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What is a Digital Student Leader?

22898578_sIt may be surprising, but overall college student leadership development research is an emerging field.  Over time there has been a perspective change of leadership from leader-centric, where one needs a position to be a leader, to awareness and development of followers, as well as, belief that anyone can be a leader (Komives & Dugan, 2010).  

Contemporary theories of leadership redistribute power to followers, as well as, prioritize self-awareness, ethics and morality, along with being a socially responsible leader.  In formal research, leadership has been explored from all developmental stages, with minimal knowledge on how leadership develops overtime or identity transformation within leadership, and especially nothing as it relates to leadership on a digital context. 

I have found no research that ties college student leadership theory to digital identities or social media experiences (yet).  

Looking at application to college students, higher education provides formal opportunities such as leadership positions, programs and retreats.  Student Development theorist Astin (2000) called universities to provided leadership development both in and out of the classroom, further students should be empowered to be social change agents.

University programs are held accountable by the Council for the Advancement of Standards (CAS), declaring, “Colleges need to develop not just better, but more leaders…and that students must be better prepared to serve as citizen leaders in a global community” (Miller, 2003, p. 196).  As such, Ingleton (2013) called for leadership programs to provide knowledge, skills, and value clarification through theory and practice.  There are four major leadership theories that are popular in college student leadership research and programmatic application.  These include transformation leadership, emotional intelligence leadership, relational leadership, and the social change model.

Leadership theories provide frameworks and language to consider for college student leadership development.  Terms such as change agent, self-awareness, authenticity, ethics, morals, and followership are commonly mentioned.  By applying these leadership theories to a digital context, the exploration of what it takes to be a digital student leader emerges.

To seek out a practitioner and digital perspective, I put out a call on Twitter, asking the question “What is a Digital Student Leader?”  various responses were gathered:

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Each of these responses added to the complexity and attention to the topic.  Each of these professionals applying experience working with students to create some model to develop student leaders toward.  Each very valid to consider.  Because there is no formalized model to direct neither students nor leadership educators.  Even more of these responses will be included later.

This post will propose adopting formal digital literacies into the frameworks of student leadership development programming.
Upon entering college, where a student is in their identity, leadership and digital skills journey is a byproduct of parents, k-12 teachers and peers.  One student can vary greatly from the other.  Goode (2010) found that many college students digital skills are self-taught and those with further competencies had access and empowerment at home during high school.  In addition, not only were high schools not preparing them for the technology demands of college, but their current university also did not support emerging technology development.

Based upon Goode’s (2010) results the researcher challenged educators and began to touch upon how digital identity has influence over college student success,

For many college students, not having a strong technology identity is a product of unequal high school education and disparities in home resources, yet consequences of one’s technology identity has a powerful influence on the attitudes and decisions students make regarding their academic and life plans. (p. 509)

Youth born after 1980 have been labeled as ‘Digital Natives,’ (Prenskey, 2001) who have grown up with emerging technologies.  While I do adopt this term, it stirred up the conversation of access, adoption and digital realities.  My take is this:

Just because young students have grown up around digital advances and tools, does not mean they have been proven to be literate or competent with them, nor have equal access.  Do not assume. 

Explaining this belief further, Greenhow and Robelia (2009) discussed the digital disconnect students face, much due to the challenge that schools do not cultivate their use, interest, or skill levels in the curriculum.

Researcher Ng (2012) studied digital literacies of students, declaring:

The underlying importance of educating young people in using digital technologies is to develop their digital literacy as the more the student builds up his/her digital literacy skills and knowledge, the more flexible and innovative (s)he would be with the use of technologies for learning or to demonstrate what has been learnt. (p. 1077)

As early as 1999, competencies for 21st-century skills began to surface.  For example, the National Research Council labeled these as

  • Creative thinking, technology fluency, innovation, communication and collaboration, research, and information fluency, problem-solving, and digital citizenship (Greenhow & Robelia, 2009).

