Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Digital Academic Literacy and Two Divides: College Readiness and Income

In "Academic Skills on Web Are Tied to Income Level" at the New York Times Online, Motoko Rich reports on "research, led by Donald J. Leu at the University of Connecticut" that shows a "gap has emerged, with lower-income students again lagging more affluent students in their ability to find, evaluate, integrate and communicate the information they find online."

The study is a small sampling of Connecticut middle schools, one from a neighborhood where the median family income is $100,000 and the other from a community where the median income is $60,000.  The wealthier students had "one extra school year’s worth of online reading ability." Rich goes on to report:

“This is more likely a comparison between a wealthier district and a middle-class district,” said Mr. Leu, who said the researchers did not receive permission to study schools in the poorest communities in the state. “So the gap that we found, we would expect it to be greater if the economic differences were greater.”
Yes, given literacy trends in reading and writing map to income, the gap would likely be greater in poorer communities and schools. But the issue isn't just about richer and poorer because the study "demonstrates a general lack of online literacy among all students, indicating that schools have not yet caught up to teach the skills needed to navigate digital information."

That means college teachers see two gaps: one, a digital academic skills gap for almost all students in how they do research and work sources into their reading, thinking, and writing. The students lack the skills needed to do move quickly into academic research, reading, and writing; and two, the same kind of skills gaps among students based on income, where, for the most part, poorer students, first generation college students, and others identified as at risk have weaker skills than their better off classmates.

It's good to have research begin to describe and confirm the academic skills of students, but colleges and their  faculty already know these income gaps exist and so have programs and curricula to address them.

Though that said, not all approaches work to address digital academic literacy.  I visit a lot of programs that offer developmental reading and writing courses, where my work centers on helping programs use the online tools that my employer -- Macmillan Education under its Bedford/St. Martin's imprint -- offers for developmental reading and writing.

With rare exceptions, programs that I work with do not address digital literacy around the academic skills of finding, evaluating, and integrating online sources into online communications. Students, when they go online in most of the programs I see, go into a closed publisher system and do modules or units or lessons around discrete reading skills (summarizing, improving comprehension, figuring vocabulary from context) or sentence to paragraph level writing skills (learning grammar terms and rules, using multiple choice exercises to practice those acontextually, reading about paragraph development and using multiple choice exercises to assess paragraphs). 

The digital learning experience, then, while it attempts to address reading and writing, doesn't address the underlying academic literacy that needs to inform the "ability to find, evaluate, integrate and communicate the information they find online."

In most colleges that I visit, doing online research and learning the rhetorical uses of sources, inviting students to write and think as academics, begins in first year writing courses, courses that come after developmental courses. And in all those colleges where I consult with faculty and programs on teaching source based writing in a digital age, where we touch on everything from students research skills, the ability to evaluate sources, teachers' plagiarism anxieties, and more, teachers are often, though less and less so, surprised that students, these digital natives, don't know how to work more readily in the academic ways the course demands.

But hasn't this always been the case? Faculty have always complained about students' readiness to work and learn as academics. I remember taking first year writing in 1977, and having to go to the library for an orientation on how to use it, how to find things in it, how to develop the right kinds of research questions, how to use the microfiche, the card catalog. I went from a Dewey Decimal small, one-room-on-the-second-floor library in high school to a Library of Congress organized campus library that was its own building.  I went from writing research reports that relied heavily on one or two sources, mainly summarized but with strategically placed block quotes for key passages, to having to write more complex papers that involved more sources and papers of greater length.

I had to learn, as the Citation Project shows students still need to learn, how to read more deeply and slowly and to use the sources both more fully but with greater nuance as a writer and thinker, so that my use of the sources was in service of my argument, my goals in communicating to an audience, my need to find my own voice. That is, I distinctly remember starting college as competent reader and writer by high school standards, but in no way an academic reader and writer by college standards. I had to learn to become an academic.

So too with students today. Their fluency with the digital is economic and cultural. The wealthier the student, the more varied the devices they will have access to, the quality of bandwidth, the privacy at home to explore, the network of classmates, friends, neighbors, and family who will also be immersed in the digital. The greater too will be the likelihood that their high school will offer more digital activities that increase the kinds of academic literacies Leu measured. The less wealthy, the fewer the devices, the lower the access quality, the more stressed the school, the more strict and limited the use of technology in academic settings will be.

But for almost all students on the continuum of rich to poor, well connected to barely connected, the thing that is true about what native skills they do have, is that those skills will be social, informal, and consumerist, not academic. They might search for games to play, communities to join, friends to connect with, songs to download, movies to watch. They'll write a lot of texts and tweets, comments on blogs and social network updates. They may even blog, use a photo sharing site, upload videos, and do so in incredibly sophisticated ways.

But like all students before them, they aren't doing these things in academic ways, except for maybe one course here or there that they may have had. One course here or there has never been enough to cement academic literacy skills, no matter the era or the technology; any literacy skill needs to be used often, and in an academic context, often should mean every week in a variety of courses and contexts.

So no professor should be too surprised that first year students lack the kind of academic literacy first year courses introduce them to. The jump from high school to college has always been big.

What's bigger now, more complicated to address, is the variety of ways research can be done, the kinds of socio-cultural digital habits students have, the fact that even for academics, the landscape on what counts as research, how its conducted, communicated, published, and shared is shifting. And with all this too there is the fact that both professional and novice academics need to come to grips with tsunami of information. Everything is proliferating for everyone -- new academic journals and conferences challenges professionals to keep up and to find the right conversations to join and publish in, the range of databases, books, and source types students can find makes it harder to find things, reduces the time to read sources into a coherent context, makes it more challenging to move beyond the mechanics of an assignment.

The only way forward is to keep engaging, to have lots and lots of experiences and courses that require students to apply again and again their emerging academic literacy skills. It cannot be done in one course, not even one course per year. It's got to be done across the curriculum, in different contexts, with different reasons for research and writing.

Colleges are better poised right now for that kind of constancy than the K-12 schools are. But even in college, it's very difficult to build a cultural where there's sustained, rather than ad hoc, attention to direct instruction and transfer of academic literacy skills across courses. Not impossible -- good WAC/WID programs do exist -- but very challenging. And very necessary.

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