Learning, Innovation & Tech

Bombs & Breakthroughs

New Literacies? Why?

CJ Westerberg, February 16, 2012 11:43 AM


(Editor's Note: I had the chance to meet and chat with Donna Murdoch after coming across her work through various social media relating to education and technology.  Our conversations covered a broad range within these topics - and thought the post below encapsulated one of them - while serving as the perfect illustration how tech can enhance opportunities to connect with people sharing similar interests, expertise, or challenges. - C.J. Westerberg)
New Literacies?  Why?

by Donna Murdoch

"Digital literacy" is now necessary for schools and individuals who want to play an active role in the new knowledge society.

Clarity about what it means to be digitally literate would help advance the dialog taking place at all levels of the education system, however we are not there yet.  The definition is a moving target, as new issues and answers occur so frequently.  Once the concept of what it means to be literate in the 21st century has been resolved, then the path toward new pedagogies and ways of working should become clear.  Will that continue to be the case?  Possibly.  

An Upcoming Digital Divide among Educators?

" . . . relevancy is not an option."

The only thing we can do as educators is to keep up on a constant basis, usually through our Personal Learning Networks  (the walls we surround ourselves with during the day are not enough.)  Twitter, Google Plus, Classroom 2.0, and various other communities have become
a wealth of information for self-directed educators who realize that relevancy is not an option.  It is a necessity and teachers flock to #edchat.  Thought leaders abound.

New Ways of Knowing

We now assign the term "literacy" to those characteristics that would have traditionally fallen into the silo of being educated.  These literacies, with the emergence of new domains such
as computer literacy, social media literacy, and visual literacy, are now common terms.
Literacy can be a human construct - it means different things and involves different skills depending upon culture, time period, and situation.   It has traditionally meant the ability to
read and write, but then what do we think of societies with oral traditions and records?  In general, we respect them because we understand the context in which they were written. 
But we are no longer living in that era.
This has led to the compartmentalization of different forms of literacy such as computer
literacy, visual literacy, and media literacy, all which serves to demonstrate how, for example, an extremely literate person using a traditional lens could be "illiterate" when it comes to communicating with the aid of technology.

Difficulties in Defining Literacies

Perhaps becoming literate can be thought of as acquiring the skills to be able to participate in the discourse of a particular domain, such as old media and new media, whereas becoming educated is to discuss and synthesize the knowledge that has been gained across domains.  For example, a news journalist may be literate in the laws of reporting, yet lack the ability to translate those skills to the demands of news on the Internet.  Another example is a visual artist ill-equipped to participate in the digital world.

Literacies change as societal needs and domains of knowledge change.  Limiting the sub-literacies that make up the more general view of literacy limits the ability of individuals
to access knowledge within a given domain.  

We cannot limit students.

We hear over and over again that we don't know the jobs that will exist ten years from now -
we do not know what we are preparing our students for.  We can only give them the skills
and tools they need to make those necessary cross-domain connections.  Perhaps we call
this creativity.  Perhaps we can call this thinking out of the box.  Regardless of what we call these skills, they seem the most likely way to ensure student success and eliminate the possibility that they will train now for something that will be outdated within years.  They have
to learn to adapt.  They have to learn how to keep learning - to be self directed learners throughout the rest of their lives in order to maintain relevancy.

The next illiterate generation?  The reason may surprise.

The need to be educated involves being able to leverage technological tools across domains
in order to make connections, not only for our student's future, but for right now.  Education
in the 21st century is about using knowledge and making connections to create educated people in a way that is relevant to today's society. To be literate is a relative concept
depending both upon the domain and the relevance of that domain to contemporary life.
People who do not embrace digital technology will miss out on a large chunk of what it means to be literate in the 21st century. The sub-literacies they lack, involving the ability to connect and understand the world mediated by digital devices, will serve as barriers to communication and expression. Technology introduces new ways for humans to communicate and create, introduces new sub-literacies that contribute to a wider literacy construct and, as a result, redefines what is meant by an "educated" person in the 21st century.

Is it possible that in the 21st century we could be faced with a literacy problem despite over 99% of people in modern society being able to read and write?  

I believe it is.


Donna Murdoch is the Associate Director of Virtual Instruction at Temple University. With a Masters degree in computers, communication, technology and education from Columbia University Teachers College, Murdoch is currently a doctoral student there in the Adult Learning (AEGIS) program.

Related posts The Daily Riff:

Digital Natives: Another Myth?  Digital Native Myth Buster
by Tom Whitby

Ask a Student - How Does Your Teacher Learn? - by Will Richardson

We're All Frogs Boiling in Water - by Mark Suster

Ending the Dinosaur Era - Fred Wilson and Carlota Perez   

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