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Is digital literacy killing critical consciousness?

By Leanne McRae - posted Wednesday, 1 December 2004

Educational interests and outcomes remain at the forefront of social justice and the future of our nation. Who we are individually and as a people, is often determined in the classroom - not only through what we are taught, but most strikingly, through the styles of pedagogy we encounter. Teachers have great authority over how we define ourselves: The recent crises within education - namely retracting funding, overflowing classrooms and “delegitimisation” of teacher’s expertise, stands to reshape how we interpret our society. These discourses have been punctuated with debates about online learning. The digital realm is seen as the saviour for overworked teachers and busy students.

Through the monitor and keyboard is a world where instantaneous communication and individual feedback provides students with access to a suffocating educational system. Many scholars present favourable prose in support of this digital pedagogy. However, this positive spin ignores the low enrolments and high attrition rates in the online, e-learning oeuvre suggesting that all is not well in the silicon sphere.

One online educational theorist, raving about the advantages of the avatar in accessing learning structures and synergies, proclaimed the end of all things analogue. He smartly dismissed the need for anything not encoded with bits and bytes by stating, “Even if we like the old ways, the conventional use of bound books and paper files is incapable of handling the demands of modern life, and there really is no choice about accepting rapid innovation”. In one sentence, and without any hesitation or questioning, he normalised digitisation and dismissed paper-based artefacts.


Teachers, scholars, journalists and other thinkers reading this article will instantly recognise the deficiencies in such a statement. The proliferation of digital infrastructures and technologies is uneven. Over three-quarters of the world’s population has never made a phone-call. Many of us cannot afford the financial outlay for online access and digital hardware. Learning to login requires new skills that can be intimidating for those not familiar with computer software.

To dismiss the analogue world as redundant troubles me greatly. I find nothing more intimately connected to everyday life than the ”bounded books and paper files” he rubbished. While we do live in an age of acceleration activated by iPods, mobile phones, and TXT as well as literacies that seek to swamp traditional reading and research, it is precisely in this context that we need the bound page. However, it is not my intention to validate some draconian and stuffy nostalgia for literature, but to remember what it means to struggle over consciousness and through criticism.

Many of the students I teach do not have the patience to leaf through a book and read words on a page. They are much happier when they are able to point, click and download their scholarship. They lead busy lives and reading can be uncomfortable for a generation schooled in digital learning. A computer used correctly can be a valuable research tool. It can provide insight in ways a book cannot. A friend of mine - working in Internet studies - changes my life every week with a new online discovery. This is a man who informed me about EverQuest and its expanding virtual economy, and "Booble" - the "adult" search engine. His use of the digital realm is startling. It is used as an extension of his consciousness rather than as a determinate of the criticism he activates. He begins from an idea he wishes to explore or an unresolved problem or paradox. The digital realm is a supplement to his other research done through film, television, books, journals, newspapers and music. 

Students need to be taught these skills - to move through the different literacies which straddle digital and analogue worlds. They require a methodology both of and for the struggle with ideas and concepts, which will help them understand the need for investigation and scholastic rigour. The consequences for these individuals are serious as we prepare them to live in a complex and contradictory world. We are abandoning these young people to educational efficiency and rationalist curricula. Nothing demonstrated this more clearly to me than a recent marking experience.

I have been teaching second and third years at university. These students are mid-semester through a theory and practice-based unit designed to integrate critical analysis and creativity. The students come from varying streams, though all have  been schooled in core first-year media theory units.

When I received their essays I was excited to see how they had answered the question set for the assignment. They could choose to examine any documentary filmmaker - from Mike Moore or Nick Broomfield to David Attenborough. The core argument had to be constructed using the concepts raised in the course.


I was shocked by their work. Many of the essays were poorly structured and articulated. Arguments did not engage with the ideas raised in the lectures or readings, and only tenuous connections were made between filmmakers and the course theory. Most disturbing was that many of these students did not know how to engage or integrate the reading, nor were they able to reference this material. Quotations were not introduced or explained and terms were not clearly defined or supported with evidence.

These essays also had lists and sections, incomplete sentences and paragraphs. Many were not correctly formatted with standard stylistic structures - like all titles being underlined or italicised, and large quotes over 30 words being indented and separated from the text.

As second and third year students I was not expecting such gross inaccuracies in the fundamental mechanics of writing. A poorly or uncomfortably connected and articulated argument is common. Students often struggle with the critical analysis. They revert to description and ignore the assessment. Yet, these mistakes were beyond such intellectual issues. These errors were skills-based and serious.

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About the Author

Leanne McRae is the senior researcher and Creative Industrial Matrix Convenor for the Popular Culture Collective

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