Monday, February 27, 2012

Howard Rheingold's five new media literacies provide model for 21st education system.

In his talk with child prodigy Adora Svitak, famed new media scholar Howard Rheingold discusses five fundamental literacies related to digital technology: attention, participation, credibility, collaboration and network awareness. This is a significant shift from the popular 20th century literacies of reading, writing and arithmetic. As a teacher, I recognize that this shift to a new set of literacies (and I would add search and filter as a literacy to the list) requires us to rethink the curriculum for students in the education system. Svitak provides a compelling picture of the types of students that we need to develop.

Recently Alberta Education recognized the need to transform the education system for the 21st century and embarked on a process of envisioning to develop the school system needed for a child born in 2010.
The process was called Inspiring Education: A Dialogue with Albertans and resulted in a steering committee report which was to serve as a roadmap for transformation. Although it doesn't use the same language as Rheingold, the report does refer to some of the issues he is addressing. It says, "as never before, the next generation will need to be innovative, creative, and skilled in managing knowledge as a resource" (Government of Alberta, 2010, p. 4). It goes on to say that, "a focus on competencies would move education to a process of inquiry and discovery—not just the dissemination of information and recall of facts" (p. 7). The main vision created by the report focuses on instilling skills and abilities related to the new "three Es" of education: Engaged Thinker, Ethical Citizen and Entrepreneurial Spirit. In many ways the transformation agenda proposed hits on addressing the literacies that Rheingold envisions but in other ways (particularly in the third E-Entrepreneurial) it still relies heavily on a productivity model that is focused on "job training for knowledge workers"(Rheingold, 2007).

The literacies that Rheingold outlines are much comprehensive although more general than the competencies outlined in Inspiring Education. Attention is important because successful digital citizens will need to be able to focus out distractions, move past the state of continuous partial attention and move towards periods of purposeful sustained attention. As Henry Jenkins states, "the availability of these (new) media adds a sense of tentativeness to our real world interactions which can now be interrupted at any time by demands from elsewhere" (Jenkins, 2006). Participation is critical to help ensure all voices remain part of the landscape present in new media. New media helps to equalize the access to voice, but citizens must participate to stay relevant. Participation means not simply consuming media but also creating and sharing content. Again Jenkins supports this notion, stating, "we can be concerned by the ability of these electronic technologies to render invisible anyone who is not able to participate" (Jenkins, 2006). Credibility is fundamentally important too, because with a rise in ability for everyone to participate and publish comes a rise in content with questionable validity. 21st century citizens must be able to discern between content of value and content without substance. Furthermore, they will be required to understand how to publish in a way to ensure their own voice remains credible. Collaboration is at the heart of participatory culture, for if everyone is both a consumer and a producer then content will move to a perpetually unfinished state. Axel Bruns calls this produsage: "Produsers engage not in a traditional form of content production, but are instead involved in produsage - the collaborative and continuous building and extending of existing content in pursuit of further improvement" (Bruns, 2007). Finally, network awareness helps to ensure that citizens understand the power and patterns inherent in networks and the issues related to being highly networked - including issues related to safety, privacy and copyright. Currently, our curriculum is void of discussion on the risks associated with networked behaviour, choosing instead to feebly shield children from the dangers.

The literacy that I would add to Rheingold's list is the ability to search/filter, which may be inherent in the literacies of credibility and network awareness but perhaps deserve its own status. In a space full of content sources, it is increasingly important for citizens to understand how to find relevant material and how to parcel out irrelevant media.

Ultimately, the world is changing and while certain fundamental elements of traditional literacy (reading and writing) and numeracy will continue to be important the role of public education needs to shift to support the new needs of citizens. Teachers should no longer be responsible for passing on knowledge but rather they should look to pass on skills that teach students how to acquire new knowledge and share the knowledge they already have.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this - I think you've captured for me the importance, pathway and markers we need to be aware of. And as someone who has students affected by what is and isn't happening in the Alberta school system, I appreciate you sharing your knowledge of what is happening.

    You point out that the "curriculum is void of discussion on the risks associated with networked behaviour". I would add that even worse, it seems void of discussion on the benefits of networked behavior.

    (segue to rant)

    While Nero is fiddling, Rome is burning. Children who should be learning about digital literacy as outlined by Rheingold are being left behind. The child born in 2010? The child born in 1995 should be our starting point so that we don't continue to pretend that we have plenty of time to prepare ourselves and our children for the world we are living in now.

    Schools are only now getting wifi connectivity. Many still forbid children from using their smart phones in class as learning tools and instead, take them away without determining if use is appropriate. Too many teachers use smartboards like electrified chalkboards and continue to lecture rather than engage. And from what I see, kids may be connected but they're by and large ignorant of the tools around them. We realized decades ago that kids learning about sex on the schoolyard was a recipe for social disaster. Kids learning digital literacy on Xbox is no better. They won't have the skills they need to prevent the digital equivalent of unplanned pregnancies and STDs.

    This isn't a blame the teacher rant. I know teachers are working very hard to ensure their students are learning 21st century skills and that the system is trying to equip teachers with the new tools required. But without the kind of curriculum and culture shift you discuss, many students will be left behind. They will be like students in the 70s partly educated in the imperial system of measurement, partly in metric, and stranded somewhere between.