Some initially don't even know how to turn their new laptops on or attach a file to an email message, but that doesn't matter. Emphasizing that they need to develop "insider" perspectives on new practices, we ask them to write collaboratively through blogs, create podcasts, or produce their own music videos. And we have two rules: You can't say, "I can't," and you can't ask us for help first; you have to ask someone else or search online. Self-sufficiency becomes a by-product of learning.
This is exactly the way we hope they will teach their students. Unfortunately, digital literacies -- full of engagement, collaboration, and trial and error -- still aren't the norm in teacher education. Classes for both preservice and in-service students typically mirror the kind of teaching practiced for too long in K-12 schools. Traditional skills still get all the respect, and the teacher still has all the answers. It is an approach that makes sense to colleges and universities expected to cover a huge amount of standard content and feed teachers into a system fiercely wedded to its old ways of doing things.
This approach has to change. If we need a paradigm shift in how we teach K-12 students (and we do), we need to rethink how we prepare teachers. At all levels, up-and-coming teachers and their instructors need to know the potential of the digital practices they can tinker with and explore. And they should tinker with them in the same way school students do -- regularly and imaginatively. They need to think of themselves as learners, seeking out learning partners, improvising, and exploring with the confidence to experiment with what they don't know.
Digital literacy is key to this new way of thinking. It is a catalyst and an enabler of the kind of collaborative, participatory learning we all need to embrace. Enormous numbers of people are already seamlessly practicing a range of digital literacies in their personal and professional lives. We as teachers -- and those who train teachers -- must weave such practices into what we do as well.
Recipes for Digital Literacy
First, we have to update our definition of literacy. In the digital age, reading and writing have expanded to include new forms that have a wide range of intentions. The writer of a blog may choose to incorporate images, video, or the input of readers in her publication. Editing a wiki may require traditional writing skills, but it also calls for an added layer of confidence in one's own expertise, and trust in anonymous editors. Digital literacy nearly always incorporates an aspect of social networking that varies depending on the task at hand.
What does digital literacy look like? Students will show you. For my doctoral thesis in the late 1990s at Australia's Queensland University of Technology, I spent an extended period studying the literacy habits of four seventh-grade students, visiting them at school and at home.
One of them, Jacques, had enormous trouble with writing assignments but produced a marvelous flyer for his lawn mowing business, using key phrases such as "first time, lawn mowed free" and "reliable service." Another boy, Nicholas, came from an extremely tech-savvy family. I watched him chafe against the lockstep software programs for writing that were popular in Australian classrooms at the time. Faced with a system that forced him to write a title, lead paragraph, and essay of a certain length in a certain order, he spent the class period mucking around and annoying his classmates. Then he went home and used a regular word processing program to finish the assignment in a snap.
More recently, I've seen children who struggle to read in class go home and read thick cheat books for their video games. Young people outside of school may do their writing collaboratively, through blogs and wikis and Google Docs. They increasingly spin their own tales at FanFiction.net or combine text with moving images and sound to express something about their world.
A 2000 report by the U.S. government-sponsored National Reading Panel emphasized several aspects of reading instruction -- phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension in particular. If teachers stick to this one-dimensional interpretation of literacy, we fail on two fronts: We lose students who learn best with tech tools used for meaningful purposes, and we stop short of producing students who have real digital-literacy savvy in a world that demands it.
If we commit to helping children and prospective teachers master digital literacy, our teaching methods must evolve. Often, educators see teaching with technology as business as usual -- as though it's simply an add-on. True, you can put your reading-comprehension tests on the computer instead of on paper, but that doesn't change the basic practice. Using Microsoft PowerPoint to retell The Three Little Pigs doesn't really change anything -- it's just an old-school practice in digital drag.
The software-centric approach I see commonly in high schools, in which kids learn word processing on one day and PowerPoint on another day, will never work, not in grade school or at a teachers' college. To prepare teachers to truly succeed in the today's world, we need to immerse them in the technology their students use. We ask children to break through their fears of the unknown, dive in, and take risks. We must do the same.
