Digital Literacy

Digital and media literacy are not just ‘nice to have’ add-ons in today’s education. They are real essentials as part of a balanced education that focuses on the development of the skills of a lifelong learner.

It has a number of different aspects to it, but at the deepest, most philosophical level, it begins with developing an understanding of what knowledge is, what learning is, truth, facts, reality and the due respect for one’s own and others’ knowledge, opinions and expertise.

When the internet spews out copious quantities of material it’s potentially all too easy to be slack, lazy and passive towards knowledge and facts. This leads to a lack of discernment and becoming easy to manipulate with false, misleading information that pursues a particular agenda. It can also lead students (and others) to fall easily in to the temptation to simply take the work of others and pass it off as their own.

The international Baccalaureate organisation sees plagiarism and ‘passing off’ as such a serious issue that it insists on the use of software like ‘Turn it in’ to check and verify that students’ written work is their own and genuine. They advocate that every school should have an academic honesty policy. In my experience, this is as important for educators as it is for students – we must lead by example. That means, we need to look at children of different ages, figure out what they need and what can be expected of them and then set out very clear expectations. So, at class 3-4 level, we might accept students copying and pasting lines from websites – preferring to focus on their skills of finding that information. as they get to class 6-7 we are likely to expect them to have mastered the skills of precising and taking that original material and putting it in to their own words. By the higher classes we should expect that they not only write in their own voice, but attribute the sources from which they have drawn in their research.

‘Fake news’ – the spreading and sharing of questionable factual information to pursue particular political agendas is worrying many, but especially educators, as evidenced by this recent article about the debates and discussions at the leading US IT in education conference. The article carries details of some new resources that are beginning to be developed to help teachers address these issues with students:

The Journal – ISTE Participants Respond to Spike in Fake News Websites

ICT and Children – Extreme Measures

The ICT (Information and Communication Technology – a broader term than simply IT) juggernaut is steamrolling its way through education throughout the world with many schools and whole education systems taking drastic (and very expensive) action on instinct, feeling that they’ve got to be part of the wave, but really not sure of all the implications.

For every movement, you’ll be able to find a counter-movement somewhere. When it comes to ICT, surely this private school in London represents a pretty extreme set of reactions;

Quartz – Article – Banned Technology – In School and Home

I share concerns with many others about what happens to children when they are exposed to ICT so extensively at a very young age and have often written about those issues here on the blog. However, I’m not sure that banning addresses those issues, especially in a world where major companies have been making announcements over just the last month about how they intend to bring “free” internet to millions in the poorest countries of the world (more on that later).

I think the article raises a number of interesting issues:

a) To what extent does a private school (as a commercial provider of a service) have the right to impose strict rules on its ‘customers’ regarding behaviour in their home as well as on the school premises?
b) Would it, in all practical terms, work? Is it even possible?
c) Even if possible, will such a ban serve a worthwhile purpose?
d) What risks are there for a child growing up cut off from the reality of ubiquitous technology?

With regard to point a), I guess some will say that if the parents know what they’ve signed up for, want the education from that school enough and are prepared to make the commitments, then there’s not so much wrong with the school setting down certain expectations about what will go on at home as well as at school. Whilst i’m all in favour of schools that stand for their values and who work to set down some core principles, I believe the way to work with parents is as partners. It is important that educators don’t take the lazy route of giving what parents say they want for their children, but rather take the time to educate and advise parents on what they should want, and why. It’s important that we don’t make the mistake of treating parents like children!

Whilst they’re not necessarily on the same level, couldn’t this be compared to communities that deny children blood transfusions when they’re sick because it goes against their religious beliefs? Whilst as parents, guardians and educators we have a duty of care over children it really isn’t a right of control that goes beyond the needs of society. So, for example in more and more countries the law prevents a parent from using physical forms of punishment with their own child. Could an education approach like this be seen as risking the delivery of only one set of messages, beliefs and views about the world, denying children access to wider and alternative perspectives.

Can a child really get away from the media, TVs and computer screens? How far would you have to go to enforce this kind of policy? For example, restaurants, airports, malls and shops have screens and media. It’s in taxis and buses, on planes and on billboards in the street. Would such children be prevented from having friendships with children of any other schools? Surely, sleepovers and visits to such friends’ homes would be way too much of a temptation? Would we prevent the child from joining a sports team or club because they use video cameras to analyse players’ performances and then watch them back? What about the child’s wider family? No more trips to Grandma’s house because she has a TV?

