Changing literacy challenges: literacy and digital literacy are the same

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Teaching is always challenging, but never more so than today, when we have to balance the values of the past with the methods of the future. For the first time in five centuries, print is no longer the primary means students use to learn about the world – information technology, in its many forms from movie to podcast, has replaced it.

Digital Literacy in the Classroom
Include digital literacy in your classroom

Our educational system has not had time to fully adapt to that tremendous change. There are so many questions we need to think about:

What does literacy mean today?

Our goal has always been to teach students to be literate. In the past, literacy included the ability to:

In other words, being literate has meant being capable of thinking and communicating using the tools available at the time. In the 21st century, the meaning of literacy must expand to include the ability to use today's tools:

Does this mean throwing out what we have been teaching?

No. Students still must learn how to read and write; but they now have to learn how to read and how to express what they learn using modern media as well as using traditional forms. Students have to be able to create scripts and storyboards to use to make movies and podcasts; but they still must be able to write essays and stories.

Can modern and traditional media forms be combined?

Absolutely. The rules for writing don't change; an essay or a podcast still needs to establish a thesis, provide supporting evidence, and present a strong conclusion. A story must include plot and characterization whether it is presented as a short story, a movie, or a podcast. But a podcast can include images as well as words; teachers need to be able to teach students how to effectively combine words and images using information technology.

Isn't the software used to make modern media difficult to learn?

There are many types of software – and some, such as the video editing software used by professionals to edit Hollywood movies, is very complex.

But the software packages that can be used in the classroom were designed to be easy to use, and the resulting work is often close to professional quality. For teaching students writing, recording and editing skills, software such as iLife [Apple/Macintosh] and Windows Movie Maker are ideal. Best of all, these are free; iLife comes with every Macintosh computer, and Windows Movie Maker is a free download.

But isn't it difficult to use information technology in the classroom?

There are many challenges using IT in class, but they can be managed. If students have their own laptops [and many do], they already have all the tools they need. Students can work in teams of two or three with one computer. If necessary, much of the work [scriptwriting, storyboard drawing] can be done by hand, saving the computers for only actual recording and editing.

What role does the teacher play?

Teachers are already experts in teaching traditional literacy skills of reading and writing. Using IT means that teachers are still drawing on that expertise, but teaching students to express it with IT. Students are still writing, but the essay now takes the form of a script, and the final product the form of a podcast with images or a short movie.

Many teachers are intimidated by the thought of using IT itself, believing that they have to be experts in the use of the software before they can teach with it. Not so. Almost all of us use Word; how many of us use more than a tiny fraction of Word's capabilities? And despite all the talk of young people being digital natives, the vast majority of them are not; their knowledge, outside of gaming and Smartphone use, is a kilometer wide and a centimeter deep.

A teacher must understand two fundamental things:

  1. How to use and demonstrate the basic capabilities of the software
  2. How to use the Help function of any software

If the teacher doesn't know, the teacher and the student can find out. Today's teachers must be as much facilitators as fountains of knowledge. This will be more than enough information for students to be able to produce good work using the software.

What role does IT support play?

Teachers need help to introduce and use IT in the classroom. First, they need training; administrators must fully support their teachers with IT training if they want teacher to integrate IT in the classroom. Second, IT managers must be available to help teachers solve technical problems. Teachers must not be expected to become hardware experts and be able to solve issues with computers, networks or peripherals.

Literacy Evolves

The definition of literacy has always been evolving. Literacy originally meant the ability to read and write. In the 18th and 19th centuries, literacy included an understanding not only of reading and writing, but of the literature that formed the basis of the society's understanding of the world. In the 20th century, literacy expanded to include media literacy – how to understand and interpret the new media of motion pictures, radio, and television. But use of all these media types were generally restricted to the few who had access to printing presses, radio stations, or television and movie studios.

Today, literacy has become two-way for the first time. Not only can people receive information; they can respond to it and interact with it. A literate person in the 21st century must understand not only how to read, view, and interpret different media, but how to use media as well. The few voices of previous centuries have become a potential cacophony.

Our job as teachers is to ensure that our students are literate: that they can read, view, analyze, write and create using the media forms of our time. Like literacy, our tasks are ever-evolving; and like our predecessors, we will meet the challenge of the changing meaning of literacy.

—Paul Keery
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