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Literacy Redefined

What does it mean to be literate in the digital realm?

Literacy is all about readin' and writin'--right? Not any more, Susan Metros reminds us. "Now, it's much broader. It's about understanding information and technology, being able to communicate digitally and visually, and having the critical thinking skills to make valid, credible, and ethical choices and decisions."

As associate vice provost and deputy CIO for technology-enhanced learning at the University of Southern California, Metros guides her IT organization in aligning its strategies with USC's overall institutional goals for teaching, learning, and research. In that process, she puts the question of literacy first: "What does it mean to be a literate human being in today's society?" And as a part of her recent keynote for the 2010 CT Virtual Conference, "New IT Strategies for a Digital Society," Metros offered some answers and shared her insights with attendees.

Metros observes that the definition of literacy has now expanded in the digital realm, encompassing digital, visual, technology, information, media, and multimedia literacy. But she is quick to point out that we mustn't make assumptions about today's students just because they have "grown up digital." She notes, "They know how to upload a movie in YouTube, to upload pictures.... They know how to text, and they are constantly connected to something digital. But my argument is they are not literate; they are just basically stimulated."

That puts most college-level students right at the beginning of what Metros calls the literacy continuum. "Literacy sits on a continuum. As we move up the continuum, we become more learned, practiced, original, sophisticated, and critical," she explains. So where would we like our students to be on the literacy continuum? "While we do need to move our students toward digital literacy, I think there is some confusion about this continuum. I don't think we need to make everyone an expert. For example, you could be a student in economics and be literate in technology; but if you are a student in film studies, you are going to need to be truly fluent in certain technologies."

To examine the definition of literacy further, Metros maps attributes of literacy against the levels of the literacy continuum. And though discussions of literacy in the digital age might conjure up visions of learning lots and lots of technical skills, she believes that literacy--even what some call "digital literacy"--is not about the tools, and not about technology. In fact, more technology in the future will actually mean more emphasis on skills related to analyzing, visualizing, communicating, and innovating in an increasingly digital environment. "As technology continues to evolve, digital literacy must necessarily be less about tools and more about ways of thinking and seeing, and of crafting narrative," concludes Metros.

Listen to Susan Metros' keynote address at

About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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