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Are we creating a generation of digitally illiterate students?

ICT is failing in schools – here’s why

The information and communications technology (ICT) curriculum in schools is clearly not working.

National data released this week confirms an ongoing trend that now sees nearly half of Australian secondary school students failing to meet minimum digital literacy standards.

In 2014, more than 10,500 students were assessed on their ICT knowledge, understanding and skills.

Of those, just 55% of students in year 6 achieved expected standards, while 52% of students in year 10 were deemed competent in completing “challenging but reasonable” tasks, such as the creation of tables and charts, sorting data in a spreadsheet or editing graphics and text.

This equates to a 6% and 13% decrease for years 6 and 10 respectively over the last three years.

Basic digital skills decreasing

The 2009 A$2.4 billion Digital Education Revolution promised to put computers in the hands of all secondary school students and prepare them to work in a digital world.

Although 96% of students are now able to access the internet at home or at school on a regular basis, basic digital skills appear to be decreasing.

So why is this?

Recent commentary has suggested that smartphones and tablet devices might be to blame for a decline in learning outcomes. My research indicates that the challenges may be much more complex than this and be focused on the ways in which teachers, school principals and policymakers negotiate learning outcomes in terms of both knowledge and skills.

Current data underpinning decision-making and the new digital technologies curriculum isn’t working for ICT in schools for these four reasons:

1. Curriculum taking too long to introduce

The new digital technologies curriculum will take several years to become fully embedded in schools. This doesn’t help the current generation of students and will only contribute to the increasing number of students struggling to meet the basic minimum standards as teachers grapple with changes to the curriculum and expectations of learning outcomes.

2. Teachers not equipped with the skills they need

Teachers in schools are not given enough professional support to understand how digital technologies can be used effectively in the ICT classroom. Another challenge teachers face is that the resources provided often become rapidly outdated as the focus of curriculums changes.

3. Too much choice of digital tools to use

It is already very challenging for teachers to be able to make effective and informed choices about what technologies to focus on and when. This will only become more challenging in coming years given the rapid developments in educational technology.

4. Outdated skills

The way teachers consider digital technology use in schools has changed over the past decade. While it may be considered important to have an understanding of basic computer skills, application of those skills in new and different scenarios may contribute more to students’ future capacities.

For example, the current ACARA testing examines year 10 students’ abilities to edit font, colour and animations.

In contrast, new cloud-based technologies allow students to collaborate in real time on word-processing, database and presentation software.

While the ability to manipulate elements such as font and colour may add to the finished product, the real skill development occurs in the collaborative researching, delegation of team roles and negotiation of content that underpins such an activity.

These are the kinds of 21st-century skills that employers will be looking for in contrast to an applicant’s ability to add a web page to a list of favourites or bookmarks in a web browser - one of the test items for year 6 students.

Moving forward

It’s clear from ACARA data and the OECD figures that schools are not well equipped to deal with issues related to digital literacy in the curriculum.

The most significant challenge facing us now is to reconsider the ways in which digital technology is being used, or not used, in schools.

Without swift action we run the real risk of creating a generation of digitally illiterate students.

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