In some countries, it is felt that the skills currently being delivered to school-goers will not equip them for what direction they are likely to pursue in the future – either for third-level education, or for the workforce. This paper considers this current re-examination of digital skills development in schools. It cautions against solely focussing on the delivery of ‘industry-led’ skills, such as those that comprise Computer Science as an academic discipline, at the expense of broad-based digital literacy skills. Digital literacy skills, and those that make up Computer Science, such as programming, should be delivered in a complementary fashion. This more complementary approach will ensure that children leave schools with a more complete set of skills, which will better equip them for a broader range of work and life activities.
“The lack of suitably qualified graduates in these areas has sparked debate around how the development of graduates with the right ICT skills can be initiated at school-going age.”
Context of the Digital Skills Debate
An undersupply of suitably qualified graduates for the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) sectors is currently being reported in several of the world’s larger economies, with the shortfall being most acutely felt in the EU and the US. This undersupply is not only having a negative impact on the industries that are currently trying to operate within these economies, but is likely to jeopardise overall European and North American productivity into the future, given that the successes of the more agile STEM sectors are considered to be the most effective means to combat the current economic downturn in these regions, and to drive growth. The lack of suitably qualified graduates in these areas has sparked debate around how the development of graduates with the right skills can be initiated at school-going age, and what is the most appropriate manner and means to incorporate information and communication technology (ICT) skills into education.
Dissatisfaction with the Current System
In the current policy debate, it is clear that none of the interested parties – be they policymakers, educators, industry, or parents – consider the current method of teaching technology to school-goers to be satisfactory. In the UK, where the discussion is garnering considerable media and public attention, the primary, but not sole focus, of the debate is on what is currently being taught in schools, and how children’s technology-related education can be improved. Critics of the current ICT skills development measures in UK schools feel that the type of skills that are developed are outmoded, and that the workforce and innovators of the future should be acquiring skills that enable them to use technology to create and innovate. In the eyes of the current system’s most vocal critics, the delivery of functional ‘low-level’ skills is stifling children’s ICT-related creativity, and is the root cause of the undersupply of suitably qualified graduates. What has emerged in the UK is a formal re-examination of how technology-related skills are and should be delivered in schools, and a less formal public debate, in which some advocates for change demand that the delivery of what are considered ‘low-level’ digital literacy skills should be completely abandoned in favour of industry/IT practitioner-focused skills, such as programming. In addition to effectively undoing the positive contribution that digital literacy has had to date on traditional academic disciplines, there are other compelling reasons for the continued delivery of digital literacy to all at a school-going age.
“The primary focus of the debate is on what is currently being taught in schools and how technology-related education can be improved.”
The Continued Need for Digital Competence Development in Schools
The use of technology is becoming increasingly integrated into an ever-widening range of activities. Its use is now crucial to how we communicate, how we access goods and services, how we inform ourselves, how we engage with government, and, importantly, how we work. The ubiquity of technology, and its deepening application to daily activities, will continue as developments such as the Internet of Things and 3D printing become widespread. Therefore, the importance of all individuals possessing the range of digital literacy skills to effectively exploit the potential of ICT becomes increasingly relevant. If the provision of ICT to school-goers is focused solely on Computer Science, at the expense of digital literacy, it is likely that a large percentage of school-leavers will exit the second-level educational cycle ill-equipped to perform a range of activities that they will want to perform, and that will be expected of them.
This digital literacy skills shortfall is likely to have the most acute bearing on school-leavers’ employment prospects. In the EU, for example, it is anticipated that 90 per cent of all jobs will, by 2020, involve technology. The possession of a digitally skilled workforce will, therefore, be crucial to the innovation, productivity, and success of future economies. Innovation driven by the more cutting-edge use of technology may of course require the creative or programming skills developed through Computer Science studies but all other positions within an organisation will require the skills to operate a range of devices and applications – or digital literacy skills.
Incomplete Skills Acquisition - The Digital Natives Myth
Nowhere is the ubiquity and depth of integration of technology more evident than in the lives of younger people, especially school-goers. Smartphones are indispensable, connectivity is assumed, and content is continuously consumed and created. This has led to the widely-held belief that simply because one is young, and therefore is extremely comfortable with certain devices and applications, that he or she possesses a complete set of digital skills. Many of those who advocate for the removal of digital literacy skills development from school curricula feel that these types of skills development measures have now become redundant because younger people acquire them informally in their daily lives, due to their continuous engagement with technology. According to this ‘digital native’ myth, younger people are inherently more adept in the use of technology, merely because they have grown up with it. This fallacy ignores the fact that the ICT skill set that will be developed in this informal manner is likely to be incomplete, on account of the younger user’s predominant use of only certain applications. Younger people will be highly adept in certain functions, such as uploading content, or multimedia consumption, but unlikely to acquire proficiency in less intuitive applications, such as spreadsheets, word processing, or presentation software. This incomplete, patchwork acquisition of skills reinforces the argument for the delivery of well-rounded, broad-based skills development measures in schools. If not, school-leavers without them will be likely to be ineligible for the majority of employment opportunities available.
“The ‘Digital Native’ fallacy ignores the fact that the ICT skill set that will be developed in this informal manner is likely to be incomplete.”
