The Importance of Teaching Students Digital Literacy

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Imagine for a moment the world fifty years from now. What technologies will people use at work, at home, and in school to learn, communicate, and productively work? What will the Internet—or whatever replaces it—look like? What skills will someone need to know in order to understand and engage with the world? These are a few of the questions educators are thinking about in regard to planning what skills and curriculum to teach students that will help them succeed in the world. Literacy, in its basic form, means the ability to read and write. Decades ago, literacy was confined and defined only by the ability of someone to read and write their native language. However, the rise of technology in all aspects of our lives and the importance that the Internet has come to play in our society requires us to consider a broader definition of literacy: having knowledge about a specific topic. Computer literacy, the ability to use a personal computer to do work or complete tasks, is a new type of literacy that wasn’t important 50 years ago but is crucial today for almost all lines of work and is a part of the new literacy required for life in the digital age. Teaching new literacy skills in the digital age of the 21st century—this new “digital literacy” (also called “new literacy”)—is critical for preparing students to be able to understand and engage the world around them. Therefore, educators and parents should use digital media and tools, including video games, smart phones, and tablets among other things to help students become digitally literate.

Advocates for teaching digital literacy skills and standards often face two distinct challenges. The first is overcoming the perception that many forms of digital media are not educationally valuable. This includes using smart phones; playing video games; using social media such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram; and so on. To the detractors, these are forms of entertainment that are not building skills or fluency. Video games in particular have accused of not only being devoid of educational value but causing social harm. However, James Gee, an education researcher and advocate for reform, has researched the learning opportunities that good video and computer games present and believes they can be incredibly useful tools. For example, Gee states that, “Good games give information ‘on demand’ and ‘just in time,’ not out of the contexts of actual use or apart from people’s purposes and goals, something that happens too often in schools” (“What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy” 2). Gee says the result is that players then apply the information they are presented with to solve a problem, overcome a challenge, or modify their in-game behavior. Thus, players learn a fluency for playing a game that increases critical thinking and reasoning skills. Gee presents another example of how video games entice learning through motivation. “Motivation is the most important factor that drives learning. When motivation dies, learning dies and playing stops… Since good games are highly motivating to a great many people, we can learn from them how motivation is created and sustained” (3). Gee is stating that well crafted video games have the power to keep players playing through the entire game through motivation based on several things such as rewards in the game, a compelling narrative, and finding the right balance between learning skills, solving problems, and having fun. The most compelling case that Gee makes for games is the cross-curricular and cross-platform learning it inspires:

Beyond using the learning principles that good games incorporate, I also argue that schools, workplaces, and families can use games and game technologies to enhance learning…. [W]e have watched seven-year-olds play [a video game called] Age of Mythology, read about mythology inside and outside the game on web sites, borrow books on mythology from the library, and draw pictures and write stories connected to the game and other mythological themes. They think about the connections between Age of Mythology and Age of Empires, between mythological figures and popular culture superheroes, and the connections of all of them to history and society. This is education at its best, and it is happening at home, outside of school.” (“What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy” 1–2)

Essentially Gee is arguing that video games can inspire curiosity, inquiry, and the ability to see connections between ideas. From an educational standpoint, this means players are able to critically compare texts and media, and they are receiving a motivation to learn because of the level of interest and enjoyment they find in video games. In other words, using an old idea about increasing reading enjoyment by “bringing a book to life” is fulfilled in many ways through some video games. Gee’s study of Age of Mythology shows a specific literacy that also employs other forms of literacy. By playing the game correctly, players were exposed to ideas they then researched online, using another form of literacy and skill set. They also used the experience to express themselves through stories and art and were better able to put symbols such as superheroes into a cultural and historical context. By any measure, a parent or teacher would be pleased with these types of outcomes and student-driven success. Of course, Gee is not saying all video games have the same richness for learning, but there are several outstanding examples that have true educational value, raising them from mere entertainment or distraction to tools that increase critical thinking as well as creating a motivation to learn.

