Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Digital Literacy is a vital preparation for life

In a recent interview on the Today progamme, Anthony Seldon typified the view of many educationalists by arguing that ICT is just the latest new technology that, like audio and video, can be used by teachers to impart the traditional curriculum. Although he mentioned in passing that young people need to acquire ICT skills, he underestimated their importance.
Seldon: "When parents walk around schools, if they are being shown by a Head the magnificent ICT, I think that this is a warning sign that a school is getting it wrong. ICT is at best an only adjunct, it can be a wonderful resource, and yes it is necessary absolutely for children to have these skills for all their different kinds of employment in the future ......
Humphries: "So it is more than just an adjunct, it is essential - in terms of preparing people for what they are going to face in the world?"
Seldon: "It is a facilitator to what learning is."
Of course ICT is an excellent resource and facilitator, but to limit its importance to this sphere is to misunderstand the nature of this particular technology. The digital revolution is changing the world. Digital natives will live and work in a different world to the one which we now experience. They have already transformed their own world and we will be able to track their impact on society year by year as they become a greater proportion of the workforce.

Schools have a responsibility to prepare young people for the world that they are going to inhabit and not the one of the past. The ubiquitous ability to access information is changing both the patterns of work and the skills required by both higher education and the workplace. At a mouse click, we all can have access to more information than the human brain can hold. The value of factual knowledge is decreasing: the value of the higher skills of understanding and evaluation is going up. Clearly young people still need educating and Independent schools have established educational traditions and these will continue to be the core of what we do. However, it is likely that young people who combine traditional skills with high levels of digital literacy are going to be the leaders of society in years to come.

Marc Prensky, who coined the term “digital native”, is probably right when he argued recently that it will be people who have “digital wisdom” that will shape the future. For him, the digitally wise will combine human understanding with digital enhancements. The digitally wise will be able “to find practical, creative, contextually appropriate and emotionally satisfying solutions to complicated human problems” in the future.
“Technology alone will not replace intuition, good judgment, problem-solving abilities, and a clear moral compass. But in an unimaginably complex future, the digitally unenhanced person, however wise, will not be able to access the tools of wisdom that will be available to even the least wise digitally enhanced human.”
Digital technologies are already making a difference in many areas of business life. Digital tools already enhance memory, they provide up to the minute information, they allow levels of analysis incapable by the human brain. These enhancements allow us to make better decisions and judgements – here lies digital wisdom.


  1. This is another very interesting post, thank you Mark. It led me to ask: how can school leaders ensure that digital wisdom becomes embedded in an academic curriculum? The use of digital tools in practical or vocational subjects is relatively straightforward. However, I think that the natives need both digital wisdom and digital dexterity to be able to go beyond understanding and manipulating the wealth of information and communication possibilities to generate original content in a more academic context.

    Unfortunately there is a mismatch here in educational goals. On the one hand there is an accepted understanding amongst digital natives that interdependent sharing in data-rich media environments is the best way to learn. However, the primary outcome of school education (organised and maintained by a generation for whom learning with technology may have involved, at best, an Acorn Archimedes) upon which students' futures rest remains the centuries-old tradition of students sitting alone in an exam hall with a piece of paper and a pen.

    It matters little that coursework may represent a high proportion of the final grade in some practical subjects here. Let's imagine that the academic subjects' national assessments reflect a digital learning experience. Then, and only then, will reaching the top of the league tables and providing a modern digital education share the same methodology. Until then, we must expect that some teachers will resist completely embedding ICT into their subject teaching; the pupils have got exams to pass!

  2. The form of British examination system is the elephant in the room here. When does a young person, anyone for that matter, sit in silence without the aid of any digital support? It is not how we study at university and it not how we work. It is out of date. I cannot believe that we are still employing a C19 exam system in C21.

    There is clearly a need for an effective system of assessment for school leavers at both 16 and 18 and for undergraduates, but at the moment this is the tail wagging the dog. It is no longer fit for purpose. If things stay the way they are, I can foresee a time when highly qualified graduates will not be employable because they do not have the skill set that many of their peers have.

  3. I totally agree. The weight that the examinations system has in any discussion about progress, school improvement or national standards absolutely crushes the importance of a good preparation for life, work and success. Whose door do we need to knock on about this?

  4. It's the subject of my Ed.D. thesis to try and find out exactly what people mean when they use the term 'digital literacy'. I'm concerned that it's being used as a shorthand by different people to mean different things.

    I *think* you're saying here, Mark, that digital literacy is to do with meta-skills and identity, but others are using the term to mean functional ICT skills.

    Finally, Prensky's digital native/immigrant dichotomy, whilst useful at the time to spark a debate is a little too black and white for my liking. I blogged about why I believe it to be a false dichotomy on my old blog http://teaching.mrbelshaw.co.uk (this comment system won't let me copy-paste the exact location!)

    Don't get me wrong, I completely agree with your sentiments, I just think we need to choose and define our terms extra carefully when they can be spun and used against us.

    Keep up the good work here!

  5. Doug,
    Thanks for this.
    I have subsaequently fleshed out my ideas more fully in a recently published article in the Educating Digital Natives – ICT and Schools has just been published in the Independent Schools' Council Bulletin 24 - May 2009 pp. 26-29.

    In it I distingusih between skilled and unskilled digital natives, which may be a helpful contribution to the debate.