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Opinion: 'FE needs to work out how to teach digital literacy'

Matt Dean, technology policy manager at the Association of Colleges, argues that digital literacy is as important as reading and reading

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Matt Dean, technology policy manager at the Association of Colleges, argues that digital literacy is as important as reading and reading

Wikipedia defines a digitally literate person as possessing a “range of digital skills, knowledge of the basic principles of computing devices, skills in using computer networks, an ability to engage in online communities and social networks while adhering to behavioural protocols”. It goes on to describe the ability to “find, capture and evaluate information, an understanding of the societal issues raised by digital technologies (such as big data) and possess critical thinking skills.” The rest of the entry on digital literacy is well written, well researched and uses the medium of the internet to convey information well. As an example of digital literacy, the article illustrates the points it describes.

Digital literacy is not simply a means by which we consume ever-increasing amounts of data and information, but a critical and creative means of interacting with the world.

Students should be able to use, for example, a tablet, and the software and applications that it runs. However, they also need to be able to think critically about the information and data aggregated and disseminated by the device, the applications and the software.

A good way to start thinking about digital literacy is to recognise that it does not replace, or take precedence over, any other literacy. What is certain, however, is that digital literacy is as important as literacy in language and reading. The degree to which the economy and society is networked, facilitated and driven by the proliferation of personal devices, means that everyone has to achieve a degree of digital literacy to contribute to, and participate in, the world we inhabit. The question should not be if we should teach digital literacy, but how to do teach it well.

Given the prevalence of digital technology in society, it’s easy to assume that the standard of digital literacy is high. But access to and frequent use of smartphones or tablets does not imply a digitally literate use of the information delivered by those devices.  How then do colleges develop curricula that teach digital literacy?

We might start by recognising that it is an aggregation of disparate skills. Yes, students may need to know how to write content for differing audiences using the potential of the web, most obviously the use of hypertext, but they also need to know how to assess the credibility of information, to repurpose that information without recourse to plagiarism and to understand the rights and responsibilities incumbent of them through accessing information, data and authored content.

Such an approach implies that digital literacy is not to be taught as a discrete subject, but ought to be embedded in the whole of the curriculum. When we learn to read, it not only allows us to comprehend written instructions and participate in civil society, but to understand fiction and poetry; moreover, being literate allows us to express ourselves and to be creative.

The ability to programme a computer is an important skill in the 21st-century economy, but it is not essential to digital literacy. The ability to work collaboratively, independently and to undertake "self-directed" study are skills essential to a globalised, in some cases post-industrial, economy but they are not synonymous with digital literacy. It is neither a "hard" nor a "soft" skill, although it contains elements of both.

Digital literacy has value. Almost every aspect of our society is pervaded by digital technology and while access to that technology remains far from universal, and is often inequitable, that pervasiveness is the defining characteristic of our era. Individual freedom and creativity, and societal and economic development, are becoming dependent on a degree of digital literacy. FE needs to work out how best to teach it.

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