Australia leading the World in computer literacy – so what?

ICILS_2013_Logo_150A “major international study” has Australian high school students out-performing most of the World in computer literacy and Australian girls out-performing boys.

Well, wow, Australia doing well in computer literacy and girls doing better than boys – that sounds amazing. I must admit my first reaction to this was cynical. Start by taking a look at the countries that participate in the International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS): Argentina (Buenos Aires), Australia, Canada (Newfoundland and Labrador and Ontario), Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong SAR, Korea, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russian Federation, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Switzerland, Thailand, and Turkey. There are some competitive high points in there, but seeing Australia at the top of that list is hardly going to raise many eyebrows. To put a stark perspective on that list of countries it’s only necessary to look at one of the factors reported in the ICILS Report – how many students there are per available computer in the school. In Australia it is three students per computer, in Turkey it is 80 students per computer – so no surprise Australian students have more facility in using a computer.

Then there was the detail of what computer literacy actually means. Let’s get this straight up front – computer literacy is not programming at any level. We’re talking about tasks involving using computers to, for example, do a search, collate information into a file and share it socially. These are basic go-to-work-in-a-big-office tasks that involve lightweight use of existing technology. Sure people need to know how to do this stuff; in the same way you used to need to know how to file things alphabetically or properly ink a pen.

It’s no real surprise to find that Year 8 girls make greater use of their computers for social interaction than their male counterparts. However, I’m afraid that does not, later, translate into graduate jobs in ICT.

While this information is interesting it runs the distinct danger of being confused with the sort of engagement with ICT that many of us believe is essential for our children to really swim in today’s technology-dense waters.

Digging into the ICILS Report, though, revealed some interesting thinking. One of the drivers behind the report is looking at whether young people today really are the ‘digital natives’ that they are so often labelled as. The Report posits at one point that:

if anything young people’s use of the internet can be described most accurately as involving the passive consumption of knowledge rather than the active creation of content

and points out that those who could properly be described as digital natives remain a significant minority of the population. Sadly though it’s hard to see this thinking drawn out in the testing or conclusions. Ultimately it seems to be testing for computer literacy at a very low-level focused on consumption. Being able to create a poster or search Google are really base-level skills today. It comes as no surprise to me at all that Australian students do well in this area because my observation has been that they spend a great deal of time being taught these very skills. That in turn is no surprise because, Australia also has more teachers who have undertaken professional development courses in these areas than almost anywhere else in the test group.

All that means that I find it hard to get too excited about Australia’s placing in the study or the finding in relation to girls leading boys. It’s interesting in the sense that all information is interesting; but it’s certainly not encouraging in terms of the next generation of kids really being given the opportunity to take control of the technology around them. The definition of digital native should go well beyond a British Empire view of the native population as a great workforce when kept in their place.

Anyway, I agree when ICILS Report concludes that students are not digital natives who will just become computer literate through some process of social osmosis – they need to be taught:

To some extent, this conclusion challenges perspectives of young people as digital natives with a self-developed capacity to use digital technology. Even though we can discern within the ICILS findings high levels of access to ICT and high levels of use of these technologies by young people in and (especially) outside school, we need to remain aware of the large variations in CIL proficiency within and across the ICILS countries. Regardless of whether or not we consider young people to be digital natives, we would be naive to expect them to develop CIL in the absence of coherent learning programs.

But what needs to happen is not just teaching kids to make use of today’s programs, but to create the next generation of programs. And if you can’t learn to consume by osmosis, you certainly can’t learn to create that way.

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