See how deep the rabbit hole goes — literacy in a digital world

The digital world can be a place where we live, socialise, work and learn. We need skills, values and literacies to be fully informed and empowered in this digital wonderland.

International Literacy Day 2017 brings this into focus with the theme of 'Literacy in a digital world'.

Down the rabbit hole

Neo has been living in the Matrix without knowing it. Then he meets Morpheus.

After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
— The Matrix, The Wachowskis, 1999

Morpheus invites Neo on a journey of discovery, challenges, revelations, and transformation. Neo accepts.

He then learns about the structures, purpose, and the powers that control the Matrix. Neo's moves from ‘reality’ to ‘truth’, from ‘perception’ to ‘understanding’.

So too, the journey into the workings of the digital world benefits learners. This requires more than surface engagement. The skills, values and attitudes for deep engagement and understanding of the digital world impact learning and citizenship. Individuals can be more than passive consumers or uninformed participants. They can develop into empowered contributors and purposeful creators.

Person looking up through a field of lights Rabbit hole by nixit. CC BY 3.0 NZ.

International Literacy Day — 8 September

'Literacy in a digital world' is the theme for International Literacy Day (ILD) on 8 September 2017. UNESCO’s Concept Note for ILD 2017 states the main objectives are to:

  • reflect on what it means to be literate in increasingly digitally-mediated societies
  • explore effective policies and programmes for literacy skills development in a digital world, and
  • explore how digital technologies can support progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal 4 — ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.

Digital technologies are changing living, working, socialising and learning on a global scale. The theme of 'Literacy in a digital world' poses some fundamental questions:

  • What kinds and levels of literacy skills are required in an increasingly digital world?
  • How could such skills be related to a broader set of knowledge, skills and competencies required in the digital world?

UNESCO’s Concept Note for ILD 2017 (pdf, 232KB)

UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 — ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.

I imagine that right now, you're feeling a bit like Alice

Before offering him the red pill, Morpheus acknowledges the state of confusion Neo finds himself in. Neo senses there is more to know about the world around him — he just doesn’t know where or how to find the answers.

Like Neo, learners can be overwhelmed by the infoglut of the digital environment. They need direction to be effective consumers, critics and creators of digital information. A range of literacies benefit learners:

  • the ability to read and write
  • information literacy
  • critical literacy
  • media literacy
  • digital literacy.

The ability to read and write

This is fundamental for learning and sets the foundation for other literacies. The benefits of developing engaged readers include:

  • better independent learners
  • improved social skills
  • positive well-being.

Developing writing skills enables learners to not only be consumers of information, but also creators. The ability to write about ideas, thoughts, emotions and understandings is an important expression of self.

Understanding reading engagement — find out what reading engagement is and why it matters.

Information literacy

CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) defines being 'information literate' as having an understanding of:

  • a need for information
  • the resources available
  • how to find information
  • the need to evaluate results
  • how to work with or exploit results
  • ethics and responsibility of use
  • how to communicate or share your findings
  • how to manage your findings.

Information literacy helps people learn, socialise, work and live. It is recognised by many as a fundamental literacy in the dynamic digital world.

CILIP Information literacy skills (pdf, 130KB) — CILIP’s outline of information literacy skills and how they can be developed.

Critical literacy

Critical literacy means having an understanding of:

  • the construction and use of knowledge — all texts communicate ideas and values
  • the authority of voices in texts — some voices are dominant, others aren't
  • how this can create power relationships — in a text and in society, and
  • the purpose and impact of a text — how this positions the reader to adopt a viewpoint.

Critical literacy is essential to adjudge texts' quality, authenticity, reliability and value.

Media literacy

To be media literate is to understand that:

  • all media texts are constructions
  • media audiences make their own meanings
  • media texts communicate social messages and values
  • there are commercial imperatives in all media texts, and
  • each medium has its own ‘language’.

Living in 'post-truth' world saturated with digital media, these skills are vital as a learner and citizen.

