Keeping Up With... Digital Writing in the College Classroom

Digital Writing

This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by Andrea Baer.

Andrea Baer is the Undergraduate Education Librarian at Indiana University-Bloomington, email:

Just as evolving information ecologies complicate conceptions of information literacy and librarians’ roles as educators, digital environments have spurred many writing instructors and writing program administrators to reconsider the nature and the act of writing, particularly in relation to social and technological changes. Much like librarians, composition instructors are increasingly demonstrating that the prevalence of digital information in our everyday lives indicates the need for curricular changes. Because communication in online settings occurs through many media and modalities, these writing educators explain, instruction must address the knowledge and abilities students need to actively participate in a world that relies increasingly on digital communication.    

What Is Digital Writing?

Digital writing, simply defined, is writing that is composed – and most often read – through digital environments and tools. The growing pedagogical interest in digital writing is evident in the increasing number of college courses in digital writing and rhetoric, as well as in courses across disciplines that incorporate elements of digital composition. (Think, for example, of the wide range of college classes in which students create and share content through blogs, wikis, social media, video, or digital images.) As this suggests, conversations among educators about digital writing concern not only “academic” forms of writing like research papers and scholarly essays, but also writing genres such as email, SMS text (short message services used on mobile devices), social media communications like tweets, and blogging. Many composition scholars furthermore argue that writing is not limited to composing text, and also occurs through use of other media like images, video, and audio. Moreover, understanding the multi-modal nature of digital writing requires an understanding of not only how individual media like text and image work separately, but also how they interact with one another to create new meanings and multiple potential interpretations.

Digital Writing and Information Literacy

Librarians are well aware that digital technologies are profoundly affecting not only how individuals access information, but also how people actively engage with digital tools to create new information, often in the form of writing. The interconnected nature of writing and research – which has been so well articulated for years by individuals such as James Elmborg[1], Rolf Norgaard[2], and Barbara Fister[3] – points to the importance of teaching these processes relationally. The dynamic qualities of digital media and networks, however, require that we continually revisit the relationships between writing and information use.

Both digital writing and information literacy draw attention to the dialogic, social, and intertextual nature of writing and using information. Together they present powerful ways to situate research, knowledge production, and information sharing as ways to engage not simply with isolated bits of information or abstracted ideas, but also with relationships between sources, ideas, and the individuals who create, exchange, and interact with those ideas. Digital writing’s focus on communication across various social contexts similarly seems well aligned with ACRL’s new framework for information literacy, which emphasizes the communicative and social nature of information use and the importance of individuals producing and sharing new knowledge, in large part through interactive digital tools and media. In the words of this new ACRL framework, learners “[a]s both producers and consumers of information content in an ever-changing variety of formats and modes, ...must recognize that in adapting to these changes, they must interact with, evaluate, and share information effectively and flexibly”[4].

Implications for Information Literacy Instruction

As students are asked to write in a variety of digital environments and to convey ideas not only through text but also through other modes like image, video, and audio, librarians are further underscoring the intertextual and multimodal nature of information, while also deepening our own understandings of concepts and skills like visual and media literacy. While in many cases we may be learning alongside our students about evaluation, use, and creation of certain types of digital content, core principles of information literacy continue to be relevant, particularly those which stress the rhetorical nature of research and information use (e.g. evaluating a source’s authorship, audience, purpose). In fact, rhetorical approaches to source evaluation and source use have become perhaps even more essential to our pedagogy than before, as the digital sources with which both scholars and students regularly engage have become increasingly more diverse and more challenging to evaluate and often to contextualize.

As we look with students at sources which do not fit neatly into categories like scholarly/popular and authoritative/unauthoritative, we have an opportunity to explore with them more deeply how sources are more than mere containers of facts, but rather are complex, interconnected, and often multi-modal entities. These entities, we can emphasize, reflect various communities and discursive practices, as well as larger social, cultural, historical, and technological contexts. (Holliday and Rogers [5] have published an insightful article on this issue.) The importance of situating information and sources within their rhetorical contexts furthermore underscores the necessity for information literacy instruction to move beyond a one-shot model to more integrated approaches, such as ongoing collaborations with instructors that situate information use within specific disciplinary and discursive contexts. 


Both digital writing and information literacy call attention to today’s interactive and multimodal information environments, which have both expanded and complicated the ways people use, create, and share information. As both composition instructors and librarians expand our conceptions of writing and of research, we may find that rhetoric becomes all the more essential for situating information literacy and writing.

The importance of emphasizing rhetorical context in relation to digital and multimedia sources is especially apparent from the fact that digital information has complicated notions of authorship, authority, intellectual property, and scholarship (just to name a few). At the same time that this complexity poses real challenges for teaching, it also presents rich opportunities for exploring with students more nuanced ways of evaluating, analyzing, and using sources in order to develop new knowledge and understandings. As librarians and instructors cultivate more integrated, collaborative pedagogical models that situate information within its rhetorical, social, and technological contexts, we find numerous openings for fostering information literacy as something inextricable from critical thinking, meaning making, and knowledge production. Digital writing is one such opening.


1. James K. Elmborg, “Information Literacy and Writing across the Curriculum: Sharing the Vision,” Reference Services Review, 31(1) (2003): 68–80.

2. Rolf Norgaard, “Writing Information Literacy in the Classroom: Pedagogical Enactments and Implications,” Reference User Services Quarterly, 43(3) (2004): 220–226.

3. Barbara Fister, “Teaching the Rhetorical Dimensions of Research,” Research Strategies, 11(4) (1993): 211–19.

4. Association of College and Research Libraries, “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education: The Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Draft 1, Part 1,” lines 241-244 (February 2014), accessed February 28, 2014,

5. Wendy Holliday and Jim Rogers, “Talking about Information Literacy: The Mediating Role of Discourse in a College Writing Classroom,” Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 13(3) (2013): 257-271.

Recommended Reading

DeVoss, Dànielle Nicole, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Troy Hicks. Because Digital Writing Matters : Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments / National Writing Project ; with Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Troy Hicks. San Francisco : Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Grabill, Jeff, Stacey Pigg, and The Writing in Digital Environments (WIDE) Research Center. “The Writing Lives of College Students: Revisualizing Composition Study Group - A WIDE Survey and Whitepaper,” September 7, 2010.

Jewitt, Carey. “Multimodality, ‘Reading’, and ‘Writing’ for the 21st Century.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 26, no. 3 (September 1, 2005): 315–31.

Mackey, Thomas R., and Trudi E. Jacobson. “Reframing Information Literacy as a Metaliteracy.” College & Research Libraries 72, no. 1 (January 2011): 62–78.

The New London Group. “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures.” Harvard Educational Review, no. 1 (1996): 60.