Digital literacies in the classroom: A critique of Rhodes and Robnolt, 2009

I’ve just finished reading Rhodes, J A. & Robnolt, V.J. (2009). Digital literacies in the classroom. In L. Christenbury, R. Bomer & P. Smagorinsky (Eds.) Handbook of adolescent literacy research (pp. 153-169). New York: The Guilford Press.

The chapter is useful, particularly for its closely juxtaposed definitions of Multiliteracies (The New London Group, 1996); New Literacies (Leu, 2002); Information Literacy (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2000); Media Literacy (Aufderheide, 1993); and Visual Literacy (Wileman, 1993; Stokes, 2001).This is an important contribution in its own right and I recommend it as a resource for students and scholars looking for a primer on the many perspectives that are emerging in this field (see pages 156-157).

The authors also take on the formidable task of describing the characteristics of 21st century literacies (p. 157-158) which, I’m guessing,  probably felt much like pinning Jell-O to a wall, as they wrote their chapter. Given that the literacy landscape of the Internet is constantly changing — each year brings new tools, new skills, new learners with new experiences living in cultures around the world that are newly and differently affected by the Internet and its affordances — I appreciate that Rhodes & Robnolt had to draw a line in the sand and describe the landscape as they saw it in 2009. I agree with their assertions that “youth must adapt to working in multilayered environments” (p. 157) and be able to “transcend the linear, bounded and fixed qualities of written text” (p. 157) (also see Landow & Delaney, 1991, p. 3). I agree that twenty-first century literacy is characterized by multimodality, and that hypertext affords a reading experience that is multilinear.

I take issue, however, with their description of twenty-first century students. To me, the descriptions are too simplistic and they seem to advance a certain folklore about digital natives — that is, that they know more than most adults about technology and how to use it.  Their description is grounded in the work of Mark Prensky — a great visionary thinker — but whose ideas, as paraphrased in this chapter, belie the true complexity of adolescent development and its interactions with technology, school and the caring adults who teach them each day.

Rhodes and Robnolt, paraphrasing Prensky (2006) say that “students today are becoming less engaged in old-style instruction that ignores the digital skills they bring to the classroom and enraged with teachers who are not re-creating curricula and instructions to meet their needs.” (p. 158) Really? I don’t deny that students’ out-of-school literacy practices are important and that they shape their hopes for in-school literacy activities. In the 1980s, I was thrilled when I got to watch TV in class! It’s what I liked to do at home! I take issue, however with the implicit messages in this quote — first, that “old-style instruction” is out-moded; second that because students engage with computer technologies (i.e, Facebook) at home that their learning needs are categorically different than they used to be;  and third that teachers should be primarily designing their curricula to make their adolescent students “happy”.

To be clear, I’m a constructivist at heart. I believe in authentic, inquiry-based instruction that inspires creativity and problem solving. I believe that technology can be used to support this kind of learning — but I don’t believe that digital skills are necessary for deep learning to happen — even for digital natives. In fact, I would argue that school could just be the one place where kids are challenged to learn to think without technology too. If we want to encourage flexible thinkers, we need for digital natives to experience learning in different ways, with different tools and for different goals.

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I support technology integration in every classroom, but only when it’s the best pedagogical choice. Prensky, Rhodes and Robnolt, it seems, are advocating technology use in schools because kids like it and they’re used to it. It seems to me this is the same argument that has been used to justify the selling of fried food, soft drinks and cookies in school cafeterias. Salad doesn’t sell. Kids want chips. To grow up healthy and strong,  however, kids need to eat their vegetables. Old-school content, taught using old-school methods is not a categorically bad thing. I favour responsive, creative and inspiriational teaching, and I don’t know any student who would be “enraged” by a teacher who created this kind of learning atmosphere but without the use of technology.  I think the spirit of being more responsive to students’ learning needs is laudable — but I am wary of recommendations and assumptions that emphasize digitality over the thoughtful consideration of the range of tools and practices that best support student learning.

Most kids already know how to social network and download music. What they need, in my view, are advanced new literacies skills that will permit them to “successfully exploit the rapidly changing information and communications technologies that continuously emerge in our world” (Leu, 2002, p. 13; Rhodes & Robnolt, 2009, p. 156). Rhodes and Robnolt, I think, would agree with me here. In my own research, I have observed that even the savviest digital natives are bad at this. Developmentally, kids aren’t different than they used to be in this regard. They still need caring adults to scaffold their cognitive growth by providing rich and diverse learning experiences that include — and do not include — digital media.


Association of College and Research Libraries. (2000). Information literacy: Competency standards for higher education. Chicago: American Library Association.

Aufderheide, P. (1993). Media literacy: A report of the national leadership conference on media literacy. Queenstown, MD: Aspen institute. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 365 294).

Landow, G.P. & Delaney, P. (1991). Hypertext, hypermedia, and literary studies. The state of the art. In P. Delaney  & G.P. Landow, (Eds.) Hypermedia and literacy studies (pp. 3-50). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Leu, D.J., (2002). The new literacies: Research on reading instruction with the Internet. In A.E. Farstrup & S.J. Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction (3rd ed., pp. 310-336). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

The New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-91.

Prensky, M. (2006). “Engage me or enrage me” : What today’s learners demand. Educause Review, 40(5), 60-64.

Stokes, S. (2001). Visual literacy in teaching and learning: A literature perspective. Electronic Journal for the Integration of Technology in Education. Retrieved from

Wileman, R.E. (1993). Visual communicating. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.