The future of digital literacy


The concept of digital literacy – the ability to use the web and digital media effectively – was brought to my attention by the work of Howard Rheingold, online culture pioneer and edge thinker par excellence. In an interview with Education blog Edmondo, he explains how digital literacy is evolving. Everything he talked about before – literacies of attention, participation, crap detection, collaboration and “network know-how” stands, says Rheingold…

…but is multiplied by the migration from the desktop to mobile. Next up: finally, technology catches up with the dream of virtual reality and many of the attention problems will be multiplied and a new issue of distinguishing digital and physical reality will enter. More and more commercial and political interests are learning how to use digital media to deceive and manipulate—much faster than people are learning crap detection.

At Brilliant Noise we’ve been developing learning programmes for clients like The Financial Times and TUI around digital literacy – we talk about “digital mindset”, but it is the same thing. In the interview Rheingold’s four tips for teachers (and parents)

  • Encourage critical thinking. Ask students to find questionable and reliable websites and tell you why they are.

And I’d extend critical thinking to all areas of one’s life in relation to digital. Why are you using the tools that come as standard on your computer or phone, or that your company issues? How does using a spreadsheet, PowerPoint or word processing software change the way you think when you are working? Which is best? Have you tried outliners, mind-maps or offline tools for organising information and your thoughts?

  • Encourage attention to attention. When you open your laptop in class or look at the screen of your phone, try asking yourself why you are doing it.

This is an extension of critical thinking, and also brings in elements of mindfulness. It’s very easy to get stuck in less useful habits of using digital tools. Personally, I turn off all notifications on my phone and computer, bar text, phone and calendar – and I put the attention hungry apps like Twitter, Instagram and email on the third page of my phone, so I have to make a conscious decision to go and use them. It’s really helped to cut down semi-involuntary app use (but not eliminated it).

  • Encourage participation. Comment on a blog, make a correction on Wikipedia, reblog on Tumblr.
  • Encourage collaboration. Work on a collaborative document, participate in a virtual community.

These two tips work well together. I encourage working together with colleagues to try out new behaviours and tools, with the objective of seeing if they work for you as individuals and as a team. Bookmarking tools like Diigo are particularly useful for this, or collaborating on a Google Doc article together, if you don’t use that already. Digital literacy grows with a combination of experience, critical thinking and reflection. You need to use digital tools rather than just read about them or have them explained in order to really know how they work.

Brilliant to read more of Howard Rheingold’s thinking – he has been a consistent inspiration to me personally and professionally. If you’d like to find out more about his work, I recommend his book Net Smart and he also runs courses – the next one is on cooperation theory.

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