TEACHERS in the 21st century face a predicament: their students are generally more digitally literate than they are.
This leads not only to classroom discomfort (the teacher always knows more than their students), but misunderstanding about the technologies that students use, such as Facebook and YouTube. These misunderstandings are often media-driven (intent on publicising alarmist news stories), and rather than engage with the students’ affair with the technology, the typical control response is to ban them from the classroom.
There are very few training courses about using Facebook. LJ, 22, looked astonished when asked whether she thought this was needed. “But why?”.
But Facebook is a complex technology. As we discussed in Facebook as a technology system, it is system consisting of a host of functions – messaging, chat, uploading photos, etc. These are not all easy to use, but they are learnt and handled ‘intuitively’, especially by younger people.
Digital literacy, however, is not just about the ability to use different kinds of technologies. It involves interpreting, writing and creating digital texts, employing the digital technologies and tools to communicate effectively with someone else. We use a defined system of (shared) language and conventions to communicate. We might use text short cuts or emoticons to supplement our messages. We use native text to convey our thoughts, observations, experiences, etc., but we also use digital tools to compose, edit, manipulate and select of photos and videos. Through the various media, we attempt to convey the meaning of our communication as clearly as possible.
In this way, digital literacy is connected to literacy, and it would be nice to think that digital literacy enhances literacy, for instance.
Once we know and feel comfortable with one technology, these skills are mostly transferrable to others. If we know how to use the full functionality of an iPhone – download and use apps, eg – we should be comfortable with using an iPad. If we know how to use Facebook, it’s likely that we can use LinkedIn. If we know how to use Skype, we will most likely know how to use Elluminate. This transferability of skill is more apparent as the technologies themselves become more standardised and functionally more usable.
But, let’s not confuse digital literacy with information literacy, or for that matter, scholastic literacy.
Information literacy is the ability to search, locate, analyse the use information. Even though everyone “googles” for information on the Internet, not everyone (especially younger people) are very adept at this. Although search engines are becoming more sophisticated and adaptive, it is in framing the search question precisely that prompts the search engine database to retrieve appropriate responses.
This ability comes with trial and error; with experience. Most searches in Google prompt thousands of responses. (Have you ever wondered what the last Google search return is?) So unless we frame the search question well, we may never find what we are looking for, or be continually provided with lists of links to irrelevant information, or believe that the first page or two of links are the only offerings available.
[By the way, an excellent free course on information literacy is available from the University of Idaho.]
Scholastic literacy is something even deeper than information literacy. This is generally defined as not only the ability to find material that is deeply embedded in repositories (libraries and on the Internet – remembering that popular search engines such as Google only list about 20% of what is actually on the Internet), but to intellectually analyse and differentiate information – in other words, to make a critical judgement about it the source’s validity and applicability. (It’s essentially what Arts students are learning in every course they undertake.) This literacy also recognises the inherent limitations and biases of popular search engines.
So, although our students may be leading the field in digital literacy, they are lagging in the other literacies, which makes it even more vital that we are not intimidated or misled, but engage and mentor them in the digital domain. We also need to stimulate their curiosity.