Careers Update - April 4, 2019
author: Anthony Meehan
What does it mean to be digitally literate?
We hear a lot about digital literacy. We know it’s important to have the skills to confidently navigate technology but the quest for digital literacy can be kind of vague. Is it enough to be able to search on Google and send emails? Does everyone need to know how to code?
Digital literacy can be defined as ‘the ability to identify and use technology confidently, creatively and critically to meet the demands and challenges of living, learning and working in a digital society,’ according to Associate Professor Jo Coldwell-Neilson, Deakin’s Associate Dean, Teaching and Learning, in the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment.
Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson believes digital literacy should be considered a foundational skill just like reading, writing and arithmetic: ‘Wherever you go, whether it is in an education setting, a work setting or your own personal life, you are using digital technologies. Having some understanding of how they work and how you can use them to achieve your goals in any particular situation all comes under the umbrella of digital literacy.’
It’s no longer quite enough to have just a basic grasp of technology. Learning to identify authentic and reliable information is an integral skill part of digital literacy. It’s also essential to know how to manage your online identity, personal security and privacy.
‘With technology being ubiquitous, issues around privacy and security are really coming to the fore,’ Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson says. ‘You need skills in all of these areas in order to be able use digital technology efficiently and effectively.’
A journey not a destination
Digital literacy is in no way static. You can guarantee that your need for different skills will change over time. ‘What you need in primary school is going to be very different from what you need in university and very different from what you need in the workplace,’ Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson says.
There also is no set standard when it comes to digital literacy; context is everything. ‘If I gave my grandmother an iPad the first thing I would show her how to use is communication tools so that she can stay in touch with her grandchildren,’ Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson explains. ‘But then I’d need to ensure that she keeps her information secure, her data private and so you start building those skills on needs basis.’
Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson likes to use the analogy of driving a car. ‘Once you’re of a certain age it’s kind of assumed that you can drive and your level of capability depends on number of years of experience and your needs as a driver. You might drive an automatic car, you might drive trucks, you might ride a motor bike. It’s all still driving but the specific skills and capabilities associated with each of those is determined by what you want to do and what you need to do. Digital literacy is similar to that.’
The question of employability
With the process of searching and applying for jobs being predominantly conducted online, digital literacy is now integral for employability. Employers expect applicants to know their way around technology but they are not always specific about the exact level of literacy that they require. ‘Depending on how technical the position is they might have specific software or applications that employees need to be able to use,’ Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson says. ‘Having the confidence to be able to walk up to a computer and use it, even if it doesn’t look quite like what you’ve used before, is really important.’
'Digital literacy is the ability to identify and use technology confidently, creatively and critically to meet the demands and challenges of living, learning and working in a digital society.'
Associate Professor Jo Coldwell-Neilson,
Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment, Deakin University
This is where the car analogy comes in again. Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson explains: ‘If you know how to drive a car, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Toyota, a Mazda or something else; you can drive it.’
Having a basic foundation will enable you to learn new skills as required. ‘To me digital literacy is not knowing everything about computers, it’s recognising when you don’t know something and knowing how to address that,’ Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson says.
Building your digital literacy
Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson believes coding shouldn’t be thought of as the sole focus of digital literacy despite the big push to teach coding in schools. ‘Coding is just one skill in the full gamut of skills that you require to be digitally literate.’
Your individual circumstances will determine how much coding you might need. ‘Understanding how computers work can be facilitated through learning some coding but you may not need to know any more than that,’ Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson explains. ‘The skilled and complex level of coding which computer scientists and information technologists use is not something everyone needs to learn.’
If you’re looking to build your personal skillset the first step is to think about what it is you are using technology for and whether you could use it more effectively. Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson says people are often surprised to learn that the skills they’ve developed through the social use technologies are highly transferable to a learning situation or a work situation.
Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson encourages everyone to share their knowledge and skills ‘If there is something that I can’t do I will often just walk out into the corridor and ask my colleagues. If you have any sort of network, whether it’s family, friends or school or work colleagues, just ask questions. Digital literacy is best developed in context so if you want to improve your skills in a particular area then do it in the context of where you are going to use those skills. And like anything, you need to practice.’
There is a wealth of information on the internet to help you improve but you need the basic search skills as a foundation. ‘Just getting started can remove that barrier and open up a whole new world of learning – not just with digital literacy but across whatever areas you are interested in,’ Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson says.