Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Thoughts on digital literacy and digitization

Currently, I spend many hours using technology including a laptop, iPad and iPhone.  In some ways, I might be considered a "power user."  For example, yesterday I checked my online class using an app on my phone, while riding a city bus, and was able to respond to a thread in the discussion forum.  While there were other people on the bus with smartphones, I doubt that anyone else was engrossed in work like I was and unconcerned about how much data was being transmitted.  (Thank goodness for an unlimited data plan!)

At a recent conference, I used my phone to check email and to tweet using the telephone's 3/4 G network, I took notes on my iPad, and then did work at night using my laptop (full keyboard).  Each device had its own role and played it quite well.

But not everyone lives my life.  That has been made clear to me as I worked during the winter on a digital literacy grant that is developing workshops to help everyday people learn basic computer skills.  These are skills that I and you take for granted.  Skills that allow us to function effectively in this tech-centered work. Working on the grant raised a number of questions for me, including...

Cell Phone KidHow do you know if someone is digitally literate?  Looking around at people who were riding the bus with me, I saw several using their smartphones to do tasks, like check Facebook.  Okay...so they have figured out how to do that, but does that prove that they are digitally literate?  For example, if I put the person in front of another device, would the person figure out how to use it?  Could the person explain the concept of an "app"?  Can the person recognize spam?  Can the person use a computer to complete a job application?

What I find interesting is that many people access information from their phones, but our current phones can't fully replace a personal computer. So even if a person can zip around the Internet, send email, etc., on a phone, can the person do the same on a PC?  If that person was offered a job that required PC skills, could the person transfer his phone skills into PC skills?  No.

Our phones are geared to make using them easy.  They guess at what I'm trying to type and will autocorrect text.  (This is both useful and annoying.)  They can have many more free programs that what we might load on our PCs that provide a wide variety of functionality.  Our phones become a critical part of our lives because of their functionality and because they are always with us.

So my iPhone and iPad try to make using them easy, but then I go back to my laptop and am annoyed that it doesn't do the same.  It doesn't guess at what I'm trying to type.  It doesn't automatically insert punctuation.  It doesn't help me be digitally literate.

Yes...we need to LEARN how to use a PC.  We can't just pick it up and automatically know what to do.  Yet our phones are geared to be more intuitive.  I know...there is still a learning curve, but it is not as steep as a PC.  And...yes...phones don't provide the same level of functionality as a PC. However, phones are affordable.

Many workers now use devices that are computing devices but that are not PCs. Look at the local delivery person, who comes to the door with a tablet device or the person doing inventory in the grocery store with a handheld scanner.  Could it be that our businesses are gearing their computing needs/devices to mimic what everyday people have access to?  Is this perpetuating the digital divide where knowledge workers will be using PCs and blue collar workers (laborers) will use some other computing device?

This project has also made me realize that the efforts that I hold dear (digitization programs) are not geared for the masses.  Indeed, when we scope out our programs, we generally talk about them being appropriate for students, teachers and researchers.  We are targeting them for the user can locate our program, often using an Internet search engine, and then can successfully navigate our site.  (In other words, we assume that the user has the necessary digital literacy skills.)  We trust that the language on the site is appropriate for the user, although in the U.S. nearly 15% lack basic prose literacy skills.

So what's the bottom line?

As we continue to digitize...as we continue to adopt ebooks...as we continue to succumb to the allure of technology...let's also look for solutions that will eliminate the digital divide that still exists.  That might mean offering more training, installing more public access computing labs, loaning mobile devices, or remembering that paper is need a useful mode of communication.  Let's not be techno-snobs  who ignore the reality in front of us.

1 comment:

Leo Stezano said...


This post reminded me of Douglas Rushkoff's book "Program or be Programmed." Manufacturers are making our communication devices easier to use all the time, but inherent in that process is a loss of control and freedom. We are being trained to obey machines rather than program them. It's not just about communication, either; look at how car engines are changing, for example. They are becoming more opaque, less amenable to amateur tinkering. Your point about perpetuating the digital divide is a great one, and one that worries me a great deal.