'Learn to discern' says @timeshighered

A generation ago in universities, talk was of “computer literacy”; nowadays it’s “media literacy” – if we can’t handle Web 2.0, then we are failing our students. Having built a career around initiatives to meet this purported challenge, I offer some cautionary advice.

First, lay off the “literacy” metaphor. The ability to read and write needs to be achieved in childhood in order for cognitive development to proceed. Learning about information and communication technologies is much less vital. It is also asserted that digital technologies are so fundamental that someone ill at ease with them will be for ever disadvantaged. But hey, food is essential to everyday life, yet I don’t hear calls that we become “food literate”, even if lack of knowledge has demonstrably horrible consequences.

Media literacy is typically about technical skills, but the reasoning behind this prioritisation is flawed. There appears to be a belief that if students don’t learn about the new technologies, they might cede power to experts who are technically able. But it can’t be said loud enough that technical skills do not translate into power. The fact is that we live in an era when we are all dependent on expertise of one sort or another. We can’t acquaint ourselves with every expertise going. We have to trust those experts who in their turn must rely on others. It is hard to see anything exceptional about ICTs in this regard. These technologies are indispensable, but as Max Weber observed about slavery, we ought not to confuse indispensability with power.

The fact is that how to use digital technologies is much less important than what the information accessed is for and what might be done with it. For this, one needs information skills – the sort provided by librarians and teachers. Here, educationalists might warn of risks with regard to lack of attentiveness, especially among the “digitally native”. There is good evidence that most are superficial “skimmers”, clicking hyperlinks and changing pages after a perfunctory glance. A few enthuse about this as a novel, non-linear practice, but most are concerned about the risks to logic and reasoning that can accompany a trend that succours facile and immediate gratification. As one student said about YouTube: “You can get a whole story in six minutes. A book takes so long.”

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