Digital participation, digital literacy and schools
This article is adapted from the British report Digital participation, digital literacy, and school subjects: a review of the policies, literature and evidence, published by Futurelab August 2009.
It has become commonplace to claim that children are engaging more than ever before with technology and digital media, in forms such as video games, music editing, animation, social networking sites, video sharing, and other different forms of online communication. Young people are therefore often considered to be better equipped than older generations to live and learn in the 21st century, a belief summed up by Marc Prensky (2001) in his description of today's youth as 'digital natives'.
Technology certainly creates challenges and opportunities for schools and educators as they seek to apply it to engage young people and assist their learning. Geography teachers, for example, might now be asking how GPS technologies and interactive online mapping applications can be applied in their lessons, and science educators might recognise how interactive visual simulations permit new ways to examine scientific phenomena.
At the same time, it is necessary to examine the digital natives idea more critically. The kinds of new media celebrated in the accounts of informal learning by digital natives are products of the commercial landscape, usually designed for purposes other than education. Young people may not be asking enough questions about the powerful commercial strategies within the media that operate upon them in ever more complex ways.
The concept of digital natives also obscures inequalities in access to technology. The poorest in society are likely to have less access to computers, the internet and meaningful ICT education. A reduced capacity to use a computer effectively is likely to prevent such students from getting many jobs, as well as from participating in a wide variety of government and other services offered online.
The teaching of digital literacy in schools offers a means to address both of these issues: by improving the critical understanding of those who already possess technological skills; and by facilitating the learning of all forms of digital literacy among students who have had limited access to ICT.
Aspects of digital literacy
The literacy needed to engage with the digital environment takes in an integrated repertoire of skills, knowledge and understanding.
Information literacy. During the 1990s the notion of literacy was extended to include the capacity to manage and use information for learning, work and daily life. Young people need to think about what information they can trust and what makes information credible.
Media literacy. At the same time, media literacy experts pointed out the growing role that television, film, advertisements and online media have played in people's lives over the past half-century. The ways that these media work are not always transparent and both children and adults may find it challenging, for example, to work out who owns and produces particular media and technology, and what corporate interests are being represented by them. Media literacy also involves the interpretation and production of shared meanings, and the ability to access, analyse, evaluate and create messages across a variety of contexts.
Multiliteracies. Literacies in contemporary society are multidimensional, multimodal and changing, and cannot be understood as one single set of skills. Young people may display high levels of literacy in one medium but less developed levels in another. Effective digital participation requires that students are proficient in various literacies and able to adapt their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills to widely differing modes of communication.
Critical digital literacy. Like the term literacy, digital literacy is often used solely to describe functional skills. However, technical skills need to be integrated with skills in critical thinking, and attention to wider issues such as how and why we use computers and how this affects the meaning that we produce and receive.
Participation in the digital world
The digital environment offers opportunities to take part in sophisticated civic, social and leisure activities when online. These forms of participation include affiliations with communities such as Facebook or online games; activities in which participants create new forms of expression through zines, fan fiction-writing, or mash-ups; collaborations, where learners work with others to complete tasks or develop knowledge and skills, such as when using Wikipedia or gaming; and activities in which users shape the circulation or flow of media through forms such as podcasting and blogging.
Educators may be interested to consider how well the digital environment encourages students' participation. It is important that participation is not tokenistic, but rather that students are genuinely empowered and have agency to act through meaningful channels.
Efforts to encourage participation in the digital environment also need to overcome the challenges mentioned earlier: unequal access to opportunities, experiences, skills and knowledge need to be addressed, and students need to understand how media shape perceptions of the world. Digital participation also raises ethical issues: young people need to be prepared for their increasingly public roles as media-makers in the community.
Technology in schools
Despite substantial investment in ICT for school education, issues relating to the quantity, quality and use of technology remain, and have implications for the integration of ICT into the curriculum. Issues include establishing reliable internet connections; keeping equipment up to date; the provision of specific hardware or software required, and access to information about how to use them. These issues suggest the need for continuing investment in technological infrastructure to ensure the most effective use of ICT in schools.
Policies and procedures regarding ICT, and the physical organisation of computers, may also need to be reconsidered. In some schools, the majority of computers are located in ICT suites which are heavily used and can be difficult for teachers to book. Mobile phones and mobile devices are often banned in the classroom even when they may be more effective than the computers provided by schools. Other potential hindrances to developing digital literacy across the curriculum include timetabling restrictions and undue or excessive blocking and filtering of online content.
Integrating knowledge of digital technology with the development of subject knowledge is likely to require altered pedagogical techniques, as well as the development of different knowledge, outlooks and skill sets in teachers. However, there are wide variations in the confidence, skills and knowledge that individual teachers themselves possess around digital technology and media. Teachers who remain unfamiliar with technology and online media are unlikely to use it imaginatively for learning purposes. Technology needs to become fully, meaningfully and sustainably integrated throughout the curriculum.
By developing the digital literacy of learners through the curriculum, educators are able to contribute to enhancing learners' potential for participation in digital media. This means enhancing young people's ability to use digital media in ways that strengthen their skills, knowledge and understanding as learners, and that heighten their capacities for social, cultural, civic and economic participation in everyday life.
Subject HeadingsTechnological literacy
Mass media study and teaching
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Computers in society