It’s a stark message but at least a clear one: digital skills are a prerequisite for employment today.
“For today’s students that means digital skills are simply essential,” said Linda Keane, general manager at ICDL Ireland.
The question, then, is: are today’s school students acquiring the right skills?
Parents of teenagers might be surprised to discover this, given that so many kids today spend day and night with their faces illuminated by the glow of smartphones and tablets, but the answer is: not really.
In recent years research has poured cold water on the much-lauded concept of the ‘digital native’. The term suggests that anyone under the age of 30 is comfortable with technology. This is true, but the problem is that the concept soon expanded to suggest that younger generations, particularly those under 25, had a preternatural affinity with IT.
This is obviously not true: the ability to use TikTok, or for older cohorts Twitter and Facebook, does not mean one has a fundamental understanding of the things that make it all possible, such as computational logic or networking.
And it’s not just this kind of heavy-duty material that is not well understood.
Studies of young people who had grown up with the internet, including one from Canada’s British Columbia Institute of Technology have “found little evidence to support a claim that digital literacy, connectedness, a need for immediacy and a preference for experiential learner were characteristics of a particular generation of learner”. In plain English: young people were no better or worse than their older cohorts.
For Keane, results like this are not a surprise: digital skills are important because they underpin so much of how modern lifestyles and work are conducted, but that doesn’t mean they can be picked up by osmosis.
“You don’t automatically develop the right skills simply by using digital applications. You have to acquire digital skills just like you learn to read and write. Digital literacy should co-exist alongside the other ‘literacies’,” she said.
Keane said digital skills education should not be tacked-on or squeezed-into school timetables as an ‘added extra’. The subject should hold its own place in the academic calendar.
ICDL, now offered in more than 100 countries across the globe, offered schools the ability to really take the area seriously as a subject, she said.
ICDL Ireland’s programmes for schools are designed to teach young people the skills they need to use digital technologies in a safe, ethical, productive, creative and collaborative way. Subjects like computational thinking are available, but ICDL also teaches core skills that have a broader appeal.
“The definition of digital skills has evolved as our use of technology has evolved,” said Keane. “Essential digital skills now include information or media literacy, that is the ability to locate and evaluate online information.”
Indeed, ICDL’s module in information literacy covers the concepts and skills necessary to conduct research for schoolwork, but it also seeks to teach students how to critically assess the information that is coming at them every day.
“We know young people consume their information from a variety of online sources, making information literacy one of the most valuable skills that young people can develop,” she said.
Other cultural changes are recognised, too. In January, it was reported that the large tech conglomerates such as Facebook and Alphabet, which owns Google and YouTube, had a keen eye on the ‘creator economy’, and it is clear that entirely new job categories and genres of entertainment are springing up online.
ICDL recognises the shift that underpins this phenomenon, said Keane. “Increasingly students are becoming content creators and content curators. ICDL modules for creativity and productivity teach students how to collaborate online and work successfully in virtual teams to collect, present and share knowledge and create new artefacts.”
Such skills are not just for the next YouTube sensation, though. “Because ICDL is so flexible, modules can be combined to meet curriculum objectives or complement school projects. By incorporating ICDL into an entrepreneurship project, for example, students can learn how to present a new business idea and the financials to back it up, develop a captivating website and create a digital marketing strategy to promote their product or service.”
Stem subject areas have not been forgotten: to support the teaching of computational thinking skills, ICDL offers a course in computing in which students learn how to problem solve and code in the programming language Python.
“And this year we’ve made our new insights modules available to schools. Insights modules are short introductory modules designed to provide conceptual understanding of trending and emerging technology such as AI, IoT, big data and cloud computing,” said Keane.
This ICDL profile could provide additional support to students studying computer science as a subject for Leaving Cert or even be offered to Transition Year students to nurture an interest in computer science.
ICDL Ireland also has Covid-proofing in mind for schools: each module comes packaged with a range of resources that can all be accessed online, while certification testing is done through remote proctoring solutions. Even afterwards, the skills will persist.
“Through two lockdowns, schools have exploited digital technologies to continue educating our young people,” said Keane.
“The pandemic won’t last forever and teachers should feel confident making informed decisions about integrating technology into their lessons plans into the future.”