Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Digital literacy: urgently needed

One of the key buzz words built into our work here 'digital literacy', and we're constantly told that our students are 'digital natives', hence the need for us all to move everything we do onto Facebook/Twitter/Ning etc.

It's not true. 45% of our students are mature, i.e. not necessarily 'digital natives', and it's patronising to assume that young = techy, older = primitive. It's not true in a more interesting sense either: the underlying implication of our 'digital literacy' strategy is that putting everything online will make what we do automatically more exciting. What a depressing thought: that the packaging is what appeals to students, not the concepts. They aren't magpies, they're people. They don't just pick out the shiny bits of a course.

What digital literacy means for our students, who are more sophisticated than many realise, is relevance. They can spot tokenistic tech-babble from miles away. What they want is appropriate use of technology. Otherwise, the university looks like someone's dad (perhaps mine) asking in PC shops whether the laptop he's poking will 'do the Google' (which sounds like a 1950s dance craze). It's more than being able to operate a couple of bits of old-fashioned proprietary software.

What digital literacy should mean is the ability to confidently negotiate the tsunami of information, entertainment and distortion breaking over our heads. Information has never been more accessible. Nor has it ever been so overwhelming. We see this in the classroom, where we have to teach students how to discern between authoritative sources and mad blokes  ranting from their bedrooms. It's not just content either: real digital literacy is also about appropriate use of media. Where does it come from? Whose interests is it serving? Is it owned, and should it be? What should be done with it? E.g. is searching for a word on Google Books, then referencing the book as though you've read it rather than extracting a useful phrase educationally helpful?

After all, in my incarnation as an English literature teacher, we show students how to negotiate books. They learn about unreliable narrators, about rhetorical strategies, about realism as a technique, and all the other tricks of the trade. They know not to take a single word at face value, to interrogate the structures and features of a text, whether it's a novel or an autobiography. You can't be a literature student without doing this. So why are we happy to let people loose in society without training them to question the origins and practices of their other media experiences? You wouldn't believe the number of people who don't know how scripted and staged Top Gear is, for instance.

I know that information overload is the main challenge: I'd have a Nobel by now if I started writing every day rather than try to keep up with the news, blogs by peers and friends, pressure groups I support, random Twitter links ad infinitum. But it's not just me: major news corporations make mistakes because they're under pressure to get there first rather than write the best story - see the Daily Mail's accidental publication of the Knox Appeal Rejected story (complete with fake quotes and eye-witness accounts of scenes which never happened). It's not just about evil newspapers with barely concealed reactionary agendas (though that is of course what the Daily Mail exists for): it's about the speed and volume of information journalists have to process, evaluate and repeat: accuracy and perspective are the first victims, and the result is what Nick Davies calls 'churnalism'.

We run the risk of never knowing what can be trusted and what can't. Of course, we tell our students repeatedly that there is no truth: everything is mediated, framed, edited according to a conscious or unconscious ideological perspective. This is core to media studies as it is in literary studies. If digital literacy means anything, it's arming people with discernment, or what Clay Shirky calls 'filtering'. This applies to newspapers, PR, what Facebook do with your information and how Google processes your viewing habits. You can't be an engaged and critical citizen if you can't deconstruct the tidal wave of information heading in your direction.

If you're not digitally literate, you're laying yourself open to disinformation, manipulation and exploitation. That's why America's Knight Commission is linking information literacy with democracy. It's why Howard Rheingold teaches his students about bullshit detection. So it's a shame that media studies is roundly mocked and has suffered from the biggest fall in university applications in the UK for next year. It's almost as though a cynical élite (including elements of the media) doesn't want you to think about what it's up to!

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