Compulsory Digital Literacy

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
30 October, 2018
Editorial: 251
Fecha de publicación original: 23 enero, 2001

We live not on what we ingest but what we digest

As Marshall McLuhan says, the moveable type press invented by Gutenberg changed the surroundings of our world completely and unexpectedly: it created the public. Or, to be more specific, it created an illiterate public. The invention of the printing press drew a dividing line between mediaeval and modern technology. Printed matter was the first mass-produced uniformly repeatable product, as a scientific experiment. Subsequently, since no-one is born knowing how to read and write, the printing press created the conditions for raising these two basic pillars of education to the category of fundamental human rights. Many battles and some bloodshed later, industrial society converted compulsory education into a universal human right. These days the illiterate that the moveable type press spawned are doing fine in most corners of the world. Will we be able to say the same in a few years’ time about the digital illiterate the Internet has created?

Having got to know some of them personally, I am sure that when they set their invention in motion the “founding fathers of the Net” had no idea whatsoever that they were automatically creating another type of public, the public that was to mark the dividing line between the industrial and information society. Nonetheless, in one apparently simple and discreet technological step forward –like the printing press in its time– they turned us all into digital illiterates. Ever since then we have been battling our ignorance with different degrees of success. The definitive popularisation of the Net, its penetration into the workplace –manufacturing or services–, education and research centres, the home, and daily life in general, has brought us face to face with the same dilemma that shook industrial society: how to acquire the necessary knowledge for coexisting with the new social, political and economic system that telecommunications networks are engendering.

Wherever one looks the worries are the same. And the solutions inadequate. Companies, organisations, institutions of all kinds, public administration, both on a national and regional level, are trying to cobble something together in order to get their respective populations digitally literate. Just as one would expect, these disjointed, fragmented policies aimed at nothing more than providing the four basic rules for learning how to connect to the Internet and use e-mail, are reaping deplorable results. In reality, we have all been left to our own resources and this has created deep disparities amongst us and, what is worse, a constant waste of the opportunities the Net Society has to offer. Moreover, it contradicts everything that cutting edge research into the workings of the brain has to say about this organ’s cognitive and emotional facets.

If the networked world presents us with a hyper-changing environment which we have to adapt to at speeds without precedent, one would assume that education should endow people with the necessary cognitive tools for doing this. This would involve, for instance, improving personal response mechanisms and honing our emotional intelligence habits and skills. In other words, learning to live in a changing world based on specific technological foundations, such as the Net. Consequently, we are moving into a phase where the isolated solutions that abound at present are not the answer (every education congress is an unintelligible hotchpotch of wonderful initiatives in search of a barely-outlined success). What is required is serious public discussion about compulsory digital education right from the very early stages of the education process onwards.

This is all connected to what education experts are saying on the one hand –new pedagogical approaches have to be developed to adapt to the needs of the Internet– and, on the other, to the ineffectual efforts of certain official policies committed to filling classrooms with computers (not true anyway) as an excuse for not dealing with the problem properly. These public policies, which have their equivalents in some private institutions, continue to bundle slide projectors, faxes, videos, computers and video conferences together in the same information technology bag. Perhaps this is the most outstanding example of why we should be drawing up a compulsory law for digital literacy as soon as we can. Without it, it is difficult for us to fully comprehend the fact that computer networks are creating new social virtual spaces with their own rules, inhabited by millions of people bound to meet each other. And, so far education programmes have not found a way of responding to this challenge.

In order to do research into this new pedagogy we need to create virtual spaces with clear objectives and inhabited not only by those who, at first sight, seem to be the most obvious players, namely teachers and students, but also by those who, one way or the other, contribute to the educational process, everyone from pedagogues to parents, experts, publishers, administrations, etc. Virtual spaces supervised by moderators and knowledge managers (will they become the teachers of the future?) which are allowed to grow on the basis of active user participation. The aim, of course, is not to find out how the Internet works (it wasn’t the aim with the printing press either), but to explore how virtual logic works to teach us how to live side by side and reproduce ourselves with others. And it is from collaborative activity developed in these spaces that the education policies of the Information Society can be shaped. If there is one thing that has dynamited the Net it is precisely the idea that educational content should come out of research centres or committees of experts, without taking all the voices that have participated in the learning process into account.

Are we ready to tackle the discussion about compulsory digital literacy? What should its territorial and political framework be? Without digressing any further, for lack of space, let me just say that it appears to me that regional administrations are in the best position for launching these initiatives. Catalonia, for example, like other autonomous regions in Spain, has the legal resources at its disposal for launching a public debate which would not only give it a comparatively considerable advantage but, in so doing, develop the pedagogical technology necessary for the social Internet, where new educational laws capable of incorporating the specific needs of information technology could be drawn up. It seems to me that it is obvious that the fate of our societies will be inevitably bound to this way –and the time taken by it — in order to resolve this question of compulsory digital literacy.

Translation: Bridget King