computer science

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.