Equity and Digital Literacies

Amira Dhalla and Curtis Hill

On April 7, Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) hosted a forum on “Equity and Digital Literacies.” Organized by SCSU Associate Professor of Education J. Greg McVerry — who is also a member of the board of the Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven — the event reflected the collaboration of co-sponsors the Mozilla Foundation, SCSU’s School of Education and Computer Science Department, the Connecticut Education Network, and the Literacy Coalition. The Saturday audience included educators from the New Haven Public Schools, public librarians, technology aficionados, parents, civic activists, and a peer mentor/academic coach (and aspiring early childhood educator) from SCSU’s Multicultural Center.

The featured speaker was Amira Dhalla, who leads Mozilla’s global participation work. She was introduced by Greg McVerry, who argued that now, “every industry is a tech industry” and noted the importance of using “digital tools to create new pathways for students” in New Haven public schools and beyond.

Greg McVerry

An avid user of Twitter, he emphasized #tech4all as a way to follow the conversation on that medium and pointed readers to danah boyd’s recent work, two decades after one of the key arguments of the late John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Amira Dhalla’s presentation (slides from which she kindly made available, via Dropbox here) addressed “Building a Healthy Web Through Inclusive Practices.” She previewed a Mozilla Internet Health Report, released April 10.

Amira Dhalla

“Optimistic” — despite 2017, “the worst year in technology”

Though conceding that 2017 was perhaps “the worst year in technology” amid massive data leaks, problems of information credibility, antitrust concerns, online harassment, and revelations about the scope of a foreign power’s intervention in a U.S. election (through means including hacking and corruption of social media), Amira Dhalla declared herself “optimistic about the future of the Web.”

She believes “we can have a healthy internet.” Among the specific challenges she addressed were:

* “Who can access the internet, and how they access it,” with risks to “net neutrality” among the issues. She cited a survey indicating that half of new internet users think it consists only of WhatsApp and Facebook. Further, some 26 countries last year shut down access, while many users worldwide don’t know English, the language of 90 percent of the net. Privacy is also unevenly distributed; it’s often just for more “privileged” users.

* Balance and purpose, with the average social media user reportedly spending about a month a year online — often with detrimental effects to happiness, for people of all ages. By contrast, apps that promote listening, meditation, and sleep have been found to make users happiest. By 2020, there will be some 20 billion internet-connected devices worldwide, for some 5 billion users, with data frequently collected and shared. Gender imbalances are a concern, and more broadly (as one audience member put it) there is a danger that the internet and related technologies can be “a vehicle for maintaining the status quo,” including extreme inequalities.

* Tradeoffs between privacy and security versus openness, and the importance of Web literacy and intent (for example, the ability to opt in or opt out of services as needed). Amira Dhalla characterized Web literacy as “how to read, write, and participate online,” how to go from “consumers” to “users” of online resources. She cited the New School’s Digital Equity Lab as one tool.

“How do we create an internet that is open, fair and equal for everyone?”

She asked, “How do we create an internet that is open, fair and equal for everyone?” Part of the answer, she said, are the following five principles:

* “We build with not for”;

* “We communicate with each other and share our stories”;

* “We support each other and honor our differences,” by “leading with empathy”;

* “We show up where we are,” applying a local focus for meaningful impact (she cited her brother Adil Dhalla’s related TEDxYouth talk);

* “We build roads that create calm and organized pathways,” to counter the breakage and “chaos” that may erupt (one audience member then recalled, days after the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, his 1967 book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?).

For promising hints of success, Amira Dhalla invoked examples from Crypto Harlem and Brooklyn’s Older Adult Technology Services (OATS), to Chayn (supporting women at risk of harassment and violence) and Smart Rwanda/Digital Opportunity Trust. She mentioned her own origins — with a family from Tanzania of Muslim background, upbringing in Canada, and now residence in the United States. She expressed gratitude for her privileges and emphasized, “I’m one of many” in the movement for a better internet: “It’s about the collective and how we do this together.”


Two SCSU computer science students — graduate student Omar Abid and undergraduate Albert “A.J.” Labozzo — presented on “Blockchain as a Leveling Field.”

Albert “A.J.” Labozzo and Omar Abid

The idea was that blockchain technology, a decentralized ledger mechanism made famous by Bitcoin and other crypto currencies, can be used not only for financial speculation but also for dispersing the might of major companies, government agencies, and other authorities that might otherwise threaten disproportionately to control information, resources, and civic health. Examples of blockchain’s potential included alternatives to conventional banking, land records, energy grids. Blockchain may offer resilience or back-up, amid the risk of central hacking of data, theft of money, or domination of power. Of course, blockchain itself has limitations — for example the needed computing power can consume extraordinary energy, can be subject to fraud or at least questions about authenticity, and can still be swayed by agents of nefarious regimes or other insidious actors. Still, in areas such as verification of educational credentials or the source of certain images or learning resources, this technology has the potential to give individuals of all backgrounds new tools for upward mobility and independence. In addition, a gift of some $25 million (initially estimated at $29 million) to DonorsChoose, made possible by “Ripple” virtual currency holdings, is an indication of related philanthropic resources.

