Reflections on digital literacy

Many of my friends and family have the impression that I stay ahead of the curve where all things digital are concerned … but this is not exactly an accurate perception!  Indeed, I love new tech gadgets, and continually search for ways to do things more efficiently.  My love of efficiency actually comes from reading “Cheaper by the Dozen” when I was about 10 years old (I think this book was first published in 1950, when I would have been 9!).  So given this life-long propensity, it is true that I have welcomed the digital age with open arms.

But the main reason that I am reflecting on this particular topic is that I have been embroiled in a digital challenge to understand “backchannels.”  When I face a challenge like this, it always renews my appreciation and empathy for folks who self-identify as “technologic peasants” (credit to Althea for this very fun and descriptive phrase!).  For those of us who started life with the idea that efficiency was closely connected to reducing physical motion (as the Gilbreth Dad advocated in “Cheaper”), digital literacy just leaves us in a forest where we cannot find our way out.  We marvel at the agility of our kids and grandkids who navigate the digital world with lightening speed and come up with stuff we never imagined possible!  There is something that they can see and do and think about in ways that we missed … very akin to what those of us who can only speak one language missed early in life.  We are far behind in what our minds, eyes and hands will “do” when we find ourselves in front of a computer, or when we have one of those handy “mobile devices” in our hands.  And this goes for all of us, including me!  I won’t burden you with my “backchannel” struggle; instead I want to reflect on digital literacy, and some of the experiences that have catapulted me into this world over and beyond my quest for efficiency!

I first became free to move around the country and the world for unlimited spans of time when the journal I edit, Advances in Nursing Science, shifted to the digital world for all of the editing processes.  I founded the journal in 1978 and performed all of the editorial tasks on an IBM Selectric machine (for those who do not know what this was, google it!!).  There were piles of carbon paper, major trips to the post office, huge file cabinets full of files on each manuscript, and a card system that mostly kept me on track with the progress of each manuscript through the review process. Then along came the first word processors that would merge letter templates with names and addresses, and I thought my life could not be better!  The paper files still took up loads of space in my office, and the trips to the post office persisted, but the hours of typing and re-typing the same things over and over evaporated.

It was not until about the year 2000 that I began only accepting manuscripts by email,  insisted that reviewers receive manuscripts for review by way of email and return their reviews by email. At that point I had to make a decision  — I took a hard line that everything had to be email-based, meaning that I lost about 10% of the very talented and knowledgeable reviewers.  But the expense of mail, the piles of paper, and the fact that paper had tied me to a physical location for over 20 years compelled me to insist on this shift. The journal became free of physical paper files and the US postal service!

Then in the year 2004 along came the web-based peer review system!  Karen and I had decided to spend about 6 months traveling the country in our RV, with most of the time in the San Francisco Bay area in order to scope our this location for our eventual retirement home.  The journal publisher was launching the web-based peer review system, which required me to spend about 20 hours in training, using an online teaching system whereby I could see the web site that my trainer was using, and together we could do the tasks involved in setting up the site for my journal and I could learn how to use it.  She was in Baltimore, and I was in my RV (or my son’s home) in California!  Today the system works well, but as happened when we shifted to email, I lost a few reviewers who simply could not cope with the challenges of the web-based system. And from time to time we still have the occasional potential author who finds the system just too much to bear.  But more and more, these challenges are becoming things of the past.

But back to my original purpose in talking about this … as challenging as this new literacy is, it is clear that the world will never be as we expected when we “oldsters” were growing up.  The kind of reading literacy that we learned to value so highly may actually be a thing of the past, and some believe that humanity will lose something with its passing.  In my view, it is possible that something will be lost, but I believe that what is to be gained far outweighs anything lost.

I found a wonderful summary of what digital literacy means posted in 2009 on a blog – Chip’s Journey.  Chip (Bertram Bruce) is a professor of library science whose work focuses, among other related things, on “communication practices that help people in communities learn and work together.”  Chip presents several alternative definitions of digital literacy, each of which adds a dimension of understanding to what “digital literacy” is, as well as providing a vision of what digital literacy can mean for the future.  I urge you to take a look at this list!   Chip asks readers to identify their favored definition .. so here is the one I favor .. you can guess why!

“a new liberal art that extends from knowing how to use computers and access information to critical reflection on the nature of information itself its technical infrastructure and its social, cultural, and philosophical context and impact”

Now it’s your turn!

About Peggy L Chinn

feminist, nurse activist, writer, founding editor of ANS Advances in Nursing Science, quilter, grandmother nurturing the future of the amazing children in my life.
This entry was posted in Making change, Social Issues, Technology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Reflections on digital literacy

  1. chipbruce says:

    Good post, Peggy. It led me to read more of your blog. You have a refreshing perspective on a variety of important topics. As you might imagine, I like the intermixing of the political and the personal, the technological and the natural, art and life.

  2. Sarah Fogel says:

    Hi Peggy!

    Thanks so much for this blog entry. It has caused me to think about the pros of living and communicating in the current world instead of simply groaning over how digitally illiterate I am! I went to the “list” and chose a different favorite definition: “development of critical, socially engaged intelligence, which enables individuals to understand and participate effectively in the affairs of their community in a collaborative effort to achieve a common good”

    The reason I chose this one is that it offers the potential of exploring the meaning of “community” along with inclusion of one of my favorite ideologies—the common good. I think the only change I would make to this definition would be to use the plural form of “community” to represent our ability to function and participate in multiple communities. This representation of pluralism more fully defines the human experience (in my humble opinion.)

    Thanks again!

  3. Jane K says:

    This is a very interesting history! I have only been involved in reviewing articles online! I looked at the definitions and I must admit that the one I’m drawn to is very basic. I think it reflects where I am in my own technology journey. (the ability to recognize when information is needed and to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information)

    I am constantly saying, “I know enough to get by.” It’s strange that I review online, I teach online, I met my husband online, and yet this is where I am with technology. And I realize that enough to get by is not nearly enough.

    Also, I had a conversation with a “tech fellow” at Columbia University. I was telling her how reluctant I am to try anything new or “push buttons” for fear of messing things up. I will forever be traumatized by an experience a while back when my entire computer system froze up. I still don’t know what I did to cause that. Anyway, the tech fellow told me there is research showing that females tend to be less daring (my word) with computers than males. Males are more willing to “push buttons.” Interestingly enough, my daughter is much more willing to try things out on the computer than my son. When asked about this, my son said he’s afraid he’ll mess something up. So I think there’s a bit of personality mixed into this as well!! It’d be interesting to read the studies, though.

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