Digital literacy

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
16 May, 2017
Editorial: 97
Fecha de publicación original: 9 diciembre, 1997

What you learn in the cradle lasts

Recently I gave a series of talks at different universities, all of them on various aspects of the Information Society. The audience, as has become the norm in the last few years, was made up mainly of students from various disciplines, some teachers, members of non-governmental organisations working within the academic sphere, and members of the public with an interest in the subject. This time, however, in contrast to what has usually happened, when the debate was opened up, the questions usually slid quickly towards the same bottleneck: “Yes, all this is very interesting, but what concerns me is how I can use Internet and really get the most out of it in the way you’ve just explained. When I access the network, I either can’t find what I need for my work (studies, research or whatever) or I discover really interesting things which don’t have anything to do with my immediate needs and which make me waste time (because I can’t devote enough time to them,) or I can´t manage to organise the information in a manageable way. At the moment a book or a library are really more use to me”. This is not the typical comment of a “technophobe”, who up until recently were plentiful amongst such audiences. It is rather the typical comment of someone who has a real desire to access information and knowledge but who doesn’t possess the basic elements, the alphabet, the prerequisites of the digital culture which are needed to open up this new medium and plunder its riches. And it is a comment, also, on the growing complexity of the system and the difficulty of making it yours: you can see what’s there on the surface, but to get underneath that surface and set things in motion by your own actions is something completely different which takes for granted a cultural maturity in the workings of the net, something which doesn’t come included with the system’s connection diskettes.

Thousands of people are coming up against a problem they hadn’t been counting on – it’s not simply a question of switching on the computer, accessing the Internet and then starting to roam around the web completely stunned by the marvels which surround you. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – after a few days the experience becomes frustrating. You can tell that there are things going on here that you can’t and mustn’t miss out on. But at the same time, you have the feeling that overcomes someone who, without knowing the meaning of the letters of the alphabet let alone the words they make up, opens a book with the vain hope of deciphering its contents. Something like this is happening with Internet and the worst of it is that it is happening mainly in educational centres and universities (let´s not include for the moment the domestic scene). Right at the heart of the hubs of culture “par excellence”, a kind of digital illiteracy is developing whose consequences will make themselves felt sooner or later.

The big question mark – whether Internet really does offer all it promises – is hanging not only over Spanish educational institutions but also over those of many European countries. Discussions with colleagues from other countries usually conjure up the same images, whether they be from Spain, Great Britain, Germany or France. University students don’t usually have the pleasure of access to the “full” Internet whenever and as much as they want. The interactive webs have had their wings clipped to prevent acts of hooliganism or the use of electronic commerce. Electronic mail, where it exists, can only be used in a very restricted way or with equipment which needs constant reference to a manual to carry out the simplest functions like receiving or sending mail. As if that wasn’t enough, there also aren’t enough technical personnel trained in the workings of the net who can solve the problems of the multitudes of beginners who put their heart and soul into trying to understand what’s going on on their screen only to throw in the towel when it gets beyond them. Given this context, it’s hardly surprising that the debate in academic circles (or at school level) revolves around questions such as whether the net does in fact contain ALL the answers required by the personal needs of each and every individual user.

The way I see it, what is coming to the fore in these discussions is the need for a digital literacy programme to enable people to use the Internet, based on the same precepts as a normal literacy programme. In the latter, first you learn the letters of the alphabet and then you start to make words which express concepts in a spiral of ever-increasing complexity. In this way, the student acquires the basic tools to grasp their surroundings and to interact with them through the acquisition and absorption of information and knowledge. No parent or teacher would ever consider the education of a student as something separate from the process of reading. However this is, more or less, what we are doing with Internet. Without having gone through the process of learning letters, words and concepts, we step across the threshold of the great digital library and all of a sudden realise that we don´t have even the simplest of compasses to point us in the right direction. In the best of cases, we bring with us what we have learnt in the “real world” as far as systematization or searching for information are concerned. We know that in libraries, indices and alphabetical order play a basic part in finding what we are looking for. And Internet also follows these criteria, but only up to a certain point. The basic difference lies in the fact that the libraries which exist in the “real world” only go in one direction – we consume information and knowledge provided by others. The digital library works in many directions – we consume information and knowledge which, to a great extent, we create and distribute ourselves. The most fundamental thing is the constant process of inter-relationships which we set up with everyone else. Therefore what is most important is not the web – without doubt an essential part of the digital alphabet, but not the only one. As important, or even more so, is electronic mail where at the present time, almost 75% of all the information on Internet is shared.

Just as with normal literacy programmes, the process of digital literacy doesn’t bring forth fruit immediately. You don’t find everything out at once. First you have to learn the rules of the game so that “a posteriori” you will be able to work with streams of information, create spaces where the necessary knowledge can be shared, stimulate the development of communities where common interests can be satisfied in such a way that you start to get the impression (at last!) that the Internet does have the answer to everything, the same impression you get with a “normal” library. This is why I think it is surprising that parents and teachers do not transfer to Internet their usual preoccupation in the sense that the sooner you learn to read, the sooner the relevant connections will be established between this skill and the basic capacities of intelligence and education.

Of course, Internet does not have ALL the answers, nor is it the fountain of eternal bliss, nor does it offer a moral viewpoint on the world which surrounds us. But nor does knowing how to read guarantee that you will be able to find all the answers, nor is it a passport to happiness or upright behaviour. It only helps us to educate ourselves and to function in the world which surrounds us. In this sense, digital literacy is no different. But it helps us to educate ourselves and to function in the world which is to come. This is the job which schools, universities and training centres should be undertaking in order to prepare their people for the future, and it is what parents and teachers should be demanding – the same people who would not under any circumstances consider illiteracy as a basic precept of education and culture.

Translation: Cathy Ellis.