A medium is simply a vehicle for communicating an idea.
From cave paintings to single-media texts and paintings, to dynamic multimedia pages and complex data visualizations, these media are dependent on prevailing local technology. As the technology evolves, the media evolve in parallel.
This makes the concept of digital literacy critical, something the Common Core standards in the United States hint at but never seem to flesh out. Literacy is the ability to make sense of something, and can be reduced to decoding (e.g, through phonics) and reading comprehension (e.g., through thinking strategies) at its most fundamental level.
Digital literacy is indeed about decoding and comprehension, and it’s be difficult to argue that media are increasing in complexity. In fact, a more natural argument would be the opposite–that what classic single-media texts like Shakespeare lacked in apparent media complexity they more than made up for in the nuance of the themes, tone, and other literary devices that drive the subtext.
But that doesn’t mean that modern digital media don’t place unique demands on “readers” that consume them. Like a book or newspaper, the cognitive actions placed on the viewer of a dynamic social media stream can be reduced to decoding and comprehension, but that misses the nuance of what makes digital media–social, fluid, intense, brief bursts of ideas–different.
Below is an image I used in my English classroom. Its visible components are familiar to any teacher–audience, purpose, style, theme, supporting details, etc. I created this sometime around 2008, sometime before I fully understood the role of digital media in not just an English-Language Arts classroom, but learning in general. It was all just a swirl of blog posts and videos to me.
But if you look in the lower right-hand corner, you can see the early “bud” of an idea–interdependence–that changed everything.
What would it make sense to think about or read next?
What other ideas or media should be considered?
Suddenly a single medium was no longer in isolation, but an unwilling piece of a global canon that students had to understand. Not so much for any academic notions of textual sovereignty but because in the 21st century, so much media is being produced that the ecology of media is being forever altered, and to not understand that collective media ecology is to create an artificial and debilitating divide between “classic literature” and “the crap on the internet.”
Digital Literacy Principles
Four (of the many) principles of digital literacy include social factors, curation, interdependence, and comprehension. The above idea–what ideas or media relate to this that are worth exploring?–is a part of interdependence.
But how a media is found and share is important too. As does how it is saved–not just if it’s saved, but where and how. These things matter greatly in 2013 in ways that may not have occurred to a reader in 1987 as they quietly closed a book and put it back on a shelf.
Teaching students to respond to digital media, then, might first be a matter of insisting on a macro-level review of that piece: What is it saying? Who is it talking to? This is similar to any On-Demand writing piece of textual analysis an English teacher’s ever given.
But we may now serve students better by asking two more critical questions that deeply impact any themes, author positions, or potential social impact:
Where did it come from, and where is it going?