This post originally appeared on eTech Ohio’s eTech Connect Blog. eTech Ohio has played a fundamental role in my growth as a connected educator, and I really hope that our state administrators will come to see the value of the work they do and give it the financial and institutional support it needs. A link to the the original post can be found here, and please be sure to check out the other great posts at eTech Connect.
“Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the 21st century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies.”
These opening lines of The NCTE’s Definition of 21st Century Literacies provide a framework by which we can understand the real and immediate need that confronts every educator teaching today. We need to become literate. All of us. Now.
Nobody ever argues about the need for literacy. It’s odd, isn’t it? The need for literacy is a universal given. I’m sure literacy is one of the main goals of every learning institution in the world. I bet even the staunchest opponent of technology would agree that literacy is fundamental to learning. We love literacy because we believe that through communication we can come to learn about and understand our world and each other.
According to the NCTE, “Active, successful participants in this 21st century global society must be able to:
- Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
- Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
- Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
- Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
- Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts;
- Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.”
If we were to take an honest look at this list, and not apply it to our students but our educators and administrators, I’m not sure that we’d fully qualify as being literate ourselves. And if we’re not literate, how can we expect to teach and support literacy? Is this our fault? Are we to blame?
Luckily, and for everyone, no. It is not our fault; we are not to blame, and our illiteracy is only to be expected. The relatively sudden emergence of the internet and digital technology has shifted the worldwide landscape so significantly that everyone on earth is scrambling to explore the new potential for learning, communication, and teaching that seems to grow exponentially every year. Wikipedia has only been around for 12 years, Facebook nine, and Twitter seven. Smart phones have been in existence a whopping six years, and the iPad wasn’t a thing four years ago. The landscape of literacy has shifted beneath the feet of the world, and we have been thrust into an age of exploration in regards to the tools of learning and communication. This happened to everyone in the world at once, and educators bear the dual weight of not only having to learn these new literacies, but figure out how to teach at the same time.
It’s a shame that the zenith of the data-obsessed accountability movement coincides with a tremendous need to shift education in light of the new requirements of literacy. In an age that demands exploration and a culture that supports such exploration, we now find ourselves in an unprecedented system of measurement. We suffer from maintaining a hierarchical institution in a time of massive networking and new models for learning and communication. Those educators who have already begun to explore our new digital tools and connectivity are reporting back wondrous things, yet, as in all early efforts at exploration, there are too few willing to push into new frontiers, too few resources devoted to mount the expedition, and too little attention being paid to the drastic need for innovation if we are to achieve the goal of a literate society.In closing, I’d like to revisit the bullet-pointed list above and offer a few suggestions as to how we might begin to achieve the level of literacy that will empower our teachers in service of our students and communities.
“Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology”
The first thing we need is the tools. Too many of us have yet to gain reliable access to connected teaching and learning. We need to work with policy makers, board members, faculties, and parents to prioritize access to 21st Century tools. As for developing proficiency and fluency, once we have the tools, we need to use them, and the best use for literacy tools is conversation.
“Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought”
Before we do this with the kids, let’s make sure we’re doing it amongst ourselves. Connected teachers quickly find that being involved in a community of teachers who are all fellow explorers on our new literary landscape is a powerful experience. There are whole communities of educators who are building these connections and relationships, as well sharing what they are learning along the way. This Pinterest board, from Eric Sheninger is a great on-ramp for anyone looking to begin.
“Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes”
We have an unprecedented capability to reach an infinite variety of audiences, and it would greatly benefit our education system if we would participate in the open-source sharing of content and products of learning. Our school districts should be engaging our communities, both local and global. We should be forming new partnerships, launching new projects, and participating in the development of our profession and professional organizations.
“Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information”
This is a tough one. It’s very intimidating to be faced with all of this wide open space and all of these new tools and know where to begin. I’m a big believer that this kind of learning is empirical. We all know some basics. We know email, Office, most of us are on Facebook, we’ve all used Google at some point. That’s actually not a bad foundation. I’ve probably learned the most from Twitter. You can dive right in, or start with a blog post like this.
“Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts”
There’s a big difference between this and this. As learners of a new literacy, it’s important to engage in the various forms. This, too, takes time. It would be helpful if our professional development time could be devoted to learning these new literacies with a more 21st century approach. Teacher’s don’t like the sit-and-get any more than the students do. Teachers need to be trusted and supported in their exploration of these new literacies. There’s a lot to learn, and our educators would surely appreciate a bit of differentiated and individualized instruction.
“Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments”
This is the one that scares us the most, and rightfully so. In an environment as open as the internet, we, like all people, are having to negotiate a very complex set of new identities, relationships, and rules. Much of it is confusing, some of it is burdensome, and we feel a need to tread carefully. It would be great if we could work towards outlining very clear agreements between labor associations and school boards that define acceptable and ethical participation in these complex learning environments. This probably involves getting the lawyers together, but it’s something that would help.
Let’s admit we’re learning. Let’s not only admit it. Let’s insist on it. Let’s get belligerently honest about how quickly the world became connected, and then get good at it.