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UT Austin instructor guides classroom teachers through the cybermaze

R.W. “Buddy” Burniske believes educators need a better definition of “computer literacy” when they are introducing technology to the classroom.

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AUSTIN, Texas—R.W. “Buddy” Burniske believes educators need a better definition of “computer literacy” when they are introducing technology to the classroom.

“Though it should be clear by now that there’s far more to ‘computer literacy’ than simply learning how to use the hardware and software, many educators and policy-makers continue to define that term in a terribly narrow fashion,” Burniske said. “Clearly, basic definitions shape the way we think about things, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that students think of computers and the activities they generate as separate from moral and ethical concerns.”

Burniske, a doctoral candidate at The University of Texas at Austin’s Computer Writing and Research Lab, is the author of Literacy in the Cyberage: Composing Ourselves Online, a practical handbook written for teachers and students preparing to become teachers. The book presents Burniske’s insights drawn from the brave new world of cyberspace and the ancient, traditional world of the humanities.

Burniske’s handbook provides teachers with practical ideas on how to teach in an increasingly wired world. Burniske said he hopes it will help teachers trying to integrate computer technology into classroom learning, despite limited technical training and professional development opportunities.

Burniske said in many cases “teachers have been thrown into a technological maelstrom. Imagine NASA building the space shuttle and calling for five untrained volunteers to fly it. That’s essentially what educational policy-makers have done by building school networks and wired classrooms without providing teachers with time and opportunities to learn how to use these technologies for pedagogical purposes.”

The book presents a series of “literacy challenges” teachers can use to help students develop critical literacy skills and analyze the information they encounter in online learning situations. “I think of the book as an antidote to the hype and hysteria over instructional technology and the Internet in schools,” Burniske said.

One of Burniske’s primary goals is helping young people acquire what he calls “civil literacy,” which he defines as “the ability to read, interpret and respect the moral and ethical beliefs embraced by a particular social group and to apply them in a responsible manner.” This means students who use the World Wide Web should be able to:

  • present themselves and their ideas honestly and effectively online
  • use the Web’s rich resources and communications technology responsibly
  • understand what it means to be a good neighbor in a worldwide community
  • be fair in quoting and giving credit for materials found on the Web
  • think critically about what they find on the Web
  • understand subtle or hidden messages in verbal and visual content
  • be able to find out who produced what they are reading and why, and
  • protect their privacy and themselves.

Teaching students to accomplish all of this proves far more challenging than technophiles would care to admit, Burniske said. “How do you teach a 14-year-old to be civil online?

“If ‘computer literacy’ means acquiring skills, rather than learning how to engage in civil discourse and actions, then activities such as hacking will remain ‘cool’ because they require advanced technical skills,” he explained. “If ‘computer literacy’ were thought of in humanist terms, though, it would help students understand the difference between the creative hacking that produces useful innovations and the destructive hacking that does harm to a community.”

The book features case studies and step-by-step activities that address nine different forms of literacy. Burniske explained that “these range from media literacy that argues for a broader definition of computer literacy, to visual literacy that encourages a more critical approach to the documents encountered on the World Wide Web.” Literacy in the Cyberage also considers the challenges of helping students acquire the “global literacy” needed to participate in learning activities available through Internet collaboration among teachers and students in many countries.

Burniske has taught in secondary schools in Egypt, Ecuador and Malaysia. He is the professional development coordinator in the World Links for Development Program at the World Bank Institute. This work has taken him to Africa, the Middle East and South America to teach educators in developing countries how to adapt instructional technology to meet the needs of diverse students and curricula. Burniske also is the co-author of Breaking Down the Digital Walls: Learning to Teach in a Post-Modem World (State University of New York Press, 2001).

For more information, contact: R.W. “Buddy” Burniske at (512) 453-4541 or see . Literacy in the Cyberage: Composing Ourselves Online can be ordered from SkyLight Professional Development’s Web site at www.skylightedu.com or e-mail: info@skylightedu.com or phone (800) 348-4474.