Literacy in the Digital Age

There is an interesting article in this weekend's edition of The Globe and Mail (subscription required). It focuses on the relationship between literacy and access to computers. What really caught my attention is the fact that while functional literacy rates have not improved, we are becoming increasingly competent and proficient in using highly complex technology.

The study on functional literacy and life skills conducted in 2003 in seven countries, including Canada and the United States, shows no improvement in international literacy numbers since 1994 (except in Switzerland). The authors note that four out of every ten Canadian adults lack the basic reading, math, and problem solving skills they need to function in everyday life. In the United States, the ability to read prose actually fell slightly.

Those who are interested in literacy probably won't find this surprising. What is rather interesting about this article is that "U.S. IQ scores are always increasing and ... that's because computers, television and video games are improving our minds." The article then goes on to say that we pick up "pattern-discerning skills" from the technology we use in our everyday lives and that this has an impact on our higher IQ scores. The article concludes by stating that a recent Statistics Canada and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study "recorded a relationship between literacy and access to computers: People who made sophisticated use of their computers scored higher, on average, for prose literacy."

As soon as I saw the phrase "sophisticated use of computers" I thought of blogs, wikis, and online threaded discussion forums whose effects on my students' literacy skills ( grades 7 and 8 ) have so far been rather encouraging.

I find that the use of these technologies in education has helped students become explorers who grow impatient and resteless when treated as passive vessels and seem motivated and empowered by their new role as knowledge-gatherers. The technology they use encourages highly literate modes of behaviour and I think it has a lot to do with what Vygotsky referred to as the "Zone of Proximal Development." The technology allows teachers and students to co-construct communities. It is in these communities that students interact with and learn from their peers. The communities they participate in encourage them to reach their potential.