Thursday, December 29, 2011

Digital Literacy

It was a bit of a surprise to get some attention for a tweet I posted recently about digital literacy. Digital literacy is a topic we've been putting some additional effort into at the place I work since it is an issue we run into frequently. We have a fairly diverse workforce with some people having been with the organization for over 40 years so there's some pretty stratified ability levels when it comes to technology. With this kind of employee base you expect to find some interesting questions at the help desk, but some issues were so common and cropped up so often it was hard to ignore. We had a digital literacy problem.

So what is digital literacy?

The biggest problem I see with most computer training: people are trained in how to use a specific tool. Obviously this kind of instruction does not make you digitally literate. At best it makes you an assembly line worker.

My concept of Digital Literacy is a set of basic skills that enable a user to understand, navigate, and successfully utilize tools regardless of familiarity. Simple things that technologists take for granted. Things like universal shortcut combos, finding standard commands (even knowing what standard commands are in the first place), or how to manipulate data.

The concepts of how to manipulate data, understand where you store it, and how to find the work you saved seem very obvious to a person that is digitally literate. To a digitally illiterate person these things are nothing short of voodoo.

A common help desk conversation I run into goes like this:
User: "I can't open this PDF file!"
Me: "How are you trying to access it?"
User: "The same way I always do."
Me: "Can you walk me through it step-by-step?"
User: "I saved it out of my email, then opened Word, went to file, then clicked open..."
Me: "But its a PDF, Word doesn't open PDF files."
User: "If I don't go into Word, though, I can't access files."
Me: "What do you mean?"
User: "To access files I always go to Word and then file, open. That's where my files are"

A few literacy issues become very obvious during this exchange
1. Understanding file types,
2. Knowledge of File Explorer (we're in the Windows world here)
3. Inability to deviate from a scripted pattern in the user interface

We cause our own pain.

Its pretty obvious this isn't a technical problem. What we have is an educational gap. Its something deeper than training. We technologists don't help the problem by treating it with a helpdesk ticket. That only furthers the problem by enabling people to continue without improving their skill set. In turn, we keep fighting the same support battles over and over.

So we're choosing to do something about this. It improves our own lives in the IT department and, in turn, improves the quality of work while lowering the stress level in business units that are experiencing ever increasing levels of technology churn.

That's a win-win!


  1. I often assume that the younger generations have a better grasp on these concepts, but that isn't always the case.

    I completely agree with your thoughts on these points, going even so far as to say the same thing abouts various websites. (Facebook for example. I'm actually able to teach community education classes about Facebook. And in most cases I'm showing people the very basics, and encouraging them to poke around and learn from experience.)

    To some extent, though, I feel like technology is finally catching up to the point where the three points you make are partially obsolete. The newest mobile OSes are doing away with the need to understand both file types and file structure. If these concepts continue to spread to the Desktop market, we might find ourselves in a (blissful) state where only Microsoft Word knows where Word files are kept, it knows about ALL of the Word files on the computer, and it's "the only" (but not really) way to open them.

  2. That's a fantastic point Phil. Mobile does make it different especially when coupled with apps that obscure the storage structure. It just lives somewhere on the Internet.

    I believe that mobile shifts the digital literacy issue into other concepts. Things like security, data sharing, data privacy, etc become the new literacy problems.

    We can only hope that desktops and enterprise systems become like the mobile UI. I, for one, welcome our new mobile overlords!