OMG Where Did My Essay Go: Why Digital Literacy is Crucial in Developmental English

By Jessie Lovett Allen

A student gripping a laptop approached me in a panic because she had accidentally deleted her essay file. I said, “Did you bring your laptop to the tech support office?” Of course I’d given students tech support contact information. Heck, the helpdesk office was across the hall from our classroom. But although the student possessed a vague awareness of the presence of a tech support office, she didn’t know their location, and more crucially she didn’t know that she could seek help for this sort of problem.

As I walked her over to helpdesk office, I explained how files are hardly ever really “lost” these days and that you can almost always recover the file fairly easily. I made chit-chat about how last time I thought I’d lost a file, I just went to YouTube and watched a video that demonstrated how to recover files in Microsoft Word.

Almost all writing situations our students will encounter involve the use of a digital device. They type school papers, send emails and resumes to prospective employers, and engage with their communities on social media. In contemporary society, written literacies are inextricably enmeshed with digital literacies, and we should not ignore this in our developmental writing curricula. Here are some essential practices to nurture digital literacies in our classrooms:

Do in-class writing on computers. In-class writing, on computers, should be a critical component of any developmental writing course. Access to laptop carts or computer-equipped classrooms is crucial. Fight for this. Build digital literacy into course descriptions and learning objectives.

Talk about file management. Difficulties with losing files and revisions can waste precious time and can make the difference between passing or failing future classes. Encourage students to use cloud storage, like Google Drive. If they don’t have reliable internet at home and need to work offline, make sure they have a flash drive and know how to use it. As they write in class, help them learn to save and organize their files.

Emphasize word processing skills. As your students write in class, make sure to help with word processing skill gaps. For example, make sure they know how to double space, check word count, and use spell check and grammar check (while understanding the limitations of these tools). These small skills can save hours. For students with significant word processing skill gaps, encourage them to take classes in Word or Google Drive.

Model the use of YouTube to improve digital literacy.  Why am I more technologically skilled than the average middle-aged faculty member? Because I’ve studied at the University of YouTube. When students ask a technical question in class that you can’t answer, confess your ignorance and say, “Look that up on YouTube and tell me what you find.” A YouTuber is always there to show them anything from making a hanging indent on a Google Doc to using the discussion board on Canvas or Blackboard.

Speaking of Canvas and Blackboard… Be sure to put some components of your course on the LMS. In class, show your students how to log on, submit assignments, and participate on discussion boards. Create in-class assignments that require them to practice using these tools.

Promote awareness of technological resources at the college. What’s obvious to you is not as obvious to your students. Show students how to contact technical support and urge them to save the helpdesk information in their phone contacts. Invite a tech support staffer to visit your classroom to take questions and talk about how they help students. Go on a walking tour of campus to show students where they can use computers, print assignments, and get technical assistance. Make sure students know how to connect their own devices to Wi-Fi. Don’t assume that all students own computers or have Wi-Fi at home.

Teach email writing. In every course I teach, we talk about how to compose and send professional emails. Their first writing assignment is to send me a professional email. Although email is now an old-fashioned communication method, it’s not dead yet, and email writing skills will help students better communicate in academic and workplace environments.

Talk about social media. In real life, a lot of writing occurs on social media. Encourage students to think critically about their social media posts and consider their audience and purpose when composing posts. An important caveat here is to avoid being prescriptive about the “right” way to compose texts with technology. As an educator, your role is to be a cultural informant about what kinds of digital literacies can make them more powerful in academic and professional situations—not to, say, lecture them on the “right” way to use their Facebook account.

Remember the student who “lost” her essay? Three minutes later, a tech support staffer had recovered the file, and she was clutching her chest with relief and gushing with effusive thank yous. This quick interaction saved her many hours of work.

Jessie Lovett Allen teaches developmental English, composition, and literature at North Platte Community College. She has an MA in English and a PhD in Literacy Education. You can reach Jessie at