Learning The Terms of Digital Literacy

Often when we talk about digital literacy, we are speaking about giving students the tools they need to be successful in a digitally-augmented world. In learning digital literacy, students also learn the social protocols, expectations, and risks that come along with engagement in digital devices, something I’ve written about many times before.

Recently, I’ve been working closely with faculty members and asking them a simple question: “Have you read the ‘Terms of Service’ of any of the digital tools and platforms you are using?”

More often than not, the answer has been, “no.” This is not something I see as bad. Rather, it is part of the societal expectations that have been built into our interactions with digital media and digital technologies. It is the one area of digital media where the user, or student, is disempowered in as much as if there is something a person disagrees with in the terms or there is something the person would want to change, he or she would be unable to do so. It is slightly different when entering into an institutional wide relationship. In those cases, adjustments to terms can be included in individual contracts. However, for people who want to experiment and play with tools as they become available, this is an option that is not available.

It is important for students to understand that in addition to agreements they have as part of a course and institution, often defined by the syllabus, they are also agreeing to terms for the various digital platforms and tools they will be using that often diverge from normal classroom spaces. That being said, understanding the terms of platforms is part of contemporary digital literacy. In terms of the pieces that are “real” that might have implications out in the world, this is the one thing that is set in stone. The terms are often also the place that make it so platforms, websites, and tools are not responsible for things that happen offline to students who use their services as part of learning. The Terms of Service are also where things like student privacy are defined (though often that is moved to a separate document linked to the Terms of Service).

Teaching Terms of Service Literacy

When people think of terms, they tend to think of amazing long documents full of legalese that are incomprehensible. While this is true of Apple, it is not true of all companies. Twitter, Google, Tumblr, and many other sites have accessible and short Terms. In my own courses, when we were use one of these tools, the Terms are an assigned reading for the course. We briefly discuss them, and before the students signed up for the service, I make sure they understand that all agreements are between them and the platform and not them and me or the institution. It is an important task to give them so that I know they are clear that they are giving up some privacy by participating in class projects. I say “some” because, on sites and platforms where it is allowed, I give students the option of using a pseudonym so that their digital work for my courses is not linked to their larger digital footprint.

The next assignment is a more hands-on one that helps illustrate the power relation that terms create. It is creating a “Collaborative Terms of Service” for digital classwork and interactive digital classroom spaces. This document serves as a guideline for best practices in the classroom space while at the same time encouraging students to look at the terms of service for various sites they use and reflexively think about their relationship to them.

For this assignment, you take an existing Terms of Service agreement or a Terms of Service template (A website called Upcounsel has a good and easy to read template that works well for this. A note of warning, if you use it, you have to input information and will be added to a mailing list).

For the assignment, copy the text to a shared document that everyone in the class can open and make it a class assignment. If you are using Google docs, I suggest having the students read the Terms from Google beforehand and having a brief discussion about their purpose before Terms are brought into the classroom space. Once everyone has access to the Terms, have them rewrite, adjust, change wording and customize it to reflect how they hope people in the class will interact. I suggest having the privacy policy link to the syllabus since those tend to be about how data will be used, and there is a wonderful link between that and grading.

By allowing the students to define the terms (with the syllabus and requirements of assignments in mind), it allows the students to feel some ownership over what and how their learning experience will be. It also gives students the ability to better understand what terms are and what they are meant to do as they work through making sense of their template and modifying it to fit their needs. Once the terms are finalized, it is important to discuss what the experience was and what was learned. And, hopefully by the end, there is a community of digital practices that knows the terms everyone agreed to by participating in their shared digital learning spaces.