Emerging Digital Literacy

Literacy is a term with strong resonance for many educators. Those who enter education with an interest in literacy recognize the importance of reading for all learners and all citizens in society. The work is perhaps the most important in the school.

Educators do recognize, however, that digital literacy is a skill that is increasingly important. While I will not argue for decreasing attention to traditional definitions of literacy, and helping students become strong readers is very important for primary education, I do argue that we should support students as they become both strong readers and strong users of other media, especially as they enter middle school where we expose them to even more fields and more sophisticated models of the world.

Digital literacy is, of course, a term that has been in the lexicon for more than a generation. I first encountered it when computers were arriving in the schools as I was entering as a professional. In the early 1990’s “computer literacy” meant being sure students understood the names and the functions of the bits and pieces of desktop computer systems. It was reasoned students and teachers needed to know which are input devices, where processing occurs, which were output devices, and how software is organized and data stored could be effective users of computers. That was a misguided view.

Over time, the computers we used were designed with more processing power and greater networking capacity; so today we have access to infinite information, which is in multiple media, and that access is ubiquitous (except for some stretches of road in New England where cellular telephone service is not available). We are changing our patterns of information use as well, which is necessitating we refresh the definition of literacy to include digital literacy.

Consider several changes in what it means to be a competent user of information in the 21st century. This is exactly what Mark Deuze, a scholar a media studies, did in a 2006 article that seems to catch my attention frequently. Deuze added participation, remediation, and bricolage to the skills essential for digital literacy.

As digital media has come to dominate social life, including popular culture and political discourse, there is the growing expectation that individuals contribute to the digital conversation. Youngsters communicate via social media (their preferred venue always changing), teachers tweet, schools have FaceBook pages and parents follow those pages and both complain about and praise what is shared there. Twenty years ago, it was sufficient to simply consume media created by and edited by others, but now the expectation is that one creates the digital information world as they navigate it.

Increased participation results, of course, is vastly more information than was previously available, and much of it is not edited nor even reviewed. Online it is difficult to differentiate information from a credible sources from information from dubious sources. There is no “fact checking” of web pages, and parody can appear credible just as fantasy or outright lies can appear credible. As a result, individuals have an increased responsibility to check and verify the information they consume. This is especially important as it is so easy to share, so false information can “go viral” and become “true” in a brief time.

Further, digital literacy allows one to become a bricoleur; to invent new uses of technology and recombine it to provide services unimagined by the inventors.

Emerging digital devices provide both challenge and opportunity for educators (I know, I hate that cliche also, but this really seems accurate). More skills become important and we are driven to and are motivated to provide experience with more diverse media, and this requires less time be available for the skills we value and that have served us well. Educators struggle to help their students become competent with unfamiliar media while books seem to become less important.

As middle school educators, we also get to explore this new media and the literacies necessary to navigate it with the young people who fill our classrooms. As we encourage our students to participate in the media world, evaluate and assess what they find there, and find unknown uses of it, we are preparing them for the world they will create. We are lucky also that we will be better prepared for that world as well.