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Friday, February 13, 2015

New Literacies: Smarter than you think

It's no secret I love to read and that my interests often surround technology and anthropology... surprisingly similar topics. I enjoy finding similarities between the old world and new, gizmos of the ancients and computers, innovations of any era. The world is changing quickly, so quickly in fact that I believe Moore's Law is no longer valid. Often the changes we see are not as easy to quantify, though. As an educator, I think there are also deficiencies in the acquisition of knowledge on the average. The idea that doing math in your head is faster than the calculator app on your iPhone is an example of negative changes we are observing which I believe to be detrimental to our society as a whole.

Making judgments on the effectiveness of a tool is not always as easy as we may think. Working and living in the Bush for nearly 10 years has taught me that sometimes the simplest innovations are the most effective and the fanciest newfangled device could cost you time, effort, and health. If you don't believe me, try ice fishing 50 miles from home with an ATV or snowgo with no pull starter. Creating rubrics to measure the utility of a tool is critical to our lives in the Bush or in the city. Mistakes like trusting in a battery powered GPS in the wilds of Alaska can cost you your life.

The interesting thing about Bush Alaska and comparing/blending old technology with new is how similar the efforts really are. I read the book Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson this past year. Mr. Thompson makes several great points in his book, but one I found particularly interesting was the comparison of the printing press and the internet. We find ourselves wondering how to teach youth with Google at their fingertips to answer any question they have and computers to do the heavy lifting of thinking for them. The internet is open and subjective in nature, though. It is built on the content of the masses with a framework of openness and equality. How do we go about picking and choosing what information to grant "academic credibility" to?

This is not a new problem, though, as Thompson articulates:  
The other thing that makes me optimistic about our cognitive future is how much it resembles our cognitive past. In the sixteenth century, humanity faced a printed-paper wave of information overload—with the explosion of books that began with the codex and went into overdrive with Gutenberg’s movable type. As the historian Ann Blair notes, scholars were alarmed: How would they be able to keep on top of the flood of human expression? Who would separate the junk from what was worth keeping? The mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz bemoaned “that horrible mass of books which keeps on growing,” which would doom the quality writers to “the danger of general oblivion” and produce “a return to barbarism.” Thankfully, he was wrong. Scholars quickly set about organizing the new mental environment by clipping their favorite passages from books and assembling them into huge tomes—florilegia, bouquets of text—so that readers could sample the best parts. They were basically blogging, going through some of the same arguments modern bloggers go through. (Is it enough to clip a passage, or do you also have to verify that what the author wrote was true? It was debated back then, as it is today.) The past turns out to be oddly reassuring, because a pattern emerges. Each time we’re faced with bewildering new thinking tools, we panic—then quickly set about deducing how they can be used to help us work, meditate, and create.

Thompson points out the faults of books in so many areas, faults that students in thousands of classrooms across the globe also lament, I am sure. I have talked for years and years about the power of iBooks and digital publishing tools. I cannot imagine a world where I could not search keywords in text or click through links of digital text. The simplest features of modern texts, though, were not available in early printed literature. Tables of content and appendices, much less copyrights, were never even a consideration in the early days. This is strikingly similar to the concept of the world wide web. There is a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, but we have no way of finding it, sorting it, or judging it. There is no table of contents for the internet. There are often no references to primary sources in blogs. "It took decades—centuries, even—for the book to be redesigned into a more flexible cognitive tool, as suitable for quick reference as it is for deep reading. This is the same path we’ll need to tread with our digital tools. It’s why we need to understand not just the new abilities our tools give us today, but where they’re still deficient and how they ought to improve." (Thompson) The internet is only a few decades old, hopefully we won't have to wait centuries...

