Friday, March 2, 2012

The Skills of Social Literacy

This is an abbreviated snapshot of what listening to a 90 minute podcast looks like on my web browser’s history function: Google Search (application/pdf Object) NIKE+ FUELBAND - COUNTS - YouTube you found me. Jane McGonigal (3)  Putin backs away from Assad regime - The Globe and Mail jenkins powerpoint berkeley - Google Search Twitter white paper mit participatory literacy - 

I really wished that I could have joined them at Berkeley for that glass of wine at the end. I felt like I’d earned it.

Yes, yes, I know. Jenkins is always worth it and the viewing and listening this week was very interesting. (But that was a long podcast.) I want to comment on multi-tasking, the need for a common language that media literacy education can provide, the greater good of new media literacy and gaming as an important skill. 

The ‘history’ capture at the top of this blog illustrates what Jenkins was saying about needing to understand multi-tasking and learn how to ‘manage attention’, something I would emphasize on his list of social literacy skills (Jenkins, n.d.). However, I would argue that ‘managed-attention’ might be a more instructive label for the skill he is describing. Multi-tasking has taken on a pejorative value-laden tone that attracts a ‘just say no’ reaction, rather than encouraging us to learn to manage our attention. 

Common Language and Approach
Some children learn to read on their own, yet we don’t assume all children will. Nor should we assume that because children are using the tools of participatory culture, they are aware of the implications of the tools. As Jenkins pointed out about the PBS documentary on youth and media, we lack the language to describe our experiences online (PBS, n.d.). We also don’t necessarily understand the tools without a context for the tool – is it a place to create  a community like Facebook, a broadcast medium like Twitter, or somewhere to post our art like YouTube? 

The need for common definitions and approaches was illustrated for me this week as I sat in on a debriefing about a world scale natural disaster. The person who had headed up the response was a former army officer and he described how other key people were also ex-military. Afterwards, I asked an international expert in emergency management why the military experience was so powerful. His immediate reply was, “They all define things the same way.” 

So the people with a military background understood what the other was saying and the command structure. As a result, they were able to take action quickly without further discussion. Having a common language, tools and culture provides a powerful platform for effectiveness. This bolsters the argument for deliberate instruction in social literacy. 

Digital Natives versus Immigrants
So, what about digital natives versus immigrants? Jenkins does a good job of illustrating the metaphor’s strengths and shortcomings. The digital immigrant metaphor seems particularly useful when looking at the skills immigrants have which they can pass on to others. Children of immigrants sometimes describe what sticklers their parents were for proper grammar – because English was a second language, their parents were more aware of the rules than native speakers. We digital immigrants may have much to teach children about what Jenkins calls the ‘complex interplay between old and new media’ because we have to work harder at learning the new tools. His description of the role parents can play in ‘watching their kids’ backs’ versus banning social media is also insightful.

As an aside, there’s important research into the value of bilingualism in delaying dementia (Craig, Bialystol & Freedman, 2010). Perhaps we digital immigrants will also get an added immunity for all the pain we go through learning new tools. One can hope. 

Knowledge Diplomacy, Gaming and a Better Future
Governor General David Johnston has written an op-ed in the Globe and Mail giving his views about the challenges facing the world and why learning and sharing information – what he calls knowledge diplomacy - is so important (Johnston, n.d.). What he says underscores the tenets of this master's program - the importance and role of communication in the era of the Internet, as well as this week’s topic of participatory culture. Johnston points out the need for trans-disciplinary, interconnected approaches and how ideas are improved when shared and tested through action.  

This has historically been discussed as knowledge diplomacy, which is defined by the Asia Pacific Institute as "combining the skills acquired through education and experience with diplomacy as an intermediation mechanism to peacefully solve issues and address common topics of interest between countries" (Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, n.d.). It has its roots in efforts to look at knowledge management in diplomatic endeavors (Knowledge and Diplomacy, n.d., pp. 10 – 11). 

Jane McGonigal talks about the need to create a better future as well, in particular the role of gaming in solving the world’s problems. She’s an impassioned ambassador for gaming skills and how they engage people in problem solving, collaboration, ‘blissful productivity’ – her way of describing the pleasure people get in participating in a game, and the hunt for ‘epic meaning’ – the all encompassing sense of accomplishment gamers feel when they solve a problem (McGonigal, n.d.). Check out her TedTalk; anyone with a teenager on the couch will feel infinitely better for having watched. If you’re interested, also check out Jason Marquis’ blog on the use of her theories in post-secondary education.

Digital literacy is critical. These are skills that students need to learn, as do their parents and teachers. They are important not only for ensuring that we all are able to enjoy what Jenkins calls “a complex interplay between old and new media”, but to ensure that we build the better future as envisioned by Johnston and McGonigal. 

 By the way, a shout out to Glenn Kubish for his dialogue with Henry Jenkins, which Jenkins posted on his blog this week (Jenkins, 2012).  This illustrates the power of ‘throwing things out in the world’ and collective intelligence. Well done. 

 Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. Accessed February 17, 1012.

Craik F.I., Bialystok E. & Freedman M. 2010. Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease: bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve.. Neurology, 75 (19), 1726-1729.

Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The official weblog of Henry Jenkins. C Is For Convergence: How the Cookie Monster Reformed Canadian Health Care. (2012, February 29). Retrieved from

Digital Nation | FRONTLINE | PBS. (n.d.). Retrieved March 2, 2012, from

Henry_Jenkins_UCiSchool_06Feb2008.mp3. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Johnston, D. (n.d.). The diplomacy of knowledge - The Globe and Mail. Retrieved March 2, 2012, from

Knowledge_and_Diplomacy. (n.d.). Retrieved from

McGonigal, J. (n.d.). Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world | Video on Retrieved March 2, 2012, from


  1. Excellent post, Judith.

    I have also recently read tips for 'managed attention' or focusing your attention to be more productive. Margaret Moore (aka Coach Meg) describes how you can train your brain to focus on one task in an Organize your mind to organize your life on CNN. She advises readers to train themselves to sustain their focus and consciously shift it to the next task.

    I agree that the need for digital literacy is imperative for being successful in the future. I am astounded when I speak to others who are proud of not using Facebook, Twitter and accessing Web 2.0 tools. However, if I ask these same users if they read customer reviews on products and services, they always say “yes”. Social media is seen as a waste of time and a vapid pursuit, but yet customer reviews are considered an essential part of researching future purchases.

    It will be interesting to see how Howard Rheingold’s new book about digital literacy will be received. His discussion with Adora Svitak showed that he is still learning and deciding what the most important aspects of online literacy are for his readers. But I think that the most important aspects of digital literacy cannot be taught through a book. Instead, the user should apply many of the same rules that apply to offline life to their digital life. Being polite, honest and respectful goes along way in both worlds.

  2. Thanks, Hillary. I'm going to take a look at what Coach Meg has to say. You reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend who said that she won't friend anyone on Facebook who lives in the same city because that should be a in-person relationship, rather than virtual. We talked a bit about the theory of social media 'thickening' ties, not supplanting them. I suspect she is friending a few more of her local friends as a result of knowing a bit more about how social media affects relationships.