“Technologically savvy is not informationally savvy”

Greg McVerry — whose work on the SCSU faculty has included affiliation with GEAR UP students in the secondary grades, after he earlier taught 6th-grade himself — then offered a presentation on the importance of carefully sifting the sources and slants of various points of information (and images) on the Web. He stressed that this “takes deliberate planning,” for example to obtain “identity knowledge,” meaning who created and shaped something online. He wants “to raise a generation of self-directed readers” who can embrace the challenges of evaluating critically, of judging “the relevancy and reliability” of a website.

This requires a distinction between “technologically savvy” kids, who merely know how to use digital tools, versus those users who can actually employ them to discern truth from fiction, fact from opinion, complex realities rather than oversimplification. He performed a demonstration, earlier done with and by his students, on assessing the credibility and accuracy of sources — including by building a fake copy of a website to alert everyone to the ease of deception if one’s guard is down. One instrument, from the Networked Learning Collaborative, invites students to “question the Web.”

“Zip codes should not be destiny”

In the broader spirit of the event, he concluded with a call not only for “more multiple-source readings” but also for greater access for all children (and their families), for example through municipal Wi-Fi, saying: “Zip codes should not be destiny.”

This free event was the product of a collaborative effort. In addition to the other speakers, SCSU, and Mozilla, thanks go to Greg McVerry for his orchestration of the forum. Fellow Coalition board members Dave Braze (of Haskins Laboratories), Curtis Hill (founder of Concepts for Adaptive Learning), and Susan Holahan (a retired NHPS teacher and a parent and grandparent of district students) also participated.

The Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven — sponsor of the Literacy Forum series — is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization with a mission to promote, support, and advance literacy for people of all ages.

Visit LiteracyEveryday to share or obtain information on free events, resources, and ways to get involved in pursuit of a region of readers.

The LiteracyEveryday site has portals to Get Help, Volunteer, Donate, and Learn More, as well as a blog, News/Events calendar, and presence on Facebook and Twitter, @LiteracyGNH.

Wednesday, May 16 “Storycrafters” with the Jewish Coalition for Literacy; ConnCAT storytelling

For example, to complement a monthly gathering of Storytellers New Haven that ConnCAT hosts, on May 16 the Jewish Coalition for Literacy (JCL) will host the Storycrafters at an occasion celebrating JCL volunteer reading partners, who work with students in several New Haven public schools.

There is a need for additional volunteer tutors and mentors at such organizations as the Boys and Girls Club, Jewish Coalition for Literacy, Junta for Progressive Action, LEAP, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, New Haven Public Schools, New Haven Reads, and Solar Youth.

Neighbors are invited to visit the Literacy Resource Center on Winchester Avenue, in space at 4 Science Park donated by Science Park Development Corporation. The Literacy Resource Center, or LRC, represents a partnership among Concepts for Adaptive Learning, the Coalition, New Haven Reads, Literacy Volunteers, and the Economic Development Corporation. In the same building at 4 Science Park are the offices, classrooms, kitchen, cafe, and art gallery of ConnCAT.

You can help by:
• Reading in the home, promoted by libraries such as the New Haven Public Library — and involving grandparents as well as parents, and free books from sources including Read to Grow and New Haven Reads;
• Encouraging friends, family, and others to seek literacy assistance whenever useful;
• Volunteering as a tutor or mentor;
• Bolstering literacy in other ways, such as through donations of money — whether directly, via the Community Foundation or the United Way — or of books and by advocating and voting.

For more information: info@literacyeveryday.org

A version of this article appears at the New Haven Independent.

Articles on the Coalition and Its Events:

“Language and Learning: Home, School, and Community”

“Literacy Coalition News”

“Philanthropy, Literacy, and Youth Development Explored”

“Language, Bilingualism, and Literacy — in School and Beyond”

“Literacy Coalition Welcomes New Colleague, Previews Forum”

“Early Literacy Experiences, the Brain, and Child Development”

“Literacy Coalition Welcomes New Board Members; Forum Approaches”

“Why Is Math Important?”

“Libraries in the 21st Century”

“Literacy Coalition Welcomes New Board Colleagues”

“Why Read?”

“It’s about WORDS”

“Literacy Paths Plotted”

“Literacy, Every Day”

“Learning in the 21st Century, in Ways New and Old”

“Reading, Culture, and ‘Quality Time’ at Home”

“‘Empowering Teachers,’ Reading Research, Instruction, and Supports”

“Margie Gillis Discusses Using the Latest Research on Reading”

“Early Reading, Community Action, and Catalytic Philanthropy”

“Literacy Coalition Forum: State Legislative Update and the Big Read”

“A Day for Literacy”

“Commissioner Ted Sergi: Their ‘Second Chance’ Starts with Reading”

Dad, husband, nonprofit professional, volunteer youth coach, eclectic reader and writer, #citizen…. http://www.josiahbrown.org/ @JosiahBrownCT