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This blog was started as my reflections on the 2011 Change MOOC. It is now an on going journal of my thoughts on Higher Education, specifically teaching Biology.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Digital Literacy Disconnect

In the #change11 MOOC, the concept of digital literacy has appeared numerous times.  Usually as a call for an increase in digital skills among students. 

The concept of the Digital Native seems flawed.  While most of our students were born during or after the information tech revolution, most do not understand the concepts of the technology they use.  They may be highly skilled in areas such the use of social networks, email and texting, but does this show an understanding of foundational concepts of such systems?  The Digital Native is a user of technology, not necessarily a partner or innovator.

I argue that the true digital natives were not those who were born after the information revolution, but were born before it.  We lived through the transformation, and adapted to it as it changed. Those that were born after seem to have a disconnect with what we would consider Digital Literacy.

An epiphany struck me a few weeks ago.  It may be something others have considered, but it was a major shift in my perspective.  When I was growing up, I learned how to use a card catalog and the purpose of the Dewey Decimal system.  They were not abstracts, but something read to my daily life (OK, maybe not daily).  When I got to higher education, I learned to use Annual Abstracts and other research references.  By graduate school, some of the first computer based Abstract searches were starting to be used, but I knew how to use other means to find what I wanted.

What I realized is that I had built an information architecture.  I had learned not only how to search to find relevant material (and read to confirm it's relevance), but ways to filter and organize information.  I could remember most of the papers that I read (especially if they had impact), and I had a mental file system of relevant information.  I knew where I had filed the paper, so I could go back for specifics when needed.  In essence I had built a knowledge management system for my own learning.

When I talk with my students, I realize that they don't have that.  Information is at their fingertips, and there is no real reason for them to memorize the wealth of knowledge we have available today.  The problem is they are not building the information architecture to support their learning.  They don't see the difference between things that are memorized and the core concepts and perspectives that need to be mentally actualized.  If you can articulate the core concept, then you can hang any information off the structure you've built, but if you don't have a solid understanding of the core, you will be rebuilding the structure again and again.

That is what I'm seeing with my students.  Though I tell them that this something like the Translation of RNA into a protein is a foundational concept, they don't learn it.  Every semester after that, they have to relearn the concept.
*By learn, I mean understand the core concepts.  They don't need to know every fact, just the core process; when they have that, they can hang the facts off of it.

Digital Literacy falls into the same problem.  Students use the systems, but do they understand the concepts underlying the systems?  This is not about being able to replicate the systems, or even innovate new ones (though it is hoped that could occur).  Instead, it is about building different perspectives, different models for how to view and interact with the world.

So, the question I'm now faced with is how to help students build these informational architectures?  You can't tell them to do it, they'll just balk at you while they roll their eyes (an extreme, but powerful image that many can relate too).  This is something that has to be woven into the class as a hidden Learning Objective (you can tell them after the fact).  But how do you do it?  One thing that comes to my mind is I have to first clearly understand what I mean by an informational architecture.