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Chapter 7: Literacy - Are today's youth digital natives? (review by Rosaria Pace)

Chapter 7: Literacy - Are today's youth digital natives? (review by Rosaria Pace)

Part of the HASTAC Scholars Collaborative Book Review of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd

Review of  Chapter 7: Literacy - are today's youth digital natives? 

by Rosaria Pace


a. when the age does not matter

The birth date does not give digital citizenship. To be a native of the digital age does not necessarily mean to be a digitally wise. This is the strongest statement of the section “literacy” in danah boyd’s work “it’s complicated”.

In other words, a focus on today’s youth as digital natives presumes that all we as a society need to do is be patient and wait for a generation of these digital wunderkinds to grow up” (p. 197) says the author. The expression, with a sarcastic or alarmed tone (or both of them), reveals the misunderstanding or maybe the deliberate misdirection around the relationship between literacies and the category of the “digital natives”. An assumption that removes central responsibilities to educators and that reduces the complexity of a much wider phenomenon.

Wisdom has always been the conquest of advancing age and learning is a complex, wide and lifelong process, even - and for some aspects more - if learners grow up with technology.

To acquire the proper skills for the use of digital media is a process that involves many and diverse elements, such as Understanding, Empowerment, Interpretation, Participation, Critical approach.

The image below shows some keywords referring to the process of learning in the digital era, mentioned by danah boyd.


Image 1 - Just “digital natives”? The keywords of contemporary learning


b. commonplaces vs reality

The author explains what contemporary literacy includes without defining it. And she expands its effects to personal life and citizenship, to the relationship with the school and with the public participation.

To be literate is not just a matter of reading and writing. Literacy includes a mix of conditions, possibilities and processes that too often we consider superficially. And -  we could add - in the era of multimodality (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2001; Kress 2003; 2010), with the extension in the modes or forms of semiosis for expression, to be multiliterate is the real challenge (The New London Group, 1996; Cope & Kalantzis, 2000). As stated by Bill Green and Catherine Beavis (2013)«[w]hat this means educationally is that, rather than a more or less exclusive focus on print-alphabetic literacy, programmatically at the very least, attention needs to turn to developing a repertoire of capabilities in terms of both mode and medium. Whether this is properly framed within ‘literacy’ education may be debatable».

The supposed ability of digital natives to be comfortable with digital media, and their capability to read and write properly in a mediated world, lead along the chapter to the overcoming of "digital natives" category. And it is useful to underline just a couple of myths debunked by danah boyd’s work, that are crucial for the educational field:

1.     The user friendly design is fine for simplified use. But maybe it is also a mask that limits the creativity, the possibility of customization and the willingness / chance / ability to change the backend of what we see, read and use. When the “code” disappeared, the simplification also led to an anaesthetisation of the possibility to understand the intrinsic “rules” of digital pages, together with the ability to enter data, to download and write in open spaces.

To customize a layout, to use codes, to manage and maintain our digital tools and instruments, should not be a luxury or a skill to be given up. Few of us - myself included - really know the dynamics and the underlying mechanisms that rule the information retrieval, even with common search engines. It is as to say that the Net is not neutral. And many of us think so, even when the Web resources are used for teaching and learning activities.

2.     In textbooks we trust. They are widespread and they are undoubtedly cultural objects in which we place full confidence. But they could be “politically” oriented, overcome, not necessarily accurate. Resources like Wikipedia, on the contrary, are the expression of the contemporary dynamics of knowledge production, with revisions, fast updating, collective contribution. They are spaces where the crowdsourcing processes could become an effective way to exercise the cultural participation. Not necessarily an enemy to fight.


c. the role of teachers

The reflections and the critical elements presented by danah boyd represent a starting point for theoretical and applied research related to the educational contexts.Referring to my personal research experience in schools, I could say that teachers today are in a very difficult position. Previously recognized as experts, after years of work and commitment, their former influential position seems to be seriously challenged today. When we enter classrooms - as a research group working on the design of educational tools and solutions, ERID Lab in Italy -  teachers appear and declare themselves mostly overworked, frightened by the introduction of new technologies, even if sometimes excited by new digital tools and environments. And in most cases they express discomfort for a difference with students in the use of technology that they do not call into question.

