The USA: a New Literacies desert?

This is is the very first draft of a section for my Ed.D. thesis; I’ll be returning to this soon.

The bibliography relating to the referenced literature can be found at http://dougbelshaw.com/thesis (I’ve blogged more about my thesis at http://dougbelshaw.com/blog)


The United States of America (USA) is a large and diverse country. Its approach to New Literacies reflects this, with work carrying on apace in almost every area. In a similar way to the ‘literacy wars’ in Australia taking up most of the space for debate, so in the USA almost everything relating to schools has been framed in the past decade by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This was signed in 2001 by then-President George W. Bush and, ostensibly, aimed at setting high standards increasing the number of measurable outcomes for schools. These outcomes are tied to funding.

There have been many outspoken criticisms of NCLB and, indeed, President Obama announced in early 2011 that NCLB shall be replaced (Obama, 2011). Chapter C Part D of the NCLB Act is entitled ‘Enhancing Education Through Technology’ (EETT) and has as its primary goal improving student achievement through the use of technology. A secondary goal is:

To assist every student in crossing the digital divide by ensuring that every student is technologically literate by the time the student finishes the eighth grade, regardless of the student’s race, ethnicity, gender, family income, geographic location, or disability. (US Department of Education, 2001)

What is meant by ‘digital divide’ is not made explicit nor what it would mean for students to be ‘technologically literate’.

Given the federal nature of the USA, some states have different policies relating to technology than others. More forward-thinking states such as California have drafted policies dealing explicitly with New Literacies, citing the European Union as a “leader in digital literacy” (CETF, 2008, p.11). California’s ICT Digital Literacy Framework defines ICT Literacy as

using digital technology, communications tools and/or networks, to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, create and communicate information in order to function in a knowledge society. (CETF, 2008, p.5)

The verbs from ‘access’ through to ‘communicate’ form a kind of taxonomy which, the authors of the framework claim, is common to existing national and international frameworks. What the Californian framework certainly does have in common with other countries is a focus upon competition and the economy. The role of individuals in a ‘21st century citizenry’ for example is to “Apply digital literacy skills to access health, e-government, banking and to support healthy environment [sic]” (CETF, 2008, p.14).

Given the federal nature of the education system in the USA there are many and varied definitions New Literacies. President Obama, for example, proclaimed October 2009 to be ‘National Information Literacy Awareness Month’ beginning his proclamation with these words:

Every day, we are inundated with vast amounts of information. A 24-hour news cycle and thousands of global television and radio networks, coupled with an immense array of  online resources, have challenged our long-held perceptions of  information management. Rather than merely possessing data, we must also learn the skills necessary to acquire, collate, and evaluate information for any situation. This new type of literacy also requires competency with communication technologies, including computers and mobile devices that can help in our day-to-day decisionmaking. National Information Literacy Awareness Month highlights the need for all Americans to be adept in the skills necessary to effectively navigate the Information Age. (Obama, 2009)

It is clear from this statement that the higher echelons for educational policy-making in the USA believe the use of technology to be only part of a wider ‘information literacy’. Given that Professor Henry Jenkins, John Seeley Brown and other well-known educators and thinkers in the USA are increasingly focusing upon Digital (Media) Literacy, there is seeming a disconnect between research, practice and policy.

Given this vacuum at the national policy level, individuals, groups, and organisations have stepped in to promote various visions of New Literacies. Marc Prensky, promoter of the digital natives/immigrant dichotomy we shall discuss in Chapter 5, has claimed that ‘Programming is the New Literacy’ (Prensky, 2008) whilst the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a corporate responsibility initiative from organisations such as AOL, Cisco, Microsoft and Apple, in partnership with the US Department of Education.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has representatives of everyone from Lego to the American Association of School Librarians on its Strategic Council and sees its mission as serving as “a catalyst to position 21st century readiness at the center of US K12 education by building collaborative partnerships among education, business, community and government leaders” (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2004). Importantly, the Partnership has ascertained each state’s 21st century ‘readiness’ as well as putting together a cohesive framework, including information literacy, media literacy and ICT literacy, for adoption by educational institutions. However, they also talk of ‘health literacy,’ ‘financial literacy’ and even ‘entrepreneurial literacy’ – without defining any of these terms. It is clear that these terms are being used within a wide context of their ‘four Cs’ of “critical thinking and problem solving; communication, collaboration; and creativity and innovation” (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2004).

Given this confusing landscape and the lack of a clear ‘steer’ from national government on New Literacies, states have sought to define their own curricula and assessment tools. New York City’s (NYC) Education Department, for example, have taken the American Association of School Librarians’ Standards for the 21st Century Learner (AASL, no date) and developed it into an ‘Information Fluency Continuum’. This defines the information literacy standards that students should develop by Grades 2, 5, 8 and 12 and are coupled with information literacy benchmark skills assessments for each Grade level.

Due to the standards-based, testing culture in US schools, NYC’s approach is understandable. They have adopted the publication of an authoritative body who, in turn, have reacted to an environment created by US educational policy in the wake of NCLB. Such an environment stresses the importance of being ‘information literate’ and focuses on the traditional basics but, perhaps, at the expense of a cohesive programme for New Literacies.


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2 thoughts on “The USA: a New Literacies desert?

  1. Hey Doug,

    You might check out the National Council Teachers of English definition of 21st Century reading and writing literacies. This PDF gives even more detail.

    You’re right in that this country is all over the place when it comes to this stuff, hence the call for a “Common Core” which will only standardize things even more. The Partnership is driven by business interests, and the Obama administration really hasn’t a clue either. It’s pretty much of a wasteland right now.

    • Thanks Will, I’ll add that in. It’s a real shame to discover that the US hasn’t got its act together r.e. New Literacies, but at least I’ve got the right end of the stick with what I’ve written. :-/

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