Digitally skilled … OK. But digitally literate?


[Dr Jeremy B Williams
Professor of Economics, and Chair, Learning & Teaching, IMT Dubai]
Everyone seems to be talking about 21st century learning these days, and how educational institutions need to upgrade their curriculum and assessment strategies so that they can prepare young people for the modern workplace, and for a lifetime of learning.

This should be pretty straightforward, right? After all, every young person is a smartphone carrying, tech-savvy, digital native capable of dazzling elders with their skill and dexterity in the use of technology. So, introducing technology into the classroom is certain to generate improved learning outcomes. Well, maybe not.

First of all, technology is not the solution; it is simply a means to improve pedagogy, to provide a more interactive and engaging learning experience. For this to happen, those people we used to call instructors and lecturers in the 20th century need to become facilitators and mentors. This can be a difficult transition for some to make, especially those who are successful products of the old pedagogical model when all we had to do was memorise facts and pass exams to get a good job.

Second, even if a 21st century facilitator/ mentor is in charge, it is a mistake to assume that the addition of tablet PCs or some other Internet-enabled devices in the classroom will instantly transform learners into critical thinking, creative problem-solvers. This is because digital skills and digital literacy are not synonymous.

For example, you may have the digital skill to set up a Gmail account, but this does not mean you have the digital literacy to recognise a spam email asking for some personal information or private login details. Or, you might have the digital skill to figure out how to set up a WordPress blog, but you will not necessarily have the digital literacy to clearly and effectively communicate in the appropriate genre for your chosen audience.

Another example – attracting a lot of attention in recent times – relates to speculation over the accuracy of news reports (so-called fake news). Having the digital skill to make effective use of a social media tool like Facebook and all its various features is all very well, but this does not mean you have the digital literacy to spot potentially fake news, and check its veracity.

In summary, the effective use of information and communication technologies requires a new set of literacies that incorporate both technical and cognitive abilities. Finding, evaluating, creating, and communicating information is integral to 21st century learning, and demonstrating knowledge and aptitude in these areas needs to be thoroughly embedded in the curriculum.

Written By:
Dr Jeremy B Williams – Professor of Economics, and Chair, Learning & Teaching, IMT Dubai