Digital Literacy vs. Computer Science

I’ve had this post open in my browser for days.  I read it, and then let it sit, and I just now went and read it again, and the comments.  I’ve written many, many times about how frustrating I find it that people think Computer Science = Teaching Excel or how to use the Internet.  Computer Science is a very, very broad field, and in fact, I would argue that it can encompass Digital Literacy.  The writer of the post I linked to is frustrated by the lack of distinction, too, which she argues takes away from the importance of Digital Literacy by focusing more on Computer Science.   So she’s on the other side of this issue from me:

It’s dismaying then, to see in a week where we are seeing a huge move forward in the promotion of technology and a fresh look at how ICT as a subject area is designed and implemented in schools, to see digital literacy being used as an interchangeable term for computer science skills.

Her focus is on the British Government’s announcement earlier in January to revamp the ICT curriculum so that its focus is more on computing and computer science, including coding.  That announcement left CS teachers here salivating as they’ve been fighting to get any kind of computing into the curriculum.  ICT or Educational Technology as it’s often called here in the states in “integrated” into the curriculum, sometimes fabulously, sometimes not.  In some schools, it’s specifically taught as a separate class, sometimes not so well.

Here’s my beef with her post and mostly the comments on the post.  Once again, the commenters imagine the lonely coder in a cubicle.  We don’t want that!  We want to teach collaboration via digital tools.  GitHub anyone?  Have they been to a startup?  Do they know about people using chat, skype, etc. to work together to roll out software?  Seriously?  And, it’s not all about coding.  There’s HCI–interface design.  Have you had to use poorly designed software lately?  Do you know that medical software needs to have certain interfaces to make it easier and faster for doctors and nurses?  The HCI person doesn’t usually do the coding, but instead knows how humans actually prefer to interact with computers.  Almost every field and profession could benefit from having its practitioners know how hardware and software works, to have had some experience uploading files to a server or tweaking some javascript or understanding the logic of an “if” statement.

Yes, I think being able to blog and tweet and build documents together online and skype is all good.  And if, as Josie says, it’s about critical thinking and lifelong learning, why is Computer Science not about those things, but Digital Literacy is?  There are people who think that things are done on computers because it would be too hard to do them some other way.  Facebook and Google are the way they are because someone programmed them to be that way, and if we don’t understand that, then we have a big problem.

Program or be Programmed, Rushkoff’s book, is an apt mantra for today’s world.  We don’t have enough Computer Scientists not just serving as programmers, but working in other fields.  And while I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as a Digital Native, and that we can just let the kids take care of their own digital literacy, I don’t think we can say that teaching DL is more or less important than teaching CS.  I’m watching us all latch onto devices that can’t be easily hacked.  Can you write a script for your iPad on your iPad?  We’re dependent on software developers to create tools just to allow us to view Flash on them.  We’re letting huge companies dictate what we can do with our tools.  We need more people who are, yes, digitally literate, but who can participate in the development of tools that allow us the freedom to work in the world in whatever way we need to.  That’s what attracted everyone to the Internet in the first place.  The Internet would not exist if we didn’t have coders.


Sorry, but I’ve grown increasingly frustrated by this focus on “21st Century Learning” and “Digital Literacy” without anyone recognizing that without Computer Scientists, we would not have those terms.  I’m watching fellow CS teachers being asked to teach digital literacy classes when they could be teaching Python or Java or helping a kid develop an app.  Many of us feel that we’re being shoved out by the call for “21st Century Learning”.  What’s more 21st Century than knowing how to code, or having a deep understanding of how computers work?  Or having people able to harness the power of computing to solve our biggest problems: cancer, global warming, famine, transportation.  That’s where we’re headed.  Those problems will be solved by people plus computing.

Technology in the Classroom

Chuck Tryon is revamping his Technology in the Language Arts course and I left a long comment on his blog about what we do.  Here’s a slightly more organized and extended version of that:

