Digital Literacy – It’s Important! (Seriously)

This stuff matters.  Really!

I feel compelled to confront a very serious issue facing the newest members of Planet Earth: digital literacy.  Just as we teach our children to read, teach them manners, and, as best we can, teach them the difference between right and wrong, we must teach our children the ins and outs of navigating our new digital existence.

NPR ran a very interesting story this weekend about a research lab at the University of Maryland.  The lab, funded by Google, recently released a study about the ways in which children search for information online.  The results may be surprising – not every kid is a computer whiz.  As it turns out,

There were many children just sat there and watched until they would find the information. As opposed to, hey, couldn’t you do a keyword. Nope, uh-uh. This is what I do. I’ll find it, don’t worry. We had one child swear he was going to find the Vice President’s birthday next year in the Spongebob Squarepants Web site.

This is not good, people!  As someone who was in charge of learning these skills on their own, I implore all of you to take an active approach to rectifying this situation.

Let’s be honest about this – people in my generation (ages 22-30, for the sake of discussion) are members of a unique generation that was in charge of bridging this gap on our own, learning the necessary skills as we progressed.  My first computer, a Commodore 64, was a complete mystery to nearly every person of responsibility in my life.  How do you use it?  What can it do?

My parents certainly couldn’t teach me these sorts of skills.  My mom only recently learned how to send a text message (a major technological achievement, believe me).  So, I did what everyone else my age did – tried different things until I found one that worked reasonably well.  Occasionally, I would share tidbits with friends, or pick something up in a magazine.

Once the Internet came to my house (which was admittedly late – they just got high speed connections in my neighborhood last year), the floodgates opened.  I could connect with other people who were facing the same problems I was, who knew more than me, and who could speak my language when it came to technology.

Now, I am in charge of working to pass this torch to those who come after me – we all are.  It’s vitally important that our children grow up knowing how to successfully use technology.  They need to know how to navigate the pitfalls and gold-mines that can be found online, and be made aware of the implications of their online actions.  This is no small task!  Where do we begin?  According to Dr. Allison Druin, director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland, parents

can be mentors in the sense of trying to motivate a kid to go further and farther.  Also, being able to let kids see how you search and what you do to refine a search.

This might be a great start, but it’s not nearly enough.  Children need to know where to go to find resources, what kind of things are likely to be found online, and what kinds are not.  For these things, try contacting your local librarian, they are fantastic at these sorts of questions.

Children also need to be given the skills and knowledge to navigate these online areas, become able to recognize trouble if they see it, and know how to handle things that they might not be familiar with or know what to do when they get in over their heads (hint: ask an adult you trust!).

If you don’t have any children of your own, that doesn’t mean that you can’t help with this process.  Contact your local library to volunteer, share you skills and knowledge whenever you can.  Do you have a certain area of technology that you’re particularly fluent in?  Be an evangelist for using it correctly, and share what you know – kids talk to their friends, and your positive influence can quickly spread.

I encourage all of you to become involved in helping the children in your lives learn as much as they can about becoming engaged online citizens – not only does it benefit each individual child, but our society as a whole depends on their ability to function in an online world.

You can hear the whole NPR story at this link.  And, for the record, this study concluded that girls were more persistent, but less successful, than boys at performing these online searches.  I’m just sayin’.

This essay appeared originally on the Information Space blog.


2 thoughts on “Digital Literacy – It’s Important! (Seriously)

  1. Hello, and thanks for reading – but thanks especially for commenting. It’s always nice to be able to dialogue on these issues.

    I was merely saying (sarcastically and tongue-in-cheek) that it was interesting the researchers were able to identify this discrepancy and seemingly attribute it to gender and gender alone.

    I would also say that at least in half of the assessment, the researcher’s conclusion holds true in comparison to my own experience: girls really do work harder (i.e. are “more persistent”) on things of this nature. That seemed to be the case in high-school, in college, and even now in graduate school.

    As far as boys being more successful on these searches, I don’t put a lot of weight into it. This would be the same thing as saying that boys are better readers or girls are better listeners – both skills that can be improved. Great fodder for jokes, however – which is what this really was.

    Thanks for reading!


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