Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Case For Expanding Digital Literacy In Upper Elementary

On my wish list for next year I hope to get the whole 4th grade onto a blogging platform, and I'm also hoping that the school will allow fewer restrictions on their email accounts. Currently 4th graders are allowed only to email teachers and students.  I think there are many benefits to open this up if it's done mindfully, so I wrote this paper to try and encourage a shift in thinking. The following was informed by Net Smart by Howard Rheingold which in turn references The Atlantic article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" to make its case. Here it is:

What Is Digital Literacy?

I’ll start with the Wikipedia definition:

Digital literacy is the ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and create information using a range of digital technologies.

- Wikipedia

When we teach digital literacy, we often pay attention to the “navigation” and “evaluation” portion of this definition. We teach online research, evaluation of web sites, and proper citation of digital sources. There’s a portion of this definition though that I’d argue we don’t teach thoroughly enough: the “creation” portion.

But let’s back up for a second.

When we think of traditional literacy, we think of making sense of ideas often through reading, but also through writing, observing, designing, and inferring. Literacy implies a fuller understanding and a rounder knowledge of a specified area.

To this end the Wikipedia definition of digital literacy is necessary, but it is not sufficient.
But before we flesh out a better definition of digital literacy, I think it’s important to answer the question, “Why?” Why teach it at all?

I know that seems a little backwards, but if we can answer that question it might inform us on the skills and perhaps even the tools that need to be taught, and ultimately help us with not only a more robust definition, but a path forward.

Answering the Question “Why?”

As teachers in 2014 we’re living in a bit of a paradox- where the people who didn’t grow up with this type of media must teach the ones who are growing up with it. Because children are growing up with it, the media is often easier to use and more intuitive to them than their teachers. So why is teaching digital natives about a technology that comes intuitive to them so important? There are a few important reasons:

1) Our Attention is Becoming Shorter and More Fragmented.

Knowing when, and when not to multi-task is a key part of digital literacy. There are laws in many places to help us with this when it comes to driving and texting at the same time. Similarly, A 2010 study showed that 1 in 6 adults have bumped into something while talking or texting on a mobile phone.

But teaching attention as a skill is important in a wider sense simply because of the nature of literacy on the Internet. Most people in the world recognize that a massive shift is taking place in the way we direct and share our attention. Reading on the Internet is fragmented. Between hyperlinks and multiple tabs, we’re hurting our capacity for sustained attention. We’ve developed “screen-based reading behavior”- scattered and continuous scanning at the expense of depth and concentration. (1)

Yet attention is not widely taught in schools as a skill. It’s only recently being talked about as something we probably should start teaching.

2) There’s a Real Danger In Believing and Propagating All Kinds of Wrong

Attention isn’t enough of course. We also need to be able to use a lens of critical evaluation when we’re looking at such accessible content. You can get fooled into believing all kinds of wrong if you don’t know who to tell the difference between good and bad stuff.

To illustrate this point, I introduce Thabo Mbeki. Mr. Mbeki was president of South Africa from 1999 to 2008. His long-term denial that the HIV virus was linked to AIDS was encouraged and bolstered by casual Internet research. This denial stalled a national treatment program.

In November 2008, The New York Times reported that due to Thabo Mbeki's rejection of scientific consensus on AIDS and his embrace of AIDS denialism, an estimated 365,000 people had perished in South Africa.  A study in African Affairs in 2008 found that Mbeki's government could have prevented the deaths of 343,000 South Africans during his tenure, had it followed the more sensible public health policies then applied in the Western Cape province. (

Most of us couldn’t do that kind of damage if we tried. But Mr. Mbeki is an educated and curious man, and my point is being educated and curious can do a lot of damage in the absence of critical evaluation.
So far the skills that we’ve fleshed out are:
  • Being Attentive
  • Accessing Information,
  • Analyzing and Evaluating Information
All of this can be simply called “critical consumption.” But that’s only part of the story. There’s more to this “Why?” question.

3) There’s a perception of “Internet Dumbening” (download report)

 There’s an idea that the Internet in general and Google in particular is making us stupid. (There were some interesting side effects to this feeling. For many years I heard teachers and professors not even consider Wikipedia to be a valid source of information without understanding how actually a Wikipedia entry was created).

