Becoming Digitally Literate

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of digital literacy. These thoughts have been inspired by a number of posts on Adam K. Johnston’s eponymous blog where he examines and problematizes assumptions made about digital literacy in higher education.

Johnston’s asserts that many students enter higher education with “with underdeveloped communication and technical skills, and the simple fact [is] that the 21st century world demands these skills from all of us.” He came to these conclusions after watching the chaos which followed after he asked his students to produce videos instead of final term papers.

I don’t want to summarize Johnston’s posts, they are well worth reading. Instead I want to focus on my own experience with digital literacy, because I believe that I too entered (and left) the world of higher education with “underdeveloped communication and technical skills.”

With the rapid change of technology, one’s experience with digital literacy is heavily influenced by one’s age. I was born in 1986, on the cusp of the technological boom that we enjoy today. The first computer in my family was purchased by my grandfather sometime in the early to mid 90’s. I didn’t have a computer in my household until sometime around 1997-1998.

I still remember my grandfather’s first computer. It was a Pentium 486 that ran Windows 3.1. Murmurs in the family said that he paid nearly $3000 for it. My grandfather has (and continues to be) someone who enjoys the latest and greatest gadgets. We visited my grandparents regularly and I was allowed largely unsupervised time with the computer. I quickly discovered a number of computer games on his hard drive and from that point on all my memories of that computer revolve around Wolfenstein 3D and Cosmo.

My first experience with the internet didn’t come for a few more years. One day my uncle was visiting with his company laptop. He told my parents about something called the internet that would let you search for anything. He plugged his laptop into our phone line and before long we were online.

My family sat me down in front of it and told me to search for something. Being around 10 or 11 at the time, I searched for “toys.” Some things about the internet never change. Instead of the Transformers or Lego that I was expecting, I was greeted with page after page of every sex toy imaginable. My parents quickly closed the laptop.

My next computer-related memory is that of a travelling door-to-door computer salesman. He knocked on our door one day and my parents (uncharacteristically) let him in. He then proceeded to set up the computer he carried around with him and gave us a live demonstration of how a personal computer could change our lives.  My parents were moved by the idea that without a computer in the home their son would be missing out on an important part of his education, but not moved enough buy the computer.

The salesman’s words did have an effect, before long we had our own computer. It ran Windows 95 and had a dial-up internet connection. My memories of this computer mostly involve games and typing up school assignments. Internet was not widely used in our household. Since my parents were (and continue to be) self employed, they didn’t like the internet tying up their phone line and blocking potential work calls. Therefore, the internet was always something to be used quickly and then turned off.

But from this point on we were connected. Every few years I would convince my parents that I needed a new computer to play the latest and greatest computer games, and eventually they would give in to my requests. In my first year of university when I was still living at home we made the jump to a DSL connection, opening up a world of always-on, fast internet.

So that was my computer experience at home, what about my computer experience at school?

In my elementary school we had a computer lab filled with Apple II’s. We’d have regular, but largely unsupervised, time in the computer lab about once a week. During this time would could take typing tests, or play Where in the World is Carmen Sandiago?or make cards for our loved ones. At this age we didn’t have formal typing lessons. For me typing in elementary school was an exercise in starring at the keyboard, hunting for letters, and pecking them out with two fingers.

My computer experience in junior high wasn’t much better. For some reason I decided to challenge the school’s typing test. I think that I thought all my time playing computer games had somehow taught me to type. I failed the test rather spectacularly, but because the school’s computer lab wasn’t big enough to accommodate the typing class, everyone who challenged the test passed the test.

As an elective I took “computer science.” In this class we learned how to use Scala Multimedia on the school’s collection of Amiga computers. Needless to say, the things I learned in this class are no longer relevant.

Next I moved on to high school. Despite my high school being fairly wealthy but public school standards, I don’t remember the school even having a computer lab. It had a handful of original iMacs in the guidance room and a couple PC’s in the library, but no actual computer lab.

It was in high school that my parents bought me a student copy of Microsoft Office (which I continue to use today), thus opening a world of mediocre PowerPoint presentations and garish Excel graphs.

In my undergraduate degree computers were sometime to look up information and write assignments on. My browser and MS Word were my most-used programs by a country mile. At no point was I ever trained how to format assignments on my computer, how to use library search databases, how to check the edit history of Wikipedia, or how to make a PowerPoint presentation that didn’t put the class to sleep.

Aside from a handful of scattered optional lectures by library staff, any digital literacy gained in my undergrad degree was self taught.

Now this may have something to do with the fact that I majored in Greek and Roman Studies, Medieval Studies, and History — disciplines not traditionally thought to be the most computer literate.

Looking back I feel that I left my undergraduate degree with, to quote Johnston, “underdeveloped communication and technical skills.”

Sadly, things didn’t improve too much in my master’s degree. While the University of York and its Medieval Studies Program are both strongly involved with the digital humanities, the digital humanities were not a topic which ever really came up during my master’s degree.

For the most part I received a very traditional (and I should note, very good) education during my master’s degree. Some of the instructors in my program used resources like to share information with their classes. My own adviser is heavily involved with digital humanities and would tell me about her project. But there was no focus on the digital humanities for master’s students.

In my spare time I became extremely interested in all things digital. Several of my friends were either working on digital degrees or were interested in digital projects. We would share links, discuss ideas, and organize miniature lessons about available digital resources.

Upon completing my master’s degree I realized that I still didn’t have technical and communication skills that were as highly developed as they could (or should) be. My digital literacy was confined to consumption. I could search the web or academic resources and find the information I needed, but aside from writing in MS Word, I had a very limited capacity for production. I could only blog using basic software like Blogger or WordPress. I couldn’t produce or edit podcasts or video. I could barely edit photography. I knew nothing about web design or programming. And to be honest, I could barely use MS Word.

Hence the creation of

This blog exists as a way to test, grow, and share my digital literacy. As the web becomes increasingly user-generated, it becomes more important than ever that academics expand their digital literacy beyond that of consumption, so that they can produce content as well as they can consume it.

Academics exist to create, share, and preserve knowledge. Without a fully-developed sense of digital literacy which encompasses both consumption and production, knowledge will not be shared effectively in our digital age.

Look for more thoughts about digital literacy in the coming weeks. Until then, please leave a comment about your experiences growing up and developing your digital literacy.

One thought on “Becoming Digitally Literate

  1. Pingback: Stories about Digital Literacy: a literary sub-genre? | Read, Write, Now

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