Learning in a Digital Age: Teaching a Different Kind of Literacy
“Education,” scholar and writer Ralph Ellison once said, “is a matter of building bridges.” And perhaps, no bridge is more important than the bridge to the future. As educators, it’s our responsibility to prepare students for the world of tomorrow. Yet tomorrow isn’t what it used to be.
The timeline from the Gold Rush to Google spans just beyond 150 years, but if you look at the rate of change during this period it feels more like a geologic epoch. We’ve gone from transcontinental railroads to robotic rovers on Mars. Today an iPhone has more computing power than the entire North American Air Defense Command had in 1965.
Conversely, our system of universal education, which is about the same age, has changed more glacially. In fact, in recent decades glaciers have changed more rapidly than our schools. And this highlights the tip of a rapidly morphing iceberg: The world is undergoing foundational shifts. Universal education was designed to meet the social and economic needs of the industrial revolution. The social and economic needs of today are emerging within a digitally networked society, and the rate of change doesn’t appear to be slowing down. According to Cathy Davidson, chair of Duke University’s Digital Futures Task Force, 65 percent of today’s grade schoolers will end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.
How do we prepare students for work that hasn’t been invented yet? While it’s difficult to predict what the social and economic climate will be like in the years to come, we can analyze trends and extrapolate future scenarios.
Two of the biggest economic trends of the last decade have been the increased automation and outsourcing of our workforce. Standardized problems can be solved anywhere, whether it’s by robots, software, or an army of college graduates in India and China who will do it for a fraction of the cost. Yet the world is filled with problems that cannot be solved with standardized thinking.
Our global environmental, economic and social challenges require non-standardized skills such as creativity, problem-solving and collaboration. Accordingly, these are becoming indispensable skills for learners and workers who hope to stay at the innovative edge of today and tomorrow. While these 21st century skills are essential, they aren’t enough. There is a growing expectation for these abilities to be leveraged and expressed using digital tools.
literacy vs. technical skills
We’re living in an age where digital technology is increasingly being used in both our personal and public lives. Computer software and digital networks have become cornerstones in business, politics and society at large. As a result, a new kind of technological literacy is emerging.
While a certain amount of technical skills are important, the real goal should be in cultivating digital or new media literacies that are arising around this evolving digital nerve center. These skills allow working collaboratively within social networks, pooling knowledge collectively, navigating and negotiating across diverse communities, and critically analyzing and reconciling conflicting bits of information to form a clear and comprehensive view of the world.
These new media literacy skills are expanding our definitions of literacy but must be cultivated from the foundation of traditional literacy. While traditional literacy is foundational, it is no longer solely sufficient. As media scholar Henry Jenkins has said: “Traditionally we wouldn’t consider someone literate if they could read but not write. And today we shouldn’t consider someone literate if they can consume but not produce media.”
The literacy of the future rests on the ability to decode and construct meaning from one’s constantly evolving environment — whether it’s coded orally, in text, images, simulations, or the biosphere itself. Therefore we must be adaptive to our social, economic and political landscape. Those of us living in this digital age are required to learn, unlearn and learn again and again.
Navigating times of great change is never an easy affair. But the results can be historic. In this regard, Abraham Lincoln provides wise council. Before signing the Emancipation Proclamation President Lincoln sent a message to Congress in which he said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”
Aran Levasseur has an eclectic background that ranges from outdoor education to life coaching, and from habitat restoration to video production. For the last five years he’s taught middle school history and science. From the beginning he’s been integrating technology into his classes to enhance his teaching and student learning. He recently gave a talk at TEDxSFED on videogames and learning. Currently he’s the Academic Technology Coordinator at San Francisco University High School.