What Is Digital Literacy?
This paper is copyright Judith Tabron; presented to the Center for Teaching and Scholarly Excellence at Hofstra University, November 2007.
Technology literacy, information literacy, and media literacy are all converging. Increasingly, schools are assessing how well their students achieve digital literacy and programs to teach students digital literacy cross departments like education, English, media studies, library studies, and information sciences.
This is an alarming prospect if, like me, you didn't even know technology literacy, information literacy, and media literacy all existed in the first place.
Rather than trace the histories of those three major literacy projects in this country - though I will close with some thoughts about that - I'd like to say a little bit about what digital literacy is for our students, and then with you think through a little how that might inform what we teach or how we teach it.
The theoretical definition of digital literacy would be something formal like this: that students understand and create digital materials based on that understanding. Similarly to the way we read and write words, and encompassing that idea but also larger than that idea, the digitally literate student can read and write images, audio, and video. Some might add that they can read and write "information", which makes sense to me only on alternate Tuesdays, and I can talk a little about how we might include that, but the idea is that finding information, evaluating it, and incorporating it into their creations is certainly a part of this digital literacy revolution.
This is a larger craze than the current fad for "mash-ups". If you've seen any of the technology magazines lately (EDUCAUSE, July/Aug 2007 issue, http://www.educause.edu/apps/er/erm07/erm0740.asp), you may have seen this term. A mash-up, if you don't know yet, is something you make out of other things. A sort of a Frankenstein expression of ideas, a mash-up can take audio or video or images or text from multiple sources and put them together. It can take data from one source and merge it with data from another source as well, and there's a lot of potential here for educational mashups. Think of a source like www.housingmaps.com mixing housing data with geographical data from Google. Then imagine how GIS data from an archeological project could be mixed with demographic data from the U.S. Census. Those types of projects have been going on for a while now, but now we call them mash-ups. (Harvard's http://crimsonconnect.com is a student-produced portal that is entirely a mashup, pulling data from multiple places and putting it together in a sort of a "dashboard".)
The more basic mash-up looks to me like a learner's exercise in reading and writing. Just as young learners tend to repeat what they see and hear when they write, and it takes them a long time to compose originally, so may young learners becoming digitally literate borrow heavily from what they see and hear. (And there's a sidebar here about the historic specificity of originality that I won't get into unless someone baits me, but I will just add briefly that the idea that all composition should progress toward originality is very specific to our time and place, and there's a strong argument to be made that literate people in general don't necessarily arrive at the point of producing great original material, yet they can still be called literate.)
[Here I've excised some examples of student-created images and video, including with self-analysis, that some volunteers had allowed me to share.]
These students are doing this sort of thing for fun, and you may well imagine that these are the sorts of students who are doing similar projects for your classes: finding information, mashing it together into a new digital something, and sharing it with other students or presenting it to the class.
We all know that the number of students who consume information electronically is huge; in addition, the proportion of students who are creating information electronically is growing as well. Here's a quote from the 2006 ECAR study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology:
"Undergraduates are communicators. Nearly all (99.9 percent) create, read, and send e-mail, and more than 80 percent send instant messages, most of them doing it daily. They use their arsenals of electronics to write documents for coursework (98.8 percent), search the Web and institutional library (94.0 percent), and create presentations (90.8 percent). Three-quarters of these undergraduates use course management systems, most of them using it several times per week or more. Recreationally, 70.6 percent of responding students download music of video files and use social networks such as Facebook.com. Most of them (73.4 percent) play computer/video games. A smaller number of students appear to be engaged in new media. More than a quarter of respondents (27.7 percent) report using software to create or edit video and audio files, and 28.6 percent of them create Web pages."
Probably not coincidentally, in a recent article on cheating, the researchers found that the only form of cheating that seemed to be enabled by digital technology - that is, the only situation in which students cheated more often "digitally" than using conventional cheating methods - was copying a few lines or paragraphs from a document on the Internet into a paper. (Jason M. Stephens, Michael F. Young, and Thomas Calabrese, "Does Moral Judgement Go Offline When Students Are Online? A Comparative Analysis of Undergraduates' Beliefs and Behaviors Related to Conventional and Digital Cheating", Ethics & Behavior 17(3), 2007.)
