Blog Post

02. Do we give students credit for being more web-literate than they are?

This is the first of a series of two or three blog posts I plan to write that have been inspired my time at THATCamp AAR, which I recently had the privilege of attending.* 

We are all familiar with the half-serious comment that 3-year-olds can program digital gadgets with more skill than most adults.  But how true is it—and more importantly for us as teachers, how true is the assumption that today’s students will naturally be able to understand, interpret, and produce information in a digital format?

The question of students’ web-literacy (and, more generally, technological literacy) came up in a THATCamp AAR session dedicated to thinking about how digital resources can help students draw nuanced conclusions to complex questions.  As participants suggested ideas for assignments and pointed out reference materials available online, someone made the observation that students often need more assistance using these tools than we expect.

Since then, I've been thinking about two key aspects of technical literacy that I want to prepare for when I plan to bring technology into the classroom. 

1.  Using technology

Even if I know that my students use search engines and popular web sites, I should not expect that they will intuitively pick up other skills.  Accordingly, when I ask students to use any technology—wikis, blogs, databases, forums, and more—I want to be prepared from the outset to provide instruction and technical support. 

Depending on the assignment, this might mean pointing students to written, audio, or video instructions.  Yet, inevitably, some students will come to me for help, as well—and this is a good thing.  By bringing new technologies into my classrooms, I want to embrace both the challenges and the rewards of that decision.  If I can help students learn to use a new technology, and if at the same time this technology helps them do the work of a historian in an effective way, then I have doubly succeeded.

2.  Understanding and interpreting technology

Even when a student can complete the “functional” portion of a digital assignment—successfully finding information, posting content, and more—he or she may not fully understand the ramifications of what has happened.  For this reason, I also need to ensure students understand the implications of the digital tools they use.  This, again, is something I want to plan for from the outset. I want to be sure to dedicate appropriate resources (class time, handouts, office hours) toward helping students understand the tools I ask them to use.   

For instance, one discussion that might apply in several situations is that of privacy, fair use, copyright, and licensing.  This is important not only when students are researching and using others’ work but also when I ask them to post content online: they should know who can view their work, what others may do with it, who owns the rights to it, and what the potential ramifications of posting content, either in their own name or anonymously, may be (again something that came up in the AAR session). 

Another discussion that would be useful for many assignments would be how to interpret information that students have found (via databases, search engines, word clouds, maps, and more).  Again, it is easy—but problematic—to assume that students will be able to understand such data out of hand.  Rather, I want to plan to assist my students in finding trends, categorizing information, locating and explaining contradictory information, and the like.  This is, of course, the work I already do as a teacher of history—and I need to remind myself that it is no less urgent to do this when the information comes in a digital medium. 


*Those interested in reading further about the 2013 THATCamp AAR might begin with the Tagboard record of tweets from the day along with David McConeghy’s and Chris Cantwell’s reflections.  Session descriptions (and some session notes) also appear on the AAR THATCamp web site.

In addition, I’d like to mention with gratitude that my ability to attend the event was due to my position as the 2013-14 HASTAC scholar for Vanderbilt’s Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities.  Thank you for this opportunity!



You raise excellent points in this blog. Allow me to add two more items.

I find my English-major students can Google easily enough but need instruction (and modelling) in how to design good searches.

They also need guidance in vetting web sources--how to read an address and how to understand the context of the page they find  (is it a blog, a scholarly article from a database, a class website, a "gradesaving" website, and so on).


Linda, thanks for adding these examples--two more key areas to be thinking about how we can help students succeed.  


This post is great!  I have very limited experience teaching, but I'd like to echo Linda's comment that students need guidance in information literacy and how to find the best information rather than always using the first result Google's algorithms give them.  I've found that students, even those who have had a year of first-year writing, often don't understand the idea of peer-reviewed sources or what is appropriate to cite in an academic paper.


