Civic Engagement + Digital Literacy = Liberal Learning in the 21st Century

I’ve had a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head so far in 2017. This week, they are starting to come together. As I try to articulate them, you may wonder what this has to do with open learning, but please bear with me.

Dr. Troy Paino, our new president at the University of Mary Washington, gave a speech last month in which he presented his vision for our future. I found his remarks both traditional and progressive. He asked what UMW should become, given our history, culture and geographic location.

UMW is a public liberal arts and sciences institution. While we have colleges of business and education and a growing number of masters programs, liberal education is our core. UMW was originally created as a normal school, a women’s college to train teachers. Subsequently, it became the women’s college of the University of Virginia, and then a public liberal arts & sciences school in the mid-1970s. Located in Virginia, half way between Washington, DC and Richmond, UMW has had a rich background in American history, from colonial times when George Washington grew up nearby, to the American Revolution with Patrick Henry, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson and others who built this republic, to the civil rights movement in which former UMW faculty member James Farmer played an important part.

President Paino argued that UMW should build a future using a two-pronged approach: First, to create students who are civically engaged. Second, to create students who are digitally literate. These, he argued, are substantially related.

Students, Paino said, should understand the relevance of their liberal education to the problems of the world. But that’s just the start. Students need then to engage with the community, to make the world a better place, initially as part of their undergraduate studies, but then implicitly through their lives beyond university. This is what civic engagement means. A few years ago, I asked students if they had come to UMW because it was a liberal arts & sciences institution. Almost none of the students said yes. We need to do a better job of helping our students understand why that matters, and why fundamentally higher education at a school like Mary Washington is more than just completing one’s major.

Students also need to become digitally literate. UMW has a long and well recognized history in this area led by our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies and encompassing UMW Blogs, which provided a blog server for faculty and students who wanted to engage with the digital world, our Online Learning Initiative, which sought to imagine what liberal learning could be in a blended or online course environment, to the Domain of One’s Own Project, which started at UMW, giving all students their own web domain and the resources to build those out in whatever way they chose. Despite a new major in communication and digital studies and a minor in digital studies, I think it’s fair to say that digital literacy does not currently play a central role in our curriculum, and most graduates do not take advantage of the opportunity to incorporate this into their degrees.

President Paino asked how can we adapt the liberal arts and sciences education provided at UMW to the digital world in which we now live. He observed that the world has changed from one where information was scarce and the goal of education was to provide that information, to one where information is abundant. In the latter, a key role for education has become to help people critically evaluate and filter the flood of information. How then, can we teach students to be critical thinkers in the world today? This is not a trivial question. This week, the Association of American Colleges & Universities released On Solid Ground, the initial results of a study of student achievement as measured by the AAC&U’s VALUE Rubrics. The study included results from 92 universities and looked at, not standardized test scores, but actual student work to evaluate learning in three areas: Written Communication, Critical Thinking and Quantitative Reasoning. The findings were encouraging, but also showed room for improvement. To quote from the press release:

“In the area of Critical Thinking, students demonstrate strength in explaining issues and presenting evidence related to the issues. However, students have greater difficulty in drawing conclusions or making sense out of or explaining the importance of the issue studied.”

Despite what the new U.S. Secretary of Education said yesterday, our job as faculty is to teach students not what to think, but how to think.

I may be the last person to realize this, but as I was participating in this week’s OpenLearning’17 activities, listening to Bryan Alexander’s Monday introduction to information literacy, reading the ACRL Framework for information literacy, and watching the NMC webinar on Digital Literacy, it occurred to me that in this age of alternative facts and fake news, there may be nothing more important than teaching citizenship and civic engagement through information and digital literacy. President Paino claimed as much in his speech, saying that beyond traditional notions of liberal education, “our fundamental purpose [today] is the preservation and advancement of our representative democracy.”

These are strong words. To make them real, we have much work to do. But if not us, who?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Civic Engagement + Digital Literacy = Liberal Learning in the 21st Century

  1. Meg Mulrooney says:

    Exactly what I’ve been pondering this past year: how to increase students ability to transfer their lib arts & sciences ed to the public sphere. I think new media and civic tech become the bridges. How Can VA campuses collaborate?

  2. Thanks for putting together this equation. I admire it! Here is an additional factor. Does it work–the civic engagement + digital literacy = liberal education–specifically to the advantage of students who have been underserved, especially students of color and students who are poor? I guess this is the element of critical pedagogy we brought up last week. I keep thinking of students who are hungry or struggling to pay rent. Critical thinking about equity enters into the equation but I’m still trying to find an elegant and powerful way to say it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *