Are your kids--and you--digitally literate?

BlogHer Original Post

Recently, the director of the teaching resources center where I work turned to me and asked, "What does it mean for students at our university to be digitally literate?" And if answering that question wasn't complicated enough, the additional question implied within it--and how can we encourage instructors to instill digital literacy in their students?--is even more daunting.

Discussions of digital literacy tend to focus on a few key constituencies: K-8 students, high school students, and college students. Frequently left out of these discussions are teachers themselves, as well as anyone who is no longer a student--as if digital literacy is something that is to be learned entirely in grades K-16.

The discussions of digital literacy in K-8 lean, understandably, toward safety and security on the Internet, and particularly while participating in online communities. Coming along for the ride are old school computer skills like keyboarding and word processing. But as Silvia Tolisano points out at Langwitches (building on a definition by Victor Castilla), digital literacy is not just learning these skills, but also learning to solve problems within digital environments. It's also, Tolisano emphasizes, a skill that teachers need to learn (and learn to teach) instead of relying on the school's computer resources specialist letting students try to figure it out on their own. This technologically-based problem solving needs to happen within the framework of the curriculum's content, rather than be taught as an isolated skill set.

When I was in elementary school, I remember watching a film about the deceptions of commercials on TV. Today, elementary and middle-school students need to learn not just how to be "safe" online, but also how to assess the veracity of sources. Vicki Davis was reminded of the importance of such skills when her seventh-grade son was using Google to research the events of September 11. She writes,

You see, when he typed 9/11 facts -- he found a conspiracy theory website(s) and came out of it thinking someone had bombed the building.

Similarly, SMeech offers an example of a racist group's site that masquerades as a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. Because tech-savvy webmasters can optimize such sites for search engines, it's entirely possible that sites that offer alternative and frequently unpalatable narratives, including outright lies, can wind up in the first couple pages of a web search--and it's been my experiences that students (even in college) frequently don't click past the first two pages of results.

Yes, a seventh-grader needs to be able to tell the difference between a traditional narrative of September 11 and a conspiracy theorist's narrative. But high school and college students need to be able to take it a step further: they need to know how to question the veracity of the traditional narrative and assess the claims of the conspiracy theorist. In many ways, this is old-school information literacy, this assessing a source's validity. But in a digital age, students are going to turn to digital sources to do this verifying, so they need to know which digital sources and tools they might use in this process.

In short, they need to know how to be good digital citizens: to assess veracity, engage in conversations with the media-makers, and to make media themselves.

Howard Rheingold of the Sydney Morning Herald hits the nail on the head in a recent column:

Talking to my daughter about search engines and the necessity for a 10-year-old to question texts online led me to think that computer literacy programs that left out critical thinking were missing an important point. But I discovered when I talked to teachers in my local schools that "critical thinking" is regarded by some as a plot to incite children to question authority. At that point, I saw education - the means by which young people learn the skills necessary to succeed in their place and time - as diverging from schooling.

Constructivist theories of education that exhort teachers to guide active learning through hands-on experimentation are not new ideas, and neither is the notion that digital media can be used to encourage this kind of learning. What is new is a population of "digital natives" who learnt how to learn new kinds of software before they started high school, who carry mobile phones, media players, game devices and laptop computers and know how to use them, and for whom the internet is not a transformative new technology but a feature of their lives that has always been there, like water and electricity.

This population is both self-guided and in need of guidance: although a willingness to learn new media by point-and-click exploration might come naturally to today's student, there is nothing innate about knowing how to apply their skills to the processes of democracy.

I don't propose internet media as the solution to young people's disengagement from political life, or claim to know whether or not youth really are disengaged, but I do want to look at a participative media as a possibly powerful tool to be deployed towards helping them engage in their own voices about the issues they care about.

While some folks advocate for limited exposure of students to the uncensored World Wide Web, others recommend students' full engagement with its "multiple realities":

Ironically, while some see the profusion of realities as threatening to us, to our children, and even to democracy, the new media is nothing if not simply another way of viewing our world, of interacting with one another, of opening ourselves to learning in realms of possibility we never conceived of before. In our development as higher-order thinkers, multiple realities are far less important to our survival than our ability to understand what we see, to interpret what we experience, to analyze what we are exposed to, and to evaluate what we conclude against criteria that support critical thinking. In the end, it seems far better to have the skills and competencies to comprehend and discriminate within a common language than to be left out, unable to understand.

Jill Walker argues that although they can use a range of technologies--e.g. mp3 players and Facebook--students aren't necessarily digitally literate in the ways that count within a university environment or as global citizens:

The ways teens use the internet differently from older users (e.g. games, IM, social networking) can almost hide the fact that many of them lack skills seen as basic in what we oldies call digital literacy - such as being able to find relevant information, evaluate it, synthesize it and present it. Of course it’s also possible that they’ll simply redefine “digital literacy” so it means something else once they’re adults, but I somehow doubt it. I think actually the idea of “digital natives” is dangerous - it lets us as teachers and parents off the hook.

But what is digital literacy? There are so many definitions, many of them divergent. Some, like Certiport, ICDL, and Microsoft's, focus on the hardware (desktop computers), software (word processing, spreadsheets, and slide presentations), and security issues (viruses and more) that any white-collar corporate worker "should" know. Others suggest digital literacy encompasses finding information, or using the need for information as an excuse to join discussions within online communities. Yet others, such as Karin Dalziel try to disentangle and make sense of the knot at the intersections of literacy, information literacy, media literacy, and digital literacy—and the many related literacies, such as multimedia, computer, visual, critical, scientific, and cultural. Dalziel elaborates on the differences between four major kinds of literacy in this chart.

Certainly literacy as it relates to the Internet is different from print literacy. But how different? SMeech directs us to this incisive graphic that illustrates the difference between paper-based textual literacy and web-based textual literacy.

Want to learn more about these different digital literacies? Check out the article "Towards a Theory of Digital Literacy: Three Scenarios for the Next Steps."

Another big question: How are we to measure these skills? Are they even measurable? The Educational Testing Service seems to think so, as they have created an assessment for high school graduates and college students. Others, such as the other corporations mentioned above, also have developed tests for what they're calling digital literacy.

My suspicion is that real digital literacy--the kind tied up with digital citizenship--can't be measured on any kind of standardized test. Rather, it needs to be demonstrated in relatively complex student projects assessed by teachers at every step of the way.

What are your thoughts about digital literacy? And how can we encourage digital literacy not only in students and teachers, but in the vast majority of the global citizenry that lives and labors outside of schools?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks helps university faculty improve their teaching. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.

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