Digital Literacy

The growth of the digital economy, improved access to the internet and continuing  technological advancements are having a profound impact on modern life, with communication, commerce, entertainment, and employment all now operating in recently transformed paradigms.

For this generation of school students, who are growing up in this digital world, there are fascinating opportunities awaiting. However, the growth of the digital economy is creating new challenges for schools and educators – how are educators expected to prepare students for a future we are unable to imagine?

A recent OECD report suggested that in the 21st Century ‘the success of individuals, firms, regions, and countries will reflect more than anything else their ability to learn’ which in turn raises ‘profound questions for the kinds of knowledge pupils are being equipped with and ought to be equipped with, by schools’.

In education, technologies are becoming increasingly adopted by schools to support traditional classroom learning. Across Europe access to computers at school has increased dramatically since 2006, ‘laptops and interactive whiteboards are now extensively in place’ and, ‘Broadband is now almost ubiquitous in schools’. At schools in North America and Canada access to computers is widespread, with the student:computer ratio in Canada at 3.45:1. However, despite the increased presence of educational technologies in schools and colleges, there remains considerable debate regarding how effectively these technologies support learning and equipping students with the skill they need to succeed in the 21st Century.

Educational technologies were originally adopted with the objectives of supporting traditional learning outcomes, such as numeracy, literacy, and improve student attainment, and for many educational institutions this remains the purpose of educational technologies. However, there are increasing numbers of teachers who believe that the use of educational technologies should go beyond simply improving students’ scores in traditional assessments.

In recent years, forward thinking schools and educators have begun focusing on using educational technologies which support students to develop the ability to better utilize technology and develop a skill set which has become known as digital literacy.

The term digital literacy has taken on a myriad of definitions, with the COED (2009) PISA defining Digital Reading Literacy as the ability to, ‘evaluate information from several web-based sources, assessing the credibility and utility of what they read using criteria that they have generated themselves… able to work out a pathway across multiple sites to find information without explicit direction’ while other theorists, who are influenced by Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences, have developed more detailed definitions.

A thorough definition of Digital Literacy has been offered by Martin, Digital Literacy is the awareness, attitude and ability of individuals to appropriately use digital literacy and facilities to identify, access, manage, integrate, evaluate, analyse and synthesize digital resources, construct new knowledge, create media expressions, and communicate with others, in the context of specific life situations, in order to enable constructive social action, and to reflect upon this process.

Developing this skills set requires classroom teachers to embrace student-centered use of technology in the class and provide learners with opportunities to; search for information online, analyse the reliability of the information they find, use technological tools for creative purposes, communicate and collaborate using technology and learn how to use technology and social media safely and responsibly.

Given the complex nature of digital literacy, it is not a skill set which can be developed within the traditional teacher-led classroom, nor is it an educational objective which can be measured by simply accumulating quantitative data.

Teachers wishing to support their students’ development of digital literacy skills need to create lessons which integrate student-centered learning activities and project-based learning that incorporates technology. When students are engaged in these types of activities which require them to research, create, communicate and collaborate using digital resources, they will be enhancing their level of digital literacy.

As such, as lot depends on the teacher’s’ priorities, and unfortunately, with the demands in modern schools for all students to meet specific curriculum objectives, teachers often neglect broader skill sets, such as digital literacy skills. It may be that the teachers view their teaching duties as being subject orientated, with their responsibilities tied to the delivery of the subject content.

Unfortunately, with teachers narrowly focusing on subject specific educational outcomes, students’ development of essential 21st Century skills, such as digital literacy, which is only covered within the Computer Studies curriculum, may suffer. While many teachers now recognize the importance of digital literacy, the demands in modern schools do little to encourage teachers to support skills which fall outside their narrowly defined subject-centered curricula.

To ensure that all students have access, and opportunity, to develop these skills in a safely structured environment, it may be necessary for educational authorities and school leaders to allocate the development of digital literacy a higher priority than these skills currently receive. Otherwise, many students could miss out on acquiring the skills necessary to competently navigate the digital world and succeed in the workplace of the 21st Century.

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