Open Thinkering


3 reasons the majority of students are NOT ‘digitally literate’

ComputersAs I’ve mentioned before I don’t believe that the ‘digital immigrants’ and ‘digital natives’ dichotomy holds up to much scrutiny. Although I teach mainly History, around 30% of my timetable is teaching ICT (Information and Communications Technology). Through observing students in these lessons I’ve come to realise that the concept of ‘digital literacy’ – the subject of my Ed.D. thesis – is a slippery notion. Not only that, but it’s a concept that, if it exists, does not necessarily follow automatically just because an individual has used computers from a young age. Here’s my three reasons why students shouldn’t automatically be classed as being digitally literate.

1. Students often don’t seem to understand the processes behind the things that they click on. What you see as ‘understanding’ and ‘digital native activity’ is actually simply force of habit and the result of trial-and-error. Ask them to do something different and you get blank looks. For example, I asked a student to login to their Windows Live/Hotmail account so they could email their work home. How do I do that? they asked. The same way you do at home, I said. Oh, I just click on the button on MSN Messenger they replied…

Click Here

2. The seeming ability of students to ‘multi-task’ belies a shallowness in the enterprise they are undertaking. It’s not actually that difficult to have 8 MSN Messenger windows open when you’re doing the txt equivalent of grunting (LOL, GR8, BRB, etc.)

MSN Messenger windows

3. True literacy is predicated upon some type of intelligence and intentionality of action. It’s about communication and selecting and deploying the correct tools for the job. Students may be well versed in Bebo, MySpace, MSN Messenger and the like but this does not mean that they can be classed as digitally literate in any meaningful sense. The ability to abstract from those very specific applications is unfortunately sorely lacking in a good number of cases.

You may say that I perhaps teach in an unusual area or that I’m generalising from too few specific instances. I do, however, teach in a school where most pupils come from fairly well-off middle-class backgrounds with almost ubiquitous access to digital devices. I also teach (or have taught) from Years 7 to 11.

Have you noticed anything similar? What do you understand by the term ‘digital literacy’? 🙂

16 thoughts on “3 reasons the majority of students are NOT ‘digitally literate’

  1. I agree totally Doug. Whilst off work I asked students to email drafts of their folio pieces as an attachment…simple yes… No. Most that bothered to email just wrote it as a message. Which meant I had to copy and paste into an open office doc in order to make the corrections.
    Most know how to say add aphoto to bebo but they wouldn’t be able to transfer that knowledge and do the same thing on say flickr, or is it that they just wouldn’t want to spend the time thinking how to do it?
    As part of my cpd a selection of kids at school are hopefully doing a survey on net use for me. I will be sharing the results on my blog. I think it will be interesting.

    1. I too agree. I know a handful of students I would consider digitally literate and I work in an upper middle class suburb. I recently had a student who was befuddled by IM.

  2. There is a difference between digital literacy and the “digital immigrants and digital natives” comparison though isn’t there? The current generation of children can been identified digital natives as they are growing up in an age where the internet and related technology has always existed. It is their world. Whereas those born before 1990 could be identified as digital immigrants i.e. they’ve moved into the digital world. The comparison doesn’t really work though because the world has moved to them rather than any migration on the individual’s part. Also, what about the children of the current school generation? It is not unreasonable to suggest even more rapidly changing faces of computing.

    Nevertheless, the description comparing those who are growing up in a ‘digital’ age compared to those who have to work harder to be part of it does bear comparison. This is entirely different to digital literacy – just because a student has grown up in a digital or information age doesn’t mean they are effective users.

    Current students are digital natives, but – I agree – are in no way automatically digitally literate.

    1. @Andrew: Yes Andrew, but my point was that those who are supposedly ‘digital natives’ don’t necessarily have the ‘digital literacy’ of those labelled ‘digital immigrants’.

      @Andrew: You’re right, just because it’s a similar operation doesn’t mean it’s similar in the minds of students. It’s a bit like trying to get students to draw a graph or create a timeline in History… :p

  3. Two things.

    First of all, the digital age did not commence suddenly – there has been a gradual progression that dates back to whatever event the individual speaking decides to argue represents the begining of the digital age. So there are constantly new developments being made, and those born before its invention are presumably “immigrants” to that technology. Digital is not one thing that can have a line drawn around it.

