Saturday, January 18, 2014

Literacy in 2014: What Does it all Mean?

Before I begin I would like to share some statistics with you that create a context for this particular topic. Last year 12.477 billion Google searches were conducted monthly. Sixty six percent of those searches were conducted in the United States. Global web traffic dropped by forty percent when Google had a five minute outage. Seventy nine percent of libraries have online databases and seventy eight percent of them use social media as part of their online presence. There are 1.15 billion Facebook users, 500 million Twitter users, 500 million Google+ users, and 238 million people on Linkedin. There are over one billion unique monthly visitors to YouTube every month. Lastly, twenty three percent of marketers employ a social media specialist or blogger and forty six percent of web users turn to social media for making purchases.

Whew! Now that I have given you all of those facts, we can safely agree that the world is very different today than it was when adults were going through school. However, there are some fundamental elements that cannot be ignored no matter how far we advance. We can never move past good old fashion literacy. Literacy is simply, the ability to read and write proficiently. There is not a soul who would argue that this is not important. However, if you need proof that this is a skill that is in constant need, read the Facebook posts on your timeline for about two minutes. Schools across the nation are working on this daily and in reality are having increased success in recent years with literacy. However, this kind of literacy is not the purpose of this particular blog.

We now face a new type of literacy that must be taught in schools. We must teach our students 21st Century literacy skills along with literacy. Think about that for a second. We have changed so drastically in the last 25 years, that we have to teach a new kind of literacy (not to be confused with computer literacy, the ability to function on a computer, which has been taught for quite some time now). You could argue that the last time such a HUGE shift in need for literacy happened was in the 1450's when Johannes Gutenberg printed the bible on his printing press causing a shift in the way people learned. We have entered into a generation of students who have to be taught differently than we were, or quite frankly, we will fail them.

 Twenty first century literacy has a number of levels. However, one of the most important is the new information literacy. Information literacy is the ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, evaluate, and effectively use that information for the issue or problem at hand. We are inundated with information. You saw the statistics on Google last year. There is nothing that we can't look up to find the answer to. In fact, I wasn't going to say anything, but I had to confirm I was correct in my year for the Gutenberg Bible. However, this is not just a positive outcome. There is a negative side to such a fast moving current of information. Overload of information typically leads to a decline in value. In other words, we have to sift through thousands of resources when in reality, a large portion of them may be very poor resources. We have to teach our students how to quantify and qualify sources rather than just look it up. We have to teach our students that "googling" alone is not research but only part of the equation.

What to do with the Information
Another skill we have to teach in 21st century literacy is the ability to make sense of the information that they find. It used to be that we would be challenged to memorize information and become the authority on a subject based on how much we knew off the top of our head. This is no longer the case. We have to teach students that it is not so much what you remember, but what you can do with the information that you find. In essence, this is teaching student critical thinking rather than rote memorization. We should be teaching students that they can find all the information in the world, but if they cannot use that information practically and productively, it is no good to them.

Can our students articulate their research to others through presenting and writing? There is not a more important job skill today than to be able to communicate information once acquiring it. This is step two of the process. Once they learn how to research, they can use the information productively online or in person.

Social Media
Another layer of twenty first century literacy is the ability to use Social Media. I am not talking about following Justin Beiber on Twitter or posting pictures of cats on Instagram. I am talking about the ability to market, organize, analyze, and receive information on social media. This is usually one where many roll there eyes, but if you think that social media literacy is not relevant to students today, you should watch the news, or better yet pick up a newspaper....If you have one, it is probably lighter than it was 10 years ago.

The reality is that there is a productive, academic, and useful side of social media. Our students know from a young age but it is our job to teach them how to properly use it. I compare it to teaching students to read novels vs teaching them to color within the lines. I believe there will prove to be a correlation between students who start using Social Media productively at a young age and those who do not. Social medial literacy should be taught in schools If we don't teach them, nobody will.

This is a complicated issue that probably deserves more writing than this short blog. But the facts are there for us. Our job is to prepare young people for success and teaching them these skills are what it is going to take in 2014. You would be hard pressed to even find a University that does not have a huge online database of academic journals. In fact I don't think there is one. We should continue to teach students the love of reading (I still read hardcover books) and the excitement of a trip to a library. But we need to address the fact that there are more layers to their literacy than there was when we were in school. We don't have to throw the baby out with the bath water, we just have to use a new and better kind of soap. Leading is Teaching.

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