Digital Literacy

http://www.legendswebdesign.comWith the thinking I’ve done and what I have created for my e-portfolio, I think it starts to do what I ultimately want it to do: demonstrate my own digital literacy.

Initially, I wanted an e-portfolio to demonstrate specific technology skills because I want to shift my business more toward technical/software writing and training. My degrees are not in programming, engineering, or other traditional IT fields. I’ve held technical writing jobs and projects (see Resume) periodically over the past 18 years, and I’ve worked as a trainer and delivered many, many workshops on a variety of subjects. In addition, I’ve been involved with online tools since about 1992. All of that, to me, comes together to move me forward, but I don’t think it’s an immediately recognizable next step to other people. (That is, it’s a hard “sell” to potential clients.)

In December, I enrolled in Jane Hart’s online course in professional learning portfolios in order to gain some ideas about how I could create an online presence that would get me more work in these areas (my planning is here). I didn’t get too far, although I did set up categories about specific things such as WordPress and Information Design. I never quite got to the point I was happy with this structure; I think I’ve concluded that I really want to demonstrate that I can learn to use about any kind of software and that I can effectively help others use it. Literacy rather than a specific tool is the point.

Having to follow the Digital Literacy course’s outline for my e-portfolio was a little constraining because honestly I don’t need to demonstrate (for my work) my writing skills at this stage in my life, so having a lot of words on these pages is less helpful to my goal than the multimedia “artifacts” I have. But the process helped me clarify that, yes, I still wasn’t quite there yet with my structure and demonstration. So in a very Zen way it has helped me progress in creating this portfolio because it made me think about what I didn’t quite want to do.

My next effort, then, will be to figure out how my e-portfolio will emphasize “digital literacy”; some of that will certainly involve tools, but I’d like to find a way to emphasize that the tool I’m using is basically just an example. I don’t want to emphasize “I can use X Tool” but “I can do Y and now I’ll find, learn, and use X Tool to help me do it.”

WordPress demonstrates the separation of content and form that characterizes the most recent incarnation of the web.

When I presented my webinar as a midterm, I expected to be able to screencast “live” websites and manipulations to make it more interesting to the viewers. Thanks to technology issues in my rural community (i.e., library connection’s bandwidth), that did not go well. I had sent draft slides to my instructor so she could see them, but I modified them quite a bit to present live online. So my planned discussion and questions ended up being displayed on a slide (where I had put them in the draft version, planning to take them out and into notes). Rather than use that recording here, I decided to remake it and make it closer to what I had envisioned.

Here’s what I learned trying to create the presentation with a PowerPoint add-on called iSpring:

  • I used PowerPoint to create the visual contents. Because my PC’s microphone or soundcard is not good, I used an Android app, Tape Machine, to record the short narrations using my Droid Bionic’s microphone, which has a much better sound quality. I can save these on Dropbox via my Droid and then insert them into the presentation as local files.
  • I used iSpring Pro to create the flash version of the slide show. Previewing the presentation on my local screen worked well; all sounds, video, and slides were there.
  • When iSpring creates the contents, it will also create (because I set the system to do this) an HTML file. Supposedly iSpring says just copy some of the code there (using the “<object” tag) and put it on your page. That did not work here in WordPress.
  • In order to get this to work, I had to use a plugin called “Top Flash Embed”; it grabs the SWF file that runs the presentation.
  • I uploaded most of the content via WordPress’s media uploader, except for the first video file, which was too big. I had to upload that via FTP on my host.
  • I noticed that the sounds and videos get stored in a “data” folder when I created and saved the local version. Because the presentation wasn’t running correctly after I uploaded the files, I surmised that the applicable have to be put back in a data folder (within the same folder the SFW file resides)  in order to appear properly in the presentation. And that worked!
  • The help and tutorials at iSpring are relatively useless. I got much more savvy by looking at WordPress Flash plugins and the WordPress Codex.

I’m thinking I learned enough with this little venture that I should create a tutorial on how to do it. I bet other iSpring users would find it useful.

athinkinMuch of the last three weeks I have spent doing some writing in response to Requests for Proposals for instructional materials from school districts across the country (it’s that season). A new product that one of my clients is distributing is called Inquire, created by the Thoughtful Learning company. Its subtitle is A Student Handbook for 21st Century Learning, and it focuses on critical and creative thinking (part I), inquiry skills and process (part II), and projects to practice with in all four major subjects (part III).

