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Digital fluency for the digital age

29 November 2013

A digital fluency subject to teach students the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary for the digital age is needed, writes Gerald White.

Technology has been changing the way people learn and interact for thousands of years. Many researchers argue that major innovations adopted by society have an effect on the structure of the human brain. There is little doubt that the Internet has changed the way people find information and the way they communicate. Changes to the way that students learn, and probably what they learn, need to follow.

With the advent of the Internet and its accompanying technologies such as MP3, tablets and smartphones, the verbal tradition of communication has reasserted itself together with text and visual communication. Text and images are transmitted today through digital media as well as in print. The fact that print newspaper sales are declining and Amazon.com sells more electronic than print books indicates the importance of digital media, especially in education.

Curriculum and 21st-century skills

So, how has the impact of digital media affected curriculum? Curriculum in schools has often been defined as the knowledge, skills and attitudes that have been planned for student learning.

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority general capabilities to be incorporated into each learning area comprise the following: literacy, numeracy, information and communication technology (ICT) competence, critical and creative thinking, personal and social competence, ethical behaviour and intercultural understanding. There is no doubt that these general capabilities are important as skills for the 21st century.

What should we learn and what do we need to know to be a participant in 21st-century society – that is, a globally connected society? A number of projects have identified the following areas: creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, information and media literacy, ICT literacy, life and career skills, learning to learn, citizenship, and personal and social responsibility. Traditional skills remain important, but a range of new skills are also important in the digital age.

These 21st-century skills need to be learned in a structured way, within other disciplines or as a separate discipline. So, what should students learn that is specific to the Internet and what do teachers need to do?

Learning 21st-century skills

Children spend time using the Internet on educational activities, games, social networking and music. Clearly, 21st-century skills are being learnt at random and possibly in harmful ways by children who are Internet users.

An Australian Parliamentary report raised a number of safety issues. They included cyber-bullying, online grooming, illegal content such as pornography, cyber-stalking, privacy, inappropriate behaviours, personal information sharing and critical thinking.

These items are only those that may have an impact on safety. There are many other specialised Internet issues to understand, in order to maximise the positive use of the Internet for learning

Teaching 21st-century skills

The teaching aspects of the curriculum have been centred on the content to be learned and the learning process in the context of a learning environment or pedagogy for many years. However, content and pedagogy are no longer sufficient in a digital world because there is now a technological dimension for accessing information and for communicating.

There are a host of new skills to learn in order to maximise digital technologies for learning. However, teaching and learning these new skills is unlikely to occur unless it is planned and resourced by educational authorities. There is a need for a K-12 digital fluency subject, the elements of which are outlined below.

Digital fluency

Suggested topics for a digital fluency K-12 subject for the effective use of the Internet for learning are:

  • Acceptable behaviour
  • Collaboration, communication, problem-solving and research skills
  • Community involvement
  • Critical thinking
  • Design skills
  • Digital commons and copyright
  • Ethics
  • History of the Internet
  • Identity and privacy
  • Project management
  • Safety
  • Technology terms.

Such a subject would begin to address the safety issues and skills needed by teachers and students in the digital age, in order to engage in learning programs that are connected and current. No one would argue that technology is the single most important factor in learning, but in the hands of quality teachers who engage in a supportive learning environment, the gains from using digital technology are well documented. A K-12 subject on digital fluency would also help to determine the knowledge, skills and attitudes that need to be measured in order to gauge successful and safe use of the Internet.

Conclusion

The knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to harness new digital media for teaching and learning are an extension of many traditional skills but with the complex addition of new skills and a changed focus. These new skills and understandings often occur in a context that is quite different from the centuries-old traditional print-based context.

In an industrial-age designed, subject-based education system, where change is slow, these new knowledge, skills and attitudes are becoming increasingly urgent for students to acquire. However, teaching and learning these new skills, and different ways of working with information and communicating, need to be based on sound evidence and positive educational experiences. A subject called digital fluency is one way to address the digital-age skills gap. A digital fluency subject will help to address the issues of professional learning and pedagogy, as well as assist students to learn new skills in a structured way, so that these new skills can be applied whenever the Internet is being used. ■

Read the full report:
This article is based on the paper, ‘Digital fluency: Skills necessary for learning in the digital age’. The full version of this paper, including references, is available from <research.acer.edu.au/digital_learning/6/>

RD

About the author

Dr Gerald White is a former ACER Principal Research Fellow. 

More [rd] articles by Gerald White

View selected works of Gerald White

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