Understanding the Significance of Digital Literacy for Students of Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts

Shreya Prasanna Kumar
Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts

Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts (SSLA) is one of the pioneering institutes in India that conceptualised and executed a liberal arts programme after witnessing the under-preparedness of graduates to actively participate in a constantly evolving world. Following the core objectives of a liberal arts education i.e. interdisciplinarity, critical and analytical thinking, and communication skills, the institute has tried to reimagine pedagogy. Student assessments are conducted through oral, visual and written modes. Furthermore, the institute makes the educational spaces more interactive while ensuring a low teacher-student ratio.

With the constant evolution of the digital sphere, it is pertinent to examine if the present education provided at SSLA includes digital literacy as a part of its pedagogy. Kaplan (1992) states that liberal arts, in particular, trains the mind to not fall into habitual thinking thus making it more critical, creative and analytical. An area of education that lays a lot of emphasis on the modes of thinking must ideally integrate digital literacy. 

When it comes to using digital applications or software programmes, students need to be trained differently so that they can apply their critical thinking, analytical and communicative skills effectively. Every medium of communication is different from another. For instance, mediums that involve text i.e. email, messaging and social media applications, blogs, e-magazines are different from video or photo-making and exchange platforms such as YouTube, Instagram etc. Communication has transcended from writing, reading or talking to video making, photo series, podcasts, animation, and visualising data. Thus, this study is focused on learning the students’ digital capital levels and the importance the institute provides to digital literacy.

Digital literacy is not merely knowing how to use computers. It is “the set of abilities and skills where aural, visual, and digital literacy overlap. These include the ability to understand the power of images and sounds, to recognize and use that power, to manipulate and transform digital media, to distribute them pervasively, and to easily adapt them to new forms” (Jenkins, 2009, p. 19).  Park (2016) defines digital literacy as “the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share and create content as well as competency in computational thinking.” Although SSLA provides computer science as a specialisation course, the provision of digital literacy is not at the core of the SSLA curriculum. However, it is important to note that students at SSLA belong to the better side of the digital divide. Chetty et al. (2018) state that the two factors that characterise the digital divide are limited access to digital infrastructure and lack of digital literacy. The students at SSLA have access to state-of-the-art digital infrastructure i.e. computer hardware, software, and the internet. Classrooms in the institute are equipped with digital devices. In this paper, an attempt has been made to understand the digital literacy levels of the students of SSLA, and the faculty members’ perception of the same, so as to enable leveraging the available digital technology to the fullest extent. 

The Significance of Integrating Digital Literacy in Liberal Arts Education 

Svensson et al. (2016) state that the compatibility of digital literacy with liberal arts education can be understood only when people stop perceiving the integration of technology with humanities as a gracious act; such a perception will only strengthen the divide. Digital technology is not merely meant to act as a means to deliver the information. It helps generate new problem areas and methods of inquiry, which are related to critical and analytical thinking skills usually emphasised by liberal arts education. 

An issue that plagues the integration of the two fields is the contemporary fascination with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines at the expense of social sciences and humanities disciplines. Davis (2017) says supporting the STEM fields alone results in ignoring half of human thought. He says that artificial intelligence (AI) examines human thinking processes to imitate them. The ability of AI to learn beyond accomplishing tasks assigned by humans can result in technology making choices for itself. This ability is a threat to human existence because when AI makes choices, it will make choices that make machines superior to humans. Therefore, he argues that soon AI could control humans in the manner humans now control chimpanzees. The human brain size is fixed and there are limited neural paths, used or unused. However, AI can infinitely expand its thinking abilities.  

On the other hand, Bloom (1956) states that humans can think in abstractions and make complex judgements using higher levels of reasoning called cognitive processing. A liberal arts education consistently develops skills of understanding, analysis, and evaluation in this order. Some other values offered by liberal arts are curiosity and continuous learning; tolerating ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty; balancing logic and imagination; growth in experience and perspectives; and more pathways that enhance lateral thinking. Thinking processes and use of information gained from the senses and emotions are traits that humans have but the AI currently does not possess them. This work highlights the significance of critical thinking, creativity and mental flexibility skills development provided by a liberal arts education in the digital sphere.

In addition to acquiring digital skills, maintaining a digital identity is critical in this digital age.  Digital identity refers to how a person chooses to present themselves online, personally, professionally and intellectually. Thus, students must learn how to use technology to expand their opportunities. Exposing students to various available online tools and developing their ability to identify suitable tools to be used for specific purposes is crucial when dealing with changing technology. McClurken et al. (2013) state that teachers at an institution have a significant role to play in nurturing this attitude. They say that instructors can act as role models while using technology as means to achieve their goals. They could encourage and show genuine interest in the success of each student’s endeavour, which could go a long way in building the students’ confidence with respect to their technological prowess. This will make them competent to not just use technology as a means to find more information but also actively engage in developing these means. 

