Web Literacy is Fundamental


I found an interesting piece online today by Cathy Davidson and Mark Surnam titled “Why Web Literacy Should Be Part of Every Education.” The authors argue that web literacy is just as important as reading, writing and arithmetic literacy and should be part of every k-12 curriculum.  You don’t just learn about reading you learn the skill of reading (same goes for writing and arithmetic).  This is also the case for web literacy the authors argue.  Instead of learning about the web students need to learn how to create websites and add, share and consume content.  This type of literacy starts off with small steps, simple games and projects (not unlike what you remember from grade school lessons on reading, writing and math).  Yet these early steps are crucial and powerful.  As Davidson and Surnam correctly point out this kind of web literacy should be a fundamental piece of education. “For some it can lead to a profession (i.e. becoming a computer programmer) while for most it becomes part of the conceptual DNA that helps you to understand and negotiate the world you live in.”

This of course is a lofty goal.  Schools are strapped for cash and equipment and there are so many other things to cram into a school year–where would teachers find the time to start teaching code to kindergarteners? Many would argue that reading, writing, and math skills should take priority and, if there is time, web literacy could potentially be  considered (likely tacked on during that last week of the school year in June when it is too hot to concentrate).  I think others would argue that teaching all four: reading, writing, math and web literacy are not separate enterprises.  These skills can be learned together and lessons from one intersect and overlap with others.  Learning how to read well makes you a better writer and a good sense for math aids in thinking through the order of a written piece.  If you can’t read well word problems are difficult, regardless of your aptitude for computation.  The authors mention a number of programs designed to teach kids some of the basics of coding and get them used to the basics of web literacy.  Scratch for example is designed for young children and allows them to create and share games and stories.  And for those who are a bit more advanced: Thimble which allows users to create and share websites. I hadn’t heard of either of these programs before reading Davis and Surnam’s piece but just a few minutes looking around the sites and I can already see where students would surely build reading and writing skills while constructing digital stories and games.

The piece put me thinking about a couple of things.  First, are student teachers in colleges and universities around the country being instructed in web literacy and second what can I do to make the students that pass through my classes each semester more web literate (related point here is how can I make myself a more web literate instructor).

As to the instruction that student teachers get I haven’t the foggiest idea.  I don’t know anything about the curriculum structure that ed students follow.  Maybe one of our readers can speak to this in the comments section.  Where I teach the College of Ed and the Department of History are very much separated. In the history courses I teach (large survey and upper level f2f courses filled with majors, non-majors and potential teachers) I try to make sure that students learn  how to critique and assess primary and secondary sources in multiple formats, some digital some not.  I also require that my students engage with each other in online discussions, access digital material and do bits and pieces of online research.  I do think these steps are important and in my experience there are way too few history faculty taking advantage of or integrating this kind of learning into the history classroom but am I really teaching web literacy here? I guess I am teaching informational literacy.  That is my goal really…to make sure my students can access, assess and handle information in multiple, contradictory and complimentary formats.  For those students who wish to be teachers I am hopeful that this kind of instruction helps them figure out ways to integrate age appropriate digital history and communication into their classrooms.

With these small steps I am also trying to help students learn how to turn buckets of information into shot glasses of knowledge.  It never ceases to amaze me how bad students of all ages and levels are at utilizing the web for knowledge acquisition.  Many of my students understand the social nature of the internet but fumble around trying to figure out where to find usable information.  In my experience grad students are worse.  Undergraduates at least aren’t afraid to wander around in the virtual corn maze they just have a hard time navigating the map to get them out. And really, this doesn’t even come close to the kind of web literacy Davis and Surnam advocate: a literacy in which students learn to make websites and construct shared places that they then fill with well curated, vetted content. I don’t think it is someone else’s responsibility to teach those skills. It is my responsibility and your responsibility, and the responsibility of everyone who stands in front of a class.  Good luck making that case!

Davis and Surnam suggest in their piece that an “alliance of technology and educators” is an important step in ensuring that k-12 students receive instruction in web literacy.  I wonder if the same is true in achieving literacy among those already in higher ed? What would that look like in practice? Maybe training sessions for faculty who will then integrate knowledge gained into classroom learning.  I think this already happens to varying degrees on college and university campuses but, lets face it, you can predict who will be at the training sessions. It’s always the same 15-20 people and while they are committed  to learning tech skills many other faculty are not.  It is easy to say “not my responsibility, I have to get through X, Y and Z.  Let the faculty over in [insert department] teach students how to more effectively use the web.” How would you go about changing attitudes? Davis and Surnam write, “If we’re going to truly change higher education to change the world, we have to begin by emphasizing web literacy as a required, basic, indispensable competency in the 21st century. To do that, we need a leadership alliance between education and technology developers–and higher education is a good place to begin since it has far more flexibility than K-12 and exerts a tremendous pull on the shape of all education.” I like the sentiment here and I don’t disagree but how does that play out? Maybe it will work the other way…some of those kindergarteners playing on Scratch today will be faculty in the 2040s…let’s hope it doesn’t take that long.

About Katherine O'Flaherty

I received my PhD in History from the University of Maine in 2010 and received a C.A.S. in Education Leadership: Student Development in Higher Education in 2012. My major field of study is modern US history. I focus on Immigration and Refugee History, Environmental History and Modern Irish History. I am currently working on two projects. The first is a book length piece about extradition, deportation and political prisoners in the late 1980s tentatively titled "The Longest-held Prisoner at the Manhattan Correctional Center: Joe Doherty, Extradition and Deportation in the post-Cold War Era." The second is an article about the short lived Maine sugar beet industry and the politics of Maine agriculture in the 1960s. In 2013 I became a Faculty Fellow at the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University. Prior to relocating to ASU I served as an instructor at the University of Maine in Orono teaching US History surveys, Immigration History and a few interdisciplinary courses about the state of Maine in addition to teaching in the Honors College. Additionally, I taught Intro to Sociology at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, Maine. When I am not teaching and researching I do some consulting and educational assessment. I work hard, watch a lot of TV, spend tons of time on Netflix instant view, read many blogs and listen to hours of NPR. I check my email 110 times a day, teach many of my classes online and obsessively check Facebook and Twitter. I like books, dogs, trivia and snow. Contact me at: katherine.oflaherty@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @katherineofl
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3 Responses to Web Literacy is Fundamental

  1. Pingback: Web Literacy is Fundamental | Digital Humanities Tool Box | Scoop.it

  2. tpartridge1 says:

    Web literacy exercises would do well within the conference week. Also, exercises in how to differentiate between good and bad sources online. I found little of that in my classes. Would have helped. I know there are plenty of books and guides on this but its all muddy water to me. I would like to see it broken down some. The exercises would provide feedback on how relevant the need for that would be in any given class as well.

  3. I can’t really speak to your question about the student teacher experience because my own was just before the advent of the Web and PCs in the classroom, but in the high school where I teach my departmental colleagues are all computer literate. We are doing pretty much the same thing as you are in having students work with source materials and practice written argument construction supported by information they research on the internet, but unfortunately the emphasis on testing and requisite pacing makes it difficult to dig deeper and get them beyond a very basic “information consumer” stage. But I agree with you — the skills students need in both content and computer technology could be better taught through a more intensive collaboration between the two from k-12. I am trying to think of ways that I might be able to incorporate more “production” over “consumption” in my own teaching practice; so far one idea might be using a student-generated wiki as an ongoing and editable project. I am also designing a new class I am tentatively calling “Topics in History” that I envision incorporating a lot more student-technology interaction than my usual US History class. Hopefully I can successfully negotiate the proposal process this fall to get the class into next year’s academic schedule.

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