Digital Competence – the Background

Ernie the Muppet at computer with little girl

This is the first in a series of blogs on digital competence. As usual, this is where I gather my own thoughts, achieve some depth of understanding and create something I can come back and look at later (and likely criticise). If you’re reading this and would like to contribute any constructive criticism, please, please, please do.

But, let’s start with the term ‘digital competence’. What does it mean? A quick definition as provided Learning Wales is as follows:

Digital competence is one of 3 cross-curricular responsibilities, alongside literacy and numeracy. It focusses on developing digital skills which can be applied to a wide range of subjects and scenarios.

I’ll explore this further later and give a more detailed account of what the concept might incorporate. However, first let’s take a look at the background for this.

Background…well, some of it…

In 2001, Mark Prensky wrote the widely disseminated and influential academic work Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants on the new type of students that were entering educational institutions. These new students arrived replete with a wide range of new digital technology that they had grown up around and had moulded who they were. These new students, Prensky argued, were radically different to previous generations. Their minds had been rewired, they had…evolved…

They have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age. Today‟s average college grads have spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV). Computer games, email, the Internet, cell phones and instant messaging are integral parts of their lives.’ As a result, ‘think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors’. These were what Prensky termed ‘Digital Natives’.

Prensky contrasted this new tribe with ‘Digital Immigrants’. This older tribe had to adapt to their new environment, retaining an ‘accent,’ ‘their foot in the past’ which coloured their interactions with technology in ways such as ‘turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it.’

The issue in 2001, according to Prensky, was that educators were, as a result of this great cultural and technological shift, speaking a very different language to their students. They were not reaching these new learners whose brains had been rewired by their immersion in a newly digital world through their formative years. These new learners were entering into a foreign, archaic institution and finding themselves lost and frustrated at how learning was dictated by people that had, themselves, learnt in very different ways. Digital Natives desired the greater immediacy afforded by the Internet and digital devices, and a greater focus on such concepts as gamification over the serious text and lecture based education ‘suffered’ by their instructors through their own education.

Prensky advised that educators needed to get used to this new normal and adopt strategies that took into consideration these aspects of immediacy in their pacing and with a greater focus on livening up their classrooms with students that had grown up learning literacy and numeracy with the Count on Sesame Street. Unfortunately, at some point, the term ‘edutainment’ was coined. That isn’t really important here, however.

The Count vampire from Sesame Street holding the number 8

There was also the notion that the younger generations wouldn’t require being taught to use digital technology themselves, they would simply take to it like ducks to water and would ultimately teach Digital Immigrants.

If you’re reading this now, screaming at the screen that this typology has been somewhat superceded and roundly criticised (even by Prensky himself), don’t worry. We’ll get to that in the next blog.

A little more recent…

In 2009, a Jisc report described how literacy practices were changing, from ink and paper to a screen based medium where writing had changed and the use of images and video were increasingly being used to access and communicate information. The ability to use and navigate these new tools had to be developed within learners or they would fail to reach their potential and progress to being the kind of highly skilled worker required by the UK’s economy in a changing global workplace and find themselves experiencing difficulties in participating in lifelong learning via digital means of their own choosing.

The 2009 report found that because there was no clear ownership within institutions, learning and digital literacies were rarely the focus of integrated institutional strategies. Educational institutions needed to assess whether they were adequately meeting the needs of learners in regards to how these capabilities were valued, taught and assessed and ensure that digital literacy was receiving sufficient time and investment.

The report set out some possible recommendations such as institutions addressing learning in the digital age directly in tandem with ensuring that infrastructure and policy reflected this required change in institutional culture. It laid out how a digital literacies champion could be chosen to lead change and recommended ‘collaboration and engagement of management, central services and academic departments and aims to embed academic information and digital literacy skills in learning and teaching.

So…How did we do?

Two old men from the Muppets

If you Google ‘digital literacy report UK’, you’ll get a list or results from 2013, 2016, and 2016 on the front page alone which, from their titles, might indicate that we didn’t do so well or at least, there’s still work to be done.

This is particularly the case, wrote Wired in 2015,  due to the fact that ‘35 percent of jobs in the UK are at risk of automation over the next 20 years… and a significant digital skills shortage in the current curriculum means that the future workforce will be unprepared to work in this environment.’ This was based on a House of Lords report which also detailed amongst other findings that, ‘There is a shortage of medium- and high-level digital skills in the UK. This needs immediate attention if the UK is to remain competitive globally. To keep ahead of the international competition, the UK must ensure it has the necessary pool of digitally-skilled graduates and others at the higher level (the ‘digital makers’), to support and drive research and innovation throughout the whole economy.’ This, I’m sure you’d agree, appears very similar to that which Jisc discussed over half a decade earlier.

The House of Lords Digital skills crisis report of 2016, read

…there is a digital divide where up to 12.6 million of the adult UK population lack basic digital skills. An estimated 5.8 million people have never used the internet at all….costing the UK economy an estimated £63 billion a year in lost additional GDP. The skills gap presents itself at all stages in the education and training pipeline, from schools to the workplace.

This issue was already apparent in the UK where the domestic shortages of digital workers were resulting in start-ups and SMEs missing out on potential business. Larger tech companies had the global reach to recruit skilled workers globally. With 16% of that talent coming from outside the EU, it was believed that smaller firms were limited by current immigration policies. Consequently, some of the recommendations for higher education included institutions working with industry to align courses to employer requirements.

What are digital skills?

The Lords report claimed that they…

…include a general ability to use existing computers and digital devices to access digital services, “digital authoring skills” such as coding and software engineering, and the ability to critically evaluate media and to make informed choices about content and information—“to navigate knowingly through the negative and positive elements of online activity and make informed choices about the content and services they use…..65% of children entering primary school today will be working in roles that do not yet exist. This means that our education and training system—whether teaching the next generation or continuously upskilling the existing workforce—will need to be more agile if it is going to meet the challenge of future-proofing the workplace.

So this is where we are. Due to the huge technical advancements of the past few decades we have a multitude of new devices, channels of communication, and ways to access and disseminate knowledge. However, for a variety of reasons, we have a populace who are not able to reach their full potential academically and professionally and an education system that is struggling to solve that problem. As a result, the UK has a skills gap that cannot be filled by domestic workers which may make us less innovative, dynamic, and competitive, leading to negative repercussions on the wider economy.

The challenge, across all of UK education to solve this problem. In the next blog, I’ll discuss some criticism of Prensky’s early classification, an alternative that helps us understand perhaps who our students are in the context of their use of digital technologies, and look at some recent research on where we are now.

The images used in this blog are stills from The Muppet Show by Jim Henson Company and Sesame Street by Sesame Workshop