Critical reflection on opportunity and digital literacy

A colleague just shared this image with me; though I’m not sure of the source, it is thought provoking.


Last week I wrote about an article written by Rantala & Suoranta (appearing in Lankshear & Knobel, 2008), which suggested that moves to build digital literacy in the EU have a neoliberal bias.  I think the same is true in the US, too.  Essentially, most of the literature I’ve read defines neoliberalism as the economization/marketization of social issues. Harvey (2007) defines it as:

“theory of political economic practices proposing that human well-being can best be advanced by the maximization of entrepreneurial freedoms within an institutional framework characterized by private property rights, individual liberty, unencumbered markets, and free trade” (p. 22).

In such an environment, the premise for education is workforce development and the building of a healthy economy, and government is supposed to get out of the way of entrepreneurs so that can happen.   Davies & Bansel (2007) write of a shift in responsibilities and functions of government implicit in neoliberalism, where it becomes the “duty of the citizen: the newly responsibilized individuals fulfill their obligation to the nation/state by pursuing economic well- being for themselves and their family, for their employer, company, business or corporation (p. 252).

I worry that with such a motivation for technology in education Scenario 2 is more likely than Scenario 1.  We have a well documented Matthew Effect in American education. Coined by Kerckhoff & Glennie (1999), Matthew Effect describes the reality that “those with an advantage at one stage very often obtain a further advantage at the next stage, and those who are disadvantaged at one stage very often become further disadvantaged at the next stage (p. 61).  Knowing this, it’s hard for me to imagine a situation where economic development is sufficient to push for equity.  So, I think we have a responsibility to be advocates for our students, push back against reform movements that fail to acknowledge the difficulty of providing equitable education in communities segregated by poverty, and be sure that we maintain a critical stance on the potential benefits of technology in the classroom.

Davies, B., & Bansel, P. (2007). Neoliberalism and education. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 20(3), 247–259. doi:10.1080/14767720802506821

Kerckhoff, A. C., & Glennie, E. (1999). The Matthew effect in American education. In Research in Sociology of Education and Socialization (Vol. 12, pp. 35–66). JAI Press Inc.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2008). Digital literacies: Concepts, origins, and practices. (M. Lankshear, C., & Knobel, Ed.). New York: Peter Lang.

Critical take on technology integration

My reading the past few weeks has included literature that takes a critical look at the imperative to support digital literacy. While I am still firmly in the camp supporting policy and programming that ensures digital literacy skill development for low-skilled adults, especially immigrants and refugees, I think it’s worth acknowledging the importance of a critical stance.

Rantala and Suoranta, writing in Lankshear and Knoble (2008) describe the development of digital literacy policy in the EU, noting that such policy is firmly rooted in language connecting the digital imperative to movement toward a knowledge-based economy. Neoliberal justification for adult and lifelong learning is not new; most programs in the US are funded by legislation called the “Workforce Opportunities and Innovation Act” and the most influential research on which adult learning policy around the world is based comes from the OECD (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), note that “E” does not stand for education.  One such body of research, PIAAC,  surveyed over 100,000 employed adults in over 20 OECD countries. The results showed alarming low skill proficiency with respect to technology for persons who had low literacy, low education, and low income; however, it needs to be noted that these low scores did not include low-skilled unemployed or a huge percentage of immigrants and refugees who would have presumably scored even lower.

So what’s my concern?  I’m wondering about the efficacy of policy regarding technology skill development framed by a neoliberal lens and supported by research undertaken to explore skills of employed adults. What issues are hidden through such a lens? How might resulting policy fail to address needs of those adults who most need digital literacy instruction and academic skill programming that incorporates useful technologies? These questions have implication for further inquiry and setting realistic goals (both education and economic).  Framing adult learning opportunities from the perspective of workforce development is acceptable as long as it does not delimit the audience of learners AND as long as the research that supports such programming includes those most in need of formal education as participants.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2008). Digital literacies: Concepts, origins, and practices. (M. Lankshear, C., & Knobel, Ed.). New York: Peter Lang.