What is Critical Digital Engagement?
Critical digital engagement is the practice of thoughtfully observing, questioning, analyzing, and effectively applying technology in pursuit of a question. It emphasizes direct experience with technology, paired with reflection, as a means of understanding a technology’s affordances and limitations, the ways it frames our learning and communication, and the sociopolitical and economic contexts in which it is developed and made available.
Critical Digital Engagement in Context
Digital learning has found its way to the forefront of conversation in higher education as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the need for instructors to develop proficiency in mixed modalities of remote and hybrid instruction. While the need for effective approaches to incorporating technology into the classroom has rightly taken center stage, it has never been more important for students and instructors to engage critically with technology through direct experience and intentional, sustained thinking about the nature and impacts of technology on learning, research, and everyday life.
This site is an invitation to those interested in joining a growing Ohio Five community interested in pedagogy that fosters critical engagement with technology. Our starting point is to define the characteristics of this digital engagement within the liberal arts experience to serve as a guide to faculty members, educational technologists, librarians, writing centers, experiential learning administrators, and advisors. The Ohio Five also supports this work through course development, workshops and grants available through its CODEX (Collaborative for Digital Engagement and Experience) project. This document, and these resources, aim to:
- Support instructors and students in working towards increased awareness of digital tools, what such tools can do and what they cannot, and the contexts in which they are developed and used.
- Guide instructors and students in best practices for integrating digital tools into courses and independent study, campus jobs, and other co-curricular experiences to ensure purposeful and mindful use of those tools
- Promote and support the experiential and creative aspects of digital project development, especially in their outward-facing modes of being
Suggested Practices for Instructors
Critical digital engagement necessitates a hands-on approach in which students learn about a technology, work with others or independently to apply it, and engage with their audiences by putting something new out into the world. The result is a more nuanced understanding of how their work contributes to broader conversations and may be used, interpreted, or repurposed in different contexts for better or worse.
Courses, projects, and co-curricular activities can create spaces for students to hone their skills and develop critical perspectives on the tools they use to explore their subjects. As instructors design them, these characteristics suggest ways these activities can foster students’ critical engagement with technology:
In lieu of or to supplement a research paper, students may create a digital presentation of their research in the form of a webpage, podcast, video, virtual gallery, soundscape, game, or interactive visual map. Project-based assignments allow students to exercise autonomy in defining the scope and relevance of the project. They gain experience in how to organize work to complete a project, negotiate responsibilities with their peers, and often produce an open and public digital artifact whose life may extend beyond the class or assignment.
Students may collaborate in small groups to develop joint projects, or they may work independently on projects that culminate in a larger class project. They may collaborate with faculty or partners from outside the institution. Collaborating with peers exposes students to different perspectives, allows them to develop joint solutions from different skill sets, and cultivates their interpersonal skills in negotiating challenging situations to achieve group goals.
Beyond analyzing prepared data, students need to be able to understand the different forms data can take, what it looks like in different contexts, and how to collect and share it ethically. As interpreters, students learn how to see stories in the data and organize it for analysis and presentation. As creators, students gain perspective on the ownership of their own data and the degree to which they cede authority to technologies’ acquisition and deployment of data.
The web democratizes the distribution of information and knowledge in some ways and restricts it in others. As creators of public projects, students learn to consider how their selected technologies frame or constrain communication with their audience. Public projects also offer an opportunity to consider unintended audiences and how public projects might be used, interpreted, or repurposed by others. A broader audience can heighten students’ sense of accountability for the work they produce when they see themselves as participants in a larger conversation.
Critical Analysis of Tools
Technology is created by humans. Those humans have implicit biases. The organizations they work for have motivations for developing that technology which may be entirely benign but may also be informed by harmful drivers. Critical digital engagement demands that users of those tools observe and interrogate them to discern underlying forces that may be shaping users’ analysis, consumption, and communication of information. Discussion and assignments can encourage students to focus their critical lens on the tools they use, asking questions about who created the tools, why they were created, and how they frame our interactions and assumptions.
Digital projects lend themselves particularly well to discussing a variety of ethical issues, such as privacy, accessibility, and labor in the digital economy and allow students to assess the ethical implications of their own consumption and production of new information with digital technologies.
Reflection is a hallmark of effective pedagogy and likely part and parcel of most instructors’ repertoires. Asking students to reflect on how digital platforms affect the progression of their understanding can promote a habit of critically examining their relationship to technology.
Examples of Reflective Activities:
- Observe and record your daily media consumption practices and consider the interconnections between media technologies, content, and yourself.
- Discuss the specific content you have learned through this digital project. For example, have you gone deeper into a topic and/or learned new material? Describe practices or tasks you performed in this digital project and discuss how they helped in your learning of the material.
- Discuss the specific skills you have learned through this digital project. For example, have you further developed skills and/or learned new ones? What tasks or practices did you perform that helped develop old and/or new skills. Can you envision other areas where you might apply these skills?
- Did the fact that this digital project will be publicly available affect how you approached its design and execution? Give examples of discussions you had, considerations/decisions you made, or ways you anticipated others would use it.
While not every digital project or assignment may incorporate all of these elements, they are suggested here as guidelines for those working to foster students’ critical perspectives on their relationships to technology as a tool and a powerful force shaping our lives.
Share Your Work!
Please consider sharing your work on the Ohio Five CODEX Hub. If you have developed a course, assignment, project, open resource, or scholarship that you believe fosters critical engagement with technology through some of the elements above, we would welcome your submission. Our goal is to create a robust repository of examples from which we can all draw inspiration and knowledge.