Forward-looking skills development measures that will enable current school-goers to, for example, write code and design software are appropriate. The importance and commercial relevance of these skills is undeniable, but they should not be developed in isolation, at the expense of digital literacy skills. These digital literacy skills are not only crucial for an increasing number of daily activities, particularly employment: a good grounding in them also facilitates the development of more specialised skills, such as those covered in Computer Science. All ICT-related activities require a solid understanding of activities such as networking, the use of operating systems, and device and data management. All users of technology, including those at a highly advanced level, are also to be considered end-users. The ECDL programme, which can be easily incorporated into school curricula, develops the digital skills that are currently required to effectively operate a variety of devices and applications, including productivity applications such as spreadsheets and word processors. Additionally, as new technologies emerge, new ECDL modules are developed, such as Online Collaboration, which equips students with the skills needed to work effectively on collaborative projects. This periodic development of new modules ensures the currency of the programme, and reflects the reality that, despite the persistence of a set of reasonably stable skills, both technology and the skills development measures that support it, are continually evolving.
“The ECDL programme develops digital skills that are required to effectively operate a variety of devices and applications, including productivity applications.”
An Increasing Need for Online Safety and General IT Security
The amount of time that these so-called ‘digital natives’ spend online reinforces the need for their online safety, but often leads to the assumption that they know how to stay safe when online. Children are now using the Internet for longer periods and with greater frequency than ever before – not just for surfing the Web, but for accessing schoolwork assignments, developing their personal interests, and contributing to the Web’s diversity through activities such as, social networking and sharing video content. Younger users will drive the growth of the Internet and will inevitably become its guardians, but in the meantime they need to be protected online to learn good practice. Despite this, a recent study has shown that that nearly half of the participating children did not know how to change the privacy settings of their social networking sites, and in another complementary EU-wide survey, only 14% of parents surveyed said that they had set up parental web-filtering software to protect their children. The issue of online safety, especially for minors, has generated considerable debate at both societal and policy level, but what appears to be emerging is the need for greater behaviour influencing and guidance in relation to online safety, and general IT security. This is a role that could, and perhaps should, be assumed by school teachers: they have a ‘captive audience’, and as many teachers already incorporate digital tools – including the Internet – into learning, it is appropriate that they should deliver some level of instruction as to its safe use. More specialised programmes, such as ‘ECDL IT Security’, can assist both teachers and students to build awareness and understand good practice in this area.
Digital Literacy as a 21st Century Competence
The ability to effectively and safely use ICT is but one – albeit an important one – of a set of competences that an individual should possess for meaningful participation in society. Other competences that are considered essential in this regard are, for example, civic literacy, self-directed learning, and critical and inventive thinking. Not only are these competences important for an individual’s personal development in their own right, but as is the case with digital literacy, they provide the ability to unlock other competences through the use of ICT, particularly in relation to learning after and outside the formal education cycle – thus contributing to an individual’s lifelong learning. This ability to use devices and applications to further unlock knowledge is a vital skill to develop at a younger age, as more and more learning content – formal and informal – is progressively moving online, and collaborative learning and working is becoming increasingly prevalent.
Delivery of ICT in Schools: Practical Considerations
“The ability to effectively and safely use ICT is but one – albeit an important one – of a set of competences that an individual should possess for meaningful participation in society.”
Delivery of ICT in Schools: Practical Considerations Despite calls for ICT school curricula to undergo a radical overhaul, and for it to focus almost solely on Computer Science, rather than the provision of the broader skill base developed through digital literacy, some practical considerations present themselves in relation to delivery. Computer Science is a rigorous academic discipline that requires highly trained teachers to teach it. Given the growth trends in the commercial IT sector, and the career progression and earning opportunities resulting from that growth, it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract Computer Science graduates into teaching. If ICT education in schools is to focus solely on Computer Science as a subject, who is going to teach it? Perhaps a more practical approach would be to initially ensure that all teachers possess the skills to effectively incorporate technology into their current teaching practices, and in this way unlock the multiple benefits that ICT offers to learners.
Another broader educational issue that is likely to arise if ICT in education is to focus solely on Computer Science is that, as a rigorous academic discipline, Computer Science is perhaps not required for all children. However, once every school-goer’s ICT skills needs have initially been addressed through the development of their digital literacy, and successive digital competence, then the specific competences relating to Computer Science should be made available to those who wish to pursue these further.
An increased emphasis on Computer Science in schools is important because it will drive innovation and allow individuals to participate in a sector that is crucial for the economy and society. However, this does not mean that digital literacy and digital competence at a user level should be ignored in schools. The provision of ICT in education need not be a ‘zero sum game’, where the success of one direction requires the complete demise of the other. The approaches should be complementary: it is vital that digital literacy skills are delivered to all learners (and perhaps integrated into the core curriculum), whereas Computer Science should be offered as an elective subject for learners who display an interest in it and/or display an aptitude for its often-challenging concepts. This more holistic approach is more in keeping with the heterogeneous complexity of the modern skills development landscape.
 ‘The Guardian Newspaper’s Campaign to Upgrade Computer Science and ICT in Schools’ (2012 – 2013). Retrieved at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/jul/10/digital-literacy-roundtable
 For the full range of ECDL modules that are currently available, visit www.ecdl.org/programmes
 For a detailed explanation of digital literacy and digital competence development, see the ECDL Foundation white paper ‘Building Digital Proficiency Through Appropriate Certification’ 2011