In his article “Networked Learning as Experiential Learning” Gardner Campbell refers to the power of institutionalized “high impact, student-built, instructor-facilitated, digitally networked learning” to transform higher education at two levels: the institutional and the individual. This message resonates with me. As an institutional practice, digitally networked learning (DNL) can help institutions fulfill their mission to create alumni who are contributing members of society. Campbell argues that such learning should go beyond the mere use of apps and online learning systems. When our students lack deep digital literacy, the impact that they can make in the online world is bounded. Without some understanding of what underlies apps, creators of digital media are limited by the pre-scripted possibilities presented to them. Greater digital knowledge realizes greater digital creativity. For these reasons, we should embrace deep DNL in higher education. At the same time, the practice can help individual students to become creators and disseminators of knowledge—valuable 21st-century skills and tools for a satisfying existence. I agree that participation in a DLN can be powerful. Because of the potential power digital creators may wield, it is especially important that they understand the responsibilities that come with it. Power without a sense of responsibility is a danger to all of us. We, the teachers, must be conscious of the responsibility we carry as the creators of creators of digital media. If we facilitate learning in which students create knowledge through digital networks, we should ensure that they discuss the ethical implications of their creations.
I had an experience this afternoon that serves as an example of the potential power and pitfalls of digital media creation. Just before I sat down to write this blog post, I checked my inbox and found an email about AAC&U’s 2017 Institute on High-Impact Practices and Student Success. I had looked up the article High-Impact Practices: Applying the Learning Outcomes Literature to the Development of Successful Campus Programs earlier in the day. At first, I thought that the email’s presence in my inbox was the work of a digital demon—some piece of embedded code that monitors my web searches and sends me offers that match my interests and whose workings I do not understand. I quickly remembered, however, that I receive regular emails from AAC&U. No digital demon was needed. This incident provides a wonderful analogy for what I want to address in this post. Although AAC&U was not sending me emails based on my web searches, it probably could. Companies such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook do this all of the time. (Watch the video What Makes You Click if you are interested in learning more.) If I honed my own digital creation skills, I might be able to create the demon I imagined. This would give me the power to capture and track information on visitors to my website and to send them information of my choosing. Would it be ethical for me to do this? If so, would any type of information I sent be ethical? Would it be ethical for me to send “alternative facts” to my audience? If we teach students to create digital media, we must also teach them to reflect on their creations.
For deep DNL to become institutionalized, it would need to be part of the institute’s mission. Many schools reference some type of digital literacy in their mission statements. For instance, Virginia Tech’s mission statement states that students and faculty will be part of an “academically energized, technologically creative and culturally inclusive learning community.” However, the definition of a “technologically creative” community most likely occurs at the level of student learning outcomes. It is at the school/department/program level that the term may be defined as deep DNL. Finally, it is at the classroom level that deep DNL occurs. Most high impact experiential learning practices are co-curricular. Because of this, most students do not have access to these practices.1 DNL is one of the few high impact practices that is naturally part of the curriculum. In order for this classroom practice to be realized, however, teachers must believe in the value of and be able to create and manipulate digital media themselves. One way that teachers master these skills is through courses such as this one. Another way is through peer-to-peer mentoring. This forms part one of our mission. When we emerge as GEDI “masters” will we seek disciples of our own? Will we promote the ideal of deep DLN with our colleagues through our own practice? Will we use our power productively?
With power, comes responsibility. This is the second part of our mission. As teachers, we need to model responsible use of our digital powers and engage our own students to consider the impacts of their digital creations. In a world where the importance, and even the existence of facts, is questioned by people in power, and in which the term “alternative facts” is used, it is obvious that we should help our students learn to distinguish fact from fiction. When we teach our students to create networked digital media, however, they must also decide how they will represent their own products. They must understand the impacts and ethics of representing facts as fiction and fiction as facts. It is up to us to teach them. Your mission (if you choose to accept it) as a future faculty member:
- Teach students skills needed to create and manipulate DLNs.
- Engage students in discussing and recognizing their responsibilities as creators.
Let’s facilitate a generation of smart, meaningful learning together.
- Jayne E. Brownell & Lynn E. Swanner, High-Impact Practices: Applying the Learning Outcomes Literature to the Development of Successful Campus Programs