Genna, thanks for your comment.  You bring up an example that I think is relevant even to non-digital technology (for example, understanding the significance of peer review is important in almost any field, yet it is something new to many students beginning college/university studies).  Yet the number and variety of available sources grow through increased access to digital technology, which has the potential to make this an even more pressing issue for classes that involve digital research.


Thanks for the post, Amy. It's so interesting to hear about someone working from a different field, yet discussing the same issues that face technological literacy in mine. In rhetoric and composition, we're often faced with the same question of whether or not our students are, in fact, as adept in using technology as we credit them for. From my experience, students introduce me to new social media tools and broader cultural phenomena of the web, but as a teacher of composition, I strive to help them find the rhetorical perspectives of those tools. At my institution, there are a number of instructors who feel that having a 50-minute session led by a library professional is adequate for preparing students for this form of literacy. Yet information literacy is central to researching and writing on the web, and I strive to thread the idea of multiliteracies into every class (I teach first-year comp), where I try to embrace the everyday composing practices my students have through a rhetorical lens.

But as a general question, to what extent would information literacy find its way into a history course? Does it find its way into the learning process, and if so, how much? Your answer would be indeed relevant to mine as I seek to find an answer to that for my own pedagogy. 


A few years ago I was late for an evening class I was teaching and arrived to find two students debating whether the "Illuminati" caused the American Revolution. It was a history course, so I slid into the back of the room and watched how they both called up citations on a white board, and argued persuasive cases on both sides.

I didn't teach 'em how to do that. Nor about the Illuminati. But they used American history far better there and then than in a history test or paper. They recognized critical issues of verification, of citations and references, and of how to build their case, while also exploring the case their opponent framed. Much, much better than a single paper, and much, much more organized, concerted and engaged.

And, again, I didn't teach it. They learned it. From each other, from the class, and from the atmosphere I did create.

NEVER presume that the teacher is the center. The students are. And never, ever claim - as several in this thread have implied - that you have to adjust your curriculum to accommodate student technical literacy. They'll do it for you. And with each other. And a lot easier than you can. And, usually, a lot faster, using more current apps and tech, and more creatively. Surely it's wise to encourage them to some discretion online, since they're not used to as public an environment as the net affords. Yet teaching them to be discrete is bound to fail.


Joe, you mentioned that it was critical for you as a teacher to create an atmosphere in which these sorts of conversations occur--I think that is definitely key, as is your mention of encouraging students to use discretion online.  I certainly wasn't suggesting that we slim down curricular activities because of students' technical abilities; rather, I see one of my key tasks as a teacher as helping students find and access resources (online, in print, and in person--sometimes from me) that will help them make better use of available technologies. 


Do you mean that you created an atmosphere in which students practiced verification, citations, etc. that led students to apply those techniques in their own debates?  Or are you speaking of other aspects of your classroom environment? 


Jack, I'm not sure if this will answer your question completely (if not, feel free to post another comment and we can get a bit of a discussion going), but I think I can explain a bit more what I was suggesting in my post.  Particularly in my final paragraph, I was thinking of exercises in which history students use online texts to understand, analyze and interpret some historical event/idea/period/etc.  Much of this process is the same for both digital media and traditional media: gathering primary and secondary sources, determining authorship of sources (when possible), contextualizing sources within various conversations and trends, and the like.  Yet some digital tools can also have downsides that are, perhaps, less visible than those of traditional media.  

For example, some digital tools can provide a false sense that research is comprehensive: say, when an exhaustive search doesn't turn up any counter-examples to a trend, it might seem that there ARE no counter-examples, when in fact counter-examples simply haven't been publicized due to, say, censorship of some sort.  Research in traditional media can certainly lead students to this same problem area, but I think that the seemingly infinite amount of information on the web can produce this false impression of comprehensiveness more quickly.  So, again, this isn't limited to a discussion of technology, but it certainly applies.  I think that ensuring students understand both the abilities and limits of technology is a step in the right direction.



