Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Vision of Digital Literacy

I spent some time last week walking the halls, finding teachers and staff to talk with about digital literacy. I’ve been wondering about how students learn the soft skills of working with Web 2.0. I’m not talking about how to use this application or that piece of software. Instead, I wonder about where, when, and how students are learning better internet research skills, safety when creating internet profiles, issues involving cyber-bullying, and internet etiquette, to name just a few topics. Unfortunately, teachers are overwhelmed and isolated, two pressures working against promoting a vision of digital literacy in our schools.

It can be the trap of the traditional high school. High school teachers get engrossed in content. As a high school English teacher, I know. I love what I teach. If you start talking with me about non-western memoirs and their value in the secondary literature classroom, I will go on and on. We sometimes get trapped in the mindset of needing to cover the curriculum, of “getting it all in.” With so many demands on our curriculum, with so much more to “cover,” digital literacy can feel like just one more thing to teach. Just one more thing to cover.

Added to this pressure, a number of teachers I spoke with expressed feelings of isolation. We are working with the doors of our classroom closed, and we are working hard. Many teachers are not just finding critical and creative ways to teach their content, but they are also finding ways to integrate and teach digital literacy skills. I’ve been in classrooms with teachers using wiki pages to encourage student collaboration. I’ve seen students excitedly respond to a text using a Ning. Teachers are using so many Web 2.0 tools to engage and collaborate with their students. Unfortunately, many of our high school teachers are not working together. We are not sharing our success with others in our building. As a result, the lessons on digital literacy are not consistent. Teachers are creating lessons using this or that application but with no vision of what we are teaching and why.

With technology exponentially changing the educational landscape, teachers and administrators have had a difficult time keeping up. "Integrating technology throughout a school system is, in itself, significant systemic reform. We have a wealth of evidence attesting to the importance of leadership in implementing and sustaining systemic reform in schools. It is critical, therefore, that we attend seriously to leadership for technology in schools, " writes Don Knezek of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). Unfortunately, many of us get caught up in learning about this or that application that we forget to reflect on the skills that are being developed. And the skills are what we should be focused on. The skills are transferrable from one application to the next. Ultimately, applications will come and go, but digital literacy skills, like traditional literacy skills, should remain relevant beyond a particular web page. We need to find ways to build a cohesive vision of what, why, and how we teach our students 21st century digital literacy skills.

1) What is our vision?
Schools need to establish a vision for how, when, and who teaches digital literacy to their particular students. What are the skills our students should leave our school knowing? We need to establish a vision for what it is that we need our 21st century students to know, understand, and do when it comes to digital literacy. When do we teach students about internet safety? Who teaches students effective research skills? How do we teach copyright issues? Having a document that sequentially lays out these digital skills gives our whole community a shared vision. It should be a vision that students, teachers, and administrators develop together.

2) How do we share our vision with teachers?
What sorts of professional development opportunities do we offer to teachers? What are the models for engaging teachers in learning and sharing digital literacy skills? Professional development is an integral component of sharing our digital literacy vision. It is something that teachers must help to develop, build, and present in order for there to be buy-in.

3) How do we share our vision with students?
Do we create required digital literacy classes? Do we find ways to use our homeroom/advisory programs to help teach students digital literacy skills? Do we make sure particular skills/issues are embedded in particular courses? Do core courses have final projects that address particular digital literacy skills? How are other schools are teaching digital literacy? What are the models for educating students on issues of internet safety and appropriateness, effective research skills, copyright concerns, among other skills.

How does your school teach digital literacy?
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