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.


TeachMeet SEN 2012


Tickets here!

I'm very excited to be organising TeachMeet SEN 2012 – or TMSEN12, a meetup talking place later this month on Saturday 28th of January, in Leicester's lovely Phoenix Square.

What's a TeachMeet?

A TeachMeet is an informal meet up of people working in and passionate about education – they support grassroots professional development. Events are framed by short talks and demos from people working within education – sharing practice that works. You can check out the Wikipedia definition here.

Practitioner talk and demo slots at TMEN12 are typical of TeachMeet talk lengths – 7 minute micro presentations or 2 minute mini presentations. These are short to encourage a wide range and diversity of contribution, to make sure as many people attending as possible get the opportunity to share, and to make joining in more accessible and less scary for people who have never spoken at an event before.

What's different about TMSEN12?

1. This is a Special Education Needs (SEN) focused TeachMeet. Learners with SEN are a significant and diverse group, and we expect the first SEN focused TeachMeet to be an exciting one – reflecting the creativity, enthusiasm and the wide range of knowledge and approaches of practitioners.

2. This is the first face-to-face SEN focused TeachMeet. There was an online TeachMeet for Additional Support Needs/Special Education Needs back in April 2009. We are very proud to be continuing the tradition.

3. We recognise that parents and carers play an important role in supporting children and young peoples education, and that while parent and carer partnership with schools are always important, parents and carers sometimes play a particularly critical role in supporting learners with SEN. We also recognise that parents and carers of learners with SEN may home school. Because of this, we are also inviting parents and carers who would like to share effective practice to come along.

Is TMSEN12 just for SENCos and people who work at SEN Schools?

No! Every school supports learners with SEN.

What kind of thing do people talk about/demo at TeachMeet?

All sorts of things! You might speak about a really useful app, web tool or site; a technique that supports listening or speaking; an interesting and successful project; how you capture or share achievement; a simple, little change that has made all the difference to your learners; something you've created or a resource someone else has shared.

I think TeachMeet SEN is a great idea! How can I support it?

Excellent! Here are 7 ways you can help us:

1. Sign up to present your ingenious and effective practice. Come along and share.

Get your free ticket here, and then head over to the wiki to tell us what you will be presenting on.

2. Sign up to encourage and support. Get your free ticket here.

3. Tell people and organisation who need to know about TMEN12 – send them a link, encourage them to sign up to speak. We really appreciate it!

4. Tag your favorite blog posts, resources and ideas: Use #TMSEN12 on Twitter, TMSEN12 on Delicious. Let us know what and where else you tag resources. We will curate and share!

5. Watch the live stream and join in the debate on Twitter. The link will magically appear here and across the web nearer the time.

6. Sponsor TMSEN12! Help towards the event costs/resource for sponsor credit. Get in touch to find out more.

7. Suggest other ways you/people can support and celebrate TMEN12. Share your ideas!


Purpos/ed Summit for Instigators


Josie Fraser introduces #Purposedpsi

Video: Leon Cych Sound: Steve Boneham

Watch more videos from the day here.

I spent Saturday 30 April in Sheffield, at the Purpos/ed Summit for Investigators, along with 50 delegates from across the UK who had given up their Saturday to take part in a day of discussion and action planning around Purpos/ed.

Huge thanks to Doug Belshaw and Andrew Stuart for organising the whole thing, to Steve Boneham, Mario and Leon Cych for technical support, broadcasting and documenting the day, to Keri Facer for her excellent video contribution, & Fred Garnett for talking about not one but three c-words: community, co-production and citizenship. & not forgetting  everyone who volunteered and ended up speaking in the 3×3 slots. There were also excellent & heated discussion and barcamp sessions.

I was pleased to be asked to help out by chairing the day, and I also had the opportunity to talk about some of my current work and interests, reflecting on some of the contributions to the 500 words campaigne that kick started the process. I only had 10 minutes, but I seem to have managed to get a lot of ums in 🙂 Refs for my talk:

Martin WellerSpace – The purpose of education

David WhiteEducation should make us anxious

Graham AttwellThe practice of freedom

Josie FraserPurpos/ed





The purpose of education is to enable people to understand, navigate, contribute to, challenge and change the world.