The perception is we’re getting dumber, lazier, and more careless as access to information is getting easier... And therefore it important to focus on Internet literacy...

i) that we can communicate

ii) ... and so that we don’t substitute the Web for personal memory.

That’s the fear. We consume and share content without questioning whether or not it’s accurate. This is true with adults as well as children. We find source material that fits our own narrative and pass it along without questioning if its validity.

Speaking of Socrates, it’s worth noting that he was skeptical of a fairly new media too- reading and writing.(2) And for similar reasons. To a certain extent he was right. The skill of oral tradition was being transplanted by the skills of reading and writing.

So it’s kind of normal that we suspect that the Internet is making us dumber. And it’s kind of normal to notice that attention plays a big part in this. Many long-term teachers (including myself) have noticed a shift in attention spans over the decades. It’s not necessarily our brain being “rewired.” It’s that we are undertrained in the skill of mindful attention when it comes to using the new medias that we’ve been exposed to the past two decades.

But if we believe attention, writing, communication, and critical thinking is degraded even in part by using digital tools, then it is our responsibility to actively teach these tools so that they have minimal affect on attention, writing, communication, and critical thinking.

4) Both good and bad habits are hard to break.

We need to develop the understandings and ramifications of what it means to express ourselves online.

It’s hard to understate this- the idea that stuff we produce online can follow us around for a long, long time.

This is why when we think digital literacy we include concepts like digital footprints and identity. This reflects the overlap between digital literacy and digital citizenship, much in the same way there is an overlap between traditional literacy and citizenship.
The future of digital culture depends on how well we learn to use the media that have infiltrated, amplified, distracted, enriched, and complicated our lives. How you use a search engine, stream video, or update your Facebook status matters to you and everyone, because, as Howard Rheingold wrote, the ways people use new media in the first years of an emerging communication regime can influence the way those media end up being used and misused for decades to come. (3)

But I think more to the point for teachers and students is this: The ways that new people use media in the first years of their lives in any communication regime will influence the way they use and misuse that media for decades to come.

This point is critical. If we decide that middle school is the appropriate age to really dive deep into digital literacy skills, then we’re starting too late. The habits have already formed in online participation, communication and collaboration.
We’re missing a golden opportunity in upper elementary. We can provide safe environment where they can make mistakes and learn from them.
Regardless of if our students are learning digital literacy on their own or learning them in a school, then they’re forming habits that will stay with them for a long time.
It is important then that we view students not just as collectors of content or that we teach only in terms of academic research. As a school and individual classrooms we need to be able to narrow the gap between their online usage at home and school. If they have strong home support and it’s monitored closely at an early age then great. But we have a responsibility to teach what communication, participation and collaboration looks like in a safe environment where they are allowed to make, learn from, and grow from their mistakes.

Expanding The Definition of Digital Literacy

If we keep all of that in mind, then we can say using social media intelligently, humanely, and above all mindfully is a goal for each and every one of us.
And now we can expand our definition of digital literacy beyond the ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and create information using a range of digital technologies. Because that’s not the whole story. We also need to teach attention, participation, and collaboration in authentic contexts.

Which brings me to a larger point. Digital literacy isn’t just about knowing what to put online and what not to put online. It isn’t just about being able to effectively communicate either.

“Today’s digital literacies can make the difference between being empowered or manipulated. But it goes beyond personal empowerment: if we combine our individual efforts wisely, enough of the right know-how could add up to a more thoughtful society as well as enhance those individuals who master digital network skills.” (4)

When we add up all this junk that I’ve been talking about for the last several pages and shove them under the umbrella of digital literacy, we see that they match pretty closely to the skills that we’ve committed to teach vertically throughout the elementary. By the end of fifth grade, we hope that every student is an exemplary self-manager, team member, communicator, thinker, researcher, and a good neighbor. Those are pretty great skills we should be fostering and teaching when we think of digital literacy as well.

The Argument For Authenticity

There’s a danger if we say that we’re teaching the skills and not the tools, and leave it at that. It’s a danger because it implies that we can separate the two. But we can’t. Bill Ferriter of The Tempered Radical created this image that has been popping up on my twitter PLN for a year now:

I like this, but it isn’t quite right. The problem with this is that it implies that you can teach the skill wholly without the tools. But if that were the case we wouldn’t need to teach digital literacy at all. Teaching classroom behaviors would be enough and they would carry over naturally into the online world.

