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Are we teaching Networked Literacy

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The two best sessions for me at Edubloggercon today at ISTE2010 ended up talking about Networks and teaching how to use networks with students. For lack of a better term we called it “Networked Literacy”

I first started thinking about this back in August after reading Writing in the 21st Century by Kathleen Yancey (worth your time).

Based on that reading I created this diagram that looks at today’s literacy development.

The pyramid represents the amount of time we spend teaching different types of literacy. Print Literacy is still the bases of our teaching in schools. Some of us and some schools are starting to bring digital literacy into the equation, but few of us are touching on or teaching Networked Literacy. In August as I started to think about this idea of Networked Literacy I came up with this working definition:

Networked literacy is what the web is about. It’s about understanding how people and communication networks work. It’s the understanding of how to find information and how to be found. It’s about how to read hyperlinked text articles, and understand the connections that are made when you become “friends” or “follow” someone on a network. It’s the understanding of how to stay safe and how to use the networked knowledge that is the World Wide Web. Networked Literacy is about understanding connections.

After today’s conversation I think it’s pretty close to what we were all thinking. It’s the idea of teaching students that they have networks in Facebook and through other web connections. We need to teach them how to use those networks to spread their message. Today many of us ed tech people do the networking for students via our twitter accounts, our own blogs, and the whole of our PLNs. Students today have networks, the issue is most of them are blocked in schools. We do not think of them as idea spreading networks but instead as social-networks that students must be kept from during school hours.

Learning networks are Social networks.

There is not one of us here at ISTE that does not use Twitter strictly for learning. We share our days, our lives. We share jokes, stay in touch and communicate on things that are personal to us. If we are allowed to use our learning-networks for social connections why can’t students use their social-networks for learning connections?

Of course Facebook is just a popular example. There are many other networks that we should be teaching students to use, networks to help them spread their message.

There’s another part of Networked Literacy that we touched on today. The idea of using social-connections to curate information. It’s asking your Twitter network for resources instead of Google, or asking your Facebook friends dinner ideas rather than looking up a restaurant yourself. Learning when to ask these networks for help and why you would you them rather than Google is a type of Networked Literacy we need to be teaching.

The conversations we had today are just the beginning. I’m looking forward to discussion this idea in the Blogger’s Cafe in the coming days as I think we’re starting to define a new powerful literacy that I hope we will be able to teach our students how to use.

I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


  1. Jeff, your post creates a unifying theme out of a series of discussions. When we first launched findingDulcinea three years ago, I met with the news director of 1010 WINS, the most popular news radio station in the U.S. He told me “the audience no longer comes to us; we have to go out and find it.” It took me too long to realize this was not a maxim that applied only to “old media” – EVERYONE who communicates needs to go out and find his or her audience. Writers used to bang out a few pages on a typewriter, hand them in to an editor, and head home. Nowadays, creating a compelling work is about 25% of the battle – the hard part is getting the consumer’s attention. How you go about doing this will continue to morph every year for the new few decades. Students need to step into the wave of this NOW so they learn how to be successful at building an audience now, and then how to adapt to each new technological and media development that comes along.

  2. I’m really pleased to see this post, because this is a hobby-horse of mine.

    When new technologies come along, one of the biggest risks we run is that we use them to do, in an electronic way, the things we already did. Email, for example, was an electronic way of sending letters, complete with carbon copies.

    The term digital literacy is often used to refer to the skills of simply using software and hardware, and I’ve felt for some time that more and more their real importance is as an essential platform on which to build higher level skills, for which network literacy is a good term.

    The technologies we refer to as social networking web sites are tools that excel at doing what we already did – maintaining social networks – but they can also enable new possibilities. These new possibilities will not be identified unless we have people capable of thinking in new, networked ways. For that to happen, their use has to become embedded in our educational systems; keeping them on the outside, just because their current use is predominantly social, may in time be seen as negligent.

