Digital literacy key to learners’ future success

Thursday 13 May 2021

Lockdown on March 23rd, 2020 triggered an emergency transition to online working for many. In education the process raised questions around the issue of digital literacy and its place within curricula at all levels. Indeed, the issue is a timely one with discussion of post-pandemic economic recovery said to rest upon digital skills that British employers do not believe learners leaving full-time education possess. ‘We need digital literacy and common sense, not someone who can program a Raspberry Pi to control a robot,’ tech entrepreneur Kevin Howell told the BBC recently.

It would appear students concur. Survey findings from the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), which supports UK further and higher education skills development, highlight issues of digital literacy in addition to those of access and equity for the period October-December 2020.

Close to 50% of learners who took part reported they did not feel supported to develop the digital literacy necessary to participate effectively in online classes. Only a quarter of respondents claimed they were offered any sort of assessment of their technological competencies to identify areas requiring additional support and training.

While the JISC report suggests increased signposting of existing resources could be beneficial, there may be other factors affecting digital literacy levels, e.g., the impact of Marc Prensky’s digital natives and immigrants model from the turn of the millennium. The model recognised the educational system had struggled to keep pace with a generation reared amidst game-changing technological advances, such as the web. Prensky explains his thinking via a linguistic analogy.

Those born into this world of technology are “native speakers” of its language. Older “immigrants” may learn it but will forever speak with an “accent” because they are partly rooted in a past where such technologies did not exist. Immigrants would not necessarily see digital as their first port of call when faced with a question, whereas a native might whip out their mobile to have Siri check Google.

The confusion of familiarity with skill, in part due to Prensky’s broad-brush approach, drove a wedge between natives and immigrants. A skewed view emerged whereby digital competence was seen as hardwired into a generation that had an almost symbiotic relationship with technology. Educators, many of whom were “immigrants”, were portrayed as struggling to keep up with little to offer in the way of digital skills.

In reality, nothing could have been further from the truth. Borrowing Prensky’s analogy, not all native speakers of English necessarily understand its grammar –the foundations required to understand and control language– in the same way an immigrant might. Familiarity with technology is no proxy for skill, but the damage from Prensky’s misrepresented call to action for a pedagogy fit for the e-generation had already been done.

Enter David White and Alison Le Cornu, whose visitor and resident model came as a response to that of Prensky. It offers two axes on which to map the learner’s activities in the digital world: visitor vs. resident and personal vs. institutional. Examples of completed models are given below.


We can chart digital literacies by plotting activities and skills onto the axes depending on whether they are habitual (resident) or infrequent (visitor) and either part of our personal or work lives. A first-year university student might characterise their social media usage as personal/resident, whereas their ability to conduct a literature search might be visitor/institutional. Envisaging digital literacy in this way offers both educators and learners a means of assessing existing strengths and possible gaps.

Gaps equate to skills and activities that could be integrated as explicit learning outcomes in a first-year course to grow digital competencies, while more advanced courses further help their migration along the axes. An educator’s own institutional residency in conducting literature searching may become a class on sourcing and sifting internet sources in the first year, for example, with more specialised sessions on literature searches and reviews following later.

Most institutions offer this type of training, but students are not always aware of its importance because the digital demands of differing career trajectories are unknown unknowns for them. I agree with the JISC report that better signposting could improve digital literacy outcomes, but there is also space to acknowledge both the ubiquity and inescapability of these skills by embedding them as explicit learning outcomes in all courses.

Success in the 21st Century relies upon adaptability in the face of a rapidly evolving technological landscape. The outdated notion of “digital natives” acquiring skills by happenstance risks a rapid decline into digital illiteracy that impacts both those seeking employment and the economy. While there are, of course, practitioners leading the way in embedding digital literacy in their content irrespective of subject area, the recent transition to online learning should serve as an important reminder to institutions not to ignore educator and learner pleas for additional support in this area.

There is a need to invest in training not only to ensure educators are comfortable adopting and leading such initiatives, but also to bring about a cultural shift regarding digital literacy expectations. Retooling courses to include appropriate digital skills will take work, but we owe it to learners to consider whether they are better served by completing their coursework in interactive Sway portfolios and submitting research presentations as public engagement podcasts.

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