The Horizon Report 2012 Higher Education Edition has been released, and it describes emerging technologies likely to have an impact over the next five years in higher education (Johnson, L., Adams, S., and Cummins, M. (2012).The NMC Horizon Report: 2012 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas:The New Media Consortium). The report describes in detail dizzying prospects for the incorporation of everything from mobile apps to the Internet of Things, a development of networking made possible by the emergence of IPv6 for virtually unlimited connections that just wasn’t possible with the address space of IPv4. However, in addition to the exciting new opportunities that emerging technologies provide, new challenges arise for higher education as well. The Horizon Report outlines five of them. Institutions of higher learning would do well to evaluate their readiness for the inevitable approach of new learning models based on these challenges! The focus of this article is addressing one of these identified challenges, namely “Digital media literacy continues in its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession.”
But what is digital media literacy, and why is it important? According to Laura Gurak, it is “…the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and analyze information using digital technology. It involves a working knowledge of current high-technology, and an understanding of how it can be used. Further, digital literacy involves a consciousness of the technological forces that affect culture and human behavior” (Gurak, Laura (2001). Cyberliteracy. New Haven: Yale University Press). In other words, the Horizon Report is telling us that all professionals must not only be able to apply digital technology and data to their profession, they must also be aware of the implications of using that technology and data in their particular context.
For students coming out of high school and entering higher education, most are already winning half of the battle. It seems that either the current generation of youth was designed for the technology revolution, or vice versa. For most students, it will not be a challenge for them to adapt to mobile apps, incorporate tablets into their learning, or even to embrace kinesthetic tools and gaming platforms utilized in academic environments. They practically demand it! Ease of adoption for the current generation is not an issue. For these students, collaborative learning and continuous interaction with peers is already a strength. So what’s the problem? What challenges impede digital media literacy in higher education? The answer is threefold.
Firstly, the student who has already learned to embrace digital media as a venue for communication has not necessarily learned discernment. University libraries, onetime bastions of peer reviewed, thoroughly researched papers are left by the wayside in favor of readily accessible Internet sources, some of questionable veracity. The peer review has been replaced by anonymous user reviews and “thumbs up” while credibility takes a backseat to convenience. Rules of appropriateness in what constitutes good data seemingly stands on shifting ground when there is no monitoring of online content submitted. Higher education can embrace the challenge by doubling efforts both to provide access to scholarly content and training students to recognize acceptable material.
Secondly, the “nontraditional” returning students will find themselves in a world that may be foreign to them, as they find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide. The average student age in the U.S. has been climbing steadily in recent years. At both Harvard and Notre Dame the average age as of 2009 was 27. The University of Phoenix, which offers both online and traditional degree programs, has an average student age of 35-37. On a larger scale, 38% of all college students are now 25 or older, according to a recent U.S Census Bureau report (http://blog.edvisors.com/online-education/the-average-age-of-students-is-on-the-upswing/). Many of these students are returning to college because they recognize the world has changed and they feel left behind. Already behind the curve, they are insecure about their limited proficiency and intimidated by a younger generation that has already embraced it. Just as with English and math skills, institutions of higher learning must develop a plan to identify those with emergent (or nonexistent) digital media literacy and bring them up to speed. Opportunities to develop and expand those skills should be identified and built into curricular areas.
Finally, instructors themselves must embrace the responsibility to lead their students (not follow them) into the digital age, whether they are teaching World History or Web Design. Institutionally, this can be addressed proactively through hiring policies and retroactively through professional development. The Horizon Report speaks to the pervasiveness and infusion of digital media into all professions. The classroom environment must reflect this reality to adequately prepare students for their chosen vocation. Higher education knows a new kind of learner is entering the classroom. You may be surprised just how immersed this student is (take PBS’s quiz for an eye-opening look: http://www.pbs.org/teachers/digital-media-literacy/quiz-yourself/). While colleges prepare for the contingent of students bringing digital media savvy to the classroom, greater attention should be placed on the digital media outcomes for all students leaving the classroom and entering a highly connected workforce.