I have been working with my son on a research paper he’s writing about perfect pitch. (Fascinating to me: people with perfect pitch have autism.) I thought the hardest part about helping him would be that I have very little science education. But actually the hardest part has been predicting the reaches and limits of his digital literacy.
He sent emails to lots of professors asking for mentoring help, which is a really important life skill, but also a very difficult skill to learn, so I was happy to help him compose emails. What I didn’t expect is that I’d have to help him organize his inbox. My son literally had every single email he ever received in his inbox. I considered just dumping the account and starting fresh, but we have already sent out too many emails.
So I taught him to archive everything instead of deleting it. I taught him how to make folders for each project and how to star emails that have to be answered that day. I worried that this is the equivalent of teaching my kid cursive. My whole workday revolves around email, but maybe email is going to be like voicemail and no one will use it.
Then I discovered that colleges are teaching kids how to organize their email. Kids have little reason to use email before college, but most communication with college professors and administrators is via email. Colleges realized that if they didn’t teach kids how to keep track of email conversations the college would have to find a new way to talk to students. So now there are email boot camps during orientation to get freshmen up to speed.
Learning new skills is almost always faster if you look for tools online. For example, kids achieve a higher degree of competence in string instruments at an earlier age because there are so many tools to improve rhythm, tuning, syncopation, triads, scale degrees, etc.
Another example is science experiments. There are so many on YouTube that the utility of doing them yourself starts to feel like a waste of time. Some videos are so good even I can’t stop watching. Digital literacy means developing an instinct for what’s available online that might be more efficient but also more fun. My kids found the reportedly best DNA tests for finding ancestry and they studied the results of their own DNA instead of reading a chapter in a textbook on the sociology of genetics.
The Internet, at this point, is a big garbage dump of information, and we need to be good at sorting trash. Each person develops individual quirks and preferences for search, but that takes time. Wasted time, actually. Because you only discover new ways to search when you have a lot of time on your hands and are willing to try oddball approaches.
I have been using Google Scholar for searches related to my blog post topics because I learn so much more than if I search in regular Google. My kids use YouTube to search for any information that a kid could share with someone else. And we instinctively know that Wikipedia is a reliable source for things that are not controversial.
Search is instinctive and that instinct comes with practice. False political ads had an impact because so many people don’t know how to find real information online.
It would be great if we could let everyone determine for themselves whether information is true or not. But The New York Times says people can’t determine for themselves, especially older users. A study in Science recently found that it’s possible “an entire cohort of Americans” lacks the digital smarts to distinguish made-up garbage from the truth on Facebook.
Beware: the gap in ability to judge information is not really a function of age. It’s a function of how much time people have spent online learning to tell the difference between reliable and unreliable content. People who didn’t grow up online have a difficult time. But the kids who are not allowed to search aimlessly online will have those same difficulties. That’s what digital literacy is today: being able to identify high-quality content.
My son and I made a deal that he’d work on his research while I wrote a post. But when I asked what he has accomplished he said, “Um. I have been just sort of reading online.” Normally I would scream at him for being oblivious and an obsessive procrastinator. But because of this post, I was calm. I am telling myself he never could have found such interesting data about pitch if he hadn’t spent more than a decade searching for interesting data about anything.