There is hope and educators across the globe have recognized "new literacies" or "digital literacies." Reading credible sources, judging reliability of sources, and not simply copy/paste regurgitation of text are a few cornerstone skills. Reading, assimilating, and understanding, though, are only part of the process of learning, as any educator will tell you. Writing, expressing, and sharing information is critical to the process. Teaching something is the best way to master the subject; every kid figures that out in the first grade when they tie their buddy's shoes. In the 21st Century there are simply too many outlets for expression. The constraints of each are different and the expectations of each are different. One hundred and forty character tweets are certainly different than professional writing samples, though not so different that a text message via cell phone. The audience, the application, and the medium dictates the style, depth, and content of each. Blogging, for example, forces me to write down my arguments and assumptions with clarity and in proper form. It's different than a passing conversation about the topics you will find here, it is a concerted effort to stay on topic and be concise. Writing our thoughts forces us to listen to our own words and judge them as another would. This is the single biggest reason to do it. You have a lot of opinions. I have a lot of opinions.  I’m sure some of them you hold strongly, as do I. I don't always have the time, but I try to read the thoughts of others and I appreciate you reading mine. The interesting thing I observe in my experience blogging, which is the the basis of this conversation, is that my opinion usually becomes more complex when I post it for the entire world wide web to see. I become more skeptical of my own views and seek to defend myself more than I do in conversation. Think about all the conversations you have had with a racist, a bigot, or a "Debbie-downer." How would they articulate their thoughts if forced to post it to the web? Would they feel ashamed at their thoughts, their grammar, their language/vocabulary? 

Here is another excellent excerpt from Smarter Than You Think:
Stanford University English professor Andrea Lunsford is one of America’s leading researchers into how young people write. If you’re worried that college students today can’t write as well as in the past, her work will ease your mind. For example, she tracked down studies of how often first-year college students made grammatical errors in freshman composition essays, going back nearly a century. She found that their error rate has barely risen at all. More astonishingly, today’s freshman-comp essays are over six times longer than they were back then, and also generally more complex. “Student essayists of the early twentieth century often wrote essays on set topics like ‘spring flowers,’” Lunsford tells me, “while those in the 1980s most often wrote personal experience narratives. Today’s students are much more likely to write essays that present an argument, often with evidence to back them up”—a much more challenging task. And as for all those benighted texting short forms, like LOL, that have supposedly metastasized in young people’s formal writing? Mostly nonexistent. “Our findings do not support such fears,” Lunsford wrote in a paper describing her research, adding, “In fact, we found almost no instances of IM terms.” Other studies have generally backed up Lunsford’s observations: one analyzed 1.5 million words from instant messages by teens and found that even there, only 3 percent of the words used were IM-style short forms. (And while spelling and capitalization could be erratic, not all was awry; for example, youth substituted “u” for “you” only 8.6 percent of the time they wrote the word.) Others have found that kids who message a lot appear to have have slightly better spelling and literacy abilities than those who don’t. At worst, messaging—with its half-textual, half-verbal qualities—might be reinforcing a preexisting social trend toward people writing more casually in otherwise formal situations, like school essays or the workplace.

As an educator I have taught in the Bush for nearly ten years. We are blessed with a wealth of technology in the wilds of Alaska and to that end I have faced a number of unique challenges concerning literacy. I have struggled with learners reading at a 3rd grade level in the 8th grade, ELL (English language learners) students, and generally low performers. There is another type of literacy these students need to master, though no more or less important. That is digital literacy. “I think we are in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we have not seen since Greek civilization,” says Stanford University English Professor Andrea Lunsford

As a social studies teacher, I often found my classroom split on social and political issues. The healthy discussions generated in my classroom was engaging and powerful, shaping my own perspectives as much as my students. The spirit of debate, of rhetoric, of healthy argument, built us all up and educated us all in ways the text could never have done. It is possible that the internet could be this for the next generation. The danger, as Jared Lanier (I blogged about his views some time ago) describes it, is in the manner in which the discourse occurs. We must create systems that encourage positivity and safety online. We must encourage digital citizenship, respect each other’s differences, honor the authorship, work, and insights of others, and police ourselves to combat cyberbullying. This is the work of the new digital educator. This is our new, digital literacy.