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.

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Web Design Can’t Fix Digital Illiteracy

For some time now, I’ve argued that it should be possible to create digital interfaces that are intuitive enough for anyone to pick up and use successfully regardless of previous experience or knowledge.

As an ideal, I think this is a good one.

In practice, of course, it’s a lot more complicated.

I’ve had a couple of conversations recently that brought home to me an obvious fact about designing digital environments:

Usability isn’t just a matter of design. It’s also a matter of digital literacy. But here’s the thing—design can’t make up for a user’s lack of digital literacy.

By itself, web design is a tool insufficient for the job of teaching digital literacy. No matter how easy to use a website or interface may be, no matter how intuitively the information architecture is constructed, if a user has no experience with digital technology and doesn’t feel comfortable interacting with a digital environment, they won’t know what to do. They’re going to be lost.
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The Value & Purpose of Public Libraries

Frank Nero presents one of the best arguments in favor of public library investment I’ve read:

My view by Frank Nero: Libraries are a crucial investment in children, education, community by Frank Nero (posted on the Miami Herald on June 29, 2014)

In addition to the compelling numbers associated with the economic impact of libraries in a community, he offers powerful statements about the value and purpose of libraries.

On education and early literacy:

[E]arly exposure to books and reading is a critical determinant in a child’s academic success, and the independent research skills that libraries foster are both an essential ingredient in academic success and lifelong learning.

Public libraries have always been the gateway to education for preschool children and have always played a major role in supporting formal education.

And this perfectly sums up an argument that I frequently make about the role of libraries in the Digital Age:

The physical space that libraries have is a real asset that shouldn’t be ignored during this era of transition to all things digital. Libraries are community centers where people come and access the resources they need to do whatever they need to do. That may be for schoolwork, it may be to apply for a job or unemployment benefits, or it may be to run a business. Libraries can be the span to help bridge the digital divide.

The success of libraries in the future may have a lot to do with how flexible they can be in adapting to the needs of the community, but even so, the core mission of libraries remains the same. Its traditional role has always been as a community resource for information and referral – it’s just that technology is changing how it does that. We must recognize that libraries are not just a collection of books, but a collection of experiences and opportunities.

I’d like to see Mr. Nero’s op-ed piece shared as widely as possible.

The Real Challenge of the Digital Divide

This article raises an essential point about efforts to overcome the Digital Divide:

Technology Is Making Achievement Gaps Bigger by Annie Murphy Paul (posted on The Brilliant Blog on June 25, 2014)

The real issue we face when we address the Digital Divide isn’t access to technology.

The real issue is digital literacy.

Our most important task isn’t merely to provide access to technology. We also have to teach people how to use it effectively and safely. People who don’t have the opportunity to use technology on a regular basis also don’t have an opportunity to develop effective digital skills. To quote the article above:

Not only are affluent kids more likely to know how to Google; they’re more likely to know what to Google for.

More than that—digital literacy is about teaching people why technology matters, how it can help to make their lives better. People who have gotten along without technology so far may not always recognize why access to it matters now.

It does no good to hand technology to someone who has no idea how to use it. Any attempt to overcome the Digital Divide must go hand-in-hand with digital literacy education and development.

ALA Report on Internet Filtering

Bravo to the American Library Association for compiling this report!

Over-filtering in schools and libraries harms education, new ALA report finds by Jazzy Wright (posted on June 11, 2014)

In addition to raising essential points regarding the negative impact that over-filtering the internet has on education and learning (and disproportionately for the poor), the article highlights an issue that I feel very strongly about:

“[S]chools that over-filter restrict students from learning key digital readiness skills that are vital for the rest of their lives. Over-blocking in schools hampers students from developing their online presence and fully understanding the extent and permanence of their digital footprint. … Filtering beyond CIPA’s requirements results in critical missed opportunities to prepare students to be responsible users, consumers, and producers of online content and resources.”

This echoes an argument that I’ve made before—censorship does our children a vast disservice in the long run. When it comes to libraries, I would also reiterate—it’s not a library’s job to police people.

What I like best about this report from the ALA is that it tells us the same things about internet filtering that the Librarian in Black has been telling us for years. It’s good to see her message recognized as an official stance of the ALA.

