Digital literacy

In recent years, it would seem that every educational web site you visit refers to, if only in passing, the term 'digital literacy', but what does it actually mean and why has it become so imperative that we all, especially professional educators, become digitally literate to enable us to live and work effectively in the early 21st century?

One definition of digital literacy is “the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and create information using digital technology.” It refers to a person's understanding and ability to make an informed decision on which digital tool to use for a specific everyday task and their respective skill in using that tool to produce a successful outcome.

In the mid 19th century, it was realised how important it was that children should be able to read and write in order to raise their intellect, employability and hence their potential personal economic well-being. In later years, this allowed the development of a national workforce that had the ability to become highly trained and skilled in their respective fields. This resulted in the UK becoming a dominant commercial and industrial force in the world and consequentially improved the nation's wealth.

Late in the 20th century, a new literacy began to command our attention; a literacy that could not be ignored by anyone who wanted to embrace new opportunities - digital literacy.

As technology advances at an unrelenting pace and impacts every aspect of our working life and leisure time, the expectations we place on each other with regard to our individual abilities to interact with technology - our own digital literacy, continues to rise and this also applies to our personal abilities to understand and rapidly learn how to use any new piece of software or hardware. It's intriguing that the common perception of young people feeling exasperated by, what they see as, the general low digital literacy of older generations maybe true with regard to a certain functionality of say, a mobile phone or the intricacies of getting to the next level on a specific game; however, as any ICT teacher will tell you, their apparent vast digital knowledge vapourises when they need to construct a spreadsheet or design a database. It is only because, as children or adolescents, they are able to spend a great deal of time playing games or searching every nook and cranny of their respective phone's operating system, that they acquire so much knowledge, whereas adults have to deal with the mundanity of careers and home life and therefore don't have the time.

As adults, and especially as education professionals, we must not only have extensive (and constantly improving) technological knowledge and skills, but also possess a broader digital literacy as a consequence of the perpetually developing digital abilities of students. Ten years ago it would have been unheard of for a teacher, or senior member of staff, to have to deal with a 'cyber-bullying' incident or, due to the phenomena of 'collecting friends' on a global scale through social-networking sites, having to be vigilant of the possibility of children unknowingly falling victim to a 'troll' or an online predatory paedophile. In this day and age, however, the digital literacies of school staff not only have to include how to source information on the web or present text in an infographic, but are also required to have knowledge and an awareness of the wider social (and sometimes darker) aspects of technology.

Nowadays, we place much greater expectations on the quality and professionalism of products, documents and files that we use and receive - how surprised would you be if you received a hand written letter from your bank, even if it contained reasonably good hand writing? There is also a great deal of emphasis on the originality of documents. Historically, teachers relied on their own judgement and intuition to spot if students had colluded on a piece of homework; however, in 2013, the digital literacies of teachers should encompass the capability to use plagiarism software to check the authenticity of students work to ensure that they have not just lifted material from the web.

For more information about digital literacy, download your free 'What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Digital Literacy' report from E-safety Support

Written by Steve Gresty on September 04, 2013 10:21

Beware of the Trolls

The media has recently highlighted the case of Caroline Criado-Perez - a feminist campaigner and journalist who, after successfully campaigning for a woman's face to appear on bank notes, was subjected to a torrent of abusive posts on 'Twitter', including threats of rape, from male internet 'trolls'.

But what is 'trolling'? Who are the trolls and why do they behave in such a way online? How can they be stopped; indeed can they be stopped?

The Oxford Dictionary defines a ‘troll’ as someone who “...submits a deliberately provocative posting to an online message board (or some form of social media) with the aim of inciting an angry response.” It is regarded as a type of cyber bullying and can take a number of forms:

• As a consequence of her bank notes campaign and her well known feminist stance, Ms. Criado-Perez was targeted with no less than 50 extremely abusive tweets an hour allegedly by a group of men who co-ordinate attacks on women.

• In 2010 a man posted a “menacing” message on Twitter threatening to blow up Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire.

• In 2011, a 25 year old unemployed man, posted offensive videos and messages onto Facebook tribute pages mocking the deaths of teenagers.

• In 2012, Nicola Brookes received “vicious and depraved” comments on Facebook after she posted her support for a former ‘X Factor’ contestant who left the show the previous year. The anonymous trolls went so far as to create a fake Facebook profile in Miss. Brookes’ name, using her picture, on which they posted explicit comments and other offensive content.

Admittedly, these examples are extreme cases, however, trolling can be seen everyday on any social platform. Browse the responses to any Facebook or Twitter posting by the BBC, Guardian or any other news organisation and it is highly likely that you will come across a Troll’s comments, characterised by their intentionally extreme and contentious point of view and frequently containing foul and vile language with the sole aim of annoying other contributors or better still provoking them to react by making a responding comment.

