Digital literacy project teaches students the rules of the online academic world

While absorbing physics, biology, history, music, art, business, creative writing and football songs, students also should prepare to take their place among scholars. That means learning the rules of scholarly communication.

In the digital age, the rules haven't changed, but they're easier to break.

So the Policy Office of Cornell Information Technologies has launched a campaign to spread "digital literacy" -- the ability to find, evaluate, utilize and create information using digital technology.

The first step is the new Digital Literacy Resource Web site at

And to spread the word, Tracy Mitrano, director of information technology policy, and colleagues will deliver classroom presentations across campus wherever they are invited.

Wait a minute! Today's students have been using computers since they were toddlers. They know more about this stuff than we do!

They know the technology, but not necessarily how it should be used in an academic environment, says Mitrano. It's a bit like knowing how to drive a car but not knowing how to read a map. Think of questions like "Is this Web page reliable? Am I allowed to use this image in my classroom presentation? How much of this article can I quote?"

And outside the classroom, questions might include, "If I post this photo of myself partying, is my professor going to see it? How long will it stay up? If I post this picture of my drunken roommate, can she sue me?"

In classroom presentations so far, Mitrano said she has often seen a flash of realization come across the faces of students: They are discovering things they hadn't thought about before, she believes.

The Digital Literacy Web site opens with a research guide based on material supplied by Cornell Library, covering where and how to find information online, how to properly reference and cite sources, where the lines are drawn on plagiarism, and how to protect one's own work A version of the Golden Rule applies: "You want to give credit where credit is due because you would always like to have credit," Mitrano said.

Much of this has to do with copyright law, which in the digital age has become a personal concern for individuals but is still widely misunderstood. Many still believe, for example, that "I'm not violating copyright if I don't make any money out of it." The site links to various copyright resources, including a short online course in copyright that is available free at, through a partnership with eCornell, the university's distance learning subsidiary.

The topic here is not online music sharing, Mitrano emphasized. "This is all about academic work," she said. "We're trying to help students learn about these rules in the academic context." (For those who do want to learn more about peer-to-peer issues, the university offers a copyright education video at

The Digital Literacy site also offers advice about online privacy, including the implications of posting personal information and how one's data may be "mined" by others. Emerging technologies, it notes, offer new challenges: Your GPS phone knows where you are.

"Trying to understand privacy in the creation of personal and professional identity online must be part of the education of students," Mitrano explained.

Yes, this is about "rules," but the rules are not arbitrary, Mitrano said. "The rule has a value underlying it: That the highest value in higher education is the generation of ideas both out of individual creativity and collaboration with others.

Media Contact

Blaine Friedlander