Conventional literacy and computer literacy critical to Information Age

Pick any community anywhere and take a day to step away from this online education ‘disruptive’ revolution and you will find communities that remain untouched by any of the existing digital learning conversations. Stop and do a head count of those in-the-know and those who are not. Welcome to the future scarcity model. The Information Age appears destined to benefit one side of a Digital Divide.

I am all for opening up access to online learning and applaud the hard work so many people are putting into making it a practical reality. Nevertheless the more I follow the myriad related conversations surrounding education, the more I see ‘experts’ missing the boat.  The baseline computer literacy necessary for the success of existing online learning strategies is still weak among learners and educators. Worse, the percentage of people with access to the necessary technologies is extremely small.

The Open Source technologies that have, for the past couple of decades, built the platforms and support networks that  foster critically necessary online literacy and competency find themselves over-burdened, and occasionally derailed, by venture capital’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to online university and K-12 platforms. This, I admit, concerns me because we have yet to find an alternate means of empowering the public self-directed learning of emerging media tools. Nevertheless, venture capital is important to the advancement of innovation in education.

Historically, visionaries and their financial backers have been critical to the discovery and development of new frontiers. We are finding that breaking ground in new educational frontiers follows historical patterns that are not appreciably different from, for example, the Elizabethan era. The earth is not flat and computer literacy and competency will not eliminate face to face experiences. Digital technologies will not smother a learner’s capacity to learn or a teacher’s capacity to teach anymore than the invention of the calculator eliminated excellence in numeracy dependent fields.

Quality 21st Century Learning outcomes demand that both learner and educator share a functional understanding of digital mediums and the technology that enables them.  In order to offer practical access and achieve quality outcomes, technical literacy needs to develop together with conventional literacy. Unless we understand computers and the web the way we understand pencil, pen, paper and book, outcomes will be abysmal. More importantly, educators and learners had best engage in some bottom up teaching by force-feeding decision makers the realities of the medium and tools that they are either promoting or denouncing.

In an interesting (and timely) Blog post, Computing and Systems Control teacher, Marc Scott, illustrates the Achilles Heel that compromises learning and teaching outcomes in digital learning environments, as well as in our bricks-and-mortar environments. He writes:

So this is the state of the world. Let’s make up some statistics to illustrate my point. If 20 years ago 5% of us had a computer in our homes, then you could pretty much guarantee that 95% of those computer owners were technically literate. Today, let’s assume that 95% of us have a computer in our homes, then I would guess that around 5% of owners are technically literate.

via Kids can’t use computers… and this is why it should worry you – Coding 2 Learn.

Marc Scott’s post uses common every-day examples we all deal with regularly as he speaks to the unique type of dissonance we all struggle with in this era of rapid-fire changes in information technologies. We are all using tools and mediums that we do not fully understand, and what we understand today may change tomorrow. Worse, the tools we understand and use today,  are often poorly understood by those we seek to interact with using these tools.

Scott goes on to quote one of his technician’s pet phrases:

As my lead technician likes to state, ‘the problem is usually the interface between the chair and the keyboard.’

A few years ago, this wasn’t really a very big problem. Computer literacy was largely elective for the majority. If there was one person per office that was a bit of a computer geek, everyone else in the office could get by.  Everyone had a neighbor down the street or around the block that ‘fixed’ the invisible problematic interface between the chair and the keyboard. Parents were encouraged to set limits to minimize their children’s computer and gaming time. This message served to mute the parents and teachers lobbying for increased funding and curriculum geared towards computer literacy.

Enter Web 2.0 and few are ready for the realities that come with the rapid explosion of technology driven communication, knowledge building, and knowledge sharing. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone has access to the tools and bandwidth required to maximize the experience and even fewer understand the tools they need to use.  Somehow, critics of online learning are in fact expecting optimal outcomes from experimental methods using tools that are still being developed and disseminated.

