Monday, January 21, 2013

Digital Literacy is a Civil Right

21st Century citizenship. This is the topic of the new era in adult education.  It's also pressing on my mind as I write this, today being Martin Luther King's birthday.  Where to start? This is huge.  Let's go back in time a bit before we look at integrating technology, not just into instruction, but into our learners' daily lives.

Adult education has always been a civil rights issue.  Literacy instruction in America's most dis-empowered populations (slaves, indentured servants, women and immigrants) gave rise to gainful employment and civic participation. Workers rights initiatives helped establish the industrial unions that built the middle class, made American manufacturing a driver of the global economy and gave us basic standards like the weekend and the eight hour work-day.

A New Frontier of Basic Skills  
Don't get complacent as you reflect on the accomplishments of adult education's legacy.  On balance, there is arguably more unfinished business and progress lost at this point.  Now, we need to add more literacies to the mix, namely digital literacy.  Oh goody, more work to be done.  Job security for adult educators (aka: an overwhelming underfunded mandate with insurmountable odds).

Adding technology fluency as a goal alongside instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic isn't necessarily another hat to stack on top of adult educators' heads.  Digital literacy is a catalyst for achieving all other educational and employment goals, to say nothing of the impact on learners' organization skills, improving accessibility of online learning resources, and support of educators between formal assessments or classes.  Plus, next generation learning technology is making it possible to learn computer skills on a computer.    

As computer-based instruction becomes a mandatory piece of preparation for a computer-based GED test, adult ed needs to establish a basic level of understanding and utility with information technology.  Unlike with the 2002 series test, which added graphic literacy to the high school equivalency agenda, the new questions seem to require graphic fluency.  They'll require more than just practice questions with multiple content sources, GED students will need to swim in an environment where they are totally immersed in a graphic and information heavy context.  An area where graphic literacy and media literacy overlap.  Learners have a better chance at making sense of all this with the basic skills and fundamental concepts addressed in digital literacy instruction.  

Computers for Commonality
There are plenty who can make this argument better than I can.  From the linked story:
Perhaps FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski put it best when he said succinctly: “Millions being left out of jobs, left out of digital learning, is not just an economic issue – it’s a civil rights issue.” 
A colleague of mine, Adam Nathanson, is blogging about a similar topic of technology in adult education, only with a more pragmatic focus on implementation.  He said to me that "teaching with technology isn't necessarily easier, it's just better."   And yet, there are very different attitudes toward computer-based instruction between the teaching community and the learners in our target audience, and often there just isn't the will to make it happen. Nathanson's blog dives into this tension head first:
The field is looking for clear-eyed, setting specific, realistic guidance.  When they don’t get it, a loop is inadvertently created whereby teachers dismiss technology-related professional development, while trainers become increasingly frustrated with what they perceive as instructors’ recalcitrance towards new ideas.
One of my professors from Mary Washington College is leading the charge in the digital citizenship arena.  Though typically taking his plight into the stratosphere, Gardner Campbell, now at Virginia Tech talks about his public university's obligation, technologically speaking:
More than anything else, however, we must think carefully and creatively about what computers represent as tools for thought, to use Howard Rheingold’s phrase. We must build a curriculum and organization that are answerable to the cultural moment we have before us. Given our heritage as a public, land-grant university, we have a special mission to provide access to the resources of a digital age for as many learners as possible, as well as access to the high-quality education that will equip them to take full advantage of these resources as participants in a democratic society. 
It's not just a public sector obligation, but a personal one as well. The way we live and learn as educators has changed for the better, with information technology helping us to be better able to plan and prepare to instruct, as well as monitor and assess progress. Are we effectively putting these same tools and capabilities in our learnres' hands?  To borrow from MLK: It's time to ensure that these same privileges "roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream" to those we serve in our ABE/GED/ESOL classes.  That may seem dramatic, but the digital divide is moving and computer skills need to follow.   

One of the inspirations for this post is The Algebra Project, spearheaded by legend of the Civil Rights Movement, Bob Moses.  The program has focused on teaching algebra skills at the elementary school level in the poorest sections of the South, the very setting where Moses led voter registration initiatives in the 60s.  Such an early intervention of abstract concepts establishes a foundation for success later at the middle and high school level and for fluent use of technology that enables full participation and integration with modern society.  The program's moto: Math literacy is the key to 21st Century citizenship.


  1. Very interesting read. The technology that was supposed to close the gap in access to learning has often widened the gap. Those who have access to technology and the ability to set aside their fears of computers/mobile devices/etc, are out-pacing the group that cannot embrace them quickly. Teaching is the great bridge between fear/ignorance and acceptance/success. If we can use effective ways to teach the use of technology - that is, not just boring or over-complicated droning - then all learners have the chance to take advantage of the great outpouring of knowledge today. We need effective tools and good training, and - oh yeah - a little money to make that happen. Thanks for the blog!

  2. Thanks, Anon. Great points about digital literacy leveling the playing field for adult learners and the pivotal role of educators addressing the technology skills gap.

    All: This blog came together very quickly, hastily even, but I am really pleased to feature links and quotes from two of my biggest inspirations in education. I hope you'll share this post, or their posts, and keep the conversation going with your comments.

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  7. It's especially difficult for those of us in Adult Education to bridge the gap when we are not given access to proper technology. I agree with this article, but how am I to incorporate it with very limited access?

    Great post!

    1. Bryan: This is one of those situations where the people lead and the leaders have to follow. It's a sad situation in adult education when we encounter so many bureaucratic road-blocks as we try to meet such obvious needs like integrating technology. Adam Nathanson addressed this in his post, basically saying that those closest to the learners, their biggest advocates, have to find a way to keep up with them and rise to the occasion one way or another. Local managers and state-level admins will have to take their cues from the work that's having an effect on the ground. It's bottom-up, and maybe for good reason.

      Generalities aside, I've had good luck piecing together a strong network of publicly accessible computer-labs from various partners and stakeholders in the community. Another option is to promote 'study at home' and 'online GED prep' to attract the clientele that already has access and just needs your guidance. Lastly, our learners will find a way, either on their phones, tablets, or relatives' houses. So, let's be ready and make their time-on-task worth-while.

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