We are living in a world where a range of new technologies are combining the physical, digital and biological worlds. Schwab (n.d.) says that this dynamic interaction will impact all disciplines, economies, industries and constantly challenge our ideas about what it means to be human.  A liberal arts education that focuses on developing critical thinking, creativity, and mental flexibility is extremely relevant in a world that is transforming every aspect of itself into a digital equivalent. Therefore, there is a need to integrate liberal arts education with digital literacy.

However, it is important to note that the literature presented above is either European or American. There have not been many studies conducted in India with regards to integration with digital literacy in liberal arts education. The above findings cannot be easily transferred to a completely different cultural setting such as that of India. The writer does acknowledge this as a limitation and uses this case study only to understand the reality and expectations of students of a specific liberal arts educational institute in India since this may help in developing a framework applicable to the Indian context.  The students’ and faculty members’ perceptions of digital literacy and how the integration can bring about a transformation in their personal and professional lives is the focus of this commentary. 

Exploring Student and Faculty Views on Digital Literacy at SSLA

Semi-structured interviews of students and faculty members at SSLA, Pune were conducted to identify the nature of students’ expectations and compare that with the existing curriculum and pedagogy for enhancing digital capital. The rationale behind choosing semi-structured interviews was to allow the interviewees to freely express their views regarding digital literacy in the institute’s curriculum. 

The sample for the study was chosen through cluster sampling. The clusters were made based on the various academic major/ minor specialisations offered at SSLA. The first set included 20 students from the third and fourth years pursuing a major/minor in Media, Psychology, English, Anthropology, Mathematics and Statistics, Business Studies, History, Film, Economics or Sociology. The objective of the interviews was to understand students’ skill-set, level of engagement with digital tools/programs/software, perception towards digital literacy, self-evaluation of their digital skills with respect to their area of study, awareness of various digital applications in their area of study, perception of their institute’s digital infrastructure and the degree of willingness or reluctance to improve their digital literacy. 

The rationale behind interviewing students from various majors/minor specialisations was to understand the level of emphasis various areas of studies lay on digital literacy since, it would be difficult to compare the digital skills requirements of one area of study with another. The second set of interviews involved 4 faculty members of the institute who teach courses in Computer Science, Research Methodology, Mathematics, Statistics, Physics, Marketing, Advertising, Media Studies, Business Studies and Economics. The objective of this set of interviews was to understand faculty members’ opinions on the skills that need to be prioritised, the present curriculum and importance given to digital literacy, their perception of digital skills and their role in providing digital literacy, and their perception and rationale behind the provision of digital literacy. It also tried to understand the willingness of the institute to modify its curriculum with changing demands. The interviews were conducted in October 2019 and the following were some important findings from the interviews.

Emphasis on Enhancing Research Skills

When the interviewees were asked about skills provided by SSLA, the majority of respondents referred to qualitative and quantitative research skills. This includes academic writing, critical thinking and finding the right reference material. In comparison with other colleges of the country, there is more emphasis on research skill development classes and research practices at SSLA. However, lack of education relating to digital tools for research has restricted their ability to use bigger sets of data for their research projects and limited their methods of enquiry. Digital tools used for analysing large datasets (for e.g. SPSS) and visualising data (for e.g. Tableau) makes research more effective and comprehensible. 

Provision of Digital Literacy through Elective Courses, One-Day Workshops and Guest Lectures

On analysing the responses received, it can be inferred that SSLA does not ignore the need for digital literacy. Students in their first year are taught computer fundamentals as a mandatory course. Elective courses are also offered in various computer programming languages such as C, C++ and Python, digital design software like Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, CorelDRAW, and online mathematical modelling. The institute had previously organised a one-day workshop on digital tools for quantitative and qualitative analysis, Adobe Photoshop, Mendeley (online reference manager), introduction to programming software R and Jazz. Moreover, the institute has offered two new courses – Digital Tools for Qualitative Analysis and Digital Tools for Quantitative Analysis – as part of its Honours programme. The institute has invested in licenses of Adobe Photoshop, CorelDRAW, MAXQDA and SPSS for the students. However, these training modules are not included in the core structure of the courses. Only students who are interested and volunteer to improve their digital capital benefit from the courses offered. In general, students possess only basic digital capital; they are comfortable with and make effective use of Microsoft Suite applications, Google services (Gmail, Docs, Sheets, Drive, and Slides) and e-library services, which are not sufficient to navigate through the constantly developing digital sphere. 

