Device-Limited Literacy – A New Digital Dividing Line?

These are remarks I gave at the meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Digital Skills on 24 March 2021.

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak on this panel today. 

I’m going to make a few remarks about the research that I’ve been doing on digital skills with colleagues at the University of Oxford—one of whom is here in the meeting, Dr Grant Blank – and I’m going to focus on some findings that are relevant to this discussion about education – and school children, in particular.

For the last couple years, I have led a research project looking at how public libraries in Oxfordshire deal with requests for digital help. Libraries get a lot of these kinds of requests – people coming in asking for help with everything from printing to signing up for Universal Credit. 

For this project, we did surveys, we did interviews, and we did participant observation, meaning that I spent time in libraries taking notes on what I did and saw. And I have actually served as a volunteer digital helper in the Oxfordshire County Library for several years.

There are a few findings from this research that point to important issues related to digital skills education among school children.

First, we should be careful not to overlook children when it comes to digital skills and inclusion because it’s easy to assume that kids these days are what we call “digital natives,” meaning they are growing up exposed to technology and acquiring fluency naturally.

I’ll illustrate what I mean by quoting a librarian from one of our interviews. She said (slightly abridged): 

“I think it’s surprising […] you have to explode all the myths and the narratives. It’s all a bit like, well, older people will need some help from their library, but younger people are digital natives. So, they’ll be fine. But that is exploded in [the library] every day. We have young people who come in and say, oh my phone isn’t working, and I haven’t got a printer, and I haven’t got a computer, and how do I do this? And you know, they haven’t had the education or the hardware, so how are they digital natives? So there’s lots of myths […] every day is a kind of a reminder of all of the wide range of people and their experiences.”

In another interview, a different library staff member said:

“What surprised me most is children not knowing how to use a mouse. They’ve never seen a mouse and keyboard. We have had a lot of that […]”

I don’t have much time, so I’m being a bit anecdotal here, but these observations are all the more important in the context of the digital divide in educational opportunities we’ve seen during COVID.

The point is that we need to understand that digital inclusion isn’t just a switch that we can flip from unconnected to connected, for instance, or device-less to device-owning.

It doesn’t work like that in real life. And that’s because digital exclusion is very context-specific, and it’s not just about the digital – about technology.

It’s also not a question of just a generational divide. 

So digital skills education needs to take seriously the digital skills of children in education.

I’ll give you one more example based on the libraries research and what I’ve also heard from teachers I’ve interviewed in rural schools.

Children often demonstrate device or platform fluency but lack broader, transferrable digital skills.

Some kids, for instance, only know how to use Google products – this is what I mean by “platform” or “proprietary” fluency.

Now, to some extent, this has always been the case. You grow up with a Mac computer, so you know Macs better than PCs. 

But it’s finally time for us to interrogate what that means for kids growing up today – and the influence that this kind of partial fluency might have on their trajectories and abilities in the future. 

In closing the digital divide in skills, we need to be conscious of how we are not just educating digitally skilled contributors to the knowledge economy, but also cultivating consumers of particular products. 

And depending on your outlook, that might be a problem for political or economic reasons, but it’s also – and I want to stress this – a problem for digital literacy.

All the initiatives that have emerged during COVID to make internet more affordable, lift data caps, and refurbish and deliver devices have been great. But they’re stop-gap measures. They’re based on the logic of: we’ll take what we can get.

But post-COVID, one of the areas of focus for digital skills education needs to be on the digital divides that exist among so-called digital natives – the kids who have access and fluency in just a single device or single platform. 

These sorts of divides can often be invisible because without looking at individual contexts, kids seem really digitally connected.

Digital skills education therefore can’t just be an afterthought it school curricula. 

It needs to encompass multiple device and platform fluency as well as critical thinking and decision-making skills around issues like consent. 

The last thing I want to say – and this is the drum I always beat loudly – libraries need to be financially supported as the institutions of digital inclusion that they are. Whether they’re prepared or not, whether they’re designated Online Centres or not, libraries are having to perform this role, and we can really strengthen their ability to do so with funding and other human resources.

Thank you, and I look forward to the discussion.