Guest Post: Dan Spencer on Literacy in the Digital Age

Published: 2011-08-02 09:50 |

Category: Collaboration |

Today’s post is actually from Dan Spencer, a technology coordinator in Michigan. Dan was recently asked to write an article for a local newspaper about student literacy in the digital age. Dan was kind enough to let me post this on my blog as well because it is that good.  This is longer than what I usually post, but please do take time to read the entire article.

Cit Pat article – “Are texting and social media sites harming our children’s literacy skills?” <>
Alright gang! Here’s my article for the Jackson Cit Pat.  It was supposed to only be 500 words (it’s currently close to 900) but I can’t think of what to cut without losing important details.  Please tell me what you think.

I was blessed with a phenomenal English teacher in high school.  Mrs. Wilcox had a gift for pushing us beyond multiple-choice tests and regurgitating lines from Macbethor mindlessly churning out five-paragraph essays about For Whom the Bell Tolls.  Her focus was to have us take those works and create something that applied to our world.  The common medium of expression at that time was pen and paper, but we were content with that because it was all we knew.  Given the explosion of social media and other Web 2.0 tools available today, I wonder what Mrs. Wilcox would have inspired us to create to express our ideas if we had tools like podcasts, blogs, YouTube, and even Twitter or Facebook at our disposal.You see, many view literacy as simply being able to read and write, but it’s really much more.   At the very least, literacy means being able to communicate clearly regardless of the medium.  But in a world where effective communication is so vital, literacy should imply being able to take an idea or message and understand, critique, and explain how it effects you and your world.   However, with the recent boom in social media, the way we communicate with others is permanently recorded and available for all to see at any time.  Because of this, social media sites and texting are easy targets for those who want to label the rising generation as lazy, ignorant, or out-of-touch.  While examples of people (and not just students) using social media poorly are plentiful, we need to be very careful to not confuse “correlation” with “causation”.It would be foolish to suggest all students were mini-Hemmingways in waiting until Facebook, Twitter and texting wandered onto the scene and corrupted them.  Social media didn’t cause those deficiencies, but it does display them for all to see.  Those are the sites many students visit and interact when they aren’t in school.  Which is what makes the supposed tension between learning, literacy, and social media so intriguing.  The frustration many students express with school is that it doesn’t apply to their world.  In my opinion, schools have an obligation to make learning relevant to the real world.  If we choose to pretend that these forms of communication and media don’t exist or aren’t important to them, we force students into a dichotomy of choosing between “School World” or “Their World”.  If students have to pick one or the other, “their world” wins every time.  But why can’t educators find ways to promote literacy using the tools that are already shown to engage students?  Why can’t we help students see how “school” prepares them for the “real world” by using “their world” to engage them?  Now let me be blunt. There are appropriate and inappropriate ways to use social media in schools just as there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to use a paper and pencil.  What I am advocating is using the social media tools available today in a monitored, educational setting to help make literacy relevant for students.

Here are a few examples of educators and students using social media tools the right way to promote literacy.

  • Texting in the Classroom
    • There are many free tools like which allow teachers to poll students during lessons through text messages. Rather than basing whether students understand or not on one person raising her hand and answering questions, this allows a teacher a glimpse at what the whole class understands in a matter of seconds.
  • Facebook in the Classroom
    • With parent permission, Michigan Center chemistry teacher Matt Withers set up a Facebook group for his chemistry class where they could go for information about the class after school.  The student-to-student collaboration and communication that resulted were great examples of how social media can be used the right way in education.
  • Sylvia’s Super Awesome-Maker Show
  • – Kids Teaching Kids
    • Want to see if a student really understands math? You could assign problems 1-25 at the end of the chapter or have them create a video (aka “screencast”) showing how to work out a math problem in their own words.  They can then post it on iTunes or a classroom blog so their classmates can access them whenever they need help outside of school. The 6th graders who originally began creating these tutorials struggled in math before they started doing this.  Now they pour their heart and soul into creating their mini-lessons outside of class because they know their work will be available for the entire world to see.
  • Shakespeare in 140 characters
    • Did you really understand Shakespeare?  You can’t paraphrase what you don’t understand.  Have students use Twitter to paraphrase what is happening in 140 characters or less.  You’ll be amazed by their increased interest, level of understanding and creativity when they get to use a social media site that is normally reserved only for outside of school.

Can students learn to read, write and express their ideas without social media – of course!  But schools have an obligation to be relevant for students and social media is an important part of their world.  In the second decade of the 21st century there are amazing tools available that, when used the right way, can inspire students to see how their world really can prepare them for the real world.

I saw this update from Dan today:

[Sigh] CitPat “kindly” asked me to change the article they asked me to write for them on student literacy and social media to focus on the traditional definition of literacy (being able to read and write). I felt like I had made a great argument that with so many digital tools out there now for people to express their ideas that digital literacy is a type of literacy. Guess that wasn’t what they wanted.

Personally, I think the newspaper is nuts and I’ll probably write the editor an e mail.  They’re missing the big picture and this is one of those things that really pushed my buttons.  I’ll post the editor’s contact information if you’d like to send a letter as well.

Dan Spencer is currently the Educational Technology Coordinator at the Jackson County ISD.  Before that he taught chemistry and physics and coached cross country and track at Michigan Center High School.  He can be reached by e-mail or on Twitter at @runfardvs.  Feel free to continue the conversation on his blog <>.

Comments are always open. You can get in touch by sending me an email at