Digital literacy

This is most obvious for learning and living in the digital world. Digital literacy is about finding, evaluating, using and creating digital content in meaningful ways.

Digital literacy requires a variety of strategies and skills, including:

  • critical thinking — questioning how authentic, valid and useful digital information is
  • communicating and collaborating with others in the digital space
  • using digital tools to design and create compelling original content
  • using digital tools to access, use and share information.

Digital literacy has benefits both for learning and for being an informed, active, and safe citizen.

Understanding digital literacy — find out what digital literacy is and why it matters

Strategies for developing digital literacy — explore strategies you can apply the classroom to help students develop key digital literacy skills, and see how they can be supported by the school library.

There is no spoon

Neo learns the rules and the truth of the Matrix in the ‘Construct’ — a virtual work space. Initially, he doesn’t believe — he feels dominated by the world of the Matrix. Running through increasingly complex scenarios and simulations adds to his set of capabilities. The more he learns the more he realises he has control.

Do not try and bend the spoon, that's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth... there is no spoon.
— Spoon Boy to Neo, The Matrix, The Wachowskis, 1999

With the wisdom of a Buddhist monk, Spoon Boy gives Neo an inkling of the power that understanding affords him.

Literacy exists on a continuum — from basic to complex skills and competencies. Literacy can't be learned in isolation. It needs to be integrated — or infused — with learning content in the classroom. Educators need an understanding of approaches, or constructs, that can scaffold learners' literacy competency. Effective approaches include:

  • the Four Resources model
  • a pedagogy of multiliteracies
  • Learning by Design.

The Four Resources model

This approach to literacy development emphasises the importance of critical literacy. It recognises the text, the reader and the social context as all being important. It proposes 4 roles for the reader:

Four Resources ModelThe Four Resources Model — adapted from Luke and Freebody, 1990

A pedagogy of multiliteracies

A pedagogical framework for teachers to develop literacies when analysing a text:

Multiliteracies Pedagogy A pedagogy of multiliteracies — adapted from the New London Group, 1996

Learning by Design

This framework combines four Knowledge Processes:

  • experiencing — the 'known' and the 'new'
  • conceptualizing — by naming (categorising) and with theory (making generalisations)
  • analyzing — functional (analysis) and critical (evaluation)
  • applying — appropriate and creative production.

Learning by Design — the Knowledge Processes.

I don’t know the future...

At the end of the film, Neo sees the Matrix not as a simulated reality, but as the rolling stream of green source code. He sees it for what it is. This will enable him to manipulate it and use it as he sees fit. His aim is to reclaim the Matrix for humanity. He has learned all he needs to be empowered to do this.

In the final monologue, as Neo says:

I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin.
— Neo, The Matrix, The Wachowskis, 1999

International Literacy Day (ILD) is about looking to the future. The emphasis for ILD 2017 is not on classroom teaching and learning. It is about professional development of educators. The aim is to build understanding of what literacies for the digital age are, and how to develop them in learners.

How can your school library contribute?

Think about how your school library can contribute to the development of digital literacy, and other literacies, by learners and teachers. You can do this through:

  • having a quality collection of digital resources — and providing equitable access to them
  • making your library an information ecosystem — focusing on how the people, practices, values and technologies contribute to learning
  • directly teaching students a range of literacy skills in the library or classroom
  • delivering professional development to teachers on a range of literacy skills.

Your library's digital collection

How library services contribute to digital literacy

One day is not enough, but 8 September can focus thinking on literacy for the digital age in your school.

  • Kick-off an audit of current practice.
  • Determine what literacies and skill levels your learners need.
  • Explore approaches to teaching literacy.
  • Start planning for integrating information, critical, media and digital literacies development into ongoing teaching and learning.
  • Consider how you can contribute to this through resources, services and providing professional development.

Take the red pill, and enter the rabbit hole of your own journey of discovery into literacy in the digital world.

By Samuel Beyer

Samuel is the Senior Specialist (Online Learning) for Services to Schools.

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