So, trolling is a broad term that encompasses everything from a mischievous provocation to threats of violence or rape, but what drives someone to become a troll?

Professor Mark Griffiths, director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University stated to the BBC that “...online, people feel anonymous and disinhibited. They lower their emotional guard and in the heat of the moment either troll reactively or proactively.” He also added that trolls are usually young adult males who either seek amusement from boredom or revenge.

However, a quick browse of any football, music or other fan site will uncover people of all ages and gender subjecting others to the most venomous and vicious attacks. Comedian Dom Joly was the victim of a devious troll with nine different online identities - she was a 14-year old girl.

It would therefore appear to be the pretense of anonymity, that the Internet apparently provides, which is key reason why people, who normally conduct themselves pleasantly and responsibly in the real world, feel that they can participate in offensive behaviour in the virtual world.

If recent reports in the media are to believed, ‘trolling’ is a phenomenon that is on the increase and there are growing calls for something for it to be stopped, but can this be done and if so how?

In response to the virulent abuse that Caroline Criado-Perez received, a petition was set up that received tens of thousands of signatures, including the names of prominent politicians and celebrities, to urge ‘Twitter’ to take “a zero tolerance policy” and include an option button that could be used to report unacceptable abusive behaviour on its platform.

But should the policing of online discussions and debates be left to the social media platforms themselves? Is there a requirement for increased monitoring and prosecution by the police and the courts or could this be seen as an infringement of free-speech?

So far, two men have been arrested in the case of Ms.Criado-Perez with the possibility of more. Sean Duffy and Colm Coss who both posted the offensive messages on tribute pages of people who had died, were both convicted and imprisoned in UK as was Paul Chambers, who ‘threatened’ to blow up Robin Hood Airport (the latter case was subsequently quashed on appeal at the High Court).

As recent as June 2013, however, Kier Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, in an effort to “strike the right balance between freedom of expression and a need to uphold the law”, published guidelines for prosecutors who are taking on cases involving ‘grossly offensive communication’. Under these new guidelines prosecutions involving the posting of an offensive message could be considered unnecessary if the perpetrator “has expressed genuine remorse” or has “taken swift and effective action” to “remove the communication in question or otherwise block access to it”.

Trolling is unpleasant, deeply offensive and upsetting. In one foolish moment it can devastate the lives of both the victim and, if prosecution ensues, the abuser. Yet, due to its perceived anonymity, young people can look upon trolling as having ‘a bit of a laugh’ at someone else’s expense, a way to get back at someone or to exert power over someone in order to garner popularity within a gang. As teachers we are in a perfect position to educate students and we should be willing to demonstrate that cyber-bullying behaviour such as trolling is unacceptable and can result in serious consequences that can have a lasting impact on the peoples lives.

Here is a suggested classroom activity on trolling:

Lesson Outcome: To be aware and understand the online phenomenon of trolling - what it is, why people do it and the potential consequences of the activity.

The Scenario: Jane and Samantha are in a coffee shop. Samantha is talking sympathetically to Jane who has just told her that her dog died that morning. As the two women talk, a man rudely interrupts them and says:

“I hate dogs and their owners, I’m really glad that yours has died that means that there is one less scrawny mutt walking the streets. And I bet you cried when it died didn’t you? You’re pathetic, it’s just a dog! I wish all dogs and their stupid owners would just go and die, you make me sick!” (you should adjust the language used here to suit your pupils)

Activity: Ask students, if they think that what the man said was acceptable? What reaction do they think it had on Jane and Samantha?".

If the man had posted such comments on Facebook or Twitter he would be ‘trolling’ and he would be regarded as a ‘troll’

Students can now investigate in small groups what the terms ‘trolling’ and ‘troll’ mean. Why do people engage in ‘trolling’? Do they think it’s wrong or is it just having ‘a laugh’? Are there different types of ‘trolling’ and ‘trolls’ Is it illegal or just upsetting? What consequences can it have?

Come together as a class and use what has been researched to discuss ‘trolling’ and ‘trolls’.

Further information

Below are some useful articles that teachers may wish to use to create lesson or assembly plans focusing on trolling:

Wired - online aggression - An interesting piece focusing on the anonymity and disinhibition phenomenon that appears to contribute to people’s ability to become involved in trolling.

The Telegraph - A Daily Telegraph article on the novel approach that classicist Prof. Mary Beard took when she was abused by a troll.

The Guardian - A Guardian article on the different types of trolls, from the unsophisticated ‘abuse-hurlers’ to the more insidious and frightening examples.

Written by Steve Gresty on August 01, 2013 13:24


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