Select Page

Alexander, B., Adams Becker, S., and Cummins, M. (2016). Digital Literacy: An NMC Horizon Project Strategic Brief. Volume 3.3, October 2016. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

However we define “digital literacy”, it’s got to include the capacity to read reports like this and tease out the educational substance from the corporate agendas and political ideologies.

The NMC report provides scant engagement with the long history of media literacy, pronouncing that many definitions of digital literacy are “broad and ambiguous, making digital literacy a nebulous area.” (1) Thus, the report aims “to establish a shared vision” and “best practices and recommendations” (1) in terms that are congenial to Adobe, but stripped of the concerns with politics and power that have historically characterized those who have studied new literacies.
As an example of scholars that foreground power and politics, Michael Hoechsmann and Stuart Poyntz argue that “media literacy must always involve an analysis of media texts and dominant and powerful institutions, in conjunction with opportunities for creative media production that speaks to and builds from the challenges, dreams, and visions that are part of young people’s lives.”  In anticipation of reports like this, they specifically address the tendency “to conceive of media literacy as only a form of technical training oriented towards job markets” which “woefully understate the critical and civic concerns that have long informed the field.” (Media Literacies, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, p 13)

The NMC report get’s predictably excited about production and ‘making’, and waxes about “democratized creation.” (5) But the NMC ultimately frames the purpose of production in the narrow instrumental terms that Hoechsmann and Poyntz want to avoid: “students should be prepared to present their ideas more effectively in business settings” (Jim Bottum, Clemson University, p 3) “Digital literacy will become a required skill in the workplace and all students will need a high degree of digital literacy to firstly obtain employment, keep employment, and obtain promotions.” (Anonymous, p. 5)

How does that perspective on production even begin to fathom the depths of why young people create media? Moreover, what’s democratic about that kind of creation? Can we not move beyond a “producer-consumer continuum” (p. 6) that is almost always used in highly gendered and racialized ways to legitimate certain kinds of work while devaluing others? Debbie Chachra, associate professor of Engineering, gives elegant expression to these concerns:

“The cultural primacy of making, especially in tech culture—that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving—is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.”

In stark contrast to the NMC, Hoechsmann and Poyntz argue that educators should be excited about production because it “can contribute to young people’s agency by fostering an analysis of power relations and the social conditions that shape kids’ lives.” (p. 123)

Thankfully, the NMC gets pretty explicit about the conditions that shape their report:

“NMC Horizon Project Strategic Briefs provide analyses and summaries of timely educational technology topics, trends, challenges, and developments. The information presented is intended to provide companies and their constituents with the freshest analyses and perspectives available.” (p. 5)

The upshot? Adobe has our backs with this whole digital literacy thing: “Being familiar with the basics of Adobe’s Creative Cloud cover this territory” (p. 5); “Standardizing on Adobe’s Creative Cloud should offer a wide range of media production and publishing tools.” (p. 11) “The hope is that they will graduate with an entire online portfolio of content they have produced, making them ideal candidates for prospective employers.” (p. 11)

Their handy chart even summarizes how you can use each tool to avoid engaging in critical analysis:

selection_128

My point is not that we should seek briefs about any kind of literacy that are free of political ideology (there’s no such thing). But rather that we need to foreground and scrutinize that ideology as part of our approach to literacy. If we tidily sweep away all concerns except those related to employers and employability, then we have unduly blunted digital literacy when it could in fact serve as an important tool to dissect those same instrumental assumptions.  Hoechsmann and Poyntz quote Roger Silverstone at length (p. 14):

Media literacy should be a moral agenda, always debated, never fixed, but permanently inscribed in public discourse and private practice, a moral discourse which recognizes our responsibility for the other person in a world of great conflict, tragedy, intolerance and indifference, and which critically engages with our media’s incapacity (as well as its occasional capacity) to engage with the reality of that difference, responsibly and humanely. For it is in our understanding of the world, and our willingness and capability to act in it, that our humanity or inhumanity is defined.

 

Silverstone, R. (2004). Regulation, media literacy and media civics. Media, Culture & Society, 26(3), pp. 440–449, page 440-441

 

I footnotes