Enthusiastic and motivated MOOC participants are busily sourcing out courses, tools, websites and creative commons licensed materials that will serve to help them improve their writing and math skills. They are scrambling to ‘get up to speed’ when it comes to social media and computer literacy in general.  Educators and online learning platform developers are equally busy with the same learning curve from the opposite side of the table. Meanwhile, the gap between those who know, and those who don’t know grows.

So many established Higher Education ‘specialists’ are denouncing digital ‘open source’ teaching and learning initiatives. They often cite the merits of ‘scarcity’ as  justification for limiting access to the knowledge building content archived behind ivy league walls. What should be concerning us all is the reality that we are creating a new scarcity tier.  Not only are we seeing protectionist behaviors by those who insist on keeping content archived behind proprietary firewalls to make sure their scarcity models remain affluent, we are seeing a digital competency scarcity developing. Only those with access to the new digital teaching and learning technologies and who are establishing competency as new tools are developed and offered, will benefit as we move forward in the Information Age. We are unintentionally creating a new divide. A digital divide that limits access to the full potential of the Information Age.


9 thoughts on “Conventional literacy and computer literacy critical to Information Age

  1. I’ve always been a huge supporter of education, but I will also admit that the educational establishment – like most establishments I suppose – is very conservative and entrenched. So, while I deplore the defunding that’s been going on, I think it is bringing the kind of pressure on education to change that has proven impossible to generate thus far.

    And, well, you know my opinion on MOOCs so far, that they haven’t really gotten out of the conceptual box in any sort of serious way.

    Anyhow… nice post!

    1. Thanks for you comments! It is very true that MOOCs are, at the moment, a concept… there is a great deal of room to evolve. What concerns me is the ‘entrenched conservative thinking’ that serves to limit access to education… and that continues to define what will be learned, when it will be learned… etc.

      1. I think the economic pressures will prove to great for that attitude to survive much longer. Now that we have the technology to educate more or less everyone, the entities that figure out good business models for doing so, will.

        The model of ‘basics for free and perks for (generally) modest money’ is working for many companies, so I am not worried that anyone will be locked out for monetary reasons. The biggest impediment are how the courses are structured, which is all too familiar.

        And that reminds me of an article I read about adults learning English in the US, where it was mentioned that not only is adult education the ‘poor stepchild’ of educational research, but adult language acquisition is the poor stepchild of adult education. And if anything is the most immediate obstacle for for obtaining education and training it is not knowing English. Of course one can find courses and materials in other languages (Spanish most often), but let’s be honest that at least for the foreseeable future most educational content, particularly online, is going to be in English. And… done rambling. 😉

      2. Hi again Cary.. you commented:

        The biggest impediment are how the courses are structured, which is all too familiar.

        This is so true. In fact, I would have to say that the tenacity of holding on to the ‘all too familiar’ is the biggest threat to the development of effective online education delivery…

        I will stop now… otherwise I will be ranting all day! 🙂

  2. MOOCs aren’t perfect. I do think that they open learning to many who did not have access before for a variety of reasons. I also think that doing is the best way of learning how to use technology, so users and teachers will improve their skills by participating. I know I have and I have also seen how other participants can help this learning by pooling their knowledge.

    I do agree with Cary that adult education is the Cinderella. I read an article in our local paper about lack of literacy and numeracy skills in adults and the need for more workplace and other programs to improve this. Well-designed workplace programs are a great way to teach, because the learning is done in context and the motivation is high. Of course learning for people who cannot get jobs because of their lack of English skills are equally important. I did volunteer adult literacy tutoring for a while and found it challenging but rewarding.

    1. Hello Heidi. I appreciate your taking the time to defend the MOOC initiatives… and you are very correct when you say that participation can contribute to digital literacy. It is one of the reasons I actively support MOOC development and developers!

