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Digital Literacy and Thinking Digitally

01 Dec

DSC00599I blogged recently about a possible framework for thinking about the new Habit Of Mind that we are developing at my school: Thinking Digitally. One element of that framework was Digital Literacy, and by that I mean the cognitive habits around the use of digital devices, rather than the skills required to use them in and of themselves. The concept is somewhat woolly, and needs to be fleshed out.

Gunther Kress, who has studied different semiotic modes, has argued that combing modes results in qualitatively different forms of meaning (synaesthesia). While text and language are largely governed by sequence and time, images are governed by space, display and simultaneity. The combination of modes transcends what is possible in single modes of expression. Multi-modality, in short, presents us with cognitively different challenges. Studies by Hull and Nelson, looking at digital storytelling suggest that different semiotic modes allow students to re-purpose language and images and helps them craft new identities and agency. The range of new literacy practices thrown up by online games play, fan sites and other online platforms all emphasizes how cognition, identity and agency are being transformed by the new digital technologies.

Mark Warschauer has argued that the ways in which  devices are used in our schools is, however, skewed by class and power. There is an urgent need to explore how students from diverse backgrounds can benefit from using digital technologies in transformative rather than routine ways, which is what tends to happen at the moment. The key to this is the cognition behind the use. Too often I think the issue has been that in schools which serve poorer communities, the emphasis has been on computer literacy rather than on Thinking Digitally. In better off schools digital technologies have often been used more creatively, more critically, and this has exacerbated rather than closed the digital divide.

For this reason I believe it is vital to develop a framework for focusing on the critical thinking behind the computer/digital literacy. As a teacher of computer skills I am faced with a central dilemma. One would like to focus on using the tools to question, collaborate, problem solve. And yet you cannot use the tool if you do not know what the tool can do. My lessons need to strike some kind of balance between simply showing students how to use a spreadsheet, and asking them to use a spreadsheet in a way which will help them solve problems and think better. Teenagers do not simply know how to use the autosum, or create a chart. The notion of the digital native is deeply flawed. The Computational Thinking paradigm offers some powerful tools for understanding the thinking processes behind many computer applications which involve processing of data, but I think it does less well when looking at the more creative packages: Photoshop, Flash, Dreamweaver or video editing.

I believe there are essentially four cognitive pillars behind all digital literacy practices:

  • Framing The Task: Any task needs to be contextualized. What function does it serve? What problem must it solve? What result must it show? What is its purpose?
  • Assessing Available Resources: What resources are available in the environment which can be used or re-purposed to perform the task? What conventions or applications can be used to perform the task.
  • Designing The Task: The task needs to be broken down into smaller steps, and each step needs to be thought through, and sequenced. The order in which sub-tasks are performed is important. When you are using Photoshop to create an image, you need to think about layering the image, and then what masks or effects must be applied to each layer.
  • Re-Designing The Task: Each step must be tested to make sure it is doing what it is supposed to be doing. Elements are redesigned on the fly so to speak. This re-design and tweaking is an essential part of the process, which is, to an extent, iterative. Once you have tested the application you need to assess whether it meets the brief or not, and re-design if necessary. Often a solution will widen the framing of the task to include new applications which were not initially apparent. The solution may well allow you to re-frame the question!

This framework represents a re-working of the New London Group Pedagogy Of Multiliteracies framework.

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