For me, the most amusing part is that I was writing part of a response that will try to provide these instructional materials to a large Texas school district. Last summer, Texas Republicans decided that part of their political platform was the rejection of teaching critical thinking in schools:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

(Just as a side note, they also oppose mandatory preschool and kindergarten and work for the repeal of all early childhood programs. They say, “parents are best suited to train their children.” Cause, you know, most parents spend a lot of their time looking at the latest research on child development. Not, say, watching American Idol or scrolling through cute cat videos online.)

University of Manitoba instructor Leslie Paas looked back to our earlier readings on digital literacy, saying “a core component of 21st century skills  is the ability to understand and evaluate…to think critically.” This has little to do with technology and much to do with a particular way of approaching the world. And the Texan Republicans are correct in that helping children learn these skills challenges their fixed beliefs. Of course it does. That doesn’t always mean that the children (or adults) change their beliefs in response; they may even find ways to fortify them.

When I was in college, I took a course titled The Bible as Literature, taught by the wonderful Dr. David Hadas (father to poet Pamela Hadas, by the way). In the first day of learning, he talked about the requirements of the course, went over the syllabus…all the things you expect. He also added something new. He talked about the approach of the course, to treat the bible (both old and new testaments) as literature and as a compilation of stories that had different authors, slightly different mythologies, different time references, and so on. He said that like any writing, the bible has contradictions and gaps that we will examine and point out. And he said, “Whatever your religious beliefs, I respect them and we will respect each other. The course is designed to challenge your thinking and your reading: if you have strong religious faith, this course will probably not upset you. If you have strong anti-religious views, this course will probably not upset you. But if you’re wavering and unsure about what you believe or want to be challenged? You’ll probably struggle.”

So would a parent create a situation for a child that puts him or her in a position of critically examining the family’s own beliefs? Not likely. That seems to me to be the job of education—and that’s part of my hesitation when people, even some professors, start anticipating the “demise of public schools” and the “death of higher education” simply because the Internet makes so much knowledge so easily accessible. It’s scary to me that these ideas, many of them out of the Left, the people I generally agree with, would feed into the Texas Republicans’ anti-progress agenda. I just cannot abandon the idea that there is real value in public education and higher education, whatever their problems. (They produced me, for instance, and every moment of college and graduate school was a blessing, from my perspective.)

The thing is, despite all the reading I’ve done, I’m just not sure whether critical thinking is a skill to teach. Some research has shown lackluster results in programs designed to enhance students’ critical thinking skills. Daniel Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, concludes (p. 17) that critical thinking is context dependent and cannot be taught as a predefined set of “skills,” but there are metacognitive strategies (such as learning to avoid bias by trying to see both sides of a debate) that can help. Any aquisition of critical skills, he argues, depends on domain-specific practice (for example, solving math word problems) and the knowledge that results from that practice—again, as opposed to simply learning a supposed “skill” in isolation.

The research is clear that critical thinking cannot be conveyed like information or facts. But I do think it can be modeled, and it’s best modeled by a live teacher (or, at least, a teacher one interacts with whether live or online) actually doing the questioning in front of students (and see an interesting article about nursing here where the author uses the term “nurture” to describe a process of trying to convey critical thinking skills). I look back and know that the professors who taught me did that modeling within a specific domain (in this case, literature and history): for instance, parsing lines of poetry is a different sort of skill than creating lines of code.

So technology has its own set of domain-specific strategies that allow users to become more adept. The strategies include asking questions like  hey, this search didn’t work, so what can we do next? This link comes from XYZ website, so does that enhance its credibility? So-and-So TechBigWig recommends this software; is she getting a kickback and has she made that clear on her site? The cool thing is that the beliefs that come with technology aren’t as “fixed” as, say, religious ideology, so there seems to be a genuine opportunity for the questioning and playing around that is the first step for learning.

327136_thumbnailAt the end of 2012, TechNet released a report that “rates the states [of the United States] on indicators of broadband adoption, network quality, and economic structure as a way of taking stock of  where states stand” with the following remarks:

States are actively pursuing ways to use broadband to promote economic development, build strong communities, improve delivery of government services, and upgrade educational systems. The ingredients for meeting those goals are fast and ubiquitous broadband networks, a population of online users, and an economic structure that helps drive broadband innovation and investment in new broadband uses.

If access and use are two foundations for digital literacy, then it seems important to separate the hype (often from providers with a financial stake in the outcome) about “catching up” to the pack from the realistic assessment of whether people can get online and use tools properly. I got interested in this report after reading part of the report about Canada called Lagging or Leading? The State of Canada’s Broadband Infrastructure. Canada is quite different from the United States, and so I started thinking about whether the United States had some plans and reports. Of course, there are a boatload of them from both governmental resources as well as private firms.

