Digital Literacy: What We Must Teach

Dec 16th, 2014 | By | Category: BLTN Teachers, Fall 2014

lynch headshotby Eloise Lynch
AP Language and Composition, and American Literature
George Rogers Clark High School, Winchester, Kentucky
BLSE Summers 2013, 2014, funded by the C. E. and S. Foundation

The tension between what we must teach (what is core and necessarily tested and sometimes what our districts demand, pink slip in hand) and what we must teach (what we undeniably know is important to the social and emotional development and preparation of young people, though it may not yet be fully appreciated by wider school communities) is an appropriate entry point to the topic of digital literacy. Teaching digital literacy in the English classroom offers a resolution to this tension. Helping students develop digital literacy is not an additional, formidable task tethered to the English teacher, but a useful, engaging means to access and address core ELA content and skills and foster 21st Century skills.

The texts we studied this semester framed their discussions of digital literacy with a study not of technological advancement but of cultural shift. In his text Confronting the Challengers of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, Jenkins documents the rise of the “participatory culture,” one “with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices” (3). His new understanding of literacy is one that “involves the ability to both read and write across all available modes of expression” (48). In Convergence Culture, Jenkins maps and foretells the impact of converging technological and human spheres, representing “a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content” (3). dana boyd describes this brave new world as a distinct “era defined by easy access to information and mediated communication” (It’s Complicated 211). Howard Rheingold notes that “sociologists are documenting a shift from group-centric societies (in which most of one’s friends are likely to know each other) to network-centric societies (in which most of one’s network contacts don’t know each other” (Rheingold 193).

A cultural shift is at work, as evidenced in the groaning going on in faculty lounges and Department meetings. They want to have their phones out every minute! This never used to be a problem. I don’t think it’s fair that they expect me to use iPads; I’ve been teaching for thirty years. I think I can teach The Odyssey without a piece of technology that can’t decide if it’s a glorified cell phone or a crappy computer. I don’t get it—you’re going to talk to your friend in the hallway in five minutes. Why do you have to text them every second? A girl came into class the other day upset because she had lost twitter followers. It’s ridiculous. Sometimes I want to rip those earbuds out and throw them out the window.

Technology use is driving a cultural shift, and this shifting ground leaves many teachers feeling far from sure-footed. We do have the means and the obligation to find our footing in this new and unfamiliar landscape. Our students inhabit a very different world from the world we navigated at their age, and the demands of this new world must be meaningfully addressed in schools. Schools are responsible for preparing students to successfully navigate through society, and their society demands digital literacy.

Digital literacy is the means by which our students can access and gain fluency in the core skills we already teach: comprehension, synthesis, rhetoric, and argument. Aggregating website feeds and blogging may seem foreign to the English teacher, but with time, a willingness to learn, and courage, we pen and paper types will come to recognize these new digital territories as new manifestations of reading and writing. With digital territories and tools, we can help our students learn more, learn better, and learn with greater enjoyment. If Rheingold, boyd, and Jenkins are correct, digital literacy equips our students for survival, strongly engages students in class work, empowers students to think and act independently, thoughtfully, and confidently, and helps students develop ways to solve the problems that plague their lives and the lives of others, all in the context of class content and skills. Digital literacy, then, addresses the larger goal of schools to prepare all students as much as possible for successful, rich lives in the wider world.

Join-In: Interactive Mini-Essays and Lesson Plans drawn from Writing, Technologies, and Digital Cultures

 Texts cited in this article

Sites DOT MiddleburyThe Middlebury site network.