It’s easy for those of us that live on the Web. We know all the tricks. We spend hours, days, months, years, discussing and analyzing and thinking and applying. We not only know how to use the tools, we understand the implications. We get that there’s a revolution taking place. In part, we’re all creating it. And what we don’t understand, we are able to figure out, because we are comfortable moving and weaving inside this virtual space.

It’s not like that for everyone. In fact, it’s not like that for most people.

We’re the anomaly. We’re on the fringes. It’s hard to tell because people talk in vast numbers. Not millions. Hundreds of millions. Billions, even. Everyone is doing it…but not everyone understands it.

On Friday I attended the Canadian Internet Forum, put on by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), keepers of .ca, and representatives of Canada on the world stage when it comes to Internet governance.

It was a fascinating day, full of insightful speakers and thoughtful, open dialogue. It’s a great thing that CIRA is consulting with Canadians, discussing important topics such as governance, IPv6, and digital literacy.

As a teacher, it’s digital literacy that is closest to my heart. There’s a common misconception that people these days, particularly the younger generation, have a high level of digital literacy. Sure, your three-year old knows how to use an iPad, and the average 20 year old sends 5000 text messages a month, but that doesn’t mean that they are digitally “literate”.

One of the best talks of the day was given by Dr. Gerri Sinclair, who is an esteemed expert on Digital Media and in particular, literacy as it pertains to the digital world.

She said one thing during her talk that really struck home with me. Digital literacy is not just about knowing how to use the tools – and I’m paraphrasing – it’s about understanding the implications of digital technology and the impact it is having, and will have, on every aspect of our lives.

There’s a lot of emphasis these days on teaching computer skills at all levels, from K-12 through post-secondary. The terrain has changed significantly in a very short amount of time. It’s a fact that curricula need be adjusted across the board to include more emphasis on digital technologies.

In the old days, Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic were the staples of a good education. Documentaries like “Waiting for Superman”, which highlight the failing U.S. school system, suggest that perhaps the old methods of teaching don’t work anymore for today’s connected youth. Young peoples’ brains work differently now than they did back in the 50’s. We are connected to our world in a completely different way. In the 50’s, students interacted with the books in the library (which were often outdated), their teacher, and the 20 or 30 classmates in the desks around them. Today, they interact with the entire world, instantaneously, and all the time. Interaction has forever changed, but unfortunately, the education system has remained largely the same. Today, we are students of the world. We are not just consumers of information; we are publishers, creators, broadcasters, and yes, influencers.

There’s a great, wide, gigantic disconnect between what we’re teaching our students and what is reality.

The truth is, though most people think kids these days get the digital world, we are actually breeding a generation of digital illiterates. How? We are not teaching them how to really understand and use the tools. We are only teaching them how to click buttons.

We need to be teaching our students, at all levels, not just how to click and poke, but how to communicate, and interact, and build relationships in a connected world. We need to be teaching how to tell a story that compels people to pay attention, and to act. We need to be showing them how to leverage the connectedness of our planet to seek new opportunities, open career paths, and make real change in the world.

Clicking buttons does not equal success. We are doing a great disservice to our students by continuing to teach them only the how’s. We need to be teaching them the why’s.

The solution to this crisis begins with teachers, and this is where the gap widens even more. Teachers are in a terrible predicament, because they are in a position where they’re still trying to figure this stuff out themselves. The Web is still so young. None of us has more than 15 years of experience at it. The technology, trends, and philosophies behind the Web change at lightning speed. Teachers are simply not equipped to bridge the gap of digital literacy, because they have fallen into the gap.

It’s time to make some changes. If we’re going to solve this, we need to start by demanding that our education systems put more emphasis on training teachers about not just HOW to function in a digital world, but WHY it’s important. We need to take the average educator from button-pushing to truly understanding the fundamental changes that are happening in the way we communicate, connect, market, and build relationships with one another.

And it’s those of us who have lived and breathed the Web for the past several years who are in a position to lead this charge. We’re the ones who can set the wheels in motion. We have the resources, experience, strength, and most importantly, the understanding. We can help.

Who’s with me?

