CMAP and Digital Literacy

Several months ago, I wrote about a showcase put on by graduate students in the Comparative Media Analysis and Practice (CMAP) program. As I noted then, CMAP is a joint-PhD program open to PhD students from disciplines through the university. Students with this joint degree not only have the skills and knowledge that come from their primary degree but also have skills in the critical investigation of modern media culture, as well as innovative digital crafts. When I wrote before, I had attended a showcase of the students digital work that emerged from a Maymester course they had taken in which students presented their ideas through media formats that were alternatives to the traditional academic essay.

This semester, I am the instructor for the program, teaching a course called “Media Ecology”, which ultimately asks students to ask on a theoretical and practical level how changes in dominant media alter both “being” and “knowledge” in a culture.  That is, how does communication in some sense shape or determine the shape of what we communicate. The course mixes reading from scholars with “trade book” thoughts to fiction and popular film. In every case, I ask the students to think through these various forms and how knowledge is “different” as a result of changes in mediation.

I have students in the class getting PhDs in German, French, History, English, Community Research and Action, Anthropology and more. For the most part, these students have been in classes together over the past two years. As a result of their bonding, I felt like an outsider joining a community on the first day (indeed, I have had to learn some of the rituals they have developed as a community over the last two years). Here is what I have observed: These are students who have developed an amazingly flexible and nimble way of thinking. Not only have they had to learn to speak across pretty wide disciplinary boundaries-something we always hope will happen with transdisciplinary work-but they have also had to learn to work utilizing various media for both presentation and for critical evaluation. If we see both disciplinary boundaries and digital technologies as two different types of technology (one a technology meant to put parameters on knowledge and method; the other doing simply as a result of function), these students are being forced-and forcing themselves-to think beyond the confines of particular technologies. As a result, it is not simply the content of these courses that is providing the students with a powerful set of tools, it is the way they are having to break down barriers in thinking and in articulating ideas that is truly impressive, almost revolutionary.

I dare say that when you place these students back in their regular PhD classes, they have a far looser, far more expansive way of thinking, speaking and acting.  I have referred several times to the White Paper on Digital Literacy in this forum; there is a sense in which these students are illustrating the culture we hope emerges from a campus wide focus on digital literacy: students who are able to think and present in a variety of ways, thinking and communicating in a digital culture with a great degree of flexibility. CMAP is evidence of the promise this route holds.

Posted by on March 22, 2018 in News

Collaboration in Implementation

Recently, I was the chair of an ad hoc committee that released a statement on digital literacy, with a series of recommendations for the campus at large (especially the undergraduate population). If you read this blog, or simply glance back over earlier entries, you will know that I have talked a lot about this committee and the concept as a whole. In one earlier post, I outlined the committees work to provide a definition, assess progress, support faculty (with skills and curricular decisions) and think about the link between careers and digital education. In another post, I noted the importance of faculty input into this definition and stressed the ways that Provost Susan Wente makes faculty input a priority in decision making.

For me, this has been one of those moments when I get the chance to reread the report from the committee, reflect on the process we went through in crafting it, and celebrate the wonderfully creative and thoughtful colleagues I have at Vanderbilt. More than that, however, it gives me a moment to think about the road ahead: how do we implement the measures recommended by the committee, both in specific and in spirit? Some of the answers to these questions are budgetary; some of the answers are logistics; some are curricular. What I do know is that if you could transport yourself into the future, one would find some very large differences between the recommendations as originally authored and those that were implemented. For instance, while I feel certain that the three broad areas of microcredentials (i.e., Critical Digital Literacy, Digital Visualization and Production, and Computational Thinking) will remain in broad contours, they may also become fragmented into multiple sub-elements of each category. Or, while we might see experiments with software like Adobe moving forward, we may also see a move toward a multiplicity of open source and industry standard software.

The differences will largely be the result of conversations with faculty and staff about how best to implement an idea developed by other faculty and staff. I’ve said this before in different ways, but it is indeed one of the aspects of the Vanderbilt model of progress and change of which I am most proud. When someone has a good idea, we vet it thoroughly through an iterative process with a wide range of colleagues. We operate together to move forward with the mission of the university. While the process of faculty governance and approval is slow, to be sure, it is also a process that encourages us to work together and a process that makes strong ideas even stronger.

