Are we taking digital literacy seriously enough?

Children are not being taught basic yet fundamental digital literacy skills - and this could have a long-term impact on their future

Dan Worth

Children working on computers in classroom

“It’s a myth that children are all digital natives,” says Kirsty Grundy, principal of Shireland Technology Primary and primary director for Shireland Collegiate Academy Trust.

As someone passionate about the importance of giving children an embedded understanding of digital skills she is worried that the importance of digital literacy is being overlooked, and will have a detrimental impact on young people.

“I think we are failing the current generation of children who are coming through our schools and creating a perfect storm because of the lack of a qualification that all children need to take in terms of digital skills.”

Many may find this view surprising. After all, aren’t children inherently good with technology now they are surrounded by smartphones, tablets and more?

Mrs Grundy thinks not: “People think that just because they [children] have grown up around technology they are able to use it – but really that’s only in their social lives. When it comes to using productivity tools such as spreadsheets or presentation software, they can’t do it.”

“Yet we are increasingly becoming more of a digitised workplace and you have employers crying out for these sorts of skills – but we are producing a generation of children who don’t know how to use them in terms of learning, and how to use it when it comes to their job.”

Not only this, but as Jose Picardo, deputy head of Embley, notes, many teachers are also not as au fait with technology as they perhaps should be – either because they lack the skills themselves or are unwilling to learn.

“Sometimes the tools themselves are very complicated to use and not that intuitive. Other times teachers will proudly say ‘oh I don’t do computers’, as if it’s almost a point of pride that they can’t use digital tools to do their job more effectively.”

One firm looking to tackle these two issues head-on is Google. Its Applied Digital Skills programme is designed to give both teachers and children the ability to learn and teach key digital skills that they will use in their lives – in education and beyond.

In keeping with the digital ethos, the programme is delivered as a video-based curriculum built around projects that teachers can use as lesson plans to get pupils engaging with tools such as spreadsheets, documents and presentation tools, to help them develop key digital skills.

Furthermore, to give teachers the confidence to use these guides as effectively as possible, Google hosts workshops to help them develop these skills and learn how to use the lesson guides as effectively as possible, as JamieSue Goodman, project lead for Google Applied Digital Skills, explains.

“The teacher training that we offer exposes teachers to digital skills through the videos but also talks about how to release your responsibilities to students to watch the video and build a project, and what is your role and how to engage with pupils in a one-to-one way.”

She says this balance is designed to give pupils the guidance on how to learn the core skills needed, such as how to save and share documents, while teachers can be more directly engaged with the skills around the use of the tools, such as how best to format a CV or write a professional email.

For pupils, these video lessons are designed to be fun and engaging too. For example, one task asks pupils to pick the next box-office movie hit by analysing data from a spreadsheet to teach them how to see trends and visualise information and then use this to make informed decisions.

Others tasks range from creating an if/then adventure story and avoiding online scams to building a blog and organising group projects.

Ms Goodman says setting tasks like this is key to addressing the disconnect between the view that young people will be inherently good with technology versus the reality that, without being shown how to use tools correctly, they will never actually learn how to use them.

“It may be true that students today are comfortable exploring and clicking on things in an application that they don’t understand, because that is how they have experienced life on the computer before.

“But if they then think about how to use this spreadsheet in their lives, that is not going to come naturally to anyone unless you are exposed to it. So this is an opportunity for teachers to model what students can do in the future, or in their current life, with these types of technology.”

Mr Picardo at Embley notes that fostering an understanding of how to use key pieces of software is fundamental to modern learning not just so they know how to use that specific tool, but also for giving pupils an embedded understanding of how to learn to use digital technologies.

“We talk a lot about preparing children for the future but everyone is using these things [digital technologies] now so for me it’s about preparing children for the present and that will help them shape their future.”

Ms Goodman agrees and says this is at the heart of what the Google Applied Digital Skills programme is designed to achieve.

“Generating students who feel comfortable being lifelong learners is critical to the future because workplace skills are changing so rapidly,” she says.

“There are not many [digital] skills that a teacher can teach students at aged 15 that will apply in work at 40, for example, but teaching students how to learn at 15, how to address uncertainty, to explore it on the web, to watch a video, to practice it – that’s going to apply to everything they do throughout life.”

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Dan Worth

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