Sure, teens can text and tweet. But can they read search engine results and pick out reliable sources for school work?
For all the tech savvy that seems to come innately to digital natives — a term coined for children who grow up using gadgets their parents never even imagined — many school kids are sorely lacking in crucial skills that comprise another emerging concept called “digital literacy.”
“They’re great consumers of media and they’re great at all sorts of electronic communication,” said Sylvia Diaz, Miami-Dade County’s assistant superintendent who oversees instructional technology. “But they don’t necessarily know how to create a spreadsheet.”
There is no single definition for what it means to be digitally literate. Broadly, it refers to the ability to find information in the digital world, analyze that information and use it to create something new — like a research project. In many ways, it’s not much different from what educators have for years been calling media literacy or information literacy: knowing where to find information, and how to use it.
But digital literacy also requires at least a basic understanding of how technology and the internet work – and just because kids are quick to download the latest app doesn't mean they know how Google settles on its top search results. That can be problematic when kids choose which websites to trust, a skill that can’t be learned simply by picking up an iPad or having internet access.
“Those with limited technical literacy aren’t necessarily equipped to be powerful citizens of the digital world,” author Danah Boyd writes in her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. “Teens view Google as the center of the digital information universe ... They uncritically trust Google.”
Consider: At a time when almost half of the world has access to the internet, a University of Connecticut study in the process of being peer-reviewed found that merely four percent of 13-year-olds could evaluate whether a website was credible. A majority of the seventh-grade students involved in the study couldn’t identify the author of a website, the author’s credentials and whether the writer had any bias or point of view.
“They’re sophisticated with texting, with social networking, with video – YouTube especially – and with gaming,” said Donald Leu, director of The New Literacies Lab at the University of Connecticut. “But where they are woefully, dreadfully, inadequately prepared is with reading online information and using it to learn new ideas.”
Another study from the University of Connecticut found that less than eight percent of 13-year-olds knew how to send a proper email. Overwhelmingly, students didn’t include subject lines or proper greetings, couldn’t summarize online research into a clear message and sent messages to the wrong people.
Instead, the seventh-grade students treated emails just like text messages, said Leu, who is also the John and Maria Neag Endowed Chair in Literacy and Technology.
There has been debate over whether the shift to new education standards, called Common Core, does enough to address these issues. Florida has its own set of standards, largely aligned with Common Core, which dictate what students should learn in each grade.
There are some explicit references to digital skills within Florida’s standards – mainly at the middle and high school levels. For example, Florida’s standards call for students to learn how to “gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.”
But there are plenty of experts who say more needs to be done when it comes to the standards.
“They’re often kind of general and vague, and one of the things that’s missing is critical media literacy,” said said Richard Beach, professor emeritus of literacy education at the University of Minnesota.
Part of the problem: Adults tend to assume all children are adept at using technology. Academics have moved away from using the term “digital natives” because it helps feed into this assumption.
In truth, student’s skills vary, especially among those whose families can afford digital devices and internet service at home, and those who can’t.
“There are big gaps, and lot of it is interest. It’s access. It’s also parental support and interest,” Diaz said.
Some experts argue that schools won’t place a greater emphasis on digital literacy until standardized tests do. In education today, test results drive everything from teacher pay to whether schools are allowed to stay open.
While Florida is shifting to computerized exams, Diaz admits many tests still focus on paper-and-pencil skills.
For example, to assess reading skills, students are usually asked to read a story and determine why a character acted a certain way. Instead, students should be given search engine results and asked to pick out the most relevant findings based on inferences made from reading the short summaries that appear under website listings, said Leu, the University of Connecticut professor.
“In an assessment-driven world such that were in right now, if it’s not on the assessment, it’s not taught,” he said.
Next school year, a Florida mandate will require school districts to spend at least half of their budget for instructional materials on digital components. High school students in the state are also required to take an online course to graduate, and the federal government has mandated that schools be wired for the internet. With more and more technology being incorporated into classrooms, Diaz said the way digital literacy is taught will evolve.
“It will become more and more standard operating practice, the infusing, the instruction of these skills,’’ she said. “But it does have to be deliberate.”