Digital literacy is just code… for cultural illiteracy

by Guest Blogger, 16 August 2017
TES columinst Joe Nutt guest blogs for us following a lively debate about the use of technology in education, which Cambridge Assessment sponsored and live-streamed for the Centre for Education Economics.

Joe Nutt profile photoIt’s been almost two decades since Neil Postman issued his prescient warning that culture always pays a price for technology. Two decades in which schools and other educational organisations have spent huge sums of mostly public money on technology. Technology is now the second highest item on any educational organisation’s budget, after salaries. Anyone who thinks technology businesses aren’t entirely focused on making it the first in the next two decades is fooling themselves.

The implications for schools, teachers and children are simply huge yet the quality of debate remains, as it has been from the moment the BBC joined forces with Acorn computers in 1981 and sanctioned technology in classrooms, pitifully poor. In my career I have watched the rise of educational technology with a mixture of frustration and dismay. Not because I am against it, anything but, but because I have been constantly and repeatedly frustrated when trying to make sure educational technology is just that…educational.

Why do we still have a situation where huge sums are spent, with minimal if any effort being made to ensure the money delivers educational outcomes people can see, measure and believe in?

The reason is quite simply because the individuals who hold the purse strings are completely incapable of dictating educational terms to the businesses they deal with. Should we be surprised when national governments and even the EU have to resort to huge fines to try and exert some authority over technology giants?

The debate needs to take place where the marketing teams in technology companies know it counts, at the level of language. Digital literacy is a perfect example. A beautifully simple, innocent combination of terms used ubiquitously by anyone eager to convince schools to spend more on technology. After all, who can argue with literacy? Doesn’t adding digital just bring it up to date?

There’s no agreed definition of digital literacy, plenty have tried and failed because it is marketing, pure and simple, no different from vorsprung durch technic or because you’re worth it. Now consumers are free to buy a car or cosmetics. If they don’t care to look beyond the seductive promise of mere words, that’s their business, literally.

Education is different. The real customer for any educational technology is always a teacher or a child, but they are never the buyer. The buyers in this market have a duty to show more discernment: to participate in the debate not capitulate.

What digital literacy really means is cultural illiteracy: more pictures instead of words; more Twitter and less articulacy; more demagogues and less debate - and lots and lots more emojis.

Joe Nutt
International Educational Consultant and author

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