Saturday, June 19, 2010

Digital or media literacy

After looking over several models and definitions of digital / media literacy, including the overly complicated graphic above, it seems clear that the phrases "digital literacy" and "media literacy" have become nearly synonymous. I tend to think of digital literacy as more device oriented, like being able to operate a smart phone, and media literacy as being able to decipher the messages -- textual, audio, video, etc. -- delivered through such devices. But the literature I read recently about the concepts doesn't seem to back such simple delineation (maybe I should make my argument in this matter). In fact, I think the scholarship muddies the pool from many different directions, making any distinctions between the two terms virtually meaningless. So maybe it would be more worthwhile to spend energy envisioning different levels of digital/media literacy, starting with a base level and an advanced level.
At the base level, users would be able to competently operate digital communication devices. That is not just being able to turn a device on, which, of course is an important first step, but base level users would be able to carry out all core functions of a device in the ways the device was designed to be used. Those core functions would be defined by the accompanying literature, suggesting the capabilities of the device and providing instructions for carrying out those tasks. A person who can turn on a cell phone and call/answer calls would not necessarily have a base level of literacy, unless that person also, for examples, could check voice mail, text message, take a picture with the phone, etc. That's not to say the person must be able to successful carry out every single task that the device is capable of performing, but the person should be able to perform the core tasks, either the talking points on the marketing, or the most substantially addressed functions in the user manual. I do realize that is a slippery definition of a parameter, but case by specific case, I think the line would be relatively easy to find for any particular device, with some limited subjectivity on the exact place to draw it, which would be besides the point anyway.
The advanced skills do not relate to how obscure the function might be but instead to the analysis, synthesis and creativity required to envision and execute the expression (think of the top point of Bloom's taxonomy pyramid). That would include generating new uses for the device that are not explicitly stated in the official accompanying materials. It would include symbol analysis and manipulation with the device, and it would include significant expansion of the capabilities described as uses for the devices. And by devices, I mean digital tools, so a piece of software would be a device, just as a scanner or cell phone would be. In some cases, then, a device will be used within a device, or they would be combined in new ways. I see this all as part of the shroud of technology, in which even the creators of devices can't foresee how they will be used and to what extent. A primary example of that was the initial press conference unveiling the iPod, hosted by Steve Jobs of all people, in which the device was described primarily as a portable hard drive (yet one that also could hold music). Apple, probably the most clairvoyant of mainstream new media companies, also didn't envision the computing appeals of the iPhone (originally rebuffing apps and emphasizing that the iPhone was not intended to be a mini-computer). And so on. The users who took these devices and made them do what they wanted, rather than follow the prescription of the company, should be considered as having advanced digital literacy. Advanced digital literacy also means having an awareness of what sources of information can be trusted, or how to check sources, before believing what can be seen. A general skepticism would be part of this skill set, yet also with the wherewithal to triangulate sources of information, or dig deeper into the information, to determine who is saying what and for what reason(s), to help gauge the credibility and weight. I'm starting to slip into a wide range of descriptors, that could be classified as "advanced," so suffice to circle around and say that, in general, advanced skills involve analysis, synthesis and creativity, while base skills essentially involve following directions and traditional social conventions.
In five to 10 years, advanced users, I think, will need to be know one skill above all others: the skill to learn.
If we look backward 10 years, there would be no hint of Facebook (2004), or five years, no Twitter (2006). Every year, it seems, a new technology appears that significantly shifts the communication/media landscape, or at least shakes it up. So I think it will become increasingly important for people to develop the advanced skill of ever-learning, to be open to learning new things, while those who can't keep up, or give up (I just am not going to learn another new program, or buy another new device!) will be left behind and fall further back each successive year. What might seem rebellious and cool, in a Luddite sort of way, really will become self destructive socially.
Well, this learn-to-learn philosophy was starting to sound too much like an echo in my mind, so I began looking around at some of the recent books I have read, and found the following in Seymour Papert's "The Children's Machine," which clearly inspired what I wrote just a few sentences ago:
"It's often said that we are entering the information age. This coming period could equally be called the age of learning. The sheer quantity of learning taking place in the world is already many times greater than in the past. ... Today, in industrialized countries, most people are doing jobs that did not exist when they were born. The most important skill determining a person's life pattern has already become the ability to learn new skills, to take in new concepts, to assess new situations, to deal with the unexpected. This will be increasingly true in the future. The competitive ability is the ability to learn."
When I try to imagine the future, those thoughts keep coming to mind, and I suspect that concept will be as clear as anyone can get.


Bea Amaya said...

I think it's interesting that you include basic operations of core tasks in digital devices, like smartphones, in your basic tasks grouping. When I moved into my new apartment, I encountered a washer/dryer combo machine that I just cannot really figure out. My first instinct was to go to the web and locate the operating instructions. Guess what...there are no instructions posted on the web. Consequently, my considerable experience with a number of such units actually fails me when faced with this problem. I wonder if my reliance on such typical responses to problems with technological devices actually hinders me when I encounter one that does not "fit the profile". My machine, a Chinese product created for a European market, does not make "sense" to the American side of me that has been trained to search for controls in specific places, respond to icons that are meaningful to me, and seek out clarification from the web when problems are encountered. So now I'm wondering, has my advanced digital literacy made me less effective in a basic digital world? Nice posting...generating lots of new thoughts within.

Craig Baehr said...

This discussion makes me think of intelligent devices, looking ahead 5-10 years. I wonder if companies are truly deserving of their laurels for coming up with devices, or it is the user community simply following trends?