The media of videogames, smart phones, and social networks give rise to a type of “participation culture, that scholar and researcher Henry Jenkins calls a “culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations, and some type of informal mentorship” (xi). Jenkins understands that students will need new skills students in order to be considered literate and functional in the 21st century. However, this is not the same as replacing what is being taught. Jenkins argues for complementary learning, not substitutive learning. He states that, “textual literacy remains a central skill in the twenty-first century. Youths must expand their required competencies, not push aside old skills to make room for the new. Second, new medial literacies should be considered a social skill” (28). Jenkins argues for a change in the educational system to reflect a change in the participatory culture, and he attempts to synthesize the skills such as research and comparing across texts that are joined with traditional literacy and look to expand how those skills are taught and practiced given the new way students wish to participate in their learning. As a corollary to Jenkins’ research, researchers Kylie Peppler and Yasmin Kafai say video games offer another opportunity for learning in a participatory culture through their creation. Essentially, the researchers argue that “video game making can provide a rich context for learning programming, how to collaborate with others, becoming a member of an affinity group, developing sustained engagement, and more” and that being a productive member of participatory culture means “much more than knowing how to point and click; it should also mean knowing what goes into creating a pointing device – be it a cursor or another object of your imagination” (375). In other words, Jenkins, Peppler, Kafai and others have identified a new culture that has been made possible through the Internet and other digital technologies that is the participatory culture, and from it there are both expectations from students to have a participatory atmosphere as well as pedagogical opportunities to enrich learning through the addition of social, technical, and thinking skills to help create more digitally literate students who then become more successful adults. Indeed, as Internet entrepreneur and co-founder of one of the Internet’s currently most popular sites, Reddit, Alexis Ohanian states that “[Writing code] is the new literacy. In this century if you want to have the power to change the world, writing code is the most practical thing you can do” (Goodkind). Ohanian understands that computers and the Internet are very much like newspapers and books of the past—they are the technologies through which most people get information. Therefore, it makes sense that in addition to knowing how to read and write a native language, literacy would also include understanding how to promote ones ideas in ways that go beyond just language. Expression through a combination of sound, images, words, and interactive responses to input are no less valid than expressions of ideas using the medium of language. Coding, then, is another language, though it is more important than a languages such as English, Spanish, or Mandarin—it is the lingua franca of the digital world.

The second challenge that advocates of digital literacy face is the more nuanced challenge of the long-term psychological and health effects of constantly being “plugged in” to the technology of the day. Whether it is a national safety campaign against texting while driving, the debate over increased adolescent violence as a result of exposure to violent media content, or more nuanced research that looks at the physical and mental health impacts of extensive or excessive video game use, there is a sense that children are being overexposed to contents, sometimes called “screen time”—the amount of time someone spends with a television, computer, tablet, or smart phone—and physicians and mental and social development experts are wondering if children are being harmed by too much digital content. A British study from the Public Health reported on by Ian Burrell looked at the cognitive and emotional effects of screen time. According to Burrell, “British children who spend most time in front of televisions and computer screens have lower self-esteem and greater emotional problems.” Burrell noted that screen time in excess of four hours a day limited the amount of physical activity someone was able to do during the day and impaired the face-to-face interactions with friends and families, both of which are known factors in reducing anxiety (Burrell). The study also noted that there was a link between the amount of screen time a child had and the intensity of their anxiety, depression, and lack of physical exercise would be. The report sounded a warning in that it also noted screen time was rapidly increasing. Though one response to this problem would be to limit the amount of screen time a young person has each day—and there is no reason not to teach children moderation—it is also important to help teach best practices as a part of literacy. Parents teach their children to read in a well-lit room because it reduces eye strain. The same is true for tablets, and the trope of the bookish child being shuttled out the door to play softball is still true if one replaces books with video games. In other words, the problems facing children are not necessarily new problems because of the digital age, and teaching literacy can also include teaching value in face-to-face meetings and in implementing exercise as a way of fueling creative endeavors. The problem is also not a global epidemic, either. Researchers in Norway looked at “the prevalence of video game addiction and problematic video game use and their association with physical and mental health” (Pallesen 591). The research found that addiction was rare but that there were some measurable effects for depression, anxiety, and being less happy (594). The researchers decided that though the total number of people with addiction or problems were low, each of them had similar symptoms for how they felt, thus supporting the conclusion that the effects were real but perhaps minimal. It is up to educators, parents, and mentors to teach children best practices, which include moderation, and the coping skills necessary to successfully manage the amount of information and opportunities for engagement they have.

