While the quality of online education is a subject of intense debate among educators, parents and students alike, what is no longer open to debate is the need for digital literacy. A recent report in The Guardian affirmed that adults with Internet skills are 25% more likely to get work and to earn as much as 10% more than their colleagues who don’t have such skills.
Are our children well-prepared to enter this technology-rich world?
Not as well as you might expect a crop of “digital natives” to be. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) finds that nearly 17% of 15-year-olds who have grown up “wired” do not have the skills to move easily through the digital environment—which means that these students could have a difficult time completing their studies and, later on, looking and applying for work, filling out forms to pay their taxes or even reserving a seat on a train.
PISA’s groundbreaking 2009 survey of students’ digital literacy shows some fascinating results. For example, in each of the 19 countries that participated in the digital reading assessment, the more frequently students search for information on line, the better their performance in digital reading.
Meanwhile, being unfamiliar with online social practices, such as e-mailing and chatting, seems to be associated with low digital reading proficiency. However, students who frequently send e-mails and chat on line attain lower digital reading scores, on average, than students who are only moderately involved in these activities.
Similarly, students who sometimes use computers at home for leisure or schoolwork scored higher in the digital reading assessment than both rare and intensive users. And after accounting for students’ academic abilities, the frequency of computer use at home, particularly for leisure activities, is positively associated with students’ ability to “navigate” among pages on the Internet, while the frequency of computer use at school is not. This finding suggests that students learn digital navigation skills by themselves, simply by exploring the nearly infinite offerings on the Internet. To help students at school, education systems should consider integrating computer use into curricula and investing more in training teachers on how to use digital technologies, both to help them teach and to help students learn.
The survey also finds that the gender gap in reading performance is narrower in digital reading than it is in print reading. Across all countries that participated in the digital reading assessment, girls outperform boys by an average of 24 score points in digital reading, while the difference in print reading is 38 score points – the equivalent of one year of formal schooling. These findings suggest that boys may be more interested in reading texts that are available to them on the Internet than in reading material that is conventionally consumed in print form, such as novels and non-fiction books. In turn, educators could use this finding as the basis of new strategies aimed at encouraging boys to read more and, ultimately, to become more enthusiastic and proficient readers.
This fourth round of the triennial PISA surveys also offers a broad view of how access to digital technologies has expanded over the past decade. Across the OECD countries that participated in both the PISA 2000 and 2009 surveys, the percentage of students who reported having at least one computer at home increased from 72% in 2000 to 94% in 2009, while home access to the Internet doubled from 45% to 89% during the same period. And there was also an increase in the computer-to-student ratio in schools – evidence that education systems invested substantially in information and communication technologies during the past decade.
The so-called “digital divide” used to be about access to computers. Today, there’s a second divide: between those people who are lost in the digital environment and those who have the skills to navigate efficiently and effectively through all the information now available to them through digital technologies. It is up to us – concerned policy makers, educators and parents – to ensure that our children are not left behind on the analog side of the digital divide. It is no overstatement to suggest that their futures depend on it.