Today's Students Might Be Digital Natives, But Are They Digitally Literate?

Today's Students Might Be Digital Natives, But Are They Digitally Literate?

There's no question technology is ubiquitous in our modern educational system. In fact, it is hard to find a classroom that hasn’t embraced tech to some degree. But does this mean today’s K-12 students are tech experts? Not necessarily.

Despite growing up as digital natives, many eighth-grade students have tech skills that are fledgling at best, according to a 2018 report from the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) that assessed students’ computer and information literacy skills. In a 2019 piece for Education Dive, contributor Linda Jacobson zeroed in on what the IEA report indicated about school-age kids living in the U.S., and the picture that emerged is surprising.
 

Worrying findings
 

While American students' tech skills were superior to those of their counterparts in France, China, Germany, and several other industrialized countries, Jacobson contended that they have a long way to go if they're to be more than just passive users of tech products.

The IEA report's findings included the following:
 

  • Access does not equal adeptness. Although many students have a basic understanding of how to find information online or minimally edit a document, they are less equipped to critically evaluate sponsored messaging or fully utilize editing tools.
     

  • Students can be “easily misled” online. Despite growing up immersed in technology—or perhaps because they are so immersed in it—students frequently lack the ability to distinguish ads from news and so on. To back up this assertion, Jacobson referenced a 2016 Stanford University study that found “young and otherwise digital-savvy students can easily be duped” by sponsored content, unverified social media accounts, and the like. 
     

  • Socioeconomic gaps are a differentiator. As with more traditional elements of public education, students with the most resources—including books in the home—tend to have more sophisticated tech skills. However, the IEA found that the presence of tech does not necessarily mean tech is being used (or used well) by a school, a phenomenon that was chalked up to a “digital divide.” 

In her own evaluation of the IEA report's findings, Sara Dexter, a professor and associate director at the University of Virginia’s education school, used Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post Answer Sheet column as a platform from which to point out the following worrisome statistic:
 

“...only 2 percent of students reach the highest level of computer and information literacy and computational thinking skills, meaning they can work independently with technology to gather and manage information, and do so with precision and evaluative judgment.”
 

Dexter, who specializes in exploring site-based leadership regarding the use and implementation of edtech, characterized students' lack of knowledge and skill as a “crisis in digital literacy” that may be compounded by their digital-native status. In other words, teachers and administrators may overestimate students' ability to execute increasingly complex academic tasks by erroneously assuming that their gaming and social media prowess signifies advanced tech skills across the board.

Where to go from here 
 

To combat the aforementioned “crisis,” Dexter proposed the following solutions:
 

  • Start with school leaders. Rather than placing the onus on classroom teachers who may lack the required direction, leadership, and resources to address students’ limited tech skills, Dexter urged school leaders and tech specialists to “set the important conditions for teachers to develop students’ abilities to thrive in the digital world.”
     

  • Guide edtech prioritization and implementation. Teachers who are already overwhelmed by their daily workload may need help learning how to strategically use and prioritize edtech. With this in mind, school leaders can assume responsibility for back-end tasks such as tech evaluation, internet accessibility, and device management while working to cultivate an environment of collaboration and support.
     

  • Train school leaders on effective edtech usage. According to Dexter, principals and other administrators rarely receive the training they need to adequately guide teachers toward achieving effective edtech usage. To address this issue, Dexter advocated for state licensure policies “to require such preparation as a component of principal preparation, and/or develop a credential for teachers’ leadership of edtech.”
     

  • Fund tech skill improvement among students and faculty. Although edtech is certainly worthy of cash-strapped school districts' limited funds, administrators should steer clear of simply throwing money at the problem without also ensuring all parties understand the best practices around its use.

Schools that incorporate the above suggestions will be significantly better equipped to help students make the necessary transition from passive, digital-native consumers to sophisticated, tech-literate users.

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