Digital literacy

Today’s undergraduates are the most sophisticated users and consumers of technology colleges have ever seen. This is not surprising. Generation Z, those born after 1996, are digital natives. They have never known an analog world.

Their intelligent, inquisitive faces glow in the near-constant illumination of smartphone, tablet and laptop screens. But in terms of the language of the computers that define much of their generation, many are in a dark age.

In the current world, with big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence dominating more and more professions and intellectual disciplines, we can no longer leave the language of computing to specialists. Digital literacy is a new essential literacy.

Whether engineering, art or English major, a fully literate person today must have a basic command of computer science. In Virginia, higher ed and industry are coming together to help make this happen.

Thanks to partnerships such as the Washington, D.C.-based Capital Collaborative of Leaders in Academia and Business (CoLAB), students no longer have to be tech majors to gain digital literacy. Five Virginia universities — George Mason, the University of Richmond, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University — are part of a Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. initiative to offer a digital credential to students in all majors.

To earn the digital credential, students complete a suite of introductory computer science courses covering fundamentals of data science, cybersecurity and software engineering. These students graduate with digital literacy as well as the skills to be self-supporting immediately after graduation. They also receive exclusive hiring advantages with 14 participating companies including Capital One, J.P. Morgan Chase and Northrop Grumman.

The digital credential goes to the heart of an age-old question: Is undergraduate education for gaining higher learning in the world of ideas, or is it for gaining job skills? This credential program answers with a question of its own: Why choose? Students can now gain highly marketable skills without having to sacrifice their avocation in the arts or humanities.

This opportunity matters because nobody wants to see young people leave college without a way to create prosperity for themselves and their families. The cost of an undergraduate education is rising and the student debt crisis is real. It would be a bleak world if everyone who will need to repay college loans had to major in a STEM discipline to do so. The digital credential program offers all families a way to encourage their college student to study what he or she loves while also forging a path to self-sufficiency.

This issue is personal to me. I am the dean of an engineering college and a biomedical engineer, but I earned a bachelor of arts degree (BA) with a minor in art history. I care passionately about the arts and humanities and the foundation that literature, philosophy and art provide for meeting life’s challenges. I am also the parent of a first-year college student who is a humanities and sciences major but will also earn the digital credential before graduation.

It occurs to me that our era resembles the rise of literacy in early modern Europe. In the late 1400s, few Europeans could read and write. The complex code of letters and sentences was largely the domain of the church. As literacy advanced, it brought with it an unprecedented era of thinking, ideas and communication. That rate of intellectual progress would never have been achieved if reading and writing had been left to the experts.

The language of computing is in a similar transition. Once the property of scientists, mathematicians and engineers, programming knowledge is now expanding to a broad base of the population. In the short term, this trend will advance workforce development and economic independence. In the long term, it will spark a new era of creativity and ideas, just as the rise of literacy did centuries ago.

Who knows what wonders await?

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Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., is the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin, Jr. Dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Engineering. Contact her at: bboyan@vcu.edu

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