The TechNet report separated the states of the United States, and that interested me. Knowing a lot about Ohio because I’ve done a lot of grant writing and research writing on the state, I was curious about Ohio’s ranking. The TechNet report is called TECHNET’S 2012 STATE BROADBAND INDEX: Where States Rank as They Look to High Speed Connectivity to Grow Strong Economies and Vibrant Communities. In it, the state I live in fares poorly.

Ohio ranks poorly

Ohio is ranked 39 overall (out of 50).  Index values were calculated from three measures chosen for the study: adoption (Census-based trend data on state broadband adoption), network quality (network speeds within the state + percentage of households passed by fiber optic broadband infrastructure), and economic structure (a measure of the percentage of jobs in a state that can be counted as information and communication technology industries + “apps intensity,” a measure developed as an index of the number of jobs in apps development, which the authors point to as a forward-looking measure). 100 was the average index value of all states; the state that was Number One overall was Washington, with an index value of 152. Ohio’s index value was 88. Ohio trails states such as South Carolina, West Virginia, Alabama, and Oklahoma.

Looking at the breakdown of the three measures of the study (Table 2), Ohio earned an 86 on adoption, a 75 on network quality, and a 103 on economic structure—the only area the state is slightly above average. Luckily enough, the report contains a discussion of Ohio (p.21–22), likely because Ohio is a relatively large and populous state, often important for presidential elections, and contains The Ohio State University (the largest in the nation).

The report admits that with recent statewide and private investments, Ohio is likely to move up in the ranks.

Ohio started investing in infrastructure in 2007, which of course came right before the world economic collapse in 2008. Ohio had launched a county-based initiative for access; in Ohio, the largest cities and their counties (Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo) far well in any kind of initiative because of the higher education levels, population densities, and existing infrastructure of these areas. But Ohio also has 32 counties (36% of all Ohio counties) that are part of federally designated as Appalachian. Most of these counties have higher unemployment, lower wages, and higher poverty than national averages.

According to the most recent Current Population Survey that included computer use (Table 3A), 63% of Ohioans surveyed older than age 3 access the Internet at home. OhiovFairfieldMy county, Fairfield, a county that abuts the one that houses the state capital of Columbus, has better percentages of Internet access, computer ownership, and home broadband subscriptions than the state percentages, according to the Connect Ohio report on Fairfield County.

Among the residents that do not own a computer, 86% say that they don’t need one (versus 59% state), and 29% say “computers are too complicated” (versus 13% at the state level). In addition, 42% said owning a computer was too expensive (Fairfield County’s poverty rate is 11.2%, lower than the state average of 15.8%, according to a report I just worked on for the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, State of Poverty 2012).

The “computers are too complicated” response suggest that access is tied to folks’ perception of use: if it’s too confusing, why would I spend money on a computer? I find this answer really interesting, in fact. Part of what I see happening here is not that there is a problem with access—for instance, next year when she enters high school, my stepdaughter gets an iPad to use for all four years—but that there is a perception problem. For instance, mostly this stepdaughter gets assignments in her 8th grade courses to create a posterboard or other projects that are not computer-related. In fact, her teachers and school do not emphasize computer use at all. At least two of her teachers do not use online grading systems to communicate with parents as they are required to do. And as a result of that (and another female adult in her life that thinks and says that computers are a boy-thing), she doesn’t learn a whole lot about computers.

I keep thinking that the connection between use and access isn’t this way: access→use but is this: access↔use. And I keep thinking that there is some value in family-based computer instruction, which is something I’ve been thinking about for my business development. Would it be useful and interesting to teach not only kids but also their parents some aspects of computer use to persuade them of the value of this literacy?

avatarcrossarmsYesterday I delivered my webinar for Digital Literacy, and because of some technology glitches, I did not accomplish all that I wanted to in that forum. Luckily, I can make up for it with a better effort that I have more control over, so that will be posted here.

For the webinar, we used Adobe Connect and although I have used it many times before, I have never tried to share a screen. When my instructor and I tested it ahead of time, it worked just fine. Alas, when we had my colleagues online, too, it did not work at all and I stumbled through static PowerPoint slides. Static slides are not what really fires up an audience!

So for this entry, I will do things a little differently. What I will try first is to create small videos using Screenr and insert them into my PPT slides and then record narration based on the notes I created for the webinar. Then I will upload it to AuthorStream and embed it here.

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