Computer Science is not Digital Literacy

I'm a huge fan of the current wave of enthusiasm and political will to transform the way that ICT is delivered in schools. This morning at BETT, the UK's Education Secretary Micheal Gove will outline the Government's endorsement of the development of Computer Science and hopefully, a more interesting, relevant and creative computing curriculum.

I'm a big supporter of brilliant initiatives like Code Academy, who are making getting started with coding easier and more accessible than ever before, and the fantastic work going on to get children and young people not just consuming tech but creating it, such as Coding for Kids (check out the #codingforkids hash tag on Twitter for related links, discussion and resources).

I've also done a huge amount of work over the years promoting, supporting and contributing to the idea of digital literacy. I currently work for Leicester City Council, and this year will see the role out of a city-wide digital literacy programme which aims to support every teacher across the city's 25 Secondary schools in developing digital literacy, both as individuals and as whole school communities, positively impacting on education, providing opportunities for, and engaging every young person in the city. The City Council is working in partnership with the schools, both of Leicester's Universities, and with local community initiatives and entrepreneurs, as well as with national and international partners, to make sure our ambitions for the city are realised.

In a recent article, 'Digital literacy can boost employability and improve student experience' Sarah Knight argues that digital literacy – which she defines as "those capabilities that equip an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society" are important for the post-compulsory education sector to address. The recognition of how important digital literacy is to the post-compulsory sector throws the importance of ensuring children and young people are not disadvantaged by an education system that fails to equip them for real life into sharp relief.

While it was still around, Becta defined digital literacy as 

“…the skills, knowledge and understanding learners need to participate fully and safely in our increasingly digital world. 

It is a combination of:

functional technology skills

critical thinking

collaboration skills and

social awareness” (2010)

The definition I most use is similar to this, but I replace the passive connotations of social awareness with social engagement – active participation – as a better description of what digital literacy should look like.

For me, the main characteristics of the many of the available definitions of digital literacy are that:

  • it supports and helps develop traditional literacies – it isn’t about the use of technology for it’s own sake or ICT as an isolated practice
  • it's a life long practice – developing and continuing to maintain skills in the context of continual development of technologies and practices
  • it's about skills and competencies, and critical reflection on how these skills and competencies are applied
  • it's about social engagement – collaboration, communication, and creation within social contexts

It's dismaying then, to see in a week where we are seeing a huge move forward in the promotion of technology and a fresh look at how ICT as a subject area is designed and implemented in schools, to see digital literacy being used as an interchangeable term for computer science skills. 

Not being able to code doesn't make you digitally illiterate. Not being able to participate in  social, economic, cultural and political life because you lack the confidence, skills and opportunity to do so is what makes you digitally illiterate.

It should not be acceptable that after 11 years of compulsory education any young person should lack the skills and confidence to access information, or to be able to critically use and consume products and services. It should not be acceptable that we are neglecting to support children and young people in realising their rights to participation – as active, engaged community members and citizens. Digital literacy means the the skills and confidence to take an active role in engaging in networks, and in shaping and creating opportunities – social, political, cultural, civic, and economic, and we shouldn't be collapsing these broader rights into the relatively narrow concerns of computing science as a curriculum area. We need to be supporting and developing the work that schools, teachers and educators are doing across all curriculum areas, for formal education and extra-curricula and community based activities.

In Leicester, I am developing, designing and implementing a digital literacy programme in partnership that encompasses a wide range of areas – including basic skills, online identity management, digital research and learning skills, e-safety and cyberbullying, collaborative learning, and online citizenship. We will be supporting and celebrating computer science, coding, and ways in which young people can become active in creating and critically engaging with technology. But our ambition for our young people, education provision and communities, and the ways in which we can see these being transformed by digital literacy, certainly exceed the boundaries of computer science skills.


19 thoughts on “Computer Science is not Digital Literacy

  1. Thanks very much for writing this and keep up the fantastic work around digital literacies. 🙂
    I suppose the zeitgeist has been captured by computer science and programming which is why discussion of related areas gets collapsed into it. A bit like e-safety in the past:
    The good thing is that, even when computer science stops being in the news, the JISC funding that you mention and the great work by yourself and others will remain!

  2. Thanks for this Josie.
    I agree that the focus should be on digital literacy and not computer science, as such, but think you are in danger of mis-representing what computer science is. It is not just about coding; you can be a computer scientist and not able to write code (well, to any useful degree), just as you can be an artist and not make sculptures, or a biologist and not able to genetically modify a bacterium.
    The processes involved in software engineering, which include coding, are useful in many arenas apart from life as a programmer. They include critical review and awareness of context. They include social skills and the ability to learn from, communicate with and influence other people. They also include being able to break problems down in to small pieces and solve them, as well as synthesising solutions from the components you have developed or discovered.
    I also do not think it is ‘fair’ to say that not having the opportunity to engage in a digitally mediated social life means you are digitally illiterate. Not having access to books may be a causal factor in being unable to immediately demonstrate literacy, but I don’t believe it equates to illiteracy.
    However, that said, I think your approach to digital literacies is right – it has a lot of resonances with my view (the Pirate Model – in that it requires a level of general learning literacy, which includes a good level of self-awareness and meta-cognition.