[photo credit: vaXzine on Flickr]

13 Responses

  1. Great article, Susan!
    As an educator, I witness young people every day who update FB, send texts, and watch YT videos, but who (as you also mentioned) are not digitally literate!
    I agree that teachers do need education and training, but the biggest issue from my perspective within Ontario education is the lack of access to technological resources. We are purhasing textbooks that are out of date before they arrive at the school and many schools have perhaps one to three computer labs for use by students with over a thousand students. At least having one laptop and projector per class would allow teachers to better implement, demonstrate, and teach about digital tools and proper use.

    Thank you so much for your perspective and for championing this important cause! Together, hopefully we will see some change, sooner rather than later.

    1. What I’m seeing at the post secondary level is that the technology is being put in place – but nobody is prepared to use it. Things like laptops and tablets for every student work great in theory – but without the resources to help teachers work with these new tools, there will be a lot of resistance to the change. Teachers don’t just need tools, they need training and guidance on how to properly leverage them for success in the classroom.

  2. You have touched on so many issues. I could write a book in response.

    Digital Illiteracy
    Really, there is no such thing as “digital” illiteracy. I see it as:
    – illiteracy, a lack of ability with the 3R
    – literacy, a scale of proficiency with the 3Rs
    – cultural taxonomies, how different groups (have to) express themselves, words, expressions etc.
    – technology, the tools used to convey the communications. This can include pens/paper, twitter, sharpies/garage doors, Facebook, papyrus, fingers…

    Technology, or in this case digital technology, will only amplify illiteracy or literacy. What is referred to as illiterate students FBing, texting, tweeting etc may in fact quite literate and quite capable. They probably would seem literate if they used “proper” spelling and grammar. But they are using their own lingo, one we take as sacrilegious! They have to do it like they do. That’s them, not us. They’ll learn, or some of them will.

    Don’t get me wrong… I HATE reading how my kids post on Facebook. there punctuation is horrible there spelling sux n i wunnr how thayl make it in life. But they get good marks and they can express themselves on paper at least as well as Koko can sign.

    Bottom line:
    You can’t solve generalizations. You can solve problems. Problems have issues and causes.
    The issue is illiteracy/literacy.
    Digital technology amplifies one’s literacy level. Technology just does what it does.

  3. As I said on twitter, count me in on pretty much anything in the realm of pushing digital literacy, and any such things.

    I’m very seriously considering beginning the process to start a local chapter of ISOC( if I can’t find anyone else already started on that path to link up with, and I definitely see digital literacy, in the broader scope, being a part of that endeavour.

  4. You’ll never go broke betting against peoples’ understanding of the implications of technology. People will complain loudly about Facebook giving advertisers access to their personal information, without asking themselves for even a half-second why they put their home address on Facebook in the first place.

    People who would be outraged at “Big Brother” following the around will set their privacy settings to “everyone” and then check in everywhere they go.

    People is crazy.

  5. Sue;
    We’ve been having these conversations at Algonquin lately. We need to get the focus away from the tools and the number of hours students are using tech to what skills and knowledge they need to acquire with the help of these new tools.

    Behaviours have to be the focus not technology. However, the student is only one piece of a larger puzzle. The triad of student, educator, and industry need to be pulled together to move our digital literacy forward.

    Think it’s time for a lunch date.

    Thanks for bringing this issue front and centre.


  6. Great post, and so important. It’s all about the implications, and that point get’s lost so easily. I remember a former boss from another city who actually told me that: “We really need to get on this Social Media Thing.” Not create a presence, not develop a strategy, not leverage, but “get on.”
    That’s when I told him the three stages of digital literacy: Knowing, using, understanding. First, you know it exists, that’s where he was. Next, you understand the vernacular and use it. But the important stage is when you UNDERSTAND what it’s doing, why, and how you can make it work for your strategic goals. That last stage is almost always lost.
    Your post speaks to that very well, and wouldn’t it be great if we could all get to that point to know how to really understand our digital world.
    Thanks Suze!
    Pierre Hamel,
    Alumni Manager – Algonquin College

  7. As someone with 4 kids in the public school system, I can totally relate. I am at an advantage with my children as I truly understand the internet and what it’s doing to our society and education system.

    Brilliant post Suze.

  8. I think that students are using Internet a lot not in the way they are supposed to when it comes to education. As you know, web space is filled with websites like and students have such an easy access to them. Far from many can resist the temptation…

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