What is digital literacy and why is it needed?

Julia Sharman

Julia has over 30 years’ experience working in the education sector as a specialist and advisory teacher for SEND and mental health. Previously a Local Authority Coordinator leading on educational projects and community learning in the public, private and voluntary sectors and freelance writer. She is a specialist teacher for children with dyslexia and an Advisory Teacher for children with mental health issues and medical and health needs.

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Technology affects all of us: from our working lives, to our home and social lives. There is no denying that the growth of technology, particularly in the last ten years, has been at an unprecedented pace.

Becoming digitally literate is something that affects anyone that uses computers, the internet, mobile phones, tablets and other devices to communicate with friends, work colleagues, business. As educators we need to ensure our students become digitally literate in order that they have the best possible chances of succeeding in our technological world.

It has long been accepted that the type of employment our current five year olds will enter into doesn’t exist yet, and the prophecy is that it will be in technology. Improving digital literacy is an essential component of developing effective and employable learners as it is anticipated that up to 90% of new jobs will require excellent digital skills.

Being digitally literate isn’t simply being able to operate a computer or other devices, there are much wider aspects involved such as having the skills, knowledge and confidence to find, utilise, adapt, transform, summarise, evaluate, create and communicate data using a range of digital appliances.

The Department for Education (DfE) in 2011 say, “the increasing use of technology in all aspects of society makes confident, creative and productive use of ICT an essential skill for life. ICT capability encompasses not only the mastery of technical skills and techniques, but also the understanding to apply these skills purposefully, safely and responsibly in learning, everyday life and employment. ICT capability is fundamental to participation and engagement in modern society.”

The recent published digital literacy survey undertaken by The Princes Trust (March 2013) found that “10% of unemployed young people cannot send their CV online, while more than one in six believe that they would be in work if they had better computer skills... A quarter of unemployed young people 'dread' filling in job applications online and one in 10 admit they avoid using computers or believe that their computer skills are not good enough to use in the job they want.”

Martina Milburn, The Prince’s Trust Chief Executive, said: “A lack of computer literacy can hold young people back and this is damaging their job prospects. Without basic computer skills, young people will not be able to pursue career paths and passions because they can’t get a foot in the door.”

Back in 2006, Doug Belshaw cited digital literacy as unclear, didn’t include a sequential set of skills and varied greatly between different educational faculties from early years to further education establishments. From his own research he established eight essential principles of digital literacy:

  • Cultural – paying attention to the culture and ethos of a situation
  • Cognitive – thinking about the way devices and programmes are used
  • Constructive – use digital tools in reflective and appropriate ways to be constructive and socially active
  • Communicative – digital tools and power structures change the way of communication. An element of digital literacy is how to take command of that structure and use for effective communication and meaningful contribution
  • Confident – to become a proficient user have the courage and confidence to dive into the unknown, take risks, make mistakes and learn from them
  • Creative - “The creative adoption of new technology requires teachers who are willing to take risks…a prescriptive curriculum, routine practices… and a tight target-setting regime is unlikely to be helpful” (Conlon & Simpson 2003)
  • Critical - digital literacy involves an understanding of how to deal with hyperspace and hypertext and that it’s not ‘entirely read or spoken’. Being able to critically evaluate the technologies that are being used
  • Civic – being able to use technology to improve our own and other’s lives

With exception to the reference to target-setting regime by Conlon & Simpson (2003), the DfE (2012) ICT curriculum is reflected in the eight principles set out by Belshaw. The key concepts and recommendations for teaching are: capability, communication and collaboration, exploring ideas and manipulating information, impact of technology and critical evaluation. The key processes are: Finding information, developing ideas, communicating ideas and evaluating.

So far, the reports are that ICT programmes of study are not hitting the mark. Therefore, although a tightly-targeted regime may not the best way forward, a well-structured and progressive programme of study should be devised.

It is likely that schools will have to regularly update their IT programme of study so that they can keep up with the rapid advances of technology. This is particularly prevalent with the increasing use of online research and educational software being used as teaching and learning aids through the use of mobile devices. As the ICT recommendations are still in their infancy with regard to teaching, delivery and learning, do educators need to be given more time, particularly around creativity? Whilst the programme of study is still in draft format, and the curriculum is still in a consultation period, teachers and educators should put their views forward while they have the opportunity to do so.

In 2011, the DfE specified that: “ICT enables rapid access to ideas and experiences from a wide range of people, communities and cultures, and allows pupils to collaborate and exchange information on a wide scale. ICT acts as a powerful force for change in society and citizens should have an understanding of the social, ethical, legal and economic implications of its use, including how to use ICT safely and responsibly.”

To acquire learning and innovation skills the following must be included into the ICT curriculum: creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration. Programmes of study that encompass the core digital skills will equip students with the necessary skills to succeed in their learning, their future workplace, and living in digital society. There is strength in diversity!

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