The Fourth Literacy: Web Literacy

August 27, 2012
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, In the Classroom, Students

What if schools approached digital literacy just like reading, writing, and arithmetic? This is the question Duke University professor Cathy Davidson and Mozilla Foundation’s executive director Mark Surman asked in a recent blog post for Fast Company. Just as students are taught not just about books, but also about how to read, in this new world, they would not only learn about the web, but also how to create it.

“Like reading, writing, and arithmetic, web literacy is both content and activity,” said Davidson and Surman. “As with these other three literacies, web literacy begins simply, with basics you can build upon.”

At its core, the web is built on cooperation and open access, and Davidson and Surman argue that in its openness lies the key to an education revolution. In the early days of our “Information Age,” no one could have guessed that community-created, open-source education resources such as Wikipedia and YouTube would have emerged, let alone become so successful, and that new ways of shaping and sharing information were on the horizon.

We simply didn’t know that, without a work plan, a lesson plan, or a taxonomy of what “counts” as knowledge, without leadership or payments or designated roles, people--non-experts--would build the largest encyclopedia the world has ever known, because we love to share what we know with others, and we’re even willing to spend endless hours creating our own community standards, editing, and making it right.

Surman and Davidson call for an “educational revolution” – one that takes advantage of these new developments, and one with an open source philosophy at its core. Given this human capacity to cultivate knowledge simply for the sake of sharing it with others, they argue, we need to act on it, and incorporate it into the ways we are educating today’s youth. And it starts with learning how the web works, or “web literacy.”

“Making web literacy the fourth literacy begins with the premise that, not only are humans capable of learning together, we’re doing it, contributing to peer learning online, every day of our lives,” they write. “That is a major educational paradigm shift, the great gift we’ve been given by those who built the web on open architecture.”

They propose that if we apply the age-old “learn by doing” technique to the web, and incorporate website building and coding into early childhood education, we would be equipping generations of youth with the skills they will undoubtedly need to contribute to the highly advanced technological world around them.

Some schools drop iPads into the schools as if that makes kids literate. But if web literacy, including web programming, was adopted by every school as a fourth basic literacy, kids would not only learn how to code, they would learn about interactivity, collaboration, the melding of the artistic and the scientific, creativity, and precision. We’d also benefit from a far more diverse technology world if every boy and girl, from every economic, cultural, and national background, were learning about programming from the time they started school.

Surman and Davidson also suggest that students might gain a better grasp of how to deal with the dilemmas of copyright, intellectual property, or the longevity of digital footprints had they been learning to build their own websites from a young age. They might want to put a Disney cartoon on their own website, for example, and run in to copyright issues. Or they might realize that if they put up an embarrassing or hateful post, it could haunt them for years to come. Surman and Davidson consider privacy, security, web etiquette, and use rights to be facets of digital literacy education that could benefit from hands-on exploration.

However, the kind of paradigm shift Surman and Davidson are calling for requires an “alliance of technology and educators.”  “If we’re going to truly change higher education to change the world, we have to begin by emphasizing web literacy as a required, basic, indispensable competency in the 21st century,” they write. “To do that, we need a leadership alliance between education and technology developers.”

Surman and the Mozilla Foundation offer several great tools for kids to learn the basics of the web, from Popcorn to Hackasaurus.

Mitch Resnick and colleagues at MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group have created a kids programming language called Scratch to make it easier for kids to create and share media on the web and learn the building blocks of code. Researchers are working on a new version of the tool called Scratch Jr. aimed at kids in preschool to second grade.