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Digital Literacy and Career Capital: How College Experiences are Preparing Students for the Transition to Work


Many students on college campuses today are members of the first generation to grow up surrounded by computers, the internet, and other information and communication technologies (ICT). When they graduate, they will enter a job market where employees in diverse fields are expected to leverage ICT to support their academic and professional work. Research offers only limited information about college students’ digital literacy as it relates to career planning, what college activities and communities of practice encourage the development of digital literacy among students, and the extent to which early experiences with computers and ICT influence college experiences and career aspirations.

The purpose of this study was to learn more about the experiences and individuals that influence students' development of digital literacy and attitudes toward professional career transitions, with a particular focus on the experiences of lower-income students. Digital literacy, as defined by Martin (2008), is the ability to use digital tools to find, sort, analyze, and synthesize information and resources, to effectively communicate with others, and to construct new knowledge, in the context of specific life situations that facilitate reflection and social action. Guided by theories of situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and differential practices (Sims, 2014), along with boundaryless careers and career capital (Arthur & Rousseau, 1996; Arthur, Inkson & Pringle, 1999), the study employed an explanatory sequential mixed method design (Creswell, 2014) with both quantitative and qualitative methods of data collection and analysis to gain insight from graduating seniors at a selective public research university.

Results indicated that lower-income students, those eligible for federal Pell Grants, reported greater gains in digital competencies as compared to higher-income peers, and that hands-on learning experiences such as undergraduate research appointments and internships were positively related to students’ feelings of preparation for the job market and technology demands of work in their chosen career field. Even though most students gained valuable career capital through these experiences, some struggled to draw connections between specific digital competencies and their career goals, and to articulate how these activities had prepared them for the transition to work. Additionally, data from the interviews revealed that very few students had discussed issues of critical information literacy, commercial interests driving the internet, and other related topics in their academic courses or with peers and colleagues.

The study concludes with implications for theory and practice, as well as recommendations for future research to deepen our understanding of the kinds of digital skills and competencies that students develop through engagement in various activities and communities of practice in college, and how colleges and universities might better serve all individuals in using digital literacy to advance their academic and professional goals.

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