Posted by: Navy Teacher | March 2, 2012

The Dangers of Digital Illiteracy

Is there a clear-cut definition of ‘literacy’?  Most people believe that a literate person should be able to read for understanding, write clearly, and be able to think critically about the text that he/she is engaged in reading.  Does the ability to read, write, and think clearly define a literate person?  Not according to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE); especially when you think about what literacy means in the 21st century.  The NCTE believes that a person must be able to perform six (yes, six!) different standards to be considered an effective 21st century reader and writer.  I want to focus on the first standard because it (Develop proficiency with the tools of technology) has NOTHING to do with the antiquated definition of literacy.

Should parents and teachers be concerned about helping students ‘develop proficiency with the tools of technology’?  I believe it is fair to say that most tweens/teens know their way around a computer.  Some tweens/teens have multiple technological devices (phone, laptop, iPad, etc) to access their Facebook page.  They can find stuff on-line.  They can upload pictures and clips.  Can they develop proficiency with the tools of technology?  I don’t have statistical evidence to back up my opinion and let’s be honest, statistics can be manipulated to support just about any view point.  It’s my opinion that there is a serious disconnect between being able to access knowledge and being able to proficiently access knowledge through technology.

I provide you with an example involving a fake student named Johnny.  He is required to write a one-page essay on the inspirational civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. during Black History Month.  Johnny is excited about the opportunity to write an essay on one of his heroes.  During his first Google search Johnny types in ‘Martin Luther’?  What will he find?  He’s going to find a lot of information (96.5 million results on Google) starting with Martin Luther.  He’s the guy who was a Protestant reformer during the 16th century.  OK, that isn’t a big deal.  Johnny is an astute young man who understands that Martin Luther of the 16th century isn’t the guy he has to research.  Let’s assume that Johnny decides to expand his search to ‘Martin Luther King, Jr.’  Johnny has found his man!  Of course, there is still a LOT of hits on that subject (48.9 million).  Like most savvy students, Johnny focuses his search on the first few search pages.  At the top of page number two, he finds an interesting site labeled Martin Luther King Jr. – A True Historical Examination.  What he finds in that website does not paint a positive light on MLK.  In fact, it is extremely negative.  Johnny’s opinion about his hero is shattered.  What if Johnny decides to use that website to develop and write his essay?  What do you think would happen?  I’ll assume that his teacher will think Johnny is an aspiring Black-White Supremacist like Clayton Bigsby who is also a fictional character (Chappelle’s Show) but you get the point.

The example I provided is a bit extreme but it serves a purpose.  It is vitally important for teachers (and parents) to help students learn how to effectively search the internet if they are going to meet that first standard of 21st century literacy as described by the NCTE.



  1. Barry, there’s no question that kids (and many adults, too) are quite proficient with today’s tools. They are not intimidated by them and pick them up quite intuitively. However, they are not great learners yet in the sense that they are still not yet fully literate. They need teachers (and parents) to help them leverage these new tools for significant learning purposes. They need teachers to help them use these tools to learn well, deeply, and wisely. Otherwise, we’ll have raised a generation that will fall into Huxley’s dark prediction of the “future”

    The standards set by the NCTE and other organizations are spot on in regard to being literate in the 21st century where knowledge is open, organic, accessible, and expertise is distributed and accessible from anywhere across the globe… by anyone. Culture has shifted. If schools and teachers don’t, we’ll have a highly skilled nation of test takers ;-(

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