Schools must make sure that the students do not merely become passive cosumers of information from various digital platforms but also learn such skills as creating digital content, evaluating and checking the authencity of information
Out of the 32 grade 8 students present in the English language and literature class one day, everyone had done their assignment. This teacher was overjoyed as full homework turn-in within the given deadline is a rarity. The assignment was to find out the meanings of some ten words from a particular chapter and use them in their own sentences.
As he went around the desks to corroborate the honesty of his students’ words concerning the assignment, he happened to ask, ‘Which dictionary did you refer to look up these words?’ He had expected to hear something like the ‘Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary’ or ‘Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English’. He heard a resounding ‘internet’ from his pupils. Upon further inquiry, more than 20 of them said they had referred to the website, www.merriam-webster.com, with the rest stating that they simply googled the words.
The teacher mused, if only such means had been at his disposal when he himself was a schoolboy. This wistful thinking for a moment gave way to a rather academically pertinent reflection: Where do print sources like books and dictionaries lie in the scheme of various digital platforms and devices available today?
Vocabularies and their correct usage form a vital part of language learning be it one’s mother tongue or a second language. A dictionary is considered an indispensable resource for language learners. To add to one’s lexical knowledge, dictionaries play a crucial role with language teachers still making sure to highlight the importance of ‘dictionary skills’.
To say that pedagogy has changed with time would be an understatement. It would be an overstatement though to state that print dictionaries have totally gone out of vogue with the present generation of language learners. They surely haven’t, but it would be safe to posit that people’s way of looking up new words and finding out information with the onset of the digital age and internet and their continued enhancement have undergone a sea change.
How people in general and learners in particular access information these days have been influenced by the emerging new literacies, chiefly digital literacy, with ways of looking up vocabularies being no exception. Digital literacy is ‘’the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.’’
The use and popularity of digital platforms when this pedagogue himself was in secondary school about two decades back were few and far between at best. To have a desktop computer then at home was akin to having a television set some 5 or 6 decades back. Digital literacy was at its infancy. Anyone carrying what has now become a primitive Nokia cell phone would attract a lot of attention. Against such a backdrop, any student wanting to look up new words as part of the regular English vocabulary assignment would have unhesitatingly referred to whichever print dictionaries they had at home.
Fast forward to 2019, when desktop computers and even the laptops have become near antiques. The Internet has become a household name with techno-savvy children having ever advanced smart phones, tablets, kindles and what not at their disposal. Digital literacy then has made print literacy seem inadequate. On this very shifting preferences, Clay Shirk, a leading voice on the social and economic impact of internet technologies, has noted that “reading is an unnatural act; we are no more evolved to read books than we are to use computers.” Today’s schoolchildren, thus having multiple digital options available, are naturally inclined towards using them more than print sources.
The reason why the students opt for either print sources like a dictionary or its digital counterpart or both in various proportions is dependent on factors like availability of those resources as well as the values inculcated about them. Why the students are gravitated towards going digital when accessing information has also to do with their self-judgement, which, in turn, is highly determined by convenience and ease of information access. This trend squares with the changing times, where print literacy has given way , if not totally, to digital literacy.
Students’ preference for the Internet and the attendant devices to access information is heavily influenced by the celerity and convenience they offer compared to the print sources. The fate of print dictionaries hangs in a balance but only just, and it may be only a question of when rather than what before they get completely superseded by their newer counterparts in the digital platform.
What is true of the shifting ways of accessing word meanings due to the digital swamp may be true of the children’s general preference of learning, too.The schools, eductaors, parents and children themselves then would have much to benefit from the latter acquiring proper digital literacy skills, which is not merely limited to accessing information. Schools and teachers in particular need to make sure that the students do not merely become passive consumers of information from various digital platforms but also learn such skills as creating digital content, evaluating and checking the authenticity of information as well as learning to communicate and share information online.
A version of this article appears in print on March 11, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.