A Digital Literacy for Everyone: S. Craig Watkins, Douglas Rushkoff, John Jones and Barbara Fister on Improving Access and Understanding


7.6.11 | Participation and literacy gaps have accompanied the explosion of social media and digital devices, sparking critics—most of whom believe profoundly in the power of these tools—to call for more awareness and education in what it means to filter so much of our lives through this technology.

In an interview with Tony Cox of NPR’s “Tell Me More,” S. Craig Watkins, author of “The Young and the Digital,” sees less of a “digital divide” in terms of use of technology (as minorities embrace mobile technologies and Twitter at a higher rate that whites, for example) and more in the type of participation with those technologies:

There is a community of young people who use technology not only, right, to sort of consume content, but also to create content, to produce content, to become kind of manufacturers and producers of their own kind of information landscape.

And those require very different kinds of skills. What we call very different kinds of new media literacies. And what we don’t quite know is to what degree are those literacies distributed evenly across race and ethnicity and across class.

In a Q&A at Mashable, Douglas Rushkoff, author of “Program or Be Programmed,” articulates his concern with the ignorance of most social media users toward their roles as products in a capitalist space:

I think when we walk into a store in the real world, most of us are aware that the rent is being paid by a person or company that wants to sell us goods. I think we have awareness (I could be overestimating us here, but I really don’t think I am) that when we cross the threshold from the street into the store, that we have moved from a public place into a private place. We understand that the job of the person working in the Gap is to sell us clothes.

But we don’t apply this same very basic logic to online spaces. The easiest way to figure out who the customer is in an online space is to figure out who is paying for the thing. Usually, the people paying are the customers. So on Facebook, the people paying are marketers. That makes them the customers. And it means we are the product being delivered to those customers.

Rushkoff, like Watkins, ultimately calls for a more active approach to digital literacy (also discussed here). Ideally, everyone would have a basic knowledge of digital programming:

But if people can’t learn programming, I just want them to know what it is. That it exists. I want people to be able to read the programs and online environments in which they spend so much time. I want people to be able to ask themselves, “What does this website want me to do? Who owns it? What is it for?” [It’s] really simple stuff like that, which doesn’t occur to people if they think of the net as a natural space. It’s not. It is a created space.

Part of this new digital literacy, according to several scholars referenced by John Jones in this post at DMLcentral, is understanding that the personalization that comes with new media—and especially more advanced search technology (part of their business functions, Rushkoff would remind us)—can distort knowledge, making it seem that your facts are different from my facts.

It has never been more important for students to be “search-literate,” writes Jones, who teaches in the Emerging Media and Communication program at the University of Texas at Dallas. “They need to know how the tools they use affect the information they see, as well as how to circumvent the effects of those tools when necessary.”

Finally, from a practical perspective, Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, ruminates that, while the literacy terminology academics employ is useful, it can make students’ engagement with cultural criticism and research appear to be a very dull process. Writing at Library Journal, Fister brings up the example of the Information Literacy Competency Standards developed by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) in 2000, which she and others found “lacking in imagination” since they had “no reference to creativity or to original thought.”

Digital literacy—whether it is put in the terms of media literacy, programming literacy, search literacy, or metaliteracy (a term Fister likes)—needs to be articulated as something dynamic, something fun: “Whatever we call it, we need to think about it as a creative process, a critical process, a social process that involves any number of technologies and skills but is much more than any of them.”

Plus: While looking for other discussions, I came across a summer program that exemplifies the issues of access and participation. The Seattle Digital Literacy Initiative recently hosted an inaugural Summer Institute on the University of Washington’s campus to teach teens media production and journalism skills. Instructors included journalists from the Common Language Project and Seattle-area media makers and educators.

“Students from various backgrounds are using their creative eye to tell stories about themselves and their peers in non-conventional ways,” writes Jonathan Cunningham. “Some could probably teach the professional journos a thing or two in the process as everyone is learning from one another.”

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