Digital Skills: The Adults Are Also Not All Right

Can you spot the n00b mistake in this picture? (Hint: does yelling at people actually teach them anything?)

Can you spot the n00b mistake in this picture? (Hint: does yelling at people actually teach them anything?)

Second post in a series, re-evaluating what “digital literacy” and “digital skills” should consist of.

I began this series talking about two posts from Jeff Eaton and Marc Scott which have been widely passed around, hinting that when it comes to digital skills, we have a lot to talk about. Scott focused primarily on kids’ digital skills, speaking bluntly about what they just don’t know how to do. Eaton talks about older users’ limited skills. He takes a gentler approach, documenting how simple interface concepts like “window” or “click” can elude older users, even ones who are highly competent in other fields.

The limited digital skills of older users, some twenty years since the availability of the popular Internet, make up the flipside of young people’s limited skills. The two are symbiotic, and (I’d argue) can’t be separated from each other when you’re planning education to change the situation. We need mass education, for people of all ages.

Consider: Everyone alive over the past thirty years has been, at some point, a “learner” when it comes to computers. As technology changes — as each UX designer decides they need to make their mark on a piece of software by “improving” on it — we all re-learn again, every few years. Part of what needs to be learned, then, is how to learn, over and over again. Simply learning where the button is for “cut” or “undo” is not enough.(1)

Virtually all of us learned outside the classroom. Even kids who have been in classrooms during that time have been held back by net nanny software which schools have been forced to install due to porn hysteria. Older generations, who did not have skills to teach them, also hindered their progress.

So we can assume that the majority of Internet users’ knowledge is ad-hoc, full of holes, and subject to suddenly being undermined when, for example, Windows changes everything to a tile-based interface.

As I established in my last post, digital savvy is unevenly distributed (along the same uneven distribution lines as education, money, social connections, etc.), and the lack of availability of skills in some areas may perpetuate inequality or even develop isolated subcultures of technology use. Kids in schools where educators are not up to date with technology face even more of a disadvantage. Compare to the children of Silicon Valley types.

The digital skills problem we face is not a schools problem or an adult education problem. It is a mass education problem. If the digital education of most adults is still full of holes, that holey knowledge probably also impacts what students learn. (Many of my college students last year used the colloquial, non-technical phrase “X that out” to tell me to close windows; the department’s secretary, in her fifties, was using the same phrase. I have a hunch the phrase denotes a lack of understanding of what a “window” is, but again, I’d need to gather evidence.)

Unfortunately, most of the working definitions we have of “digital literacy,” and most digital education standards, are not up to the task of filling these holes. We’ve left the definitions of “technological competence” to be crafted by people whose own knowledge is full of holes, or shallow. These folks may be fluent with Microsoft Office; they may be able to do research online, and judge the credibility of the articles they find. But their operating assumption still seems to be that learners of all ages should turn to “experts” — the IT guy, the Geek Squad, etc. — to solve routine, common problems like malware infections, lost connectivity, or missing files. These kinds of skills are absent from many of the digital skills curricula they’ve developed.

I recently happened across a LinkedIn resumé for a relatively-highly-placed consultant, which claimed the owner was not just proficient, but certified, in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. The immediate impression I got was “this person is trying hard to pad a weak resumé.” Yet there are still places where employers, educators, policymakers, and other agencies consider this kind of software use as a measure of computer competency. See, for example, the International Computer Driver’s License, about which I’m planning a whole post later.

Making a big deal out of word processing and spreadsheet competency is a major failing. Ability to use software to create or read content is competence on the order of decoding words in reading, or learning to spell. It’s fundamental, but if you don’t grow past that by the time you hit junior high, there’s something wrong with your education system.

There are other competencies which are vital to thriving in online life at higher levels of education — ones which require an understanding of how machines work UNDER the software, even though they may not necessarily involve coding.

I want to re-emphasize, as Marc Scott did, that some of these skills require us to turn off filters and firewalls in schools. We do students a disservice by making the Internet unteachable in schools (though I note that in my master’s work, I saw students at one school developing their understanding of the Net as they used https to circumvent the school’s nanny software).

I also do not want to see our understanding of competence end at “computational literacy” or the recent insistence that “everyone should learn to code,” though. Most basic coding classes also don’t cover concepts of networking or, say, search algorithms. These skills are separate from actually coding, and they are important to learn in order to function online.

So what should this literacy consist of? I’ll dig deeper into this in my next post. In the subsequent post, I’ll perform deeper analysis on the International Computer Driver’s License, and clarify what I think is wrong with its approach.

(1) Are there echoes of my alma mater, Hampshire College, here? “Learn how to learn”? “To know is not enough”? Of course there are.

Comments 2

  1. Doug Belshaw wrote:

    Hi Gillian! Great post – especially the part about people with ‘holey’ knowledge/skills doing the teaching.

    In relation to your last point about what literacy consist of, may I draw your attention to two things?

    1. I wrote *my* Ed.D. thesis on digital literacies and found a confused landscape of competing definitions. However, at a meta level there are ‘essential elements’ to good definitions – check out Chapter 9:

    2. I now work for Mozilla and am the project lead on a new, open learning standard for Web Literacy. We’ll be releasing v1.0 at the MozFest at the end of October but you can see where we’re up to here: (I’d love to see you on one of the community calls!)

    Thanks again for the post and I look forward to the follow-up! :-)

    Posted 30 Aug 2013 at 3:30 am
  2. gus wrote:

    Great, Doug — both things I clearly need to read! I would happily be involved in community calls. Keep me posted.

    Posted 30 Aug 2013 at 10:12 am

Trackbacks & Pingbacks 1

  1. From Digital Skills That Pay The Bills on 13 Sep 2013 at 12:54 pm

    […] When you consider that the Internet has only been around (in broad terms) for thirty years or so, it’s important to remember that every single one of us – from the executive who understands no more than email to the most advanced coder – has been a learner at some point. As Gillian Andrews writes in her blog:- […]

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