Digital Literacy: A Critical Approach

by Nathan Loewen, Department of Religious Studies

On April 18, 1831, the faculty of four men at The University of Alabama opened its doors to fifty-two male students. The campus eventually looked something like this:

Woods Quad at University of Alabama in 1831

The photo exhibits what some call the built environment of the original UA campus. Scholarly research on the built environment focuses on how the human-made surroundings that provide settings for human activity. The point of such research is this: if architectures actively form our relationships with each other, then we are able to think about inclusion by design.

Returning to the photo above allows us to put questions about design and inclusion to Woods Quad. These questions, despite their anachronism, are important.

  • Who designed Woods Quad?
  • Why?
  • For whom?
  • Who built Woods Quad?
  • Who made use of Woods Quad?
  • Who did not have access to Woods Quad?
  • For each group of people who did not have access to Woods Quad, for how long were they unable to access the Quad? Why?

Design questions about built environments are crucial if we are to promote Goal #3 of our University’s Strategic Plan:

Enrich our learning and work environment by providing an accepting, inclusive community that attracts and supports a diverse faculty, staff and student body.

There are several UA initiatives aimed at achieving the objectives of this goal. Dr. Christine Taylor, our University’s Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, sent a group of five (faculty, staff, and students… each with a post on the Teaching Hub!) to the Digital Pedagogy Lab (DPL) in order to think about how UA’s digital built environment promotes diversity and inclusion. The workshop on Digital Literacy, led by Jade Davis, Director of Digital Project Management at Columbia University Libraries, focused on questions of the digital built environment:

  • How does technology become invisible in everyday life?
  • How does technology affect intrahuman interaction?

Regarding digital effects on diversity and inclusion, recent answers to these questions can be very diabolical. The research of Chris Gilliard, another DPL facilitator who is Professor of English at Macomb Community College, shows how digital redlining works to reinforce discriminatory structures on the internet. Another example is how Facebook’s hate speech filters effectively do just the opposite, as was concisely criticized by Tressie McMillan Cottom on Twitter.

It is naïve to think that digital platforms are neutral. They were designed somewhere by certain people with very specific interests. As Gilliard notes, each platform has a logic. If nothing in higher education happens without the use of digital tools, then it is all the more important to ask questions about our University’s built digital environment.

Let’s revisit the questions put to Woods Quad, and consider putting them to any one of the digital platforms encountered in an educator’s day at The University of Alabama:

  • Who designed this platform?
  • Why?
  • For whom?
  • Who built this platform?
  • Who makes use of this platform?
  • Who does not have access to this platform?
  • For each group that does not have access to this platform, for how long are they going to be unable to access this platform? Why?
Vivian Malone registers at the University of Alabama in 1963
Vivian Malone registers at the University of Alabama in 1963.

These are the kinds of questions asked by someone who takes a critical approach to digital literacy. Critical digital literacy marks a shift by educators from technology use to tech scholarship.

Several links are embedded in these questions. They are aimed at asking about the designed implicit bias and cultural assumptions that go into the building of our digital learning environments. As Monica Sulecio de Alvarez and Camille Dickson-Deane show in their peer-reviewed research, educational technology is just as prone to sustaining and reinforcing barriers to diversity and inclusion as the so-called big players (who own, sit on the board of directors or influence ed-tech consumers).

Diversity and Inclusion Lunch and Learn

These are the kinds of questions that may be asked of our University’s digital environment at events such as the Diversity and Inclusion Lunch and Learn on September 272018, from 12:00–1:00pm in Gordon Palmer Room A232. RSVP here.


Nathan Loewen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Faculty Technology Liaison for the College of Arts & Sciences