On April 1, 2020, mere weeks into our shared “COVID spring,” The New York Times opined that the COVID-19 pandemic is the greatest challenge the United States has faced since World War II. Projections at the time showed anywhere from 100,000 to over 240,000 deaths in the US alone (“Coronavirus”). Our optimism has been bested. As of this writing, we have shattered the grim milestone of 500,000 deaths; 600,000 deaths now seem possible, depending on how well the Biden administration can roll out the vaccine in the coming weeks and months (“Cases”). In the midst of all this human and economic devastation, faculty across the country, many of whom are themselves struggling with illness, death, and despair, have been furiously revising their own course offerings and adapting to the realities of higher education during an uneven pandemic lockdown. Some of us are fully online, some are teaching in person, and some a curious amalgam of the two. For better or worse, this is where we stand.

There are precious few silver linings to be found in this viral outbreak, but the history of the university as both a social institution and capstone achievement of post-Enlightenment modernity holds several valuable lessons about how we might capitalize on the present crisis to transform the future of higher education. What might it mean to rethink the university “from scratch”? The pandemic presents us with the chance to do just that. Just as COVID-19 has illuminated racial and economic inequalities in our healthcare and K-12 educational systems (Chotiner), so too has it trained a spotlight on several key features of the university that, though identified by thinkers like Jean-Francois Lyotard and Bill Readings decades ago, have lately become unavoidable in their implications. Colleges and universities, arguably among modernity’s most durable epistemological features, are no longer at the center of society’s information flows and credentialing apparatuses. Another way of saying this is that learning, education, and schooling are no longer the sole provinces or products of the university, whereas at one point in the not-too-distant past they were.

Two features associated with learning during the pandemic make this quite clear. First, we can no longer take for granted the physical classroom meeting space as the default scene of teaching and learning in a post-pandemic university (Kroger); and yet, the spate of lawsuits over “Zoom U” and the loss of an on-campus experience suggests that the public might not yet be ready to jettison the traditional vestiges of college life and learning (Keshner; Kamenetz). This will prompt us to continue to ask challenging questions about our pedagogy that get at the heart of what we do and how we see ourselves as educators.

Second, as a result of what higher education futurist Bryan Alexander calls “information plenitude” (3) and media theorist Jay David Bolter dubs “digital plenitude” (25-26), faculty can no longer afford to view themselves as “masters of content,” to use Richard E. Miller’s provocative phrasing (155). Instead, faculty must learn to be “masters of resourcefulness” (Miller 155). That is, what we can do in this new reality is to “model how to think in the face of an endless torrent of information” (Miller 155). A new kind of critical media literacy is needed—what I am calling postdigital literacy—and fast.

In his recent book, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, media theorist, technologist, and digital futurist James Bridle points to what this new postdigital literacy—or whatever we decide to call it—might look like:

If we do not understand how complex technologies function, how systems of technologies interconnect, and how systems of systems interact, then we are powerless within them, and their potential is more easily captured by selfish elites and inhuman corporations. Precisely because these technologies interact with one another in unexpected and often-strange ways, and because we are completely entangled with them, this understanding cannot be limited to the practicalities of how things work: it must be extended to how things came to be, and how they continue to function in the world in ways that are often invisible and interwoven. What is required is not understanding, but literacy. (2-3; emphasis added)

As scholars, theorists, and futurists of the university, our next step is to review our history with an eye towards how the post-COVID-19 era will not only open up new possibilities for teaching and collaboration across fields and institutions, but also require us to make the case that advanced postdigital literacy must become a cornerstone of all higher education and effective digital citizenship.

Postdigital literacies of the kind I have in mind will involve understanding not only texts themselves (i.e., close reading, critical thinking) but also systems of texts—their production, verification, and circulation—and how arguments and policy platforms are built and enacted. For example, in the realm of scientific knowledge and public health, students need to know the difference between a pre-print on a popular website that goes viral on Twitter and research findings presented in a peer-reviewed scientific journal that have been thoroughly vetted by other expert researchers. In politics and media literacy more broadly, this means teaching students how to recognize deep fakes and doctored photos, as well as the conditions of possibility that enable their circulation. Students will also need to explore how trust is built and deployed in spaces both online and IRL (“in real life”).

What are the systems that validate and authenticate information online and how do they function? Postdigital literacy will train students to recognize the fluctuating nature of expertise as it shifts in and out of different disciplinary, practical, and policy contexts: who is in a position to know or to have verifiable expertise on the efficacy of mask-wearing to prevent the spread of disease? What are the mechanisms and power relations through which such expertise is constructed? What does it mean for a source to be politically biased? To what extent is bias constructed via complex systems of meaning or inherent to all meaning in fundamental ways? In some fields, this could mean attenuating the tight grip that disciplinary ways of knowing have had on the discovery of new knowledge for a century or more.

The good news—to the extent that we can call it “good,” given the deadly circumstances—is that we have been here before. Sort of. The university, in its six-hundred-plus-year history, has had its share of transformative moments already: chronologically, (1) the invention of the printing press, and the subsequent availability of (and need for) print media of all kinds, which led to a print-dominant culture that would span centuries (indeed we are still recovering from the hangover produced by print-dominant reading strategies); (2) the transition from the largely oral classical college of the nineteenth century to the German-inspired, technocratic research institutions of the twentieth, in which writing, original research, and verification-via-publication became of supreme importance; (3) the unprecedented investment in US higher education represented by the GI Bill and the accompanying economic expansion that followed in the post-WWII era; and (4) the opening up of the web in the early 1990s and the subsequent explosion in digital media, online learning, and the changing social nature of information and media in what I am pointedly calling the “postdigital” era (Cramer).

We must take seriously the notion that the COVID-19 pandemic, far from being just another hiccup or one crisis among others, represents a transformative moment in the university’s long history as a social institution. Both students and people in all walks of life and every occupation will need to be sufficiently schooled in the workings of digital technology; they will need to be able to parse out the subtle distinctions between misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, etc.; and they will need to be trained in basic meditative mindfulness in order to deal with the disorienting effects of both information overabundance and lives lived increasingly online.

By Paul Cook
Associate Professor of English
Indiana University Kokomo

Alexander, Bryan Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education. Johns Hopkins UP, 2020

Bolter, Jay David The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of the New Media MIT, 2019.

Bridle, James. New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future Verso, 2018.

“Cases and Deaths in the US.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. https//:www.cdc.coronavirus2019-ncov/us-cases-deaths.html. Accessed 16 Mar.2021.

Chotiner, Isaac. “The Interwoven Threads of Inequality and Health.” The New Yorker, 14 Apr. 2020, http://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/the-coronavirus-and-the-interwoven-threads-of-inequality-and-health. Accessed 17 Mar. 2021.

“Coronavirus Live Updates: Amid Growing Financial Fears, Washington Weighs a Jobs Program.” NYTimes.com, 1 Apr. 2020. htpps://www.nytimes.com2020/04/01/coronavirus-live-news-updates.html. Accessed 17 Apr. 2020

Cramer, Florian. “What is ‘Post-Digital’?” Postdigital Aesthetics: Computation, Art, and Design. Eds. David M. Berry and Michael Dieter. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Kamenetz, Anya.“Colleges Face Student Lawsuits Seeking Refunds after Coronavirus Closures.” NPR.org, Nationa; Public Radio, 26 May 2020, https://www.npr.orf/2020/05/29/863804342/colleges-face-student-lawsuits-sekking-refunds-after-coronovirus-closures. Accesses 22 Jan 2021

Keshner, Andrew.“At Least 100 Lawsuits have been Filed by Students Seeking College Refunds-And They Open Some Thorny Questions.”Marketwatch.com, 22 May 2020, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/unprecedented-lawsuits-from-students-suing-colleges-amid-the-coronovirus-outbreak-raise-3-thorny-questions-for-higher-education-2020-05-21. Accessed 20 Jan. 2021

Kroger, John. “10 Predictions for Higher Education’s Future.” Inside Higher Ed, 26 May 2020, https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/leadership-higher-education/10-predictions-higher-education. Accessed 19 Jan 2021.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. 1979. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Miller, Richard “On Digital Reading.” Pedagogy, 2016 no. 1, pp. 153-64.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Harvard UP, 1996.