    In East Lothian, Scotland, we are currently testing the water in this area by using the BuddyPress social networking software on top of a shared district-wide WordPress Multi-User (WPMU) blog system to create a learning network (see http://edubuzz.org). The original impetus was to improve teaching and learning by enabling teachers to see what others were doing, and share good ideas. It’s now becoming clear that it has been instrumental in helping develop the type of networked literacy you describe amongst learners, staff and parents in the community.

    Given that it can be implemented at relatively low cost, I recommend the WPMU/BP combination as a good way to make a start at bringing so-called social networking into schools to support learning.

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  4. I, like most people, love a good infographic. However, I would love to see some more reliable research to support the design. What evidence can you cite from the professional literature that indicates that your infographic is truly representational of the scene you are presenting? Such generalizations amount to bad science and bad teaching without the appropriate research or evidence to support your position, no?

    On a related note, consider looking into the work of Donald Leu at the University of Connecticut. He is a literacy professor who is working diligently to bridge print, digital, and networked literacies. (see http://www.newliteracies.uconn.edu/)

    Understand that given your large audience/readership, you have a responsibility to provide the most accurate information you can. While I like the idea of a simple pyramid, literacy education is more complex and requires a more thoughtful approach than the one I think you’re posing. Nonetheless, I appreciate your earnest attempt at framing the larger issues at hand. For me network and digital literacy is not different than literacy writ large. Compartmentalizing these items only makes connecting them in a teacher’s practice that much more difficult.

    Critical reading is critical reading no matter if you’re reading a web page, a cereal box, watching Sponge Bob, or reading Foucault. I believe separating out these literacies as unique skill sets misses the larger picture. Creating a Facebook page to spread a message is one form of literacy that needs to be scaffolded into a larger skill set of identifying appropriate places to use for marketing and communication purposes. Shouldn’t a discussion of Facebook’s business plan be included in this teachable moment? Again, reading critically requires us to first help students peek behind the curtain before adopting tools simply because they are free and easily available.

    • Christopher,
      Thank you for your thoughtful response and I agree that we need to stop chopping literacy into this sub-set and that sub-set. At the end of the day it’s all literacy. However, working with teachers K-12 the past 11 years in schools, I can’t walk into a classroom and say we need to be teaching this or that in literacy. That to them is reading and writing in the traditional sense and in many schools in this current climate “Literacy Time” is not touchable. Therefore, I think we need to give them a different name for now to help everyday teachers wrap their heads around what it is we’re talking about. I would love to be able to walk into a classroom and have a conversation about literacy that covered digital and networked literacy….we’re just not there yet.

      As for the image, there is no scentific research behind it, and there was never meant to be. It was my own visual representation of Kathleen Yancey’s report from NCTE titled Writing in the 21st Century. I created the graph as my own visual representation of what she was explaining in the article. The original blog post where I created the pyramid is linked here and in the article above.

      If it’s hard data numbers you’re looking for I don’t have them.

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  7. I so appreciate this post and all of your thinking about networked literacy. I do think breaking it into these categories helps give us, as educators a way to get our heads around all of the pieces that are part of being literate. Naming the pieces will help us begin important conversations in schools.

    I am hopeful that we can expand the ways we define literacy in K-12 schools. In reality, literacy has never only been about text but that is a hard one these days with reading and writing being the two that are tested. We have to get to a point that the digital and networked and visual and other literacies are not fluff or “add-ons”. They need to be the meat of what we do. I think, in reality, our kids are probably network literate and digitally literate long before they are print literate. I think many preschoolers can use an ipod to listen to a story, communicate with friends on Webkinz, etc. long before they can make sense of print. I’m not sure what that means for us but I am so hopeful that this graphic will become one that is more whole in the near future.

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  9. Jeff,
    This post is what students are really asking for. If students could have a social network to turn to in school, the information would not only come easier, but faster. Sources could not only be based on facts, but personal experiences and the thoughts of other. If a student has the right people in their social network, instead of spending hours searching for the right article, they can directly ask an expert in their field. I think that if and when this method is utilized, it will not only make the students more attentive and eager to learn, but more willing to be active in the classroom.

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