With smartphones in their pockets and tablets in their backpacks, students growing up in the digital era are the most connected generation yet. But, as UBC’s Ron Darvin notes, simply having access to digital tools doesn’t mean all students are on a level playing field. Darvin, a PhD student in the faculty of education and a UBC Public Scholar, examines how students of different socio-economic backgrounds develop digital skills—and why some children are at risk of being left behind.
What is digital literacy and why is it important?
Because the digital realm requires a number of skills—knowing how to gain and produce knowledge, maintain relationships, and represent yourself—I prefer the term “digital literacies.” Taking the perfect selfie, connecting with friends on Snapchat, researching a school assignment on Osmosis and setting it up using Prezi: all of these examples represent different digital literacies. In Canada, 99 per cent of students are able to connect to the Internet inside or outside school. By Grade 11, 85 per cent of them have a mobile phone. The question is: Are they learning digital literacies that will allow them to move forward?
Who is most at risk of being left behind when it comes to digital literacy?
It’s not only students with limited access to digital tools who can be left behind, but also kids who may be using technology in very limited ways. For example, I interviewed two 16-year-old Filipino immigrant boys living in Vancouver. One has a father who uses technology to manage businesses outside of Canada, and has a brother at university. When I asked him what technology is for, he recognized right away that it’s a powerful source of information. He reads the news from his BBC app on his phone, he joined an online currency trading course, and he wrote a fan-fiction novel that he shared online with people who share his interest.
The other boy and his two siblings live with a single mother who works two jobs and comes home late. His mother said she uses technology to do Facebook and watch her Filipino soap operas. When I asked him what technology is for, he said he uses it to play video games. When I asked him about using it for school, he said, “Well, I use it basically for printing my assignments or projects.” So it’s not just those without access to technology who are left behind, but also students who are not able to get mentorship and guidance.
How does this play a part in the new B.C. curriculum?
It is definitely a very important component of the new curriculum, which takes an inquiry-based approach. As we ask students to uncover information on their own, it becomes even more crucial that we teach them how to sift through all the information that’s out there, recognize credible sources and identify false information.
The Oxford dictionary declared the word of 2016 to be “post-truth”, where objective facts are less influential in shaping opinions than what appeals to our emotions and personal beliefs. That really highlights how important it is to ensure our students can engage with technology in a more critical way. They need to be more than just consumers of social media, but also active producers of knowledge. They need to understand how technology works and how Google and Facebook algorithms direct us to certain kinds of information and knowledge.
How can parents and teachers foster digital literacy in children?
Reading behavior in the home—how much parents read and whether bedtime stories are part of the daily routine—shapes children’s reading practices. It’s the same thing when it comes to digital literacy. Parents can cultivate a home environment where kids can see technology not only as a form of entertainment but a source of knowledge.
While I know that teachers do, in different levels, engage with technology in their classes, what we need is a larger, schools-wide strategy on digital literacies. By having a more systematic, coordinated integration of technology into our classrooms and training our teachers, we can make sure students are learning the digital literacies that matter.
Ron Darvin will be speaking at ‘Engaging Education for the Public Good,’ the first event of the 2017 PhDs Go Public Research Talk Series. Seven of UBC’s Public Scholars Initiative students will discuss how their research on education is making a positive difference.
The event takes place at 6:30 p.m., Jan. 26, 2017 at the UBC Learning Exchange, 612 Main St., Vancouver