In the highly anticipated second edition of the best-selling classroom guide, author Ellen C. Carillo addresses why digital literacy is a crucial skill for students’ educations, future careers, and participation in democracy. In this interview, Professor Carillo talks to the MLA about what readers will find in the second edition. The new edition of the MLA Guide to Digital Literacy is available now.
MLA: Why was it time for a second edition of this book to come out?
EC: Digital tools are always changing, and the new edition keeps pace with those changes, addressing a range of digital tools, platforms, and software to support students’ reading, writing, and research skills. It also speaks more directly and comprehensively to recent efforts to make curricula more inclusive. This guide contributes to those efforts by teaching students how to conduct inclusive research, recognize algorithmic bias, and foreground accessibility while composing multimodal projects.
MLA: The book includes a new chapter on composing in digital spaces. Why was it important to address multimodal composition?
EC: The first edition of the guide focuses primarily on supporting students’ consumption of media, but students are also producers of media. More and more, multimodal projects, such as slide presentations, infographics, podcasts, websites, and videos, are assigned by high school and college instructors. The guide now helps students build on what they already know about composing in digital spaces and prompts them to think critically about aspects of multimodal composition likely to be new to them.
MLA: The guide makes the case that digital literacy can help stem racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination. What does “inclusive research” mean and how does it work?
EC: When students are taught how to conduct research, they are often instructed to look for and cite experts on the subject they are researching. One strategy that students are taught is to look for the most widely published scholars in citation lists that accompany articles or books on the subject. This practice, however, simply perpetuates biases in academia and publishing, institutions that have, like many institutions, tended to neglect scholars of color, Indigenous scholars, and scholars with disabilities and their research. As a result, the work of these scholars is not represented or cited as regularly as those of their white and able-bodied peers. The guide instructs students on inclusive research practices that involve deliberately searching for scholarship on their research subject published by scholars from marginalized groups and emphasizes that giving voice to these scholars is an important, ethical research practice.
MLA: What is “algorithmic bias” and why should students be concerned about it? What can students do to gain greater awareness of how search algorithms affect their research?
EC: Algorithmic bias is the concept that search algorithms are imbued with biases and stereotypes—even websites and search engines that appear to be neutral depend on algorithms influenced by the biases of the people who created them and of the larger culture. To experience how algorithmic bias works, students can do an activity described in the new edition of the guide where they create different personal profiles on sites such as CareerBuilder and Indeed, changing their race, ethnicity, and other information and tracking how the sites match the profiles with jobs. This activity helps students understand how algorithm bias functions in internet searches and why it is harmful. Students come to understand that the personal information that has been collected about them (e.g., through cookies) informs their online search results. While there is little that students—or anyone—can do to avoid algorithmic bias, understanding how it functions is an important component of digital literacy.
MLA: What advice do you have for instructors interested in adopting this book for classroom use—and for transitioning from teaching the first edition if they already assign it?
EC: The new edition of the guide builds on and enriches the original material, which includes topics like using lateral reading to find trustworthy news sites, so instructors who have been using the first edition will find the transition to the second edition rather easy. For example, the new reading selection, “The Real History of Fake News,” provides a more up-to-date take on fake news. Instructors adopting the guide for the first time will find that it offers a flexible approach to teaching digital literacy: they can proceed linearly through the entire guide or select chapters relevant to their syllabus. Hands-on activities, reading selections, and detailed lesson plans accompany the instruction in order to provide a comprehensive, self-contained guide that doesn’t require instructors to supplement with their own materials.