I will try to keep this in mind over the course of the next several months as I work with others to implement the ideas in this white paper. Vanderbilt operates largely as a team interested in the same shared mission.


Posted by on February 12, 2018 in News

Affordable Textbooks

One of the concerns that every college student has, regardless of where they are enrolled, is the cost of textbooks. Like every campus, faculty and students at Vanderbilt are always looking for solutions. It is best if students have access to the most recent editions of books being utilized in a classroom, but that value must be offset with making sure that every student has affordable access to books. Given that a number of partial solutions exist in the area of digital studies, it is a question to which I give a good deal of thought.

The reason for the high prices of textbooks is, of course, overdetermined. In part, textbook companies are out to make a profit, but they have a number of forces cutting into their traditional profit margins, most notably the used textbook and rental market. While there is little textbook publishers can do to combat the rental market, they can encourage the publication of new editions of textbooks every couple of years. Although there is some justification for new textbooks in some areas of study (if a field of study changes rapidly or if examples must be updated), it seems clear that one major motivating factor is to encourage the purchase of new, rather than used, textbooks. In this way, publishers assure themselves of a new rush of purchases every couple of years.

Faculty and students pursue a number of ways (both traditional and creative) of fighting textbook prices on a general and individual level. Faculty have placed textbooks on reserve for students, and encouraged students to share (and students have done this on their own). Faculty sometimes opt to allow students to purchase one of many different editions of a textbook, giving the student wider latitude to find cheaper versions of the text through online sources.

Another route that some faculty have begun to pursue is open source textbooks available through the Open Textbook Library, for example. As you will see if you follow the link, the open textbooks found here have been published and licensed to be freely used, adapted and distributed. The books are authored by faculty from a number of different universities, and each book has been reviewed by other, third party faculty members who are experts in the field of study. While students can link to read digital versions of the texts, they can also order print copies for a nominal fee (e.g., $15-20). This is a remarkably open and efficient way for faculty to keep textbook prices down while having trustworthy texts. That said, at Vanderbilt thus far, very few faculty have adopted this path. A short study revealed that Vanderbilt faculty often still feel unsure of assigning a book without the imprint of a major publisher acting as something of a credential.

Another route that we are currently exploring is one being offered by some book publishers. Here, publishers would make all the textbooks being used at Vanderbilt available for students to purchase online at a discounted price. The route is simple: a student signs up for a class, and when they first log in, they are told they have the option to take the digital copy of the book online or purchase their hard copy at the bookstore (or elsewhere). One important consideration is how to include scholarship funding in the purchasing process. This model is being piloted in summer 2018 and will be implemented in the fall if it is successful.

All in all, while this is certainly not one of the most provocative digital issues with which I deal, it is one of the small ways we are all (faculty, students, staff, publishers) working together to help pursue the academic mission.


Posted by on February 2, 2018 in News

Rethinking Digital Delivery

Last Friday, I joined a number of my colleagues at a showcase of graduate student work from a CMAP (Comparative Media Analysis and Practice) Maymester seminar titled “Creative Media Practice.” CMAP is a joint-Ph.D. program that is open to Ph.D. students from all disciplines at the University. It serves to advance the critical investigation of modern media culture and innovative making of digital objects. For example, a student in the program might be pursuing a Ph.D. in a foreign language, Political Science, or Chemistry, while also seeking a second degree in CMAP. I love the program, as it provides these students with not only disciplinary expert knowledge but also new ways of thinking about the production and consumption of knowledge. The Maymester course from which the showcase projects were drawn provided students with short tutorials on the use of a number of digital tools (e.g. virtual reality sets, GIS, Adobe products) and then required the students to produce digital content that would advance an argument they were working on elsewhere in their graduate work.

While the projects themselves were fascinating and creative—especially given the short amount of time in which they were produced—the showcase also offered comments by independent filmmaker Gustavo Vazquez, who was visiting from the University of California, Santa Cruz after serving as a mentor to the students. During his remarks, Vazquez pointed out that he saw his job as akin to being a director of a film. He noted that he wanted to set up every scene so that the actors could do their job with no obstacles. Hence, he worked hard to make sure the students could pursue their projects in an obstacle-free environment.