Besides the emotional health issue, there is also the issue of educational importance. Some educators, such as educators and researchers Zac Chase and Diana Laufenburg work to define digital literacy through the modalities of reading and writing. “Writing with a pencil and… a pen are both writing… let us then accept digital literacy as a genre, a format and tool to be found within the domain of standard literacy, rather than a concept standing at odds” (535). By distilling the meaning of “digital literacy” to something knowable and teachable within standard domains of reading and writing, Chase and Laufenburg represent a conservative approach to embracing technology in an attempt to reach confused or resistant educators and provide a basis for how to measure and teach literacy to take advantage of new forms of learning and new platforms. However, as James Gee argues in his book The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Kids Through Digital Learning, this approach is flawed because it relies on flawed methodologies. Gee deconstructs what it means to be smart as a series of skill and abilities, including mentorship that prepares the student for learning, access to prior experience, clearly articulated goals, a risk or measurable outcome that has emotional significance, and an opportunity upon which to act (Gee 162). However, in order to empower and teach people to master these skills, education needs true reformation so that “multiple tools, different types of people, and diverse skill sets are networked in ways that make everyone smarter and make a space itself a form of emergent intelligence” (174). Therefore it is not enough to make a translation of pen and paper to tablet and finger, there are specific skills associated with fluency and literacy as it is defined and needed in the 21st century. While the work of middle-of-the-road educators is meant to help their peers struggling with understanding the demands, opportunities, and responsibility of teachers teaching digital literacy, new skills, practices, and paradigms are needed in order to help students take advantage of the new tools and new systems of networking and collaborating that adults in the future workforce will need.

The invention of the World Wide Web and the rise in access to the Internet and mobile phones has literally changed the world. Today we have unparalleled access to information and powerful tools for communicating, collaborating, and creating. Businesses operate across the globe, requiring its workers to be able to efficiently use software and adapt to workflows that incorporate electronic and face-to-face communication, and the economy is ever increasingly becoming more digital, requiring both people who have the skills to use the tools as well as the people needed to build the tools and platforms. In order for education in America to be efficiently and effectively prepared for such a world, it is critical that digital literacy be included in the curriculum and that teachers and parents embrace the tools and cultures that today’s children are a part of in order to teach them the correct way to balance these tools and develop the skills necessary to be productive, successful members of their communities and employable and helpful workers, entrepreneurs, artists, and innovators.

Works Cited

Burrell, Ian. “Overload of Screen Time Causes Depression in Children.’” The Independent. 28 August 2013. Web. 11 October 2013.

Chase, Zac, and Diana Laufenberg. "Digital Literacies: Embracing The Squishiness Of Digital Literacy." Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 54.7 (2011): 535-537. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.

Gee, James. “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.” ACM Computers in Entertainment, 1.1 (October 2003). Web. 1 November 2013.

Gee, James. The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Kids Through Digital Learning. Kindle Edition, 2013.

Goodkind, Nicole. “The Most Important Skill in the 21st Century.” The Daily Ticker. 14 Oct. 2013. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.

Jenkins, Henry. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press. 2009. Web. 10 October 2013.

Peppler, Kylie, and Kafai, Yasmin. “What Videogame Making Can Teach Us About Literacy and Learning: Alternative Pathways into Participatory Culture.” 2007. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.

Ståle Pallesen, et al. "Problematic Video Game Use: Estimated Prevalence And Associations With Mental And Physical Health." Cyberpsychology, Behavior Social Networking 14.10 (2011): 591-596. Business Source Premier. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.