Digital Literacy and the First Year Student

In my email this morning:

What are the two or three tools you would consider most useful for students to learn about in the arts/humanities, regardless of their discipline and with a focus on what would be useful in doing ‘traditional’ kinds of tasks in regular classrooms?

A very good question. I asked on twitter, and received a wide variety of responses. In order as I trawl backwards through my timeline (click through to see proper context of the conversation)

I particularly appreciate the observation on it being ok to suck at all of this. So many students – especially in arts describe themselves as not being able to handle computers (a self-fulfilling prophecy? Someone pushed them to English or History because they decided that the student was not ‘good’ at ‘tech’, and so the student comes to believe it; which we then reinforce by not employing or valuing the tech skills/perspectives/research of folks we *do* have… but I digress). Any engagement with digital tech is going to have to hit that head on, and making the space safe to experiment, for things to ‘not work’, has to be a critical piece. (Hmm, re-reading what I wrote in response to my correspondent, I note I didn’t say this; but in fairness, he and I have had that conversation before and knows my thoughts on those lines).

Anyway, I wrote the below, taking all of this into account  (upon re-reading, I note I neglected John’s point about the library, which is a big thing to leave out), as well as my own experience in teaching such things. I suggested only one tool, while leaving the rest of it open as a matter of perspective. There is no one right way to do things in digital tech (despite what some might have you believe). The bigger issue is the goal you’re trying to reach. I wrote:

I asked around for what other folks in the dh’y world thought about this question. Many diverging opinions, of course. But I think instead of tools it might be more interesting/useful (?) to arrange around a couple of key issues:

  1. Managing research
  2. Managing online identity & privacy
  3. Using your computer ‘properly’ and knowing how to ask for or find help

So under ‘managing research’ one could begin absolutely with Zotero; but then a person might want to think more deeply about making their research sustainable and future proof (what to do when Microsoft locks you out of your materials until you renew your subscription, right?) For that, something like how to work with simple text files & a piece of open source software called Pandoc (which converts your basic text file into pdf, into doc, into html, into slides, into journal formatting, etc) is a key thing – see for instance http://programminghistorian.org/lessons/sustainable-authorship-in-plain-text-using-pandoc-and-markdown )

Under managing online identity and privacy one would have to talk about things like basic web hosting (for which I can’t recommend highly enough http://reclaimhosting.com : by academics for academics & students) the pros/cons of various kinds of social networks, understanding what the ’terms of service’ actually mean, how to create gravity on the internet for your own personal ‘brand’ (shudders), how to navigate spaces like Slack (see http://www.zachwhalen.net/posts/notes-on-teaching-with-slack/ )

Under using your computer properly, I just mean, how to open the hood and get it to do things other than what Microsoft, Apple, or Facebook want you to use. The key to this is how to use the terminal (mac) or command line (pc). Once a student can do this, they have the keys to the kingdom for doing so much more. See http://programminghistorian.org/lessons/intro-to-bash . You’ll be able to identify the right tools for the problem at hand, install them, and get them to work. With that comes learning how to use error messages from your machine to actually figure out what’s happening and how to get it to do what you want.  Oddly enough, googling the exact message is far more useful than one would think: but it points out that there’s a community, a body of knowledge, out there and so begins to teach collaboration…

Focussing on particular tools I think risks locking students in, and of course, when tools change, everything becomes more difficult because we haven’t taught how to cope, just where to click, if you see what I mean. (my http://workbook.craftingdigitalhistory.ca has a lot in this vein; please do grab anything from there that strikes you as useful.

That last bit about my workbook: that goes for all of you. Take it to bits. Use what is useful. Improve what is not. Toss me a citation if you do. Know yourself out! But, one last thing:

How would *you* have responded to this query?

(Featured image courtesy of @bitsgalore: https://twitter.com/bitsgalore/status/722798107491061760 )

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