As recognized in the Italian scientific debate (Limone, 2012; Rivoltella & Rossi, 2012), and all over the world, teachers can and should take back their role of support, educational guidance, scaffolding. They cannot renounce to their key role, for the present and for the future.

For this reason it is necessary to give youth and teachers the tools and the methodological instruments to experiment and conceptualize learning/teaching design and technologies, school and out-of-school resources. Also with the aim to (re)establish equity between learners and instructors in designing a transformative process. This is the way suggested by two exemplary models that are widely affecting the pedagogical reflection: William Cope’s and Mary Kalatzis’ Learning by Design Framework and Diana Laurillard’s Conversational Framework.

Also the introduction of innovative solutions and crossmedia environments in school settings could bring together different tools and resources into a coherent storytelling. Against the hegemony of technology in the educational narrative. Or against its absolute absence.


d. the social engagement

Like when you’re in a country where you do not speak your native tongue and you grab the general meaning of conversations, not the understanding of each word; or like when you see the reality without your prescription lenses, and you will need them to clearly notice the details, in the same way the rhetoric of “dig­ital natives,” has weakened our senses.

“[F]ar from being useful, [it] is often a distraction to understand­ing the challenges that youth face in a networked world (p. 176)”. And not only youth. But every people approaching learning processes today.

And we have the duty to recognize the links with the market rules, the ideology, the dynamics of exclusion. That becomes hallway, disintermediation, de-responsibilization. The digital language could be a platform for dialogue. But everyone should be engaged from a personal, social and political level as well, not just from the linguistic point of view.


e. anything else?

The book is a powerful tale that reveals the lights and shadows of our digitalized age. It assumes that "digital natives" are mainly a construction of the literature and it shows all the limitations and the compromises that led us to a skewed view of the relationship between young people and digital media. Up to the point of thinking that the evolution of the technology automatically matches the evolution of the human species.

It would be like saying that the pen and inkwell gave our ancestors the gift of calligraphy. Or that the birth of television in the age of mainstream mass media turned us all into filmmakers. The "familiarity" with the medium is one thing. Its functional use, the knowledge of its affordances is another one.

This text starts a debate that will be usefully connected with examples and good practices of literacy processes in formal and informal educational contexts. Not for awarding prizes or “putting votes”. Just to suggest the reader (educator, scholar, teacher, future professional in the educational field) some hints and guidelines to design and settle effective educational interventions aimed at so-called "digital natives”.

We are reading a lucid and enlightening text that does not provide precise answers, but also does not deny any proposals. It shares crucial issues and helps to rethink the features of a generation whose DNA is not necessarily encoded in bits.

Thus reducing the barrier - unjustified and harmful - between youth and adults.



Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2000) (Eds.),Multiliteracies. Literacy learning and the design of social futures, Routledge, London.

Green, B. & Beavis, C. (2013), Literacy Education in the Age of New Media. In K. Hall, T. Cremin, B. Comber and L. Moll (Eds.), International Handbook of Research on Children’s Literacy, Learning and Culture. John Wiley and Sons, pp. 42-53.

Kress, G., & van Leeuwen, T.(2001), Multimodal Discourse: the Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication, Edward Arnold, London.

Kress, G.(2003), Literacy in the New Media Age, Routledge, London.

Kress, G.(2010), Multimodality. A social semiotic approach to contemporary communication, Routledge, London.

Laurillard, d. m. (2012), Teaching as a Design Science: Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology, Routledge, New York (ny).

Limone, P. (2012), Ambienti di apprendimento e progettazione didattica. Proposte per un sistema educativo trasmediale, Carocci, Roma.

Kalantzis, M. & Cope, B., & the Learning by Design Project Group (2005), Learning by Design, Victorian Schools Innovation Commission, Melbourne.

Kalantzis, M., & Cope, B. (2012),New Learning: Elements of a Science of Education (2nd ed.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Rivoltella, P. C., & Rossi, P. G. (Eds.) (2012). L’agire didattico. Manuale per l’insegnante, Editrice La Scuola, Brescia.

The New London Group(1996), A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures, Harvard Educational Review, 66 (1), pp.60-92.


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