and disinformation, it’s going to take a full frontal assault, one that takes into account the changing dynamics of information, the changing nature of our institutions (including universities), the rapidly shifting dynamics of trust and authorship and how we evaluate information, and even the mercurial nature of our digital systems themselves. The keynote also left me firm in my belief that the misinformation problem requires a pan- or multi-disciplinary approach capable of responding to the complexity of digital media and our information ecosystems.
Another reading that sparked my interest and that I found quite useful was the Educause (2019) overview on digital literacy. Similar to Feerrar’s (2019) framework for digital literacy, the Educause document was useful in that in provided a snapshot of which institutions are doing what around digital media training and education. It also provided a helpful critique of the “one off” trainings in digital literacy that seem to have become more and more common on many university and college campuses in the US. Many of these are delivered by librarians in required general education courses (like first-year writing), but because they are usually disconnected from a specific curricular context and because many academic disciplines have not yet taken “ownership” of digital literacy as an essential part of the disciplinary standards and curriculum, these efforts routinely fall short, as folks like Barbara Fister and others have persuasively argued in recent years.
This was eye-opening for me in that it put evidence to the “tragedy of the commons” hypothesis that has been an ongoing hunch for some time. Digital literacy is like the microwave in the break room at work: it’s always dirty because cleaning it is, at least in theory, everyone’s responsibility. In practice, however, cleaning it is no one’s responsibility. If we are going to get serious about digital literacy, we must figure out a way to make it a part of the fabric of all academic disciplines, which have been the “engines of inquiry” for colleges and universities in the US for over a century. I am currently developing this argument in a chapter I am writing for a forthcoming edited collection due out in early 2023.
What Would Julie Do (WWJD)?
One of the week’s highlights was Julie Coiro’s keynote talk on Tuesday afternoon. Scheduled at the psychic (if not literal) midway point of the week, Julie’s expression of anxiety about both the future of digital inquiry and the profound sense of personal investment required to learn it clearly resonated with the participants, myself included. She asked, simply, “Does digital literacy and personal inquiry even matter in the world right now?” And it struck a chord.
Without rehashing everything that’s awful and deadly and seemingly never-ending about COVID, the last two years alone have shaped teachers and the teaching profession for probably the next century or more. I think the audience just appreciated the chance to vent this pesky, pent-up sense of hopelessness and dread in the face of an unknowable and increasingly untenable future.
With everything that’s going on in the world right now, does digital literacy and media literacy even matter?
The answer is yes (of course). But that wasn’t the point. Julie’s deeply personal story pulled everyone in. After six or seven minutes of introduction, during which time I learned about the integrated framework of learning, she shared a plain white screen. Deadpanning that it’s “blank on purpose,” she explained:
This is where I was for a long time. I don’t even know how to put a name to it. A color? I’ve talked with folks about images…a word? So for a long time I was just…I don’t even know what to do. And last week, because I knew I had to do this thing, you know, I’ve had—as many of you have had—two or three years of… I don’t even have a lot of memory to concentrate. It takes me fifty times longer than normal to do anything.
I was, in a word, struck by the vulnerability that Dr. Coiro expressed at the outset of her keynote address before delivering one of the most thought-provoking talks I’ve heard in a long time. But it should not have been a surprise to me: modeling vulnerability is a hallmark of Julie’s pedagogy. I learned this because after witnessing this powerful moment in her keynote, I dove straight into her recently published interview with Troy Hicks.
In “What to Learn Next? An Interview with Julie Coiro,” Dr. Coiro theorizes about how and why teachers should “model being vulnerable” (Coiro & Hicks, 2022, pp. 8-10). Drawing a throughline from the existential challenges of the pandemic to where we are in education right now, the interview lays out Julie’s belief that the best approach to teacher education, despite various twists and turns over the years, is to “model being vulnerable, by allowing pre-service teachers to see their professor engage in learning both content and the affordances of digital tools right alongside them” (Coiro & Hicks, 2022, p. 9).
