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.

Developing Children’s Digital Media Skills

I have written occasionally about how I believe the ‘learning how to’ skills cannot be learned in isolation through ‘one off’ workshops etc. (although for many children in schools today, even that would be better than nothing). The learning skills have to be embedded in to the learning experiences themselves.

This goes for skills such as study techniques, mind mapping etc. but also for aspects of building student understanding on academic honesty, plagiarism and research skills. A good starting point is something like an ‘academic honesty policy’, like the team produced when i was at Shri Ram, but I stress again that all that has to get embedded in to the learning, which means it must become part of the essential toolkit of every teacher.

Here’s an interesting article from ‘Mindshift’ applying this to the issue of choices students make about accessing digital materials. The Los Angeles i pad debacle is ample evidence that ‘command and control’ strategies to web filtering etc. are largely ineffective with children. If anything, the more filters you put in place, the more you challenge the children’s ingenuity to find the ways around those filters.

I remember from personal experience in a school where access to Facebook was blocked. I was told confidently that children in that school don’t ‘waste time’ chatting on Facebook. However, one of the first things I saw in one of the computer labs was two students chatting and updating status on FB. When it was investigated it turned out that the students were getting around the filter by going via a proxy site based in Russia to access FB. However, one has to wonder – were the risks worth the effort?

Mindshift Article – Making Children Their Own Filters

Ultimately, two things will make the difference in these matters. The first is the overall school culture, trust relationship between adults and children. A culture that emphasizes on ‘control’ and discipline will likely have continual battles in this area and things will go wrong from time to time. Secondly, every teacher in the school has to be IT savvy and trained to incorporate all the aspects of effective research skills and digital literacy in to lessons and teaching so that they are not delivered only as part of ‘computer lessons’ or as add-on workshops.

Gulf News – Article 4

This week’s article was published in the newspaper this morning. For this article i chose to tackle the sensitive issue of cheating, dishonesty and integrity, concluding that a commitment to be ‘honest later’ doesn’t work and that low integrity carries too high a price:

gulf news article 15092013

Please share your thoughts. I’d love to have feedback and ideas from the regular blog readers. Also, whilst Article 5 is virtually finished, I’m open to any ideas for what should be the themes of articles 6 and 7.

Academic Honesty Under Threat

I found this article both worrying and interesting as it deals with an apparent decline in academic integrity with greater and greater numbers of students resorting to cheating. What’s more, it’s clear that this isn’t particularly cheating by students at the bottom of the performance ladder, but often those near the top.

Mindshift Article on Academic Dishonesty

It would be all too easy to explain away what’s happening on the basis of general societal slide in ethical behaviour, but I think instead it is more important to consider seriously the extent to which the education system itself may be leading to systemically driven failure.

We have education systems that claim to acknowledge that if you want to have motivated students you should focus on effort, not on outcomes – yet maintains the big and ultimate rewards to be dished out on the basis of outcomes. We have a system in which, in most countries of the world, too many children are being encouraged to believe that their success in the future will be determined by the right ‘labels’ on their CV. As a result, admission in to all but a handful of colleges is deemed almost to be a badge of failure.

We need a system that doesn’t put every product of Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, IIMs and IITs on pedestals as demi-gods, whilst looking disdainfully down on those who have come out of so-called lesser colleges. The fact is that in a healthy education system I (ME) would be responsible for my achievements – not the institute in which i studied. So, I can be acknowledged to be a weak product out of Harvard because I didn’t put in the effort and make the best of my time there, or a great output of xyz university who squeezed out every ounce of opportunity to learn (and continues to do so long after leaving college).

Employing people, even in a country like India, is getting increasingly expensive. Employers have to be sophisticated and smart enough to gear their systems to find people with the right attributes and not take easy, short cuts that involve blindly taking those who are the products of a handful of colleges. Then, students would not place all their focus on such narrow definitions of success, but would be aware that there are infinite ways to succeed. Then, they might be more willing to treat examinations as a means to test themselves and show themselves in a true light, rather than being tempted to resort to unethical means.

Academic Honesty & Integrity

I was interested to read this recent article, that talks of how the research and analysis by turnitin (we use this software for our IB Diploma programme) reveals changes in the way that cheating and plagiarism is happening:

Eschoolnews article

Like many of the bad things that people may get tempted to do to themselves, there are two levels at which you can deal with them. Here, turnitin is a response to the symptoms. An attempt to police the world of plagiarism, to set up a deterrent that will keep some students away from it and to catch other offenders. However, you can also think in terms of the symptoms and causes and what might be done to alleviate them.

When one considers the terrible price to be paid from academic dishonesty – the ignominy and shame if you get caught, the diminished self respect if you get away with it – there have to be some pretty deep reasons why young people would still take the risks. Somewhere, I can’t help finding a connection with the ‘irrelevance’ in large parts of what children are learning, the fact that the connections have not adequately been made for them between exercising academic rigour in learning and future success in a knowledge driven world.

Thus, we may always have no choice but to ‘punish’ the perpetrator when we catch them as a deterrent to others who could be tempted, but at the same time we do need to acknowledge that some of the blame lies with ‘the system’ and we must continue to work towards a system in which no student would feel the need to use unfair means.

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