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Pedagogy 7.2 (2007) 207-221

Thinking Critically about Digital Literacy:
A Learning Sequence on Pens, Pages, and Pixels
Donald C. Jones

Many students come to college with great technological familiarity; they chat about burning CDs, downloading MP3s, and writing in HTML. They have been dubbed the "NetGen," for they are the generation of the Internet who often struggle to recall a time in their lives without computers. I, in contrast, can remember using a manual typewriter at college and later learning to use some of the first personal computers, ones with glowing green screens and five-inch floppy disks. I, however, am not a modern-day Luddite; I use e-mail daily, surf the Web regularly, and include Blackboard™ in my teaching. Yet I still prefer to draft difficult texts on paper, and I glance twice at students chatting on cellphones as they make their way to class or wait for one to begin.

It's easy, too easy, to draw some great divide between myself and my students who view cellphones, instant messaging (IMing), and the Internet not so much as electronic conveniences but as "extensions of themselves" (Oblinger 2003: A28). I have learned to appreciate the power of computer technologies to enhance my reading, writing, and research. And I have realized that at least some NetGen students harbor doubts about what I will term "digital literacy." For example, their great familiarity with word processing should not be mistaken for an absolute certainty about its benefits. Many students sense, on some level, that the speed of word processing is not the same as the process of writing well. In this essay, I will demonstrate the benefits [End Page 207] of giving students the opportunity, in an academic setting, to articulate and analyze these misgivings about reading and writing with computers and the Internet.

I started to sense student qualms about digital literacy when, a few years ago, I was discussing the writing process with some first-year students in a required college composition course. We had been discussing the "textbook" procedure of collect, focus, order, draft, revise, and edit when some students' frank comments about their write-it-in-one-nonstop-draft-session-and-print approach unexpectedly turned to the issue of computer use. One student blurted, "I can only keep writing if I'm IMing my friends," then laughed with some embarrassment. Several others quickly added that they too wrote and completed other assignments while they conducted instant message conversations. They conceded that IMing deflected their attention, and I posed the impromptu question, "How do computers help and hinder our writing?" I did not have any great answer prepared, nor did any of the students offer responses beyond what one would expect, such as rapid drafting but little or no revision. However, I sensed that the students' interest had been galvanized; they wanted to explore the issue of the effects of computer technologies on writing and digital literacy in general.

Since that classroom scene several years ago, I have created a learning sequence that has become the final unit of a 200-level elective course, Critical Literacy. In this course, technical writing majors and other liberal arts students examine the history of literacy as well as their own literate practices with print and digital texts. The goals of this sequence are for students to learn to think more critically about pens, pages, and pixels as well as to read more closely and write more analytically.

Raising the Issue

As Gerald Graff (1992: 12) advocates, I decided to "teach the conflict" because, like the canon debate discussed in Beyond the Culture Wars, students already are experiencing this issue. Student experiences with IMing, word processing, and Web surfing can be ignored as I and other professors describe an idealized version of the writing process, or this issue can become "part of [the] object of study," as Graff recommends (12). As students examine the tensions between print and digital literacy, I also encourage them to consider how this issue is framed...


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