As the conversation with Vazquez went on, we began to move the discussion of “obstacles” from the individual level to the structural. Vazquez was talking about the futures of dissertations and research projects, and was commenting on how transformative digital tools could be in both the production and consumption of new knowledge. That was the point at which I got to thinking about how the University itself has to act as a director in the sense that Vazquez was speaking — how do we collectively remove obstacles that will help the students reach these new levels of success? And that is a big question. Do we change the requirements for a dissertation such that they can include more digital work? Could a dissertation be completely realized via digital media? Are we supplying adequate tools and support for those tools? Are we helping students rethink traditional forms of presentation, such as poster sessions, and encouraging new modes of production? In short, are we setting up the conditions on a University-wide level that help us see such digital production and consumption of knowledge as routine rather than as novel? If not, how do we do so? These are the questions we need to be asking.

Posted by on October 4, 2017 in News

Discussions in Digital Literacy

As I have noted before, I initiated a discussion of digital literacy and the integration of this concept into Vanderbilt’s education model with an ad hoc committee established this spring. The committee has generated a great number of ideas—both curricular and non-curricular—about the ways to make digital literacy a natural part of undergraduate and graduate education, rather than something confined to individual classes or activities.  While I’m very pleased with the work the committee has done and I am eager to get back to that work this fall, this post is not about the committee’s work directly, it’s more of a comment on the process by which Vanderbilt embarks upon initiatives like this and the discussion sparked by faculty members within these conversations.  In both ways, I find myself impressed by the human dynamic in digital learning.

When I first talked to Provost Susan Wente about some of the committee’s ideas, she noted her initial support, and asked me to canvas a larger swath of the overall Vanderbilt faculty.  She suggested that I talk to the Director of Undergraduate Studies (or equivalent) for each department in all four undergraduate schools.  Provost Wente asked me to carefully listen to thoughts and concerns expressed by each faculty member.  Ideas were always better, she reminded me, when they came from, or were heavily shaped by, the faculty who are working with our students on a daily basis.  This is a wise commitment.  In fact, there was never a meeting with a faculty member in which I did not hear a new idea or find a different approach.   These conversations expanded upon the initial concept, making the initiative bolder and more encompassing.

If there was one clear message from the faculty beyond their overall desire to pursue digital literacy, it’s that the university needs to make both tools and support available to both faculty and students.  That is, I was impressed that the faculty were not only excited about our conversations surrounding of digital literacy, but also what would be needed to make the concept work.

I met with science professors who want to enhance their students’ abilities to communicate scientific ideas in more interesting ways, historians who want to incorporate GIS mapping into student work, and education faculty who want students to learn to present via podcasts. Meanwhile, none of the faculty stopped thinking past the point of delivery.   Each one thought through the implications of what it would take for their idea to be functional.  They want to make sure that students and faculty are given tools with which to work and the support to make it successful.

What I want to stress here is that there are some aspects of educational technology that are no different than any other decision made at Vanderbilt.  Provost Wente was wise to encourage a larger circle of input because, as is always the case, faculty working with students have a great deal of insight into how digital literacy can become a larger part of the Vanderbilt culture.  While we still have a great deal of work to do, of course, the work will be better because we remember to engage in discussion and input from an array of faculty constituents.

Posted by on August 22, 2017 in News

Learning from Doing

Last week, the team that produces Leading Lines participated in a roundtable discussion about the progress we’ve made with the podcast. We talked about what we originally hoped to accomplish, how we would like to see the podcast evolve, and what we have learned from our various interviews. For me, the discussion surrounding learning opportunities was most interesting, as the conversation led us to discuss what we have gained from the actual podcast production process.

