A Structure/System relationship in examining components of Digital Literacy, Pt. 1

The philosopher supposes that the value of his philosophy lies in the whole, in the structure; but posterity finds its value in the stone which he used for building, and which is used many more times after that for building – better. Thus it finds the value in the fact that the structure can be destroyed and nevertheless retains value as building material. -  Nietzsche (Genealogy)

This entry represents an expository on Part 1 of 2 related to developing a Rapid Digital Literacy Assessment instrument. Part 1 refers to establishing how certain skills in a given learning or training context score in its resonance value. Resonance is a temporary term I am using here to express depth, or perhaps relevance in an advanced application or employment environment. Part 2 (to be offered in a future post) will describe a way to use “high resonance” structure skills in a rapid assessment procedure to categorize learner entry levels prior to instruction.

In reviewing Anthony Wilden’s Epistemology and Ecology – The Difference that Makes a Difference, System and Structure – Essays in Communication and Exchange, Anthony Wilden, Tavistock Publications, 1972, I have come across some propositions that I hope will help me to develop an instrument for ranking digital literacy skills. The problem I am addressing has to do with, first and foremost, changing the focus of the conversation about digital literacy away from “system skills” to “structure skills”. In other words, we should consider the value of learning structure skills in digital literacy as those which we may presume to apply forward into the future evolution/development of the digital ecosystem, rather than learning to “master (macro) systems”.

I offer this in consideration of the following contextual factors:

  1. We cannot predict the character of systems that do not yet exist, though we may rely on the likelihood that whatever it will be, it will be composed of sub-systems that we already use today. (We might buy into this if we accept the assumption that systems, in totality, are distinguished by the organization of their parts, not simply by their aggregation of them, and perhaps that, as McLuhan proposes, new paradigms are initially filled with the content of the paradigm it replaces until the new system acquires its own unique language of operation, e.g. “friending”).
  2. If we are able to “put into parenthesis” certain structural skills, then we may able to isolate them as a target of literacy learning. (There is logic to phrasing this in terms of parenthesis more so than just metaphorically. In the logic of code systems, like javscript, the enclosure of code in parenthesis requires that it be a pre-operation within a larger sentence of a operation commands.).
  3. Mastering these “parentheticals” frees us to adapt to the changes in or migrations to other systems with a relatively stable vocabulary of structure skills.
  4. Immersion into the language (and syntax) of structure skills may offer a more clear understanding of the relationship of structure skills that comprise the semantic meaning of the system/ecosystem. In other words, given a combination of five structure skills, how might the variation in their configural relationship to each other suggest different meaning, value or utility to the audience? An example of this might be an examination of the structural similarities between MySpace, Friendster and Facebook, the difference in the configuration/relationship of their structures, and how audiences find dramatically different preferences, uses, and adoption patterns for them, even to the extent of imposing an extinction of a system (Friendster, for all practical purposes).
  5. Instructors may then turn to a methodological approach to teaching digital literacy skills by first teaching structure skills, and then leading students to more thoroughly understand that digital network systems are the “song” that developers compose using the “notation” of structure skills. (Do we not continue to marvel at the ability of musicians and artists to create works which engage us, even though sound and color have not materially changed over thousands of years?).

So then is the search for defining the “material” of digital literacy systems and their resonance.

I have made an initial sketch here that attempts to award points for the tier upon which any given skill may rise into its “actualization”. The evaluation ends once the skill “hits the ceiling” of its resonance. The determination of this level is somewhat arbitrary in my perception (not based on any formal influence yet), though I hope to refine it more succinctly, and with better validity. It is offered below, in its first iteration:

Let’s take an example and put it through the ringer.

Let’s take “Plugging in a computer’s power cord into an outlet”. I begin with this because, believe it or not, it is plausibly a structure skill in digital literacy, although, as we will see, not necessarily a highly resonant one.

“Plugging in a computer’s power cord into an outlet”:

  1. Is plugging in a computer’s power cord a specific skill that can be generalized to the usage of all computers? YES = 1 point
  2. Can the generalized skill be applied to other devices that have power cords? YES= 1 point
  3. Can knowing about power cords, as it applies to all devices, be leveraged as a critical skill within a mixture of other structure skills? (Under reasonable conditions, if we left this skill out of an instructional program that required this skill, would the efficacy of the instruction be adversely affected?)  NO = 0 points, end of evaluation. (we will keep going, just for exploration’s sake).
  4. Can knowing about power cords be rationally described as an attribute of a person’s structure skillset? (In other words, would you put it on your résumé?) NO
  5. Can knowing about power cords be a basis for qualification by prospective employers, recruiters or admissions administrators? (Can you get a job where plugging power cords is an essential part of sustaining yourself?) NO

Thus, in this evaluation, “Plugging in a computer’s power cord into an outlet” resonates as a structure skill to a 2 point value. Does this mean that learning how to plug in a power cord is unimportant, a lower priority, or a waste of time? No, not exactly. The low resonance value indicates that learning this skill will serve structural utility in the broadest sense of digital literacy, but only up to a certain level of ecologically sustaining value, or actualization.

It’s like asking, “Would the real ecology of the digital network be adversely affected by the absence of cord plugger-inners?” Yes, in the pure sense of there being a necessity for things to be plugged in; no, in the realistic sense that there are enough people in the ecology to take care of this skill on behalf of others, and that it is likely to be “covered” by the conventions of other worldly learning. So we may choose not to teach this structure skill, or to spend only a little time on it, depending on the audience. There is another value to this score, which I will offer towards the end.

Now let’s try something more applicable: “Going online to Blogger.com and creating a new blog for a class project”

  1. Is creating a blog on Blogger a specific skill that can be generalized to creating other blogs on Blogger? YES = 1 point
  2. Can creating a blog for this class assignment be applied to other assignments? YES= 1 point
  3. Can knowing about creating blogs be leveraged as a critical skill within a mixture of other structure skills? (Under reasonable conditions, if we left this skill out of an instructional program that required this skill, would the efficacy of the instruction be adversely affected?)  YES = 1 point
  4. Can knowing about creating blogs be rationally described as an attribute of a person’s structural skillset? (Would you put it on your résumé?) YES = 1 point
  5. Can knowing about creating blogs be a basis for qualification by prospective employers, recruiters or admissions administrators? (Can you get a job where creating blogs is an essential part of sustaining yourself?) NO = 0 points. Well, this arguable, but that’s a good thing.

Thus, “Going online to Blogger.com and creating a new blog for a class project” resonates as a structure skill to a 4 point value.

Be warned: this is intentionally simplistic! This instrument is only one part of a larger assessment equation, whose overall purpose is to provide Instructional Designers with an instrument for Rapid Digital Literacy Assessment.

The second part of this instrument, as I mentioned at the beginning, involves collecting the skills that achieved the highest scores on the resonance scale and creating a very short video of each skill being demonstrated, and embedding it on a web page with a simple response box at the bottom. The person taking the assessment test watches the video and clicks their response to a text heading such as, “The person in this video is creating a new blog on Blogger.com. Are they performing this task correctly?” by selecting a radio button indicated as “YES” “NO” “NOT SURE”. See below:

I will get into further details about the rationale and structure for this part of the instrument at a later date. For now, I will go so far as to say that Front-End Analysis literature refers to techniques that can deliver meaningful information about people’s skills and knowledge simply by inference, without the need for an exhaustive detail oriented examination. This simple video survey tool (if executed well) will produce results that will reflect the subject’s familiarity with high resonance structure skills, that would imply inclusive, cumulative knowledge of sub-structure skills (maybe!), while leveraging the strength of video, as a composed medium, to artificially compress time. There is a great deal more to say about this part.