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Unlocking the Power of Digital Literacy

publication date: Aug 21, 2014
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author/source: Robert Bornhofen
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WHAT IS “digital literacy?” Why is it important? Who needs to be digital literate? I suspect that your answers will vary greatly. According to Wikipedia, “there is no universally agreed definition of digital literacy … there is a broad consensus about the scope of the term.” Far from what we used to call “computer literacy,” digital literacy is about knowing how to use social media to communicate with others. I’m not talking about sending a text message or watching a music video on a mobile device. No, I mean knowing how to use a range of technology tools to access new sources of information. A digitally literate person knows how to use technology to find and evaluate information, connect and collaborate with others, and produce and share original content. Digital literacy represents a new jargon to enable the flow of information capture among wide circles of people. It relates to “knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors in the use of a broad range of digital devices, such as wearables, smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop PCs” – Wikipedia.

We are in the digital age, a new era of learning. Our children do not remember life before the Internet. Social media is their preferred method of communication. I am amazed how my sons took to the digital environment without any formal instruction. To them, speaking in “digitalk” is an intuitive form of expression. For the most part, their teachers at school cannot relate to what it truly means to be digital. How can they without first-hand experience? I argue that digital literacy is a critical skill that needs to be learned and applied to our daily lives. Knowing how to, and being comfortable enough to post a question to a blog seeking an answer or opinion to a pressing qdigital_literacyuestion is what I’m talking about. As critical thinkers, we need know how to search, post questions, and synthesize various sources divergent thought. Rather than rely on superficial answers from SIRI or Ask Jeeves, for instance, digital literacy gives us the means to freely engage and learn from others in cyberspace. Scholarly evidence exists on this topic to support the claim that the interworking of social media among individuals can lead to the creation of new knowledge. This exchange of intellectual capital through digital literacy can lift the collective power and generate new ideas; it enables ideas grounded in deep, intellectual thought to surface.

You might be wondering how one becomes proficient in digital literacy. A quick Internet search on universities that offer programs in digital literacy did not produce many solid hits. Whereas some schools were cited in the search response, it appears that the U.S. education system has not fully caught up with the digital era vis-à-vis Web 2.0 technology. My concern is that the old school method of Powerpoint slides and rote lecture still seems to be the preferred approach to teaching literacy. I argue that teachers need to build and expand on traditional literacy skills with new methods involving digital communication. To do so, they need to immerse themselves in the digital world to truly know HOW to teach it. They need to blog to understand the act of blogging; they need to use digital jargon to know how to digitalk; and they need to synthesize multiple sources of blog postings to understand critical thinking in the digital world. I make this bold statement based on having done so myself over the past few years. The best way to become proficient in digital literacy is to dive head first into it. Put yourself out there and contribute to blog postings, learn how to use Twitter, and participate in various user groups through LinkedIn, among other ways to become digital.

My closing comment is a call for greater awareness to digital literacy. Our schools and work places need to rethink their approach to learning it. Educators, parents, and managers should encourage digital literacy as a valuable skill. 140-character Tweets, blog postings, and RSS feeds, for instance, need to be legitimized as another way to share and learn knowledge. Managers should be asking employees what they learned through social media relevant to their tasks. Teachers should be instructing students to actively participate in approved blogs and show evidence of learned knowledge. Clearly some organizations are already leveraging people networks through digital literacy to achieve competitive advantages, e.g., better products, improved customer service, or more innovative solutions. Outside the scope of this posting is research on the moderating effect of leadership and strategy on organizational change, both in our school system and work place. I argue that both variables need to work in unison for digital literacy to take hold and foster learning. I’m interested in your thoughts on digital literacy.

Is the literacy gap widening between the haves and have nots when it comes to new sources of knowledge? Is this gap a serious problem? Is so, what can be done and how in order to enhance society’s ability to participate more broadly in this new era of learning through digital literacy?



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