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