So What’s Next? A Conversation on the Future of Digital Literacies
by Chelsea Yarborough, Graduate Teaching Fellow, and Derek Bruff, Director
In the final meeting of the 2018-2019 Digital Literacy Learning community, we gave ourselves space and permission to wonder about the possibilities of the future while also discussing the realities of today. The hope for this conversation was to engage the imagination and invite both panelists and participants into a discussion about what they imagine is possible as we look into the future. We know that digital literacies will only become more important as different digital platforms become more prevalent and evolve over time. This conversation gave room for those musings to move beyond our own individual minds. The Center for Teaching invited three Vanderbilt faculty members, Corbette Doyle, Douglas Fisher, and Jaco Hamman, to lead our conversation. They are each creative and forward thinking scholars, which helped us imagine the myriad of possibilities under this topic. The panel, alongside a full room of conversation partners, brought perspective and a lot of energy around the question of the future and the digital world.
As is custom in our conversations, Derek Bruff, director of the Center for Teaching, opened up the conversation with an broad question to our panelists. He asked, “What will it mean to be digitally literate in our culture in the year 2025? And what implications does that have for how we teach digital literacies today?”
Douglas Fisher, associate professor of computer science and faculty head of Warren College, kicked our conversation with a focus on the choices that students will have to navigate the diverse digital platforms that will become more and more readily available to them. He named that literacy has been highly conditioned through the lens of one’s own life and so the challenge in the future will be for students to decide which digital spaces are appropriate for their lifestyle and to decide what to look at versus what not to engage. He shared examples of seemingly innocent memes that disguised political arguments, spread by the algorithms that power our social networks. We are shaped and formed by these different media and so it is increasingly important to develop a literacy that helps us to filter our own consumption.
Jaco Hamman, associate professor of religion, psychology and culture and author of Growing Down: Theology and Human Nature in the Virtual Age (2017), centered his comments on some of his own work. He claimed that there will be no distinction between who students are and their digital imprint by 2025. He then moved on to name that we will be much more attuned to the fact that digital literacy is an ethical project. Quoting Melvin Kranzberg, he said, “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” We are going to have to make really important ethical decisions for ourselves and with our students around different digital platforms. He closed his remarks by commenting on the need for humans to lean into a wider spectrum of intelligences. Pointing back to his most recent book, he uplifted two types, including playground intelligence (“How am I playing? How am I being played?”) and technological intelligence (echoing Fisher’s comments about evaluating digital content), as necessary tools moving forward in a world operating digitally.
Corbette Doyle, senior lecturer in leadership policy and organizations, continued our conversation focused primarily on artificial intelligence (AI) and ethics. She admitted that she was initially very excited about AI solutions to create more diverse workforces and student bodies, but she is increasingly concerned that AI solutions might bring more problems to the table than solutions. She noted that AI solutions are based on an analysis of the past and thus tend to replicate problems of the past, noting a recent failed Amazon experiment in AI-guided hiring that ended up biased against women. This is an ethical dilemma because we now have to be aware of the biases that are baked into the technology all that we are using. Doyle was also concerned that we are forcing students to leave a digital foot print that may not be safe to leave or that students are adamantly opposed to leaving. Doyle named that her projects often include a digital element and plan to continue in that direction, however, the implications of those projects still raise great concerns. Her hope for faculty moving forward and looking into the future is that digital literacy isn’t about a one-time workshop but a lifetime of learning, questioning and considering all the implications before using digital platforms in the classroom.
The rich conversation continued as we opened up the floor for questions. One participant asked, “Have you gotten a lot of pushback when assigning digital projects to students?” In different ways, each of the panelists answered that question with a “yes.” Doyle said that lots of students are opposed to doing a social media post because they weren’t already on social media. She responded to this issue by making the assignment optional, but having students provide a different way they intended to engaging with the course material. Hamman said that he gave students an opportunity to film and put their TED-style presentations on the web, but no students took him up on that. They were not just nervous about their own content but didn’t know if they would be vulnerable to future employers. Fisher mentioned that in his ethics and AI class they talk a lot about the ethics of technology which causes students to think deeply about their own engagement. This response showed us that thinking really intentionally about how we ask students to engage and how we teach students to engage is of paramount importance.
In the end, we spent time speculating about the possible future while realizing the level of unpredictability we are dealing with. In many ways that reality is exciting but in other ways it can be frightening. Educational disparities, ethical dilemmas, accessibility and a myriad of other concerns will continue to be a part of the conversation as digital literacy moves along with time. Will we have our own personal androids? Only time will tell! However, we do know that new ideas and concepts are coming and they will affect our world which includes the classroom. CFT director Derek Bruff summarized his takeaway from the conversation, saying, “As our technology shifts rapidly, it’s hard to know what the coming ethical challenges will be, and so our job as teachers is to prepare our students to grapple with those unknown challenges.” And that means helping them work through the ethical challenges of today, as practice for that future work. The digital world will continue to evolve, making it important that we keep a posture of learning, and help our students to do so, as well.
Our three panelists had much more to say than what’s captured above! To hear the entire discussion, listen to Episode 60 of the CFT’s educational podcast, Leading Lines.
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