But just as our reading habits are more fragmented because of the nature of online tools, so are our personalities. Anonymity, alias, and impersonal communication all lend themselves to us having multiple identities, temperaments, and habits. We can develop discreet habits for email, Facebook, SMS, twitter,, etc. because each tool both constrains and liberates our personality in distinct and simultaneous ways.

Which is why it’s important to teach the tools and the skills. We need to teach emailing and blogging, forums and social networks using platforms that are or closely resemble the real stuff, because the tool and the learning outcomes are intertwined. They influence each other.

Changing the Tools Available for Upper Elementary

That was a long way to finally say I’d like to see the following changes in upper elementary:
- Blogging and commenting should be actively taught, and the students should have access to a common blogging platform that follows them as they graduate year to year. (Google Sites is not a blogging platform).

- Email accounts should be opened up so that we can teach and encourage email behavior. The accounts are open, but not private- like a student’s cubby.
- Online forums like Edmodo should be used to create secure online spaces of collaboration and sharing.

Why blogging is important:
Blogging is about developing an individual passion through writing. It’s about writing for a potentially large audience. And it’s about inviting discussion based on a passion. If blogging is done right, then the skills that are developed are the same skills we defined under digital literacy. If it’s done right, then privacy is protected even when blogs reach a large audience. And if they are done at the right time, they are powerful agents of positive change.

One of the key components with a blogging platform is that it gives the author an authentic and wider audience than is possible with writing in a notebook or using ISP’s Google Sites. There are huge advantages to this, including:

- Giving the author purpose.

- Making the author more conscientious with their language.

- Giving them a chance to share their passion with like-minded individuals
Also, you can’t invite or teach Internet collaboration when no one is looking at your stuff.

Besides this, there are AMAZING examples of student blogs being positive agents of change. This would have been impossible if the blogs weren’t open beyond a school community.

If we are afraid of what students will write online, then we are teaching it wrong. We should be their biggest advocates to pursue their passions, and if we do that in a deliberate, thoughtful way, then we can teach our students to be deliberate and thoughtful.

Here are a couple of rubrics I wrote to get kids to notice the important aspects of blogs and comments. We use these two rubrics in conjunction with each other in order to understand that blogs and comments are intertwined.
Blog Rubric

Comment Rubric

Why opening email to the outside is important:

I’m repeating myself here, but I believe it’s worth saying twice:

If we are afraid of what students will write online, then we are teaching it wrong.

I think this is applicable when it comes to the student email accounts.

As it stands now, the kids that are interested in emailing have their ISP accounts and they have their personal accounts. There’s a walled garden that doesn’t allow them any access to the outside world, and that forces those that are interested to create email accounts on their own. I think this reinforces two ideas that we probably don’t want to be reinforcing in school:

1) You are not free to make mistakes using the school’s email.

Yet one of our fundamental tenants in teaching and learning is that mistakes are okay. They are okay because we’ve created a monitored, nurturing environment that allows kids to fall down.

2) You are free to make mistakes on your own, with no guidance or supervision.

Because of the nature of our school, our student population has friends and family scattered throughout the world. An email account is a natural tool at this age to keep in touch with friends and family outside of ISP. I know this because at least half of my class has a personal email account. They want to be able to communicate to people outside the walled garden. We have a responsibility then to facilitate and teach this type of written communication. We teach other types of writing, but the writing they probably use the most outside of school is the writing that we aren’t properly teaching.

If we reverse this analogy from a walled garden to something that... is the opposite, it would fit the more natural and important lesson that what we produce online is incredibly public, emails included. Instead of a walled garden, we could switch the analogy to school cubbies- private but open spaces.

Teachers (and parents) would have access, but the space will be respected. Teachers could put their class emails on their school laptops and they’d be notified when any student sends or receives an email.

With in-house professional development, some parent education, no additional cost, and minimal realignment to the tools we use, all upper elementary teachers could support an open, robust, common vision of digital literacy that would better prepare students for middle school and help them form better habits for life.

(1) Net Smart by Howard Rheingold p. 149-150
(2) Net Smart by Howard Rheingold p. 174-175
(3) Net Smart by Howard Rheingold  p. 11
(4) Net Smart by Howard Rheingold  p. 18

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