What does this mean for those of us who want to teach these students? As the tools become easier and easier to use, and our students become more and more digitally literate, how do we handle the work they want to do for our classes, how do we evaluate those contributions? More radically, do we have a responsibility to get all of our students into the group that are able to express themselves in this way? And what does it have to do with finding stuff in the library, anyway? (Which is part of the traditional definition of "information literacy".) What do the skills that have to do with making web pages or videos or podcasts have to do with our course material anyway? We've always traditionally called those skills technology skills and they aren't part of a liberal arts education.
Here's the interesting thing: The tasks these people did in order to do this intellectual work are becoming for the most part transparent to them. In those cases where it wasn't transparent to them, they were learning how to do the tasks in order to forget about them. The GOAL of each project was a creative, expressive endeavor. But they could not have achieved those goals without the technological, information, or media literacies on which the tasks depend.
The tasks, in other words, are not simple button pushing tasks. They require evaluation, judgement, creativity, intelligence, and decision-making. There are a lot of key concepts critical to living a digital lifestyle that are embedded in the kinds of things these people did. Research. Information synthesis. Version control. Data management and backup. Understanding and reusing many different types of media. It wouldn't be hard, and it would be an interesting exercise, to list the top twenty professions of the decades to come for which we expect to educate our students, and then imagine how each of those professions requires the successful use of those key concepts.
By definition, technology is what people will forget they know how to do tomorrow. That is, we generally don't require extensive training any more to operate an electric stove, use a ball point pen, drive a car, or dial a telephone. These are all skills people tend to pick up throughout their lives which they tend to use everyday which are most notable in their absence. Some of these skills may be done well or less well. Some people drive a car for a living, whereas others do it very badly, sometimes with disastrous consequences. That's because driving a car DOES have consequences. It's a big heavy object you're propelling across the countryside at high speed. If you don't know what you're doing, you could do something catastrophic.
Many of the tasks embedded in the idea of digital literacy have just as much weight. If a person can't evaluate their online bank statement, they can be robbed, or even suffer from identity theft. Those who cannot make connections with others through communications technology may find their lives less rich than those who can and do, whose lives may be extremely rich. (Think about the growth of Internet dating - I've seen one statistic that 1 in 8 couples married last year met online - or the growing use of Internet among the baby boomers to keep in touch with friends and family.) If a person cannot convey their ideas using appropriate media, they are not likely to go far in the fields of business, science, engineering, or education. They may be unable to compete or to make the change into the number of different careers the Department of Labor says they will have during their lifetime. (Even to find the citation for that information I had to choose between Wikipedia's page on Reich and what looked like his "official" home web site - and ended up pulling the book off my shelf where I have the excerpt from "The Work of Nations" where this is quoted. And in researching this on the Internet I learned more about how more conservative sources criticize what they perceive as a lack of rigor in Reich's work, and that the Department of Labor now says they have no reliable information on how many careers a person may have in his or her lifetime. Did I do the research correctly?)
If our students cannot find, understand, and choose wisely the information on the Internet, and if they cannot synthesize that information into decisions that they make, they will not be lifelong learners and will also have a hard time making those career transitions. Nor will they be able to inform or even complete tasks with severely heavy consequences like voting.
Do we need to worry about our students' digital literacy? After all, as we see in these prior examples, they do learn. Kathleen Tyner from the University of Texas presented at the ELI fall meeting this year on literacies and pointed out that historically, literacies generally aren't taught in schools, or are not taught well. (Podcast of ELI interview of Kathleen Tyner)
It may be that our students will pick up a lot of what they need "on the street". But I don't think what they pick up will always serve them well. There are digital versions of the sex education "theories" that posit that babies are brought by storks. Studies show that young people quickly adopt technologies like DVDs, cell phones, and web use. But they don't understand them. They can't always tell whether they should believe what they see on television or in movies any more than they could ever tell whether or not to believe what they read - not until they receive an education. They will Google, but that doesn't mean they can research, and they don't know what they don't know until we tell them.
The broad array of literacies attached to all the work our students do can be presented, as Kathleen Tyner presents it, in concentric circles, with certain things (like technologies and issues of production) grouped together around the ring. They all interblend and they all interact and many of them are not far from the sorts of things we have traditionally asked our students to do - though our students may do them, or need to learn how to do them, in new ways.
