Opinion
Curriculum Opinion

The Common Core’s Digital-Literacy Gap

By Paul Barnwell — August 22, 2012 6 min read
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Just the other day, I perused my district’s proposed curriculum map for sophomore English. Nothing too surprising, with plenty of mentions of textual analysis, thesis writing, and literary elements.

If it were 1990, it’d look okay.

Unfortunately, the Common Core State Standards and the related ACT Quality Core standards—on which our curriculum is based—come up way short with regards to digital literacy. This leaves many educators without enough direction, and too many district curriculum maps failing to embrace essential components of literacy today. Combine these new standards with schools’ continued emphasis—for the time being, at least—on traditional pen-and-paper end-of-course assessments, and teachers are hardly in a great collective position to promote, create, and implement lesson ideas that are appropriate for 2012.

Adult literacy in 2012 means being able to synthesize information from multiple online sources to write a blog post or substantive email. It means analyzing which online tools will best serve your communications purpose. It means making smart decisions about what information is useful online, and how to curate and filter the endless stream of data coming in. It means reviewing your digital footprint and learning how to take some control over what information you broadcast to the world, from your tweets, profile pictures, and recommended links. While the common core addresses some of the above skills, its guidance is far too vague, especially for those teachers who are uncomfortable with new technologies.

This is not to say that traditional reading and writing skills don’t have their place. We still need to continue to teach students to sustain their attention and thought on longer texts. But we might be missing an opportunity to create greater balance between traditional literacy skills and interactive competencies with the widespread implementation of these new standards. The language of the common standards is simply not bold or specific enough when it comes to digital-literacy skills.

Leaving Too Much to Chance

Common-core Anchor Standard Number 7 for reading, for example, states that students will “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.” The standard, while more progressive than most current standards, doesn’t specifically mention digital sources. This is problematic for teachers, who may interpret the standard in different ways. Perhaps the standards’ writers were being deliberately vague due to the ever-changing world of pedagogy and technology. But that’s leaving a lot to chance.

The informational-text reading standard for 10th grade English under Anchor 7 reads: “Analyze various accounts of the subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person’s life story told both in print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.” I can certainly come up with some lessons to address this directive, but I’m not sure they will help my students become savvy interpreters of diverse-media content. Not to mention that this standard is unlikely to be tested on a standardized test, so most of the sophomores in my school—and countless others across the country—won’'t be exposed to it. It’s no surprise that this standard did not make the cut for my school’s curriculum map.

Do the common-core creators believe in a utopian world where students and teachers will magically leap from analog learning to being digitally competent? Why not use this opportunity to make a greater push to combine traditional skills with new-literacy skills? After all, as teacher and blogger Brian Kelley argues, the majority of our reading and writing “territories” now exists in a digital sphere. “In many ways, we live every moment of our lives in a digital reality because the world is making more land—a digital landscape,” Kelley writes. “Yet instead of training educators, young and old, to engage inspiration and inventiveness, American politics burns the digital landscape right from under our feet, almost as fast as it can be created, with the oversights of the Common Core.”

It’s hard to argue with Kelley’s point. Digital-literacy skills should not be taught in isolation, but rather woven into every course. However, that isn’t the way they are presented in the common standards. And that lack of emphasis ultimately affects what teachers will be prepared to teach. In my school district, it’s easy to find professional development and trainings relating to teaching skills for the end-of-course exam. It’s not so easy to find school leaders working on the potential to expand digital-literacy instruction.

Digital Journeys

I should mention that not all English teachers share my misgivings. In a thoughtful post on his blog, for example, instructional coach Joe Wood argues that the common standards place a much-needed emphasis on digital literacy. He cites references in the standards documents to the importance of online research and the use of technological tools. But my point is that such directives are both too broad and too isolated. They don’t give teachers—or curriculum writers—enough to go on.

Wood argues that the standards raise a number of technological-competency issues that schools need to pay attention to: “Can your students make strategic decisions about when it would be most appropriate to use a blog post, video, or podcast to convey their ideas? Do they have knowledge of any of these tools? Do your teachers? Do your teachers and students have access to these types of digital texts in the form of hardware, software, and networking policies?” These are great questions—but asking them is not required by the standards. They are Wood’s own (and I think somewhat wilful) interpretations. Will other educators draw the same inferences from the standards’ stray references to technology and diverse media? To judge by my own district’s curriculum map, the answer is, probably not. The push just isn’t strong enough in the common-standards documents.

As a teacher, writer, and citizen, I’m constantly considering the pros and cons of how I engage in the online world. I joined, quit, and rejoined Facebook in the past few years. I have decided to use Twitter as a curation source for ideas on education, technology, and culture. I began blogging again at Mindful Stew. These decisions that I make daily have a profound impact on how I engage in the online world, in addition to influencing how much time I spend offline.

I can’t speak for all educators, but I don’t feel like I’m doing my job if I don’t challenge students to think about what it means to live and work in a world of constant connectivity. Sharing my own digital journeys and decisions with my students—to get them thinking about thinking (i.e., using metacognition) in relation to technology and communication—is one way to I plan to do this, even if that sort of thing is not addressed in the common standards.

The English/language arts common standards for 10th grade reading and writing are rigorous and scaffolded from previous grades. I can’t complain there. And ultimately I believe that the common standards will challenge and elevate teaching and learning across most states.

But I will complain that, while feeling the pressure to prepare struggling readers and writers for their traditional year-end literary-analysis test, I will have to buck the common core and our curriculum map in order to teach students skills needed for 2012 rather than 1990.

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