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Investing in Digital Literacy through Social Media

Entertainer Cee-Lo Green's cat, Purrfect, has become a mouthpiece for NBC's The Voice, a singing competion which this past Tuesday crowned its second winner. With 63,000 followers on Twitter, this feline certainly has a voice of its own - one that meows to promote the television show that led it to fame.

If a cat can do it, we all can.

But to what end?

The insertion of social media in education has the potential to advance core aims of our society: to teach students how to engage with their families, neighbors, and communities in a new way.

The combination of social media and education requires that we teach students how to become literate in a digital world. The skills of literacy are no longer just about reading and writing, but about abilities that surround our responsibilities as authors.

In Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action, researcher Renee Hobbs offers that digital and media literacy is constructed of five crucial abilities:

  1. The ability to access.
    Access refers to an individual's ability to use a computer to connect to the Internet. Many of us who use the Internet everyday take access for granted, but even in America, a vast digital divide still exists. The lack of access to both computers and the Internet play a distinct role in determining who can contribute to a conversation.
  2. The ability to analyze.
    Analyzing information is a skill frequently taught in educational circles: how to establish the accuracy of a source or the reliability of an author. Digital media expands this conversation as sources become too numerous to count and an author's reliability is often found in shades of grey rather than a decision that is black or white.
  3. The ability to create.
    As we engage digital tools, we are creating. Whether designed through Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest or using advanced software like Final Cut Pro, Garageband, or Illustrator, the creations we make are messages that we send out to others.
  4. The ability to reflect.
    Reflection on our own actions in a digital space remains a core competency forgotten by many. We operate in a social media space that encourages us to reveal ourselves without reflecting on our actions. Reflection will become a distinct indicator of success and value as we move toward an increasingly interconnected world.
  5. The ability to act.
    Action is not about tweeting or updating a status or sharing a video, but rather about using the tools we can to make a positive impact on others. Our actions in social media spaces can degrade, insult, and embarrass, but they can also engage, promote and uplift. The choice is a minute-to-minute decision of each author.

One aim of education is to train a citizenry for active participation. When applied to social media, these five competencies are learning outcomes that the combination of social media and education can address to contribute to that aim.

Social media gives each one of us a voice, and we each have a role to play in our respective communities. I can choose to be a town crier by advancing today's news or costermonger who peddles my wares online. I might be a village idiot making jokes.

But, on a fundamental level, we must all serve as citizens who are listening to the voices of those in our communities and discerning the voices of merit from the rest.

Teachers and learners around the country are grappling with ways to insert social media into pedagogy and trying to decide if and how it fits.

Teachers, use the five competencies of literacy above as guideposts for your instruction using social media. I don't teach Twitter for Twitter's sake. I teach it as a tool for active engagement in communities. Some of these five competencies have become learning outcomes in my classes and social media have become one piece of the larger set of pedagogical aims for my teaching.

Learners, invest yourself in the five competencies to better your own practice. You may find yourself tweeting for your company, advertising a product on Facebook, or writing a blog about your family. Ask yourself if your skills are being enhanced in the process. But, more importantly, ask yourself if your use of social media is working for the good of your community.

Teaching and learning can be dramatically impacted by social media. But only if we as teachers are willing and able to model its effective use alongside our students.

John A. McArthur, PhD, is an assistant professor and director of undergraduate programs in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. Connect with Dr. McArthur at http://jamcarthur.com or on Twitter @jamcarthur.

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