More on digital literacies

I’m continuing to explore the concept of digital literac(ies) as it pertains, in particular, to adults and working professionals. This is not to undervalue the importance of this concept and the work around it related to public-school education and policy. But my professional interest is in how literacy plays out in expanding the continuing development of adults and working practitioners.

And as I ponder this topic I am beginning to see evidence of just how much the concept of “literacy” is framed in the context of culture, economics and politics. Thomas Friedman’s piece in today’s New York Times is a perfect example. It is also instructive in how one might think about literacy in the context I am most interested in – continuous adult/workplace learning.

Friedman writes about the public schools in Estonia teaching first-graders programming skills. But then he quickly moves from the public-education-policy issue raised by that effort to a more general point about the importance of continuous learning and the disruptive role of technology.

All of this made me think Obama should stop using the phrase — first minted by Bill Clinton in 1992 — that if you just ‘work hard and play by the rules’ you should expect that the American system will deliver you a decent life and a chance for your children to have a better one. That mantra really resonates with me and, I am sure, with many voters. There is just one problem: It’s out of date.

The truth is, if you want a decent job that will lead to a decent life today you have to work harder, regularly reinvent yourself, obtain at least some form of postsecondary education, make sure that you’re engaged in lifelong learning and play by the rules. That’s not a bumper sticker, but we terribly mislead people by saying otherwise.

He then goes on to recount the different world in which his journalistic peers now live – ending with “You have to work harder and smarter and develop new skills faster.”

Finally he quotes Alvin Toffler:

There is a quote attributed to the futurist Alvin Toffler that captures this new reality: In the future ‘illiteracy will not be defined by those who cannot read and write, but by those who cannot learn and relearn.’ Any form of standing still is deadly.

I share Friedman’s work here not because I am a fan. He’s built a brand, I’ll grudgingly admit. And that’s part of why I found his piece today interesting. His use of literacy, serendipitously juxtaposed to my continued reading of Doug Belshaw’s work on developing a definition of “digital literacy” in the context of “literacy.”

Here is Belshaw’s definition of literacy (emphasis mine):

Literacies involve the mastery of simple cognitive and practical skills. To be ‘literate’ is only meaningful within a social context and involves having access to the cultural, economic and political structures of a society. In addition to providing the means and skills to deal with written texts, literacies bring about a transformation in human thinking capacities. This intellectual empowerment happens as a result of new cognitive tools (e.g. writing) or technical instruments (e.g. digital technologies).

Friedman clearly connects the dots between literacy and the economic structures of society. I’d wager that he also gets the connections to cultural and political structures. But the more I dig into Belshaw’s work, the more I am intrigued by the combination of transforming human thinking capabilities within a social context. I see it as an aspirational combo that covers both the public-education policy world and the continuous-learning, adult/practitioner world. There’s something to work with, there.

And I suspect this week I’ll be pondering that even more. I’ll be spending two days at the Conference Board’s Future Leaders Conference (where I am co-presenting one session) which include several sessions incorporating the impact of “social media” in developing future leaders. Am sure I’ll have my literacy-lens firmly in place.