For Julie, the challenges the pandemic presented to teachers led to two noticeable changes in her own pedagogical thinking: first, “teachers began to step back and really start to find value—and even some advantages—in digital texts, digital tools, and digital learning spaces” (Coiro & Hicks, 2022, p. 8). Second, she developed her emergent theory of “real time” and “anytime” learning models to strategically respond to the difficulties of teaching in a hybrid classroom with “roomies” (i.e., students who are physically present in the room) and “Zoomies” (i.e., students who are joining from Zoom).
Literally every single teacher I know (and I know a few) has struggled mightily with the intricacies and general feeling of discomfort that hybrid teaching engenders, and Julie’s story was no different. However, rather than succumbing to these challenges, she modeled her vulnerability and then found a useful way to operationalize the inescapable dichotomy between those in the room and those working at home. The real time and anytime models of learning are a perfect way to think about how to engage students in both modalities of the hybrid classroom, while the notion of modeling vulnerability in the classroom dovetails with my own interests in forging and modeling a pedagogy of care and empathy in my own classrooms, while also letting go of ego. (Not an easy thing to do.)
News Media Literacy (with Michael Spikes)
There were few other activities during the weeklong institute that hit me quite as hard as Michael Spikes’ overview of news media literacy on Tuesday afternoon. Michael, a soon-to-be PhD from Northwestern University and lecturer in that school’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications, began the afternoon workshop discussing some of the key challenges facing today’s news consumer:
Speed vs. Accuracy. Journalists have to get it out as fast as possible and sometimes this negatively impacts the accuracy of their reporting.
Information Overload. When there are too many choices, we shut down and let someone else make the choice.
Disintermediation of media. Loss of (human) gatekeepers. Everybody is a media conglomerate now.
Overcoming our own biases and pre-dispositions. We gravitate towards the news that we want to hear and that reinforces our own perspectives on the world.
Michael also spent some time talking about the nature of bias, how and why it is so often misunderstood, and what his own views of the concept are. To Michael, bias is a willing distortion of information to fit into a particular sense of the world. This understanding of a widely misunderstood term was useful to me because I have often struggled to help students understand what bias actually means; they typically want to talk about it as a term that can be applied to any text that has a perspective or is arguing for a particular claim.
Michael also talked a lot about fairness and balance in the context of news literacy, bringing up the example of the high school principal in Boca Raton, Florida who attempted to “stay neutral” on the Holocaust. The workshop closed with a fruitful and fascinating discussion of something that is near and dear to my own research and teaching interests: How do we make news literacy a habit or discipline rather than just a set of tools or checklists? In other words, how can we get students to do this stuff automatically, without even thinking about it?
Digital Curation: My Design Studio Project
In the afternoon session on Wednesday, we were asked to generate inquiry questions related to our digital literacy project for the week. Since Monday afternoon, I had been thinking about starting a curation project—a Padlet or Wakelet or some other kind of shareable online scrapbook—to collect resources around digital and media literacy. Here are the questions I generated during that session:
How do we create/curate the resource in a way that people will actually use it?
How do we make it co-owned by the people who are using it? How to make it alive?
How to curate it in a way that is irresistible? How do you create a resource that people will contribute to, share, and never want to lose?
Several such resources exist that gather the many sheaves of digital and media literacy on the web. How will this be any different? More effective? More appealing?
How do you maintain the energy? How do you keep such a “playlist” from simply dying or fading away?
First-year writing classes typically introduce students to academic writing by having them write papers that foreground the following moves: summary, analysis, synthesis, argument, and research basics. And in all the sections of ENG-W 131 I had taught before, this was admittedly the way I generally went about it.
Wednesday night, as I biked back to my Airbnb in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s southside, something clicked for me. First, I knew that I wanted to develop a project that had to do with misinformation and disinformation in online spaces. Second, I also knew that I wanted to learn more about digital curation as a practice; luckily my partner in Design Studio was Kelsey, who as a research librarian at Virginia Tech already knew a lot more than I did about digital curation. She proved to be a valuable resource. Third, I was struck by the possibilities of this digital curation model for teaching. I liked how Wakelet and Padlet were so easy to use right “out of the box,” and I envisioned ways of integrating these digital tools into the classroom that could help students make sense of a particular area of digital literacy on their own. In short, rather than simply providing students with a bunch of links and readings, effectively doing all the hard work of curation for them, I could ask them to do the essential work of digital curation on their own. I would create a protocol for evaluating sources that students could then apply as they tracked down resources to include in their curated collection of resources on “X” feature of digital literacy.
It finally clicked for me. And the best part was that I still had most of the day on Thursday to build the prototype collection in Wakelet that I would use at the Design Studio Showcase on Friday morning. For me, this digital curation assignment was the culmination of what I had already learned from Renee and Troy about political polarization and digital media, from Julie about modeling vulnerability and helping students develop their own personal digital inquiry, and from Michael about news media literacy and the importance of building good digital habits rather than relying solely on checklists or fact-checking.
That evening, I read about the concept of digital entrepreneurship in Young, et al.’s (2020) conference paper “Towards a Theory of Digital Entrepreneurship Mindset: The Role of Digital Learning Aptitude and Digital Literacy.” In this paper, Young, et al. (2020, p. 2) define digital entrepreneurship as the following:
Entrepreneurs become digital entrepreneurs as they consider opportunities generated by the internet, mobile technologies, or digital media to develop new or existing business models based on the growth of globalism alongside technologies. The adoption of innovative technologies provides an enhanced transfer of information and digitizes processes and activities aimed to improve both efficiency and effectiveness of entrepreneurial efforts.
What a fascinating concept. Digital entrepreneurship gave me a language for talking about how to get students engaged with the idea of digital curation. For years teachers at all levels have wondered, “How can I get my students to engage with course materials in the same way that they engage with the web and social media on their own time?” Perhaps digital entrepreneurship was one way to spark this creativity and engagement in students. Perhaps this was the “secret sauce,” as Renee and Julie are fond of saying. Either way, digital entrepreneurship did give me push to finish my Design Studio project on digital curation and complete the “This is Digital Literacy” protocol for digital curation.
Friday, the final day of the Summer Institute, finally rolled around, but I wasn’t ready to leave just yet. I was tired, sure, but in the best way. I presented my digital curation project at the showcase on Friday morning, ate a hearty lunch, and spent most of the afternoon saying goodbye to the great group of folks I had met this week.
Since I had to check out of my Airbnb early Friday morning, I couldn’t bike to the Loop that day. Instead, I had to drive my car up Lakeshore Drive and park in one of those ungodly expensive garages. But I had learned something valuable earlier in the week: if you reserve a garage spot ahead of time using the app, you can save 60% or more on the parking fee. The exorbitant prices are reserved for the poor schmucks off the street who drive into the garage and pluck a ticket from the machine. That poor schmuck was me, by the way, on Sunday night, before I learned about reserving my garage spot on the parking app.
And this brought it all back home. This is digital literacy in a nutshell. I had spent the week learning about the concept in an academic cocoon, but it’s so much more than that. Digital literacy is also about the world out there, about making ones’ way through the complexities that abound IRL (“in real life”), and about developing an awareness of systems (technical and otherwise), motivations (human, non-human, and perhaps even more-than-human), and communication (creating, sharing, disseminating, articulating, and curating). This is precisely why I remarked earlier that I believe the problem of misinformation must be addressed via multi-disciplinarity or even meta-disciplinarity. The table below breaks down what such a multi- or meta-disciplinary approach might look like, using existing academic disciplines as markers for the three axes: communication, motivation, and systems.
My experience at the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy was transformative. I thought going into the week that I knew digital literacy, that I understood a few things about misinformation and news literacy, and that I would be able to skate through the work. What I found instead was that the week challenged me and gave me so much more to reflect on. It showed me, as all good learning experiences do, that there is always so much more to learn.