Digital Skills vs. Digital Literacies



Here's another post from the ESL Pro discussion, this one from Kathy Tracey,  that may be pertinent to our use of digital tools and resources. I too agree that the short blog article by Maha Bali is clear and useful. I wonder what you think.

David J. Rosen



Hi Kathy and friends,

I couldn't agree more with the comment that technology is best learned in context. I'd like to draw your attention to a blog post about the difference between digital skills and digital literacies. The author, Maha Bali, states that "Digital literacies are not solely about technical proficiency but about the issues, norms, and habits of mind surrounding technologies used for a particular purpose." 

Beyond teaching digital skills, the ESL Pro Suite provides the resources to build digital literacy. Our students need access to these types of tools to help make sense and navigate the world of technology. 



As I was reading the blog post, I had so many similar situations come to mind from other teaching. Being a math guy, I was immediately drawn to the severe problem in mathematics education in which the focus is on the procedures (skills) with little to no exposure to context or application (Literacy or in this case Numeracy). I tutor so many students at the college level who can recite a formula or procedure perfectly, but rarely is able to determine what formulas or procedures might need to be used in any given situation I offer them. Effectively the students are awesome at math trivia contests, but useless in applying the math in many context. 

I have seen similar disconnects in English instruction. So often the focus is on the mechanics (spelling, punctuation, verb tenses, pronoun usage ...) and yet teachers often feel that with all that work needed developing these critical mechanics, there is little time to get into the actual communication of the writing. Does the writing logically flow with well defined thoughts that build throughout the piece to convey the intent of the author effectively? So many students I tutor share with me a "finished work" that suffers so much in terms of communication and yet the student becomes frustrated because "...there are no errors, though!" 

I wonder if the whole skills vs literacy issues in every subject are indicators of a problem that needs more support? Tests often just care about the skills and in fact some are even called "skills assessment". Sadly, when the student gets out of the academic institution, he or she finds themselves helpless to apply those skills because they lack the literacy, fluency, and application of those skills in real context. I wonder if there is an app for that? Image removed.

I am personally experimenting, with some success, on a pedagogical shift. After installing a few 3d printers in a local school district, I noted two completely different reactions. Teachers immediately responded, "Cool! When can I get trained on this?" Students immediately responded, "What program do I need to learn to be able to do stuff with this?" Both were excited and eager to explore, but it was surprising how teachers expected and requested someone drag them through some sort of training while the students simply wanted to know a direction and some resources to get started. I followed up with some students and asked how would they handle not knowing all the steps or methods they needed to know. Universally, I was met with, "Oh, I'll look that up or ask you when I get to that kind of problem". This was intriguing to me so I tried a related approach with teachers. I sent an email out to all teachers with a link to ideas of what other teachers have tried with the 3d printers and I also listed 3 steps to get students and teachers going. Each of those steps had links to videos that would help guide. Teachers started responding in email and it was so refreshing that their focus was more on "Thanks for the direction and resources!" and I did not receive one concern even remotely similar to, "Yea, but what do I do if ...?". With both students and with teachers, the same approach seemed to work so well with this 3d printer roll out. Provide very simple descriptions of steps that share a context, with links to supporting skill building resources and then offer prompts that engage the type of thinking with the tool you wish to see. 

Example of generalized format that got students and teachers both diving right into active exploration. 

  1. You may want to review these ideas to get your creative processes going .... (link provided) 
  2. Decide on a goal or end result that would most apply to you and chunk big goals into smaller steps (link to structured goal setting sheet maybe) 
  3. Review what tools are available to help get there and explore each to pick one to try to use (links to tools, how to videos, examples ...)
  4. Prompt to Engage: Go out and try to accomplish what you think you want being sure to stop and reflect/re-evaluate at set intervals. (calendar of check ins with instructor to review goals and progress and to revise steps 2-4 as necessary). 

Would a similar set of steps work to develop both Digital Literacy and Digital Skills? I welcome suggestions and thoughts, especially those views that might find failing with such an approach. With my recent success with this approach, I wish to try to expand this to other areas (Math, English, ...) where I am encountering similar problems, but I am unsure how well this approach might work.