Beginning with the Fall 2013 semester, we added the following competency for all of our history courses at Schoolcraft College:  “Demonstrate digital literacy; especially as it relates to the study of history.”  For us, there are three components of digital literacy: investigation, evaluation, and creation.  Each of our courses is to include a project allowing students to demonstrate digital literacy.

Ideally, issues which others have already discussed such as how to do a quality search or how to evaluate the credibility of a source can be integrated throughout the semester.  For example, I will give what I call mini-lectures on such issues as they are relevant to what we are studying at the time or what is currently in the news. 

As you imply, the “50-minute session led by a library professional” is fairly useless; not because of the library professional but because students need the information in small, easily digestible bites instead of a long session that does not appear to be relevant at the time it was given.

I begin by introducing my students to the concept of digital literacy even before the semester begins when I e-mail them a welcome message that includes a copy of the syllabus.  Because I don’t think digital natives are very digitally literate, I incorporate digital literacy issues beginning with the first class.


FYI:  I have a joint appointment in history and English so I incorporate digital literacy in the context of teaching composition and film as well as history.  I created a Digital Literacy section in my Resources for Researchers.


I created a writing assingment for a graphic design history course last semester that had a small online research component that proved to be more difficult for students than I (or they) had anticipated. What was especially interesting was that there didn't appear to be much correlation between the students' digital design capabilities and their ability to conduct effective research on the web. Some of the students who had the hardest time finding their images were those who had designed their own webites.

For me, the experience solidified the importance of incorporating online research skills into our classes. In the future, I plan to use the same assignment again but to actually separate the writing component from the research component this time. I offer it here as an example that others may use. I'm also open to constructive critique since I'm about to begin a new semester of the same course.

Here are the instructions I gave them:

Each student will be assigned a figure from the text [Graphic Design History by Drucker and McVarish] to research and write about. The written portion will be posted to the course blog while your in class presentation will consist of a demonstration of your research process. The first step will be to turn to the Image Credits section of the book (pages 375-378) and find out where the image comes from. I have only assigned images which exist online as part of digital collections of museums, archives, or purveyors of stock image. Next, you will write a one-paragrpaph blog post (between 300-500 words) that describes its physical characteristics, formal qualities, and historical significance. Finally, in class, you will show us where and how you accessed the image, and give a demonstration of how students might use this site as a source for other graphic design research. ***NOTE: some of these images may be available via online sources other than those credited in the book. In order to receive credit for this part of the assignment, you must find the image on the website of the institution/company that is credited in the book.

While in the end, most students eventually found what they were looking for, I recieved quite a few emails from students insisting that the image they were assigned simply was not online. I responded to these emials by walking them through the research process - they sent me screen shots of what they were looking at and I gave them hints. Sure, it would've been easier for everyone to simply send them the URL that I had in my own records, but that wasn't the point. I wanted students to experience a little frustration, push through it, and learn that even internet research is a process that requires effort to achive the best results.


In general, open ended and unstructured questions create more productive research. You're not measuring students' capacities to interpret and to think when you're telling them where to look and what to look for. And when your focus is only on "right answers" you - and your students - can miss many of the more productive means of creating answers that are appropriate to specific uses.

Media literacy is not merely a process of looking things up, but, rather, of exploring how context changes meaning, and how different media may well deliver often very different messages (ala McLuhan). The same statement can mean entirely different things, whether that statement is visual, audio, in motion or text, depending on setting, and it is the differences that are more important than the similarities. Youir focus seems remarkably siloed into "find this" and "in this place" rather than explore, identify, find out, and judge. You're not leaving a lot of space for that final task - of judgment - when you limit their scope to museums, archives or stock images, particularly when the same image might be cited by very opposed sources.