As we explored this topic, we talked about how the material work of putting together a podcast made us realize how difficult it is to achieve a professional sound. Not only do podcast producers need to worry about mundane material issues (e.g., being sure they have the right equipment, checking that the spare batteries are charged, making sure there are no ambient sounds), but they also need consider production aspects such as the order of questions, ways in which to guide the conversation, and the resources needed to prepare for the interview. As we began thinking through the materiality and process of producing a podcast, we realized how differently we now listen to podcasts. We now each think about issues like scene, editing, sound, and the overall choices that are made to produce a holistically crafted message. If I say we have become more “critical” of other podcasts, I don’t mean in it a negative sense; I simply think we have all learned to think in a more discerning manner about the overall construction of a message. In learning to build podcasts, we have learned to think harder about this particular modality. It is probably no surprise that at least three of the people working on this podcast have now gone off to work on other ones.

Why is this important? If I’m just talking about podcasting, or Leading Lines specifically, perhaps it’s not all that important. However, there is a larger point here: people who engage in the production of ideas or messages through different modalities are able to think more clearly, more critically, about how they are reached through those modalities. The more you have built something as simple as PowerPoint slides, for example, the more you reflect upon how others’ slides successfully or unsuccessfully communicate to you. The more you produce, then, the better you consume.

If we apply this lesson to Vanderbilt as a whole, one of the takeaways is that the better we prepare our students to present their ideas through multiple means of communication and modalities the better equipped they will be for the job market and perhaps more importantly, for citizenship. And in a world in which there is so much information (and misinformation), it is critical to produce citizens who consume and produce information with a critical eye.


Posted by on June 22, 2017 in News

When Opportunities Arise

As I’ve noted before, one of the ideas I’m working on with a faculty committee is incorporating digital literacy (e.g., critical consumption of data, the production of data visualization, computational thinking) as a key element of the current educational landscape. If we think seriously about the types of skills we hope to give students as they enter the workforce and citizenry, we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t take digital literacy as seriously as we do, say, writing. Students are naturally adept at consuming digital information, but are they adept as critical consumers and producers of digital ideas via words, sounds and visions?

One of the ways the committee has talked about enhancing digital literacy is to provide students and faculty with digital resources that encourage them to rethink elements of their coursework. We need to find ways to provide students with both specific tools (i.e., software) and training/support on how to use those tools if we hope to enhance digital literacy across campus.

While formulating a digital literacy case study, I was contacted by Lutz Koepnick, Gertrude Conway Professor and Chair of German, Russian and East European Studies, as well and Director of the Joint-Ph.D. Program in Comparative Media Analysis and Practice (CMAP). This is an innovative program that is ‘layered onto’ a student’s primary field of study (and all fields may link to CMAP) and focuses on the “critical investigation of modern media culture and the innovative making of digital objects.” Students complete the program in conjunction with their field-specific plan of study and graduate with a Ph.D. in their respective area and in “Comparative Media Analysis and Practice.”

Koepnick contacted me because he was just about to begin teaching a Maymester course entitled, “Creative Media Practice.” This course is a four week long series of workshops “designed both to foster graduate students’ skills in various areas of digital media practice and to help doctoral candidates to develop creative solutions to present research projects in their fields of specialization and matters of public concern.” The students are taught elements of visual storytelling, documentary filmmaking, sound production, web design, gaming, and 3D/virtual reality design. Fortunately, my discussion with Koepnick turned into an opportunity to provide digital literacy training and support to his Maymester students.

What if we gave the students access to both software (we arranged for students and faculty to have access to the Adobe Creative Cloud, as well as other programs) and support for using this software? Koepnick identified numerous faculty who could help teach students specific tasks and support them when they had questions or ideas.  While the course is currently ongoing, our hope is that students learn new ways to present and visualize their research projects to both a general and an expert audience.  This will ideally represent a small case study of how training in ‘digital literacy’ might work if students and faculty have access to adequate software and support. In a month we will find out, but right now, Koepnick reports that the students are excitedly working on their projects and finding very creative ways to present their research. I very much look forward to seeing what they produce at the conclusion of their course.

The lesson to be drawn from this is not simply what we will learn from the outcome of the course, but that we need to be observant for opportunities, like this one, allowing us to give our ideas that best chance to work. That is, Koepnick has presented an organic instance in which “digital literacy” was at the heart of a course, and we saw this as an opportunity to test drive the idea of combining access and support. I’m thrilled to be part of this and very much look forward to seeing what the students achieve.

Posted by on May 30, 2017 in News

Knowledge as Process and as Distribution

In the late 1990s, Ronald Deibert’s Parchment, Printing and Hypermedia was published.   As a political scientist and media ecologist, Deibert was interested in the ways that new digital technologies would alter power relationships throughout the world by shifting the ways people thought and processed information, as well as the ways information and political power would be distributed.  Deibert argued that while old media favored nation states and top down knowledge, digital media favored non territorialization via fragmented global institutions and communities and co-created knowledge.

In my position at Vanderbilt, I’ve been thinking about Deibert a good deal these days.  It’s not that my role deals with global politics, or politics at all in any traditional manner, it’s more that Vanderbilt—as an institution with an educational mission—needs to think about the ways that digital educational technologies have a transformative effect both on the ways people (students, faculty) think and on how knowledge is distributed—both inside and outside the institution.  In my mind, the more that I reflect on what “we” need to be doing, the more I think these twin transformations are a healthy way for us to think through our use of digital technology.

On the first front—that of changes in how students and faculty think, how they produce and consume knowledge—I am hoping to think about ways the university can focus more specifically on providing tools, courses, and less formal means of dealing with changes in our means of communication.  By providing students with the skills for production and the skills for critical consumption, we provide more training for their eventual move into the workforce or higher education.  To point: I am working currently with a “Digital Literacy” committee who has been tasked with defining “digital literacy” for Vanderbilt and then thinking about both curricular and non-curricular ways to advance digital literacy.  While working with peer institutions’ definitions of digital literacy as a starting point, I’m hoping to have us think creatively about the ways that we can alter the way students and faculty produce and consume information through both curricular and non-curricular means.  In terms of the curriculum, I can envision the creation of a digital literacy designation and the development of more classes with such a designation, or the development of a curricular model in which students attend a certain number of classes, workshops, or short modules on campus as one way of signifying digital competence. On the non-curricular side, I can picture a larger site license for digital software, an increase in the number of help stations, and a growth in support staff at locations like the Center for Teaching (CFT).  These are just ideas, and the committee and the faculty at large will help shape and transform these ideas into workable solutions for our faculty and students, but it’s a positive to be thinking in this direction.

On the second front, that of the distribution of knowledge, we at VU are working hard at developing ideas both in our normal classrooms and outside the university to how we distribute information and how we have conversations about information outside of class.  While this of course has meant the establishment of MOOCs, flipped classrooms and virtual classrooms, it also is exemplified, for example, in Peabody’s decision to offer two of their degree programs online, in our upcoming experiments with an online summer course for our residential students, for potential non-degree programs or programs developed for, and offered specifically to, our alumni.   I certainly see the “Tiny Languages” program working to focus on changing ways of distributing knowledge.

In short, it is clear that digital technology has altered the landscape for education and for knowledge itself.  It is up to us to constantly think about how we are prepared for these changes and how we prepare our faculty and students for them.

Posted by on April 3, 2017 in News

Solar Eclipse!

This fall offers an event of a lifetime for many of us at Vanderbilt and in Nashville.  At approximately 1:27 p.m., on Monday, August 21, 2017, the Vanderbilt campus will experience 1 minute and 54 seconds of total solar eclipse. That date is also the Monday following move-in day for our students. Although they will be busy that Monday going through pre-class academic preparation, I hope that faculty, staff, and students will all pause and take time to enjoy this event.

While this may seem like an unusual event to be tied in with the office of educational technology, I have been busy working with others to plan series of events around the eclipse with colleagues throughout the university. In part, I took on this role because some of our colleagues are producing programs that integrate digital technology with the solar eclipse. However, in another way, my involvement and excitement simply comes from my wonderment about the galaxy.

