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Cultivating digital literacy skills will be critical for today's students and tomorrow's workers.

5 strategies for developing digital literacy in a generation that takes tech for granted

Student engagement and critical thinking will be key in developing digital literacy skills to take students from school to the workforce

It’s commonplace to be impressed when we hear of excellent test scores and educational backgrounds from top institutes, no matter the type of degree or accolades. However, preparing our kids with test-taking strategies and admission into the best universities is not enough–and will be an extinct ideology with the changing demands of society and global economy.

We need to begin preparing the next generation of learners with appropriate tools and digital literacy to thrive in the Digital Age. So, what should we do to ensure our kids are not operating at a disadvantage?

Related content: 8 qualities of a digital literacy curriculum

1. Stress the importance of coding and basic technology application skills. In today’s world, the “mother tongue”—or, better said, the “lingua franca”–is found in coding and basic tech skills needed to communicate with the devices in the Internet of Things. Any child not equipped to speak this new language of coding will be lost, as if they were in a foreign culture with no cultural language skills.

As soon as 2030 – a workforce currently in the first grade – there could be over 500 billion connected devices in the world, and coding will be the basic literacy. Through coding experiences, students build digital literacy and are able to develop abstract concepts like pattern-recognition, while other education tech solutions, like robotics, give students an opportunity to apply physical interpretations in a real way.

Students must begin using coding and robotics to learn to speak this new language and, as an essential tool creating brain pathways essential for developing abstraction skills, so that they can know how to take on simple and complicated problems.

2. Encourage innovation by revising vs. reinventing the wheel. We must push students towards innovation and understanding the operation and design of how devices work. Innovation does not occur serendipitously, but rather through the application of existing knowledge to new circumstances or needs.

For example, one of the patents I co-created with my colleague Paul Uttley is based on a collet and pin idea that I used when I worked in the oil industry. The TETRIX® Quick Rivet Connector and Peg system allows for robots to be rapidly assembled, with a simple insert-and-click, and disassembled, with a click-and-pull to release action. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we modified this application to work as a quick connector for Pitsco Education’s TETRIX PRIME building. This was not a novel idea that came about through happy coincidence; it was a reapplication of pre-existing knowledge on how that collet and pin worked.

In order for the majority of innovations to occur, children need to know how things work and how to work the thing.

3. Teach students how to determine the reasonability of an answer. Nowadays, it’s less important to own content knowledge; a greater emphasis is on asking the right question to get useful information from search engines and knowing how to acquire knowledge. There are many correct answers out there. However, there are fewer effective or reasonable correct answers.

A new digital literacy skill we have to prepare young minds for is how to sift and sort through data to determine the reasonability of an answer.

This is best understood in the effective use of Wikipedia, as stated by David Barnett in a recent article, Can we trust Wikipedia? 1.4 billion people can’t be wrong: “The general message with Wikipedia is that here, on the face of it, is what we know. But it’s up to you to click on those links and citations and decide whether the information comes from sources you ultimately trust and are happy with. Wikipedia shouldn’t be anyone’s final stop when it comes to seeking knowledge, but rather the gateway to us being able to make up our own minds.” We need to equip our students to be able to answer: Why is this data reasonable and useful?

4. Prioritize student engagement over all else. Nowadays, teachers and parents worry about the amount of time children are spending in front of the screen. Technology is not so much about screen time as it is about the experience. Research shows that children learn preferentially in the kinesthetic or hands-on domain.

Consequently, the time spent with a prescriptive screen app needs to be only as much as is required to enable the child to return to a hands-on project-based learning experience. The priority needs to be driven by the learning value and outcomes for a learner rather than the duration of time a child spends with on screen digital technology. Student engagement and learnability should be the main focus.

5. Push for access to technological resources and solutions in schools. For schools without access to technological resources and solutions and even for those fortunate to have the resources, it is important to seek support from the community. The community is comprised of stakeholders willing to get involved in the education of children as sources of mentoring, success definition, and economic impact on the community.

Additionally, student resources are readily available through smart phone apps, libraries, and NFP/NGO efforts that exist in most communities. And, of course, there is YouTube, the single largest educational outlet in the world, coupled with Khan Academy and The solutions are out there; it is important to find a reasonable solution for your communities, schools, and students.

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