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I’ve been trying to build bridges between digital literacy and media literacy for a bit of time Building Bridgesnow because the sea change that’s resulted from the rise of the Internet helps magnify the power of the key concepts of media literacy. It’s also important to identify what’s distinctive about digital literacy and media literacy in relation to the broader conceptualization of technology in education. As New York Times reporter Matt Richtel ably demonstrates in “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores” (Sept 3), the deep investments being made in K-12 educational technology may or may not help raise test scores. But one question in his report looms large for me: does technology in education substitute student engagement for the more fundamental development of critical thinking and communication skills?

In Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action, a white paper I developed for the Aspen Institute under the auspices of the Knight Foundation, I make a point of distinguishing between mere technology usage and the more complex and holistic competencies of digital and media literacy (access, analyze, compose, reflect and act), offering a framework that promotes intellectual curiosity, critical thinking and communication skills. As I see it, digital and media literacy is rooted in a belief that instructional practices that address the confluence of popular culture, mass media, the Internet and digital tools for information-gathering and creative expression cultivate the intellectual curiosity, literacy competencies and critical thinking skills that enable people to become lifelong learners.

Today, it seems, those of us in education are not talking enough about intellectual curiosity: instead, we’re talking mostly about using tools for student engagement. And more than ever, the focus seems to be on the tools. Search tools, widgets, social media apps and collection tools all offer new possibilities for teaching and learning. Philanthropies like the McArthur Foundation and the Knight Foundation are spending enormous sums on developing new digital learning tools just as school districts are spending economic stimulus billions on new data projectors and digital white boards.  Of course, as a learner myself, I like using new tools myself, to be honest. I enjoy the opportunity to explore the blogosphere with online search tools like Now Relevant. In my own creative work and with my students, I also use blogs, wikis and screencasting tools like Jing.

But for those of us interested in supporting students’ digital and media literacy competencies, we can get resentful of all the focus on the tools (and not on the instructional practices or the big conceptual ideas that enable the tools to be used wisely and well). Every week, it seems, there’s a new tool to explore. For example, Mozilla offers a suite of tools (www.hackasaurus.com) that offer simple tools that help youth play with online digital code by remixing their favorite web sites. It’s possible that such playful work builds a deep understanding of the constructed nature of online media and promotes a sense of oneself as an author. But it may also just reinforce the “gee-whiz” gadgetry ethos that’s pervasive in our culture today.

That’s why I like to examine the work of ordinary classroom teachers who integrate digital and media literacy into the curriculum in ways that are not dependent on heavy access to computers, those who are not generally working in a one-to-one laptop classroom. It’s all about making connections between the classroom and the living room, between school culture and the “real world.”

High school history and English teachers who use popular culture to promote critical thinking skills seem particularly ready to adjust to the unpredictability that can result when students get to articulate their own ideas and values. When students get to dig into some of the pleasures, paradoxes and contradictions at work in popular culture, they learn more about themselves, their values and their society. With support from a skillful teacher, students can make connections between the present and the past. This process nurtures intellectual curiosity, which occurs when students use what they already know to generate their own questions, exploring the gap between what they think they know and the vastness of the still unknown.

As Matt Richtel ably demonstrates, the deep investments being made in K-12 technology may not support the development of students’ knowledge and skills when they substitute student engagement for the more fundamental development of reading comprehension, reasoning and critical thinking skills. Those of us who work with college students recognize the problem immediately as we discover the difficulty many students experience when they’re asked to summarize what they’ve heard, read or viewed.

But while technology usage alone won’t rectify the problem, neither will a return to traditional teaching methods. In Digital and Media Literacy: Connecting Culture and Classroom, I show how these practices don’t require technology at all—but they do depend on a skillful teacher who creates a learning environment where genuine and robust dialogue between students and teacher can occur.

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