Access and Filters in Digital Literacy

This morning, Mary Helen shared a quote from Fr. Richard Rohr:

“When people have no appropriate filters, culture is susceptible to the whim of demagogues and sound bites. Education should teach us how to create good and helpful filters.”

I also encountered a long Facebook post from Patton Oswalt that included this advice for today, tomorrow, and the next four years:

“Leave your TV tuned to a channel like Turner Classic Movies or National Geographic or any channel that will have zero inaugural coverage. Then turn off your phone. Then shut down your computer.

And then — IF you can afford it — go find a struggling theater company and pay to see whatever play they’re putting on. Or a struggling art gallery or music club or museum. Leave ’em money and see what they’re about. Go see an indie film that’s got stellar reviews and no audience. Or a new restaurant or other small business that needs friends and customers. Download a new band. Go to an independent bookstore and buy something from a small press. Go to an open mike. Or see any comedian. Tip your barista or barkeep a little extra.”

Of course, since the election, I have been thinking a lot about what we should be teaching students–in first-year composition, in upper-division English classes, and in graduate seminars–about how to filter fake news from real news. In my own experience as a mother trying to sort fact from fiction about vaccines and autism, I encountered first hand how fake news and pseudo-science can complicate and cloud decision making. Information literacy–evaluating the quality and reliability of sources–represents one way of thinking about “filters” and their role in teaching and learning with and about technology. As Clay Shirky put it succinctly when talking about the “information economy” of the internet: “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” One part of digital literacy is teaching students how to transform the flood of information pouring through the firehose of the web and social media into a manageable wellspring of relevant and reliable data they can use to make important academic, personal, and political choices.

When I read Rohr together with Oswalt, though, “to filter” takes on another meaning. One that has to do with knowing when we might be more productive if we turn off or turn away from technology. I think we’ve all probably seen arguments for banning technology in the classroom, as well as the responses they have prompted. While increasing access–to technology, to information, to a broader audience, to employment opportunities–is one benefit of technology, we need to balance that benefit against the potential harm of an “always on” culture in which privacy and offline interactions are devalued.

One of the problems we always encounter when we begin any discussion about interdisciplinary learning outcomes or best practices is that one-size-fits-all solutions rarely fit anyone very comfortably. As we continue our discussions this semester about learning outcomes and advice for teachers and students, I wonder if instead of focusing on exact language and measurability, it might be useful to think of general areas or categories that discipline-specific learning outcomes–generated locally within the discipline on a class-by-class basis–could be targeted to address. For example, drawing from the thinking I’ve been doing here, we might say that a “complete” set of digital literacy learning outcomes will include, among other things, both outcomes related to information literacy as well as outcomes related to making decisions about when and if particular technologies are appropriate for a given task or setting. The complete set doesn’t have to be taught in every class, or even in every discipline, but they would inform an “across the disciplines” approach to integrating digital literacy as part of the curriculum.

Further, I think any set of best practices needs to include decision-making guidance for prioritizing students and their needs over institutional budgets and administrative convenience. Decisions about implementing technology in the classroom (and perhaps even where students encounter it as part of their educational experience, e.g., enrollment, advisement) should rarely (maybe never?) be driven primarily by concern for what is most convenient or cost-effective for administration and faculty. The question, “What will our students gain from learning to use this technology during the course of their education?” should ideally always be part of the conversation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *