Disrupting What It Means to Be Literate

Holly Clark
Feb 7 · 5 min read

Remember when you had to pay to access Wi-Fi at places like Starbucks? Fortunately, those days are long gone! Businesses have realized that their customers value being connected, so they’ve made it easy for us to be online while shopping, eating, or waiting to pick up an order.

Our students also desire this connection. Each day, they are sharing pictures and posting status updates online — they are connected everywhere but in the classroom. Many of them, however, don’t know how to share their ideas properly. Nor do they understand how to curate a powerful learning network online, cultivate an idea by finding and connecting with others who share their passions, or develop their ideas into something bigger. Most students spend time consuming, using fun filters, sending GIFs but not using their connections for deep learning or purposeful inquiry.

They have not learned how to harness the power of the Internet and connected learning because schools largely view technology and social media as distractions. Instead of having teachers guide and teach them how to use the incredible tools and information that are available, too many students are left to themselves to learn about being online, often in in-appropriate ways.

Why don’t schools allow students to connect online? In some cases,
lack of funding for technology plays a role. More frequently, though,
school bans on social media, Internet access, or technology in general
is a product of fear, one found in our collective unconscious. Society
periodically goes through massive shifts, where both information and
how it’s distributed changes.

During the early stages of each of these shifts, people become uncomfortable. Throughout history, change has always brought about fears of how the new medium will affect society. We can go as far back as the invention of writing, which Socrates warned citizens against, fearing it would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.” Each technological advancement elicits new fears. With invention of the printing press, people feared that books would make them stupid because they would have no way of knowing the words’ and claims’ validity. Then the typewriter came along and people asked, “How will kids learn proper penmanship?” With the mobile phone, the worry was that they would cause a distraction in education. Technology and the use of social media in schools has now created another shift, many people fear (or at least are uncomfortable with) the ways society uses smartphones, mobile technology, and apps to connect and collaborate.

These tools put so much of the learning of humankind at our fingertips, and we should consider them as extraordinary rather than dismiss them as distractions. Here’s the good news about the naysayers of every shift: They almost always learn to be okay with the invention over time, and some even become proponents of the new technology once they get over their fears.

Redefining Literacy
In some popular science-fiction texts, authors present the ideas of a
post-literate society in which multimedia technology has advanced to the point where we no longer communicate through reading and writing. With the advent of voice assistants, including Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, it isn’t hard to imagine a future that looks just like that.

As we move into the twenty-first century, we need to teach our students to be “transliterate” — that is, fluent across all mediums of information,not just reading and writing. If we’re going to prepare our students for a technology-rich future, we must expand the definition of what it means to be literate. We need to create a disruptive shift in how we, as educators, define literacy. An important step toward accurately redefining literacy is to think of our students as participants in a global society, rather than simply as learners. After all, in their before- and after-school hours, students already connect in unprecedented ways.

As connected global participants, they will need to develop crucial skills, including networked learning (an important part of the redefinition process) and the ability to understand and use different and new media. Before we can teach them how to develop and use these twenty-first-century skills, we must understand the process ourselves so that we can serve as ours students’ Sherpas and help them explore these new forms of literacy.


With social media replacing newspapers and television as one of the
first sources where people learn about the day’s news and products, students need to be savvy about online information — how to find it, validate it, and then make sense of it. And if our students are to be successful in their future careers, they’ll need to understand social media marketing, including tweets, retweets, hashtags, followers, and how to improve search engine optimization (SEO) rankings.

As disruptive, transliterate educators, we must learn how to speak social media and understand what it means to be connected learners so that we can guide our students. We must know and understand these new forms of information — how to use them correctly, what their nuances are, and how they are shaping our world. We must know how to curate information and crowdsource comprehension. In the end, we must teach our students transliteracy and shift their focus from simply reading and writing to
developing and using all of the communication skills they’ll need
to achieve success in our modern society.

Think of what it takes to become a chef: If all chefs-in-training did was read cookbooks, take tests about what they read, and write about ingredients, chances are they probably wouldn’t cook very well. The art of cooking requires understanding flavors, knowing which tools to use for which purposes, and being familiar with the different ways to develop a dish. Until would-be chefs actually experiment with recipes, it is difficult for
them to truly know how to cook. They must prove their ability to cook
before they are called chefs. So how could they possibly learn how to
become chefs if they have a teacher who believes experimenting with
spices and herbs is a distraction?

The same principle applies to learning. Instead of simply reading the
cookbook, start cooking — or, in our case, join Twitter. And if Twitter isn’t
for you, follow some blogs or create an Instagram account so you can
better understand where your students are and how you can turn these social media platforms into a powerful learning tools within your classroom. Being a disruptive teacher means understanding that although students know how to use technology, they don’t understand how to use it to learn. It means speaking social media and understanding connected learning — and realizing the profound impact of both.

As teachers, we need to curate a network of educators who are doing great things in their classrooms, a network of colleagues who will introduce us to ideas and innovations, and people whom we can reach out to with questions. We should follow experts and learners alike who share creative ideas for helping our students become life-ready.

Connecting will serve as your roadmap, and your colleagues will be-
come your guides — your own personal Sherpas — to creating a more innovative, disruptive classroom, where learning once again becomes a more relevant endeavor and literacy is transformed.

This is the first chapter of The Google Infused Classroom by Holly Clark and Tanya Avrith

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