The Digital Literacy Adventure
Digital literacy is the adventure I chose for this week because it is the near universal substrate of all the other kinds of media and communication in the Information Age. Not to mention, the nature of digital communication means that the lines between message and medium can be blurred far more easily than in the analog world, which has significant implications for teaching and learning all the other literacies outlined for the week — information, news, media, and critical thinking.
The most succinct definition of digital literacy I found is from Purposeful Technology-Constructing Meaning in 21st Century Schools and is defined as “the capability to use digital technology and knowing when and how to use it.” Yet in light of the other rather troubling readings on the topic, the expanded aspects of digital literacy are vital. Specifically, the authors note that digital literacy includes “when students are able to engage with multi-media to read and interpret text, sounds and images…when students can manipulate and evaluate data to construct their own meaning…having knowledge about how to use technology to construct meaning…in ways that are appropriate to their needs…effectively and appropriately to communicate a message.” The emphases are added and align to some specifics of digital literacy instruction the inclusion of which, I believe, needs to be mandatory in any district curriculum. Common Sense Media also notes that digital literacy is an aspect of media literacy and that both fall under the broader umbrella of information literacy. Common Sense specifically designates media from the internet, smartphones, video games, and “other nontraditional sources” as within the realm of digital literacy. (By the way, Common Sense has many useful resources. It’s worth exploring from the link above.)
2 Framing Anecdotes
Part of the work I do as a consultant is leadership and instructional coaching through the University of Chicago’s Network For College Success. We work with Network high schools to implement professional learning rounds that facilitate instructional improvement in a targeted instructional area. The method for teaching the targeted instructional area is a research-based powerful instructional practice. One of the powerful practices we support is Reading for Understanding: How Reading Apprenticeship Improves Disciplinary Learning in Secondary and College Classrooms, also know more simply as Reading Apprenticeship or RA. The RA model operates from the belief that all teachers are literacy teachers. Not reading teachers, but literacy teachers. It also proceeds from the notion that different disciplines require different literacy skills specific to that discipline. This makes a world of sense when one considers that the way one reads a novel is very different from reading a science text, which is different from reading a social studies text, is different from reading a math text, is different still from reading an art text. Each of these content area teachers is the expert in how to read these specialized texts. Therefore, all teachers have a responsibility to teach the reading, writing, and thinking skills necessary for the text types of their particular disciplines. So the RA framework is the schema that activated when I read the framing questions for this week’s assignment, “Who is responsible for teaching information literacy?”
When I read the second framing question, “When should it be introduced?” I was reminded of a time when I was at a friend’s home. We were sitting on the living room sofa, talking. At some point we realized that his 3 year-old daughter was standing in front of the flat panel TV which was off at the time. From the corner of my eye I half noticed that she was alternately waving at the television and turning to us, waving at the television and turning to us. When it registered that she was actually talking to us, we turned our full attention to her. She was saying, “Broke! Broke!” What was happening was that she was swiping the TV screen. When it did not turn on after several attempts, she turned to us to demonstrate that the TV was broken because that big flat screen didn’t wake up when she moved her hand across it! My friend and I were blown away by the implications of this moment. Indeed “[s]tudents learn technology just like they do the spoken language, by doing and today it is not uncommon for a 3 year old to have some basic knowledge regarding how to get on to the computer and load a game” (Purposeful Technology).
Teach Digital Literacy and to Whom?
Thus, based on my own literacy coaching, the incident with my friend’s daughter, and the readings for this week, my answer to these questions would be “All teachers are responsible for teaching digital literacy to all students and it should start as soon as they enter school!”
Wrestling With the Texts
Mike Caulfield‘s “Yes, Digital Literacy. But Which One?” borders on screed; however, his take on the literacy situation is spot on and aligns with the research-based method of RA. “One of the problems…with traditional digital literacy programs is that they tend to see digital literacy as a separable skill from domain knowledge…. In reality, most literacies are heavily domain-dependent, and based not on skills, but on a body of knowledge that comes from mindful immersion in a context.” Caulfield then demonstrates in short order how inadequate tools like RADCAB and CRAAP are to the task of developing a reader’s ability to accurately and reliably evaluate digital media.
Caulfield’s larger argument also puts me in mind of a subject we studied in LSE500. Namely
that educators have for years misunderstood the notion of learning style. Our brains make meaning through all our senses. While research indicates that every learner has a preferred learning mode, it is inaccurate to say that that mode is the “best” way for them to learn all material. The most effective way for any learner to make meaning is to experience the content in the learning mode best suited for the content not the learner. In fact, what teachers need to consider is the learning mode best suited for the particular content. For instance, it makes no sense in an art history class to differentiate lessons for aural learners that privilege verbal interactions over the visual when studying the complex imagery of Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Painting is a visual medium and thus is best taught visually. Since the human brain makes meaning from visual inputs, it is a more efficient and effective way to teach about The Last Supper, even for learners who prefer an aural approach.
