Digital Literacy & Common Core

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Earlier this week I happened to overhear a conversation about digital literacy and the Common Core.  The person asking the question was curious what exactly the Common Core Standards said about digital literacy.  As I listened to the conversation unfold I found a group of smart, passionate educators focusing all of their attention on access to digital tools.  I wasn’t surprised.

Over the past few months while leading workshops on digital writing and the Common Core I have observed similar conversations with a variety of educators.  The idea of digital literacy often stops at “my students don’t have access.”  This really bothers me for two main reasons.  In reality your students do have some access (just look at the results of our recent survey) and if we stop the conversation at access we miss the much larger challenge we will have to tackle – developing instructional models.  Simply putting a computer/iPad/netbook in the hands of a child will not meet the digital literacy goals of the Common Core Standards.  I have observed technology being used as a powerful component of meaningful instruction and then walked into the room next door and coached the teacher into putting the computers back into the cart.  Technology alone is not the answer.  To meet the needs of the Common Core Standards, we will have to focus our attention on powerful instructional practices that make strategic use of technology.

First, let’s start with this notion of digital literacy. Digital literacy actually is comprised of three components – reading digital text, writing digital text, and developing the technical skills necessary to consume and produce these texts.  Often, when the term “digital text” is used people tend to think only of word processing, but digital texts come in a variety of ever-increasing forms including images, slideshows, videos, podcasts, blogs, tweets, Facebook pages, and text messages just to name a few.  If the artifact conveys meaning and utilized digital technology to either be produced or consumed, then chances are it’s digital text.

The concept of digital literacy appears throughout the Common Core Literacy standards.  As I wrote in a previous post, five of the thirty-two anchor standards specifically call out the importance of digital reading and writing.  However, another area where digital literacy appears in the standards is in the portraits of career and college ready individuals.  Out of nine portraits one specifically highlights the use of technology and digital media:

They use technology and digital media strategically and capably.

“Students employ technology thoughtfully to enhance their reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language use. They tailor their searches online to acquire useful information efficiently, and they integrate what they learn using technology with what they learn offline. They are familiar with the strengths and limitations of various technological tools and mediums and can select and use those best suited to their communication goals.”

Reading through this portrait, hopefully you noticed three main parts:

  • Students need to conduct effective online research;
  • Students need to integrate both online and offline research into what they are learning;
  • Students need to be familiar with the strengths and limitations of various technological tools and mediums and can select those best suited to their communication goals.

These three components are fairly broad, but from my experience working in classrooms, I would say that most students are receiving some instruction that might meet the first two bullets.  We still have quite a bit of work to do in this area, but we have at least begun the journey. However, the third bullet is where we really need to pay attention as educators.  Can your students make strategic decisions about when it would be most appropriate to use a blog post, video, or podcast to convey their ideas?  Do they have knowledge of any of these tools?  Do your teachers?  Do your teachers and students have access to these types of digital texts in the form of hardware, software, and networking policies?

I would argue that the third bullet actually drives the first two.  As informed consumers of digital texts, students must also be informed producers and this must occur across all content areas.  In thinking about instructional approaches that will help teachers and students meet these objectives, I’m automatically taken back to Writing Workshop.  It is an approach that has been around for decades and often makes almost no use of technology, but it’s pretty ingenious and could easily support the development of digital literacy skills across content areas.  Realize, I am hardly the first person to come up with this idea and would highly recommend checking out The Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks.  Rather than focusing on some sort of magical formulaic approach where the teacher is the font of knowledge, in Writing Workshop students develop writing skills by reading works in a similar genre.  As a class, the teacher and students develop a collective definition for the genre and throughout the writing process refer back to mentor texts for strategies and ideas on creating their own pieces.  This model easily works whether students are producing persuasive essays, research reports, 30-second public service announcements, or podcasts.

Interestingly the morning after the conversation I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I walked into a classroom and saw a digital Writing Workshop in action.  A 5th grade class at our iPad and Chromebook pilot site was in the midst of finalizing a series of ebooks that each consisted of a narrative with embedded facts.  Historically, this teacher has had her students complete a state report each year.  This year however, with a handful of iPads and experience with Writing Writing Workshop she wanted to try something different.  As a class they read a series of stories that used a narrative with embedded facts structure and developed a common definition of this type of writing.  Working in small groups, students conducted research by collecting facts from online and print resources, as well as information provided by pen pals who grew up in their particular state.  Using this information students crafted narratives, first on paper and then on their iPads using Book Creator.  Each group selected images, added hyperlinks and audio files, and published an ebook to be read by parents and fellow students in the iBooks app.  As I walked through the classroom I heard students engaged in rigorous conversations about their narratives while debating the most effective way to display ideas and discovering features of the application .  One pair caught my attention when one student said to her partner, “I don’t think that’s how you use a quotation mark…let’s check our mentor text.”

As a class, this group of students has created fourteen ebooks while building research, writing, and technological skills.  Through this project they are modeling many of the digital literacy skills and practices called out by the Common Core Standards.  All by itself, a technology-rich Writing Workshop may not solve every digital literacy need, but it is an instructional approach we should consider and adapt across content areas.  It is important to note that access is still quite important.  This particular class has about ten iPads.  That means students have to regularly work in triads and do not all have equal access to the technology.  However, this class demonstrates that we can all begin our digital literacy journey with the resources we currently have in place while simultaneously developing plans to increase the level of technology to support every student.

Joe

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