Today’s students are largely comfortable using technology. Whether they’re scrolling through social media apps on their smartphones or using advanced computer software like Adobe Photoshop to complete a school project, students can typically use different technologies to achieve a range of objectives.
Given how regularly kids and teens use technology, we tend to assume that they possess a high level of digital literacy: what UNESCO defines as “the ability to access, manage, understand, integrate, communicate, evaluate, and create information safely and appropriately through digital technologies.” But is this necessarily true? After all, a student who can use a web browser to instantly find an answer to a question might not have the skills to know whether the information they find is accurate or verifiable.
In this article, we ask whether digital literacy should form part of the modern curriculum, based on what students need to know and what they already know. We look at some challenges students face today, how digital literacy relates to to digital citizenship, and how students and educators can adapt to a changing technological landscape.
Digital Literacy Challenges Faced by Modern Students
It’s no secret that students today have a high level of competence when it comes to digital technologies. In fact, educators can be forgiven for thinking that students — “digital natives,” for the most part — have a more natural aptitude for digital tasks than they do. Around 88% of eighth graders have access to an internet-enabled computer at home. But do we sometimes give kids too much credit when it comes to digital literacy due to the sheer amount of time they spend in front of a screen?
Teachers should be cautious when assuming levels of digital literacy in students. Just because students are proficient in some aspects of digital life — navigating apps on a tablet or smartphone, for instance — doesn’t mean they have a comprehensive grasp on all aspects of technology. For instance, young people may have good technical skills but lack the nous to think critically about the information they encounter online. Or they may be so confident in their online abilities that they do not pause to reflect on how their behavior might leave them vulnerable to security risks.
Having unbalanced digital literacy skills is one of the biggest challenges faced by students. Because kids and teens can acquire certain digital skills fluently and without effort, they can expose themselves to knowledge gaps in other areas. And there are plenty of other challenges too, such as:
- Socioeconomic disparity between students, leading to some students having less experience with (expensive) digital technologies than others
- Lack of explicit guidance on cybersecurity, data protection, and other online risks
- Simplification of software — apps on a tablet, for example — that may limit a student’s ability to learn technical computing skills
Teachers have a responsibility to address these digital literacy challenges to prepare students for life after school. The National Center for Education Statistics has found that adults who are not digitally literate “have a lower rate of labor force participation and tend to work in lower skilled jobs.”
Digital Literacy and Citizenship
Many digital skills can be acquired and reinforced through repetition and instinct. However, there are some areas of technology and digital life that might require deeper thought, a more thorough range of life experiences, and careful instruction from educators.
One of those areas is digital citizenship. Distinct from but related to digital literacy (which focuses on skills and understanding), digital citizenship relates to the ethics of an internet user’s online interactions with other people. The Council of Europe defines digital citizenship as the ability “to actively, positively, and responsibly engage in both on- and offline communities, whether local, national, or global.”
So, what motivates a person to carry out active, positive, and responsible community engagement? We might assume that people would do this instinctively, but evidence shows this isn’t always the case. 59% of U.S. teens have been affected by cyberbullying, which highlights a clear need for improved ethical digital behavior among young people.
Teaching digital literacy should, therefore, go hand-in-hand with teaching good digital citizenship. For instance, technical tasks like coding exercises can be accompanied by lessons on responsible behavior within online communities. For grades 4–9, teachers can try implementing Sphero’s one-hour exercise on the Ethics of Computing.
Teaching responsible online behavior can be clouded by issues such as online anonymity and the ease with which young people can access controversial or unethical content online. Researchers suggest that young people's confidence in evading detection and their belief in the transient nature of online behavior may lead to a higher prevalence of cyber aggression. A teacher could address this issue by teaching an empathy-first approach to online behavior rather than one that threatens punishment. They might also explain how online anonymity cannot always be maintained, as a student’s digital footprint can often leave them traceable even when using an anonymous account.
Adapting to Emerging Technologies
The digital literacy skills required by students change year by year. Emerging technologies can alter the way students interact with digital life, impacting their methods of gathering and processing information. This can make life challenging for educators, who may need to adjust their curricula accordingly.
New technologies can help students become more digitally literate, but they can also hinder them. Two decades ago, it would have been unusual to walk into a classroom and see students coding a robotic ball like they can today with a Sphero BOLT kit. Such technologies are helping teach students a variety of STEM and digital literacy skills.
But new technologies can, counterintuitively, also provide obstacles to digital literacy. For example, one of the biggest challenges for teachers today is dealing with brand-new technologies such as AI chatbots. While promising unprecedented levels of convenience, these technologies can limit a student’s ability to carry out digital tasks on their own and can also hinder their ability to critically evaluate information. While introducing new possibilities, such technologies introduce security risks, the potential for copyright infringement or plagiarism, and a stream of unreliable information that lacks credible sources.
While students will already possess certain digital literacy skills, teachers have a responsibility to round out their knowledge and teach them concepts they might not have discovered on their own. Using the Sphero Edu app and the library of Sphero activities, teachers can equip students with valuable digital literacy skills in areas such as computing ethics, cybersecurity, private networks, and so much more.