New Literacies: Inside and Outside School

“We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race.”   Clay Shirky

I can’t help but notice the startling contrast between the world inside school these days and the world outside of school.  Outside of schools, students are talking about music they’re producing, online communities they are part of, conversations they’re having online with people at a distance, and sharing, sharing, sharing.

creative commons

Thomas Favre-Bulle, Creative Commons

Inside school?  Well, not so much. Inside school looks pretty much the same way it has for a very, very long time.

The National School Board Association recently published results of three surveys regarding social networking and I was not surprised to learn, in a recent THE Journal article, that 52% of all districts interviewed prohibited any use of social networking sites in school. But here’s the kicker – “almost 60% of students who use social networking talk about education topics online and, surprisingly, more than 50% talk specifically about schoolwork.”

There’s a new literacy out there and, you know what? …it’s happening with or without our schools. But just think for a minute how much better it might be if our teachers, administrators, and school resources were supporting and guiding that literacy journey that our students are taking without us. Just think what teachers could contribute.  Yes, students are pretty facile with all of this new media, but there’s still so much they need to know. For example, students need to know how to determine the veracity of a web site (and find out who owns the domain), how to safely navigate an online social network, how to make good judgments about what they post online, how to edit a wikipedia entry, how to navigate the sea of information available to them, how to use of the creative commons, how to curate their own work, how to connect with experts and peers  – how to embed, share, mash-up, remix, and animate.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act and standardized state curricula and assessments don’t reflect these  literacies. There’s no doubt about the fact that NCLB and the way student achievement is measured has had a strong influence on daily life in the classroom. By aligning our schools along the narrow band of what can be evaluated in a high stakes exam, we fail to assign value to the new knowledge and skills that our  youth need to become effective participants in a global, networked environment. It’s time for our schools to teach and foster responsible student mastery of new literacy forms.  That doesn’t mean throwing away the old ones – couldn’t we augment them with the new literacies?  We have a responsibility to teach students to critically understand and responsibly use these new forms of media  – and in order to do that, we need to understand them ourselves.

Web 2.0 is an ideal platform for this kind of participatory learning.  These tools help us to reach out to others, join in the conversation, creatively express ourselves, and find our teachers. As Chris Dede says, we want students to not just be problem solvers, but problem finders – out there, working it, finding fresh areas for investigation.


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