You Say We Need a Revolution: The New Digital Literacy Consensus


7.7.10 | Achieving a digitally literate populus will take more than cheering on innovative teachers that make the effort to bring emerging technologies into the classroom. A consensus is emerging that we need a systematic “revolution” in the way we deliver information and structure education.


Writing for the New America Foundation’s Media Policy blog, Colin Rhinesmith, community media and technology manager for Cambridge Community Television in Cambridge, Mass., has taken inspiration from a recent talk by danah boyd at the Gov 2.0 Expo.

Arguing that “transparency is not enough,” boyd makes the case that “information is power, but interpretation is more powerful.” Giving people access to information (or, in the case of our educational system, passively standing by as people absorb more and more information) does not by itself empower them.

For Rhinesmith, this rather straightforward idea is transforming the way he thinks about public-access media. Instead of just broadcasting government meetings, for example, public access stations should function more as community media and technology centers, where they are able to provide “digital and media literacy training” to enable viewers to understand what they are watching and the “information and communication infrastructure” so that the viewers can act on this new understanding.

Rhinesmith sees these enhanced roles as especially critical in light of the new research by Eszter Hargittai (cited by boyd in her talk) that suggests that while the information is becoming more widely available, information literacy is not.

The same ideas and realities are causing others to think even bigger—and call for a revolution in teaching.

Esther Wojcicki, Creative Commons board chair, and Michael Levine, executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, have a written a stirring and detailed Independence Day manifesto at the Huffington Post asserting that integrating digital media into the classroom will not only improve digital literacy but is the key to improving traditional literacy as well, especially reading skills:

Educational video games, simulations, modeling tools, handheld devices, and media production tools can allow students to see how complex language and other symbol systems attach to the world. Digital media has the potential to increase the “book” vocabulary, and the concepts attached to such words, for children whose families are unable to do so.

In the classroom, digital media also have other major advantages. These media teach students to master the production of knowledge, not just the consumption of knowledge. Kids learn to create videos, write blogs, collaborate online; the also learn to play video games, do digital storytelling, fan fiction, music, graphic art, anime and even more.

Wojcicki and Levine ultimately provide six concrete recommendations:

• Establish a Digital Teacher Corps
• Provide incentives for schools of education to update curriculum
• Design alternative assessments and include project-based learning in standards
• Support after-school programs and create a “Digital Hangout for Kids” in every community
• Establish Model Digital Schools in every state
• Modernize public broadcasting

Also writing at the Huffington Post, Morgan Arenson, a program officer for digital media and learning initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, makes many similar points, but he spends more time considering who should we look to to make these changes:

First, this change could be top-down, an effect of administrators and policy makers looking for efficiencies due to economic and political pressure. This approach leads to a greater proliferation of online courses, which are an obvious place to start saving money and which offer greater flexibility for students to take more courses at lower costs to districts. It also leads to greater overall investment in technology, primarily in ways that replicate what already happens in classrooms, like making textbooks digital and moving science labs into virtual worlds. In some states, testing has already gone online.

Second, this change could be bottom-up, driven by teachers or even students. Introducing digital media in the classroom gives teachers a chance to use the skills and excitement students have for digital media, adapting ways that young people use technology to learn already, like games, social networks, and interest-driven learning communities. Because this approach draws on informal learning practices, it requires significant rethinking of how to measure outcomes—work that has been a priority for some reformers already—but also raises questions about how to structure classrooms and schools. There is more work to do to figure out how this model works best, particularly around pedagogy and assessment. But new technologies that change how students experience learning offer some tantalizing possibilities and are far more likely to produce the kinds of graduates who will be prepared for college and the workplace.

Given these two options, which approach is better?

The answer must be both.

All of these ideas and approaches require more flexibility and informality than most media or educational bureaucracies are used to embracing. But the thinkers who are a part of this new consensus believe that the digital world moves at a different pace and requires individuals and institutions to revisit and revise even their most basic assumptions about how we learn and how we become active citizens in our communities.

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