'Digital literacy' is a red herring

There was an article in my newspapaer recently which reported that Professor Alan Smithers told a conference that the new Diploma would not be acceptable as an entry qualification to university. Nothing remarkable in that, you might say, except that unless I happened to enter a parallel universe I was at the same conference, and had a completely different impression of what was said.

The conference, organised by the Westminster Education Forum, was concerned with 14-19 education, specifically Diplomas and Apprenticeships. Eight people gave a talk about the Diploma, and all of these, with the exception of Professor Smithers, were extremely positive. One even said, in contradiction to the impression given by the newspaper report, that 85% of UK Higher Education Institutes are accepting the Diploma as an entry qualification (other things being equal, as is always the case anyway).

So was Professor Smithers unduly negative? Well actually, no. All he said was that before schools recommend that their students take the Diploma, they should make sure that it would be acceptable as an entry into their chosen career or higher education path, as he feared that 'A' levels, being derived directly from university entrance examinations, would be more likely to be acceptable.

What this indicates to me is that to some extent the current emphasis on teaching students to be digitally literate misses the point. We need to teach them to be media literate, and to have good research skills.

We also need to teach them that even 'factual' reports are subject to bias brought about by what the reporter actually sees and hears, and how they interpret and internalise that information. And if the report is for, or funded by, a third party, there is that party's bias to throw into the mix as well.

As is often the case, there is nothing new in any of this. There is a Sufi saying which says:

When a pickpocket sees a Holy Man, he sees only his pockets.

There is also the ages old story of the blind men trying to determine what an elephant is. And there is the famous optical illusion in which a picture shows either a witch or a beautiful woman, depending on how you look at it. (At the end of this post I've included a video update of this, with a nice twist at the end.)

Just as cyber-bullying and e-safety are actually subsets of a bigger picture, so is digital literacy. Given that many adults, including teachers, take it for granted that young people are born digitally literate there is a real danger that we will take younsters' word for it when they tell us they know all about internet literacy. It seems to me that, to do the best job we can, we need to get back to basics and even go so far as to leave anything digital out of the picture entirely until students understand these principles in a general sense first.