The end of ‘just Google it’: Why students need to be digitally literate

Jennifer Wilson

Jennifer Wilson is an English teacher in a high-performing Secondary school and 6th form in north east England. She's ...

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Most students in school today are digital natives. They’ve grown up with smartphones and tablets, interacting with the world in a very different way than we did 15 years ago. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, we're just a click away from information about any topic imaginable. The world has become smaller, metaphorically speaking, and texts are no longer confined to books in a library. Instead there’s a range of interactive resources, image banks, online archives, web-pages, audiovisual material and more recently apps for smartphones and tablets, all readily accessible.

With that in mind, it’s worth considering how schools can prepare students to respond to the wealth of information available, to them and how they can use technology for personal and social benefits. One way of preparing students for this is by promoting cross-curricular digital literacy.

"Delivering a lesson on iPads in front of students who were vastly more comfortable with this technology was daunting."

Digital literacy is about more than the practically competent use of devices. It’s about students being able to use technology in a critical way in relation to wider social responsibilities and global citizenship. FutureLab (2010) propose that being “digitally literate is to have access to a broad range of practices and cultural resources that you are able to apply to digital tools. It is the ability to make and share meaning in different modes and formats; to create, collaborate and communicate effectively and to understand how and when digital technologies can best be used to support these processes.’ It’s a very broad church, so to speak, and the definitions don’t get any clearer the more you wade through academia. The definition of digital literacy varies from engaging with media through to basic technical ability.

Doug Belshaw (2006) drew on this complexity and proposed eight key principles for digital literacy which Julia Sharman has written about here.

Why do students need to be digitally literate?

There’s little doubt that elements of digital literacy are already in place in most schools, from e-safety in PSHE through to technical competency in ICT. Yet the more social elements and critical elements appear to be the weaker link. Students have all the skills required to use the technology, but not always the critical thinking skills to appraise the information in front of them. When I was asked why students need to be digitally literate two things stood out to me:

1. Students have the transferable skills to conduct online research and approach a range of digital texts across a range of contexts.

If any teacher has ever had copy and paste research or notes full of jargon that the student couldn’t explain, then there’s a need to rethink how we teach students to use technology outside of ICT. To promote digital literacy across the curriculum, staff need to avoid seeing digital literacy and technology as something done by IT teachers alone.

Some schools, like mine, have gone down the route of 1:1 device deployment; others have ICT suites that can be booked for research lessons. Technology offers us a range of opportunities for developing learning experiences in a range of subjects. I’ll be the first to say that the idea of delivering lesson content on iPads in front of students who were probably vastly more comfortable with technology than me was daunting. Sometimes for non-specialists, IT can fall into the same trap as Maths, where people feel quite comfortable to say in front of students ‘oh I don’t really do IT’ or ‘I’m not very good at this’.

If we’re going to promote digital literacy across the curriculum then a more positive language is needed, eg ‘Something’s gone wrong, can I have a volunteer to help me out?’ By changing our language use, our students see that we’re on the journey with them, and common sense says that they’re more likely to buy into something if it’s seen as a positive experience.

After getting over the initial ‘what do I do with this piece of equipment?’, it was easy to see how 1:1 devices could be used to promote more independent learners. Students could access a thesaurus/dictionary in seconds, use school literacy resources to proofread their work, select their own pathway to achieving the lesson objectives and could be more independent by 'just Googling' the answers to their questions, freeing me up to take on a more facilitatory role.

However, I've since changed my idea of independence. Whereas previously students could ask me for the 'correct' view, now students can click the top result and accept that answer as fact. It's essentially the same thing: students passively consuming whatever 'correct answer' is put in front of them - which is an issue if you're teaching topics that are not so clear cut. As educators, we're all aware that we have a responsibility to promote literacy across the curriculum. But what if our learners need more than functional literacy to succeed and thrive in the information age?

I believe they do. In order to prepare students for life beyond the classroom, it’s essential to engage them in discussions of authority, bias, reliability and validity so that they can approach any topic in any subject in a way that is challenging and academically critical. This can be achieved through scaffolding research tasks, providing thinking guides to help students approach texts, building in transferable skills such as note taking and referencing sources. By doing this students are best placed for accessing a range of information across the curriculum, in future and in life outside of education. In many ways, high-quality digital skills are a life skill for a range of situations beyond the classroom.

2. Students need a greater awareness of the relationship between the technological and social worlds they inhabit.

When Belshaw discussed the communicative and civic elements of digital literacy, he acknowledged that digital literacy is not just about one person using a piece of technology. Through the many channels of computer mediated communication, we are able to be socially active: for better or worse. At best, students can sign online petitions, connect with people who share similar interests and use social media to build and sustain relationships. At worst, they can engage in damaging online behaviours such as cyberbullying or partake in risk-taking behaviours, potentially creating a lifelong digital footprint that may come to regret in adulthood.

By building on research skills and ideas of authority, validity, reliability and bias, students are then in a place to explore the content they encounter in their social use of technology. There is a huge amount of information out there, not all of it true and lots of it misleading. If students lack the criticality to unpick a range of texts, they are more likely to passively consume whatever view is put in front of them.

The examples that come to mind are the memes/share photos on social media that target minority groups. There are a range of varieties of these kind of posts, often on groups such as British First, and repeatedly these posts will target a specific minority group. This example is taken from Britain First’s Facebook Page.
"By building on research skills, students are able to explore the content they encounter in their social use of technology."
The ‘facts’ presented in such posts are usually false or they conflate two different issues (in this case that there is a link between grooming and somebody’s faith) yet because most people would be appalled at child abuse, there is a risk that such online campaigns succeed in spreading messages of hate and intolerance by attaching their political opinions to emotive issues that may resonate with the general public. In this case, the suggestion is that somebody would share or attend the march in protest in response to the Rotherham grooming issue. Yet in doing this, implicit support for Britain First is given – even if the person sharing may not agree with the ideas behind the group.

Now, this isn’t scaremongering, and I’m not for one second suggesting that these pages specifically target young people (I think most adults have seen other adults sharing similar posts). But I do believe that if young people are digitally and critically literate that they would be able to untangle the range of issues that get conflated in these kind of posts. I know in my career I’ve had discussions in PSHE with students about things they’ve seen online and it makes for a really interesting discussion. That said, it’s important to have that discussion and even better if that discussion about agendas and biases is reinforced through high-quality, digital literacy teaching.

Conclusion

With so much information readily available in a range of multimodal formats, from text to multimedia, apps and social networking, we need to blend technological learning and critical literacy together so that students can critically appraise the information that they are accessing. Teaching digital literacy is something that can be embedded into regular teaching in all subjects at all stages of education. To do that, it needs to be explicitly taught and reinforced by every teacher in every subject in a way that is appropriate for students.

 How do you teach digital literacy? Share your tips in the comments below!

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