Blog Post

Digital Literacy for Digital Natives and Their Professors

Digital Literacy for Digital Natives and Their Professors

In yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed’s technology blog, Joshua Kim wrote about “Courses, Facebook, and Secret Groups,” in which he pointed out that “There is a world of social learning going on, and we (meaning us instructors, educational technologists – basically anyone employed on the instructional or administrative sides of the house), know nothing about what is going on.”  He then explains how students are using Secret Groups in Facebook—as well as other technologies—to learn outside the classroom.

Kim argues that our response to this phenomenon is to do nothing; to not even let on that we know our students are using these technologies.  Instead, we should “Rejoice that our students are findings ways around us and our systems to take control of their own learning.”

Overall, I agree with Kim’s celebration of students using digital technology to take control of their own learning.  However, I believe we need to do more that “Trust that our students will find the technologies that they need to navigate our classes.”  We need to help them find those technologies and to encourage them to use technology well.

Although most of our students are digital natives who grew up using computers and cell phones and other types of technology, most are not technologically literate.  Just because a student can access information does not mean that they know how to apply critical thinking skills in such a way that they can use the data well.  Nor do students know how to use technologies well for organizing and disseminating their research.

Too often, when students begin to think about their presentations for my classes they immediately begin organizing a PowerPoint presentation and ask how many slides they need.  They know the technology of PowerPoint but are not literate enough to realize that PowerPoint is not an effective technology for all presentations.  In fact, my experience is that most PowerPoints—even those designed by professors or teaching professionals—actually are so poorly done that they diminish the quality of the presentation and interfere with active learning.  When students begin to talk about PowerPoint, I respond by telling them that they cannot decide how to effectively design a presentation until they know what they want to present.

Later today, I am giving a presentation at the Michigan Developmental Education Consortium Conference on “Digital Technologies, Real Audiences, and At Risk Students.”  In considering how to most effectively prepare for the presentation, I decided not to incorporate digital technologies.   I will argue for the use of digital technologies in the classroom without using a PowerPoint or Prezi or WordPress or videos or even a projector.

Why not use digital technologies when presenting about digital technology?  Because doing so would be a distraction to the main thesis I am trying to develop and the one hour time slot does not provide me the time to demonstrate digital technologies well.  My stack of handouts and the posters I have with me are far more effective technologies for today’s presentation.  Part of being digitally literate is in knowing the limitations as well as the benefits of digital technologies.

Before we can make decisions concerning appropriate use of technologies, we need to know about them.  And this is where I quibble with Kim’s argument that we must trust that our students can find the technologies they need.  Wouldn’t it be better to help students learn what technologies are available to them, to discuss the benefits and drawbacks or various technologies, and to incorporate technologies into our teaching?  Part of our work as professors is to direct students to effective technologies—not all of which are digital—as well as to provide them with course content.

A final issue we need to consider is our own lack of understanding of what technologies are available to or being used by the digital natives in our classrooms.  For example, until I read Kim’s “Courses, Facebook, and Secret Groups,” I did not know that secret groups existed in Facebook.  I learned about Google Docs when a team of students used it as an organizing tool for a project they were completing in one of my courses.  And the first time I heard about Prezi was when a student used it for her presentation.

Although I quibbled with one sentence in Kim’s blog, he is essentially correct.  Even if we do not trust that our students will find the technologies they need to navigate through our classes, they will locate and use technologies.  As professors interested in quality coursework and preparing students for the 21st century, we need to take an active role in helping them navigate technology—digital and otherwise—well.  Part of our active role is to develop the humility to realize that we also need to learn from those whom we are teaching.


This entry has been cross posted at Etena Sacca-vajenna, my teaching blog.




I did not realize that I had made this blog entry private until I received a message asking me to make it public.  One of the things I value about HASTAC is the willingness of people ot share.  The blog entry is no longer private.


I would like to share my experience in using facebook for teaching.  In my country, FB is widely used especially by youngster, including university students. Besides the side effects of FB on student's life, such as spending times for assessing FB instead of studying, there are also several benefits of FB if students use it wisely.  I found that when I applied FB to my class, students are more active in discussion, etc.  However, there is a drawback of FB that it is difficult for me to position myself as their lecturer or as their friends.  Some people suggested Edmodo instead of FB.  Anyone would like to share about it?  Thanks.


I use a little of just about everything.  We have a Facebook page, we also have both public and private group settings on my class blogs.   We use twitter.  And for my undergraduate class, my students themselves are creating a public course that we'll be redesigning this summer so that it is more user-friendly for those not within the confines of a Duke-based class, with all its internal institutional requirements.   Some things work better than others in some situations, others in other situations.  It depends entirely on the situation, the context, the goal, the students, the instructors.  


In general, I interact with my students on Facebook on our class site but I don't friend students or accept their friend requests.   That just works well for me.  However, I know someone else who once a year or so posts his rules for Facebook:  he accepts absolutely all FB friend requests and makes everything he does and that anything anyone posts on his site absolutely, fully public.  In other words, he assumes it is public and proceeds that way. 


Technology is always about the human factors in addition to the affordances.   Thanks to all for this very useful discussion.  I hope others will post their experiences as well. 


I understand Tarkus Suganda's concern about how to position oneself in Facebook.  It is both a valuable tool while being tricky to navigate.

I still remember the first time that I had a student send me a Facebook friend request.  Because my on-line persona is very conservative in what I choose to post, I was not worried about what my students might learn about me.  The type of personal issues I post are things I would be comfortable sharing in class.

My concern was what I might learn about my students.  Did I really want to see their posts?  I decided that I would accept my student’s request and see what happens.  So far, there has only been one time that I found student postings disturbing and I deleted him as a friend.

