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ICT - Caught out

Pupils have a natural facility for using new media, but many lack the `digital literacy' they need to make the best use of it. Jack Kenny reports

Pupils have a natural facility for using new media, but many lack the `digital literacy' they need to make the best use of it. Jack Kenny reports

American researchers recently revealed that eight to 18-year-olds spend an average of seven hours and 38 minutes using entertainment media on a typical day. And because much of that time they are "multi-tasking" they actually fit as much as 10 hours, 45 minutes' worth of media usage into that time. But what are they doing with this information?

Conventional literacy helps students to deal with a world of texts. Now educationalists and teachers are looking for a "digital literacy" that will help pupils to confront this onslaught of information and encourage them to make the best use of the new technologies in their possession.

So what are schools doing to create responsible and informed users? One of the problems with building digital literacy is agreeing on its definition. According to Doug Belshaw, researcher with JISC (formerly known as the Joint Information Systems Committee), the Government tends to see it in terms of basic skills, such as being able to turn on a computer.

But David Baugh, a former primary teacher and now an independent ICT adviser, believes that digital literacy is more about a thorough understanding of the media pupils are working with.

"(It is) the ability to distil information, validate it and put it into a form that makes sense to an audience," says Mr Baugh, an Apple Distinguished Educator - in recognition of his work using technology in the classroom.

"It is also the ability to write in different media. Students need to understand how things are put together in film, TV and radio."

Putting what they find on the internet or in other digital media into real-life context is also important, argues Racheal Smith, head of English at Bishop Fox's Community School in Taunton.

"Digital literacy is the ability to independently understand and work within the digital world," she explains. "I would suggest it is the ability to offer critical insight into digital texts while understanding how these texts can be used and applied in real contexts."

Mr Belshaw suggests that teachers form a working group to come up with a definition that suits their school's context. "I would give them a bunch of things to read to look at our demographics and our experience. The definition, when we arrive at it, should evolve or it will become static and outdated."

Many teachers, intimidated by children's facility with digital technology, assume that because they are always switched on, they are experts. It turns out that most students are uncritical users, accepting the digital world as a given condition. There is a role for teachers here to bring in critical, sceptical, thinking.

For example, writer and lecturer Howard Rheingold found that many of his university students, although technically literate with laptops and mobile phones, did little of any meaning with the information they got out of them. "They are good at learning software by just clicking around, but that does not mean they understand how to advocate, how to organise, how to use the rhetoric," he says.

In schools, there is an element of "parallel learning", according to Alastair Wells, director of e-learning at Netherhall School in Cambridge.

"There is what the teachers teach according to the exam syllabuses, and what the kids actually learn on their own," he says. "At key stage 4, what we are expected to teach is not particularly creative. Sometimes it can be as basic as creating five PowerPoint slides. The kids are not asked to give much thought to the content."

Mr Wells works with pupils in KS3 on understanding the validity of a website, detecting bias and the like. He ensures digital literacy is taught across subjects rather than as a separate entity.

"I set it up to happen, and timetable it to happen. For instance, in English they create web pages for a real audience; in history, they are expected to look at sources and detect bias," he says.

Martin Waller, a teacher at Holy Trinity Rosehill CofE Primary School in Stockton-on-Tees, argues that promoting digital literacy is just as important as traditional literacy.

"It is an essential part of the way we communicate," he says. "We should be teaching children that there are different types of communication and giving pupils the skills to decide which are appropriate."

Mr Waller recently completed a project on the Br'er Rabbit stories that uses many aspects of digital media. Children researched the origin of the oral stories on the internet. Then they looked at the written texts before analysing the films made from the stories.

They used Twitter for their work and contacted `The Wren's Nest' museum in Atlanta, Georgia - once occupied by author Joel Chandler Harri - and the museum sent a message in response.

A live storytelling session was set up through Skype with one of Harris's relatives. The culmination of the project was that the children created their own versions of the stories through digital animation.

With older pupils, teachers could use the same stories to show how Chandler Harris was resented by black American writers for stealing their heritage. By encouraging the class to take a sceptical approach to all the information available - from Wikipedia to old newspaper cuttings - they can see how no media can be taken in isolation or at face value.

Projects such as this show digital literacy in action. By working out what it means for your pupils, it can help to foster a different way of looking at the deluge of information the "digital natives" in your classroom come into contact with every day.


- Is there a digital divide in your school between teachers and taught?

- What is your definition of digital literacy?

- How far is your definition shared with your colleagues?

- How does your school ensure that staff have the skills to teach pupils how to deal with the deluge of information?

- How does your school ensure that your pupils leave with a high degree of digital literacy and creativity?

- How similar to or different from your pupils is your digital life?

- Should digital literacy be delivered across the curriculum or by one group of teachers?

- How far has the use of digital media changed your work in the classroom?

- What professional development will be necessary in your school?


Futurelab: Digital participation, digital literacy and school subjects


Digital literacy across the curriculum


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