Tinkering and Digital Literacy
“Oh, I’m a hands-on learner. I learn by doing,” says a friend as you try to teach a new skill. The phrasing feels so natural that we almost forget what it truly means and how it differs from other learning.
For example, we rarely “do” history. We read about history or hear lectures, maybe go to a museum. Then, we go home, read notes, and take an exam. Other academic subjects take a similar turn, with a few variations. For English, we read books or practice grammar. Science, we may have an occasional lab, but throughout most of middle school, it’s like history: read, listen, take notes, study, take an exam. Math probably has the most “hands on” feel, with practice problems, but they’re often abstract.
One expects this at school, but this form of “independent learning” is everywhere. I remember when I was a cashier one summer. I had to go through “training,” which consisted in watching a few grainy, poorly acted videos and completing dull computer “simulations” and exams.
When I finally got to my register, having passed my training with flying colors, I floundered. I was so bad, they had me shadow and work alongside more experienced cashiers. As you likely expect, this taught me more than my week of training.
And now I’m learning this new medium: Medium. I’ve blogged on other platforms, used social media, made movies, but this is new. I’m effectively “learning” it. And like so many in my generation, especially when it comes to digital technology, I learn by doing.
In some ways, this is odd because I’m not what one would call a “hands-on” learner. If anything, I’m visual and auditory. Give me a good lecture, a notebook, and time to study—I’ll generally do well. But as my time cashiering or working with technology shows, some things don’t work like this. Sometimes I need to tinker and play with something, fumbling and misstepping like someone learning to dance, to learn it.
This quality of tinkering or learning through doing has gained some credence in the work of certain theorists and researchers, like Lawrence Lessig, Henry Jenkins, and Lester Fiagley. In his book Free Culture, for example, Lessig discusses the group Just Think!, which helped teach media literacy through tinkering. Channeling John Seely Brown, chief scientist of the Xerox Corporation, Lessig writes,
… digital technology enables a different kind of tinkering—with abstract ideas though in concrete forms. The Kids at Just Think! not only think about how a commercial portrays a politician; using digital technology, they can take that commercial apart and manipulate it, tinker with it to see how it does what it does. (Lessig 2004, p. 46)
This tinkering expands the literacy of its learners by exposing them to the guts and processes of media. They learn how to read media by doing it.
This is a common pattern. In their article “Literacies and the Complexities of the Global Digital Divide” Cynthia Selfe and Gail E. Hawisher interview two people about their computer literacy. One, Dipo Lashore, has a media literacy story indicative of this process. As Selfe and Hawisher quote:
The first thing we learn[ed] was playing games. Later we started to use it to draw. Mum use it to do her office work, i.e. accounting using Excel. We learn how to type with it. Later we learn how to load programs onto it. (Selfe and Hawisher 2006, 1507)
Dipo Lashore’s use gradually expands from the frivolous use of computers for games to more profitable use, like writing. This growth feels natural and remains a common pattern throughout other studies. For most of us “at home” on digital platforms, it also echoes our experience.
However, this insight complicates the traditional understanding of “digital natives”—i.e., people born into digital technology. To learn, people need exposure and space to tinker. They need the raw material resources, and in some cases, basic guidance. Digital literacy does not come automatically.
But as Henry Jenkins notes in “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture” (2006), access can be limited. Many lack computers or internet access. They can’t “participate” in viable online spaces, limiting their chances to tinker or “play” with (and consequentially learn) digital skills.
This inequality extends beyond literacy itself into education or career opportunities. As the article notes, “Those [digital] experiences, which were widespread among the middle class but rare among working class, became a kind of class distinction that shaped how teachers perceived students” (p. 19). And in some districts, technology at school is less than others, creating more inequality. This inequality can prove disastrous for grades and job opportunities.
But beyond its economic value, this exposure helps students negotiate a tough media landscape. Returning back to Lessig and Just Think!, we can recognize how important tinkering is to learning things beyond the ins and outs of a program. The Just Think! kids learn about advertisements by working with the media connected to them—things like photographs and videos. AdBusters has a similar view.
This is the sort of “critical” and “rhetorical” literacy that media scholar Stuart Selber outlines in Multiliteracies for a Digital Age (2004). As he argues, many schools, like Florida State have media literacy requirements that require students to understand basics, like what a CPU does or programs like Excel. They learn how to use computers as “tools.” Many students are declared, “computer competent.” But as Selber asks, “what does such a declaration really mean” (p. 19)?
For Selber, students should have a deeper understanding. Students are constantly bombarded by media, and most of it is not the print-based or “alphabetical” media that abounds in schools—with things like textbooks and lectures. It involves video, games, commercials, online Buzzfeed quizzes, and complex satire from The Onion. It involves game levels and image collages, not narratives and arguments. Since students study alphabetical literacy, they should study this literacy, too.
Today, especially at the college level, students often read “texts” like commercials critically. Among others, the influential composition theorist James Berlin argued for this path in 1988 with the article “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Classroom.” But, perhaps, this is not enough. Perhaps, schools should let students tinker.
As scholars like Selber, Jenkins, Selfe, Lester Fiagley, Brownyn Williams and others argue, “young people are not simply passive cultural dupes helpless before the onslaught of popular culture” (Williams, p. 9). Blogs, social media, and simple conversation often reveal a more nuanced understanding for cultural texts and online spaces. Not everyone is a passive, zombified consumer. But, as noted, students often learn by tinkering with digital media, whether it’s on Facebook, Instagram, or a blog.
I think education should look at this more critically. It’s not enough for grassroots programs or enterprising teachers and students to carry this forward. With the necessity for digital literacy rising—shaping how students understand the world and solve problems—education should adapt. If not, it risks alienating its population and failing to prepare them for the world, as this older but still-too-relevant video shows: