Today is International Literacy Day 2020: a day to focus on just how important reading is in our everyday lives. Reading doesn’t just prepare us for learning - it can teach us empathy, fire up our imaginations and transport us to amazing worlds, all with 26 letters and a bunch of odd-looking dots and squiggles.
Unfortunately, as with most things, the global pandemic has highlighted the extent of inequalities when it comes to literacy rates around the world. 773 million children and adults
lack basic literacy skills, and around 62% of the world’s student population had their learning disrupted when schools closed in the spring. But there’s another element of learning that we think is equally deserving of attention today: digital literacy.
What is digital literacy?
Digital literacy isn’t just about downloading books onto an e-reader instead of buying a physical copy. It’s about using digital tools to “find, evaluate, create and communicate information” - to understand and interact with the world around us. And in a world that relies more and more on technology, it’s a skill that’s every bit as essential as learning to read and write.
Creating and communicating
Literacy is, at its heart, about teaching people how to create and communicate, and the internet is the most prevalent form of communication that exists in the world today. It’s also a complex form of communication; one that consists of not just written words, but sounds and even unique symbols with their own layers of meaning
Digital communication goes hand-in-hand with analogue communication, and often comes before it. When you apply for a job, you’ll only get an interview if you can write a good CV and cover letter (which you’ll usually send via email). Online dating allows people to get a feel for a potential partner before going on their first date.
Literacy is not just about being able to take in a piece of information, but also about learning how to think about it critically. The internet can be a treasure trove of information, but it also poses unique challenges. Who created a particular news article or blog post, and why? Is it a reliable source? Is it trying to sell something, or peddle ‘fake news’?
We already know what happens when people don’t have the skills to properly analyse information they found online. Look at Brexit, or the rise of Donald Trump - both were helped in large part by people who knew how to use digital tools to create a false narrative. Teaching digital literacy is essential if we want to avoid those kinds of mistakes in the future.
Why is it important to teach digital literacy in schools?
COVID-19 has given us a stark reminder of the inequalities that exist in access to learning, digital tools included. In the UK, a report by the National Foundation for Educational Research
found that over a quarter (28%) of pupils had limited access to technology at home during lockdown - a fact that will almost certainly have widened the gap between them and their peers.
As we spend more and more of our time on devices and connected to the internet, digital literacy has a bigger impact on our wellbeing, both emotional and physical. Children who are digitally literate understand the importance of keeping their personal and private information safe, treating others online with kindness and empathy, and how to protect themselves while they explore the virtual world.