Digital Literacy is the Bedrock for Lifelong LearningOctober 25, 2011 | Vanessa Vega
People often ascribe technological devices with magical properties, as though the inert objects in and of themselves can bestow us with the capacity to be "better, faster, and more productive." In actuality, it is the people making and using technological devices to achieve shared goals that produce the seemingly magical results.
In a similar way, this Microsoft infographic seemed to suggest that simply having a home computer with Internet would fix billions of dollars of lost-earning potential due to nearly 10 million American students lacking access to digital tools.
Certainly, increasing access to digital tools is a necessary step towards solving the problem, but as technologies of the moment come and go, it's even more important to ground digital inclusion agendas in the skills that youth will need to become and remain informed, engaged and discerning in a ever-rapidly changing technologically-infused world.
Issues of Access
In the last 10 years, broadband Internet access has increased greatly in America. As of May 2011, 60 percent of Americans have broadband Internet at home, compared to six percent having broadband, and 41 percent having dial-up, at home in 2001. Of course, averages do not tell the whole story. The likelihood of having broadband at home changes based upon your income, age, race, and the device you're using. According to a recent Pew Foundation report, (Figure 1), if your household income is $30k/year or less, (which applies for 31 percent of Americans), your chance of having broadband Internet at home drops to 40 percent.
Meanwhile, if you make $75k/year or more, your chance of having broadband Internet at home is 87 percent. The inequalities in Internet access are less significant if we're talking about access through a cell phone. But, if you have ever tried to do important work online using just your cell phone, you can probably understand how not having fast, reliable, home Internet, 24-seven, would hinder your best efforts to advance in work or school. Using a mobile phone, or an outdated computer with a slow connection makes it much harder to participate fully in digital culture, and a society that is increasingly reliant upon digital tools for access to events, services, and greater choice-options in general.
Literacy Opens the Doors to Engaging with Diverse Ideas
The First Amendment guarantees free speech and a free and unrestrained press as the primary protections for ensuring a diverse marketplace of ideas in support of an informed citizenry. However, to ensure a diverse marketplace of ideas and an informed citizenry, literacy is also essential. Beyond knowing how to read and write, digital literacy means knowing how to leverage digital tools to express ideas, reach a wider audience, and engage with diverse people and ideas from around the world. In these ways, digital tools can help to "ignite the learning light" in each and every student.
A wise scholar of digital inclusion policies once told me, with regard to his extensive fieldwork, that "It takes a lot more than a laptop to get a job." His point was that high-quality Internet access is necessary, but not sufficient for meaningful participation in digital culture. As the sheer quantity of information grows exponentially, finding useful information becomes increasingly important. In addition, critically evaluating the credibility of information and the source of a message helps individuals to make more informed and better decisions. Finally, the persistence and creativity involved in trouble-shooting hardware and software issues is essential for adapting to constantly evolving interfaces, and technologies designed for obsolesce.
Fortunately, numerous organizations are working to ensure that all people, regardless of income, age, or race, are not left without access or culturally-relevant training to use and benefit from digital technology. These are just a few examples of organizations working to ensure that digital tools and literacy-training opportunities are accessible to all:
- Community Technology Network (CTN) supports computer labs and digital literacy in the Bay Area's most vulnerable neighborhoods. To learn more about the skills CTN teaches, check out their volunteer page.
- Digital Excellence Coalition, based in Chicago, is an active community of computer labs and digital literacy programs that promote educational and professional advancement.
- Free Geek (across the US) and Alameda Computer Recycling Center, in Alameda, California, educate individuals in rebuilding computers (which they can then keep), while recycling electronic components and saving our landfills from toxic materials.
Teaching to Bridge the Digital Divide
The knowledge gap refers to the phenomenon in which the information-rich get richer, and the information-poor get poorer, with the diffusion of new technologies. Without access to digital technology, one in five children are far less likely to develop the digital literacy skills necessary for surviving in the modern economy, and for participating in a globally-networked information society. When a child has access to a computer and broadband internet at home, they have a seven percent greater chance of graduating from college -- and by extension, the potential to earn greater income over their lives relative to educational attainment. Teachers can do much towards creating a world-class education for their students by preparing them to readily access information on their own terms, and to become and remain "informed, engaged and discerning" throughout their lives. Here are just a few ideas to get started:
- Be aware of the different levels of technological access and fluency in your classroom.
- Inform students about local, public venues to access the Internet, and about organizations helping to develop digital literacy skills.
- Model and discuss strategies for critically evaluating sources, finding useful and diverse information, expressing ideas in different formats, and trouble-shooting common issues that arise when using digital tools.
- Post your technology needs and apply for a micro-grant on DonorsChoose.
- Launch a home-Internet program for disadvantaged students at your school with our how-to guide.
- Create, find, and share lesson plans that develop digital literacy skills; Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning, by Marc Prensky, is an excellent place to start. Also, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society offers excellent resources for discussing the role of Internet in society with your class.
- New Technology and Digital Worlds: Analyzing Evidence of Equity in Access, Use, and Outcomes, Education Research Review (2010).
- Home Computers and Educational Outcomes: Evidence from the NLSY97 and CPS (2005).
For more information on the digital divide, visit our Digital Divide Resource Roundup.