Monday, September 29, 2008

Multiliteracies for a Digital Age

Every once in awhile a book comes along relating to a topic you understand and perhaps even enjoy and proceeds to remove any desire to associate with that topic ever again. This book by Stuart Selber is not quite to that point yet, but I am only halfway through it, so give it time. The most important contribution so far is Selber's insistence that computer literacy goes beyond just being able to do things using a computer. We have to be able to contextualize our use of technology and use it appropriately.

photo by austinevan

Like Steph, I question the place of the English department to fret about computer literacy any more or less than any other department on campus, as important as the concept happens to be. The author appears troubled due to the fact that English departments, for whom this book is written, are not regularly consulted in matters relating to computer literacy at most institutions around the country.

I have to challenge the author's anecdotal assertion that any given department would not be consulted when it comes to something as foundational as computer literacy. Anyone who has spent any time at a higher education institution knows that every decision made goes through multiple committees made up of faculty who volunteer (or are volunteered by the department head or dean) to spend their time ensuring that the needs of faculty and students are being met (in no particular order). Those who do not know anything about computer literacy are those who choose to ignore it.

Selber's point is well taken that institutional computer literacy requirements focus generally on a disembodied understanding of technology. What does he really expect it to be, however? For most students, the basic knowledge about computers is the same across disciplines. We all press the same little button with a 0 and a 1 on it to turn on the computer, and we all need to keep our operating systems and applications patched (yes, even the Mac users). Within a major, the skills needed to succeed may be different and should be integrated across each department's curriculum based on what makes sense for that department or major. Imagine an Electrical Engineer trying to tell the English faculty what technologies should be included in their courses or vice versa.

What I would hope is that English faculty or anyone else that happens to read this book would take away that they can't depend on someone else to make their students literate, because it takes on different meanings for different people. The institution is right to establish a baseline knowledge set to be considered computer literate, but after that the departments have to properly situate further literacy instruction and practice within each field.

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