The impact of social media on (Digital) Literacy

Two weeks ago, I was invited to take part in a Panel on Digital Literacy at UCLan. It was indeed interesting and thought provoking. As it often happens in this kind of events, so much was left to say. I especially liked the way the audience progressively got involved and we briefly touched some of the current worries considering literacy in the 21st Century. Does it have the same meaning as it did 50 years ago? How are we to define literacy in this day and age? Is education keeping up with it?

Jonathon Westaway kicked off the debate by highlighting some of the hot themes concerning this matter, and off we went to jointly reflect about issues around the following questions:

  • Is Social Media changing the way we read and write?
  • What are the advantages of learning and teaching in the digital environment?
  • What are the problems associated with information overload?
  • Who has authority in the digital landscape?

Too many questions for such a short period of time, but we sure tried to get across as many ideas as possible.Educators in generally are still very worried the “little Johnnies” are not reading as much as they should! Not to mentioned their writing and spelling skills which are just getting worse by the minute. But is it really so? Are we reading less? Are our writing and spelling skills really that bad? Steven Johnson presents some counter arguments about it, and I must say I like what he says. We are not reading less; we have just started reading differently. I myself read more (blog) articles than ever, and have access to much more literature in my filed than when I was restricted to paper books and local library access. The web has opened the doors to a new world where the literacy concept is being reshaped into different dimensions. Professor David Crystal’s recent article also underlines very pertinent issues concerning the new writing and spelling habits (maybe styles?). They are away from being new, yet they are becoming more visible as social media, and micro digital communication devices and applications, such as mobile phones, micro-blogging, instant messaging, etc have become widely accessible in the latest years. They represent the main channels for written communication and also reflection. I have recently blogged about the twitter phenomenon and how it has impacted in my learning. It has increasingly contributed to my knowledge and increased my learning network. Despite the rather short length of twitter messages, true communication is achieved through this channel. And just like we were already doing with mobile phones, and also with lecture note-taking (remember those?), we do use a lot of abbreviations to convey the message. That’s how things have evolved. They are not bad or good. They are just different.

However, it doesn’t mean that we are getting worse at spelling; it just means we are developing additional communication registers.

One can argue that sometimes students tend to overreact and use such “tribal spelling” in their assignments. It’s in their nature, and role as students, to push boundaries; it’s our mission as educators to guide them to consider the different contexts in which they are involved in – that is to say, to prepare them for real life! . [I think sometimes we just tend to generalize something that happens less often, especially if it is something that we are not used to. It’s so much easier!!!].  The fact is that students often distinguish which kind of register belongs to which context, and if they don’t, then it tells a lot of the educational system they have been in. It is our job as educators to help them realize which register to adopt according to the situation they are in.

Times are changing. Generation conflicts are old as the world. We always try to do things differently from our parents, as our parents have done things differently from theirs…

I strongly believe that digital literacy is more than reading books and writing exam papers. That might have been the literacy ideal of the industrial age. These days, literacy is also related with how we use the digital media to search, access, read, critically think and make sense of what we read in our areas of expertise and interests. It is also how we show evidence of what we learn by communicating it through different means and ways. Today it is as important to know, as it is to know-how. And our kids sure know how to know when they feel they need to know something. Furthermore, they adapt more easily than most of use to those venues, where they engage into knowing whatever they want to learn. If it takes to learn a new spelling code, then they do it, because they want to feel part of it.

So why can’t we accept it? And why can’t we just familiarize our students with academic writing without despising their tribal writing? It would be easier than trying to ban the web because it is bad for your spelling!!!!

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