Teaching Digital Literacy

I’ve spent quite a bit of time over these past few weeks thinking about digital literacy. I try to compare it to reading and language literacy.

The comparison is illustrative.

Consider language literacy:

  • It takes years to learn and master a language.
  • Immersion is universally recognized as the best way to learn a language.
  • The more words and phrases you’re exposed to, the more you’ll learn.
  • You have to start simple and work your way up to the complicated stuff over time.

Consider reading literacy:

  • It takes years to learn how to read.
  • Constant exposure to reading is the best way to learn—being read to, reading on your own.
  • The more you see other people in your daily life reading, the more likely you are to make reading a habit for yourself and the greater your comfort level with reading will be.
  • You have to start simple and work your way up to the complicated stuff over time.

“Years to learn,” “immersion,” “exposure,” “work your way up”—developing literacy is a long process that needs to be a part of your daily life. Literacy involves more than just the mechanical tasks of speaking and reading—it requires habit and a level of comfort.

Both language and reading literacy have well-developed methods to teach these skills and habits to people, methods which allow learners plenty of time to become comfortable with these tasks. Reading starts with Easy Readers, language starts with the most basic vocabulary and rules. Complexity is added to the learning process gradually and intentionally.

Both language and reading literacy require the teacher to commit significant personal attention to the learner over the course of years. Literacy education is built around that core.

Now, let’s consider digital literacy:

There’s no Easy Reader version of the internet. There’s no “Microsoft Office for Beginners.” We haven’t developed systematic methods to teach digital literacy to the extent that we have for reading and language literacy.

We offer classes to teach different sorts of software applications, and we can walk people through their first forays onto the internet, but it’s pretty much the equivalent of trying to guide a beginning reader through a full novel.

Computers have only seen wide spread popular use in our world for a couple of generations. The internet has been ubiquitous for barely even two decades. We haven’t had time to develop teaching tools or systematic digital literacy programs that can compare to language and reading literacy.

And that’s OK—we’re working on it, we’ll get there. The past few years have seen significant innovations in methods to teach coding and programming in simplified versions.

The real challenge we face with digital literacy initiatives is that too many people don’t recognize that teaching digital literacy requires a similar investment of time, attention, and resources as language and reading literacy. Too many people think that teaching digital literacy should be easy.

Too many people don’t believe that digital literacy is worth more effort. Too many people don’t see it as being necessary in the way that language and reading literacy are.

Too many people don’t recognize how difficult it is for the digitally illiterate to get comfortable making this technology a daily part of their lives.

Consider the most digitally literate people in our world and realize just how much time they’ve spent interacting with digital devices and environments over the years. Consider your own level of digital literacy and reflect on how much time you’ve spent using computers and the internet.

Why would anyone think that teaching digital literacy should be easy or quick? Why would anyone think that just a couple of classes is all it takes? Or that a different website design should do the trick?

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