Why digital literacy should include privacy education.

A friend pointed me to an article about educating novice users about technology: Joining the Surveillance Society? New Internet Users in an Age of Tracking (full article PDF). The article calls them “marginal users” which is a term I hadn’t heard before but it seems apt. While I don’t agree with every aspect of the article, the thesis is strong and worth exploring. Only some of the classes mentioned are library classes.

Recent digital inclusion policies that aim to increase digital literacy of new Internet and computer users, promote civic engagement, and improve economic development do not currently address the privacy needs of new users. This paper presents an in-depth look at surveillance and privacy problems faced by individuals who turn to digital literacy organizations for training and Internet access, including low income individuals, people of color, immigrants, the elderly, and non-English speakers. These individuals are coming online without adequate skills, know-how, and social support to confront digitally enabled government surveillance and corporate intrusions of personal privacy.

Of particular note in the article

  • Competency of people doing the instructing: “Some staff members revealed that they did not know what cookies are”
  • Bias of the tools being used: “A study conducted at Harvard University showed how search engine queries for “African American sounding” names yield advertisements for criminal background checks. Searches for “Caucasian sounding” names do not.”
  • Appropriateness of tasks to the students: “The (computer training) center required its students to send an e-mail to any city agency or official using the agency’s or official’s website. Staff members said that a majority of their students refrained from this exercise, due to anxiety over being contacted or targeted by government.”
  • Needs exceed offerings: “none of the organizations reported offering privacy education to beginning learners. (The library did offer one-off sessions for privacy and safety…) … issues related to information sharing arose in an ad hoc manner in every class observed.”

The New America Foundation who published the report has a board of directors chaired by Eric Schmidt from Google.

the tools and the hammer/nail problem in the digital divide

“The way you talk about the [digital divide] changes people’s view of who is responsible for resolving it…. This issue has been around for years, but its meaning is in constant flux and is manipulated by political agendas.”

I’ve switched some of the tools I use for keeping current over the past few months. I’m finding that I use RSS less and less for keeping up on blogs and rely more on Twitter lists and searches to sort of keep my hand in. I also read a lot of print material still [some of my best "things to think about" things are still coming from the pages of Library Journal and Computers in Libraries magazines] and am trying to keep to my book-a-week plan for 2011. Oddly I also get news from seemingly random places like other people’s facebook walls and I made a little image-milkshake over on a site called MLKSHK. You might like it.

I have a standing search for “digital divide” on Twitter that just auto-updates itself onto my desktop via TweetDeck. The thing that is so interesting about this, to me, is how often the term gets used and for how many different things. This morning there are discussions about the digital divide and gender, how the EU is trying to narrow the digital divide (referring to access to broadband) and a report about how switching to online social services in the UK would adversely affect people who are digitally divided already, mostly talking about seniors.

Which leads me to the paper I read recently which was really pretty intersting and on topic: Who’s Responsible for the Digital Divide? Public Perceptions and Policy Implications (pdf) It’s not long, you can read it, but the upshot is that depending how we define the digital divide, we will develop different strategies to “solve” the problem. This is not just hypothesized in the paper but addressed scientifically. So if the problem is lack of compturs, we throw computers at the problem. If the problem is broadband, we work on network infrastructure. If the problem is education we design sites like DigitalLiteracy.gov and then wonder why a website isn’t teaching people how to use computers. Tricky stuff, endlessly fascinating, thorny problem.

ways to help new computer users

“Once upon a time, young people helped senior citizens across the street. While this is still a good idea, it’s just as important to help them setup their Facebook page.”

This short article makes a few points very well. Many novice tech users are experts in other things and get easily frustrated feeling like they’re back at square one. That sort of thing needs to be considered when you’re figuring out the best way to approach teaching topics. Additionally, find ways for people to succeed, whatever their level of skill is. This can be a challenge for people who are really brand new, but just having simple taks like mouse proficency and “send an email to me. Oh look there it is” can give peopel the confidence they need to explore on their own. [thanks barbara]