Tuesday, November 1, 2011

On Digital and More Traditional Literacy

My 10th grade social studies teacher, Mr. Schweidel, is my favorite teacher ever. He mocked, prodded, and harassed us into learning in a variety of inventive ways, some of which I try to use when I'm in the classroom, though I doubt I have the same results. When I read this article, a takedown of digital literacy, I thought back to Mr. Schweidel's class. One day, in an attempt to get us to not be mindless drones writing down whatever he said, Mr. Schweidel told us a story about how Hannibal invaded Italy with elephants, using snow chutes to transport the elephants through the Alps. While he was telling this obviously tall tale, I looked left and right, watching dumbfounded while my classmates wrote it all down. At the end, Mr. Schweidel asked the class what was the most amazing thing about what he had just said. When he was greeted with blank stares, he began to yell. "The most amazing thing is that this never happened!," he roared, and then lit into us for being so gullible. The message was clear: I am an authority figure, but I am not perfect. There is truth out there. Seek it. Find it out. Don't believe everything you hear, no matter who it's from.

And that brings us to the internet.
Annie Murphy Paul, the author of the article that got me thinking, notes that the Internet, which is an authority in the eyes of many, allows people to manipulate and misrepresent. But as the above example from my youth shows, you don't need Internet access to do that. Is there a more permissive environment for such hijinks online? Perhaps. On a listserv I belong to that discusses information literacy, someone asked a question about using websites that are patently false to teach website evaluation. A lively discussion ensued; there are a lot of purposely inaccurate websites out there. But I'm not worried about those. Anyone can do a little digging and debunk those for themselves. I'm more concerned with innocuous websites that have bad information. Ones written by self-proclaimed experts that are anything but. Ones that a library patron might actually use.

Overall, Paul draws a false dichotomy between digital and more traditional literacies, when really they are mutually constitutive. You can't have one without the other in 2011. The Internet is not going away, and people need to know how to use it, how to evaluate online sources just as they would print or oral ones. Below is a brief discussion I had with the author via twitter. Here's a link to it, and here's a good blog post from 2009 that touches on some of the same things.

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