‘Digital literacy’ is quite a broad term commonly used to describe a range of skills and experience of digital hardware and software that taken together represent a certain competency and understanding of the digital landscape.
In respect of young people the term is often used alongside the term ‘digital natives’ used to describe the fact that young people who have been brought up with and are regular users of digital technology are therefore naturally ‘digitally literate’.
This is a misnomer.
It is true that young people these days who are brought up with digital technology, know how to text, to access YouTube, Flickr, to film videos, take photographs, use a range of ‘games’ and ‘apps‘, Tweet and lead Facebook lives (interestingly often with a corresponding reluctance to make actual telephone calls, preferring to text or Tweet, or Facebook).
All of that is ‘using’ technology that is available to them. What they too often do not know about is how to ‘organise’ and present themselves digitally.
It is increasingly becoming recognised that for young people the development of a digital portfolio of them and their work are an important resource as they continue their education and move into the world of work.
It is certainly the case, also, that fast growing numbers of potential employers will demand the essentials of digital literacy as a given, before even considering any other skills that may pertain to particular jobs.
Yet, the basic digital skills needed to create digital portfolio’s, to be digitally organised and aware, to be able to operate confidently in a digital environment are too often sadly lacking.
These are skills such as file naming, directory structures, visual presentation (incl. navigation), using search terms, evaluating information, editing and presenting information, communication through emails and texts (other than with friends), the building blocks of digital literacy and the core skills that most young people will be expected to have when they enter the world of work.
Unfortunately it is alarmingly common for the development of these skills to be wholly neglected at school, not least because many teachers themselves are not confident in these matters. There are schools that are on top of this, that are embedding digital literacy into what they do, right from infant and primary, but they are, unfortunately, in the minority.
(I should just interject that I do not lay blame for this. We live in a fast moving world where digital technology is developing exponentially and keeping up is difficult. I do, though, believe that we do need to recognise the issue and take urgent steps to deal with it).
The upshot of this, apart from the obvious fact that it means that many young people are ill prepared for the 21st century world of work is that when young people go on to produce digital portfolios at secondary school or college, or when they undertake tasks that involve digital technology within apprenticeships, as they inevitably will, the result can be rather poor because of their lack of the basics of digital literacy.
A couple of examples (of which there are many):
I very recently participated in a pilot project in a junior school working with a number of Year 6 pupils developing presentation materials within some software that museums use for their interactive displays. The pilot was to ascertain how to best work with the pupils to produce the interactive displays that could then be displayed in museums, thus creating a link between school and the world outside school.
We were fortunate that for this project the pupils had a rich source of resources to work with because they had recently run a very successful festival at the school during which very many (dozens if not hundreds) videos and photographs were taken and audio interviews undertaken.
However, when we came to work with the pupils in identifying appropriate videos, photographs, interviews to accompany the texts they had produced we discovered that none of these resources had meaningful filenames, or were organised into meaningful folders, but were simply stored in one place with numerical filenames i.e. 001, 002, 003, 004 etc..
This meant that the task of identifying appropriate resources entailed the very long winded (and tedious) process of reviewing all the videos, photographs and interviews, one by one, with all the pupils. Because of the importance of the pilot to us and to the pupils we did spend the time doing this. However, during normal school time this would be wholly impractical.
The upshot of this is a sort of misunderstanding around the implementation of digital technology in education.
On one hand the use of digital devices (including cameras. smartphones, tablet devices etc,) to produce fantastically valuable digital resources is to be applauded.
On the other hand, without properly organising these resources they become effectively inaccessible, tantalisingly sitting there, but unlikely to be utilised.
The school in question, in my view, missed a huge opportunity to work with the pupils on the back of the excitement of the Festival to catalogue the digital results so that they were properly accessible as a great resource.
A similar pilot in another school that did not have the advantage of such potentially readily available digital resources made greater use of Wikipedia as a source of information.
It quickly became clear that the pupils were employing a cut and paste methodology, simply making a few changes to the texts to make them appear as original writing. Characteristically the pupils did not fully understand the Wikipedia texts so the edits that they applied (sometimes just removing a whole paragraph or sentence) often rendered the texts meaningless.
In my view, if we are to prepare our young people for life in the 21st century we must give them the building blocks they will need to survive and thrive in a world where digital technology is prevalent.
By year 6 they should be a lot savvier around this, and at least have some basic sense of how to manage information, how to organise themselves and their work in a digital environment, and how to communicate effectively with the very powerful digital tools and facilities that are available.
Then when they move to secondary education, to college, undertake apprenticeships everything they do will be properly underpinned. However, whilst steps should be taken to introduce these basics in the younger years it also should be recognised that for many pupils moving into secondary, higher education or apprenticeships these basics may be lacking.
The way to address this, in my view, is not to hold separate basic digital literacy classes in isolation from other activities but to embed elements of it within the programmes of work and study that students are already participating in. This makes the need for basic digital literacy skills ‘real’ rather than being taught in isolation (which could be mind numbingly boring).