Sashwati is a social development professional with over three decades of experience in organizational leadership, media, & communication for change. Incubated under the Entrepreneur in Residence program at Central Square Foundation, she has recently founded Nudged Trust & Humanitus Learning Solutions to provide an open-source, free mobile app to help low-income community families support their young children’s development at home. Sashwati has worked on large global projects and led award-winning campaigns to further the cause of reproductive rights and increase the basket of contraceptive choices in India. She has been a speaker at UNESCO MLE, Brookings, TED India and serves on the Boards of Point of View, Katha & Breakthrough.
In 1997, author Paul Gilster coined the term “digital literacy”. He argued that the concept of “digital literacy” — which is often perceived as the ability to read stuff online — is more than just the breakdown of the two words involved. According to him, digital literacy meant the cognitive ability of a person to leverage modern technologies to access information and facilities. For instance, booking tickets online, reaching out to a friend on social media, and being able to use laptop and mobile phones for several other daily life purposes make a person digitally literate. While this is a rather simplistic explanation, digital literacy is not a diminutive phrase, it encompasses so much more.
Just being able to read stuff online and send texts limits one in the “digitally naive” category. To be digitally literate, one must know how to work with hyperlinks, audio clips, graphs, or charts. Also, a person must be able to create, collaborate, and share digital content and do so responsibly to be called a digital literate. In fact, being able to weed out fake online information by checking various online sources is also part of the digital literacy definition. Similarly, being able to distinguish between advertisement, paid content, and genuine information is also acknowledged as a characteristic of a digitally literate person.
A “digitally literate” person can confidently, critically, and creatively use ICT (information and communications technology) tools to achieve goals relating to work, employability, learning, leisure, and inclusion (or participation) in society.
Why is digital literacy so important?
With an increased focus on the digitalisation of almost all business, delivery of social welfare schemes, and other government processes, it is pertinant for an individual to be digital literate to enjoy all facilities and opportunities. Regardless of the field of work, digital literacy allows you to expand and strengthen your presence. If you’re into sales, digital platforms allow you to connect with prospective buyers; if you’re a student, access to online education makes a big difference; and if you run a business, digitalisation reduces input cost and adds new markets. The list can go on and on.
Besides consuming online content like tweets, podcasts, videos, emails, and blogs, digital literacy is also about sifting, evaluating, and carefully applying the information available on the internet. In professional settings, we are constantly required to interact with people in digital environments, maintain a digital identity, and create new ideas and products by examining online data and trends.
Digital literacy has been found to boost student engagement while opening new learning opportunities. Interestingly, a child well-versed with technology has a better chance of performing good at STEM subjects. Furthermore, a child’s digital thinking can be encouraged by creating lessons that involve use of digital tools. There is just a significant caveat — all this should not be done under the old “one-size-fits-all” model. Personalisation and differentiation must be the key.
As a result of technological advancements, digital literacy has been accepted by many as a broader competence-related issue. According to the American Libraries Association’s Digital Literacy Task Force (2011), digital literacy is a “transversal key competence” which helps people acquire other key competences — like language, mathematics, learning to learn, and cultural awareness.
Digital literacy for kids
Unlike the boomers and the millennials, Gen Z has had easy access to the internet and devices like smartphones, laptops, and computer desktops since their very childhood. In some cases, babies are learning to scroll even before they utter their first word. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this new generation is more comfortable with technology.
However, prolonged exposure to technology can hamper the all-round development of a child. Therefore, experts advise parents to limit exposure to devices, especially for young children. They are also advised to encourage their kids towards physical exercise and reading physical books. Similarly, parents should monitor the internet sites frequented by children to prevent them from going in the wrong direction. Several firewalls and child safety software help parents find out the sites where their child is spending time. Such measures also prevent cases of cyber bullying and cyber abuse — that are on the rise across the world.
Given the presence of bad actors on several platforms, teaching fundamentals of internet safety to kids is equally important as they may not fully recognise the limitations of the web world. Also, the digital content served to kids should fit the context of delivery and provide an experience relevant to a child’s ‘real’ life.
Not to forget, the digital content should also emphasize and focus on the social emotional well-being of children. As per the American Academy of Pediatrics, a child in the age group of 2-5 years should not be allowed more than one hour of screen time per day. The body adds that the content should either be educational or prosocial and the kid must be allowed to watch it with a parent or sibling.
While there is no doubt that familiarity with technology is important for kids to excel in the future, there is a need for them to be guided in the right direction. Like most things, technology can also be used for both good and bad causes. With the right push, children can easily master advanced technological skills (like coding and animation) while overhauling the pitfalls of certain addictive platforms.
How does digital literacy help in capacity building?
To succeed in this era of sophisticated technologies, digital literacy is arguably as important as basic reading, writing and numeracy skills. Let alone White Collar jobs, even Blue Collar positions call for a basic understanding of digital technologies these days. In short, a digital naive person has become unemployable. Digital literacy strengthens skills, abilities, processes and resources of individuals and companies.
Putting together a digital competent workforce — which is as crucial for a country’s growth as its other physical infrastructure — is known as capacity building. Priority areas where capacity building helps include — engineering and public health, town planning, e-governance, security, finance & revenue, and others.
As technology becomes more and more ingrained in our daily life, the importance of being digitally literate is becoming increasingly apparent. Therefore, in the modern context, digital literacy has become the basis of capacity building, which is required for nations to survive, adapt, and thrive in a fast-changing world.