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The Digital Elephant in the Room: ‘Digital Natives’ & Digital Literacy

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Tell me what you think it means to be digitally literate.

Does it mean being able to use a smartphone and stay in touch with friends on social networks?

What about being able to use software to see patterns in data or set out ideas in ways that are difficult or impossible with pen and paper alone?

We have a problem when a term like ‘digital literacy’ is so loosely defined that it could be taken to mean either, or neither, of these options. We have an even bigger problem when we assume that all that Facebooking and Snapchatting adds up to under-25s being natively literate in the digital world.

“I’ve heard it argued that students are digital natives so they already know how to do all this stuff, particularly when it comes to social media. This argument lets marketing academics off the hook. If students already know all this and are better at it than us anyway, then where is the value in trying to teach them more?

“The assumption that students are automatically comfortable operating in a digital world is wrong. In fact students are just like the rest of us...”—Lorna Walker, Regent’s University London Business School

It might be a buzzword with a big following, but the ‘digital native’ is no more real than a ‘typewriter native’ in the days when the cutting edge of office technology was an IBM Selectric.

Even though advances in technology made typewriters easier to use, simplified the telephone switchboard, and made photocopying ever clearer, it is unlikely that the average executive of the period would have been able to effectively use many of the machines in their offices. The fact that some things have to be learnt was recognised, and the training that people needed to operate office technology was not only available, but expected in secretarial staff.

“nobody is born knowing how to use a spreadsheet or even work a word processor”

Of course, we don’t live in the days of Mad Men style offices any longer, and I’m sure most people are thankful of that, but there is a strong lesson to learn from that period: nobody is born knowing how to use a spreadsheet or even work a word processor.

And yet, we keep hearing the fallacy of the ‘digital native‘. Even though the modern workplace requires that everyone be able to produce their own documents, handle their own communications, and often, collaborate with colleagues in other offices or other countries, there is an assumption that bright young things will take to it like a duck to water.

“Research shows that not all young people are tech-savvy or have an interest to learn more. For example, an Australian study found that only 15% of the student population are advanced users of ICTs while 45% of all students could be described as rudimentary digital technology users. Similarly, a survey carried out in Austria indicates that only 7% of 15-29 year olds have very good computer skills. The European Commission, Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion emphasises that this is a problem because computer and ICT skills have become more important than ever for labour market activity and social inclusion.”—ECDL Foundation position paper, ‘The Fallacy of the ‘Digital Native’: Why Young People Need to Develop their Digital Skills’

How did this happen?

It seems as if we have caught an unfortunate collision between long standing assumptions about the technical abilities of young people, and leaps-and-bounds in the design of popular technologies. You don’t have to look far on YouTube to find cute videos of toddlers, and even pets, using iPads.

The problem is that by holding to this idea, we’re making big problems for young peoples’ job prospects and careers. When the fallacy of the digital native is believed by legislators and decision makers, it affects the choices they make in providing education and training.

Policies that assume young people have innate digital skills ignore reality and leave young people without the skills they need when they enter the workforce. Time and again, research has shown that young people are not equipped with these vital skills. Worse, they are not even aware of their skills gap.

The British Computer Society looked into digital skills in the workplace earlier this year. They found that only 52% of employers believed that their workforce had the necessary digital skills to meet future challenges. That means almost half of businesses think they are missing essential skills.

Other research in Germany and Austria has shown that, even though many people are confident that they know how to use a computer, when tested, a shocking proportion simply cannot perform even basic ICT tasks.

Austrian Skills Survey

The results are similar wherever the research is done. Ongoing studies in the Nordic countries are confirming the same trend. People have a skills gap in a key area of working life, and they don’t even know about it!

We can’t let prejudice and a misguided view of the workforce hurt young peoples’ prospects. Youth unemployment remains high, and a part of the solution can be offering opportunities for skills gaps to be closed through the right policies and decisions at all levels.

The answer in the days of typing pools and secretaries was training. Secretarial schools offered education in all the skills that would be needed to work with documents and use office technology. The answer to the digital gap today remains training.

More training, better training

Employers recognise this. In a survey by the National Skills Academy for IT in the UK in 2011, 99% of employers identified more training as the solution to the skills gap, while 96% identified better training.

Here’s where the problem is. The fallacy of the digital native skews policy making and gives people false confidence in their abilities. ECDL can offer the training that gives people the basic skills that they need for the workplace. But they need to take the step to do the training, and employers, educational institutions, and authorities need to help make it possible for people to build their skills.

Above all, we need to take the false idea of the digital native out of the equation and let everyone get the skills and competencies that they need to be successful in their working and home lives.

Read more

You can read more about this topic in our latest position paper, ‘The Fallacy of the ‘Digital Native’: Why Young People Need to Develop their Digital Skills’, available now on our website.

We’re also keen to hear what you think. Leave a comment below, or Tweet us at @ECDLFoundation.

Image credits: typewriter, teezeh on Flickr CC-BY SA; tablet computer, Death to the Stock Photo