Digital Literacy: The New ABCs

captureOn the surface, literacy may seem pretty straightforward. The term usually implies proficiency in reading and writing, a definition that is easy enough to grasp. But Nichole Pinkard, associate professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media, sees literacy in a more expansive and mutable light. According to Pinkard, being literate today means being fluent in the production and consumption of digital artifacts. Apps, blogs, computers—they’re the new ABCs.

Pinkard is the founder of the Digital Youth Network, which supports organizations, educators and researchers in their efforts to develop effective digital media programs for youth. Earlier this year, Pinkard discussed digital media and literacy with Steve Kraske, host of “Up to Date,” on KCUR 89.3 in Kansas City. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

On Literacy
What it means to be literate has always changed, and it’s always been connected to the technology of our time. Before the printing press, literacy meant the ability to be able to orally recite. The printing press meant it was cheap to send books, so everyone learned to read. With the creation of the internet, mobile and WiFi, it’s easy to send videos, songs and sounds to each other almost as quickly as we can send texts. So in that sense, what it means to be literate is that you have to be able to create and consume those types of digital artifacts.

On Digital Media
We focus on digital media and how students understand how to consume everything that they take in, but then also how to create it. How can they learn to represent their ideas and thoughts by creating all these different digital artifacts: a video, a game, a song, a visual representation, an app. At the same time, you can’t be digitally literate unless you’re traditionally literate. You have to know how to write. For example, to create a movie, you have to write a script, and if you don’t understand story structure, you’re not going to make a good movie. To write a song, you have to write the lyrics.

On the Digital Divide
There is still a digital divide, but it’s less about the technology and more about opportunities to participate. Many kids we work with have mobile devices, a PlayStation or a Gamebox that’s connected to the internet or a computer. So they have some technological access, but they don’t necessarily have access to programs and training that develop digital media skills. That’s where programs like YOUmedia come in. (Pinkard was instrumental in the creation
of YOUmedia, a technology-equipped teen learning space at the Chicago Public Library.)

On Education
At YOUmedia, we’re trying to help kids understand that what they do out of school has relevance to what they do in school. Then we work with schools and teachers to bring it all together. A lot of it is about how you integrate the instruction. So you have your writing teacher working with your media arts teacher. Students might want to work on story structure and content in an English or social studies class, and then they bring that with them to the digital media classes or YOUmedia. Our job is to make the possible visible and empower students to get there. That’s why showcases are so important; they’re opportunities for students to see what other students are creating.

On the Digital Frontier
Think about how much media you consume on a daily basis across all your different devices. If we’re not making the ability to consume and produce that media into a core literacy, for everyone, then we’re handicapping our kids and we’re handicapping our society.

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