Digital literacy and lots of it – OEB interview with Howard Rheingold

HowardHoward Rheingold, the critic, educator and expert in “virtual communities” (a term he coined himself), wants to teach people how to be more mindful about how they spend their time online. ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN is pleased to announce that Howard will be one of the conference keynote speakers in December and here he talks to ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN writer Steven Blum about why digital literacy is so important, the importance of virtual communities, and traditional education’s recent embrace of Wikipedia.


In the book “Net Smart: How to Thrive Online,” you write that the future of digital culture depends on how well we learn to use the media that has “infiltrated, amplified, distracted, enriched, and complicated our lives.” That description seems so fitting to me as I find myself constantly amazed by the learning opportunities I find online, yet wistful and nostalgic about a time when I could sit down with a book and not constantly want to check my phone. What are your strategies for sustaining focus in an always-on media environment?


I’ve been writing about the impact — both digital and social — of media since the arrival of personal computers in the 1980’s. The question that’s arisen in all of my books, from Smart Mobs to Virtual Community is, “Are these new inventions good for us as individuals, for our relationships, and for society?”


My conclusion, after many years of thinking about the impact of both digital and social media, is that a lot of it depends on what people know. It’s not just the tools themselves and their capabilities, it’s about having the skill to use those tools.


That was also true with literacy. After the invention of the printing press, which originally was only available to the elite populations, it took 50 years, a century or more for literate populations to create democracies, for science to become an enterprise. So my perception has been that our educational institutions move much more slowly than our technologies.


I wrote Net Smart because I felt that there were some essential literacies, skills and fluencies for using what’s now called social media. These aren’t really secret, but neither are they taught or widely known.


How can journalism schools teach digital literacy to budding reporters?


Without a doubt, when I started teaching digital journalism, there was a lot of tension and debate about these amateur journalists, these bloggers in pajamas,” and whether or not they would change journalism. Now it’s pretty much accepted that we’ve got tens of millions of people who have television cameras in their pockets and when an event happens somewhere in the world, there will be reports from people who are not journalists.


But the work of verifying those reports, of putting them in context, of finding spokespeople to speak for different point of views and putting it all in a narrative that people can understand, that’s still the job of a journalist. We’re seeing schools like Stanford begin to focus on what’s called computational journalism, where people learn how to sift through large amounts of data to find facts they can use to put together stories.


Do you think e-learning is better suited to teaching people digital literacy skills than traditional classrooms?


It’s really difficult to teach people how to find their own way in the changing digital environment if you’re using the ancient method where students sit down and shut up and take notes and the professor delivers the knowledge. That’s not empowering. One of the things I plan to talk about when I come to Berlin is that it is now both necessary and much more possible to empower students to take control over their own learning. That doesn’t mean that they’re totally on their own but it means they express themselves in blogs, they have conversations in forums, they use things like social bookmarks to construct knowledge together.


John Dewey in the United States and Paulo Freire in Brazil have been talking about teaching like this for a while, since before the technology existed. They talked about the sort of student-centered pedagogy that focuses not on memorizing facts, but being able to pursue questions. It is now much more powerful and easier to create using technology. That’s the sort of curriculum I teach in the Peeragogy Handbook, which is a resource for those who want to create collaborative learning environments online.


In Neil Postman’s book “Teaching Is a Subversive Activity,” he pointed out that in societies that don’t change very quickly, the job of the older generation is to pass along what they’ve learned so that younger generations can succeed without having to reinvent it all. However, in societies that change very rapidly, it is necessary to pass along not just the facts but the ability to learn new things in a changing environment.


What does this year’s theme at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN, “Changing Learning,” mean to you? How have changes in learning affected the way you teach?


Over the last ten years I’ve spent teaching college students at Berkeley and at Stanford, social media has influenced and shaped my pedagogy to encourage student empowerment, collaborative inquiry and learning in public. I’ve wondered about how to create meaning together, how to use personal learning networks, how to reflect on your learning, how to engage in ongoing discussions and forums and blogs about what the text means. So after so many years of teaching college students I started teaching purely online.


At Rheingold U, I’m still the instructor and I create the syllabus and I lead the discussions but it is explicitly more and more up to the other learners to create a learning community in which we are all learning from and teaching each other. The learning activities are up to the students, who are now co-learners, who participate in this together. They create a lexicon of terms and define them, sort of like Wikipedia-style, and we have online forum conversations as a group about the text and they reflect individually on their blogs.


It used to be that people took notes alone, learning was a private enterprise and collaborating with others was considered cheating. Now, working together to co-construct meaning is definitely one of the advantages of continuing the discussion online.


A new Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation study found that teachers were just as likely to rate as “effective” general purpose tools like Google, Wikipedia, as they are products built specifically for the education market. I can remember when Wikipedia was seen as a shameful source for a term paper. Do you think we’re seeing a great cultural shift in how educators perceive collaborative forms of knowledge?


Sure, what is the web but a collaborative form of knowledge? And increasingly the kind of work that people do in the world is not individual work. You’re not standing at your spot in the production line putting the same widget on the same machine over and over again; you are working with others collaboratively in a changing environment in which communication and collaboration is a requirement.


WATCH: Interview with Howard Rheingold from OEB 2014


howard Rheingold video


More information on Howard Rheingold’s session at OEB in 2014 will be released in the coming months, so stay tuned! To find out more about how to register for OEB14 and ensure you see him speak live, click here for details.

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