When I clicked to check a modern definition of “digital literacy”, what I got was an entry called “computer literacy”.

When I clicked to check a modern definition of “digital literacy”, what I got was an entry called “computer literacy”. Close but no cigar, as they say. I double-checked the words separately, and here is what I got: 

  • digital, adj. available in electronic form; readable and manipulable by computer
  • Literacy, n. the condition or quality of being knowledgeable in a particular subject or field.

So far, so good. Further search via Google sent me to Wikipedia, which provided me with the following definition:

Digital literacy is the ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and create information using a range of digital technologies (Wikipedia)

It is a good workable definition which suits the topic quite well. Naturally this type of literacy differs greatly from any previous one. It depends on the area, the age, and the inclinations of people. By no means can we assume that today, everybody knows what ICT means. In January, while I was walking around in Verona, Italy, happily snapping pictures, a group of young American tourists rushed to me with the usual request, to take a picture of them. A smart phone was thrust into my hands, and the look on my face must have prompted the owner to issue the simplest instructions: “Just point and touch the screen, please!” This week, I was walking around in my hometown, carefully looking at passers-by. Several octogenarians? No. A group of students? Yes. I asked them to take a picture of me in the snow; no instructions were needed, since for the youngsters, my simple digital camera is “old news”. For the young, the ability to use all manner of digital appliances is a given. I just read another story of a two-year-old child who saved his mother by using Face Time app on her phone. Is he digitally literate? Probably not yet, but he can surely use the technology. In a few years time, when those very young children who were born into the era of ICT come to school, what shall we teachers do? Is it even possible to keep up with the huge leaps and bounds in this sphere of human activity?

It might be interesting to compare the educational situation in various countries. In my native land, I meet teachers aged 22 (university or college graduates) to 80. Most old people work due to economic reasons, since the pensions are too small. They have never used ICT and they never will. Yet my experience shows that digital divide, digital barriers et cetera are not an age thing. I have successfully taught a number of people aged over 70 how to use the computers and the internet. And I had no success with some much younger, still practicing colleagues. Teacher, teach thyself is a postulate I like to quote to various audiences.

The fact that our pupils usually know how to use the technology today does not mean they always use it well. Here is a textbook example, one I come across annually.

At a school Olympiad (it is a traditional Russian term for the annual school competitions in all the subjects), a teenager from a small regional town complained to me as one of the panelists. The winners, he said, came from the big city where they had more opportunities to listen to English and to communicate with native speakers. That is why their results in Listening and Speaking were much better than his. I looked at the dangling earphones, at his smart phone, and asked him what he liked to listen to. Can you use the internet, I inquired. Of course! He proudly told me that he surfed the web daily, visited his favourite pages, and chatted with friends. All that in Russian, I clarified. Of course! How often do you use the sites in English, how did you prepare for the contest, I continued. I could see the moment when the penny dropped. “Why didn’t our teacher ever tell us to do all that?!” he expostulated. “Why didn’t you think about it yourself?” I countered. It is relatively easy to teach children how to use the computers and the internet; we can give them lists of useful URLs, demonstrate the huge possibilities the technology offers. It is infinitely more difficult to teach them how to use their own brains. Today’s pupils are digitally literate, which does not equal the ability to use all the new opportunities wisely.

  • Teaching children to think is one of the most challenging aspects of our work. They are able to learn lots of facts and rattle them off, or write a test on a subject. But sometimes, it is quite difficult to help them see the problems around them, and the ways to solve them. A teacher should encourage students to express their ideas on any topic that is part of the curriculum. They should feel that they are part of this world, and so it is up to them to change the world.
  • Statistics tell us that 85% of children put communication as number one reason for coming to school. If we can help them communicate with the whole wide world, by taking part in an international project, by exchanging messages with their peers in another country, we can show them how various school subjects can be connected, and why it is useful to learn English, IT and whatever their main interest is together.
  • Time and again, my pupils would turn to me, perplexed: “You say you found this information in Google (Wikipedia, The Free Dictionary…), we don’t see it here! Time and again, it turns out they use the same sites in their native language only, while I use them in English too. They are literate, in that they can read in at least two languages by the time they are teenagers. We can stimulate them by showing the commonalities and the discrepancies, and by demonstrating how fast any information can be found on the web. Today’s children are always ready to push buttons and click. It is up to the teacher to help them see technology not as a toy, but as an instrument.

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