Web Literacy is not a remedial class

Sometimes, when I’m talking with people interested (but not familiar with the territory) of new literacies, I come across a particular assumption. Although they never make it explicit, the attitude seems to be that things like information literacy, digital literacy and (especially) web literacy are the kinds of things people need remedial classes for.


I think they’re wrong.

I’m fond of quoting Allan Martin as saying that literacy is a condition - not a threshold. As such it takes participation in a community of people who are literate in that particular domain. What we call ‘reading and writing’ is actually a complex process of encoding and decoding ‘texts’ for a particular purpose.

To quote myself:

Members of every culture and society have the world of everyday experience mediated by technologies, traditions and cultural norms or expectations. This shapes what counts as being ‘literate’ within that society. I, for example, cannot use a quill pen in the same way a medieval monk would in order to create a manuscript; he, likewise, would be baffled by the QWERTY keyboard upon which I am currently typing. The medieval monk uses a technology relevant to his time period to produce culturally-relevant documents in a particular idiom. I, in the 21st-century, do likewise.

There’s certainly a barrier to cross in terms of making oneself understood, but once that basic competence level has been achieved, literate practices are ongoing and unfolding. A wonderful example of this has been the recent emergence of a ‘grammar’ around Doge. Others might be using the correct terminology when talking about particular sports, or etiquette around channels of communication.

It’s worth noting that discussions around literacy are inevitably discussions around identity. If we use Carol Dweck’s useful demarcation between those with a ‘growth’ versus those with a ‘fixed’ mindset, it’s interesting to see the reaction of people from the two groups when they’re presented with something like the Web Literacy Map. I’ve noticed that some (those in the ‘growth mindset’ camp) see it as useful, whereas others (those in the ‘fixed mindset’ camp) tend to see it as somewhat of a threat.

To my mind it would be a travesty if something like the Web Literacy Map was used to put a number on someone’s literate practices on the web. It would be as disingenuous as measuring social media ‘impact’ through a Klout score. Instead, we need to accept the difference between training and learning. Training (as far as I understand it) is an unpersonalised attempt to move someone from wherever they are to compliance. Learning, however, is about taking someone on a journey and eventually handing over the reigns.

I’m not sure you can put a number on that.

Comments? Send them to me at @dajbelshaw


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