To many children and young people, adults seem distinguishable by their finishedness, their completeness. We have ‘grown up’. We have become inflexible, we have ceased to play, to imagine; our appetite for adventure has been diminished, not increased, by our understanding of the world; our wild and even gentle ambitions have been curtailed by the demands of making a living, of ‘the real world’. Instead of growing in confidence and maturity enough to hazard risk, to be wrong, to change our minds, the adult world seems very often to promote an infantile belief in the benefits and possibility of absolute certainty, mastery, fixedness. The assumption of due respect for this completedness is easy to recognise as often framing and establishing authority and providing boundaries within formal education: I am the one who knows, and you are the one who is in the process of knowing, of becoming the possessor of knowledge, of completion.

For me then, a fundamental purpose of education should be to acknowledge the inevitability of change, to celebrate the value of life as a thing in process, and to promote an awareness of other possibilities, other ways of doing things – of discoveries yet to be made and solutions yet to be invented. Change is, of course, not always positive. It can be unwelcome and damaging. It can be extremely difficult to come to terms with. Even positive changes – for example, changes in how people deal with and think about terrible things that have affected them, while they might free us up and make us happier people, or at least allow us to live our lives less painfully, are extremely difficult to go though. But the alternatives to change, if there are any, are entropy, denial and death.

Education should critically ensure children, young people and adults are equipped to be unsettled, to be confronted by difference, to be changed, and to effect change. Education is a conduit to different cultures, different places, different times – to different ways of thinking about things and doing things. Education provides us with an introduction to things unimagined and unencountered. It should provide the critical challenge to examine our beliefs, interpretations and horizons, the ability to reexamining ourselves in new contexts, to develop new interests, to review the ways in which we understand ourselves and our place in the world. The purpose of education should be to expand expectations, not to confine them – to support our learners in understanding the impact they can and do have on their world. We cannot expect education built upon, and educators who model, a fixation with certainty and inflexibility to meet the urgent and ongoing needs of pressing social, economic and political change.



Online only services: 1/46th of the cost?

Picture taken at NDI10 – National Digital Inclusion Conference 2010, on 10 March 2010 – prior to the General Election but already post the reassertion of the current political and financial imperative for public services to 'do more with less'. Although there will always be pressure to reduce budgets, the current round of cuts and revisions had already started across some sectors, with rumours of post-Election reorganisation regardless of the outcome. On the 22nd of that month then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Digital Economy speech outlined a commitment to widen internet access – outlining a programme to deliver super-fast broadband to the UK, coupled with a shift towards online-centric and online-only service provision that promised to save the nation billions.

Today’s announcement by Martha-Lane Fox, the governments UK Digital Champion, to augment government websites and to provide tax and benefit services online, comes then as no surprise.

Matt Brittin from Google (in the picture above) gave the NDI10 network reception address at the end of day one – which included this slide on the theme of saving money by shifting service provision online. During the day the looming reality of shifting to internet only provision of services was talked about by relatively few of us – me, Ken Eastwood, Jim Eastwood and Stephen Whitehead, who followed up the conversation with this post on Digital Refugees and Digital Citizens.  

I need to make it very clear that I am totally in favour of digital inclusion. I believe that people who are not able to access the internet and use web-based services with confidence are disadvantaged – socially, economically and culturally. I also think we are only just beginning to tap the huge mainstream opportunities that tech offers for participatory democracy, local community development and service co-design – although there are already some amazing examples and projects around.

One of the critical questions for me is – if services are going to be only available online, what processes and resources do we need to ring fence to ensure we aren’t further disadvantaging anyone, particularly those people who are already disadvantaged enough? It seems an obvious enough approach to take, but as this recent White Paper from the Democratic Society shows – How digital engagement can save councils money, recognising and addressing risk is easy to overlook when we focus on the arguments for. We need to recognise the social and economic juncture we've arrived at and focus on the discussions about how. 

We also need to pay attention to the many and hard lessons learnt from the previous tech-dependent ‘economies of scale’ adventures many sectors have enjoyed, so that any shift to online-only provision is budgeted at total cost – including communications, training, support, systems development, potential process change, rather than with figures that only account for web development & service build. It’s very easy to say online services can be better services. The truth is that online services can be as inadequate, frustrating and as poorly designed as face to face services, with an additional layer of problems that need to be solved around different digital confidence levels, language skills, access and navigation. We need proper design, development and implementation processes and a recognition that in the short to medium term these services aren’t necessarily going to represent substantial budget savings.