Why not make this less linear and more iterative: why not ask for examples of graphic expressions of rich ideas, and then compare them, and compare their settings and citations, and compare their impact on the case built by the source? If this kind of process could be repeated, frequently, you - and your students - will produce a far richer resources than it sounds like this exercise could ever do, and with more variety and more "relevance" to the reasons for the kind of literacy you're trying to inspire. That's the key: don't teach it, inspire it, and then ask students to compare how their responses - in both time, place, setting, links, and media - reflect their pre-judgments about critical media information. There's nothing wrong with such pre-judgements - they are NOT prejudice - but there is everything wrong if they don't explore and clarify how their initial search skills differ from those of others and from those at the close of the exercise. Unless they get "better" they're wasting their - and your - time.

The question isn't, for one example, answered by "where the image comes from," but, rather, "what is the image supposed to do?" Collating citations and footnotes does not denote literacy, but, rather, archival knowledge - which is nice, but amazingly limited.


This is an important topic, Amy. In my experience, we are absolutely overestimating our students' web savvy. I teach undergrad literature & media digital humanities courses at Duke and I encounter many students have never blogged, have never tweeted, and have never used Tumblr, WordPress, or basic web building/publishing tools. Of those who have blogged, tweeted, or created media, many have never done so purposefully or academically. Many do not realize the consequences of their actions and updates on these media - especially perhaps on the social networking sites like Facebook and Instagram - and they do not have the tools to critically evaluate and produce their web presence. Furthermore, I have had students who most definitively do not want to use Twitter or blogs and/or do not want to use them for academic purposes. I feel it important that we introduce public-facing web tools and encourage their use but we should be careful to provide alternatives: we can allow our students to blog and/or Tweet using pseudonyms if they so choose and can build in options for the students who have reasonable reasons for refusing web publishing. In the classroom, we should never assume a student will instantly know how to use these media and we must build both how-tos (even as basic as sending a Tweet and/or posting to a blog) and best-practices into our lesson plans. Even if they know how to use a particular web tool, they may not know how to use it smartly and effectively. As has been echoed here on HASTAC often times before, our 'digital natives' are not so digitally literate as is presumed and we must consider that when we ask our students to use digital web tools.

This semester, I taught a literary digital humanities writing course called Augmenting Realities. We were very deliberate in our productive use and critical evaluation of digital web resources and tools. The students' course reviews included such things as "I'll never use media the same way again" and "I didn't realize how much data I create and how it is being used." I think these VERY important real-life take-aways.

Amanda Starling Gould


Amanda, you make an important point about creating options for students who, for various reasons, do not wish to use certain technologies or who wish to use them anonymously.  This is an issue I haven't seen discussed very much (though it may have been and I've just missed it), but it definitely deserves a platform.  I'm glad you mentioned it.

I have yet to teach a class that centers upon (rather than just uses) digital media, but I appreciated the way that the class and the site you link to pusheds students to think critically about these tools.  Thanks.



Amy, if you are interested, I just completed a series of HASTAC blogs about several of my digital assignments and about 'flipping' the Augmenting Realities ugrad course that I mention above. I'd love your feedback if the posts interest you and/or speak to your original post here.


  1. Digitally Annotating the Graphic Novel: Digital Pedagogy Project
  2. Digital Pedagogy Project: Teaching the Transmedia Essay
  3. Duke Flipping the Classroom Faculty Panel - STEM Flips, TBL, POGIL, and STEAMy Digital Humanities

Amanda Starling Gould




Thanks for these links!  The assignments are really creative, and the variety of student work that you received is exciting.  I have only made a quick trip through your material so far, but I plan to return to it for a more thorough reading; it does indeed touch on a lot of issues in which I am interested.



Thanks again for engaging my responses here! I look forward to future posts about your in-class experiments.



Surely there are journals that still have such reviews, but the current flap from Elsevier suggests that they may not long be "the standard," and credible research will have to exist in less entrepreneurial media. Ironically, when the publisher demands the copyright, they actually cheapen their products.

