12/05/2017 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Teaching Digital Literacy

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There may have been a time when educators could shrug off the idea that schools must teach students digital literacy across the curriculum. Not any more.

Since the invention of the telephone, maybe earlier, adults have had to consider the impact of technology on children’s lives. But the work got significantly more serious and complicated with the development of personal commuting — starting with the Apple IIc and continue straight through to today’s smart phones. It’s likely to get even more complex in the coming years, especially with the rise of artificial intelligence.

Today, the concerns related to technology use start at an early age. By the time children reach school age, these issues are front and center in their lives. Because of this, digital literacy skills are essential to a child’s intellectual and social-emotional development. In school, it’s partly about learning to use research resources well — understanding not only what makes a reliable resource but also how to find it. But much of the process of developing digital literacy is about learning how to communicate in a smart, respectful and safe way. As any early user of social media can tell you — even those who are so-called “digital natives” — pitfalls are everywhere.  If for no other reason than to prevent our children from being cyber-bullies or cyber-bullied, digital literacy is essential. Then there’s the growing concern about how to protect children’s personal information — which is getting harder and harder to do.

But the challenges are broader than the questions of academic research and online social behavior. They include addressing the question of fake news verse fact-based reporting and how to understand, navigate, and respond to (or not) the growing world of uncivil commentary masquerading as thoughtful debate. We want our children, in home and at school, to understand what it means to have a digital footprint, and how to recognize the ways most of us are virtually steered into internet bubbles — living in digital echo chambers that reinforce bias rather than intelligently inform us. In a healthy democratic society, we all need to avoid such digital isolation. As the folks Teaching Tolerance put it in the introduction to the organization’s new Digital Literacy Framework, “The ability to be fluent, savvy and safe online is vital for students if they are to become active, responsible participants in a diverse democracy.”

We are thankful for all efforts to protect, inform and guide students. There are numerous sources of support for educators in this work — including the teacher resources and standards available through the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). The resource that caught our eye recently is Teaching Tolerance’s newly released Digital Literacy Framework, designed to help educators across the K-12 spectrum. Each section of the framework is divided into age-appropriate (and adaptable) lessons for students.

The essential framework, free to all educators, looks like this:

1. Students can locate and verify reliable sources of information.

2. Students should understand how digital information comes to them.

3. Students can constructively engage in digital communities.

4. Students should understand how online communication affects privacy and security.

5. Students should understand they are not just consumers of information — but also producers.

6. Students should understand their role as customers in an online marketplace.

7. Students can evaluate the value of the internet as a mechanism of civic action.

Common Sense Media also offers a wide range of resources and lesson plans to help schools teach responsible digital citizenship. The group’s 65 grade-differentiated lesson plans are based on the research of Howard Gardner and the Good Play Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The goal is to help students think critically, behave safely, and participate responsibly — all of which is much easier to say than do.

We spoke with a few technology directors in independent schools about the challenges of teaching digital literacy. All of them note the importance of schools threading lessons in digital literacy throughout and across the curriculum.

Cameron Johnson, senior technology manager at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California, points out that teaching digital literacy, if done right, involves just about all departments. At his school, for instance, teaching digital literacy to sixth graders (the youngest age group in the school) is a coordinated effort involving the IT and Academic Technology departments, along with the sixth grade dean and the head of the middle school. The sessions also involve both students and parents/guardians to ensure that everyone receives the same message. Librarians and members of the wellness staff also address issues ranging from quality research and critical consumption to mental health and social interaction.

Of course, when we think about digital literacy and the challenges inherent in developing a smart digital footprint, we think about the adults in school, too. It’s equally important that adults develop their own digital literacy — for personal and professional reasons. Primarily, educators need to protect and guide the children they teach. But they also need to know how to use the digital world well as a tool for teaching and professional growth.

There’s another concern, as well. Increasingly, educators need to be able to navigate the complex, competitive, and often-manipulative ed-tech world so that they are investing in and using technology in the classroom in ways that best serve the curriculum and the school’s mission.

A problem in recent years has been the way public school systems have invested heavily in technology that doesn’t live up to its promise. A case in point, according to education writer John Merrow, is the Baltimore school district, which spent $200 million on HP computers that the company eventually discontinued and stopped supporting. Merrow says the mistake many school districts make is to think primarily in terms of using educational technology to improve test scores. In addition to failing to raise test scores in most cases, exorbitant spending on questionable technology takes needed funds away from other valuable resources. A good rule, Merrow says, is that “no school district should EVER buy ANY prepackaged software.” The technology should always fit your curriculum and educational philosophy, not the other way around.

Independent and private schools, of course, operate independently of such large systems. But they are still susceptible to the lure of promising technology — often investing a great deal of money in equipment and software that are either obsolete shortly after installation or that don’t serve adults or students as well as advertised.

We can only repeat what John Merrow said. The technology — hardware and software — should always fit your curriculum and mission, not the other way around. Beyond that are key questions of how well any new technology will integrate with existing systems, the track record of the tech company in offering support and evolving the product, and what sort of support and training the faculty needs.

Technology will no doubt continue to be a double-edged sword for educators. But with careful guidance, policies, and practices, we can aim to keep the positive edge sharpest.

At the same time, we encourage schools not give up on the non-digital world. It made us happy to read the recent New York Times article, “Our Love Affair with Digital Is Over.” According to author David Sax, most of us — including a high percentage of Millennials — distrust Facebook with our personal data and worry about the impact of technology on our health, not to mention our jobs.

At the same time, the research makes it clear than non-digital learning still holds sway. “The dynamic of a teacher working in a classroom full of students has not only proven resilient, but has outperformed digital learning experiments time and again,” writes Sax. “Digital may be extremely efficient in transferring pure information, but learning happens best when we build upon the relationships between students, teachers and their peers.”

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