Without a crystal ball or tarot cards to assist us, we can only take an educated guess at the skills that today’s children will need in the future to ensure they are equipped to meet the challenges that might come their way in the 21st century. However, even without any mystical assistance, it seems clear that the need for digital literacy is vital and part of our role as teachers is to help the young people meet that need.
So what is Digital Literacy? Searching for a definition on Google (‘What is digital literacy?’) brings back a mightily impressive search response of around 16,100,000 results. Yikes! Just a few then! A crystal ball would come in pretty handy around now…
But the truth is, we cannot have a simple and single definition. As the definition of literacy continues to evolve then our definition of digital literacy also needs to be flexible enough to respond to an ever changing world. Indeed, we may find in the future that, as the online and offline worlds become more and more closely intertwined, we no longer need a separate identifier for ‘digital’ literacy – the skills needed to access, critically understand and build upon information in any format may no longer need to be separated simply because one ‘text’ is a paper book and the other is an online environment.
As Doug Belshaw points out in The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies, 2014, Iiteracy is a spectrum – we cannot easily define the moment when someone becomes literate but we can recognise when one learner is more literate than another. Does the same hold true for digital literacy? Of course it does. Just as the child who is read to from when they were a baby, exposed to a rich range texts at home, and provided with opportunities to hear and take part in rich language dialogues, is likely to develop a high level of literacy, the child who is exposed to and familiar with a range of online tools and environments (and the appropriate behaviours and expectations associated with them) will develop the skills and abilities needed to operate effectively in the digital sphere.
However, it’s pretty difficult to try to teach a set of skills if we can’t come up with some coherent definition that’s at least useful for now. Helpfully, HGIOS 4 includes just such a definition in the appendix:
“Digital literacy encompasses the capabilities required for living, learning and working in a digital society. It includes the skills, knowledge, capabilities and attributes around the use of digital technology which enable individuals to develop to their full potential in relation to learning, life and work. It encompasses the skills to use technology to engage in learning through managing information, communicating and collaborating, problem-solving and being creative, and the appropriate and responsible use of technology.”
– How Good Is Our School 4, Appendix 2, Education Scotland, September 2015
This definition can be interpreted in many ways by the teacher trying to make sure she is addressing the theme of Digital Literacy with her class. It would be tempting to focus on the area of digital skills – these are perhaps more quantifiable and ‘trackable’ than some of the other areas of the definition. It’s easy enough to say “Yes, this child can log into a PC, load up a presentation programme, source images online, and present their work using a projector to their peers.” Box ticked, job done? Well, no. What if the child wants to use a different means to present their information? A video? A poster? A website? Were the images the child found online copyright cleared? In fact, do the children know about copyright and how it works online? If the child wants to publish their work online to a wider audience, can they do that, and do they know how to keep safe while doing so?
Teaching only the ability to go through the motions of utilising digital technology is all but useless – in one, five, ten, twenty years these programmes may no longer be in use, the hardware may look nothing like today’s, and the legal landscape online may have vastly changed. What we need to do is prepare learners to be safe, inquisitive, responsible, creative, risk aware but fearless in the online world, and that’s a bit more complex than showing a child how to open a PowerPoint and paste in an image.
The difference between digital skills and wider digital literacies is explored very clearly in this useful article by Maha Bali on the International Literacy Association’s site (thanks to Rosslyn Lee for linking to it on her North Ayrshire Glow Development site). One example that Maha Bali gives to illustrate the difference looks at educational use of Twitter:
“Digital skills would focus on which tool to use (e.g., Twitter) and how to use it (e.g., how to tweet, retweet, use TweetDeck), while digital literacy would include in-depth questions: When would you use Twitter instead of a more private forum? Why would you use it for advocacy? Who puts themselves at risk when they do so?”
These are the types of questions teachers and learners should be exploring when using digital technologies. Not ‘how do I make this work?’ (although that is important) but why should I use this tool and not another? What do I need to consider to make sure I use this tool safely, responsibly and legally? Can I use this in combination with another tool? If not, why not? Can I make them work together?
This may seem like a daunting prospect to a teacher who is not yet confident in the use of digital technology and who worries about his or her own suitability to teach even the basics, but with the right guidance and support, those worries could be vanquished. Curriculum for Excellence is designed to foster creativity and enquiry in all areas of learning – we already design our learning activities to allow for this, and to offer personalisation and choice. In the online world, the opportunities for creativity, exploration and innovation are infinite, and if we ensure the young people understand how to stay safe and responsible while using technology, then there is no better arena for nurturing these attributes.
Over the next few posts, we’re going to be looking more deeply at the theme of Digital Literacy from HGIOS 4. It’s a big area, as we’ve certainly realised over the course of this week when trying to narrow down an aspect to write about! Our plan is to break it down into three posts, each looking at a different set of stakeholders:
- Digital Explorers – What does Digital Literacy mean for Scottish learners in 2016?
- Digital Guides – what do teachers need to know and do in order to ensure digital literacy for themselves and their learners?
- Digital Empowerers – How can school and local authority leaders support the process of improving digital literacy in staff and learners?