Teaching Digital Communication to All Students


Kirsti Aho, Senior Director of Content and Curriculum, Macromedia Inc.Students today find it easy to pick up new electronic devices and learn how to communicatewith them — whether it’s the newest cell phone or PDA. While it’s exciting that most students can use today’s tools,there are a few questions we should now ask: Are students effective communicators who can compete in the job marketof today and tomorrow? Can they use technology to create persuasive messages for audiences beyond their peer group?Can students think critically to design a communication that meets the needs of a specific audience? Do they know how toselect the best media for their message?

The answers are yes and no. Most students today can IM, e-mail, search the Web and make simple multimediapresentations. However, what they’re not prepared to do is create persuasive messages for people other than theirpeers.

The world of communication now includes a vast array of media: audio, video, rich media presentations, interactiveWeb sites, DVDs, simulations, and virtual meeting environments. Today’s companies and organizations, both largeand small, use different types of media to reach and retain their audiences. Thus, knowing how to select the right mediumfor the message and how to create different forms of communication can help students achieve at school and beyond.

Defining Digital Communication

IllustrationEffective digital communication is the ability to create persuasive communications using different forms of media.Digital communication is a foundational skill for many careers today since most people will be involved in some form ofconceptualizing, producing, delivering and receiving these communications in their jobs and personal lives. Startingin elementary school and extending to higher education, students can learn a variety of digital communication skillsacross all courses, whether they build multimedia presentations to demonstrate their knowledge of academic subjects,create e-portfolios of coursework, or present ideas in a virtual classroom.

In the last year, several reports have been published that describe digital literacy, what it is, and its importance as a 21st century skill for this generation of learners. The Metiri Group and the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory(NCREL) published “enGauge 21st Century Skills: Literacy in the Digital Age” in 2003, which showcases the skillsstudents will need to thrive in a technological, global environment. Based on two years of research, the organizations havedeveloped a collection of skill clusters to include alongside rigorous academic standards. The four skill clusters aredigital age literacy; inventive thinking; high productivity; and effective communication, which presumes that studentsselect and use multiple technology tools to create persuasive messages.

Reaching All Students

Students start communicating digitally at an early age and will continue to do so for the rest of their lives. Howtechnically advanced students become will depend on the level of skill they need for their work or personal lives. Inschool, it’s important for all students to communicate what they know; digital communication levels the playing field.While some students may struggle with writing, others will find their stronger voice in images, video and audio. Special-educationstudents may also find it easier to express themselves verbally or through images rather than in writing.

Multimedia not only motivates students, it also taps into their different strengths and allows them to tell a richerstory. Demonstrating the understanding of a science process, for example, can be difficult to do with words alone. Butwhen a student shows the process using animated images with narration, then the explanation is more complete. And as students build their knowledge of science, they learn digital communication skills.

We don’t know what types of communication tools will be available when primary school students graduate from college. However, we do know that students need substantive opportunities to learn how to approach a communicationproblem, select appropriate media and express themselves effectively across different scenarios. If we give them realexposure to loads of communication media, students can become adept users of the next generation of tools.

Effective Communication

The ISTE National Educational Technology Standards Project notes that technical expertise is just one componentin a range of skills that will help prepare students to live, learn and work in an information-rich society. The organizationemphasizes that effective technology integration in schools can enable students of all ages to learn collaborative, problem solvingand creativity skills.

Students are not just studying how to use tools such as Dreamweaver when they learn to communicate effectively inWeb media. They’re also learning how to approach a project, as well as how to understand their audience, messageand purpose. In addition, students are learning how to think critically as they decide on an effective way to present theirmessage.

College students should especially develop a wide range of digital and cognitive skills to prepare themselves for jobs.For instance, journalism majors should learn to write and build Web content since all TV and newspapers have a Webpresence. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, small businesses represent half of the U.S. economyoutput and employ half of the private sector workforce. These small businesses have also generated 60-80% of the netnew jobs annually in the last decade. In a small company, no matter what kind of business, it’s now necessary to becapable of communicating digitally with clients and customers. At the very least, companies need a Web site and somebodyto build and maintain it. People share responsibilities when an organization is very small, so more and more prospectiveemployers will be looking for strong digital communicators who can collaborate as team players.

Today’s students have the technology. They experience the world through multimedia and want to communicate in the same way. Therefore, we can prepare students to communicate more effectively by teaching them the whole communicationprocess from planning the message all the way to testing for usability.

Supporting Teachers and Engaging Students With Digital Communication

I lead a team of former educators who design and build teaching and learning resources for faculty and students. We work with faculty worldwide to identify projects and test classroom content. For example, we have created K-12 assignments that help teachers begin integrating Web and multimedia projects into academic subjects. Our goal was to make the projects small enough to not be technically overwhelming, yet academically substantial enough to show how digital communication enhances subject learning. We designed them so teachers could understand the principles and could easily customize the materials for their classroom needs.

We worked for 18 months with teachers and staff from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Washington state to develop and classroom-test career and technology education curriculum for their Interactive Media Career Pathway. Teachers gave their students a broad foundation in communication tools for the Web, but often sought ideas and resources for teaching professional design principles and development practices. Effective Web communication requires solid technical implementation as well as a design focused on audience needs. We found that students were successful communicators when they followed a professional design process and applied career skills such as interviewing, peer review and team collaboration. When they designed a site for a client (a school club, local business or nonprofit), the lessons about audience goals and user experience truly resonated.

Students are motivated and engaged when they can express themselves through a variety of media. For many, multimedia communication is a first step in owning their schoolwork and sharing it with a wider audience beyond the teacher. Since students are particularly intrigued with multimedia on the Web, a class can analyze its favorite media examples — dissecting how they grab attention, persuade and even teach.

In addition, universities and schools worldwide are now increasingly requiring students to build electronic portfolios that let students demonstrate their understanding of course content and communicate reflections on their progress. They can be simple when based on Web page templates or elegant, complex designs when created by visual arts students. Yet all are relevant digital communication.

— K. Aho

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.