  • Google Apps for Education: we have this installed and teachers have taken advantage of it in many ways
    • Google Docs: Teachers have used this for collaborative projects as well as suggested it for an easy way to go from school to home. There’s no emailing a paper, saving it to a flash drive, and ultimately having it get lost. Teachers have also used the presentation tool, and, to a lesser extent, the spreadsheets, though I have students use them to create surveys.
    • Sites: I teach students to make a website using Google sites in 6th grade.  This year, the 8th grade social studies classes created online newspapers for states just after the Revolution.
    • Blogger: I have one teacher using this and another considering it.  An art history teacher is posting images and having students comment on it, discussing the art work’s attributes.
    • Groups: This is being used by clubs and classes as a way to get out documents and announcements.
    • Video/YouTube: always popular, and a few teachers use it to post student work
  • Video: speaking of video, we use it a lot.  Using Flip video cameras, students create videos about literature and/or history as well as personal topics.  Often they incorporate photos.  We have access to both Windows Movie maker and iMovie.  Students often use what they have access to at home, though our biggest issue is going back and forth between home and school to work on these projects.
  • Animation: related to video, we’ve used GoAnimate and DoInk for animation.  GoAnimate is better for people-based animations while DoInk is better for animating things like physics or biology, perhaps even math.  You can draw whatever you want in DoInk while GoAnimate provides characters.
  • Presentations: I mentioned Google’s presentation tool, which is really an online version of PowerPoint, which many students still use.  But we use Prezi an awful lot.  Students like it a lot more and teachers use it to teach structure–of poems and stories, but also of student work–which can be illustrated better via Prezi.  A story is not always linear like PowerPoint.
  • Audio: I teach podcasts in 7th grade and a colleague of mine runs an after-school program that uses podcasts.  Audio in the form of narration often gets incorporated into video projects and/or presentations.
  • Other tools.  I teach Scratch and it’s been used a couple of times in other classes, and I have a teacher who’s doing a project in a couple of weeks that has students create an animation using Scratch followed by an interactive quiz.  We also have teachers considering things like Twitter (having a historical figure “tweet” the events of his/her life).  Teachers also use print-based things like newsletters and brochures created with Publisher or comic strips for languages.  And we’re exploring the use of iPads and other mobile devices, including cell phones.  Things are always changing and we’re always trying to find ways to essentially teach both a concept within a discipline and the use of technology.
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Technology as separate or integrated

Last week I participate in an #isedchat about whether “technology” classes should be taught separately or if tech should be more fully integrated into the work that students do within their academic classes.  The consensus seemed to be that technology should be integrated into the academic classes themselves.  But then there was the problem of how, exactly, that was supposed to happen.  What do you do with the teachers who aren’t particularly tech savvy?  How do you decide on what kind of technology gets incorporated?  These are tough questions that I see many schools wrestle with.

I can think of some things that I think every student should know, technology-wise, but many of these are basic.  File–>Save, for example.  There are standards out there, but they’re pretty vague.  The ones I see most teachers and students really struggling with are these:

6. Technology Operations and Concepts
Students demonstrate a sound understanding of technology concepts, systems, and operations. Students:
a. understand and use technology systems.
b. select and use applications effectively and productively.
c. troubleshoot systems and applications.
d. transfer current knowledge to learning of new technologies.


These are, of course, fairly vague as well.  What systems are we talking about here?  In this case, though, I kind of like the vagueness, because one thing I can’t stand is someone who can only use a particular product–be it Microsoft or Apple or Google or even Linux.  It’s okay to like or feel more comfortable with any of these, but when you find yourself in front of a different system, you are not allowed to throw up your hands (see 6d. above).  These are all things I explicitly try to do in my tech classes.  But I could see these things being incorporated elsewhere.  How does one do this?

There are lots of ways, but mainly, assign things that involve the use of said systems, and don’t be crazy specific about which systems the students use.  Take writing a paper, for example.  Let them use Google Docs or Word or LaTex or a basic text editor, but you can require it be formatted a certain way and that it be a pdf file in its final format (to save you from converting files yourself).  And then the students need to figure that out and in the process, will learn a little about file formats.  Have them include a picture or a graph.  File formats, file resizing, and a little bit of spreadsheet calculation will be absorbed this way.

Assign a podcast or an animated slideshow or a documentary.  Now we’re talking–all kinds of systems!  All kinds of file types.  How do you get that YouTube video downloaded and into your remixed version?  They will figure it out.  There’s this thing called Google (or Bing, whatever).

Assign some data analysis and visualization.  Let them figure out how to do this.  (Yep, Google, again.)

And I’m not saying you might not make suggestions about what works or provide support as they struggle, but instead of defining the process so specifically, why not define the goal and let them figure out the process.

Because I’m telling you, a student who doesn’t know that File–>Save exists in almost every program or that ctrl-c is copy and ctrl-v is paste (cmd-c or cmd-v) or who can’t search for the answers to their questions isn’t going to survive the 21st century.  And a single “tech” class where these things are taught (out of context) and never again used, probably isn’t going to cut it.

I’m happy to teach those classes.  They’re fun, but even more fun is when what you teach gets incorporated into many classes.  It makes it a much more worthwhile endeavor.  And it might make it an obsolete endeavor, which, honestly, is a good thing.

The fear of learning

Since my dissertation directly addresses teaching and learning with technology, I’m constantly thinking about what the implications are of teaching in news ways.  Will Richardson’s post earlier this weekend got me thinking more about what I’m doing and what I think teaching and learning should be.  Will expressed some disgruntlement about the fact that people just don’t get it, that the Internet–and specially tools like blogs and wikis and podcasts–are changing the way people learn.  Teachers, he thinks, should model what they’re teaching. They should, in essence, learn right along with their students: blog with them, collaborate with them, etc. And I agree with that.  I expect my students to contribute as much as I do. I never go into a class with all the answers. I expect, as a class, for us to discover them together. I expect that we’ll explore, together, other issues on our class blog. But I find it hard to convince students that this is an acceptable way to approach teaching. I sometimes think that they expect me to have the answers and while it’s true that I am older and have more years of schooling than they do, they are extremely intelligent people with different points of view, different ways of seeing things, and much that they can bring to the table.

When I’m feeling that students aren’t living up to my expectations, aren’t contributing, aren’t bringing new ideas to the table, I start to get fearful instead of frustrated. And then I often lapse into old methods of teaching, of just talking at them or something.  And this has definitely happened over the years and I think that it happens to a lot of people who have good intentions. I think at the college level, when we use new technologies that bring with them new methods of teaching and learning, we’re learning along with our students and we’re often having to convince our students that this is okay, that there is value to this, that, in fact, in may be more valuable.

Alex Reid, puts this a bit more succinctly, suggesting that most people see the point of education as determining who has authority, of imbuing our students with that authority, so that when they go home with their B.A’s, they will be seen as having been filled with knowledge that grants that authority.  But, he says, new media and networks disrupt that sense of authority:

The ongoing development of media and networks requires us to keep moving. It doesn’t mean that what we’ve learned has no value; it means that it cannot establish us as authorities. . . . I know public school teachers often cite the limitations of testing requirements as a roadblock to innovation. However I think the limitation is more fundamental than that, closer to their own sense of professional identity. As much as the tests may limit teachers, they also secure them within a defined space of authority.

digital digs: the threat of the network

Teachers and professors are seen as “experts,” as people who have a certain kind of knowledge. If we take that away, if we say that that particular kind of authority no longer qualifies one as an expert, then what do you call yourself. What was all that education for? I would argue, however, that someone with a Ph.D. didn’t just absorb a bunch of facts; they learned how to find facts and analyze them, to question them, to present their questions to others, to find and create new knowledge. It’s not about the content; it’s about the process. And that’s what I try to focus on in most of my classes; it’s what I try to convey when I talk to people about using new technology, about using blogs, wikis, Flickr,, etc. to make the process more visible, to help students learn how to learn, how to participate in a broader conversation instead of spitting out information on a test.

If K-12 environments are resistant to change, Alex points out that higher ed might be even worse. At least with public education, there could be a new administration that might enact some kind of sweeping change, but that rarely happens in higher education. However, in both cases, changes from the outside might force people to change. There’s already, as Alex points out, a tension between higher ed and the “outside” world:

I mean the tension between academia and the mainstream culture is heavy enough as it is based strictly on ideological differences. What happens when academics continue to insist on providing an increasingly irrelevant education and charging more and more for the privilege?

digital digs: the threat of the network

I think Will and Alex are both right. There are shifts happening outside of educational institutions that those insitutions seem to be stubbornly ignoring.  I think that they ignore them because they’re afraid to learn; they’re afraid to model learning, as Will says, and they teach instead. I understand that feeling. It does feel a little scary to look vulnerable in front of your students, but imagine how much more vulnerable they feel in front of you. I think this is a difficult time to be a teacher. But it’s also an exciting time, if one can embrace some new ways of doing things and have a willingness to learn. Isn’t that why most of us got into this in the first place? Because we enjoy learning?

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Ghost Teacher

Last week, I had fun commenting on student papers. I know what you’re thinking, no one has fun commenting on student papers.  Well, I did. I made audio comments, using Audacity to record and save my comments as mp3’s. You could also do this with Garageband or a few other recording programs. My students found it eerie, like I was a ghost in the room with them, but also helpful.

Here’s what I did. First, I read through the papers and made marginal comments using Word’s comment feature. I’ve been using this feature for years and find it extremely useful.  Students seem to like it as well. When I made these written comments, I tried to respond as a reader rather than a teacher, asking questions, pointing out where I was confused or found an argument weak. I tried to keep suggestions to a minimum. Then, in the audio comments, I read the paper out loud and made comments about how to approach revising the paper. I tried not to be prescriptive in these suggestions, and just offered possibilities.  I uploaded the commented papers and the mp3 files into Blackboard, but these could be emailed or posted somewhere.

Students read and listened to my comments before meeting with me for a conference. About half of them opted to do the conference virtually via IM.  I asked them what they though of the comments and what they were thinking about doing in terms of revising.  The IM conferences were really successful. It was much more of a conversation than the face-to-face ones are.  I didn’t feel rushed and the students didn’t feel rushed so we just covered whatever we needed to.

Interestingly, I just generally felt more engaged with the process of helping the student revise their paper via IM than I sometimes do face-to-face. I don’t know if the students felt the same way, but it definitely seemed like they were engaged. I’m not the only one who’s found IM to be a useful tool for engaging and interacting with students.

Now, doing all of this took time (and for me, all that time was at night and on the weekend since I have a 9-5 job) and I have the luxury of having only one fairly small class.  But the audio didn’t take any longer than traditional written comments. I know compositionists have been doing audio comments for a long time, using cassettes in the pre-digital world. It’s amazing how easy it’s become to do these things. It was very little hassle for me to get the files to the students and for the students to retrieve them. I’m definitely doing it again, as long as the students don’t mind having a ghost for a teacher. And I could see myself having office hours at night IM occasionally, as long as I can be on the couch in my jammies while I’m having them.

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