Should cryptocurrencies replace government-backed ones? Should the use of personal digital data in political campaigns be regulated? How do digital platforms shape the discussions that happen on them – and those who participate? And what do cute cat memes have to do with censorship?
Students at St. Thomas University are exploring these and many more questions in a new digital literacy course. It’s part of a larger project to foster a focus in the digital liberal arts and equip students with important critical-thinking and creative skills for what has become a primary form of communication.
“It’s really about seeing how we can best prepare [students] to eventually leave campus and become more critically inclined citizens,” said Andrew Klein, an assistant professor in Catholic studies who co-created the course framework with media studies assistant professor Katherine Thorsteinson. “It’s about us aligning what we do at the university with the day-to-day realities of modern living.”
Trialled during the winter 2022 semester and running again this summer and fall, the course blends hands-on skills, such as the use of productivity, multimedia and website development tools, with exposure to broader social, political and ethical implications of digital technologies.
In its initial offering, students used sources such as the British dystopian television series Black Mirror to learn about and discuss algorithms, artificial intelligence, their impacts on identity and how these can perpetuate discrimination. They watched documentaries and read articles to dig into issues of censorship and the dark web, including the theory that, at a certain point in its evolution, the internet’s facility for communicating banal stuff like cute cat memes proved the perfect tool for activists to get their messages out while evading state censors.
Digital literacy is “undertaught at the high school and university level,” said Dr. Thorsteinson, although many young people acquire digital skills and learn aspects of the impacts of digital technology on their own. Nevertheless, some topics, such as the social media-fuelled conspiracy movement QAnon, were less familiar to students. Others, such as the emotional stakes involved in social media, were all too recognizable, said Dr. Thorsteinson.
“Students at this age, that’s really real for them,” she said. “They’ve lived that through their high school experience and they’ve probably seen the consequences of that as well with friends who might be struggling with depression and the fallout from social media use.”
The half-year course enrols about 20 to 25 students and is open to anyone across the disciplines. Assessments have included participation in group debates with written individual reflections; an essay that critically reviews either a website or a digital application; presentations; and an individual creative project using a digital media form to critically engage with one of the course topics. Access to Netflix, HBO GO, Spotify and readings via Moodle and Perusall, an interactive learning platform, formed the core of the winter semester’s learning materials.
The English department was chosen to house the course because it was already moving towards more digital media courses, such as one in “e-lit” – literature that exploits the capabilities of the digital environment. This coincided with an interest among university leadership to develop solid digital literacy skills among St. Thomas students generally. Eventually, the digital literacy course may become mandatory for all St. Thomas students.
Taught this summer by adjunct instructor Olivia Parker, the course is just the first step in a deliberate, coherent strategy for digitally oriented programs and infrastructure at the small liberal arts university. This will include a certificate in digital and media literacy that is expected to launch in September; a new interdisciplinary major in digital media and creative arts; and the creation of a digital research, education, arts and media centre to ensure all students have access to required technologies and tools. St. Thomas’ “digital literacy project” has been supported through $435,000 in funding over three years from the New Brunswick government, which has put a focus on digital skills development and transformation since 2018.
“The digital is becoming an integral part of liberal arts education, even in the traditional sense – how we educate people to think very broadly, critically, creatively,” said André Loiselle, dean of humanities at St. Thomas. “That’s what they were doing a thousand years ago and that’s what we are going to continue to do.”