Digital Literacies and Digital Platforms

When COVID-19 arrived, many of us had to quickly adapt to teaching online. As the requirements for social distancing continued through 2020 and into 2021, teachers adjusted to working with and through digital platforms as the new normal: meeting synchronously with kids and classrooms over Zoom, soliciting student responses through FlipGrid, and facilitating collaborative writing via Dropbox Paper. In just one example of this great digital migration, Google reports that in only one month of the pandemic, Google Classroom users doubled, bringing their total to 100 million worldwide. Our nationwide emergency has meant schools have established a new ‘digital baseline,’ one which is unlikely to subside once the pandemic does. Digital platforms in education are here to stay. 

Digital platforms facilitate a great deal of modern life. Digital platforms are electronic infrastructure which bring together different people and technologies, including students, parents, and teachers. Long before COVID-19, many teachers were already using platforms in their classrooms: SeeSaw for learning management, Classroom Dojo for classroom behavior, TurnItIn for academic integrity. Indeed, there is hardly a facet of education which is not potentially part of some digital platform or Learning Management System. These platforms can offer both great opportunity and a good deal of frustration: educators see where instruction can be made engaging and connective, but also express anxieties that they are at the mercy of software companies whose products are designed without their input or control. 

We often think of platforms simply as ‘tools’—neutral ‘things’ we can pick up and put down as we need them. But outside of education, scholars of digital media have begun to focus on the ways that hardware and software relate with each other, with individuals, and with society—how digital platforms like Uber, Facebook, Youtube, WhatsApp, Amazon, Spotify, and OkCupid have radically changed the way we buy, sell, travel, connect, and even love. So foundational are platforms to our contemporary lives that some people now describe the modern world as the “Platform Society” (van Dijck & Poell, 2018). 

My colleague, Phil Nichols (Baylor University), and I have begun to think about what this great migration to digital platforms means for literacy education, and explore how digital platforms are not simply neutral tools we may use in our classroom. In doing so, we’ve also encouraged teachers to ask hard questions about the platforms that are today so seamlessly part of their instruction. 

Platforms are technology, but they also have social and economic dimensions. Each time we bring a new platform into our classroom, it’s important to think about a broad range of implications—teachers can and should ask themselves whether any platform, regardless of its digital bells and whistles, matches their vision of a quality education for all students. Teachers should also ask whether a digital platform asks them to constrain their instruction, to reconfigure it so that it better conforms with the expectation of the platform.  

While we may initially focus on the technical side of a platform—notably when there are break downs or an interface feels unwieldy—the other dimensions are also critical for our consideration. For example, using a platform like Classroom Dojo or Seesaw isn’t just a matter of technical know-how: it may change the way we interact with parents, or alter which learning objectives we choose to focus on for our lesson. When a platform comes to be central to organizing our instruction, we might feel compelled to alter our teaching to match the platform’s needs (and not the other way around). Focusing on the social dimension encourages us to ask What does this platform allow us to do? Equally, digital platforms have an economic dimension. Many of them are built on business models which require collecting student data and monetizing it by selling it to third party advertisers. When teachers’ and students’ clicks, likes, and swipes are mined for salable information, it’s important to consider how a platform’s economic model might run counter to educators’ aims and values. Focusing on the economic dimension encourages us to ask, Who profits from a platform’s use and how?


Platform Dimensions and Considerations for Practice


In a connective world where apps and platforms have become necessary educational infrastructure—as essential as the electrical grid or the water utility—it is crucial we take up these sorts of pressing questions. This approach helps us see how each keystroke, swipe, and username in a classroom contains complicated social, technical, and economic dynamics—each of them raising their own concerns. Being ‘digitally literate’ in our contemporary education landscape means both having the technological skills to use platforms, but also thinking critically about their impact on instruction and education. 


For More on Digital Platforms in Education: