Just in Time Technology


 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 11|No 9|June|2002

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The Medium is
Not the Literacy

by Jamie McKenzie
(about author)

© 2002, Jamie McKenzie
all rights reserved.

The term “digital literacy” is often invoked by technology cheerleaders and promoters as part of their “rapid change” mantra. Things are moving so fast, the argument goes, that we need 21st -century skills and digital classrooms, digital schools and digital frames of mind.

They would have us believe that what we did last year, the year before and during the 90s, is now outmoded. Time for a literacy upgrade! The new model. Literacy Version 2.0.

This pressure to adopt a digital lifestyle, a digital pedagogy and a digital mental set is often a thinly disguised marketing effort aimed at increasing sales of digital products and services at a time when telecommunications companies have overbuilt the bandwidth and are frustrated by low consumer demand. When value is lacking, they can always try to sell life style, fashion and trend.

One network vendor at NECC 2002 was overheard pushing “rich media” – read “fat files” demanding big bandwidth and robust networking equipment. Most school people would rather think of rich media in terms of rich and reliable content.

Now that the so-called New Economy and its dot.com revolution have proven to be more speculation than reality, we turn to a so-called New Literacy. It pays to remember the fate of computer literacy.

I. What is Literacy?

There are more than a dozen literacies. Each refers to the challenge of wringing meaning and understanding from a type or source of information. We apply the term information literacies to subcategories of information:

  • artistic literacy
  • media literacy
  • ethical literacy
  • visual literacy
  • numerical literacy
  • text literacy
  • social literacy
  • cultural literacy

We employ text literacy for understanding words and paragraphs in print whether appearing upon sheets of paper, upon computer screens or upon the walls of ancient temples. We utilize numerical literacy for interpreting data collected on paper, in spreadsheets, on an abacus, or in online databases. The focus of literacy is on understanding and interpreting various types of information. The tool on which a collection resides is secondary and incidental - unless one is intent on moving products. The tool becomes primary. Then we then witness classic cart before horse.

It trivializes the important concept of literacy to link the term to the driving and manipulation of equipment and formats. We should not suffer automobile literacy, bicycle literacy, paper literacy, analog literacy, computer literacy, digital literacy or fools.

2. Canvas Literacy?

At the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum, we can view a Winslow Homer oil painting of a fisherman threatened by an approaching storm – “Swell of the Ocean.” Is that canvas literacy? Hardly.

We can enjoy another version of the same painting printed out on paper and framed to hang in our home or classroom. Is that experience paper literacy? Hardly.

We can also view a scanned (digitized) version of this painting online at http://www.thinker.org. When we explore the metaphorical possibilities of this painting, we are employing visual literacy skills. For literacy (understanding) purposes, it does not matter much whether the painting is viewed digitally or as oil and canvas.

3. Analog Literacy?

The same could be said for media literacy. We read a news story about the FBI on a newspaper delivered to our front door in the morning. Maybe we check out the same story online at the New York Times web site. We follow up by watching news coverage on CNN live (analog), and then we might turn to CNN.COM to read text and view digitized video coverage.

We combine text, visual, and media literacies as we try to make sense of this news story. We hope to understand how the words and images combine to represent reality, but we also apply critical thinking skills to consider the extent to which coverage of this story has been sensationalized. Does the New York Times coverage bring us closer to the truth than the CNN coverage? Does it matter whether it appeared online, on paper or via satellite transmission?

Is the task of understanding news coverage substantially different just because the story appeared in digital format? Hardly.

The skills we apply when attempting to make sense of our worlds (information literacy ) include analysis, interpretation, inference and synthesis. These have been a challenge and a struggle since the times of Socrates. They are not new skills.

The packaging and the digital spin are the main new ingredients.

4. Churn vs. Real Change

Proponents of new century skill lists pay little heed to the research on change in schools or any other organization. While we have little evidence that confrontation or criticism works as a keen motivator, the message that comes across with these models is a rejection of most teachers’ stance, style and practices.

Best practice is usually portrayed as some intensely wired learning experience with students passionately engaged in some digital environment. Unfortunately, this kind of digital utopia rarely matches its press releases, as we see well documented in book reviews published in this month’s FNO.

We stand a better chance of recruiting the enthusiastic participation of traditional teachers if we show respect for their classical skills and strengths. When we set up false dichotomies (traditional=bad and constructivist=good), we run the risk of alienating the folks we need to join us.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.
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