As teachers we are preparing students for life. Just as we inhabit the social environments of home, school, civic, and cultural life, we also inhabit digital spaces. What skills and dispositions do we need to develop in children to prepare them, for life in these spaces? Are we as teachers digitally literate? And what does digital literacy mean?
I believe digital literacy is more than software or hardware competence. Coming from a design background the best designers I worked and studied with were rarely those that new the most about desktop publishing or image manipulation; they were the ones that had enough of these skills to implement their own vision of the work they wanted to create. Similarly I believe it is more important to concentrate on the underlying principals of what can be achieved in the digital age, than simply demonstrating proficiency in operating existing technologies.
Back in 2011 Eric Schmidt the CEO of Google commented on what he saw as a worrying trend in the UK ‘I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools – Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made’ (The Guardian). I would argue that the recent changes to the national curriculum moving away from ICT towards principals behind computing however rudimentary are welcome.
Doug Belshaw has identified eight key elements of digital literacy: cultural, cognitive, construction, communication, confidence, creative, critical and civic. Belshaw also explains that the rank importance of these will vary greatly on the context. The interests and opportunities of the digitally literate are different here in the UK to those in Japan and elsewhere.
Digital literacy in Primary School
So what could a digitally literate child look like in key stage two according to Belshaw’s model? Culturally they would be operating within the E-safe confines of an English Primary School so they would not be open to the full ‘wild’ experience of the world-wide-web. The civic nature of digital space puts great responsibility on schools who in my experience err on the side of caution in order to create a safe environment for children to explore cyberspace, whether they are using PCs or tablets. A digitally literate child will have a growing awareness that what they do on their screen can be accessed widely and that they need to careful if they are publishing material.
Cognitively they would be aware of applications and websites that would give them access to information, experiences, and opportunities to take part in constructive activities of their choosing, whether its times table tests (such as Sumdog), animation programmes (like Puppet Pals) or designing simple games (such as on Scratch). We can support this by researching and demonstrating high quality applications and resources for our students.
Many schools offer safe, heavily monitored, social media platforms for children to operate in, so that they can develop communication literacy, they also might like making audio boo’s or short movies. A digitally literate child would show signs of evaluating the most appropriate channel for a specific task, for example using a forum to ask a question or making an audio boo to share an interesting sound they had heard or interview.
The fifth of Belshaws 8 ‘C’s is confidence, but I think here his desire for a neat eight C’s prevented him using better words such as initiative and independence. A digitally literate child will self-manage their exploration, confident that when they find an obstacle, they will find a way around it. I’m amazed as a parent how my young son can find his way around a complex platform game and not need lots of instructions ‘how did you do that?’ I ask ‘I figured it out’ he will reply. It is this confidence that will allow children to be creative, to figure out new solutions whether they are developing a game, editing a cartoon, or manipulating an image. By giving children tasks that balance exploration within structured parameters we can create vehicles for their creativity. I witnessed a wonderful art lesson in year 2 where all the children were using essentially the same process to make a clay owl. However their individual skills, preferences, and aesthetics meant that there was enormous variation in the results. We can apply these processes to digital projects.
But the most important skills we can develop in our young digital learners is criticality. The amount of information available to us via the internet is probably incalculable, as teachers we can help children to evaluate information by modelling good questioning. Who produced this website? What did she produce it for? Can we trust it? Why is it useful to us? By giving children these critical tools and a safe environment in which they can explore the web we can open up opportunities that previous generations only dreamed of.