Expanding the Definition of Literacy in the Digital Age

While some educators are dismayed by the growth of digital education — and by children spending hours in front of electronic devices — the reality is that screen reading is the method by which more and more students, teachers, and adults get their information. At the 2016 Content in Context (CIC) conference the co-authors of Tap, Click, ReadLisa Guernsey and Michael Levinewill discuss the new vision and techniques this reading revolution requires from learning resource creators — and define what they think are best practices for creating effective educational content in any environment. Guernsey is Director of the Early Education Initiative for New America, and Levine is Executive Director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Below are excerpts from interviews with the co-authors about their new book.

In an interview with Henry Jenkins, well-known author and blogger on media and culture, Guernsey and Levine talked about the steps parents and educators need to take to make sure that technology does not increase social inequalities:

“There has been a good deal of discussion about a ‘digital divide,’ in education and youth development circles. Because the focus is often on hardware and software, we believe that this focus largely misses the mark. While equitable access to technology is still a worry, especially in the lowest income households, access to quality professional development, programs that train ‘media mentors’ or provide opportunities for adults and children to engage jointly in media production is in our view a more important priority.”

While speaking with NPR, Guernsey addressed the co-authors’ belief that the definition of literacy is expanding, especially with kids’ constant exposure to digital media:

“Someone who is not steeped in early literacy research might think that literacy means reading print. But even the traditional definition of literacy has always meant more than that: It means reading, writing, listening and speaking. Children need help in becoming skillful at all four of those skills, and they can use media tools of all kinds to do so. And in addition, as children grow up in a world of information overload and constant messaging, they will also need to learn media literacy and critical literacy.”

With the Hechinger Report both addressed parents’ problems with trying to find quality content in the “Wild West” of the digital marketplace. Below Guernsey gives her take on the 3 C’s of quality media for children.

“One of the foundational principles we’re working from is that the research is showing that you have to have the 3 C’s in place to be able to use media in a way that will help children: context, content and your child. The [final] C is the individual child, because we have to recognize what that one child needs, developmentally, at that one moment in time. So what we know, backed up by a lot of research, is that we have to have those three pieces in place to have a quality experience using media of all kinds — including books, honestly…People may be assuming that by just downloading an app they are going to be able to cover all the bases in terms of their kids learning, and our research is showing that’s really not the case.”

During an interview with the Deseret News, Guernsey tackled the topic of digital toys that simulate conversations and whether or not that’s the type of interactivity kids need:

“The concern is that we will confuse empty interactivity with authentic conversation. And we know from brain science how important true back-and-forth interactions are, that are contingent on what the other person says, in building the pathways to learning. It’s not about a piece of software parroting something back. So I think it’s really important for the scientific community to keep striking this note of how important adults are, but to not do it in a way that demonizes all technology. There are some tools that can augment those kinds of conversations.”

Find out more about the 2016 Content in Context at www.contentincontext.org.

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Content in Context
Literacy