Instructional Technologist Lit Review: Technology Expands the Definition of Literacy

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Technology Expands the Definition of Literacy

By: Josh Rivera

My conception of literacy was limited to one’s ability to communicate thoughts and meaning through reading and writing. It was these skills that separated the educated from non-educated. This narrow definition of literacy must expand to include the many different methods that our culture uses to communicate given the new innovations in technology. According to Jones-Kavalier and Flannigan (2006), “In our 21st automated—a new literacy is required, one more broadly defined than the ability to read and write” (pg. 1). Recognizing and acknowledging the ubiquity of technology in American culture seems to be the first step towards addressing the equity issues that surround it, particularly within the field of education. Moving forward, a key question that educators must answer to ensure that all students are prepared to meet the expectations of the 21st century society—accelerated, media saturated, and century work force is; in what sense are literacies technologies?

Many of our students are processing information at a pace that has never been matched before. According to Jones-Kavalier and Flannigan (2006), our students “posses digital competencies to effectively navigate the multi-dimensional and fast paced digital environment” (pg. 1). Considering these are skills the 21stcentury work force will require of their employees, how can we as educators support and strengthen this ability? The answer is to include digital and visual literacy skills within K-12 education. According to Jones-Kavalier and Flannigan (2006), “Literacy includes the ability to read and interpret media (text, sound, images), to reproduce data and images through digital manipulation, and to evaluate and apply new knowledge gained from digital environments” (pg. 2). Thus, literacies are technologies in the sense that they empower the user with the knowledge and skills necessary for meaningful participation within their community.

New Definition of Literacy Generates Equity Issues

At face value, the invention of, and innovations in technology seem to create new opportunities to participate, contribute, and influence decisions pertaining to one’s society. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case. As Rocap (2003) put it, “digital technologies create not only new possibilities, but new requirements, and at times, obstacles for participation in social, economic, and political life” (pg. 58). In order to understand what Rocap is saying here, we need to look at the ways literacy is composed and the implications it has for public education.

If literacy is suppose to be a social construction as it defines something that every child should know or be able to do, then we must ask ourselves what privileged member(s) of our society possess this responsibility? This role is powerful because their construction of literacy defines the official literacy of the society therein. According to Rocap (2003), although this process of standards development seems to be a process of social construction, we must understand that “social does not necessarily translate into it being either democratic or participatory” (pg. 64). Therefore, the process of defining an official literacy within a society can create and/or perpetuate current inequitable systems. Rocap (2003) says it best; “Economically and politically dominant or official literacies can and often do marginalize groups that engage in culturally diverse practices of communication and with non-dominant content” (pg. 61). Thus, the problem with official literacies lies in the fact that the dominant group’s values and beliefs are those that are represented and given privilege over those of non-dominant groups. That said, “digital equity is not simply an issue of equitable distribution of computers and connectivity, but, significantly, of education, resources, and opportunities that support meaningful participation in the definition, design, and use of the technologies for self- and community- defined purposes” (pg. 60). Once such a system is put in place, we can then focus on our won realities and problems; not those that are imposed on us.

The New Definition of Literacy Proves Problematic for Some Native Americans

The affects on Native Americans in light of the new definition of literacy is aresult of cultural and worldview differences. If the new definition of literacy now includes necessary skills and knowledge gained from a digital world, then such a definition would prove to be problematic if one’s culture struggles with identifying and participating in such a world. This so happens to be the case for Native Americans. These cultures value nature and the natural world of human beings, which is in great opposition to what technology represents. The idea of the “sacred” according to Delgado (2003), plays a vital role in the decisions and actions of the Native American people. Delgado (2003) argues that technological inventions are products of the corporate Western mindset— a mindset that goes against Native culture’s worldview. Furthermore, Delgado (2003) says, “For some Native people being surrounded by the non-sacred—” (technology in this case)” goes against the very basic tenets of Native life and thought” (pg. 90). With these cultural values being considered, it is not surprising that the new definition of literacy has greatly affected the Native American communities.

The discrepancy between Western culture and it’s dependency on technology with that of Native American culture and the value placed on nature and the sacred, create feelings of inferiority and disenfranchisement amongst the Native American people. If the new expectations of the 21st century workforce involve communication skills that require the use of technology, then Native people that lack this skill may consequently feel that their role in such a society is inadequate. For Native Americans, “Dependence on instinct, dreams, face-to-face interactions, common knowledge, common sense, rationalization, and observation are still preferred as ways of knowing and communicating” according to Delgado (2003) (pg. 91). Technology has taken out the heart-to-heart interactions between human beings thereby devaluing a Native American cultural belief.

Teaching Strategies Promotes Digital Equity

Effective teaching strategies can and have been used to promote digital equity. Many teachers have found ways to not only gain access to computers and connectivity, but more importantly, bridge the divide between popular Western culture with other cultures that struggle with accepting technology as a different form of literacy. In all examples that were cited in the readings, there was one common theme that guided the teacher’s instructional strategies; in all examples, the teachers focused on building students’ digital competencies however, their approach was not to teach “digital literacy” insomuch as “critical literacy”. According to Rocap (2003), critical literacies “interrogate existing power inequities in society. They help to raise the voices of and improve life chances for traditionally underserved or oppressed individuals or groups, as well as promote education that supports social justice broadly” (pg. 66). This common theme made the teachers more effective in the classroom.

Ted Jojola developed a CD-ROM program for Tewa students—a tribe found primarily in the Albuquerque area. The computer program focused on teaching and preserving the tribe’s native language, which had been deteriorating due to pressures of modern society to assimilate. The Tewa language is not pubically shared according to the cultural values of Tewa tribes. The computer program allowed members of the tribe to teach and preserve their language while protecting the privacy of the language. In this example the teacher took into consideration the values and beliefs of Tewa culture and strategized an instructional approach that was culturally accepted and meaningful. As educators work towards discovering instructional strategies that are inclusive for all cultures, we must do so in a certain frame of mind. This mind set, as Rocap (2003) put it, must “support the aspirations, values and future visions of their learners’ diverse families and communities, as well as promote principled democratic participation in the wider society…” (pg.64). When this criteria has been met, all our students stand a better chance of success.


Delgado, Vivian. “Toward Digital Equity: Bridging the Divide in Education” NY, New York. Pearson Education Group, Inc. 2003

Flannigan, Suzanna., Jones-Kavalier, Barbara. “Connecting the Digital Dots: Literacy of the 21st Century. Educause Quaterly. Nov. 2, 2006

Rocap, Kevin. “Toward Digital Equity: Bridging the Divide in Education” NY, New York. Pearson Education Group, Inc. 2003

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