I believe that students who might post things that I would not want to see don’t friend me because they don’t want me to see what they are posting.  Others have their own reasons from not friending their professor.

Although I choose to allow students to friend me, I never initiate a friend request with a student.  That, to me, crosses an ethical line.

One idea that might help you interact with students on Facebook without some of the fears that come with becoming their Facebook friend is to set up the type of secret group described in the article I cited above.


Students who want to connect with me are steered to LinkedIn which feels more controlled and professional for me.  Email, blogs and forums I love but I have avoided Facebook for some time except to get the occasional grandchild picture. That should date me enough for you to go on with.  There are some things my students do outside of class that I don't really want to know about. 

I am on sabbatical this semester and it seemed like a good time to plunge further into social media, so I joined MIT's Learning Creative Learning MOOC. My underused Google+ account went from a few anemic circles to several thousand people in community over night.  It's not that I'm not digitally inclined. I teach animation and technology is just part of the process; I even taught animation online for several years.  I just feel rather like I got hit with a tidal wave that I don't know how to control.  I found an free online how-to-google+ book called What the Plus by Guy Kawasaki that has been helpful, although a lot of it's focused on how to collect big circles.

What I could use at this point is some sort of primer that covers the current range of social media.  Any suggestions?  



The idea of teaching with facebook makes me anxious for two reasons: 1.) I like to think of my facebook page as a "private space" and 2.) Students like to think of it that way too. In fact, when I've polled students about whether or not they'd be interested in using fb for class, typically 90% of students resist the idea because they consider it a personal (and not educational) space.  I have used Twitter with some success, but I think that's because it's generally less "personal" in nature.

I also agree with Steven Berg's above comment: How much do I really want to know about my students?  Do I want to see pics of their weekend parties or status updates about what they ate for breakfast?  Not really.

Ultimately, I'd love to find a social media tool like facebook that could be used for class discussion and teaching. Perhaps the tool Tarkus Suganda mentions above (Edmodo) could work?  I'd like to learn more about this platform if anyone out there has used it.

Lori Beth 


I found that class blogs work as a digital, social, yet non-invasive space becuase it creates a new place to interact. Maybe twitter's new service, Branch ( might do the trick?



Thanks for your post!

I agree with your sentiment that "... most [students] are not technologically literate.  Just because a student can access information does not mean that they know how to apply critical thinking skills in such a way that they can use the data well " and would like to develop this response a bit further. 

My understanding of "what students know" is drawn from the scant digital skills/literacy research, and from the outcomes of discussions I've had with K-12 and college educators and librarians. To my surprise, college educators pointed out their students' need to learn fundamental computer skills as a means to access the higher-order critical and conceptual thinking you've mentioned. For example, basic data literacy & data research are classes taught to graduate students, rather than undergraduates or students at the K-12 level. 

I wonder, in turn, how we can change the paradigm at the K-12 level, such that graduates of K-12 possess the rich ability to 'think critically' with digital and data tools in ways that you seek. Some levers for change seem to be:

(1) Stronger modeling at the instructional level, e.g., instructors tapping technology tools effectively, and explicitly modeling good use;
(2) More rigidly defined or enforced technology learning standards
(3) Tighter instructional integration
(4) Increased teacher/learning about technological tools, practices, strengths and weaknesses

However, are such levers the most effective instruments to increase technology literacy broadly? Should such an objective be a national educational goal? Or, are these not the right questions to ask? Curious to learn your thoughts!




Steven, and everyone,


thank you for the post and the comments, which are a great help for me as I struggle with planning a course for next year. If you could all go and see my post (, and give me suggestions, I'd really appreciate it. You all seem like you've thought about all this quite a lot, and even tried it out in your own classes. I could use the input!


“Wouldn’t it be better to help students learn what technologies are available to them, to discuss the benefits and drawbacks or various technologies, and to incorporate technologies into our teaching?”

Broadly speaking, I agree.  But I'd want to know more about how the greater educational system and infrastructure would be changed to help support this style of teaching so that it becomes an endeavor that has a fairly good chance of making a positive impact rather than one that, more often than not, sets educators up for "failure" as currently defined by the system.  Some students are highly resistant to changes to the “sage on the stage” lecture style, want their teacher to be an expert rather than a fellow learner, and subsequently voice their displeasure on the teacher and course evaluations when either of those expectations is subverted.  In a "student as consumer" model of education, how can an educator be protected during her/his own learning curve?

While I believe in being student-oriented, when does a teacher get time (and money!) to be trained in all of these new technologies?  Each technology has its own learning curve.  Even amongst technologies that fulfill the same function (e.g. Powerpoint and Keynote), they still require a period of acclimation when switching from one to the other.  Speaking of technologies, I think the plurality of technologies that can and already have been used as part of courses has to be recognized as well.  Powerpoint and its ilk are representatives of a technology for production of one-way communication whereas Facebook groups, class blogs, message boards, etc. are technologies for engaging in discussion.  With a plurality of technologies, shouldn't there also be a plurality of technological literacies?  But I'd imagine that being literate in Powerpoint presentation production isn't quite the same thing as being able to contribute constructively to a message board discussion.  Unless the suggestion is to interrogate how the architecture of Facebook groups, etc. can only produce a particular form of discourse?  Which leads to another question: Does an emphasis on developing technological or digital literacy risk turning every classroom and every subject into a course primarily focused on technologies rather than whatever the course is supposed to be about?   Why not a course that openly discusses, for example, reading practices along with the material?

With regards to the discussion of benefits and drawbacks, I would hope that the critical reflexivity to be fostered isn't solely about how to use the technology most effectively for its intended purpose, but also includes discussion of how race, gender, class, disability, etc. shape what is considered a benefit or a drawback.  For example, Lorna Roth has examined how color balancing in photography rested on a racialized foundation that privileged whiteness as its standard.