Literacy x 3: Traditional, Media, and Digital Literacies for Today's Learner
Students today learn to read three times over. In addition to print, they contend with mass and digital media. All these literacies require students to understand, evaluate, critically assess, and synthesize information, among numerous other acts of engagement performed when "reading."
Wide and easy access to information (or growing up a technology native) does not automatically make students skillful information handlers, critical thinkers, or clear communicators. How can educators, who themselves must keep up with ever-shifting media, effectively introduce a new kind of literacy that truly prepares students to be full participants in our digital culture?
Literacy's New Definitions
A look at evolving literacy definitions can help focus educators' tasks. First, researcher Renee Hobbes uses "digital and media literacy" to encompass:
- The full range of cognitive, emotional, and social competencies that includes the use of texts, tools, and technologies
- The skills of critical thinking and analysis
- The practice of message composition and creativity
- The ability to engage in reflection and ethical thinking
- Active participation through teamwork and collaboration
Two more important pieces of the definition come from Penn State University librarian Jennifer Jarson and UCLA researchers Douglas Kellner and Jeff Share.
Information literacy, writes Jarson, is a "set of integrated abilities" that include discovery, understanding, use, creation, and ethical participation in communities of learning." Moreover, Kellner and Share write that literacies themselves "evolve and shift in response to social and cultural change."
21st-century learners can't settle for surface-level reading skills for the information they encounter, which is far more complex than just words on their computers. Technology has created completely new, real, and consequential interactions—think of fake news, cyberbullying, online dating, open-source encyclopedias, crowdsourcing, cryptocurrency, and millionaire YouTube stars. The demands (and possibilities) of our digital information age require students to become agile masters of technology, not just passive recipients.
Democratization of the Internet and a New Genre of Education
In the last decade, the internet has empowered individuals like never before. You can see a new kind of individual agency in Uber and Lyft, Airbnb, homeschools, crowdsourcing, and online petitions—demonstrating how digital media lets individuals freelance, teach, raise money, and otherwise exert influence. Moreover, easy and often free access to tools once reserved for professionals now allows novices to edit photography, distribute videos and podcasts, publish media, or sell goods.
This democratization has had one particularly profound effect on how we encounter digital media: genres and their credibility are no longer easy to identify.
Online, it's not always easy to tell personal writing from journalism, a school website from a marketing agency, or an independent lab from a pharmaceutical. Put simply, we don't always know what we're looking at online, so it's even harder to know how to use it well.
Today's media and digital literacy must involve a new kind of genre education. Here are just a few parts of every website students must use to discern credibility of content:
- Website name
- Website suffix (.edu, .com, .org, .gov, etc.)
- Company, corporation, or institution name
- Political, economic, religious, or special interest affiliation
- Author identity and credentials
- Accuracy of information
- Time to publication (immediate, after review, etc.)
- Level of review (blind review, peer review, editorial review, etc.)
- Advertising, affiliate links, sponsored content, sponsored links
- Level of access and edit-ability
- Amount of linked research (and the credibility of those websites)
- Amount of original content
Digital rhetoric researcher Carolyn Miller tells us that new media genres appear constantly, as technology provides endlessly "new conditions of possibility." Marie-Laure Ryan even argues that digital media has created completely new kinds of genres (the Mom Blog, the satirical Twitter account, the message board post). Consequently, students must learn to "read" ever more digital genres to determine credibility before they even read the actual contents.
Miller also tells us that genres are slippery, changing, and sometimes hard to distinguish from their medium. Teaching informed, critical, and adaptable digital literacy is an urgent challenge for educators, school leaders, and parents.
The Role of EdTech in Teaching Media Literacy
Going forward, technology must have three distinct roles in media and digital literacy.
First, it must continue to bring new media to students for reading, engagement, and critical thinking. With more affordable and available technology, more schools are developing purposeful and collaborative ways to integrate technology into their curriculum, in sustainable ways with demonstrable benefits.
Second, technology must be used by students to create and distribute their own messages. At one time, media production was considered a remedial form of busy work, a time for lower-performing students to play around with gadgets while higher-performing students received a more traditional education. Today, it's not only desirable, but a growing necessity that students learn to use technology to compose, design, and share ideas. Given a clear rhetorical situation, students can produce a variety of media to gain skills and demonstrate subject mastery.
And third, technology itself must become a subject of study. Students who learn about the genres that carry their content will be more critically aware, and therefore more discerning of digital media. Students who, in addition to making a video, also learn about the history and founding of YouTube, its global censorship battles, privacy policies, content removal and copyright policies, and alleged ignoring of cyberbullying, are ultimately more powerful makers. Studying the technology behind what we consume and create puts us in control of the content, rather than at its disposal.
All these new literacy demands and roles for technology ultimately challenge educators to look beyond what we teach and how we teach it, and toward where information comes from, who made it, and what students can make of, and with, it.