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I was interviewed today in downtown Iowa City by Kevin Barry of KGAN CBS 2 Iowa about the topic of digital literacy. We only had a short discussion, but our conversation got me thinking further about the topic of digital literacy and now mobile technology impacts our life for better or worse.

One topic Kevin asked me about is whether or not mobile devices are a good thing or not. Lately there’s been a lot of criticism of mobile devices. There are ongoing campaigns against texting while driving or driving while distracted by talking on the phone.

Technology Reducing Quality of Life

Negative public sentiment has been rising about the extent to which mobile devices are not just dangerous, but they disconnect us from our surroundings, our friends, and the moment we’re in. Videos like the one below convey this concern.

Is it possible that mobile devices will some day become as detested as tobacco, and illegal to use in many venues?

How will manufacturers overcome the rising wave of negativity regarding mobile devices?

Experience Distraction or Enhancement

Are mobile devices a good thing or bad thing in society? I’d say they are neither universally good or bad. It depends on the context and how they are being used.

Imagine a classroom setting. The teacher is talking. Students start fiddling with their mobile devices. Are they distracted? Are they missing out on course content? How can you tell which students are on Facebook and which ones actually grabbed their device to lookup a word or research a topic being presented?  You can’t.

Imagine some friends at a table talking. One person looks to their phone and seems to have left the conversation. Are they being rude? That depends. I use mobile devices when in meetings and during conversations as a conversation enrichment tool. If someone mentions a book, I bring out my smart phone, lookup the book, and download the free sample that usually includes a chapter or two. This is actually taking listening to the next level and conveys, “I’m not only listening to what you’re saying, but I’m going to take action.”

Some people have the narrow view that all use of mobile devices is a distraction. Yet, even without technology our minds can wander, and we can zone out of a conversation simply by thinking about something else. It could be argued that uses mobile devices as conversation enrichment tools will bring multimedia and greater engagement as well as focus on whatever is being discussed. Students who might otherwise have been bored by a presentation, may be more engaged if they can use a mobile device to lookup information about what’s being presented.

Downsize and Declutter Your Life

The physical and visual clutter of stuff is a distraction and impediment to living life freely and fully. For people with poor organizational skills, finding the information they need can be difficult if it’s scattered around on scraps of paper. Used properly, electronic devices can help bring order and simplicity to an otherwise chaotic life. All the information that goes into them can be easily retrieved.

In the past, our personal property was in non-digital physical format. Music was on CDs that might take up an entire bookshelf to store. For many people, mobile devices have replaced books, magazines, photo albums, postal mail, bank statements, and other physical things that can now be stored in a shirt-pocket-sized hard drive.

Despite the physical downsizing that technology has allowed, theres been an enriching of our access to information. We can have thousands of books, even if we don’t have a library in our home to store them.

Digital Literacy as Job Requirement

Most jobs require proficiency with computers and other technology, and an employee’s effectiveness on the job is often dependent upon their technology skills. For this reason, those without computing experience may have a difficult time finding a job that pays more than minimum wage, unless it is a skilled trade job. Of course, there are those in very high paying positions with poor digital literacy who simply pay employees to perform all tasks that require a computer.

Digital Literacy as Life Skill

There was a time when technology skills were needed on the job, but not at home. Increasingly our daily tasks and interactions required technology skills. For paying bills, or staying in touch with family and friends, the ability to use computers efficiently is essential.

Digital Literacy is Ongoing

Just when you’re feeling secure with the latest operating system and the online services you’ve been using, things will change. Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have recently changed their user experiences for various products and services. Most notably, Windows 8 from Microsoft is stretching people to learn a different system than what they’d been accustom to. People initially don’t like these changes and have trouble getting as work done efficiently. Eventually people will learn the new ways and prefer that over the previous systems.

Apple is about to release the iOS 7 operating system for their mobile devices. This will undoubtedly be a change that will require people to learn new ways of using their devices.

Yahoo recently recently performed a complete overhaul of their Groups system with a new layout and interface called Neo.

Having no past experience may be an advantage for some people when new systems are rolled out because there are no preconceived notions and old habits to break.

Strengthening Your Digital Literacy

One of the best ways to strengthen your digital literacy is to use computers and other technology for as many areas of life as possible. Integrate technology into your daily routine. At the same time, continue using some non-electronic systems to maintain proficiency with those. For example, keeping a notebook can help you avoid the intellectual atrophy of always working within the applications and confines that are presented to you. Using Apple, Windows, and Linux computers can help you retain an elasticity to quickly adapt to new circumstances. Consider using multiple word processors on occasion, like Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, and Libre Office. Consider using several browsers (Safari, Firefox, Google Chrome, and Internet Explorer).

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KGAN News Report

Below is the news story as posted on KGAN.

Updated: Monday, September 16 2013, 07:13 PM CDT

IOWA CITY, IA (CBS2/FOX28) – In an age when most information is just a quick search away, some corridor residents say that we’ve become too dependent on our gadgets. But the reality is, it’s hard to go through the day without being at least a little tech savvy.

“The days I forget my phone I feel out of the loop almost,” said Iowa Junior Sam Fourman. “Even if nobody’s texted me or even if I don’t need to look anything up.”

Whether it’s texting a friend, looking for a job or paying a bill, Iowans are increasingly connected, for better or worse. “It would be like somebody who didn’t bring their hearing aids that day,” said IT Professional Greg Johnson. “You’re going to be out of communication with people because that’s how people communicate.”

The US Census numbers show Iowans are more connected to the internet than other states, but many in the state still struggle to learn how to best use it.

“Technology fluency has shifted sort of a job requirement to a life skills requirement,” said Johnson.

Some people have traded in their newspapers for the digital version, on smart phones and tablets. But without knowing how to use that newer technology, it can be information overload.

“When you Google something and you get 39,000 results, how are you going to know which one’s right,” asked Iowa City Public Library Librarian Beth Fisher.

To help with that, the Iowa City Public Library holds Tech Help Drop-In sessions. It gives some the knowledge they need to get by.

“We get people who might be trying to get their paycheck and maybe their boss has said, ‘You have to log into this website,” said Iowa City Public Library’s Bond Drager.

And the staff says it’s not just older folks who need help.

“It’s people who’ve gotten a new device and aren’t sure what to do with it or aren’t sure they’re using it most effectively,” said Fisher.

So just how wired are we? The census shows that 76% of households here have a computer. On the other hand, more than 11% of all Iowa farmers, in the age of the smart phone, are still using dial-up modems.

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