Digital Literacy is Not About ‘Content’

Posted by Planet Waves

Andrew McLuhan and son.

Andrew McLuhan looks at the ideas of Reuben Loewy — an educator, writer, and communications expert — and pushes him to go further in his efforts to teach so-called “digital natives” how media use can change us. He stresses the need to go beyond digital literacy (which usually means reading content), and into digital criticism in the context of all media.

Editor’s note: Andrew McLuhan is the grandson of media studies pioneer Marshal McLuhan, and a friend of Planet Waves. We’ll be featuring his writing on media criticism from time to time.

An Essay on an Essay

Last year (2015), The Atlantic published an article, ‘Digital Natives, Yet Strangers to the Web,’ about Rueben Loewy and his work. It stuck out for me, because it was an uncommon example of a person wanting to do more than teach how to use media, but wanting to help others learn how media use and change us.

Andrew McLuhan and son.

Andrew McLuhan and son.

“Reuben Loewy is an educator, writer, and communications expert, who teaches Internet Studies and Journalism at Princeton Day School, and Internet Studies and Humanities at Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science. The realization that students are not being taught about the Digital Revolution led Reuben to establish Living Online Lab and develop a curriculum specifically designed to prepare students for the unique challenges (and not just the perils) of the digital age.” (source)

A year later, this new article by Loewy was brought to my attention. What happened was, I had written to him in support of his efforts, but he had only come across the email almost a year later. He passed the link to this latest article and asked for my thoughts on it. Be careful what you wish for!

So, though somewhat sleep-deprived (our second son Virgil is only two months old!) I have managed to put some thoughts together about his article, and where I would take the ideas a little further given my own ideals and goals for education in these matters. I wrote it in this style to be a little more objective than if I were writing it personally to him — which gave me the idea of publishing it here.

The following comments will make a lot more sense if you read Rueben Loewy’s article first.

Reuben Loewy: “Who’s Teaching the Digital Revolution?”

Thoughts on and Responses to Reuben Loewy’s ‘Who’s Teaching the Digital Revolution?”

The Mark Surman quote, which Loewy’s essay essentially leads with, is all about teaching and gaining proficiency in use:

“In today’s digital world, one core skill is conspicuously absent from our education system: web literacy. The ability to explore, create, and connect online isn’t an inherent part of curricula. That needs to change — web literacy deserves to be enshrined as the fourth ‘R’”.

Although Surman uses the word ‘explore’ he doesn’t mean explore the medium (environment) or the nature of it, but explore what it contains. He says ‘web literacy’ — and fair enough, he’s talking about proficiency in the use of the technology, which is after all the definition of ‘literacy’. And that is, quite literally, his business. But I do resent his would-be humanitarian tone. The statement does not bear scrutiny. What is humanitarian about creating more adept users without any thought to critical skills? Surman may have a broader vision that I give him credit for, but there is nothing in this statement to help anyone perceive more than what’s on the screen in front of them.

Literacy, without criticism, is useless.

Here is where I feel studies are quite lacking — it’s the focus on ‘media literacy’ without any great component of criticism. It’s the effects of media (the environments resulting from, accompanying, and created as a result of technology, their structure and effects), which are the major agents of change in people (physiologically) and societies. Much less so, the uses to which technologies are put. Teaching or advocating media literacy without media criticism is not getting us anywhere. Indeed, it’s holding us back. Literacy, without criticism, is useless.

Loewy then steps beyond the Surman quote and speaks of teaching “students to become critical and engaged citizens of the world they now inhabit.” Being critical and engaged are often mutually exclusive, but that aside, recognizing ‘the world they now inhabit’ as a vastly complex and changed environment is important, and Loewy outlines a few examples of that which need critical attention:

>>ethics, legal arguments around privacy and anonymity.

>>”free” online services are not free at all. [When something appears ‘free’, it’s generally the user being sold.]

>>algorithms in control — “the internet acts as an echo chamber instead of promoting thought diversity”

>>The need for students to be aware of cyberpsychology, the study of our online behavior.

>>”The list of topics that need to be added to our school curricula is long and significant.”

Good points, and areas which deserve attention. Loewy has obviously spent much time on the ground paying attention to his students and has done good work in addressing their needs and implementing solutions. He also obviously wishes to do more than he currently is able to. I have the advantage of being outside that system so I can shoot my mouth off. Loewy and others have more of a challenge, and more courage, working within the system to affect change. To be clear, while I feel he (and others in similar positions) could go further, I don’t blame them for not doing so, and I congratulate them for what they do on a daily basis.

