As digital technology becomes more ubiquitous, the more it becomes integral to our day-to-day lives. We rely on the internet and tech on a daily basis and probably would be unable to function without it.
Wouldn’t it then make sense to teach children how to get the most out of technology? After all, young people will eventually enter the incredibly technologically driven job market, so they should be prepared for what’s to come.
Digital technology shapes the way in which many industries do business, so it’s essential to have digital knowledge. Digital applications are an integral part of most organisations’ operational protocols whether they’re used to make appointments or govern hardware like manufacturing machinery. New digital technologies are also revolutionising the way in which we do business with virtual and augmented reality, sophisticated chatbots and AI playing an ever larger role.
This begs the question… How will today’s children adapt to the unique challenges of tomorrow’s marketplace? How can we ensure that by the time they’re ready to enter the job market they’ll have the necessary skills to thrive in a digitised economy? The answer lies in the regular use of digital tools and the promotion of digital literacy.
What is digital literacy?
Today’s children are fluent in the use of digital technology. They’ve grown up with it and it has always been a part of their life. However, an affinity for digital devices is not quite the same thing as digital literacy. Nor is digital literacy simply “being good at IT”.
There are many definitions of digital literacy, but in its simplest terms, it is understanding how to use digital technology to find, evaluate and use information. It goes beyond the basic skills of knowing how to use a tablet or how to Google something. It encompasses an interwoven combination of:
- Functional skills
- Critical thinking and evaluation
- Cultural understanding
- Social engagement
- E-safety and cybersecurity awareness
All of these elements combine to create a curriculum that helps young people gain a greater understanding of digital technology and the possibilities it presents.
This is intended not only to give young people a grounding in the skills that they will need to enter a technologically led job market, it will also provide them with the skills that they need to safely and responsibly traverse the digital landscape. It can also aid them in further academia, helping them to understand the importance of source-checking, copyright and plagiarism.
We all know that young people are particularly vulnerable to misinformation and exploitation in digital realms, and digital literacy empowers them to overcome the digital challenges of today while also preparing them for those they will face tomorrow.
Is digital literacy the fourth pillar of children’s education?
For as long as formal education has existed, its three pillars have remained the same:
- Mathematics (Arithmetic)
The “Three Rs” have been enough to provide the foundation of modern education in Britain for over a century. However, in an era of technological change where digital tools have been integrated into every facet of our society, digital literacy has been officially recognised as the “fourth pillar”.
In a 2017 report “Growing Up With The Internet”, a group of Lords called for intervention “at the highest level of Government” in imbuing young people with digital skills. The report surmised that the needs of children and adults in the digital realm are fundamentally different and that in its present form the internet does not take the needs of younger users into account.
The report states:
“It is no longer sufficient to teach digital skills in specialist computer science classes to only some pupils… We recommend that digital literacy sit alongside reading, writing and mathematics as the fourth pillar of a child’s education; and that no child should leave school without a well-rounded understanding of the digital world.”
There’s no denying that it is incumbent upon all schools to provide their students with the skills that they need to grow into digitally literate adults. But what would a curriculum of this nature look like?
What needs to be covered in the classroom
While schools and individual teachers will have autonomy over the specifics of pedagogy, a digital literacy syllabus needs to cover certain bases in order to fulfil its intended function as the fourth pillar of education.
Because digital literacy reaches into all aspects of children’s lives, it should not simply be a discrete subject or an intermittent part of PSHE education. It should resonate across the curriculum, bleeding into every faculty and every subject. Some key elements of digital literacy that schools must impart include:
The NSPCC regard children’s online safety as an extremely high priority. When they access the internet, especially social media, children can become vulnerable to a range of risks both from other children and adults. 3 out of 4 parents have looked into or received information about managing their children’s online safety risks. From these statistics from NSPCC, it’s not hard to see why, considering:
- Around 1 in 4 children have experienced something upsetting on social media
- Around 1 in 8 children have been bullied on social media
- 1 in 4 young people have come across racist or hateful messages online
- In 2017/ 2018 there were over 2,200 counselling sessions with young people who talked to Childline about online sexual abuse.
Not all parents have the knowledge or resources to teach their children about online safety. It’s up to schools to impart this knowledge.
Critical thinking and fake news
We live in an age where people make assumptions about news content just from reading a headline and share inflammatory posts on social media without checking the accuracy of their sources. This is far from conducive to healthy online discussion.
Children need to be taught to engage critical thinking skills and not to believe everything they read online. This will help them in further academia as well as their day-to-day lives.
Incorporating digital learning in lessons
Digital literacy can only be truly effective if it is as ubiquitous as digital technology itself. All students deserve the chance to become digitally literate, and education is the way to ensure this.
However, it isn’t enough to have digital literacy be taught in only PSHE or IT lessons. Digital learning must be incorporated “across the board” as an intrinsic part of children’s education, in order for students to have broad digital knowledge with ample opportunities to apply it.
Using the internet appropriately and ethically
A new form of etiquette has arisen around digital interactions. Unfortunately, however, one need only log into Twitter to learn that many web users aren’t in the habit of “playing nice” when it comes to their discussions with others.
A key component of fixing this lies with ensuring that children are taught the importance of using the internet ethically and appropriately from a young age, especially because everything posted on the internet essentially lasts forever. Students need to be taught that inappropriate usage can have consequences.
Teaching students about online advertisements
The internet is a colossal marketing free-for-all. Everywhere they look, children see a range of increasingly sophisticated advertising copy designed to target them. Children can be highly susceptible to advertisements, which is why schools should be teaching students critical thinking skills to challenge covert advertising.
These critical thinking skills can also be applied to other parts of the internet, such as what they are exposed to on social media, which would otherwise affect impressionable children.
How we can ensure a digitally literate future in young people’s lives
Digital literacy will pave the way towards a brighter digital future. Teachers play a critical role in making sure that today’s youth go beyond simply using technology to being truly digitally literate. But, to do this, they need access to technology in the classroom. Learning simply through lectures cannot have the same impact as showing, engagement and practicing with the real digital tools.
Kids have access to technology. Teachers and classrooms need the same. The integration of technology in the classroom, in every classroom plays a key role in making sure students are prepared for present and future digital challenges.
To deliver effective digital literacy provision, schools need to rely on outside support to procure and build IT systems that can support their educational technology and deliver a secure online environment to students. This will also provide all students with equal opportunity to prepare for their digital futures, regardless of how exposed to technology they are at home.
Although there are challenges that come with digital technology and edtech investment in the classroom, it is a crucial part in ensuring that students have a working, applied knowledge of digital literacy. It will instil young people with the skills they need to prepare for the future while navigating the digital challenges of the present.