What is Digital Literacy? And is it enough?

Someone on twitter sent out a link to an article/video from the BBC called Are children becoming 'digitally illiterate'? that got me thinking. What does it mean to be digitally literate? Are our children digitally literate or not? In fact, if they are not now, were they ever? It depends on what you meant by “digital literacy” of course. For many people that means able to use the computer and its applications. Things like the Office Suite and perhaps web browsers and some other application. Is that it? And that is where the debate begins. The article I linked to above talks about digital literacy as being a function of knowing how to program. (Near the end they show young students learning about programing using Kodu BTW. I thought that was cool.) The heart of the article, especially the print part, is about a small inexpensive piece of computer hardware to use for teaching programming. Frankly I am not sure that lack of availability of hardware is a problem in the developed world. In the developing world it is but so is a shortage of good infrastructure, good Internet, good teachers, and just about anything else you need. But that aside, let us come back to the question of digital literacy.

The first thing that many bring up is the difference between digital literacy and digital fluency. A difference that is lost on many and of great importance to others. Fluency though clearly indicated a higher level of ability. There is a difference between someone who can read – is literate – and someone who is fluent – who can read well with a wide vocabulary. Both of these terms, in the digital context, seem to focus on use of applications though.  I think that most people do see computer literacy and computer fluency in terms of applications and their use with programing being some next level. The debate here becomes whether or not that next level is needed or for what percentage of the population is it needed? While we are at it, perhaps we need a new term for a next level that includes knowing how to program? Or should some knowledge of programming be required to be considered fluent?

I lean towards programming being required for fluency but not literacy. I do think that students of the sciences, and I include the social sciences like sociology, Psychology, and political science in this category, should be fluent and that fluency should include programming. I recently linked to a post by Gail Carmichael (@gailcarmichael) called - Why Computer Science is Relevant No Matter What You're Teaching which is just one of many arguments I have read that explores the necessity of programming, or more completely computer science, for students of most if not all academic disciplines. Several people I read are calling computer science the “new math” because of the critical role it plays in science and engineering today.

Computer science is fundamental. As an engineering student (in high school no less) I was required to take drafting. It was not enough to be able to read a drawing (literacy) but we had to be able to create them (fluency). Today for an engineer, a scientist, a business person to be able to use applications is literacy but for a professional we expect fluency. Not that we expect them to all write their own programs, though many of them will, but that we expect them to understand how they work, what their powers and limitations are. One really should have some knowledge of programming and computer science for that.

Comments (3)

  1. Garth says:

    As a high school computer tech I have kids asking me some questions that totally floor me.  These kids are growing up in a computer age but a large percentage of them cannot do some of the simplest computer tasks.  They can run quite a few apps, but only after someone shows them how.  Most of the kids are carrying usb drives but  I mentioned using Skydrive and they have no idea what I am talking about.  They are totally amazed when I remote into a computer.  Kids are regularly asking me to open on a PC a file they wrote at home on their Mac.  Of the 200 hundred kids in my high school I would say maybe 50% (and I think this is a very high guess) are “literate” and at most 5% are “fluent”.  When comparing the computer knowledge of my 50 year old staff members to my 15 year old students I see little difference.  The number of students willing to learn how to do a new task on the computer by Googling (or Binging) is microscopically small.  Also somewhat amazing is the number of students that are totally ambivalent to computers.  They have to use it but have absolutely no desire to know anything about it other than some basic apps, Facebook and, of course, games.

    I do not think this ambivalence is a new trend.  How many people drive cars and yet have absolutely no idea how to change a flat?  Most people are perfectly happy cruising through life knowing as little as possible about the technology they use on a daily basis.  In most cases this is no big deal, until you get a flat tire.

  2. Sean says:

    The world of Technosavages… The world I inhabit… Where the young people are amazingly literate in social networking but don't have enough job and technical skills to actually do the work at hand. They're the Eloi, us Morlocks who really understand the underpinnings and how to make things work will need to start eating them for lunch in the hopes that evolutionary pressure will start making them smarter.

  3. Peter Davekumar Stephens says:

    As an engineer who does a lot of programming every day and someone who is very interested in the way the brain works, I find myself unsure if teaching programming too early is necessarily a good thing.  The data flows and processes in which computing problems are often solved are typically serial in nature and while breaking problems down is a good thing, I believe the brain handles many more things in parallel and the strongest responses for the given emotional state bubble to the surface.  These need to be assesed (the critical step most neglected) but if these are weighted carefully we start to understand how our minds work and can use the less easily categorised processes of the mind to enhance the discipline and structure of the engineering and programming methodology.  I think there is a grave danger in perpetuating the belief that a purely 'scientific' or logical approach is always the superior means of solving problems as this stifles creativity and the 'what if' aspects of problem solving.

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