Three steps needed to empower students (& educators) as critical digital readers & writers

Three steps needed to empower students (& educators) as critical digital readers & writers

This post is presented as part of my remarks at the 51st Annual Conference of the Virginia State Reading Association. You can review my slides for the presentation here.

The Internet is the dominant text of this generation. In order to be considered fully literate, individuals need to be able to read, write, and participate using the web. It is a paradox that history’s first generation of always connected individuals does not have the skills and practices necessary to survive, let alone succeed in this environment.

The perfect storm

We may be witnessing a “global implosion” in trust as citizens around the globe push back against established institutions. Complicating this trend is a recent Pew Research report that suggests that most Americans like access to online information while a recent report from the OECD questions the computer and technical skills of users from around the globe. 

Within these contexts, these challenges are even more pressing as the Internet becomes an increasingly common source of information. A perfect storm has erupted around the ways in which networked publics consume and critique information online. Recent research continued to raise questions about the ability of students to evaluate online information. Findings from the Stanford History Education Group found that 82% of 7,804 students surveyed from middle school through college were unable to effectively judge the credibility of news and information read online.

At the same time, in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, citizens needed to review a deluge of information that suggested that foreign governments had hacked the election process while other trusted sources questioned the accuracy of the reporting. Still other reports suggested that a majority of the news that influenced the election was profoundly fake. These events transpired while algorithms and echo chambers may have ensured that individuals did not read the same information as their next door neighbor.

It is clear that ordinary American citizens are facing an unprecedented challenge. They are now being called upon to weigh and evaluate the accuracy, reliability, and authenticity of public pronouncements and news reports as rival entities propagate “alternative facts” online. Unequipped to engage in web literacies at the level now needed, many Americans’ personal responsibility to act as informed citizens is eroded, making it possible to act against one’s own best interests, to a jaw dropping extent.

There are also questions about how educators should address these challenges in critically evaluating information. It should be noted that these challenges in critical information literacy are extended outside of the borders of the U.S. as individuals interact in networked publics. There is also a history to the need for media and information literacy education and integration that predates our current politics.

A necessary response

We are increasingly witnessing a chilling effect around the globe as it relates to education, scholarship, and literacy in globally connected digital spaces. We may also be slow to react to a global adjustment to new literacy practices in digital spaces as we reconsider issues like privacy, security, and identity.

In these circumstances, there is a need to speak facts to counteract beliefs while promoting the common good and producing a meaningful democracy. We need to infuse elements of critical literacy in our pedagogy to help learners contextualize these online and media informational streams, while not injecting our bias, perspective, and politics.

We need the expertise of educators in all fields, however scholars specifically aligned in literacy, education, and digital technologies may be uniquely positioned to help address these challenges. Educators need to ensure that we do not self-censor, nor neglect our areas of expertise. Together we can identify opportunities for all individuals to serve as social agents rather than as vigilant bystanders.

A continuum of literacy practices

To empower students using the Internet we need to consider opportunities to move learners from consumers to producers of digital content. More to the point, we need to move learners from content consumers to content curators to content constructors. I think we need to start this process with educators first, and learn along with our students.

I believe there is a continuum of three stages that exist as we help students become the digital natives that they need to be in the future. These stages include moving them from consumers of content, to curators of content, to finally creators of content. Content in this piece is defined as text matter of a document or publication in a form that is digital or online. These stages do not have to operate in a sequence, nor should they be mutually exclusive. Students could and should move across each of these stages depending on purpose in their work.

Consume. The first stage of this sequence involves students primarily reading online content and materials. This may take the form of students reading blogs, wikis, and social networks for personal and academic pursuits. Students should read across multiple modes of information that includes text, images, video, audio, and other graphical representations. These graphical representations may include charts, graphs, infographics, and maps. The important thing to remember is that students need to be able to synthesize across these varied modes and formats.

Curate. The second stage of this sequence involves students curating online content as they search and sift through online texts. Curation is defined as pulling together, sifting through, and selecting specific content for presentation to others. This may take the form of students reading and archiving webpages before sharing or commenting on this content. In this process, students are deciding whether these materials are credible and/or relevant to the purpose of their inquiry. This process occurs on two levels as students are gradually learning more about a topic as they read more content; they are also modifying their evaluations of new content as they learn more. Over time, they become more of an expert on the topic and the process involved as they build their own credibility on a subject.

Create. The third stage of this sequence involves having students construct or create digital content. There are many parallels between online content construction and the writing process as students plan, generate, organize, compose, and revise digital work product. This may take the form of students editing a wiki, building a website, or producing a stop-motion video for the class YouTube channel. In this process, students are encoding and decoding meaning by constructing, redesigning, and reinventing texts. Students write, compose, and create through play and expression with digital texts and tools.

Where do I start?

Despite the transformative possibilities associated with the inclusion of the Internet and other communication technologies (ICTs) in instruction, relatively little is known about the regular use of these technologies in our daily lives. For students in particular, their ability to best to utilize these digital and web literacies in our work is central to our collective future. This means that students need to leave our schools with the skills necessary to not only read, write, and participate on the web. As technologies connect our global marketplace, students need to identify opportunities to empower themselves as true natives of these digital spaces.

As I’ve indicated at the start of this post, this can only happen if educators identify and develop opportunities to build and utilize these new and digital literacies in instruction. There is not only a need to use these texts and tools in instruction, but also have educators display them as well. The stages detailed in this piece are not meant to be viewed as a continuum, or as replacing earlier stages. This is an opportunity to review our own instructional practices, and literacy strategies highlighted in our classrooms. Educators should continue to display that they can work with students to understand and prepare them for these digital spaces and beyond.

The good news is that if you’re a researcher, or academic, I have a chapter in a book that will help this process. I’m currently working on a book that provides more guidance for educators from Pre-K up through higher ed. Subscribe to my newsletter to stay informed about all of this…and then some.

I also recommend using these texts as they support my thinking.

I ask that individually and collectively within our organizations or professional learning communities we identify opportunities to serve as public intellectuals to educate, empower, and advocate for others. As a collection of peers and public intellectuals, we need critical dialogue and an identification of possible better futures. 


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Also published on Medium.

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