Digital Literacy

Our children are doomed!

So goes one prevailing narrative about the digital era. Cyberbullying, online predation, Internet addiction, distracted driving, sleep deficits, attention deficits, sexting, narcissism—the perils will surely overwhelm us.

We’re living in an era of unlimited potential, unfettered access, unrivaled opportunity!

So goes another narrative. Open education, global crowdsourcing, the sharing economy, information, simulation, automation, communication—with the Web we will save the world!

Of course, the truth is somewhere in the middle. I work with students, parents and educators to find it.

Cyberbullying and online predation are real and scary, but bullying and predation remain overwhelmingly more common offline than online. These are, to some extent, old issues in new packaging. To me, more novel issues are perhaps worth broader concern.

Take, for instance, multitasking. Most people’s brains can’t multitask, but our devices encourage it. We lose productivity to the shuffle from task to task, intimacy to divided attention, sleep to overactive thoughts, and lives to distracted driving.

Then, there’s context collapse, which describes what happens when information intended for one context escapes into another. It’s deeply concerning that young people today are doing the messy work of developing their identities in online spaces perched so precariously between private and public. (For a level-headed, expert perspective on these issues and more, I cannot recommend enough sociologist Danah Boyd’s recent book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.)

But there is plenty of cause for optimism, as well. In a new culture of online sharing, authors have licensed more than 1.1 billion original works freely and openly through Creative Commons. Among them are 38 million Wikipedia articles maintained by 70,000 active volunteers working in 298 languages. Approximately 40 percent of the code for Mozilla Firefox, the Internet browser used by more than half a billion people worldwide, has been written by volunteers. Recently, journalists from 107 media organizations in eighty countries collaborated to analyze the Panama Papers, a trove of 11.5 million leaked documents revealing tax evasion and fraud schemes. Information is more accessible and exchange is more achievable than ever before, enabling these immense, global, altruistic collaborations. Of course, new kinds of crime and surveillance are also possible.

All of this, positive and negative, is progressing at an inconceivable pace. Creative Commons and Wikipedia are only fifteen years old. Facebook, which had 1.09 billion users daily in March, is twelve. Snapchat isn’t yet five, and, according to Business Insider, its users already watch 7 billion videos each day.

So how can we prepare ourselves and our children for a future we can’t comprehend?

First, I propose we need to broaden our scope from “Internet Safety” and “Digital Citizenship,” which are both necessary yet insufficient, to “Digital Literacy.” Of course young people need to stay safe and behave appropriately online. In a world where technology drives so much change, they also need the critical bent to consume digital media intelligently and the technical skills to create with them.

Second, we need to rescue Digital Literacy from becoming just a vague, agreeable buzzword. We need frameworks to model it, standards to describe it, and measures to assess it.

Digital Literacy theorist Doug Belshaw argues we should define eight elements of digital literacy: cultural, communicative, constructive and creative skillsets, and cognitive, critical, confident and civic mindsets. These broad elements are guidelines for developing more specific definitions. For instance, per the critical element, I believe students should be able to examine how digital media both integrate and isolate, secure and expose, and innovate and perpetuate. They should be able to evaluate which digital resources, tools and practices best suit a purpose, and to filter information streams for useful content.

Instead of specifying apps and button clicks, these definitions establish skill sets and ethics. That’s because as digital media continue to evolve so quickly, our frameworks must be flexible enough to survive a while.

Finally, we all—parents, educators and Internet companies—need to join in this work and take it seriously. We needn’t all be experts in the technologies, for much of what is needed is common sense, critical thinking and ethics. But digital life is fundamentally different, too. The ease with which information copies and circulates is different. The abilities to simulate and automate are different. The psychology of how people relate online is often different. Young people may intuit how to manipulate technologies, but they rarely intuit the deep significance of those differences. To do so, they need practice and our guidance. They also need our vigilance, until they develop their own.

Well into the future, digitally literate people will continue to determine whether new technologies disrupt our world or improve it. Let’s prepare our young people with the skills to be those decision-makers—and with the dispositions to choose wisely for the common good.

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