Demystifying Technology · Digital Literacy Reconsidered · Teaching · Technology and Society

A Growing Understanding of Digital Literacy

Literacy is a set of competencies and knowledge within a certain domain. Digital literacy, then, is literacy within the realm of digital information and communication technologies. Summarizing a variety of definitions regarding digital literacy and related computational thinking, the set of competencies include:

  • Technical skills – the ability to appropriately select and effectively use a range of technologies;
  • Information skills – the ability to seek, evaluate, interpret and apply relevant and trustworthy information across multiple media;
  • Cognitive skills – the ability to logically analyze and organize problems in ways that allow use of digital and other tools to help solve them, and to generalize new processes to other problems;
  • Socio-emotional skills – the ability to communicate and collaborate with others, along with the personal confidence, persistence, and tolerance, in order to tackle complex, ambiguous, open-ended problems; and
  • Application skills – the ability to integrate the above skills into our everyday experiences in order to advance our professional, personal, and civic interests and responsibilities

Even as our understanding regarding the nature and components of digital literacy continue to evolve, so too does our understanding of digital technologies. In particular, there is a growing awareness that technology is more than just the hardware and software of which it is comprised. Rather, it is a seamless, indivisible combination of artifact, people, organizations, policies, economics, histories, cultures, and knowledge; it is a sociotechnical product. Further, sociotechnical products are not static, but are continuously innovated in use as individuals and groups regularly adapt artifacts to fit within changing social contexts.

Consider the mobile phone, and specifically the make and model of the phone you regularly use, the software that turns the hardware into a functioning device, and the cell network that allows you to use it to support your information and communication activities. What goals, preferences, histories, and contexts might have informed the engineers and coders who worked to develop that specific phone? If an Apple phone, how might the business model of Apple as first and foremost a hardware company influence form and function? If an Android phone, how might the business model of Google as first and foremost an information company influence form and function? What economic factors influence why some features of a phone work on one cell network but don’t work, or only work at additional cost, on another network? What government policies might influence why some features of a phone work in one country but not in another country?

The goals, preferences, histories, intended contexts and uses, economics, policies, and other social factors across the different stages of a technology’s life cycle each uniquely shape the development of the hardware, software, distribution, and use policies of a sociotechnical product. It is a seamless, indivisible combination of artifact, people, organizations, policies, economics, histories, cultures, and knowledge. When there is strong alignment of the combination of social and technical aspects of a product with the  preferences, history, culture, and capabilities of the person using the phone, and when the product fosters an individual’s ability to be a co-creator of the product to fit various contexts within which it is being used, a fan of the product is born. But when there are mismatches, frustration results.

Within a sociotechnical perspective, selecting appropriate technology becomes more than deciding when to use one type of digital technology versus another. It’s to further recognize which specific product brings together a combination of social and technical that best aligns the values, goals, cultures, contexts, and capabilities of those using the sociotechnical product to perform tasks. This may seem an overly complex, or perhaps an impossible task. And indeed, it does provide a significant set of challenges, although as I will try to lay out shortly, application of traditional community inquiry and project-based learning techniques to digital literacy training can be an effective way to lead the transition.

On the other hand, there is often a significant impact if we do not shift from a reductionist understanding to a sociotechnical understanding of technology. Individuals and groups may fail to recognize that there is a misalignment between the social forces that shaped the sociotechnical product and their own preferences, history, culture, capabilities, and context. As a result, they may have their doubts regarding their ability to effectively work with technology reinforced. They may give up and instead await “experts”, or may unquestioningly follow the lead of market hype that a new model or new technology will resolve their problem. Digital literacy training from a reductionist perspective of technology may thereby serve to reduce, not strengthen important competencies needed to be fully digitally literate.

As a quick example, consider the manila folder and floppy disk icons used with some versions of office software like Microsoft Word. In my physical office, the manila folder is something I pull out when I have a set of documents I’m done working with and plan to archive. Thus, the manila folder icon to me means save. On the other hand, I spent many years using the floppy disk as a means to exchange files between computers. Thus, to me the floppy disk icon means open. As a result, when I use office software that incorporates these icons, I periodically confuse the two and click the manila folder icon when I want to save, and the floppy disk icon when I want to open. I can laugh over this when I make the mistake because I have situated this misalignment within the context of differing histories, cultures, and thought processes, and because in the grand scheme of things it’s rather minor. And I can laugh because I have confidence in my technology skills. But this is not the case for everyone, and indeed for many such experiences result in doubt, not laughter.

 

Before returning to digital literacy training, I want to highlight one other way a sociotechnical perspective can advance our agency in selecting and applying technology to address our professional, personal, and civic interests and responsibilities.

In his book Geek Heresy, Kentaro Toyama notes that technology does not itself have agency to transform us and the world around us, but rather it is used by us to amplify human forces. The SAMR model notes different ways this amplification can happen as we move from Substitution (using a new tool to do the same thing we’ve been doing all along) to Amplification (using a new tool to do the same thing but with some functional improvement), Modification (redesigning how we do a task to take advantage of new possibilities made available through use of the new tool), and Redefinition (using the tool to realize new tasks that previously were inconceivable). The amplifying potential of technology is only realized to the extent that we have digital literacy to move beyond substitution and towards redefinition in our application of technologies.

Within a critical sociotechnical perspective, we also need to reflect on the human forces amplified at each level of a product’s life cycle. We need to ask in what ways the forces of engineers; of the president, CEO, board, and shareholders of corporations; of the marketers and salespeople; of government legislators and administrators; of educators and social service agencies; of individuals and groups as innovators-in-use; and of the many others in the product life cycle might be amplified in ways that are consistent with and counter to the values and goals of those using the sociotechnical product to accomplish a task. So too, we also might also ask in what ways the human forces of the individual or group making use of a sociotechnical product are being amplified through use in ways that provide greater agency in addressing their immediate goals, and also in influencing those working at earlier stages of a products life cycle to foster creation of products and policies more in line with the preferences, history, culture, capabilities, and contexts of those individuals.

Let me conclude this post by highlighting a demystifying technology approach to digital literacy training that I believe resonates well with such a sociotechnical perspective of technology.

  1. We work to adopt a social-forward approach to digital literacy training. We learn best when doing things that matter to us. Rather than starting with skill shares, we often begin by seeking to understand the ultimate creative works participants are wanting to accomplish. What opportunity or problem are they trying to address? What goals, values, histories, and context are motivating these works? What existing tools are being used currently? This is often the beginning of community inquiry. This naturally leads into discussion of what skills and technologies might more effectively help (or might hamper) further amplification,  modification, and redefinition of the tasks needed to accomplish that creative work.
  2. We work to incorporate technical, information, cognitive, and socio-emotional skills development into the digital literacy training as infill where needed by participants as they execute, or prepare to execute, the tasks needed to accomplish their creative works. This is the heart of all project-based learning — skills development is a response to project selection and initiation rather than a standalone training.
  3. We try to include exercises to explore all dimensions of a sociotechnical product. For instance, in a workshop on selecting a mobile phone to support a project, exercises might be included that have participants research the mission statements of different handset vendors and cell network providers, and map these to the different features of the hardware, software, and cell packages.
  4. We regularly intersperse discussion and critical reflection with hands-on activities to bring forward participants human and social expertise to complement hardware and software skills development. No one knows better the goals, values, and context motivating digital technology adoption than those taking the training to accomplish a creative work. Further, as instructors we may not be aware of the way a sociotechnical product and the broader supporting infrastructure that works so well for us may be misaligned with the goals, values, preferences, history, culture, capabilities, and contexts of participants. Indeed, at times this misalignment can ultimately privilege some over others in ways that create injustices. Our willingness to transition from digital literacy instructor to learner itself can be an act of justice, and can lead to further justice-oriented actions.

 

 

 

 

 

While I’ve been actively working to build better digital literacy training for over a decade, I still feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface. This continues to be a new world of discovery, especially as every digital literacy workshop becomes a co-learning space to further explore new realities regarding how sociotechnical projects are shaped by, and also shape, us and the world around us by amplifying a wide range of human forces. I hope you’ll join in the co-learning!

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