Many of these competencies fall within social media use.  Numerous researchers agree teaching all students 21st-century skills in digital technology use are extremely needed (Johnson, 2012; Sacks & Graves, 2012; Rodriguez, 2011).  Higher education must respond to, “Help students cultivate the ability to access and evaluate information, see it accurately and creatively, manage the flow of information, and understand the ethical and legal issues relate to the access and use of information” (Johnson, 2011, p. 63).
Digital skills are formally known in the research as digital literacy.  It has been defined in various ways.  Initially explained as,

Digital literacy is the awareness, attitude and ability of individuals to appropriately use digital tools and facilities to identify, access, manage, integrate, evaluate, analyzed and synthesize digital resources, construct new knowledge, create media expressions, and communicate with others, in the context of specific life situations, in order to enable constructive social action; and to reflect upon this process. (Martin, 2005, p. 135)

17296485_sConsidering the complex interpersonal interactions and skill involved, this definition now also includes technical, cognitive, and social-emotional learning online and offline.
Further Ng (2012) explained that, “an individual should be able to adapt to new and emerging technologies quickly and pick up easily new semiotic language for communication as they arise” (p. 1086).

Reflect for a moment, are these literacies being taught anywhere in the educational continuum?  

University student leadership programs can take on this gap head-on, responding to the need to develop digitally competent student leaders.

Mackey and Jacobsen (2011) proposed an advanced definition of digital literacy called metaliteracy, which “promotes critical thinking and collaboration in a digital age, providing a comprehensive framework to effectively participate in social media and online communities” (p. 62).  This term is proposed as an umbrella framework for a number of other literacies including digital literacy, media literacy, visual literacy, cyberliteracy, and information literacy.

Using metaliteracy as a holistic framework for education, how to apply and teach these skills will be explored next.
Whatever term is used, digital or metaliteracy, this education for students needs to be offered; we are already behind.  Mackey and Jacobsen (2011) provide such examples as

  • How to critically consume content
  • Use media to express views (political, social, creative)
  • Understand ethical and legal issues
  • Diversity online
  • Privacy
  • Accessibility

Abreau (2010) found there was a lack of focus in any type of media/digital literacy education and how to teach student digital technologies.  The author went on to note that media literacy should:

  • Empower the decision-making process
  • Activate the way users engage online
  • Serving as a catalyst for productive and positive interaction

Going back to the Twittersphere, Student Affairs and Higher Education professionals gave more specifics

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From the research mentioned in this post, as well as the thought-provoking Twitter responses from my colleagues, I would also propose the following 10 components of a digital student leader.  I have listed these in order of increasingly advanced skill, using what acronym Daniel Cardenas from Twitter early referred as “DSL”:

10 Competencies for a DSL (Digital Student Leader)

  1. Online Self-Awareness and Reflection of Digital Profile
  2. Awareness of Emerging Technology Tools and Platforms
  3. Content Analysis, Sorting Accuracy and Quality from Fake or Misinterpreted Information
  4. Establishing Personal Virtual Boundaries including Privacy, Managing Time Spent Online and Overall Wellness
  5. Digital Decision Making Strategies: Based in Positive, Authentic and Constructive Activity
  6. Integration of Digital Technologies into Campus Leadership Presence through  Community Building Methods
  7. Building Personal Learning Networks (PLNs)
  8. Articulating and Executing Professional Branding Blended with Career Strategy Online
  9. Cyber Conflict Resolution and Mediation
  10. Using Social Media for Social Good (More on this idea in a future post!)

Providing education to students is only the beginning of the formation of a competent digital student, ready to maneuver in a global online environment.  These concepts do not need to be drastic, integrated into existing leadership programs and even most simply 1-1 conversations.
For ideas on how to incorporate digital into new student orientation, refer to one of my previous posts or even over the summer in student outreach.   If you’d like to reflect on your own digital skills and social media presence, feel free to check out eight guidelines I developed for Student Affairs Leaders.

How would you define a digital student leader?  What are the competencies that student affairs professionals should teach students to be relevant in a digital world?  Please provide your thoughts below in the comments. 

Follow me on Twitter @josieahlquist
For all content cited on this post, explore {here} for all references I have used on my blog.

*All images purchased from https://www.123rf.com

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

Previously she was the director of strategic communication for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, and the director of communication for the University of Kentucky College of Law. She is a Kentucky native and a proud alum of the University of Kentucky.

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