Digital literacy: it's in the play

One hears the words "digital literacy" bandied about, but far fewer attempts to decribe what those words mean. In an op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Jonathan Fanton, who is president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, recently had this to say:

Research, some of it funded by the MacArthur Foundation, is justbeginning to fathom how deeply our children have absorbed new technology: the role it plays in their lives and how it affects their learning, play and socialization. What this research suggests is that today's digital youth are in the process of creating a new kind of literacy; this evolving skill extends beyond the traditions of reading and writing into a community of expression and problem-solving that not only is changing their world but ours, too:

They have created communities the size of whole nations by channeling personal affiliations through message boards or meta-games or dedicated websites such as Facebook, Friendster and MySpace.

They have mastered digital tools to create new techniques for personal expression: modding, digital sampling, mash-ups and zines — not to mention new paths of distribution for personal works of video and text.

They have redefined the notion of "play" to include complex problem-solving, mentoring, the archiving of knowledge and real-time conversations on issues of policy and politics of global interest and importance.

Henry Jenkins, director of the media studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls this a new "participatory culture," one that presents low barriers to artistic expression and social engagement that suggests that a richer environment for learning may lie outside the classroom.

In the world of digital community and play are two other practices, both of which give me hope that digital media, is, as Fanton says, really and truly different. One is my belief that better questions lead to better answers and the second, the idea that what is intellectually understood is useless until it makes the migration from our heads to our hands and feet - that is, until it is put into play.

Hat tip: MacArthur Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning