Sunday, March 3, 2013

What Digital Literacy Means to Me

I've been excited to share my thoughts on digital literacies for #ETMOOC, but I've had trouble thinking through the questions and framing them in my own experiences.  It's one thing and a relatively easy one, at that to restate the communis opinio on "digital literacy", but it's been quite another thing to write down my own take on what the term means to me.

The last question for #ETMOOC topic #3 and its connection to "participatory culture" struck me as the most important and most difficult to write on:
"What are the problems inherent in defining literacy, fluency, skills, and competency today (e.g., using terms like 21st century literacies, digital fluency), and how do these affect curricular development, pedagogy, and the work of teachers and students?"
The inherent problems that exist for defining the term "digital literacy" are rooted in familiarity (cf. the LCL MOOC's Session 2 "Gears" assignment).  Because there are so much technologies that one can be "literate" or "fluent" in, let alone some many types of fluencies, it's hard to give a simple definition of the term, and I understand the frustrations that arise in discussions of them, especially my own.

Along those lines, I was recently thinking about a statue of Buddha that belongs to the Norton Simon's permanent collection in Pasadena.

Buddha Shakyamuni from Gandhara c. 200 CE at the Norton Simon Museum
What makes this particular Buddha sculpture interesting to me is it's Greek influence.  This Buddha, found in Gandhara (modern Pakistan) and dating to around 200 CE, is one of many examples of the well-know class of Graeco-Buddhist art that shows influence from Greek art, which is a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th c. BCE, who introduced Greek ideas into the East.  Unlike the standard examples, his gown resembles the flowing garments common to Greek sculpture, as do the curls in his hair. 

Alexander's impact on the world was profound.  By conquering such a large area of land at the time, he was able to spread Greek culture much farther than it ever extended.  Likewise, he was able to bring foreign ideas back to the West, which led to an explosion in new thinking and creativity throughout the empire.  And what he left behind was radically different from Classical Greece.  With the newfound increase in communication, the Hellenistic period became smaller but much more exciting and vibrant, with unprecedented cultural borrowings and sharing that made new ideas possible, like the "Greek" Buddha above.

This is what digital literacy is for me.  Right now, we're experiencing a similar telescopic enrichment in education and pedagogy, thanks to digital technologies that make it possible for us to communicate in ways we'd never thought were possible 50 years ago.  The new "Silk Road" has been paved by blogs, Google+, Twitter and other forms of social media that people from all over the world use to share old ideas and build new ones.  Much like the Graeco-Buddhist art, our new ideas built using these channels represent a syncretism of thought, rather than unilateral movement.

With that, what I think it means to be "digitally literate" is critically dependent on what's been called "participatory culture" (cf. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture), and it's not unlike Buddha Shakyamuni wearing a Greek himation, but still displaying his customary mudra, and with a Greek haircut, but with his usual ushnisha.  What makes this sculpture extraordinary and novel for its time wasn't the technology that was used to carve it, but the confluence of different ideas that were put into it.

Returning to the second part of the #ETMOOC question above, namely how the problems of the definition of digital literacy affect curriculum development and pedagogy, I think, in my professional development role, that the frustrations that some feel in engaging with the ideas of literacies has to do, at least in part, with the belief that tools are being forced on them.  Moreover, some may feel that new modes of thought are unwelcome, in that they want to be the ones disseminating ideas to students, or just aren't yet comfortable putting their own ideas in public view, and I understand that.  But that's not what Alexander did in the East, and that's not what social media is doing to education.  In order to overcome these problems and assuage the fears, we've got to prove that the results are more powerful than ever.

Sure, the competency in technology is important, but competency alone isn't what makes one digitally literate.  I am familiar with various sorts of technology, but it wasn't until I started exploring different paths and engaging with the rest of the world that I really gained a higher literacy and understanding of what we can accomplish with the tools.  I had no idea what sorts of new and exciting ideas were being discussed just beyond my traditional reach, but thanks to social media I am now having fantastic conversations about blogs and digital storytelling, for instance, while making new contacts and blending new ways of thinking with my own.

To be "digitally literate", to my mind, is to take the necessary steps for exploring the many communicative paths that technology provide for the sharing of information and ideas.  It's dependent upon a sense of adventure and an openness to different ways of thinking.  And it also requires a willingness to embrace new ideas, especially challenging and difficult ones, while integrating them with established ideas.  One must be competent in using specific technologies to find and share ideas, but there's also a necessary component of culture "awareness" that belongs with using them.  I want this for students, as they learn to navigate this world.

I don't think I've done much here to simplify the definition of digital literacy or disambiguate any of its problems.  But that's how I've come to an understanding of it in my own terms, and I'm looking forward to continuing the conversation.