Read the full report here (PDF).

The Real Problem Affecting Kids & Reading

This op-ed piece is an important contribution to the ongoing discussion of literacy and reading in our current culture:

Kids Don’t Read Books Because Parents Don’t Read Books by Jordan Shapiro (posted on Forbes on May 13, 2014)

It focuses on the essential point:

The most powerful influence on whether or not kids read, and grow up to be reading adults, is their parents.

Whether they read in print or on screens is secondary—the first requirement is that kids need to be taught to make reading an important part of their lives.

I admit that I get caught up in the “print vs. digital” argument (although I tend not to argue for one or the other, but to point out that this isn’t a competition).

There is evidence which shows that our brains handle written language differently between different presentation media, which can have an impact on retention and depth of comprehension, as well as the kind of deep, slow reading required to develop empathy.

I don’t want to minimize this evidence—but Mr. Shapiro is absolutely correct to point out that framing these discussions as essentially “print vs. digital” is a distraction from the true core issue:

Parents must make time to read to their children and actively engage them with the text.

Parents must take the time to read for themselves so their children see adults reading as a normal part of life.

This—more than any other factor—is what makes kids want to read, and keep reading for the rest of their lives.

The Importance of Deep Reading

I’ve long wondered about the differences between reading in print, reading online, and reading in mobile formats. Science is bearing out my belief that our brains apprehend and process language differently in different mediums.

Technology is changing the way we read, with a much greater emphasis on skimming and speed reading. Apps like Spritz—well-intentioned though they may be—intrinsically promote an idea that reading isn’t worth investing time, a belief that deep reading is flawed because it’s inefficient.

I can’t believe that this is a good thing. So I was very happy to read this article:

Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer by Annie Murphy Paul (posted by Time on June 3, 2013)

It’s an excellent summary of the importance of deep reading. Intentional, invested, slow reading.
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Thoughts on Mobile Reference

Digital librarians spend a lot of time thinking about online and mobile reference. Reference is the core service of libraries—helping people find the information they need is what librarians have been doing for centuries.

We need to explore methods to translate reference services into digital environments. I’m happy to see all the work being done on this front.

One of the concerns that comes up pretty often in discussions of mobile reference is the competition with online, crowd-sourced Q&A services like Yahoo Answers. The more I think about it, though, the more I’m convinced that this concern is a red herring.

I don’t believe that libraries should try to compete with these services. Because I’m not at all convinced that libraries should be in the business of casual Q&A.
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Book Review: Everything Is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger

Everything Is Miscellaneous book cover
Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder by David Weinberger. New York: Times Books, 2007.
The central thesis of Everything Is Miscellaneous is one with which I completely agree: digital information environments allow us to organize, access, and interact with information in new and previously undreamt ways. It allows us to transcend the limitations of physical storage and communication media, to free information to be everywhere and anywhere all at the same time.

It allows information to be whatever we need, whenever we need it. There exists more potential now to add more value, not just to information itself, but to the ways we access and interact with it. Mr. Weinberger offers us a powerful and compelling vision for our digital information world.

These three quotes perfectly sum up what this book is about:

From p. 212:

The difference in the digital order is the difference between the annoying interactions you have on a product support line… and the conversations you have with real people. … The potential for connections from the trivial to the urgent is characteristic of the new miscellany. We are busily creating as many of these meaningful connections as we can.

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The Value of Movie Collections in Libraries

No one argues that essential titles from the history of literature should be in a library collection, even if they rarely circulate. Plutarch, for example: his writings aren’t exactly high circ but most public libraries have him in their collections, and just about everyone agrees that he should be there. Some titles are necessary in order to say you boast a complete and worthy collection. Literacy is more than simply teaching people to read—it’s also about teaching them to read well and widely. Complete and worthy collections are essential to that goal.

When it comes to books, it’s understood and acknowledged that certain titles stay in the collection even if they don’t meet required circ levels. These titles have a cultural value that trumps their circ value.

But I rarely if ever see a similar trump applied when libraries weed their movie collections. There doesn’t seem to be an understanding that certain films are important. If a library has a DVD of one of the foundational works of cinema and it doesn’t circulate, it seems that no one thinks twice about weeding it.
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