It is no surprise that computers are vital to daily life, and so it is also no surprise that digital skills are essential for everyone. Skills, like working collaboratively online, or being able to safely and effectively use a web browser and tools like email and search engines, might seem simple, but they can unlock many possibilities. These digital skills are also important in schools. Learning to read and write is a process of learning foundational skills that will be needed every day, for the rest of your life; digital skills are little different.
There are few jobs for which people won’t need digital skills, and when today’s school students are ready to enter the workplace, there will be even fewer. The European Commission recognised this in its recently published ‘New Skills Agenda for Europe’, which placed digital skills as an element of ‘foundational literacy’, alongside literacy and numeracy.
Learning is something that should happen, and indeed, must be a possibility, throughout our whole lifetime. But the seed of a lifetime of learning is planted in school. Unfortunately, for the most part, digital skills haven’t been the priority they need to be. Digital skills remain shockingly low in many cases. Just 7% of 15 to 29 year-old students in Austria had ‘very good’ computer skills according to a study carried out by OCG, the National Operator for ECDL in the country. Another study in Australia revealed that 45% of students were only rudimentary users of ICT.
A common reaction to the need to develop young peoples’ digital skills is to throw technology at the problem. Big investments in computer equipment for classrooms and e-learning solutions promise to unleash a generation of ‘digital natives’. But, as we argued in our position paper on the fallacy of ‘digital natives’, there is no reason that young people should have innate digital skills. Buying lots of classroom technology is simply not enough on its own; building the digital skills of teachers and students is a vital step in actually benefiting from computers in education.
This point was highlighted in a report by the OECD, which found that using technology in the classroom does not always lead to a better quality of education or higher achievements by students. In maths tests in particular, almost any time spent using computers led to poorer performance by students!
Students who use computers less in schools score the highest in mathematics. Based on ‘Students, Computers and Learning: Making a Connection”, OECD, 2015.
The report, titled ‘Students, Computers and Learning: Making a Connection’, compared different countries in terms of computer use at school and student achievements. It was based on the PISA study of the reading, mathematics, and science competences of 510,000 15 year-olds in 18 countries.
It is important to note that these findings don’t suggest that countries should stop investing in technology in schools. There are many ways that computers can open up opportunities for teaching and learning, if they are used effectively. But the report makes it clear that, when schools are equipped with computers, the approach to teaching should be adapted. In other words, students should be taught how to use digital technologies effectively and productively. The OECD’s Director for Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, writes, “Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge. To deliver on the promises technology holds, countries need to invest more effectively and ensure that teachers are at the forefront of designing and implementing this change.”
There is a lot of research that supports the need for teachers to have strong skills in using technology in the classroom. One study by the European Commission found that only 25% of students in the EU are taught by digitally confident and supportive teachers, while another study by the OECD found that 56% of teachers report that they have “moderate to high development needs” when it comes to using technology at work. So, while digital skills are essential for students to make the most of computers, they are also vital for teachers, enabling them to fully benefit from ICT in the classroom and to avoid the potential risks of poor ICT use.
While there is much still to be done around the world, there are encouraging initiatives to bring digital skills into the curriculum in several countries. In the English education system in the United Kingdom, a recent reform of the computing curriculum made digital literacy a core part of learning. Many schools are now using ECDL to build the fundamental ICT skills that their students’ need.
The UK has, in many ways, been at the forefront of digital literacy in schools, but it isn’t the only country where digital skills are part of the curriculum. With the support of the Austrian Ministry of Education, approximately 800 schools there make use of the ECDL programme to certify students’ digital skills, while in Romania, ECDL forms part of the final school exams. What these places have in common is an approach to digital literacy that acknowledges the importance of core digital skills in a structured way. ECDL Foundation has also recently launched an ‘ICT in Education’ module, which has been validated in pilot trials with teachers in conjunction with Trinity College Dublin. Using certification, like ECDL, schools are able to make sure that their students meet an internationally accepted standard of digital literacy.
It is the essence of technology that it is ever changing. Computers are becoming more and more present in day-to-day life; from smartphones to tablets and laptops, the old idea of a computer being just a grey box on a desk is, in many ways, declining. When you get to the core of it, digital skills are the skills to competently use a computer, whatever shape it might take. Digital skills are skills for work, for life and for learning. Without digital competences, young people have little chance of benefiting from the advances in technology that are reshaping the workplace and reshaping the way that we all live our lives. Just as schools have a key role in equipping students with literacy and numeracy skills, they also have an essential role in giving their students the competences to use computers effectively and safely.