21 February 2011

Thanks for the Comment and Thoughts on Digital Literacy

digital natives
digital natives
My classmate Matt wrote a thought-provoking comment on my last post about the Frontline program.  Here's what he said:
After reading this I'm wondering what the thesis of your project is. I always figured that you would be focusing on why digital literacy is good, or how it helps people, but this sounds like it's saying digital literacy is bad and makes people less responsible. Of course, in the broad scheme of things you can't really call it "bad" or "good" because there are elements of both, but I guess I'm just wondering what the focus of your study is, or what it is that you want to prove or find out.
I feel like we don't really talk about our individual projects in class at all. I really don't know much about anybody's project except for mine and Julia's of course. I guess that's why we're supposed to be reading everyone's blogs, but it's a lot to keep up with.
I began to type a comment in reply, but I quickly realized that what I wanted to say would not fit in the comment box.  Here's what I wrote:

Thanks for commenting Matt!  I am glad to have your perspective here.  I personally view digital literacy as a good thing in general, but you're absolutely right that the program shows digital literacy in a negative light. 

Digital literacy is essentially a paradigm shift, a fundamental change in the way we get information and communicate that information.  Think about what it means that you can have internet on your phone that you take with you where ever you go--does that change the way you live?  Of course it does!  You have instant access to an entire world of information at any moment.  Think in terms of history for example--you probably memorized dates and facts to pass your history tests.  You were rewarded or punished based on how well you could remember the dates and facts.  And, as you went on with your life, that memorization was the most practical way to understand history.  You wouldn’t always have your history textbook or history teacher to explain things to you, so it is was best for you to memorize. 

Now, let’s say you have an iPhone and you want to know what World War II was all about.  You google “World War II” and browse the Wikipedia article.  You scan for thirty seconds, wonder who the Allies were, and click on the link to another article all about the Allies of World War II.  You scan that article, see that Egypt was part of the Allies after D-Day, and recall current events.  You click the link to Egypt, scroll to the 2011 revolution, and read a summary of that, since you’ve been curious about what is going on over there, anyway.  You also have on that page more than you ever wanted to know about Egypt.  Your entire web surf took about two minutes. 

Let’s observe some of the components of digital literacy present in this little anecdote.  First, it is a change from the past way of doing things.  You didn’t need to memorize anything and you most likely didn’t, you just satisfied your curiosity with instant facts.  You don’t need to memorize the dates and facts as you once did because you can have instant access to them where ever you are.  Another trait from this story is the speed—you only read the articles as long as they interested you.  How many times have you actually read an entire Wikipedia article?  I know I usually don’t—I get the information I wanted and then I’m gone.  Another component of this digital literacy is self-directed learning.  You wanted to learn about WWII, so you did!  You were uncertain about the Allies, so you found out who they are.  You were curious about the situation in Egypt, so you explored it.  You were directing every aspect of this informal education.  Yet another component is the immediacy—it has only been 2011 for two months as I write this, but the information is already available on Wikipedia.  If you wait for a book to be published about the 2011 Egypt revolution, you’ll wait at least a year.  The final component of digital literacy from this example I want to note is the wealth of available information.  You really only wanted to know about the 2011 revolution, but you could read about Egypt’s history, geography, economy, demographics, and culture on the same page.  Have you ever come to the end of the internet?  It doesn’t actually happen.  There’s always more you can browse.  

(You mentioned this idea, Matt, at the end of your comment—“it’s a lot to keep up with.”  That is the reality of the internet!  I recall reading [we’re trusting my memory on this one] that we generate as much data in a few hours today as was generated in the last 2,000 years of human existence.  This outdated article has some interesting statistics—images comprise the largest component of the digital universe, the number of images captured in 2006 exceeded 150 billion worldwide, email inboxes grew from 253 million in 1998 to nearly 1.6 billion in 2006, and there were 1.1 billion internet users in 2006.  Those 1.1 billion users are both consuming and generating content, and that makes a lot of content!)

So, is digital literacy good or bad?  Is it good to have immediate access to the world of digital information?  Is it good that we have access to more information than we could ever process ourselves?  Is the ease of connection, the ease of linking, the often free-ness of all things online a good or bad thing?  Is increasing informality a good idea?  Is self-directed learning the best way to learn?  Is it a better way to learn? 

I think you could argue either way on any of these questions.  My religious leaders have drawn the line between good uses of technology (satellite transmission that broadcasts conference, collaboration of family history work, missionary work, resources for members, even social media) and improper ones (pornography, overuse, addiction to gaming and so forth).  That leaves a gray area that may be beneficial or detrimental for our lives, depending on how we use it. 

What I liked about the program was that it provided great indicators of digital literacy—multi-tasking is certainly one, and internet games like World of Warcraft have become prolific when we speak of the digital realm.  In my mind, my research is exploring the connection between the Tibetan goal of cultural preservation and the increasing digital literacy present worldwide, including the Tibetan community in Dharamsala.  In many ways I am a believer in digital literacy—I think many components of the paradigm shift are very good for education, communication, and life . . .

Yet, just as I typed that, I looked out the window and saw a breathtakingly beautiful blue sky with enormous cumulus clouds (definitely just googled that word to make sure I had the right cloud name) and regretted that I am sitting at my desk typing when I could be outside in all that beauty.

I have a lot more to say on the topic (fortunately, I’ll be writing my honors thesis on it soon enough), but for now I am going to stop and go outside. 

Thanks for commenting, Matt!

Photo credit Cristóbal Cobo Romaní

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