      It would be impossible to create a ‘perfect’ MOOC at this time. Especially since we are really talking about ‘xMOOCs’ that have less and less in common with the original concept of Massive Open Online Courses. The original MOOCs never pretended to follow or deliver the traditional academic experience. They were (and are) in fact more focused on harnessing the power of digital technologies and using them to enable and empower participants in their efforts to understand and use the technologies that are being developed and are becoming more sophisticated by the hour. MOOCs emphasize the development of competencies through the creation of artifacts using digital technologies, networks and collaboration. The subject/content is secondary to the knowledge building and knowledge sharing. Essentially, the focus is on the participant sharing you mentioned. Unfortunately, in xMOOCs… this type of sharing is relatively rare because many participants have limited exposure to digital collaboration and networking. Many, many participants simply struggle to learn ‘the old way’ in a new medium.

      As Cary so aptly commented: “The biggest impediment are how the courses are structured, which is all too familiar.” Her comment speaks volumes about the differences between MOOCs and xMOOCs. 🙂 I must admit though… I am loving the content currently available through the xMOOC offerings. I think there is room for both types of MOOCs… and different people will benefit in different ways.

      Still, I have to say that before we can effectively use digital technologies to benefit work-place sponsored learning or use them to advance basic literacy… we have to tackle the some very important issues:

      1. Access: unlimited broadband is still a privilege and not a right, and not everyone has a Web 2.0 ready computer. 🙂 We need to avoid leaving people behind. A lot of philanthropic funding is going into xMOOCs (maximum bells and whistles technology) – that means money is not always making it to those communities and initiatives that need it most.
      2. Users,educators, and developers need to start speaking to each other more often instead of at each other. If not, the ‘education revolution’ is likely to fail.
      3. The general population needs help get onboard the digital train. (including my spouse :))
      4. more issues than I have time to elaborate on in a comment!

  3. I am late to this worthy discussion Leni, but I would like to comment on the item 4 in your list above (not that it was named, but I would like to try to open at least one aspect of the mystery!)
    Namely the assumption that the trajectory we head down is a beneficent one, in all senses.

    I place my tongue firmly in my left cheek, or I act as solicitor to the devil (whichever metaphor you prefer 🙂 ) when I assert that we could do worse to sit down and consider the full ramifications of where we are heading on more than one front because, aside from the down the line consequences of the widening digital divide, there are a few environmental and social consequences of the accelerating pace of pushing the forms of literacy advocated by all types of MOOC and its allies.

    I know that I may be accused of letting rip with a rant when I speak of the environmental consequences of built in obsolescence of digital technology, hardware and software alike. Perhaps when we cross the nano frontier this will be reduced, but I am not geeky enough to be able to claim that truth, if it is one. There are communities who pay dearly for the materials used to equip yet a minority of the world with the digital power to master the arts of the evolving technologies and they do not tend to be the beneficiaries of the same.

    One might also consider the diminished possibilities of alternative approaches to learning from each other and from all aspects of nature which might be precluded by a strong reliance on digital media. What, for example, are the consequences of slowing down (or speeding up, even) our minds to think like bluebottles or llamas, lynxes or caterpillars without first objectifying these creatures by trying to reduce them to byte-able concepts? Is there something different to be gained from regionalising or localising at smaller scales the exchange of perspectives which have more local relevance than to relentlessly push for ever upward scaleability?

    What potentials lie in the development of drum code? Are we losing nuances of perspectives which are bound to times and spaces now deemed ‘other’ and ‘traditional’?

    Definitely, there are more questions than answers…I have not even begun to speak of the deep philosophical arguments that require insights outside of the realms that digital technologies are currently concerned with, but suffice it to say that perhaps some of the issues, when discussed in these domains in the rarified atmosphere of nerd-land, some of those well placed to share their wisdom may be the least well-connected – so to speak.

    Bridges must be built and pushes for globalising technology which has economic uptake will persist, whatever qualms I may have. I also have to admit that were it not for this relentless movement, I would not have been able to share my opinion in this format, straddling minds across oceans, but there is the nagging concern that even democracy as identified by latter day anarchists is not getting a sufficient look in, but hey, let that be for another rant, another day…


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