It may sound weird, but it's perfectly possible to teach people to do things you haven't mastered. My husband and I have never (yet) made an anime music video. (This popular form involves taking tiny clips from anime movies and syncing them to music.) Yet our students create gorgeous ones, and they tell us they have never worked so hard on a project. Plus, they get it -- they discover all the critical choices producers of these videos make: which music to select, how to match the mood of the music and video clips, how to effectively sync the rhythm with the visual transitions. Our approach is to say, "Let's give this stuff a go, and even if it's a spectacular failure, at least we'll have learned something."
There are important reasons for jumping in at the deep end of the pool, however daunting it may seem. In addition to experiencing technology the way their own students have, educators in training can see the relevance of it in their own lives. Teachers can't capitalize on the educational potential of digital technology if they haven't had the opportunity to see how it can foster learning or enhance their own lives. It's a mistake to give teachers computers and demand that they find useful things to do with them. Instead, we need to create opportunities for teachers to use online technology and say, "I must have this."
If we call on professors of education to transform teaching practice, we need to offer support and training for the task. In the Teacher Education Program at Montclair State University, in Montclair, New Jersey, where I coordinate the undergraduate and graduate literacy programs, we're lucky to have an administration that very much encourages digital literacy and exploratory kinds of learning.
Last semester, for example, my dean provided information-technology support staff to help me evaluate the usefulness of the virtual world Second Life. I tried it in an adolescent-literacy course as a means to explore literature, using its virtual spaces to mirror the worlds you find in books. I got a level of positive response from my teacher-education students that took even me by surprise.
More often than not, though, schools of education aim to cover so much material -- traditional literacy being a sizable part of it -- that digital literacy is an afterthought. There's also a prevailing (and false) wisdom that kids need to learn to read before they can use the Internet. This misperception, combined with fears for children's online safety, steers teachers and college professors away from meaningful online learning. This isn't helped by the restrictive Internet filters in place at schools, either. The truth is, it's really only through multiple online experiences that students learn to navigate the Internet's potential possibilities and pitfalls.
Beyond instructional and material support from their institutions, professors need hands-on instruction -- not only the general nuts-and-bolts computer classes that are the norm but also courses that deeply explore the potential of digital tools and practices for teaching and learning.
At Montclair, we're building our own professional-development practice for this approach. Colleges and universities can also help by giving up rigid courseware such as Blackboard, which provides professors with little flexibility to go beyond conventional assignments, tests, grades, and private discussions. On the Web, people from far-flung places can work together on sophisticated projects without ever meeting, or they can marshal a wide variety of expertise through public-discussion boards, often free. Without the freedom to test out these opportunities, we can hardly expect professors to weave them into teacher training.
Professional organizations such as the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the International Reading Association also have an important role to play. Their standards for schools of education in many ways perpetuate the old model of teacher as expert, leaving little room for learners to use their own kinds of expertise, the kinds that can flourish when students do collaborative projects with peers at other schools or present their work to a real-world, professional audience. In looking at their standards, I hope these groups will think about the world teachers of the future will be preparing their students to successfully inhabit.
I feel hopeful about the future of teacher preparation, and for the future of education as a whole. I know that positive things will happen if we look outside our traditions and beyond the walls of our institutions to see how children -- and adults -- are using digital technologies in their everyday lives to achieve new things that are often much more sophisticated than what they're asked to do in school. We must ask ourselves these questions: What are kids doing outside of school? What kinds of media are they writing, creating, and remixing? And what does that mean for what we do?
Education works best when our students shape what we teach and who we are as teachers. If we follow their lead, it's inevitable that digital technologies will become a meaningful part of our teaching. This is to say not that knowledge no longer matters but, rather, that we must recognize that an emphasis on content -- so readily found online these days -- needs to give way to a focus on purposeful learning and on teaching students how to truly collaborate, participate meaningfully online, and tap into the expertise of others as they learn about their world.
It feels risky, I know. But it's time for us as educators to simply jump in and give things a go to see what these tools can do. If we hang back out of fear, we -- and the teachers we prepare for the classroom -- will be distant figures in this century's rearview mirror.
Michele Knobel is a professor in the Department of Early Childhood, Elementary, and Literacy Education at Montclair State University, in Montclair, New Jersey.