How (not) to develop ICT literacy in students?

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to teach, or not to teach, basic ICT literacy?
to teach, or not to teach, basic ICT literacy?

In most cases, in most places -- at least in most so-called 'developing countries' -- the use of computers and other ICTs in schools is in practice focused largely on the development of what is commonly referred to or understood as 'ICT or computer literacy'. In fact, in many low and even middle income countries, professed needs to develop 'market-relevant' things like keyboarding skills, a basic understanding of how to navigate computer GUIs and operating systems and a general facility with standard office applications inform some of the primary justifications for the roll-out of computers in schools.

In some such places (case #1), once you have become 'proficient' in using (e.g.) a word processor, the promotion of the development of 'ICT-related skills' stops. (You are now 'computer literate': Time to move along!)

In other places (case #2), there is no shortage of lofty rhetoric around the need to develop '21st century skills' through the use (in part) of ICTs, but if you look at how the equipment is actually being utilized, the reality of ICT use in case #2 is not terribly different in practice than what one sees in the first case.

That said, some people think that way basic ICT literacy is being promoted within many 'digital divide' initiatives in the education sector may over time actually impede progress toward the development of higher order ICT-related skills. This points to a phenomenon associated with the so-called 'Second Digital Divide' (related EduTech blog post), which (in the words of the OECD) "separates those with the competencies and skills to benefit from computer use from those without". For such people, a focus on developing only basic ICT literacy,

  1. treats the use of computers as a technical or vocational skill, not linked to core educational practices;
  2. requires that lots of 'computer teachers' be hired, and these folks dictate the culture surrounding computer use in schools -- and often control the keys to the computer labs, crowding out or limiting use by students and teachers for core academic subjects or learning activities;
  3. diverts attention and funding that could more profitably be used to explore utilizing computing facilities to develop higher-order learning skills and competencies; and
  4. is considered increasingly passé in most OECD countries, which find that basic ICT skills, where they are not developed outside of school, can often be most efficiently acquired in the course of using computers to support specific learning objectives in core academic subjects.

There is a great deal of merit to such arguments, but context is king: What works in one place (or time) in this regard may not work so well in another. This is not to say that vocational computer-related training is always a waste of time (certainly not!) nor to assume that children do not need to learn how to perform basic tasks with a computer.

While the term itself has fallen out of favor in certain circles, the 'digital divide' is quite real in many places around the world, and in some ways, is perhaps even larger than before, given how quickly some groups have moved ahead, while others haven't moved at all. In circumstances where kids and their teachers have never used computers before, an initial focus on developing basic ICT literacy skills may well be the best course of action.  But is this really enough?

In some places the answer may well be "yes" -- but only for the time being. Successfully rolling out a computer literacy initiative in places where teachers and students have never seen or touched a computer before is often an important accomplishment in itself.

(Side note: I do recognize that 'ICT literacy' and 'computer literacy' can and perhaps should mean different things, but in my experience at a working level, these terms are used interchangeably in many developing countries, for better or for worse, and so I will not draw any lines between them here.  The term digital literacy is used in some quarters, especially in OECD countries, to go beyond the basic skills that often are at the heart of 'ICT literacy' programs in schools in many developing countries.)

Where simple exposure to computers is an important and worthwhile goal of such a program, it of course helps if there are actually computers at hand! I have been in schools in numerous countries where I have observed students in a 'computer' or 'informatics' class where there were actually no computers in the room. In one memorable case, children were learning 'how to navigate an operating system environment' by reading about it in a book; in another, students were taking a multi-choice test about what types of actions required a single click, and in what instances you should double click with your mouse.

Even where computers are (arriving) in schools, and basic exposure to ICTs for students and teachers unfamiliar with them is considered a relevant policy objective, are PC-centric basic 'computer courses' really appropriate in places where likely usage scenarios for ICTs going forward do not involve someone sitting at a desk, but rather using a mobile phone or -- soon -- a tablet device? An interesting question.


Even where they concede the need to rapidly develop basic ICT skills, some folks feel that devoting the use of computers in schools primarily to promote 'ICT literacy' inevitably tends to crowd out other uses of ICTs, and that desires to develop skills that conform to narrow definitions of 'ICT literacy' (i.e. basically the mechanical stuff -- opening a document, word processing, etc.) can often be met by utilizing ICTs in other ways.  Might it be better, they ask, to help students develop their 'computer skills' as a natural by-product of ICT use as part of other learning activities?

This is not to say that ICT literacy programs are not worthwhile.  Far from it: The ICDL, the IC3 -- these sorts of programs can have very real value in many circumstances and are useful benchmarks against which indigenous ICT literacy programs would do well to measure themselves.

That said, even in places where instruction in the most basic computer literacy skills is considered appropriate, the need to develop such skills may wane over time.  What do you do with the computer labs meant to teach older kids 'ICT skills' when it turns out they already have them? One response is that, as ICT use becomes more prevalent across societies, 'computer literacy' initiatives are often pushed to lower and lower grade levels.  In other places, there is essentially no recognition that children are picking up basic skills outside of school environments (or are picking them up much more quickly within schools than the curriculum foresees).  I have visited many 'informatics' classrooms around the world where kids are 'instructed' on how to operate (e.g.) word processing software, how to operate in Windows environments, etc. (often times with artificial exercises not linked to assignments in their other subjects) and then when I speak with them later, I find that they are doing much more 'advanced stuff' with technology outside of school.


One commonly reported result of studies attempting to gauge the impact of technology use in education is that ICT use 'increases student motivation'.  But what do you do when kids are bored in their 'computer class'? This is a question that many places are asking themselves.

Back in January, while attending the BETT Show in London, I sat in on a very interesting speech where it as announced that the country's existing ICT curriculum was to be scrapped, due in part to criticisms from industry.  Afterwards I had a chance to speak with a number of education ministers from developing countries who were in the room and who were very surprised by this announcement.  The British are discontinuing the very thing we are about to introduce, one said.  Are we doing the right thing?

The answer to this question may well vary depending on where you find yourself, and your time horizon.  But it is certainly a good question to be asking.

[This is a sort of companion post to School Computer Labs: A Bad Idea?]

Please note: The public domain image of famed British actor David Garrick as Hamlet ("to teach, or not to teach, basic ICT literacy?") comes via Wikimedia Commons.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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