Literacy: The Difference a Digital Engine Makes

Digital Literacy and the Difference Engine

Literacy is evolving. The Internet is an information engine of astounding force. Information is widely available today that in another era would have taken substantial amounts of time and effort to obtain. However, trying to read from the Internet is like trying to take a drink from a fire hose. It therefore requires literacy of a new order.

literacy of digital connections

Smartphones allow us to be connected 24X7

Just what is the value of digital literacy?

I recently came upon this assessment in a World Economic Forum article on digital life skills. It made me think of how core skills evolve over time.

A generation ago, IT and digital media were niche skills. Today, they are a core competency necessary to succeed in most careers.

As with employment and career development, digital literacy makes a difference in areas as diverse as citizenship, financial management, parenting and student achievement. It is a core competency. It leads us to ask these underlying questions:

  • What is digital literacy?
  • Is it one thing or many things?
  • Is it glorified tech hype, or an actual paradigm shift in thinking?

Digital Literacy

According to the American Library Association, a digitally literate person evidences a variety of skills, both technical and cognitive. One cannot separate specific skills from the thought process used in evaluating them:

Digital Literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.

Edweek, in an article about the changing face of literacy, makes the point that the definition of Digital Literacy has evolved:

While the word “literacy” alone generally refers to reading and writing skills, when you tack on the word “digital” before it, the term encompasses much, much more.

One question we might ask is, Is the definition too broad? Hiller Spires and Melissa Bartlett of North Carolina State University view digital literacy as having three distinct categories:

  • Finding and consuming information
  • Creating digital content
  • Communicating or sharing content

Spires and Bartlett make the argument that we should refer to the concept as a multi-faceted, plural one, that is, as digital literacies. For an in-depth exploration of the topic, check out Digital Literacies and Learning: Designing a Path Forward. It is a worthwhile research paper.

The role of activism and pursuit of truth

One intriguing perspective on sharing content has been put forth by Renee Hobbs of University of Rhode Island. She argues that digital authorship is “a form of social power.” It certainly is accurate, but this leads one to ask: Is activism a form of literacy?

Creating digital content is undoubtedly both a creative and collaborative process, but how do we separate one’s persuasive argument or political agenda from the objective pursuit of truth?

How do we separate one’s persuasive argument or political agenda from the objective pursuit of truth? Does student voice equate to student truth?

The above quote is mine. It reflects the trends toward hyper-partisanship as part of our cultural landscape. There is often a blurred line between subjective and objective states of affairs. The louder voice is not necessarily the one proclaiming truth nor the best way forward.

Critical thinking and search for objective truths

OK guys, here it is, a parable: The journey of Truth as it set sail through the sea of information, and navigated the reefs of fake news, confirmation bias and ad hominem attacks. It was a treacherous journey. The captain of the ship consulted the charts of the area, but only found the admonition by Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.

Just how does one tell the difference? John Diaz, the editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, explored the dilemma in Seeking real solutions to fake news. I cite the article here because he discusses efforts by Google and Facebook to fact check for fake news. He then posits that the solution may require the process of critical thinking:

Then there is the option of making Americans more media-savvy.

He discusses the possibility of making media literacy a part of California curriculum. The article contains references to pending California legislation, the goal of which is to make students more media-savvy. Whether such a legislative approach can be effective in refining human judgment remains to be seen, but the discussion is worthwhile. The paradigm shift in the journey to find truth is a cognitive one. It is an age-old quest.