Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Digital Literacy at What Price?

A cultural and cognitive shift is well underway in terms of how we access and process information via digital media. And a recent study confirms our suspicions: though we are becoming more tech savvy, it may be at the expense of creative and critical thinking. Researchers from the University of Israel (2009), tested digital literacy with a group in 2002. In 2007, they tested this same group again and found statistically significant changes on the test scores.  Is this further proof of the widening double digital divide?

Digital literacy is defined in this study as the "ability to employ a wide range of cognitive and emotional skills in using digital technology" (713). This range covers six skills:
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  • Photovisual literacy: ability to work with digital environments that employ graphical communication, such as user interfaces.
  • Reproduction literacy: ability to create authentic, meaningful  written and artwork by reproducing and manipulating digital media.
  • Branding literacy: ability to construct knowledge by nonlinear navigation through knowledge domains (i.e., hyperlinks).
  • Information literacy: ability to consume information critically and sort out false and biased views.
  • Socioemotional literacy: ability to communicate in online communication platforms (e.g., chat, bulletin boards).
  • Real Time Thinking: ability to process and evaluate large amounts of information in real time, such as in computer games and chatrooms.
Participants were given tasks in four of these areas (photovisual, reproduction, branching, and information). When tested five years later, and compared to a control group, there was a significant change in digital skills.

From Changes Over Time in Digital Literacy, 2009.
© CyberPsychology and Behavi

The results demonstrate that all age groups in the study responded similarly: all were able to demonstrate an increased grasp of technology. However, on tasks that creativity and critical thinking (reproduction and information), the scores for younger participants dipped slightly in comparison to adults, whose scores increased.

With the ever increasing amount of information readily available via hyperlinks, and a growing willingness to use digital media to access that information, how can we encourage digital literacy and maintain critical thinking skills? How can we change students' relationships with information? And how can we ensure that everyone has access to the tools necessary to build a solid foundation of digital media?

Does the diminished critical thinking skill will add another level to the digital divide: those without access, those with access but with poor understanding of the tools, and those with access and understanding. What kinds of issues do you foresee these groups facing?

Photo by Pexels

ResearchBlogging.orgEshet-Alkalai, Y., & Chajut, E. (2009). Changes Over Time in Digital Literacy CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12 (6), 713-715 DOI: 10.1089/cpb.2008.0264


  1. Thanks for bringing this fascinating study to our attention. I went to the study report and was interested to see the description of the information task: "Write a comparative, critical report on a news event that was reported in a biased way in five different Internet news resources."

    Many people have written that the younger generations are more savvy about spin and media manipulation because they grew up surrounded by media. But that never totally made sense to me--if they were always surrounded, where did they get the perspective to make judgments? Isn't it possible that they were like the proverbial fish who don't think much about the water they live in?

    This study shows that the younger people were not savvy about bias. If indeed this represents younger generations in general and they cannot "write a comparative, critical report on a news event that was reported in a biased way in five different Internet news resources," then they--and we--are in trouble.

  2. Another great post!

    I am definitely worried about this phenomenon. I teach technology and I am heavily connected to many other people in the Educational Technology community where this seems to be playing out. In my opinion, one of the big problems is the fact that we can customize and filter information. We frequently succumb to the confirmation bias when we are bombarded with only the news that is specifically target at us (by us!).

    It seems that every time I see a post written by someone in the Ed Tech world, the comments below are a stream of groupthink.

    By the time I get to the bottom of any post, I usually have a few reservations about what was written and look to debate those points. It scares me to think that we are losing our ability to think critically and that technology is largely to blame.

    Critical thinking is built on a foundation of vast, deep knowledge. For example, I can't really compare historical texts for bias if I don't know anything about the time period, the cultures, the different "camps" of ideologues on all sides, etc. Shallow knowledge breeds gullible readers.

    To me, the root of the problem is customized filters for information coupled with a more shallow knowledge of the subjects we are filtering, ala Carr's article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

    In the spirit of critically thinking and not agreeing with everything I see in the blogs I read, I will offer some counterpoints.

    1. The sample size was pretty small.
    2. The sample group were people living in one specific location, i.e., it might not be a scalable phenomenon.
    3. The metric used to measure critical thinking could be biased or inaccurate as a measuring tool.

  3. @George Haines: another counterpoint is that the findings might be a result of the testees' ability to write rather than their ability to think. That still wouldn't be a comforting finding, but it would be different.

  4. Wendy and George, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    George you hit on something that is true and troubling about critical thinking: the personalization of the information we access. Readers, intuitive site designs bring us information that we want -- there's no thought to objectivity unless we make an effort to seek out that material. Can we teach the importance of objectivity? Or are is the appeal of the personal approach too strong?

    You both make fair assessments of the areas where the study can be approved. Wendy, writing ability is a HUGE factor, but unfortunately, there's no information about the grading.

    I am glad that steps are being taken to quantify this issue though. And I hope that this area continues to get attention from social scientists.



  5. I'd like to have access to this research

  6. Rodrigo, it's currently accessible to the public: just click on the DOI number in the citation.