Braving the depths of the complex internet and social media worlds can be challenging. Some might even say daunting. Users must dodge threats of online harassment, breaches in privacy and security, disinformation or misinformation, and an overwhelming volume of digital clutter and notifications.

Enter librarian Julia Feerrar to the rescue. Feerrar serves as the University Libraries’ head of digital literacy initiatives and is also the liaison librarian for the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

Digital Literacy is a set of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that people use to engage with their digital lives. “I think about engaging with digital life as being able to make informed decisions, including about how we learn, create, and interact with each other online,” said Feerrar.

Feerrar works with students and faculty teaching workshops and providing consultations on a range of topics including information research strategies, developing a professional online presence, and evaluating information. She also supports her colleagues in the University Libraries and across the Virginia Tech community, working together to advance digital literacy.

“Digital literacy education is happening in so many places, and I’m excited whenever I can serve as a connection point between them,” said Feerrar.

Feerrar also leads a small team that focuses on digital literacy initiatives and creating ways to teach people about digital literacy. The team plans events, teaches classes and workshops, and creates online resources.

One of the major challenges around digital literacy is defining it. “Digital literacy can mean different things to different people,” said Feerrar. “People tend to equate it with the ability to use technology, such as sending an email, exporting a file, or typing into a search box. While those are certainly key digital skills, digital literacy is about much more than that. Digital literacy includes critically consuming information, media creation, social interaction, and online identity.

“How does my tone change when I email different audiences? What are my rights as a creator of digital media? Can I critically evaluate the information I find in a search engine? Those are great digital literacy questions,” said Feerrar. 

Digital literacy team photos provided by the individuals

Digital literacy team photos provided by the individuals

Another digital literacy challenge is that often there is not one right answer. “For example, I might feel very comfortable sharing a lot of personal information about myself online. Meanwhile, my colleague might not and could have a whole range of reasons for that decision,” said Feerrar. “When I teach, I try to emphasize different options and help students develop the tools they need to make decisions about what works for them. I know this can be frustrating sometimes, though, because we often crave having a clear, right answer.”

Because these different associations shape how people understand digital literacy, one of Feerrar’s first projects when she became head of digital literacy initiatives was to lead the creation of a digital literacy framework for Virginia Tech. “Our framework takes a pretty holistic view of digital literacy, acknowledging its many pieces and layers,” said Feerrar. “This framework has been a really useful tool for starting conversations about digital literacy as well as for guiding the development of some of our programs in the Library. Feerrar is a leader in digital literacy, and her digital literacy framework has received national attention from other universities interested in learning more about its development or about the University Libraries’ digital literacy initiatives as a whole.

During her time at the University Libraries, Feerrar has also led the creation of a digital literacy toolkit, digital wellness curriculum, and a digital literacy student fellows program. She was also recently invited to be an affiliated faculty member with the Media Education Lab for the 2020-21 academic year. The Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island improves digital and media literacy education through research, community engagement, and professional development. As an affiliated faculty member, Feerrar will have opportunities to lead webinars, contribute to collaborative projects, and join a learning community of other educators.

Feerrar said that the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on her work. At the beginning of the outbreak, Feerrar volunteered to aid in supporting faculty in moving their courses online and attended the Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies (TLOS) Continuity Partner training. Since then, her classes, workshops, and consults with faculty and students have moved online, and her team has had to postpone plans for a fun digital literacy spring carnival which they plan to reschedule in the future.

In a lot of ways, the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of digital literacy. “We’re constantly evaluating the information we have about this virus and making choices based on that information,” said Feerrar. “And as many of us learn and work online, we’re trying to figure out how to make that work for us.”

Feerrar wants people to know that, “Digital literacy affects us all. There are faculty and staff in the library here to work with you and there are lots of ways to get started, either on your own or by engaging with us.”

Ways to get involved with digital literacy include checking out upcoming workshops and events, scheduling a consultation, using online learning resources in Odyssey, and requesting a workshop for your group by emailing Feerrar.

“I think that digital literacy education can go a long way in giving people strategies to navigate the complexities of the digital world and to benefit from the best it has to offer,” said Feerrar. “At its best, the internet makes learning, creating, and connecting possible in so many exciting ways. I want people to have access to those possibilities and live their best digital lives."

Written by:  Elise Monsour Puckett