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Why Digital Literacy? A bit of thought analysis…

2 Nov

As we’ve begun writing and advocating for greater investment in digital literacy we’ve challenged ourselves to step back and think, does digital literacy really matter?   Should all young people really be forced to take a programming class? Should teachers teach the basics of Internet architecture?

For some, the answer is a resonant yes.  But, it’s not obvious.

We don’t, for example, teach young people how to build houses or cars at school, though it’s clear that both physical architecture and the basics of combustion engines impact our every day lives.  We don’t even teach many young people the basics of the stock market, investing, or simple money management.

Why then is digital literacy different?  Is it different? Or is this just another case of tech-exceptionalism….

As we’ve explored the blogosphere it’s become clear that those who advocate for digital literacy are motivated by many different visions and world views. They also attack the challenge from different angles.

For many policymakers and professional training advocates, digital literacy is about empowering the next generation of workers and students with the skills needed to compete and add value in today’s market.

For Mozilla and other free speech advocates, this drive is about creating a “web-literate planet.” It’s about enabling anyone and everyone to understand what’s “under the hood” on the Net and empowering individuals to build upon, understand, and manipulate the “operating system” of our lives.

And for many start-up community advocates, digital literacy is seen as a basic pre-requisite for managing programmers and cultivating the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Yesterday, Fred Wilson, a New York VC who is starting to invest in education projects like Code Academy and Skillshare, wrote a post on the importance of basic coding skills. Therein he posted a striking quote from media theorist Douglas Rushkoff.

Of everything I’ve read, Rushkoff provides one of the more eloquent and compelling justifications for investing in digital literacy:

When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak. When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them. In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It’s really that simple: Program, or be programmed.

We’ll be refining our own views and justifications over the coming months, but for those fighting the good fight on digital literacy today, hopefully these thinkers both inspire and put a few more arguments in your arsenal.

Edtech Investment is Essential For Tech Literacy

20 Oct

The discussion about investment in educational technology should focus not only on learning results but also on its contribution to the digital literacy of future generations.

As school districts across the US enter 2012 planning, there is an increasing debate about the value of educational technology investments. For some, “edtech” is a way to reduce costs and increase operational efficiencies in schools. Others express an almost messianic faith that edtech investment will support teachers and drive learning results in core academic subjects – reading, math, science.

On the learning results front, the latest news looks bleak.  As the New York Times recently reported, education technology companies and advocates have grossly inflated the software report card.

In a nutshell, “schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning. This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements.”

Yet, educational investment is about more than just spurring existing learning goals through new means. Classrooms of the future will play an essential role in ensuring that the next generation of students acquires the basic digital skills needed to succeed in today’s world- from computer programming and online research to analysis of social data and basic web publishing. Furthermore, in a country that continues to suffer from a great digital divide, the classroom remains one of the few places where students who lack computers, broadband connections, or smart phones at home can reliably access these tools.

We are now in the midst of an economic recession, with increased uncertainty upon us. While significant numbers of high school and college graduates live in areas where job opportunities just don’t exist, many more workers are unnecessarily unemployed because there remains a tremendous mismatch between skills and market needs.

It’s time we in the US acknowledge the digital skills gap and define a “Minimum Standard of Digital Literacy,” a standard that every high school and college student should reach by graduation. 

Should we demand that every high-schooler know how to write a basic computer program? Should they know how to analyze a Wikipedia article and decipher it’s sources? What about editing a video or deconstructing a commercial?  We will have to work to define the standard, and there is room to debate the balance of hard computer skills vs. critical thinking abilities.  But the need is there.  Once we establish the Minimum Standard we will then have a rubric from which to design new edtech products, investment in infrastructure, assess student performance, and analyze the value of our tech investments.

We think that the digital literacy of children is an essential frame through which the ROI on edtech investments should be assessed.  In future posts we will propose a Minimum Standard of Digital Literacy and look forward to collectively debating and agreeing on this standard.