  3. We need both… but ALL young people need digital literacy competencies. I am worried about the exagerated importance of Computing – its important, but not as important as DL.

  4. I’m so glad this is being addressed.
    It would be a shame, I feel, for momentum to be lost with the Computer Science idea – I believe this should form an essential part of what education is trying to achieve in the UK.
    I’m hoping some digital literacy can form part of a Computer Science course, but inasmuch as both need to be taught (and they do) I think this argues, for time for both of them.
    I realise giving IT this importance has implications for other important subjects – but the fact is we simply haven’t been giving it enough time so far.
    Many of my age will remember the Spectrums and BBC Micros, and moreover the impressive wave of enthusiasm & initiative for coding among kids at the time.
    That means there will be many adults with deep IT knowhow in the UK – ie: many potentially excellent teachers and writers. It would be criminal to waste that resource..

  5. I so wish I had time to write a blog post on this.
    I tried to post a comment earlier (but didn’t work on my iphone;) ) It was that being able to code doesn’t make you digitally literate.
    Personally, I think that all of us should acquire and continue to refine our digital literacies, and an essential aspect of these are the critical faculties that enable us to adapt to new technologies as they emerge.
    Someone whose opinion I value worked with employers on the consultation for and he told me that the knowledge (and skills) they sought mapped on to (though at a different level) what are generally seen as matters of importance in the Information Systems Discipline.
    I have no comments to make on how Computer Science and I(C)T are taught in schools but I do know that innovation, research and practice in Information Technology in an Internetworked world are far too multi-disciplinary to left to Computer Science and Computer Scientists. They are part of the picture.

  6. Thanks, Josie — this is a great contribution to the debate and I do admire the work you are doing. Re: digital literacy vs. computer science, I tend to agree with Chris and Pat: I’m in favour of a Both/And approach. Development of creative and critical digital literacies within schools is absolutely essential. I teach 3rd level IT students — already proficient (and even expert) coders — and issues surrounding digital and social media (e.g. digital identity, online search and research, privacy, collaboration) are often new to them. Having digital skills does not imply having the critical skills and capacity with which to use them effectively, wisely. Digital literacies must be addressed within education, at all levels — ideally, in addition to computing/IT education.

  7. Hi Doug & thanks 🙂 very happy you are also working in the area. Partly it’s the zeitgeist, but I’ve been noticing more and more ‘digital literacy’ programmes internationally which basically just look at functional skills. Definitions are very fluid things, and I’m keen on defending this one, given I think ‘digital literacy’ is probably the best one we have for describing what need to happen to ensure formal education is fit for supporting the interests of 21st century learners.
    I’m loving the JISC Developing Digital Literacies programme work:
    Hi Pat – very fair comments. My intention here wasn’t to explore what a computer science curriculum could look like, and my apologies if my reference to coding gave the impression that I think coding is the main or even most important thing about computer science. I’m quite interested at how hot coding currently is however, and long may that reign 🙂
    The critical issue in the definition is this: Yes, we could decide that Computer Science is the place to locate the delivery of digital literacy within school, depending on how we define digital literacy, and make sure that social and communication skills are accounted for. This may well end up happening. This is very different however from saying that the technical ability to use technology and create programmes equal digital literacy – I know you aren’t saying this, but many of the articles I’ve read recently are.
    Strategically, I believe it’s short sighted to locate digital literacy to any one particular area – the aim should be for every teacher to be supported in developing and maintaining their digital literacy, since we want to ensure that where appropriate, teachers of every subject are able to take advantage of technology to support both their learners and their own ongoing development.
    And thanks for your Pirate Model post – I enjoyed it a lot!
    Thanks for your comment Chris. I agree, as you can probably tell 🙂
    Henry: I’m very excited about the fresh look that is being taken at the wasted opportunity that most ICT qualifications at this level represents. We totally need to draw on the experience, enthusiasm and expertise that does exist, and look at supporting schools to deliver a curriculum that captures and shares that creativity and excitement. I’m worried that resources and development will be left to the private sector, although the more cynically I think if all we are going to teach young people about is Microsoft and Google, then those companies should be stumping up for course resources. I would love to see crowd sourcing and open source principles truly structuring the development and design of a new Computer Science for schools, not just being buzz words.
    Frances, as always, many thank for your wise & succinct words.
    & Catherine – thanks for a really important point, very well made.

  8. Hi Josie,
    As always you are on the button. It is not a case of either/or, it is the case of both and lets add information technology into the mix too. It is vital that all young people are educated and aware of all these aspects of the technological world.
    However, I also believe the issue has been with the confluence of these in an unimaginative, but necessary, ICT curriculum delivered between 2000 and 2008/9. The problem was not with the subsequent curriculum which allowed (specialist) teachers far more freedom to explore different areas of the subject. But because of the timing of the last election, this new curriculum was not required to be implemented by all schools.
    Digital literacy and the functional skills that that knowledge and understanding provides young people is necessary to every part of our lives. Many of us simply want computer science to also be taught and available to young people in schools.
    Perhaps Mr Gove has only responded to the headline of the various reports he has been provided with?