    I don’t find it helpful to make this distinction. After all, I was born before man was able to run 100m in under 10 seconds, but after the first sub-four-minute mile. So what? I was born before Armstrong went to moon, but after Gagarin went into space. Am I a space-age immigrant or native and how much difference does it make?

    Secondly, I am more digitally literate than either of my sons, from which adherents of the digital native/immigrant concept might conclude that either I am something exceptional or my kids are a little on the slow side. Neither of those things are true. I’m just more interested in the affordances of technology than they are.

    We need to get past the idea that it has so much to do with age. It has far more to do with attitude. After all, I have no idea how old Jay Cross is, but I’m guessing he won’t see 60 again, and far more IT literate than most people half, a third his age!

  4. I think Andrew’s point is important because while many have issues with Prensky’s labels, as Andrew points out they do serve a purpose. It helps us to realize that generally, they are comfortable in an digital environment but as you point out, not necessarily full adept.

    I would also add that in general, kids have figured out how to entertain themselves really well in a digital world, but not necessarily how to educate themselves. That’s our job.

    1. Okay, blurry divisions when you unpack the labels. I think perhaps the point for educators should be to teach criticality when reading and writing using the web or other multimodal texts. Children / students are socialised into the technology and use it for their own purposes to real ends. In schools, we need to use it with them in purposeful and contextualised ways where ‘being critical’ is embedded.

    1. Hello Doug. I take your point that pupils may not understand the processes behind much of what they do online or on their computers, despite being “digital natives”, but thinking about it: isn’t it the most normal thing in the world? After all, pupils need to be taught. That’s why they’re there.

      I am a native speaker of Spanish but when I was 13 or 14 I did not understand well how my language worked or any language for that matter. I had to be taught grammar and basic linguistics and only then did I acquire sufficient knowledge to start extrapolating it to learning, say, English.

      My analogy might not be very useful if you have not learnt languages, but the point is: nevermind being native, they still have to learn.

  5. I agree with Richard on the line between digital natives and digital immigrants but I do believe that because one is a digital native does not make him or her a digital literate.

  6. Digital native and Digital immigrant is still a great way to get current teachers in the profession to think about the way current students have access to technology.

    That is quite a limited usage, but still a great way in to help those within education to understand that technology isn’t an bonus or added extra, it is part of life.

    As has been stated though, this has absolutely no connection with the actual competency of either group. Plus the issue that Doug alludes to that when you explore the labels further all the neat divisions blur and you’re left with not a lot more than a starter exercise for a discussion about the role of ICT in modern education.

    1. So what you’re all saying, basically, is that ‘digital natives’ means as much as ‘baby boomers’. It just signifies a generation? That would seem to be the case from what Andrew and Dean have been saying in trying to separate being a ‘digital native’ from being ‘digital literate’.

      I think I agree but I’m not sure the labels mean anything any more… :s

  7. Yup. Here in the land of hi-tech, university students all have mobile phones and are expert in using them, but know next to nothing about computers, and have no idea how computers can make so much greater use of the Internet than phones can (so far).

    This "digital native" vs "digital immigrant" image is taking on a life of its own, and flying away from reality. Kids are quick to pick up on new technology: so what else is new? Digital native just means they were born in the digital age and are hence likely to pick up on how the digital gadgets work more quickly than their parents. Big deal. Digital (or computer) literacy it ain't.

  8. I totally agree with you. I just read Born Digital. I understand that the Millennials are accustomed to multi-tasking and have short attention spans and don’t scroll and don’t read… Their mere ability to use technology does not mean they understand it. Just as their ability to do a google search results in hits does not mean they are authoritative sources. I feel they don’t know what they don’t know and that’s why we are here. To get them thinking outside of themselves and realizing being a digital native is not all that – it is a only a start. With maturity and education they will realize their limitations and hopefully grow into amazing contributors to society.

    Jeanne Swedo
    bookgirl425 on Twitter

    1. That’s exactly right, Jeanne. There’s a lot of hyperbole about ‘digital natives’ and how they’ve ‘grown up with the Internet’. That may be the case, but it doesn’t mean they use the tools at their disposal effectively or efficiently!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *