Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 35 seconds

Thresholds, Opportunity Cost & Who Chooses Which Literacies?

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 35 seconds

There are so many different literacies we could potentially value. So many different things we could choose to learn or teach our kids. Also, so many things not within everyone’s reach to teach/learn by choice. There is an opportunity cost to teaching one over the other, and there are thresholds around which developing a literacy becomes easier or harder. I don’t know if literacy literature already has a term for this?

For example, imagine someone (you or your child or loved one) is diagnosed with a serious illness. This could entail lots of doctor visits and tests to be done. If you cannot read/write at all, you usually just passively follow doctor’s orders. Unless you know someone who is a doctor to advise you (but even then, how do you develop the judgment to know whose advice to take?). If you can read/write and even have access to the internet, you may look up some resources. If you cannot read English well…oops, wait, let’s see if you find anything at all. What about those with internet and English? If you have a medical background yourself, you can read medical publications and have the critical literacy to filter them yourself rarher than rely on Google’s algorithm for showing you the first two results. If you don’t, you’re on a spectrum in terms of how well you can understand and filter and critically assess. Then there’s the literacy of communicating this (what you learned online) back to your doctor in a way that doesn’t piss them off. And whether you even have a choice of changing the doctor if you don’t like what they suggest. So much power. So contextual.

There is a threshold below which it is difficult if not impossible for a patient to develop health literacy and a threshold below which one cannot practice it even if one has developed it. 

Another example: every minute I spend reading to my child in Arabic is a minute I am not spending reading to her in English. The choice to teach both before she can properly read/write either serves to produce a (adorable but serious but overcomable) confusion about things like which direction to write (she writes English from right to left sometimes and so do other kids her age… I always thought this was a bilingual thing and someone confirmed it yday – be interested to know if non-Arabs experience this). There is an opportunity cost to making these choices. For each choice we make, we are CHOOSING not to spend time on another. However, if my kid had been learning a language I do NOT speak, the opportunity cost would have shifted. To read to her, I would either invest in a tutor for her or myself:time/money I could have spent on something else. Time/money I may or may not be able to afford.

One last example. People in Egypt of my socioeconomic class tend to invest a lot in their kids’ sports. Tennis lessons. Swimming lessons. Gymnastics. Football. Volleyball. Maybe let’s go all the way to Ballet lessons. Much less (but still happens): music/piano/guitar lessons. Art lessons. Quran lessons (all because schools don’t do a good enough job of covering this stuff extracurricularly). Every minute and every coin spent on one of these is a value-laden decision. And it is wise to recognize that each of these is not within every person’s reach: some people cannot afford them; live too far away to practically find good lessons ; have kids who aren’t naturally musical and will struggle w music lessons; have kids with speech delays that need to be in a speech therapy class for hours each week rather than be learning a fun skill; have kids with disabilities that prevent them from doing any of that. Are just really busy parents working late jobs and have no time to do this.

It’s wise when looking at all of these literacies to look at opportunity costs and thresholds in context. A person whose child has a serious illness is already spending time and money on things related to the illness that they can’t be spending on other things. A person who does not have the financial means or knowledge to learn a new language is below the threshold of teaching their child that language or supporting them at home. It’s a “deficit” of cultural/social capital that we create by making some things defaults when they need not be.

So let me come to my main point here which is digital literacies, OK? For every minute I spend in class focusing on developing my students’ digital literacies, I give up time I could be teaching them something else. For some disciplines such as journalism or political science, getting students literate in how to interpret news on social media and contribute as digital citizens is almost a requirement in this day and age. Well, assuming the students have Internet and a language (including Arabic) that has enough (politcal) content out there that’s credible AND  also shared/discussed socially. Assuming also that we aren’t putting them at (excessive) risk of government surveillance in our courses. Assuming that by getting them onto social media for classes we aren’t feeding into social media addictions or compulsions they might have. Assuming they have time to do this despite other courses/responsibilities. 

Inspired by Simon Ensor’s post Thanksgiving in which he highlights the differences in perspective on the story of thanksgiving and applies it to “open”. He takes this quote by Margaret Mead

“Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead.

Among many incredible nuggets and important critical questions Simon asks are:

  • “Does openness favour the strongest?”
  • “Whose networks count in the world?” 
  • “Power differentials in networks mean that some may benefit from open sharing more than others”

 And Simon comes to this powerful conclusion critiquing all our discourses:

“Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens…

[with access to the best information, equipped with the latest connecting technology, ships, trains, bulldozers, tanks, drones, massive capital, major media presence, carefully designed slogans to arouse fear or desire, control of communication platforms, extensively developed networks, speaking the dominant language]

…can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

I no longer buy that slogan: “life is a game.”

If it is to be seen so, then whose rules are we playing it by?

This totally applies to Vconnecting – a threshold below which it cannot empower (see also Nadine Aboulmagd’s post, esp the part on her connectivity) but can further privilege some over others. Yet it has potential to empower some. And as Autumm Caines writes, we are always questioning how far we can go and whose voices are included/excluded.

But even though a Simon’s powerful post pushed me to publish this NOW, the ideas in this post have been on my mind for quite some time (I used the term “threshold of digital empowerment recently when someone was interviewing me about whether digital learning can be empowering). Also just yesterday, I was also inspired by this post by Tim Maughan and Sava Saheli Singh in which they use 4 powerful case studies (fictional) to highlight how digital learning looks for people in different parts of the world. They make all the points Simon and I make more concrete and embodied and I am thankful for their example.
And also inspired by this post by Kate Bowles building on conversations on my #DoOO blogpost…and some Twitter convo following all that. 

And also by this post by Tanya Elias questioning how many of those who research online/distance learning have themselves learned the bulk of their learning that way (that’s me Tanya – all my graduate work was done online/remotely). Same applies, I think, for open: how many advocates for open have ever been people who HAD TO RELY on open resources to succeed (me again, temporarily, but it left a huge impact). 

And then this by Sherri Spelic reminding us of importance of context behind what we say/do online. Sherri also shared this post which reminds us “there’s a lesser known poverty tax on technology, and it’s paid with your time.” I just read this post after publishing this one and it’s worth a read to show how internet is a luxury many don’t have.

All of the above are worthwhile reads. 

And then maybe I can share an optimistic example of American Muslim girls who felt empowered to use slam poetry and the digital to get their message across. They had the literacy and support to know how to achieve this…not everyone has that. I came across them around one year ago…but cogdog reminded me of them this week.

3 thoughts on “Thresholds, Opportunity Cost & Who Chooses Which Literacies?

  1. This post is the reason I am still not in bed yet. 😉 Thank you, Maha for continuing to push the conversation by raising still more questions and remixing the elements. Opportunity costs are real, whether we perceive them directly or not.

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