Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Define: "Digital literacy"

Vicki Davis wrote a GREAT post yesterday about student's need to learn digital literacy. While the post was thought provoking, the conversation that ensued as a result was even more so. Vicki expressed concern that her MS son came home with a report that included a source that was less than reliable.
When my son brought out his report on 9/11 facts, I was again reminded of how important it is to teach digital literacy.
You see, when he typed 9/11 facts -- he found a conspiracy theory website(s) and came out of it thinking someone had bombed the building.
Yes, he is in seventh grade, and Yes, I've talked so much with him about verifying sources, however, kids so often think if it is "on" Google that it is right.
In fact, Google doesn't verify for veracity but kids often think so
Her concerns as a classroom teacher and a parent are valid--they are many of the same concerns which I have as a parent of digital kids. Many of the comments on Vicki's original conversation came back to "the kids need to learn to learn...we can't continue to as I call it 'spoonfeed' them resources" and this is VERY true when you think about HS and adult learners. I looked at the conversation through an elementary lens and thought about learning as a process--not the PRODUCTS that are being produced in High School.

It is important teach kids digital literacy (how to read and evaluate information online) and digital citizenship (safety, privacy and ethics). I am going to take it one step further here and redefine it the way Alan November did at NECC as INFORMATION LITERACY. We need to TEACH kids how to find, evaluate and judge INFORMATION and we need to weave all places that kids can find this information, both text and digital resources into curriculums across the board from early learning (kindergarten) on. Early on, kids need to start using and using properly, all of the resources available to them in order to ensure that kids obtain the skills that Tom Hoffman and Stephen Downes mentioned in their comments to Vicki's post as well as enable them to "prove authority" as David Warlick suggested.

Stephen Downes comment that kids can be "'not taught' and yet still not be left to 'figure out' things on their own." and with this disagree. We spend a ton of time emphasizing "healthy schools"--monitoring snacks that are served in the cafeteria, encouraging parents to discuss healthy alternatives for birthday treats, creating opportunities for students to participate in active games during recess. It is important to model these healthy choices. I went on to express that I would NEVER leave my kids in a kitchen full of all the food they can eat, with a big screen tv, nintendo, and a shelf of books and expect them to figure out that they will feel best if they eat healthy and read kids would never figure out on their own that chicken with broccoli and book reading is better for them than video games, the Disney Channel washed down with Cheetos and soda with out some modeling and instruction early on. Kids need to be taught, teachers need to model so that kids can apply those skills when relevant. It is true with literacy as well.

I am a former 3rd grade teacher. Third grade was always an exciting year to teach because it is the year kids move from learning to read and start reading to LEARN. I saw how DIFFICULT it was for kids to navigate even written text to gather information. I was one of the few teachers who was teaching the kids how to read to not only read text, but to navigate webpages and compare information from the web with information in books. One example was our study of space. We had information to deliver from trade books copyright 2002, but I also used relevant sites so we could discuss which contained more valid information. We discussed how we drew these conclusions. We looked at sources. So at the same time they were reading non-fiction text to learn, I taught them how to read online information for information and compare, evaluate, judge what was important. I was fascinated by David's recent post about the future of interstellar space travel and the variety of resources that could EASILY be used with elementary students. As a teacher of elementary students I felt the need to continue to be a LEARNER myself so I could teach my kids these essential skills.

Teach, Model, practice, apply...

The process of acquiring digital literacy is quite different from traditional literacy in MANY ways. David, I WHOLEHEARTEDLY agree with you that teachers need to model HOW they find information. But I think there are still many adults who still feel like THEY are adrift without help in this sea of information, THEY never learned how to validate the vast amount of information to which they are exposed. They at least have a wealth of background information from which to draw upon, but could they help students find the resources that the truly need? You can't teach what you don't know...Rather than suggesting it is the teachers who are at fault, can those of us who have this understanding of the information explosion help them to understand the importance of doing so. And if so, what is the best way to go about doing this kind of modeling, what are the important elements?

Tom, mentioned that the basic skills that are being taught today are no different and with this I DO agree. In the ideal world, where kids at the earliest level are taught these searching and evaluating skills...even if the teachers continue model, practice and go to apply the learned skills, the same learned SKILLS that your now retired mother taught in checking sources, I think the DIFFERENCE is in the EASE and AVAILABILITY of information in today's world. When WE (and I use the universal we to describe anyone who was in school prior to commercial internet and google) did reasearch...applied the learned skills or "looked up" information in the microfische...there were "several" sources that needed to be weeded through for validity...not several MILLIONS... At the upper level, kids need to be taught HOW to access credible sources...via data bases, advanced google searches and other good search strategies. If we don't, they will continue to go to the first sources available. I certainly don't want to start the argument of who is doing this...I think there ARE many teachers who integrate these skills into what they do on a daily basis. What I am professing is that this needs to happen for every student, at every level, every day.

The bottom line, we are all seeking the same produce kids that we can release into the world after 12 years or so with the ability to evaluate resources in order to prove authority. We need to continue these conversations in order figure out the best way to give the kids a good background by teaching them the skills they need to build on this foundation in the future.


  1. Great post. This is an issue, something needs to be done about it! We both agree that digital citizenship and digital literacy are vital sets of information for all students.

  2. Kristin,

    I would go one step beyond Alan November's term. I think it's just literacy. I don't think that we need new literacies to teach (digital literacy, information skills, technology literacy, etc.). There's just one literacy, "Those skills required to use information to accomplish goals." When information changes (becoming more networked, digital, overwhelming, participatory, etc.) then the skills change. What it means to be literate changes.

    I agree with Hoffman that much of this is skills we've been teaching for a long time, but much of it was not considered "basic." Most of the kids I graduated from high school with would never ever write another report. It simply wasn't basic to be able to validate. Today, when information is rapidly becoming THE raw material that we all work with, then a comprehensive range of literacy skills that reflect today's information landscape are essential. They are critical for all children.

    If you have to call it something different, I sometimes call it "contemporary literacy," a phrase I got from Janice Friesen.

    Great post, and a great conversation. Thanks for continuing it.

  3. David--
    Thanks for your has really planted some new seeds of thought for me it is not NEW literacy at all it is just the thinking about it that is new. I agree with you that we often ask kids to do "basic" things like report writing, that does not hold much relevance to students in their real world. I like the term contemporary literacy...thinking about information as kids need it in a contemporary world. After books were new for some at one point as well

  4. Anonymous7:57 AM

    Hi Kristin
    From Google I was looking for the term 'digital literacy' and I found your post. It is so true that we have to teach our kids about it. I think in future more resources will be available on line than physically, like library. So kids need to know how to find correct source and judge too. So what about we, like who we start late to learn, or came from a developing country where technology was a just a memory when we study in school. How can we learn now. I am really find so heard to find correct resource from online.