Digital Literacy & the Myth of Expertise: Finding a Way in Justin Hodgson | hodgson@indiana.edu | @postdigitalJH | justinhodgson.com

The Myth of Expertise

FIRST - Technologies change so rapidly that being or remaining an expert is a challenge. In fact, most digital literacy / digital creativity educators are always playing catch-up with industry.

SECOND - The expert-to-student model orientation works, but alternative models of student directed learning can be effective.

  • Goal 1: Help students form habits of practice for working in creativity technologies.
  • Goal 2: Help students learn how to learn a new technology.

THIRD - For most instructors, the necessary 'expertise' resides elsewhere (i.e., in disciplinary ways of knowing).

  • Instructor-expertise helps to provide guidance on methods and practices for discovering, developing, and validating knowledge.
  • Instructor-expertise helps signal to students the acceptable modes and means of representing knowledge in a given discipline.

Basic Orientation(s)

When bringing digital technologies into the classroom, it is important to remember that the technologies are not the focus (i.e., it is not tech for tech's sake). Rather, we must remain people oriented, pedagogy focused, and purpose driven. Beyond those considerations, I use the following questions to help guide how I bring digital literacy or digital creativity in the classroom:

  • What mediating technologies are available to students?
  • What kind of activities/assignments can students do with those technologies?
  • What kind of instruction will they need (or what kind can I leverage/provide)?
  • What is my role with helping students learn the technology? Expert? Coach? Co-Learner? Other?
  • Are there clear pedagogical values with this engagement?
  • Will this produce measurable outputs (in terms of learning, assessment, course goals, etc.)?
  • Is there an operative framework that might help orient students to the technology and assignment?

In relation to the last question, instructors can bring in digital practices in piecemeal fashion, but I encourage people to think more broadly and provide a guiding framework. For example, in my rhetoric, play, and games course, I situate the entire design and instruction in game metaphors and structures--creating a kind of gaming pedagogy. In more general courses, I often employ a production framework as a way of guiding students through the stages of doing digital work: i.e., pre-production, production, and post production.

Assignment (Re)Design

When going through the process of turning a traditional assignment into a digital assignment, I tend to work on multiple levels, considering matters of materiality, access, assessment, and the like. As a general orientation, I usually begin with the following questions:

  • Given the available media and technologies, what kinds of assignments and activities can students reasonably undertake/complete?
  • Can those activities replace an existing assignment or will this call for an all new kind of engagement?
  • In what ways will I need to change my expectations and assessment practices?
  • Are there any useful assessment models out there that I might readily leverage? If not, what kinds of assessment will I employ?
  • What is my assessment focus in this undertaking? Final product? Process? The learning involved?

While I use these questions to guide my more nuanced assignment engagements, there are yet still more direct maneuvers for those just trying to get into digital activities with students. Three of these approaches, in increasing complexity, are the Platform Swap, Open-Ended Assignments, and Collective Projects.

Platform Swap

The basic idea with the platform swap is to switch the medium or authoring platform of an existing assignment: e.g., take a traditional essay/paper on X and have the students create it as an Adobe Spark page or turn a reading response into video (vlog) via Adobe Rush.

Once you have the swap in mind (traditional X for digital Y), you need to think about your approach:

  • Do I adopt a reactionary approach?
  • What are some low-stakes learning opportunities to ease students into the assignment and technology?
  • How should I alter my expectations for this swap?

Open-Ended Assignments

This design allows students to work within the course focus to design their own projects and engagements. The basic idea is that instructors provide an assignment framework (orientation and guides for the engagement) and students identify their own exigencies for a project. Then, students create their projects in response to those exigencies, but do so within that guiding framework. The key is to also require that assignments be created for digital distribution (ensuring they have a digital literacies component). They must also include a reflective component from the students.

Collective Projects

The goal here is to get the entire class (or large sections of class) to work on the same project, with each member creating multiple elements for this kind of 'epic' undertaking (to borrow lingo from video games). The key is to invite students to select a project or challenge that intimately involves digital creativity/digital literacy practices and then work with them to complete those challenges: e.g., creating a class magazine (which requires InDesign and Photoshop) or building a set of artifacts for a singular event (e.g., campus-wide evacuation, which may require video, audio, and print media, not to mention the possible design of an app [via something like Adobe XD]).

Some Guiding Questions

  • How do I teach the technology (or at least get students to learn it)?
  • How can I (better) use a given technology to enhance my own teaching?
  • How do I ease anxieties (my own and the students)?

Teaching Technology

Some starting questions for teaching technology.

  • What technologies are involved?
  • What skills or abilities will the students need to develop? (What if I do not know?)
  • Am I able to teach those things myself? Or are there available resources (digital and in-person) that can help?
  • What is my role in this process? Expert? Coach? Co-Learner? Other?
  • What are some best practices? Alternative strategies?

The most common approach is the "How-to" training approach, usually accomplished via some step-by-step in-class instruction. But most non-experts do not feel competent enough to provide this kind of guidance. Thus, a common second step is to turn to online and on-campus instructional resources (training videos, webinars, etc.).

There are, however, yet other approaches that one might consider (in conjunction with or as separate from those above), with many of these shifting much of the responsibility to the students: Peer2Peer method, Studio Day, WAITT model.


The Peer2Peer Model invites students to learn from each other (forming micro learning communities). To this end, instructors establish working partners/groups, give each pairing or grouping a challenge to complete (i.e., create a poster using Photoshop), and then ask the students to share their creations and provide feedback on what they did it and how they did it.

Studio Day

The Studio Day approach is a way of minimizing the impact on the class calendar and it pairs well with the Peer2Peer method. The basic principle is to dedicate just one class to the learning of the basics of a technology. But to do so through a mix of light instruction (an orientation from you, online resources, guest speaker, etc.) and challenge-based engagements. Then, as the students work on the challenge, float around and offer help (if possible); or, again, bring in a guest and have him/her help the students as an on-demand resource.


The WAITT Model ("We are in this together") allows the teacher to fully adopt a co-learner role with the students. This requires an open dialogue between all parties, a willingness to share, and a willingness to embrace failures and frustrations. But when successful, it can be quite empowering. It works best well with large-scale class engagements (Collective Projects or Service Learning work), but can function at multiple levels of scale. The goal here is to foster a learning community and divide up the technological skills (and learning) among the class.

Enhancing Teaching

The digital isn't just for students anymore! In fact, one of the more overlooked values of digital literacy and digital creativity is the ways in which these practices can enhance our teaching. Thus, when it comes to working with digitally creative technologies, I often find myself working through the following questions:

  • In what ways can the digital practices of X impact my teaching and/or the course experience for students?
  • Is there a better way for providing feedback or making meaningful connections with students and content?
  • Can I use the technology to create more engaging assignments and course content?
  • Can the technology be more than just production? Can it be integral to my pedagogy?

Create Better Feedback Loops

One of the advantages of digital media and networked technologies is that they give us more avenues for contact with students. These avenues can help us create better feedback loops by offering more frequent and more meaningful exchanges: pre-class engagements, post-class engagements, and audio/video based assignment feedback

Pre-Class engagements are designed to put content in the hands of the students before they get to class. This is the primary mode of the flipped classroom, creating videos and audio recordings of lectures so that in-class time can be dedicated to understanding.

Post-Class engagements are similar to the flipped classroom, except instructors use the audio/video practices to continue a conversation, extend an idea, respond to questions, and the like.

Research shows that 3-5 minutes of audio/video feedback on student work is more impacting to students than just written assessment alone and is more likely to result in meaningful changes in practice (see the work of Chris Anson).

Enacting the Paradigm

Enacting the paradigm (or practicing what you preach) is the idea that instructors should produce assignment guides in the primary media or platform of the assignment itself. This not only reinforces the value of the technology, but makes the content (and ideas) more accessible.

Additionally, instructors should consider creating digital syllabi for their courses as students consume media in all manner of ways. Further, a digital syllabus can readily accommodate video assignment introductions, audio explanations, scrolling Spark page assignment guides, and the like.

Technology as Pedagogy

Rather than situate technologies as one-off elements attached to assignments, instructors might think about integrating the technology into the pedagogy itself (e.g., use Photoshop to create visualizations of course readings). In so doing, the students learn the technology as a matter of course and the process is not in place of other class time, but supportive of class activities and learning.

Student Focus (& anxiety)

Just because students may fall into the category of "digital native" (if such a thing even exists), they are by no means exempt from the anxieties it brings. They have trained to write and take tests, but few are prepared to stake their grade on a video or webtext. To help this, I try to ground them in the personal, build better feedback loops, celebrate failure, craft learning experiences (not tutorials), and remain flexible.

Personal Groundings

Learning a technology while also learning course content can be daunting and, in many cases, not intrinsically motivating. But grounding the technological learning in the personal can help offset some of this anxiety, as the personal is often less connected to grades and is something students can imagine sharing with others. Once they gain technological familiarity through the personal, then one can push into more course related foci.

Better Feedback Loops

Creating more frequent and more meaningful feedback loops can go a long way in assuaging student anxieties. Not only do these loops offer critical moments of intervention (to guide, direct, redirect, etc.), but they create points of contact for encouragement and engagement. To this end, I advocate not only for audio/visual feedback on work, but creating multiple studio days (in class or during office hours) to increase the opportunities for students to ask questions / get help.

