Learning Digital Literacy


Guest post by Amy Hetherington,

A bit about me: I have a few humanities degrees from various universities in Canada and the UK, and a PhD in Museum Studies from University of Leicester. My research and work focus has been on digital technologies in museums and how they can be used to engage the public. I’m interested in how they respond to changes in children’s digital literacy. Please find me on Twitter @akhetherington

As my Twitter feed is daily filled with updates and exclamations about the latest advances in educational technologies, it is brought home to me on a frequent basis that when we talk about digital technology and its use in learning we frequently forget a large, but integral, part of the conversation: digital literacy.

Digital learning technologies are wonderful things. There is an almost never-ending wealth of options of how we can use digital in the cultural learning context. New ideas are imagined almost daily. But as wonderful as this is, there is a cautionary note that often goes unheard, and that is the digital literacy of those using these digital learning technologies.

We’ve heard the refrain that children seem to be savvy (and whether they are or not is another argument, see here) at just about every type of technology. This ‘digital savvyness’ is often touted as being all the evidence we need that children and young adults learn better with digital than more – shall we say – traditional methods. The fact of the matter is that children are not born digitally savvy and that – no matter how much we want to think so – the ability to use a computer does not qualify as digitally literate.

I think the issue is that many of the proponents of the wonders of digital learning don’t understand digital literacy themselves, so they either gloss over it, or put more emphasis on digital savvy than digital literacy (one of many definitions here).

But it’s a conversation we need to be having surrounding digital learning in a cultural (or any other) context. Children are not born literate. They must learn to read and write. They are not born digitally literate either; they need to be taught these skills, through a combination of observation, direct instruction, and learn-by-doing. These are how we learn new skills. You aren’t born with them.

Give a two-year old an iPad and it may seem that they know how to use it (read my favourite article about this here), but the fact is that no two year old can explain to you how it works. We’re missing a massive part of digital literacy when we say ‘kids are great at tech’.

Nowhere is this better summarized than this white paper based on recommendations by the Knight Commission (starting on p 25). The first paragraph drives home the issues that are seemingly ignored in the wonders of what digital can do. And they summarize the issues with digital literacy that are often unaddressed as well, in favour of the first problem they identify, which is that tool-based literacy is touted as the be all and end all of digital literacy. It’s not; it is only step one on a long learning road that makes one ‘digitally literate’.

So we’ve ignored the issues. Touted that children’s digital savvy abilities with tech are all the reason we need to create new and better technologies. But if children lack (and they do, without being taught it) the fundamental understandings of how to critique, create, and stay safe using digital technology, than even the greatest wonders of the learning technology revolution can’t make children digitally literate. We have to do that, through teaching and training and years of more research. It has to be built into any and all digital technologies we use for cultural (and all other) learning.

But the first thing that has to happen is for researchers (and parents) to acknowledge that their children and teenagers don’t know everything there is to know about digital tech, and that they must be taught the fundamentals of digital ‘reading and writing’ before they can fully embrace the future of digital technology in their daily lives.


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