Our digital aspiration?
Computers (aka digital technologies) have been in our classrooms and schools for four decades now – almost as long as I’ve been an educator – yet still we’re trying to find a way of describing or explaining what the contribution is of these devices to the education of our young.
As the use of digital technologies has become more pervasive, the focus of attention has shifted to questions about the measurement of this impact – both in terms of the contribution of digital technologies to learning, and in terms of the qualities and we deem to be desirable in the users of these technologies, those who will live their lives in an increasingly digital world.
When I started working with computers with learners, the focus of attention seemed to be predominantly on teaching the skills associated with their use – how to open files, save files, cut-and-paste etc. These foundational skills are still regarded as important, and in the 1980s there was a big demand for courses with this focus. Nowadays it’s questionable just how much of this needs to be ‘taught’ explicitly vs. learned in the process of using. Many schools are using some form of ‘computer drivers license’ or ‘digital passport’ to provide explicit expectations of students in terms of their digital proficiency, but how these are learned and demonstrated is left to the students.
The OECD suggests that governments should make efforts to identify and conceptualise the required set of skills and competences, and then incorporate them into educational standards and, in response to this suggestion, there are several national projects working on defining national standards.
More recently there’s been a shift to talking about digital literacy. Simply put, digital literacy represents a person’s ability to perform tasks effectively in a digital environment. The power of literacy in this context lies not merely in the ability to use the various tools and applications, but rather in an individual's capacity to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and create information using a range of digital technologies. This includes the ability to read and interpret media, to reproduce data and images through digital manipulation and to evaluate and apply new knowledge gained from digital environments.
It’s a bit like learning to read and write. While building a vocabulary of words and being able to represent them in written form are pre-requisite skills, becoming fully literate involves a much wider and more complex range of abilities – engaging with text, extracting meaning, synthesizing, analyzing etc.
Developing digital proficiency and becoming digitally literate can, to a significant degree, be achieved by an individual. They are important, indeed essential qualities and characteristics for an individual to possess if they are to lead productive and satisfying lives in the digital world.
Yet to be fully functional in the digital world requires more than this. It builds on the awareness of being part of something bigger than one’s self, and of the need to temper one’s individual use (or misuse) of digital technologies with the responsibilities that emerge from understanding the impact of our own behaviors on others. It requires a sense of ‘citizenship’, and the rights and responsibilities associated with that.
In thinking about this I was reminded of a diagram explaining the information age that I first drew up for classes of initial teacher educators I was teaching back in the early 1990s. It’s not an original idea, and versions of this sort of thinking have appeared in all sorts of forms over the past decade or so.
The diagram begins with data at the bottom – the building blocks of all information. When gathered with purpose the data becomes information. When used in context, the information becomes knowledge (some have added ‘understanding’ here). But when knowledge is consistently applied and becomes embedded in action, it becomes wisdom.
I see the discussion about digital literacy developing in the same way. The building blocks (data and information) of the digital world are the skills and competencies we develop that make use digitally proficient. Applying those in our daily context makes us digitally literate. But developing the wisdom associated with being respectful, keeping ourselves and others safe and being productive in the digital world is what characterizes us as citizens.
I’ve attempted to capture this thinking in the diagram at the top of this post. The challenge I want to post is, should ‘digital literacy’ be our aspiration for the young people in our schools? Sure, being digitally literate will likely provide them with greater opportunities for employment and success in life, but shouldn’t we aspire to see that success and participation operate at a much higher level than simply what benefits the individual?
As our thinking at both school and national level continues to develop, I vote for an emphasis on nurturing our young people with the competencies required to demonstrate qualities of citizenship in a digital world.