The Appearance of Digital Literacy

The title of a recent Wired article claims that Digital Literacy is the “key to the future” – even if we have no idea what that phrase means.

Here in the overly-large school district we talk a lot about “digital” literacy (with it’s interchangeable companion “digital learning”), although few of those using the phrase can offer a coherent definition for it, and often two people will have very different interpretations.

This particular story is based on discussions among “representatives of the tech industry… and academia” that took place at GitHub, one of the geekier places in Silicon Valley and the web. As you might expect, learning to code is a central tenet in this community, but even that idea is vaguely defined.

But “learning to code” is an exceedingly broad concept, and one which without more specifics risks oversimplifying conversations about what digital literacy really means. And how digital literacy is defined is important. This isn’t just about filling Silicon Valley jobs. It’s about educators, policy makers, and parents understanding how to give the rising generations of digital natives the tools they need to define the future of technology for themselves.

Let’s ignore the lame and outdated “digital natives” reference, and assume that we really do want our students, during their time in K12, to develop programming skills to help them define their “future of technology”. Where does that fit in our current concept of “school”? Or, to channel the thoughts of many students, will this be on the test?

Coding is one of those skills that are also puréed into STEM/STEAM/Maker, more ill-defined instructional concepts that in our schools are almost always welded on as before/after school, lunchtime, or pull-out enrichment activities, but rarely included as part of the “regular” curriculum. They are treated as events, rather than as an environment.

If STEAM is so important – and more than one school reformer has declared it to be vital to our national economic future – why isn’t it part of the core curriculum? Instead of a nice extra activity, great for photo ops, offered to a small segment of students, the ones we know will have no trouble passing the spring standardized tests?

As with the tendency to dump computers and other “high-tech” devices (tablets, “smart” boards, etc.) into classrooms with little or no change in instructional practice1, adding STEM and/or coding activities also provides schools – and district administrators, school board members, and other politicians – with “the appearance of teaching digital literacy without providing the actual substance”.

And without having to decide what in the hell “digital literacy” really means.

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