Digital literacy is different from print literacy. How do we balance the trade-off?

My job includes teaching students to read long, complex texts (novels, play scripts, and academic texts.)

My job also includes asking students to write researched essays that are longer documents than many of them at first seem comfortable reading.

Years after they graduate, students often thank me for what I’ve taught them, and say the effort was all worth it. Buoyed by that feedback, it would be an easy thing for me just to keep plugging along, doing what I’m doing, confident in my belief that what I’m asking students to do is good for them, that the end result is well worth the struggle.

But if I chose that route, I’d have to ignore the very real, profound changes in the way my students have experienced literacy.

In this hinge moment between print and digital cultures, society needs to confront what is diminishing in the expert reading circuit, what our children and older students are not developing, and what we can do about it.

We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. –Maryann Wolf, The Guardian: “Skim Reading is the New Normal.”

My training as an academic (BA 1990, MA 1992, PhD 1999-ish) took place in a print-dominated world, and my professional strengths for the early part of my career included helping people raised in that print culture to identify, apply, and appreciate the benefits of digital literacy.

Seton Hill provides both iPad Minis and MacBooks to every student (and to all faculty, including adjuncts). I do a lot of reading and a fair bit of marking on my full-size iPad, the page-size screen of which reproduces at least some of the informational geometry and general workflow of print culture. (SHU is ordering me an Apple Pencil, an incentive for completing an Apple training program.)

Over the years, as our laptops have gotten lighter and phones have gotten smarter, I am seeing fewer and fewer students using their iPads. Even when they are consulting the e-books on the syllabus, I see them doing so on their laptops.

There’s very little connection between the text-related intellectual activities we carry out on a smartphone and the kind of “apply a passage in this 30-page essay to a theme in this 300-page novel” assignments that were a huge part of my own undergraduate training.

Much of my time as an English major I remember spending sitting back with a book, perhaps on my dorm room bunk bed, perhaps in a student lounge, perhaps outside under a tree. Although I was teaching myself Turbo Pascal and Borland C++ for fun, as a pleasantly black-and-white break from the moral relativism of literary theory, and embraced digital culture where I found it, I still spent hours and hours unplugged from the technology, immersed in the dense textual information spaces of books.

How do I help my students bridge this gap? How do I move beyond the experience that trained me to think of their attitude towards literacy as a gap that must be bridged, rather than a different literacy that can be encouraged and deployed to help them attain higher learning goals in a different way?
If a student came to me, overwhelmed by the difficulty of making a transition from the world of familiar conventions to a world that seems unsettled, arbitrary, even hostile, I would tell them to look for models, to take inventory of their resources, to survey the road ahead, to take things in stages, to be patient and persistent. (I hope that’s good advice for me to approach my own challenges as a teacher.)

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