How will parents live their lives if they’ve signed up to this kind of commitment on behalf of their children? No TV in the house? Never working on a laptop in the evening? Or, sneakily rushing the children off to bed as early as possible, so that they can secretly engage in elicit technology use behind their children’s backs?

Will it just simply lead to blatant dishonesty? Children, potentially lying to their parents and even whole families attempting to hide their infractions from the all seeing, prying eye of ‘Big Brother school? I’ve even seen in India that attempts to impose ‘screen time’ limits or to suggest that there are particular types of programmes a parent doesn’t want their child watching leads to creative underhand behaviour as the child relies on loyal friends to offer them the alternative routes to the alluring, out-of-bounds things they’re being denied. After all that, if directly challenged they have no choice – lie completely! Should parents and educators be creating such situations in which children will almost inevitably be lured in to dishonesty, thereby undermining trust and family bonds? When the evidence of such dishonesty emerges the emotional bank accounts take a real pasting.

There have now been many research articles and commentaries referring to the ‘digital divide’ or ‘digital deficit’ – the shortcomings in learning for children who don’t have access to the internet compared to those who do. Now, I’m the first to admit that this is the excuse for the kind of subterfuge that sees Google, Microsoft and Facebook making out to the world they’re heroes for bringing internet accessibility to poorer countries and communities (while I fear it will actually be a trojan horse for pumping enormous volumes of highly profitable advertising and ‘agenda based’ messages to young and impressionable minds).

nevertheless, are we really going to create situations where there are vast areas of employment opportunities not open to these young people when they grow up? With their lack of exposure to technology and media, will these children grow up to be merely quaint and outdated? Those of us who have become very familiar with all aspects of media, especially online know that there’s a vast array that is inaccurate or at best worthless. There’s the well written and the amateurish, the naive and the thought-provoking, the quality and the ‘chaff’. There’s also the creative, enlightening and sometimes downright dangerous. I believe that young learners today need to be acquiring critical skills about how to decide and discern between all these different messages – the 21st Century skills of Media Literacy. Can a student who is cut off from and denied access to such material learn to engage with it critically?

Then, when it comes to writing, students need to learn difficult but critical skills about how to absorb the ideas of others, build them in to new and original ideas without abusing the rights and ownership of the originator. Plagiarism and ‘passing off’ others’ ideas as one’s own is now a vast problem and challenge – good for the law courts, but ultimately bad for creative and original discourse in any field. This isn’t happening more because children today are less moral, lazy or dishonest. Rather, I believe, it’s happening because as vast amounts of writing become accessible, they struggle to find a path through what exists to reach their own original thoughts. Also, too often, educators are overtly or covertly discouraging original and independent thought causing students to feel it’s safer to simply replicate the thoughts and views of others. Effective use of source materials takes practice, and I’m not sure that children cut off from the online world will get the exposure they need to master those skills.

In the end, I’m left with three big concerns;

Firstly, are these well meaning educators who genuinely believe it is their duty to protect these young people from the perils and evils of mass media exposure? Or, is there a more sinister intention to propagate particular perspectives and world views amongst these children, free from balancing and countervailing voices, views and opinions?

And secondly, if we’re unhappy about the more negative aspects of what children get exposed to in the media, as educators don’t we have a duty towards all children to raise our voice to get the content cleaned up or segregated in ways that are beneficial for all children. Instead, this seems to me like taking a handful of children and enclosing them in an ivory tower.

Finally, there has long been a strong force in the rearing of children, parenting and education that starts from the premise that children cannot be trusted, that they are inherently listless, wilful and if left to make their own choices and decisions will always make the wrong ones. This manifests in the control structures in schools, sticks and carrot approaches to rewards and punishments in parenting advice etc. Here, these educators who might at first seem quite progressive and innovative in going against the tide are actually really being quite traditional and backward in their approach. The starting assumption is that no amount of teaching, guidance or advice about safe surfing, the perils and downsides of excessive screen use etc. will lead children to make good, healthy positive choices and decisions in their lives. Therefore, we (the adults) must impose draconian ‘all or nothing’ controlling regimes until we deem them old enough and fit to make decisions (i.e. they’re not children any more). I would like to have higher aspirations for children and a greater belief in their innate goodness. Yes, they’ll make mistakes, but when they do I believe we have to look at how we guided them and how we might do so better, rather than see it as justification for taking all decision making away from them.

Social Networking & Children

It is sometimes suggested that one of the risks involving children on the internet, especially within the realm of social networking, is their ‘boldness’ caused by the sense of anonymity that may cause them to communicate with people they know or strangers in ways that are inappropriate (and that they would probably not do in the ‘real world’).

However, here is an article that I believe should be compulsory reading for every educator and every parent – who should then follow up with the obviously required discussions with children! In a recent meeting the Junior School Principal got quite a shock with the high number of class V children who were willing to own up to the fact that they have either a Facebook or a Buzz account, or both. This, considering that there is an age limit for Facebook of 13, meaning every one of those children had engaged in a deceit.

Imagine that at the age of 12 one of these children engages in some socially inappropriate action online. Imagine, 6 years later they are applying to a top university for admission, but are denied admission because the university admissions officers see that inappropriate content posted 6 years earlier! This is not fanciful or far-fetched, as this article clearly shows:

Education Week Article on Online Behaviour

Regrettably, we KNOW that our children are not aware of these risks and are pretty cavalier about all aspects of cyber-safety and appropriacy of online behaviour. As the article suggests, being cool, fitting in with your daring friends, seems to hold far more significance for these children than the impact they are having on their personal image, potentially for years in to the future, in the real world.

There are lots of myths around about cyber safety and about the approaches best adopted by parents and educators. Therefore, I also include here a fascinating link to an interview with Sonia Livingstone of the London School of Economics. She’s been conducting extensive research with children around their IT and internet use and has some fascinating observations:

a) The digital natives don’t necessarily have all the natural digital skills we think they do – the vast majority of their online activity is inherently passive,
b) We’re better off agreeing online digital openness and sharing with our children, than cyber-spying or attempting to watch what they’re doing,
c) parents and those who care for children need to understand the differences between risk and harm,
d) media literacy skills need to be learned and acquired to function effectively in the digital age

DML Central – Interview With Sonia Livingstone

News Literacy for Discerning Students

Here’s an interesting US article about a programme being run there to help students to understand how to deal with the vast amount of information and data available to them through the internet.

Edutopia Article – Media Literacy

I have one major reservation – should it be journalists who are tasked with helping children to cut through the verbiage put out often by …… journalists?

It is often suggested that in an effective democracy the media represents the fourth critical estate, after the elected government, the civil services and the judiciary. One of the most important tasks of the fourth is to help the people to understand the behaviours and actions of the first three.

However, we see for ourselves with the whole debate on ‘paid news’ (where again the media are trying to tell us what we should think of the media!).

I will always remember a fascinating case study from the time when i was studying information and Communication Law.

UK newspapers, especially the tabloids started reporting cases of dogs biting people, especially children. Within weeks, the tabloid papers were carrying full page lurid photographs of childish innocence marred by vicious facial bites.

The effect was to create an impression that suddenly, over night, dogs had become an out of control menace and no child was safe – as if this terrible thing had just started to happen.

Before long there were local politicians in reported constituencies responding to vociferous demands for action by committing to bring debate and legislation in the parliament. The newspaper editors salivated as they reported on the “public demands” for immediate action, protesters in the streets and outside parliament.

Within weeks hurried legislation was pressed on to the busy parliament timetable and passed with all party support (nobody dared oppose it or question it). The result was that, over night, it became illegal to walk a dog, even on a lead, without it wearing a muzzle. strict punishments of owners, confiscation of pet dogs and compulsory killing of the dogs became the norm.

Within a few more weeks the media were there to tell the public what terrible legislation this was. Now, the front pages were full of heart-rending stories of little old ladies who wept as their dogs were put to sleep – their only crime being forgetfullness to put the muzzle on their dog.

The media had ‘created’ the first story, conjured up a percieved emergency, rallied public frenzy and political pressure leading to weak, irrational and badly drafted legislation. Then they were there to point out the inept outcomes for all. The public were left scratching their heads, wondering how all this could have happened.

So, education systems fail to prepare citizens adequately for the world if they fail to pay adequate attention to media literacy and the thinking skills necessary to be discerning about information. The issue then becomes finding the best way to incorporate this vital learning in to the curriculum for school children.

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