I think many people feel that school curricula and teaching methods need addressing. One of the main topics or categories I feel is missing in schools is the training of perception, the teaching and use of tools for students to examine the nature of new technologies and the environments which they create — environments of services and disservices which simultaneously subtly yet drastically (paradoxically) change self and society. Time spent learning to use technologies is time wasted if it doesn’t include confronting their effects. We need to help students to develop the ability to step back from technology in order to be able to see what it’s doing; to raise their heads above the water long enough to know they are submerged.

— Beyond Tech Bling —

Loewy asks “How have we allowed our school curricula to fall so far out of step with the society they are supposed to reflect?” But if you apply the questions of the paragraph preceding to any older technology like television, radio, or any other, the question becomes not ‘how have we fallen so far out of step’, but ‘when will we start to examine the present?’ Because it is certainly not unique to our age that we are unwilling to confront the present on its own terms.

He is quite right in pointing out that people are under the impression that the presence of technology in the classroom seems to give people the mistaken belief that there is something progressive going on. As long as the emphasis is on uses and not effects, it’s nothing but razzle-dazzle, as empty and old-fashioned as it is shiny and new.

“How can we help students learn to navigate this new digital ecosystem?” asks Loewy. “Our goal should be to educate students so that they may function as responsible, ethical, informed, and critical members of society, both on and offline.”

Again, I would say that students need tools to study not only ‘the new digital ecosystem’, but all media. There are pre-digital media worth examining to shed light on the present, as there will be new media and a post-digital era. Too much focus on ‘digital’ media risks myopia and an inability to see the larger picture, and what comes next. I don’t disagree with many of Loewy’s teaching aims and objectives. My main criticism is of a slightly narrow focus. My own bias, to McLuhan media criticism, makes me favour a more general set of tools to study a wider variety of media rather than focus on digital and get bogged down.

— Mentor, not Monitor —

“The best filter is the one between our students’ ears, says Ribble.”

Indeed. And the best tools are the organs of perception, the faculties and senses. These need training. Training in discrimination, discernment. Observation, experimentation. Where is this in any media/technology-based curriculum? How can we expect students to learn anything new if they don’t know how to perceive anything new, or how to actually learn and not simply be taught?

“We need to work toward changing our approach to the digital work — moving from one of containment to one of engagement.”

I would modify Loewy’s statement. At this point, you can probably guess how I would rephrase it: ‘we need to work toward changing our approach to media literacy, moving from one of containment and engagement to one of observation and objective criticism of not just the content and uses but the form structure and effects’. I feel that Loewy is almost there, but doesn’t quite pull the trigger.

The “digital native myth” — that kids are inherently able to use digital technology, are born to it, is indeed backward thinking. In fact, technology is engineered for the lowest common denominator, so that it’s so simple a child can seem to have technological superpowers. It’s not so much that the new generations are amazingly adept and gifted, it’s that the devices are purposely designed for the simplest operation.

It is not impossible to consider the implications of technologies before they become consequences, but to suggest that is to suggest accountability for the effects and consequences of technologies.

“…we also need to provide professional development for teachers and workshops for parents.” Quite. We also need to get the message of the media (which is total change) to the people who are doing us the backhanded service of bringing all these technological marvels into being, making them so easy to use, and so hard to observe beyond their uses. A little forethought. It is not impossible to consider the implications of technologies before they become consequences, but to suggest that is to suggest accountability for the effects and consequences of technologies.

While I personally would have gone a bit further, Loewy has written an article which is a call to action that I greatly appreciate. It is way ahead of most of the conventional approaches, and firmly on the road past simple literacy and toward criticism and understanding and action.

/ / / / / / / / /

More on Reuben Loewy and his work here. A discussion forum has recently been added to the site, and I know he and his colleagues would love to hear from you if you have ideas and thoughts to share, or are able to support their work in some other manner. We need more like this.

Andrew McLuhan
Picton, May 25, 2016.

This article was written in response to a request for feedback from Mr. Reuben Loewy, whose work I admire. Thanks to Mark Reale for editorial advice.

As always, I’d love to hear from you. Comment here or reach me


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