Inability to Leverage the Institute’s Digital Infrastructure

The digital infrastructure at SSLA offers access to a wide range of digital facilities. However, due to the lack of digital skills training in these software applications/programs, the students are unable to effectively leverage the resources. The students are aware of multiple software packages that are popular in their field of study. However, they are not trained in using them; hence, they find it difficult to operate these programs. Digital capital deficiency among students can be reduced only by ensuring the provision of a good digital infrastructure coupled with sufficient training in utilising them. 

Self-learning versus Formal, Structured Lessons

There are online courses that offer tutorials to improve digital skills. Although online courses seem like a viable option, they demand extreme levels of self-discipline, and some are even expensive. Hence, students prefer being taught in college. Additionally, it is difficult to filter out non-essential information and could also be time-consuming to learn these skills. 

No Techno-Phobia and Willingness to Learn New Digital Skills

No interviewee expressed fear of using digital media or software application. Some spoke about being hesitant to try new software programs, and suggested that necessary training would ease the process. Most students suggested replacing one of their mandatory core courses with an advanced digital skills course. Students showed interest in receiving lessons on developing a better digital identity, curriculum vitae (CV) and statement of purpose (SoP) writing, understanding social media algorithms, digital design and SPSS or any other data analysis software. This is a positive sign and shows that students are aware and wish to be trained in various digital skills. 

Low Student Turnout for Workshops 

Although SSLA had conducted one-day workshops for enhancing the students’ digital capital, the turnout for these workshops was very low. This contradicts the latent dissatisfaction that students express with their digital capital. 

Lack of Digitally-Trained Faculty Members 

Some faculty members expressed their lack of expertise in using certain digital software applications or programs. This indicates a need to provide digital skills training to faculty members, or recruiting teachers who have expertise in the field. Communication gap between students and faculty, in addition to the lack of advanced digital skills knowledge among a few faculty members, are some of the reasons for lack of digital training. It must be noted that the faculty members are willing to work together, review their syllabi and make the necessary changes.  

Presuming an Advanced Digital Skill-Set amongst Students 

The students currently studying at the institute belong to the Gen-Z and are comfortable with using mobile phones, tablets, computers and actively participate on social media platforms. This has led to the false assumption among the faculty that these students have advanced digital skills. In reality, most students do not use any software packages or digital applications beyond Microsoft Suite and Google Drive services in their regular course work. The aforementioned analysis shows a contrast between reality and expectations. This false assumption has, to some extent, accentuated the insufficient digital capital the students possess and has resulted in lesser focus on the enhancement of their digital skills. 

Faculty Initiative 

A few faculty members have made concerted efforts towards improving their course structure depending on the changes in job market demands. This has led to the inclusion of relevant digital software in the syllabus. This is definitely a positive finding for this study. However, there is low emphasis on imparting practical training in the software programs.  

Communication Gap between Faculty Members and Students

It is apparent from the responses that there is a communication gap between the students and faculty. Students are not content with their personal digital capital; however, this has not been communicated to the faculty members. 


From the interviews conducted, the study found that there is a latent dissatisfaction among students with respect to their personal digital literacy levels. Nevertheless, there is a keen interest among students to improve their digital capital. On the contrary, faculty members expect students, who were born in the digital era, to know how to navigate the digital world. Moreover, there is emphasis on theoretical learning even for practical applications, wherever these are included in the curriculum. Thus, there exists a huge gap between students’ expectations and the faculty members’ understanding of their students’ skill sets. This is one of the main reasons for limited provision of advanced digital literacy knowledge. On a more positive note, slowly but gradually, over the past couple of years, the institute has been working towards integrating digital skills into the curriculum in the form of one-day workshops, guest lectures, and Honours programme courses. However, the students have not responded very positively to these, and instead, expect the content to be integrated with the curricula. The education provided at SSLA lays emphasis on research; however, hardly any instruction is provided to the students with respect to using digital tools that would improve the quality of their research. It is recommended to address this gap.

This study is an attempt towards identifying the reasons behind the lack of digital literacy and hopefully will result in bringing changes to the liberal arts curriculum and pedagogy in SSLA. It can be considered as a sample framework to understand the integration of digital literacy and liberal arts education across liberal arts institutes of India. It is important to note that although the students at SSLA are on the better side of the digital divide, they still are not well versed in leveraging the digital infrastructure. Therefore, it is essential to understand that access to good digital infrastructure alone cannot guarantee better digital capital. Digital literacy is crucial for students to take maximum advantage of the digital infrastructure provided and this requires reworking the curriculum and active involvement of the faculty at SSLA. 


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