Access and Filters in Digital Literacy

This morning, Mary Helen shared a quote from Fr. Richard Rohr:

“When people have no appropriate filters, culture is susceptible to the whim of demagogues and sound bites. Education should teach us how to create good and helpful filters.”

I also encountered a long Facebook post from Patton Oswalt that included this advice for today, tomorrow, and the next four years:

“Leave your TV tuned to a channel like Turner Classic Movies or National Geographic or any channel that will have zero inaugural coverage. Then turn off your phone. Then shut down your computer.

And then — IF you can afford it — go find a struggling theater company and pay to see whatever play they’re putting on. Or a struggling art gallery or music club or museum. Leave ’em money and see what they’re about. Go see an indie film that’s got stellar reviews and no audience. Or a new restaurant or other small business that needs friends and customers. Download a new band. Go to an independent bookstore and buy something from a small press. Go to an open mike. Or see any comedian. Tip your barista or barkeep a little extra.”

Of course, since the election, I have been thinking a lot about what we should be teaching students–in first-year composition, in upper-division English classes, and in graduate seminars–about how to filter fake news from real news. In my own experience as a mother trying to sort fact from fiction about vaccines and autism, I encountered first hand how fake news and pseudo-science can complicate and cloud decision making. Information literacy–evaluating the quality and reliability of sources–represents one way of thinking about “filters” and their role in teaching and learning with and about technology. As Clay Shirky put it succinctly when talking about the “information economy” of the internet: “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” One part of digital literacy is teaching students how to transform the flood of information pouring through the firehose of the web and social media into a manageable wellspring of relevant and reliable data they can use to make important academic, personal, and political choices.

When I read Rohr together with Oswalt, though, “to filter” takes on another meaning. One that has to do with knowing when we might be more productive if we turn off or turn away from technology. I think we’ve all probably seen arguments for banning technology in the classroom, as well as the responses they have prompted. While increasing access–to technology, to information, to a broader audience, to employment opportunities–is one benefit of technology, we need to balance that benefit against the potential harm of an “always on” culture in which privacy and offline interactions are devalued.

One of the problems we always encounter when we begin any discussion about interdisciplinary learning outcomes or best practices is that one-size-fits-all solutions rarely fit anyone very comfortably. As we continue our discussions this semester about learning outcomes and advice for teachers and students, I wonder if instead of focusing on exact language and measurability, it might be useful to think of general areas or categories that discipline-specific learning outcomes–generated locally within the discipline on a class-by-class basis–could be targeted to address. For example, drawing from the thinking I’ve been doing here, we might say that a “complete” set of digital literacy learning outcomes will include, among other things, both outcomes related to information literacy as well as outcomes related to making decisions about when and if particular technologies are appropriate for a given task or setting. The complete set doesn’t have to be taught in every class, or even in every discipline, but they would inform an “across the disciplines” approach to integrating digital literacy as part of the curriculum.

Further, I think any set of best practices needs to include decision-making guidance for prioritizing students and their needs over institutional budgets and administrative convenience. Decisions about implementing technology in the classroom (and perhaps even where students encounter it as part of their educational experience, e.g., enrollment, advisement) should rarely (maybe never?) be driven primarily by concern for what is most convenient or cost-effective for administration and faculty. The question, “What will our students gain from learning to use this technology during the course of their education?” should ideally always be part of the conversation.

GSU Conference on Digital Literacy, February 2-3, 2017


Here is more information about the conference I’ve mentioned that Mary Helen and I are helping to organize for early next semester. Please feel free to circulate this to anyone you feel might be interested. We’re hoping for broad participation across disciplines from faculty, staff, and students.


The GSU Conference on Digital Literacy is a faculty-organized event for Georgia State University faculty, students, staff, and administrators from any discipline or department who want to learn more about using and implementing digital tools to enhance teaching and learning. This open conference will provide an opportunity for professional development, community building, and critical conversation related to digital pedagogy and scholarship.

Please see the CFP ( if you’re interested in submitting a proposal for one of the Friday conference sessions. Proposals are due November 15, 2016, and participants will be notified of acceptance by December 1, 2016.

