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Schools' role in Addressing the ‘Digital Native’ Fallacy

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This post was originally published on the BCS Digital Learning blog.

There is growing recognition that our schools must address the Digital Native Fallacy and offer young people structured programmes in the effective and safe use of digital technology in their personal lives and in the use of the digital technology they will be expected to use in their further education and future workplaces.

Many young people, the so-called digital natives, are quite limited in their use of technology. Their daily digital experience is of the smartphone, the consumption of digital media (principally photos, music and video) and connecting with their peers on social networks and sharing apps. This use of technology cannot be considered evidence of digital literacy and it is a fallacy that such digital natives have the skills and competence required to perform effectively in the modern workplace.

It is stating the obvious to say that, in order to address the digital native fallacy, we need to ensure that young people are digitally literate. Yet it does require us to accept that young people are not naturally digitally literate and that they should not be expected to educate themselves informally in the effective and safe use of technology. If we accept this, we can then consider what it means to be digitally literate and how best to develop digital literacy at school.

For most discussions we don’t need a detailed definition of digital literacy and in the context of addressing the digital native fallacy we could express it in quite simple terms. Firstly, we must ensure that young people have sufficient knowledge and understanding to use the technology they choose to use, in a safe and secure way. Secondly, we must ensure that young people have sufficient skills and competence to use the technology they will be expected to use in further education and their future workplaces.

(There is a related and topical discussion about the relationship between computing and digital literacy and the appropriate balance in the curriculum between computing fundamentals and ICT user skills. But for this consideration we can state that both aspects are important, complimentary and contribute to the development of a truly digitally literate student.)

We must also consider how digital literacy is developed and it is important not to be distracted again by the myth of the digital native and assume that young people can learn informally. Many, if not most, people use technology on the basis of a “minimum viable skillset”. We learn just enough to enable us complete the task and we continue to perform tasks in the same way each time. Without structured learning opportunities we may never discover how to use the technology in the most effective or in the most safe and secure manner.

Schools can provide students with access to technology and informal learning opportunities, but there is perhaps no better approach than having teachers teach. Teachers can ensure that students develop the appropriate level of competence in the use of technology, but more importantly teachers can provide the opportunity for students to consider, share, discuss and develop best practice online behaviours to protect themselves, minimise risks and deal effectively with inappropriate online activity.

With so many demands on class timetables it can be difficult to allocate sufficient dedicated time for digital literacy and often this area must be covered in other curricular areas. The issues related to e-safety are so important and clearly evident in the lives of students that there can be little argument against allocating some time in social or personal education classes. Finding time for formal teaching of skills in the use of what can be viewed as workplace technology can be more challenging, not least where again the digital native fallacy is at play. Despite opinion to the contrary, it is not the case that young people have the digital skills that are required in the modern workplace.

The European Commission estimates that in the near future “90% of jobs will require some level of digital skills” while at the same time finding that “60% of students never use digital equipment in their classroom”. A survey of HR professionals and employers by BCS showed that email, word processing and spreadsheet skills are considered necessary for the majority of roles in the work place.

Many young people entering the workplace for the first time, whether from school, college or university, will be presented with a laptop, tablet or PC, a corporate network, office productivity applications, and email and collaboration tools. Such workplace technology requires a level of skill and competence that is not acquired through regular smartphone and social media usage.

Recent studies from a number of countries found that young people do not have the sufficient digital skills. Our ECDL colleagues in Austria found that only 7% of 15 to 29 year-old students had ‘very good’ computer skills. Another study in Australia revealed that 45% of students were only rudimentary users of ICT.

If schools are concerned about students’ employability and job-readiness then workplace technology must feature in their education.