Let us stay digital illiterate a bit longer

The past two weeks ETMOOC has been about digital literacy and I must say that I disliked the topic from the start and still do. I am the only one to blame for that and I do not argue in any way that the topic is not important. Still maybe its helpful if I write down two reasons what is it about this topic that makes it so unattractive to me.

Lets start with an experience from way back. In Europe we have the international computer skills certification programme. The organisation behind it enables you to test your computer skills and get a certificate for that. Over ten years ago I got 7 certificates like that, at that moment basically for skills in using Microsoft Office products. Even then when the pace of change in IT was considerably lower then it is today I was perplexed about the skills I had to show to get my certificate. For me there was little relationship between what I found important skills in using the tools and what was tested for the certificate. It was also unclear to me how the test could translate into a statement (the certificate) that I was literate in using those tools. For me an absolute trivial subset of skills was tested.

Since then we not only have an information explosion but also a functionality explosion on the internet. Functionality that is very new and of which we are only beginning to understand what we can do with it. Or even worse technology of which we now not know if it will be in use in ten years time. Paradoxically the more precise you go about defining what digital literacy is before you start testing people on it, the more removed it will be from current insights in what is valuable digital literacy. I don’t believe we defined literacy 10 years after scripture was invented so why would we do that for digital literacy?

In my example what I had to learn was based upon a finite set of tools, given enough time it was possible to find out everything there was to the tools. Even in that situation it was hardly possible to come up with a recognized and worthwhile set that would define your literacy with those tools. Let alone that we would be able to do that now for the multitude of functionality that can now be used and define your digital literacy.

My second issue is that it has a lot to do with what I call “demands go up when technology is involved”. There are a lot of examples where problems existed already in the pre-IT time and never got any attention there, suddenly when the same process is now done with IT the already existing problem gets much more attention (and is sometimes turned into a reason to stop using the technology). The whole discussion about electronic voting comes to mind as an example. There is no denying that it has problems but voting on paper also has a lot of those problems.

In ETMOOC we talked about “who owns your educational data” with a thorough presentation from Audrey Watters. She has very convincing reasons why it matters who owns your educational data. My problem is that these reasons where also valid when educational data was kept on paper. Moreover when educational data was only stored on paper the problems of ownership and retention where bigger then they are now. For most things with the currently available technology it is easy to keep the original and hand in an electronic copy. Also getting your data back is made much more easy with the available digital tools. So why is this a big thing now that technology is involved?

So to sum up my two problems with digital literacy: we are trying to define it to early and in trying to define it we put in demands that I cannot relate to the improvements IT has brought us.

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2 Responses to Let us stay digital illiterate a bit longer

  1. Thank you for expressing your concerns–it’s nice to hear a critical view sometimes.

    I, too, was not all that excited about digital literacy in ETMOOC, and still am not, but that’s mostly because I couldn’t see how we would ever define it. The presentations by Belshaw and Rheingold were both good, and brought up helpful points, but in the end I still felt like I couldn’t define DL. Why is it important to do so? Well, I do see that some things might be important to teach to students who are going to be using digital tools–not just the technical skills, which they can get on their own, but things like attention, crap detection, the importance of sharing, etc. (Rheingold), and what data is being collected about them, who owns it, and how to get it back (Watters). So I see the value in thinking about what sorts of things are important for people to know in the digital age, what sorts of practices they should engage in; but I just wasn’t all that interested in trying to define DL itself.

    Now, to your comments here. For the first, I do think Belshaw’s presentation was trying to say that DL is more than learning technical skills in relation to certain tools, as in the tests you underwent in the past. I couldn’t remember all eight aspects of DL that Belshaw discussed in his presentation, but I found them here (scroll down to “The eight essential elements of digital literacy”): http://neverendingthesis.com/index.php?title=Chapter_9_-_A_matrix_of_elements

    These elements include things like having confidence, the ability to construct new things out of what is available already, the possession of critical skills, the ability to use digital tools to communicate, connect and contribute to civil society, and more. It’s a pretty wide approach to DL. Are you saying here that even such an approach isn’t going to capture everything that might be needed about digital literacy?

    Regarding your second point, I think it’s quite valid overall, though I am not sure that it is deeply related to trying to define digital literacy. I do want to say, though, that even though with digital tools it could be easier to get your data back (e.g., through email requests rather than by having to go and physically pick something up), the problem is rather one of ownership, at least in Watters’ presentation. If it’s clear that the students themselves own their educational data, then it should be an relatively easy matter to go and retrieve it, and then control who else can access it. But it’s not always recognized that students own their own attendance records, work turned in for assignments, record of books checked out from the library, emails sent and received on school email systems, and more. Why is this a bigger issue with technology than before (when students may not have owned their data either)? Maybe it’s just more clear that it’s a problem because there is SO MUCH data collected now, so easily. Suddenly it becomes obvious that schools have a lot of information about students, some of which could be transferred easily to others and it could possibly have a detrimental effects. Maybe it’s the amount and the ease of transfer that makes it more clear now.

    But is that a problem? That technology has made it more obviously an issue simply brings the concern more to light; it was always a concern, but now is even more clearly so. Are you suggesting there is some problem with that? I can’t quite tell!

    • louwarnoud says:

      Thanks for your response, it really got me thinking so that’s good!
      I think I do really think that it is (way) to early to define anything about digital literacy. A lot of what we would select now as being part of digital literacy would be based upon tools we started using as recently as 5-10 years ago. At this moment it would be heavily influenced by the stuff we call “social media”. But we have no way of knowing how influential these social media might be in a few years time or what new breakthrough technology might change the whole way we view what we now call social media. As an example look at this article that foresees the decline of facebook. For me at this moment the discovery of what all the new technology means and in what way it is useful is a tinkering process. Where people/groups that are ahead can find themselves at the behind in a short period of time.

      As for the second point you make maybe it is not deeply connected to digital literacy. though you might argue that being able to distinguish between new problems that technology introduces and old problems that where already there and are only magnified by new technology is a form of digital literacy. I find it problematic because to often the introduction of new technology that in essence changes nothing about an already existing problem is treated as if it is the source of the problem.

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