Celebrate Failure

Failing is often the first step to success, but so much of higher education has stigmatized failure. To flip this, I encourage embrace a tripartite of failure as key to learning: fast failure, fun failure, and formative failure.

Fast failure is designed to get the bad (or less than) ideas out of the way and to do so quickly. What matters here is not whether a student comes up with the right idea for a project, but rather that we can quickly eliminate the ideas likely to bear less fruit to better focus our energy/time.

Fun failure focuses on celebrating, quite openingly, our mishaps and miscues (technological, conceptual, or other). I invite students to use the last/first 5-10 minutes of class to share their failures. I openly share my own with them as well. These stories and artifacts not only become part of the course culture, they sometimes become course memes.

Formative failure is another name for peer review (as well as pre-grade instructor review). That is, most writing or making activities go through review before being published and this step is, in many ways, just another stage of failure. But it is a formative one, shaping the work and the ideas toward a better end.

Craft Learning Experiences

When it comes to helping students learn a technology, I encourage teachers to avoid heavy-handed tutorials and instead create challenges that, through their completion, help students develop the basic skills needed. Thus, teaching technology is about crafting engaging learning experiences, rather than getting students to follow along.

Remain Flexible

Student material and conceptual realities will lead to all manner of issues and apprehensions. What matters as an instructor is to remain flexible and be responsive to student apprehensions. The best way to do this is to have a plan, but be willing to work within the affordances and constraints of student situations (which also include the course and assignment, goals and outcomes). What matters, though, is the pedagogy and the knowledge students develop, which in digital creative orientations can often occur in multiple formats and manifestations.


Assessing digital projects can be one of the more challenging components of bring digital literacy and digital creativity practices into the classroom. This challenge only expands if students are each pursuing their own unique project within the framework of the assignment. To help in thinking about the kinds of assessment practices I might employ, I begin with a few simple orienting questions:

  • What am I trying to assess? Product? Process? Learning?
  • What types of evidence / artifacts are needed to be able to assess this work?
  • Does the project belong to a genre? If so, does it already have established conventions and expectations?
  • Does it make sense to work with the students to generate project-specific criteria or should I apply a general heuristic?

Genre Approach

If the assignment students are completing fits into an established genre, then what I do is study examples of the genre with the students to identify (via genre analysis) the criteria or key elements that make up the genre and/or that make something 'good' in that genre. Then, I use these elements, in conversation with the students, to generate the evaluate criteria for the assignment.

Kuhn+2 Model

The Kuhn+2 model comes from the work of Virginia Kuhn, extended by Cheryl Ball, and is a wholistic set of criteria for responding to multimedia projects. It breaks the assessment into the following categories: conceptual core, research component, form and content, creative realization, audience, and timeliness (with these categories operating as an ecology of considerations). Each category, in turn, is governed by a set of operative questions that guide one through the evaluative process. For more a more detailed look at this model, you read Ball's article or visit this Spark page assignment guide from my Digital Monumentality course.

SEC Take

One of my favorite assessment strategies is the Self Evaluation Criteria approach, which works well when one is uncertain (of a lot of things). The basic principle is that students generate their own criteria, determining the values upon which they want to be evaluated. Then, they provide a detailed explanation of those criteria and how they see them operating. Finally, the students evaluate themselves using that criteria. Once all this is complete, the instructor uses the student's criteria to offer his/her own evaluation.

Learning Record Method (LRM)

The LRM comes from the work of Margaret Syverson and asks the students to critically engage in self-reflection as a part of the project work. Additionally, students collect evidence throughout the process via work logs, email exchanges, self reflections, and the like so that in the end they can use that evidence to help argue for their grade. The grade, then, is based partially on what was created, but more overtly on the students ability to showcase their learning and to demonstrate the value of that learning.

For more information, visit www.learningrecord.org

Digital Project Examples

The Journal for Undergraduate Multimedia Projects (TheJUMP+) - jumpplus.net

Pseudo Documentary:



Video Games:

Image-Based Projects:


Created By
Justin Hodgson


Created with images by Alejandro Escamilla - "two people meeting with iphone and ipad" • Engin_Akyurt - "computer laptop notebook" • Jay Wennington - "untitled image" • bonneval sebastien - "untitled image" • Nathan Dumlao - "untitled image" • Sergey Zolkin - "Work on notebook" • Mediamodifier - "broken business monitor broken display" • Andrew Neel - "Woman working by a window" • Alina Grubnyak - "untitled image"

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