Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Combating digital illiteracy

One recurring theme in my writings and presentations is ‘digital literacy’. I like the definition for ‘technological literacy‘ used by the National Academy of Engineering and often use their framework for my own musings on digital literacy.

Technological Literacy

When I use that definition and look around in the realms of computer users, even a large proportion of so-called advanced users fall short, thus leading to the conclusion that the majority of computer users are in fact digital illiterates.

The last couple of weeks I have been reading up on the thoughts and ideas of Prof. Robert Chambers. research associate at the Institute of Development Studies. No, his work has no direct bearing on FOSS developement or research. His main focus is that of rural development and how to involve local people, their knowledge and skills in projects in developing countries. His ‘Revolutions in Development Inquiry‘ provides a -in my opinion- brilliant overview of the participatory methodology he pioneered and should be required reading for those developing free and open source communities. In a recent talk I applied his conceptual model to FOSS communities and it allowed to see some inherent weaknesses that could hinder the adoption of free and open source software (by a priori locking out potential new users) and stiffle new contributions to projects. One example of this is highlighted by GeekFeminism, where -again unfortunately- it is pointed out that current FOSS community culture is hostile to female developers.

I will elaborate more about the conceptual model of Robert Chambers and the various conclusions it leads to. For one, it helped me to visualize the issues involving the reduction of digital illilteracy. As more and more information, knowledge, commercial and governmental services are offered via online portals it becomes paramount to make sure digital citizens do not only have access those services (a massive undertaking in it’s own right), but can make use of those services in a responsible and secure way. FOSS communities, regardless of their shortcomings, can play an important role in attacking digital literacy. But how? I tried to capture it in a set of drawings.

First, the ‘good old days’ where you could refer the n00bs to man pages and tersely written howto’s. The n00b either was a geek, or was smart enough to want to become one. Who needed a GUI in those days anyway?

And then new Linux distributions appeared that did a lot to lower the threshold to adoption. New communities arose, with new channels of communications and support.

Now, it may come as a surprise, but for a digitally less-savvy user finding you way around the average end-user facing forum is daunting. Really, it is. Wiki’s are great, but try to navigate one without any previous knowledge and it isn’t a source of help anymore. Getting there via Google runs the risk of falling in the FOSS timewarp: landing on obsolete pages for old releases.

What is the proper solutions? It certainly isn’t the way most Windows-users use.

Fixing the problem without explaining the how and why doesn’t empower, it only increases dependency.

The iSolution (hide all complexity) doesn’t help much either.

In my opinion the best way is to help users getting a better grasp of the problems, possible solutions and help them implement the solution themselves.

Perhaps you’re thinking: ‘hey, I am doing this already’. But are you sure? Well, that’s something for the next article.

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