Demystifying “Digital Literacy”

Over at her New York Times blog, Virginia Heffernan quotes some pretty hyperbolic claims about the future of work in the United States, inter alia, that 65% of jobs which will be held by today’s grade-school kids will be unrecognizable to us – though admittedly, the claim may turn on what how exacting a standard of ‘recognizable’ we apply. Any exaggeration is due to from Cathy Davidson, a Duke scholar who research focuses include the impact of technology on learning and higher education, whose new book, Now You See It turns on questions of attention and technology in learning.

What’s most hopeful, and surprising, about the collection of findings Heffernan cribs from Now You See It:

Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.

That finding has now been quoted hundreds of times by bloggers, some presumably delighted that their particular medium, often the target of neo-luddite laments regarding the prospects for digital-age literacy, shows real promise as a mode of written communication (at least, it should be noted, among engaged top-tier undergrads).

The implications are more complex. A friend, now completing her PhD in rhetoric at the University of Waterloo, had intended to investigate the process by which students learn academic practices related to the use of sources. Yet one of the key lessons of her research is just how poorly most undergraduate assignments are designed. At best, such assignments – generally in the form of the poorly defined ‘review paper’ – require students to practice skills which will be useful to them neither in “the real world” nor in the academic practice of the professor who is teaching the class.

At first, Heffernan uses these and other results drawn from Davidson’s book to take somewhat arbitrary potshots at Tom Pynchon and Michael Ritchie’s film The Candidate. Of course, attacking the content of critique and analysis in the undergraduate classroom is, of course, somewhat beside the point. Luckily, at the end of her post, Heffernan gets back on point, suggesting that higher education should be tied into the task of improving, not deriding, digital literacy. What my friend’s research highlights is that this is not simply a matter of insufficient room for collaboration, “web accountability” or multimedia savvy: instead, improving learning outcomes may be simply a matter of designing assignments which allow students to write in a register which seems – and is – relevant: like writing a blog post.