Caulfield takes the same approach to Bloom’s Taxonomy and digital literacy. Yes, in a democratic society citizens need to be critical thinkers. But all content does not need to be processed at that high a level. At specific stages of the learning process, some content is most effectively taught at the remembering and understanding levels of the taxonomy. Remember it. Understand it. Apply it. Move on. Caulfield effectively argues that digital literacy instruction is in need of this approach. Do digital citizens need to know how to analyze and evaluate the reliability of a source? Of course. And students should have opportunities to practice critical thinking throughout their educational career. However, in the early stages of developing one’s digital literacy instruction, or with particular kinds of literacy content, basic knowledge is what’s needed first. For example, it’s important that a digital citizen know that images and videos can be presented out of their original contexts and paired with other information to mislead a reader. Or that when reading a tweet one must actually click on an embedded link to get to the detailed information the tweet is sharing. Or that one may have to take a few more steps to do additional, deeper searches to vet the context of a piece of information. Only after someone knows these basics can that they apply them in more complex and critically thoughtful ways.
Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning is a Stanford study that clearly illustrates how teaching digital literacy exclusively from the top of Bloom’s is failing our students and our society. The study assessed “civic online reasoning” by collecting and analyzing 7,804 response from students of varied ages and socio-economic backgrounds ranging from inner-city Los Angeles to suburban Minneapolis to Stanford University to public state universities. Disturbingly, their findings echo Caulfield’s concerns.
"...[T]o a stunning and dismaying consistency...[o]verall, young people's ability to reason about the information in the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.... [W]hen it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.... [I]n every case and at every level we were taken aback by students' lack of preparation."
This statement and the examples of student work collected for the study are indeed “stunning and dismaying” in their implications. Yet in light of the the 2016 election, it can’t be a surprise. I spent much of November with colleagues wrestling with what they felt were our profession’s responsibility for the election outcome. “If only we had taught media literacy better.” “We need to teach kids how to be more critical of what they read online.” “Schools have got to get their hands around fake news and teach our students how to tell it from the real thing.” These are all paraphrases of statements I heard teachers and administrators saying on November 9th. As much as I don’t want one more societal ill to be laid at the feet of our profession, I have to say, on several levels I had a hard time disputing their analysis.
Beware the Usual Professional Pitfalls
That said, we will not be served by once again looking for a curricular silver bullet, an instructional quick fix for the paucity of digital literacy in k-12 and collegiate learning. It’s going to be a generational effort. And as we get this ball rolling, our profession would be well-served keeping three things in mind to remain positive. “First and foremost — encourage, request, even demand that teachers in your school district get EXTENSIVE (not just one workshop) training in the use of technology in the classroom and Digital Citizenship! Teachers are the front line of content delivery, but if teachers are not comfortable and confident with the use of technology, then they will not incorporate its use into their classrooms” (Purposeful Technology). Second, as Bryan Alexander said in the Teaching and Higher Ed podcast, “There’s a lot of churn. But …overall we were right. We hit on the web as a major feature of literacy and learning. And that’s a good thing. We didn’t identify a horrible monster. We identified a really powerful platform for human expression and connection, with flaws, with problems. But that’s a major stride forward for the human race.” And finally, as Alexander continued, “Teachers are hired to be experts and we can’t be expert in everything online. Therefore they have an extra layer of anxiety to participate in the social world of the web and they’re not the expert. They’re average users. And that is very hard and threatening. That’s why teachers have had a hard time using the web for teaching and learning.” Yet we have to push through that anxiety and not only take our place in the digital world, but also guide the younger generations to their own critical and constructively participatory place in it as well. And as we do, let’s keep in mind “There’s too much to master. No one can master it all.” So “grab one particular corner of it [like Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, etc.] and get comfy with it.”
The internet and the digital domain ceased being curiosities and merely interesting diversions decades ago. As the cartoon at the top of the post illustrates, concepts of traditional citizenship and digital citizenship are utterly intertwined. Thus, being a good civic citizen requires one being a good digital citizen also. Both, therefore, require a sophisticated level of digital literacy where the literate person uses technology to interact with the world in a responsible way (Purposeful Technology). Given the ubiquity of digital technology globally and the very real and tangible impact the digital world has on the actual world, concepts of digital citizenship cannot be any less important than those of traditional civic citizenship. Literacy is a crucial component of citizenship — in both the real world and in the digital world.
The authors of Evaluating Information conclude the study’s executive summary with a quote from philosopher Michael Lynch:
"[T]he Internet is 'both the world's best fact-checker and the world's best bias confirmer -- often at the same time.' Never have we had so much information at our fingertips. Whether this bounty will make us smarter and better informed or more ignorant and narrow-minded will depend on our awareness of this problem and our educational response to it. At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish."
Indeed, given what’s at stake, if ever there was a clarion call for embedding and infusing digital literacy throughout our curriculum, this is it.
A Coincidental Post Script
Throughout my academic career I have been the lucky beneficiary of strange coincidences connected to my research. This started all the way back in 8th grade with the dreaded annual science fair
dog & pony show project. Randomly, I had selected “nuclear power” for my project. One week before the project was due for class and two weeks before the fair, the Three Mile Island accident occurred (and which just 12 days after the release of The China Syndrome!) So I shouldn’t have been surprised to wake up this morning and open my New York Times to find the above-the-fold-top-right headline, HACKERS USE TOOL TAKEN FROM N.S.A. IN GLOBAL ATTACK. What an opportunity to talk about digital citizenship, literacy, and safety with our students (and our septua- and octogenarian parents for whom some of us are the 24/7 support desk!)