In addition to limited financial resources in rural schools, low population density coupled with topographical barriers in remote rural areas present challenges for broadband service providers, and many rural communities struggle to secure reliable high-speed internet. Education policy that ignores the contextual realities for rural communities results in “placism” or the bias against people based on the virtue of their place. Laws and policies mandating digital literacy instruction is an example of this discriminatory placism.
I was recently asked to provide professional development on the media literacy standards for a rural Appalachian school district. I met with administrators and teachers who asked: How can we meet media standards when we don’t have access to media? The high-school teachers explained they share one laptop cart, do not have internet access and few students have smartphones; therefore, teachers cannot regularly integrate technology into their lesson plans. My answer surprised them: You can teach students digital literacy skills without technology.
A careful look at the standards illustrates this point. Digital literacy has been defined in many different ways but, in basic terms, a digitally-literate person strategically uses technologies to evaluate information, connect, collaborate, create and share content. We can remain passive consumers of information if we are watching TV or reading the newspaper. Reading the newspaper online does not make one digitally literate. Rather, digital literacy connotes an interaction or relationship with technology as a tool or expression. As a literacy skill, we need students to analyze and examine media messages. They need to evaluate sources, differentiate between fact and opinion, determine purpose, and identify rhetorical devices used in those messages. Ideally, this instruction would occur while students are engaging with digital tools to create products. However, we can teach students critical digital literacy skills even when the actual technology for doing so is limited.
In rural classrooms, students can critically consider how their lives are contextualized by place. If rural students have limited access to digital spaces, do they have greater access to natural ones that perhaps those in other environments do not have? How do these different spaces — real or virtual — shape our knowledge of the world? We need to teach students to communicate effectively in any medium, to read critically and to investigate the space between the message and the context in which it is being created and shared. Even without access to certain technologies, rural adolescents are still plugged in to popular culture, but it’s a fallacy to assume that all young people are digital natives. Too often we describe rural places in deficit terms, but an affinity for rurality does not mean we ignore the contextual realities of students coming from geographically disparate or economically disadvantaged communities or shrug our shoulders at policies that reinscribe institutional placism. All students should have digital access, but funding inequalities do exist and for many rural schools, technology is one area where this is clearly evident.
And, yet, digital literacy is a needed skill for adolescents and part of the world for which they need to be prepared. The digital tools will evolve so knowing how to master any one in particular is not necessarily teaching students to be digitally literate. Rather, they need to understand how messages can be manipulated and to recognize rhetorical devices inherent in media messages. For example, English and social studies teachers can capitalize on curricular opportunities, such as teaching students about propaganda (e.g., lessons about the Holocaust, “Animal Farm” and “1984″), to teach critical literacy skills which can then translate from literature into the digital world. And in learning about rhetoric and bias, rural students can consider placism and how in areas with limited access or tough terrain the digital divide might be more fully bridged.