Just a few months ago ACRLog reported that the nation was shocked by studies that pointed to alarming decline in the literacy skills of college graduates. Studies from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Pew Charitable Trust indicated that college graduates had difficulty reading and understanding text, and that they lacked three basic types of literacy including analyzing news, understanding documents, and solving math problems.
Well, according to an MIT professor we may need to broaden our perspective on what constitutes literacy. If we were to consider 21st century literacy, teens and college students would demonstrate vastly improved literacy skills. That professor is Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT. In addition to old standards such as reading and writing, Jenkins says that 21st century literacy includes the digital skills needed to participate socially and collaboratively in the new media environment. This new kind of literacy is based on an understanding and use of IM, Myspace, sampling, zines, mashups, Wikipedia, and gaming. While those other literacy studies were raising concerns about student preparedness for the workplace, Jenkins suggests that by encouraging students to collaborate and share knowledge in large communities they will be better adapted to the team work and collaborative problem solving that is expected in the workplace.
I would like to believe that student literacy need not be of either the 20th century or 21st century type, but that our higher education institutions will succeed at producing the most competent and workplace ready graduates by encouraging both types of literacy – as well as other critical competencies such as information literacy. The problem is that it’s easier within an education system to pander to what’s popular rather than develop high expectations and rigorous assignments that challenge students. I imagine it could be more fun to develop an assignment around free-form blog and wiki participation, as opposed to an assignment that demands the reading of a challenging text followed by an analytical essay. But there are clear dangers in offering too much of one and not enough of the other. Perhaps one thing we need to do as a profession is to be sure we are well versed (or have some level of comfort) with these new media technologies, and able to communicate with both faculty and students about them. As academic support professionals in higher education our challenge will continue to be how we can best help our students to obtain the literacies they will need to succeed in the workplace and as life long learners.