Given that the eclipse takes place at the beginning of the fall semester, we are planning most of our programming for this spring 2017. Let me walk you through some of the plans we have around the eclipse:

  • Susan Stewart, Adjoint Assistant Professor of Astronomy, will be teaching a summer school course, ASTR3850, which will focus on the eclipse and host several visiting lecturers.
  • Anthropologist, John Janusek, will create a display on solar and lunar tracking in the PreColumbia era that will be available during the spring semester.
  • The Central Library will curate a collection of astronomical photos from glass negatives and lantern slides drawn from the papers of Edward Emerson Barnard. Featured in these photos are stunning pictures of a total eclipse.
  • The Dyer Observatory will be coming to campus to set up temporary solar viewing stations during the spring semester, in order to illustrate how the sun is studied. In addition, representatives from Dyer will be providing free presentations about the eclipse to those who request one.
  • The School of Engineering will be launching and following solar balloons on the day of the eclipse.

Moving from the sciences to the humanities, there will be three different student competitions this spring semester concerning the eclipse, one in creative writing, one in visual art, and one in innovation. These competitions are sponsored respectively by the Creative Writing Program, the Department of Art, and the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy.  Toward the end of the semester, we will host a celebration of the winners in each category.

Finally, in order to be sure that everyone is able to view the eclipse safely, Vanderbilt University, in partnership with the Dyer Observatory and the Vanderbilt Eye Institute, will be distributing thousands of eclipse sunglasses prior to, and on, the big day.

Posted by on January 11, 2017 in News

Digital Literacy

December 12, 2016

I’ve been thinking a lot about digital literacy. While the term “digital literacy” is often employed loosely (and with multiple meanings), I understand digital literacy to be the broadest sense of a person’s ability to consume, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies. If you search any university’s website, you’ll see that while everyone is concerned about digital literacy, most universities are unaware of exactly how to implement digital literacy as a guiding principle.

Today, I’d like to explain the route I hope Vanderbilt will take to systematically incorporate digital literacy into the undergraduate educational experience. There are at least five areas to consider as we move forward:

  • a guiding definition,
  • an assessment of our student’s working knowledge,
  • support for faculty and staff,
  • a curricular structure, and
  • the importance of career readiness.

First, we need to define digital literacy. Since digital technology pervades daily life (e.g., we read news online, we watch videos to learn new skills), it could be said that we are all digitally literate. Obviously, we mean something more than that. If we want students to be both producers and critical consumers of digital content, we must incorporate these elements into Vanderbilt’s definition of digital literacy.

Second, we need to take a baseline assessment of the student population’s digital literacy. It’s a common misconception that today’s undergraduate students are digitally literate based on generation alone, and that their digital savvy far exceeds that of our faculty. While I’m sure this is true in some dimensions, I’m equally sure that it is not a universal truth. What do our students know about producing and archiving digital content? In what ways are they skilled as information consumers?  To understand the pedagogy of digital literacy will require an exploratory survey of our students’ current digital literacy fitness and aptitude.

Third, we need to take a baseline assessment of our faculty and staff populations’ digital literacy. I anticipate there is a wide range of digital literacy for faculty and staff – from faculty and staff who are GIS experts, to those who run podcasts, to those who do little more than utilize Vanderbilt’s Course Management System.  The range of expertise is wide and varied.  What do faculty know in general?  What do they need to know given our goals?  How can we support faculty if we expect them to instruct our students in digital literacy?  Again, these are questions that we need to ask with our definition and goals firmly in mind.

Fourth, we need to implement digital literacy instruction. Do we designate certain courses as “digital literacy” qualified and institute a digital literacy curricular requirement, as many schools do with the teaching of writing?  Do we supply students with tools and simply encourage the production of digital content in their courses and in their co-curricular immersion experiences?  There are multiple ways to reach our goals, with varying levels of success. How will we assess our success?

Finally, we need to consider the benefits of equipping our students to be digitally literate in the workplace upon graduation. If we want to prepare our students to be digitally literate in their future professions, we may need to be more “tool oriented” in our approach to combine the teaching of a critical mindset to produce and consume digital information with the teaching of very specific skills essential in the workplace.

In my mind, it is not a question of if digital literacy becomes an important element of the Vanderbilt educational experience, but a matter of when and in what way. While digital literacy is an embedded and inherent element of the student experience, we need to embark on a more systematic, thoughtful, and rigorous approach. And, we will.

Posted by on December 12, 2016 in News

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