Thinking Digitally: The Intersection of Humanities and Technology

Phil Ventimiglia, Chief Innovation Officer, Georgia State University
January 20, 2015

“The people who were comfortable at this humanities-technology intersection helped to create the human-machine symbiosis that is at the core of this story.”
– Walter Isaacson, author of The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

In the above quote from Walter Isaacson’s book about the history of the digital revolution, Isaacson argues that the major innovations of the digital revolution – from the first general-purpose computer (ENIAC) to the transistor to the iPhone – were all created by individuals who understood how to synthesize the humanities with technology. I could not agree more. At Georgia State University, while we explore the future of education, we are not only rethinking how we teach but what we teach.

The how focuses on optimizing learning moments. For example, extending learning outside the classroom through chat tools that enable virtual classroom discussion or virtual office hours. Or, going further to “flip” the classroom model, with lectures delivered via videos and other multimedia tools prior to class so that class time can be focused on experiential activities that ensure understanding, comprehension and application of the material. The Center for Instructional Innovation is supporting faculty in developing and testing new ways of teaching through grassroots programs such as the Digital Champions Fellowship program. The Digital Champions Fellowship program provides support for faculty who are implementing innovative models of instruction, such as creating online or partially online courses, experimenting with eTexts or incorporating tools for active learning during class time.

While there is a lot of focus on how at Georgia State University, as well as at other institutions, what we teach is equally as important. In today’s world, graduates come into contact with a quickly evolving range of technologies and have access to a wealth of information. Students can be more successful at work and in post-graduate studies if they are digitally literate – learning how to identify and create digital solutions, adapt to new tools, and teach themselves more effective and efficient ways of doing things related to their fields.

In the course of my career, I have built teams and hired talent all over the world. The biggest challenge in discovering successful talent was finding team members who were able to effectively communicate, collaborate and solve problems digitally. Every discipline and career has been transformed through the use of technology, from engineers to doctors, and even politicians. Yet, the traditional academic experience does not prepare young campaign managers for the tasks expected of them today, such as writing a blog or analyzing a social-networking initiative.

The few digital-literacy efforts in higher education generally focus on providing a single class that covers base-level skills, such as creating a PowerPoint presentation or spreadsheet. What is truly needed is integration of digital literacy throughout the curriculum. For example, Professor George Pullman is rethinking his English Composition course to examine how learning the rhetoric of writing can also introduce students to creating a blog and designing a web page, as these are as much mediums of writing as pen on paper. As students undertake these activities, the goal is to deepen their understanding of how effective communication is achieved, not just teach them a particular technology.

To address the opportunity in what we teach, we have launched an initiative to incorporate digital-literacy skills into the Fall 2015 Freshman Honors College curriculum. This pilot program will provide students with a set of personalized learning tools, including lightweight personal-computing devices, online portfolio-development tools, open-source electronic texts and learning materials that interactively adapt to meet the learning needs of individual students.

There are many definitions of digital literacy. Through this pilot, we are asking each participating faculty member to incorporate into their course the digital skills they see as critical in their discipline. However, the framework for digital literacy that we are developing is broadly designed to enable students to:

  1. Find and vet information online – In the digital world it is crucial to be able to not only find information online, but also determine its quality and validity.
  2. See problems from digital perspectives– Students need to be able to analyze a problem and determine how to use digital tools to solve it. For example, can I solve a problem faster by creating a spreadsheet vs. doing it manually?
  3. Become self-directed learners – The Internet has put all the world’s knowledge literally in our hands. Students should know how to take advantage of that and become lifelong learners.
  4. Buy digital solutions – Technology is constantly changing. Thus, it is important that students learn how to evaluate and buy the right digital tools, rather than just knowing a specific tool. For example, being an expert in VisiCalc does not matter if you do not know how to use Excel.
  5. Learn software quickly – Since software is always changing and improving, students need to be able to quickly teach themselves new tools.
  6. Design and create digital solutions – Ultimately students should be able to design and create their own digital solutions. This does not necessarily mean that they need to be able to develop and write their own applications from scratch. Rather, they should be comfortable customizing and combining tools to create a complete solution. For example, creating a form in Word or on the web to automate the collection of customer evaluations and then outputting it to Excel for analysis.

At the end of the day, digital literacy is about solving problems. These skills are enablers. By incorporating digital literacy into core subjects such as English, History, Math, Science and Art, Georgia State’s students will be better prepared to live at the intersection of humanity and technology.

Throughout the spring semester, the Center for Instructional Innovation will be working with faculty selected for the Digital Champions and Digital Literacy initiatives to develop curriculum that reexamines the how and what of educating Georgia State University’s students for success. As we progress, I’ll share some of the insights gained by working with these faculty at this site.

What are your thoughts? Send Phil a question or comment.