Do we give students credit for being more web-literate than they are?
This is the first of a series of two or three blog posts I plan to write that have been inspired my time at THATCamp AAR, which I recently had the privilege of attending.*
We are all familiar with the half-serious comment that 3-year-olds can program digital gadgets with more skill than most adults. But how true is it—and more importantly for us as teachers, how true is the assumption that today’s students will naturally be able to understand, interpret, and produce information in a digital format?
The question of students’ web-literacy (and, more generally, technological literacy) came up in a THATCamp AAR session dedicated to thinking about how digital resources can help students draw nuanced conclusions to complex questions. As participants suggested ideas for assignments and pointed out reference materials available online, someone made the observation that students often need more assistance using these tools than we expect.
Since then, I've been thinking about two key aspects of technical literacy that I want to prepare for when I plan to bring technology into the classroom.
1. Using technology
Even if I know that my students use search engines and popular web sites, I should not expect that they will intuitively pick up other skills. Accordingly, when I ask students to use any technology—wikis, blogs, databases, forums, and more—I want to be prepared from the outset to provide instruction and technical support.
Depending on the assignment, this might mean pointing students to written, audio, or video instructions. Yet, inevitably, some students will come to me for help, as well—and this is a good thing. By bringing new technologies into my classrooms, I want to embrace both the challenges and the rewards of that decision. If I can help students learn to use a new technology, and if at the same time this technology helps them do the work of a historian in an effective way, then I have doubly succeeded.
2. Understanding and interpreting technology
Even when a student can complete the “functional” portion of a digital assignment—successfully finding information, posting content, and more—he or she may not fully understand the ramifications of what has happened. For this reason, I also need to ensure students understand the implications of the digital tools they use. This, again, is something I want to plan for from the outset. I want to be sure to dedicate appropriate resources (class time, handouts, office hours) toward helping students understand the tools I ask them to use.
For instance, one discussion that might apply in several situations is that of privacy, fair use, copyright, and licensing. This is important not only when students are researching and using others’ work but also when I ask them to post content online: they should know who can view their work, what others may do with it, who owns the rights to it, and what the potential ramifications of posting content, either in their own name or anonymously, may be (again something that came up in the AAR session).
Another discussion that would be useful for many assignments would be how to interpret information that students have found (via databases, search engines, word clouds, maps, and more). Again, it is easy—but problematic—to assume that students will be able to understand such data out of hand. Rather, I want to plan to assist my students in finding trends, categorizing information, locating and explaining contradictory information, and the like. This is, of course, the work I already do as a teacher of history—and I need to remind myself that it is no less urgent to do this when the information comes in a digital medium.
*Those interested in reading further about the 2013 THATCamp AAR might begin with the Tagboard record of tweets from the day along with David McConeghy’s and Chris Cantwell’s reflections. Session descriptions (and some session notes) also appear on the AAR THATCamp web site.
In addition, I’d like to mention with gratitude that my ability to attend the event was due to my position as the 2013-14 HASTAC scholar for Vanderbilt’s Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities. Thank you for this opportunity!