The conference will take place on February 2-3, 2017, and participants can attend either or both days:

WORKSHOPS: On Thursday, February 2, participants can register for one of four workshops. One workshop will provide an introduction to digital pedagogy tools and strategies. One will delve into how to get the most out of iCollege. One workshop will focus on data analysis for the humanities and social sciences, and one will guide participants interested in designing courses that make use of WordPress and student-owned websites. Detailed descriptions of and registration for the workshops will be available soon on our conference website:

STUDENT SHOWCASE: On Thursday evening, students will present innovative digital work. The showcase will include a poster-style session, and a live performance with a post-show “talk back” with the student presenters. If you and your students are interested in participating in the showcase, please contact me or Ryan Pine (

CONFERENCE: On Friday, instructors and students will share their insights and experience using technology in the classroom during hour-long concurrent roundtable and workshop presentations. The CFP for the Friday conference is available on the conference website:

We look forward to seeing you at GSU’s Conference on Digital Literacy.

Organizing committee:
Robin Wharton, Mary Helen O’Connor, Tracy Burge, and Ryan Pine
For any enquiries regarding the program, please contact Robin Wharton (
For all general enquiries, please contact Ryan Pine (

Helping Students Take Control of Their Data and Intellectual Property

Because I ask students in all of my classes to do public-facing work, many people presume I don’t care about (or even don’t think about) student privacy. On the contrary, however, I am deeply concerned about students’ privacy and intellectual property rights. That is why I avoid–when it’s possible to do so–using tools like iCollege and, which deprive students of access to copies of their work when a course is over, require them to share or even relinquish their intellectual property, and which constantly collect and store and sell students’ personal data. iCollege and TurnItIn have their place; they can be extraordinarily useful tools. In the courses I teach, though, they are less useful, and therefore their benefits rarely counterbalance these drawbacks. I also think that, if schools did more to push back against the terms of service pursuant to which tools like iCollege are made available, we could (possibly?) work to minimize these problems and make such digital resources even more useful (and ethical) for pedagogical purposes.

Helping students (and also administrators and teachers) to understand the choices they make when they click “Agree” before installing software or signing up for a new social media service, and helping them to make more informed choices, has become an important component of digital literacy in my classroom. In addition to commercial learning management systems, I’ve also moved away from requiring students to use tools like Dropbox or Google Drive, toward using a modified “Domain of One’s Own” approach, where students use a GSU-provided WordPress site to host their work. On their sites, student get experience with creating and managing their own web content, while simultaneously developing their ability to filter content created by others. They learn to evaluate the credibility, reliability, and relevance of internet sources, and to author credible, reliable, relevant content themselves. When the course is over, or when they graduate from GSU, they can delete their sites, export their work, and if they choose, import it into a new site.

People often take the position that students don’t care about what happens to their work after the course is over, that they don’t care that e-books and course management systems are collecting and monetizing their data. Maybe they don’t. As an educator, I think they should, and I hope that at least some students see their work in my classes as meaningful beyond the immediate context of the class. My thinking on this issue has been heavily influenced by Audrey Watters and the Domain of One’s Own Project. Watters offers a persuasive argument for why we should be giving students ownership over their education data and their intellectual property in her essay, The Web We Need to Give Students. The Domain of One’s Own project at the University of Mary Washington has been another important resource for me.

What might be broadly defined as “information literacy”–learning to evaluate the credibility, reliability, and relevance of internet sources, and to author credible, reliable, relevant online content–is already included to some extent in core learning outcomes for courses such as ENGL1101/1102/1103 and the other upper-division courses I teach. It’s also a component of disciplinary best practices for courses in composition and rhetoric. Developing students’ personal agency and empowering them to take control over their data and intellectual property seems to go a step beyond both departmental and disciplinary practice, though it is definitely a subject of research and the scholarship of teaching and learning in my field. I’m interested in learning from the group if these are issues of concern in other disciplines, and if so, how they are discussed and addressed.