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Berkman Community Newcomers: Monica Bulger

This post is part of a series featuring interviews with some of the fascinating individuals who joined our community for the 2014-2015 year. Conducted by our 2014 summer interns (affectionately known as "Berkterns"), these snapshots aim to showcase the diverse backgrounds, interests, and accomplishments of our dynamic 2014-2015 community.

Q&A with Monica Bulger

Berkman fellow and educational researcher
@literacyonline
interviewed in summer 2014 by Berktern Gabriela Dumancela

What is an example of digital media literacy?

I often use Zack Kopplin's case as an example. He is a student from the US living in a state where schools were going to be required to teach creationism, in parallel with teaching evolution. This student felt that religious beliefs should not be taught in science courses. So, he organized groups of people to protest through Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and the national media. I felt that he demonstrated strong digital media literacy because he knew which groups to address in which media and how to use the different media to get his message across.

From your recent study about the development of indicators for measuring digital literacy, how can they continue to be applied in the future? Technology changes so fast, and the risk and ways of using technology change so frequently.

If you focus just on the technologies, you are going to be constantly jumping from one to another and be behind. But, what tends to be consistent is people. While we might have more information or might be facing information presented in different formats, there are some fundamentals to how we process information. When we try to figure out how to measure digital or media literacy, we need to look at people’s practices. What does not change? That includes how we bring information together, how we make sense of it and develop our own understanding. That is happening whether we are looking at Twitter, Facebook or Instagram - We are still taking information in and then processing it.

What type of intervention can be developed in order to empower children through the use of technology?

I do not think that there is just one intervention, but rather quite a few interventions. Returning to Kopplin, he had to have scientific knowledge, the ability to argue, the ability to effectively communicate verbally and in writing. All of these are skills that are already being taught in schools. It is just a matter of incorporating how each technology can be used to better communicate a message. It also takes practice and time to develop digital literacy, like any other expertise.

Why do you think that government bodies from developing countries make poor decisions in their choices to incorporate technologies in learning settings?

Unfortunately, there has been a lot of overpromising the potential for technology as a fix for education. If those promises were true, it would be very attractive to have something that is inexpensive and that can quickly solve some of the perceived problems in education. Oftentimes, politicians are under pressure to provide quick ‘fixes’, facing unreasonable expectations in terms of timing and costs. The type of long-term attention necessary to fix the broader social and economic challenges facing education are often beyond the scope of these quick fixes, are expensive, and require the coordination of multiple facets of government. Researchers and educators can improve this process by developing a strong evidence base to inform decision making and make clear recommendations for interventions to promote change.

Since there is not a common understanding of privacy, how do you think that schools should provide advice to their students about this subject, should they regulate certain practices?

I think schools need to guide students’ use. When I was in junior high we were learning how to trust or not trust media messages, discerning on television shows what might be factual, rather than entertainment or for commercial purposes. So those lessons can also be applied to Internet use. Being able to distinguish between trustworthy sites and not trustworthy sites; what are the signals and the cues for that? Also, when students encounter upsetting materials, they should learn how to protect themselves, how to protect their information and how to avoid certain sites. Basically, what schools can do is teach kids to be critical users of the internet.

Why did you decide to study digital literacy?

I was teaching undergraduate composition just as students were increasingly using the Internet for course-related research. As the Internet became easier to use, assignments were changing too. I was interested in seeing how students were using the information, whether they were overwhelmed, what strategies they were using to understand the information, and how they were bringing that together in writing their academic papers. I looked at it from a college student's perspective. Later, I studied scholars’ use of digital resources. I tried to look at their experience and identify best practices. In studying physicists’ use of Internet resources, I found information sharing occurring on a much larger scale. Then, questions started coming up about teens sharing private information through Facebook and different means, almost violating their own privacy. So, I started to work with people studying children’s use of the Internet. Once we look at children’s use of different technologies, we can see that there are opportunities for empowerment and there are also chances of harm. Neither of those are happening in a vacuum. Digital literacy is not the sole tool for empowering, and it is also not the sole tool for protecting. So, I wanted to look at what aspects of child protection can be enhanced by digital literacy and how we can minimize harms occurring to children online. This is the work that I am developing now.

In your experience as a scholar, what have been the major challenges you have overcome?

Addressing issues that do not easily lend themselves to quantification has been a challenge. If you ask different scholars about digital literacy, there is not going to be a quick agreement on the definition. Figuring out how to quantify those type of things has been challenging. I love trying to quantify difficult topics and I love working in an interdisciplinary environment, but both are very challenging. Becoming more familiar with policy dimensions and how policy happens has been a challenge to me as someone with more of a focus on learning and cognition. Finally, learning the Computer Science dimensions, and generally learning all the time, is something I love, but definitely a challenge.

At the Berkman Center, what is going to be your area of focus?

It is a little bit unusual to have someone with a PhD in Education working at Berkman, since it is based in a law school. But learning and using the Internet do not happen in a vacuum. In order to understand the context in which they are happening, you really need to have people who can speak outside of their disciplinary silos. That is one of the major accomplishments of Berkman, to connect people from different disciplines who can speak with each other on these issues. For the upcoming year, I will be looking at children’s rights in a digital context. What Sonia Livingstone and I have found is that globally, children’s rights are often overlooked. This happened before the Internet and continues. So there is a lot of space here for improvement. My main work is going to be mapping and better understanding children's rights in a global and digital context. In analyzing the harms that are occurring through digital use, I would like to explore what can be reduced by digital literacy interventions and what type of digital literacy interventions will best work.

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