Todd Taylor

Digital literacy and the power to lead: Educating the next generation of citizen-scholar-professionals

by Dr. Todd Taylor
Professor of English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

As the first public university to open its doors in the United States, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has always been a leader in higher education. In 2000, we were the first public university to require that every student have a laptop. And now, we're leading the charge on digital literacy. We believe our students need to understand how information systems and digital instruments work in order to become truly literate people who can lead in their fields. That's why we're using Adobe Creative Cloud to help educate this new generation.

Thinking differently about literacy

The purpose of higher education remains the same as always: to develop students into citizen-scholars who use their intellectual work and creative practices to promote the public good and advance their professions. However, as new digital and information technologies continue to emerge, the contexts in which students and professionals produce and circulate their work keep evolving. In response to these changes, UNC is working to extend its literacy traditions into these new contexts. We're putting our emphasis on critical reading and listening combined with creative problem-solving through writing, speaking, presenting, and making.

Until recently, professional digital tools like Creative Cloud were used primarily in traditional visual communication courses, including journalism, the arts, and graphic design. But we think they should be integrated into every aspect of the curriculum, in every discipline. To achieve this goal, we’re starting with our first-year writing program—the only class that’s required of every UNC undergraduate. We’re using that common foundation to get all of our students working with powerful digital tools from the moment they arrive on campus. We want the tools to frame the way our students do their work through the entire undergraduate curriculum—in any course, with any professor, for any reason.

Imani Cheers quote

In the fall of 2017, every first-year student will create at least one major writing project using digital tools. But rather than just polish their work with Adobe Photoshop CC or InDesign CC after they’ve completed the thinking and writing, they’ll use those tools throughout the process. That’s because we feel strongly that digital literacy is epistemological—it’s just a different way of creating knowledge, solving problems, and learning.

We find that when students need to solve problems and they use digital tools to do so, two things happen. First, they learn more about the tools than they would if they simply tried to learn them in a vacuum. And second, they think more deeply about the subject matter. For example, when sociology students create podcasts using Adobe Audition CC, they start their work by thinking about the most effective ways of communicating information via this medium—and that enhances their learning as well as their work and its impact.

Getting faculty up to speed across the curriculum

To teach digital literacy to our students, we’ve first had to teach our faculty. Our most successful strategy has been to identify educators who have experience and ideas for integrating technology into teaching and learning. At our Center for Faculty Excellence and our Media Resource Center, we showcase the methods these teachers have developed and we put them into practice.

We’re starting faculty out with Adobe Creative Cloud Express Page, a deceptively simple Creative Cloud app that allows authors to compose essays, articles, and other communications for the web using text and images together. Creative Cloud Express Page is an ideal teaching tool for three reasons:

  1. It offers drag-and-drop tools that make the creation process intuitive, so inexperienced users can easily augment their prose with images.
  2. It includes a Share button, making it clear to users that their work is meant to be circulated. This inspires greater engagement, because users who know they’ll have an audience tend to think more about the audience’s needs as they craft their work.
  3. It’s part of a set of three tools—the other two are for creating social media posts and simple videos—so once users understand one tool, the momentum picks up pretty quickly. The tools are so well designed that users are shocked at how easy it can be.

Always when we’re teaching faculty to create with digital tools, we have them try to solve a problem hands-on. They’ll use Creative Cloud Express to create an interactive syllabus, and then maybe they’ll move up to Adobe Premiere Pro CC to capture video and audio from a lecture. Once they realize what they can do, they tend to become evangelical converts.

Teaching students to make the most of digital tools

Scientific Tarheel
First-year writing students in the pilot program created their
own version of Scientific American magazine.
Learn how to do the project with your own students >

Last year, we created a digital literacy pilot program for our first-year writing program. To teach students about scientific writing and communication, we had them create their own version of a popular-science magazine. They had to gather and study peer-reviewed scholarly articles on a particular scientific topic, and then they had to synthesize everything they’d learned into the form of an article for the average reader.

The students used InDesign CC to author their own articles and build a template for the magazine. Since they knew the magazine was designed to be circulated campus-wide, they engaged deeply with the material. From the start of the assignment, they had to think hard about ways to communicate their information in words, images, and graphics so that any reader could understand the scientific methods, reasoning, and findings.

During the pilot program, we identified several ways to get students comfortable with using digital tools:

  1. Have them consult with experts. Students progressed quickly when they got help from people who’d been down the road before them. We encouraged students to consult with the staff in our library’s design lab to troubleshoot and learn tips and tricks.
  2. Simplify the resources. Most tutorials and other learning resources are designed for pro users. We boiled everything down to only what our students needed to know to accomplish a particular communication task. For example, we created guides with names like 10 Steps to Creating an InDesign Template.
  3. Make it hands-on. Just like with our faculty, we were committed to having students learn by doing. In a class session, for example, the teacher would review the 10 things students needed to know to create their assignment with say Premiere Pro and then have them do all 10.

Mastering digital communication today, leading in their professions tomorrow

In four years’ time, all UNC graduates will be able to put Creative Cloud skills on their resumes. And given that Creative Cloud is such an important language to speak in the professional world, our students and their parents are certainly enthusiastic about this.

But what’s even more valuable than those functional digital skills is our future graduates’ understanding of how digital literacies operate. They’ll have developed their own digital strategies for gathering information, analyzing it, creating new knowledge from it, and articulating their ideas in ways that make an impact on them and the people around them.

A former student recently emailed to thank me for teaching her a particular piece of HTML code back in 2000. She uses it to publish an educational blog for her team—and she doesn’t work in technology. She’s an assistant professor of emergency medicine, and because she’s digitally literate, she’s able to communicate with her medical students in a creative and effective way.

Simply put, digitally literate people like her have the power to lead. By opening the hood and getting their hands dirty, they learn how things really work, including data, algorithms, websites, design, and communication. They understand how politicians and media figures circulate ideas and messages, and they understand how branding works. They’re set up to continue to learn and grow for the rest of their lives. And to the leaders and educators at UNC, that’s the very definition of empowerment.