A digitally literate UK?

Young digital journalists

Young digital journalists covering a digital literacy conference, photo by Kevin Anderson

I’m a conference about media literacy today, which I wanted to come and cover for Guardian blogs (the day job), but I also think that media literacy is increasingly important in our media-saturated landscape.

The questions they hope to answer (in public sector speak):

• How can people be empowered with the skills, competencies and confidence to get the most out of Web 2.0 media in the ways they relate, interact, work and create today?

• How can ‘critical thinking’ and awareness about media – sources, editing and ownership – best be ‘taught’ or encouraged? And by whom?

• Is the Charter for Media Literacy still fit for purpose?

• What collaborations between government, the media industries, education and cultural organisations – as well as with parents and users – are needed to develop a media literate UK?

• What new opportunities for creativity and participation do Web 2.0 capabilities offer people as citizens or as consumers, and in their various communities?

Now, there is a lot about Web 2.0 in there. This is one of those terms that means everything and nothing to most people. Dale Dougherty of O’Reilly came up with this definition, which I’ll paraphrase:

The sites and services that succeed are the ones that are of greater value to their users the greater the level of participation.

How to navigate a media-saturated world

I think of how I evaluate the flood of information that I am inundated by daily – both as a both a professional journalist and as a citizen of a democratic society (some might say societies). It’s a really important skill that I think is critical to people even if they don’t work in the media or journalism. As the sources of information explode, how do we sift through all of it and consider the point of view and motivations of those producing those messages?

It’s slightly odd that the conference kicks off with a discussion about digital television. I do think of this as part of my digital life. Suw and I use an old laptop as our TV, and when I can get it working, we watch via MythTV, which has a built in web browser and RSS reader.

It’s refreshing to hear the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the Rt. Hon. James Purnell, MP, say that the response to this explosion of information is not to curtail the freedom of speech.

But now, he’s talking about a ‘kitemark’ to flag up products that parents can use to block ‘harmful material’ and ‘inappropriate content’ for their children. This isn’t about censorship but identifying the risk and helping parents, he said. Some of this concern comes from parents being concerned that their children know more about the internet than they do.

Why everyone should blog

The next speaker is Yemisi Blake, a 20-year-old, who gave an overview of his digital life, saying that he can’t believe his parents when they say that there was a world before e-mail and that he’s into blogging, YouTube and Facebook. Twitter, not so much. It was a great first person case for why social media is important to him.

Last year, he discovered WordPress when he wasn’t writing about race and ethnicity. He blew his entire student loan on a MacBook Pro and spent a month eating fish fingers to save up all the money.

He wanted to find out what his computer could really do. He had a paper to do on deadline, but he couldn’t find any books on what he wanted to write about about race and advertising. He found the books in the library dry and dusty and not relevant to his studies, or more importantly relevant to him. But he found a blog called Racialicious. He quickly found himself part of an online anti-racism community. He also was introduced to the woman bloggers behind Blogher. It took him out of his world in north London, and completely changed his life.

He also discovered the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders podcast. Stanford offered up Q&A podcasts from the founders of some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley.

This was something that school couldn’t give me.

He said that his blog gave him a profile that he couldn’t have had as a student otherwise. It’s helped him find a voice, a community and confidence.

Interesting quote of the day

Jon Gisby, former MD of Yahoo! UK and Ireland and Vice President of Media Europe, said:

You connect with people like you, no longer who the media say you should connect to.

Most media execs who I’ve spoken to don’t really grok that one. They still are obsessed with their brands and the power of agenda setting. He then discussed the issues and consequences of greater participation online.

  • What are people’s motivations? Personal, professional, commercial?
  • We need greater transparency.
  • What are the ethics? Those carrying out journalism might not be trained as journalists. Piracy?
  • How can we prevent crowds that we love when they are wise, from becoming mobs? How do we prevent anonymity from becoming a shield for bullies?
  • Atomisation? What are the consequences of the crumbling of mass media?

Banned in UK schools

Ewan McIntosh is doing a great presentation about the digital divide. It’s not about access to technology. It’s about digital literacy. That’s powerful.

He gave a few examples of how students had learned through technology, much of it which is banned in UK schools.

  • One student learned about chess strategies through playing World of Warcraft
  • Another student learned about geography by seeing where his Facebook friends were on a map

I found Ewan’s talk really refreshing. There are a lot of people still talking about digital divide in terms of access to computers and access to the internet. Computers are everywhere. Mobile phones are now computers, even basic ones. Africa is often touted as on the other side of the digital divide, but mobile phone technology has allowed them to cut out an entire step of digital development.

Inspiring exploration instead of instilling fear

Recently, I was in a training session. Suw and I are such digital natives that sometimes it’s easy for us to forget technical knowledge and digital awareness that we take for granted. Just yesterday, I was trying to show a colleague how easy it was to create a Google Gadget. I went to check whether I had the correct RSS feed. It kicked up an unstructured XML page, and I say, yeah, that’s right. But it reminded me of the scene in Real Genius when the “mysterious Laslo Hollyfeld” watches a computer screen display a flood of colours. It scared the bejeezus out of everyone else but somehow was comforting to Laslo. I think my demo scared my colleague instead of inspiring her.

Suw and I both learned what we know largely through exploration and clueful friends, not through formal training. How we encourage exploration and purposeful play? Purposeful play is largely how I’ve learned what I know. Ewan talked about play.

I remember when my parents got over their fear of breaking the computer and got on with using it. I have worked with people who worried about ‘breaking the internet’.

I’m not going to laugh or sneer at people who are overwhelmed by technology. It can be very intimidating. But how we inspire people with our passion, and infect them with enthusiasm and not overwhelm them?

UPDATE: Ewan left a comment to a couple of his posts below. This is a great post and worth the full read, but here’s a teaser:

The fact is, that most of those working in education, in politics, in the civil service are the equivalent of modern day illiterates. Without understanding how to read and write on the web, there is no other way, really, to describe this state of being.

Ouch. The truth hurts. I couldn’t possibly comment on the digital literacy of my own industry, journalism, or rather I’ve probably done a bit much of it lately.

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