I once taught a recovery course online, supervising students in a lab where they did the exercises as required. It was remarkable how they feared going to google to test the value of an answer - their own or an answer from a Pearson (or Elsevier) quiz. When I asked a kid why he wouldn't test his own instinct with google or ask or yahoo, he was surprised I was raising a criticism for what he thought was "obedient" behavior: "Isn't it cheating to ask google," said he. Nope, and you might well ask a lot of others as well.

When the publishers interfere with the publication just to milk the medium for funds, it's time the academics gave more lessons in media literacy. Even to each other. It's far more interesting to watch what a bright student does to find a better answer than to fill in that bubble number.... And the criteria for "bright" are very, very different than they are for multiple choice intelligence.


I've found that checklists like Purdue OWL's "Evaluating Print vs. Internet Sources" section of their page on general source evaluation ( are helpful in guiding students to see the connections between verification techniques for all kinds of sources.  For example, online sources that have all the characteristics of a strong print source are generally acceptable in an academic context (depending on the assignment).  In other words, I think that teaching source evaluation often applies easily to all kinds of materials (as long as we cue students to make sure that they're taking steps to confirm the strength of every source, no matter what form they come in).


After reading your comment, I realized that a checklist might be helpful for students.  Therefore, I created, "Evaluating Websites for Quality" which is now available at Resources for Researchers. There is a link to a printer friendly copy of the handout on the bottom of the page and it is released under a Creative Commons License.   The handout compliments the tutorial, Evaluating Resources.


According to Eszter Hargittai's ( research, income level is the number one determinant of how much people use the internet and its tools. "Digital inequality" reflects after all mainly an equality in users' incomes.

There is still a significant variety in how much students know and use the web even among the folks with better access to the web and digital tools. I think it makes a lot of sense to begin teaching children how to use the internet early on. I am wondering how much work has already been done in this domain.

It may be late to wait until college or even high school to teach this important skillset to young people in a somewhat standardized (by which I want to mean well-discussed and studied and then standardized to the basic essentials) way, as we teach, for good or worse, other topics.


I just discovered that today's Chronicle of Higher Education is featuring "How the Humanities Compute in the Classroom."  It touches on several of the issues that we've been discussing!


Thanks for this post, Amy! I am sorry that I am seeing it only now. 

I would just like to add a small observation. Your opening paragraph mentions the supposed generation gap between teachers and students. The rest of the post, completely correctly, in my opinion, calls students' digital literacy into question. The conclusion is that, despite having grown up in the age of the Internet and social media, our students (probably in the 17-21 range) need guidance when using these tools in an academic setting. As some of the commenters have pointed out, students also have much to learn about the wider social consequences of their web presence.

I'd like to focus here on the other side of the issue. I wonder to what extent teachers' ages and backgrounds inform their presuppositions about students' digital literacy. Do teachers in their twenties and early thirties see themselves as part of more or less the same internet community as their students? Most of my colleagues are active on Facebook and Twitter and have maintained blogs for personal use. Here, then, the supposition would be that "I understand this; therefore, my students will understand this." In the case of other generations, intending no disrespect at all to older scholars and not seeking to generalize, my experience has led me to think that more senior faculty can feel some anxiety toward technology and view themselves at a disadvantage with respect to their students. As an undergraduate, I had the impression that certain professors saw the internet as a challenge, as students' way to "beat the system" by looking for easy solutions. A mathematics professor once threatened that he "would know if you are using Facebook to share answers to problem sets" (such a claim reveals both fear and unfamiliarity with how the technology functions).

In this digital humanities space, we probably all consider ourselves competent users of technology, or at least do not feel at a disadvantage with respect to our students. (In fact, your post rightly points out our "advantages.") However, I feel that it would be equally interesting to study non-digitally literate teachers' assessments of their students' knowledge, and to determine how this affects course policies and assignment guidelines.


Thanks for adding this--a very helpful and important observation!

I've been hoping to write another post soon to consider regarding the benefits and challenges of scholars with different technological backgrounds uniting to work on dh projects...I will have to think about how that affects teaching, as well.