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Answer Sheet: Today’s Kids Might Be Digital Natives — But a New Study Shows They Aren’t Close to Being Computer Literate

You’ve heard it before: Today’s kids are “digital natives,” raised in a world of technology that they know like the back of their hand. As it turns out, that’s not necessarily true about Generation Z (the demographic cohort following the millennials born in the mid- to late 1990s).

Results were recently released from the International Computer and Information Literacy 2018 study, and they were sobering: Only 2 percent of students scored at the highest levels implied by digital native status, and only another 19 percent of the 42,000 students assessed in 14 countries and educational systems could work independently with computers as information-gathering and management tools.

(The study is a computer-based international assessment of eighth-grade students’ capacities to use information communications technologies in different ways. It is sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement and is conducted in the United States by the National Center for Education Statistics.)

In this post, Sara Dexter, an associate director in the University of Virginia’s education school, looks at the results and what they mean.

Dexter says teachers will be implicated as the cause of the students’ shortcomings — and that they do have a role in students acquiring these critical 21st-century skills — but the best place to start to address the problem is in the area of state licensure rules and federal funding.

Dexter has studied the leadership of technology in K-12 schools for more than 25 years, first as a district technology coordinator outside Minneapolis, then as a professor of education garnering more than $6 million in funding for research in this area. Nearly every semester over the past 15 years at the University of Virginia, she has taught a course on the leadership of ed technology, engaging with teachers studying to be school leaders on how they experience the purchase and positioning of ed tech as a support to learning.

“It’s important that as this study hits the news that district leaders and policymakers consider how the support of building-level school leaders can make a difference in the very problem the study makes clear: Our digital natives will not fare well in their information- and technology-rich future without these skills,” she said.

By Sara Dexter

A data point was recently released that confirmed the crisis in our kids’ digital literacy. According to the International Computer and Information Literacy 2018 study only 2 percent of students reach the highest level of computer and information literacy and computational thinking skills, meaning they can work independently with technology to gather and manage information, and do so with precision and evaluative judgment.

Students were asked to demonstrate through simulated computer-based real-world scenarios the knowledge, judgment, and skills needed to access, process, and communicate information with technology. Such information literacy and critical thinking, in a technology context, is necessary to participate effectively in our era, and those to come. They are the sorts of abilities that allow our students to solve complex problems and produce texts, products, and communications in multiple digital modes.

The results demonstrate our students are in deep trouble.

Some may rush to blame teachers and call for their additional training as a way to address this alarming finding. Instead, the work must begin with school leaders, to lay the groundwork for teachers’ success.

Having studied and taught the leadership of educational technology for over 25 years, I’m not shocked to learn these skills are lacking in so many students. It takes coherent efforts over years in schools to develop any type literacy and critical thinking, yet kids’ ubiquitous attachment to computers for social and gaming uses is often presumed to simply transfer to using technology to work with information and transform it in ways critical for the 21st Century workplaces. This study busts the myth that being “digital natives” will be enough preparation for students’ futures.

My work over these years with hundreds of teachers preparing for school leadership roles suggests that the solution for developing students’ computer and information literacy and computational thinking must begin with school leaders in administrative roles and then involve instructional technology specialists and teacher leaders to provide support and set examples for all teachers, in all subjects.

School leaders are second only to teachers in their influence on students’ learning. They set the important conditions for teachers to develop students’ abilities to thrive in the digital world. Certainly, this includes budgets for providing ed tech for students’ and teachers’ use, but access to Internet-connected hardware and software is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

Even more critical is that leaders also create an environment in which teachers understand the possibilities for ed tech, forge commitments to its uses, and learn how to position it as an important support to student learning, including developing information literacy and computational thinking. These are critical leadership practices because teachers report their workload and day-to-day deadlines or time pressures as barriers to trying new ideas, such as integrating technology. Furthermore, teachers’ beliefs about the role of ed tech in the classroom, their competency in its use, and the technical support they receive for it together strongly predict teachers’ classroom uses of technology. Leaders can ameliorate such limiting factors when they establish priorities for technology integration, cultivate model uses for other teachers to build upon, and then create a climate where collaboration eases individuals’ efforts.

Certainly, exemplary schools exist from which we can learn, where leaders demonstrate the best practices, teachers integrate to the full potential, and students benefit from the full range of affordances ed tech might offer — the top 2-percenters! But we have no systematic way to identify and disseminate those sorts of exemplary schools. And even if this existed, school leaders would still need to interpret and understand how to adapt these successes to their own local conditions, which could vary considerably in access to technology, teacher readiness, and curricular constraints.

The vast majority of school leaders receive little to no preparation to lead ed technology in their school. The U.S. system for principal preparation needs to expand its ed tech prep for leaders, to allow them to learn how technology is a part of the instructional leadership practices so essential to their role. State licensure policies need to require such preparation as a component of principal preparation, and or develop a credential for teachers’ leadership of ed tech. Federal and State policy must support funding and provide leaders already in schools with incentives to learn about the contributions technology can make to meeting students’ needs in their own schools, assessing teacher readiness to learn about ed tech, and creating conditions for classroom uses.

Because of my research and teaching in this area I know leader preparation can make the necessary difference: I’ve tested a successful model for preparing a team of school leaders in recently completed study in Virginia’s schools. Each semester I see the effectiveness of helping aspiring leaders connect student learning needs to ed tech, to teacher professional learning and collaboration, to support conditions.

The lean budgets K-12 schools operate on along with the critical importance of preparing students for the digital age requires careful stewardship of the vast investments made annually in ed tech. By not also investing in school’s ed tech leaders we run the risk of squandering these funds. The stakes are too high.

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Sara Dexter

Sara Dexter is an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, with expertise in the leadership of educational technology, and adult learning a...