By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

There are different and added types of literacies in today’s device-populated, web-connected world, even in the campus setting, according to Jill Hurst-Wahl.

In addition to basic literacy, those who form messages for various college-interest audiences now need to consider consumers’ abilities in digital, civic and social, and health, emotional and financial literacy realms in their communication and marketing, said the School of Information Studies Associate Professor of Practice. She was addressing the audience at the HigherEdWeb Association Syracuse 2012 conference as its keynote speaker. Some 60 web professionals attended the iSchool-hosted conference this week.

“Just because people carry devices doesn’t mean they are digitally literate,” Hurst-Wahl continued.”It doesn’t mean they know how to use them; find information on them; and that when they find that information they then know how to use it; or that when they are asked to do something on a device they can carry it out,” she suggested. “Our devices give us a lot of convenience, but our ability to reach out to our audience is both easier and more complex than ever. Sadly, we recognize the ease and ignore the complexity, so we don’t recognize some of the literacy needs [this audience] may have,” she said.

Hurst-Wahl is an Associate Professor of Practice in Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies and the director of the iSchool’s Library & Information Science program. Her interest areas include digitization, digital libraries, online social networking, and Web x.0. She is a noted author and blogger and a former corporate librarian and computer skills trainer.

Many facets come into consideration when structuring communication for the wide range of audiences connected to Higher Ed, she noted. Potential college students are impacted by K-12 educators, parents and grandparents, mentors and other students.  Additionally, a college’s web communications also speak to donors, supporters and the news media. All of those groups may have different capabilities and literacies that must be taken into consideration, even affecting how messages are structured, Hurst-Wahl said. “The long form writing that we all learned needs to become shorter, more targeted and more obvious.  And because you have so many different people reading the material, it has to be a more universal version of English and easily translatable,” she advised.

Other considerations include whether audience members are digitally challenged; if they are mobile or non-mobile; if they have a smart phone but not a computer at home; and whether there is a language barrier, Hurst-Wahl explained. 

While it is assumed that entering students will be both basically and digitally literate, that may not necessarily be the case, she contended, noting these statistics:

•    Almost 2.7 million households in New York State are not connected to the Internet
•    The U.S. ranked 15th of the top 31 countries in broadband penetration
•    The top 40 books read by high school students are, on average, at a fifth-grade reading level
•    In the U.S., more than 50% of students entering two- year colleges and nearly 20% of those entering four- year universities are placed in remedial classes.

Higher Ed communicators also need to consider how communication occurs once their target audience members arrive on campus, the professor advised. There, they need to think about how digital literacy impacts their work and whether the content they present is in a form permitting varied users to actually utilize it. They also need to recognize if language barriers and accessibility issues are being addressed, she suggested.