  9. I agree with your assertion that social engagement is important – but I’m not certain that it’s possible in a digital world without some kind of a foundation in computing.
    I doubt that they mean computer science when they use the term. They more than likely mean some basic coding, logic and understanding of how the hardware and software pieces fit together. (Actual computer science is a branch of mathematics.) My hope is that this extends beyond, for example, the web: writing HTML is not programming, although it is important in 2012.
    Just as reading is only half the picture, using software is not enough. I’m a believer in the central message of Program or be Programmed; for people to engage socially in a digital world, they need to have the skills and knowledge to create it. That means, and will always mean, understanding how development works. Digital literacy is important, and code is the language of digital.

  10. It is certainly a case of both, but I have to disagree with Ben: I can’t see why even the most basic computing skills would be necessary to engage socially. The digital world is the environment you act in and I don’t believe you have to be able to create it to participate.
    I have absolutely no beef with coding and computing, but teaching digital literacy in schools is essential in forming aware and engaged citizens.

  11. Yes, Ben, “they” do mean computer science but depending on level and age. No HTML is not CS, but manage to teach that content and presentation are separate, is, Javascript and PHP can be, so, therefore, web services are. It’s a fine line which can be walked and many already do.

  12. Great post and discussion. Both and, indeed. Glad to see that Comp Sci is not held as digilit and v/v. And, neither one is software engineering. And software engineering is neither comp sci nor digilit. But the reintroduction of comp sci to the curriculum IS or could be a huge step towards improving digilit because it has been ignored for years in favour of an ECDL-type functional skills approach and/or systems analysis and applications devpt . Yes, we need all those knowledge & skills. And they may all contribute to digital literacy.

  13. Mathias and others: the reason I think you need to understand how to code and how the network works to engage socially is that the platforms aren’t neutral spaces. They’ve been created with cultural assumptions, opinions about how people should be, and are expression in themselves. To my mind, digital literacy – and being empowered in the digital world – entails understanding how to transcend the platforms that others have built for you to use.

  14. Hello Josie, great post (as ever) and a timely discussion. Ben touches a real chord with me – I love Douglas Rushkoff’s book Program or be Programmed which makes this argument cogently – that unless we are aware of how technologies are designed to work on us – to work us over in some cases – we are disempowered relative to an industry that doesn’t just shape our working lives but our social engagements and our habits of thought. So going back to coding – and the modern day equivalents which might include building apps, designing online environments and digital networking spaces, and being socially entrepreneurial with technology as well as technically cutting edge – it would be fabulous to see such a curriculum taking a central place in schools. Will it happen, when Gove is looking to Microsoft and Google to provide the answers? It’s up to people like us. So while I do agree that digital literacy has to permeate the whole curriculum, as an aspect of reading, writing and making meanings in our culture, I also think there is a special place for technology per se. But it must be a creative, critical and multiple techno-literacy that we are fostering in the ICT innovators of the future, not a capacity to use office systems or be good consumers of educational product.
    My own blog post on this is here, very much inspired by yours.

  15. Fascinating stuff.
    Good to see the move away from purely technical accounts of digital literacy.
    Yes to Helen – digital literacy permeates the world, and should not be taught as (or indeed in) a walled garden. The new computer science maybe should be kept more separate. Although you have to code about something…
    I tried for a personal account of digital literacy, and got to:
    Maybe I am digitally literate when I confidently, competently and appropriately select and use digital technologies to achieve particular work and / or life goals.
    Suggestions for improvement welcome!

  16. you miss the whole point – Tory initiatives are all about how to give their friends in private industry public money

  17. Thank you for posting this – I think you are right in your definition of digital literacy, and I am very interested in it being an issue of inclusion. In many ways, digital literacy is a social literacy – communicating with groups of people in different ways than before. For children who struggle with social skills or communication, an emphasis on this kind of definition of digital literacy can only open (virtual) doors for them.
    However, getting this into the classroom is a different issue. In my experience in ITE, there are many who are not willing to engage with technology or to advocate students’ use of technology (using laptops/ipads/twitter in lectures is frowned upon by many). For a number of students, this will create a barrier. These are our future teachers, who also may then enter schools where technology is not promoted and digital literacy is seen, as has been suggested, as learning to use Word and suchlike.

  18. Unless “Digital Literacy” is defined soon and a curriculum with real content is proposed I can see this topic:
    a) being discussed to death before anything happens and
    b) a resurgence of e-skills based courses (NVQ, BTEC et al) rebadged as “Digital Literacy”.
    I like neither a nor b above.

  19. Thanks for raising these very important points Josie, I agree it is important that we don’t loose sight of what skills young people will really need to function in the world in a rush to bolster a narrow section of our economy.

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