Contemporary Literacy: Essential Skills for the 21st Century

By Murray, Janet | Multimedia Schools, March-April 2003 | Go to article overview

Contemporary Literacy: Essential Skills for the 21st Century


Murray, Janet, Multimedia Schools


What is "CONTEMPORARY LITERACY"?

What skills do educators and library media specialists need to learn and impart to their students?

What models show us how we can help students acquire these skills to achieve standards?

Economic forecasters and business analysts predict that 21st century jobs will require information-processing skills. They expect a fundamental shift from production to information management, with a much higher percentage of the workforce employed in service industries. The 1990 Department of Labor report of the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) identifies information and technology as two of the five competencies essential for employment.

The Bertelsmann Foundation and the AOL Time Warner Foundation joined with experts from education, business, and government to convene an international 21st Century Literacy Summit in March 2002. The White Paper resulting from that conference concludes:

   The explosive growth of technology in every aspect of society
   offers us a unique opportunity to engage our citizens in
   economic and civic life. Digital technologies have given
   us new and better ways to teach and learn. They have made
   us more efficient at work. And they are enabling us to
   participate more directly in the governance of our lives....
   In return, they demand that we continually acquire and develop
   new knowledge and skills. Information and communication
   technologies are raising the bar on the competencies needed
   to succeed in the 21st century, and they are compelling
   us to revisit many of our assumptions and beliefs. (1)

How do predictions about the 21st century workplace affect us? As responsible educators, we prepare students for their future. We know what skills our students will need and develop a strategy to help them acquire those skills. We need only look at national information literacy standards and national educational technology standards for students (NETS-S) to realize that technology and information problem-solving skills are already part of the educational landscape.

Defining Contemporary Literacy

Traditionally, schools taught the "three R's: reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic." "Literacy" was captured in international census data by estimating the percentage of people who could read and write.

As computers became essential in the workplace and dribbled into schools, "computer literacy" entered the curriculum, usually in the form of an introduction to the new vocabulary of bits and bytes, hardware and software. Computer courses focused on programming languages. "Keyboarding" replaced typing.

The term "information literacy" first appeared in the mid-1970s as awareness grew that information was becoming an overwhelming and unmanageable deluge. In the 1980s, people realized that computers might be useful tools for organizing and retrieving information. In 1989, the American Library Association codified a definition which provided the basis for subsequent discussion: "To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information." (2) In other words, "literacy" implies more than vocabulary and awareness; it requires critical thinking.

This connotation of "literacy"--one that includes interpretation and evaluation of a medium of expression--has been applied in many different contexts. One reads about visual literacy, media literacy, textual literacy, numerical literacy, technology literacy, and network literacy. In each case, the author expects the word "literacy" to suggest a complex of skills, including analysis, evaluation, synthesis, and application. Merely teaching reading and writing is no longer sufficient, although those are certainly the foundational skills upon which all other literacies are built. [For a more extensive explication of the importance of contemporary literacy in the digital age, see Ferdi Serim's new book, Information Technology for Learning: No School Left Behind. …

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