by Heather Stafford, Instructional Designer, DLINQ

So I’m not really sure I should be writing this for a detox. I’m not going to ask you to disconnect, shut down, or walk away from your tech. Like other detoxes in this series, I’m actually going to ask you to pay more attention to how it works and how different aspects of the tools are leveraging control over your attention and your data.

How is that a detox? I’m asking us to detox from the idea that this is all beyond our control, and use focused attention to understand how and why tools work the way they do. You DO have control and there are things that you can know and understand about tools, if you are willing to pay attention to how the technology functions.

Paying attention to how technology functions plays a role in developing digital fluency and a critical engagement with the digital, one of Middlebury’s strategic directions.. You may have experienced in other areas of your life how achieving a level of fluency requires extended periods of focused attention, for example:

  • Becoming fluent in a language.
  • Learning how to read and write
  • Becoming an accomplished musician or athlete.

Digital fluency is no different. None of these achievements can be accomplished by cursory participation. The amount of time, dedication and attention to detail that is required to achieve mastery is extensive. Consequently, we should expect nothing less for accomplishing a level of digital fluency.

At the same time, admittedly I’ve often felt overwhelmed when approaching this topic. There are so many complexities to understand. I’m not alone and neither are you if you feel similarly! Brooke Auxier and Lee Rainie of The Pew Research Center published a report in November of 2019 in which they shared that:

“The majority of the public does not feel in control of the data collected about them. More than eight-in-ten (84%) of Americans say they feel very little or no control over the data collected about them by the government, and 81% say the same when company data collection is considered. Just 4% of U.S. adults say they have a great deal of control over data collected by the government, and 3% agree regarding companies’ collection of information.”

These findings hold true in higher education institutions, too, as noted in Joseph Galanek and Ben Shulman’s analysis of the 2019 Educause ECAR Study of Faculty and Students.They write: “we found that faculty and students alike generally have low understanding of how their personal data are used at their institution.” 

Similarly, K-12 school systems and parents struggle to understand the complexities of a critical approach to digital fluency, as noted by Ana Homayoun in Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World: “Regardless of their level of awareness around current social media trends, parents, teachers, and administrators are typically at a loss for how to support students because they do not fully appreciate the problem” (p. 9).

I think it’s safe to say that most individuals feel both a lack of control and understanding over at least some segments of our digital world. However, it’s important to recognize that just as a novice learner might feel overwhelmed by the breadth of knowledge to learn and understand in one field of study, we should not let that feeling impede our attempt to know and understand.

So how do we actually spend focused attention strengthening our digital fluency?

Let’s Start Small

In order to better understand what my digital tools were asking me to give up in terms of my data and my privacy, I started by reading and highlighting terms of use and privacy policies for online tools. Then, I tried to give my view about the concerns I found when using certain tools in an educational context. To give you a view into what this looks like, take a look at my examination of FlipGrid, an online instructional tool used for video and audio discussions and storytelling.

While this work does not necessarily change anything, it has helped me develop my understanding of digital tools and footholds that I might use to evaluate them. It will not necessarily change policy – at present this tool is openly available for faculty to integrate into their courses at Middlebury. It does, however, identify a possible path forward for helping faculty and students develop their digital fluency by being better informed about where and how student data are at risk, and to use that new knowledge to make choices about how they wish to proceed with a given technology tool.

I am by no means an expert in this area, but that’s kind of the point. You don’t have to be an expert to try to make sense of something. Often novice learners are able to see things that experts cannot – so perhaps this makes us even better suited to trying to understand tools and the agreements they are making with users. Here are a few small steps you might take to work towards developing your critical focus on digital fluency:

Take Action

  • Print out the terms of service and privacy policy for a tool that you use in an educational context. Try rating it for yourself using the US DOE model terms of service document here. You might also ask students to annotate the terms of service for ed tech tools they’re asked to use in their classes.
  • Share your take on the tool with others. Don’t be afraid to speak up. (This is easier said than done.)
  • Identify where functions of the tool might be in direct conflict with the vision of your organization. Ask the question: How much do we care about this vision statement? Should it be updated?
  • Adopt an inquisitive rather than an accusatory tone when engaging in these questions. Recognize that many times ease of use supersedes true critical reflection of the underlying functionality of technology. Many times you will be the first person to raise any objections or concerns about a tool’s use. However, the more people start to see this as the norm – the better!
  • Encourage students to ask the tough questions and advocate for them when they do as Autumn Caines and Erin Glass explain in their article
  • Anticipate the questions and concerns students might have about technology and address them before they have to. It shouldn’t be their responsibility to do this work.

Keep Reading

Key takeaways on Americans’ views about privacy, surveillance and data-sharing by Brooke Auxier and Lee Rainie from the Pew Research Center

Protecting Student Privacy – Guidance from the US Department of Education

Not Sure if They’re Invading My Privacy or Just Really Interested in Me by Joseph Galanek and Ben Shulman

Terms of Service Didn’t Read – a great place to see how some people have started picking apart different TOS documents


Paul Skorupskas