I’ve recently been thinking quite a lot about digital literacy and not only because we are studying the concept at the moment on my MA course but what it means to my learners too. So I thought I’d share my conclusions with you. This is a bit more academic than usual but I hope you’ll bear with me.
What digital literacy means to me
I was initially very impressed with Bax’s notions of normalisation, when I heard them in 2010 at the Iatefl conference in Harrogate, and I think this tied in with what Scott Thornbury was saying at the same event where he concentrated on ‘the need to ensure that the technological tail does not wag the pedagogical dog’. What this means to me is that digital literacy is: being able to use online spaces and digital tools to communicate, work, learn and create in a ‘normal’ way so that the tools and competences required are part of everyday life. This, of course, includes all the various key elements of digital literacy that are mentioned in the literature, such as knowing how to use technology to create content which is appropriate for the target online (or otherwise) context, with an awareness of copyright and plagiarism notions and knowing how to publish or share that content safely. It means knowing how to search for and find information, involving filtering skills and critical thinking, and knowing when to switch off and go for a walk instead. Finally, it also means network literacy, including cultural understanding of what sort of environment you are in and what is appropriate behaviour, as well as the implications of what you publish and the digital imprint you are creating for yourself. This is a broad summary of some of the ideas explored in (Hockly, H.( 2012), Dudeney, G. (2012), Poore, M (2013), Payton, S. & Hague, C. (2010)
Implications for Teachers and The Learning Process
To come back to the idea of normalisation and Thornbury’s metaphorical technology dog, it is inevitable to some extent that the ‘wow factor’ has a negative impact when teachers (or learners) use technology simply because it is a novelty but without sound pedagogical principles behind that use, and although this does happen, it is also true that there are many teachers who integrate technological tools systemically into their teaching.
Introducing social media, for example, in a principled way is one highly effective way of doing certain things such as using the class Facebook Page to extend a discussion, which was started in class, but there was not enough time to take any further, or to work on language, to encourage learners to read and watch videos by providing sites and tasks and to provide them with an informal space to post their own content and share ideas.
Here is one example of a discussion which university students began in class on the subject of what success means to them. This was then continued outside class on their Facebook page
The initial post:
This morning we discussed “success” in the C1 lesson. What does it mean to you? Money and fame, or…?
The fact that there were only four comments is, in my opinion, not particularly significant, as what is much more important here is the fact that 202 people saw the post and thoughts about it. Lurking, in fact, is a choice, and the fact that someone does not comments does not necessarily mean that they are not learning something from the page. The discussion has effectively been extended beyond the classroom to become a part of our ‘normal’ digital world on Facebook.
There are, however, various issues that my learners need to come to terms with which go beyond the issues of functional digital literacy (using blogs, social media to create content among other things). (Poore 2013). They need to become more aware of what it means to be part of a network and what they are actually publishing. Many learners are not aware of issues of safety and privacy. They do not know what it means to publish their photos on social media, and what rights they are giving the owners of the space by doing so. On the other hand we are living in what is increasingly becoming a ‘remix’ world, where the boundaries between what is real and what is a spoof, are getting more and more blurred every day, so learners need to know what is real and what isn’t. This however, may go beyond the remit of the ELT class. What is essential in my context of the university world, however, is the notion of plagiarism and copyright, which learners are not often aware of particularly when it comes to publishing photos they have found online. All these are areas that need to be explored.
Bax recently wrote, in 2011, however, an article revisiting his view of normalisation, which he defined in 2003 as ‘the stage at which a technology is used in language education without our being consciously aware of its role as a technology, as an effective element in the language learning process (Bax, 2003)’ and in the 2011 article he examines some of the fears and expensive mistakes that are made when institutions, for instance, introduce technology because of the ‘wow’ factor, interactive whiteboards, being a blatant example of this if not support and training is also provided or only occasional access to the tool is allowed. He argues for a constructivist approach to the implementation of technology, and I would agree with this although I can remember a few years ago trying to motivate learners to use Skype to organise “spoken practice” session with a partner who lived in another town. The idea was that they should do a set task together using Skype. This was very unsuccessful, and with hindsight, it was another example of encroachment perhaps, of them not really using Skype for education, but rather for chatting to their friends. Recently, however, a group of my learners were preparing collaborative presentations using Prezi, and when I asked them to give feedback on how they had set about this, they said that they had skyped. To skype, then has become a verb, and is a normalised means of communication for these students who simply used it as the most convenient way to communicate with each other in order to do the task they needed to. The difference is that the technology is not a novelty to them, any more than a pen would be. It is simply a means to an end, and what is perceived as important is the task they are involved in.
Final Thoughts: the magical experience
As a final comment on digital literacy, however, I would like to add that I think true ‘digital citizens’ are in fact fascinated by technology and are curious about exploring the potential various tools can provide, precisely because they are amazed, not by the technology or the devices themselves, but by what they can enable us to do. Too much normalisation can lead to us losing the sense of wonder or the miraculous that is what makes people react to the novelty or the ‘wow factor’ of the tools in the first place. The use of the car, for instance, has been completely normalised in my socioeconomic context of Northern Italy, but sometimes to simply sit in your car and realise how powerful it is and what a wonderful thing it is to be able to travel such distances so easily, or to realise what it means to press a button and find a whole orchestra inside a little box we call a stereo, is a salutary experience. I remember the delight I first felt when I shared a photo of my day out to the seaside on Facebook, and people immediately responded to it. These tools are wonderful things precisely because they extend communication in new ways, and they are part of the miracle of life.
Bax, S. (2003) CALL – past, present and future. System 31 (1) March pp. 13-28
Bax, S. (2011) Normalisation Revisited: The Effective Use of Technology in Language Education. International Journal of Computer-Assisted Language Learning and Teaching 1 (2), April-June. pp. 1-15.
Hague, C. & Payton, S. (2010) Digital Literacy across the curriculum: a Futurelab Handbook, available at: http://www2.futurelab.org.uk/resources/documents/handbooks/digital_literacy.pdf
Hockly, N. (2012) New Technologies: Digital Literacies, ELT Journal Volume 6 (1) January, p.108-112;
Poore, M (2013) Using social media in the classroom – a best practice guide, SAGE
Summary of Harrogate 2010 Iatefl PreConference Event Accessed on 15th February 2014.