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Digital literacy is an essential skill in the modern world. Last week, we looked at how mastery of finding information can help creators produce high-quality content. But finding what you need is only part of the equation. But in order to put what you’ve found to good use, you need to, in the immortal words of Thomas Cranmer, “read, mark, and inwardly digest” what you’ve found. Today, we’re going to look at how you can go about understanding the material you find.
The multimodal nature of digital information
For much of human history, illustrated manuscripts like the Book of Hours were the height of multimodality. But in the digital age, content can be enriched with many different types of media, including images, sounds, and video. This means you will likely have to combine, compare, and contrast material from many different sources. Depending on the type of material, this can require either a qualitative or a quantitative approach. Your ultimate goal is to identify patterns, gaps, trends, etc., in the material.
Going back to last week’s example of a journalist who writes about video games, let’s imagine that their editor has asked them to write an article on the evolution of the RPG genre. They can’t just play a bunch of games and call it a day. Depending on the angle they want to take, there are many sources of information they could consider, including developer interviews, supplemental materials (e.g., tie-in novels, art books), press coverage, academic commentary, and player feedback.
Challenges in understanding data
While there’s plenty of information on the Internet, it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. A good starting point though is to consider the potential biases of the creator(s). While we often think of bias as something bad, it’s important to remember that bias is everywhere. Just because something has a bias it doesn’t mean that it’s not a good source. Still, it pays to be mindful of a source’s bias when you’re interpreting it.
Some common types of bias to watch out for include:
- Design and selection bias.
- Procedural bias
- Leading question bias
In the case of our hypothetical journalist, let’s say they’ve found a series of developer diaries that were created to update the people who backed the game on Kickstarter. They’re certainly valuable since they provide a unique perspective on the game’s creation, but that close connection also gives rise to bias. While these diaries provide valuable behind-the-scenes information, they were also a promotional tool, which means the developers were actively trying to sell their game. The journalist can still use them, of course, but they must be aware of their limitations.
How visual content enhances understanding and retention
Humans are, by nature, visual creatures–for example, a UCLA study has suggested that 80% of classroom learning is visual. Consequently, it’s important for creators to bear this in mind when creating content. Writing in Search Engine Journal, Sam Hollingsworth noted that:
- Web content with visuals performs up to 94% better.
- Infographics can increase traffic by up to 12%.
- Tweets with images can attract up to 35% more engagement.
Visuals can be particularly effective given that many web surfers have short attention spans and are eager to move on if something doesn’t grab their attention right away. That can be difficult to achieve with traditional long-form text, so a snappy visual can make all the difference in the world. They can also aid in information retention, given that our brains are wired to remember images better than words. Embracing the visual side of content creation can also be a great way to get more bang for your buck by repurposing your content. Let’s say you’ve written a white paper. You can distill that content into charts, infographics, videos, podcasts, or even memes. Visuals can also have other benefits, as well. Not only can they contribute to more organic visibility in search engines, but they can also improve your site’s accessibility.
This knowledge could aid a games journalist by making sure their articles feature lots of screenshots of the game they cover, or they might extract information into an infographic to provide a quick TL;DR of their material.
Digital understanding and collaboration tools
There are a number of tools that can help deepen your understanding of content. For example, you might use mind mapping tools like MindMeister, Coggle, or Scapple to help you draw connections between different pieces of information. You can also use annotation/highlighting tools such as Hypothesis or Diigo to mark up passages that are particularly important, while virtual collaboration programs like Miro or Notion can facilitate collaboration with others.
Our hypothetical video game journalist might use a mind mapping tool to structure their article, or they might highlight key information in the sources they use for research. Finally, a virtual collaboration program can enable them to create their own personal wiki to brainstorm ideas or collect quotes that they want to include in their articles.
The interplay of social/emotional skills in understanding
As a creator, it’s important to consider the role that social and emotional skills play in understanding information. While many sites provide emotional reactivity in the form of basic emojis, some experts have warned that it should be easier to express more complex and varied emotions than those that can be conveyed by a typical set of emojis. While the technical limitations of your platform can make it difficult for you to offer more nuanced emotional reactions, it’s still worth keeping this information in mind. For a different take on the subject, check out Kristin Skare Ogeret has looked at how emotions have played an increasingly important role in journalism.
Understanding information is vitally important. If you don’t understand something, it will be difficult to use it effectively. To do this, you need to be mindful of the multimodal nature of information, and you should consider the potential biases in your sources. Being mindful of the ways in which visuals can deepen understanding can be helpful as well as they can make your content stick out more in the minds of your readers. There are also a number of digital collaboration tools that can help you organize the information you discover. Finally, paying attention to the way in which social and emotional skills affect understanding can be enormously helpful.