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‘Digital literacy’ defined – by students

Cathy Davidson, a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, teaches a couple of undergraduate classes that are “peer-driven, peer-assessed, and peer-led”: “This Is Your Brain on the Internet” and “Twenty-First Century Literacies.” In these classes, students have to master traditional media too (“whether regarding neural networks or novels,” Davidson writes), but these classes obviously add new media and skills to the literacy mix. So, Davidson says in this blog post, she wanted their perspective on the literacies they were gaining in and with social media. [Don’t miss Davidson’s “Doing better by Generation Y.”]

The professor asked her students “to come up with a list of new social media skills they had mastered and come to analyze and understand… We might call these skills ‘digital literacies’,” she wrote. All the literacies they listed are fantastic – greatly needed by all of us, regardless of age and role, for well-functioning, digitally informed life and governance now and going forward – but in this little blog post let’s zoom in on six of them:

  • “Developing a diversity of writing styles and modes of communication to best reach, address, and accommodate multiple audiences across multiple online platforms” (Our children are learning this right now, out of school and largely on their own – wouldn’t it be great to help them do this in the subjects of their interest in school?)
  • “Cultivating strategies for managing the line between personal and professional life in visible, online communities” (which shows they fully “get” the idea of “invisible publics” that social media researcher danah boyd addressed in her 2009 PhD dissertation – see this)
  • “Understanding how to transform complicated ideas and gut reactions about technology into flexible technology policy” (If they’re working on this, then when they’re on school boards, in legislatures, etc., they’ll be writing or rewriting laws in intelligent ways, informed by their digital literacy.)
  • “Appreciating the complex ethics surrounding online practices” (They understand the complexities that we still seem to deal with in binary ways – online/offline, public/private, bully/victim, etc. – so let’s hope they are finding good resources for applying ethics and critical thinking to those complexities.)
  • Two related ones, “Using the superior expertise of a peer to extend my own knowledge” and “Collaborating across disciplines, working with people from different backgrounds and fields…” sound like the “digital wisdom” Marc Prensky discuss (see this) and the literacy drawn upon by “cross-functional teams” which Prof. James Paul Gee says enables them to solve problems in a complex world (see this).

It’s pretty remarkable to see the literacy young people have been developing largely on their own over the past decade or so, and it’s time two things happened: 1) that they receive more credit for that, and 2) that these new media are embraced and taught with in the core curriculum, K-12, so students can begin to get the guidance in new media literacy and best practice that schools have long been giving them in traditional media.

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