If the visual representation of the Kathleen Tyner's mandala [excised] doesn't help you, let me share this presentation with you, which has its own interesting history as a digital artifact/text: the Did You Know presentation. Online at YouTube
How many of you have questions about the data referred to in the video, including its provenance? How many of you wondered how the animations were done? How many wondered about the copyright status of the music? These are the questions we should ask, and we want our students to ask them as well. We probably would have wanted them to ask those questions twenty years ago, if we were teaching a library skills course or a media studies course. Those types of questions have now touched every field we could possibly teach.
Kathleen Tyner's mandala of digital literacies uncovers a bewildering array of things we might actually want to teach our students, rather than have them develop their own theories of operation by trial and error or "picking things up on the street". I'm not even sure I understand all of this mandala - I understand Kathleen will be publishing based on this soon - but this is a good visual representation of the spectrum of technical and information and traditional intellectual and even economic questions and processes that all do intermingle for our students in the world we all now live in. If you look, you'll see questions or topics that are probably already intertwined with the research you do or the topics you teach; you just might not have thought of it quite like this, as part of a spectrum or mandala of literacies that all intertwine.
I'm trying to reassure us all, that we probably already do teach something to do with digital literacies, though we might not frame it in just that way. If we do, we probably do want to frame it in just that way, since that helps to communicate to the students what we're trying to do and how it might be valuable to them, and hopefully engage them in discussions about topics of mutual interest. If we don't already teach these topics at all, we might find it overwhelming. We already have tons of administrative forms to fill out, and we're already juggling our LMS and podcasting and electronic reserves and ... I hate to be the one to bring you yet one more thing to worry about. As with most new learning tasks, let me recommend that you try to bite it off in manageable chunks. As we always say in FCS, you need to know where you are in relationship to your own teaching. You don't want to destabilize a class you're just tackling; and if you're struggling to manage new content you might not want to take on new tools as well. But if you're hearing this and you're thinking "Yes, that completely pertains to my field, I need to acknowledge these digital literacy questions in some way," let me make a few suggestions.
First, familiarize yourself with the realm of digital literacy. Partner up with Faculty Computing Services and the Library to learn what you know and don't know. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the top 25% or 50% of your students and identify what a student would have to know in order to do their work for you successfully. Then figure out what the rest of your students should probably know, and figure out how to get that information to them, preferably as part of your curriculum. Should it be an add-on? How important is it that your students be literate? That's how central the material should be to your curriculum. And I'm not being flip, but I would encourage you to think about how different their lives may be from yours, and more importantly, really, how different their lives are from the students you had ten years ago.
Then, clarify. Spell out to students what you expect them to learn. Make visible some of the invisible structures of your academic work. Make a place in your syllabus, or in each assignment, to show some scaffolding that maybe you heretofore thought was a given. Have them complete a research exercise, perhaps an annotated bibliography, before they do a research paper, and walk them through the first few steps of a rough information search. Show how you zero in on trustworthy information and why you find it so. Bring the software and hardware tools you use to the class, in reality if you can, virtually if you can't, and explain how you expect them to be used. Talk to your students about how many copies of their papers they're keeping and how they keep track of versions, what data integrity is, why reproduceability is the heart of experimentation, and why shortcuts will not work. ("Data journals", for instance, are a growing trend in the sciences - documenting results, sharing data, reproducing results.) Help them understand what they need to understand. Even if they don't learn everything they need to know in your class, knowing what they don't know will be of enormous benefit to them. And figuring out what they do need to understand before they leave your program is a part of the assessment self-study I know you are all already undertaking. I'm asking you to ask questions of yourselves about digital literacies as you review your own curricula - for Middle States, for other accreditations, for your professional organizations as well.
I find it very exciting in higher education when students learn how to identify what they don't know. Perhaps we need to model that for them.
You have partners for all this in the Library and in Faculty Computing Services. I know many of you are already interested in media literacy, and that is part of what is fueling a growing trend toward interdisciplinary research in many of our fields (I know it's a huge engine for research in my own field.)
Some of those partners are here in this room, and I find that faculty often generate the best ideas when they bounce them off of each other, so if you would, go ahead and ask questions, make observations, and I'd love to leave the room today with some ideas on how to help integrate appropriate digital literacy tasks or assessments into our classes and curricula.
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