'digital age'

Document Sample
'digital age' Powered By Docstoc
					Skills for a ‘digital age’ 1. Introduction: a changing world? At the present time digital technologies are rapidly penetrating all aspects of life across much of the Western world. Whether in the workplace, the home, the street, the museum or the school, computers, handheld PDAs, mobile phones, the internet and a raft of other digital toys and tools are becoming increasingly familiar, almost ubiquitous, features of our daily lives. Researchers working across all fields of the social sciences have heralded the presence of these technologies as socially and psychologically transformative. Some commentators have argued, for example, that the very speed of communication afforded by digital technologies, means that we now live in ‘speed space’, an environment in which the speed of new information technologies distorts the ways in which we view and interact with the world, affecting social relations and psychological processing (Virilio, 1987; Poster, 1990). Others, observing the increasing prevalence of games play argue that a generation of frequent games players now occupy ‘twitch time’, a term reflecting the reportedly increased ability to quickly process and respond to massive and rapidly changing information resources (Prensky, 2001). Moreover, many commentators argue that it is not only in respect of accessing and processing information that new technologies have impacted on our relations with the world. The very nature of our interactions with the cultural landscape is said to be changing as interactive media locate the user as central to and in control of the cultural experience – shifting us away from the supposedly ‘passive’ role of viewers, to the ‘active’ role of players and makers i. These new resources, then, are seen by many as responsible for transforming not only our working and educational practices, but our experiences of time, of space, of knowledge, of narrative and of social relations. While the extent to which this so-called ‘digital revolution’ in fact constitutes a distinct break with the past or the emergence of a new era, remains contested (Webster, 1998) and the implications of these new resources for social well-being remain unclear (Feenberg, 1998), what is evident is that the presence of these new digital tools provides both a new arena of opportunity and a new set of challenges for educational systems, for curricula and for teachers across Europe. The aim of the I-curriculum project, of which this publication forms a part, is to reflect upon these changes, upon the capacities of these new digital tools and their seeming implications for life, leisure and work, and attempt to map out a response for the different educational curricula of Europe. This is no small task; indeed, the attempt to create a unified or unifying theory of ‘digital literacies’ across a range of different cultural and societal contexts, may in fact, by some commentators, be seen as doomed inevitably to failure. A significant body of work in recent years, for example, has emphasised the socially contextualised nature of ‘literacy’. The New Literacy Studiesii movement, for example, cautions us against the temptation to look for a generalised set of competencies which we might want to define as ‘the new computer literacy’iii. Instead, these researchers argue that ‘literacies are multiple rather than singular, and take divergent forms depending on the contexts which sustain them’ (Moss, 2001, p146). Building on this work, then, we might argue that the emergence of new digital literacy skills in conjunction with the tools and technologies increasingly present in our world, is likely to be shaped and informed by the different social and cultural contexts in which these are used, a recognition which is particularly salient in any cross-european enterprise. Notwithstanding this, however, as educators we have a responsibility to attempt to lead, as well as respond to, an emerging set of digital practices, to attempt to ask and find a response to the question: ‘what skills are young people, growing up today, going to need to function effectively in an information rich world mediated increasingly by digital technologies?’

The remainder of this chapter will attempt to provide an over-arching response to this question, to highlight the key features of the digital landscape as we see it, and to detail some of the key competencies likely to be needed to live and work effectively in this brave new world as citizens, as learners and as workers. The remainder of this publication will then go on to explore, in detail, how our present national curricula are currently responding to these challenges. 2. Key features of digital technologies In order to address our over-arching question, however, we need first to identify the key features of the technologies we find in our midst today. We need to ask what these tools enable and facilitate that goes beyond that offered by the tools we have previously had at our disposal. A recent study by the Department for Education and Employment (DFEE) in the UK, identifies the key distinctive features of digital technologies as provisionality, interactivity, capacity, range, speed and automatic functions (Department for Education and Employment 1998). Loveless (2003, p12) expands upon this definition as follows:
The provisionality of ICTs [Information and Communications Technologies] enables users to make changes, try out alternatives and keep a ‘trace’ of the development of ideas. Interactivity can engage users at a number of levels, from the playing of a game which gives feedback on decisions made, to the monitoring of a space probe through immediate and dynamic feedback. ICT demonstrates capacity and range in the ways in which it affords access to vast amounts of information locally and globally in different time zones and geographical places. The speed and automatic functions of ICT allow tasks of storing, transforming and displaying information to be carried out by the technologies, enabling users to read, observe, interrogate, interpret, analyse and synthesise information at higher levels.

In addition to this, we might wish to add that what computing technology does, beyond its nominative activity of performing computation, is model. A word-processor emulates many of the physical acts of putting words on paper, altering and corrections. The software used in call-centres presents to the operator a model of the business and its processes. Increasingly, as business transforms its practices within an information economy, the IT system and the business itself become congruent. Further, we might wish to add that the development of the internet as a new system of communications also enables new forms of interactions, enabling a shift towards asynchronous or synchronous communication notwithstanding the restrictions of time or space. Finally, we might also wish to add that a key feature of emergent digital technologies is their multi-modality, a feature which sees previously distinct modalities of communication (sound, movement, text and so on) combined to communicate meaning. There are further features of facilitation and enablement: presence, visualisation and complexity. Presence refers to our ability to experience and be prestent in the world in different ways. The telephone was the first device that enables us to be in virtual auditory worlds and be present with others at a distance and could be considered the first virtual reality. However with increasing capability of new peripheral and sensor devices there possibility of other sensory and haptic immersion becomes possible. Itis incresingly possible to perceive at the microscopic scale, in other frewuency ranges, to perceive like bats and so on. We can perceinve the world in different ways- there are new wauys to be present. Visualisation is another stage in this process. The technology has the capability to render into vision that which is not otherwise perceiveable or understandable. The graphical processing power of the technology canfind new ways of representing the numerical, the invisible and the complex. Complexity is a feature which technology can help manage. In normal life our field of vision at any time contains far more and too much information for us to be able to process to survive. Our brains have the cpacity to fileter and focus on the salient information. Information technology can perform similar functions of knowledge management on a wider scale.

Arguably, a distinguishing feature, if not of digital technologies ‘themselves’, then at least of the economic context for their development, is the rapid pace of change in the capacity of these tools. While ‘Moore’s Law’ is an over-used commonplace, it is, neverthless, a distinguishing feature of these technologies that their interface, their capacity for storing information, their delivery systems, their very function (from a standalone computer the size of a room with an evisaged market of three worldwide, to handheld networked devices numbering in their millions) is constantly undergoing revision and development. The very ‘key features’ of digital technologies that we have ennumerated in this section are likely to be subject to some revision not too many years from now. 3. Digital Living/ Digital Literacy What then, might it mean to ‘function effectively’ in societies saturated with technologies with these capacities and features? This question leads us to notions of what it means to be an effective and empowered citizen, a good worker, a happy lover, a healthy individual and could, if taken to extremes, take us down the lines of examining what constitutes mental health and wellbeing in the twenty-first century. But this, of course, is somewhat outside the remit of this project. There are, however, existing frameworks on which we can draw for definitions of what it might mean to function effectively in these contexts which do not require us to explore the more remote reaches of medical research. Many define this process as becoming ‘digitally literate’, a phrase that can be misunderstood as having allegience simply with traditional forms of print-based literacy, with ‘digital reading and writing’. As it is commonly used, however, ‘digital literacy’ refers more widely to the competencies required to effectively exploit the tools, practices and symbol systems made available by digital technologies. Green (1998) provides a useful model for these competencies, arguing that literacy operates on three dimensions – ‘operational’, ‘cultural’ and ‘critical’. ‘Operational’ refers to understanding how to ‘work’ the technology; ‘Cultural’ refers to realising that ‘the ability to operate language and technology systems is always in the service of participating in ‘authentic’ forms of social practice and meaning’ and ‘Critical’ refers to the ability to ‘critique [resources], to read and use them against the grain, to appropriate and even re-design them, as well as to be able to actively envisage and contribute to transforming social practices’. (Snyder, 2001). As Selwyn (2002) contends, being digitally literate entails not only understanding ‘how to use’ computers for information purposes but, crucially, understanding the development and use of ICTs within a social contextiv. Much of this theoretical framework is based on an understanding developed during the 1980s and 1990s that ‘literacy’ ‘needs to be concieved within a broader social order, what Street and others have called a ‘new communicative order’ (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996; Lankshear, 1997; Street, 1998). Within this context, a view of literacy as a ‘neutral’ technical skill is rejected. Instead it is conceptualised as an ‘ideological practice, implicated in power relations and embedded in specific cultural meanings and practices’(Street, 1995:1). If, then, we consider that a key feature of digital technology at the present time is the capacity for ‘modelling’ systems and processes, using Green’s framework, we would argue that it is incumbent upon educational systems to support young learners in a variety of different ways. In the first instance, the system should not only support learners to understand the techniques and processes involved in using computer technologies to model (operational literacy), but enable them to use these technologies to model meaningful and authentic activities (cultural literacy). Finally, it should also enable young people to critically analyse how the modelling systems embedded within this technology both shape and are shaped by the wider socioeconomic and socio-cultural contexts of the production of these digital tools (critical literacy) and enable them to both envisage and practice the re-design (NLG, 1996) of these tools.

In later sections of this chapter and of this publication we will explore in more detail the specific competencies required or supported by different features of digital technologies (for example, in hypertext or games environments) and potential strategies for incorporating these literacies within pedagogic practices. As we mentioned earlier, however, one of the key features of digital technologies is their rapid transformation, seemingly from one incarnation to another in the space of a few years. When considering the competencies required to function effectively within a digital society, then, we might argue that the development of a capacity for what is now commonly referred to as ‘lifelong learning’ will also be important. Arguably, as well as the development of specific competencies and literacies in relation to digital technologies, then, we need to enable young people to confidently and quickly learn how to work with, critique and exploit new and emerging digital tools. Whether this ability is identified as a familiarity with the ‘meta-level’ characteristics of digital resources, or as the development of a disposition towards learning as a whole, will be discussed in more detail later in this publication.

4. Technologies in context As we have already stated, however, we also need to recognise that the contexts for use of these digital tools differ greatly not only between different countries, but within individual countries, in ways that often map onto already existing patterns of gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status. In attempting to map out the types of skills young people might need growing up in a rich information landscape, then, we will need to acknowledge that the starting points for many of the children entering our classrooms today will be widely divergent and the motivations and rationales for using these tools may also be very different – across and within countries. Within the UK, for example, recent surveys have highlighted the extent to which access to technologies outside school is patterned according to socio-economic status. One study, for example, found 80% of children from high income areas reporting home computer ownership compared with 54% from low income areas (Facer, 2002a); another reported 91% of children from the highest socio-economic grade owning computers, compared with only 58% from the lowest (DFES, 2002). In the UK, there is little difference along gender lines in terms of home ownership of computers, although boys are more likely than girls to own and frequently use games consoles and girls more likely to own and frequently use mobile phones. There is a difference, however, in terms of exclusive use of a home PC, with boys significantly more likely than girls to have a PC dedicated to them alone at home. In terms of ethnicity, again, in the UK there are some clear differences in terms of ownership and use of technologies, with 79% of white people in the UK owning a PC, compared with 77% asian and 67% Black/other groups. These figures, however, are crude and provide little insight into the different experiences and access levels to digital technologies of groups as diverse, for example, as travellers, irish groups or recent immigrants to the country. What is clear, studying patterns of access and use not only in Europe, but across much of the developed world, is that different socio-economic and cultural groups within society are likely to have differential levels of access to and use of technologies. More importantly, however, we also need to recognise that ‘access to technology’ is not the only defining feature of what is often called the ‘digital divide’. Rather, recent studies suggest that participation in digital cultures is informed by four key factors: 1) access to technology; 2) perceived relevance of technology to the group or individual; 3) social networks of support in motivating use of and

maintaining functioning of the technology and finally 4) appropriateness of interface and input devices to the user (see Facer, 2002b; Loader, 2002) ADD NEW HIMMELWEIT FIGURES ON OUT OF SCHOOL ACCESS ACROSS EUROPE It is not only outside school but within schools that differences in levels of access to and use of computers can be identified. Recent figures give an average across Europe of 13.2 pupils per computer and 32.9 pupils per internet connected computer. This overall figure, however, hides major differences across countries. In Greece, for example, the number of pupils per internet connected computer averages at over 80, compared with Denmark, averaging at 6 pupils per internet connected computer (Euridyce Report). If we return, then, to Green’s definition of digital literacy as comprising operational, cultural and critical literacies, these differences in access and use in the home and in schools become significant. First, because operational literacy requires access and appropriate interfaces to the tools for development; second, because the extent to which one is able to develop cultural literacy is dependent upon perceiving and developing opportunities and relevance for use; and third, because it is only by developing critical literacies that particular (at present excluded) groups may be able to generate a critique of current provision and new models of provision that meet their needs and interests. The development of any I-curriculum then, needs to acknowledge that digital technologies are now part of daily life outside schools, and subject to similar patterns of exclusion as many other cultural goods in society. Developing a strategy for responding to differential access, interest and use outside school will, then, need to be a key feature of any future curriculum proposals. 5. Learning with digital technologies – IS THIS A SECTION HERE???? SHOULD THIS BE IN THIS CHAPTER – I.E. A SUMMARY OF WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT HOW CHILDREN LEARN WITH AND/OR HOW CHILDREN LEARN TO USE DIGITAL TOOLS? I’M NOT SURE IT SHOULD BE, I’M TEMPTED TO SAY IT’S A SEPARATE CHAPTER FOLLOWING THIS.



See Buckingham (2003) and Livingstone & Bovill (1998) for a discussion of different forms of ‘interactivity’. Friedman (1995) also provides a useful framework within which to discuss different types of interactivity across a range of computer game genres.
ii iii

See Heath (1983), Street (1984), Michaels (1986); Moss (2001); Snyder (1998) Snyder (2001) See Prensky (2001) for a ‘checklist’ of characteristics of the literacy of the ‘new digital generation’.

Shared By: